Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Venom and Song - Day 3

This is the third and final day of the CSFF Blog Tour for September. The featured novel is a joint venture of Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper: Venom and Song, second book of The Berinfell Prophecies and sequel to Curse of the Spider King.

Beside me is a lined piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook and covered in pencil-scribbled notes, stars and exes and arrows, crossed-out deletions and crammed-in additions, ideas and thoughts for discussion during the tour. I could talk about themes or story structure or similarities between our real-world history and that of Allyra, but my brain's just not leaning in any of those directions.

(It is, however, enjoying the DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition, which I haven't watched in a good long while.)

Lately, I've stumbled across or been engaged in conversations about "Christian fiction": Although it is categorized by genre, how can fiction be anything but fiction? Is "Christian fiction" considered "Christian" because of its content, or because of its author? What about fiction written by Christian authors and/or with Christian themes or worldview, but published and marketed in a secular venue?

It's old news, but Christian fiction has a reputation (and, in many cases, deservedly so) for preachiness; predictability or a tendency toward the formulaic; shallow thought or forced emotion (characters not being allowed to think, emote, or react as real people might);  and poor craft. 

As another writer said recently, the Bible was the only book written at God's direction. The rest of us? We have to work at it. 

A writerly aside: I'd forgotten that Chawna Schroeder (one of our CSFF Blog Tour participants) had also discussed this topic on her blog recently -- and I'd even left a ranting comment, how's that for memory? She has some good stuff to say, so do go check it out. And please disregard my apparent loss of spelling ability in the comment!

It's an arrogant and lazy writer who thinks his or her words are perfect from the moment of inception. 

Our work should be excellent -- not just so it can be "as good as" or "better than" the work of secular authors, but because our excellence honors God. We should spur one another toward excellence, toward a bettering of our craft. In this, there is no separation of the sacred and the profane -- in the sense that the story is the sacred, and the craft is the profane -- because good craft helps us tell a better story. And good craft gives us credibility. Who cares what your message is if you're not communicating it in such a way that it will be received?

And that's another debate: In Christian fiction, which comes first -- the message or the story? I say story, because who picks up a novel expecting to read a sermon? Let any "message" be organic, a natural part of the story. Let characters be as real as possible. Let the outcome of events turn as they may. Let there be surprises and ugliness and sin and doubt and mistakes. Don't try to force everything to fit a preplanned message.

The purpose of the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour is to promote speculative works by Christian authors, and Venom and Song is certainly that. In it, the Elves -- "the good guys" -- have a dark secret in their history, and it has a direct effect on everything that happens in the story's present.

Who among us hasn't made a mistake that changed life from that moment onward? How many of us are always selfless? Always good? Always acting for the good of others? The Elves aren't ethereal creatures of unalloyed goodness. They possess conflicting opinions, they don't have all the answers, they don't do everything right. The teenage Lords of Berinfell are learning as they go. In imperfection is room for change, for growth, essential to effective characters and, therefore, effective stories.

And mistakes leave room for redemption.

For other stops on the tour, please visit Monday's post, scroll to the end, and click on any of the names in the list there.

In conjunction with the CSSF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Venom and Song - Day 2

On this second day of the CSFF Blog Tour, we return to the second novel in The Berinfell Prophecies by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper: Venom and Song.

Okay, a few allusions or similarities that hit me while reading the book:

1) the use of the word "flet" (used also by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings to describe the platforms the Elves built high in the trees); 2) "not all tears are evil" (a near-quote of the farewell spoken at the end of The Return of the King, when Gandalf, Bilbo, and Frodo sail away with the Elves); 3) children who are royalty in another world than our own (the Pevensies in The Chronicles of Narnia); 4) names of characters or places that are reminiscent of other stories (Elrain Galadhon, for instance, whose name is an allusion to Caras Galadhon, an elven city in The Lord of the Rings); 5) special training conducted by special teachers for students with special powers (though the obvious modern example is Hogwarts and Harry Potter, there is A Wizard of Earthsea, Wizard's Hall, X-Men, and many, many others, though Venom and Song has a different focus than the control of magic).Hey, there's nothing wrong with paying homage to the great writers who've come before us. I've done it -- am doing it -- in a couple of projects. An homage is not theft nor is it basically re-writing someone else's work in one's own words; it's a nod, the acknowledgment of a fan or a student. Those of us writing new fantasy and science fiction owe much to Tolkien, Lewis, LeGuin, Yolen, and others. For some of us, it's as natural as breathing to tip the hat in our writing. (Pardon the cliches.)But back to Venom and Song--There is some cool originality here, such as the "frakes", Kat's name for the furry, purring, pink-nosed snakes found in Allyra; and there's the training session in which the only way the seven teenage Lords of Berinfell could navigate a dark chamber was by following a restricting set of instructions and relying on each other.Not original and yet always and forever cool: names created by kenning, the Old Norse and Old English tradition of putting together two words to create an image for a single word. For instance, a class of Elven soldiers in the story are the Dreadnoughts; dreadnought means "fear nothing", and is a class of ship,  as well as the term for a thick, warm garment. Perhaps not necessarily true kenning (we don't know what the names are meant to represent), the Lords of Berinfell have some groovy tribal names: Hiddenblade, Swiftstorm, Ashheart, Valorbrand, Nightwing, Oakenflower, Silvertree. And then there's Grimwarden and Goldarrow, their teachers. What's not to like?But what about the story itself? 
Weeeellll, though there were a couple pretty good parts in the first third of the book -- the river ride through the caves, the lordship ceremony, some of the training -- I didn't really get interested until Chapter 15, "The Scarlet Raptor", when a giant bird of prey summons Tommy and Kat to an unexplored region of Whitehall Castle, takes them on an unexpected journey, and a major secret is revealed.To be honest, I skipped entire pages in the first fourteen chapters (and even in a places later in the book) and picked up the action later. It didn't really keep my attention at first, and was often an effort to read -- not because nothing was going on in the story, but because I just didn't care. Though I knew Kat was blue, and there was mention of one of the boys having a temper problem and that Tommy liked puzzles,  aside from the fact that each of the Lords had a different gift, there were no real telling details to help differentiate among the characters, and the teenagers all seemed to have similar personalities. Of course, that might have been deliberate on the part of the authors, since themes include teamwork and reliance on one another. (But I've read a blog or two on the tour that mentioned how different each character is, and how easy it is to tell them apart.)As I mentioned in yesterday's post, my experience might have been different if I'd read the first book, or if I weren't such a curmudgeon. When a writer is coordinating a large cast of characters, sometimes it becomes unwieldy, and in trying to mention everyone, the writer can actually spread the reader's attention too thin. Given too much information, the audience can shut down -- I did. As a result, the tension/suspense can bleed away, leaving scenes flat and uninteresting. In Chapter 15, though, the story narrowed, intriguing events unfolded, and my attention increased.But this book wasn't written for middle-aged folks like me. I work with kids and teenagers who are always on the prowl for good reads, and this series will be on my "Recommended" list, especially when the annual reading contest starts again in January. I've already talked up the series and promised a group of teenagers that this book will be in a drawing to be held in a couple of weeks, and they are all excited. (Free book! And it's a fantasy! How can there not be confetti and stuff?)For other stops on the tour, visit yesterday's post, scroll to the end, and click on any of the names in the list there.
(FYI: Amazon doesn't offer any sample chapters of Hopper's solo work -- The Rise of the Dibor, The Lion Vrie -- but Batson's work can be sampled.) In conjunction with the CSSF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Venom and Song - Day 1

This month's CSFF blog tour entry is Venom and Song, the second in The Berinfell Prophecies, a young adult fantasy series by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper.

Following immediately on the heels of events in Curse of the Spider King, this novel dives right into the action. I haven't read the first book; and, while common thought might be that I would do so before reading the sequel, it was important to this review that I see how well a new reader could pick up the characters and the gist of the story.

A writerly aside: What's the point of a story if the readers can't follow the action? One test of good storytelling is how easily the audience can understand what it's being told. Artistic abstruseness is just pretentious, and is more than likely the high-sounding veneer of a lazy writer.

Now, back to our main programming.

Despite the almost too-hectic and sometimes protracted action -- more is not necessarily more -- and the overwhelming number of characters, the opening scenes of Venom and Song weren't difficult to follow. I liked the idea of the amusement-park-ride-on-steroids that was "the good guys'" journey via an underground river.

As for all the characters, an ensemble cast can keep a story tense and active, make it confusing, or bleed away the intrigue because readers don't know who to root for or don't care about what happens to the main characters. It's a tough task for authors to not only clearly differentiate between characters, but also keep them interesting. Though I didn't really care about this novel's characters at the beginning -- that's probably just the curmudgeon in me -- there's an automatic connection for the target audience: since the seven Lords of Berinfell are teenagers, readers from middle grades through high school will probably have immediate sympathy for the characters and be interested in how their story plays out over the course of the series.

There is violence and some frightening incidents, but there is also friendship and courage, and learning how to live and move forward in unexpected and less-than-ideal circumstances, ones that the characters did not choose. I would certainly let my 12-year-old niece read this book.

 Other stops on the tour:
Brandon Barr
Amy Browning
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Melissa Carswell
Jeff Chapman
Valerie Comer
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
April Erwin
Tori Greene
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Donita K. Paul
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Tammy Shelnut
James Somers
Kathleen Smith
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Jason Waguespac
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler
Jill Williamson

In conjunction with the CSSF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More Randomness

If you've read the previous post, you'll know the leaps my mostly-asleep brain can make.

This morning, after having fallen asleep (again) on the living room couch, I was jolted by an obnoxious beeping.

Too clear and close to be a car alarm, too rapid to be the phone ringing, it was annoying enough to jar me to semi-consciousness, but no further.

I must have fallen asleep again, because the shrill noise invaded my dream -- which I cannot recall -- until I woke again.

Why. Wouldn't. It. Just. STOP!

"Well," I told myself, "if you'd stop taking pictures--"

Ah. That's when it clicked.

Not the pleasant sliding snick of a camera shutter, but the shrieking beep of the alarm clock.

Someday, I will write a surreal horror story about the assault of a sleeping person by his misunderstood and increasingly belligerent electronics.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Totally Random

This morning, in the early hours, a strident sound brought me to the brink of quasi-consciousness, close enough that instinct took over, and my hand reached up to slap the alarm clock.


Then the sound an instant later.

My hand, of its own volition, slaps the clock again.

A mere second of silence, then RING!

Again, slap clock, get silence.


By this time, my foggy brain realizes the phone is ringing.

I do not rise from my comfy bed to answer the blasted contraption. No, what pops into my head is a totally random thought: "It's a barbecue apocalypse!"

The answering machine kicks on, I hear my tinny recorded voice echoing down the hallway, and I roll over and go back to sleep.

So much for the apocalypse.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Coming of Age and Moving On

Way back, when I was a young writer, I crafted stories in which I wrote about only people I liked who faced down one-dimensional villains, and only included events I wanted to happen, whether or not they fit the story or made for interesting reads. I could write for hours, only "the good parts" kind of stuff, and scorned the notion of writer's block. After all, imagination was not a quantity that could be measured, contained, or lost. It just was. All I needed was pencil and paper.

Ah, the heady days of youth.

And then the critiques came, and the advice, and I retreated. I went from being a wunderkind to being (shock, gasp) just like everybody else.

Instead of being a published novelist by age 16 -- as predicted by at least one English teacher and a crowd of fellow students -- I wandered in the wilderness for almost two decades, writing a smattering of this and a soupcon of that, until I figured that writing fiction was really just a juvenile pursuit that must be put away in favor of more grownup activities, like a career and a succession of (failed) relationships.

Only when my then-boss, and later friend, figuratively shoved me out the door one workday and told me to attend a free one-day writing seminar at the local college did I start to realize that a writer is who I am. Fiction wasn't just a phase, but a way for me to connect with the truth.

When I went through a rough time so dark that suicide seemed like light, writing saved my life.

It helped me sort my thoughts when my parents divorced after thirty years of marriage.

It has been with me through health difficulties that changed how I approach life.

Writing challenged my faith then strengthened it.

So, when I read the Overlords' essays in the last DEP-sponsored issue of Ray Gun Revival, I read the hearts of people I have never met and yet I know, because we walk the same road. (When you read their essays, you'll know what I mean.)

This is an excellent magazine well-done by editors who love the genre, and it shows.

Just because this is the final issue in the current format doesn't mean the quality is at all diminished. There's awesome artwork, as always -- this issue's featured artist is Carl Andrée Wallin, who just happens to be from Sweden, the country of origin for my mother's side of the family.

And then there is a handful of short stories and a couple serials. Sadly, M. Keaton's entertaining Calamity's Child ends with this issue; Thieves' Honor, my series, will continue on with Episode 13 in the new incarnation of RGR.

Aforementioned episode is still being written. I promise to include heroes who actually have to overcome obstacles, and villains with several dimensions, but I'll still strive to write only the good parts.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Discipline? Can You Give Me Context? Maybe Use It in a Sentence?

As a writer, I have no discipline.

That could mean many things:
1) I don't have a specialty.
2) I can't control my hands while typppppppping.
3) I write all over the place, and prefer markers on freshly-painted walls.
4) Uniquely constructed sentences I make.
5) 5:00 in the morning is meant for sleeping, not writing. (Unless, of course, one is on a creative spree, and has not yet been to bed.)
6) Focusing on only one project at a time is imposs- Squirrel! (Squirrel Removal in 12 Easy Steps -- HI-larious!)
7) I give great writing advice but rarely follow it. (Write to the end then edit.)
8) I find all sorts of activities that keep me from writing, when writing is all I really want to do.
9) An outline is not the Ten Commandments, and is a lot of hard work for something I'm just going to ignore anyway.
10) Planting butt in chair and creating is not something I generally do on command. In fact, there are very few things I do on command, and even then I might pause to think about it.

And the list goes on, but I'll end it there. (End not to be confused with aforementioned butt.)

Yesterday, I sat on the couch, felt-tip pen and scrap paper in hand, stared into space while a DVD miniseries adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel played in the background, and wrote a couple good pages of material. All rough, of course, but solid.

As I wrote, I thought it was brilliant.

Then, some time later, long after the pen had been capped and I was no longer under the heady influence of Sharpie fumes, I read it again.

Meh. As I said, rough but solid. I can work with that.

As for discipline, well, that's a concept that looks different to each writer. What really matters is the outcome: What is produced? Regardless of a writer's method -- laptop in the park, legal pad in the coffee shop, scrap paper on the couch -- words must be written. Stories must be told.

Bring on the Sharpie!