Friday, 30 November 2012

Character Movement and Fight Scenes

Last month, Dionne Lister and I attended GenreCon in Sydney, Australia. One of the workshops was run by fantasy author Karen Miller (also writing under the pen name K.E. Mills) on character movement and action scenes. 

She explained we are now a culture steeped in visual imagery and story-telling. If you’re a fan of Dickens, Tolkien, or other classic authors, sorry, this doesn’t cut it for the modern audience. Modern fiction has shifted away from that style of story-telling to meet the more visual expectations of the modern reader. As far as visual imagery goes, it’s also worth knowing that people will believe something if they see it, even without explanation, but that in a novel plot holes will be more readily questioned. This explained to me why I’m not able to be as critical of movies as I am of books!

Despite the fact your audience is visual, you can’t just take a fight scene (for example) and transcribe it into words – this will create a boring description which does not in the least engage the reader. Instead, you have to translate what you see into words that create an impression. The scene must be fast enough to ensure the reader is not bored, clear enough so they understand, and real enough they feel they’ve experienced it. 

Relatively speaking, you should incorporate very little actual physical description because this will bore the reader. It’s also unrealistic. When someone is in the middle of action, they can’t and won’t notice everything. At the same time, they can experience time distortion and time will seem to slow down so that person may notice quite a bit in what actually took only a split second. These are qualities you should be sure to note in your fight scenes. 

Action scenes should be anchored through the viewpoint of a particular character to help place the action (unless you’re using omniscient POV, you should be doing this anyway). You should include emotions, thoughts, and sensory impressions of the viewpoint character as to what’s occurring around them. Short, punchy descriptions and verbs will help you to keep the energy going. Choose words that tell us something about the characters, words that make an impact and are energetic. 

It’s very important to get your characters moving even outside of a fight scene or an action sequence. If you don’t, you’ll create a static scene in which people do nothing but talk to each other i.e. talking heads. To avoid this problem, try including body language to bring a scene to life (what Karen called the equivalent of subtitles for books). Not only does this help to define the action, it also helps you to flesh out the characters.

When doing this, try to work out what actions go properly with the dialogue i.e. there may be automatic actions and responses you associate with the dialogue. Think about them and try to identify what they are. You may find there is more than one correct interpretation, in which case you need to decide which is the impression you actually want to convey. This will depend on the plot, the story you want to tell, and the level of conflict you generate. 

While long speeches are uncommon in genre fiction, sometimes characters need to say a lot. If you let one character just ramble on, this can have the same effect as a ‘talking heads’ scenario, and the reader may get bored and wander away. To avoid this, either have the character interrupted a lot, or find the right moment, a lull in the speech, to interrupt and include a physical action on the part of the character. 

Some other words of wisdom from Karen included:

  • Use said almost all the time – it becomes invisible;
  • Dialogue tags like retorted, objected etc. should be used judiciously and ‘he ejaculated’ is not recommended any more;
  • There is a school of thought that it should be clear from the text how the dialogue is presented, but this is not always the case, and then sometimes you may need a descriptor or an adverb – but this should be used carefully;
  • Exclamation marks can be useful, but don’t overuse. Don’t use multiple exclamation marks or exclamation or question mark combinations;
  • Be vigilant about unintended repetition and sentence construction – don’t use repetitive sentence rhythms, as it will put the reader to sleep;
  • Try to give each character their own rhythm and speech patterns (easier said than done!).
  • Including everything slows the pace too much;
  • All you can do is the best job you are capable of at that time, with all the input available to you. You cannot control how the reader will interpret it;
  • Every reader’s view is correct – subjectively speaking;
  • Remember every character is the star of their own show. Give each character a thumb-nail sketch of realness. Don’t ever treat a character as a cardboard cut-out;
  • Use italics to stress a word of dialogue judiciously – only do this when needed to clarify an ambiguous line where it’s important the reader get the correct message;
  • It’s said that you can get the reader across the galaxy, but you can’t get them across the room.

Karen is a brilliant writer, so I strongly recommend taking her advice into consideration. Not only did she read us a fight scene from her draft WIP, which was good enough to turn me green with envy, but I read the book she gave me in two days flat. It’s not often I have the time to do that these days, and when I make the time, you know that book’s got my attention. 

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Monday, 19 November 2012

The Rook: Book Review

I picked The Rook up free at GenreCon in Sydney, Australia – part of the free goodie bag every conference attendee receives. Though it was outside my main reading tastes (i.e. not epic fantasy), the blurb intrigued me, and it certainly contained enough elements of the supernatural for me to say ‘close enough is good enough’. 

Myfanwy Thomas (pronounced Miffany, to rhyme with Tiffany, rather than the correct Welsh pronunciation – ugh) opens her eyes in a park, surrounded by a ring of dead men, with a letter addressed to ‘You’ from ‘Me’ – the former occupant of the body. 

Intriguing, but I must confess the initial chapters had me most confused as to whether this was a case of body-switching (my first impression) or amnesia. By about a quarter of the book, I’d settled comfortably on amnesia, but a quarter is too much to be confused and I was disappointed because I’d misunderstood, and the body-switching sounded far more interesting than garden variety amnesia. 

Guided by the letters, Myfanwy must decide whether to find out who is trying to kill her (the former ‘her’) or escape to a life of comfortable anonymity. Having chosen to flee her unknown assassins, she is thwarted in the attempt by an attack at the bank where she is to retrieve instructions on how to make a clean escape. When she mysteriously leaves her assailants unconscious, she instead elects to resume her former life and hunt down the person trying to kill her. 

Myfanwy discovers she is a ‘Rook’ in the Checquy, UK government department tasked with controlling the supernatural – one of the eight powerful leaders of the organisation, and possessed of supernatural powers of her own. Using comprehensive notes left by her predecessor, who knew she was to lose her memory, she bluffs her way through her first few days of fumbling ignorance to secure her position in the organisation. Once established, she sets out to find the traitor in their midst, and stave off an ancient, powerful enemy from the Checquy’s past.  

While the plot was intriguing and enjoyable, and by the end I was completely enthralled and found myself compelled to finish, desperate to know the identity of the traitor, I found the book suffered from a number of problems that on a pickier day would have led me to drop the book like a hot potato. As it was, I was at least halfway in before I felt fully invested, and that is far too late.

Myfanwy. What kind of person would take someone whose name is pronounced ‘Miffany’ seriously? Worse, someone called her ‘Miffy’. My toddler watches a cartoon with a rabbit called Miffy. I cannot abide it. I have no idea what purpose this incorrect pronunciation of the name was intended to serve. When Myfanwy’s long lost sister turned up, it appeared Myfanwy had been mispronouncing her own name (not that revelation change anything). Given she was old enough to know how to pronounce her own name when she was taken into government training, I’ve no idea how this happened, or why it happened, except to annoy the reader. 

Also, the reappearance of the sister seemed gratuitous and served no purpose, except to conveniently offer a villain leverage over Myfanwy – despite the fact neither the current Myfanwy, nor her predecessor, knew or had any emotional connection to the sister. 

Myfanwy made a number of huge errors in her impersonation of herself in the early days, and didn’t appear to make much attempt at all to behave consistent with what she did know about her predecessor (granted, not much). I concede I’d probably have wanted to shake things up since it seems the old Myfanwy was a bit of a wet dishrag, but she did it accidentally, in a fumbling, ignorant kind of way. 

Amazingly, only one person figured out what had happened, and that person kept their mouth shut. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d expect a senior member of a covert operation to be interrogated if there was even a suspicion they were being impersonated, and even more so in a covert supernatural organisation where perhaps the idea of someone being replaced isn’t so completely far-fetched. But despite noticing she was behaving differently, no one said a thing. This was largely attributed to the power Myfanwy wielded as Rook, but at the same time it was apparent other staff treated her as a laughing-stock. This stretched my credulity. 

The letters from Myfanwy’s predecessor (and there were a few) provided the author with a convenient excuse to infodump backstory in large chunks. Convenient, but unnecessary and annoying. Some of the information so provided was interesting and relevant, while others appeared to have been included for humour only. Mostly I found these annoying as they took me away from the actual interesting story. The so-called humour left me flat in most cases. When a huge fungus swallows a series of strike teams, I’m not inclined to be amused by its colouration. The book was supposed to be humorous, I understand, but it never really struck the right tone to achieve it.    

In some instances (only occasionally) the author did a substantial amount of work building tension, made a huge and important revelation, and then did nothing with it. For instance, Myfanwy made an important discovery while interrogating a prisoner. It was implied, not spelled out (i.e. the reader had to do some basic math to work it out), and it was huge. I expected Myfanwy to report this to her superiors or, if she daren’t trust them with it, I expected her to act on it herself, or at least think about what it meant. Instead, at the opening of the next chapter – nothing. It was ignored so completely, I began to think I had misunderstood what I’d read. It was important enough it should have rated a mention, and if she had thought about it, probably she would have figured out who the traitor was earlier.

Myfanwy also appeared to have experienced a significant increase in her powers post-amnesia, and this was never satisfactorily explained. 

The editing could have used some work, too, with unnecessary instances of passive language and repetition which, while not quite enough to put me off, were more noticeable in light of some of the larger plot issues identified above, and only served to annoy me more. 

I did enjoy the story, enough that I will probably check out the author’s next work, but if you are one of those people who is exceptionally picky about the quality of the books you read (which usually I am these days) or otherwise have a huge TBR list, you might not want to take the time. 

I’d give this three stars – solid effort, but could have done with more polish and refinement. 

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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Dragons In the Enchanted Bookstore: Marsha A Moore

Thank you, Ciara, for inviting me to be your guest today. I know you and your readers love dragons. I have many who are special in my writing world. Here’s a glimpse of a couple:

The Ruling Dragons from Marsha A. Moore’s Enchanted Bookstore Legends

Dragon lovers will not be disappointed with the Enchanted Bookstore Legends, my epic fantasy romance. I love dragons and have included many types, ages, and sizes. The rule of the fantasy world of Dragonspeir is divided between the good Alliance, governed by the Imperial Dragon, a magnificent golden type, and the opposing Dark Realm, led by the Black Dragon. 

When my heroine, Adalyra McCauley opens an enchanted book she confronts a series of quests where she is expected to save Dragonspeir from destruction by the evil Black Dragon. In my latest release, Lost Volumes, the third book of the series, Lyra learns residents of Dragonspeir’s Alliance are suffering with a deadly plague at the hand s of the Black Dragon. She doesn’t heed the warnings of her fiancĂ©, wizard Cullen Drake, to remain safe in her human world. After all, she’s the present Scribe—one of five strong women in her ancestry who possessed unique magic, each destined to protect the Alliance against the evil Black Dragon of the Dark Realm. With Cullen dependent upon Alliance power to maintain his immortality, the stakes are doubled for Lyra.

She puts herself at risk for the community afflicted by black magic. To find a cure, she and Cullen travel into the vile, lawless underworld of Terza to strike a bargain with an expert. Their efforts further enrage the Black Dragon, vowing to decimate the Alliance and avenge the murder of his heir. 

In order to overpower his efforts, Lyra must secure the three lost volumes of the Book of Dragonspeir. Written by the three earliest Scribes, each book contains energy. Possession of the entire set will enable overthrow of the Dark Realm. Following clues into dangerous lands, Lyra and Cullen seek those volumes. His assistants, Kenzo the tiger owl and Noba the pseudodragon, prove invaluable aids. Only if they succeed, will the Alliance be safe and Lyra reach closer to the immortality she needs to live a life with Cullen.

The Ruling Dragons of Dragonspeir

Black dragons, like the leader of the Dark Realm, always seek to lair in deep dark caves. Although small, they are vile, evil-tempered, and abusive. Their hearts are as dark as their slimy scales. They are obsessed with death and take comfort in the sickening-sweet aroma of drowned, rotting carcasses. During her bloodswear quest, Lyra held her stomach with the stench when she was required to sneak into the chambers of the heir to the Black Dragon and perform fascination on him. The current Black Dragon leader prefers his drake servants leave the prey they bring him in pools within his personal cave. The victims float for days or weeks before he eats them. The dark leader, like all black dragons, is grim and skeletal. His eyes lie deep in their sockets between two great horns that curve forward and down. The flesh of his face is partially deteriorated or burnt from his acidic drool.  His method of attack is spitting caustic acid. Lyra and Cullen, learned too well what that felt like in the first book, Seeking a Scribe.
Golden dragons are born leaders, being lawful, just and good. Their intelligence exceeds the other types, and their wisdom is sought after. Being good-natured, they help those who are kind and fair. The Imperial Leader helps train and guide my heroine, Lyra, along her quest. Golds are the most powerful and largest in size. The breath weapon of gold dragons is a cone of fire. Although they are cautious about entering a fight and dislike killing, once engaged, they will pour their entire being into the battle.
Physically, gold dragons are spectacular. Two prominent horns point backwards along their heads. The most obvious feature is probably the tentacle whiskers that sprout from the bottom of the gold dragon's jaw, giving the appearance of a sort of beard in both males and females.
Like his father before him, the present Imperial Dragon will serve the Alliance until either he dies or steps down.  Similar to most golds, he keeps his Alliance headquarters in a grand network of caves set in the rock plateau. His overlooks the Steppe of Ora, the wide plain which divides good and evil in Dragonspeir. His lair includes an elaborate gathering hall, a vast library, guest quarters, and his own personal chambers with cases of magical instruments and a glass-walled observatory to consult the stars. As one of the four Alliance Guardians, his area of expertise is magic powered by the air element, including mystical astronomy studies of the skies.
Read Seeking a Scribe, Heritage Avenged, and Lost Volumes of my Enchanted Bookstore Legends to learn more about these amazing creatures. 

Marsha A. Moore is a writer of fantasy romance. The magic of art and nature spark life into her writing. Her creativity also spills into watercolor painting and drawing. After a move from Toledo to Tampa in 2008, she’s happily transforming into a Floridian, in love with the outdoors. Crazy about cycling, she usually passes the 1,000 mile mark yearly. She is learning kayaking and already addicted. She’s been a yoga enthusiast for over a decade and that spiritual quest helps her explore the mystical side of fantasy. She never has enough days spent at the beach, usually scribbling away at new stories with toes wiggling in the sand. Every day at the beach is magical!

You can find her here:
Goodreads author page http://www.goodreads.com/marshaamoore 

Series Blurb: Enchanted Bookstore Legends 

The Enchanted Bookstore Legends are about Lyra McCauley, a woman destined to become one of five strong women in her family who possess unique magical abilities and serve as Scribes in Dragonspeir. The Scribes span a long history, dating from 1200 to present day. Each Scribe is expected to journey through Dragonspeir, both the good and evil factions, then draft a written account. Each book contains magic with vast implications. 

 Lyra was first introduced to Dragonspeir as a young girl, when she met the high sorcerer, Cullen Drake, through a gift of one of those enchanted books. Using its magic, he escorted her into the parallel world of Dragonspeir. Years later, she lost that volume and forgot the world and Cullen. These legends begin where he finds her again—she is thirty-five, standing in his enchanted bookstore, and Dragonspeir needs her.  

When Lyra reopens that enchanted book, she confronts a series of quests where she is expected to save the good Alliance from destruction by the evil Black Dragon. While learning about her role, Lyra and Cullen fall in love. He is 220 years old and kept alive by Dragonspeir magic. Cullen will die if Dragonspeir is taken over by the evil faction…Lyra becomes the Scribe.

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Friday, 2 November 2012

The Anubis Gates: A Review by Ciara Ballintyne

1802 - the Egyptian gods are a diminished force, and the power of magic fades. Sorcerers, wielding magic only at great expense to their own bodies, attempt to restore the potency of their power by bringing the gods, in all their glory, forward in time. Instead, they succeed only in tearing rents in the fabric of time – the Anubis Gates.

Brendan Doyle, a minor American scholar specialising in a little known poet, William Ashbless, is carried from London, 1983, through the gates of time to 1810, ostensibly to serve as a Coleridge expert. The journey is organised by J Cochran Darrow, a wealthy recluse specialising in odd-ball projects, and funded by the ten guests, each of whom has paid a premium for the privilege of witnessing a lecture by Samuel Coleridge in the flesh. 

The plan consists of a straightforward there and back again journey of only a few hours, but it goes awry when Doyle is kidnapped by an Egyptian sorcerer, intent on learning who is using the gates in time, and how. Having missed his ‘return flight’, as it were, Doyle finds himself stranded in 1810 London, penniless and alone.

While not unlikeable, Doyle is stranded, destitute, and terribly desperate – a desperation which drives him to take ill-considered risks and make less-than-intelligent decisions. But it is his very isolation, his very desperation, that draws me to him – can the reader conceive of many worse situations than to be stranded out of time, in a strange culture, with absolutely no means of support?

I have very little concept of what London was like in 1810, but Powers paints a compelling picture with few words, creating less an image of the physical place, than a sense of the people who populate it; the desperation of its denizens, the danger they exude, and the grinding poverty that drives many of them. That sense, that feeling, creates a more visceral setting than any mere description of buildings could do. 

This is not to imply the book lacks description, for Powers describes events, and many settings, with phrases evocative enough to turn me green with envy. 

London is peopled with a host of characters – who can Doyle trust? Who might he rely on in his time of need? Knowing exactly where the poet, William Ashbless, should be, he hopes to appeal to that man’s generosity, but the poet is mysteriously missing. Has Doyle upset the events of history by returning from the future? 

What of the clown, Horrabin, who offers Doyle a job amongst his beggars? His very name hints at horrible unknowns. Is young Jacky more trustworthy? He warns Doyle away from Horrabin, and suggests a place amongst the rival beggar crew. Can Doyle use the Egyptian sorcerers to return to 1983? What does he have to bargain with, except his own life? What of Dog-Face Joe, a rumoured werewolf-type serial killer, to whom Doyle comes perilously close? 

And who, on the streets of 1810 London, is whistling Yesterday by The Beatles?

Events come dangerously to a head when the poet, Ashbless, reappears in a startling and unexpected way, setting Doyle’s feet on a path that takes him even further into the past, and then eventually to Cairo. Events now follow the course of history Doyle is familiar with, and he begins to anticipate what comes, thinking he knows how events will unfold – or does he?

The book careens from one disaster, to another ill-conceived decision, to bizarre and yet wildly appropriate plot twist after plot twist. The foreshadowing is impeccable – the clues are there if you know to look for them, but you won’t, until events come to pass. Instead, each new revelation, each new horror, each new clever outcome, will keep you turning page after page to find the answers until, before you know it, you’ve finished the book. 

If I were to tell you any more, I’d ruin all the surprises, and they are well worth the wait. They are many, and they are varied, and each new discovery delighted me at its appropriateness, at its suitability, at the way in which each of the puzzle pieces fit neatly together – until the picture, of which Doyle only has a vague outline from 20th century history books, becomes a complete illustration rendered in loving detail. 

I read this book in about two days – it was literally unputdownable. The story is exceptional, and the book well-written. The odd waver in the writing barely caused a hitch in my stride, so desperate was I to resolve each conflict, only to find I had dove headfirst into the next. 

If you didn’t read this book for Club Fantasci, then you must. 5 stars – I give this book 5 stars. Do you know how often I say that? 

Not very often at all. 

If you missed October's Hangout and the discussion of The Anubis Gates, you can find it here.  Also, don't miss the review of The Anubis Gates by my fellow Club Fantasci co-host, Dionne Lister.

Don't forget to join us next month for Club Fantasci's Hangout. November's Book of the Month is The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice, so the Hangout will be limited to 21+. I expect discussions may get a bit scandalous!

In other news, my short story is now available for purchase as part of the anthology Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, available here at Amazon and Smashwords

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