All posts by Elena Linville

I am a Russian-Swiss-American citizen of the world. I have traveled all over the globe then hopped over the big Atlantic pond and moved to North Carolina, USA, where I lived for eight years. But staying in one place for too long is not in my nature, so when the wanderlust called again, I packed my meager belongings and my cat continued my great migration all the say from NC to Texas. So here I am not in DFW area with my cat who strongly believes she is a dog and the Queen and Ruler of the house. I have an 8 to 5 job as an field force training specialist and the rest of the time I write stories “for fun and pleasure,” though most of the time it feels like pulling teeth or bleeding on the page. I have two novels, Of Broken Things and The Choices We Make, which are both in the fully finished first draft stage. I’m currently editing Of Broken Things and letting Choices sit in a desk drawer for a few months. I’m also editing my novella Mists of the Crosswords which is almost ready for beta readers. Looking for a few betas btw who are not afraid to give honest feedback. I have an idea for a serial of short stories called the Eye of the Norns Cicle. The first short story had been published in an anthology, the second story is written down but needs editing, and I’m outlining the next three stories. I think I have enough ideas for 2 seasons of 6 stories each. I also love reading sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia, urban fantasy and post -apocalyptic books. I have been known to pick up a romance or two from time to time, but NEVER in the contemporary or historical genres. I don’t read YA, children books or nonfiction.

Character-driven narrative

I admit that I am not a seasoned writer. Heck I started writing seriously only since mid-October, and all I have to show is one finished first draft of a novel and one short story. But I have already started planning my next novel, and I have ideas for several other short stories. So I guess the person who encouraged me to start writing was right – the more you write, the more ideas come to you.

But the point of today’s post is not about my writing experience or lack of thereof, well not entirely. I have read somewhere that writing is the never-ending path of self-discovery, and I agree with that statement. Even with my very limited experience, I have already discovered one fundamental thing about my writing – it is character-driven first and foremost.

As far as I can see all my stories, even the gazillion unfinished drafts, started with one or two characters. Usually, I see them in very vivid details, sometimes even with background stories, and then I have to try and build a story around them. One of my good friends once told me, “Think about where you want your characters to get, both physically and emotionally, and then build a story to accomplish that.” That’s the best piece of advice I have ever been given.

For example, Of Broken Things was born when one of the characters literally barged into my sleep, sat down and said “Listen, you are going to write this…” The initial idea was very simple: what would happen, if a super-soldier fell in love? And if the person he cared the most about was taken from him?

So in the beginning I only had one character with his set of problems and priorities. But then I had to think about what kind of woman would a man like that fall for? She would need to be truly exceptional… And that’s how Cassie came into the picture and took the spotlight. Then I started writing my outline, and all of a sudden private investigator Aiden Stappleton came out of nowhere and highjacked the whole of Act 1. But even with all that, ultimately the story was still about the super-soldier and the consequences of his actions.

Working on Of Broken Things showed me that I like writing about characters. I like putting them in difficult situation and watching them change in order to overcome obstacles. Story and setting are important, but only as a catalyst for character change.

This realization made me take a good look at the books, movies and TV shows I like. Just as I thought, they are all character-driven. The author could have created the most beautiful world with the most complex society, thought about how the magic works and what Gods his people worship, but if the characters walking this world fail to interest me, I will probably put the book down before I reach the end. Setting and world building doesn’t interest me if they don’t influence the protagonist and make him or her evolve in some way.

I think discovering this particularity about my writing is a big help against writer’s block, because now when I feel stuck in my writing, I know that it’s probably because I lost sight of my character’s development somewhere along the way and made them do something very out of character.

Doctor Who – a superhero who makes us remember our humanity.

Now that I spent much more time creating my own characters and writing stories, I noticed that I tend to have a much more critical approach when I read books or watch TV shows. I pay a lot more attention to the characters in the shows and books I like. I try to analyze how the authors portray those characters, what motivates them to do what they do, what moral compass guides their actions. So I am planning a series of posts about fictional characters that touched me in one way or another. Characters who taught me some invaluable lessons, or helped me get through tough times, or just became a friend when I desperately needed a hand to hold.

Today I want to talk about Doctor Who – the longest running science-fiction show in the world, which had just celebrated its 50th anniversary. In our era when Gods and heroes, wizards and vampires of all shape and color invade our TV screens and bookshelves, the Doctor seems like an unlikely superhero. After all, he doesn’t possess super strength or x-ray vision. He can’t fly or call up storms. He doesn’t wield powers capable of destroying entire armies and he doesn’t run around carrying big cool weapons. In fact, all the Doctor has is a sonic screwdriver, a blue box that can travel through time and space and two hearts. But to me, he is the best superhero in the world.

The Doctor, the TARDIS and a sonic screwdriver.
The Doctor, the TARDIS and a sonic screwdriver.

Let me explain. The Doctor is not human. He is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He is over 1300 years old by now. He is the eternal traveler, hurling through time and space in his TARDIS, because his planet had been destroyed in a horrible war, and he is the last of his kind. Yet, he is also the most human person I know. He has seen so many things in his travels, yet he still greats everything new with open arms and open hearts. He still gets ecstatic about discovering a new culture, or trying a new ice cream flavor. And he treats everyone he meets like they are the most important person in the world.

I love the Doctor also for the fact that he never professes violence. As a survivor of the last Time War, he had to watch first hand his people and the Daleks annihilating each other, and he still bears psychological scars of this carnage. So whenever he is faced with a conflict, he always tries to find a peaceful resolution. But he is no coward either – he never runs from danger, but to it. After all, he lives by the following motto: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.”

the doctor

I think that sums him up perfectly – he is fearless, fiercely loyal and, most of all, extremely compassionate. Even the name he chose for himself – The Doctor – is extremely fitting. He will always try to help those who need him and he will always try to “heal” whatever evil he encounters, even if that means putting himself in harm’s way.

And I think we need more heroes like the Doctor in our lives to remind us that violence isn’t the answer to everything. That most of the time words have a lot more power than guns. That we are all different, but we all are just as important, no matter the color of our skin, the gods we worship or the people we chose to love.

That’s why I hope that 50 years from now, there will still be new Doctor Who episodes, and the Doctor would still strut out of his TARDIS with his new companion, ready to save the world. Because even 50 years from now, we will still need the Doctor to bring the best out of us.

All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?
All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?

On editing – did I really write this crap?

When I was in the middle of the first draft of my novel, I ready many blog posts about writing, first drafts, rewriting and editing. I read somewhere that first drafts sucked, and that you were lucky if you kept about 10% of it on the rewrite. I remember thinking this can’t be true! That would be absolutely horrible and heartbreaking to spend months putting one word after the other just to have most of them end up in the dust bin.

Well, once I finished my first draft and put it in a drawer to marinate until I come back to it in February, I decided to distract myself by writing a short story. It was set in a completely different world than my novel and it was fun to write… Then I decided that before I could dive into editing a 100k words manuscript, I should probably try and tackle a 4k words story first, just to see what it entrails.

I read my short story with a critical eye and realized that it had all kinds of inherent problems.

First of all I was so focused on putting the story down and fitting it in a short story format, that I didn’t give my main character a chance to say anything. Basically, it was like I gagged her, tied strings to her arms and legs, and marched her down the story like a brave little puppet. She did all those wonderful deeds and never got a moment to tell the reader why she did them or how she felt about them.

Then I noticed a second problem with my story. My heroine encounters an old dying werewolf and, after hearing the creature’s story, takes pity on it and puts its soul to rest. Well, the werewolf’s story frankly sucked. A woman scorned by a man who turns into a monster and destroys the entire village where the man lived? Including innocent women and children who had done her no harm? No way in hell my character would empathize with a monster like that! But the fact that she connected with the werewolf and understood her pain was important to the story. The conclusion was – the werewolf needed a better story.

 Editing my short story.Editing my short story.

So I sat down with my printed short story, lots of spare paper and a blue pen and went to town: changing, adding, crossing out and rewriting. In the end I think I kept maybe 5% of the original first draft, everything else had been drastically rewritten. I think the story is better now, but that still a lot of words that ended up deleted.

 

This also kind of scares me when I think about the 100k words 350 pages monster waiting for me in my desk drawer. If I have to rewrite my novel just as drastically, it will take me months to accomplish this.

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

Stars: 5 out of 5

Caliban’s War is the second book in the excellent Expanse series. The action takes place a couple years after the events of the first book, Leviathan Wakes (which I already reviewed).

The Eros station and the protomolecule it was carrying crashed into Venus, and now strange things are happening beneath the planet’s dense atmosphere. But even though humanity is aware (and afraid) of the monster sitting right at their doorstep, they still can’t put aside their petty squabbles. Earth and Mars are still at the verge of armed conflict and the OPA is now a force to reckon with because it holds the only known protomolecule sample that is not on Venus. The beginning of the book takes place on Ganymede station, which is the granary of the Belt and outer planets and a station that neither Earth nor Mars are willing to let go. So both superpowers have a military presence there, but are just content to sit in the trenches and watch each other warily… Until something tears through an Earth outpost, killing the whole garrison and all hell breaks loose, threatening to set the whole solar system on fire, while the protomolecule on Venus stirs at last.

James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are back! And they are in the thick of the action once again, quite inadvertently so this time. I love those characters and the author handles their development well. They are still the likable bunch I got to know and love from the first book, but the events have also changed them. Holden in particular is faced with a sort of identity crisis in this book, and I absolutely loved how he managed to get through it and stay true to himself.

I also loved the new characters introduced in this book, especially Chrisjen Avasarala, the foulmouthed Earth politician. They are all fully fleshed-out and interesting to follow. I think that’s actually part of why I love James S.A. Corey’s books so much – the believability of his characters. They are never cardboard, they are always alive. Whether you like them or not, you still want to follow their adventures.

The story itself is just as tightly woven and engaging as the one in Leviathan Wakes, and the author knows how to keep you up late turning the pages because you absolutely NEED to know what happens next. And oh dear God, please don’t kill my favorite characters!!!

Ahem, anyway, I think by now it’s clear that I absolutely loved this book. So my advice to you is buy it, rent it, steal it from your friends, do anything necessary to get it and read it. Well, start with Leviathan Wakes first though, and then continue straight to Abaddon’s Gate (I know a will).

Of Broken Things – first draft finished.

Last night, I crossed a very important milestone: I finished the first draft of the novel I had started in November 2013 for NaNoWriMo. For me, it is a huge accomplishment, because I have never actually finished anything before.

Sure, I have plenty of stories that I had started and abandoned after a couple chapters, when I got bogged down by plot inconsistencies, couldn’t see my characters clearly or had no clue where my story was going, or simply got bored and went off to write the next shiny new thing. But not this time. This time I stuck with it, through happy moments when words flew onto the page faster than I could write them down and moments when every single word seemed to cost an ounce of my own blood. I stuck with the story, with the characters and I brought it all to a satisfying conclusion.

The feeling is… exhilarating, electrifying and a bit scary. I have done it. I finished something. I proved to myself that I am a writer, that I can tell stories from beginning to the end. That’s the exhilarating part.

The scary part is that I am entering uncharted waters now. I have never finished a draft before, so I have no idea how to go about rewriting and editing it, and what steps to take to transform it into a book it deserves to be, a book that I wouldn’t be ashamed to send out into the world. It feels like standing at the entrance of a labyrinth with no map and knowing that you have to navigate through it to the other side. It’s kind of paralyzing.

So I need help and I need advice from everyone who has been in my shoes and had already tackled the editing hurdle. Where do I go now? How do I even begin?

Enclave by Ann Aguirre

The Enclave

Stars: 4 out of 5

There is a multitude of YA novels out there. Some are nothing exceptional and are just content to ride on the Twilight and Hunger Games hype. But others have well written original stories with believable characters that are a pleasure to read. Thankfully, Enclave by Ann Aguirre is one of those.

The story takes place in College, an enclave in what later turns out to be abandoned underground tunnels. It is a post-apocalyptic novel, but what exactly happened to the world is not really clear, because several generations had passed since the event. People of the enclave have never been Topside, most of them have never even ventured in the tunnels beyond the barricades. Life in the community is strictly regulated, because supplies are limited. Only those who are strong, healthy and useful are permitted to survive. The enclave is ruled by the Elders, and the population is divided into three very distinct roles: Builders make equipment, cook food and are in charge of the general maintenance of the enclave, Hunters venture in the tunnels to bring back meat and defend the enclave against outside threats, and Breeders well… breed (on a strict schedule) and take care of the young. Life is hard in the enclave and not many people survive past 25 – disease and malnutrition take their toll.

The main protagonist is a young girl named Deuce, who we meet at the day of her naming ceremony, when she gets her name and becomes a Huntress – something she had dreamed of and worked very hard to accomplish. I loved Deuce. She is strong, she is not afraid of making difficult decisions and accepting the consequences. She is an excellent fighter and an even better Huntress, and nothing is handed to her on a silver platter just because she is the protagonist. Ann Aguirre made the character believable: Deuce is good because she trained all her life for it. She watched the other Hunters fight when she was a brat, she listened to all the stories, she showed up to all the lessons and did three times what was asked of the Hunters in training. So when Deuce and her partner are ambushed by four Freaks in the tunnels and manage to kill them, I believe that it’s possible. And they don’t get out of this encounter without scars either…

I also loved the fact that the author never really says what happened to the world. The reader discovers some hints at the same time as the protagonists, but they don’t care about it that much. For them it’s ancient history and they have more pressing matters to worry about, like survival.

And it is absolutely fascinating to see the society the author created. Their values, rules and aspirations might look foreign to us, but in the context of that world they make sense, and that is wonderful.

I had a few minor gripes with the story though. First of all, the motivation behind some of the things the Elders did was really lacking. If they were so worried about the survival of the enclave, some of their actions really made no sense. And secondly, I didn’t appreciate the attempt at a love triangle in the second part of the book, or the fact that it was so easy to drive a wedge between Deuce and Fade. They are partners, for God’s sake! They fought together; they had each other’s back and saved each other lives countless times. How hard is it to just sit down and talk things through? No, let’s skulk and absolutely refuse to communicate instead…

But apart from that, I am looking forward to reading Outpost, the second book in the series and explore a bit more of this world.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Stars: 5 out of 5

I rarely award five stars to a book, but I must admit that Leviathan Wakes swept me off my feet – I couldn’t put it down.

I loved the world Mr. Corey created. I loved the fact that despite this being science fiction, it wasn’t too far fetched. I could see humanity being able to live like that in about 100-150 years if we decide to expand into our solar system. And it is absolutely plausible that we would bring our petty squabbles and our problems up there with us. Humanity is slow to change in that respect.

I also absolutely loved the two main protagonists telling the story. Holden and Miller come from different upbringings, and have had different circumstances shaping their views and attitudes, and they couldn’t be more different. But their POVs are oddly complementary, and they serve to highlight different facets of the treat that awaits humanity when the ice-hauler Canterbury decides to deviate from its course to check on a distress signal and discovers an abandoned ship. I will not talk about the plot of the book any more than that, because I’d rather you pick up this book and discover it for yourselves.

While I liked both Holden and Miller, I must admit that I managed to sympathize with Holden more. He was faced with impossible circumstances: he saw his ship destroyed, he was stranded on a small shuttle with a rag-tag crew of four, they were being chased by every faction in the solar system, but he still managed to keep it together. More than that, he did everything in his power to keep his crew safe, and the moral high even in the most dire circumstances. So I was not surprised when his crew answered him with fierce loyalty.

A special mention must be made about the secondary characters. All of them are “alive” and tridimentional and read like real people. You might like them, you might hate them, but you will not dismiss them as a part of the scenery.

This book also raises an important point about the precariousness of human’s hold on our solar system, and the fact that our technological advances can put is in great danger if our mentality doesn’t change along with them. There are three factions in this world – Earth, Mars and the ragtag alliance of asteroids called the Belt. And each one of them has enough military power to destroy the other two. Even populations living on a planet isn’t safe anymore when the other faction can drop enough rocks down the gravity well to render its surface inhabitable. All factions know that, yet they keep bickering and fighting for dominance, like kid playing with the atomic bomb switch…

Leviathan Wakes is a trilling and intelligent read, and I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series called Caliban’s War. So start your new year with a good read, pick up this book!

Merry Christmas!

ImageTime flew by. It seems like only yesterday it was October and I was getting excited about participating in my first NaNoWriMo. And now it’s Christmas Eve! And I have many things to be merry about this Christmas.  I have participated and won my first NaNo, but more importantly, I established a habit of writing at least 600 words every day, rain or shine. My first novel Of Broken Things will be finished in about 3-4 chapters. I have discovered a wonderful writing community with many like-minded people who kept me motivated to finish my first draft. And most importantly ever since I sat down to write my story, I have been assailed by different ideas, clamoring for my attention. I have been patiently writing them down and putting them in my “future plot bunnies” basket. So all in all, creativity is flowing, life is looking good and snow… is nowhere to be seen. Yep, no white Christmas for me in North Carolina.

So I wanted to wish everyone who is reading  me a wonderful Christmas. I hope you send it with the people you love. And don’t forget to tell them that you cherish them on this wonderful night.

As for me, I will spend Christmas day eating good food, drinking plenty of wine… and crying my eyes out as I watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special and say goodbye to the Eleventh Doctor.

Keepers by Gary A Braunbeck

Keepers

Stars: 2 out of 5.

The Keepers is the first book I read by Gary A Braunbeck and I must admit that I was a bit disappointed.

It had such a promising beginning, where the reader is following a seemingly ordinary man who witnesses a horrible accident on the turnpike. This accident triggers memories that he thought were long forgotten. The reader then follows the protagonist, as he tries to put these memories back together and solve the puzzle of his past, while strange things start to happen around him in the present.

I liked the narrative, I liked the pace, and I even kinda liked the protagonist and the story of his past. The story that was unfolding in his present, however, left me unmoved. I think it was party because the situation was never clearly explained and the “bad guys” were neither bad nor good: they even protect the protagonist and save his life several times. It’s like the author wasn’t sure either whether his antagonist was good, bad or indifferent.

I think another reason why the book’s conflict fell flat for me was the fact that the author never really explained what the stakes were for the protagonist in all this. So why would I root for him if I don’t know what’s important to him?

The author introduced an interesting intrigue to the book, but failed to explain it or to bring it to a logical resolution. He left too many questions unanswered. Did the Keeper’s plan succeed? Why was Gil important for it? Why were Beth and the dog important? The whole turning people into animals and animals into people angle could have been a bit more developed in my opinion.

The ending also fell flat, in my opinion. It was too rushed and didn’t really explain anything. Why were those Boiler-hat men after the dog? Why did they decide to kill Gil after all? What the heck really happened in the end? The author left too many questions unanswered which is really frustrating. He might have striven for the mysterious “make your own conclusions” ending, but here it doesn’t work.

Right now I am debating whether I should try to read something else by Gary A Braunbeck or if all his book are a bit like the Keeper. I want your opinion on this. Did you like some of his books? If so, which one would you suggest I read?

Frist Drafts woes and wonders – rebelling characters.

Image

NaNoWriMo is over and done, but at the end of it I still had an unfinished story on my hands. So I had decided to keep up the good habits I picked up during November and write every day. I set my goal to 1200 words per day, which is about 800 words less than the mad rush of NaNo. I managed to stick to it so far, so my manuscript is now at 68k words and I would reach the end of Part 2 after one more chapter.

 This feels really good, to see this story finally taking shape on paper. I have never stuck with a story for so long and so consistently before. I have never written so many words before on one story either. The feeling is… exhilarating. If feels like an accomplishment. Even if my story is only two thirds done, even if I still have at least a long month of bleeding words on paper in front of me, I feel like having a small celebration. Like I passed a milestone or something.

But this is not what I wanted to discuss today. No, I wanted to talk about characters and all the marvelous things they do to advance your plot and sometimes totally mess up your carefully laid plans and nicely detailed outlines.

 When I wrote Part 1 of my novel during NaNo, my main character Aiden was a good sport and went along with almost everything I had planned for him. He rebelled only on the small details. So we really had a peaceful and productive collaboration during the month of November.

 Then I wrapped up Part 1 and moved to Part 2 which follows another character. I knew that I was in deep trouble from the get go. This character has a mindset very different from my own, so getting into his head and writing from his perspective was like reformatting my brain with a screwdriver – a slow and painful process. And as if to add to the suffering, he decided to fight me every step of the way. All my carefully-laid plans for Part 2? Out of the window. All the shiny scenes of romance and conflict I thought I would write? Scrapped and disposed of. He was having none of it. It was going to be his way or no way at all. So for fourteen chapters now I have been in a state of panicked wonder – how will he manage to change my plot this time?

 But you know what? I am just one chapter away from finishing his arc of the story and looking back at it, I must admit that what he did is much better, more in character than anything I had in mind.

 So my question to you all is how often do your characters rebel against your plans? Do you go along with them when they do? Does it turn out better when you do give them free reign or worse?