J. K. Rowling or why telling a bestselling writer to stop writing makes no sense.

I know I am jumping on the wagon way too late, since this article had been posted on February 21st, but I have some thoughts on the subject, so I decided to post them anyway. Hey, this is my blog, so I can do whatever I want in it, right? Wait, where are you all going? Come back!!!

Ahem, back to the subject at hand. I think the idea that bestselling authors somehow steal readers (and thus money) from less known writers by publishing new books is absolutely preposterous. More than that, the reasoning is flawed.

Would I buy a new book by J. K. Rowling? I would read the synopsis first, and if the story interests me, then yes of course I will. But I would do that with any other book as well, regardless of the author. Granted, seeing a big name on the cover would incite me to pick up the book and actually look at the synopsis more than a name I don’t know. Does that mean that bestselling authors sell more books? Yes, definitely. Does that mean that by doing so they steal money away from less known authors? Heck no!

No author, no matter now prolific, can publish more than one or two books a year. Even an average reader goes through at least 12-20 books a year. And a book junkie like me usually goes through at least one book a week (because I still have a full time job, a family and my own writing which chip away at my reading time). So after I am done with the latest Rowling, King or Scalzi (those should have kept me occupied for about a month), will I just sit on my hands and die of boredom the rest of the year waiting for their next book? Of course not! I will go on a hunt for more books to read in the genres I like.

This is why I love Amazon with their neat feature called “Customers who bought this item also bought”, or the recommendations page on Goodreads. I discovered many fabulous authors by browsing through those recommendations, opening each book and reading reviews and synopsis until I found a book I wanted to read. And if I happened to like a book by this new author, I would look for more of his or her books to read.

My point is, if this – if this bestselling author hadn’t written a new book that I read and liked, I wouldn’t have gone looking for something similar, and I would never have discovered a lot of new fledgling authors that I love and follow now.

Bestselling authors shine a spotlight on the genre they chose to write in and attract more readers who might have been unfamiliar with that genre before. And this is good news for everyone, readers and authors alike.

Back to our example, J. K. Rowling wrote a crime novel. Even if only one third of her followers bought it and liked it, chances are they will want to see what other crime novels there are out there, and they will not wait for Rowling to publish a new book. Instead they will go and browse the crime section on amazon or their local bookstore / library. Chances are, they will pick up Lynn Shepherd’s novel next, or the first book of another new author, boosting their sales.

So instead of telling those bestselling authors to put their pen down and retire, we should encourage them to explore more genres so that everyone could benefit from the publicity.

Also, a good writer can never retire, because writing is not a job but a way of life. Telling them to stop writing is like telling them to stop breathing – rather impossible to do.

The Shadow Hero – Severus Snape

At the beginning of this month, I had started a new series of posts about literary (and movie) characters I really liked and the reasons why I liked them. If you are interested, here is my first post about Doctor Who. I would like to continue this series with another famous character that I dearly love – Hogwards Potion Master and spy extraordinaire Severus Snape.

severus snape

I need to warn you now that this post will contain SPOILERS for all seven books, so if you haven’t read them yet for some reason, proceed at your own risk.

Alright, this warning out of the way, let me explain why I love this character so much. I think it’s because he is so complex and has such hidden depths that even the author didn’t suspect until she started writing him. I also think that Alan Rickman fit into this role perfectly in the movies, even though his Severus Snape is a lot older than the one in the books (who, after all, was only 38 in the first book).

Everything in the books is seen through Harry Potter’s eyes, and he takes an instant dislike to his taciturn Potion Master, so of course everything Snape does will be painted in negative light. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Severus Snape is a miserable bastard. He is bitter, angry and full of self-hatred as well as hatred at the world in general, and the way he treats Harry or Hermione is simply inexcusable.

But let’s set aside his horrible personality and consider his actions instead. In the first book, he does everything to try and protect the Sorcerer’s stone and he spends most of the quidditch match muttering counter spells to prevent Harry from falling off his broom. In second year, he is responsible for brewing the potion that would save all the kids that had been petrified by the basilisk, including Hermione.

I think that we see the true mettle of that man in book three though, when he rushes out of the castle and into the Shrieking Shack even though it’s the night of the full moon and he is about to confront a werewolf that almost killed him once already. He doesn’t hesitate though, because the lives of three children are in danger. The image bellow shows it perfectly well – even when faced with one of his worst nightmares, his reflex is to defend the children, even if that means die a horrible death himself.

Always protecting students, even those he hates.
Always protecting students, even those he hates.

I like Severus Snape because, even though he is a profoundly damaged man, he is also a man of honor and principles. He basically sacrificed his entire life to bring the downfall of a madman and thus to repent for a mistake he had made when he was barely out of his teens. He became a double agent, despised and distrusted by both sides, friendless and alone, with nobody to turn to for comfort. He was asked to do unspeakable things for that cause.

I can’t even imagine what the last year in Hogwards must have been like for him, when he had to play the role of the Death Eater Headmaster and bear the scorn and open hatred of his former colleagues and students. Yet, he made sure that none of the students were permanently harmed, even with two clearly unstable Death Eaters on the premises. Not to mention that Harry would never have gotten the horcruxes destroyed without his timely help. No, I am certain that without Severus Snape and all the sacrifices he had to make, Lord Voldemort would have won and Harry Potter would have been the boy-who-died… along with many others.

And even though I don’t buy into the idea of Snape’s undying love for Lily Potter as the driving force behind everything he had done, I can’t help but admire his extraordinary force of character. He truly is the greatest shadow hero of this book.

Outpost and Horde by Ann Aguirre

outpostHorde

Outpost – 3 out 5 stars              Horde – 2 out of 5 stars

I loved Enclave, the first book in the Razorland series, because it was an interesting and fresh take at the post-apocalyptic world with a very strong female protagonist and interesting supporting characters (you can find my review here). So I really wanted to like the next two books in the series, I really did. Unfortunately, those books proved to be a huge disappointment, at least for me.
Oh, the world-building is excellent. Ann Aguirre does a wonderful job describing the different settlements and the different ways people chose to survive after the world we knew suddenly ended. The problem is that, at least in my opinion, she stopped listening to her characters somewhere along the way. While they still behave somewhat in character in the beginning of Outpost, most of them are blatantly out of character during Horde. It’s like the author decided to stick to the plan she had formulated way at the beginning of the series and didn’t take into account that her characters changed in the process. She just clobbered them into submission and made them dance to her tune. Well, they danced poorly, that’s all I can say.

SPOILERS ALERT!!! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!

My biggest disappointment is the evolution of Fade. He was such a strong character in Enclave! I can’t believe that someone who managed to survive in the tunnels on his own for a few months when he was eight years old, and someone who was the best hunter in the Enclave, would just break and fall into pieces after he gets captured. Yes, what he went through was horrible. Yes, he was beaten. Yes, he saw horrible things. But he got out, he survived. Hell, he even managed to walk out of there on his own steam, so he wasn’t beaten that hard. Yet he suddenly transforms into a brooding, self-hating weakling. Even worse, he lashes out on people closest to him because of what happened. Excuse me? This is not the Fade described in such loving details in the previous book and a half. It almost feels like the real Fade died in the Freak camp, and Deuce freed a doppelganger.
My second problem is Deuce’s reaction to Fade’s change. The Deuce I got to know through the first book would not have stood for his endless brooding and would not have excused his constant hostility and lashing out. She would have giving him a good trashing and told him to get his act together. What does this new Deuce do instead? Blame herself and excuse his downright nasty attitude by “Oh poor baby, he got caught, they broke his spirit.”

The whole love story between Deuce and Fade is mishandled in my opinion. Any time Deuce thinks about Fade, she transforms from a tough, rational woman into a doe-eyed simpleton. I get it that she loves him, but fawning over his every move and acting like her brain gets short-circuited every time he is around is so very out of character that it’s not even funny. More than that, this love story turns into a typical YA cliché. This is sad, because it could have been so much more intense and interesting, had Ann Aguirre just listened to her characters instead of imposing her own vision on them.
Thirdly, I am getting really tired of the whole love triangle theme in YA books. It’s been done and overdone. And this love triangle serves to illustrate my point about the author imposing her will on characters. Stalker changes a lot through the books, and for the better. He is still as ruthless, but his develops a conscience, he becomes a decent strong man. In other words, exactly the kind of man that Deuce would fall for if she was acting in character, especially considering the way Fade is behaving… But that doesn’t happen.

My final complaint about this series is that Deuce basically becomes a Mary Sue in Horde. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that a 17 year old girl would be better suited to lead a whole army than a seasoned warrior. No matter how much she had seen and how many Freaks she had killed before. She is a good fighter yes, a good leader of men she is not. Yet, somehow that’s what happens in book three. A young girl leads them all to victory. Sorry, I don’t believe it.

And that’s how a series that showed so much promised ended up in such disappointment.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Prince of thorns

2 out of 5 stars.

I must admit that my mind is rather divided about this book. Usually I either like the book and finish it, or I don’t like the book and I abandon it. I finished Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence… but I am not sure I liked it.

The world-building is interesting. It is a medieval fantasy world in some aspects, but there are hints that this world survived on the ruins of our modern world. The castles the new kings and barons live in are built on the stumps of buildings that were made of reinforced concrete. There is a whole vault full of chemical weapons guarded by an artificial intelligence that has gone half-mad in the thousand or so so years of solitude. There are also hints that some horrible cataclysm took the life of so many people at once, that it tore the veil between life and death wide open, and now all kinds of undead stuff is bleeding back into our world. So all in all, the world is interesting, and I would have loved to discover more of it, but not enough to pick up the next book in the series. And the fault for my lack of enthusiasm lies square at the feet of the protagonist.

Prince Jorg is a psychopath, pure and simple. He is also a rapist, a torturer and a ruthless killer. And he doesn’t regret any of the horrible things he has done. Worse, he seems to enjoy them. And he is only 14 years old.  Yes, he has had to go through the horrible experience of watching his mother and younger brother getting slaughtered while he hung helpless and almost crucified in the hooks of a hook-briar bush. Yes, he survives only to see his father do nothing to avenge the murders. The author and the reader could find plenty of excuses for Jorg to have turned up the way he did. But do I want to follow the adventures of a murderous psychopath? Not really, no.

I would have stuck with the series if there had been any other characters to follow, even secondary ones. Unfortunately, all of them are unremarkable. They are only there to play second fiddle to Jorg. I mean, I still don’t understand why the captain of the Palace Guard sent to find the young prince would stick with him for four years and watch him and his merry band of bandits pillage, rape, murder, and burn his way up and down the highroad. Why would he still be loyal to the twisted monster his prince turned into? If you consider what little we see of this character’s believes, that makes no sense at all. The only logic for this is – the author wanted it this way.

So my conclusion is – this is an intriguing world, but I have no desire to watch young Jorg continue his glorious march from King to Emperor, probably leaving death and devastation in his wake, just because he felt like it.

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.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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