Review: The Gone-Away World By Nick Harkaway

Most books I read I have some idea what the story is. This one I did not. Instead, it came as a recommendation from a good friend.

I was really not sure where this story was going at the start. For one thing, it is definitely post-apocalyptic, yet the world is not completely destroyed. People still have a life that resembles what we consider normality. And then once things got going, we had a massive flashback to what is clearly before whatever forever changed the world.

Harkaway’s writing is what I would have to call florid. Current advice about writing encourages shorter sentences over long meandering description. Would-be writers are shown how to break a long sentence up. However, Harkaway meanders not just with description but with narrative and even plays with point-of-view. I find this a highly unusual style – yet it works here. He has clearly been developing this style for a while.

I was also unsure as to quite what sort of story was being told. Several times I wondered if a statement was being made about climate change, or nuclear war. Many many novels have been written down through the decades about what humans would do after some sort of catastrophe, either man-made or otherwise. But I’m not sure that that was what Harkaway was intending. Regardless, the actual mechanism of the Go Away Bomb is certainly unique. The pseudo-science behind it is certainly creative and effective. The full description unfolds in pieces as the narrator grasps it and the final pieces get ever more chilling.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still not sure what story was being told. There is definitely an exploration of coming-of-age early in the flashback. There are several personal reactions to a number of different types of wartime or war-like situations. And a couple of times the narrator has to deal with people not only vastly different to himself, but also to honest kindness from the same.

In the end, the story asks a really serious question about the right to make the world “normal” and who or what should or could be sacrificed to do so. And I’m still not sure if it really answered it.

 

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Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

This book is what Neil Gaiman does best: make the mundane meet the fantastic.

And I mean that in a quite literal way. In all of the Gaiman novels I have so far read (American Gods, Stardust and Neverwhere), the protagonist is an otherwise ordinary human being somehow thrust into or put in touch with an alternate world, sometimes by accident, sometimes by circumstance. Each does it differently, but each does it in a uniquely Gaiman way.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is no different. This time, the lead is a middle-aged man re-remembering when he was seven. And that’s an important detail that gives the book a frame. There is a single narrative, a single voice. Gaiman captures the peculiar point-of-view of a seven-year-old as a remembrance. All the action happens in and around an isolated farmhouse down the end of a laneway in rural England, one short of an even more remote farmhouse at the end of the lane.

It is easy to spoil this book. Too easy. There is so much that you simply need to experience for yourself by reading it. The titular ocean is a character of its own, though it is off-stage for much of the story. There are several cats with important roles. And there is another world complete with its own monsters and monster hunters that can touch ours in ways strange and yet completely logical.

There is loss, there are mistakes. There is hope and there is melancholy. It is a story both rich with emotion and room for the reader to add their own.

This is a story that shows you how to be happy with regrets.

This is a longer version of my GoodReads review.

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Write the crap.

It is a sobering fact that a successful author with a few novels to their name will have probably written several million words of original fiction by then. This is an uncomfortable fact that new writers have to both ignore and respect. Including me.

When you do get the writing bug and want to create The Next Great Novel, many new writers launch into it with a vague idea and just spew out a cascade words of undirected fiction. This is how NaNoWriMo is intended to work and some people create best like that, but there is a much older technique, too. And that is to write less than novel-length stories. Lots of them. Your first half-dozen might tap out at a few hundred words, but with even this little practice you will get better at creating bigger ideas. Before long two thousand words feels like not enough. Given enough time, ten thousand words will sometimes not be enough room.

However, it is still a god-awful big leap to go from a ten thousand word story into a sixty thousand word novel.

And I still cannot resist editing as I write, which makes my own raw output considerably slower than it could be.

So what do I do?

Well, I started paying attention to some of the more sober advice about writing. They usually all descend into: write. Write lots. And then write some more. No, still more. When you reach at least a million words of finished work, throw it all away and keep going. This is the writer’s version of an old programming mantra: “Be prepared to throw the first one away.”

Another way of putting it is that anyone has to practice a new task before they get better at it. Our brains don’t come with much pre-wiring. Unlike most mammals which can figure out how to walk in a few days, we need about a year. Any task needs practice. Although I did woodwork in high school, I’m still pretty crap at it. I still usually fail to cut wood square and easily strip screw heads. But I know it’s just a matter of practice. Likewise, I’ve picked up a few random phrases in Korean, but if I want to speak the language, I have to learn it properly.

Writing is the same. “Waiting for the muse” is a furphy.

Similarly trying to produce Great Writing means you first have to produce Good Writing. And that means you have to first produce Okay Writing. And that means you have to first produce Crap Writing.

So I’m trying to just write potential scenes for one or more of my Works-in-Progress. It doesn’t matter how well they all meet up. There will be conflicting storylines. That’s okay. Once I have a body that tells a more-or-less complete story, I can clean it all up into a coherent work. But there needs to be the writing to edit first.

After all, you can’t edit an empty page.

 

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When world-building overwhelms.

I may as well say right at the outset that whilst quality world-building is a great thing, you can have too much of it.

A number of years ago, I bought and read a fantasy series by a new author. An Australian imprint was looking for someone to spearhead their fantasy publishing down under and had found someone to publish. This was before the rise of ebooks, note. It is probably just as well I don’t remember the author’s name because the books were atrocious. My enduring memory was how little characterisation there was. Like most epic fantasy works, there was a great deal of magic, adventuring and gods dabbling in the affairs of men.

But the story was dry as dust. The world was interesting, the magic system fairly original, but everyone was a cardboard cutout of a cliched idea. It was difficult to discern anyone’s motives and most of the action was mechanical.

In other words, characterisation was sacrificed for world-building.

You wouldn’t be surprised to know I’ve long since gotten rid of those books.

More recently, I started reading another epic fantasy novel by a much more well-known author. Like most in the genre, there was a prologue filled with characters that I did not expect to see again and narrating events I would expect to be only referenced in legend in the rest of the story. So far, so good. The first real chapter started with some action – a somewhat mysterious assassin was at work, fighting off mooks as he sought his target in a place he didn’t really know. Completely tropish scene, clashes of culture driving action and interaction, plenty of opportunity for small info-dumps about the world. Which the author took. The assassin has a few magical skills unusual in the culture of his quarry and us readers were treated to quite detailed descriptions of how it worked.

There was a warning there, I think. Because it turned out it was a second prologue.

The next “chapter” was with another set of characters in a third location. And more world-building. The chapter after that did it again! But this time – finally - there was one character in common. His circumstances were vastly different, however, and I nearly didn’t recognise him. But then it happened all over again with the next chapter!

This novel has a lot of world-building. A lot. Maybe too much. Arguably too much to throw at the reader at this point in the novel. It’s all quite interesting, but I’d much rather have characters I can get to know instead of introducing them and then putting them on a shelf for a little while. It makes for a read that doesn’t engage me as well as it could.

And no, the novel I am describing is not A Game Of Thrones, although that work has also been accused of the same problem. The book I am referring to is The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve seen other authors do the same: as well as George R. R. Martin, Peter F. Hamilton comes to mind. His space opera The Night’s Dawn Trilogy does the same thing: multiple interleaving threads, scads of major characters and an immense amount of world-building.

But Hamilton makes it work. The characterisation he lends his characters is a match for the world-building and the action moves at a solid pace. I don’t feel Sanderson is giving his characters enough room. However, it is early in the novel and this problem may sort itself out.

But I still maintain that world-building can crowd out characterisation. It’s not a good idea to let that happen.

 

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I’m still here

Okay. so it’s been a while since the last post. Sorry about that. I kind of ran out of things to say for a while. That’s another way of saying life happened and Just Add Story lost some priority.

But I haven’t abandoned this blog. I’m still trying to write and still want to become published.

It’s a long road.

There will be more posts. Soon, even.

 

 

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Scrivener is too heavy

I’ve decided to put Scrivener aside for now and write in a basic word-processor.

Now before I get lynched by writers who swear by it, I should, of course, explain why I’m setting it aside for now. There are several issues. And the biggest problem is the hardest to describe. It has never felt like a comfortable app to use, for me. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about that isn’t quite right to me. It is as though I’m always trying to scale the learning curve instead of happily using it at some plateau.

Perhaps it is because I use the Linux version. The Linux version has had a rough start. The current versions are pretty good now, but for quite a while it struggled a bit with some Linux-isms that Windows didn’t have and OS X didn’t have. Things like correct library versions and filename and path handling that was just a little different (it probably didn’t help that Linux filesystems are completely case correct, unlike both Windows and Mac – this means you can have a file called “file.x” and one called “File.x” in Linux; Windows doesn’t like that and OS X will tolerate it but will do unexpected things sometimes).

Another way of looking at this was that I couldn’t really get into the same UI mindset as the designers. I don’t have a problem doing this with LibreOffice. This might be because it was originally an OS X app. I recently switched to OS X at work and there are a few things that bug me about OS X that I know Apple has no intention of changing, even if they could understand why I don’t like them.

This might also be related to the fact that I struggled to embrace Scrivener’s workflow. Scrivener makes it so easy to switch between scenes often when writing. However, that is quite disruptive and I shouldn’t do it. It is harder in a word-processor, but it doesn’t feel so disruptive.

The last problem is trying to manage my writing on multiple devices. You’d think I could access a Scrivener project on my flash drive just as comfortably in OS X as in Linux. However, it always feels fragile. It also leaves out my Android tablet.

So, I’m going back to writing in a word processor. I know word processors. I’ve used LibreOffice since it was called StarOffice. I’m more comfortable in it.

 

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Every experience is a learning experience

One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know”. There have been multiple arguments about quite what that means. Does it mean you can’t write about life on a farm if you’re only ever lived in a city apartment? Does it mean you can’t write about spycraft if you aren’t trained for it? Does it mean a white middle-aged man can’t write from a black girl’s perspective?

Writers are always doing research. Not just formal research – deep in the reference sections of large libraries, or down the back of specialised book stores, or finding and buying obscure works off the ‘net – but also informal research. Watching people around them. Listening to stories and paying attention to their own experiences.

I got threatened with assault on the train yesterday afternoon. I know I don’t have any combat training and I rather doubt the pimply adolescent with more arrogance than sense did either. It was an intense experience corralling my reactions under the wash of adrenaline. There is a reason it’s called the “fight-or-flight response” because that’s the two options your body presents. It is calling for basic animal reactions. It is a difficult time for rational thought. Without any sort of training in the arts of hand-to-hand fighting, it was all I could do to not physically attack back and to go for diversions instead.

What did I learn out of this?  The immediate learning is that an untrained defender will not behave coherently. It is incredibly difficult to respond rather than react. This is why those who are expected to go into such a situation are trained so heavily. They need an instinctive response in that situation and that’s what training provides. Perfect information for writing a warrior in fiction. Especially one who is yet to undergo the necessary training.

I got out of this unharmed, of course. First step was to flee to the next carriage, then I called upon the train guard, who (to my considerable surprise) gave me a seat in his cabin to let me recover in a safe space. Because recovery is also needed from an intense adrenaline burst. This is also good information for writing. Once the emergency is over, your body pays the price: there is weariness, emotional vulnerability and in extreme cases even nausea as everything goes back to normal. I kind of suspect having a safe place and someone watching gives a reference point for ‘normal’ to aim for.

This is definitely not an experience I would normally want, let alone would want to repeat. And, sadly, it made me a bit more wary of which carriage I boarded on the journey home later that night. But I am aware of my own reactions enough to be able to learn from it. This is what makes me a writer.

 

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