Just a look at the small writing-specific desk I set up for myself.
The first of the Shelf Projects. Wipe is one of my larger projects and probably one of the more involved ones that is going to get tabled for a little while until I figure out a lot of things about it.
Lesson: The plot is very different from the story.
Alice in Wonderland is a very familiar story for the most part. A girl goes to another world and eventually returns from it. The plot has changed from iteration to iteration, the events changing time and again, leaving in only a few key bits throughout the instances. The confusion between Wonderland and Looking Glass has almost made it so that they are better thought of as one book rather than two.
But there seems to be a big disconnect between the plot of Alice in Wonderland and the story of it. The plot is that in every chapter, Alice finds something new in Wonderland, talks to it, gets confused, then parts from it to never speak of it again. This proceeds throughout both books until she leaves at the end of each. As near as I can tell, the plot doesn’t even seem to give her a motivation in this. She is simply in Wonderland, walking, and then she leaves. Not terribly compelling, honestly, though it does give you a nice chance to look at the set pieces.
The story of Alice in Wonderland, however, is a different beast all together. After reading it for the first time, I remembered it as the story of a girl plunged and lost in a fantastical world trying to find her way back home. The internal logic was the only thing that made sense and she had to figure out their riddles in order to get home. Upon rereading it, the plot didn’t have many of these elements in it, but that was what I took away and the story that I remember.
The plot consists of only the events that actually happen in a work. The story is what we interpret those events into, from the motivations of characters to the way events link together when it’s not explicitly stated. And the story, if done right, can turn out to be an entirely different beast from the plot. It’s not a bad thing in the least, but it’s interesting to see happen.
Lesson: The games of royals can get rather tedious.
I was lent this book after mentioning that I wanted to check out the sequel1 and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I thought it would be steam punk, but instead it’s a bit of a split between a Victorian aristocracy and a strange, metallic fantasy prison, each world containing a different main character and the two main characters slowly working their way to one another.
Except I was only drawn in by about half the book. Finn, the prisoner in this strange fantastical land with no memory of his previous life where he was probably a prince, now trying to survive and escape his situation, was interesting and I wanted to see him succeed. Claudia, the young woman who was being forced to marry the delinquent prince and looking at things as a power struggle and “Playing the game” of the aristocracy just seemed tedious.
Honestly, I didn’t care at all about her struggle. She didn’t want to marry this prince, she wanted the real one, which she found in the prison. She didn’t seem to even care about the real prince outside of him being the real one. She was doing it because… I’m not even sure. Because he’d be nicer than the other guy, I suppose. It certainly wasn’t out of love, instead out of some desire to screw up people’s plans for her. Sure, she says that she cared for him, but there was little to none of that showing.
Her side of the story is important, granted. It just wasn’t as entertaining as the stuff with Finn. She was bred to be stoic and cold so that she could handle court life, but it distanced her as a character and the court stuff is all political intrigue, which isn’t terribly exciting to me when there’s a whole fictional world where metal starts to replace organic material when they run out.
- I wanted to read Sapphique originally because the cover was really pretty, but she told me that it was a sequel. Thanks Cait! [↩]
Book: A Wrinkle In Time
Author: Madeline L’Engle
Lesson: Religious references really stick out.
A friend of mine got me A Wrinkle In Time years ago for my birthday, along with the rest of the series.1 The story of how a girl, her brother and her neighbor meet three strange women and go off to save her father is a bit of a strange one, including talk of math and diagrams to make the explanations a little easier.
While the book was all right overall, but there was one thing that stuck out when I was reading it. They reference Jesus and God, which struck me as odd in a book that seemed to be about math on some level. Considering I tend to find science and religion to be at odds for the most part, the references stood out like they were written in blood on the page.
I couldn’t understand why aliens were singing about God, for one thing. I’m pretty sure aliens don’t really factor into Christianity, so I’m not sure what they were doing at all. Also, saying that both Jesus and Buddha were special disciples was… confusing.
If a character is religious, fine. If the world is based in Christianity, fine. Just don’t mix a Christian world with hard science fiction. They just seem to be directly in conflict with one another, regardless of whether or not it actually is. It all just stuck out oddly after reading it and it threw me out of the story.
- Yes, it’s a whole series. There’s four books all together, and they talk about the whole family. [↩]
Book: Enchanted Glass
Author: Dianne Wynne Jones
Lesson: Be wary of those last few pages.
The book itself was all right, though lacking in that sense of wonder I like from a young adult novel involving magic. It’s about a man who inherits a house from his grandfather to become the new guardian of the strange little county that has more than it’s fair share of odd magic. A child comes to the house looking for his grandfather and he takes the boy in as the fae folk start moving in.1
But we aren’t talking about the whole book here, just the last few pages. Now, I have seen so many articles on the importance on the first five pages, the first chapter and the first line, but almost nothing about the endings. It makes sense. To get published, you need someone to read past the first chunk of the book to get into the meat of the story. But the ending is what’s going to stick with your audience, and it needs careful consideration.
In general, the book was fine. Until the last chapter. See, they had just banished the fae folk to an alternate dimension using powers that came out of nowhere and our main character was settling down pondering how lucky he was to be getting married to a woman he had no chemistry with when the faerie king managed to get a letter to him. In this letter, he essentially finds out that the boy is not his fourth cousin, as previously implied in the story, but actually his uncle. Apparently his Grandfather was sent a troubled underage girl2 who was also his second cousin to try and fix and knocked her up.
This was a bit of a major reveal that sort of ruined the book for me. It was a bit dull, but generally all right before those last few pages and that note. With that, the kindly old grandfather became an entirely different character and the fact that our lead just accepted it without a second thought, indeed while going to tell his soon to be bride of some young age that is never actually mentioned,3 made me even more annoyed with the lack of surprise or wonder from any of the characters.
I couldn’t see a reason why all this was included at all, but that it happened right at the end left me with a bad impression of the book overall. I could have easily overlooked most of it entirely, but dammit if those last few pages didn’t put a whole different spin on the story. And it bothered me.
So remember, while the first five pages might be important to getting your work published, you last five pages are what people will probably remember when they read your book. Try to make them good and skip on the major reveals that change matters a whole lot.
End note: To all you angry Dianne Wynne Jones fans, yes, I know she died fairly recently. I’m sorry to say her death has not made my opinion of the book change. I’m sure the rest of her novels are lovely, and I do like what I’ve seen of Howl’s Moving Castle, but I do not find this book to be very good.
Book: House of Dark Shadows
Author: Robert Liparulo
Lesson: Show, don’t tell
Okay, so it’s an old one, but man this book made me realize how important it was. The story is about a family who moves into clearly haunted house and discover that it’s not haunted, but there are several doors in a locked attic that lead to other worlds and times. So it’s a magically teleporting house, since there’s another door that just teleports them to school.
The thing that irked me about the book, though, was the main character. We are told that he is a teenager. We are told he makes movies. We are told that he left his girlfriend behind and didn’t want to move. None of his actions reflect any of this at all.
I kept thinking, how hard would it be to have him call his girlfriend back home? He’s a kid in modern times. Cell phone. Just call her. You can do loads of exposition there and cut that part out of his life entirely after that, since he never mentions back home again, nor does he even think to call anyone back there at any other time in the story. It all felt like exposition that was there because the author felt like it’s what teenagers should do, but none of it was acted out so I didn’t believe any of it. Like when that friend’s aunt tells you her daughter you’ve never met has a lovely singing voice. Nod, smile, hope something interesting starts soon.
It is also not hard to have him with a camera in his hands from the beginning. Or if he’s just got it on him more often than randomly in the latter half of the book. The only reason I even remembered he wanted to make movies at all is because that point bothered me so much at the beginning. He could be working on a script between the weirdness of the house, even, or trying to talk his brother and sister into being cast and crew.
Long story short, if I don’t see it, I don’t believe you. Show, don’t tell.
Book: Peter Pan
Author: J.M. Barrie
Lesson: Read the Classics
Peter Pan, in it’s original form, would never have ever been published today and it’s amazing the parts of the story that get completely omitted in modern retellings. Like, did you know Peter actually kills the lost boys when they get to be too old? And that the whole thing about believing in fairies to save Tinkerbell happens on one completely random fourth wall breaking page and is completely forgotten about for the rest of the book until Tinkerbell herself is completely forgotten?
It’s interesting to see how stories age. Peter Pan is very much rooted in it’s time period and doesn’t do a lot of the things normal convention tells us to do. Things like stick to a coherent plot and don’t let the narrator interact with the characters in a hypothetical manner. And have your title character have at least a couple redeeming qualities instead of making him a very cocky, arrogant boy that thinks only of himself.
And if he keeps taking Wendy’s female descendants, how would the one from today react? Probably pissed off that she’s being kidnapped to clean a place with no wi fi reception. She’d probably refuse outright having to go clean someone else’s place because she’s not his damn maid. Oh, modern children.
Needless to say, read the classics. It’s interesting to see what used to be popular and the habits that used to work really well in fiction that have since died off a little. Plus, you’ll be amazed what’s actually in there that didn’t make it into the Disney movie.
Book: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Lesson: Similar isn’t always bad
This is the second book I’ve read where a young travelling musician is orphaned after his entire troupe is killed, goes to live as a thief in the city and learns magic of some shape or form with some intent of taking revenge, and yet end up living a quiet life in some out of the way place hoping not to be bothered again. The other one I will eventually get to, but that whole segment of a plot line just stunned me in it’s similarity.
There are going to be similarities in books regardless, though. I doubt Patrick Rothfuss has ever even read Peter and Max and would argue that there is quite a bit of difference in them. I would quite agree. Just because the two books have very similar base outlines and use very similar logic to explain their skill sets, the stories are quite different beasts entirely.
On top of that, I found myself enjoying the story enough that I only really noticed the similarities when it started to drag in parts. And even then, it was more fun than anything else to see how the two writers approached the concepts differently or similarly.
Though I suppose this is a redundant message. When something is popular, it gets copied and, inevitably, there are two good works amidst the cash grab. Although I still find all vampire romance novels to be more or less identical in plot and structure.1
So what I’ve taken from it is this. Just because it sounds really similar to something else that’s out there, go for it anyway. Write it and enjoy the first draft. If it is too similar, you don’t have to edit2 it afterwards.
Book: Dragon Bones
Author: Patricia Briggs
Lesson: The climax doesn’t have to be a battle.
Dragon Bones is the story of a young man, heir to the keep, who is remarkably dumb and slow witted to all those around him. He’s been playing dumb all these years to keep out of his father, who is now recently deceased and now must prove that he’s not as dumb as he pretends and find a way to keep his inheritance out of the hands of the evil King.
The interesting thing about this one was that the climax was set up very early and I saw it coming, though it didn’t unravel in quite the way I expected it to. It starts, you see, with the keep, in an abstract way, appearing as a child1 Spoilers ahead, for those who are intending on reading the book.
While the latter half of the book consisted largely of fighting, bloodshed and trace bits of magic, the climax is a fairly quiet one. The whole party goes out to slaughter bandits on their way to a war. It was all about the fighting until the climax of the story, where they’re standing around in the keep, trying to figure out how to keep the villains from getting the item that will make them all powerful. So do they charge down there and stop them? Have an epic fight that leads to victory and maybe a dramatic death? The people cheer for being freed of their tyranny as the hero lifts the bloody spoils of war high for all to see?
Nope. Instead, the main character simply kills the boy who is the keep and the empty keep falls in probably a more dramatic fashion than described. The boy doesn’t struggle at all because this, as insinuated in their first meeting, is precisely what he wanted to happen. We find out later that the bad guys were buried and died in the rubble and the denouement happens without too much else.
Now, while this does seem incredibly anti-climactic, I did like it quite a bit. It was alluded to very early on that this was a possibility and, while I was sort of hoping for a show down between the lead hero and villain, I can accept this outcome instead because it does honestly fit the story a lot better. The main hero was trying to prove he was smarter than he’d been faking for so long and he used the path of lowest risk and highest success. Killed one of his party to do so, but he was sufficiently upset about it, so I’ll count it.
Plus, he came back to life later. Saw that one coming too.
The moral of the story being, you really don’t need to have the dramatic battle at the end to have a good ending. Sure, a little more action is welcome, but so long as it concludes the story in a good way for the character and the story, while it may not be quite as exciting, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to downplay the climax a little.
- How old, I have no idea. The lead is referred to as a boy at 18. The keep boy acts like a 12 year old most of the book, but is sometimes referred to as if he’s older. [↩]