A Feast of Reading

I’ve had several weeks holiday recently and read a number of fiction books. In this post I’ll provide some of my thoughts on them – some touched on briefly, and others with more detail. This list includes Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey, The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly and Murder Mile by Linda La Plante.

I couldn’t help myself, there are some spoilers.

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Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Some time ago, the beautiful Mrs Ezard and I sat down to watch The Expanse on Netflix. Being a bit of a scifi fan, I’m always keen to try something new. I’ve probably mentioned it before, with new shows we have a three-episode rule. That is, a show has three episodes to prove itself to us. In my recollection, The Expanse didn’t get a fair hearing; Mrs Ezard opened the airlock and jettisoned the show part way through the first episode. Which of course doesn’t stop me from watching the show, but it does make it less likely (as I tend to do it when she’s not around).

When season 2 of The Expanse came out, I thought I’d give it another go. A show that makes it over the first season obviously has some chops. (As was my theory at the time, although now I think about it there are plenty of shows which I think are terrible and are multi-seasons. Like Lost… in which a whole host of people find themselves spending hundreds of hours of their life to watch a show which actually has very little in the way of coherent or honest-with-the-audience story).

So anyway, I digress. When season 2 came out I gave it another go, and this time really liked it. Perhaps at the time when we originally watched it we just weren’t in the right frame of mind.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the noir detective type characters. The underdog who ends up saving the day, and is a bit uncouth while doing it. One of my partial drafts sitting in my metaphorical manuscript drawer is a noir detective.

And then one day at work I was on a resupply run (coffee) and saw someone reading a book that mentioned The Expanse. She very helpfully explained that The Expanse was based on a series by James S. A. Corey and that in fact the books were better than the show. (FYI: James S. A. Corey is actually the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Always on the lookout for a good series to sink my eyes into, I made a note of the name and said I’d come to it after I finished reading The Wheel Of Time series.

Then the time came and I bought the book and started reading it, devouring the book within a few days. Leviathan Wakes (which is obviously book 1 of the series) is an excellent read that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would describe the book as a blend of space-based detective novel with a light-dusting of military scifi.

(Seems to how I’m recommending the book as a good read, I should add there is significant swearing. Fu: 89, Sh: 106 Bi: 13, Ba: 29. Perhaps it speaks to how engaging the book is, I didn’t really notice the swearing much as I was reading it. I’ve already read the second book and will be posting more about the language in that post).

I’m far from an astrophysicist, but the descriptions of gravity, space travel, space battles and the constraints placed on non-Earth colonies seemed good to me. There was enough detail that it sounded authentic, without me needing a science and maths degree to comprehend what they were saying. The conditions that the people lived in actually changed their lives. For example, the locals in ‘the belt’ had developed bodily-movements which replaced facial gestures (because when you’re in a space suit, facial gestures don’t work).

It was a real book-onion skin pages bound in what might have been actual leather. Miller had seen pictures of them before; the idea of that much weight or a single megabyte of data struck him as decadent.

It’s little things like differing behaviours and perspectives, which don’t actually effect the plot-line but do give the story depth.

I’ve previously written that I thought cliffhangers at the end of every chapter were a bad idea. This book has changed my position on that. Every single chapter ended with something that had me checking the time to see if I could squeeze in another chapter. A cliffhanger – or better described – something that makes me want to know what happens next is a good thing. (Also note the chapters are small ~normally a chapter was about 10 minutes reading time).

Speaking of chapters I noticed that the chapter titles follow a pattern e.g. “Chapter 1: Miller” will be from Miller’s point of view. However, even though the chapter title tells us who the Point Of View (POV) is, very often that is still re-iterated within the first sentence or two. Which I think is a good practice.

Interestingly, every chapter perfectly alternates between the two main POVs, the prologue and epilogue having a different POV. The same character never gets two chapters in a row.

Here are a few of my favourite highlights:

Descriptors:

  • Alex and Amos drank like sailors; a finger full in the bottom of the cup, tossed back all at once. Alex had a habit of saying “Hooboy!” after each shot. Amos just used a different profanity each time. He was up to his eleventh shot and so far had not repeated himself.
  • When Alex threw down the throttle and a roomful of elephants swan dived onto his chest.

Dialogue:

He hesitated for one second, then pressed the button to execute. The ship failed to vaporize.
“I guess Fred wants us alive, then” he said. Naomi slumped down with a noisy, extended exhale.
“See, this is why I can’t ever be in command,” she said.
“Don’t like making tough calls with incomplete information?”
”More I’m not suicidally irresponsible,” she replied.

And

“There’s a right thing to do,” Holden said.
“You don’t have a right thing, friend,” Miller said. ”You’ve got a whole plateful of maybe a little less wrong.

“He looks at his soul, sees the stains, and wants to be clean,” he said. “But you? You just shrug.”

And some interesting words:

  • iconography
  • quixotic
  • pogroms
  • microcephalic
  • annealing
  • penumbra
  • flagellum
  • sclera

Escaping

In the last couple of weeks I’ve made significant progress in my revision of Escape from Hell, my faith-based story. When I announced the re-write I mentioned my goal was to lengthen the story in order to smooth out the abrupt ending, which almost universally caught readers by surprise.

(Side note: Now that I think about it the abrupt ending was kind of ironic given that the character dies abruptly at the beginning of the story… and that our own deaths can come equally without warning. The unintentional irony works with my dark sense of humour; but that doesn’t mean it makes for a good writing quality).

The story has gone from approximately 9,000 words up to 23,000 in this first draft. I expect it to contract a little as I tighten my prose. The original story wasn’t formatted for chapters; now there are a total of 7 chapters, 3 of which are entirely new content.

The most important question though: is the story better for it? That’s the question I’ll be asking myself (and soon, alpha readers) as I let it’s melody play in the foreground while I do another editing pass. There are definitely elements in which the story has improved: the story has more depth and the ending is smoother now that it has more of a story and character arc. And yet, I’m still a bit apprehensive.

The first few chapters (the pre-existing chapters) that I wrote while highly inspired sing to me. I’m not sure yet if the other subsequent chapters are singing in harmony.

Even my choice of metaphor is suspect: who’d think I’d ever be any kind of singing conductor…

Bloody Vomit

Today I share the beginning of a short story. It came to me as a synergy of two things. The first was from my reading of Living Water:

Centuries ago Christians built remote monasteries in the mountains to help them get away from people and supposedly avoid the “contamination” of the world. Today in Protestant circles the same thinking prevails in a different guise. It results in a stream of believers only equipped to play spiritual games inside the safety of their church walls, but totally ill prepared when they have to leave their Christian environment and interact with real people in the outside world.

Yun, Brother. Living Water: Powerful Teachings from the International Bestselling Author of The Heavenly Man (p. 256). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

The second was the two words “bloody vomit”, which have a lot of emotional resonance of innate fear.

So, do please enjoy some “Bloody Vomit”…

Bloody vomit. That’s how it started, and that’s how it would end. Bloody vomit: the first sign the grim reaper had selected you, and the final sign he’d returned.
I’d woken up in the middle of the night to hear my wife Sarah retching. No other sound was as scary these days. She’d looked at me, and even by the moonlight we could see the fear in each other’s eyes.
“Get away,” she’d yelled and stumbled backwards, even as I ran to hug her.
“I’m not going to leave you. We’ll get through this together,” I promised as I held her tightly.
It had been just 3 months since the first incident of the plague had occurred. Two days later there had been localised quarantines, a week after state borders were closed. Within a month all international travel stopped. And then came the mass death. Everywhere you looked people were either dying or panicked out of their minds. And both categories of people were dangerous. The Government, or what was left of it, was desperately working on a cure to what was being called the precursor of human extinction. The officials and scientists worked in isolated and fortified emergency compounds. Soldiers guarded the perimeter and used their guns to enforce it. Sadly, it was simply too dangerous to be out among the sick; any attempt to care for the unwell was highly selective – the vast majority were left to die without aid or comfort. And now Jessica was infected.
“We shouldn’t have left the secure zone,” Jessica said, “we should have stayed there.”
“You know someone had to make the trip. If there’s a cure, we have to find it.”

Escaping from Hell

I’ve made significant progress in my revision of Escape from Hell in the last week (hence the pun in the blog title). I’m currently working through the 5th and what was the final chapter of the original story.

The observant among you might notice that doesn’t match my progress bar on the right (and it’s not because I’ve been lazy in updating it… this time). The 50% indicator is because I am strongly considering extending the story by approximately another 4 chapters. In fact the first version of the story didn’t have ‘chapters’ at all. It was a single block of 9,700 words. I’ve broken it into chapters because the text naturally divides into chapters. Plus chapters are friendlier for the reader. If I’m torturing the character in my story, the least I can do is make it convenient for the reader 🙂

There was a time, now thankfully in the past, where the mere idea of lengthening a story would be enough for me to do it. After all, word count was the measure of success, right? Now the important question of any addition or reduction is will it make the story better?

I believe that it will. By lengthening the character arc I can be more nuanced in telling the story and make the ending punchier. I can also explore the themes more. I’m just about ready to sketch out the next few chapters…

Vengeance Will Come, First Review

Today I discovered that I had a review for my novel, Vengeance Will Come on Amazon. Further more, I’ve had the review since November and didn’t even know!

For some strange – and surely nonsensical – reason, it appears Amazon displays comments only on the Amazon site where the novel is purchased. I would have thought it’d make more sense to display all of the same-language reviews on every Amazon site that caters for that language… i.e. give your customers more feedback about a product (and not to mention, potentially help your authors).

The review is very generous:

An engaging story with a surprising twist at the end. The characters are very well developed and vivid. The story is told masterfully and I wish to congratulate the writer on such a well written book. I only wish that they make it into a movie! I look forward to Book 2.

Thanks so much “Amazon Customer” 🙂 Such a review is encouraging, and encouragement is a big help. You too can buy my novel at the Amazon US, UK, AU or other site of your choosing 🙂

I have heard before that every author (regardless of previous successes) doubts themselves and their writing ability. It’s nice not to be alone in that feeling. It just so happens Francine Rivers who is an incredible writer, recently wrote about her continuing doubts and how she overcomes the immensity of the goal.

Writing Again

In the last week I’ve been doing some writing again (it’s been a while).

I’m revising my novelette, Escape from Hell. A novelette is longer than a short-story, but smaller than a novella (sitting in the 7,500 to 17,500 word count range). Escape from Hell is definitely a personal favourite. It’s a first-person faith-inspired trip into the afterlife. If I remember correctly I wrote it in a very short time frame, the whole story coming together in a few days. That is to say, I felt inspired to write it and the words flowed out of my brain and heart onto the page.

The only point were I slowed were the violent scenes, of which there are a few. It is literally Hell, so it’s not full of Sunday picnics with butterflies and rainbows. It’s a tricky balance to strike though. It’s hell: I want it to be horrific – and yet I don’t want it to be so overwhelming that the reader disengages.

Because of how excited I was by the story I didn’t revise it much… I just put it onto my website to share in a rush of endorphins. (I’ve removed it now, pending publication). So now, with a year or more writing experience behind me, I’m taking another look at it to see how I might revise it.

There is a part of me that wants to significantly expand it, though that will come after much careful deliberation. I’ve thought of a few different places where I could lengthen the story arc – and make it more gripping to read – but it’s balancing that disengage factor. Perhaps I will write the extra story arc and have a few alpha readers test it? (The words after all are not wasted, they count towards the ‘million practice words’ every author needs).

I’m going to be more structured in my revision process this time. I envision a three-pass process. The first revision (which I’m currently in) is looking at the broader story arcs. The second revision I’ll look at the detail, trying to tighten each sentence and the third pass I’ll be hunting for typos etc.