Sunday, 6 April 2014

Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al-Rassan
The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘The Lions of Al-Rassan’ is a deeply moving, intelligent novel about the divided loyalties between friendship and country. Beautifully written and with easily relatable characters, I found myself engaged from very early on—something which I generally struggle with. The first few chapters were exciting—the events that surround ‘The day of the moat’ compelled me to turn pages, and I absolutely adored the Carnival chapters and the vivid images Kay painted with his words.

The story mirrors the Spanish Reconquista—the wars between three religions and the final destruction of an entire culture, one which valued beauty and art above all else. It is the main characters and their relationships with each other that really drive this story and keep the reader compelled. I must say that I grew a little impatient when it diverted away from the main characters too long, but it was never enough to stop me from reading. Jehane, Ammar, Alvar and Rodrigo—I loved each of these characters and found their devotion to each other heart-warming and beautiful.

‘The Lions of Al-Rassan’ left me thinking for a long time after I had turned the last page. It is easily one of my favourite novels.

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Monday, 29 July 2013

Review: The Hallowed Hunt

The Hallowed Hunt
The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really loved the first half of this book. Ingrey is a likeable character, and unlike Cazaril in 'Curse of Chalion', he has flaws and selfish desires, which made him far more interesting in my opinion. However, I found myself getting a little bored and irritated toward the end. Nonetheless, there were many moment I thoroughly enjoyed. A good read.

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Friday, 25 January 2013

Learning to be a Writer - Part Three: World Building and the Importance of Research.

In my last article, I spoke about finishing my first draft and the realisation that I still had an enormous task ahead (see article here).

One key realisation was that my world was underdeveloped. So underdeveloped, and I hadn’t even noticed.

I’m not encouraging you to have your world completely and utterly fleshed out before you even begin your first draft, because, like I mentioned in Learning to be a Writer - Part One: Start Now, this Instant, ideas can twist and change and take new forms, and you don’t want to be so paranoid about having your world complete that it stops you from actually writing.

But, be aware, that at some point (or many points), it is going to hold you back, and you’re going to have to think deeper about the world your characters live in.
For me, this came when I attempted to begin my second draft... and nothing was happening. I couldn’t get anywhere. I had plans to add depth to all aspects of the story, to make it convincing and realistic, and soon realised I could not go forward until I had a deeper understand of the world.

To give a brief explanation of the world in The Harlow – there are a four kingdoms, and in each kingdom lives a different race. Races are not defined so much by appearance, but by their ‘gift’. The borders between each kingdom are closed and few people are allowed to leave their own realm. 

That was all well and good when I was working on the first draft, with the aim of ‘getting the story out’. But when I readdressed the work with an attempt to begin draft 2, a million questions popped into my head. Why are the borders closed? There must be a reason, a good reason for the laws that separate these people. Where does the authority come from? What basis is there for that authority? But the most important question, I realised, was, ‘What do they believe in?’

So I spent some time thinking of the religions, gods and myths that have shaped my world and it's people. I touched a bit on religion in the first draft, but it was a boring, unconvincing religion. So I did a little research on mythology and came up with a new, properly fleshed out religion. It made such a difference! It gave depth to every aspect of my story and built on per-existing ideas, shaping the story and making it so much more believable.

I then mapped out a little history for my world - wars and events that impacted on culture or customs, and how it changed the world politically. I also thought about how this history affected my character's views of their world.
After that, I was able to move forward, but even still, I find myself at points where I need to step back and address a question, do a little research, and build another layer in to this world. Each time this happens, my story is stronger for it. It feels a little more real, a little more convincing. 

I am fortunate enough to be doing a lot of travel, and everything I learn about a new place or culture seems to inspire, or help clarify, parts of my own world. You don’t need to travel to gain ideas, however. The internet has abundant amounts of information on myths, legends, cultures, civilizations…basically everything you could want to know.

I recently found this website helpful for a bit of information on town and village life in the Middle Ages.
I also stumbled upon this, which I found to be very enlightening. It is an overview of life in London written in the medieval period by William FitzStephen and translated, with notes to explain and discuss the use of uncommon words in the text. If you’re interested in medieval life, it’s well worth the read. I particularly liked the ‘Games on the Ice’ section. It made me smile to think how little children have changed. 

Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment with your own experiences on world building, I would love to hear other opinions.


Monday, 7 January 2013

The First Draft - Part One: Ignore Your Inner Perfectionist

Every time I read my prologue and first chapter, I think, this is weak. I need to rewrite it. And I have. I have re-written and edited my first chapter a stupid amount of times. Stupid, because I know I won’t get it right until the rest of the story is complete. It is the same for the prologue.
Why do I bother with them when I won’t know for certain how to introduce the story while the rest is still shifting and unperfected?

An annoying impulse to edit, even when unnecessary, has been the reason I have so many unfinished manuscripts. I would dedicate so much time to perfecting the first third of a novel that by the time I was halfway through, I had lost the drive that inspired me in the first place.

It was different for The Harlow (thank heavens). I suppose it was recognition of this editing-obsession that allowed me to do things differently this time. Admittedly, I was forever tempted to go back and edit, and I cringed each time I read the story from the start. I had to keep reminding myself to just get it out, Danni. Just get it out.

I approached The Harlow differently to previous work. Instead of perfecting as I went along (which I now realise was pointless and a waste of time) I simply wrote the story as I saw it in my mind, some planned, some unfolding as I went along.
I wrote and wrote and forced myself to keep writing. If I had an idea half-way through that affected what I had written at the start, I told myself I would fix it in the second draft. Just get it out.
And, well, I suppose it worked because 10 months and 142330 words later, I was FINISHED.
It was down, all of it, out of my head and onto a word document. That was exciting. And relieving.

One of the reasons I found it difficult to refrain from editing was that I felt I couldn’t share unedited work with friends. I mean, it was messy and crappy, why would I? But I rely on others reading my work to reassure myself that my idea has potential.
There wasn’t really any way around it. I could talk about my idea as much as I wanted, but the only person I allowed to read that first draft was my younger sister. She’s an avid reader, not such a great critique, however. Her typical response, ‘Yeah, it was good.’
Sometimes, I would get; ‘Yeah it was good, I really liked it.’ –  that’s exciting. I know she must have enjoyed it if I get the I really liked it at the end.

But, I can’t complain, because I would never have gotten so far without her. She always read my work, despite being seventeen and preoccupied with seventeen-year-old things, she always made time to read what I’d written, often with enthusiasm. That was enough incentive for me to keep writing, to believe that my idea, however poorly written at that point, was worth pursuing.
I hope that everyone has someone like my sister, someone who’s interest is enough to keep you going. It makes such a difference.
If you don’t, I am always happy to offer support, you need only ask :)

So — that was one reason behind my delusion that I needed to re-write everything each time I came back to look at it.
The other, more obvious reason is that every time I reread previous work, I was a better writer than when I first wrote it. In that space of time, I had read a couple of novels, I had significantly extended my reference page (see my post on The Importance of Recording) and I had been writing. Of course I was going to be better. 

For anyone working on a first draft who suffers from editing-obsession, I seriously recommend you do what you can to ignore the urge, no matter how much you despise what you have previously written. Get it out, keep in mind that you will come back to it later. This is particularly true for the beginning of your story. How can you possibly know how it will begin when you are uncertain of just how it will end?
I read somewhere (I think it was Writing Fiction: An Introduction to the Craft' by Garry Disher) that generally, the first chapter is the last an author will work on. The most important thing is to actually have that first draft. Then, you can edit, change, and do whatever else you like on it. At least the story now exists.

So, 10 months of writing and I had completed my first draft. YES! That was the hardest part, right? The next draft can’t possibly take as long.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. I can’t tell you how wrong I was.
I had a serious misconception of what it takes to write a novel. Don’t be fooled, the first draft is just the beginning, a basis which you can now use to create an actual story (which is why I think it’s so important to get your first draft down as swiftly as possible).

When I had finished my first draft and realised just what an enormous task I still had ahead of me, it got me quite down. I thought it would be easier with the first draft out of the way, not harder. That was stupid of me. If I’d been listening properly, I would have known that no part of writing a novel is easy. That’s one thing that every author seems to agree on. Somehow, I chose to ignore that.
But, even with the full weight of the daunting task ahead thrown upon me, I did not for a second consider giving up. (Ok, maybe I did think about it in a feel-sorry-for-myself moment, but I never gave it proper consideration). 

I can’t give up, I need to write, and I want so badly to tell this story, I won’t ever be content until I do.
And that’s all I really needed to know to get over my self- pity. I’m bound to this stupid story, and no matter how much stress it causes, or how much of my time it takes up, I’m going to see it through.
I realise now that every author feels that. They write not because they were born brilliant, but because they are irreversibly dedicated to seeing it through. They have written and rewritten and written and rewritten again. Without such senseless dedication, novels simply wouldn’t exist.

I have now been working on my second draft for six months, and it’s obvious that this one is going to take a lot longer than the first. (Admittedly, I wrote very little during my 3 months travelling). But, I’m not down about it anymore, not at all. (I have doubtful moments, of course. Don’t we all?)
The truth is, working on the second draft is fun. Yes, it is slow moving and incredibly frustrating at times, but now I get to really shape the story, let my imagination go wild, tinker with bits and pieces, raise the stakes at certain points, give my characters more personality, delve deeper into the world, make it real.
I am god to the poor souls who are my characters, and it’s awesome.

I read an article recently that urged writers to remember why they write. Because we love it. Because it’s fun. And if it’s no longer fun, then you’re taking it too seriously.

Great advice. I think that’s worth writing down and sticking on your wall. In fact, I’m going to do that right now…

 NEXT ARTICLE – World Building and the Importance of Research
(If you’re wondering why I had to rethink everything before delving into Draft 2, check back for this next article.)

Recommended if you're starting your first draft - Dan Well's Seven-Point Story Structure. The author explains all on this podcast.

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Friday, 4 January 2013

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I can't help but feel 'The Final Empire' was too slow to begin with, and too quick to end. I put it down after the first few chapters and left it for a couple of weeks, and then read a review that said it got better after 200 pages, so I picked it up again - and they were right! I started to get hooked during 'part 2' and lost some sleep during 'Part 3'...and then 'Part 4' seem a little rushed to me, I was hoping to delve deeper into certain areas but quiet suddenly I was at the end. This was probably because I was expecting the main objectives to carry over into book two, and was a little surprised with the sudden conclusion.
Over all, worth the read, just keep in mind that its really at Part 2 where the excitement begins.

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Friday, 28 December 2012

Review: Acacia: The War with the Mein

Acacia: The War with the Mein
Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the Acacia trilogy because I had seen it recommended on a few fantasy book sites, but to be honest, I nearly gave up on it. I might have, had it not been for those recommendations.
It's not that I didn’t like it to begin with; it's just that I enjoy books that grip me and pull me into the world , and I wasn’t feeling that from Acacia. I was close to finally giving up when I reached Part 2 of The War with the Mein. Then everything changed.

I can’t identify exactly when I fell in love with the story and the characters, but suddenly I could not put the book down. I was compelled to read and read, desperate to know what will happen to the characters.

Acacia had many POV characters, though the four Royal Children feel to be the dominant protagonists. The chapters are short, which I loved, and kept me on edge, especially with the point of view changing with every chapter, creating a hunger to get back to my favourite characters.
Part 1 sees the Royal children as children and young teenagers. Several years pass between part 1 and part 2, and as I mentioned earlier, part 2 is where it gets good.

Some characters were certainly easier to relate to than others. Mena Akaran was by far my favourite character, and one of the things I loved about the Acacia series was the two strong female protagonists; sisters Mena and Corrin.

I have seen Acacia compared to A Song of Fire and Ice on more than once occasion. Though there are certainly similarities, there are also many differences.
There are elements of Acacia that feel more fantastical – mythical creatures, spiritual beings, spells and powers. Where a Song of Fire and Ice feels almost like it could be set in the real world, Acacia does not. It does, however, reflect on the real world and for me, it bore a strong message,
Another major difference is that in the Known World of Acacia, women are treated quite equally to men, no matter their social status. Though there are only two female POV characters and several male, I enjoyed Acacia more than other fantasy books because of those two female characters and how they were presented.

What I loved most was the relationship between the four children; Aliver, Corrin, Mena and Dariel. Few books have made me tear up – this was one them.
Without a doubt, The War with the Mein is best book in the Trilogy, but the whole series is worth reading!

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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Learning to be a Writer - Part Two: The Importance of Recording

I want to share with you my number one tip for improving your writing, and I’m going to prove its usefulness to you by comparing a few short sentences from my original work to my most recent edit. There are several tactics and techniques I learnt to use to improve my writing, but this one has been the most helpful by far.

I call it a reference page. You’ve probably heard the expression read like a writer. Well, this sort of enforces that and takes it to the next level. It’s quite simple, really. When you come across a sentence that stands out to you, you record it on your reference page. There are a few reasons why a sentence would stand out to me. It might be because it’s so well written, or strikes a vivid picture in my mind, like this sentence from David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy

He was a jowly man, squeezed unflatteringly into a silken suit that bulged in all the wrong places

By training yourself to recognise well-written sentences and recording them (especially re-writing them) you are forcing yourself to read like a writer, and this will improve your writing. You will find it broadens your vocabulary and opens your mind to new, interesting ways to portray on the page what you are seeing in your mind. Whenever you’re stuck on ideas, feel your writing is dull, or need inspiration, go back and visit your reference page, look at these sentences and think about what it is that makes them good and why they stood out to you.

I also make note of sentences that strike me because they are clear, to the point, and written in a way that I would not have thought to write myself, like this sentence from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire:

All the hope went out of him in a rush.

Such a short, simple sentence, yet so clear. I think what makes George such a great writer is his ability to find the right words. We all see our stories clearly in our minds, but how do we find the words to generate the same images in the minds of our readers? How do we arrange our sentences so the reader sees what we want to them see, feels what we want them to feel?
You can learn from those who have already mastered it. Record sentences that are clear—ones where the author has found precisely the right words—and think about how he or she achieved this.
Lastly, but equally as important, I make note of sentences that relate to themes or events in my own work, like this sentence about banquet preparations in Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest

There was much activity around the kitchen, with carts coming to and fro, and barrels of ale and sides of meat being hefted on shoulders and stowed away.

I have a banquet or two in my own story. I can look at this sentence for inspiration, or to help set the mood before I write about the banquet, but best of all, looking out for sentences that relate to my own work increases my knowledge of words associated with my own particular themes.

So, I’ve told you that this method, more than anything, has helped improve my writing. Now I want to prove it to you.
The following are sentences taken from my first draft of The Harlow (originally written in first person) and compared to my second draft.  I began my reference page some time in-between.
I have chosen a chapter that was least changed from first to second draft. Normally, I rework the entire chapter and it can be very different from the original, but in this case, there were certain moments that were almost identical, except for the way in which I have written them.

In the following scene, Alena is being carried to an unknown destination against her will.

Draft 1: I hit my fist across his back as hard as I could.
Draft 2: Alena curled her hand into a fist and thumped his back, none too gently.

Draft 1: Where are you taking me?’ I asked in panic.
Draft 2: Where are you taking me?’ she hissed, trying to make sense of her upside down view of the world.

Draft 1: My stomach bumped uncomfortably against his shoulder as he started down the stairs.
Draft 2: His shoulder pushed painfully into Alena’s stomach with each downward step.

Draft 1: He was leaning against a wooden post with his arms folded across his chest. For some reason, he was grinning to himself.
Draft 2: He was watching them from across the room, leaning against a wooden post and smirking for a reason she could not fathom. 

Note that the latter sentences are clearer, with words that are closer to portraying what I am truly trying to show, giving the reader a clearer picture of what is happening. Not only are the edited sentences more stimulating, but they have a more defined voice. 

I hope this method will be helpful to you, and I strongly recommend you try it! If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Once again, this is not the only tactic I use to improve my writing (I will talk about the others in future posts) but it has certainly been the strongest.