Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books read in 2013: No. 59 -- An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Amrose Bierce

Started: Dec. 31
Finished: Dec. 31

Notes: I've read this classic short story a couple of times before, once in grade school and again in high school, but that's been decades ago, so I thought I'd familiarize myself with it once more. If you're not familiar with the story or have forgotten its subject matter, I'll at least tell you it starts with a condemned man on a bridge getting ready to be hung by Union officers during the Civil War. To tell more would give too much away, but this has been a fairly famous story over the decades since it was written, and there have even been a few short films made concerning it.

Mini review: A strong story, but I'm thinking the writing would be too blunt and obtuse all at the same time for modern readers, the style it is written in being the blunt part, the ending being the obtuse part (since it leaves a fair amount to the imagination, something fewer and fewer readers seem to appreciate nowadays). Still, a commendable story that has had a lot of influence over the years. Was worth checking out again.

Books read in 2013: No. 58 -- Candyland

by Evan Hunter and Ed McBain

Started: Dec. 23
Finished: Dec. 31

Notes: For those who don't know, though there are two authors listed for this novel, they are actually one and the same person. "Ed McBain" was a pen name for author Evan Hunter, who was actually born under the name Salvatore Albert Lambino but legally changed his name in 1952. I've long been a fan of this author's work as McBain, though I've not stepped into his Evan Hunter works. Here I get that chance in a single book written by both men ... er, both characters ... uh, hell, well, they're written by the same guy but in different styles. Make sense? Maybe you have to be a writer to understand. Anyway, the first part of the novel is by Hunter and focuses upon a successful architect who lands himself in some hot water while traveling and searching for female companionship; the McBain portion of the novel apparently is about three detectives covering the case of a murdered prostitute, a woman who had some kind of link with the architect.

Mini review: As a reader, I was not awed by this one. The first half of the book, the Hunter half, was a bit slow for my taste. The second half, McBain's section, heated things up quite a bit, but as is always the case, I feel a little let down when reading McBain but not reading his 87th Precinct novels. As a writer, I was quite intrigued by the dichotomy between the two styles of writing, the first half being much more personal (which stings a bit as the protagonist is somewhat sleazy) and the second half which is fast-paced police detective work. The ending was a complete surprise to me, I can happily say.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why fantasy and not science fiction?

When I was a kid, back in the 1970s, I was a science fiction fan. I loved me some early Star Trek, and then became a huge Dr. Who fan when it became available in the States. Of course Star Wars came along and blew my young mind, as it did for a whole generation. Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999 were also favorite shows, though looking back neither holds up well, in my opinion.

As a teen in the 1980s, I read all the Asimov I could get my hands on, and went back to check out the early masters, Verne and Wells and the like. There always seemed to be a Heinlein novel somewhere around me. And comic books, though not considered serious reading material at the time, were still full of science fiction elements.

Then along about the mid-1980s, I slowly began to lose interest in science fiction. By the '90s, what interest I had had was pretty much dead. Today I rarely read the genre, though every once in a while I will check out a hot author or peruse an old favorite.

What changed? Why do I no longer read science fiction?

For that matter, since I write so much speculative fiction, why don't I write much science fiction?

I've thought about this a lot of late, in no small part due to various postings over at the Black Gate site, and I've come to something of a mixed conclusion, though I'm fairly sure it's one not a lot of science fiction fans will like to hear.

Here's part of my conclusion: I didn't change so much as the genre of science fiction changed, and not for the better, in my opinion. The things I looked for in great sci-fi back in the day are rarely present in modern science fiction, or at least I'm not seeing a lot of it.

This begs the question, well, Ty, what is it you look for in science fiction?

The same thing I look for in most fiction. Good stories. Quality characters. Decent dialogue. Convincing and interesting plots. Etc.

But also, specific to the genre, I look for boundaries to be crossed, and I look for a sense of wonder.

I'm sure all that can be found in today's science fiction literature, but I'm not seeing much of it.

What do I see?

I see lots of military science fiction, which there's nothing wrong with, but I've read enough of it to find it lacking, meaning less relevant and compelling, compared to earlier works, Heinlein's Starship Troopers being the obvious but not only choice. The modern military sci-fi I've perused feels more like a video game than an actual story, with high body counts but little humanity.

I see some hard science fiction that I simply find annoying, and this is someone who has read a fair amount of Asimov. The thing is, Asimov told actual stories amid all his hard science. As an author, he provided me with that sense of wonder by raising questions and proposing possibilities. I see little of this in modern hard sci-fi. I see overly analytical and pedantic texts that everyone wants to argue about, whether the science is factual or used correctly, etc. There is no sense of wonder here. If I want such material, I can always go check out a physics textbook. For the most part, I could really give a shit about whether an author's science is 100 percent accurate, at least if he or she is telling a good story and gives me something to think about.

And then there's the modern version of softer science fiction I see. Like a lot of the bad but hot-selling thrillers on the market, much of this material reads like a fast screenplay. The science is practically irrelevant. The characters blank. The plots thin. But there'll be a mystery and some explosions and lots of running around without much getting done, at least not until the very end when everything is tied up in a little ribbon.

Okay, here's where somebody always chimes in with the argument, "well, you say you're not reading much science fiction today, so your opinion is obviously invalidated since you don't know what you're talking about." Let me just say to such arguments, yes, as I said, I don't read a lot of today's science fiction, not from beginning to end, but that doesn't mean I don't read book blurbs, that doesn't mean I don't skim novels and such online or at bookstores in order to get a feel for the story and the author's style, that doesn't mean I don't check out reviews and read fan forums and the like, and that doesn't mean I'm completely out of the loop, regardless of one's fan boy snideness.

And let me add, before someone's panties get bunched up, that I'm not saying modern science fiction is necessarily awful, that you aren't allowed to enjoy it simply because I do not. This isn't junior high and I'm not saying your favorite band sucks.

What I am saying is that the genre has moved on, and that I have little interest in it today. I've outlined most of my reasons above, but the great big reason, the elephant in the room, the rhinoceros on the nightstand, the hippopotamus on the toilet, is that I simply no longer find any sense of wonder in modern science fiction.

Which is why I tend to fall back upon the masters when I want to read the genre.

And which is why I turn to fantasy so often for my reading and writing.

Actually, fantasy might be the only genre left that still instills in me any sense of wonder. I'll admit much of modern fantasy also falls under some of the faults I listed above, but not all of it, not enough of it to kill my complete interest. Some horror comes close to providing that sense of wonder, but so much of horror today is about the scare or the blood and gore, with little thought given to anything beyond.

I do want a good story, but I also want something that makes me think but does so without my having to go back to college to get a degree in one of the hard sciences, and this is coming from someone who gets most of the references and jokes on "The Big Bang Theory." Not everyone goes along with that line of thinking, and that's fine, not all books nor all genres are for everyone. I'm fine with that.

But once upon a time, science fiction was for me. And now it's not. And I kind of miss it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Looking back, looking ahead

About this time of year, I do a post looking back upon that year, and usually I do a post looking ahead to the year to come. Not wanting to break with tradition, this is the post for 2013, looking into 2014, as always with a focus upon my reading and writing.

2013 was a year that kicked me pretty hard, then kicked me again while I was down, and again, and then yet again. It never seemed to end, for me and my family. Bad news swamped us more than once, the worst being my spouse's Stage VI breast cancer diagnosis near the beginning of the year.

That being said, it is almost a year later, and she is still with me, and she is conscious and able to walk some, at least with a walker and some help. She has some good days, but also plenty of bad days. Most times she's not in too much pain, or at least not so much that she can't deal with it through medication. Her life expectancy is unknown, which could mean anything from a few months to a few years to, on the off chance, a decade or even two. Some of this might sound frightening, but you kind of, sort of come to live with it, to take each day one at a time. And as scary and sad as all that might sound, the important part for me is that she is still with me.

So, as bad as the year started, it has also been kind to us in its own twisted way.

And the people I could thank, those who have helped us through these tough times, I couldn't name them all. I don't even know the names of all of them. But ... thank you, everyone.

Now about my reading and writing for 2013 ... all I mentioned above about the cancer and the other bad stuff that throughout the year, yeah, it had an effect upon me, especially my writing habits, maybe not so much my reading.

In 2012 I was fortunate and busy, pumping out about 600,000 new words of fiction, all of which has been published or self-published since then. 2013 wasn't so kind. I think maybe I'll have about 150,000 words of new material, hardly any of which has been published as of yet.

On the plus side, I did a fair amount of work this year in traditional publishing. I can't talk about it, but hopefully most of that will see the light of day sometime next year. Through these writings, I had some experiences working with other writers and a handful of editors, all of those experiences quite positive. I found it quite interesting to be working with others again, and for traditional publishing, as until this year I'd mostly been doing my own thing, or occasionally having contact with traditional publishers but with few fruits for my labors. So, 2013 was good in a lot of ways despite my lack of writing.

As for reading, I read more than my usual amount of non-fiction, and I strayed further from speculative fiction. In fact, I hardly read any fantasy in 2013, and I'm feeling the need.

Which brings me to 2014.

I'm hoping soon, perhaps in the next couple of weeks, to dropkick myself back into some fantasy reading. It's been far too long. I strayed from the genre a couple of years ago because I was feeling somewhat burnt out on it, but the time is drawing near, very near, for me to jump back in. I'm looking forward to it.

As for my writing in 2014, I hate to make predictions, especially after getting slammed with personal stuff in 2013. However, I am about halfway through my next Kron Darkbow novel, and I hope to have it finished and edited and ready for self publishing sometime in the first quarter of 2014. As things stand, this will likely be the longest novel I've ever written, probably about 160,000 words when I'm finished with it, so it's taking a little longer than usual to wrap up.

After that novel, I'm not dedicated to anything in particular, but I have been feeling the urge to come up with a sequel for my 5-part Mage Hunter serial, which has been relatively popular, selling nearly as well as my best-seller, the Kobalos Trilogy. I do have a story idea for this sequel, and hopefully it will have gelled a bit more in my mind by the time I can get to it, if I get to it soon.

Other than that, I have no specific plans for my writing in 2014. Thousands of ideas float around in my head, but which one I'll get to at any given point is up in the air. It usually depends upon my frame of mind. Epic fantasy will almost assuredly be on the menu, but I might step over into the horror field again as it's been a while and I'm missing the fun of working in that genre.

Time will tell.

I do hope 2014 is a better year for myself and my loved one's than was 2013. I also hope I manage to write a whole bunch more in 2014.

Again, time will tell.

I hope some of you will enjoy the ride with me.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Books read in 2013: No. 57 -- Mad #1

edited by Harvey Kurtzman

Started: Dec.23
Finished: Dec. 23

Notes: When I was a kid, not only did I read comic books, but I read the funnier versions of such material in Mad magazine and Cracked magazine. Over the years I had gotten away from them, but recently I found the very first issue of Mad from 1952. It was free from Amazon for the Kindle. Since I've been wanting to enjoy some lighter reading, I thought this would do the trick.

Mini review: A nice piece of nostalgia. The humor was juvenile, but mostly not slapstick or constant yuckity-yuck material. There were a number of short comic tales here, a funny horror piece and a western and a sci-fi tale, as well as some humorous prose pieces. For today's audiences, the laughter would probably be quite mild, but I found it interesting and worth a few chuckles.

Books read in 2013: No. 56 -- Astro City #1

by Kurt Busiek

art by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross

Started: Dec. 23
Finished: Dec. 23

Notes: Recently I discovered a bunch of free comic books for the Kindle online at Amazon, and I went through a little spree of downloading some of my favorites. This is one of them, the first issue of a comic book that started back in 1995, though the series has gone through a couple of different versions since.

Mini review: I don't read comic books or graphic novels nowadays nearly as much as I used to, but it was nice to take a look back at one of my favorites. Why was Astro City a favorite? Because it approached super heroes and villains from a relatively realistic point of view, often dealing with the problems of their everyday lives and not just the big fight scenes and the like, though there was some of that as well. This particular issue introduced the character known as Samaritan, basically a stand-in figure for Super Man, and focuses upon the daily trials and tribulations of the character's life. Interestingly enough, his biggest problems aren't fighting bad guys and monsters, though there is plenty of brief action. No, his main troubles center around his never having time to have any kind of life because he is always so busy saving the world. Solid artwork, too, that strives for a more realistic touch but which also keeps a comic book edge.

Books read in 2013: No. 55 -- Haunted Savannah

by James Caskey

Started: Dec. 18
Finished: Dec. 23

Notes: As the title suggests, this is another book I picked up a while back during a trip to Savannah. The author is a local who runs his own tour of Savannah, and the copy of the book I picked up was signed. The preface to this book, subtitled "America's Most Spectral City," points out that the author wrote it in order to correct any misconceptions or out-and-out untruths about the history of Savannah, at least as related to ghostly matters, and that the book is to benefit tourist guides throughout the city. I've had my own unusual experience in Savannah, though that doesn't mean I believe in ghosts. Still, I'm always drawn to such literature, and it's probably one of the reasons I enjoy writing horror fiction from time to time.

Mini review: Quite the interesting look at the darker side of history in Savannah, as well as the supernatural, mostly ghost tales but a few with links to voodoo. The author does a fine job through his research of debunking common mistakes concerning the history ofSavannah, but most of the spectral aspects he leaves up to the reader to decide for themselves, though he does point out that he's a believer in ghosts and he relates a few incidents which he personally witnessed or experienced. Written well, too, with a down-to-earth vibe that doesn't get overly scholarly, making for a fairly breezy read.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Books read in 2013: No. 54 -- The House on Gaston

by Tony Cope

Started: Dec. 8
Finished: Dec. 18

Notes: During my trip to Savannah, Georgia, a while back, I had the opportunity to pop into a local bookstore, E. Shaver, Bookseller. I always enjoy checking out regional book shops and regional authors, and that day I was pleased to find the author of this particular book there doing a signing. I didn't have much of an opportunity to speak with him because he was talking with other customers when I came in, but I shook his hand, said "hello," and picked up a copy of his most current book, The House on Gaston, subtitled "A Savannah Childhood." So, not only do I have the pleasure of checking out a regional author, I also have the pleasure of learning a little of the history of Savannah. The book looks back at the author's youth growing up in the city with somewhat of a focus around the World War II era. I'm looking forward to it.

Mini review: This was a delightful memoir of the past, of an era and a particular city's place within an era, all of which I'll never experience, except through an interesting book such as this one. The author's exuberance for his childhood comes through quite clearly, reminding me of my own father's stories, and though the author and my dad are about the same age, my dad grew up in a far different world, a small town in the mountains of Kentucky. Here, in this book about Savannah, there is a lot of charm about the city itself, but also about the many local characters from that time period, and some of the events. The author doesn't appear to hide much about his personal life, going over some early sexual exploits, for example, and writing a little about family tragedies and the like. Those with an interest in Southern Gothic could do worse than reading this memoir, and those with a love of Savannah in particular but also World War II history from a civilian's point of view, should find much here to enjoy.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Books read in 2013: No. 53 -- Worth Dying For

by Lee Child

Started: Dec. 4
Finished: Dec. 7

Notes: So much of my reading of late has seemed serious, quite a bit of it non-fiction, and I'm thinking it's time I jumped into something breezy with lots of action for a change of pace. I'm hoping this will be it. For some time I've been meaning to check out this thriller author and his popular Jack Reacher character.

Mini review: This pretty much fit the bill, but it felt fairly generic. It was like reading a screenplay for a modern action movie, not that that's all bad. There is no background material hardly at all, and the characters are all pretty much blank slates other than very basic qualifiers ... such-and-such is "the doctor" or such-and-such is "the Italian" and the like. Even the main character, Jack Reacher, gives up next to nothing. I can tell you everything I know about Reacher in one sentence: He's big, about 250 pounds, probably in his mid-30s, has brown hair, was a military cop at some point during 13 years of some kind of military service, he needs to get to Virginia. That's it. The story keeps rolling, but it's not constant action, with plenty of stops for dialogue scenes. A good airport novel to kill time, I suppose, but ... it just felt so generic. Give me a reason to care for the good guy, other than the fact he seems a little smarter and better trained than everyone else around him. Not a bad novel, and not bad writing, but I didn't see much to draw me back.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Books read in 2013: No. 52 -- Freedom

by Johnathan Franzen

Started: Nov. 17
Finished: Dec. 4

Notes: When one thinks of a modern elitist, snobby, literary writer sitting around coffee shops in New York City, for many Jonathan Franzen's is the name and the face that comes to mind. To boot, he has somewhat a reputation for being an ass, even to those who are supposedly in his corner. But he's supposed to be a heck of a writer, and I've been meaning to check him out for some time now. Freedom apparently is about modern family life in the suburbs, what I tend to think of as "first-world problems." So, here goes to find out if Franzen will come up with something original or if he will fall back on stereotypes and literary tropes.

Mini review: Original? Hmm, maybe, maybe not, but every novel is original to some extent or other. The story here follows a family of four, specifically the mom and dad but also their son and daughter, as well as a close family friend. The tale covers about 30 to 40 years, with particular focus upon a few years during that period. You see the mom and dad in college, their relationships with their parents, their relationships with their children, the problems they have, the problems their children have, the problems they cause themselves, the pain, the troubles, and eventually the fragmentation and a dipping toward depression. I won't tell you if this story becomes a tragedy or has a happy ending, so you'll have to read it to find out. But I will say this: Franzen can indeed write. I hated the first 30 pages of the book because it was almost totally telling without showing, but once it got past that, I enjoyed his writing style and his characters. Kind of funny, but his writing style reminded me quite a bit of Stephen King, though without all the horror elements, as if King suddenly decided to take up writing about a family living in the suburbs and their troubles, which I could actually see King doing, though he'd probably have to throw in a ghost or two. So, yes, Franzen can write, and he's a decent storyteller, though I think King generally has him beat in that regard. I did have a couple of minor problems with the story, one being that there were a couple of scenes in which there seemed to be some political preaching being thrust in the reader's face, and then there was one minor scene that felt fabricated to me, that didn't quite fit in with the rest of the tale because up to that point the story had been quite natural, but then this one thing happened and it seemed to happen simply because the writer wanted it to because it made easy a few eventual outcomes. There is a lot here said about modern U.S. society, specifically about white suburban life and families and to a slightly lesser extent about modern politics. There were also a handful of fine insights, the one I found most interesting being a look into today's youth culture, both the negatives and positives. Could I suggest this book to others? Sure, but don't expect any action scenes, though the story flows well and is a relatively quick and easy read. Will I read Franzen again? Probably, though I can't claim him as a favorite. Still, this novel gave me a lot to think about concerning writing, so I'll have to let my thoughts gel on this one for a while.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Every novel is a learning experience, especially for the writer

I'm up to 44,000 words in my current work in progress, the fantasy novel The Company of Seven, which puts me about halfway through the first of three acts. I was originally thinking this novel would be about 120,000 words, which might still be possible with re-writing and editing on my part, but I'm leaning towards it being more like 160,000.

If that turns out to be the case, it will be the longest single work I've produced. The current record is my novel Ghosts of the Asylum at more than 110,000 words. Most of my novels are in the shorter range, about 65,000 to 80,000 words.

The potential length of The Company of Seven has caused me some concern. I've wondered if I'm letting the story become too unwieldly, and if I'm falling into the beginning writer's trap of not cutting out your darlings.

But I don't think so. My scenes aren't gratuitous. I'm not throwing in a scene simply because I think it's "cool." Each of my scenes have a purpose that in some way furthers the plot and/or character development, usually leaning toward the plot side of things.

I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog that this is the first novel I've worked on in more than a year, and it's my first Kron Darkbow novel in nearly two years, and I'm enjoying getting back into the world of Ursia and its characters. I've come to recognize that I need to let myself have a little fun with this one, and I don't feel guilty about that.

To that end, I'm not worrying about the length. It will be what it will be.

When I've started a longer project in the past, I've usually known within 10,000 words or so what the eventual length would be. This time, not so much, but that's okay. I'm not restraining myself as much with this novel as I have with others, and that feels good to me.

It's part of my learning experience as a writer.

If I fail, if the novel turns out to be just awful, then I'll know to go a different route from then on. If it works out, I can follow a similar path in the future while looking for other forks in the literary road.

Another thing I've found of interest is the resonance of strong characters. The emotional weight of a truly strong character can stretch far past his or her initial appearance, possibly long after their use in the story, even long after their fictional death.

In this case, I'm speaking of my character Belgad the Liar.

My barbarian crime lord Belgad was the main antagonist in my first novel, City of Rogues, and he remained an antagonist through most of the rest of The Kobalos Trilogy. The Company of Seven will be my third Ursia Chronicles novel since that trilogy, basically another trilogy, and Belgad has not made a single appearance, yet the character continues to influence the stories indirectly, his name coming up more than a few times.

Belgad has become part of the back story for a number of my characters, and he was such an important figure that he had a big influence upon the history of some of my fictional locales. His very lack of making an appearance has influenced much.

I kind of like that.

And yes, for you Belgad fans, I do have plans for him. It'll just take a while to get back to him.

So, where were we? What was my point?

Oh, yes. The learning experiences of writing a novel.

I'm writing, I'm learning. I make plans, some that fall through and some that succeed. I hope my current work succeeds, especially as I'm taking some chances with it, ones I normally would not take.

But we'll see.