Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Book review: R. F. Kuang "The Poppy War"

I liked this book more than most other fantasy books I read this year. It drew me in from the beginning. The story is not exactly light-hearted, but -- at least at first -- it didn't lack in humor. The heroine Runin's (Rin for short) situation somewhat resembles Harry Potter's: she is an orphan with unusual talents growing up in an adopted family that mistreats and undervalues her. The family wants to get rid of her as soon as possible by marrying her off as a teen. But her talents, persistence, and cunning lets her escape her family and the looming marriage, and achieve a future that no one of her social class could dream of.

Hopefully this is not too much of a spoiler, because this happens relatively early in the book. Rin is admitted into the nation's top school, where, despite some teachers' attempts to derail her, she persists and gains exclusive, esoteric knowledge that's unattainable even for the elite students of that school. All throughout that, the book has a Harry Potter'esque "wizard school novel" feel, except that Rin is more like Hermione than Harry. Clever and doggedly stubborn, she outwits the stodgy adults that consider her unworthy of being there and thwart her at every step.

But the tone of the book completely changes in the second chapter, about a third into the novel. It changes so much that I wondered whether the first chapter and the rest of the book were initially separate novels featuring different protagonists, and only later for some reason were fused into one. The humor of the first chapter is gone, and the book takes a dark turn. The country is at war, and Rin is now a member of a small squad called the Cike, which is roughly a roving band of wizards. The Cike have supernatural powers. In this book, magic comes in a form of connecting to a god (in this nation's pantheon there are several) and asking them to do the dirty work for you. Often the practitioners of "lore", or magic, need to take consciousness-altering drugs to connect with gods.

Their magic powers, however, don't make the Cike superheroes. For all their formidable abilities, they still are unable to stand up against the vicious aggressor armies. This is part of what I liked about this book. It shows the limitations of magic very clearly. And it shows how the wizards' superpowers can lead them down a tragic path. They can't help but spiral into the ultimate arms race. Since the very beginning, Rin's old lore teacher -- the one who taught her to connect with the gods -- tells her that she should not under any circumstances try to "weaponize" them, i. e. call on their powers in a war. What the gods will unleash on Earth will be far more terrible than the damage done by war, he warns her. And, as you might expect, the Cike -- who are in their teens and early twenties, and have knowledge, but not much wisdom -- quickly get drawn into the cycle of aggression and revenge. They pull the gods into the war to exact worse and worse punishment, which, in turn, provokes more aggression from the invading army.

The dilemma is presented in the book very vividly. The aggressor is so horribly cruel that in the reader's mind there is not even a doubt that it's worth calling upon gods to destroy them -- until a wise man like Rin's teacher Jiang makes a case that maybe you really, really shouldn't. The reader gets to see the points both pro and con, and those are not strawmen arguments. They are weighty and well-balanced. True, the brutality of the enemy army can seem so excessive that it's at times ridiculous, but it's probably nothing that hasn't happened in some part of Earth at some point or another.

Being forced to choose between different evils, when it's hard to even tell which one is bigger, makes for a good tension source in a book. I liked that this book didn't have a happy ending. At most it had an ending that could be described as "not the worst possible".

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Book review: C. J. Cherryh "Foreigner"

It was a slow-paced book, and I was afraid I wasn't going to finish it -- I no longer force myself to finish books that don't sufficiently appeal to me -- but I finished it because, despite the slowness, it had some indescribable satisfactory quality. Perhaps because it was a book you could watch unfold before your eyes like a movie. Sometimes you read a book where every sentence falls apart into a pile of words as soon as you are finished with it, without adding up to an image in your head. This is the opposite. This book is highly immersive. Just for that quality you might like to continue reading it even when the plot is not very compelling. But those who like fast-moving narrative might not find it to their taste.

The main character, Bren is an ambassador of sorts to an alien race, called atevi that lives on a planet where humans are guests. Or perhaps he is more like a translator between humans and atevi. His official title in atevi language is paidhi, and that's how he is referred to throughout the book. He lives in the royal court of one of the planet's several kings, or aiji. Humans are permanent, though unwanted, guests on this world, because they ended up there by mistake and can't get off of it. Humans live in just one continent, maintain a truce with the atevi, and have been slowly trickling out their technologies to the atevi. At present they brought the local technology up to roughly the level of early 21st century Earth. The locals are civil to the humans, but (as behooves aliens) inscrutable.

One day someone attempts to assassinate paidhi Bren. In response to that, the king / aiji quickly orders him whisked away to a remote corner of the country. It's done under the guise of the paidhi's protection, but it quickly becomes clear that it's more like imprisonment. He is exiled to a place where he is completely isolated and has no way to contact any humans.

This happens fairly early in the book, and then for the next 300-something pages neither he, nor we, the readers, know what was the true reason of his abduction, or where all this is going. The book slows down as Bren tries to figure out where he stands with his captor-protectors based on short, fragmented conversations he has with them.

He is not sure where their loyalty lies. Are they loyal to him? He strongly suspects not. Are they loyal to their employer(s), such as the aiji, or other organizations and alliances? Nor is he sure whether it is useful to them to keep him alive. He knows (but is not sure if the natives known) that the atevi can't use him as a pawn to extract something of value from the humans, because if his life is threatened, the human government will let him die. They said so from the start and he took the job with the full understanding of this. So, in this situation, he knows there is nothing protecting his life but his captors' whim.

He tries to probe their minds via short, fragmented conversations, but those conversations always skirt the essence of the topic. Yet they occupy the next 300-something pages of the book. Those talks are fraught with misunderstandings, some of them absurd, but not in a funny way. For example, the atevi can't fathom that the word "like" has many meanings, and that to like a food is very different than to like a person. This seemed rather unLIKEly to me. Bren even speculates that the locals don't have feelings. At the same time, it is obvious that they have feelings of dignity and pride, and that pride is rather easily wounded by a foreigner asking the wrong kinds of questions.

Those conversations don't go very far, and three quarters into the book we still don't have a clue who Bren can or cannot trust. So we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is to say we are waiting for this low-grade suspense to lead to a huge revelation. There are so many minor shoes dropping throughout the book that you can never tell which of them is "the real thing" as opposed to random incident. Then, finally, around 3/4 into the book, his situation goes from merely uncomfortable to much worse. Only then the key point is revealed, and we find out the real reason he is kept captive. The pace of the book picks up after that.

I didn't understand what conclusion he reached at the ending either. Maybe I need to reread it. It seems like he was faced with a hard conclusion that humans were not welcome on this planet, but found a way to negotiate with atevi that could lead to permanent peace. But if there was an a-ha! moment in this book, it was rather subtle.

To summarize, this is a book for those who like science fiction with lots of psychological nuance. I personally like it too, but this wasn't the kind of nuance I could relate to. But then I'm known to be a robot. If you can tolerate the plot advancing very slowly, and if you are intrigued by characters trying to figure out what another character meant by their every utterance or gesture, with cultural differences thrown in, then it may be a book for you. I have to say, for me, the character's ruminations supplied just enough intrigue not to put the book aside, but ultimately did not add to something satisfying.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Editing like a boss with Tex Thompson: ArmadilloCon 2018 panel

This was another of the wonderful panels / mini-workshops on various aspects of writing -- this time, on editing your own work -- by Arianne "Tex" Thompson. Like everything by Tex Thompson, her advice on editing was broken down into bullet points and sub-bullet points, each of which contained examples of how to accomplish it.

Five hot tips for content and developmental editing

1. Eliminate happy coincidences. The coincidences that make the protagonist's life harder are mostly OK. Turn "but fortunately" into "oh, shit".

Example: if you have characters who are willing to help the protagonist, turn them into characters that are not really able to help. Or into character that are able to help, but not willing. Why should I help you? You should earn it. Or characters that are able and willing to help, but their help comes with strings attached.

2. Blow up the boring parts. You are bored reading them, but you don't know how your story should get from part A to part B.

Here are some examples how to make boring parts more exciting.

Instead of having a breakup conversation in a private place like home, or a Starbucks or a restaurant, have it in an unusual setting: in the middle of a traffic jam in a car, when no one could escape, on a whaling ship, or at an 8-year-old's birthday party at a roller rink. Can we do it at a paintball match? This can help you to spice it up and put some interesting twist on it. The world is dropping from under our feet, but we still have to do the hokey pokey, since it's an 8-year-old's birthday party. Or at the roller rink somebody falls and breaks their leg.

Arianne 'Tex' Thompson 'Editing like a Boss' panel
Arianne 'Tex' Thompson 'Editing like a Boss' panel

In a novel "Matterhorn" (by Karl Marlantes? There are other novels by that title, but I assume that's the one Tex meant -- E.), there is a long infodump when a character goes around a military camp and is introduced to lots of people and is told their military ranks and names. That would be boring, but at the same time there is a medical drama brewing, where somebody has to be medevacuated, but helicopters can't land because of high winds. So there is a ticking clock. The infodumpy introductions are alternated with the medical drama.

A race against time can definitely spice up the boring parts.

Another way to introduce suspense is to let your readers know that something dangerous or terrible is about to befall the characters, but the characters don't know it. For example, the audience knows there is a monster under a child's bed, but the kid doesn't know it. So any time when the kid rolls over and his arm drops off the bed, the audience winces.

3. Target accidental repetitions

Make them deliberate or delete them! A word or phrase repeated twice looks like accidental echo, but repeated three times sounds like you know what you are doing.

This applies not just to word usage, but to plot elements as well. For example: if the characters in your book take a road trip and are staying in motels, make the motels shabbier and shabbier as the characters run out of money. So when they are pulling up to the next motel, the reader will be cringing: what kind of bad things will be lurking at this place?

4. Sharpen relevant contrasts

Conflict is not enough, says Tex Thompson. Contrast is everything.

5. Multitask relentlessly

A great page should do at least two out of three: advance the story, develop the backstory or the setting, and build or reveal character.

Other tips

Line editing

Tex Thompson also gave tips on line editing, though I can't put them into nifty numbered-bullet-point format, because I didn't write all of them down. But here are some:

  • Before every editing pass, change the format of the manuscript, such as the font or font size. The words line up differently. That way you'll see it more like a new reader. You'll see more what's actually there, not what you think is there. Have Stephen Hawking's robotic voice read it out to you. If your book sounds good while read in robotic monotone, it's good.
  • Read it backwards (a basic rule of proofreading). Microsoft Office has a read-it-backward option.
  • Delete distancing words: thought, said, saw, heard, felt, realized, wondered. They emphasize the distance between the character and the reader. We want the opposite -- immersion. Too much of that distance and you feel like you are watching someone playing a video game. You can google "filter words fiction" or "distancing words fiction" to find out which words you should consider deleting.
  • Tex Thompson mentioned some software that can help with various aspects of writing, and the audience threw in their own suggestions. For example, Prowriting Aid is a good program that shows you how many times you've used various words. Hemingway can tell you when your sentences are too complicated. Also it's a good idea to get a readability score for your text, and the grade level. In the early chapters, while the reader doesn't yet care about the story, it's good to keep it lower grade.
  • Do at least one "fast pass". Read the whole thing in a day, the way a reader who binges on your work would read it. That's the best way to find overused words / phrases. Also, you will catch inconsistencies.

Tex Thompson also gave tips for gathering and interpreting feedback.

  • Try giving beta readers single chapters first. Don't give them the whole novel, because they most likely will get scared off, because they were not preprared to read this much material.
  • Look for points of convergence. What comments do you keep getting? Are there common themes among them? Also remember this: people who notice a problem in your writing are usually right. People who suggest a solution are usually wrong.
  • Strive to have a mix of both readers AND writers among your beta readers. Each kind will be valuable in their own way. People who are just readers but not writers haven't internalized the rules of writers, they haven't chopped up the Hero's Journey and snorted if off of a mirror. They care more about the story. Does it hold their attention?

    Also ask readers-that-are-not-writers: what other books that you've read would you compare it to? Hopefully they won't say, it's like War and Peace: I didn't finish it.

    It is important to write at least as well as Dan Brown. If you pass the Dan Brown test, you're good. This is a guy who writes "he picked up the phone with one of his two hands", but his stories get people hooked.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Writing dialogue: an ArmadilloCon 2018 panel

Authors Arianne "Tex" Thompson and Mark London Williams gave a panel on writing good dialogue. Here is some of their advice.

Mark London Williams. In emotional situations, the characters will often be indirect.

Tex Thompson agrees. When a horse approaches an object, it does not go straight to it, does not make a beeline. That's a predator move. A horse comes up at an angle to get a better view at an object. Similarly, good dialogue does not say something directly. It makes several approaches, several passes. It suggests (for smart readers to get), and then confirms, so that everyone could get on the wagon.

Specific dialog problems

Tex Thompson addresses the audience. How many of you had in your own writing struggled with a scene where you had a dialogue bouncing back and forth for pages ans pages, but not getting to the point?

She then asks Mark London Williams: What advice would you have to overcome this?

Mark London Williams. Start a scene as late as possible. Start with at teacup already smashed on the floor, and a woman says to a man: "I can't believe you did it! You always do this!" -- now the readers are forced to wonder: he did what? What does he always do? Smashes teacups? Hurts her feelings?

Tex Thompson gives another example. Let's say the dialogue starts with a line: "So the school called again today". Now the readers want to read further, because they have a sense that someone is in trouble, and they are wondering who did what.

Tex Thompson. Instead of "he said, she said", put in a sentence describing action.

"You always do this." She picked up a broken piece.

There is a rule: one paragraph for one actor.

"You always do this." Her face was calm, but under the table she was picking at her 500 hundred dollar French manicure.


The discussion also covered dialects, accents, slang and vernacular. One of the general advices on that topic is: avoid writing out a dialect or an accent phonetically as it sounds (like "ze" instead of "the" in a stereotypical French character's speech), because that quickly becomes grating and annoying. In small amounts it can be OK, just don't write entire paragraphs like that. I don't remember most of other advice, but I remember these interesting observations:

Where more than one language is spoken, the lower-prestige language contributes the grammar, while the higher-prestige language, the vocabulary. This happened, for example, to English language after the Norman conquest of England, when French became the language of the court, while English remained the language of the peasantry.

Similarly, the names for raw foods come from the native / lower-prestige language (cow, pig), whereas the names for cooked food come from the higher-prestige language (beef, dessert).