Friday, January 28, 2011

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Renni Browne and Dave King)

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
Renni Browne and Dave King
Nonfiction, Writing
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Writing a story can feel like losing oneself in a vast forest. After following many dead-end paths, being distracted by birds and shiny rocks, and avoiding abundant sticker bushes, wasps' nests, and other obstacles, one finally stumbles upon a trail to where one wants to go. The story becomes the map of the author's progress... but the end result can be messy and confusing, not to mention full of sticker thorns. The cleaner the story, the more likely it'll engage readers (and even attract a publisher.) Thus, the necessary - if often painful and tedious - process of editing must begin.
In today's fast-paced, quick-return publishing industry, however, it's a rare editor who spends much (if any) time helping new authors present their strongest, best work. The wise author will therefore attempt to clean their own manuscript up before submission... but where to start? What makes one story shine in the slagheap of the slush pile? How can stilted dialog and awkward exposition become crisp and fresh? What separates a clever turn of phrase from a painful cliche? How can an author even recognize their own weaknesses to begin with? This book, written by professionals in the field, offers tips and strategies for editing stories.

Most of the writing books I own focus on the act of creation. Editing, as the authors point out here, is a whole 'nother beast, and should be treated as such. They highlight many pitfalls, large and small, that tend to weaken manuscripts and irritate the reading public - even if some top authors are inexplicably prone to them. (There are exceptions to every rule, after all... moreso if one generates seven-figure-plus sales.) Examples of each problem are offered, as are potential solutions. Each chapter ends with a checklist of points to remember and editing exercises for the reader, some of which come from popular works. I almost clipped it another half-mark due to the cartoons included with several chapters: rather than highlight the subject at hand, I found them only vaguely humorous at best and just plain pointless at worst. The captions were also difficult to read. That aside, it made for thought-provoking reading; I expect it to come in much handier once I have a finished draft of a story to use it on.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Brandon Sanderson)

Mistborn: The Final Empire
(The Mistborn trilogy, Book 1)
Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: One thousand years ago, the Deepness threatened to consume the world until the Hero of Ages vanquished it. Since then, He has reigned as the immortal Lord Ruler... but His Final Empire is anything but a joyous paradise. Plants grow withered and brown under an ash-reddened sun. The streets are stained black with soot and filth, and strange mists swirl through the starless nights. Noblemen treat the skaa peasantry as less than property. But, despite centuries of abuse and ill will, none have been able to stand up to the Lord Ruler and his Steel Inquisitors.
Now, one man means to.
Kelsier is a minor legend among the skaa. He alone has survived slavery in the Pits of Hathsin where the Lord Ruler harvests atium, a rare metal on which the empire's economy is based. The brutality he endured there woke in him the gift of Allomancy, a noble-born skill allowing one to digest specific metals and extract superhuman abilities from them. With it, and with a hand-picked team of gifted thieves and rebels, he aims to liberate the downtrodden skaa and slaughter the noblemen.
Vin has lived her entire life in fear. Her half-brother Reen drilled the brutal truths of life as a street-thief skaa into her with words and fists... and with the final knife in the back of betrayal, the day he vanished and left her alone in the capital city Luthadel, to fend for herself among the thief crews. About the only thing that's kept her alive so far is her Luck, an ability she hardly understands but which has helped her squeeze past Death more than once in her short, hard life.
Kelsier notices Vin's gifts at about the same time the Lord Ruler's monstrous Inquisitors - charged with purging all hints of Allomancy from the lesser classes, among other unpleasant tasks - detect her. While offering her sanctuary, Kelsier draws her into his bold plans for revolution, grooming the girl for a very special role in his plot. The more she learns about that plot, and the man behind it, the more Vin starts to wonder: is the Survivor of Hathsin the liberator the world has waited generations for, or a madman as brutal as the Lord Ruler Himself?

REVIEW: I've seen this one recommended numerous times by numerous people, so I finally decided to give it a try. Sanderson crafts a pleasantly different fantasy world, more of a post-apocalyptic dystopia than the usual pseudo-medieval landscape. His Allomancy has specific abilities and limitations, which the characters use to great effect. Both Vin and Kelsier undergo profound transformations as the realities of inciting social changes collide with their preconceptions. Action and intrigue intertwine in more or less equal measure, weighted somewhat toward the action end. Since this is Book 1 of a trilogy, some threads are left dangling at the end, but a surprising portion of the plot wraps itself up here. A good, gripping read, and the start of a trilogy I actually want to follow.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dragon and Judge (Timothy Zahn)

Dragon and Judge
(The Dragonback Adventures, Book 5)
Timothy Zahn
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young interstellar thief Jack Morgan and Draycos, his symbiotic K'da poet-warrior companion, are hot on the trail of the enemies intent on destroying the refugee K'da fleet, due to arrive in less than two months. They've also picked up a pair of allies: Alison Kayna, a young girl with a past just as checkered as Morgan's own, and Taneem, a female K'da who was merely a subsentient "Phooka" on a forgotten backwater world until she bonded with the human Alison. Jack barely knows the first thing about Alison, let alone what her motives might be, but she's come through for him in a few scrapes, and he and Draycos are in no position to turn down assistance.
While en-route to an outpost of the Malison Ring mercenaries, trying to track down more information on the whereabouts of Arthur Neverlin and his dark allies, Jack makes a detour to the small spaceport at Semaline... where a group of rustic local aliens, the Golvins, promptly mistake him for a circuit judge. They take him to their isolated canyon home, in the middle of a vast desert, to deal with an eleven-year backlog of petty issues. Simple as they seem, the Golvins aren't to be trifled with, and the boy finds himself as much a captive as any prisoner. When Jack learns that his late parents were the last judges, his desire to learn the truth about their deaths overwhelms his desire to escape, and even Draycos cannot sway the boy.
Alison, meanwhile, has problems of her own. An excursion to find Jack turns into an abduction for her, as well - only her captors are Malison Ring employees seeking skilled thieves and safecrackers for a very special job. She finds herself thrust into the very heart of the conspirators plotting to destroy the K'da people. If she plays her cards right, she might find the clues Jack and Draycos have been searching for... or she might buy herself (and Taneem) a one-way ticket to an unmarked grave.

REVIEW: The second-to-last Dragonback book ratchets up the tension at a nice pace. Jack's sentimental sidetrack to Semaline, so pivotal to the plot, has the faintest whiff of plot convenience, but he manages to have some interesting adventures as he learns what happened to his parents. Alison gets a good half of the book to herself, as she simultaneously must use her wits to stay alive in the proverbial lion's den and continue the education of Taneem, who still has a lot to learn about being a K'da and a companion. The story reads fast, and the ending is reasonably satisfying. That's pretty much what I wanted when I picked it up, so it gets a solid Good rating. Hopefully, I can track down the final volume sometime to see how Jack and Draycos's adventures end.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cold Magic (Kate Elliot)

Cold Magic
(The Spiritwalker trilogy, Book 1)
Kate Elliot
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Catherine, a girl on the brink of womanhood, lives on the edge of a changing world. Machinery and science are slowly dominating the old ways of gods and magic. The voiceless masses grow restless under the yoke of numerous princes and the powerful mage Houses. Cat and her cousin Beatrice even attend an academy like boys do, learning of new contraptions such as floating airships that will revolutionize the world as they know it. Even children of the much-maligned Kena'ani (erroneously branded Phoenicians by the lying tongues of Roman scholars), widely considered unscrupulous spies and double-dealers, might find their fortunes raised.
But worlds do not change easily, nor do the old ways yield easily to the new... especially when there is much more than ignorance and superstition behind their power.
Cat is wakened to this truth most unexpectedly when a cold mage - a much-resented breed of magic worker, in whose presence flames extinguish - turns up on the doorstep. By claim of magic contracts of which she knows nothing, the arrogant man rips her from everything she has known, everything she had thought she might become. Even as she despairs, she learns that far greater forces are at work. In a world where magic and science cannot coexist, where war seems inevitable, Cat must learn fast if she is to land on her feet... and choose a side.

REVIEW: Alternate worlds like this one - a re-imagined Industrial Revolution-era Earth, where Celtic princes rise in the wake of a shrinking Roman empire, where feathered-reptile "trolls" from across the ocean introduce dangerous, radical ideas to the populace, where northern mages use their powers as much to enforce their own tyranny as to protect the public - can be a treat to visit. I enjoy a well-thought-out new world to explore. That doesn't mean, unfortunately, that I will accept page after page after page of endless worldbuilding, tracing histories and lineages and ethnic migrations and so forth, set against a smothering backdrop of geography lessons, in lieu of a story. The author even repeats several stories and history lessons multiple times. In between lectures, I had to endure a heroine I didn't particularly enjoy and a slew of largely heartless (or seemingly heartless) and manipulative supporting characters on a journey that moved in agonizing fits and starts, careening from plot-stopping "story time" to breathless escapes from enemy clutches. Strong whiffs of politics grew into a choking stench by the end of the book, which - being the first book in a stated trilogy - didn't resolve too much. Instead of eagerly awaiting the second installment, I merely felt a sense of relief that I'd finally finished the thing.
I give Kate Elliot marks for depth of research in planning her alternate Earth. Unfortunately, the tidal waves of research drowned the story, and her characters' unlikable and annoying traits overwhelmed their commendable ones. Needless to say, I won't be following this trilogy any further.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

Been a while, I know. Sorry... the holidays really ate into my reading time, not to mention my site maintenance time. As the new year gets underway, I hope to get back on a monthly updating schedule.

Anyway, I archived the previous five reviews on the Brightdreamer Books website. I also rotated the Random Recommendations while I was at it.

The observant may notice a new sidebar feature. I thought I'd try listing the books I'm currently reading (or attempting to read, as the case may be.) I read different books at different rates, so appearance on the list is no guarantee of when (or even if) I'll finish and review it.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Constructive Anatomy (George B. Bridgman)

Constructive Anatomy
George B. Bridgman
Nonfiction, Art
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: With over 500 illustrations, this book describes the forms of the human body and how they fit together.

I've seen it recommended more times than I can recall in online art communities, so I decided it was worth a shot. At first blush, the drawings look a bit scribbly around the edges, but there's a method to the perceived messiness. Bridgman emphasizes shape and form over specific detail, with blocks and masses interconnecting to create a whole. Once in a while I found the text unhelpful, but working my way through this book image by image has certainly proven useful and educational. I'm sure more advanced or dedicated art students would get even more out of it.