Monday, October 24, 2011

Jovah's Angels by Sharon Shinn, & more character

Getting the character out of the way quickly for once, for those of you who can't get enough about character driving a book, hit the link to my article at Mythic Scribes:

So we're jumping back into the wayback machine for a lovely ride to our dear friend Sharon and her rascally angels and mortals in that sci fi/fantasy fusion blend novel Jovah's Angel.  We left Sameria as Semaria about 150 years ago.  We've had hints like computer screens meshed up with these song obsessed angels to belt it aloft to pray to Jovah for anything from weather help to medicines.  Flash forward and Jovah isn't listening to the angels.  Rains, storms, and tornados ravage the countryside.  Crops fail.  Mortals get rebellious.  Industry has started.  Hydroelectric damns and steam grimy and grim factories.  As usual, everyone is mean to the Edori and I think they might stop smiling about it a couple of times, even.

The incandescent, brass and brilliant young Archangel Deliah flies into a storm, which bats her like a cat toy.  She ends up with a dead angelico (her Jovah appointed, pitch perfect, and politically important husband), who she was carrying, and a busted wing that can't be healed so that she flies.  Poor Alleluia, who didn't grow up among the angels, who is quiet and hates public singing, is named the next Archangel by the interface (*cough*computer*cough*) to her horror and everyone's confusion.  Alleluia has months to go before the Gloria, no angelico and a cryptic answer from the *cough*computer*cough about who, she's terrified of politics--the only thing she has going for her is that the torrential reigns still calm at her voice whereas other angels fail.  Then the ancient, ancient technology of the music rooms (room with nice CD system) breaks.

That leads Alleluia to Caleb, who is an engineer in Luminex.  We've been following Caleb, his fellow inventor and friend Noah, an Edori and the re-emergence of a sultry and self destructive Delilah, now singing at a club for a while, but finally Alleluia meets Caleb, Kisses start flaring (telling your true love) and it is a race to not just save the world, but help each other save our hearts, minds, and souls.

I'll give a flip flop on Jovah's Angel from Archangel.  The intricate, brilliant world building in the first book got sloppy.  She stumbles, pushing current mortal technology to cause what she wanted, mostly for what to be some rather strained social commentary.  Caleb being an engineer, and therefore the world having made some technical advances are vital.  For her movement through time and her constant play between magic and fantasy versus science, I can tell she's trying to work these into her whole arc, but it is getting a little awkward.  Plus, she is either being purposefully manipulative, or she needs to read some anthropology and sociology about what happens when the Industrial Revolution revs into things like factories.

In Archangel, her delicate twists of science fiction were exciting, especially as you looked forward to the unveiling.  They were so magnificently set into an unknowing culture with a magical tinge to them.  In Jovah's Angel, the sci fi is handled with the clumsiness of a novice juggler who, in the end, drops all her balls into near on cliché.  The end involves a near excruciating section of learning more about their world in a nails on chalkboard passive way--especially since she had so beautifully hinted at all this so we knew it anyway, with a passive Alleluia as our vehicle.  The only subject which is a bit of an eyebrow raiser involves nature versus nurture, and her book comes way too far on nature for my need for a good "and" instead of "vs".  Angels, magic singing, oracles, I wouldn't and don't blink at.  Specific supposed uses of geneologies?  You have to be shitting me.  She's obviously far more comfortable in the fantasy world, and as geeked as I was to see how everything meshed, I'm now a little sad it did.  It was like great flirtation followed by mediocre sex.

But, like I said, in my topsy turvy, although the world building was much more solid in Archangel, I had way more fun with Jovah's Angel.  Why?  I liked the characters.  Alleluia, bookish and struggling to get away from this dubious honor of chosen second and late, still blossoms--coming into her own in political situations though she never had the years to train for.  She is intelligent, quick witted, and though not much of what one thinks of as far as an Archangel, she has her own, quiet charisma and easy humor.  For all in the end she clings a little too near and dear to her old rules, up until that point she's had no problem in quietly not just thinking and working outside the box, but most likely folding the box up for recycling.  Delilah is well painted, but her sarcasm and purposeful destruction now that she cannot fly, or be any angel, much less Archangel, but I felt it coming, and wish I had felt it leaving far before I did.  Caleb is amusing, inquisitive, and not only thinks out of the box, but uses it as materials for one of his experiments, but the moment you read his name, you know exactly where he is going, from beginning to end of story.  Noah, being Edori, is of course cheerful and unflappable, but, thank God, gets himself into an unlikely relationship and actually spends some of the novel angry and miserable.  Whew.

Part of the change is simpler:  I like these people.  They don't annoy me.  However, I feel as though she has gotten her character writing stretches done and is getting more fluid and apt as well.

Plot?  Again, I'll say I'm a character girl.  Most of the time, as long the character arcs and characters make  me happy, I don't care that much.  This time I was annoyed because the plot problems involved the characters.  I felt like Sharon Shinn felt like her characters, and me with them, needed to be played like a trout:  let it run and then reel it in, over and over.  We all knew where this book was going.  The characters, despite they were quite smart and had initiative, had to keep playing stupid and taking the old two steps backwards and one forwards until the very end when everyone was doing three legged races at a county fair--falling over themselves and each other to get to the end.  She crammed a lot into, and underdeveloped the last *cough*stunning*cough* section, while the first three quarters didn't need nearly as much time spent--some time, yes--but not SO much time spent there.  I feel as if the last section would have been a little more graceful and not fallen quite so to telling instead of showing if she had just moved it up in her plot.

At the end of the day, I wonder if part of the problem is middle book syndrome.  The author knows where they want to start.  Knows where they want to end.  But it's supposed to be a trilogy and she has to have a book happen in there.  I feel as if the somewhat uneven problems with the technology and science fiction, the awkward hokey pokey of a plot in this book represent a push towards the story she really wants to tell to bring these books to the culmination.

Probably the other two or more well crafted books.  And I realize I stated some annoyances with this book, but you know what?  I'm still a character girl, so my heart is sticking here for now.    

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Adverbs and tags--oh my!!

Yeah, yeah.  Three is the tradition, but these are the two concepts I wanted to focus on today.  Because they in general, suck.

Tag:  Those short phrases at the end of dialogue that tell you who is speaking:

"Oh no," she said.

Adverbs:  adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and verb phrases.  They are those words that end in "ly" a lot:

"Oh no!" She clearly said excitedly.

Now, genre fiction generally plays fast and loose with both tags and adverbs.  We see them a lot.  And everyone uses them occasionally.  So why am I bitching?  I went to an MFA program.  Until I did, I had no idea I ought to be turning my nose up at adverbs and tags.  Or the real horror, tags with adverbs.  Okay, part of it is sheer MFA snobbery.  But actually, they have a really good point.

Tags and adverbs are lazy.  More than that, they really don't mean anything.

Let's take tags first.  The entire point of a tag is to tell you who is speaking.  That's all it does.  If it is obvious by contact who is speaking--two people in an empty room shouting at each other.

If Jane throws up her arms.  "I hate you!"
"You're no peach."  Amy slammed her hands to her hips.
"You suck!"
"It's not my fault Chris wants me."
"It's not either of our faults you are a skeezy ho."

See?  Absolutely no tags.  I gave you a description of the person when their voice entered, and then the alternating sequence of dialogue meant I didn't have to identify who was who at all.  Although you might find yourself wanting a little more emotion or description than plain dialogue, at times it is great for fast paced conversation.  You see the other thing I did.  Rather than using, "Jane shouted," or "Amy screamed," I gave you a visual of their anger and frustration with each other.  Jane throws up her arms.  What does that mean to you?  Frustration?  Anger? both?  Amy slams her hands to her hips in return.  She isn't backing down.  Maybe she's a little sassy.  You can put actual character building into identifying who is speaking.  This is effective no matter how many people you have in a scene.  We know someone spoke.  The quote marks are there.  So why not use the who to further the scene as well?

Which brings us to adverbs sucking.  The adverb is the lazy way of getting out of doing personality detailed descriptions of what these people look like, sound like, and any other sense you can think of, including the sixth.  Writing with adverbs, you rob yourself of clear communication to your reader of who these people are and what they are doing.  Reading adverbs, you are being robbed of the writer's vision.  You may stick yours in in its place, but you are losing beautiful nuances the writer could have given you to deepen the reading experience.  Finally, it confuses point of view and distances your character from your reader.

Let's take two simple lines:

“Why?  Lucy cried.  “Why do you care?”
“Because I love you!”  Evan said angrily.

Okay.  Lucy cried.  Is that a defiant shout, or is she on the ground with tears streaming down her face in utter defeat.  We have no idea.

Evan said angrily.  All right.  Angry.  How does this guy get angry?  If I pick any two people I know and picture them angry, I get a very different picture due to their personalities.  Is he screaming at her?  Is his voice a cold, quiet, cut.  Who is he angry at and why?  Which brings us to the point of view problem.  If I have been troddling along firmly in Lucy's head--her thoughts, her concepts, her imagination and emotion--well--when "Evan said angrily" comes up there is a dysjunct.  Is that her perception of him?  That he is angry?  Why does she think so?  What markers does he give?  She could even be wrong.  We don't get any of that from "angrily".  Worse, we might end up in Evan's head in a sudden jolt as we assume this is not her perception of his anger, but actual factual and we are supposed to be feeling his emotions.  And now we're all split in half and confused and tend to not emotionally bond to either character quite so much.  

Here.  We'll look at two different versions of that same exchange.  So what we had was:

“Why?  Lucy cried.  “Why do you care?”
“Because I love you!”  Evan said angrily.

Let's look at how we can expand this with example number one:

“Why?”  Lucy's words flew from her mouth as quizzical as owls, but with talons to gouge him to match.  “Why do you care?”

“Because I love you!”  Evan's shout resounded in the empty space inside her, but he already looked away.

Let's try this again, just to see how we can get a different effect from the same, vague, original lines.

“Why?  Lucy cried.  “Why do you care?”
“Because I love you!”  Evan said angrily.

“Why?”  Tears raged stinging tear beds down Lucy's face.  She had to hack through snot to ask him what she could not stop asking herself.  “Why do you care?”

“Because,” Evan's voice fell on her as tentative as the first snow.  He held her with his dark brown eyes, even as every muscle in his body tensed and contorted at her words.  “I love you.” 

Difference.  It's a fun project.  I just made these lines up, but if you open a book and start replacing the tags and adverbs, it can be an amusing writing exercise.

For those of you who love books that have adverbs--don't throw the baby out with the bath water.  I know a lot of great books that are adverb and tag heavy.  Much like the writing exercise, I'll argue a fun mind game is to slow down and think about what you have imagined into the space of those empty words.  You'll find it often says as much about you as the novel.  

I like to deepen conversation by having no, or even very brief, descriptions--emotion or senses.  Some feel this may slow the book, compared to fast flying and fancy free adverbs.  Actually, I've gotten more feedback that I'm skeletally quick.  

So if you go into the pages today, boys and girls, keep an eye out for those adverbs and tags.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Archangel by Sharon Shinn

It makes me feel really old to ask you to get into the wayback machine for this one, but as I take you to 1996, I fear I must.

Already an author to contend with, having penned The Shape-Changer's Wife, Sharon Shinn's Angel Trilogy, I shall call them, burst onto shelves on bookstores and in homes everywhere.  She may have near single handedly had young women dreaming of angels again--and not in the Sunday school way.  Over the course of the next weeks, I'm choosing to review the original trilogy:  Archangel, Jovah's Angel, and The Alleluia Files.  Did Shinn actually write more books in this world?  Yes.  But the original plan was this arc, and so that's what I want to look at.  I'd also like to look at the books as they have a, dare I say it, a delicate fusion between fantasy and science fiction.  So, I will review each book, and then an overall.

Let's face it.  The angels are the rock stars of Semaria.  All the more because they pray to their God, Jovah, by singing.  The angels live in their own holds and take petitions from humans in need of weather problems solved, plagues to fix, and whatever other problems these silly humans get themselves into.  

In Archangel, Jovah chooses an Archangel to rule the lands for twenty years.  Gabriel has known since he was a child that when Raphael steps down.  Jovah also chooses the angelica/o--the Archangel's mate who will stand with him/her on the Plains of Sharon and sing--the most glorious singers--godly--with every kind of human.  If not, Jovah is supposed to get a little wrathful on their asses.  Despite the fact the angelica will be the second most powerful person in the world, and if she isn't leading the Gloria come Gloria-singing-time on the Plain, Jevoh will be deep frying his own world, Gabriel has put off going to the Oracle to find out who she is.  She is often a human girl living in an angel hold or a groomed human elite.

Sixth months before Gloria he flies to the Oracle (a human, actually) who can talk directly to God and get Gabriel's answer.  This form of communication  gives us the first look that we may not be in fantasy anymore, Toto.  If Jovah could laugh, which I doubt, he'd be busting a gut when he handed Gab's angelica's name to him.  From there, Gabriel just can't get out of catastrophes surrounding his wife-to-be.  That would be Rachel, who has lived from hell and, well.  Deeper into hell, and some more hell after that, can't conceive of an angel wanting anything of her--not that she can trust.  In fact, Rachel had some specific plans about her life once.  None of it involved leading a Gloria.

Before I go any further, I have to admit I originally read these books in the wrong order.  I read the last, The Alleluia Files on a whim on vacaction, got so excited I hotfooted it to the now mourned Border's and bought Archangel.  Then I stopped.  I never read the  middle or reread the end as I had planned.  However, since Shinn created such a fabulous confection of fused fantasy and sci fi it had to belong in my blogs.  So, determinedly, I start from the beginning and march right straight through to the end again this time.

Sharon Shinn has some of the most amazing world building abilities I have ever seen.  I'm also still surprised someone didn't firebomb her for her liberal use of the Bible--just tweaked a little--with so many angels and humans acting far from some people's supposed Godly.  Let's break in to say that I read a book with an angel on the cover.  I'm not an atheist by any means, but it is a testament to Shinn that I ever read these books.  I hate Hallmark angels, which is probably why I liked these.  She had the masterful ability to evoke, and yet not let us rest on our assumptions.  If I studied the Bible more, I'd probably have even more about her nuances in her, but I don't so let's move on.

She created the seeds for much to come in this book without out getting my hated series-syndrome where the important overall arc made this one feel watered to stretch the distance.  I teeter on saying that, though.  In this book, I feel like for the exception of one noble girl, if I say where they are from--what province, I can pretty much predict behavior.  All except the frowned upon, nomadic, enslaved, and so very obviously the only people of color in the book, the Edori.  Oh, wait.  They were all good.  Shinn delicately set up a complex world, including the hints of science fiction, that is obviously going somewhere.  I have to say that.  I am a character girl, not a world girl, so when I say her world creation could pretty much pull me through the book alone, that really says something.

But I'm a character girl, and this book so was not.  Every character except the two main basically had one dimension, if that.  Gabriel had the fatal Shakespearen flaw of being too proud and assertive about his thoughts, which of course, are flaws, we are told, his angelica was specifically chosen to compliment.  Or change.  Which saves us from a Shakespearen tragedy but puts us into my second to most hated way of loving someone in book (first involves violence.  Not sexy, consensual violence).  Rachel, understandably filled with rage and in deep need of a therapist after the life she's had, thinks she hates Gabriel but really loves Gabriel so she hates Gabriel.  Honest.  That's not a spoiler.  That's an um-duh effect.  Gabriel is just as bad.  Eventually we start working out those kinks and I won't spoil the ending, since who knows what way they will sort it out?  But I didn't feel a lot of growth here.  I felt sections where growth might of happened but it didn't go anywhere.  There was no arc to these two, together or apart.  I wanted to see some more solid break throughs that went somewhere, building, instead of falling back on the same behavior over and over.  I know that is the way we really progress, but she has six months and four hundred pages.  Chop chop!

So if I were a plot girl?  Let's just say the book got me once:  I was surprised at the first addition of science fiction.  I was still gripped enough by her story and world and even characters, so that I read how she created such a windy road because the how was interesting.  However, by craning my head a little, I could actually see every major plot point lined up in a row all the way to the last chapter.

Style girl?  My usual pet peeves.  She has this weird, disassociated style that comes from not grounding in any one character's voice in her scenes, quite often.  Instead of feeling close to everyone, I feel close to no one.

I know, I know.  I put the world stuff first so it looks like I panned her after that.  Remember when you look at this that a) her world building is some of the most amazing I have ever seen and that b) all these details I whined about:  the love/hate relationship, which I have been told many people don't mind or even like.  The fact the plot was put together in pretty predictable ways.  The fact she had some voice issues.  Most of the time, on a fantasy novel, I would simply ignore these.  Because I can tell how intricately and beautifully her mind works, I'm holding her to a higher standard.  Next up, Jovah's Angel.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Writing Partners

Always traveling these days!  This time with no internet.  Just got back from a trip up north to a cabin with my writing partner RoseAnna.  We've been doing this since we were kids.  I strongly belief in writing partners, and not just for fiction.  Although RoseAnna writes fiction, she spent most of the week working on her dissertation.  I also strongly believe in writing retreats.  Sure, we took a hike every day, though most of what we talked about was our writing even then, and we went to the Amish bakery.  But really, we got up every day, got our breakfasts and caffeine, and worked.  We worked until six or so.  Hiked, and then had dinner.  Then sometimes went back to work, and then sometimes knocking off for the night.

Writing retreats are great because you are out of your normal.  Sure, a cabin still has dishes you might wash, and a toilet you have to flush with a bucket of creek water.  But I feel less likely to decide I have to scrub the bathroom with a toothbrush in order to avoid my writing.  On top of that, my writing feels shiny and new just because I'm not stuck in my own house.  You go for long walks and think.  Your responsibilities are down to the basics.

Writing partners are great, too.  For one, someone else is sitting in the room working, and you feel like a jerk not working, too.  For another, when you get stuck, you can interrupt the other person and ask that when they get to a good stopping point you can talk.  Then you can talk about what you are stuck on--get fresh eyes immediately and help each other out.

Writing is never as mystic as readers may think it may be, or writers may want it to be.  We have a series of skills and tools to get there just like every other job.