Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review Club: Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide by Aaron Allston

(This is the April 2005 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list, click the link at the end of this review.)

A couple weeks back on Do Some Damage, I wrote about one of the rabbit trails we all take through the shrubbery that is the internet. The thing at the end of my trail was the wonderful happenstance discovery of Aaron Allston’s book, Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide. For those who may have missed it, the following text from the opening page is what hooked me:

Do any of these statements sound familiar?

"I come up with good ideas, but I can't develop them into complete novels." [Yes! That’s me!]
"I'm going along fine with my novel, and then it just stops. I can't get it moving again." [Again, yeah!]
"I know what happens from start to finish, but I can't figure out what it's really about." [Sometime, yeah.]
"I know what's supposed to happen and what it's supposed to mean, but my story is just not working." [Still me, a bit]
"My novel is missing something and I can't figure out what it is." [Sure.]
If any of the above applies to you, Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide can help. [From Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide, page 1]

Well, I’m here to tell you that I’ve finished this book and it is exactly what I needed. You see, I’m stuck on a story that I’m writing and I’m trying to figure out which way it needs to go (bullet point #2). Moreover, bullet point #1 is a thing I struggle with as well.

Allston breaks down his book into two large sections. The third section is the appendix. Part one is theory. Here is where he lays out, in detail, many of the concepts most of us already know: What is a scene, the basics of plotting, the four elements of plots, etc. But where this book differs from others I’ve read is in two very important ways. One, Allston gives you exercises! Yes, you have homework. Some of these exercises might be basic, but for a beginning writer (or one who might be stuck), they are fantastic. There are exercises in each chapter (four chapters per section) and, while they start out as random exercises, they gradually turn to your own work. That’s a nice way of coming at your novel--in-progress with something akin to outside eyes.

But where this book really earns it’s keep is the sample novel. To illustrate his points, Allston uses lots of on-the-fly examples. Along the way, however, he starts a novel from scratch. He poses an idea for a story and takes it from idea all the way through two to three outlines! This was like a light bulb went off in my head. I’ve heard talk of outlining over and over and I could not get past the idea of the high school-type outline with Roman numerals. I was a bit ahead of the curve with my use of note cards, but seeing Allston ask the questions writers are suppose to ask, answer them, and then build his plot was so enlightening. Especially when he got to the outlining stage, just reading and trying to absorb all that is present in the outline is both daunting and exciting.

The book has done something I expected it to do: I couldn't wait to finish it so I could start applying it’s teachings on my own work.

Allston, who recently passed away, has left writers of all stages of development with a fantastic primer on how to plot and prepare for writing.

You can get the book via Amazon or at ArcherRat Publishing’s website (where you can get the epub or a PDF) If you head over there, Allston also posted some Author’s Notes where he examines the process he used to write a few of his short stories. If you get the Amazon Kindle version, you can highlight and annotate the book to your heart's content. I know I sure did. Afterwards, you can go and get your notes from the web and keep some of Allston's checklists on your desk while you write. Perfect!

This book, in its circuitous route, arrived at the time I most needed it. I'm now looking forward to applying Allston's processes in all my writing.
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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review Club: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

 (This is the February 2014 edition of Barrie Summy's book review club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

Look at that cover. Go ahead. Look at it. Study it. They say we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover but the cover is the first thing we see. And that cover right there stopped me cold. How awesome is that painting by artist Todd Lockwood. That was all it took for me to stop and read the dust jacket. Then, having read the synopsis, I was there.

A Natural History of Dragons is a fictional memoir of Isabella, Lady Trent, dragon naturalist. With the conceit that there are too many letters asking about various details of her life to answer, Lady Trent agrees to pen her memoirs.

I always hesitate to zero in on catchy summations, a member of my book group did it for me: Downton Abbey with dragons. I would tend to agree, but will point out that it's definitely season 1 of that show (circa 1912) rather than the current season (circa 1920s). If I were to place this tale in our history, I'd probably say around 1897 or so.

Author Marie Brennan sets her story in a fictional, fantasy world that is quite similar to ours. In fact, for a long time, I kept trying to find analogs. Isabella's home country is clearly England, but the rest are hidden just well enough that I could never be sure. At the beginning, I basically wished that Brennan really had set her story in an alternate version of our world, but I warned to the fantasy one. It lent the tale a once-upon-a-time quality.

Isabella, when the story opens, is a teenaged tomboy in an era that frowned on tomboys. In the world, when a dragon dies, it's bones disintegrate in the air. But as a girl, she preserves a sparkling, or small dragon. That experience, along with her reading of A Natural History of Dragons (a book within this novel), her lifelong fascination with dragons is born. While a willful young lady who chaffed (yet accepts) the strictures of her society, she finds a young husband who also must adhere to societal norms but recognizes his wife's longing. With the permission of a lord (see how closely this world resembles ours?), Jacob and Isabella Camherst journey to faraway Drustanev to find and study the local rockworms, or dragons.

This book is basically one of those Victorian era adventure novels of exploration, discovery, and science. The tale is all first person and follows Isabella's journey. She accompanies the expedition as an artist who will draw all that they find and as a compiler of notes. For those of you who read the digital or printed work--I listened to the audio--each main section of the novel has additional illustrations if dragons and the environs. They are splendid and really gave this novel it's vintage feel. But there enough of a modern sensibility for  us 21st Century readers. All the guys in my SF book club enjoyed the novel to some degree and I will definitely seek out the next novel in March.

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