Thomas Senlin is the quiet headmaster of a small town’s modest school, recently married to the spirited Marya. For their honeymoon, they travel to the famed Tower of Babel, the centre of civilisation – but are separated in the crowded marketplace at the Tower’s base. In his attempts to find Marya, Senlin meets a cast of rogues and mysterious figures, survives strange experiences, and rises through the enigmatic, immense Tower.
One of the real strengths of Bancroft’s prose, which I noticed early in the book, was how he used it to reveal Senlin’s personality. On the very first page there is a metaphor comparing shale hills to shattered blackboards, imagery that reveals that Senlin is a teacher even before his name is mentioned in the text. The book sparkles with these allusions, bringing its protagonist to life – and subtly revealing the changes he undergoes as a result of his experiences.
And what experiences they are. The Tower of Babel is a marvel, a world as complex as any I have read, stuffed with strange technologies and bizarre entertainments, social nuances and odd rules. It is populated by predatory merchants, smooth talkers, bitter cynics, self-deluding hedonists and sinister figures. Everyone Senlin meets wants something from him, one way or another, and so he has a difficult path to navigate to avoid the numerous pitfalls laid out for such tourists as he is in the beginning.
Throughout the novel there are intriguing hints that there is something a lot bigger going on than a man in search of his wife. The Tower is a complex world populated by chess masters and manipulators such that Senlin was entirely unprepared for – as was I when I began reading. It drew me on, even as the core plot of Senlin’s search for Marya did.
I rate Senlin Ascends 9/10. It is an engaging adventure set in a wonderfully detailed world. I look forward to reading Arm of the Sphinx.
On Monday I decided I wasn’t happy with what I’d written so far this month and scrapped it to start again (though I’m still counting my earlier wordcount towards the month’s total).
The main problem with the story as I’d written it was that my protagonist, Fiarra, wasn’t making the decisions. Things were happening, and she was reacting to them. Not just reacting, but reacting in a passive manner – watching and waiting, not deciding to take action. It made the story boring. It made her boring. And it created a contradiction in her character, because my goal at this stage of the story is to have her at odds with others in the group, and she was just getting on with her work while being disdainful about gossip and small talk.
If I’m honest, it was obvious that the story wasn’t working several days before I decided to restart. I attempted to make it work by giving her more decisions, but I’d already put her on a path of passivity and it was hard to get her off that.
So I went back to the start and thought about how things might have reached the stage they need to be at the start of the story to get where I want to go. One of the important aspects of Fiarra in the Pact – a coalition of about a hundred people who have secured territory in the abandoned town of Royal Newport in the aftermath of the eruptions and evacuation – was that she felt that she didn’t fit in. But if that’s the case, why is she there at all? Why has she joined this group? The original version had her living in a former inn, along with several other members of the Pact, and a friendship with Pact leader Embry that dated to after the Pact had been formed.
I scrapped this background, and decided that the Pact had begun in Fiarra’s street, right outside her own house, and that she had met Embry during the crisis. With Fiarra living in her own home, there’s a stronger contrast between the familiarity of the house and the street she grew up in, and the strangers that have arrived there to join the Pact, who have now moved into the homes of Fiarra’s deceased neighbours.
Her role in the origin of the Pact also enables me to give her an independent, even anti-authoritarian streak – not taking part in communal tasks or adhering to curfews – that Embry allows her a certain amount of leeway on. And that in turn means that when she hears rumours about someone she used to know, she can act upon them instead of sitting alone thinking about the nature of loss in the context of a volcano having killed almost everyone she knew only a few months earlier.
I wonder if this is evidence I didn’t do enough planning in the first place. I certainly didn’t plan for Fiarra to be passive in the first two chapters, but that’s how it turned out. I think perhaps the process of writing it enabled me to identify what the problem was and how best to fix it; if I had done more planning work back in March perhaps I would have noticed that Fiarra was too passive, but I don’t think I would have come up with the same solution, and I may have ended up with other problems instead.
As I continue to attempt to refine and improve my process for writing, this is something that I will have to consider.
This week has been all about plotting. Last year when I was working on Horrible Monster, I was rather hands-off with plotting: I had a general idea of where I wanted things to go, and a few key scenes, but the rest was left to be worked out as I was writing.
The problem with that was that I slowed down hugely when I didn’t know where things were going, and on several occasions struck out pages and pages – days’ worth of writing – when I decided I didn’t like what I’d written. And now I’m left with a first draft that needs a mountain of work doing to it before it’s even close to completion.
For the Volcano Island project I’m working on this April for Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided I need to do a lot more planning.
A few times over the last decade or so, I’ve attempted the Snowflake method. It’s a process of planning where you start with a very condensed summary of the story and the protagonist, and expand upon these summaries with every step, going from a sentence to a paragraph to a page by adding detail and nuance. In general, I’ve found it a bit rigid and stale when I’ve followed it exactly, but I think the general principle is sound.
With the Volcano Island project, I think I’ve got three stories there. Maybe more, but I can’t think that far in advance at the moment. I wrote very brief summaries of the three stories, and I have expanded upon the first by breaking the overall plot down into chapters and outlining those, as well as the protagonist’s personal journey, in about a paragraph each.
I have now started writing longer chapter summaries, one page each in my A5 notebook (so roughly 100-130 words per chapter), and I think this will be as far as I go for plot. For character, though, I might go to three or four A5 pages, at least for Fiarra, the protagonist, and Macky, the second most important character, plus a page each for another five or six characters.
Striking a balance with planning is important to me. I’ve done too little in the past; but when I do too much I soon tire of the project. I’m hoping this level of planning will be just right to give me the structure I need without sapping my passion for the project.
In April I will be attempting Camp NaNoWriMo. I’ve signed up, added my novel details and set my cabin preferences. My target is 30,000 words and the story I’ll be working on is a fresh attempt at the Penal Colony story I was working on way back in 2013.
There’s still a lot to do before April 1st, though. In the past I’ve tried to “pants” various NaNoWriMo challenges – to write with minimal preparation, flying by the seat of my pants (or trousers, since I’m British). It doesn’t work for me; I get so far and don’t know where to go next, and end up dithering around with long conversations between characters, or meaningless sequences of events that I later delete once I’ve made a decision about the direction I want to go. That was the downfall of Kell’s Adventures and Kell & Atoni: no direction and no plan.
But I’ve also not found much success with an outlining-heavy approach. I get bored of going over the minutiae of characters or the world, or I feel I’ve covered the plot in so much detail in the plan that I don’t need or want to write it anymore because there’s nothing more I can add. It becomes a chore. There’s no exploration, no discovery, no fun to it. And what’s the point if it’s not fun to write, at least some of the time?
With Horrible Monster, I took a middle ground. It was, perhaps, rather too much on the pantsing side of the scale – there were passages thousands of words long, covering multiple scenes, which I removed, and started again from a point I’d written a week or longer earlier. As for the ending, I hadn’t made a decision about that until literally a week before I finished the novel.
So with this story I’ll be doing more planning than I did for Horrible Monster, including working out the ending and writing chapter summaries. In order to distinguish this version from the 2013 version in my file system, I’ll be using a new working title – Volcano Island. A huge amount has changed, including most of the key characters (though I’ve kept the protagonist and a couple of other characters) and the plot. I see the original Penal Colony plot as being potentially the foundation for a sequel, if I get that far, but it’s not the story I want to tell right now, and the story I do want to tell needs to happen earlier in the chronology.
On my to-do list for the rest of this month, I have:
Draw maps showing the islands before and after the major eruptions – while the story takes place after most of the eruptions, I want an idea of where there used to be land, towns, ports and other features as my characters will encounter buried buildings and so on. I’m also considering having an eruption during the story, so I’d like to map out how that changes the islands too.
Create characters lists to draw upon when needing to use less developed/important characters – I’ve decided on the names and a few characteristics of my main cast, but there will be other characters involved too. I’ll need to sort them into groups, create short descriptions of them and have them ready to put into action when I need them so I don’t have to make this stuff up when I’m writing, and potentially lose flow.
Create a more detailed chapter-by-chapter summary. I’ve already got a very brief chapter outline, with about 2 lines of text per chapter describing the main events. I want to expand this into about 150-200 words per chapter, plus a list of the immediate goals and motives of the characters in the chapter to help me with interactions.
There’s plenty to be getting on with, but not so much it can’t be done by the end of March.
The Second God is the seventh book in Pauline M Ross’s richly fantastical Brightmoon world, and serves as a sequel to The Fire Mages’ Daughter. Five years after a devastating war with the Blood Clans, Drina, her lover Arran and her husband, Ly-haam the living god of the Blood Clans, have settled into a routine, but when a second living god appears in the Clanlands and a mysterious golden army attacks Bennamore’s neighbours in the east, Drina, Arran and Ly must bring all their powers to bear, united as one, to protect Bennamore and aid its allies.
One characteristic held by many good books, I think, is to want to keep reading it after you’ve already finished it. That is how I felt last night as I climbed into bed – “just one chapter, maybe two, then I’ll go to sleep,” I thought, before remembering I’d already finished reading it. That’s not to say the book felt incomplete – far from it, it ended brilliantly – but that I could easily continue reading more in that world, and in Ross’s style, if there were more to read.
Ross has a great strength in her style of prose. It’s engaging, well-paced and eminently readable. She has the skill to know when plain language is needed, but the vocabulary to expand when the scene calls for it.
The Second God is a well-balanced adventure. Drina’s position within society, as the Drashona’s heir, lends itself to the political elements of the plot well, and Ross skillfully avoids the pitfall of making the political elements dry or uneventful, masterfully weaving in these parts of the story with the more hands-on aspects of Drina’s role: flying about the world on the back of a giant eagle to observe, discuss, fight or learn.
Whenever I read books by Pauline M Ross I am delighted to explore more of her world. It is an abundantly complex world about which there is always more to discover. Its magic is enchanting and it is filled with cultures whose development and society are influenced in different ways by that magic and its various facets, as well as geography and history. The beauty of the world is enhanced by the optimism with which Ross writes – even when circumstances are dire and threats loom, there is still a sense of joy and hope which brings a refreshing contrast to the gloomier outlooks of a lot of modern fiction.
As with all of Ross’s works, The Second God explores romantic relationships within different social frameworks to those found in Western Earth cultures, and this time takes it a step further than The Fire Mages’ Daughter by adding a new magical component. But as always, the romance is perfectly integrated into the plot, an essential element of it. As someone who tends not to read the Romance genre, I felt it was handled well.
The Second God is an exciting, captivating read showcasing Ross’s signature positivity, unconventional romance and inspired worldbuilding, with a strong plot and enjoyable characters. I rate it 9/10, and eagerly await the next one.
I received a free ARC in exchange for a review; and can only apologise that the review was so late.
Empire Games continues the Merchant Princes series, following on 17 years after the events of the earlier books. While the previous books’ protagonist, Miriam, continues as a major character, Empire Games introduces a new protagonist, Rita Douglas, a freelance actor living in a high-security America that’s aware of parallel timelines and extremely paranoid about terrorist attacks from world-walkers. Recruited by the Department of Homeland Security because of her world-walker genes, Rita finds herself railroaded into the role of a world-walking spy. But there’s a lot more going on in the parallel timeline than the US government anticipated.
I know, I’ve been radio silence for a while. It’s been a hectic time involving job hunting, job doing, Christmas, bereavement, house sitting, being ill, studying and more in the weeks since I last posted. This is not a thorough update, but rest assured that I have:
Continued to write daily since my last update
Read some more books since my last update, though not as many as I planned
I intended to post an update on my writing progress, and an end-of year post about what I’ve been reading, last month. I obviously didn’t get to them but something along those lines will probably be forthcoming once things settle back down again.
I also wanted to set out my goals for 2017, both in terms of reading and writing. I shall do that now.
Reading Goals 2017
In 2016 I managed probably more than 30 books, smashing my 26 book goal, but I didn’t quite manage the 50% female authors goal, I don’t think. I’d have to check, but I don’t think I got there. So this year that goal is back, and the book total goal is going up to 39, which is 3 books per 4 weeks – half way between 26 and 52.
Writing Goals 2017
I still intend to write daily, and work towards that million word mark, but for 2017 I want to be more focused on improving and on finishing. This will manifest in two key ways:
Finish “Horrible Monster”. I’ve got a first draft, and now I need to turn that into something more polished. I made a couple of false starts with a second draft in the first week of this year, but really I need to go back, reread what I’ve written, and create a chapter outline.
Improve my writing by studying others’ writing. This will focus on 12 books – one per month – which I have already read and want to understand better. Each month I will copy out an extended passage from that month’s book (a chapter, for example) by hand into an A4 notebook, specifically the right hand page, leaving the left page to make notes about what I observe in the process of copying. Authors will include Austen, Tolkien, Gemmell, Rowling, Wynne-Jones, O’Brian and more.
And I dare say this will manifest itself in the occasional blog post to highlight what I’m learning along the way.
I’ve been a bit lax on updates lately, but I’m here to catch up now.
My current total is 307,504/1,000,000, or 30.8%. So I’m nearly a third of the way there now. Since my last update some time ago, I have written:
September: 13,776 words
October: 14,822 words
November: 15,812 words
December until the 10th: 3,195 words
Over the last three and a bit months, I’ve worked on a range of stories, including time travel fanfiction (that’s not a typo where I missed a comma, that’s a fanfiction involving a time travelling character from the modern world ending up on a British naval hired vessel in 1813; followers of my reading updates can guess exactly which ship that might have been), preparatory stories to help me get into the world and characters of Kell and Atoni, and my NaNoWriMo project, Kell & Atoni.
It is this latter which I wish to talk about.
It’s crap. I restarted it in the middle of November (don’t worry, I still counted the words I’d written). And I’m not happy with the restart either. I’ve been trying to work out why that might be today, and I think I have an answer: lack of preparation. Or at least, the right kind of preparation. I’ve got no outline, no theme, no goal for this story except to write a fantasy story in the same stylistic tradition as the Aubrey-Maturin novels, with a friendship much like that model at its core.
But it’s clear I need a more structured approach than I have been using. For now, I’m putting the project aside while I develop not only that structure, but also a deeper understanding of what I want from the story and the source material I wish to emulate. I also need to better develop the characters. At the moment they are barely distinguishable from any protagonist I’ve ever written, and it’s clear to me now that I have a significant weakness in that area.
I’ve got a short project planned in response to a challenge on /r/fantasywriters, so I’ll be working on that for at least a few days this month. The challenge is to use a stone age setting, which is something I’ve played with for a while but never quite got anything working (including one story in which Kell discovered a stone circle used by mammoths as scratching posts). So if nothing else I’ll have fun.
Beyond that, I need to work on exercises that enable me to develop the characters of Kell and Atoni and practice writing their voices.
I’m feeling rather lost with my writing at the moment, but it’s about time I got back on track so I’ll be working hard in the near future to move forward. Funny, I always seem more motivated with hobbies when I have less time for them, and the same is true now – I’ve got a temp job that just started which is full time, in addition to my existing part time job, and of course with Christmas fast approaching I’ve got a lot to sort out in the way of gifts and cards and decorations. So we’ll see how that goes.
Yes, I get it, Halloween is a bit late to decide this. It’s fine, I decided weeks ago. I even planned out a few “leading up to” blog posts I would post over the last two weeks. It’s just things have been pretty busy lately and unfortunately that has meant blogging has taken the hit as being pretty far down the priorities list. Job hunting, dealing with a car that keeps breaking down, feeding my parents’ cat while they’ve been away, and various other pressing issues have taken precedence.
Anyway, I will be attempting NaNoWriMo. I will be writing a story based on last year’s NaNoWriMo, but with some significant changes. Here’s a blurb:
Since the great city of Caer burned and Kell did not in spite of being in the middle of it, and subsequently being saved from a mob by a man magically bound to the Brown River and somehow part of it, she’s been looking for others like her, others touched by magic. Leaving Shen to search along the banks of his river, Kell has crossed an immense plain to reach the White River, hoping to find another like Shen there, or at least someone who has heard of others like her.
Atoni is a princess, one of many nieces and nephews of the king of Porroa, and like all her siblings and cousins, she has a role in the structure of the family and government of Porroa: the Deputy Minister for Architecture and Construction. Her uncle the King wants to build the greatest monument the world has ever seen, but with the arrival of a lone traveller from the Brown River it’s clear that the world is a great deal bigger than anyone in Porroa ever realised. Atoni is sent on a mission to record the greatest monuments of the Brown River cultures, and establish initial diplomatic relations with any she feels Porroa could trade with, so that her uncle’s ambitions can be fulfilled and her own legend can begin.
When Kell and Atoni team up, they are ready for the adventures and travels that await them.
Now that we’re well into the series, with all the key components set up in previous episodes, episode 5 should have given a sense of the true threat of the antagonist, Amon, and his Equalist movement. Instead it felt like a slow-down, a filler episode.
There are two threads running through episode 5: the love triangle and the probending tournament. They’re quite well interwoven, with the emotional impacts of the former affecting the latter. But there’s no real threat. Let’s get into it.
The episode starts with snow, showing the passage of time and developing a cosy atmosphere. As the Fire Ferrets come in for a team huddle to discuss their training session, looks between characters reveal that Bolin likes Korra, Korra like Mako, and Mako feels uncomfortable. After the training session ends, we see Bolin’s terrible but endearing flirtation technique. He later discusses Korra with Mako, and it’s clear from Mako’s responses, in which he compares Korra to Asami then tries to put Bolin off dating Korra (telling him it’s a bad idea to date teammates, which is good advice but backed up by an ulterior motive) shows that Mako isn’t committed to dating Asami and has feelings about Korra. Korra’s subsequent conversation with Jinora, Ikki and Pema demonstrates she’s interested in Mako too.
By this point, the whole first five minutes of the episode has been focused on romance, with the probending side of it taking a background role. Finally some tournament action starts (and I’ll go into more detail about that in a moment), but it doesn’t last – after Korra is unconvincingly rejected by Mako, she goes on a date with Bolin for fun.
But before their next match she gets in an argument with Mako about their feelings for one another, kisses him and breaks Bolin’s heart when he sees them. This leads to poor teamwork in the probending arena, before they all realise it’s not worth it and make up. At the end of the episode, the romantic situation is effectively reset, as if none of it happened.
This romantic subplot is the problem I had with this series the first time I watched it. We’ve got a love triangle here, and it’s so predictable. But it’s also so unnecessary, and that goes doubly for this particular episode. If we just have Bolin start to see Korra as a friend instead of a romantic interest organically through simply knowing her better, and keep Korra and Mako with unacknowledged mutual crushes, very little would have needed to be changed in later episodes to keep the romantic subplot alive. I don’t feel a romantic subplot is necessary at all, but someone did and I can understand the motivation on that, but I think its role in episode 5 is so overdone for cheap drama.
And without the romantic subplot there would have been more time in this episode to set up Tahno and the Wolfbats as a great tournament rival.
So let’s get back to earlier in the episode: at the end of the Fire Ferrets’ training session, Asami brings the new uniforms. She’s tied into the Krew through her father’s sponsorship of the team and her romantic involvement with Mako, and it’s clear she will continue to be an important character, though in this episode she’s still a minor character.
At the team’s first match, the commentator mentions the improvement they demonstrate, and attributes this to more training, as evidenced by the Avatar’s withdrawal from active duty in Councilman Tarrlok’s taskforce. We get the impression that some time has passed and that Korra has been hard at work focusing on her training. The Fire Ferrets’ convincing win illustrates this, and they’re through to the next round.
When Korra and Bolin are out for a date, Korra finally meets Tahno for the first time – though if she’s been reading her newspapers cover to cover, she’ll already be aware of him as his photograph was in the paper in a previous episode. Tahno is the leader of the White Falls Wolfbats probending team, the reigning champions of the tournament for the last three years, and this encounter shows him as arrogant, vain and not above using underhand tactics, like trying to bait Korra into hitting him, which would disqualify the Fire Ferrets from the tournament.
It’s a sign of Korra’s restraint, of her personal development under Tenzin’s guidance, that she refused to be baited – but she’s not lost her attitude, and rather than getting into a fight that would have cost her team dearly, she got Naga to roar at Tahno, showing him that she was entirely capable of standing up to him without breaking any rules.
The Fire Ferrets go on to their next match in a state of disorder thanks to arguments and resentments arising from the romantic subplot – Bolin feeling betrayed by Mako, Korra and Mako angry at one another in spite of their kiss, Korra feeling guilty for having hurt Bolin. They do not perform well, but are saved at the last minute, going through as a result of Korra’s sheer strength and the skills she has learned as a result of their intensive training.
With some more time in the episode created by the removal of the romantic subplot, it would have been possible to see more of the Wolfbats, including seeing them in action in the arena against another team – it would, after all, have been a good idea for the Fire Ferrets to observe other matches in order to identify their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. And not just in the arena, but outside it too – how do they interact with fans or treat other teams in public encounters? The show runners could have built up a picture of the threat the Wolfbats pose to the Fire Ferrets, and perhaps go more into Tahno as a direct rival to Korra.
Instead all we see is the confrontation in the restaurant, and the Wolfbats’ opponents being taken off in stretchers after the shortest match ever, which all happened off-screen while the Fire Ferrets were getting over their earlier romantic conflicts.
Overall this episode feels like a step down. Fluff. There’s a dangerous criminal out there who is capable of removing a person’s bending, a man with thousands of followers willing to do actual harm to bending leaders and in particular the Avatar, and what does that Avatar occupy her time with? Crushing on Mako and trying to win a competition. The commentator might appreciate her attitude to training, but I can imagine various journalists writing scathing articles about the Avatar taking time out of fulfilling her duties to Republic City to play a game.
Without the romantic subplot of this episode, there was a lot more it could have achieved in developing Tahno as a character. It could have also acknowledged the threat Amon poses, perhaps with reports that Equalist activity is down, or that a prominent Equalist has been captured or an Equalist hideout has been raided and resources captured – something to show that Tarrlok’s taskforce is active, that the threat is currently reduced and that as such it would not be too inappropriate for the Avatar to focus on probending instead of stopping Amon.
Without Amon even being mentioned, and Korra’s activities attempting to stop him barely being brushed upon, there isn’t any sense of threat in this episode. The romantic drama feels empty and pointless, especially once it’s been resolved. And Tahno and the Wolfbats don’t feel like a serious threat even just to their tournament chances, even though they’re reigning champions, because we don’t see them fighting and cannot compare it to the Fire Ferrets’ matches.