Book Critique: The Sky Village
If it weren’t for one thing, The Sky Village by Monk and Nigel Ashland would be one of my favorite books this year. The world—or worlds, technically, since the two main characters are in very different environments—is really inventive and imaginative; the desires and struggles of the characters is believable; and the goals and pacing of the story are well laid out. Monk and Nigel Ashland, pen names for one Chris Rettstatt, are great writers. (Should I talk about them in the plural sense if it’s really one guy? I don’t know.)
The book reminded me a lot of The Floating Islands, a fantastic book that I read last fall. Both have a fully formed world with a rich history. You step into the story and you feel like you are stepping into, well, a fully formed world. There’s no questioning in the author as they navigate the world and its details. It feels complete and you just get to go along for the ride.
However, The Sky Village didn’t do a key thing that The Floating Islands did: introduce me to the world.
The Sky Village starts right in the middle of action and I had no clue what was going on. Mei’s father is handing her over to someone from the village and they are talking about something called meks and there was a village attacked and Mei’s mother is gone and her father is giving her a book and now he’s running because something is after him. A whole lot is dumped on you in the beginning, and I had to make sure I was reading the first book and not the middle of the series.
It’s a tough balance, because your characters don’t need an introduction to the world. But your readers do. Somehow you have to explain things to them without being talky, but at the same time they need a sense of where they are and what’s happening. Graceling, by Kristin Cashore did this really well by having the main character try to figure out a plot to kidnap someone, which thus meant she had to think about the nations and rulers, as well as political and societal situations. It felt natural to what the character would have to do, but at the same time introduced me to the world and who was in it.
There is no such introduction to The Sky Village. You are thrown in and expected to keep up. Now, granted, I eventually figured things out and got into the story, but the whole time I felt slightly off-balance and wondered if I was missing something. If there was just a little explaining to help me get my footing, that feeling wouldn’t have been there and I think I would have enjoyed the book much more.
So when you are bringing a reader into a world for the first time, don’t overload them with details and names. They need something to ground them. The Lord of the Rings starts in a crazy world, but Bilbo Baggins is basically an Englishman with some fantasy stuff added on. It’s the familiarity of Englishness that helps you feel comfortable, and then Bilbo launches off into a new world.
The problem with The Sky Village is that Mei, through whom I’m seeing the story, knows about things that I don’t know. Things are being said that I don’t get but she’s nodding because she does, and I’m lost.
So make sure when you start a story, your reader has some sort of introduction to the world.
- Publisher: Candlewick Press
- Jacket illustrations: Jeff Nentrup
Balancing reality and imagination
As I’m writing my novel, I keep running into physics problems with what I want to have happen. I want characters to be able to do a certain thing, but physics and reality simply won’t allow it. Thus I’m wrestling with finding some sort of way to give even the slightest explanation that will make it work.
That is always a tough one, especially for sci fi. My knee-jerk reaction was “you can always forget real life and just imagine it all!” But the more I contemplate this, the more I know that’s not true—the basic preset of the sci fi genre is that you have SOME element of real science in it.
I think the biggest answer here would be just this: be consistent. Even in a fantasy, where you can literally imagine whole knew worlds and make up the physical laws as you go—you must be consistent. Star Wars, for example, isn’t very “sciencey”—but it’s consistent. So imagine whatever you like—just make sure there’s a reason for it in the story, and that you consistently treat the story with those rules.
That last sentence feels spot on.
Book Critique: Insurgent
While reading Veronica Roth’s first published book, Divergent, I noticed a couple things that she did very well. First, she had a well-formed world. There were distinct parts and they operated, thought, and spoke in distinct ways. She also put a dystopian version of Chicago to use.
Second, she set up goals for her character. It’s easy to get lost in a story to know where to go and how to keep things moving, especially in your first book. It helped Veronica immensely, then, to give Beatrice, the main character, three distinct goals to reach. The goals each had timelines, so that provided a good structure for the book to follow.
Insurgent suffers from the lack of clear goals, I think. As the reader, I didn’t know where Beatrice was heading, so it was a little harder to stay interested. It’s a hard balance, but somehow I think you need to give the reader a glimpse of where the story’s going so they have a point ahead to reach for, but you don’t want to reveal too much or there’s no excitement of discovery.
With Insurgent, I felt like I didn’t know what was up ahead. Beatrice had to fight for things, and I kind of got her logic, but not quite, and so I had to keep myself going in the story rather than it pull me along.
Because of this, the logic of what happened didn’t fit together that well. First they are running from the city, but then they are running back, and then hiding in one of the faction’s headquarters, but then they are leaving, and didn’t quite make sense. While you don’t want to repeat yourself, and some stories don’t easily lend themselves to goals, it really helped keep Divergent moving and I think it would have helped Veronica in Insurgent as well.
I also was thrown into the action because the story picks up right where Divergent leaves off. By the time I read the second book, though, I had forgotten everyone’s names and had a hard time keeping up with who people were. And boy, were there a lot of people! I felt like I was supposed to remember their significance but couldn’t.
One last thing was the use of the present tense voice. It worked really well in the first book because Beatrice is thrown into the action and has to figure things out in the moment. Insurgent, on the other hand, is more reflective and slower paced, so the voice at times felt awkward. It’s not very exciting, for example, to hear how Beatrice walks down the hall thinking about what to do and then sits in the cafeteria eating a sandwich. There’s not much action there to be pulled into with a present tense voice.
All this being said, Veronica is still a good writer. The book still works, and I think she’s set up nicely for a third book (potentially called Detergent?). And I think one of the story’s strong points is illustrated by the fact that I wrestled with whether or not to say Beatrice of Tris in this critique. The Divergent series is very much about a girl wrestling with which aspect of herself and of her culture to go along with, and I think that’s what makes it a relevant story for today’s teens.
So I learned that clear goals help the characters and the reader stay engaged; the present tense voice works best with a story that has to react to action in the moment; and when starting a sequel keep in mind that readers probably won’t remember all the details from the last book.
- Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
- Jacket art and design: Joel Tippie
Book Critique: Such Wicked Intent
The first book in Kenneth Oppel’s series about young Frankenstein, This Dark Endeavor, was one of the most tense books I have ever read. From start to finish I worried about the characters and literally cringed at times as I waited to see what would happen. When the second book came out, Such Wicked Intent, I immediately reserved it at the library.
It finally came and I read it all in one late-night binge. There comes a certain point around 2am when you look at the book and see that you’re over halfway done, and you decide you may as well finish it. So I did, and here are my thoughts.
As with the first book, Kenneth’s prose continues to be sharp and tight. By sharp I mean his characters are quick with their retorts, are smart and often times witty. By tight I mean there is no extra fluff. The plot moves along at a perfect pace, in my opinion. Every chapter leads into the next. The words pull you deeper into the story and there really aren’t good stopping points.
I really felt the difference between tight and loose storytelling when I read Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance earlier this year. Sections felt pointless in that book, whereas you would be hard pressed to find things to remove from Such Wicked Intent and Kenneth’s other stories. (Side note: I thoroughly respect Christopher and Inheritance. I do, however, think it could have been a lot tighter.)
Don’t confuse “tight” with “fast-paced”, though. If you’re not careful the story can certainly zip by and you can barely keep up. Kenneth has a great balance between the two, and as with the rest of his books, I felt like I was safely in the hands of an expert storyteller.
However, Such Wicked Intent was not as tense for me as was This Dark Endeavor. I think the difference is this: in the first book you are never quite sure if the alchemy will work, but in the second book you know for certain that they are traveling into the spirit world.
What is the difference? I think it’s because in the first book not only are the characters in danger, but there’s this awful sense that maybe, just maybe, the alchemy will work, that they’ll mix together the potion and it actually will really work. That wonder and doubt creates a tension through the whole book as you anxiously wait for them to collect the ingredients and then go through arcane rituals to prepare it.
In Such Wicked Intent, that specific type of tension isn’t there. The spirit world is definitely there and the ritual they attempt actually works. Thus there is no mystery or suspense to see if it will work.
Was the story still tense? Yes, because of the jealous, hungry energy that Victor, the main character, has through the story and how well Kenneth writes it. But the overall sense of it was different from This Dark Endeavor. Because of that I don’t think I’ll buy the second book, while I will buy the first one.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
- Jacket design: Lucy Ruth Cummins
September 5th, 2012 – Part 2
Yes, this is the second writing journal post for September 5th. That’s what I get for posting the first at 12am this morning. If you can, please ignore the inconsistency and stare at this simple fact: writing a book is possible.
The task seems insurmountable. Not only do you have to write lots of words, you have to do it well; you also have to have a plot that goes somewhere; you need characters that we can love; you need something that hasn’t been done before so people will be interesting; and that’s all before you try to take it out and sell it!
But here’s the thing: you can’t focus on that huge mountain of selling before you’ve done writing. And you can’t do the act of writing without sitting down each day and putting words on the page.
As I wrote earlier this morning, I have begun a writing schedule that will help me finish my book’s first draft by Christmas. I need to write 600 words five days a week. On Monday I took a deep breath and started. This was going to be rough, but I set my jaw and put my head down.
I’m writing the story by hand, so yesterday after my 40-minute writing session during my lunch break I typed up what I had written. It was over 1000 words.
Tonight I typed up what took me 30 minutes to write today. It was only three sides in my notebook, so I thought I may need to write more to meet my word count. Turns out I don’t need to. Because today I wrote 782 words.
Three sides! In my notebook that’s only the front and back of one page and the front of the next page!
I’m not going to kid myself. It will take persistence. It will take self-control to sit down for lunch and pull out my notebook instead of someone else’s novel. Some days—like tomorrow—I’ll go to lunch with someone and will have to meet my word count some other time.
But it’s doable.
The only thing separating you from finishing your story is you making time and doing it.
September 5th, 2012
It’s September. It has almost been one year since I got the idea for my current book. Crazy how time goes by so fast.
Today I started a vigorous writing schedule to get the first draft of my novel done by the end of the year. For me that means getting it done before Christmas, because I work as a video editor for a Christian ministry that puts on a huge end-of-the-year conference. I most likely won’t have time to write during those last couple weeks in December, so my target date is December 15.
In order to do that, I need to write about 600 words a day. I did the math a while ago and that’s what it came out to. In order to get that number I looked at how many days I want to write per week, how many days until my target date, and how many words I want to write in total. I’m usually not a big fan of math, but in this case it made a big goal seem doable. (Jody Hedlund pointed out this trick to me.)
Another thing that helped make the goal seem doable was today’s writing session. I pulled out my notebook during my lunchbreak and wrote for about 40 minutes. When I typed up the pages this evening, I discovered I had written over 1,000 words! I was shocked, but happy. I wasn’t writing particularly well, and it felt like I didn’t write that much, but it turned out to be more than I needed. Praise the Lord!
I can’t kid myself, though. This will take hard work. Some days I’m sure it will feel like carving words in granite, and some days I’m sure I will have to literally force myself to pick up pen and paper. But if I want to get this done, I have to do it. (Between you and me, there’s a very real chance I won’t actually finish by December, what with life and work and other projects. BUT I will certainly be further along by December than if I hadn’t tried.)
On a different note, those of you who follow this blog (all 93 of you—thanks!) may have noticed a new design. I really liked the old one, which is why I kept it for a long time. But I’m always watching out for a theme that has style yet presents the words in a intuitive, easy-to-read way, and Nostalgia by cubicle17 did just that. I hope it makes the reading experience more enjoyable for you.
Alrighty. Onward to more writing!