Archive for May, 2011

The Uses of Weather in Fiction

Writing | Posted by Shannon
May 30 2011

The thunderstorm has passed. The sky is now a patchwork of grey and bright white, the wind rifles through wet leaves, the birds are beginning to chirp again.

So it’s a good time to discuss the uses of weather in fiction.

(1) Plot. An outbreak of weather can form the foundation of a plot, or twists large and small. From the tornado carrying Dorothy to Oz, to the blizzard driving the Nine Walkers into Moria, to a thunderstorm cutting out the lights in a hundred mystery novels, stories turn on weather.

(2) Engaging the reader. Details of weather give the reader’s imagination something solid to grasp. Say the sky was a deep, vivid blue – and the reader can see it, because the reader has seen it. Say a character can feel the snow biting his feet through his shoes – and the reader almost winces in sympathy. These are the little things that can draw readers into your world – and your characters.

(3) Keeping rhythm. Sometimes, in writing dialogue, you need to pause, or interrupt the monotony of he said/he said – in other words, keep the rhythm. There are many ways to do this; one is weather. Compare:

“It’s a sure thing. Leave now, have a look-see, be back before morning – and no one’s the wiser.”

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” Daniel answered.

With:

“It’s a sure thing. Leave now, have a look-see, be back before morning – and no one’s the wiser.”

Daniel’s eyes wandered to the sky, tracing the shaft of blue that cut between gleaming banks of clouds. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

(4) Ambiance. I could say that weather lends atmosphere to a novel, but that would be a bad pun. Think of it this way: Weather can do in a book what music does in a movie. It creates a feel, sets an emotional tone. The use cannot be – must not be – constant, but it can be gold. At just the right moment, a blazing sun – or a clash of thunder, fleeing clouds, the wind howling past – can strike just the right note.

(5) Analogy. This can be very similar to the last, but it’s not quite the same. Analogy corresponds first to events, not emotions; it makes weather an allegory to what is happening in the story. It often reflects the emotions of the characters, but not necessarily.

Let’s take an example. A hero swallows the bait his enemy laid out for him and, glancing up at the sky, sees clouds massing on the horizon. The storm gathering in the sky is an analogy to the storm gathering in the story. The readers – but not the hero – can feel the foreboding.

CSFF Blog Tour: Buyer Beware

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
May 18 2011

I was thinking of doing a post on religion today, but then I decided to gripe about the publisher instead.

When I looked through the Amazon reviews for The Ale Boy’s Feast, I saw comments by people who started the book without realizing it was part of a series. And I felt their pain. I have had my share of trouble on this front. I can’t recount the number of times I’ve stood in an aisle examining a novel, trying to determine if it was (1) part of a series, and (2) if so, which part.

This is important information, and publishers used to be upfront about it. “Volume 2 of a Three-Book Cycle,” declares Dark Force Rising, right beneath the title. “Sequel to Oxygen,” says The Fifth Man, right above the title. Crown of Fire proclaims its status on the front and back covers – prominently.

But these days publishers are getting furtive. The buyer who is beware will look carefully for any sign that a vital number has been omitted from the front cover. Take The Ale Boy’s Feast as an example. It is the complicated last book of a complicated series, and people deserve a fair warning.

And they don’t get one. Sure, some readers might take a hint from the two-page introduction. They might make a deductive leap that Auralia’s Colors is, in fact, a prequel; they might notice that that word, WHITE, has little grey words around it, read them – probably with the help of a magnifying glass – and wonder what “Auralia Thread” is supposed to be. They might even read the author’s bio.

That, as far as I know, is the only part of the book that made it clear it was a continuation. This is a sneaky place to squirrel away such a pertinent fact, because countless people never bother with the author’s biography. After all, there is usually nothing there that is useful in assessing a novel, let alone compelling. (“The author lives in California? I gotta read this book!”)

I concede that if you really examined The Ale Boy’s Feast, you would be able to learn its Number Four status. Doubtless the same is true of other books people have, in ignorance of their number, bought (or read, or rented).

But you know something? We readers don’t want to really examine every novel that interests us. And we don’t think we should have to. We think all you publishers should just let us know. We don’t like getting a book only to be sandbagged by the revelation that it is #2 (3, 4, 5 …) in a series, nor do we like to be made to parody Edgar Allan Poe’s detectives, searching for the missing number, so GIVE US A FRIENDLY TIP-OFF, OK?

I think I know why publishers do this. I think it springs from the same motive that leads them to label borderline-YA books as “good for all ages”: the profit motive. After all, haven’t most of us shelved a book – maybe a good one – because it was a sequel in a series we had not been reading? Naturally publishers don’t want to narrow their market. And I sympathize with the desire for more sales. I really do. But I still want the tip-off.

CSFF Blog Tour: A Vote for Happiness

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
May 17 2011

[Warning: Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers everywhere]

Do you know what irony is? Irony is a man wondering if he can find a new life, and then getting killed ten minutes later – due to past sins, no less.

I don’t know if Jeffrey Overstreet intended such a morose irony, though he did write it. That was the ending he dealt out to Ryllion, the repentant villain of The Ale Boy’s Feast. Cesylle – Ryllion’s partner in villainy and ex-villainy – received a similar fate. He said there was no way out of the hole he’d dug, and the book appeared to agree with him, squashing him like a bug five pages later.

Again, I don’t know what Overstreet intended. I could only speculate, and I really don’t care to. My point is how the story came off to me as I read it. Many readers, I am certain, did not mind Ryllion and Cesylle’s fates, and some surely saw meaning in it. But I was left puzzled by their brutal deaths and the apparent purposelessness of it.

The killings accomplished little in the overall plot. The only major ramification I can think of is that Emeriene, upon being widowed, headed off into the wilderness after another man. And she may have been planning to do that anyway. The story drew nothing great from those sacrifices, and neither did the characters. Cesyr and Channy were not at all comforted to see their father become a hero at last – and in truth.

Ryllion’s death had a near-miss with significance. When he joined Auralia and the others in the dungeon, I thought, “This is good; I can get behind this.” When it turned out he was really Pretor Xa, I thought, “I can still get behind this.” I assumed the story was headed to an epic showdown beyond the Forbidding Wall, but the Seer did … nothing. And the heroes – the same. Villain: 0. Heroes: 0. They kicked off and then canceled the game.

But beyond all this, I wished the whole book that Ryllion and Cesylle could have found the renewed lives they were looking for. After watching them run after grace, I wanted to see them walk in it. Some might say the way it actually ended is more realistic, and chances are they’re right. But if I wanted realism, I wouldn’t be reading a novel about killer sticks and water that raises the dead.

I realize that much of this is subjective; I am a sucker for happy endings, and a self-confessed softie. So let me cast the vote for once-villains not dying in sad fulfillment of their doubts and fears. I never expected Cesylle and Ryllion to get a group hug, but I thought they could have gotten a second chance.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Ale Boy’s Feast

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
May 16 2011

(Note: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.)

The king is missing, but frankly, that’s the least of these people’s problems.

The people of Abascar are exiles without a home behind them. Bel Amica is an open refuge, except for maybe the refuge part. It’s not safe to live with so many people who are so angry – most especially the Seers, who mix sorcerous potions and like to borrow other people’s bodies.

So a remnant presses through the forest. Their goal is a legendary city their missing king once found. Their obstacle is, well, the forest. It is being devoured by the Deathweed, which chokes or slashes every living thing it reaches. The fugitives can fend it off with fire; no one can guess how to destroy the Deathweed, though their best bet would probably be to nuke the forest.

Plus, there’s a band of runaway slaves lost in underground caverns, with no water or food to help them along. And there’s some poor fool wandering around whom everyone wants to kill, including his wife.

So you’ll understand why no one is having a good day.

The Ale Boy’s Feast is an elaborate book. As the last book in a series, it is complicated by characters and story threads established over three previous books. But it goes deeper than that. Elaborateness is intrinsic to Jeffrey Overstreet’s style. His prose is filled with metaphors, lengthy sentences, descriptions, personification.

Overstreet’s world, the Expanse, is broadly and vividly imagined. It is made complete – and foreign – by a wealth of imagery and detail. The Expanse has a sense of mystery, and of glory more than beauty. (Though if your travel agent ever suggests it to you, you may have to shoot him in self-defense.)

The Ale Boy’s Feast needs to be read with more concentration than most modern novels require. If you try to skim along the narrative, you’ll get lost. You have to set your mind to it and follow – through the abundant descriptions and intricate prose, through the jumps between characters and threads. There are a good number of plotlines, and the book can leave one and take many pages to return. I mean this as commentary, not criticism.

Here is my criticism: The novel suffers from excessive gloominess and gruesome imagery. Did I need that picture of the boy’s end? No, I did not.

Especially because it turned out to be irrelevant to the story. Overstreet had an odd habit of slipping in inconsequential big events; characters would run off on grand schemes, or just die, apparently for the heck of it. I hope to be more specific on this tomorrow.

And the ending … I don’t want to sound too negative, because there were many wonderful things about it. It simply ended too abruptly, like a song that reached its crescendo only to be cut off mid-note.

But I believe that most who enjoy fantasy novels will enjoy The Ale Boy’s Feast. The plot is solid and, at certain moments, breathtaking; the characters are diverse and three-dimensional. The language of the novel, like its world, is rich with detail and beauty. Forging through The Ale Boy’s Feast requires an investment, but the careful reader will get a good return.


Legal Disclaimer: I in no way condone or advocate the shooting of travel agents. If your travel agent does try to get you to go some place crawling with lethal plant life and evil wizards who hate everyone, don’t shoot him. Merely back slowly out of the room and run don’t walk to the nearest police station.


The author has a website for you to check out, and Amazon is ever useful. The Ale Boy’s Feast may be read as a standalone novel – I did all right – but it would be better to begin at the beginning: Auralia’s Colors. I regret that I cannot critique this novel as the denouement it is; you will, however, find those who can here:
Gillian Adams
Red Bissell
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Valerie Comer

CSFF Blog Tour

Shane Deal
Chris Deane
Cynthia Dyer
Andrea Graham
Katie Hart
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Jason Joyner

Carol Keen
Dawn King
Inae Kyo
Shannon McNear
Karen McSpadden
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
Sarah Sawyer
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard

Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler

Upcoming …

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
May 11 2011

The CSFF blog tour starts next Monday, not quite a month after the last one. This month’s subject is The Ale Boy’s Feast, by Jeffrey Overstreet. I finished it last night, which leaves me five days to pull together some thoughts that are witty, insightful, grammatical, and, yes, even accurate. It’s amazing how much harder insight is when it has to be accurate.

Anyway, here is the book’s Amazon link. There are forty reviews already, and a 3 /12 star rating.

Great Openings

Writing | Posted by Shannon
May 04 2011

Note: This is a totally subjective list, comprised of openings I found most amusing, intriguing, or arresting. You will not find “Call me Ishmael” here, largely because I never read the book. It’s a fine sentence, but it’s all I need. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is also excluded, even though I read A Tale of Two Cities and liked it. It’s a good opening, but the appeal has worn thin. Maybe it’s just been quoted one too many times for me.

The universe is infinite but bounded, and therefore a beam of light, in whatever direction it may travel, will after billions of centuries return – if powerful enough – to the point of its departure; and it is no different with rumor, that flies about from star to star and makes the rounds of every planet. Stanislaw Lem, The Seventh Sally (technically, a short story – but who said that wasn’t allowed?)

The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

You don’t know me yet, so there is no reason you should care that I’m stuck on a highway with a blowout. But maybe we can relate to each other. Cheryl Mckay and Rene Gutteridge, Never the Bride

Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

These tales concern the doing of things recognized as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about. G. K. Chesterton, Tales of the Long Bow

Technically, the cucumber came first. Phil Vischer, Me, Myself & Bob

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this learn carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Ann Coulter, Treason

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella. Stephen Lawhead, The Skin Map


And now a drum roll, please, for our final winner, the mother of all memorable first lines, never forgotten to this day, an irreducible part of Western culture …

It was a dark and stormy night. (I don’t know, and neither do you)

I was going to research the name of the author and novel – I saw it somewhere once – but that would just ruin the mystique. Nearly everyone knows this line, and yet they haven’t the faintest idea where it came from. It has not only outlived its author, it has outlived its book. That deserves recognition.