A Vulnerable Technique

When you had to write in school, you were probably placed under certain all-encompassing bans. “Never use the first-person” is a perennial favorite among teachers. I once had a respected professor who instructed students not to use semicolons. Now, the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark and has been put to many venerable uses. I believe my old professor banned it because so many people were prone to use it badly it was better that no one use it at all.

Many of the “Nevers” in writing are drawn up along a similar principle: Almost nobody does it right, so nobody should do it. Adjectives are an oft-targeted victim of this kind of reasoning. Another technique vulnerable to it is flashbacks, our topic of the day. Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward. They are written like narrative, but they are not narrative. Flashbacks disrupt the story, breaking up the flow and momentum of events to reprise old news. I have seen them done well, but I have also seen them done with extraordinary badness. Not all authors appreciate the nature or the purpose of the technique.

Two rules may be applied to the use of flashbacks. First, flashbacks must be relevant. A good way to think of this is that flashbacks must be revelatory of the story and not of the characters. What ought to be revealed of your characters can be revealed through the narrative proper: through their present talk, actions, thoughts. You might have constructed an entirely fascinating backstory, but you are telling a different story. Your story is in the present. The past throws light on the present, but the present throws light on people. There is no need of flashbacks to tell us about your characters.

Once I read a sci-fi novel that made excellent use of flashbacks. Very brief chapters, sprinkled among the narrative and set apart by italics, gave snapshots of the past. But these snapshots were keys to the story. They explained the nature of the present struggle, put forward mystery, foreshadowed the final revelation of villainy. Like all good flashbacks, they were dedicated to the story.

The second rule is that flashbacks must be brief. Again, flashbacks break the flow of the story, and for that reason they must be employed sparingly. Even if the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, people will become frustrated and impatient if the story is continually interrupted for field trips to the past. Flashbacks can spice up a story, but they should never be a main ingredient. Neither are they, in prodigious measure, likely to be altogether relevant. In the rare event that a prodigious measure is necessary, it is possible that you are starting the story in the wrong place.

The things people warn you about when you write fiction can generally be done. They just have to be done carefully. Flashbacks have been used to great effect, and you should always feel free to use them yourself. Only remember that they break the narrative and so must be very relevant and always brief.

A Time For Generosity

The Authors Guild has announced that, as a curative to writers’ falling incomes, it will champion a national Public Lending Right program. The President’s Letter didn’t lay out the details, and PLR programs vary in their particulars (thirty-five countries already possess some version of it). The essential idea, however, is that public libraries will pay authors for the loaning out of their books. It’s a kind of royalty payment: a little money every time a book is checked out, with a cap on how much any one author can receive. For a factual examination of PLR, drop by the Steve Laube Agency blog. For a strongly-worded opinion, stay here.

Now, the benefit of this program is that authors make more money. The downside is that that money has to come from somewhere or, rather, from someone. The Authors Guild proposes the classic solution to this age-old problem: a federal government program. They are advocating (I must quote this) “creating a new government entitlement program.” The idea that Congress would create an entitlement program solely for published authors is touchingly ingenuous. The Authors Guild should consider – I suggest it with gentleness – that it is not a national issue that authors would like to make more money. Everyone else would, too.

The point of a federal PLR program is to shift costs from local governments, which are often poor, to the federal government, which is also broke but possesses nuclear weapons and therefore can be trillions of dollars in the red. This is unlikely to happen, but even if it does, it is still only shifting the cost. The inevitable result of any PLR program will be to increase the cost of public libraries. The ALA estimates that Americans check out an average of eight books per year, a number we can extrapolate to 2.6 billion books checked out per year. If public libraries must pay a fee every time a patron checks out a book – even a fee measured in pennies – the annual cost will be tens of millions. At the princely royalty of four cents per loan, the cost will top 100 million. (This will be multiplied again if – and why shouldn’t this happen? – Hollywood and musicians decide to get in on the game and libraries must make payments for CDs and DVDs, too.)

People talk glibly of raising taxes and government entitlement programs. But you cannot charge the public library system millions to loan out their existing collections and expect that library services will never be reduced.

So the costs of the PLR will be borne by the public. But there will be costs for authors to pay, too. Make libraries in general, and library books in particular, more costly, and it’s only a matter of time before someone lights upon the expedient of fewer library books. The least established authors will find the raised bar hardest to clear, and the consequence of making the system more profitable for some authors may be to push others out of the system entirely.

I am sympathetic to writers struggling to make their work profitable. It’s certainly true that readers should have a spirit of generosity toward writers. But there is also a time for writers to be generous to their readers. Public libraries exist for the public, especially the less well-off public: seniors on fixed incomes, families with small children, adults getting by, voracious young readers whose parents can’t afford all the books they want. It is already profitable for authors. Even authors should have concerns beyond making it even more profitable yet.

Do You Want to Go?

The Greatest Showman (now in theaters!) opens with an exuberant musical number titled – this follows logically – “The Greatest Show”. It’s on YouTube, of course, though merely listening pales against viewing it and, even more, viewing it in theaters. Part of the brilliance of this song is that it captures what made the greatest show and it was, above anything else, the greatest showman.

And what made the greatest showman? The song spins out an answer to that, too: his peerless ability to draw his audience into a world of his own construction. Call it persuasion or illusion, call it seduction or a con, but it is what he does. The song is an invitation and a promise. Here, beneath the colored lights, is the answer to the ache in your bones and the end of your search in the dark; this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is where you want to be, the greatest showman tells you, and this is what you want to have. “Tell me,” he asks, “do you want to go?”

Do you want to go? This is the question P.T. Barnum put to the crowds that flocked to his circus. The greatest showman was not without a touch of the conman, and he knew the great secret of the con: The “mark” participates in his own deception. A true conman doesn’t outwit his victims; he sells them what they want, and their own desires override their judgment. A true showman is also in the business of selling people what they want, and if they forget it isn’t real, it’s only because they want to. Barnum never had any pretension of hoodwinking people who didn’t take it as a pleasure.

Do you want to go? This is the question Hugh Jackman puts to anyone who ventures to his film. No one with a fine sense of balance, to say nothing of humor, could make a movie about P.T. Barnum and not mix in a dose of malarkey. The Greatest Showman lives by this. Happily anachronistic, luxuriating in the idea of 1800s New York without any undue attachment to the facts, making its nineteenth-century subjects reflect a little too clearly the values of its twenty-first century audience – it cannot be the way it was. But you’re willing to forget that for the spectacle and the joy and the thoughtful examination of a dreamer and his dreams.

Do you want to go? This is the question that every book and show and movie asks. A great deal has been said and written about how that movie strains human credulity or this book breaks the facts clean in half. Dramatic courtroom revelations aren’t really a thing, a punch to the face is enough to end any fight, love at first sight could get you into a car with a serial killer, it’s ridiculous that anyone – even with superpowers – would choose to save the world wearing a cape but no pants. There are more solemn warnings of more pernicious falsehoods, reminders that we can’t really believe in the heroes and the happy endings, the perfect love stories and the last-minute rescues.

Yet I wonder – how often are we really fooled? Are these constructed worlds really so persuasive? But we want to go.

Promises, Promises

Let’s talk about promises. To narrow the field, let’s talk about the promises the producers of culture make to us regarding their shows and movies and books.

Now, I don’t mean advertising slogans (BEST OF THE YEAR), which are not promises so much as exercises in hope and hype. I mean the implicit promises of genre, or brand, or whatever label under which a work takes up residence. These promises are made (of course!) in the interest of profit; if they get us to believe, they get us to buy. But once we believe and buy, they end up bound to their brands. The power of brand is a conservative force and resists change – including from readers and writers wanting something new in Christian publishing. (Incidentally, that is a preview. We will end at Christian publishing, but we’re taking the long way around, like they did before the Federal Highway-Aid Act.)

A brand is identity in shorthand and infinitely useful in this capitalistic world of choices. When you are so unfortunate as to be driving cross-country, do you stop to eat at small, unknown restaurants in small, unknown towns, thus exploring the rich variety of our great country and supporting hard-working small-business owners?

Of course not. You might get disappointed. You might get lost. You might get salmonella. What you do is, you watch the FOOD signs and get off the interstate when you see the logo of a chain restaurant that strikes you as good or, at any rate, acceptable. I’ve seen critical social commentary of this, but it’s only good sense. The selection off the highway sign of corporate logos is a selection based on knowledge, and if you’re not thrilled about getting a mediocre hamburger from McDonald’s, you won’t really be disappointed, either. Because you knew what to expect.

To teach people what to expect is the triumph of brand, and quite profitable when the expectations are good. What follows such triumph is an effort to preserve the brand and fulfill expectations. Disney, for example, has released most of its PG-13 fare and all of its R-rated fare under its Touchstone label. The more auspicious Disney label is reserved for gentler, kinder movies, movies fit for children. This is not a moral decision or an expression of values. Disney knows that its brand is a promise of movies that, while rarely without a dose of pathos, will never be too edgy or dark. Violate that too often or too egregiously, and see how many parents will be buying theater tickets on no other grounds than “it’s Disney”.

The same principle is manifest in publishing. Del Rey isn’t going to be releasing cozy mysteries with titles like Lemon Meringue Madness, and if you’re waiting for Harlequin to publish a six-hundred page literary novel with allusions in the original French and a textured analysis of symbolic-interactionist theory, I hope you’re a patient soul. That’s not what they’re about, and their readers know it.

And what is Christian publishing about? What promises does it make? To many readers, one of its most crucial promises is that it will be clean – that they can get the story they want without the unsavory content they don’t. All such readers could doubtless find books in the secular market they would enjoy, but the finding is so much easier in the Christian market. They expect that Christian publishers will adhere to certain standards, and depend on it.

Readers who want different standards, or even exceptions to the old ones, may be asking for more than they know. New standards and too many exceptions do something dangerous. They break the brand. They break the promise.

CSFF Blog Tour: Personal Predilections

As a rule, it is easy, when one dislikes a book, to see why. Obvious, even. So it was an interesting experience to get about three-quarters through Storm Siren and try to figure out why I was just waiting for the book to change. True, the section I had been reading was less than action-packed, but I have never needed action to be interested in a book. Those chapters of Storm Siren explored the characters and their world, all in beautifully written prose, and I felt I should have enjoyed it more than I did.

What dimmed my enjoyment, I finally decided, was the romance and angst, dosed out too generously for my tastes. I never doubted the novel’s craftsmanship, even when the content made me restless for something more. This left me thinking of something I realized some time ago: There is a difference between a good book and a book I liked.

We who judge books – as reviewers or simply as readers – need the discernment, and perhaps the humility, to distinguish between honest judgment and our personal predilections. We all have our natural tastes, and it’s human to mistake our innate liking for an inherent superiority. But in fiction, as in everything, there are higher standards than our own tastes.

To know how well a book succeeds, we have to understand what it was meant to be. Once I read a historical novel about Jane Austen that was, at times, rather too slow, but I found it hard to fault the author. A novel like with that, with any fidelity to history, can involve only so much excitement. If the author had decided to write a novel in which Jane Austen was an undercover French spy during the Napoleonic Wars, and her works were actually written by Francis Bacon – well, that would have been more exciting. I might have even liked it more. But it would not have been a historical novel.

I take it for granted that many books have succeeded admirably in becoming the sort of thing I don’t like. I avoid those genres where I expect to find them. Even in the sort of books I enjoy, elements I dislike inevitably surface, and sometimes I criticize. But as time goes on, I realize more and more how subjective these things can be, and how vital the difference between subjective and objective criticism is.

A lack of logic in the plot, a lack of believability in the dialogue, a lack of motivation in the characters – these are objective criticisms, and come far nearer to the question of whether a book is good or bad. It’s only subjective to say that a book had too much romance; all that really means is that it had more romance than I liked. There is no objective measurement of how much is too much.

I don’t mean to discourage subjective criticism. It can be very interesting, and it’s especially useful in reviews; it helps people to determine if the book in question is something they would like. But it should be recognized for what it is, and given its proper weight. A book’s quality is not measured by how much it appeals to us personally.

In Praise of LibriVox

Some time ago my brother told me about an organization called LibriVox that offers countless audiobooks free of charge. And I did not check it out, because I have never been that crazy about audiobooks.

I do aerobics for my exercise. (Yes, we’re still on the same subject; stick with me.) The aerobics are okay, but after a while it can get very boring. For a long time I listened to music; then I tried a few podcasts. Then I had what was, for me, truly a novel thought:

Why not listen to audiobooks?

So, long after hearing about LibriVox, I finally made my way to www.booksshouldbefree.com, where I found LibriVox recordings of many books. I first listened to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday, because it had gotten snagged in my imagination and I was thinking of it anyway.

Yes, that’s how I started my adventure into audiobooks: With a book I had already read. After poking around Chesterton’s works, I decided to see what they had under the “science fiction” heading. Since then I’ve wandered back and forth between authors I’d never heard of and authors I’d already tried. I’ve listened to some good books, and one or two that disappointed me.

All books on LibriVox and Booksshouldbefree are out of copyright, and consequently, they’re old. The most contemporary books I’ve listened to are about fifty years old; the others are one hundred or more. On these sites I’m largely outside my normal selection. I browse through authors and titles, most unfamiliar, and just choose. Often enough I end up listening to books I would not have had the time or inclination to sit down and read.

And so LibriVox has expanded my horizons. The last book I listened to was The Diary of a Nobody, written by George and Weedon Grossmith in 1888-89. The book is now so old that it has become historically interesting, and it possesses a dry humor. But if I had seen it on a library shelf, I probably wouldn’t have set aside my normal reading for it.

LibriVox audiobooks have helped me in another way. I almost never listen to these books except while I’m exercising, but it has given me a whole new motivation to exercise. “If I exercise, I’ll get another chapter or two,” I think to myself now.

So here’s a word in praise of LibriVox – good for your mind and, under the right circumstances, good for your body, too.

Four Good Reasons

I decided to go for a short blog post this week. I have other projects demanding time, not least among them preparing for the next CSFF blog tour. Appropriately, then, I am devoting this post to explaining why I enjoy the tour.

(1) Free books. Or, as the more dignified trade term goes, review copies. They are, of course, free, courtesy of the publisher by way of a marketing strategy. I assume it works for them. I know it works for me. Getting books from my favorite genre without having to pay is one of the things I enjoy most about the CSFF, and I’m not too proud to admit it.

(2) Increases traffic to my blog – and I’m not too proud to admit that, either.

(3) Discovering authors. Early this year CSFF toured a book by Bill Myers, an author I had already read; before that we toured one by Donita K. Paul, an author I had at least heard of. But most of the authors have been new to me, and I doubt I would have run into their work at my public library. Through participating in the blog tour, I have been introduced to books I enjoyed and probably would not have read otherwise. I have added new writers to my version of the list all readers keep – the Good Authors List.

(4) Reading the reviews, joining the discussion. After finishing this month’s book, The Monster in the Hollows, I found myself looking forward to the tour. I was interested in hearing what everyone else thought of it. This is another nice thing about the tour: It is an opportunity to hear others’ thoughts and offer your own in turn.

Here is a link to CSFF’s About Page, and also to the form for joining. Just if you’re interested.

Review: North! Or Be Eaten

So the Igiby family is on their way to Kimera, to join the colony of rebels hidden on the vast Ice Prairies.  The Nameless One still grasps for them, stretching long fingers across the Dark Sea. His trolls, his armies of Fangs are on the hunt for the Jewels of Anniera. If the Igibys manage to evade the forces of Gnag, plus various malcontents and hungry animals, they can then attempt the cold, cold trek to the hidden colony.

What could go wrong? More than they would even guess. Through over three hundred pages, North! Or Be Eaten details the pitfalls. Climb out of one, fall into another. It’s fun to live in a fantasy book.

North! Or Be Eaten is the second book in the Wingfeather Saga. The silliness is lessened here, but it by no means disappears. Andrew Peterson continues to prove, along with Jonathan Rogers, that fantasy can be very funny. Yet the book has a more serious tone than its predecessor. The dangers are more frequent, and often of a darker nature.

This is one of the ways in which North! Or Be Eaten broadens and deepens the saga. Another is one of simple geography. On the Edge* takes place almost entirely within the Glipwood Township and the land surrounding it. North! Or Be Eaten leaves Glipwood behind, traveling to the mighty, dangerous falls, the Strand with its outlaws, Dugtown, Kimera, the Ice Prairies, the Fork Factory, the Sea.

The characters, too, are deepened. This book focuses more narrowly on Janner than the other did, cementing his status as the lead character. But other characters are developed even more than he. Podo – who had a great deal of color in On the Edge and not much complexity – gains some. The Fangs, surprisingly, progress from decent, cookie-cutter hobgoblins to something more terrible and more tragic.

And if you like Peet the Sock Man – and if you don’t, I wonder about you – you have even more reason to be happy. Peet’s role is, unfortunately, smaller in this book, but it is gold.

North! Or Be Eaten is a worthy continuation, a sequel that not only lengthens the story but deepens it. On the Edge was a good book; this one is even better. Exciting and at times intense, with humor and high emotion, it’s a happy experience for the fantasy reader. At least it was for this one.


* The full title is On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, but this takes too long to type. Also, it makes writing reviews harder. By the time I put in that title, the sentence I’m trying to write is already too long.

The third book in the Wingfeather Saga, Monster in the Hollows, will be toured later this month by the CSFF. Now for the links: North! Or Be Eaten on Amazon – and look, it’s a bargain price, $5.60; and Andrew Peterson’s website. He is also a songwriter, interestingly enough.

Review: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

Far away, on the edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, lies the land of Skree.  It is filled with quiet, gentle folk, which made it easy pickings for Gnag the Nameless. Now the country is infested by the Fangs of Dang. They’re stupid and lazy, but make up for it with their indefatigable brutality.

A wild forest sprawls over the land, spilling dangerous animals from its eaves. The Skreeans keep a good distance, but one man is rumored to live near the forest. Most people believe it, too. You’d have to be crazy, but he is. What else can you say about a man who wears knitted stockings on his hands, chants gibberish, and picks fights with street signs?

Despite this abundant opportunity for excitement, Janner Igiby is bored. He has spent all twelve of his years in a quiet little cottage outside a quiet little town. He yearns for adventure, for the wide world. But he should be more careful about his wishes. They’re about to come true.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness was once toured by CSFF, and after joining I saw it mentioned. And I felt definite disinterest. “The dark sea of darkness” is bad writing. If even the title needs a content editor, I don’t have high hopes for the book.

Then I won its sequel in a book drawing. If I get a free fantasy novel, I’m going to have to try it. And if it happens to be a sequel, I’m going to have to read the first book first. So, with small expectations, I began On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

On the first page I had a revelation. There Peterson wrote this line: “That evil was a nameless evil, an evil whose name was Gnag the Nameless.” And I realized something. The title is, of course, bad, but it is bad in the way this sentence is – on purpose, and a good one.

Humor is abundant in this novel, particularly humor of an absurd flavor. The absurdity runs deep, runs through Peterson’s whole invented world. It is displayed on store front signs – THE ONLY INN – and in the most ancient legends, which often revolve around the First People, Dwayne and Gladys. The villains make their subjects fill out forms to use garden hoes; the Chief Advisor to the High King begins his journal with the warning: “Read this without my permission and I will pound your nose.”

Yet the sea-dragons have a real and mysterious majesty, old legends are powerfully true, and the Jewels of Anniera are a matter of deathly importance – and you may take that adjective to its most literal meaning. Andrew Peterson both parodies the tried-and-true devices of fantasy and uses them seriously. In the same way, over-the-top humor coexists with danger and sadness, and comically bad writing gives way to skillful story-telling.

I would like to insert two caveats here: One, the book is YA and its main character is a twelve-year-old. This is not criticism, just something readers should know beforehand. Second – and this is criticism – the book contains instances of gross humor.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is a unique story – a romp through a world of pandemic quirkiness that eventually pushes past all the absurdity to adventure and beauty and tragedy. Worth the price of admission.

Review: Ice

Suppose you went to the moon, and suppose you found somebody already there. Frozen, so no matter how many questions you ask, he’s never going to answer.

But the answers have to come from somewhere, and they do. C. S. Lewis once said that it is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. It is also shocking to find something where we are sure there had never been anything.

NASA planned twenty lunar flights, but after Apollo 17 it canceled the remaining missions. Now, in Ice, Shane Johnson writes an alternate history of the space program, telling the story of Apollo 19. In February 1975 two astronauts, Gary Lucas and Charlie Shepherd, land near the lunar south pole. Forced to venture deep inside one of its canyons, they find, well, ice. It’s quite a surprise to men who hoped, at the most, to find some rocks worth analyzing. But it’s just a small jolt to get their heart rate up in preparation for the real shocks.

Ice reminds me greatly of Oxygen and The Fifth Man. Like that duology, it starts with real technology and what America could have chosen to do with it. Although the story is fiction, it reproduces NASA technology, procedures and jargon – I assume faithfully, but how would I know? I only know that, at some point, my eyes start to glaze over.

Not that the deficiency is in the book. In a novel about Apollo 20, you need realism about NASA and its space flights – even if Apollo 20 never took off. The author did not, in my judgment, go overboard with it. It’s just that, when a part becomes heavy in unrecognizable acronyms and science-textbook words, you tend to speed-read a bit. At least I do.

The style of Ice tended toward the omniscient, and there were moments that came off somewhat stiffly. But even with those, I found the book well-written to the point of achieving real beauty. Johnson shows his skill in story-telling in many ways. He manages to create passages with a sense of heartbreak and even of horror without being unduly explicit.

The story itself was unique. It had more science than most sci-fi – and also, in the end, more fantasy, too. Ice is freshly imagined and vividly portrayed; I‘ve never read another sci-fi novel quite like it. It may not be one of the most exciting novels I’ve ever read, but it is one of the most satisfying. I give it a wholehearted recommendation.