“I didn’t ask for half a hand, Yarvi had said, trapped where he so often found himself, on the barren ground between shame and fury. I didn’t ask for half a son.” (Half a King by Joe Abercrombie)
I’m glad that people are around to write the same books over and over. They form a perfect road map for you to write in that formula yourself. All you have to do is to find a string of a specific genre and make note of the commonalities. Through reading several examples of this ‘coming of age’ fantasy sub-genre, such as The Sea of Trolls or The Ranger’s Apprentice, I have a very clear idea about what I’d need to do to write my own best seller in this genre.
First, you must start with a somehow inadequate pre-pubescent male character. You may vary the inadequacy however you wish – physical, character, or self-perceived will all suffice. Then, throw their life off course. They may get captured, betrayed, or you can attack their home village. To get back home, they must overcome no less than three big challenges that showcase their strengths (bravery, cunning, or leadership are all winners). Bonus points may be rewarded for a subtle, unfulfilled romance, a few philosophical realizations, and some sort of secret that is revealed only in the last chapter.
Now that you yourself are capable of writing in this formula, feel free to do so. The world won’t be any worse off with a few extra copies floating around – for they are particularly relaxing, easy going reads.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Ending: complete, but with room for sequels
Incidental Learning: How to write your own formula novel, survival
Further Reading: After reading this one, you may not want another formula fiction. If you want to stay in the fantasy genre, I’d suggest one of these two, entirely unique, works: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or The Once and Future King.
“She always wondered why there were no screams, no tears, no despair sending her into thrashing hysterics… all she actually did was sit and stare at the burnt stranger in the mirror. Most of her hair was gone, the scalp a mottled relief of red and pink flesh. The flames had caught the upper side of her face, the scars ascending from the bridge of her nose… like an ill-fitting mask worn to scare children on the warding’s night.” (Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan)
I fear that, lately, I’ve been enjoying analyzing, criticizing, and writing about books more than I actually enjoy reading them. I confess that I mostly continued on to this book after Blood Song to see how Ryan handled the tricky mid-trilogy novel with all its associated pitfalls (adding too many characters, getting too broad, not connecting to the over-arching plot, etc). I enjoyed seeing Ryan deftly overcome these challenges slightly more than I actually enjoyed the enumeration of battles and death.
I also have to confess that, as much as the ending annoyed my feminist self, it also delighted me because it provided something to write about. Until this book, Ryan had hitherto upheld the basic principles of epic fantasy, which decree that, if females are included in the main story line at all, they must be perfectly beautiful and irrationally moody. Ryan not only introduced three strong (only slightly moody) women here, but also deformed one of them with horrible burns to her face. This undermining of tradition brought a humanity to that character, and to the whole cast, that isn’t frequently seen in this genre. Yet, throughout the whole book, my inner critic kept nagging: how long can he keep this up? In a world with magical healers, how long can Ryan allow a once-beautiful woman to remain scarred and be at peace with herself? Unfortunately, the answer was: only a few hundred pages.
Though I will be reading the concluding book to the Raven’s Shadow trilogy promptly on July 7th when it is released, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to read an epic fantasy where the author could sustain a fully realized, albeit scarred, female lead.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 601 (audiobook quality: excellent)
Ending: Satisfying, but disappointing as detailed above
Incidental Learning: Throwing knives, survival
If you are looking for a more feminine look into fantasy, I’d suggest checking out N. K. Jemisin
“I’m afraid that what follows isn’t pleasant. If you want to sleep easy in your bed, if you want to look at your kids and think there is a chance they will live in a world better than the one we leave behind, it might be better not to meet him.” (I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes)
My biggest reading pet peeve is when authors don’t respect the intelligence of their readers. Sometimes, authors over-simplify a character or plot. Other times, they over-explain in the end of book wrap-up. Occasionally, as in the case of Terry Hayes, they over-foreshadow so that the reader cannot help but understand the complex web of cause-and-effect that the author creates. Hayes not only predicts/constrains the reader’s reaction to the book with the above quote, but he also foreshadows in real-time, promising the reader that they’ll understand the effect of each action in due course. Personally, I prefer my narratives unadulterated in this fashion – I rather like to pick apart all of the causes and effects myself.
On the other hand, Hayes does take an incredibly complex, multi-layered plot and makes it comprehensible to anyone that might chance to pick up the book. Having forced myself through a number of incomprehensible thrillers/police procedurals, I admire Hayes’ ability to clarify a muddy situation. Though he may make the mistake of over-emphasizing correlation and causation, he keeps the pace even with wry, un-phaseable characters and light, understated dialog. So, don’t read this book for its foreshadowed reactions of sleepless nights; read it for the promises it doesn’t make: the promise of a satisfying ending, and plenty of self-effacing, charming characters.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: Satisfying and wrapped-up
Incidental Learning: Secret Intelligence World, Geography/Customs of Turkey
If you, unlike me, enjoy a lot of foreshadowing, you might want to check out She’s Come Undone
by Wally Lamb and (though nonfiction) Come as you Are.
“All of us are engaged in the ongoing process of cultivating our gardens – digging out the weeds and nurturing the plants we hope will flourish. Often it’s a joyful experience; always it’s deeply personal.” (Come as you Are by Emily Nagoski)
I suggest going to your local library/bookstore and picking up this book boldly. Don’t furtively peer around to check if anyone has seen you. Don’t hide it under your coat until you reach the checkout desk. Do not, under any circumstances, avoid looking at the checkout person. And if that checkout person happens to leer, laugh, or glance up suspiciously, you can feel free to look down on them from your superior height of enlightened feminism.
This book is 1/2 scientific research into female sexuality and 1/2 pseudo-psychology self-help. Fortunately for us, Nagoski first lays out the research uninterpreted, so that we readers can form our own conclusions, and only later layers on her philosophy. Though the self help part is rather inspirational, using wonderful metaphors about a woman’s ‘garden’ and repeatedly telling the reader that she is normal, you really come to this book for the research, which is fascinating, unintuitive, and deftly explained in Nagoski’s casual, bright style.
Buy –Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: A repeated conclusion of ‘what you’ve learned’ – there’s a lot of repetition of what you’ve learned all over this book.
Further Reading: Self-help isn’t my normal genre – I mainly picked this book up because I couldn’t stand to see it languishing on the shelf with of all its stellar 5 star reviews and its bold pink cover. Self-help readers: any tips on where someone could go from here?
The relationship between reading and writing seems clear – reading makes you a better writer. You must observe in order to create. Yet, if this blog has taught me anything, it’s that the opposite is also true: writing makes you a better reader. Trying to write makes you more aware about how and why authors do what they do, and a little awareness and mindfulness go a long way. So, this year I’m going to recommend that you improve your reading life by writing. Start with writing book reviews. Write incomplete sentences on Goodreads, write ungrammatical ones on Amazon, write full ones in a blog, or write whichever way you want in password-protected word documents on your home computer. However you choose to do it – write.
Then, write more. Get yourself into all of the problems writers get themselves into, and write your way out of them. Try writing a well-rounded secondary character. Attempt a perfect first sentence. Write a page of dialog without overusing the word ‘said’. Rewrite every paragraph so that you don’t use the same word twice. Reference literature without sounding arrogant. Remember where commas actually go. Observe how people talk, interrupt themselves, misuse words, and repeat themselves, and then try to write something real.
Not only will failing at all of this (for your will fail, at least at first) deepen your appreciation for great writers, but you’ll also be able to see how each author solves the problems of writing, and how that makes their books good/bad/great/inconsistent/ unrealistic/profound, etc. All the thought you put into solving these problems will then be with you when you read. Instead of merely accepting what is on the page, you’ll be able to analyze the page – thinking about why and how each word or character came to be.
So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year 5 Book Lion awards:
Best New Book:
Best 20th Century Books:
Best Genre Fiction: