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Review: The Hobbit

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Hobbit when I was in third grade (it took me the entire school year to get through The Lord of the Rings), but I haven’t reread it since. It was good to look at it fresh, with almost-new perspective (I admit, my view was slightly tainted by the Peter Jackson movies).
What I found was delightful storytelling, a really long hike, memorable characters…and sloppy or abbreviated action and a lot of out-of-nowhere problems and solutions. The deus ex machina really went wild for this book!

In case you’ve been living in a hole (hobbit or otherwise), The Hobbit is the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features hobbit Bilbo Baggins, a comfortable chap who gets roped into a burglary quest for dwarven treasure guarded by the fierce dragon Smaug. He and his 13 dwarven companions (and occasional wizard friend Gandalf) undergo many trials just to get to the Lonely Mountain, and many more trying to get the gold and secure their victory. It’s particularly important in that it describes how the One Ring comes to Bilbo Baggins’ ownership, setting his nephew Frodo Baggins on his path in the subsequent books.

I know that pointing out some weaknesses in the story seems like blasphemy for a lot of people in the fantasy realm, or even loosely on the fantasy realm, but I’m just not sure The Hobbit held up compared to my idea of what The Hobbit was. I hadn’t remembered most of the end of the book, and I think there’s a good reason: the Battle of the Five Armies is just a handful of pages with little description, there are super-magical creatures coming out of nowhere to save the heroes, and then an overly detailed recap of a walk back that doesn’t really amount to anything. I thought I remembered a story with a lot more Smaug dragon awesomeness, but was disappointed to see that much of the action with Smaug is fairly minimal: it’s a lot of the dwarves or Bilbo guessing at what the dragon is doing while they cower in a dark tunnel.

In short, I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to diverge from the source: it would have made a terrible movie (here are the dwarves, hiding in a cave. Meanwhile at Laketown, some guy you’ve never seen before is trying to be brave. Also, did you know there are talking crows?!)

It often seems like Tolkien didn’t know what he wanted to do with the story, or had written himself into a corner, so he just tossed in some other element and hoped it worked out. And it does, sort of, but when it happens again and again and again… it seems less convincing. Comparing the troll scene in the beginning of the book with the Battle of the Five Armies at the end–which ought to be much more epic and thus detailed–they are about the same descriptively. While the foundation is there, much of the major things are left entirely to the reader. (It’s odd, actually, what is described in detail and what is brushed over. War buffs need to look elsewhere for their reenactments, but if you want to know the full contents of a hobbit’s larder, you’re in the right place.) And, of course, if you’re in a tight spot, the Eagles will probably be along shortly.

Another flaw the movies tried to amend is the complete and utter lack of female characters. I think the only time women were even mentioned were in crowd scenes, mostly involving the desolation of Laketown. Oh good, they’re cowering in boats…. do women have nothing at all to contribute? I remember this bothered me even as a kid. Obviously The Hobbit was written in a different era, but it does make it a smidgeon harder to swallow as a modern reader.

I still very much enjoy this story. I miss this kind of narration style, where the author frequently interjects, speaking directly to the reader about things that have happened or will. It’s charming. Let’s bring that back. It makes it seem most like a story that needs to be read aloud over many dark nights next to a fire. Perhaps in the flickering flames, the listeners can better imagine the gold reflecting off a dragon’s hoard, or relate to the anxiety caused by a long trip far from home. Maybe those listeners will be able to feel more fond of this fantasy classic, unclouded with concerns about the structural issues.

Still, I don’t regret heading there and back again.

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Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This classic fantasy novel, written in 1967 by one of the world’s top sci-fi/fantasy authors… just didn’t grab me. It’s well-composed, with a nicely fleshed-out world and an interesting power structure for the wizards and some cultural details, but the story of the Sparrowhawk’s beginnings left me wondering, “so why should I care?”
I think I’m ruined for this book by the Harry Potter era. It’s just hard to get attached to a boy wizard in this style, after I’ve gotten accustomed to the very feelings, friendships, and trials of a different, more relatable wizard. The whole “true name” thing may have been a cool storytelling concept, but it just serves as one more layer between the reader and the character–what’s his name again? (The main character has no less than three different names throughout the book!). It’s also told in a rather detached third-person; we only vaguely get a sense of Sparrowhawk/Ged’s feelings at any given time, and we are invited not to feel with him but to watch as he fumbles around. Throw in the jumpy time setting (following not a calendar but whenever the action seems likely to hit) and you’ve got a story I just never felt comfortable in.
I finished the book for the lessons of the craft I could learn, not from any deep affinity for it. In fact, I found the author’s afterward far, far more compelling and approachable than the rest of the story–I’d have rated THAT 5-stars!
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s just that this book had its heyday in a different time, in a very different genre fiction landscape. It’s certainly not LeGuin’s fault; she’s a beautiful, if impassive, author who has my utmost respect. But I’m not sure I’ll bother picking up the rest of the series.

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Review: The Golden City

The Golden City (The Golden City, #1)The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a genre awash with elves, dwarves, and wizards, The Golden City is a splash of interest. There may be those sorts in the wider world, but The Golden City features the little-seen sereia (mermaids) and selkies, seals that can shed their skins to become human.

While still traditional magical creatures, these are wonderful bright spots in an overcrowded genre. I just loved getting to know the inner workings of mermaids and selkies. Sereia have a complicated social structure but are at nature similar to aristocratic humans. Selkies are a whiff of human with a great deal more seal; they’re a little simple, and lusty.

The story doubles its benefits by setting the story not in the traditional vaguely-British countryside, but rather in historical Portugal. This opens up whole new realms: the clothes they wear, the languages used, the traditions they keep, their religion and culture. It’s fantastic.

In The Golden City, Cheney has crafted a light and delicate story, part mystery, part spy tale, and the lightest touch of romance.

Oriana Peredes is a sereia–mermaid–who is a spy among the humans in the Golden City. She works as a companion for the Paris Hilton of the aristocracy–perhaps sweet, but empty-headed, and wanted by several suitors. The pair are on their way to a secret rendezvous with her mistress’s suitor when they are abducted. When her mistress is murdered right in front of her with elements of mysterious magic at work, Oriana puts aside her mission as a spy in order to find vengeance for her friend.

As she works to discover who tried to kill her, Oriana meets Duilio Ferreira, a police consultant and member of the nouveau riche. Oh, and he’s half-selkie.

Together they work to solve the case and protect the innocents of the city, and feel out the first touches of romance as they try to solve the riddle of destiny and whether it is even possible for a sereia and selkie to find love.

(HOWEVER, if you’re interested in paranormal romance, look elsewhere. This is a Victorian romance… in short, there is barely any more than a sideways glance and a flutter of the heart. It’s a nice change of pace, but I admit it was a tad unsatisfying.)

I picked this book up on a whim, and I am so glad I did! I can’t wait to read the next and learn more about these fascinating sea fantasies.

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Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I’ve ever had such trouble rating a book with such excellent writing. The truth, though, is that, while it is exceedingly well-written, it’s convoluted and faces so many different plot options it is hard to stick with the story.

Let’s start with the good stuff: Lynch has wrought a fantasy-tinged world in greater detail and clarity than the real world. His Camorr has layer upon layer of complexity, beauty, grime, seediness, character, and mystery. Despite the ample attention to detail, I wanted more. I wanted to know about the incredible Elderglass towers and how they were created, and how humans came to occupy them. I wanted a calendar of all the holidays in the city and descriptions of each festivity. I wanted to peek inside the temples of each of the 13 gods. It is rich and detailed and effortless; characters curse and revel in this very real world without a hint that this is fiction.

I’m also quite pleased with the confidence schemes that Lynch has concocted. They are as much of a joy to the reader as the characters committing them upon unwitting folk. Locke Lamora sells his false-face activities well, and I hungered for more of the like. In fact, I wished the whole book were nothing but a testament to the way Locke got himself in and out of one scrape after another.

That’s also the problem: from the first 1/3-1/2 of the book, that was what I thought I was reading: a lighthearted and amusing tale of a con men pulling a con. And I liked that. It was great fun trying to guess how Locke was going to manage the next touch against his enemy, wondering how close he could get to being caught.

But then the book took a sudden and dark turn, literally out of nowhere. It felt like this was not really one book, but three, smooshed together. To the point that, as much as I liked the characters and the overall world, I’m not sure I want to read any more adventures. I felt like the book I started and the book I finished were not at all related; the plot got twisty, and not always in a good way.

Possible spoilers to follow. Read at your own risk.

In vague terms, here are the major plot intersections I can identify:

  • Locke, as a child, is taken up by the Thiefmaker.
  • Locke, as a child, finds a new home with Chains.
  • Locke and his gang, now grown, are pulling a big con on some wealthy folks.
  • It seems the secret police are onto the con… oh no! Oh wait, no, that’s just more of Locke’s cleverness at work.
  • While doing a typical errand, Locke is encumbered by a marriage engagement he can’t easily escape. What will ever become of him?
  • A bad guy, heretofore unknown to the story, kidnaps Locke and requires he perform an impossible task.
  • OUT OF FREAKING NOWHERE, the bad guy kills the girl Locke was supposed to be engaged to, less than two chapters after it was introduced, forcing his boss to require Locke to help him fight the bad guy.
  • Double-cross by the bad guy. Things are not going at all according to plan.
  • Everyone you love is murdered. Locke swears revenge.
  • More murder, almost excessive. Bad guy takes over.
  • Other villain only previously hinted at turns out to be real and hatches a plan to get Locke.
  • Locke overcomes multiple obstacles and difficult situations to win the day, much the worse for wear.


I gotta say, I felt like I couldn’t really enjoy the book after the marriage-proposal feint. I’m not even sure what point it served; it feels like that could be cut entirely from the book without a mark of incident. It just seems too convoluted, and it made it hard to know what I was supposed to be cheering for at any given moment. Plus, dark-revenge-tale is deeply different from the lighthearted caper we were enjoying at first.

My other beef is the situation with female characters. Though there are ample women used as setpieces and secondary characters, some even with some mild action, this book is a sausage-fest. There’s even plenty of opportunity for a female character: one is mentioned repeatedly but never shows up. You could change one (or more) of the characters in Locke’s gang into women without at all changing the story. A few women toward the very end of the book see some action, but it seems half-hearted. Though characters–even a whole chapter!–claimed that women were not to be trifled with, it seemed more sentiment than truth, and made me wonder if Lynch was somehow afraid to write women characters (which is foolish, because his background ladies were really interesting! Just…not a lot to them.)

I’m not sure I would recommend this book. It feels like those who would like a fantasy caper might not like the end (like me) and those who might like a gore-heavy revenge story might not get through the lighter beginning material to see the stuff they liked. But it is incredibly well-written and I’m impressed with Lynch as a whole. Perhaps I’d like one of his books that ran shorter than 720 pages.

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Review: Ill Wind

Ill Wind (Weather Warden, #1)Ill Wind by Rachel Caine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some books are warm cozy blankets that you just want to snuggle into again and again. That’s Ill Wind for me. Rachel Caine writes with a welcoming, conversational style that makes it easy to forget you’re reading. This is the book (and series) that I most like to imagine as a TV show–it would make a damned good one.

The concept is so great, you’ll wish you’d thought of it first: the natural forces in the world are not entirely science–they’re a little bit magic. And so there are teams of Wardens who can manipulate those magics, whose only jobs are to keep Mother Nature from killing us all. Humans using magic + science to stop sentient storms from destroying the earth? Why hasn’t this show been made already!? (Weather Channel should pick it up; it has a 100% chance of awesomeness.)

Our hero is Joanne Baldwin, a Weather Warden who is in way over her head. She’s too young yet to have earned her Djinn helper, but it is urgent that she get someone more powerful to aid her. Chased by Wardens who don’t know the whole story and hunted by an unknown rival, Joanne sprints off to an intense race to survive. Along the way, she discovers that everything she has been led to believe about the supernatural Djinn is way off: humans are enslaving them, twisting them to their will.
Besides, when they’re wild, they can be damn sexy–well, at least one of them, with scenes so hot it’ll make your skin sizzle.
This is my second or third read of this book, and it doesn’t stop being fun and enthralling. I can’t recommend it enough.

It’s the first in the series, and they really do get better from here.

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Review: The Queen of The Damned

The Queen of the Damned (The Vampire Chronicles, #3)The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not really a horror reader — I once got scared in a haunted house during the day, when it was empty and deactivated — but I wanted to get into the All Hallows Read spirit.
Because I’m not really experienced with the genre, I can’t tell if this shouldn’t be a horror book or if the things that were supposed to be scary didn’t age well in the CSI TV era, but never was a shiver to be found.
(I also didn’t realize until I had bought it from the bookstore that it was the third book in a series. Luckily, Rice put in enough ‘reminders’ of things from previous books that I don’t think I missed anything, but that also may have impaired my reading.)
Instead, The Queen of the Damned was an intellectual musing on vampires, immortality, the failings of humanity and our reliance on religion. Most of the things that may have been supposed to be chilling were really just philosophical questions — Are there supernatural beings? Is there a God? Would the world be better off without men in it? Could and should an immortal creature deceive humans into believing she was god? — that the characters end up literally sitting around a table to muse about in the big climax.
It all adds up to a bunch of questions that would have been interesting to talk to Anne Rice about, but weren’t exactly heart-pounding to read.
That’s not to say Rice isn’t an incredible writer. She has definitely earned her place as a top novelist. Her characters are distinctive, human but also otherworldly as they take on the vampire change, possessing logic but still ultimately flawed. Her descriptions of place are vivid on more than a detail scale, imbuing everything with emotion. Her storytelling is effortless, pulling the reader gently along.
Because it was written in 1988, it was fun to imagine how this book would be different if it were written today. So much would be the same, but the things that were different — the internet, cell phones — could have dramatically changed the course of the story. Then again, it is tragic to see those things that are the same — war in Afghanistan, deprivation in Haiti, starvation in India. In fact, that ended up being the most profound part of the book for me, that it has been 25 years and these problems remain.
Ultimately, this was a book that would be a pleasure to dissect and to learn from, but the menace was gone. It’s not my usual fare, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a scary read either.

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Smooth Sailing Ahead

Thanks to all those who participated in my NaNoWriMo poll!

I got a range of votes, including the excellent write-in for “goblins” (really great idea!), but one thing really surprised me: The option “Don’t write a sequel to the book you haven’t sold yet.” got 0% of the votes.

I have a confession: That was really the question I was struggling to answer. My first book, Undead Rising, is still out with an agent. It’s been six months; I’m sending her an email next week to let her know I’m going to start sending it to other people. Everyone who has read that book has LOVED it, but the non-responses I’ve gotten from agents were deeply dispiriting, and I felt like maybe it wasn’t a good enough idea.

But everybody thought it was a good idea to keep writing gamebooks/interactive novels/monster stories. I’m floored, and uplifted (is that a contradiction? I don’t care.).

I’m grateful so many folks weighed in.

The winner: Pirates!
Which is super, because that’s a really ripe genre I can rob, and let’s be honest, I need a lot of material from which to plunder.

(Plunder. See what I did there? Brace for a whole passel of puns in this book, my friends!)

Yo-ho-ho, away we go!



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Once Upon a Terrible Show

3 Reasons Why “Once Upon a Time” is the Show I Love To Hate

I’ve been binge hate-watching “Once Upon a Time” since it came back on Netflix. The show makes me angry with practically every episode, but I can’t stop. I just watch more and yell at the TV.

You’d think I’d be the kind of viewer who would love this show. I LOVE fairy tales of all stripes, but particularly the original Grimm and Anderson tales. I can sing along with every word from 99% of all Disney movies (except “On the Range.” Nobody saw that one.) I even love retellings of fairy tales and classic stories–I watched ALL of “10th Kingdom” when it aired on TV, pushing my parents out of the way to make sure I saw that show every night. I did the same a few years later for “Tin Man.” No regrets.

On any given night, you might find me rewatching either a Disney/Pixar movie or the likes of “Ella Enchanted,” “Shrek,” “Enchanted” or “Ever After.” (So many enchantments!)

So it was with horror that I realized, in the first episode, that I hated “Once Upon a Time.” (I’m halfway through the third season as of this writing). But I know I’m going to watch the whole thing because I’m a sucker and I’m taking this train all the way to the end of the line.

What’s got me so mad? Here are the three reasons I hate “Once Upon a Time.”

1) It betrays the original concepts.

As I hope I’ve made clear, I LOVE re-imagined stories. They offer a new perspective on something we think we already know and love, and broaden our views of what “really” went on (one of my favorite books as a kid was “The Real Story of the Big Bad Wolf”!)

But the term “re-imagining” can only be loosely be applied to the characters in “Once…” It’s more like “creating a new character and giving them props people will recognize from the original.” It’s so disappointing. It doesn’t help that the ABC/Disney-created show wants to pull mainly from Disney stories, but also wants the darker edge of the originals. That means the source material is all over the place, creating a really awkward hodgepodge. A lot of the time, the backgrounds concocted for these characters are barely cogent. It’s actually getting a little better in the third season, but this mess makes it really difficult to keep track of any individual characters’ storyline. I feel like I’m constantly saying “wait, what happened? What’s going on?”

Beyond that, despite the many versions out there, there usually remains a kernel of the original story. There’s a universal tone, a charm found only in this kind of story. It’s usually uplifting, even if the main character has to die to find that purity (see: The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson) That tone feels like it’s completely missing in “Once…”

2) It tries to simultaneously make fairy tale worlds and the real world suck.

It’s a bad sign that I’m three seasons in and I still can’t figure out a) why any of the fairy tale folks wanted to leave their magical world or b) why the people of Storybrook would want to go back.

Let’s look at this carefully: There are two villains who apparently wanted to go to non-magic land. Though they both kept a way to use some of their magic, it was really limited. Furthermore, they both got massive demotions: Queen moves down to mayor (I guess it matters if it’s a strong mayor system or if there’s a city council…all the mayors I’ve known don’t really have that much power…) and super-magical Rumplestilskin becomes… a pawnbroker. Well that doesn’t make sense. I mean, I don’t watch “Pawn Stars,” but I get a sense that they aren’t among the 1%, if you know what I mean.

Plus, everything was going just dandily for about 28 years before the hero of the show popped up, so what were they doing for all that time that was SO MUCH BETTER than their lives as all-powerful magical folks would have been in magical-land?

Then I thought perhaps it was more about watching your enemies be humbled. Muhahahaa, the princess is reduced to… being a kindergarten teacher. And…she’s actually really kinda good at it? I mean, I guess she’s not with her magical prince or whatever, but that’s not a bad life, all things considered. She’s got a really cute apartment and stuff.

And then when Henry, ie. the most annoying and delusional kid ever, “discovers” that they’re all magical creatures and works to free them all… why would they want to go back? Now that they’re awake instead of regular-world zombies, they can get back with their beloveds! And now they can do what they want! They’ve sort of built nice lives for themselves in Storybrook. Would you want to go back to a place where someone is always trying to magically kill you? Plus now they get modern medicine, which is apparently more reliable than magical lakes.

If magical-land was as dramatic and messed up as the flashbacks make it out to be, why go back at all? Aside from kinda being trapped, Storybrook seems like a pretty nice place to live.*

*though I do wonder where their food and supplies come from. Do they get, like, a biweekly shipment from the outside world? Can I visit Storybrook? I’d like some of Grandma’s pie.

I’ll be a good mother if we just keep insisting the other woman is a bad one!

3) It has a twisted idea of family.

The other things are annoying, but this–this is the thing about “Once…” that really grinds my gears. It’s probably inevitable that a show based on Disney princesses would involve a lot of love stories, and I expected that. But that has morphed into this insane devotion to a very particular kind of “family,” to the sacrifice of literally everything else.

For example, in the first season, Henry claims his adoptive mother is the Evil Queen. That’s a pretty hurtful thing to say to someone, so I was waiting to see how that would be demonstrated. Regina was SO MEAN…she made him do his homework? And..baked him pies (using non-lethal apples). And… what exactly did she do to him that was so offensive and made her a bad mother?

Whereas Emma abandoned him as a baby (probably justifiably so, based on the allusions she makes to her past at the time) and yet she becomes the Heroic Mother very quickly. She, in comparison to Regina, doesn’t seem to care about things like school, doesn’t seem to know how to take care of herself, must less Henry, and, while perhaps a decent babysitter, isn’t really much of a mother. And she makes it very clear that she doesn’t really WANT to be his mother, repeatedly trying to drop him off at home! But the show forces her into the motherhood role, and before you know it, she’s acting crazy-protective of this kid she barely knows, storming up to Regina and saying things like “well, he’s MY son.”

Actually Emma, no, he’s not. You gave up custody a long while ago. Regina’s the mom here, you’re just some weird interloper.

Then we go to other familial relationships: Snow and Charming. It infuriates me that, with everything else going on, all Snow wants is a baby…and preferably a boy, because (of course!) they’re better. Sorry, Charming, you got stuck with a girl, oops! Wanting to protect her kingdom? Insufficient motivation. Wanting to save her beloved? Insufficient motivation. Revenge? Insufficient. She has to obsess over her kid.

This show is chock-full of examples like that. All the women (even Mulan! What a travesty!) are required to be motivated by a) wanting a man (if they aren’t yet married) and then b) taking care of their kid/having a kid.

A man, on the other hand, can enjoy kids, but really they are around to fight things. Philip sacrificing himself nonsensically and very quickly; Charming being incompetent at everything except swords; even Pinocchio as a kid went out of his way to fight things! It’s ridiculous.

And if you dare violate that standard? Something terrible is guaranteed to happen to you. For example, Rumple’ ‘s wife, who admittedly was a horrible wife and mother for a lot of reasons, didn’t deserve to be murdered. Regina dares to adopt a kid rather than having one of her own? Clearly she’s a bad mother and deserves to have her world ruined.

Rumple was denounced as a coward because he wouldn’t fight and would rather take care of his son; that breaks the rules, so his whole life is systematically dismantled.

I think “Once…” sends a horrible message, particularly to kids from non-nuclear families and kids who aren’t gender-conforming. Sure, girls, you can want to fight dragons, but only if you do it for your baby. Boys, grab your swords or be labeled a coward forever. It’s so disappointing, but the show seems to be popular.

Proponents of “Once…” speak up, tell me what you like about it. Please try to convince me I’m wrong, because I desperately want to like this show.


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Review: The Black Unicorn

The Black Unicorn (Magic Kingdom of Landover, #2)The Black Unicorn by Terry Brooks

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Used book stores are amazing places, but they can lead to book-mania.
I blame the irrationality of book-mania for this book. It was in the clearance section (of Half Price Books! Even more cheap!), and I hadn’t read anything pure fantasy in awhile, and honestly it has a picture of a unicorn on the cover, so yeah, I bought it.
I realized about a third of the way through that I’d made a mistake, but I kept going–surely it will get better any time now.
It didn’t.
First, this is a sequel, but I’ve not read the first book in the series (oops), because I didn’t realize it was a No. 2 until after it was too late. So I didn’t know what was going on at first. Things eventually were kind of revealed, but…this plot needs work. Terry Brooks was clearly going for some kind of “know thyself” message, but it was really muddled. This was one of the rare books that I honestly thought would have been better if the main character had switched with the secondary character: that is, rather than mostly following lead character Ben Holiday, I kept wishing I could drag the perspective away and see what Willow, the tree-girl/sylph, was up to. Because while Ben spends the majority of the book totally lost and aimless, Willow has purpose. She may not know WHY she’s doing something, but she knows she should (oh the “my fairy magic told me so” excuse).
It was particularly upsetting when the BIG REVEAL made it up to Ben to suddenly know everything, when the reader knows Ben is completely clueless. It was like Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High suddenly became Sherlock Holmes. There was just NO WAY.
Also, it’s probably a bad idea to have one of your characters declare he’s not a deux ex machina. Odds are if he says he isn’t, the magical mysterious cat-like-fairy-creature doth protest too much.
Anyway, I’m relieved to be moving on from this one.

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12 Months of Experimental Tales

This month, inspired by one of my absolute favorite authors, I set out to write 12 short stories, using prompts selected by Neil Gaiman. I later found out that this kind of short, quickly written fiction is known as “flash fiction.” (Look at that! I was part of a thing and I didn’t even know it!) I’ve never participated in this kind of writing exercise: the last time I wrote fiction in response to a prompt was in the one creative writing class I’ve ever had, which was in high school and acted mostly like a therapy group for teenage angst.

Twelve stories. It took me nearly a month to complete the challenge (though I never went over an hour in writing each one, so mission accomplished. Technically my writing time was the same as Gaiman’s, though I didn’t have the luxury of three consecutive days of writing–thank goodness I also didn’t have the camera crew). While I loved it, I’m also glad I don’t have these unfinished prompts hanging over my head anymore!

What I’ve Learned from the Calendar of Tales

  1. Prompts are great
    Like I said, I haven’t written from a prompt with any regularity in awhile. I don’t remember liking prompts, but these were nice and juicy and open-ended. I enjoyed having something percolating in the back of my mind. In fact, I often chose to work on the Calendar Tales because of the intriguing prompts..meaning I sometimes neglected my longer fiction pieces (I still love you guys, promise!)
  2. Short fiction can be liberating
    Maybe I’m just a little backwards, but I’ve heretofore preferred longer fiction. I just didn’t see the point in sitting down to write something I knew was going to be short; better to use that energy on a longer project that can pack more punch. But the short word count on these was great: I could say whatever I wanted! I didn’t have to bother explaining where everything came from or making sure each little loose bit was tied together. I just needed to say enough to establish the scene and the problem, and get out of the way. In a lot of the stories, I’m imagining a lot more that just didn’t fit, and I’m okay with that. I hope the reader enjoys filling in the broad strokes, too.
  3. Accents are hard
    For the August tale, I knew I wanted a twangy Texas grandma as the narrator. It’s an accent I thought I could fake pretty well, but I ended up spending the most time on that story out of all of them as I struggled to figure out how to spell the words the way they should be pronounced. I wanted her to be twangy and kind of like Gertrude Beasley, a plain-speaking sassy-as-hell real woman from the barren 1920s of west Texas (My First Thirty Years is a tough read sometimes, but it’s now available to download on Kindle, if you’re interested). I had the hardest time figuring out how you might say “child” with that accent! I think I got it, but it took a lot of trial and error. I have a lot more appreciation for those who write accents frequently.
  4. Ducks Can be Scary
    I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t read horror novels either (except for when I’ve started a book without realizing it’s horror but can’t stop because I have to know what happens), and I struggled to make it through 75% of Joe Hill’s excellent Horns on audiobook before I couldn’t take it anymore. So I didn’t really think I was going to be writing horror. But the April story–I just knew it needed to be terrifying, because the idea of scary ducks was both absurd and believable to me. I think it did a decent job at it, but I think the better lesson is that it’s good to try things even if you think it’s beyond your abilities.
  5. Beta readers are good people
    I fit the writer-as-hermit stereotype pretty well, but it’s something I know I need to work on. Just before starting this venture, I met some great folks at ConDFW, one of whom was just foolish enough to say he’d be a beta reader for me. (Hey there Bryan!) After I wrote each piece, I sent it over to him, giggling like a fiend and hoping he found it just as funny/clever/scary/whatever. And biting my nails when I didn’t get an email back instantly. I’ve been leery of sharing my work before, but this project was different. Bryan caught some dumb mistakes and I’m really grateful for his help. Lesson learned: Beta readers = good.

I’m glad I took on this challenge, and I think it produced some fun and interesting results. I hope readers enjoyed them, too! Read all of the calendar tales.

What writing challenges have you participated in lately? What do you learn from them?

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