A well spent holiday

I have a confession to make.

I had a good ten days off this holiday season, but didn’t write a word.

Oh, I intended to–I figured I’d at least finish off the first draft of my Courts series (which you can read more about on my Books page). It’s my habit to get up a bit earlier than my wife each morning, take the dog out, and do some writing before the day starts–but this holiday, I found myself with different priorities.

Just as the holiday started, one of my favourite indie authors, J. M. Ney-Grimm, released a short story called Perilous Chance. I picked it up right away. I also found a couple books at the library that I’ve been wanting to read for some time–Captain Nemo and Death Warmed Over by Kevin J Anderson. After Christmas, I used a gift certificate to pick up another of his books, Clockwork Angels, which has been on my reading list since the release of the Rush album it was written alongside.

Needless to say, I had a lot of reading material this holiday. I didn’t get any writing done, but I read several books, almost all of them indie. And you know what they say. A writer should always be reading.

So this gave me an idea. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that occasionally (once or twice a month) I offer an Indie Review–a look at a book written and published by an indie author. Since I’ve not been posting over the holiday and got so much reading done, I figured I’d catch up with a special series of reviews this week.

So, over the next four days, keep your eyes open for some great Indie work, featured right here! We’ll start tomorrow with a writer I was introduced to by happy accident after mistyping a title in the Kobo search bar–Leah Cutter.

 

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Roll a D20 for Inspiration

d20 by Janetgalore, c/o Flikr

Last week, I talked about how I like to draw on roleplaying games for inspiration in creating characters, so I thought it would be fun to follow up this week with the other end of things–the Game Master.

For those of you who haven’t played an RPG, the Game Master (or Dungeon Master in D&D parlance) is the one who runs the adventure for the players. Their job is to build encounters with enemies to fight, scatter treasure for the players to find, and develop a plot for them to follow. You can see where this is going: the GM is, essentially, a storyteller weaving a compelling story for the players to play through. You can see why this is appealing for a writer.

This past weekend, I had the chance to sit down with a group I used to play D&D with. I haven’t had a lot of time to play with them lately, but had a free evening on Saturday, so I dropped in. The GM whipped up a One Shot so I could play without disrupting the overall arc of their story, came up with a nice plot hook for my character to be thrown into the action, and we were off.

The story was quite clever: my character Arranis was frantically wandering through the forest trying to collect herbs for a potion that would help heal a young boy. I ran into the other adventurers, who came back with me to the village, where we discovered that the boy–Timothy–was ill because their family couldn’t afford proper medical care. The town they were living in was controlled by a tyranical man who was taxing them to death, and cared for nothing but himself. When we tried to confront him, we were intercepted by a ghost in heavy chains who told us our villain–Abanezer–would be visited by three spirits hoping to convince him to change his ways; our job was to make sure the good spirits could do their job without interference, and we spent the evening fighting off foes who wanted Abanezer to stay as evil as he was.

Sound familiar?

This is what I enjoy so much about role playing. Even a well known story can provide a fun backdrop for adventure. Some of you may have seen the recent episode of The Big Bang Theory or read the Penny Arcade comics of the past weeks, and it’s the same idea. Take a story, spin it into an adventure, and hack/slash away. Our GM was able to lead us through a compelling plot, and we, as players, were able to affect the story through our actions.

Game Mastering is a particular skill, but it’s closely related to writing. You want to have Plot Hooks for your characters, motivations for them to want to move the plot forward, tension and action to keep them interested, and–most importantly–a backup plan in case your characters go widely off the path you’ve set out. Most of you know all too well what happens when a character or plot gets out of control and you need to write yourself out of a corner. Usually, it leads the plot into wonderful territory you never considered, and (for me anyway) that’s part of the magic of writing.

I once ran a solo game for someone who wanted to learn the World of Darkness system. It’s a game that focuses on horror and supernatural elements in a “real world” setting, so it has a much more tangible feel to it. We had a great time playing what amounted to a short piece of fiction–effectively, we were living out the story, I as the narrator, and he as the protagonist. This specific game is actually part of what got me back into writing after a (too) long hiatus, and (with the player’s permission) I’ve started work on it as a novella called The Road to Hell. Look for it to be released sometime in 2013.

I can’t say that I’m an experienced Game Master–I’ve really only dipped my toe–but the games I ran did make me a better writer. And, I like to think, vice versa. It’s all about weaving a story, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that a lot of writers would be good at running an RPG–or that GMs or players would find they’re good at writing. The people I played with last weekend are a great example–one of the players (who was actually the first DM I played with) had a successful turn at NaNoWriMo this year, in fact.

RPGs certainly aren’t for everyone. For some people they seem downright silly. But if you’re a writer, I’d urge you to at least give it a shot–you might be surprised with what you find. And if you’re a DM who stumbled upon this post and have never written a word–try it. You never know.

I could talk at length about RPGs…and might do more posts on the topic as related to writing. In the meantime, I’ll let others speak for me. Here’s a few links for you:

  • Critical Hit: A terrific podcast by the folks at Major Spoilers. It’s an ongoing game that started as a great tutorial for one player, and got even more awesome from there. Really, go listen–you can find them on iTunes.
  • Dragon’s Temple: Julio Nicolini is a writer and fellow player from Myth Weavers who has his own blog. He talks about RPGs and writing, and often posts excerpts of his work.
  • Penny Arcade: These guys talk about video games, comics, RPGs and all things GeekTheir comic often deals with Dungeons and Dragons, and the crew gets together with Wizards of the Coast once a year to play a game with the indomitable Wil Wheton–which you can also find on iTunes.
  • Myth Weavers: This is a “Play by Post” site where you can play a variety of RPGs online. It’s a great community, and very friendly to newcomers.
  • Wizards of the Coast:Makers of Dungeons and Dragons and other games.
  • White Wolf Publishing: Makers of the World of Darkness game, and others–including Vampire, Werewolf and Mage.

Thanks everyone for reading along these past few months. With the holiday season fast upon us, I won’t be posting here again until January–next week will be a bit busy. So Happy Holidays and New Year!

How to Make the Time

Time goes by so fast by JanetR3, c/o Flikr

A while back, I posted about how we give ourselves permission to procrastinate, and that the excuse of “I don’t have enough time” is a thin one. The moral: you won’t have the time until you make the time. So I thought it would be nice to follow up today with how you can do just that.

I used to be a House Manager at a live theatre company–essentially, my job was to make sure our patrons were safe and comfortable before the show and during intermission. A large part of it was customer service–but really, the job was all about time management. It was important to learn how to manage my time so that less important things–like making sure the doors are unlocked–don’t take away from time spent on issues like getting change to the bar, resolving seating issues, and heaven forbid, medical emergencies.

Time Management isn’t just about hitting your deadlines or making sure you have time to complete projects. It’s about making the most use out of the time you have, identifying what you don’t have time for, and knowing what’s most important to get done right now.

And all of this relates to writing just as well as it does House Management, or any other job. Let’s address it in a few simple points:

Prioritization

This is the big one. If you’re focusing on the little things, you’ll never get good at time management. It’s as simple as not knowing where your energies need to go–if you spend all your time on something that doesn’t matter in the larger picture, you’ll find yourself running out of time to complete the big projects. It sounds pretty straight forward, but I’ve found that it takes practice. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell what should get your attention first–but sometimes, it’ll surprise you.

For example, you might think that designing a cover for that book you just started is a long ways off. You still have edits, revisions, formatting. The book cover is the last detail you want to think about when you’re in the middle of your first draft. But really, it’s a crucial thing to think about early on, maybe even before you start writing. The cover is how people are going to find your book, especially when they’re shopping online. You also need to think about branding; your books should all have a similar ‘feel’ to them, so it’s easy for readers to make the connection between your works. If not, it’s easy for them to pass your other books by.

Allocation

Prioritization is how you order your task list; Allocation is how divide that time between tasks. Another common mistake in time management is allocating too much time to a relatively unimportant project, and too much time to something else. I’m really bad at this when it comes to a specific example: research. I love researching things, to the point where I’ll research a topic just for the fun of it with no end result in mind. But when I have a particular story to write, I can get tied up in research enough that I use up time I could have otherwise spent writing–and that’s when I start missing deadlines.

Case in point: I thought it would be interesting for the system of magic in my Tapestry Project to make use of foci. A Mage uses magic by manipulating one of the four elements, but if he has a focus attuned to that element, the magic is more potent. I want to use particular gemstones as foci, and started doing some research into it–and wasted all the time I’d set aside for a couple days. All for a nice bit of “flavour” that ultimately doesn’t have a large impact on the plot. I could have stopped my research short and gone back to it later, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The fallacy of allocation is that every part of your project is important–it’s just that some things are more important than others. Research is crucial for a good book, but you need to make time for other things too. Finding that balance can take practice as well, but ultimately, the most important thing is that you write. That should always be your priority, and the majority of your time and effort  should be spent on it.

Organization

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s really very important. If you’re not organized, you’ll have trouble getting out of the gate. Fortunately, it’s simple to get on the right track–just utilize your resources and play to your strengths.

I’m a “project” guy. I work best when I have a clear goal in mind, and I’m able to set out specific tasks that lead toward that goal. Checklists work wonders for me; as I complete tasks and mark them off my list, I have a real sense of accomplishment which propels me forward. Others may prefer to have a vague outline of what their end game looks like, and work toward it in an organic way. There’s no right answer here, as long as you’re organized. There’s a lot of software out there for this, everything from email clients and electronic calendars to synchronization software and memo pads. Much of it is free. Investigate what you think will work best, try it out, and use it.

Goals and Intent

Again, it might go without saying, but if you don’t have an idea of where you’re going to end up, you won’t have much luck getting there in any timely fashion.  You have to start somewhere, but you have to have a destination in mind as well.

The trick here, I find, is to have several very specific goals instead of one vague one. “I want to publish a novel” isn’t going to help you, because there’s so much work that goes into it. “I want to write X number of words each day” is a much better goal because it’s attainable, and it’s measurable. Also–and this is important–it’s something you can change day to day. Having a goal is great, but having a flexible goal is better. Sometimes life happens, and you can’t reach your destination when you thought you could–but that doesn’t mean it can’t change tomorrow.

Intent is also very important. You want to be clear about what you want to achieve; not just what your goal are, but why your goals are as they are. You want to write 5000 words by the end of the week? Fine. Why 5000 words? Why a week? What will you do when you get there, whether you can meet that goal or not? Being clear on the intent behind your goals will help you work towards them because it’s no longer arbitrary, it’s tangible.

 

Time Management is a big subject, and I won’t pretend to have covered it all here. I’d like to elaborate on this post eventually, with some tips about managing your time–but in all honestly, I’m out of it for this week! We’ll see you Wednesday!

Characters and Gaming

copyright Wizards of the CoastOne of the most important things about writing a decent story, of course, is finding compelling characters. There’s tons of information on the internet about how to write good characters, create interesting arcs, how to use characters to drive conflict, and so on. We’ll get into those some day–I’d like to do a series on characters eventually–but today, we’re going to step back and do something fun.

I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons a couple years ago, when I was invited to play in a weekly game. I had no idea how it worked, and I’d never played a pen and paper RPG before, but I loved it instantly. The thing that struck me most about the game is the way it encouraged creativity. In my first session, our group was being chased by a bunch of enemies we didn’t want to fight; our Dungeon Master (the person leading the game for the players) clearly wanted to set us up for a battle, but we weren’t hearing of it. We tried to hide in a cave while they passed us by–the DM countered by telling us it contained a monster of a higher level than us, hinting that the foes behind would be the easier fight. Instead, we lured our pursuers into the cave, blocked the entrance, and let the monsters take care of themselves. Problem solved.

This is what I enjoy so much about roleplaying games: they’re designed to be open ended, and the only limits are your imagination. Being a rather imaginative person, it’s a natural fit for me. As a storyteller, the draw is even more evident; even while you’re in an encounter and rolling dice to see if you hit and how much damage you dole out, you have the opportunity to flesh out the narrative. A miss turns into an unexpected parry by your enemy, who then dodges out of your way and thumbs his nose at you. An attack that just barely hits turns into a harrowing tension filled moment where both of you lock swords and stare each other down–while you slowly draw a dagger to thrust into their side.

You can see why this is fun for a writer. What does it have to do with characters?

In Dungeons and Dragons (I’m talking about 4th edition if anyone’s interested), you first choose the kind of character you want to play by selecting a class. This is what you do. Then you choose a race, which gives you some characteristics and determines how well you do your thing. Finally, you flesh out the character with specific attacks, weapons and items, feats (special abilities), and so on. It’s simple, and the publishers of the game (Wizards of the Coast) have lots of flavourful options for you to choose from.

But the most fun way to build a character is to start with a concept, and try to make it work mechanically. This is where you get some great ideas for characterization, which you can then bring into your writing. For example, DnD has a race called Warforged, which is basically a magic robot. Couple that with a class called Swordmage, which likes to use magic through their blade, and multiclass into Psion, which has various telekinetic powers. You end up with a character that’s part mechanical, uses a sword, and can move things around with their mind.

Like Darth Vader.

DnD gives you a great place to start by providing flavour and information on the classes, races and so on. And that’s just it: a start. This information can serve as a springboard to help create colourful and fun characters. Of course, all of it is copyrighted by WotC–and aggressively protected. So I wouldn’t go about creating a character with their sources and publishing it in your novel–but it helps get the creative juices flowing. I’ll often build character after character with no intention of using them in a game–I do it just because it’s fun, and it’s interesting to try odd combinations, then trying to explain them with a story. Like a dwarf who desecrates nature and is punished by the spirits of the forest by being locked into the form of a bear (Shaman class with a power called Beast Form). Or a monk who practices lucid dreaming, accidentally bringing into existence a manifestation of his “dream self,” which then breaks free in an effort to explore its own identity (a race called Kalashtar with the Psion class). Or an escaped gladiatorial slave who has developed a unique fighting style, using her long braided hair to ensnare her foes (arena fighter with the whip training feat).

You get the idea.

At any rate, if you’ve never tried roleplaying, I’d suggest you give it a go. DnD 4th edition uses a character builder which is completely online, and you have to subscribe to them in order to use it; they used to have a downloadable program (which is what I use) but I don’t know that it’s widely available.
There’s a website online called Myth Weavers, where you can play by posting in a forum. You can find me there occasionally, and they cater to all sorts of different games. Or visit the Dungeons and Dragons website to get more information about their games. Also check out another of my favourite games, World of Darkness–a sort of supernatural noir “storytelling system” that relies heavily on story and not so much on dice.

And have fun with it!

On the shelf or in the Aether?

KoboLogoNot so many years ago, I was at home watching the local breakfast news show on TV, as was my habit then before running off to work. I was watching a segment about the best “tech toys” to pick up for the holidays–and one of them was a new-fangled technology that promised to revolutionize the way people read: electronic ink. Yes, it was one of the early e-readers that was commercially available to a wide market. I chuckled through the segment, saying to myself “that will never work.”

You see, I’ve always been a heavy reader. I can’t remember the last time I left the house without a book or two, and that’s not an exaggeration.I love books; there’s just something about living vicariously through another character or learning about something I didn’t know before that captivates me. But a big part of that experience is holding a physical book–the smell, the turning of pages, watching your bookmark migrate towards the end. Why would anyone give that up?

And so I was strongly seated in the “dead tree” camp, and never thought I’d make the transition to e-books. I’m still not sure what made me want to take the plunge last December when I bought my first e-reader–curiosity, mostly, I suppose, and the fact that my local library had started their e-book program. At any rate, I tried it…and I’ve never looked back.

Oh, I’ll still buy paper books. They’re not something I’ll ever want to rid myself of. But my Kobo is one of the best electronics purchases I’ve ever made–it’s by far the most used piece of electronics in our house. As of today I’ve spent the equivalent of 18 consecutive days reading on my Kobo.

So what made me a convert? For anyone who’s still sitting on the fence as to why you should bother with an e-reader, here’s my top five reasons:

Convenience

Using an e-reader is simple. There are things that annoy me about the Kobo–it used to be terribly slow going back to the home screen before their latest software update, it crashes occasionally–but when I look at what I’m getting out of it in the end, it’s a no brainer. Having the ability to read almost whatever I want, whenever I want is an incredible boon for someone like me. I finished a book last night, and was deciding what one I wanted to start next; usually this would entail spending an hour in the library or going over my To-Read list and seeking out a particular title; with the Kobo my library is diverse enough for any mood I’m in. I have several hundred books at my fingertips–a few million if I turn on my wifi. All of it from my comfortable spot on the couch with a dog in my lap.

It’s also simple to switch between books. I started reading an esoteric text on Kabbalah last night, in researching my Tapestry Project; I wasn’t in the mood, so I switched to Brak the Barbarian. When I finished a story there, I went to a sci-fi tale by Sam Best. My bookmarks in all of them ensure that I’ll never lose my place, even if I don’t get back to it for another few months. So easy.

Price

When I was in University, I was accustomed to spending an arm and a leg for textbooks. Fortunately, I was an English/Theatre major, so most of my texts were books I’d read over and over again, and still have in my library. Still, I spent a lot of money. Now that I’m all grown up, I can’t afford to drop a hundred dollars on books.
Ebooks, though, are cheap. Generally. At the very least, most popular titles are several dollars below the cost of a paperback–and a huge number of titles are priced at $2 or under. You can find almost any book published before 1900 for free, and an increasingly larger group of people are publishing current works for free as well. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for great books, and with the way the self-publishing world is going, I have a feeling that the Big Four are going to start lowering their prices as well. Having a decent sized library can carry an incredibly small cost. This is great news for anyone who loves to read. Of course, the initial investment can vary from $80-500, depending on what kind of e-reader/tablet you buy, but it’s a very worthwhile investment.
On top of all the free ebooks out there, most public libraries have jumped on the bandwagon. This is something that will become even more accessible soon–currently, it costs libraries a ridiculous amount to purchase ebooks, but it’s changing.

Study

When I read, it’s not just fiction. I love to study–anything from quantum mechanics to religious texts to history books. Some of my favourite memories at school was hunkering down in the library with dozens of books and doing research all day (and not always because I had a paper to write). Nerdy, yes–but delightful.
With the Kobo, research is incredibly simple. I no longer have to bring a notebook–I can make annotations right in the text from my device. I can highlight passages, bookmark specific pages, and cross reference footnotes. Best of all, I can organize my current research into bookshelves so relevant topics are in the same accessible group–and I can compare versions of a text by going between them in seconds.
One of the best examples of this is my ongoing study of the Tao te Ching. It’s an ancient Chinese spiritual text–but because it’s 2500+ years old, there are many different versions. I have several of them on my Kobo (most of them were free, see above) and can go from version to version to study each verse. Looking at other people’s interpretations of a text is the best way to draw your own conclusions. Now, if i could only link the annotations from one version to the others…

Portability

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have several hundred books at my fingertips. All in one little device that weighs less than a pound. It’s not even close to full–and if I were to add an optional mini SD card, I could pack it with another couple dozen gigabytes of storage. An ebook is generally a few hundred kilobytes at the most–you can do the math. For a bibilophile like me, it’s a dream come true.
E-readers are also getting smaller, to an extent. Mine doesn’t fit into a pocket, though it’s just larger than a typical paperback. It’s the right size for me, and it’s easy to take with me anywhere I go. I take public transit a lot, so it’s wonderful to be able to have all of my books in one place. When I travel, I don’t have to agonize over which books I’m going to bring, or how many can fit into my suitcase (I once had to unpack in the middle of an airport because I had so many books that my luggage was over the weight limit). If someone had told me ten years ago that this was possible, I’d have thought they were crazy. Now I don’t want to be without an e-reader.

Discoverability

This is the biggest one for me. One of the cool features of the Kobo–and I’m sure many other readers as well–is that it suggests titles for me based on my reading habits. Really, it’s similar to the Amazon “you might also like” widget. Some people find it annoying, but I think it’s great–I’ve come across so many books I never would have found if not for this feature. If you haven’t guessed, I’m that guy who goes to the bookstore or library for a particular title, and spends two hours browsing the stacks because one thing leads to another. This kind of algorithm is right up my alley.
But the best part of this is that I’ve been introduced to this incredible community of indie writers. If I hadn’t bought a Kobo, I never would have found out about the great writers who are working outside the ‘traditional’ system–and I never would have bothered to step into that world myself. And while there are those out there who are still skeptical of so called self-published authors–the stigma is wearing away, but there’s still a hint for some people–the quality of writing really is amazing. Some of my now favourite books are coming from indie authors, and I’m starting to follow them like I used to follow Stephen King or Michael Crichton. The best part is, not only is the quality excellent, the authors are accessible. They want to interact with their readers, and encourage them to join their community. I’ve never sent an email to Stephen King, and wouldn’t expect a resonse if I did–but I’m in regular correspondence with some of my favourite indie authors. How is that not a great thing?

Well. There’s my rant. I promise I’m not on the Kobo payroll! But if you’re looking for a gift this holiday season, consider giving someone an e-reader. I’ve always thought that a book is one of the best gifts one can give, because it’s a sharing of knowledge and imagination that goes far beyond a simple tangible thing. What better way to top that than with a device that facilitates the wondrous adventure of reading?

ROW80Update: Movin’ Right Along

This is going to be a short one today–not much to talk about really, but I wanted to make a check-in.

Fortunately, this week has been more productive than last–I wrote 3000+ words! They came very easily, too; it says a lot about the direction your writing is going if it flows so nicely.

And here’s the most important thing I learned this week: if writing that scene if like pulling hen’s teeth, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing–it’s your muse telling you you’re going in the wrong direction. Pick a new one, and it’s amazing how much easier things become. Last week I had a crisis of faith with where my story was going, but I found a solution by taking it in a direction I hadn’t thought to go. It worked, and now I have a firm direction, my character arc is established (rather than just being ‘set up,’) and I’ve got a cliffhanger. Sometimes you have to force yourself to think outside the box.

The other great accomplishment I had this week was finishing the first draft of Court of Rain. This puts me at 50% of my first draft of phase one, and about 1600 words in total. Court of Sand unfortunately needs a lot of work yet, but that’s okay; it’ll be easier to edit that now that I have a clearer direction with Court of Rain. And the next instalment, Court of Sylphs, is being set up nicely.

 

Indie Review: What We Saw

 I have a bad habit when it comes to reading books: I read ahead.

I’m not one of those people who read the last page first, but I do tend to skip paragraphs sometimes, or look to the bottom of the page when I get to the end of a chapter so I can see the cliffhanger. I always go back and read what I glossed over, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. And it’s not a common thing: it only happens when I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. I take it as an indication that I’m so into the book that I want to read it faster than I’m capable of doing.

This was the case with Ryan Casey’s new release–and first novel–What We Saw.

I’ve mentioned Casey on the blog before, with a review of his short story collection, Something in the Cellar. What We Saw is in the same vein–a nice suspense story with a few twists. Casey is really damn good at writing tension, and this book is chock full of it. When I got to the end of Chapter 7–even though I’d suspected what would happen–I had to put the book down for a minute to catch my breath. After that, it never lets up–I read more than half the book in one sitting. This is the kind of novel that readers search for: it grabs hold and doesn’t let go until that final page–and even then, it keeps you thinking.

What We Saw concerns two young boys, Liam and Adam, cousins on summer break who are (for differing reasons) living with their grandparents. Liam’s parents make a small appearance and there’s much talk (which I won’t spoil) about Adam’s family. The grandparents are colourful characters as well, and there’s another child, Emily, who serves as a call to action and a love interest–but really, it’s the boys’ story. They want to be detectives, spending their time solving mysteries around the campground–and their aspirations get them thrown head first into a mystery that’s much much bigger than them.

To go into too much detail would spoil the plot. Suffice it to say there’s a missing girl (not Emily), hints at violence around the campground, and some untimely deaths. There’s no lack of suspects, either–the campground seems filled with people who are up to some sort of mischief, and they boys have a lot to keep them on their toes. There’s a lot that would make this a great mystery book, but it’s much more than that.

The great thing about this book is that it’s written from a ten year old’s point of view. This creates a special kind of tension, where the narrator knows more is going on than meets the eye, but can’t quite put his finger on it because he’s just too young to understand. He’s neck deep in “grown up stuff,” and though he wants to help and understand, he’s kept at arm’s length by virtue of his age. This isn’t for a lack of trying–it’s just because he’s never had to deal with these kinds of things before. In that, What We Saw is a terrific example of a coming of age novel, though that’s not the focus.

What all of this does is help keep the mystery fresh. Casey is able to add details that, if the protagonist were an adult, would make the mystery easy to solve–and if you go back through the book reading it through the eyes of an older person, those clues were there all along. But because you’re reading the book through the eyes of someone so young, you feel like you’re reaching after something that’s on the tip of your tongue. You know what it probably means, but you’re just not sure…and it’s not until the end of the book that Liam is able to string it all together.

I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it seems to be a very effective way of stringing the tension along. The tension is real not only because the characters don’t know what going to happen next, but because they don’t understand why people would do such things; they’ve still got a foot in their childhood, and their naivety is colouring their approach to the situation. Better still, all the adult characters have adult motivations. The children can only guess at them, and this adds a lot of uncertainly to their deductions. They quickly realize that they’re over their heads, but not before it’s too late to walk away. This raises the stakes considerably: it’s like you’re blindfolded at the top of the first hill on a roller coaster and have no option but to fall to the bottom, hoping you don’t fall off the rails.

But besides the characters and the mystery, the thing I get most from this book is how genuine it is. The characters act like children; the adults act like adults; there was nothing in the book that asked me to suspend my disbelief. The characters are emotionally involved, and the stakes are very real. This sounds like a list of things that should be in every novel, but browning through the stacks at any bookstore will show you how many books lack this kind of attention. Casey has tied everything into a nice package, and the result is a well rounded story that feels very real.

Which, of course, makes all the tension all that more powerful.

There’s a lot to like about What We Saw, and it’s an impressive first novel for Casey. This is a writer to keep an eye on–you can expect great things down the line.

You can find Ryan Casey at his blog and on Twitter. Pick up What We Saw on Amazon for Kindle and in Paperback, and at Barnes & Noble in paperback. Don’t miss out on this book if you don’t have a Kindle–Amazon has Kindle Apps that run on your PC, Android and Windows tablets, iPhones/iPads, and even from the cloud on their website! And don’t forget to check out his other releases Silhouette and Something in the Cellar here.

 

ROW80 Update: When in Doubt, Add Dragons

Around of Words in 80 DaysI’m afraid I don’t have much to update today, and I’m sorry that seems to be a common refrain lately! This weekend was a bit rough–I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say I was ill enough that I didn’t writemuch, and only today am I beginning to feel myself again. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to write in fits and starts, and have accomplished about 1000 words. This means I’m three quarters finished with the rough draft of Court of Rain–which means I’m about halfway through Phase One of my project. I was hoping to be finished all four parts of phase one by the end of December, and I’m not sure that will happen–but I’m not going to change my goal just yet. Be positive!

In the meantime, although I didn’t write many actual words, I had a lot of time to think about the story. I’ve been a bit dissatisfied with it lately. I love the characters and the idea, but it’s starting to feel flat. There’s too much discussion and humming and hawing. This, I’ve realized, comes down to the structure of the project.

As I’ve mentioned, the whole project is based on the structure of the tarot. The Court stories are based on the four court cards of each suit–Pentacles (Sand), Cups (Rain), Swords (Sylphs), and Wands (Tinder). The court cards can be thought of as members of a family–mother, father, son and daughter–and when they come up in a reading, they often refer to a particular person in your life. As such, the ;purpose they’re serving in my story is as a sort of character study.

And there’s the problem. There’s not much action in these stories. I figured it wouldn’t be an issue since each scene is only 2000 words long–but with a total of sixteen scenes, you get what amounts to a short novella. That’s a lot of text without much action–it can’t all be character development.

So I’m learning a couple valuable things about my writing. First, that you can’t concentrate on description and character to the exclusion of action. Something’s got to happen to move the plot forward, and the machinations of my antagonist won’t cut it. Second, I need to learn to be flexible with my structure. Basing this on the tarot is all well and good–and will contribute to the mystical symbolism of the overall project–but if I keep to it too much, the result will be bland and constricted. Sometimes you have to colour outside the lines.

So where does that leave me? I’ve got to kick things up a notch. And what better way to do that than to throw in a dragon or two?

Dragons have always been a part of my “world,” though they’re not common. They are the physical manifestations of their respective elements–thus there are four species. A Mage practicing with a particular Element can, if powerful enough, summon a dragon. Though that doesn’t mean they can control it…

Dragons aren’t something the general populace knows about. They’re creatures of myth and legend, and it’s been centuries since a Mage powerful enough to summon one has been active. Over the course of this story, I wanted dragons to appear, but more in the background than anything. Now, I think I want to bring them in early. My antagonist is threatening to change the status quo for all the other characters–he’s trying to start a war that will eventually involve the gods. If he has dragons on his side, the stakes get suddenly very high–maybe high enough to challenge the gods themselves.

Now I’ve got an interesting story. We’ll see where it goes.