I’m sort of trying to merge this and my horribly neglected writing blog together. Maybe. I don’t know. My “branding” is all messed up right now. Also I haven’t written much lately.
Anyway, one of the things I tried to do on the writing blog every now and then was talk about books I’d read lately and what I learned about writing from them. So that’s what this post is.
I have a subscription to Audible where I get two credits a month, and I usually forget to download anything until I get close to the maximum number of credits, at which time I have to pick a bunch of semi-random selections to download. Historically I’ve always stuck to SF&F or horror books but lately I’ve been trying to read more mainstream stuff and/or things that I wouldn’t normally look at.
By the way I don’t consider audio books a substitute for reading, but I personally am enthralled by a good narrator reading something, even if the story isn’t that great. Also audio books are a great time-saver because you can multi-task while listening.
I note the point of view and tense of the writing below just so I have a record of it somewhere. I have this theory that everybody is writing first person books now because today’s authors are yesterday’s bloggers and that’s all they know how to write. An alternate theory is that today’s authors know that today’s readers are used to reading so many bloggers who write in first person.
Annihilation: Southern Reach by Jeff VanderMeer. First person. I honestly don’t remember how I heard about this book (well, more like a novella–it’s pretty short). Perhaps I picked it at random. The audio performance is horrible (I swear the narrator sounds like Majel Barrett), so it’s probably better to get a printed copy, but the concept of the book was so interesting that I listened to the whole thing anyway. I wasn’t sure whether I was listening to a science fiction story or a Lovecraftian horror story. Maybe it was a mashup of both. In any case, it was mind-bogglingly different from any other story I’ve ever seen before. I don’t think anyone had a name, and I had no idea when or where the story took place. It’s tempting to get the other two books in the trilogy but when the first book of a trilogy is so short, it just makes me think the publishers are trying to milk more money out of what should have been one book. In any case the first book seemed like a complete story to me. Lessons learned: I could never write anything like this in a million years, so don’t even try. Also, no matter how much the writing experts try to get you to follow a formula, there’s always room to do something totally different.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. Third person. I believe I chose this epic fantasy because it was an award winner or nominee or something. My goal is to read/listen to all the nominees and winners of the major awards, however I typically fall far short of that. Anyway I’m struggling to remember the particulars of this book now but I know I didn’t get much past the first chapter. There wasn’t anything wrong with it–it had a good hook actually, and it was decently read, but the topic of goblins and goblin politics just doesn’t interest me. Lessons learned: Politics isn’t for me.
The Cold Dish: A Walt Longmire Novel by Craig Johnson. First person. I got this because I recently discovered the Longmire series on Netflix, which I thought was a surprisingly good “police procedural” show set in Montana or some such middle-of-nowhere location (and it has Katie Sackhoff in it). I wanted to see if the novel on which it was based had the same effect on me. As it turned out, the the story did not hook me, and the audio performance definitely did not hook me, so I didn’t get much past the first couple of chapters. As I recall, it just felt like paragraph after paragraph of exposition with no indication of what the plot might be. Lessons learned: Sometimes the show/movie is better than the book.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. First person, present tense. I picked this one out because it was on the “best sellers” page and the blurb sounded interesting. It’s an excellent audio performance by three different readers and a decent mystery/suspense/whatever novel with interesting characters, however I felt like the “reveal” was telegraphed from a million miles away so it wasn’t much of a surprise to me. The very first sentences were riveting, though. It’s written in the same sort of breakneak-speed style as Hunger Games with very little description, which probably explains why it’s so popular. It also has three different first-person perspectives, one of which is from “before” while the other two are from “after.” I always find it interesting when different time periods are woven together. New writers are always warned to avoid multiple first-person perspectives, but it works okay here because a) each perspective was narrated by a different voice, and b) each perspective is titled with the name of the character to make it easier. Lessons learned: It’s okay to skip verbose descriptions of people, places, and things, which for me is very reassuring because I tend to skip over that stuff. Also first person, present tense is popular right now.
Memory Man by David Baldacci. Third person. Someone at work talked about how much they liked David Baldacci so I picked out this one at random, based solely on the criteria that it was the first one I found that wasn’t part of a fifteen-book series. The narrator was average at best, the writing didn’t seem like anything special, and the story was not all that interesting to me, so I only made it through four or five chapters (I stuck with it longer just to really give it a chance). The “gimmick” for the book was that the main character (a private investigator) sustained a football head injury in college and as a result began to remember everything in perfect detail. It wasn’t enough to make an otherwise ordinary former-cop-turned-private-detective-down-on-his-luck story special, plus person-with-perfect-memory seems kind of tropey these days. Lessons learned: Photographic memories and ex-cops aren’t that interesting to me.
Blood Song: Raven’s Shadow, Book 1 by Anthony Ryan. First and third person. This one had been in my library for a year and a half and I finally listened to it recently. I don’t remember why I picked it. The narrator was okay but the story didn’t grab me in the first two chapters. Whatever distinguishes this book from other epic fantasy books was not apparent to me in that time. (I’m also starting to wonder if I’m cut out for epic fantasy books any more–the beginning of most epic fantasy books is a spewage of names and places that make little or no sense until you get far into the book, and I just don’t have the patience for that anymore.) It started with a first person account of some prisoner arriving in some place. Then it went into what I presume is the main story of some Lord’s son getting sent off to some place with a bunch of other kids to learn something useful from some trainers. The Lord’s son was not a particularly interesting character, so I felt no particular desire to accompany him on his journey, and there was no indication that the Lord’s son had any particular goals that I might be curious about. And there were about fifty thousand new names, places, and things to learn. Lessons learned: Make characters interesting and/or give them goals right away.
P.S. It only occurred to me at the very end of writing this that I had created a “list” that could be used for Listmas 2015, so hey, here’s a list!