Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas

Essential. Maas describes the elements of a “breakout” novel, showing how to make any plot or story more compelling. He pulls examples from recent (well, recent to the year 2000, which is when the book was written) novels to illustrate each of his points, and even has exercises in each chapter you can do for your own novel.

I’m already mixing in his approach as I prepare for NaNoWriMo. It’s given me another set of questions to ask about my characters, plot, and setting, to help me push them to a higher level.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • People have been talking about the death of the mid-list since the 1970s. Don’t let it phase you.
  • Escalating stakes doesn’t mean making the one danger greater. It means adding more, different, dangers for the protagonist.
  • Characters need to be larger-than-life. Find the extraordinary in ordinary people, and bring that to life.

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Masterful. It’s a classic for a reason: a locked-room mystery on an entire train, that builds slowly through lie after lie until the truth comes rushing out all at once.

Damn, but Christie was good.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Skip over the dialog that doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s enough just to say “so-and-so made a suitable response.”
  • Even adventures that get stumbled into have to be driven by the protagonist’s choices. Poirot doesn’t ask for the mystery, but he deliberately pursues it to the end, because that’s who he is.
  • Put the description at the start of the scene, briefly. If the position of something isn’t important, leave it out. It’s enough to report that “there were pencils and paper,” we don’t always need to know exactly where everything is.

X vs Y by Eve Epstein & Leonora Epstein

A cracking good read. Illuminates the relationship between Gen X and Gen Y, something that’s always felt a little slippery to me (as someone born in 1979, often thrown in with the Millennials but identifying with Gen X).

Filled with moments that made me nod along (the movie list for Gen X), and others that showed me a corner of the 90s I didn’t know existed (Sassy magazine). The book was clearly a work of love for both Eve and Leonora, and it shows.

Three things I learned:

  • Titanic was a huge movie for Gen Y. What I remember as just solid Oscar-bait was apparently perfectly tuned to imprint on young Gen Y brains.
  • Clueless can be read as not just a great adaption of Emma, but also as a love story between Gen Y (Cher) and Gen X (Josh), reflecting the complicated relationship between the two generations.
  • Complaining about the current tech-driven dating scene is common to Gen Y, though none of them would want to go back to the way things were before.

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

Stunning. I had no idea of the magnitude of what was lost in Eastern and Central Europe after the War, due to Soviet coercion and control.

By focusing on just the first decade or so after V-E day, and restricting her story to mainly Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, Applebaum is able to go in deep on how the Soviets — and their local communist allies — were able to subvert their newly conquered satellite states, and impose a foreign totalitarian system on them.

Three things I learned:

  • Poland, Hungary, Germany, Finland: their borders were radically remade after the Soviet conquest. The Baltic countries vanished altogether, absorbed into the Soviet Union. Germany lost much eastern territory to Poland, who in turn lost its eastern reaches to the Soviet Union. The Ukraine was gone.
  • Poland lost 20% of its population in the war. In comparison, France lost 1.5%
  • The first step for most of the communist parties was to form a “national front” with other leftist parties, sometimes by force, usually with some amount of arm-twisting. Once that was established, communists would take over the mechanisms of state power (Interior, Secret Police, etc) while leaving the most visible positions in the hands of others, so it looked like a pluralistic government from outside.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Generally excellent. Where the first book was broad, with multiple locations and times, the second one goes deep, diving into the political minutiae of a single system. And it works, drawing us further into the world of the Radch.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Be careful of “I knew that she suspected I thought I knew about this lie that she told me three days ago” plots. Unless your narrator is very explicit about their thoughts, you can lose the reader in too many significant looks that aren’t explained.
  • If a cool gimmick from the first book isn’t available (lost because of story), instead of bringing it back (and reaching for a retcon), try to find a different way to achieve the same thing. Here, the data relayed to the narrator by Ship gives us the ability to view scenes we wouldn’t otherwise, preserving the narrative trick of the first book by a different means.
  • For a sequel, you might be tempted to go broader than the first book (especially if the story of the first book was epic in scope already). But you don’t have to. A smaller scope can work just as well to let you show who your characters are, and deepen their relationships.

1946 by Victor Sebestyen

Revelatory, especially when paired with Year Zero. Sebestyen shows how the Cold War began, so soon after the Allies won. Cracks between the Big Three (US, Britain, Soviet Union) that had been papered over for the sake of the war quickly grew into major rifts.

Three of the countless things I learned:

  • The Soviet Union didn’t steal the entire atomic bomb. Their stolen intelligence helped them move faster, by perhaps two years, but their scientists did the majority of the work themselves.
  • Mao financed his armies and kept his population fed during the Chinese Civil War by growing and selling opium (!)
  • Japan had been bombed far worse than Germany. Many millions lost their homes. 80% of its merchant shipping fleet was gone. Half of its agricultural land was waste. In the months after the war, Allied survey teams discovered Japan could not have carried on much longer than it did.

Brief Comics Reviews: Sep 2017

Wicked and Divine, Vol 4: Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. It’s back. Swallowed this one whole in about an hour. Need more.

The Vision, Vol 1: Art is…fuzzy? Seems like the lines are never sharp. Which is maybe deliberate, since it’s a fuzzy-line world they’re creating. But it’s hard on the eyes.

Constantly narrated via voice-over, instead of using dialog or pictures to show what’s happening. It’s a fine technique, and a known one, but it’s a bit tedious when it’s all the comic is written in.

Deadly Class, Vol 3: When did everyone become pretentious and annoying?

Saga, Vol 5: Artwork still fantastic, writing keeps me reading, but…did anything really happen? Threads wound up rather easily, it seems, and Fiona was ripped away again kind of arbitrarily. Also: too much time spent with the bounty hunters I don’t care about.

Year Zero by Ian Buruma

Illuminating. Filled a gap in my understanding of the war, of the year between the Allied victory and the rebuilding that followed.

Thankfully, Buruma doesn’t just cover what happened in Europe. He looks everywhere, from the Netherlands to Indonesia to Japan and China. A true history of the fallout from the last world war.

Three things I learned:

  • The Soviets stripped their territories, both European and Asian, of industry. Whole factories were broken down and shipped into the Soviet Union, from Poland to Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
  • Jews in Poland were not safe after the war. Those who managed to find a home to come back to still faced discrimination and pogroms. Over a thousand Jews were murdered in Poland in the year after liberation.
  • British military was complicit in the deaths of thousands, as it sent captured anti-communists back to the Soviet Union to be slaughtered (men, women, and children).

Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Simply put, a fantastic ghost story. Like a horror film from the 80s updated and put in novel form.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • 3rd person omniscient works only if you stay out of characters’ individual perspectives. Say what happens, and report what they think, but as an outsider
  • Tragedy for a minor character has more impact if we spend some time with them first, however little, to see how they act normally
  • Remember that characters only know what they see, and that can mislead them sometimes. That’s okay. Let them be wrong when they should be wrong, so that when they’re right it’ll feel like triumph.

1493 by Charles C. Mann

Revelatory. Mann’s 1491 opened my eyes to the many civilizations that existed in the Americas before Columbus landed. 1493┬áhas shown me just how much of our current world was created in the aftermath of his voyages.

Three of the many, many things I learned:

  • The lynchpin of the global trade of American silver for Chinese porcelain and silks was the Philippines. That’s where Spanish traders first ran into Chinese junks, in the early sixteenth century.
  • One theory for the causes of the Little Ice Age: the sudden reforestation of the Americas from the millions of native inhabitants that died out from European diseases.
  • China is the world’s largest producer of sweet potatoes, and the second-largest producer of maize. Both crops are native to the Americas.