On This Day: 04 May 2006 – The Blade Itself First Published

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I hope you’ve all enjoyed the OTD posts I do each month.  They are a lot of fun and let me work different writing muscles.  First, today is Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you) but that would be too easy.  I decided today’s post would be about a book I have come to love and refer back to whenever I think about how fantasy can stray away from the clichés and tropes we too often see in the genre.

Joe Abercrombie’s “The Blade Itself” is the first of the First Law Trilogy and my introduction to the subgenre of “grimdark”.  The agreed definition of grimdark is usually one of realism in tone, setting, and violence in the story.  Think: gritty.  Few things feel clean and there is this sense throughout the world that characters are gray more than anything else.  Heroes with shining swords are not found here.  They are more the antihero type who have vices that are magnified and they do not come out of the fight unmarked in some way or another.

“The Blade Itself” is such a novel.  The main viewpoints follow a cursed warrior, a conniving torturer, and a selfish nobleman who has bought his position as an officer in the army.  None of these characters are your Frodo, Aragorn, or Gandalf type.  They’re characters caught in a violent world of webs of conspiracy.  The world of the book never feels warm or inviting.  The settings are often cold and dark and truly realized through the arcs of the characters as they traverse through the plot, never guaranteed the next day.

Depressing, right?  Well, I don’t mean to paint a murky picture here but what Abercrombie genuinely does is make all of these characters worth your time and interest.  They are compelling despite their grayness.  Each of them realizes they have choices to make and they can either fight to live or let higher powers manipulate them into servitude.

You all know how much I enjoy well-rounded characters (at least I hope you do after these last four months).  This book is where you get some of the best.  Plus, no one is quite what they seem.

Another reason Abercrombie has gained me as a fan is the fact that he purposely sets up what you, the reader, thinks will be common clichés and tropes and he awesomely twists and turns to surprise you from page to page.  This is more realized as you read the entire trilogy but enough so in the first book that you can’t help but smile once you realize what had happened.  He crafts the narrative perfectly.

I recommend this book and series to everyone who asks me but I must warn that it is not for everyone.  Grimdark is like whiskey straight.  It punches you in the mouth at first taste but the more you sip, the better it gets and you truly appreciate the writing you’ve immersed yourself into.

Call to Action: Read it if you dare.  If it’s not your preferred order when it comes to reading, then I definitely don’t fault you.  I actually have not delved into other grimdark books because they are difficult to read.  I personally think Abercrombie provides more than the gray characters and violence but has paved the way for other writers of the genre, exploring new worlds and ideas that color outside the lines.

On This Day: April 10th – National Encourage a Young Writer Day

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#EncourageAYoungWriterDay

Another “National Day” is upon us and as I will focus on this from tim to time for the OTD posts, they will be writer focused.  I’m really excited about this one though.  I still remember much of my emotions, story ideas and thoughts when I first started writing.  There was a new joy that I stumbled into and could not be stopped from advancing into the arena of storytelling.

Being self-taught in many ways (I was decent at English/Literature classes but nowhere near scholar level), there’s a great deal I learned and want to use this post as a lessons learned  for younger writers.  My hope is to provide some things I’ve experienced and come to value over the years.  All of this based on my own experience and I know I’ve touched upon these in previous posts but here’s more emphasis.  When you start off writing, you truly do tread unknown waters.  There are no dangers swimming underneath you, but rather, treasures that can be found if you know exactly where to dive and search.

These are the top words of encouragement I have for young writers in no particular order:

1. Finish what you start

Depending on your level of writing, you will no doubt (it’s more than likely but not definite) write something that’s not very good.  This is not a knock on you or your capacity to be a great storyteller.  Very few have likely had an idea, formulated the characters, settings, themes, etc. and produced a product that is instantly picked up by a publisher and released to the world without much revision or editing.  Has it happened?  Probably but I can’t tell you of any I’ve ever heard of (not unless you’re Bradley Cooper’s character in the movie, Limitless, and in that case, you should ditch the mind-opening drug.  It didn’t end well for him).

I was there.  I wrote my first book, thinking it was the next best thing.  It wasn’t.  I wrote my second book and thought that was better and would surely be my launching point!  It wasn’t.  Lol.  I’ve written my third book and only now am I convinced I’ve written a well-thought out story that only I can tell.  It takes time and patience and you have to be willing to fail a few times before you find success.  So, finish those stories.  Don’t touch them for a few months and return.  If you still feel they are worth your investment, begin editing and revising.

2. Don’t neglect doing your research

This is a big one and requires discipline.  It doesn’t matter what you’re writing.  Fiction or Non-fiction.  Biography or History.  Fantasy or Mystery.  All of these require a some level of research not only to be accurate but most-importantly: believable.  When I started writing my first fantasy book, I researched everything from characterization to culture.  Clothing, agriculture, and architecture.  None of these could be ignored because as I wrote, I ran into these aspects and knew I couldn’t use modern terminology or technology.  The lack of these were an obvious sign to my being an amateur.  Readers want to be immersed in the world but if there are obvious mistakes and/or inaccuracies when it comes to the time period and setting the story takes place in without reasonable explanation, then they will not keep reading.  That’s the opposite of what you want!

3. Read

No, seriously.  Read.  You cannot write well if you do not read.  Why?  Because there’s something that takes place in the brain when you read and consume content professionally edited.  You brain picks up patterns and conventions that you may know from school (elementary to high school English classes only to so much) but are denied later in life without practice and exposure.

One thing I wish I had done more of during my early years of writing is read more.  I probably only read a dozen books a year back then.  This is not enough.  I recently joined Goodreads.com and I recommend you do so to.  They have a yearly reading challenge that you initiate for yourself and are able to update and track your progress.  I only learned of this last year but I challenged myself to read at least 25 books.  I read 36.  That’s huge for me!  This year, I set my challenge to 50 books.  I have no idea if I can do that but that’s the point of a goal.

Also, read genres you wouldn’t otherwise read.  If you’re writing horror, then try reading romance or sci-fi.  Subject yourself to styles you’re not familiar with.  I could read fantasy at any time but it’s a chore to find something more dramatic or set in modern settings.  I’m purposefully doing this more and more because exposure to these other genres helps me break away from that fantasy box.  Non-fiction is a great starting place.  Find books about people or times in history that interest you.  When you understand real people and what motivated them or real historical periods/events, how they were influenced and how they impact the future, this transfers into your own writing.

Call to Action: Do all of these things!  In fact, if you’re not a writer but love to read, you can easily do number 3.

On This Day – The Name of the Wind Published

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This month’s OTD post will focus on a work of fantasy that really enraptured me as a reader.  I had heard of Patrick Rothfuss’s book, “The Name of the Wind” for a while but I was reading other books from my stack of “to reads” (you know that pile of fresh hard/paperbacks without the spine crease and that pleasing aroma of untouched paper).  It was a book I knew very little about but saw it recommended a lot of places.  I want to say I finally got around to reading it in 2011 during a six-month period where I was unemployed (I read a lot of books during this time).

I love to read.  Honestly, if you’re a writer but you struggle to read or find time to read, drop some time-wasters and make this a priority.  Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write.”  This just harkens (such a great word) back to my previous post about time management.  Priorities are key in our lives.  Reading should be up there near the top if you’re a writer.  If you’re not a writer, then reading should still be something you do because studies have shown, you are smarter by doing so.  A post of quotes coming at you.  Mark Twain said , “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

There are few books I’ve come across that kept me fully engrossed in the pages.  I love my sleep but every once in a while, I come across a book where I’d happily forego sleep to keep reading.  “The Name of the Wind” was such a book.

I’d love to give an in depth review of the book as a whole but I never want these blog posts to become long-winded and full of smoke.  And just like my first OTD post about Robert Jordan’s “The Eye of the World”, I want to focus on one aspect of the book and share how that has impacted me as a writer.  Here we go! (Dang…the “Raising Hope” theme song is stuck in my head.)

Language.  Yes, language is what still lingers with me whenever I think about “TNotW”.  Rothfuss has a great story about the years he spent crafting this book that would introduce him not only to the fantasy genre but literary world as well.  There is what I can only describe as a lyrical flow to his writing that makes the book easy to start and urges persistence to finish.  Music is a theme throughout the book and every bit a part of the main character, Kvothe, as his wild red hair and quick wit.

How has this affected me as a writer?  Well, I think the obvious answer would be, I learn from what I admire.  I don’t write like Rothfuss but I appreciate his ability with words, which lends itself to my own writing.  Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time with what I wrote years ago.  Doing so has been an “experience” to say the least.  I can easily take those old words and rewrite/massage and find a better flow because I’ve been far enough removed that I can recognize stale sentence structure better than before.  It’s not Rothfuss’ writing alone that has helped me grow but also time and maturing as a storyteller.

Clunky writing is distracting.  Anytime you’re reading and just get stuck on a certain sentence because you can’t understand what’s being said is usually because the words chosen don’t work or fit.  Rough and early drafts often have these problems.  The best thing to do is consider revising.  Obviously, those sentences have to be flagged or called out.  Beta readers are the best option but you have to find one who pays attention to detail and doesn’t gloss over these alarming sentences.

Writers depend on words.  We take what’s available and construct them in such a way that the reader comprehends and envisions the characters, world and conflict with ease.  That should be our main goal.  You can have a great idea, character, magic system, etc. but if you fail to construct a coherent framework of sentences, paragraphs and/or dialogue you will not attract readers.

Rothfuss is an avid learner and student who spent a great deal of time at university, tutoring and teaching.  This translates to his writing because he actually treats his readers like students.  He wants to teach you about the characters and world they inhabit.  All of which are fleshed out very well.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a vast world introduced and mythos that serves as the main mystery and conflict that drives Kvothe in search of knowledge.  It helps that Kvothe spends a great deal of time at a university himself and takes classes from the very best of teachers.  Flow of phrase within the prose and dialogue come through in all of this in a way that you’ll be surprised when you read twenty to thirty pages without noticing.

I highly recommend this book to everyone.  Even if you’re not fond of fantasy.  You’ll enjoy the flow of the story and Rothfuss’s ability to pull you into the current.  I wish I wrote more like him to be honest.  I feel that my writing can get clunky at times and therefore requires me to spend extra time revising, but I’m satisfied with my style as I’ve matured and polished my voice, hoping I can solidify myself as a respected author.

Call to Action: Come on.  You know what I’m going to say here.  Read “The Name of the Wind”.  You won’t be dissatisfied.

On This Day: National Tell a Fairy Tale Day (US)

This a bit of a fun OTD post.  So, here in the US, it is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day.  What I’ve decided to do is give everyone here a little treat.  In my Ravanguard series, there are fairy tales or rather, “night tales” as I call them in the series.  I don’t explore them in the actual novellas or novels but they are referenced.  Hope you’ve got your coffee and cake ready while I share the tale of the “The Lamb in the Hill”.

The boy from the Prenian hills loved little but cared most for his lamb whose snowy coat never faded.  Charged by his father to watch and protect the lamb from all possible threats, the boy took his responsibility serious.  He believed if he kept the lamb safe from wolves and other predators, his father would grant him a new responsibility at the family’s farm where he would learn to sheer and spin the valuable wool.

On a day where there was nothing to distinguish itself from the rest, the boy lost sight of the lamb as it grazed upon a hill.  Fear did not find itself in the boy, having come to trust the lamb and its willingness to stay close.  As he approached the other side of the hill, a song hummed to celebrate the day, an odd fellow waved at him.  The boy rarely met others in the fields of Prenia but waved in response.

“A beauteous day is one not to forget, young lad,” the odd fellow said.

The boy did not respond at first, taking in the odd clothing of the odd fellow, garbed in trousers and shirt made of black and silver silks.  Baubles of gold glittered at the ends of his shoes, wrists and the triangular hat upon his head.  The truly peculiar thing about the odd fellow, though, was his great height, slender frame and rock-like features of his face.  What first seemed to be wrinkles were in fact rocky crags.  From brow to chin, the odd fellow’s face marked him a creature the boy did not know.

There was some sense of danger as they stood across from one another.  The boy came out of his scrutiny of the odd fellow and noticed his lamb missing.  “Sir, have you seen my lamb?  He has the whitest coat one could imagine.  Snowy and brilliant, shining in the daylight sun.”

The odd fellow scratched his chin.  “I’m afraid I’ve taken your lamb, boy, for I have been traveling a great many days.”

Tears did not cease from the boy’s eyes at the horrible reveal.  His fear induced by the realization that his father would surely punish him both by word and hand.  The lamb was his to protect and he failed before he had known there was a problem.

The odd fellow took notice of the boy’s distress and quickly felt the need to repay for his misdeed.  These were his ways unlike some of his misguided kin.  “Good lad, do not cry,” he pleaded, “for I have a rare and magnificent gift.  I can find the greatest of treasures in the earth.  Come and see!”

The boy stood in place, heart broken but watching the odd fellow scan the earth of the hillside at their feet for several seconds.

“Aha!” the odd fellow exclaimed.  He dropped to his knees and with ease placed his hands into the earth like he was dipping his fingers into the water of a lake.  Out his hands came and in them he held a great sword.  It was unlike any other.  Old but gleaming made by a long-dead blacksmith.  “Here,” the odd fellow said, sword extended.  “Take it and you will cast down great enemy hordes with a single strike!”

The boy did not dare take such a weapon for he did not trust the odd fellow.  “Sir, I am untrained.  How could I face a rival but fail to control such a heavy blade?”

The odd fellow considered the sword.  “I see you are frail in the ways of a warrior.  I agree and will offer another gift.”  The odd fellow placed the sword on the ground, stood and roamed until he dropped to his knees again.

A second time, the odd fellow pressed his hands into the earth as if it was cream, easy to separate and search through.  His hands came out again and he held in his hands a flute of ivory.  The odd fellow brought it to his lips and blew the excess dirt from its core.  “Here,” he said.  “Take it and control the clouds above, able to bring rain or sunshine whenever you need it!”

The boy did not take the flute.  “Sir,” he said, “I am untrained.  How could I learn the notes to control the weather and make better my days?”

Once again, the odd fellow felt a blow to settle his debt.  He laid the flute down and looked all around the hillside.  “Boy,” he confessed, “I am at a loss.  What do you require to be satisfied by my misdeed?”

The boy considered the question and found only one answer to satisfy his desire.  “Surely, sir, you did not take my lamb for its coat.  Surely, you can give me that at least so I can return it to my father.  At least then, it can be woven and sold so that our investment will not go wasted.”

The odd fellow rubbed his pointed chin.  “A fair request.”  He turned to where the boy had first laid eyes on him and reached into the earth.  Out came his hands and in them he held the lamb, the animal shaking but alive as its coat was dark from the earth.

“That is not my lamb,” the boy said.  “For that one is not white.”

The odd fellow shook his head and searched all around him with the lamb in his arms.

In the moment of opportunity, the boy took up the sword and swung its mighty blade, cleaving the head of the odd fellow, having saved all his strength to make one attempt at the creature.  The lamb fell to the ground and ran to the boy, snowy coat smeared with the dirt of the earth.

The boy walked over to the flute, hummed as he always did and played notes until the clouds formed overhead.  Rain fell and washed the lamb clean.  The boy considered the body of the odd fellow and left it to wither, serving always as a reminder that the lamb could not be left out of his sight.

Call to Action: What’s your favorite fairy tale?  Post a comment and share!