Regarding Torque: Part 2

The first part of this post saga can be found by clicking this elegant, finely crafted link: Regarding Torque: Part 1. Again, as with the first post, this has Sherlock spoilers out the ass, so turn back now if you don’t want any.


So last time, we covered the tig ol’ bwists that worked really well for the first season or so of Sherlock. For this installment, I’ve got two examples of twists that, well… Didn’t.

Now, to be absolutely fair, writing a twist that really delights the audience is damnably difficult. Every writer worth their salt has struggled with it, and it takes an incredible amount of fine tuning to ensure that the twist goes off without a hitch. The reason why I’m picking on Moffat and Gatiss is because they’ve got a history of such excellent execution behind them (as shown in the previous post). So, by all means, they should have known better than to let more than one “twist” flop on the floor and writhe like a dying fish to the delight of literally nobody. But for some reason they didn’t. And for this reason I have to rub their noses in it a little.

Now, for these two examples, I can offer you the exact reason why they failed: there was too little of the aforementioned torque for the twist to function properly. There was little or no sleight of hand, no shiny object to distract the audience while they worked to make the illusion work. In both of these cases I’m about to cite, the audience was, in essence, told a bald-faced lie that, when revealed to be a bald-faced lie, was supposed to be a twist.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t constitute a twist. That’s cheating, in my book.

So, here we go! Two twists from the latter seasons of Sherlock that just didn’t work so good or do other stuff good either.

Magnussen watching a video in his mind palace.
Magnussen watching a video in his Big Basement of Blackmail which SPOILERS does not actually exist.

Charles Augustus Magnussen’s Big Basement of Blackmail

We are introduced to a new villain in series three of Sherlock: the bizarre and petty media mogul Charles Augustus Magnussen who, by all accounts, has enough dirt on the power players in western civilization to make J. Edgar Hoover jealous. We are shown evidence of Magnussen’s vast treasure trove of blackmail material in “The Empty Hearse”, where we see Magnussen watching a flickering projector screen video of some shenanigans he’d set up earlier in the episode. This scene is given context by later episodes and is canonized as the “Appledore vaults” where Magnussen keeps all of the hard copies of his extensive blackmail collection. Quite naturally, the audience accepts this explanation as literally no other evidence is provided to the contrary.

There is just one problem with this: the Appledore vaults do not exist in any physical location. The vast collection of blackmail information is actually contained within Magnussen’s mind palace, which rivals Sherlock’s own.

Now, why does this revelation not have sufficient torque to be a satisfying twist?

Because prior to “The Empty Hearse”, we have never seen a practitioner of the mind palace technique be physically present in the environs of their mind palace. In “The Hounds of Baskerville”, the entire process of utilizing one’s mind palace was abstracted out, with Sherlock accessing information as floating images and words as he worked.

When you change a method of presentation for a previously established device without providing the audience sufficient warning, that’s not a twist. That’s cheating.

The small amount of torque that this “twist” has comes very, very late in series three, after Sherlock is shot by Mary. After being shot, Sherlock escapes into his mind palace and is physically shown there, hunting through rooms in order to determine how best to survive the traumatic event. You’re probably wondering why this doesn’t provide sufficient torque for the twist to be satisfying. It’s because that event clearly would not allow Sherlock to access his mind palace in the conventional fashion, by closing his eyes and batting away the Stark-tech holographs of data that begin to float around his head. So, for dramatic purposes, the story has no other choice but to dramatize the mind palace in another fashion. As a consequence, this is not a hint that Magnussen’s Big Basement of Blackmail is a representation of his mind palace in anything other than retrospect—it’s the adaptation of a previously utilized storytelling device to fit the current narrative.

In addition, Sherlock’s mind palace uses a more genuine form of the method of loci mnemonic technique, where different data is stored in different physical locations. Magnussen’s Big Basement of Blackmail keeps all of his material in a single place: the basement with the shelves of documents and various weird accouterments that seem wildly unnecessary and out-of-place.

A clown thing among files in Magnussen's mind palace.
Seriously, what the fuck.

All of this comes together to make the revelation that the Appledore vaults are SECRETLY MAGNUSSEN’S MIND PALACE less like a twist and more like an inelegant asspull.

The panicked young girl on a plane of sleeping people who SPOILERS does not actually exist.

The Girl on the Plane

In the second episode of series four, “The Lying Detective”, we are abruptly and unsettlingly introduced to Eurus Holmes, the missing middle sibling of the Holmes family and the most horrifyingly brilliant of them all. Who will probably be the subject of a different post on down the line all on her own because portraying mental illness in media is hard and boy howdy does Sherlock botch it from hell to breakfast with Eurus, but I’ll keep any digressions on that count to a minimum.

At the beginning of the last episode, “The Final Problem”, the audience is also introduced to a nameless little girl who has found herself aboard an airliner where everyone, including the pilots, are dead asleep and cannot be brought back to consciousness. We have seen this sort of scenario before—it’s a demented echo of Moriarty’s Die Hard with a Vengeance machinations from series two, forcing Sherlock to solve unsolvable micro-mysteries while some poor person has literal dynamite strapped to them.

This only intensifies once Sherlock, Mycroft, and John find themselves playing Chell to Eurus’s GLaDOS, captured and forced to run a gauntlet of torturous experiments to gain scraps of speaking time with the poor girl on the plane. It’s obvious that the girl is the carrot at the end of the stick, drawing the trio deeper and deeper into Eurus’s examination to understand the inner workings of Sherlock’s brain in hopes that the girl can be saved.

Then, at the end of the episode, when Sherlock locates Eurus in her hiding place in the old Sherlock estate, the audience is informed that nothing aboard the plane was real. It was all happening in Eurus’s head, a metaphor developed by her own brain for how her vast intellect has placed her high above the common rabble of the world, alone and careening towards inevitable doom. This means that every time Sherlock spoke to the girl on the plane, every time the girl was shown moving about the plane and interacting with it, the audience was being lied to. There’s no torque here. There was never any suggestion that any other character has ever done this. The only available pseudo-parallel is the mind palace, but the events on the plane have literally nothing to do with the retrieval or storage of information, which means that it doesn’t even come close to providing the torque necessary for this to be a twist.

The revelation that the girl on the plane was purely metaphorical and wholly contained within Eurus’s damaged psyche is just one step removed from “it was all a dream!” And for that reason, it is manifest nonsense that removes a hefty slice of tension from subsequent viewings of the episode.


Once again, there you have it. Two “twists” that didn’t twist jack and/or shit, with the common thread being that there was little or no torque—no setup, no pledge/turn/prestige, no magic. The examples above didn’t play fair, because a good twist never lies to you. A good twist is always set up with absolute honesty on the part of the author, because even if the audience doesn’t trust the characters involved, they must always trust the author.

What do you guys think? Am I spot-on, or am I wildly off base? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Save

Save

Regarding Torque: Part 1

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson
Everyone’s looking so old nowadays.

torque

noun
1 : a force that produces or tends to produce rotation or torsion <an automobile engine delivers torque to the drive shaft>

(Source—naturally, it’s Merriam-Webster kory stamper please love me)


You’re probably wondering why I’m starting off this post with a dictionary definition of a physics term, as though I’m crafting the most blase and uninspired valedictorian speech in history. You’re probably equally puzzled by the presence of a promotional image from the most recent series of Sherlock.

I promise you, these two are intrinsically connected.

Gonna warn you now: if you haven’t watched BBC’s Sherlock in its entirety, you best bail out now. Shit is about to get hella spoilery up in this. Because today? Today, we’re talking about twists. And because I’ve been watching Sherlock recently and thinking back on what has and hasn’t worked for the show in the past, I’m going to be using it for all my examples.

A solid twist makes the audience go “holy crap” and reevaluate their entire experience with the story up until that point. If we’re going to get all high-falutin’ and literary, the technical term for what a successful twist elicits for the protagonist of a story is anagnorisis, which is a crazy old Greek word that I won’t bother to define here, just click on the damn Wikipedia link for crying out loud. I’m not going to do all the work for you.

The quintessential classical example of a twist comes straight outta Thebes, when King Oedipus discovers that he has killed his father, married his mother, and has taken said mother on not one, not two, but four trips to the bone zone (you’re welcome, Marisa). This example is unique, because, back when it was originally performed in Ancient Greece, an audience watching Oedipus Rex would already know the twist, and the dramatic irony would be thick enough to cut with a knife. Modern audiences, however, are less familiar with Oedipus, and as such tend to get the full force of the gruesome revelation.

The quintessential modern example is of a rather less lurid variety: “No, I am your father.”

So basically, my thesis for this blog post is that for a twist to occur, there must be torque. There must be a manipulation of the audience’s expectations that turns those expectations away from the truth of the matter, only for a specific, planned moment in the narrative to release the torque, allowing the audience’s awareness to snap instantly away from what they thought was going on to what is really happening. If there is not suitable torque, then there can be no twist back to the truth. If there is no twist back to the truth, then… Well, you don’t have a twist.

As a companion element, the prestidigitation behind a twist must also ensure that both the red herring expectation and the truth are equally probable—this part of applying torque is where most twists fail utterly.

I’ve got four examples from Sherlock that I’ll be using, two that were well executed and two that were… Well, that weren’t. So! On we go. First, the twists that worked.

Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes
Pictured: not James Moriarty.

The Man in the Suit

Midway through “A Study in Pink”, the first episode of Sherlock, John Watson is taken to meet a man. This man is clearly of considerable influence—he has access to the ubiquitous CC TV network of London, can track John’s every move, and sends a car with driver and chaperone to bring him to a secluded space for a meeting.

Everything about this man, from his effete manner, his impeccable dress, his mysterious methods, his obvious Sherlock-rivaling genius, and his self-identification as Sherlock’s “arch-enemy”, everything points the Sherlock Holmes fan in one undeniable direction: this man must, without a doubt, be Sherlock Holmes’s greatest nemesis, the eventual cause of his death, Professor James Moriarty.

Come the end of the episode, however, we discover that this is not the case at all! In point of fact, the man who so obviously matches the common profile of the sinister professor is none other than Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brilliant brother who can’t be naffed to deal with tiny things like crimes when he’s got the entirety of the British government to run and the Diogenes Club to frequent.

The reason this twist works so well is because Gatiss and Moffat use the expectations of the Sherlock Holmes fan against them. Every moment of that interaction between Mycroft and John is calculated to suggest the brilliant antagonist that has become Holmes’s most preeminent villain in the public consciousness, which is why it’s such a wonderful surprise when it is revealed, at the end of the episode, that that is not who he is at all. In a kind of storytelling judo throw, the writers used the audience’s own expectations as momentum to gain the torque necessary for the eventual twist.

Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Pictured: Sherlock with Jim from IT Moriarty.

The Man in Ladies’ Underwear

Once again, midway through “The Great Game”, the third episode of Sherlock, Molly Hooper brings her new boyfriend in to meet Sherlock: Jim from IT. He’s an incidental character, and it’s another opportunity for Sherlock to be just a horrible fucking human being to poor Molly. He immediately surmises that “Jim from IT” is gay due to several factors, not the least of which is his propensity for ladies’ underthings and the fact that he slipped Sherlock his number.

Jim from IT is subsequently dismissed by both Sherlock (and by extension, the audience) as unimportant, a bit player on a stage whose boards are trod by giants. The audience is saddened to see Sherlock be such a huge douche to Molly and is also distressed by Molly’s dashed hopes that her presentation of her boyfriend might elicit some sense of jealousy in Sherlock. The entire thing is written off as an unfortunate study in Sherlock’s character and the episode carries on as normal.

The thing that comes back to bite the audience later on, though, is the name of Molly’s boyfriend from IT: Jim.

Most people known Professor Moriarty as just that: Moriarty. Those better-versed in the canon know that his first name is James. But never has there been a point in time where the great James Moriarty has been referred to by the diminutive Jim. Which is why this wee Irishman doesn’t register on anyone’s radar as a criminal mastermind. Because criminal masterminds aren’t named Jim. Not in Sherlock Holmes stories. Which makes the revelation that he’s the brilliant but bored consulting criminal behind many of Sherlock’s recent cases such a remarkable twist. As in all good twists, the audience should have seen it coming. The data was there. But we didn’t, not until the “holy shit” moment when he arrives at the pool, finally looking the part of the Moriarty we all know and love.


So there are the two twists from Sherlock that worked really well. They both had the necessary torque and, in both, the evidence available applied to both the sleight-of-hand possibility and the truth. Next time, we’ll look at two twists from Sherlock‘s later seasons that did not work so well, and we’ll see what we can learn from them!

Save

Save

Second Star to the Right | Episode 3

Chickcharnie Eclipse Phase morph
The chase through Olympus continues! Will our heroes make it to the space elevator in one piece? How much parkour can we fit into one chase scene? How many characters from other tabletop games can I fit into this narrative? TUNE IN AND FIND OUT

The Cast

Save

Save

Save

Save

The Evolution of my Outlines

A leather-bound journal with an engraved brass plate on the cover.
My current writing journal, via Metal Some Art.
(notsponsoredbymetalsomearttheirshitisjustcool)

To talk about how I work with outlines, it’s best to start at the very beginning, when I attempted to write my first novel.

In the grim days of high school.

My first novel was fueled by all the things that I enjoyed as a young man—anime, JRPGs, Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Janny Wurts, probably a half-dozen things I’ve forgotten about by now, and a light seasoning of Three Doors Down and Linkin Park.

My shame is unutterable.

Regardless, lots of these things still fuel the stories I write today—barring Three Doors Down and Linkin Park—but I like to think that I now use those ingredients in a way that doesn’t produce hot garbage stew as the end result.

This first novel did not have an outline, as such. “What is an outline,” my young, foolish self scoffed, “but a way to strip the magic of discovery from writing?”

(My young, foolish self was a pretentious douche.)

I stalled out just a few chapters in, uncertain where the story was going. The novel lay fallow for many months, until one day, in Pre-Calculus, I began drawing a map of the fantasy world using one of my much-beloved Uniball pens.

I would discover later that my Pre-Calculus teacher, who would later become my AP Calculus AB teacher, was fully aware of my habit of writing during her class. She just didn’t give a rat’s ass because I got solid grades anyway.

This map, a specific set of locations that my protagonists could visit, became my very first ersatz outline. With its assistance, I finished the novel by the end of senior year, meaning I’d been working on it for only three years.

My second novel, the one I completed in 2014, began as the barest bones of an outline. It was for NaNoWriMo, after all. I couldn’t go in half-cocked. Mind you, this was NaNoWriMo 2011 I was writing this beastie for, so clearly the two pages of outline did not do the trick. There were too many holes to fill in, too many blocks to stumble over. I had to add another page to the outline before I was finished, and even that was of little assistance in the grand scheme of things. Clearly, that wouldn’t do.

My third novel (which is at over 100k words as of this writing and is not yet fully completed) got a much more thorough treatment in its outline. Eleven full pages—plot points out the ass, a full record of all the big events and how they carry the protagonists in the necessary directions.

Two bullets into the outline after two months of writing, I’d written over 60k words. As much progress as I was making, clearly this outline was not as much help as it needed to be, either.

The outline for my third novel, The Magician’s Ghost, started with full intent for it to be a brief 15k word jaunt for the specific purpose of offering it up to one publisher in particular. The thing about this story, though, was that it was a mystery. And for mysteries, of all things, you gotta have your shit straight as soon as you hit the ground. You need to know where the clues are located, why the characters find them, how the characters are pulled into the mystery in the first place, the motives of any antagonists—all that homework needed doing.

Which is how I wound up with a scene-by-scene outline, painstakingly detailing every logical step in the investigation (as well as the emotional states of the characters throughout), with extensive notes about the background of the mystery and how the final confrontation needed to play out to properly sum up both the whodunit and emotional aspects of the story.

This outline was a solid eighteen pages, 6.5k words all on its own. And with that outline I hammered out a 70k novel in about seven months. Whenever I wasn’t sure where to go next in the story, there wasn’t any need to stop and stare at the blank page until it came to me—I just had to click over to the tab with my outline, and bam, I’d know exactly what needed to happen next. It’s still gonna need heavy editing, sure, but structurally I feel like it’s sound as a brick house.

And you know what, High School Me? This kind of outlining doesn’t take any of the fun of discovery out of the process. Things are always mercurial. Things always change. New stuff around every corner. But it’s a whole hell of a lot easier to make the trip when you’ve got a detailed map at your side.

If you’re interested, here’s a quick snippet from the outline I’m currently working on:

Excerpt from an outline

This way I know that when I start the scene, there are certain things that are going to need to happen. Alice needs to see that her students’ live-fire mission is going to go to hell, then that will bring up painful memories, and Nyx will have to comfort her—and the fact that they’ve already taken a one-off trip to the Bone Zone is gonna hang over the whole thing like a collapsing tent of awkwardness.

This means a whole lot of extra prep time up front, because all of the bones and a lot of the flesh of the story wind up in the outline in abbreviated form. I spent three months on the outline for Ghost, hammering out all the finicky details, doubling back and cleaning things up, making sure the mystery made sense. There’s a lot of braining that goes into this kind of outline, but I have to say that I’m rather fond of it, in the end. It means that while I’m actually writing, I have all sorts of brainspace freed up for other things.

So, that was my dissertation on my new outlining style. What do you guys think? How do you outline? Writing is a wildly personal process, and I’d love to hear about alternative methods. Leave some in the comments!

Save

Save

Holy Crap

Adventure Begins Now
Yes, there is a tiny statue of Cthulhu lurking beneath the surface of my coffee.

I just realized that it has been just a skosh over a year since I last posted. In my defense, last year was absolutely insane. I think that everyone who has managed to emerge from the grim tunnels of 2016 into the grand, blistering unknown of 2017 can understand what I mean.

For me in particular, a lot of stuff happened that affected the way that I write, not to mention what I write, and how I manage to find the time and energy to do it. I’m gonna see if I can’t hash out a lot of that in future posts as I attempt to bring myself back around to the ways of the blogosphere.

When blogs get volatile, is that because they are thick with blogiston?

Yup, that’s the same high-quality wordplay you can expect as ever.

So, what did I get up to in 2016? Well, here’s a bit of a list:

  • Got a new job.
  • Formed some new writing habits.
  • Discovered a new way of outlining.
  • Finished the first draft of a novel from outline to end in record time (seven months!) thanks to the previous two bullets.
  • Built a BEEFY (but wildly cheap) gaming computer that has actually been written on far more than it’s been gamed on.
  • Discovered that Novlr is an amazing writing platform.
  • Learned that I unironically love Ninja Sex Party.
  • Reveled in the magic of mechanical keyboards.
  • Bought a house (this is somehow a thing that happened).
  • Began watching Legends of Tomorrow and hey Caity Lotz is awesome.
  • Discovered that oh hey, I actually do like coffee.
  • Consumed shit-tons of coffee.
  • Played a buncha tabletop games that still need posting up in this.
  • Read just really a LOT of incredible books by Gail Carriger and Tanya Huff via Audible and my fancy e-reader (which I won from a Camp NaNoWriMo raffle last year!).
  • Read some really garbage books, mostly via Kindle.
  • Scratched out the first and second drafts of a very short collection of very short stories I fully intend to release on Amazon.
  • Actually won NaNoWriMo for once (this is also somehow a thing that happened).
  • Determined that the novel that I finished drafting back in 2014? The whole thing needs to go. Starting from scratch with that beast.
  • Realized that I’m an adult and there is literally nobody who can stop me from ordering pizza when I want it.

Oh, and I guess there were some other things that happened in 2016, like that time many of the wonderful and talented people from my childhood passed away, and that time we elected a Hutt gangster to the highest office in the land (insult to actual Hutt gangsters, etc., etc.), and that time when Claudia Black continued to be the most gorgeous and awesome woman on the planet.

But it’s 2017 now! Madness may reign, but each new day is another day to make up cool shit and write it down. And with my fancy new writing schedule, I ought to be able to keep up with blog posts and podcasts, too! Because my pals and I have been gaming quite a bit, and it’s my fondest hope that you’ll enjoy listening to our tasty dork-jams.

J-DUB OUT

Second Star to the Right | Episode 2

The Olympus Mons space elevator. Source.
The Olympus Mons space elevator. Source.

 

Picking up where last we left off, Old Ronin, Marynia, Amara, and Titus return from the unexpectedly messy egohunting gig with a cortical stack and a freshly decapitated corpse.

There, the rest of Lockdown is introduced, and they quickly find themselves the recipients of a novel new job: a woman, calling herself only “Black Hilda,” needs an escort to the space elevator rooted in Olympus Mons. She offers generous payment for Lockdown’s services.

The reasons for her generosity, however, become evident as the journey to Olympus quickly becomes a life or death affair…

The Cast

Save

Reaction Image Dot Gif

Throne of Glass
Source.

One of the headiest responsibilities that a writer has—especially a speculative fiction writer—is the responsibility to create a grounded, coherent, and believable world in which to set the story. Speaking just for myself, this is a huge fucking pain in the ass. And I have immense respect for people who can pull it off seamlessly.

I recently finished the audiobook of Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. For the most part, I enjoyed it. However, there was one major thing that drastically reduced my suspension of disbelief.

This is going to contain mild spoilers for Throne, so, you know. Caveat lector.

My beef stems from one of the fundamental aspects of the plot: there are mysterious murders taking place throughout the castle. The perpetrator is unknown, and the method is heinous. One corpse is described as having been torn to ribbons. Later, more detailed descriptions are offered: every corpse’s entrails have been removed. Same with the brain. The victims have been gutted as thoroughly as possible.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem like any cause for alarm for the characters. The murders remain a footnote—a footnote with its brains removed and its guts scooped out—for the majority of the novel. The characters instead invest their focus in the ongoing competition, in romantic banter, and in courtly intrigue.

I should think that the entire castle would be in raw panic after the second disemboweled corpse showed up in a low-traffic castle hallway.

This disconnect—between the brutal nature of the murders and the cavalier response of the protagonists—did horrible things to my capacity to buy into the world of the story. It really highlighted how important it is for characters to respond sensibly and realistically to other characters and events—it maintains that verisimilitude, that veneer of reality for the character. It’s that waking dream aspect of stories: as soon as you can detect that something is off, everything is boned. No matter how totally rad the rest of it is, there’s still that strike against reality itself.

So make sure your characters act like people. It’ll help things turn out for the best.

How about you lot? Is there anything that just completely removes you from a story when you see it? Share it in the comments!

New Year’s Resomolutions

A January calendar pageHappy New Year! I’m back! Things got a little nuts there around the holidays, and I had to let this blog fall by the wayside for a bit. What can I say? It was my first year regularly blogging and I didn’t have any idea that the merriment (and also the fracas at my day job) would have such an impact.

For this, I apologize.

However! I am back, and determined to return to regularly scheduled programming. I am also quietly amazed that Feral Wordmonger is now fully one year old. It doesn’t seem like it started off that long ago.

So far as I can tell, it’s basically traditional to discuss new year’s resolutions ‘round about the start of January, if for no other reason than it’s seasonally appropriate. But I’ve really only got one resolution for this year:

Do something writing-related every day.

I’m tracking this resolution by marking off each day I fulfill this goal on my brand new 2016 Taylor Swift calendar. You might think I’m joking about having purchased a Taylor Swift calendar. Those of you who have been around her for a while know that I’m not.

Or am I.

In some ways, I’m being pretty lenient about what is considered “writing related.” All I gotta do is one or two sentences—whether it’s an outline, a story, a novel, doesn’t matter. Or I can edit something I’ve already written. Or type something that I wrote longhand (during which I typically edit, anyway). Or I can help edit something one of my friends has written, or submit something for publication. Or, if the best thing on that day for my writing is to recharge the creative batteries by getting extra sleep or watching a movie or reading a book or spending time with the fam, that’s cool, too.

I’m hoping to have “rest days” be few and far between, though. I’ve heard enough times from enough people that inspiration isn’t exactly reliable. There are times when you just gotta put pen to paper or fingers to keys and hope it all works out.

Interestingly, I don’t think reading, of itself, will count towards a check mark for a day. I read plenty of my own accord—mostly in audiobook format, so it’s more listening, but at that point we’re getting into semantics. I am consuming bookstuff every day, sure, but I feel that reading books is to writing like breathing is to living: if you’re not doing the first regularly, you’re going to kinda suck at the second.

The whole idea stemmed from an episode of Game Grumps (as many things in my life do). Specifically, it comes from episode 94 of their Pokemon FireRed playthrough, where they talk about an idea that Danny called “not breaking the chain.” It’s a simple concept, and it just means doing something each day, maintaining a chain of days where you have worked toward your goal. And you do your absolute damndest to not break that chain.

So that’s my resolution for 2016: to do something writing-related every day and not break the chain.

How about you guys? Any resomolutions? PUT ‘EM IN THE COMMENTS.

Series, Spies, and Dirigibles

The Waistcoats & Weaponry audiobook cover
Source.

I can’t say that it was by accident that I purchased the audiobook of Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger. It wasn’t like I was under the influence of anything aside from sheer booklust inflamed by an Audible two-for-one sale. But I will admit that I didn’t look too terribly closely. If I had, I would have noticed one very important fact.

Waistcoats & Weaponry is not, in point of fact, the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series.

It is the third.

I am positively loath to jump in right in the middle of a series, but I was fresh off listening to an audiobook of the collected works of HP Lovecraft and found myself in dire need of something a bit… Lighter. Both in tone and vocabulary.

I adore Lovecraft, but I can only really remember what “gibbous” means about half the time.

So I went and downloaded Waistcoats & Weaponry, preparing myself for the distinct possibility that I would be completely and utterly lost within moments of beginning the book.

But something really quite remarkable happened. Not only was I not lost, but I absolutely fell in love with W&W. And just a tiny bit, by extension, with its author. But not in a creepy way! More in a “wow I really really want to write like you” way. Which I feel is the highest possible compliment that a writer can pay anyone, so I tend to employ it sparingly.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out how exactly I was able to move so smoothly into the dead center of a book series like that. And all I can reckon is that I was able to follow along because the narrative moved forward just as confidently as the heroine herself. It did not take long to become familiar with Sophronia and her friends Dimity, Sidheag, and Soap. Viscount Mersey, when he arrived, quickly became a comfortable presence, and becoming accustomed to the quirky inhabitants of the dirigible-borne finishing school on which the story begins felt effortless.

Part of this, I expect, is due to the fact that Sophronia—the heroine and point of view character—is in the midst of being specifically trained to be an intelligencer, which may now be my absolute favorite word for “spy.” As a consequence, she’s permitted, in-universe, to be very good at reading people and handling information. Sophronia freely shares with the reader everything she knows and learns, and the initial scenes are full of a great deal of humor and wit. On top of being entertaining, those initial scenes take their time, demonstrating all the little useful details the reader needs to know about the main characters (such as Sophronia’s stunning capacity to dissemble, or Sidheag’s stoicism, or Dimity’s tendency to faint at the first sign of blood). The “supernaturals,” “mechanicals,” and “Picklemen” are all introduced in due time, and never before they become necessary to the story.

Add to the above that mentions of adventures from previous books are kept brief and are always couched within the context of what’s happening in the world of the story, and I never found myself feeling lost, rudely exposited at, or otherwise out of place.

So, those are my thoughts on why W&W managed to read so well for me despite being right smack dab in the middle of a series. How about you lot? Have any of you ever accidentally stumbled into the middle of a series and found yourself pleasantly surprised at not being lost? What did the author do that kept you from feeling lost, do you think? Share in the comments! And in the meantime, watch this totally awesome music video made for the Finishing School series because holy crap a book series got a music video how did that happen.

Missives from the Word Mines – Rise of the Beta Reader

If I’m going to be honest, this NaNoWriMo has been a bit of a bust. Not a total failure, by any means—I have an additional seven thousand words that I would not have otherwise written—but it was certainly not the glorious return to my fighting fit from March and April that I was hoping for.

One terrifically intriguing thing has arisen from this NaNoWriMo, however. Two of my friends have completed novels, as of relatively recently. Being of the generally attentive sort, I have been invited to give both novels a read and provide any input I may have regarding… Well, basically anything. Structure, characterization, worldbuilding, whether using that much lube is wasteful, etc.

Historically, beta reading has been a difficult task for me. It’s not that I don’t want to do it. It’s mostly a reluctance to level the full, scorching force of my critical gaze—a merciless thing, much like the Eye of Sauron, or like Nyarlathotep’s manifestation as the Three-Lobed Burning Eye—on something written by someone who I know and rather like. And believe me, I do have to rather like a person to agree to beta read for them. It’s simply not worth the effort, otherwise.

I feel like it’s becoming easier, though, as time goes on. I’ve been making decent headway on one of the two novels that I mentioned, and I like to imagine, in the wee hours of the morning, that I am helping that manuscript evolve in some small (or perhaps not so small) way. This may be due to the fact that a significant portion of my day job is copyediting official documents that damned well better be Goddamn slick when they go out to the customer, otherwise I have not fully earned my forthcoming pay packet. A few years of that will start to make a dent in even the most reticent of editors, once it becomes evident that people and relationships don’t simply self-destruct from something as relatively benign as commentary and copyediting.

So! That is the state of things for me. How about you lot? Anybody done beta reading before? How did you approach it? Were you The Wolf (my default setting), or did you find yourself being somewhat more merciful? Let me know in the comments! I’m dreadfully curious.