“Nara” by E.S. Posthumus

Artist: E.S. Posthumus
Track: “Nara”
Album: Unearthed (2005)
Genre: Epic Orchestra

Many years ago, when I first started dabbling in writing, this was the song that pretty much made it all click. There’s no helping the fact that when you hear this song, worlds open up before you and your imagination runs—especially when you listen with big bulky headphones that make you one with the music.

When I hear this song, I see vast plains of lush green grass with a band of adventurers crossing from end to end (or maybe a lone wolf launching on a new quest) as the camera flies overhead from a distance. Maybe you see something different, but one thing is for sure: this song marks the beginning of something wonderful yet mysterious.

It’s a shame E.S. Posthumus is no longer active. They made some quality music over the years and it’s arguable whether I would even be a writer today if “Nara” was never conceived.

Using Word Wars to Maximize Word Count

About two weeks, I was invited to an online writing group and I accepted. The group has been immensely helpful for my writing productivity thanks to the word wars that we do almost daily.

A word war is a competition between two or more writers to see who can write the most words within a given time limit. All participants wait until the war begins, then at the end everyone reports their word count. He who writes the most, wins.

We are an IRC-based writing group. For those who don’t know, IRC is essentially an Internet chatroom. The cool thing about IRC is that you can code automated bots with which users can interact. In this case, we have a bot that we use to automate word wars:

  • Anyone can declare a new word war. Declarations can specify when the word war begins and how long it’ll last.
  • Anyone can join in on a word war—even after it’s already started.
  • At the end, everyone finishes by signing their word count for the period and the highest wins.

Most of our word wars are fifteen minutes long but sometimes someone will declare one that lasts for thirty, sixty, or even ninety minutes. The system is quite flexible and easy to use.

Of course, there aren’t any prizes for winning and there aren’t any punishments for losing. So what’s the point? I’ve found word wars useful for a few reasons:

  • It helps me to kill my inner editor. With a fifteen minute timer counting down and knowing that there are other writers currently typing away, I have no choice but to write words—even if those words are junk. This is one occasion where my competitive spirit proves useful.
  • It helps me to write more. For me, the hardest part of writing is starting. The actual act of sitting down, butt in chair, and opening WordMonkey is tough. When someone declares a word war, I’m compelled to write for fifteen minutes, and since we war upwards of eight times a day, I end up writing a ton without knowing it. It keeps me honest.
  • It builds camaraderie. The writing group itself is pretty small, sitting at seven active members. We talk about random things from time to time but the word wars help us to feel like a band of writing brothers. We’re competing, yes, but we’re also supporting each other. It’s a wonderful feeling.

If you’ve never participated in a word war before, I highly encourage you to try it out. Find a small writing group or a writing buddy and see if they’re interested. It’s an excellent exercise and I don’t think I can go back to not having it as part of my writing routine.

“Identity Crime” by Two Steps From Hell

Artist: Two Steps From Hell
Track: “Identity Crime”
Album: SkyWorld (2012)
Genre: Epic Cinematic

There is nothing better than turning on a round of Two Steps From Hell just before sitting down to write. There’s a reason why so many movies, TV shows, and video games have used their music: it’s brilliant! You would have to be dysthymic to hear their music and not be moved.

“Identity Crime” is a track so good that it’ll turn your head every time. Not only is it great in a musical sense—that it’s pleasant to hear and doesn’t feel repetitive after multiple listenings—but it’s also great in an emotional sense. You can feel the urgency as if you were on a high-stakes chase through a downtown city.

Without a doubt I’ll mention dozens of Two Steps From Hell tracks over the course of this blog, but “Identity Crime” is a great song to start with.

8 Reasons I Will Stop Reading Your Book

My last post was a review of the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. I gave the series a good grade overall but there were a few points in all three books where I had to put the book down due to boredom. Fortunately I did get around to reading them to completion but it took me over a year and a half to do so.

You don’t want your readers to ever feel like they should put your book down, even if it’s for just a second. Once the book is down, it may never be picked up again.

Here are the biggest offenders that cause me to lose interest in a book. As you’ll see, most problems are caused by having too much or too little.

Reason #1: Lack of Hook

Over the past few months, I’ve started a dozen books but lost interest in eight of them by the second chapter. Of the remaining four, I lost interest in two before reaching the midpoint. Those last two books, I finished: Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick and Red Shirts by John Scalzi.

Hooks are important. Maybe your story is one of the most compelling stories of the past decade, but that matters none if your readers never reach those compelling moments. First they’ll judge your book by its cover, then they’ll judge its value by those first few pages.

I need a reason to read and the quickest way to capture my attention is character. Show me a character who wants something and I’ll want him to succeed in attaining that something. If that character has a strong personality, I will at the very least read to the next chapter.

Reason #2: Lack of Discernible Plot

Once I’m hooked and I’ve decided to give your book a fair chance, nothing kills my interest faster than a lack of plot direction. By the second chapter, the primary character should want something—it may not be the main goal of the story, but still, he should have a goal. The plot is the inherent conflict that arises when that character aims to fulfill his goal.

No goal, no conflict. No conflict, no plot. No plot, no interest. Take an interesting character—e.g., Lord Voldemort, Tyrion Lannister, or even Dr. House—and put them in a cafe, reading a newspaper and sipping on a latte. No one is going to watch that for more than five minutes unless there’s something going on.

Reason #3: Lack of Plot Progression

So let’s say that I’m hooked and you’ve laid out a plot for me to follow. Your primary character has been hired by a court nobleman to assassinate the king’s newborn child to leave him without an heir. Great! That’s an intriguing plot with potentially awesome characters.

But if I read another three chapters and the assassin has done nothing to progress towards the assassination, I’m going to lose interest. Even if he has progressed, he might be progressing too slowly. Sure, the story might have subplots that require the character’s attention, but every scene should ultimately bring that character closer to the main goal at a reasonable pace.

Reason #4: Lack of Strong Characters

You may be able to hook me at the start with one strong character, but if you want to hold my attention, you’ll need a few more who are just as strong. It’s not that I scrutinize each character and run down a mental checklist to see if they pass a test. Weak characters are boring and boring means I stop reading.

Of course, I don’t mean physically strong or weak. I’m talking about depth, history, personality, consistency, etc. Do your characters feel real or do they feel like mannequins with moving lips? Are they repetitive, always whining or struggling with the same thing for hundreds of pages, or do they change and adapt as circumstances change around them?

As the story progresses, your characters should continue to shed layers that reveal more and more about them, fleshing out who they are and why they do what they do.

Reason #5: Too Much Stilted Dialogue

I’ve used the term “on the nose” dialogue to describe what’s often called “stilted” dialogue. Stilted dialogue is what happens when the dialogue has no subtext. People rarely say exactly what they mean to say—in fact, people rarely know what it is they mean to say. Instead, their true intentions are buried beneath their words. That’s subtext.

Not only is subtext more realistic, it forces your readers to be actively involved in the story. If a female character asks “Do you still think I’m attractive?” to her boyfriend, you’re spoon-feeding your audience her insecurity. But what if she asks “Our waitress is pretty cute, huh?” Now we’re trying to figure out what she means by that and BAM! we’re investing ourselves in her as a character.

Reason #6: Too Much Exposition

Exposition doesn’t bother me as much as it does others. Sometimes I actually prefer exposition because it’s clear and direct, which means word economy. But exposition that occurs in long chunks that interrupt pacing irk me. Expositional recaps also irk me. Anything that tears me away from the story itself—irksome.

So what kind of exposition do I like?

The kind that’s doled out in small bits no longer than two, maybe three, paragraphs. The kind that’s flavored with the viewpoint character’s voice. The kind that offers new information that’s pertinent to the scene at hand. If it involves more than one of these, it becomes great exposition. If it involves none… well, it likely irks me.

Reason #7: Too Much Purple Prose

Purple prose is one writing pitfall that will cause me to slam a book shut out of sheer reflex. I can tolerate the other problems listed in this post—save for maybe the lack of a strong hook—and I’ll at least read another chapter or two before deciding that I’ve had enough, but purple prose is an instant Game Over.

Why? Because purple prose sentences are clunky, heavy, and overwrought. When each noun has three adjectives, when every verb is modified by an adverb, and when clauses are strung together one after another without any periods, I lose the will to continue. It’s the same issue as with exposition, except purple prose doesn’t offer any new information. Plus, it hinders my imagination since purple prose is most prevalent in descriptions.

For me, clean and straightforward sentences are always preferable to long-winded sentences that try to show off. It doesn’t help that I have a pet peeve against people—writers or not—who try too hard and I believe purple prose is a symptom of trying too hard.

Reason #8: Too Many Cliches

I am the most forgiving toward this issue, but at some point even I can’t stand the predictability of cliched tropes. That is, after all, why I have my series on bad fantasy cliches. So in the case of overplayed tropes I’m willing to give an author the benefit of the doubt—such as Michael Sullivan’s traditional fantasy races in the Riyria Revelations—but trope aversions and trope subversions are by far more interesting.

If your story can avoid these eight problems, there’s a high chance that I’ll read to the end without much issue. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll like the story, but that’s a topic for another day.

Book Review: The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson (spoiler-free)

Out of all my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson tops the list. He contributes so much to the fantasy and writing communities with his lectures, his tours, his blog, and his general kindness that makes him such a likable guy. In fact, the first book in this trilogy was the catalyst that caused me to start being serious about my own writing.

Mistborn starts off as what Sanderson describes to be a “fantasy heist”—a group of highly skilled, highly specialized experts working to tackle an impossible task: the overthrow of a thousand-year-old empire. Though the story begins localized to a city called Luthadel, it eventually takes a turn and grows epic in scale as the stakes continue to rise. Central to the narrative is Vin, a young orphan girl who finds herself caught up in the middle of everything.

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It’s been sixteen months between the time I cracked open the first page of The Final Empire and set down my finished copy of The Hero of Ages and, boy, what a journey it’s been.

First, the good.

Sanderson is widely known for his innovative magic systems. They’re always complex, logical, and central to the plot, but my favorite aspect is how each system is thematically unique. In Mistborn, the magic is called Allomancy and it involves the ingestion of different types of metal with each type granting a separate power. Metal is an important motif that lies core to the Mistborn world. But what impresses me more is his ability as a writer to find creative ways to play with his magic while staying within the confines of the rules that he himself imposed. I can’t elaborate without risking spoilers, so I won’t, but it’s immensely fun to watch as it unfolds throughout the story.

And then there are the intricate ways in which every aspect of the world—the magic, the characters, the history, the ash, the mist—eventually comes together and presents a final picture that’s greater than the sum of each individual part. There are tons of plot twists from beginning to end and they all feel organic, not contrived. Sanderson is a master of misdirection and red herrings, so much so that you can’t help but feel like the explanations are so obvious yet it’s a wonder you didn’t connect the dots in the first place. I love it when that happens and I’m quite impressed by all of the callbacks made in books two and three that provide deeper, richer explanations to events in book one.

None of that’s a surprise considering Sanderson’s writing process. He’s very much an architect, planning out entire series before starting to write the first book, and you definitely get the sense that he knew exactly what he wanted to write in the third book before he wrote the first.

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I’m not even going to get into the worldbuilding. Suffice it to say that this man knows how to construct entire universes from scratch and bring them to life with expertise.

But now, the bad.

Sanderson’s three Mistborn books excel and suffer from the same thing: powerful climaxes. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in all of his books: as soon as you reach the 75% point, the tension starts ratcheting up with incredible speed—so much so that it keeps you glued all the way to the end. As mentioned before, it’s because Sanderson clearly knows the climax of each book beforehand and he’s a master director when it comes to playing out those climaxes. The problem is that it takes so long to get there. I consistently needed to drag myself through the first 75% of each book before I could finally enjoy the wonderful ride of that last 25%.

The slow starts and the gradual ramping-up of action tend to be the norm in epic fantasy—maybe it’s the norm in all genres of fiction—but the best stories are the ones where the characters can carry you through those slow starts. After The Final Empire, I found it extremely hard to care about any of the characters because none of them felt very real to me. Part of that had to do with the dialogue, which involved lots of “on the nose” talking. I’m not sure if it was as big a problem in the first book—it’s been too long for me to remember—but it was definitely an issue in the second and third books. Characters were blatantly stating their motives, their thoughts, giving away their secrets, and there was a supreme lack of proper subtext. The characters did change over the course of the narrative, so they weren’t flat characters, but they were entirely too one-dimensional for me and I eventually lost interest in them.

Another reason for the poor pacing: exposition. The story of Mistborn requires the reader to understand how the world works if they’re going to follow the plot and appreciate where the plot takes them. But because Sanderson’s world in Mistborn is so intricate—maybe too intricate—he has to rely on excessive exposition to keep the reader informed. The “puzzle pieces” nature of the plot requires loads of setup and that calls for big batches of infodumps. I’m usually okay with infodumps because they teach me something new about the world or the characters, but Sanderson has a tendency to save all of the good revelations for the last 25% of his books, which means that all of the exposition happening in the first 75% isn’t so interesting.

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And what about that ending? I had a lot of vague predictions leading up to it but I was genuinely blindsided by the direction Sanderson took. I should’ve expected it given the epic scale of the story and the dozens of clues that he’d left around in all three books, but alas, I didn’t see it coming. That said, some readers were turned off by the ending but I didn’t mind it one bit. In fact, I don’t see how it could’ve ended in any other way while remaining as satisfying as it was. But I also didn’t mind the endings to Lost or Battlestar Galactica, so maybe my opinion is in the minority here.

Book #1: The Final Empire

Book #2: The Well of Ascension

Book #3: The Hero of Ages

All in all, the Mistborn trilogy is a fantastic read, especially for those who are looking for an entry into the world of epic fantasy. It’s a dark world with dark events interspersed with underlying themes of hope, trust, and sacrifice. If you don’t mind reading books with slow starts and wildly explosive climaxes, do yourself a favor and give these a chance. I’m glad I did.

Kessler’s Grade: B

Image Credits: City of Luthadel, Mistborn Fight