Monday, May 26, 2014

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

It took me a little longer to get through this one; it is something of a paving slab, especially in comparison to the previous books in the series.  I think that this is the third time I've read it.  I can't quite remember, but what I do remember is that I bloody loved this one at the time.

What struck me immediately upon beginning my re-read is just how much more grown-up it is.  Harry is noticing girls.  Voldemort is murdering people.  Ron is making jokes about Uranus.  This is the pivotal book in the series.  Before this it's a series aimed at 10-year-olds, and after this it's firmly YA, aimed at young teens.  This is one of the smartest moves Rowling ever made, and it came right at the point where the series gained a lot of attention from adult readers.  The focus moves away from classes, bullies and candy, and more towards romantic subplots and Voldemort's rise to power.  No wonder this was my favourite book in the series.

That said, it's not as efficiently plotted as the first three books.  The Tri-Wizard Tournament keeps things ticking along, but it's a good 200 pages before that even begins.  I wouldn't say that the book was boring; it held my attention throughout.  But there is a lot of meandering around at the start with the Quidditch World Cup that seems superfluous in hindsight.  I get the feeling that this book was the point where Rowling gained the ability to do whatever the heck she wanted, without much interference from her editors.

As usual with Harry Potter, this book is a mystery story.  This time around, I was caught completely blindsided.  I've read the book before (probably twice!) and I still didn't see the twist with Moody coming.  I remembered that Barty Crouch jr. was involved (mostly because of David Tennant's unfortunately manic performance in the film) but the finer details had escaped me.  I was taken by surprise, and the mystery all made sense in the end; can't ask for much more than that.

Coming up next is Order of the Phoenix, which I remember as being greatly disappointing at the time.  I think perhaps I had built up my expectations too much.  Voldemort was back!  Shit was getting real!  I expected the next book to be all-out war against the Death-Eaters, which was really quite foolish of me given the format of the series.  Of course Harry goes back to school.  Of course his school year is mostly business as usual.  This time around, free of expectations, I hope I can assess this book on its own merits.

ADDENDUM: What is up with the House Elf subplot?  Hermione gets indignant about it, a bunch of people tell her that the House Elves are happy being slaves, really, and then it goes nowhere.  In a few decades time, people will be cringing at this stuff the same way we look back on all the evil dark-skinned guys in Tolkien.  It's really awkward, and I'm hoping Rowling redeems it before the series ends.

Price Drop

Readers of my blog, let me fill you in on a little secret: my novel isn't doing so hot.  Until recently, I hadn't sold a copy since January, so I decided to change things up a little and drop the price.  Right now, Jack Manley and the Warlord of Infinity is selling at Amazon for a dollar.

It's been effective in the least effective possible way: I've sold one copy since the price drop.  It was a minor little morale bump, but hardly what I was looking for.  At this point I need to either pour some money into proper marketing and advertising, or throw my hands up, stop worrying and focus on the next project.  Given my financial state right now, it looks like it will be the latter.

The Lightless Labyrinth: 1,200 words (33,788 total)


What I've Been Reading:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Marvel Comics from 1965

What I've Been Watching:
Game of Thrones season 4

What I've Been Playing:
The Game of Dungeons (aka dnd)

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Lightless Labyrinth and My Writing Weaknesses

As I write The Lightless Labyrinth, I'm constantly reminded just how different it is to Jack Manley and the Warlord of Infinity.  The genre is different, the tone is different, the themes are different, and the writing style is different.  Jack Manley was something that I consciously approached as an "easy" first novel.  I planned it in such a way that it played to my strengths, or at least my strengths as I perceive them. The Lightless Labyrinth is not structured that way, and I'm realising that in many ways it's pulling against the type of thing I would naturally write.

I'm going to run through some of the things that I feel are weaknesses of mine, that The Lightless Labyrinth will cover.

It's serious.  I have a tendency in my work to go for flippancy and humour wherever possible.  Jack Manley, at its heart, is a loving parody of bad sci-fi and pulp adventure.  The Lightless Labyrinth has some attempted humour in dialogue, but it's a much darker work than I usually attempt.  The story of a young warrior delving into the underworld to retrieve his father's corpse isn't really going to be a barrel of laughs, is it?  I'm attempting to explore some genuine themes, whereas Jack Manley was mostly a process of trying to amuse myself at the keyboard every night, and hammering the result into shape later on.  I'm finding The Lightless Labyrinth much more mentally taxing to write.

It gets into the protagonist's head. Anyone who has read Jack Manley might have noticed that at no point do I get into the characters' heads.  (Okay, there is one bit, but that was me getting metaphysical.)  The Lightless Labyrinth is all inside Jonn Greywood's head so far, and what I've discovered is that I'm much more comfortable conveying feelings and emotions by describing actions and body language.  Getting inside my protagonist's feelings doesn't come naturally to me.

It has some female protagonists.  Speaking of things that don't come naturally, I have a tendency to shy away from female characters.  It's not something I do on purpose, it just seems to be where my natural storytelling instincts go.  Jack Manley only had two female characters, and while I tried to give them strong roles Im not sure how well I succeeded.  The Lightless Labyrinth is panning out in such a way that I have two female characters that will become protagonists.  I'll be telling significant portions of the story from inside their heads, and I'm a little scared of it.  I haven't reached the point where I need to write these scenes yet, so I don't know how well I'm going to do.

It has a lot more description. The descriptions in Jack Manley are sparse.  The book has a conscious focus on action above all else.  The descriptions of scenery are kept to a bare minimum; I tried to include just enough for each scene to function, so as not to bog down the forward momentum of the plot.  The Lightless Labyrinth, however, is all about setting.  Its right there in the title of the book, and it's the kind of story that needs atmosphere and scene-setting.  As much as it's my instinct as a writer to "skip to the good bits", I need to slow down and paint the word picture.  I'm already fairly sure that I'll need to go back and beef up some descriptions in the second draft.

There are too many characters. I kept Jack Manley tight in terms of characters, but in The Lightless Labyrinth I probably let myself sprawl out a little too far.  I wanted to cover as many fantasy archetypes as I could, and that probably led me to include too many.  On the other hand, a book like this really needs characters that I can kill off.  I'll be able to thin the cast out and split some characters off into groups soon, but so far I think it's a little too crowded.  I'll need to go back and beef up the presence of some of them, because I know that there are characters that I've barely touched at all.

That's all I could think of for now, but I could come up with more if I put my mind to it.  I find it helpful to think about what my strengths and weaknesses are, and whether I'm avoiding certain types of stories that I find uncomfortable to write.  The Lightless Labyrinth is certainly a more difficult work than Jack Manley was, and I feel like I'm stretching myself as I write it.  I also think that, if I pull it off, it's going to be a better book.  Only time will tell, I guess.

The Lightless Labyrinth: 1,080 words (32,588 total)

In my defense, I've been ill.


What I've Been Reading:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Marvel Comics from 1965

What I've Been Watching
Game of Thrones season 4
WWE Extreme Rules (and a load of other wrestling in general)

What I've Been Playing
The Game of Dungeons (aka dnd)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I flew through this book in a day.  I'd forgotten how addictive this series can be.  (It also helps that I've been home all week with the plague.  Being sick is great for catching up on pop culture.)  This is probably my third time through the book, and once again I enjoyed it a great deal.

What strikes me, though, is how passive the protagonists are throughout the book.  In Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets they spend a good deal of time trying to unravel the respective books' central mystery.  Harry's primary concern in Prisoner of Azkaban is sneaking down to Hogsmeade to buy candy, and playing quidditch.  Keep in mind that the central mystery of this book is far more personal to Harry than the other two were: the man who supposedly betrayed his parents is breaking into Hogwarts to kill him!  You would think Harry might try to get to the bottom of the whole thing, but in general he just goes on about his school business, and the plot only resolves when Sirius Black makes his final move.

That said, the Sirius Black plot was a very interesting one.  I never bought into the idea of him as a murderer, even the first time I read the series; I had learned by this point that whatever conclusion Harry jumps too, it will be the wrong one.  I didn't see the reveal of Peter Pettigrew coming though, nor everything else that surrounds it.  As I said in my previous post, I'm a sucker for back-story reveals, and this book delivered in spades on that front.

I have a final observation that doesn't really relate to this book in particular, but more the series as a whole.  I had been under the impression that the magic in Harry Potter was pretty well-defined, with solid rules that Rowling stuck too pretty well.  I don't know where I got that idea from because it's all pretty loosey-goosey.  She does keep it pretty tight within each individual book, but across the series she's constantly introducing new things, and very little of it is rigidly defined.  This isn't a negative; on the whole I think she does a fine job of keeping things consistent while maintaining a sense of whimsy.

I had previously mentioned how tightly plotted the first book ended up being, with the second book slightly less so.  This book is looser still, yet it still manages to pretty well integrated at the end.  The next volume is a brick in comparison, and I get the feeling that it will be the tipping point, where Rowling started plotting more for the series as a whole than for the individual novel.  We'll see!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I finished this book a few days ago, and I enjoyed it about as much as the first in the series.  I think this is the third time I've read it; maybe it's the second.  I can't remember, and you probably don't care.

Chamber of Secrets isn't quite as tight as Philosopher's Stone.  It almost manages the same trick of tying a whole bunch of disparate elements together for the finale, but doesn't quite pull it off as well.  Gilderoy Lockhart, despite being entertaining to read, is a major part of the book that ends up being largely unimportant to the resolution.  There are other smaller things that don't get tied in, like the whomping willow, and the quidditch matches aren't as well-integrated either. 

I also didn't really buy the reveal of Ginny Weasley as the one who was opening the Chamber of Secrets.  All the foreshadowing was there, but perhaps Ginny was too minor a character for it to work for me.  I also wonder how a first-year with no invisibility cloak can go around killing chickens and painting on walls with no-one to see her.  It doesn't seem quite plausible.

The conclusion, with Harry drawing the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat, was another thing I had problems with.  It's a cool moment, but it really does seem to come out of nowhere.  Nothing in the narrative sets it up.  Perhaps there's something to be said for the meta-narrative trick of "pulling something out of your hat", both in-story and out, but I feel like this could have been set up better.

So if I'm doing so much complaining, why did I enjoy it so much?  I think a big part of that was the focus on Voldemort's past.  I'm a sucker for the books that reveal bits of back-story, and I'm an even bigger sucker when said reveal leaves more questions than answers, as long as there's the sense that those questions will get answered eventually.  Rowling walks that tightrope very well.

On top of that, it's just a fun book whose charm vastly outweighs any minor niggles I might have.  Imagination, wit and charm can carry a story a long way, and will probably stay in the reader's memory long after a solid plot structure and good foreshadowing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

I'm on a bit of a re-reading kick at the moment, and I decided to crack into Harry Potter again.  What I really wanted to read was A Song of Ice and Fire, but that goes against one of my reading rules: I don't re-read a series until it is finished.  I could have done Wheel of Time, but that damn thing takes up a whole shelf on my bookcase; I'd be reading it all year.  So, by process of elimination, Harry Potter got the nod.

That said, I'm a fan of the series.  It's not one that consumed me like the aforementioned hefty fantasies, but I was there buying the books on their day of release.  I think this is my third time reading the first book (my rule only came into place a few years ago, as a way of stopping myself from re-reading too much).  I can be a bit hipster about Harry Potter, because the first time I read it was when it was assigned to me at Uni in 1998, before it became a massive thing.  I can remember reading that Rowling intended for the book to last seven volumes, and scoffing at the notion.  I guess she had the last laugh there.

At first Philosopher's Stone felt to me a bit "kitchen sink".  It's held together very well by the boarding school structure, but there's the sense that a whole lot of disparate elements have been thrown in that are extraneous to the plot.  It turns out that I was fooled, because everything in this book ties back into the main plot, even down to the bloody wizard trading cards.  Rowling sets about world-building with abandon, throwing all sorts of bits and pieces of the wizarding world at the reader, but the great thing is that nothing is there purely for world-building alone.  It's quite remarkable that the book feels both rambling and tight at the same time.

Rowling's other particular skill is that she can establish character very quickly.  It helps that she's working in children's fiction, where broadly drawn characters are more acceptable.  Even so, she's good at it, and good at hinting around the deeper things going on with certain characters.

If I have one complaint with the book, it's the Dursleys.  They are bastards on an absurd level, to the point where the wizard characters seem more realistic than they do.  It's very effective at getting the audience's sympathies pointed at Harry, but there are times where it feels like way too much.

So I'm done with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and I enjoyed it so much I'm cracking straight into Chamber of Secrets.  I remember liking that one a great deal, but that was over a decade ago.  Let's see how it holds up.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ug and the Giant's Backyard

I've been pissing and moaning for the last few weeks about my lack of motivation, but I'm pleased to say that that isn't such a problem at the moment.  I've been able to write most nights, and I'm happy with my output.

That said, I do feel like I'm caught in-between projects.  Jack Manley and the Warlord of Infinity isn't selling, and The Lightless Labyrinth is quite far from completion.  What I really need is a finished project that I can release in the interim, if only to bolster my own morale.

Luckily, I have one.  About ten years ago I had a children's picture book published through a small press.  (This was an achievement somewhat mitigated by the fact that I was on the editorial team, albeit in a different department.)  Ug and the Giant's Backyard had about 200 copies printed, and to be honest I don't know how many of them were sold.  I didn't see any money out of it, but it was pretty exciting at the time.

I'm going to try to publish it again, with a few alterations.  I'm not going to touch the text very much, but I want to colour the illustrations this time.  I did the art myself, and I'm not going to change that.  I had a blast putting little macabre touches to an otherwise friendly kids' book.

Hopefully I'll be able to get it available within the next month or two.  I'll keep you posted!

The Lightless Labyrinth - 2144 words (31,508 total)


What I've Been Reading
The  Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Marvel Comics from 1965

What I've Been Watching
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Road
Resurrection season 1
Game of Thrones season 4

What I've Been Playing
The Game of Dungeons (aka dnd)