Month: January 2018 Page 1 of 3

Think Like a Librarian: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Last week I did Jeff Lemire’s Roughneck.

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Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a standalone novel in the Agatha Christie Poirot mystery series.  She’s most famous for Murder on the Orient Express, in the same series.

Most of Agatha Christie’s work fits comfortably in the subgenre of mysteries known as cozies.  A cozy is a mystery that you’re supposed to read in a comfy chair in front of a fire with a mug of cocoa and a cat on your lap.  It’s a low-key book in which the murder is mostly there to provide a focus for the story.  The focus of a cozy is on the intellectual puzzle and the characters of the people involved, both the suspects and the detective.

All of Agatha Christie’s work focuses on exploring one or more assumptions that readers tend to make, and exploiting that assumption to force the reader to guess the wrong murderer.  She anticipates the clever guesses that you might make…and uses those guesses against you.

This genre came about between World War I and II in the UK and Europe.  Where the U.S. was focusing on ripping detective stories, the other side of the world, almost literally shell-shocked, needed slightly less excitement in their lives, and went with cozies instead (although of course that’s an oversimplification).

The plot here is that a cantankerous old man’s family is gathered around him for one last time–and it really does turn out to be one last time.  Everyone has a motive, and most of the characters had the opportunity…except for the minor detail of the door having been locked from the inside.

I recommend this book for people who have had enough stress today, thank you, and possibly even people who have had enough family stress for the holiday season, thank you very much, and would like to see someone poke a few gentle holes in the windbags typical of more than a few families.

In particular, I think Gen-Xers are going to start reading more cozies as they get older–when epic fantasy starts to feel like too much drama.  Some days, sure, you can imagine yourself swinging a sword against dragons.  Other days, you just want to know that the jerky family patriarch gets what’s coming to him.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 2: Scope Creep

The characters have to do the thing.  Just one tiny little thing.  Uh-oh.  Remember the last time we had to do just a tiny little thing? It didn’t go well.

  • The characters have to do the thing, which is usually identified as being super-easy.  (Usually, there’s more than one character, although one of them is definitely in charge.  Someone has to listen to all the smartass remarks the main character is going to be making.)
  • FFFFFFFFF.  In order to the thing, we have to do this other thing.  And this other thing.
  • The tasks necessary in order to do the thing become all out of proportion in effort, risk, or stakes.
  • The characters beat the holy hell out of all the things by the skin of their teeth.
  • Either they emerge victorious, having done the thing, or they have been so vehement in their duty that they have made doing the thing impossible, mostly because they broke it.

This is Star Wars: A New Hope.  The Conan stories.  Roger Zelazny’s Amber (and a good bit of his other work).  Stephen Brust’s Dragaera stories.  Sword & Sorcery loves this:  the format is basically a heist story in fantasy clothes, or some other type of crime story in fantasy clothes, although I do love the Conan story where he and his ladyfriend are basically just looking for water in this deserted desert town they run across and all hell breaks loose.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 1: Danger Behind Us

As far as I can tell, there are three main areas of contemporary fantasy that are so separated from each other that it’s pointless to try to lump them together.

  • Epic/high fantasy.
  • Urban fantasy.
  • Everything else.

Tropes and fans can and do cross over, but trying to figure out what’s going on seems to require some categorization.  Grimdark is another question entirely, because it has both fantasy and science fiction under its umbrella.  Portal fantasy fits comfortably under epic, at least as far as I can tell.

So when I talk about epic fantasy, I mean fantasy set in a secondary world, not Earth as we know it (although it may turn out to have been Earth all along), to which the term “grimdark” may or may not apply.

The first plot I’ve picked out:

  • There’s something that the main character must do.
  • In order to do this thing, the character must always go forward, never back.
  • Behind the character, everything is destroyed, ruined, and cut off.
  • It’s often only at the last moment that the character is able to move forward, before being destroyed.
  • If the character does manage to go back, it’s a really bad idea–traitors, traps, destruction, abomination.
  • In the end, the character reaches the final destination and does the thing; they may or may not sacrifice their life in order to do so.

This is The Lord of the Rings.  It’s some of the Narnia books (The Last Battle especially).  Exhaustion, PTSD, grief.  The Last Unicorn.  It’s not like the horror movie It Follows, where no matter where you go, the thing is following you.  It’s just not that personal.  This is more about war.  Strangely, Star Wars, which uses a ton of fantasy tropes, or rather tropes that were strongly adopted by the fantasy genre, doesn’t do this.  The characters in Star Wars are often going back to places they’ve been, or not going the places they were supposed to go.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

When to Tell the Reader?

Here’s the structure of a scene tends to go:

  • Beginning
  • Middle
  • Ending

Tell the reader everything they need to know for that scene in the beginning of that scene, unless the information spoils a plot twist or a reveal somewhere in the middle.  Do not tell the reader anything they don’t need to know for that scene.  Like a two-year-old’s, a reader’s expectations should be managed.

You can tell them more things in the scene, in dialogue, in backstory, etc.  That’s fine.  Just don’t save the information until after the reader needs to know.  It’s too late.  The toddler is in the middle of the grocery store screaming; the reader puts the book down.

The most important thing you can tell the reader is information that will lead to the reader wanting to spend more time with the characters, in that world.

Not action.  Like…any…action.  Your characters may pick their noses.  That’s about it.  They may not act or react to any events.

That goes in the middle.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

On Breaking Rules

Every writer has at least a couple of rules that they have to break, in order to become their own best writer.

You may only break those rules if the reader will get more pleasure/interest/benefit out of those rules being broken than otherwise.

Don’t be lazy.  Be creative.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Think Like a Librarian: Roughneck, by Jeff Lemire

I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’m trying to look at the best of the best books that I read and see them as a librarian might–who needs this book? who would love it?  I read this one recently and was very impressed.

Roughneck by [Lemire, Jeff]

Roughneck is a standalone graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, who does a lot of work in comic books and may be best known for writing Old Man Logan, the inspiration for the movie Logan.  What I know him best for is his series Sweet Tooth.

This is a book that features a lot of violence, but focuses on the question, “What happens when you throw yourself away?”  Two First Nations siblings in Canada who have gotten themselves into what at first seems like an insurmountable amount of trouble are given a narrow, narrow window to save themselves–but it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to change enough to do so.

I highly recommend this book if you need something to hand to a teen reader who is struggling with violence or short-term thinking, or who just doesn’t like to freaking read.  It’s a quick but chunky read, about 270 pages more filled with action and the ice-cold Canadian setting than it is with dialogue or weighty description.

I also have to admit that if you’re a grown-up who loves Bill Patterson’s art style and wondered what it would look like with adult material (there are no stuffed tigers), this would do up a treat, too.

Readers’ breath will fog up the air when they read this…even in July 🙂

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 5: Here I Stand

A door opened, and an apocalypse stepped in.

  • It wasn’t something that could be helped, really.  I mean, it might have escaped from a government lab, but it was a perfect storm, a once in a million years incident of bad luck.
  • Only, something decided to exploit that bad luck.  It went beyond chance or an act of nature or anything like that.  It was of purely evil intent.
  • Good God, why?
  • We try to survive by keeping our heads low.  It doesn’t work.  Humans don’t work.  But if that’s the case, what’s even left?
  • Better just to lie down and die.
  • But I will not.  I will stand.
  • I may resist and defeat that which has opportunistically made the bad situation worse.  I may fall and be overcome.  But I have stood.

This is, obviously, The Stand.  But it’s also things like Braveheart, the Mad Max series, The Dark Tower, and more.  Epic horror?  Got it covered.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

On Editing

A lot of writers edit their words until they behave themselves properly.

Don’t be that writer.  Words shouldn’t behave themselves.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

What Is a Cozy?

Cozies are a subset of the mystery genre in which the author distracts the reader from the PTSD areas of their lives.  They’re the gentle hugs of stories, and yet they revolve around some crime, because nothing is as entertaining as gossip.

</snark>

Cozies actually:

  • Feature a main character you wouldn’t mind going on vacation with.  The character might be annoying, but in such a way that you could totally put up with for a weekend.
  • Are set in a place that you would like to go on vacation, or center around a job/lifestyle that you wouldn’t mind having yourself for a few days.
  • Are about the messiness of life finally getting sorted out for five minutes.
  • Are generally about the theory that if people would just talk to each other, it would all work out for the best.
  • Are about selfish geting what’s coming to them, and generous people who make terrible mistakes and get mercy and forgiveness instead, although they first have to be genuinely sorry.
  • Feature things that people enjoy as part of their relaxation rituals.  Pets, hobbies, food, hot beverages, walks through picturesque landscapes, warm blankets, friends who are there for you, hugs.
  • Should be like being offered a hand.  “Come with me,” says the author.  “We will make real life hurt less.”

An Agatha Christie quote I pulled from Goodreads:

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

Like that 🙂

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

 

A Song of Ice and Fire: Structure/Word Count Case Study

The post about word count and subplots was getting long, so I’ll break this out here:

I think George R.R. Martin is writing parallel novels inside each of his books.

  • There is a main plot and a main character to each book.  You can figure this out by counting which POV character has the most chapters; usually, the main POV has an undistinguished number of chapters in the first half of the book, and then comes to dominate the number of chapters in the latter half of the book.
  • The main POV character’s “novel” seems to have a main story and multiple subplots.  If that “novel” were stripped out on its own from each, it would probably be 120-150K all by itself (I should check this but haven’t yet).
  • The other “novels,” a.k.a. POV characters in each book, have main plots, mostly without subplots but sometimes with.
  • All “novels” except the main POV’s have a strong chance of terminating abruptly, simply so the main POV can dominate the latter half of the novel.
  • This doesn’t mean that the main POV won’t get killed (ahahahaha), but that the main POV will at least have a solid beginning, middle, and ending to their story within that book.  If they live, then they’ll have stuff ahead of them, but the arc for that book will feel more or less complete.
  • Some of the POV characters’ “novels” span from book to book, so you’re only getting a beginning, part of a middle, or an end per book.
  • Some of the POV characters’ “novels” truncate abruptly with no real ending/wrapup, so you feel cheated (when they die or get massively screwed and you’re just left hanging).

In conclusion, GRRM is probably structuring his books specifically to mess with your sense of how a story “should” be, and killing off characters just so you can have the requisite number of pissed-off moments per book.

I need to do a lot more work on ASOIAF, so this is really tentative 🙂

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

 

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