Book Review – Counting Heads

As both of my many readers know by now, I listen to books on tape more often than I read them these days.  The latest was Counting Heads by David Marusek.  I listened to the Recorded Books version narrated by Kevin R. Free.  I enjoy good science fiction, and the blurb about the book sounded impressive.  Mr. Marusek has apparently written short stories and I believe this is his first novel, but I have not read anything else by this author.

In a future North America where people can live hundreds of years, and nanotechnology and artificial intelligence have made life (mostly) more enjoyable, artist Sam Harger marries billionaire and soon-to-be-politician Eleanor Starke.  Things go awry when Sam is falsely pegged as a terrorist and the Department of Homeland Security (a future and scarier version of it) alters his body so he can no longer be rejuvenated and he now emits a powerful stench beyond cleansing.  Then there’s a plane crash in which the aircraft seat mechanisms protect his daughter Ellen by severing her head from her body.  Medical science has advanced enough to allow re-growing a body from just the head.  But others are after Ellen’s head, perhaps the same evil folks who caused the plane crash and the mistaken terrorist accusation.

I like the world Marusek has created for this novel.  Most people have robotic “mentars” to aid them in drudgery tasks.  Many people are, in fact, clones, and Marusek goes into some detail describing the various types.  Nuclear families have given way to “charter families” functioning by contract and subject to change.  However, terrorists have created nanotechnology viruses, from which cities protect themselves with shield domes.  Mechanical “slugs” crawl about testing people’s identities, and mechanical bees and wasps swarm around observing things for government or media purposes.  I thought Kevin Free did a fine job in reading the novel.

However, for me, that sums up the book’s positive aspects.  Perhaps as a listener rather than a reader I may have missed something, but it wasn’t clear to me what the central conflict of the novel was.  If Sam Harger was supposed to be the protagonist, then the novel spends too little time following the events of his life, and strays into following other characters.  Sam did not seem to me to be actively involved in resolving the central mystery of the book.  As a result, I found it hard to care about him.  The other point-of-view characters are all more focused on their own lives and I found it hard to care about them or even connect them to the plot at all.  The whole book therefore seems a confusing muddle to me.  Is there really a central conflict in this novel?  If so, what is it, and why do the characters not pursue its resolution with any apparent dedication?

After thinking about this for a time, and after reviewing my definitions for my five seahorse rating system, I have to give this book my lowest rating of one seahorse.  If you’re intrigued by science fiction and want to experience one writer’s thoughts on clones, nanotech, advanced medical science, and robotic animals, you might consider reading Counting Heads, but I recommend looking elsewhere.   However, it’s possible I missed its greatness somewhere; if you’re the person to set me right, please leave a comment for–

Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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Writing the Kübler-Ross Way

When writing fiction, you want your characters to seem authentic to readers, to react in believable ways to the events that happen to them.  Such reactions need not match how the reader would react in the same circumstances, necessarily, but they should be in accordance with the character’s personality, not clash with it.  To achieve that authenticity, you need to be a detailed observer of human nature.  In addition to that, you can discover what psychiatrists have determined.

Psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed her ‘Five Stages of Grief’ model and described it in her book On Death and Dying.  The five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance and are sometimes abbreviated as DABDA.

There are those who dispute Kübler-Ross’ theory and some who have competing notions.  You are free to choose the theory you like best.  For our purposes in this blog post, let’s stick with DABDA.  Dr. Kübler-Ross recognized these five separate reactions may apply to more than just human reaction to the death of a loved one.  They may apply in some manner to the responses to any unexpected unfortunate event with emotional content, any shocking or surprising negative circumstance experienced by a character.

A character can pass through phases in different order, or skip one or more phases entirely.  That will be determined in part by the event being reacted to, and the personality of the character.  Bear in mind a phase like denial can be expressed quickly by the character saying, “I don’t believe it,” or “No way.”  These don’t have to be experiences dragged out over several paragraphs.

Also note that a character need not ever reach acceptance.  He or she can get stuck at any of the other stages.  Since that’s not a good sign of emotional health, it can make for interesting and dramatic fiction.  Imagine a person getting stuck at the anger stage, for example.  How would that person act?  What would she be thinking of?  How does she go through life while dominated by feelings of rage?  Similarly, the notion of becoming fixed at the denial, bargaining, or depression stages comes with major consequences for such characters.

Simply knowing one theory of how people normally react to surprising or shocking events can be a help as you strive to create believable and authentic characters.  Do you disagree, or have you used Kubler-Ross’ theory in your own writing?  Leave a comment and let me know.  Though you might not believe it, or it might tick you off, or you’d do anything if it weren’t so, or it makes you feel miserable, or you’ve finally come to understand and consent to the truth of it, I am–

                                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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Use Mind Maps to Solve Your Writing Problems

The concept of mind mapping has come up in my blog entries before, as a suggested tool to help writers.  I’ve said you can use mind maps for outlining, to improve your creativity, and to solve pesky plotting problems.  But what exactly is a mind map, and how does it work?

A mind map is a way of organizing and illustrating thoughts about a topic.  I learned about the technique from reading Use Both Sides of Your Brain, by Tony Buzan.  It contrasts quite a bit from other note-taking methods like the I.A.1.(a)(1)(i) outlining method you learned in school.  I’ve found it to be more intuitive, less messy, and easier to remember than other methods.  I use my own variant of mind mapping any time I need to organize thoughts:  note-taking during meetings at work, planning my day, planning a vacation.  And, oh yeah, I use mind-mapping to aid in my writing.

How do you construct a mind map?  I’ll give only a quick description here; I recommend you read Buzan’s book, or at a minimum read descriptions of the technique elsewhere online.

  • Start in the center with an image of the topic.
  • Write key words around the central image using upper case letters.
  • Underline each key word.
  • Use lines to link the underlined key words to your central image and to each other to illustrate connections.
  • Use images and symbols throughout, in addition to key words.  (Don’t worry if you think you can’t draw decent pictures; no one but you will see your mind map.)
  • Use multiple colors to separate thoughts, and to link similar thoughts.
  • Continue branching out from the center, expanding the thoughts and linking related ideas.

The best way to explain what that all means is to show you a mind map.  I’ve said you can use mind maps to solve writing problems, so let’s see a hypothetical example.  Let’s say you’re Jules Verne and you’re working on a book with a working title of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  You’re outlining the major events of the book and you want to finish with an appropriate, memorable ending, one with a big impact and one that fits the novel’s major themes.  You could make a list of possible endings, then go back and list pros and cons for each option, then choose the best one.  Or you could construct a mind map.

(Set aside for the moment, that [1] mind-mapping hadn’t been invented at the time, and [2] Verne did not write in English.)

In a more complete mind-map, Verne would have continued branching from each option, with pros and cons.  I’ve violated a few mind map rules in this example, but my overall point is for you to see how you could use the technique to aid your writing.

Stuck for an idea what to write about?  Write down key words that resonate with you, even if apparently unrelated.  Go fast and fill up a page with words and pictures.  Now pause and look for natural associations.  Re-do the mind map if necessary to keep it clean and neat.  Now, in a different color, try connecting some unrelated ideas.  Do any of these clashing notions suggest a possible story?

Not sure how to plot your story?  Mind-map the story’s scenes, with branches describing why they occur and how the characters change or learn things from each event.  That should make it apparent if you have unnecessary scenes, scenes in the wrong order, or if you’re missing some scenes you need.

Possible uses for mind-mapping are limited only by your imagination.  In other words, there are no limits.  Can you see yourself using this technique?  Have you ever done so?  Share your ideas about mind-mapping by leaving a comment.  This blog post has been brought to you by both the left and right sides of the brain of–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

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What He Said About ‘Said’

“Today’s blog post is about the word ‘said,’” said Poseidon’s Scribe.

“What is there to say about ‘said?’” asked Blog Reader, who hoped to write fiction someday.

“First, ‘said’ is the most common type of ‘dialogue tag’ used in fiction to indicate who’s speaking,” said the Scribe.  “However, many budding authors worry about overusing that word, so they substitute other words.”

“I don’t believe that,” asserted the Reader.

“It’s true, but the fact is, ‘said’ is pretty much invisible.  You can’t overuse it,” said the Scribe.  “People pass right over it as they read.”

“Well, I declare,” declared the Reader.

“Still, there is something even worse than that,” said the Scribe.

“What’s that?” the Reader asked, questioningly.

“Modifying ‘said’ with an adverb.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” the Reader said unthinkingly.

“Use of adverbs in that way is termed a ‘Tom Swifty,’ from the Tom Swift series of books about a young inventor.  The authors of those books occasionally sought to modify ‘said’ with adverbs.  Not only are they examples of bad writing, but Tom Swifties have given rise to an entire brand of humor.  There are examples here and here and here.”

“Okay, please stop listing links,” the Blog Reader said haltingly.

“Look, there are at least four things to remember about writing dialogue,” said the Scribe, “and the first is to be very clear about who’s talking.  Don’t leave your readers wondering about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you go on for several lines of dialogue without tags–“

“Like we’re doing now, you mean?”

“–the reader can lose track of who’s speaking.”

“You don’t say.”

“I do.  Especially when there’s more than two characters or when they have similar styles of speech.”

“Are there any times you would use several lines of untagged dialogue?”

“Oh, yes.  That technique can heighten the drama of a scene, build it up to a climax.  As each line of dialogue becomes shorter and shorter, your readers will naturally sense the tension building.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes, I’m certain.”

“Really certain?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Sure?”

“Yup.”

“Okay, I think I understand that,” said the Blog Reader.  “You said there are four key points about dialogue.  What’s the next one?”

“Keep it interesting,” said Poseidon’s Scribe.  “Humans are social animals and love to talk.  Your readers want to hear your characters talking, and they have a preference for dialogue over narration.  But they don’t want to be bored, so keep dialogue interesting.”

“And the third key point?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” said the Scribe.  “It’s related to the second point.  Use dialogue for dramatic purposes, to show characters at their moments of strong emotion as they grapple with the problem that represents the story’s conflict.  Minimize the use of dialogue just for providing information.  That’s called info-dumping.”

“Which is what you’re doing now,” said the Reader.

“True, but we’re having a real discussion, not a fictional one.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” Poseidon’s Scribe held up his right index finger.  “There’s one last point I want to make about the use of ‘said’ in dialogue.  If you’re still worried about repeating ‘said’ and you doubt my point earlier about readers skipping over it, then substitute some type of action, or movement, or description.”

“What do you mean?”  The Reader’s brows furrowed.

“Instead of using ‘said,’ have your character do something while speaking.”  The Scribe swept his hand to indicate motion.  “After all, people really do things while talking.  They don’t just stand there.”

The Reader nodded.  “I see what you mean.  But what do I do if I have a question about this later?”

“Just click on ‘leave a comment’ below this blog entry.  See it down there?”

“Yeah, there it is.  Well, thanks for everything!”  The Blog Reader smiled.

“Don’t mention it,” said–

                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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Mixed Genres and the Platypus

Authors are having a lot of fun playing among the traditional genres these days.  In an era when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and the movies “Ninjas vs. Vampires” and “Cowboys and Aliens” are popular, we might well question whether the term ‘genre’ has any meaning any more.

What is (or was) a genre?  It’s “a category of artistic works based on form, style, or subject matter, into which artistic works of all kinds can be divided.”  In its entry on genre fiction, Wikipedia provides the following list:  Action-adventure, Crime, Detective, Fantasy, Horror, Inspirational, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, and Western.  People can dispute that listing but let’s accept it for the time being.

Having a set of well-established genres into which any fiction book fits comfortably within a group is a nice arrangement for bookstores.  Booksellers know just where to shelve any new book that arrives.  Moreover, readers know where to look for their favorite types of stories.  That was the situation up until roughly when the millennium turned over.  In fact, experts used to discourage new authors from writing mixed genre novels because “bookstores won’t know where to shelve your book, and such books have limited appeal to readers.”

Well, forget all that!  Somewhere around the time people stopped going to brick-and-mortar bookstores to buy books, many readers started getting bored with the traditional genres.  They caught up with the authors, who had long been bored with them and ached to stir things up.  Now it’s the bookstores playing catch-up.

Consider the problem for a bookstore.  Imagine a line connecting two genres, say Romance and Horror.  A given book could be at the midpoint of that line, half Romance and half Horror, or it could be at any point along that line.  Now add all the other genres and connect each.  Quite a network!  Moreover, we only considered mixing genres two at a time, but you could combine three or more.  Given all that, how are you going to arrange the shelves in your bookstore?

But what if your bookstore is online and has a virtually unlimited number and arrangement of shelves?  What if your reader customers are demanding nontraditional stories?  What if those customers can type any combination of terms in the search feature of your website to see what you’re offering?  Suddenly it’s not necessary for a budding author to try to force-fit a story into one and only one of the established genres.

The situation is one of definition, like the duck-billed platypus, which once created a problem for zoologists.  Is it a bird or a mammal? It must certainly be one or the other.  It turns out the problem does not lie with the platypus, but with our categories, our definitions.  Similarly, genres are categories with fuzzy–even overlapping–boundaries.  Some stories fit snugly near the center of a genre’s definition.  Others lie out near the edge, still within the boundary, but also within the boundary of another genre.

So I advise you to write the story you want to write, without regard to genres.  It’s a new age, an era without rigid categories, sans genres.  Readers out there seem ready for some experimentation, some departures from tradition.  When you hit that magic combination that amazes the world and propels you to fame and fortune, write down how grateful you are, enclose a fat check, and mail it to–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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