Hearken ye over to Adventures in Writingville, where you can dither about the Expression of Self.
Ah, the life of a consultant: the move from one contract to another.
Perfect for the little ADD Monster inside all of us.
This is an exciting re-engineering contract. I get to plumb the depths of the undocumented and air our all the deficiencies.
So, what does that have to do with writing or reading?
Nothing! Ha! But I am behind in my blog list of things to do (as you can see by the lack of updates). This always happens when I switch contracts. I need to find my rhythm. I am almost there.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the artistic expression of the battle between Good vs. Evil. Then I watched this movie:
The Indy movie Ink is gathering hype, as it should. The pacing is masterful, right from the slow beginning to the crescendo of the ending. The extraordinary clever writing. The understated special effects.
But, dear 9.3 blog readers, this is, at the core, a story of Good vs. Evil in the most basic sense to its most insidious. It encompasses every major Good vs. Evil thematic you could possibly imagine wrapped up in a glorious narrative rapture, from the overt to the slices of gray so thin you can see through them.
I don’t normally review movies, but I will review Ink after I post my next book review.
Bottom line: If you have a Good vs. Evil theme in your writing, don’t even talk to me until you’ve seen this movie.
Disclaimer 1: This is a book review for novelists. There are many other reviews about Cinders, this one is for those who like to write books.
Disclaimer 2: I placed 3rd in one of Michelle’s short story contests in a blind judging. Please don’t think I’m doing a bit of quid pro quo, because I can assure you I am a vicious reader.
I always thought Cinderella was a bit of a whore.
You can’t blame Disney’s Cinderella for being a whore. The girl’s stepmother and sisters abused her, making her life a living misery. Going back to the classic tale, we can all put ourselves in her shoes (get it—put ourselves in her shoes? Oh, I am so clever!), and who can resist the charm of the Prince searching for the girl who enticed him and then taking her away to live happily ever after?
The classical definition of a whore is somebody who does things for selfish reasons. Add a bit of the magically seduced prince, and there you have it.
Thus, it was with trepidation that I started reading Cinders, attracted to the book because I love novellas and I thought the cover was smashing. It was supposed to be a coming-of-age-story with a bunch of girly girl mixed with whimsy. I was even expecting talking animals.
Goodness was I mistaken.
Cinders by Michelle Davidson Argyle is a literary wonder with perfect, sparse prose obscuring a multi-layered depth that is haunting as it is breathless. When I finished the book, I just sat there in my chair outside staring at the trees in the sun. Cinders captivated, disturbed, infatuated, crushed, bewildered and beguiled me.
It’s difficult to know where to begin on an in-depth review with something so overwhelming complex born of simplicity, but there is the obvious. The prose.
Argyle’s delicious, sensual, twilight and shadow prose.
Here is one example:
“Not yet. Let me sing you a song.” He sat with her near a bush with white flowers, the same ones in her hair, and as he sang, the smell of clover grew stronger. He helped her lie down. Petals fell from his hair when his lips brushed hers. She closed her eyes and saw Isaac bruising Rose’s horse, his arm moving up and down, the cat licking her paws.
See, I’m a red-blooded American Male. I like my steak waved in a warm room, apple pie and watch movies where stuff blows up in space. A productive evening for me is when I’ve managed to clean all the guns without running out of CLP.
Yet, that excerpt right there made my heart go pitter-pat. I read that and I was breathless, the feeling you get when you look at a girl for the first time and realize you’re crushing hard.
For the writer, Cinders is a decent into the visceral, as that example shows. It’s not a la la la literary going to describe a flower in twelve metaphors visceral, but a dark, sensual, haunting flowing river of words that sits at the bottom of your gut like a fiery Cognac. Argyle’s prose is sparse, her mastery with such few words speaks to a deep, creative talent, and she uses her creativity to breathe life into the lifeless.
In Disney’s adaptation, Cinderella is a story about a girl becoming a woman in order to escape her awful life while snagging the man of her dreams in the process through magic and rodent Tom Foolery.
“Cute talking animals” is code for “this is a child’s story for entertainment” and as such that’s what Cinderella, the character, was.
Argyle’s characterization is so fascinating and her Cinderella is a compelling, complex figure different from the original literary tale before it. It is impressive how Argyle turns a vapid fairytale shell into a young woman, but Cinderella here is a wonderful, flawed person yearning to make her own choices.
And make them she does. I was rooting for Cinderella through the entire book because her yearning selfishness, even though justified, was tragic to behold. Even at her worst mistakes, at least she made them. Choice. Has there ever been such a literary theme worthy of published words?
But I digress.
How I loved that seductive, lethal yet empathetic Cinderella. What, you say? Cinderella? Lethal? Seductive?
Oh, yes. That and more. Cinderella makes mistakes, and people die. Cinders, my friends, is a book with an impressive body count, like any good fairytale. Despite the darkness that Argyle serves up as pebbles falling into a still lake, the book isn’t about death, but about life: living, learning, and loving.
She also loves, oh how Cinderella loves. Her love is consuming and fearful; she loves with her mind and her body, and her passions and desires elevate her from her magical prison of her own making while driving her to the cliff of despair. Argyle pulls this off with mastery for the complex wrapped around the simple.
Cinders is a love story, but it’s also a coming-of-age-story, and the truly amazing part of this novella is the themes and plot intertwines to the point where it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two. It’s also a raw story with under-the-radar world building, a world that comes alive in the fewest words possible. The setting is so vivid, it mesmerizes the reader who turns page after page and all too soon, the end of the book comes like a punch in the gut.
The ending is a study in perfection, a true “didn’t see it coming, but should have,” moment of pure bittersweet. That’s the summation for the writer: Cinders is a study in perfection. The perfect cover. The perfect tagline. Even the bookmark is perfect. The perfect story. Perfect prose. The perfect novella. It’s magical. You could stick this novella in a time capsule, move it forward two hundred years, and for the lucky reader who dug it up, she would say “oh!” and yearn for more.
Argyle banished Disney’s whore from my mind. It was as if she never existed, and in her place is a woman of empathy and beauty, a mixture of danger tempered with love.
Momma always told him to watch out for certain girls, and after a while, he learned “certain girls” was Momma’s code for “girls who want in your pants to break your heart or make off with your wallet.”
The girl in front of him was Momma’s worst nightmare.
It was Valentine’s Day in Southwest Washington. That meant the cold, ever-present rain. The fireplace was going at it with the snap and crackle to remind everyone that it was there, the sleeping dog next to it, trying to will herself closer in warm doggie dreams.
The Merlot bottle stood half-empty, sitting on the table next to the photo album. They had been giggling over the photos for quite some time.
She had disappeared while he was fetching cheese and pouring the rest of the wine, but now she was back, wearing her dancing heels and the red dress she loved to wear salsa dancing, the one with the slit that went to the ceiling. She put on slow jazz, the singer with her sensual tale of love and longing in French, all sexy and warm.
He stood and put a hand around her waist, and one across her back. One of her hands came up behind him and she ran fingers through his hair. She swayed into the music, swayed into him, and her lips came up to his ear. She smelled of grapes and flowers, but also that dangerous woman scent that she loved to use like a weapon.
“Dance right into me,” she whispered. “Dance into me.”
Momma was wrong. The girls that knew how to say the perfect things at the perfect time were the ones that needed watching.
It was their eighteenth wedding anniversary.
“Dance right into me,” she said again, and sighed when he kissed her.
I was having a very interesting conversation with my 10-year-old.
First off, that kid is wicked smart. Takes after his mom.
We were talking about (get this) urban fantasy or to mix genres, paranormal urban fantasy.
He asked me “are there any urban fantasy books for guys, besides the guy who wrote Monster Hunter International?”
MHI is one of his favorite books.
My brain struggled. Was there? Non-dystopian?
I told him that urban fantasy was very popular with women, so much so that if there was something out there that had universal appeal, I didn’t know about it. It got lost in the noise.
“That sucks,” he said.
Yes, Thing One. It does suck. But hey, look at this from Larry Correia:
Yeah, Thing One and me we’ll be all over that one. Have you ever seen such a pulp-goodness hint of steam punk noir cover? I sure haven’t.
It’s official, author Larry Correia is kicking ass.
From my world-building notebook for Stuff Blowing Up in Space.
We read in science fiction stories all the time about the “adaptability of humans” or some other superior concept such as individualism, the triumph of the individual over the collective might of the pesky aliens (or even groups of humans).
What makes the Predator movies so fascinating is humans consider themselves predators, and the movies flip that on its end. Especially the first movie.
Humans are not predators of predators from a pure evolutionary standpoint. Humans need other humans to survive. They are socially adaptive.
The sish, the dominate species in the galaxy for Stuff Blowing Up in Space, form complex social groups to assert dominance to avoid food competition, not because they need to get together and fertilize eggs. They are loners and individuals much more so than humans are. They come with a slew of natural weaponry. What they cannot overpower they seduce with biological seduction weapons. What they cannot biologically seduce they can out think. Evolution can take many paths, the path for fight leads to brains that process information quickly. It’s not just a basic response, either. To a sish, exploration and advancement ties directly to food, and food is sex. Stepping foot on a new planet isn’t just fun, it’s foreplay.
Thus the adaptive, individual race is not humans. It’s sish. On the same evolutionary scale, they achieved FTL faster than others, they found more habitual planets and they are very effective diplomats, seeing war and conflict as the elimination of the food supply.
The human advantage over sish is a cultural one, one that leads to greater technological progress.
That’s a different entry, however.
Below are two sish, talking amongst themselves. They are also vying for dominance and possible sex-play. Not to toot my horn too obnoxiously, but while this banter moves the plot forward, setting the stage for some juicy conflict, it’s also jam-packed with world-building without obnoxiously beating the reader over the head with it, as I have done with the text above.
If anybody who knew anything about military space vessels were paying attention, they would have immediately known something was odd about Task Group Inaeo’s two cruisers and their orbital positions.
Nobody was paying attention, because the last of Task Group Aoe’s space assets had crossed the FTL safety line and disappeared. If someone had been looking, they would have noticed the two cruisers covered a wide swath of the planet, rather than a wide swath of the space before the planet.
The two captains were in their respective private cabins, they had just finished watching what video there was of the human in train car.
Such video was ironic. They only had it because one of the sish in the car had an expensive recorder from the Terran sector, and it was EMP shielded. Who would have thought of such a thing?
“Quite an extraordinary play of events, don’t you think?” said the first captain.
“Indeed. A violent fellow, and the glimpse of the huntress was remarkable,” said the second. “A powerful, powerful telekinetic.”
“The Princess gets kidnapped, now this. Fleet has stepped in it for sure.”
“I am not so sure, Sister. He did say he was a contractor. Witnesses said he was an ‘Ambassador.’ Such people could be contractors, hired by Fleet at whim. Fleet is the only governance for the United Planets of Terra; they tend to hire civilians to deal with other civilians.”
The other sish captain nodded. “In any event, how convenient, do you think, that all of Aoe’s space assets are currently absent from the system.”
“A shame, really.”
“Too bad we are forbidden from initiating any contact of the more, ah, free-enterprise elements that grace the pretty planet below us.”
Both cruiser captains were knee-deep in the last system conversion to the human’s hyper-capitalism, becoming quite wealthy in the process.
Both hated, to their core, the matriarchal system of governance, an anachronism they could appreciate but recognized as one of the biggest disadvantages of dealing with the over-productive humans.
They had seen the endless human fleets. The Navy knew what was going on, even if the system governments did not.
“Yes, our orders were quite clear. Here we sit, unable to open communications.”
“Yes, orders are orders; one could even say they or superiors designed them for the maximum amount of ass-coverage. In case something goes wrong.”
“Funny how we two are the types to always think of what the right thing is to do despite the consequences.”
“Indeed. Very Fleet-like of us, don’t you think?”
“Indeed. What is that Terran saying? Keep your friends close, your enemies closer?”
“I always liked, speak softly and carry a big gun.”
Each suppressed a giggle and sighed.
“La la la, la la la,” said the first captain.
“Dee dee dee, dee dee dee,” said the second captain.
The first captain took out a hairbrush and started in on her ever-hated helmet hair.
The second captain started painting her nails a nice shade of green.
Bleep bleep, went the comm chime in one cabin.
Bleep bleep, went the comm in the second.
Both sish smiled, fangs already extended.
From my world building notebook for Stuff Blowing up in Space.
A female-only species similar in appearance to humans, the sish reproduce by drinking the blood of a male carnivore when they ovulate. They are sexual predators in the biological sense, that is, they entice their prey with pheromones and simple seduction. They are biologically advanced, physically and mentally, and are even more genetically diverse than humans because of the DNA sequencing used to fertilize their eggs.
While sish are omnivores, their sexual response is tied not only to each other, but also to feeding, making other intelligent species their prime source of live blood and amusement. For the loss of some blood, other species in return receive mind-blowing sex. Sometimes, however, a sish will feed until her source of food dies, either on purpose or by accident, making travel in sish space both pleasurable and dangerous.
Sex dominance is always an issue with sish. Lovers always have a dominant/submissive pairing, and the social structures they form are more advanced than humans, but not necessarily more productive.
Sish seduction biology can create symbiants out of females from other species, exchanging blood for sexual pleasure on a regular basis instead of the infamous sish one-night-stand. Such bonding is rare, but as humans and sish mingle, the number of symbiants has increased steadily over time.
To sish, live food is sex, the more intelligent the live food the sexier it is. Sex is also power, and while the sish consider themselves biologically superior to other species, culturally it could be argued some of their core planets are stagnant, as this excerpt shows.
Princess Oneesha, heir to the throne of Jephinae, could not believe what she was hearing from the Queen.
Oneesha had been crying. Crying for her sister. Crying because she was hungry. Crying because she needed sex. Crying in frustration. Now she was crying in anger as the Queen assailed her ears, angry because Oneesha would not answer her summons and that the Queen had to come to the Princess’s bedchamber.
What the Queen had to say shocked her, all the worse because she almost said yes. Now, Oneesha was angry with herself more than the Queen. “Mother, I cannot partake in the ceremony now! It is out of the question! Crazy humans have kidnapped my little sister! How could you think of such a thing?”
Her mother backhanded her. Hard. She fell to the ground, spots in her vision. The Queen was a very strong sish, and her face throbbed as if it was on fire.
“Do not prattle on with your insolence! You don’t understand the tenuous hold we have, we need to bond the power-players to you or there may not be another ascension ceremony! Ever!”
From the ground, Oneesha stared at her mother. That’s when she knew.
“You’re pregnant,” she blurted out.
The Queen flinched back as if she received a punched in the gut.
“That is no concern of yours, daughter,” she said dismissively.
Oneesha stood up. “It’s true! You were starving her! My sister snapped because she has chaste sickness. It doesn’t matter that I’m older; she was always stronger than I was, more developed. Yet you went ahead and arranged my ascension knowing she was dying! You decided since you were pregnant, you didn’t need her around anymore. That having her die of chaste would make people fear you!”
“People do fear me, as you should.” The Queen advanced.
Oneesha drew her ceremonial dirk and pressed the button on the hilt. Dark fire ran up and down the blade, the deadly hum of its vibro-blade filled her bedchamber.
The Queen stopped, eyes narrowing. “I can take that blade from you, child. Do not be stupid.”
“Lay hands on me again and I will cut that daughter out of you and feed her to the servants.”
The Queen stared.
“So it’s come to this? Treason?”
Oneesha burst out laughing and turned the blade off, sheathing it. “It’s only treason if you admit your weakness to Palace Security. Then what? You’d have no daughters except the one in your belly. Your hold on the nobles would come crashing down sooner rather than later.”
She turned and walked from the room.
“Where are you going? Come back here!” the Queen shrieked out.
Oneesha turned and looked over her shoulder.
“I’m going to find my little sister,” she lied, the first lie she had ever told the Queen.
“Good bye, Mother,” she said, walking away.
I have some self-imposed rules of writing, mainly to prevent my literary ego from running amok.
Running Amok is a technical term, by the way.
But I digress.
My Sassy and Feminine friend Cassie Hart from New Zealand recently pointed out good writing for me comes from a challenge. So my next target for my love of writing was Dragonsong. The characters and plot speak to me, almost like a call. It will be difficult to pull it together in 100k words, too.
One of my rules of writing, fantasy writing, is that the setting must have a voice. It’s not enough to have a heroic fantasy, character-driven plot. I have very high fantasy standards as a reader. I need to be there. I need to feel it deep in my bones. I need to see it and smell it. It’s visceral or it’s nothing.
I got to chapter three of Dragonsong, and realized the setting isn’t speaking to me. I have a very specific vision for it. I’m not going to hash out the book and then in draft two spruce up the setting, either. The setting is a character, she has a voice or I murder her for one that does. It’s my First Rule of Fantasy Writing.
Unfortunately, nothing repair-wise is nibbling on my little brain, so I’m setting it aside. This novel is better than I am, so I’m going to let it fester.
Thus, I’m living large on The Baby Dancers. That YA setting speaks to me. Yes it does. Maybe she can tell me a few things. Teach me.
That and I’m at the point where I just have to know how the story ends. It’s driving me crazy.
Thank you all who suggested I pick the novel back up because the plot sounded compelling. Because I believe, you’re right.
Goblin Ninjas. On fire.
I finished my work in progress in the wee hours of the morning, The Wælcyries Murders.
What a fun novel!
The novel, according to conventional wisdom, should not be—it’s a sequel to a book I haven’t sold yet, which, according to some, isn’t a good idea.
Like much of the advice written on the Interwebs, a person has to be very careful not only consider the source, but also the context.
One reason it’s not a good idea is that your first book may never sell. Your agent or editor may also suggest changes to the first novel that render the second one invalid. Thus you’ve wasted your time.
Or have you?
I learned so much writing this novel. It took me six months to write. What did I learn in six months?
- I learned that there are tricks and techniques to writing your first novel so the second novel in the series gels and flows with the first
- I leaned about advanced characterization beyond a self-contained novel
- I learned how to write a sequel
- I learned new things about world-building and continuity
- I learned that even well respected writers and industry can over-generalize
Out of all of these points, the most valuable to me is the characterization I learned. What’s my main character’s motive, beyond solving the mystery? How does she grow? Where do the other characters fit?
This is my fourth novel I have written; with the caveat the first novel was a pure writing exercise with no basis in publishing reality. So, it’s more novel number three. I will repeat this to myself until it is true. Heh.
The first book in the series could never sell.
I can guarantee that if I do sell a book, and my publisher asks for a sequel, the process of producing that creative work will be much better. I learn by thinking about things and doing in an iterative process.
Next post I talk about the wok itself and the other things I learned.