I’ve Totally Eclipsed This Review with a Craft Discussion

ECLIPSE

Since we’re expected to have a partial eclipse in these parts on Monday, it only makes sense to have a review of John Brunner’s Total Eclipse. Unexpectedly, however, the title of the novel is where references to eclipses end. The word “eclipse” was not mentioned anywhere in the entire book. That being said, I’d like to have a kind of craft discussion which eclipses (see what I did there?) the review of the book—but is inspired by it (and some other novels I’ve read lately).

Let me explain. Characters in books think. This is immutable. What differs from novel to novel is how, aesthetically, characters’ thoughts are portrayed on the physical page. Particularly in Brunner’s Total Eclipse, the novel is narrated in third person point-of-view, but the protagonist’s thoughts are in first person point-of-view and italicized. The protagonist thinks often, therefore italics appear in prodigious quantities. What I would like to argue, is that in most instances, ITALICS TO REPRESENT THOUGHT ARE ABOUT AS UNNECESSARY AND DISTRACTING AS ALL OF THESE CAPS.

You probably think I’m yelling, but I’m not. So we’ll add “misleading” to the list with unnecessary and distracting. But let me elaborate on my point before I alienate scores of people who will tell me, “But Stephen King uses italics all the time for his characters’ thoughts!” Yes, I know.

Italicized thought almost exclusively appears in third person point-of-view (POV) since in first person POV essentially everything an “I” narrator tells the reader (everything that isn’t spoken aloud dialogue) is his or her thoughts. Readers are so close to first person narrators that we’re reading their minds. In like-minded fashion (see what I did there?), my proposal is that the same level of closeness to a first person narrator can be achieved with equal success in third person narration. As authors, we get to make up the rules about how close we get inside our characters’ heads, so when it comes to thoughts in the third person, why not simply slip inside our characters’ eardrums, pop a squat on their temporal lobes, and hang on for the ride?—While. Still. In. Third. Person. Point. Of. View.

Here’s an example from Total Eclipse of the protagonist’s thoughts and following it is my rewritten version of those identical thoughts in third person POV.

Original: I wish that bloody man would get off our necks! I want to start work on these printed crystals he doesn’t give a hoot for. Back on Earth I had how many through my hands—eighteen, nineteen? And most of their patterns scrambled. But here there are hundreds, and at the digs there are thousands, and I’m itching, absolutely itching to get at them!

Rewrite: He wished that blood man would get off their necks! He wanted to start work on the printed crystals Ordonez-Vico didn’t give a hoot for. Back on Earth he had how many through his hands—eighteen, nineteen? And most of their patterns scrambled. But here there were hundreds, and at the digs there were thousands, and he was itching, absolutely itching to get at them!

The reason this reads better is that (as the reader) I never have to break from the narrative flow. Nothing changes and I stay in the narrative dream. Every time the italics jump into the frame, it’s like being jolted around the back seat of a vehicle with someone who’s driving stick shift for the first time. Common critique verbiage in writing workshops is to say that a particular passage “took me out of the story.” This means that the narrative dream was temporarily broken. Much of the purpose of reading—reading fiction, anyway—is to be entertained. If I’m not having fun because I keep jerking my arm out toward the dash or slapping the back of my noggin on the headrest, I’m not enjoying the ride. And similarly, I’m not enjoying the read.

It’s been said authors are world creators. If that’s true, then make a world that’s worth living in for a while. Take the liberty to zoom into your characters’ heads for a little. And then? Zoom back out when it suits you. Just keep the dream alive.

I could say more, but I think I’ll stop here. My conclusion is that while I’m not completely ruling out italics-as-thought in every circumstance, I persist in the belief that if that a story can be written without them, why not opt for the simpler more straightforward method? On the whole, italics should be used for two reasons: titles (such as Total Eclipse) and emphasis (such as, italics are not necessary).

That’s where I stand, but I’m still open to some discussion on it. If you have strong thoughts on the matter, chime in with a comment here or on our Facebook page post underneath this review.

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But soft, what light from yonder (browser) window breaks? It is a review—of The Long Ride Home

long ride

The inherent nature of a used bookstore lends itself to the fact that the books are not, in all likelihood, new. However, I’m rather punchy to say that I’ve been given the opportunity to review Tawni Water’s forthcoming young adult novel The Long Ride Home due out September 5th from Sourcebooks. Tawni (yes, we’re on a first name basis) advised me on my novel manuscript two years ago, and a professional relationship rife with literary blessings has developed from it. I consider promoting her new book to be an honor and the very smallest of compensations.

Harley is a do-it-yourself, screw the world, biker chick (and Shakespeare aficionado) who despite her tough, outer-crust is daily decimated after the death of her mother. Opting for some closure, Harley, accompanied by her sort-of-boyfriend, Dean, decide to drive across the country on her motorcycle to scatter her mother’s ashes. On the way, they meet the normally-abnormal cast of eccentric characters that a transcontinental road trip can’t help produce for better or worse. Bigger than that—spoiler alert (but not really)—Harley is also pregnant. The journey to come to terms with her mother’s death takes on a whole new meaning since Harley will soon be a mother herself—or will she?

I think what defines Tawni Water’s novels is that they mirror reality. It’s been said that art imitates life and The Long Ride Home points to a dilemma that so many, especially young women, are dealing with right now. I’m not a woman, so obviously I don’t know the precise emotions associated with pregnancy and childbirth. But as a father, I get at least a glimpse of the immense burdens involved. Alternatively, I laud Tawni (and Harley) for acknowledging the equally immense joy that comes even from an unexpected (unwanted) pregnancy.

As the young adult genre has boomed, it’s important to understand that “YA” doesn’t mean diluted content. Young Adult fiction is intended to challenge its readers with language and awareness of their world. Although The Long Ride Home is clean, poetic “neighbors fight, staining the air with verbal graffiti,” and straight forward, it is also crammed with heart-tearing conflict, brutal honesty, and endlessly complicated questions: Where is Home? What is Home? And even, who is Home? The answers to these questions don’t remain static for very long. So don’t think, teenagers, that you can sleep through your Shakespeare class and go home to read some easy-peasy junk food. Because this isn’t that.

And here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s website if you have any pre-order interest!

 

 

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I’d Like to Forget this Memory

memory earth

Orson Scott Card can lay claim to the title “prolific.” A quick review of his works shows that he’s released at least one, sometimes two, even three novels in a year. At least two of his novels have been adapted for film (Ender’s Game and Pathfinder)—are there more? Obviously, he has clout and talent. He must, how else could he sustain such a career?

When the bookstore had a completed (matching) set of his five volume “Homecoming” series, I thought that might be a great way to introduce myself to his writing. I’d recently seen a couple of the sets sell, too. Book one, The Memory of Earth, opens with several maps of an ancient city which I immediately mused “Hmm, this is rather reminiscent of Jerusalem.” Card even provided a name pronunciation chart and a genealogy which was again indicative of biblical records in first and second Chronicles (and elsewhere). The minimal plot summary plays out to something like this: humanity has basically been rebooted on another planet because they destroyed earth with warfare. However, no one knows this except for the super computer which has been established as the guardian of the world to prevent humanity from developing the technology to kill each other again. A hybrid of sci-fi and fantasy in an ancient-world city drawing on biblical records sounded gripping.

So I say all of the aforementioned to say this: I cannot dismiss any of Card’s other works, nor can I draw definitive conclusions on his clout, talent, and unique narrative abilities—but very little of them were evident in The Memory of Earth.

Now I don’t want to say I disliked a book and not provide some evidence to defend that indictment. So here are my three primary beefs:

1). The means did not equal the ends / the ends did not equal the means. Characters’ motivations were wholly unjustified. On several occasions a character’s action played out like this:

Character: I’m going to do something!

Me (as reader): Why? That’s inconsistent with your motivations.

Character: Well because if I don’t, then the story can’t continue!

Me (as reader): At this point, maybe that would be for the best.

2). The world building was underwritten/under-explained. Take for example in multiple scenes protagonist, Nafai (among others) eat from a refrigerator. You can’t grab (a never elaborated meal—also a disappointing lack of detail) out of a refrigerator in an ancient city and not give some hint as to how that’s perfectly normal. Someone may refute this by pointing out that it’s only (spoiler alert), in essence, a replica of an ancient city. But I maintain that if they don’t even know what a chariot is (plot point) then they absolutely have no business not explaining the presence of refrigerators.

3). The dialogue was clunky, cliché, and indistinct. I am of the opinion that you cannot merely write words and include attribution tags (example: John said, Sue yelled) and expect that to be enough distinction between characters. Dialogue itself is a means of characterization. Therefore, if the dialogue tags were removed from a conversation the reader, in most cases, should still be able to tell who is speaking because of the way a certain character speaks, the words only that character would use. It’s not idealism. If I write the sentence of dialogue “It’s gunna be YUGE!” I bet just about everyone knows who’s talking—even without context. Halfway through The Memory of Earth I started covering attribution tags up with my thumb and I was clueless who was speaking the dialogue.

Beyond my gripes, I did a little research and discovered that the Homecoming series is actually a thinly veiled retelling of the Book of Mormon. The protagonist of that book “Nephi” has been slightly altered to “Nafai” here. The similarities continue on and on until it begs the question, should I just read the Book of Mormon instead? Maybe the dialogue would be better. 1.5/5 stars (.5 for the maps).

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