Tag Archives: Guy Gavriel Kay

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ten Books You Should Read

Early in the year — even before the pandemic hit — I wrote a post in which I basically said that all writers should read. There are certain “rules” about the profession that are actually negotiable — writers don’t really HAVE to write every day; we don’t HAVE to outline our books to be successful; some people like to write to music while others need absolute silence.

The reading thing, however, as I said at the time, is about as close to an ironclad rule as I can think of. If we want to learn the tropes of whatever genre we write in, we have to read. If we want to learn the craft of storytelling, and continue to hone that skill over a lifetime, we have to read. If we want to be informed and culturally literate citizens of the world, we have to read.

But what should we read? As an author with many friends in the business, I find that making recommendations can be tricky. I don’t wish to insult any of my colleagues with sins of omission. But there are certain books that I have read and not only enjoyed, but learned from. That’s what I’m after in this post. The following books have taught me something about narrative, about conveying story and emotion, about crafting prose. There are some unusual, even quirky, choices here. That comes with the prerogative of writing on my own blog. I hope you find this list helpful, informative, even inspirational.

In no particular order…

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Okay, for starters, it’s just a great book and the start of a remarkable series, a deserving winner of the Hugo (which was actually awarded to all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy). Her plotting is fabulous, her use of point of view innovative and striking. Jemisin has since been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. So, yeah, she basically rocks.

Slow River, by Nicola Griffith. This is an older novel, the 1996 winner of both the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award. It’s a great story, and it makes use of point of view and voice so beautifully that I have used it for teaching on several occasions. Basically she uses three different voices for a single character, each representing different moments in her life. Brilliant.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is probably my favorite fantasy writer, and in recent years he has become a good friend, so I’m bending my own rule here, including the work of someone I know well. But I was a fanboy way before we became friends, so… He does a lot of things very well in all his books, but the world building in this particular book is breathtaking. He borrows extensively from history — he does in most of his books — but he also constructs his worlds with the care and skill of a watchmaker.

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The entire Earthsea Trilogy is one of my all-time favorite works of fiction, but this first volume especially is masterful. It’s a relatively short work, and originally received less attention than it deserved because it was classified, somewhat patronizingly, as “children’s literature.” The worldbuilding is gorgeous, the storytelling simultaneously spare and rich, the prose understated but flawless. Even if you’ve read it, give it another look

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. The first of a couple of non-genre novels. Stegner was not only a terrific writer, but also a passionate, outspoken environmentalist and a chronicler, through his fiction, of the development of the American West. In 1972, Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a master class in narrative. He basically tells two stories at once, one set in the present, one in the past. He blends them beautifully. And his prose is golden.

Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver. Another exquisitely written novel of the American West. Kingsolver weaves together multiple narratives and employs several different points of view to tell her tale. It’s moving, sad, uplifting. Actually, writing about it makes me want to read it again…

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, and then adapted the novel for the screen. He wrote the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. He wrote Marathon Man, and then adapted it to the screen. And he wrote or adapted scripts for about twenty other movies you’ve heard of. In 1983, he published Adventures, which is part tell-all, part how-to. You don’t have to be an aspiring screen writer to learn from it. It is a treatise on creativity and the business of creation. It’s also entertaining as hell.

Five Seasons, by Roger Angell. Okay, this is, admittedly, a VERY quirky choice, but bear with me. Roger Angell, who recently turned 100 years old, is quite possibly the greatest baseball writer who has ever lived. He wrote regularly for The New Yorker from the 1960s through the first decade of this millennium. He has several collections of baseball essays, and Five Seasons is my personal favorite. But if you’re a baseball fan, you can’t go wrong with any of them — The Summer Game, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, Game Time. They’re all amazing. His descriptions of the game and the people he encounters are strikingly original and incredibly evocative. Even if you DON’T like baseball, you could learn from his work.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Back to genre stuff for a moment. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010, and it deserved them, along with every other honor it received. Terrific storytelling, powerful prose, mind-bending world building. This is the whole package.

Any collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction. Another quirky choice. Hawthorne is, I believe, one of the more underrated of American writers. He was writing speculative fiction a century before anyone knew what the hell that was. His stories are haunting, strange, and memorable. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” might be my favorite short story. By anyone. Ever.

And with that, I’ll end.

Except to say, as I did back in February, that to be a writer is, by necessity, to be a reader as well. That is one of the joys what we do.

So keep writing, and keep reading.

Monday Musings: How I’m Coping

I’ve written about politics and social issues a lot in recent weeks, and I want desperately to avoid doing so again this week. It’s not that I don’t have more to say. I do. But I feel as though I’d be going over familiar ground, raising the same objections to this Administration, calling attention to new outrages and failings that are simply echoes of the older ones I’ve already criticized. I am weary of outrage, sick to death of this campaign, ready to reclaim the emotional energy and brain space I’ve ceded to it for so many months.

There is more to life than this. I know there is, and recently, as I have pulled back from political websites and social media, I have been taking pleasure in the small things that I enjoy most. Here’s how I’m coping:

Music: Making music and listening to it. The former has been particularly rewarding because for a time earlier this year, a shoulder issue — terribly painful, basically untreatable except for physical therapy, but not truly serious — kept me from being able to play my guitars. I am happy to report that my shoulder, while not 100%, is much better. I’m playing again, learning new songs, building up strength in my arm and hand. Again, I’m not all the way there, but I’m playing again, and that gives me such pleasure.

I’m also listening a lot, mostly to old rock, even when I’m working. In the past, some of you know, I have strictly limited my work-time listening to instrumental music — jazz and bluegrass mostly. But somehow, right now, with all that’s going on in my head, I am able to work and listen to rock at the same time. I honestly don’t know why, but I’m not complaining.

Work: I’m getting work done on several projects, which is gratifying. I have been working on a pair of trunk novels, one that needed editing, and its sequel, which needed editing and an ending. I’m making good progress on those, but I am not pushing myself too hard, and that seems to be a good thing. I’m the first to admit that I am not at my best right now. So rather than beat myself up for not being efficient, I am accepting the limitations imposed by my current emotional state. I work when I can, and when the work doesn’t flow, I take care of other things, be they work-related or house-related or whatever.

I also have a novel that my agent and I are trying to sell and a set of Thieftaker novellas that are in production. And I have other projects at various stages of completion and readiness. On the one hand, I’m impatient for forward motion on all of them. At the same time, I understand that I can only do so much, and that the publishing world is moving even more slowly than usual. I am doing my best to be patient, something that doesn’t come naturally to me.

Getting outside: Fall has been brilliant this year here on the Cumberland Plateau. Shimmering, clear days, cool nights, stunning mornings. I have been birdwatching, savoring my morning walks, taking extra hikes later in the day, taking photos, and generally forcing myself to get away from my computer. Idle moments at my desk lead me to bad habits — social media, political sites, etc. In short, all the stuff I’m trying to avoid. To the extent possible, when the siren call of the web grows too strong, I escape it by going outside and doing something else.

Comfort food for the brain: Throughout the pandemic, I have found it hard to read. Except for political journalism, which, of course, I want no part of right now. The exception is old favorite novels by authors I love. So I’ve been re-reading the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, and have it in mind to read some other old works after that. They are comforting and comfortable, which I really need right now.

Along the same lines, I have been enjoying the television shows of Aaron Sorkin. Most of you probably know about The West Wing and The Newsroom, and I’ve been watching plenty of West Wing, happily retreating to a world in which Jed Bartlet is President. I have also been watching Sports Night, a short-lived half-hour comedy/drama that aired for two years before being cancelled. It was a terrific show about a sports show along the lines of ESPN’s Sportscenter. It was funny and poignant and smart, like all of Sorkin’s work. The network never knew what to do with the show. They tried a laugh track with it for a while, but that didn’t work. And by the time they figured out that they just needed to leave it alone, the show had been mired in a ratings slump for too long to be saved. If you can find the disks, I recommend it highly, particularly season 1.

Nancy: The one constant for me during this pandemic is that Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together. We have been cooking a lot, taking walks together, sipping whisky on the front porch as the sun goes down, and generally counting ourselves so very fortunate to have each other. There’s really not much more to say about this, but as I struggle to maintain my emotional health, I have to acknowledged that I would have broken a long time ago if not for her.

I know how lucky I am — lucky to play guitar, to have music at my disposal, to have a job I love, to have books to read and old DVDs to watch, to live in a place that is beautiful and that offers easy access to wilderness, to have a happy marriage. Please believe that I take none of this for granted. That wasn’t always the case, but this year has shown me the folly of doing so. I won’t fall prey to that particular mistake again.

I wish you health — emotional and physical — and I hope you have a wonderful week. See you Wednesday.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writing Musically

It will come as no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a huge fan of The West Wing, in particular Seasons 1-4, when series creator Aaron Sorkin was writing nearly every episode, and his creative partner, Thomas Schlamme was directing most of them.

Sorkin talks often about writing musically, about bringing to his dialogue cadence, rhythm, motif, and even melody and refrain. Take a moment to watch this clip from one of the best episodes in the series’ long and storied run, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II.” Listen to all of it, but pay particular attention to Ron’s monologue, starting at time stamp 1:15.

Notice not only the gorgeous cadence of all he says, but also the return to two refrains: “It was an act of mad men,” and, from earlier in the scene, “The Secret Service doesn’t comment on procedure.”

Often in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, I will offer advice that is concrete and easily implemented. This is not one of those posts.

Thinking musically about our writing is an abstract idea, but, I believe, a helpful and important one. I strive, in my dialogue and my prose, to find a musical cadence, to create a rhythm that carries my narrative along. We all know what it feels like to write a clunky phrase or sentence or paragraph. Hell, I’ve written entire chapters that were clunky. I would imagine some of my less generous reviewers on Amazon would say I have entire books that are.

But of course, it’s easy to say “write musically, think about rhythm and beat as you craft your stories.” It’s another entirely to explain how this is done. And I should pause here to say that simply repeating phrases in our writing doesn’t make us Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a master, and this technique works beautifully for him. That doesn’t mean we can repeat a few lines and say, “Hey, look! I’m writing musically!” Learning to write this way comes with years of practice, and even more years of reading. And the process is not easy to describe in concrete terms. The books of Guy Gavriel Kay, my favorite fantasy author, are incredibly musical – like symphonies. But I would be hard-pressed to tell you what specific things he does to achieve this. He just does.

Here, though, are a couple of tips that might help.

Let’s stick with that symphony analogy. Consider a movement from your favorite piece of classical music. No doubt its tempo varies from section to section: it has moments when the pace of the music quickens and others when it slows. Likely the dynamics vary as well, thundering in one passage, softening in another. If you’re not a fan of classical music, think about your favorite rock album. Chances are the rhythms and moods of the songs vary — an upbeat, fast track, followed by a ballad, followed by something moody and tense, followed by another rocker… You get what I mean.

Writing, to my mind, works best when it follows a similar pattern. Some writers like their entire novels to go at one speed — fast, fast, fast. They create one action scene after another, leaving readers breathless and, they hope, eager for more. That is a perfectly legitimate approach, but I don’t like to write that way, and I don’t particularly like to read books of that sort. I prefer to intersperse crescendos of action with quieter moments, pushing the plot forward and then allowing my readers, and my characters, to catch their breath and contemplate the implications of what has just occurred Some scenes must be breakneck and loud — absolutely. Others, though, should be softer, slower. A battle scene, followed by a spoken confrontation, followed by a love scene, followed by hand-to-hand combat, followed by a chase, followed by a key conversation, etc. The narrative flows this whole time — writing musically is not meant as an excuse to insert scenes that don’t advance your story — but sometimes it flows with cymbals crashing and sometimes it flows with the sound of a single violin.

Another way to think musically about writing: Again, think about that symphony or your favorite song. And think about the ways in which melody works. Some phrases end with the perfect note, resolving the musical tension; others end more discordantly, ratcheting up harmonic conflict and propelling the piece in question forward. Storytelling works the same way. I try to vary the narrative energy. I finish some chapters with a resolution of conflict; I end others by heightening tension, by leaving things hanging, by leaving my readers still waiting for that resolving note.

Rhythm and tempo, dynamics and volume, tension and resolution, harmony and discord. I find that these terms work equally well in describing musical performance and the written word. You might find that incorporating these concepts into your narrative will help you find the perfect pace and mood for your current project.

Keep writing!

TIME’S DEMON Blog Tour, So Far

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time’s Demon, the second volume in The Islevale Cycle, my time travel/epic fantasy series (written as D.B. Jackson), came out last week. The reviews have been very nice, with SFFWorld saying that the book is “about as perfect a second book in a series as a reader could hope to have.” I have been blogging about the book a lot, and thought I would take advantage of this small lull in the blog tour to give you a review of where I have been so far. Below you will find a list of my appearances to date for the release. As I make more stops on the tour, I will alert you to those as well. In the meantime, I hope you will take a few moments to check out these posts and interviews. Thanks, and enjoy!

*****

Black Gate Magazine, a post about my writing inspirations

[Earlier in May, I wrote for Black Gate a review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago. And Black Gate also published a “Future Treasures” preview of Time’s Demon.]

PaulSemel.com, an interview with Paul

My Life, My Books, My Escape, an interview with D.J.

Civilian Reader, a post about the challenge of middle books

A Refuge From Life, an interview with Will

Joshua Palmatier’s blog, a post about imposter syndrome

Stephen Leigh’s blog, a post about plotting or not plotting

Marie Brennan’s blog, a post in her Spark of Life feature

Faith Hunter’s blog, an excerpt from Time’s Demon

Alma Alexander’s blog, an interview with Alma