Michael Patrick Hicks blipped onto my radar last winter about the time I was releasing Time Heist. His debut novel, Convergence, was a hot little piece of writing that shared many technological viewpoints as my own work. I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy, which is a good thing, ’cause as it turned out, Convergence was awesome.
Don’t believe me? Well, fine. Just check out the REVIEW I did of Convergence last year. See. Told you I liked it. Now don’t you look foolish.
Wait, what’s that? I’m not supposed to mock the readership? Makes me seem unapproachable and a bit of a dick? Gah…fine.
I’m sorry, I’ll stop abusing you. I swear.
Anyhow, Michael has proven not to be a one hit wonder, and continues to churn out great story after great story. His short story Revolver for the anthology No Way Home was one of the most loved (and hated, depending on your political point-of-view) stories in the entire collection.
Hicks isn’t a one genre pony either. He’s dabbled with horror, so if that’s your thing, you should check out his short Consumption. A story which I haven’t personally read, but judging from the reviews, lives up to the horror billing.
Alright, that was a lot of words to get us to the reason we’re here. So, without further adieu, let’s do some Interviewing! Get over here, Michael Patrick Hicks, I’ve got some words for you!
Michael Patrick Hicks Interview
I know it’s hard (’cause a parent loves all their children equally. Right, Mom?), but if you had to chose, what’s your favorite story you’ve ever written?
My current work in progress is quickly becoming my favorite. Mostly because it’s something fresh and new and has a few surprises. I’ve put my previous works to bed, for better or worse, and am moving onto a new adventure. This one is a horror story, so I get to cut loose and get savage and bloody with it, and it’s nice to move away from the sci-fi stuff I’ve been working on for the last few years (and will likely be returning to after this WIP is wrapped up).
Fans of your Consumption short-story will be excited to hear your moving back into the Horror domain for a bit. Is this new project going to be novel length?
I originally intended it to be a short story, but blew past that about 15,000 words ago. It’s a natural horror story, about nature itself going crazy and turning against humanity, with the working title of Mass Hysteria. It will end up either being a pretty long novella or an actual novel. I’m having so much fun with it and the idea keeps coming, and there’s a few twists on the original idea as things progress. I think fans of Consumption will be pretty happy with it, and I am tremendously pleased to be writing a horror work again. It’s such an enjoyable genre to stomp around in!
I’ve been seeing a lot of baby related posts on your Facebook wall recently, what’s it like working with a kid in the house and has it affected your daily work routine?
Well, my wife and I are still waiting on the arrival of our first child.
This, for you people keeping score at home, is the reason you do research before an interview. Whoops. We’ll just claim there was a rip in the time-space continuum and I’m actually from the future. Continue pre-baby Michael.
I don’t know for sure how the writing routine will unfold around having a kid in the house, but we’ve talked about it and she supports my writing career completely so we’ll make it work somehow, someway. I’ll figure it out, because, ultimately, I have to and it’s vitally important to my sanity to be able to write. In so far as altering the writing routine thus far, we’ve gone through a number of classes, registering for baby shower gifts, visiting pediatricians and day care facilities, so there’s already been a good bit of upheaval and readjustments to the schedule. I fully expect more to come soon!
I assume you’ve been testing all the kid’s toys…you know, for science and safety?
Oh, absolutely! That’s the first vital step toward being a responsible parent. We don’t know the gender and are keeping it a surprise until delivery, so we’ve been getting some gender-neutral stuff. I bought a stuffed Cthulhu for the wildlife nursery we’ve been decorating, and a little knitted baby cap and socks with Bat-logos, so if we have a boy, he’s Batman, if we have a girl, she’s Batgirl. It’s perfect and accessible. Sometime soon, I’ll be rummaging through my parent’s basement to find my old Millennium Falcon and ensuring that it is child-proof, but may need to keep it out of baby’s reach for a little while. You know, just to be safe.
Alright, let’s talk a bit about story and the craft of writing. We all know to avoid cliches, and yet we’re all guilty of using them on occasion. What’s your personal favorite (or least favorite) story trope?
Least favorite (and I’m guilty of it, I’m sure) is villains monologuing when they should be killing! But even then I have some favorites – that whole scene in Goldfinger when James Bond is strapped down to the table with the deadly laser beam on a course to bisect him. It’s utterly ridiculous, really, but still such a great scene and quote-worthy dialogue from Goldfinger himself. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” But really, you should have just freaking killed him when you had the chance…
This is one of the most resilient tropes around, and possibly for good reason. Some of the all time greatest movies would have been about 100 minutes shorter if the bad guy just straight up shot the good guy in the head.
As a writer, what do you perceive to be some of your strengths and weaknesses?
The biggest flaw I see in my own works is characterization. I wish I could plumb the depths of a person the way Stephen King does and really get inside their head. I think a lot of it stems from knowing the characters so well in my own head already, that I don’t always capture as much of it as I should on paper. It’s a constant growth process, though.
I do think I am pretty good at writing an action scene or two, and my last novel, Emergence, is a giant chase story with a lot of action beats. I think it worked pretty well, all in all. I also think I’m able to craft a few good moments of grotesqueness, which my short story Consumption is all about.
I admit I haven’t read Consumption, but if the grotesqueness is anything like the action scenes in Convergence, then it’s probably pretty darn gross. I think we are all aspiring to Steven King levels of characterization, but you do a pretty darn fine job of it in your short story Revolver which was featured in Lucas Bales’ No Way Home Anthology.
You’ve talked about Revolver, and the reception it’s received, in other places so we won’t go into details here, but for you readers at home looking for a good human interest story, you’d do well to pick up a copy.
How has the act of writing changed (or not changed) in the years since you first began?
I’ve learned to put an increased focus on the characters over the plot. While both are important, it’s the characters that really carry the weight of it all right on their shoulders. You need that solid foundation to build a good relationship between the book and its readers. I’ve grown much more conscious of this over my succession of releases.
*cough Revolver cough*
Tell us a bit about your story creating process. Do you plot or just go by the seat of your Daisy Dukes?
More pantser than plotter, but it’s sort of a mixed bag in terms of creating. I’ll get an itch for a particular story, and as it grows in my head I typically know the beginning, middle, and end. What comes in between those acts is usually a mystery and I end up pantsing my way through them, building scenes to get from point A to B to C, making stuff up on the fly. I like to let the story unfold on its own, for the most part, and nudge it along when necessary. I welcome coming across those unplanned surprises that the story has in store for me, or seeing characters connect in ways I hadn’t previously imagined. I like to leave a lot of room for discovery along the way.
One of the great joys of being a writer is seeing your word-babies grow up and go about their lives, indifferent to your wants, wishes, and desires. Stupid word-babies.
What’s the game plan moving forward?
Ultimately, and this is no doubt true of every writer, the plan is to be self-sufficient and make writing my sole source of income. Although it takes up a good deal of my time and most of the real estate in my brain, I’m not at the point yet where I can say this is my full-time job. I’m still going day-to-day as an office drone, but am planning on annual releases for the foreseeable future, or more if time allows.
Quick, take a look around. What’s lying around on your desk? Anything incriminating? Don’t worry, we’ll wait while you dispose of the evidence.
An outdated Mac laptop and several external hard drives devoted to iTunes files and photography. All the fun stuff is on the bookshelves, which are piled with FunkoPop figures.
Are you still using Scrivener, by the way? If so, how’s that working out? If not, what the hell!?
I am! I like Scrivener quite a bit, actually, but there’s so much stuff to wrap my head around in it and figure out what I need or don’t need. I recently finished a DRMR short story (which, for those that don’t know, is the ‘world’ I write typically write in and is the basis for my novels Convergence and Emergence) that is slated to appear in the upcoming Cyborg Chronicles anthology, and wrote that entirely in Scrivener. I’m now trying to get into the ins and outs of compiling a story into an ebook for the solo release of my short story Revolver, but there’s a bit of back and forth there with how I want it to look versus how Scrivener is producing it. Once I get that sorted out, though, it should be released soon thereafter. Mass Hysteria is becoming a joint effort between Microsoft Word and Scrivener, depending on what computer I’m writing on at the time.
Your favorite author calls tomorrow, says he/she wants to collaborate with the one and only Michael Patrick Hicks. Who is calling and what sort of story do the two of you write?
This is a tough one. I’ve already gotten to collaborate with a number of great authors between the anthologies curated by Lucas Bale and the upcoming Cyborg Chronicles from Samuel Peralta. As you might have guessed from an earlier answer, Stephen King is my favorite author, and if he ever calls me to collaborate on a project, I don’t give a damn what it is. I’m saying yes, no questions asked.
With your Horror/Sci-Fi background, I suppose that’s not too surprising. When you two are done writing a best-seller, send him my way. I have a really good Children’s Horror story I think would do well in the 5-8 age group.
Alright, if you recall, earlier I admitted to being from the future. I’m pleased to tell you that you’ve been inducted into the Writing Hall of Fame (yes, there is actually such a thing). What do you think they said about you and your legacy/career?
That I am amazing and not only redefined, but breathed new life, into the science fiction and horror genres. Because, really, what else are they going to say if I’ve made it into the Writing Hall of Fame!? And any rumors about me illegally doping to get that far are just that, rumors and fabrications. It’s all part of a smear campaign, I tell you!
Due to right-wing political pressures (as a direct result of Revolver) there was, unfortunately, an asterisk added to your name in the history books. Sorry, looks like you’ll never outlive those doping charges now.
Besides that asterisk, what do you resent most about writing?
All those nasty voices in my head constantly demanding things, sometimes very awful things. And not having nearly as much time as I would like to follow through on executing those demands with hands on the keyboard.
I’d ask you what sorts of awful things, but you write Horror, and I’m not so sure I want to know.
So instead let’s talk about safety lines. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that line, or description, that’s always cropping up in your stories. Come clean, spill the beans, let’s air that laundry.
I try to excise as many of them as I can during the edit stage, but I’ve noticed an odd reliance on the word “blossoming” or “blooming” and their derivatives in describing things. Blood blooms, memories blossom, ancient monsters blossom their way out of some unfortunate’s chest cavity. It’s become a strange crutch word that I need to be careful about and has joined the list of other filler words such as like, just, it was… I have no idea how or why I’ve latched on to it recently, but there you go. Writing’s funny like that.
“Blossom” is such a great word, and it looks funny. Bonus points.
Okay, I’ve taken up far too much of your time. Any parting words? Stories? Jokes? Humorous anecdotes? Or feel free to pimp whatever you’d like in the space below. No seriously, go hog-wild!
Thanks for the interview, Anthony! It was fun, man, and much appreciated.
If you haven’t heard by now, let me go ahead and throw a moist newspaper at your face: I’m contributing content over at SF Signal.
It’s a big deal for me, because the folks over there have been putting out quality work for a long, long time now.
What’s that mean for us over here at OneLazyRobot? Oh, not much really. You’ll still get an unhealthy dose of my antics, but now, if it tickles your fancy, you can now pop over to SF Signal and get more.
*Warning: Do not exceed the daily recommended dose of Me.*
So, what are you waiting for? Head over there and check out the first article I wrote for them. It’s all about People of Color and books and unicorns (minus that unicorn part. that was a bald-faced lie). What’s not to love.
Ah, the sidekick. An oft overlooked, but (if done properly) ever present force for your storytelling good. When I wrote Cheating Your Way To Likable Characters, I talked a bit about how giving your main character a friend is one of the most important things you can do in establishing your main character’s likability. A good friend/sidekick can be one of the most important/valuable tools you keep hidden in your storytelling toolbox.
When used correctly they help establish tone, backstory, subtle infodumping, and opportunity for banter/dialogue. Think back on the old Adam West era Batman and Robin. Surely this ranks as one of the hokiest shows of all time, but the relationship between Batman and Robin serves to illustrate almost all of the aforementioned points.
Robin is sort of slow on the uptake, which means Batman is constantly explaining things to him (and by extension, the viewer). Robin sets Batman up for all sorts of witty quips which adds a layer of comedic relief to what could be considered (if not for all the KAPOW! cut scenes) dramatic/intense scenes.
In a lot of classic stories the MC is significantly cooler than the sidekick. I mean, just the title sidekick is, if not derogatory, then certainly demeaning. But that’s not always the case. In fact, in recent years there has been a reversal of roles. By that, I mean the sidekicks start off the story significantly more awesome than our MC. As the story progresses, and the main character grows in terms of skill, ability, and confidence, the power relationship undergoes an inversion.
A good way to think about this is as follows:
In the beginning we relate to the MC, but we want to be the sidekick.
No, I’m not talking about Batman and Robin anymore. I’m talking Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Neo and Trinity.
Consider Han and Luke. When we meet Han Solo, he is a rough and tumble, roguishly good looking, quick with the quips sort of bad-ass.
Luke on the other hand spends the first half of the movie whining, learning not to stab himself with a lightsaber, and pretty much trying his hardest not to get in everybody’s way.
By the end of the series, Han hasn’t evolved much, however. He becomes a better person, sure. But in terms of skill and ability, there isn’t much of an arc there. Luke, by comparison, goes from a limp-wristed farm hand to a Force wielding sociopath (or something, I’m not remembering very clearly how the whole series ended. Pretty sure Luke does some father killing, yes?).
So throughout the story we relate to Luke, because he’s flaunting levels of ineptitude we’d all probably find ourselves in possession of–
–but secretly we want to be Han.
Of course, that relationship changes over time. If it doesn’t, then I hate to break it to you, but your MC might be lame-sauce.
Alright, let’s reinforce the point by using the example of Neo and Trinity from the Matrix. We relate to Neo, after all he is the everyman quite literally granny-tossed down the rabbit hole. In the first Matrix (the only one really worth watching, by the way) he spends the first 3/4 of the movie getting his ass kicked by every dude and dudette sporting a blazer or leather duster.
Lord, bless his soul, he tries, but sometimes being the One isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Luckily we have characters like Trinity who swoop in to save the day with their repeated bad-assery. Trinity isn’t exactly a fount of personality, but there’s no denying she’s an ass-kicker in that first movie.
By the end of the Matrix, though, Trinity hasn’t really changed much. Sure, her candy-coated exterior of I-don’t-give-a-fuck has been cracked, but she’s not significantly more capable than in the beginning of the movie when she’s handing out naps to a building full of cops.
Neo, by contrast, stops motherfriggin’ bullets.
It would be reverse hyperbole to say he hasn’t come very far in terms of skill and ability. What do they call that? Understatement? Hm… seems like there should be a cooler word for that.
Point is, we start the movie relating to Neo, but wishing we were like Trinity.
Sidekicks such as Trinity and Han Solo give our MC’s a pedestal for which to aim. If you’re writing a story with this sort of relationship, then you need to be thinking about slowly inverting the power discrepancy.
Seriously, if I get to the end of your story, and the sidekick is still cooler than your MC, I’m gonna be extraordinarily pissed at you mainly because it’ll have felt like we were following the wrong character.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Watson and Sherlock Holmes serve as a good counterpoint. Watson is our Point-of-View character, but Sherlock is the protagonist. An argument could therefore be made that Sherlock is in fact Watson’s sidekick. That makes Sherlock either a really cool sidekick, or Watson a really lame MC, depending on your perspective.
Another example would be Sam and Frodo. Personally, I always thought Sam was way cooler than Frodo. Less whining, more doing.
(This example is weird, because it doesn’t really go through a power inversion.Ultimately Frodo can’t take much responsibility for the completion of his quest. Then again, I’m a Frodo hater, so take my words with a grain of salt).
One of my favorite sidekicks in recent cinema was Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy. Part of that could be the fact he is a super-intelligent, rocket wielding Raccoon, which is pretty much the definition of awesome. (Seriously, check the dictionary. I’m not kidding.)
At the beginning of the story he is saving the day, breaking the team out of prison, and doing all the heavy mental lifting. We sort of want to be like Rocket (fluffy and with a tail), not Starlord who strikes us as sort of a screw-up. The relationship undergoes a power-inversion, however, and by the end, Starlord is saving the galaxy and getting the nod as team leader.
Anyways, I cooked all of this up during my last meth-dream, so take from it what you will. Juts some observations about character relationships and how you can use them to subvert/exceed reader expectations. Think about playing with it in your own fiction. See how deep you can go with it.
Now, do me a favor, prance on over to the comments page and tell me about some of your favorite hero/sidekick relationships. There’s no rush, but seriously, do it now.
Today’s topic is extra-super important so why don’t you butt-scoot a bit closer, take your earbuds out, put the phone and curling iron down, and listen up; we’re talking Dialogue today.
Before we dive in elbows deep in storytelling ichor, let’s do a little group visualization. Think back on the last really good movie you saw. For the sake of this group exercise I’m going to use Avengers 2, which is nowhere near as good as the first Avengers, but works well for this example.
Now, say what you will about the overall quality of Avengers 2, something we can all agree on is that the dialogue was excellent (if you can’t agree to those terms then you just butt-scoot on out of here, I can’t help you). This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s seen Firefly or Buffy The Vampire Slayer; in terms of dialogue, there are few people in the business who do it better than Whedon.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out this clip from Avengers: Age of Ultron and then let’s dissect it to get to the delicious, juicy innards of why it’s so good. (Note: You can stop at about the :50 mark. No need to finish out the whole video unless you really, really want to.)
I think it’s Jim Butcher that originally put me onto this, but people tend to speak in 5 word sentences. This left me scratching my head in puzzlement, for surely that had to be too few words. Right?
Well, let’s go to the tape and do a bit of math. In the clip there are 14 exchanges with 18 distinct sentences. The word length breakdown for those sentences is as follows:
2 words – 3
3 words – 2
4 words – 3
5 words – 3
6 words – 2
7 words – 2
8 words – 1
9 words – 1
13 words – 1
Average word count per sentence – 5.2
Huh, well would you look at that; Butcher might have been onto something after-all. Consequently that 5.2 average is skewed by the one outlying sentence of 13 words which Ultron uses as a mini-monologue, a tactic Whedon uses to point out the inherent flaw and silliness of monologues. If we remove that 13 word sentence, the average drops down to 4.8.
What’s the take away from this? Well, in my experience, new writers get way too word heavy in their dialogue. Bogging it down in all sorts of useless words that bring the conversation to a crawl.
Useless Words in Dialogue
Want an example of useless words? Contractions and monosyllabic expressions of wonderment.
Examples: Huh? Oh! Ah! Uh. <– these have a time and a place. That time and place is not in every sentence.
“But Anthony,” you whimper, “People use discourse markers 6-10% in regular everyday speech. Here, let me cite my source.”
Alright, true. These monosyllabic expressions are commonly referred to as discourse markers, and they serve a purpose in everyday speech, you’re right. But here’s the problem: Everyday speech is boring as hell.
Don’t believe me? Go to the coffee shop and spend thirty minutes listening to strangers. Pay really close attention to what, and how, they’re speaking, and you’ll soon come to the startling realization that we all sound like jibbering orangutans on Adderol.
Dialogue in stories shouldn’t reproduce everyday speech. If it did, we’d all stop reading. Good dialogue should distill everyday speech into its punchiest, most poignant iteration.
Notice in the Avengers clip, there’s only one discourse marker in the entire thing. Relying too heavily on these doesn’t make your dialogue sound more natural, it introduces too many starts and stops and makes me angry. Stop sprinkling these into your story like glitter at the Gay Pride parade.
Okay, so remember when I said imitating real life speech is bad? Now, allow me to completely contradict myself. Contractions in dialogue are your best friend.
Example: “What is going on over there.” 6 words that could be magically refined to five by contracting “What” and “is” into the magically scrumptulescent “What’s”.
Barring formal occasions, people mostly speak in contractions. Refusing to contract your words in dialogue adds a stilting effect because it strikes the reader’s subconscious as unnatural.
That’s not to say you should never use contractions, however. Sometimes it adds a layer of character development. Thor, for example, doesn’t contract his words because he’s from hoighty-toighty Asgard.
So cut out the useless words. Check. Next?
In that Avengers clip, there are 6 characters and each of them gets a line. Why is this important?
You can highlight the importance of certain characters in a scene by how much they speak. Tony Stark and Ultron are the two main players here, so they speak the most, but the other characters are not just spear-carriers so they get lines too.
This is especially important when your medium for storytelling is the written word. If a big conversation is taking place on the page between two characters, but there are six present, we are likely to forget the four people not speaking. Bad news, because when the action starts, and Thor MC-Hammer smashes Quicksilver, the reader is likely to pause and say to themselves, “Wait, where’d Thor and Quicksilver come from?”
Spread the love, involve all your characters in the scene and not only will you have much better dynamics, you’ll be less likely to confuse the ever-loving hell out of your reader.
I’m Picking Up What You’re Putting Down
One of the most common mistakes I see new writers commit is having their characters constantly repeating what the other character just said.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“I’m not kidding you, I’m serious. Brenda was caught making out with a basketball behind the bleachers.”
“A basketball behind the bleachers? No way. I refuse to believe it.”
“Believe it or not, it’s true.”
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Ah, that Anthony, using hyperbole again.” I wish that were the case, but I see conversations like this all the time.
Starting your sentences by repeating the last thing the other character just said is born from lack of confidence on the author’s part. We don’t trust the readers to recall what was previously said, so we repeat it for them. Not only is talking down to the reader like this annoying and patronizing, it waters down your dialogue.
Let’s return to the Avengers example:
Iron Man– “Ah, Junior. You’re gonna break your old man’s heart.”
Ultron– “If I have to.”
Thor– “Nobody has to break anything.”
Ultron– “Clearly you’ve never made an omelet.”
Iron Man – “He beat me by one second.”
Notice how this entire exchange hinges on the inciting sentence “break your old man’s heart” which the other characters then run with, breaking off on tangents without ever repeating the original line.
Let’s rewrite the exchange in the style of a new writer to get an idea of how somebody less dialogue savvy than Whedon might handle the situation.
Iron Man – “Ah, Junior. You’re gonna break your old man’s heart.”
Ultron – “I’ll break your heart if I have to.”
Thor – “Nobody has to break anything.”
Ultron – “Nobody has to break anything? Clearly you’ve never made an omelet.”
Iron man – “He beat me to the omelet joke by one second.”
See how much more that sucks? Now, you might be screaming at your computer, “But Anthony, I don’t do that! I swear!”
But you do. I promise. We’re all guilty of it. Now it’s time to kick the habit. Go through your dialogue and find all the places where you’re character is rehashing a previous line, and then cut it. Trust your reader to follow the strands of conversation as they get tangled and untangled.
Technical Writing Aspect of Dialogue
Okay, we’re going to step away from the Avengers example for now (though we could dissect that thing for days) and focus on some of the nitty-gritty details of writing dialogue.
This is simple: Only use said or asked. Occasionally you can throw in a shout or whisper for good measure, but jeepers does that need to be kept to a minimum.
New writers get all willy-nilly with their speech tags, throwing exclaimed, exonerated, shrieked, bellowed, whimpered and who knows what else into their dialogue. Cut them. You don’t need them. Said and asked are invisible, meaning the reader glosses over them. Those other speech tags hog tie the reader, and you never want to do that without written consent.
Clarify Who’s Speaking
You’d be surprised by how few he saids, she saids the reader needs to keep dialogue straight. That’s not to say that you do away with them entirely, but realize that one speech tag every few exchanges goes a long ways.
Even better than a speech tag is what we’ll call an action tag. Meaning you imply who’s speaking based on an action.
For example, you could say:
“Somebody poisoned the water hole,” Woody said.
Or you could say:
Woody spat out the water, spraying Buzz in his unthinkable face. “Somebody poisoned the water hole.”
When to Clarify
If your character is about to launch into a paragraph of speech, then as a rule of thumb you want to define who’s doing the speaking either at the very beginning, or really close to the beginning.
“And then Jenna went to the Jamba Juice stand and got a slushy. She drank it all and didn’t even share. I mean, come on, I picked her up from her mom’s house and drove her there, the least she could do is share,” Derek said.
See how I dropped the speech tag at the very end there? That’s worse than useless because it either confirms what we already know about who is doing the speaking (in which case it’s superfluous) or it’s highlighting the fact that we thought it was somebody else talking (in which case we’re now confused and rereading the paragraph with this new information in mind).
Better would be to throw that speech tag earlier:
“And then Jenna went to the Jamba Juice stand and got a slushy,” Derek said. “She drank it all and didn’t even share. I mean, come on, I picked her up…” You get the idea.
Wrong: “She left without me?” Derek asked angrily.
Right: “She left without me?” Derek slammed his fist onto the table.
Never tell us what your character is feeling. Show us.
Alright, well … as you can tell, dialogue is pretty important, and if we wanted, we could go on talking about this one subject indefinitely. Unfortunately, I’m hungry, and that bowl of cereal isn’t going to put itself in my mouth, so I’m out of here.
Before you leave, however, why don’t you head over to the comments and share with us some of your favorite examples of good (or bad) dialogue.
It’s been a bit since my last review. Blame that on the fact that I’ve been reading a butt-load of non-fiction recently. Or on the fact that I just haven’t felt like posting any reviews on account of the fact that a lot of the books I’ve read in the last few months have given me questionable feelings in one way or another.
I’m trying to exercise that old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then learn to pantomime.”
Anyways, I finally read a book that left me with warm and tingly feelings (which could be a sign of congenital heart failure or of a really good book. I’m going to the doctor later this week so we’ll know for sure. Stay tuned).
I was listening to a podcast featuring Max Gladstone a few weeks back. He was chatting about fencing, getting bucked off horses in Mongolia, and his series of books called The Craft Sequence. In that chat, and on his blog, he talked a bit about storytelling as a craft. I scampered away from that interview betting I could learn a thing or two from this guy.
So I pilfered a short story he wrote for Tor.com called A Kiss With Teethand gave that the old eyeballing. I wasn’t disappointed. Gladstone has writing chops, but perhaps more interesting than that was his unique take on vampires (a subject which has recently been beaten to death with a blunt stake).
That short story just goes to show something I’ve known for quite awhile, but bears repeating: You can take any subject matter, no matter how played out or boring or cliche or trite or whatever, and make it interesting, fresh, and original. Sure, it takes an amount of effort that might be better spent on curing cancer, but hey, I like to think this sort of innovation is curing the storytelling cancer currently plaguing popular literature.
Anyways, after being pleasantly impressed with Gladstone’s short story, I went on a hunt to pick up the first book in his Craft Sequence, Three Parts Dead. Problem is, I couldn’t find it. Anywhere.
I went to seven different bookstores spread across three different states. No luck.
Well, needless to say, I was pretty bummed. Mostly on account of the fact that the covers for Gladstone’s books are pretty damn rad.
Oh well, c’est la vie.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Craft Sequence is that the stories are set within that a larger story arc, but reading the stories in order of publication isn’t strictly necessary. So it was with this in mind that I snatched up the second book when Amazon offered it up like a crack dealer fronting the first bump. Just a little taste to set the hook. And damn if it didn’t work.
In fact, now that I think about it, there are quite a few similarities between the two stories. That can either be a good thing, or a bad thing. In this case, it’s a good thing, ’cause both stories are awesome.
I hate summarizing other people’s stories. Inevitably I leave something out, get a name wrong, or gloss over a subplot that is actually the main plot but I was smoking peyote and not paying very close attention so I completely missed the point. Anyways, I’m not going to do Max any disservice by trudging through an in-depth summary for ya’ll.
Instead I’ll just sprinkle a couple story nuggets into your fishbowl and you can take it or leave it.
First, in this world there are gods. Well, there used to be. But then the Craft’s Dudes and Dudettes came and killed them. This is an awesome launching off point. One of my biggest gripes is the fact that Two Serpents Rise doesn’t really explain how Craft works, who the CraftPeeps are or where they came from, but my gut tells me this is covered in one of the preceding books. It didn’t detract from the story in any meaningful sort of way, but it also didn’t add anything.
Some people won’t be able to get over that, which I understand. Maybe pick up the first book in the Sequence where this is *probably* dealt with more.
Anyways. Dead gods, check.
Now, the truly innovative thing Gladstone does in this story, is he uses those gods as an economic driver. God of rain provides the water for this desert city. Or at least, he did, before the Craftees killed him. So the Craftmen and women get together and form Concerns to keep the city running with their magic just like the power or water company.
What we end up getting are two very different sides of the same coin. On the one, we have magic and gods. On the other, we have a guy working for what effectively boils down to the power company. This dichotomy between fantastical and mundane makes for a world that should feel completely foreign (what with the water dragons and gods running about) and makes them familiar.
There’s also a lot of whizz-bang-boom sort of action, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. For the most part these are done really well, with only a few occasions forcing me to take a second or third read through to get the gist of what was happening.
Character development is the most important aspect of any story, right? Well, most of the time. Two Serpents Rise is no exception. There is a shiny veneer of magic coating the story, but at it’s core, this is a story about a guy working an office job he doesn’t really love, with a father who is…complicated, and a girlfriend who is more bad-ass than him. Gladstone does a pretty good job juggling all this.
I say pretty good because for whatever reason I didn’t latch onto the main characters plight as much as I could have. For some reason he just didn’t do it for me. I’m not so sure this is a defect in the writing as much as it is a personal thing on my part.
Only way to know for sure is to pick up Two Serpents Rise and then stop back over here and tell me why I’m wrong. Or right. I definitely like hearing about how I’m right!