JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

My Review of “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett

Feb
23

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld, #38; Tiffany Aching, #4)I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t really like this book as much as some of the other Discworld novels. Of course, dislike is a relative thing–not liking a Discworld book is very different from not liking, say, a Stephen King book.

This novel has a very straightforward, linear plot. The easiness of this book is certainly due to its younger target audience. I found the climax to be rather anti-climatic, an event that just sort of happens as other things happen. Tiffany manages to defeat the threat that follows her through the entire book a bit too easily. This devalues the prior tension quite a bit. The relationship “twist” at the end is rather expected, but I was delighted to see it happen nonetheless. I would have been rather mad if Pratchett turned away from the implied romance, though was happy it wasn’t stuffed into the core narrative.

I find Pratchett is at his best when the plots are complex, the story is scattered and even a bit confusing at the start. The best books start out with you wondering for a bit what exactly is going on, but at the end all the threads come together. The Watch novels are probably the best example. This book lacks in such complexity.

Even so, the book does have some interesting things to say. Pratchett always uses his books to examine and satirize the real world. This is one of the things that makes his work so enduring. In that case of I Shall Wear Midnight, Pratchett digs at power relationships, hierarchy, and the concept of duty. At its center is the question of what it means to be a witch, and where such a person (or any person) falls into the established order. This question takes up most of Tiffany’s time, and results in the most relevant satire in the work.

In general, a decent book but more appropriate for the clear young adult target audience than for someone like myself. Not in my top ten of the Discworld novels, but a good effort.

View all my reviews

Sun-shaded Self — 3LineTales

Feb
23
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photo by Daniel Garcia

Yellow was the color of the fiery sun; it was his color–or her color. He was no longer clear on which it should be. He was Apollo, god(ess) of the sun and charioteer(ess?) of the sky, after all; what did it matter the form she took?

*Written as a response to the Three Line Tales Week 108 photo prompt.

Author’s Note: I had not planned to do something gender-norm subversive, it just came to me. The brilliant yellow in the photo screamed “Apollo” to me, but those legs were clearly, at least to me, female. The rest simply followed that train of thought. As I understand, Apollo was not the original sun-charioteer. That was Helios, a titan rather than Olympian god. But the later poets eventually blended the two. That’s good enough for my purposes here.

In Memoriam–3LineTales

Feb
19

The display was a secret code, a hidden lamentation right there at the corner of his desk. Two books representing two camps, three roses for three like-hearted comrades. And the spools of thread…those were for the prisoners he had failed to save.

*Written as a response to the Three Lines Tales Week 107 photo prompt.

The Problems with Quirky Dialogue Tags

Feb
17
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This is just bad advice. Said will never be dead, because said is better writing.

I saw this image come across my Facebook feed the other day and felt it would make a good little writing post. There were a lot of comments on the post, and even the ones that argued against fancy dialogue tags didn’t seem to understand why that was an important rule.

While it is important to know the rules of writing (or any other activity), it is equally important to know why the rules are important. If you don’t understand the why, you might get duped into following a bad rule (such as “said is dead”). Also if you don’t understand the rule, you won’t know when it is appropriate to break the rule.

I have worked with writers and editors who have learned the rules, but did not understand them. One editor called me out for my use of adverbs in a flash story (there were only 7 in the whole piece!) without considering and recognizing that there was no alternative language to be used in their stead (how else would you describe an animal “slowly rising to its feet”?). In order to use our words at their best, we have to understand the reasoning behind the writing rules we follow.

In this case, some of the commenters mentioned one of the reasons why complex dialogue tags should be avoided: it can be jarring, can draw the reader out of the POV. Often times the use of “said” becomes invisible, the reader only noticing the who and not the how.

But there is a more fundamental problem with these dialogue tags, one that I have often seen in writing I have edited and reviews. It is the same fundamental problem with adverbs behind the rule to avoid them as well, especially -ly adverbs and especially in conjunction with dialogue tags. The problem is they are usually unnecessary.

Good writing is that which examines each and every word, forcing each to earn its place in the prose. Redundancy and over explanation should be avoided when at all possible. There are two ways that dialogue tags become unnecessary and unwanted: 1) they are redundant, 2) they tell rather than show.

In the first case, complex dialogue tags are often unnecessary, or should be unnecessary. There is no need to use the word “shouted” if the dialogue is “Get off my lawn!”–the exclamation point and what is being said tells the reader this is being shouted. So any extra dialogue tag is unwarranted. The best way to convey a sense of how something is being said, is to write the dialogue in a manner that will show this. Instead of “stuttered,” you can write it into the dialogue–“I-I D-don’t n-n-know.” Same with things like “huffed” or “stammered”–try “I…didn’t…see…where he went,” she said, struggling to catch her breath. Good writing should convey the meaning inherent in the tag in the dialogue itself, rendering it redundant.

Which leads to the second issue, telling instead of showing. Telling the reader that the character “fumed” doesn’t actually show anything. You are telling the reader, “this character feels angry,” and generally speaking, it is better to show emotion. Instead of “I hate this!” he fumed, try “I hate this!” he said, throwing the book hard into the ground. Give your reader a tangible action to witness, if it is important to call any attention to emotions or  behavior. (It typically isn’t, as the dialogue should carry the tone mostly without actions. Nothing is worse than having an action after every line of dialogue.)

Lastly, some of these are simply not dialogue tags. A person cannot physically laugh, giggle, or grunt out words. That is contrary to what these words mean.  If you want to show a character laughing in conjunction with a statement, that requires a separate sentence. Not “You look like you’ve been having quite a day,” he laughed–but rather “You look like you’ve been having quite a day.” He laughed. That is the only logical way to use such verbs, based on their very definitions. Also, thinking tags such as thought, wondered, or pondered are not speaking and thus cannot replace said, as this chart seems to suggest. That’s just silly.

I think there are a lot of writers out there who are hell-bent on doing things their way, rules be damned. Indeed some of the comments on the Facebook post were along the lines of “Even famous writers break the rules, so what do they matter, and who are these academics to tell me what to do.” That’s a fine attitude to have, if you don’t care whether you’ll be published or not.

Yes, established writers do break the rules. But often it is because they know how to break the rules because they understand the reasoning behind the rules. And of course, any writer or editor cannot catch every mistake. This is not the same as it not being a mistake. And this does not mean an amateur writer can get away with the same behavior.

A new writer is under much greater scrutiny than a veteran. All you are doing, by using flamboyant dialogue tags in your writing, is throwing up red flags and giving editors an excuse to reject you. Don’t do it.

Of course, like any rule, there are times when this one should be broken. Maybe you’re short on space, or the dialogue just can’t convey the exact meaning you want. There are times when a more meaningful alternative might be appropriate (but never quaked, belted, requested, or numerous other bad examples in this list). Like with adverbs, you should consider carefully each and every violation of the rule, ensuring it is justified (you should, in fact, be doing this with every single word in your prose, but we are all only human).

Well, those are my thoughts. I hope they help you improve your writing. I know thinking about these sorts of things helps mine!

Thanks for reading.

~JM

Some Quotes from Discworld 38–Pratchett Talks Power

Feb
14
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38th Discworld Novel

I am currently enjoying Terry Pratchett’s 38th novel set on the Discworld, I Shall Wear Midnight. This is the fourth Tiffany Aching witch novel and, so far, is doing a decent job of further developing that character.

I don’t really like this book as much as some of the other Discworld novels. Of course, dislike is a relative thing–not liking a Discworld book is very different from not liking, say, a Stephen King book. This novel has a very straightforward, linear plot. I find Pratchett is at his best when the plots are complex, the story is scattered and even a bit confusing at the start. The best books start out with you wondering for a bit what exactly is going on, but at the end all the threads come together. The Watch novels are probably the best example. The easiness of this book is certainly due to its younger target audience.

Even so, the book does have some interesting things to say. Pratchett always uses his books to examine and satirize the real world. This is one of the things that makes his work so enduring. In that case of I Shall Wear Midnight, Pratchett digs at power relationships, hierarchy, and the concept of duty.

Regarding power relationships and protocol, there’s this humorous passage about arranging the meal table at the castle for a significant event:

And then there would always be the problem of seating. Most of the guests would be aristocrats, and it was vitally important that no one had to sit next to somebody who was related to someone who had killed one of their ancestors at some time in the past. Given that the past is a very big place, and taking into account the fact that everybody’s ancestors were generally trying to kill everybody else’s ancestors, for land, money or something to do, it needed very careful trigonometry to avoid another massacre taking place before people had finished their soup.

I just love how he points out the absurdity of holding on to past legacies and past grievances. Go back far enough and you can find justification for anything.

Here’s another funny passage:

There is a lot of folklore about equestrian statues, especially the ones with riders on. There is said to be a code in the number and placement of the horse’s hooves: if one of the horse’s hooves is in the air, the rider was wounded in battle; two legs in the air means that the rider was killed in battle; three legs in the air indicates that the rider got lost on the way to the battle; and four legs in the air means that the sculptor was very, very clever. Five legs in the air means that there’s probably at least one other horse standing behind the horse you’re looking at; and the rider lying on the ground with his horse lying on top of him with all four legs in the air means that the rider was either a very incompetent horseman or owned a very bad-tempered horse.

It is important to not here that Pratchett attributes this idea to “folklore” or what “is said to be a code” rather than delivering it as a certain fact, as he often does with funny details of life in the Discworld. It is clearly a conscious choice.  I think what he is getting at here is the ability of people to read meaning into things separate from any real truth or established fact. When you think of it logically, how could every artist in the world that ever sculpted a horse be in on this secret code? They couldn’t. But people believing in some hidden conspiracy in horse statues is quite possible.

And here’s one last bit that gets deeper on personal relationships and the ideas of duty and loyalty:

When Mr Aching had worked for the old Baron, they had, as men of the world, reached a sensible arrangement, which was that Mr Aching would do whatever the Baron asked him to do. Provided the Baron asked Mr Aching to do what Mr Aching wanted to do and needed to be done.

That was what loyalty meant, her father [Mr Aching, Tiffany’s father] had told her one day. It meant that good men of all sorts worked well when they understood about rights and duties and the dignity of everyday people. And people treasured that dignity all the more because that was, give or take some bed linen, pots and pans and a few tools and cutlery, more or less all they had. The arrangement didn’t need to be talked about, because every sensible person knew how it worked: while you’re a good master, I will be a good worker.

I will be loyal to you, while you are loyal to me, and while the circle is unbroken, this is how things will continue to be. And Roland was breaking the circle, or at least allowing the Duchess to do it for him. His family had ruled the Chalk for a few hundred years, and had pieces of paper to prove it. There was nothing to prove when the first Aching had set foot on the Chalk; no one had invented paper then.

Rulers try to claim ancient roots to defend their right to rule, but most are just momentary regimes in the larger scheme of things. It is the people who have true roots in the land, who have community and history, continuity.

Here is also an important lesson on leadership, relevant even in the modern age–“while you’re a good master, I will be a good worker.” A respected leader is one who offers respect in return. And a respected leader will always be more productive. Regardless of the rigidity of a hierarchy, there will always be a little back-and-forth between leaders and the led. Those on the bottom have as sense of what should happen, and if it doesn’t, there will be discord. Good leadership and proper rule is that which synchronizes the two ends of the rope, binding them into the “circle” as Pratchett describes it. Bad leaders break the circle and damage the relationship.

Well, that’s it for now. I still have about a quarter of the book to finish and will offer my final thoughts at that time. If you haven’t read a Discworld novel before, I strongly urge you to give one a try. The best place to start, in my mind, would be with Small Gods or Monstrous Regiment, which are two of my favorites and are both stand-alone stories. As many of the Discworld books are part of different series and use recurring characters, it would be best to start with a stand-alone.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

Newsletter Delays

Feb
02

If you’ve been following this blog as of late, you’ll know that I’ve been saying for a couple weeks (few weeks?) that I will soon send out my next newsletter. This will conveniently hit about a three month mark, establishing it as a quarterly, which I think is a good fit for me.

If you’re wondering what’s taking so long, the reason is that I still need to shoot the video. But there is good reason why this part is delayed. I will be making my little video at a special location! Just a little something to reveal a bit about myself and where I live. It’ll be fun, I promise. But I needed a free weekend to do it. Luckily tomorrow is free!

I also want to show you how the print copies of The Adventures of Iric came out. SPOILER ALERT, they came out really nice. I will explain why, and how I did it.

If I shoot the video this weekend, I should have the newsletter out sometime next week. But the only way you’re going to see it, is if you join my little RABBLE! The sign-up is on the right side of the page, or on the pop-up.

On an unrelated note, this morning has been interesting. I’ve got some encouraging news about In the Valley of Magic, that I am just waiting for confirmation for. The book might have finally found a home.

I also read an interesting article by Chuck Wendig about book turn-offs. I am not a fan of Wendig–I tried reading his Star Wars novel and was immediately put off by the narrative voice. But the advice here is good.

Here’s one of my take away quotes:

“If it’s sci-fi, it’s loaded for bear with bewildering sciencey stuff, or if it’s fantasy it’s all funky names with magical apostrophes, or if it’s horror it’s more interested in soaking the pages in raw, red gore and horror tropes. Context is king, yet again. Character is everything. Root me in the character. Make me care. Then layer in the genre elements. It’s like a cake — it’s easy to make icing taste good, but too much of it is gross.” – Chuck Wendig

I’ve peer review a lot of SF/F work that is like this, obsessed with its genre-nature rather than the story and characters. And nothing turns me off from a fantasy story faster than apostrophes everywhere, particularly in the names of main characters and locations. I think a lot of people don’t realize that those things actually have a specific function in Tolkien. The old man was a linguist; he created entire languages from scratch. All those marks have rules. They aren’t just thrown about arbitrarily.

Well, that’s my writing tip for the day. Time to get back to work. Thanks for dropping by!

~JM

Stephen King’s IT — I Just Can’t

Feb
01

it-book-cover

Failure sucks. When you set a goal for yourself, it can be disheartening to not reach it, no matter the circumstances. I have mentioned on this blog for several months now, I think, that I was working my way through Stephen King’s IT, one of the favorite stories of my childhood. But I just can’t do it. I can’t go on.

Fourty hours in and I’ve still got three hours left in the audiobook, but I can’t. I know what you’re saying. Only three hours! Just get it done! That’s what I thought two weeks ago when there was only four hours left, and see how that went. Part of me wonders what the hell can be in those last three hours, as the lead characters have already confronted the monster in its lair. What is there that is left to say? Tangents, tangents and more tangents–the most recent one a potty-humor digression about exploding toilets that was as humorous as it was relevant. Meaning not at all. Which is why I am giving up.

IT was my favorite King story since I saw the old TV miniseries starring Tim Curry. I loved the idea of outcast kids banding together to fight a powerful monster, and returning as adults–returning to their childhood in a way–to kill it for good. After being very impressed by King’s writing manual and memoir, On Writing, I decided to dive in. Little could I have know that IT was written well before King learned how to write.

There are too many problems with the text to go into detail here. I was planning to do a thorough review, but I no longer have the patience or desire. Here are just a few of the issues:

  1. In On Writing, King tells us to avoid adverbs as much as possible, particularly in conjunction with dialogue tags. In IT, I would guess a good quarter of all the dialogue tags have adverbs.
  2. The POV and narrative voice is horrible. This book clearly wants to be in limited third-person POV, but King throws in a lot of unnecessary omniscient bits for no clear reason. He also makes some horrible choices of which character’s POV to be in, such as the long-winded section in the beginning from Stan’s wife’s POV, describing this irrelevant woman’s life background when the only important bit of the section is Stan’s suicide. King shows in places a competency to do POV well, using narrative voice to color his villains. However, he is not consistent, and the voice for the protagonists is bland by comparison. Then there is the section from It’s POV which is complete nonsense, since there is no way to relay the point-of-view of an omnipotent evil.
  3. The narration is problematic in many other ways, such as tense. The story has two different threads, one in past tense and one in present. Until suddenly, and without reason, the present tense thread starts being told in past tense. Not only is this incredibly confusing as the narrative begins to jump quickly between past and present, it is also totally illogical, since present time events at the end of the book told in past tense actually occur after earlier events told in present tense. You can’t have past tense events come after present tense events in time, that’s just absurd.
  4. Another, equally problematic issue with the narration is the tendency to go off on tangents that have no real bearing on the immediate story. There are entire chapters that can be removed, without affecting the story at all. The whole second chapter, that deals with characters entirely unrelated to the protagonists, and which comes before we even meet the protagonists, is one example. Another is the entire Patrick Hogsteadder chapter, which only slows down the narrative as it is reaching it’s crisis.
  5. The villains are boring. The places in the narrative where we either get the monster’s POV, or have the monster speak to us, do not help make the creature more interesting. In fact, the opposite is true. The more we know about It, the less terrifying it is. There is something about an unknowable horror that is compelling. On the flip side, the secondary villain, Henry, is boring because he is given no depth. By simply making him crazy, the character falls flat. Much more interesting would be a Henry who feels justified in tormenting the kids, and hunting the adults for payback, due to what he learned from his father as a child. Psychopathy is not necessary, and is rather a hindrance.
  6. The book is blatantly sexist. The treatment of the only female lead in the book is horrible. Despite attempting to show a liberalness to things like racism and sexism, the work falls flat on the latter end. Everything about Beverly is presented, in some way, as related to men, whether it be her father or her husband or her friends. She is given no real agency of her own. Also she is the only character who is sexualized in the book, whether by appearance or description or the situations she finds her self in (such as watching the bully boys masturbate–part of that completely unnecessary Patrick chapter). Another example of the overt sexualization of Beverly is when the adults are in It’s lair, holding hands to send their power to Mike who is under threat in the hospital, it is Beverly who is described as “rolling her head in ecstasy.” This is followed by a comment about orgasms. She is also routinely seen with her shirt open, with numerous comments made about her breasts. When describing her as an eleven or twelve year old. No other character’s sex life is described, but Bev’s is scrutinized. It all becomes clear during the “love scene” between Bill and Bev. Here you realize that she is just a sexual object for King’s own fantasies, acted out through his stand-in Bill, the successful horror writer who critics hate. The comparison could not be more obvious.

Much more could be said, but I just want to be done with it. Maybe someday in the future, I will finish those last hours, so that I can say that I did it, I battled through, but not now.

This whole experience has only gone to show just how much better at storytelling the filmmakers of both versions of IT on video were than King himself. They understood the need to cut all the needless fat (which in the case of the book, I would say is around a third of it), to stick to the main plot, to have a coherent POV and timeline, to not over explain the monster, to not make Henry just a crazy guy, and to respect the female cast, among other things.

Stephen King routinely rants about the criticism he received early in his career, but I see now that it was well deserved. He was not a great writer, not even very good. But he managed to rope an agent or editor in with his first novel Carrie, and from that point on, he was in the club. Merit was no longer required.

This feels horribly unfair, as modern writers will usually only get an agent contract for a single book, and will have to submit again and be subject to the same scrutiny as the first time. And modern writers have to know how to write well, from the very beginning. We have to study and practice. We have to know all that stuff in On Writing, and be able to implement it, before our first noteworthy publication. King didn’t. That sucks.

At it’s core, IT is a great story about childhood, and the power of having an open, inquisitive, childish mind. But the execution fails. For anyone looking for the best version of the story, the 1990 miniseries is the way to go. It is more true to the original concept than the new films, but without all the troubles of the original text.

Well, that’s it. I’ve said my peace and now it’s time to move on. I think I need to jump back into the Discworld for a little while, to recover my sanity.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

I’m getting ready to send out my next newsletter in the coming weeks. I will be including an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

The Furthest Star – 3LineTales

Jan
25

She looks to a sky filled with stars, searching for the one that holds for her the most meaning. It is a distant place, her home, further than she can ever imagine, for she knows not how she ended up here, on this quaint little planet in a backward part of the galaxy–likely an experiment gone wrong, as they tended to go these days. She is lonely, beyond words, to be so far from her children.

*Written as a response for the Three Line Tales Week 104 photo prompt.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

I’m getting ready to send out my next newsletter in the coming weeks. I will be including an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

REBLOG: St. Ursula

Jan
24

Said much better than I could manage, by someone much more familiar with the subject. I just started really digging into sci-fi history in the past year, so I haven’t had a chance to do all the reading that goes with it. Le Guin was at the top of my list. I knew she was important, but seeing how another author was directly affected by her is somehow more significant than book reviews.

Head over and check out Iain Lindsay’s comments.


St. Ursula

A lot of tributes are going to be coming out today, to which I cannot hope to be as eloquent, nor as thoughtful.

I started referring to Ursula Le Guin as St. Ursula a few years ago, perhaps as a nod to her gentle humor and subtle surrealism…

via St. Ursula

Gremlin Noir

Jan
22
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Gremlins, 1984, Warner Bros

All the whiskey in the world can’t drown the sick rat running through my guts. The sweet haze of cigarette smoke fails to obscure the shameful mayhem around me.

A famous frog once said, “It ain’t easy bein’ green.” Oh, he didn’t begin to know the truth of it.

Am I the only one in this bar–besides, of course, the girl serving drinks, trying to keep her skin intact for a few more seconds–that has any sense of propriety?

Besides the drunks laughing at the bar, there’s the idiot with his finger in the model train’s electrical circuit, like a dumb child evolution is trying hard to forget. There’s another fool playing croquet on the pool table, shattering beer bottles and only adding to the mess.

And then there’s Stripe. Just shot a guy at the poker table. Our fearless leader is as unstable as the rest.

I need to get out of here, before these imbeciles take me down with them.

As I am rising from the table, another simpleton accosts me, his hands covered with puppets. I knock him hard to the ground. If he has any sense, he’ll stay there.

Gotta get out.

Behind the bar, there’s a guy in a trench coat flashing the bartender. But he don’t got anything where it matters. I knock him out with a bottle and take the coat. My body might not need covering, but my shame does.

The air is bitter, snow coming down like confetti, marking some great moment that has yet to be realized. Maybe it’s coming soon. The air is thick with potential for disaster. I pull the coat tight around my skinny body and walk away.

My toes crunch into the snow and I wonder why it doesn’t cause a reaction on my skin. Water makes us multiply, but not snow? I need to stay dry. The world doesn’t need any more of those cretins. Maybe my offspring will have more sense? Can’t take the chance.

There’s a pair of boots in the snow nearby. Pink girl’s boots. I slip them on and head down the road, trying not to think what could have happened to their owner.

The mayhem around me subsides as the other gremlins head off in one direction, downtown. Maybe Stripe has something planned. I won’t be part of it. Gotta get out of here.

Within the hour, the center of town booms. Explosive fire, devilish smoke rises up into the night air. I can only hope they were all there when it happened.

I pull my hat down to conceal my face, as sirens and bright lights pass by me. On the edge of town, there’s a flat-bed truck waiting, its engine rumbling. A man tosses a few bags into the back and ushers his family into the cab. Don’t know where they’re going, but anything will be better than this place.

They are leaving. So am I.

THE END

Author’s note: I don’t typically write fanfic, but I just watched Gremlins last night and felt really bad for this guy. He’s just trying to enjoy a quiet smoke and a drink, and everything is going to hell around him. I just had to give him an escape.

If you haven’t seen the film, or don’t remember the bar scene, you can watch it on YouTube.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

~JM

I will soon be sending out my next newsletter, in honor of the new year. It will include an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!