Review: The Devil’s Sword

Several years ago, my former fencing coach gave me his copy of this Douglas E. Richard’s 2009 novel; I could tell by his relieved expression that I was doing him a favor by accepting it. On returning home from practice, I promptly buried the book on my bookshelf, until I finally decided that if I was going to write a novel about fencing, I should probably be familiar with the fencing fiction that’s already out there.

Having completed the novel, I understand why my coach felt it was worthy enough to share, but not keep. The Devil’s Sword is a fast-paced novel, aimed at young readers (not young adult, by any means; the tone is closer to the early Harry Potter novels than The Hate U Give). While the novel is engaging and has some wonderful descriptions of youth fencing, there are several streeeeeeetcher moments, passages which seem too unrealistic even given its genre.

The principal character, Kevin, begins fencing at the age of 12 and finds a sport that provides him with both enjoyment and success. After two years of local competition in San Diego, Kevin travels with his father and two fencing friends to a regional tournament at a military base near Las Vegas. In my years in the sport, I’ve met a lot of young people like Kevin, and their enthusiasm is one of the reasons I find fencing so fascinating. Richards’ novel does an excellent job of describing the rules, training, and tournament structure of the sport, which is why I recommend it for any pre-teen interested in fencing.

Upon arrival at the tournament, Kevin and his companions become involved in a scheme to steal a powerful weapon from the United States government. This parallel plot was added to provide dramatic tension, and given the fantastical nature of youth fiction, a bit of the unbelievable should be tolerated. Yet the would-be thieves, international arms smugglers supposedly too clever and resourceful to be captured by any of the world’s governments, devise a weapon-stealing plan that can best be described as cockamamie, and their execution of that plan is so utterly inept it’s a wonder they haven’t already been caught by Barney Fife or Paul Blart.

A particularly bizarre scene occurs when the thieves, all of whom have military training, first encounter Kevin and his friends by charging into their room with their guns drawn. Kevin responds by thrusting his foil at the lead gunman, who is not only surprised but also disarmed, the foil injuring and nearly breaking his hand. A trained killer being caught off guard by a kid is hard to believe, but can still be accepted given the nature of this genre; using a lightweight weapon with no sharp edge and a flat point not much larger than a nail’s head — a weapon designed exclusively for sport, not combat — to stop a man wielding a gun is such a preposterous notion that its inclusion in this novel seems almost irresponsible. Public Service Announcement: Do not come to a gun fight with a fencing foil.

Fortunately, scenes such as these are eclipsed by the narrative of Kevin’s joyful discovery of the sport of fencing. I’m not sure keeping about keeping this novel on my bookshelf much longer, but I do know plenty of pre-teens at my fencing club who might enjoy giving it a read.

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Fictive Selves

I completely identify with Sophia Whittemore’s post today — sometimes its necessary to insert a bit of yourself into your fiction.

My best characters, the ones who have elicited the strongest reactions from my readers, have been those who display a distinct part of my personality. It’s not always the same quality; I’ve created characters who act the way I do when I’m at my best, and others who’ve displayed qualities I would rather not talk about.

And no, I’m not talking about some kind of personality disorder on my part. All of us behave differently in various circumstances; I was a different person as a son to my parents than I am as husband to my wife, or father to my own sons. Of necessity, I act differently at work than I do while at my fencing club. This isn’t weird — it’s life.

Yet I also strive to give each of my characters their own distinctive personality. When I review my writing and notice a character acting or talking in a way that’s almost autobiographical, I always revise.

My goal is to make my characters seem real to my readers, and the best way to accomplish that task is to weave a little bit of myself into their personalities.

Milestone Checkin

A few months ago, I announced my intention to update the eighth chapter of my fencing novel, Gray Metal Faces, during NaNoWriMo 2018. It’s now past time to report on how that worked out.

Awesome.

Yes, well enough to deserve a one-word paragraph. Italicized, even.

I completed the updates to the eighth chapter weighs on November 30, and after added my work to the draft of the previous seven chapters, I used the consolidated document to validate my results. This means I “won” the NaNoWriMo challenge of fifty thousand words — yeah, it’s supposed to be all original work, and my updated chapter weighed in at “only” 24K words. They say you’re not a cheater if you’re never caught; I say it’s impossible to cheat if nobody ever checks up on you.

At the beginning of December, I took inventory of the novel. Finishing the update to chapter 8 left me with one more chapter still in rough draft format; revising chapter nine would give me a second draft of the entire novel. My annual holiday vacation was coming at the end of the month. Did I really want to devote a good chunk of time during those two and a half weeks to working on that update?

Oh yeah, baby.

It wasn’t easy, and I doubt I’ll ever work on another major writing project during that time — but on January 8, a few hours before my flight back home, I posted the final entry to the chapter 9 revision.

The second draft of Gray Metal Faces is now complete. At over two hundred a five thousand words (a number so large that it must be spelled out in letters), it is far too large to be published as one novel. A number of options are available (cut out a third? separate the nine chapters into three trilogies? market the work as nine novellas?), but I’m not in a rush to deliberate among them.

What I want to do at the moment, is appreciate having reached this milestone. When I began working on this novel almost eight years ago, I had no idea how I could even complete a first draft. Completing this revision was an enormous accomplishment, and for the moment, I am content.

Review: The Children’s Blizzard

This image shows the front cover, which actually does have that cool ragged edge on the right

A book review seems like a great way to resume blogging regularly. At least it does now, so I’m going to write this before I change my mind.

The short prologue to David Laskin’s 2004 book sets the scene — on a January afternoon in 1888, a devastating and swift blizzard swept down the Dakota Territory and reached into the states of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Hundreds of people were killed, many of them children walking home from school, the latter toll giving name to this natural disaster.

These opening pages are followed by a lengthy account of the settlers who populated the upper Midwest in the wake of the post-Civil War Homestead Acts. The meteorological conditions that produced the blizzard are then described with the detail and rhetoric of a scientific report; similar attention is given to the weather forecasting system of the era, which was run largely by the federal government, prone to bureaucratic in-fighting and inefficiency, and failed to give timely warning of the January 1888 storm. The blizzard does not strike until nearly half-way through the book, and while these opening chapters are rich with information (learning about the Fenian Raids of the 1860s was fascinating, even though they had nothing to do with the book’s topic), the pace at times can be ponderous.

But Laskin’s prose picks up momentum when the blizzard sweeps down from the Canadian Rockies, and people literally start running for their lives. The tales of miraculous survival are riveting, and the largely imagined depictions of fatal last steps are given the appropriate amount of pathos. Among the memorable stories is that of eight-year-old Walter Allen, who was picked up along with his school mates by a rescue team at the blizzard’s outset; remembering a cherished bottle he had left behind, Walter ran back into the schoolhouse — and faced an impassible wall of cold wind and snow when he ran back outside. (Spoiler alert: hours later, Walter’s older brother joins a rescue team which somehow finds him.) Laskin’s attention to detail does not falter in this section, as he digresses (for brief moments only, fortunately) on topics such as rewarming shock, a condition that can kill survivors of hypothermia.

Laskin’s writing style is professional and direct, yet he has some memorable passages. He describes the cold air mass accompanying the blizzard as “a glacier of sluggish gas.” An extended explanation of extreme cold’s effect on the body is also noteworthy:

It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily… After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens… A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corners of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.

Quality writing such as this, combined with Laskin’s meticulous research, makes “The Children’s Blizzard” a solid work of non-fiction.

Three Hundred Seventy Two Words, and Not a Sequitur in Sight

[For our holiday party this year, my writing group engaged in a collaborative story exercise. In a scene reminiscent of The Lottery save for the ritual execution, all nine of us drew numbers from a box, and added a paragraph to our effort, which is reprinted in its entirety below. We reserve all North American publication rights; anyone interested in film rights can contact our agent, when we find one.]

As the sun broke through the clouds on this fall day, Katherine rode her bike to school. She met her friends in the hallway before the bell rang.

But as she looked up she saw the disapproving look of Susan. Susan never liked Katherine after the girl came between Susan and Katherine’s father, Fred. Susan had been Fred’s love for the past 3 years.

Susan apparently had never heard the rumors surrounding Fred, or she would never had become involved. Fred was also dating Joyce, a hottie he’d met at the zoo.

But Fred’s main rival for Joyce was Mark — a villainous beast of a man who loved to stalk older librarians, like Susan — who had no idea that Mark was stalking both her and her rival, Joyce.

Meanwhile, Tim had been quietly observing all this debauchery and thought to himself, “This is it… this is the material I need to to finally write my best-selling speculative fiction paranormal romance novel!” Tim locked himself in his closet with his laptop and a two liter of Diet Coke and didn’t come out until he had written 250,000 words — a target word count given to him by his writing critique group friend, Ken. Then he called Ken and asked, “Hey, what’s your best advice on writing a sex scene?”

Ken, who was somewhat of an expert on the subject, knew just what to tell him. First, he advised, don’t rush the scene; take plenty of time; give good descriptions; lots of emotion, tons of emotion, refer to your personal experiences and when in doubt check with your writing group friend Lisa who Joyce had confided in and had told her all about Fred and his best friend Mark.

Lisa came into the room and said, This is all so disgusting, you guys are in elementary school! She then pulled Tim out of his closet, and when Ken came to help him, she shot them both. Katherine then rode her bike to the house where she found the bodies.

Meanwhile, Marlene who is Lisa’s mother called Mark to meet and enjoy each other’s genitalia.

Shaking his head, Aaron put down the manuscript. “There’s two words I never wanted to see in the same sentence — Mark, and genitalia.”

What, Where, and When

Been a while since I’ve posted an update, and I didn’t want anyone to think I’ve disappeared:

  • The update to chapter 8 of Gray Metal Faces should be completed by the end of this year’s NaNoWriMo on Friday. This project has been largely successful, and my progress has inspired me to update the ninth and final chapter in December and January.
  • For the past several months, I’ve been teaching at a community college. Once the semester ends a few weeks from now, I’ll post about my experience there, and explain why I’ve yet to comment on teaching in this blog.
  • My non-fiction writing has been stagnant for far too long, primarily because I’ve been so focused on teaching. I’ll have more to say on that as well in the coming weeks.

Since deciding to trust my instincts, life has been predictably unpredictable. I’m still learning how to make this new life work for me, but I’ve never been more certain about my decision.

Review: All the Missing Girls

In literature, there’s a distinction between concept and gimmick. A concept is an overarching idea or structure that makes a novel unique and memorable, while a gimmick is a cheap hook designed to get the reader’s attention.

Megan Miranda’s 2016 novel has an intriguing structure — after the opening chapters sets the scene, introduces the characters, and presents the complication, the plot then progresses two weeks in reverse, each chapter devoted to the day before its previous. It’s a concept rooted in the philosophical belief, introduced in the novel by a quote from Kierkegaard: life must be understood backwards.

This concept only works if details are presented fairly — in other words, if a character uncovers information in day eight, that character should know that information three chapters earlier in day eleven. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t work in the novel; too many times, I couldn’t help thinking if a character knew what we later learned she already knew, her later actions would be different. In other words, the structure of “All the Missing Girls” is more a gimmick than concept.

Which is unfortunate, because it is an engaging mystery, with characters who are likable because of their flaws. Nicolette, the first-person narrator, struggles to discover the fate of two missing friends while also coming to terms with her own past. The men in her life — her current boyfriend (Everett), former lover (Tyler), and brother (Daniel) — offer their assistance, yet also provide significant obstacles to her search. The author’s metaphors can be memorable at times (“People were like Russian nesting dolls — versions stacked inside the latest edition.”), and her suspenseful scenes are true page-turners. Miranda is a talented author, and I would definitely consider reading her subsequent novels.

I just wish “All the Missing Girls” had been told in a conventional format. Unfortunately, its gimmicky structure is a distraction.

Good and Tired

Made myself get up early on a Sunday and work on my revision of chapter 8. Completed the first of four new scenes that will appear in the middle of that chapter. After I’m done with those, then it’s on to minor revisions of the chapter’s beginning, then major revisions, including one more new scene, to its conclusion.

Yeah, it was hard to drag my ass out of bed this morning, and there’s something to be said for getting adequate rest. But I can’t be afraid of being tired. The image of the leisurely writer, composing at ease while sipping a cool drink, is a dangerous myth that I’ve too easily fallen for. If the only way to make this career work is to be good and tired, then fire up the coffee maker.

NaNoWriMo 2018

For a number of reasons I may (or not) explain at some point, I haven’t been blogging lately. I’m hoping that, with this new fiction project I’m announcing today, I’ll be posting here more often.

For NaNoWriMo 2018, I’ll be updating the eighth chapter of my fencing novel, Gray Metal Faces. Those updates will be made on a separate, private blog, and I’ll be posting updates on my progress here.

Been a while since I’ve committed to a project of this size, and with my other obligations (in other words, all the things that have kept me from blogging) I’m not sure how I’m going to pull this off. But today isn’t about worrying. It’s enough to state my intention, and let this announcement serve as inspiration to find a way to get this job done.

Natural Conversation

When is she coming?

“As soon as she arrives,” I tell the seashells.

Will we control her again?

“Don’t be silly — we cannot control anything,” I remind the sponges.

Then how can we be sure she’ll do as we wish?

“Do you look at her as she manicures us?” I ask the driftwood. “There is joy in her face.”

But what makes her work so hard on our behalf?

I sigh at their lack of understanding. “Because it’s in her nature.”

PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

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