Reading For Writing – Fool’s Assassin

th_b_Hobb_foolsassassinUKFool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

An entry in a long-running fantasy series, Fool’s Assassin brings us back to the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, a man who has seen enough trouble and tragedy to fill several lifetimes. His happily-ever-after is interrupted by the birth of a much-longed-for child with his aged wife. But a dark web closes in on the family and the peculiar, tiny little girl who seems trapped into the same courses of fate that have caught her heroic father.

What I learned, Part 1 – The power of exploring different facets of a character’s nature to keep a series fresh. Robin Hobb’s work is my favorite in the genre, and she has achieved something memorable, a world that keeps expanding and deepening with every book. FitzChivalry is thrust into the role of father at an advanced age (though his body seems far younger based on his use of magic), and seeing his happy home-life threatened while he struggles to connect with his strange daughter feels very different from the earlier books of the series.


wool cover

Reading for Writing – Wool

Wool hugh howeyby Hugh Howey

One of the first major success stories of the self-publishing revolution, Wool is the tale of a post nuclear war dystopia where what remains of the human race is confined underground in a giant silo stretching deep into the earth. The silo lives under strict protocols which begin to unravel when a new Sheriff investigates a recent series of murders.

A large part of what made this book compelling was its surprising twists, so SPOILERS AHEAD:

What I learned, Part 1 – Bold choices early in a story can give a reader a sense of uneasiness which can carry through the whole book. The first two main viewpoint characters, the original Sheriff and the original Mayor are both killed within the first 1/3 of the novel. Because they are both quite likable and resourceful, as a reader we can never be quite sure that our newest main character is going to survive. It was a risky choice because it may have alienated readers, but I found it to be very successful.



Reading for Writing – Story Trumps Structure

the pawhThe Pawn by Steven James

Having read 50+ books on writing I feel this book is the third most useful I have read, after only Scriptshadow Secrets by Carson Reeves and Story by Robert McKee. It examines even basic material in a memorable way which makes you more likely to use the ideas in your work. I highly recommend it. The following ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the insights the book contains.

What I learned, Part 1 – An example of Mr. James’s memorable phrasing is: “the ceiling fan principle.” Obviously any story needs to have tension, but the author posits that “things going wrong” is the prime mover of narrative. He uses as an example the common children’s assignment of “what did you do last summer?” Most children’s lists are mind-numbingly boring, because they are just that, lists. But one student in the author’s class said that “me and by cousins were having a contest jumping off my bunk bed to see who could get farthest. And there was this ceiling fan…” So if any scene you are writing feels flat, find the ceiling fan and you’ll be well on your way to improving it.


lockwood co

Reading for Writing – Lockwood and Co. – Book 1

lockwood copyLockwood and Co. by Jonathan Stroud

In a Great Britain beset by a plague of deadly ghosts only fully visible to psychically-attuned children, Lucy and her two other teenaged co-workers at Lockwood and Co. struggle to keep their exorcism business, and themselves, alive after they inadvertently burn down a client’s house.

What I learned, Part 1 – Resonance. I found this concept in the writing tips of David Farland (who has an excellent newsletter). The idea boils down to this: don’t be afraid of actively placing your influences into your writing, chances are that someone who likes the same things you do will enjoy your story all the more. Additionally, it can be an effective shortcut to making the reader experience your exact tone. Lockwood and Co. is an outstanding book, and from the first paragraph I felt it resonating with Sherlock Holmes. Lockwood and Sherlock, obviously have a connection, but beyond that, the list of failed “cases” from that opening text sound like they easily could be taken from Doyle’s writing. This dovetails perfectly with the fact that though the protagonists usually would be simply fighting the dead with silver, iron and salt, they end up embroiled in a 50 year old mystery.



Reading for Writing – The Neddiad

51iEr0WWlDLThe Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater

In the late 1940’s, a boy and his quirk-tacular family take the train from Chicago to Hollywood. Along the way the boy, Ned, is entrusted with a sacred turtle and the fate of the world. Only “the guy with the turtle” can stop the machinations of a demon, present location the La Brea Tar Pits, who seeks to reverse time and bring back the age of the dinosaurs.

What I learned Part 1: It is possible to write a successful book with a passive protagonist and without tension; but brevity, wit and charm become paramount. From the get-go every line of the book lets you know that it will end well (as does the subtitle), still each moment feels so alive with fresh, weird details that it keeps you reading. An example, the family’s entire move from Chicago to Los Angeles is predicated on Ned and his father’s desire to eat regularly in “a restaurant shaped like a hat.” I would highly recommend this book as a case study of an author breaking core storytelling rules and getting away with it.



Reading for Writing – Under the Dome

UTD+New+packshotUnder the Dome – Stephen King

One beautiful autumn morning, a small town in Maine becomes inexplicably surrounded with an impenetrable force-field. Cut off from the rest of the world, the town falls prey to the machinations of its morally-challenged Second Selectman and his deputized army of thugs.

Things I learned, Part 1 – “Clustermug.” – Stephen King is a master of dialogue. The main villain pretends to be religious and never swears, instead cloaking all his horrible thoughts in beautifully constructed euphemisms like ‘clustermug.’ Just that one word tells you so much about the character.

Things I learned, Part 2 – Prophetic dreams work wonders if they’re justified in source. Very early on in the book the children of the town begin having seizures and seeing visions of an awful event happening on Halloween. This gives the reader a climax we are waiting for, and hangs an air of desperation over the actions of the heroes who don’t know what might be coming. Because of the mysterious nature of the force-field the dreams come across as plausible and not a narrative cheat.

Things I learned, Part 3 – Ideas aren’t as important as execution. I avoided reading this book for a few years because it reminded me of the plot of The Simpsons movie and I thought I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously. But then my wife bought the books and within the first page I stopped humming “Spider-pig.” I think the takeaway is not to limit yourself if you have an idea that seems similar to something that already exists. If you love the concept and work hard to put your own stamp on it you should be fine.


Reading for Writing – The Sacrifice

the-sacrifaceThe Sacrifice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A fantasy novel about the invasion of a peaceful island kingdom by a magical race, the Fey, well on their way to conquering the world. But a bloody stalemate ensues when the islanders discover that their holy water can disintegrate the Fey on contact.

What I learned, Part 1 – If you think you may want to publish traditionally please examine the cover of this book. This is a cover that the author fought against tooth and nail to no avail (this original cover makes the story appear to be about crudely drawn elves in love). I am the target audience for the novel (magic, battles, political intrigue), but I never in a million years would have picked this off the shelf. The only reason I bought it was because I am a fan of the author’s blog, she writes especially insightful things about the business of publishing.


iron ring

Reading for Writing – Because Every Story Has Something to Teach

The Iron Ring1305: by Lloyd Alexander

This mythic tale is set in India, following a young king who loses a bet to a tyrant from a far off land and is forced to become his slave.  When the tyrant mysteriously disappears the next morning the hero feels obligated by his word to journey to the tyrant’s homeland to meet his fate (which may be death).

What I learned Part 1: The power of the open question to drive you through a story.  Lee Chi, the hero, isn’t certain whether the tyrant was real or a dream, and the dread of what he will face at the end of his journey keeps you reading.

What I learned Part 2: The power of myth.  This book introduces a great number of allies for the main character and side-tracks in the plot. It also follows the Hero’s Journey story beats very closely. But it feels very much like true Indian folklore (which it may or may not be), and this mood combined with the open question carries the book through.