September 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
No, there’s nothing particularly happy about it.
But it is a new week where we’re all alive and kicking, so that’s something isn’t it?
I just finished Howl’s Moving Castle, the book, last week, and I quite enjoyed it. Sure, it’s aimed at children, but so is Tangled, and that movie is phenomenal. Seriously. I’m going to do a post just on Tangled and why everyone should watch it. Everyone.
I’m not going to give a review, but I can use it to show you how an aspiring author should read a book.
Two things in particular caught my eye, and we’ll start with the first line. The first line is the trickiest line to write because you need to hook the reader, but preferably without tricks of gimmicks (that’s basically the principle behind quick fiction: writing hooks). Here’s the first line of Howl.
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.
We actually have two hooks, which I call “deep” and “shallow”. The shallow hook is “quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three”, because that makes the reader want to read the next sentence. Why is it a misfortune? This isn’t something that can wait. I need to know now. The deep hook is “where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist.” That’s deep because it indicates trends which are going to run through the whole book. It establishes that magic exists and indicates what sort of world we’re in.
But I want you to look at the “really” in “really exist”. By putting that there, Diana Wynne Jones is talking to the reader. “No”, she says, “they really exist here, unlike our world.” It’s a neat little trick, because it positions the reader firmly in our world without breaking the fourth wall. Sure, it pushes against it, but not to break it and ruin everything. It also allows the reader to use our world as a framework. My story doesn’t take place in our world and refuses to acknowledge it, so if I were to do something like that, it would be a wink at the audience. That is a dangerous thing that often doesn’t work, but here? Here it does. And it’s not even really a wink, to be fair. More of an “oops, did I do that?” moment.
Just so we’re clear, I did like the book and would recommend it to others. There are problems with it, though. Problems is a bad word to use, but I’m using it here because I’m pointing at things that I wouldn’t consider subjective.
Disclaimer: opinions away! They still are subjective, so don’t think I believe myself to be an authority. I’m not, I just read a lot. Take that how you will.
But here’s the problem with a bit of a spoiler. Parts of the book (because it’s different from the movie) take place in our world. I don’t have a problem with this. It’s actually done pretty well, and has some cool ideas behind it. Namely that the castle is actually a house that exists in multiple places simultaneously, but is still 4 different houses at once. It’s weird and cool and I’m totally ripping that idea.
However, the problem with the “real world” bits is that they don’t significantly add to the story. The characters that come from our world don’t appreciably change because of that fact. Multiple worlds don’t affect the story as a whole. Really, I can think of only one scene where we learn something new about a character because of their position in our world, but that could have been done by keeping it in Ingary. It did not rely on the many worlds that exist in the book.
I call this a problem because it doesn’t add to the story despite being included in a way that makes it seem like it would. This is also seen in the third episode of Carnivale, “Tipton”. A character looks like he needs to make a major decision that would reveal a major power and change everything…and then he doesn’t have to. The audience (read: me) looked around and went “Ok, but then why did we just watch this?” If it adds nothing (I’m being unfair; the inclusion of our world adds a lot to the story, but not enough to justify how significant it seems it should be) to the story, then you’ve got to think long and hard about including it.
And because it would be unfair of me to criticise without putting my own stuff on the line, let’s look at my current first line for Ash and Dust.
“You killed your children, did you know that?”
It’s good as a shallow line. The reader hopefully wants to read ahead because they want to see who’s talking to who, and why that person killed their children. However, it lacks depth. There’s no indication of the world around the characters. It just exists to get the next line read.
Here’s the line from Knight of the Stars and Sun:
Mical Carson was jarred out of bed by the sound of the doorbell.
I don’t like this line for several reasons. First, there’s no depth. Second, as a shallow line it doesn’t do a hell of a lot. Finally, it’s nonsensical. “Jarred out of bed” means he was physically lifted out of the bed by the doorbell. That isn’t what happened, but because he’s not fully asleep I can’t say “jarred awake”.
Let’s try this instead…
The grand city of Arcadia slumbered while Judge Mical Carson rolled about in bed, his conscience aflame.
This sentence has a little more depth and establishes much more about the character and the setting. First, it’s in Arcadia, a “grand city”, and it’s nighttime. That’s not this world, but it is still a city and we can understand that. Mical is a Judge, and though we know it’s not this world, “Judge” is capitalized and so likely important. Also, he’s male, because Mical looks masculine. Finally, it trades shallow hooks for depth. Why is his conscience aflame? That’s not likely to be explained in the next sentence, and compared to the jarring sound of the doorbell, it’s not as urgent. All the same, though, it tells us more about the character, namely that he has a conscience and he’s done something bad by his lights.
So, now you guys have a little taste of how it is to read like an author. It’s not that it’s not fun, and you’re not reading like a critic, but you’re reading critically. It’s a good habit to get into, if only because it helps explain why you like the things you do.
Now get back to Monday.
(For one of my readers, the word count is around 1160, and it took me just about an hour. Skillz, yo.)