January 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Completed: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman.

As per my normal rules (i.e.- not pissing where I plan to eat), I’m not going to review this book (notwithstanding the fact it’s 14 years old and probably already reviewed quite well by other people). What I will give you, however, are my feelings about it from a writer’s standpoint.

First off, it’s a fabulous story that moves quickly. My version is 278 pages long with about 280 words per page (a rough, rough estimate), meaning it clocks in at a quick 77, 840 words, give or take a couple thousand. I breezed through this story in probably 5 hours of reading, so that the end result is that this book was devoured.

When I approach writing, I like it to be thick and textured. I want all the little details to be correct and I absolutely adore having layers of meaning, references, or details that are not at all plot essential. For example, in the last post for Lovers, I mentioned that the bear that Vasily meets is from Italy. That was intentional. Bears have started making their way north after being re-introduced into the Brenta region of Italy, and have been extinct for several generations from the Swiss national parks. Does this detail change anything? Unlikely, unless you’re a game warden from Switzerland or Italy (and if you are, please let me know), but from my perspective, and hopefully from yours, it adds more life to the story. It widens the story to take in more parts of the world without distracting too much from the main plot.

Gaiman, however, managed to do that while still maintaining what felt like a break-neck pace. I have trouble writing stories that move quickly because I want to world to be as fleshed as possible. I personally blame my historical training, but Stardust took a different approach and just ran with it. Tristran, the main male protagonist, isn’t fleshed out outside of the actions he takes and the dialogue he takes part in. By that, I mean there’s very little in the way of “Tristran felt scared at this”, or “This pleased Tristran.” It’s there because you need it to be, but very little compared to mine. Part of my approach to writing is to heavily invest in the characters and how they feel about the plot points. Just look at Crown of Ash and Dust. Half of that story takes place inside Ryan’s head and concerns itself with how he feels about things. It certainly slows down the pace, while Stardust didn’t slow itself for any reason (that wasn’t important to the story).

Second, my version did not have the illustrations. I didn’t even know there were supposed to be illustrations until after I read the book and that makes me a little sad. It didn’t suffer for the lack of them, but it would have added significantly to it.

A quick aside: I’ve not seen the movie, but the poster features the main character holding a sword. I’m fairly certain he doesn’t so much as pick up a stick in his defense throughout the story.

Third, Gaiman always has his stories end happily. On the one hand, I’m a sucker for his endings, but on the other hand, they tend to be somewhat, not quite predictable, but not necessarily surprising. This isn’t a complaint! It’s just that a reader of his work can see the endings coming. There is the notable exception of American Gods, which has a different ending from the others and which, not surprisingly, remains my favorite work of his. Now, of course a fairy tale will end well enough (unless it’s a Grimm-flavoured bloodbath), but let’s say I wasn’t surprised that he gets the girl in the end.

Again, this isn’t a complaint, but just something to think on. I was reading and wondering what the ending would be and how it would fit into the story, and was not surprised to see it ended how it did. This is just one approach, of course. Last night I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it, as befits a mystery, keeps you guessing until the last five minutes because if you knew, the jig would be up. Of course, not being able to see the end might not be the point. A grand adventure where you know the end can still be a grand adventure, but I also like being surprised or left with a bittersweet taste. I’m obviously generalizing Gaiman’s work here (I know that Gods is bittersweet, as is Stardust, but the others are pretty solidly happy), but if I’ve noticed it, then someone much smarter than me probably has as well.

This also makes me excited for his short stories, where he doesn’t, shall we say, have to reward our investment as much. It’s far easier for a writer to kill someone the readers aren’t super attached to (Robb was never a POV character for a reason!), and short stories don’t always make us so attached. More potential for death and despair? I’m excited!

Finally, and speaking of not being surprised, Gaiman is one of my favorite authors when it comes to unexpected death. I obviously won’t say who (14 year-old spoilers are still spoilers!), but in this and Neverwhere two deaths come out of nowhere, and it’s a good lesson for a writer: when you are playing with death, play for keeps. To salvage my point from earlier: these deaths are surprising, but they don’t happen at the end. They’re relevant to the plot, not the finale, if that makes any sense.

In the end, this book did have some good lessons for me. Although the story seems simple from a writer’s standpoint, it takes a master to make it look easy, and speed is not the enemy.

Next up: Snuff, by Terry Pratchett. Did I mention it takes a master to make something look easy? I think I’m about to get schooled hard by the master of “making it look easy when it’s actually bloody hard”.


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