Moonlake’s Book Tastes (4)

So today I had promised to share some of the ‘unusual reads’ speaking from the perspective of my own tastes.

I’m not going by any order of personal preference but first up is….. Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa. It is a historical fiction that tells the story of one man’s rise from a low starting point to the position of Taiko which I would have translated to Imperial General (although I’m not Japanese but Chinese so I’m really using the Chinese concept as the base) which was officially only less prestigious than the position of Emperor as I understood it (but in reality exceeding the Emperor’s power at the particular era covered by the book). I’m not a real history person but I was familiar with the range of characters covered by this book before I even read it through a RPG strategy game that I played on PC. I’ve read from some online book reviews that some thinks that it’s a bit hard to read this book because it contains a lot of characters and it’s hard to distinguish between Japanese names where both surname and name are at least 8-9 characters in length. But for me, this wasn’t a problem and it appealed to me because it read like an epic and I’ve already said that I’m really into epic fantasy.

Next comes the Black Jewels series and associated books written by Anne Bishop. She writes dark fantasy which is usually a niche I don’t touch (like horror) not because I’m squirmy but it’s just not really my thing. However, what she had done with the Black Jewel was a certainly good read. It was a dark fantasy because it contained sexual abuse and animal abuse but they were operating within the overall plot of the story so I don’t really mind them much. I’ve read the first two novels of her Ephemera world as well but did not like it and after reading an excerpt from her Tir Alainn series (which was centred around the Fae) I was not really interested. Oh, and I would recommend Anne Bishop only to female readers because well, in the Black Jewels, there are scenes of sexual abuse that might be uncomfortable for male readers to read about so experience it at your own risk.

In similar veins, I’ve taken to reading Sarah Pinborough’s very short novellas that rework fairy tales and bring in a dark twist. Basically, they are dark fantasy with romantic erotica thrown in. I’m not particularly taken with the genre nor too fond of her actual writing but I guess I read them more out of commending her effort in re-working old stories and also just feeling in the mood for light reading. She had written three of them that are using the Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella as the main story (titled Beauty, Poison and Charm respectively and should be read in this order, all three are inter-related) but each of them also contains snippets from other children stories including Beauty and the Beast, Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Aladdin, the Frog Prince, Hansel & Gretel and some more that I probably did not recognise. Then again, these others were not used as-is but rather adapted to fit the author’s purposes.

I’m also a follower of the Thursday Next series by Jaspar Fforde, the only urban fantasy series that I read. It’s again on my light reading list, being full of humour and some sarcasm. I also think that there’s something in it for book lovers, especially for those who have read the classics. But yes, definitely something for the book lovers and I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t read it by revealing what it is.

That’s all for unusual reads. The next and final instalment of my reading taste will reveal the authors and series on my light reading list except for ones already covered previously.

Moonlake’s Book Tastes (3)

Today, I’m going to change the tone slightly by talking about the mystery books that I’ve read and enjoyed. While not the main staple of my reading (mystery books to me are more like side dishes or desert, they serve as in-betweens for my trips into long serious fantasy epics), I do frequently read mystery which is more than what can be said for all other genres.

The only genuine love I have in this category is the original Sherlock Holmes series. Unusually for me, I actually bought The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes in one book. I’ve read Agatha Christie heavily as well although I’m not much taken with M. Poirot and haven’t actually read any Ms. Marple but I’m quite fond of her Tommy and Tuppence series (she hasn’t written that many books for the duo though).

I found that I’m so-so with contemporary mystery. I do follow a few authors including:

  • Patricia Cornwell and her Dr. Scarpetta series: unlike most mystery series, the heroine here is a chief coroner. It’s one of the rare mystery series that’s not on my light reading list. But I stopped following it after the lover of the heroine ‘died’ and then when I picked up the series again, another main character had split ways with the heroine so I discontinued with it.
  • Sue Grafton’s alphabet series: to be honest, I’m more taken with the quirky heroine rather than her writing but I have taken notice that she had been experimenting with new writing styles and perspectives in more recent books.
  • Janet Evanoich’s numbers series: to be honest, I found her writing really mediocre and her troupe of the heroine’s romance troubles got really old after a while. I think I stopped after 13 or something. But well, it’s light reading. Also, I think I prefer some of the books starring the same heroine as the numbers series but are standalones whose titles start off with the word Plum (the heroine’s surname) including Plum Spooky. Others I cannot remember offhand…
  • Richard Yancey’s Highly Effective series: this is a recent find actually and I’ve only read two books of the series. Definitely light reading material as the hero of the series is basically an inapt private detective. Actually, I haven’t really decided to follow him but well, I might come back to his work when I need a light reading in between my normal pursuits in reading

My personal recommendations are two authors and series that potentially appeal to both taste for fantasy and mystery. Basically, they star a religious figure in the medieval ages who solve mysteries. These are:

  • Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series: it’s been a while since I read this series and I don’t know whether I had read all of it but certainly what was available to me through public library. I’ve already said why I liked it. It was my first encounter of such a work that bends the genre a little (to me, the attractiveness of fantasy was the fact it brought me into another world that is very different to what I’m experiencing in real life) and I’m finding that I’m quite fascinated with the presentation of what someone in a cloister experienced of life then in addition to the main mystery
  • Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series: quite a recent find. Besides the genre-bending thing, I like how the author seems very good at ending each Chapter with a cliff-hanger.

And that’s all for mystery. Next instalment would be on unusual books. Well, they are not that unusual really, just unusual from the angle of my tastes.

Moonlake’s Book Tastes (2)

So I am continuing with the authors and books that fall into my comfort zone but not necessarily brilliant by themselves. I am quite picky (if you had read the post before this, there are only two authors that I named as my favourites) so there are more substantial number of authors that I diligently follow for laziness of venturing for ‘new’ authors or sometimes just because I’ve grown attached to a particular character or underlying world and excused sometimes quite mediocre writing (I’m not saying every author in this category is mediocre but compared with what made it to my favourites, this category is simply massive so there’s bound to be one or two of the latter authors or books that made it to this category).

Egh… sorry for the long preamble again, I just can’t help myself. So continuing with the actual list, besides Margaret and the Forgotten Realms label, I also enjoyed the following works:

  • R.A Salvatore’s Cleric Quintet and Demonwars Saga (all right, I had already mentioned him in the first post but these are his work that actually drew me because of some specific part of his writing), particularly the first three books of the later series that present a somewhat different experience to most other fantasy books
  • David Eddings’s Belgariad, Mallorean, Elemium and Temuli, each of them a quintet. I read them while I was a teenager and I liked his humorous dialogue and how he was able to add in side-plots that kept one riveted even though I could always see his ending miles away. I also dislike how the main characters always come out on top because of some fundamental flaw in the ultimate villain in his book, which to me functions much like an anti-climax. In that sense, I’ve always felt like he was writing for the YA market but really he was an author before the rise of YA.
  • Tamora Pierce’s Immortal Quartet, The Trickster series and the Beka Cooper series, books on the Circle universe except the latest one called Battle Magic. She is another YA author. I find some of the ideas in her books refreshing but in general, I prefer a more in-depth exploration of more mature themes about life philosophies and human truisms in books so in this area she will never be able to satisfy me fully just by the virtue of her niche.

Okay, I have to stop here again and continue next time because today I just don’t feel in the writing mood much. It’s 30 degrees plus over here.

Moonlake’s Book Tastes (1)

Now that I have gotten around to fixing up my Reading Corner page, I figure that I will put up my first relevant post for it today. And the first post will be… about my book tastes of course.

Firstly, I have not yet figured out how to do category pages. So I have to repeat some of the things I’ve already talked in the paragraph now up on the Reading Corner page. My main staple for reading are fantasy and then mystery, with a preference towards book aimed at adults as opposed to YA. I love readings series because they give me a longer time to immerse in the story but I usually don’t have the patience to pick up a series containing more than 5 books. Consecutive trilogies, though, are something that I’m quite comfortable with. And then, I tend to classify books into two categories: serious and light reading. Mystery books in general tend to be under my light reading list. I was not particularly adventurous in searching out new authors, preferring to stick up with authors and series that I’m comfortable with. I’m only now starting to change a bit in this area since some of my ‘comfort writers’ are no longer stocked much at my local library or I decided to not continue following their work.

Now, after this somewhat long preamble, onto the actual lists.

My all-time favourite is the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien. I read the Hobbit as well of course (which was what got me into LoR in the first place) but as a short prequel, I was less attached to it.

Coming second is the Midkemian books by Raymond E. Feist. However, I was quite sad that the turn at the plot he made just before the Conclave of Shadow series turned me off his books because it got the story back into the “all the mischiefs happening in the story are driven by the Gods” which I had come to view as a cliché in the fantasy genre and dislike (although I did read this series). His strongest work are definitely the Riftwar and Serpentwar Sagas.

Beyond is sort of a fuzzy area where I have a lot of what I term my “comfort writers” and their work are sort of hit-and-miss for me. The foremost I will mention is Margaret Weis whose Dragonlance Chronicles first got me into reading fantasy and by that fact alone holds some kind of special sentimental value for me. However, I regretted very much that I’ve ever decided to take up reading the Dragon of the Summer Flame rather than stopping with the original trilogy. I’ve also her Darksword Trilogy, her Deathgate Cycle and her Rose of the Prophet trilogy. The only one that I sort of liked was the Rose of the Prophet one, the ones were so-so to me. The other major label that I had read was books in the Forgotten Realms world which multiple authors contributed to and I had grown comfortable with. But I must say the quality of books belonging to it I found to be rather sub-par on average. The strongest author among them is probably R. A. Salvatore and his Drizzt series. I found some of the books or individual plots a bit odd sometimes but he made up for it for producing enough books about Drizzt that I had warmed up to the character. I liked the Harper series belonging under this label too, not because they are quality work (they tend to be part of the sub-par ones in my opinion) but because this is one of the rare open-ended series in fantasy there was (or I could find) with each book in the series being a standalone story by itself.

That’s all for today. I will continue with more of my comfort writers in the next instalment. In fact, there will be more instalments to come on this topic. Feel free to leave comments about your thoughts on the authors and books that I mentioned in this post.

Random writing (2)

Yet another of my random writing to share while writing insights are stagnating.

Topic: I have to smile whenever I feel angry….

I have to smile whenever I feel angry. This way, I make them really scared of me. And I keep them docile. Yes, docile underlings are the best. They don’t think on their own, they don’t get squeamish, they just act. They become valuable tools, extensions of your own ingenious mind, manifestations of your own iron will.

I have to smile whenever I feel angry. My father told me so. I used to cower when I saw him smile. I remembered the sense of fear taking hold of me. For me, fear doesn’t paralyse, it creeps up on me. First, it seizes my neck, then it slithers down my spine, inching itself along it ever so slowly. Inch by inch…

Now, I drink in the sense of fear that my underlings exude. Yes, they exude fear and the smell is absolutely intoxicating. Better than the sweetest perfume. I inhale deeply of the perfume of fear and I laugh. I throw back my head and laugh into the sky.

Random writing (1)

For a while, I’ve been trying to do daily writing exercises from some prompt but like my diary writing attempts, it died out after a while. However, because I cannot formulate a post that provides actual value to readers out of the 2 writing mistakes that I’ve lately discovered about myself for today, I’ve decided to make use of these outputs of my earlier efforts. The following passage is the first of a series where I’m trying to construct the situations under why a conflicting or at least non-congruent expression observed by outsiders could arise to the actual feelings felt by a particular individual. The actual phrase that sparked off this series again came out of Cathy Birch’s The Creative Writers’ Workshop: I have to smile whenever….

Topic: I have to smile whenever I feel angry….

I have to smile whenever I feel angry. This way, I make them really scared of me. And I keep them docile. Yes, docile underlings are the best. They don’t think on their own, they don’t get squeamish, they just act. They become valuable tools, extensions of your own ingenious mind, manifestations of your own iron will.

I have to smile whenever I feel angry. My father told me so. I used to cower when I saw him smile. I remembered the sense of fear taking hold of me. For me, fear doesn’t paralyse, it creeps up on me. First, it seizes my neck, then it slithers down my spine, inching itself along it ever so slowly. Inch by inch…

Now, I drink in the sense of fear that my underlings exude. Yes, they exude fear and the smell is absolutely intoxicating. Better than the sweetest perfume. I inhale deeply of the perfume of fear and I laugh. I laugh towards the sky.

10 by 10 Character Grid

Today I’m going to share another technique that I learnt from one of these writer self-help books (again the The Creative Writers’ Workshop by Cathy Birch for those interested) that I’ve adapted to my use and found extremely useful in terms of filling out characters. This time, the procedure is really simple: you use a 10 by 10 grid to brainstorm 100 facts about your character on 10 different areas. The original example shown was related to Red Riding Hood and contained information about her in the following areas: 1) Physical appearance; 2) Relationships; 3) Colour; 4) Music; 5) Talents; 6) Flaws; 7) Moods; 8) Past times and 2 others that I cannot remember but are likely to be other innocuous aspects. After all, the actual book suggested using this exercise as a pure brainstorming exercise. If anything odd comes out, it would have little impact on the actual characterisation while the occasional oddities might even bring out surprises when it comes to plotting.

I applaud this simple idea but I found almost half of the categories too innocuous and of little use in characterisation for me as a genre writer in fantasy. So I adapted them such that my 10 categories are: 1) Physical appearance; 2) Relationships; 3) Talents; 4) Flaws; 5) Past times; 6) Moods; 7) Values, fears and secrets; 8) Memories; 9) Reactions; 10) Mannerisms, quirks and little habits. I found that after my adaption, this brainstorming exercise involved substantially more meditation than its original form which I felt could be completed in one session uninterrupted. My revised form, however, sometimes required me to complete it over 2 days, especially for all of my main characters. A somewhat unfortunate side effect is that I could not find it in myself to complete the full grid for all of the characters in my book and I’ve found it through the hard way that some of the minor cast became quite hard to write when it came their turn to appear in the story.

Still, I feel lucky that I stumbled upon this approach. Previously, I was using a character profile approach where you basically complete a questionnaire about each character and it was just a dreadful experience. I was never a form-filling person but I can be matter-of-fact about that when required. However, this character profile thing just got on my nerves in some inexplicable way. But to each his own, I say. At the conclusion of this post, I would like to emphasise that what I wrote in my posts are purely personal insights into what worked and not worked for myself and should not be taken as broad-stroke advice on writing craft in any way. Thanks for reading.

Writing from a Sequence of Events

I’ve just realised one major mistake to my approach of transferring plots (or events) to words and this is what I will be sharing in this post. In case you haven’t figured it out, this blog is really more about sharing what I’ve learnt about writing and since I’m just freshly into being a wannabe writer as opposed to hobby writer, my posts will be more centred on how I tackle my mistakes rather than an article centre for all writing related things.

All right, preambles aside, let me first define what I see as the difference between event and plot so that we are all on the same level (not because I’m condescending but just in case everyone has their own definitions which are all different from mine, I’m not using any standard definition out of Fiction Writing 101 so it’s very possible). Event we all know, my own definition of plot is as follows: a plot is a sequence of events with a particular shape or theme.

Now, onto my personal discovery: I’m a bit of a planning freak and my most extensive planning is definitely for the plot aspect of a story. I would go through 7 different stages until I finally have a plan for each scene in each Chapter throughout a book before actually starting on it in spreadsheet form. On this spreadsheet, I summarise the events occurring in each scene in one-liners.  Then in Word, I have to actually pin down in details how events unfold in each single paragraph for a given scene before I can actually write down anything that can go towards my word count. In other words, I’m basically writing purely from the basis of how the sequence of events happen in my story. On this basis, I happily write up to Chapter 14 until feedback from my beta reader came back that makes me go back all the way to re-write from Chapter 2 onwards. His exact words were: “I think you have run rough shod over the story thus without taking time to properly develop plot points… There is a very interesting story there which you wrote but oddly did not respect.”

What exactly was he referring to? Basically, that I’ve kept my heroine too busy with new conflicts and situations that keep coming up in her life but no resolution to any of these conflicts within the first 5 Chapters. Also, that there is no linkage whatsoever between these conflicts that the heroine is experiencing. So what have I tracked down to be the cause of this mistake? The astute of you will probably pick it up already, it’s because I never check all my Chapters link up together. My way of saving each Chapter as separate docs makes worse this oversight. I also do not make adequate planning in advance for exactly how plot hooks that I’ve unconsciously planted, as in I know vaguely how they unfold but never thought about how to properly shepherd them in a given Chapter. Another thing that was picked up by my beta reader in relation to this was that in one scene, I introduced a minor character (who would act as a hook for character and plot development later) and she did nothing at all in the scene, just went by and said hi, prompted some minor changes in behaviour in the other characters before walking off again.

What actions am I putting in place to deal with this? Well, I’m not ditching the saving each Chapter separate habit because it makes editing easier for me in terms of addressing comments from my beta reader. So I’m thinking to take the time out to write a short paragraph of synopsis of last Chapter at the start of going onto a new Chapter. I can probably start making a plot summary document that tracks down the main plot and sub-plots that I’m putting into the story (have I already said that I’m a sub-plot maniac? It doesn’t help that I’m planning to write a 5-book series). I actually made one earlier for a work that I abandoned but somehow when I was planning the current book, the plots and sub-plots were just too fuzzy in my idea and I couldn’t make the same for it.

If you have insights about a similar issue or just want to let your opinion be known, you’re welcome to leave a comment. Otherwise, thanks for reading this post.

Most Ridiculous Excuse made up by a Villain

This is not really writing related but I’ve just finished watching a TV series where the villain made up the most ridiculous excuse I’ve ever heard to justify his actions. I thought it might serve as inspiration somehow as a means of shedding light upon the extent to which the human brain is capable of conjuring excuses as a means of self-defence or just for entertainment values.

The TV series is a spy thriller set in modern day China and basically the villain is the father of the main character. The setup was that the son works for National Security whereas the father had been the secretary to a City Mayor, just recently retired due to terminal illness. When exposed for being “the mole” who’s been leaking out confidential information to international spies, the son went to visit the father and asked him why he betrayed his own country. His father’s answer was, “I did it for you.”

It was mentioned in passing in previous episodes that the main character’s parents had divorced during his childhood, with his father being re-married and totally neglecting him such that the main character was still harbouring a grudge against his own father now. Going back to the scene of the final confrontation between father and son, his father tells him that apparently he regretted his negligence of his son and wanted to make amends. Then the father went on to tell a story where he was tutoring his friend’s son (who was in primary school, at an age that brought back to him fond memories of his own son) on an essay whose topic is “Is money all-powerful?” and how he had originally told the child that he should write, “no, money is not all-powerful, in fact, it is quite dirty and lead people towards corruption.”. The child’s response to that was, “But money can help out children in Africa. Also, if money is dirty, then why is Chairman Mao printed on it?”. According to the father, this then led him onto the stray path he wandered onto because it suddenly occurred to him that he needed to set aside x amount of money for his son so that he can live a good life. He went on to see how through taking small bribes for a period, he achieved his original target but then inflation set in and he had to amend his target and the snowball effect basically set in.

My first reaction upon hearing this was “What?!” and I picture the main character falling into utter confusion over hearing this obviously made up excuse for falling towards the seduction of money.

And that’s all I want to share, for now.


Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci Fi or Fantasy

A good reference for world building

Curse Breaker Series

Like I have mentioned in past blog posts, it took me ten years of writing and collecting rejection letters to get to level I am today. And even so I’m still working and still climbing. Always working and always writing to improve my craft. The bad part about going through those ten years is obvious, even the annoyingly cliche parts. The form letters, the future uncertainty, people not interested in looking at your work, people telling you you’re wasting your life and you should do something else. But believe it or not, some good things came out of those ten years. I learned to be a better writer, I developed thick skin, and I learned more or less how to market myself and my work and on top of that I learned how to world build. Like I said before my techniques might not work for everyone. But before you…

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