This is a very interesting book on novel writing that takes a very different approach than most other books I have read. Other books will tell you toThis is a very interesting book on novel writing that takes a very different approach than most other books I have read. Other books will tell you to build all your backstory and especially outline your whole plot first, so you know where you are going... to decide what the theme is, and to figure out what the central conflict is and how it will be resolved, before you ever start the actual writing of the manuscript.
James disagrees, believing that this causes more problems than it solves. I went into this fully prepared to disagree with him, because for every (unpublished, of course) book I have ever written or attempted to write, I have always done extensive plotting up-front. But James, I must say, has somewhat won me over. He makes some very good points. Probably his best one is that, if you write the plot out point by point before you start the book, you are writing a plot before you even really know your characters. How do you know how they will react before writing about them for a while? He argues that this leads to many situations in books where the characters act in unbelievable ways because "the author needed this plot point to happen next." And I must confess guilt to doing this on more than one occasion in my own writing. James argues, and I find it at least somewhat convincing, that if you let the story evolve as you write it, then you don't have a pre-destined plot point to reach, and you won't force the story to get there just to check off the next line on your outline.
What I found really interesting was how many ideas from Blake Snyder's book on script-writing, Save the Cat!, are echoed by James, when Snyder was a big-time outliner and pre-plotter (he even produced software to help you do your outline). Yet both agree on a number of things, the biggest ones being theme and character likability. Regarding theme, James insists that you shouldn't set out to write a book on a single theme, but you should write your story, and let the theme evolve out of the story organically. Snyder doesn't insist on it, but he does say that not only is it OK to do that, but that sometimes that produces the best results. Regarding likability, both James and Snyder hammer the importance of getting the reader/audience to like the character early on. James hammers on this repeatedly -- that if the character is not likable, the reader will not stick with you for hundreds of pages.
This book has two main weaknesses. One is that, surprisingly, there are almost no examples of how to do what he's suggesting from actual published books, other than the occasional example from James' own novels. It would be easier to understand what James is talking about in some places if he could use an obvious example, such as a scene from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Hamlet (something he can be sure people have probably seen/read).
The other weakness is that James doesn't really explain how to write a full novel "organically." He talks about theme and conflict and dialogue, to be sure. But if one imagines, say, a 500 page manuscript with 20 characters and 10 set locations, there would need to be some way to keep things organized or the writer will end up confusing everything. The only hint James gives about organizing things and making sure we don't get lost is to briefly (in a few lines) describe how he organizes his writing into files, printed pages, and a notebook. He warns us to be careful about continuity holes but doesn't provide us with really good options for avoiding them other than to keep re-reading what we've already written. And although, yes, that's possible... it also strikes me as being wildly inefficient. It also pre-supposes that the budding novelist, who is so fresh to doing this that he needs a "how to" book, and thus is reading this, has enough hours in the day to spend 3-4 hours re-reading old work before even starting on the new stuff. For a 5th novel that might be true, but if I were about to publish my 5th novel, I wouldn't need James' help. For some of us, this is as hobby, at least until such time as we actually get something published (and it makes money!). How about some advice for those of us who only have a couple of hours a day to devote to this? How should we organize things so we don't end up with continuity holes? James really doesn't say.
Overall, this was a pretty well-written book that caused me to make lots and lots of notes and highlights -- probably more than any other book on writing I have yet tried. And what surprises me, given my pro-outline bias going in, is that most of those notes and highlights were not because of disagreement with James, but because I agree with him. I'm not sure I feel comfortable completely ditching the outline -- but for the first time in probably 35 years of trying to write my own books (starting in 5th grade), I'm actually considering not outlining. And that says something about how persuasive James' argument is....more
This is a fairly well-written book about how to write fiction. The author, Jeff Gerke, provides good advice about two different areas -- how to createThis is a fairly well-written book about how to write fiction. The author, Jeff Gerke, provides good advice about two different areas -- how to create good characters, and how to create a good plot.
Gerke begins by positing, and I would say I agree, that all writers fall into one of two basic types: plot-based or character-based. For plot-based writers, the external events of the story (i.e., the plot) come easily, but crafting good characters is difficult. For character-based writers, making realistic, believable characters with interesting inner journeys is easy, but building an external plot to entertain the reader is difficult.
Gerke, who admits he is a plot-based novelist, then provides a very good explanation of how to include both in your writing -- good, believable characters who undergo an inner journey, and an interesting and exciting plot that keeps the reader turning pages. He explains all the basic concepts that one would encounter in a typical writing class or book about writing.
But what sets this book apart from all others I have read, except perhaps Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, of whose writing Gerke strongly reminds me, is that Greke provides the budding writer with a set of methods to actually accomplish the goals he sets out. For example, he doesn't just tell you "your character needs to be realistic;" he provides you with a whole chapter on how to make the character be realistic. He doesn't just tell you that Act I is "where all the important stuff is introduced," but he provides you with a list of items you should consult to make sure your Act I is doing what it is supposed to do. In each chapter, he suggests exercises the reader can do to develop the novel. If you follow each exercise, by the end, you will have a well-plotted novel with a set of interesting characters and a protagonist whose inner journey meshes well with the external plot.
As a consequence, this book is one of the few I have encountered about writing (with Save the Cat! being the other) that actually gives the budding novelist actionable advice. I have not yet tried Gerke's system (I have read this book over a holiday without any real ability to start writing a novel or keep notes or doing extensive research), but I plan to put it into action in the near future, and I have no doubt it will help -- because it already has.
In many ways, Gerke's system reminds me of Snyder's from Save the Cat!, as I have said above. The main difference is that Snyder's book is almost entirely focused on how to achieve the plot -- the external journey of the character. He mentions the inner journey and addresses it in a chapter or two, but he does not spend anywhere near the number of pages on how to build a good one and flesh it out that Gerke does. Snyder's process is also a good deal more formulaic. For example, Gerke takes a dim view of telling people that Act I should be over on a certain page, whereas Snyder clearly tells the reader on which page each event should happen (to be fair, Snyder is explaining how to write a 110-page standard-length movie script, and Gerke is talking about writing an open-ended novel). But overall, their advice is remarkably similar.
Interestingly, at least half of Gerke's examples come from movies rather than novels. I suppose in part, he does this because he can be more sure people have seen Star Wars or Titanic (since almost everyone has) than he can be that they have read Lord of the Flies. I don't have an issue with this, although some readers might be bothered by it.
But perhaps my favorite bit of advice that Gerke provides, which I have seen nowhere else and which, in fact, many other advice books (including Save the Cat!) contradict, is that one should not worry about the length of each act in a 3-act structure. It's OK, he says, if it takes half of the book to get through Act I. As I began to think about other stories I have loved, I noticed that a few of them have very long first acts as well. Thus Gerke states explicitly what I have always intuited, and it is something that has bothered me about the advice of other books on 3-act structure.
Overall, this is one of the most helpful books on writing I have encountered so far (and I've read at least 10 of them, if not more). One a very basic level, Gerke doesn't say anything you probably haven't heard a thousand times before if you are a budding writer - all characters in a novel should be realistic and not stereotypes; the protagonist needs to change in a major way; there should be a "ticking time bomb" to force the plot forward; the external and internal struggles should be related. But the difference between this book and all the other places where you receive such advice is that Gerke doesn't just tell you that you need it, and perhaps provide examples of other books/movies that have it -- he shows you how you can put those things into your story, and provides you with a series of exercises and assignments designed to help you do it.
If I could recommend only one book on how to write, this would be it. I have found it immensely helpful and well worth the purchase prices....more
This is a very well-written, and quite thorough, history of the Kung Fu martial art. It focuses very strongly on the connection between the philosophiThis is a very well-written, and quite thorough, history of the Kung Fu martial art. It focuses very strongly on the connection between the philosophical underpinnings of Kung Fu and the martial art itself, and traces the history from ancient shamanism and fighting techniques to the present day. Unlike Lorge (History of Chinese Martial Arts), who claims there is no direct evidence for philosophical Kung Fu until a few hundred years ago, Mikhailov asserts that the philosophical aspect has been inextricably linked with the physical aspect since the very beginning. He bases his arguments not on direct written evidence (as, in agreement with Lorge, he admits that there isn't any), but rather, on logical deduction. He shows clear connections between the philosophy of Taoism and other related Chinese religions and Kung Fu in a way I find convincing. He shows how the traditions of Kung Fu can be traced to various aspects of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.
The narrative style of this book is quite good. Mihailov adopts a formal yet conversational that makes the book easy to read and understand, and he has many references to back up his claims. Unlike Lorge, Mikhailov draws heavily from fictional and philosophical writings to show what the people of the time were telling us about how they viewed Kung Fu and the martial arts. The end result was an enjoyable book.
When I started reading up on the history of Kung Fu, I began with the pre-conceived notion, born of Hong Kong's Kung Fu movies, that Kung Fu had been practiced with a mystical component for thousands of years. After reading Lorge's book, I came to believe I had been completely mistaken, as Lorge showed the very clear lack of direct evidence for any such mystical connection to the combat forms of Kung Fu. But Mikhailov has made me come full circle, back to the original perspective -- not because of the romanticized version we see on film, but because he shows strong, if indirect, evidence that there was a connection between Kung Fu and philosophy.
If you are interested in what Kung Fu really is and how it got started, this is a great book. It is well written, and presents the historical facts without becoming bogged down by them....more
This is an interesting book that describes the history and philosophy of Kung Fu. The first half of the book is about the history. Martin-Smith attempThis is an interesting book that describes the history and philosophy of Kung Fu. The first half of the book is about the history. Martin-Smith attempts to present the facts, although he does present some events that professional historians view as mythological as if they were historical. For example, he claims that advanced unarmed martial arts have been practiced at Shaolin Temple for 1,500 years, but Lorge's comprehensive martial arts history disagrees. Lorge categorically states that there is absolutely no evidence of a connection between the temple and Martial Arts before the 1600s.
On the other hand, Martin-Smith does attempt to remain faithful to the pure tenets of Kung Fu, and takes to task the theatrical tendencies of modern Kung Fu "masters." He particularly skewers the modern Shaolin Temple for promoting theatrics rather than "true" Kung Fu, which is not about showmanship but about health, well-being, and of course self-defense.
The latter quarter or so of the book is devoted to describing various martial arts forms, and has a great many pictures to illustrate the moves. Of course, one cannot learn Kung Fu moves from a book, but these photographs and descriptions would probably serve as a useful reference for students who are trying to master the art.
I bought this book for other reasons -- namely, to do background research for a fictional story I am planning to write. For that purpose, the book was quite helpful... I have a much better understanding of the philosophy behind Kung Fu and a little bit more knowledge of the legends (if not the actual facts) behind the Shaolin Temple....more
This is an interesting book on the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu. It is mostly written for students of the style, to help them understand the science --This is an interesting book on the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu. It is mostly written for students of the style, to help them understand the science -- the physiology and anatomy, as it were -- behind the Wing Chun forms. Not being a Kung Fu artist, I mostly was interested in it for research purposes; I am planning to do some creative writing with a character who is a Kung Fu specialist, and I was trying to figure out which style or form of Kung Fu the character should use. This book helped with that, mainly in the sense that, as described (and with the pictures), I do not think Wing Chun is "flashy" enough for what I have in mind.
I suspect that as a practical matter, Wing Chun is probably a very good form of self defense, and this book explains verbally and with pictures how to do most of the moves. The author takes a modern, scientific approach, which is to say that he disregards the mystical side of martial arts. Reports of people being able to kill without touching you, via their willpower, Smith dismisses as ridiculous (and I agree with him).
One thing I was hoping for more of with this book, however, was the history behind Wing Chun. Smith really doesn't tell us where the art came from or how it has changed over the years -- he only concentrates on the moves as they are practiced right now, and when you should use each one. I can't knock him too much for this, however, since he wasn't really writing a history book, but a practical guide to which Wing Chun moves one should use and under what conditions. On the other hand, with something like Kung Fu, the history is not irrelevant, and this book could use a chapter about it to put things into context.
Overall, this was an interesting read, despite my ignorance of martial arts when I started, and I feel like I understand the logic behind various moves (such as when to punch, when to kick, etc) more than I did before. So that part will no doubt help me when I go to do my creative writing....more
This is an interesting and informative historical work that attempts to trace the historical facts, rather than the fiction, of Chinese martial arts iThis is an interesting and informative historical work that attempts to trace the historical facts, rather than the fiction, of Chinese martial arts in history. It is well researched and well written, and it does a fair job of encapsulating a thousand-plus year history of fighting and weaponry into a couple of hundred pages. Lorge has a solid narrative style and makes it fairly easy to follow. Given the Herculean task he set out to undertake, he did quite well.
However, I found the book disappointing because, for a work about the history of Chinese martial arts, Lorge spends too many words discussing the social and cultural history of China rather than its martial arts forms. I recognize that he had to discuss the non-martial history in some detail, as the events happened contemporaneously can cannot be wholly separated... but too often he focused on what the national government was like or the culture of the time, rather than the martial arts.
Additionally, his discussion of the arts themselves is vague and lacks detail. If one expects, for example, to learn where the "tiger" style of Wu Shu first developed, one can forget it in this book -- Lorge makes no attempt to define the styles or trace their lineages. I suspect he did this both due to considerations of space, and because many of the styles have little written or verifiable history before the twentieth century. But even so, to fail to mention the specific styles of Chinese martial arts that have become so famous in modern times, is a rather large omission in this book.
Lorge primarily focuses here on the military use of martial arts. Although he mentions that bandits used it or citizens did for self defense, he mainly focuses on war. Archery dominates the discussion for many chapters for this reason -- horse archery in particular was a major facet of Chinese warfare for centuries. But although this is undeniably true, archery would rarely have been used outside of a military (or sporting) context. To focus on it nearly exclusively for so many pages leaves out all the other types of arts, including the unarmed fighting techniques. Indeed, Lorge mentions unarmed fighting almost as a footnote, only to discuss that it cannot be used to any real effect in war. This is undoubtedly true, but most martial arts these days are learned as a means of self-defense, not combat fighting... and surely this was true in ancient China as well.
On the other hand, Lorge does a good job of debunking many of the myths surrounding Chinese martial arts. He explains, for example, that there is no real historical justification for connecting the Shaolin temple to martial arts in any special way -- this has mostly arisen as a product of 20th century fiction and martial arts movies. But even before the 20th century, during the last few hundred years, many myths have been told about the "ancient lineages" of various martial arts styles that are, as Lorge points out, entirely fabricated, and presumably designed to give the style "gravitas."
Overall, this is an interesting and well-written, thoroughly researched book. However, if you are looking for insight into unarmed fighting styles, this book will be of little interest. Until the very last chapter (on post-Imperial China), unarmed fighting is hardly mentioned....more
In my ongoing quest to learn more about story structure and character design as I work on my own fiction writing, I chose this book as the next instruIn my ongoing quest to learn more about story structure and character design as I work on my own fiction writing, I chose this book as the next instructional reference, because it comes so highly recommended by many others. In particular, many who skewer another oft-recommended book, Save the Cat!, as being too simplistic, hold this up as being a much better reference. Having read this entire book in one day, I find it hard to defend that assertion.
I think that the author of the book, Brian McDonald, does a good job of explaining what he means by "invisible ink" -- it's all the parts of the book you don't see. The backstory the author wrote, but doesn't come out explicitly; the theme (which McDonald calls the "armature"), which is usually not openly stated; and the like. These elements are important, and McDonald certainly doesn't say anything that is untrue. However, most of these things are common knowledge and I have been aware of them since high school.
Some of the major points that McDonald claims are "invisible" to most people but key to developing a good story are:
Three act structure -- mentioned briefly but not really explained at all An over-arching theme, such as "You are who you choose to be." Show don't tell Use supporting characters to show "might have been" The main character should change as a result of the climax Balance externalized action with internal/emotional content
This is all good basic advice, but it's the same advice you will get from any writing book or any writing class. There is nothing really new here.
Furthermore, telling us that we should do these things doesn't provide a whole lot of help. Most of these ideas can be dispensed with in a few short pages (and, indeed, they are, by McDonald). The question I always have is, "OK, knowing about these things, how do I implement them in my own writing?" For example, how does one come up with a theme? What sorts of themes resonate? How do you know when you have a good one? McDonald's book is completely mute on this point.
For those who claim that this book is better than Snyder's Save the Cat!, I would point out that Snyder does a much better job with theme than McDonald does with "armature" (which is the same thing under a different name -- another annoying habit of McDonald's is coming up with new names for old concepts). For example, Snyder points out that many writers don't sit down and say, "I want to write a story about the theme 'you are who you choose to be,'" but rather, as they are writing the story, the theme can often evolve out of it. Snyder tells us that either way is fine -- setting the theme first and then writing the story, or writing the story and letting the them arise almost as an "emergent property." McDonald, in Invisible Ink, says nothing about either process. Where does the theme come from in a story? He doesn't provide any clue at all.
The same is true for most of the rest of McDonald's advice: it is extremely vague and general. It's easy to wave your hand and say "Balance the external and internal action." But how does one do this? Surely there are techniques -- tried-and-true methods that help one take an internal struggle and externally dramatize it. Certainly, MacDonald provides lots of examples from his favorite movies like Jaws and E.T. But telling me that Jaws is an example of an internal struggle that has been externalized does not explain the process by which one would go about doing the same in one's own story.
In the end, this book was extremely superficial and had very little meat on its bones. Out of all the books on writing I have read (and it's been a good half-dozen by now), this one has the smallest quantity of helpful advice. For all the razzing Snyder takes, I credit him with at least providing the aspiring writer a bunch of techniques (bulletin boards divided into acts with a certain number of index cards per act... suggestions on how many pages to have per section of the script... etc) to accomplish the advice he is giving you. With Invisible Ink, if you don't know how to come up with a 3-act structure, McDonald's book won't help you. And if you don't know how to come up with a theme, it won't help you do that either. All it'll tell you is that "you need one!"
Overall, I found this book to be extremely general and simplistic. I read this book in a day, not because it was so good I couldn't put it down, but because it was such pablum that I was able to blow through it. A good book on writing should see me making highlights and notes all over it. I highlighted TWO sentences in this book and made not one note.
If you know anything at all about things such as theme and character development, this book is probably too basic for you. If you've never heard of theme or don't know anything about dramatization, then perhaps this book is worth a look.
A final word... I read the eBook version of this on my Nook. It was horrible. Other than periods and commas, nearly all forms of punctuation are absent, including apostrophes and colons. In many cases these characters weren't even replaced by spaces... they are simply deleted. This has the effect of running words together. This is not the author's fault, but someone screwed up turning this into an eBook. I'd suggest getting the paperback or hardcover of this book instead. Definitely do not buy it for the Nook....more
This is another solid installment in the wonderful Gaslight Mystery series -- which is now my all-time favorite series of mystery books. The only thinThis is another solid installment in the wonderful Gaslight Mystery series -- which is now my all-time favorite series of mystery books. The only thing bad I have to say about this series is that I wish they didn't take a year to come out....
In this newest novel, Frank Malloy, NYPD Detective, is trying to hide the fact that, at the end of book 15, he was bequeathed 5 million bucks. He knows as soon as it becomes public, he will be let go from the force -- they can't have a rich "swell" working as a cop. This might seem like a no-brainer to most people; he's rich, so why would he need or want to keep working? But working as a cop and bringing crooks to justice has been who Frank is for so long, he doesn't know what to do with himself otherwise. Although Thompson does not commit herself to the final fate of Malloy, we get some hints that he may end up either as a private eye or a consultant for the NYPD.
As Frank and Sarah ponder their future life together (in book 15, they agreed to marry), Frank is called in on his last case -- to find a missing girl. The case takes some early twists and turns, as we discover some very sick things are going on in what seems like a decent neighborhood of New York. There are two murders to solve, and several suspects. And of course, Sarah and Maeve get involved, as well as Mrs. Ellsworth.
Although I enjoyed this book, I was somewhat disappointed that there weren't more twists and turns. The people who seem to be victims all turn out to be. The villains are who we think they are. What happened is what most people say happened on their first interrogation. The lies are all minor. I kept expecting there to be a sudden twist -- one of the victims turns out only to be pretending, and is really the mastermind behind everything. The guy who was the "assistant" is really the boss. That kind of thing. However, there really weren't any surprises, which I felt cut down the tension later in the story. The most tense part of the book was early on, when Frank and Sarah used Maeve as bait, and I worried that something bad would happen to her. That part got my pulse racing (I like Maeve!), but once she was safe, everything sort of played out in the most obvious way.
That said, the characters introduced in this story are interesting. Although we don't really find out what happens to them beyond the ending of the case, I found myself hoping that the three victims would become friends with each other. Having shared the ordeal they all went through, I could see them bonding... especially the two who were discovered together. I also liked them enough that I wouldn't mind having them put in some "guest appearances" at Sara and Frank's house in future installments. Or maybe they could work at the Mission.
All in all, this was a fun and enjoyable novel with lots of great character development for the major characters, especially Frank and Sarah. There were some fun scenes as well. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Frank and Sarah tell Mrs. Malloy what is going on. Priceless!
If you enjoy the Gaslight Mysteries, this is definitely a book to put on your "must read" list....more