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What I Learned From Elizabeth Moon

Longtime readers of my blog(s) know that one of my favorite books of all time is The Deed of Paksennarion, which I think of as one book because I read it in an omnibus edition. I have reread the entire series more times than I can count. And without a doubt, what I learned from it was point of view.

The execution wasn’t perfect, especially in the first book. The few times Moon shifted out of Paks point-of-view was quite a jolt to me as a reader. But the reason why is clear–I was so immersed in Paks point-of-view that to shift out of it required a bit of an effort.

The book begins as Paks runs away from home to join a mercenary company. A mercenary company is simply an army-for-hire. It starts with Paks as absolutely green–she has only held a sword before. She is taller than most women, but no stronger, and no better at the warrior arts than anyone else. In other words, she is an ordinary soldier.

The series is about her journey from being ordinary to extraordinary, from soldier to paladin. When you think of a paladin, think of an idealized knight, like Lancelot or Galahad.

Here’s a random quote from the opening chapters, with deep point-of-view passages bolded:

Paksenarrion lay quietly as Maia cleaned and poulticed her thighs; a large, cool poultice already covered the swollen half of her face. She’s been given a mug of beef broth and a half-mug of numbwine, and she felt as if she were floating a handspan above her head. She heard the door open, and saw Maia glance up.

Notice the point-of-view stays on Paks even when it is Maia who takes the action. Here’s another selection, a few lines down.

Paks swallowed and tried to speak. Not much sound came out. She tried to look at Kolya, but found she couldn’t turn her head. Kolya suddenly appeared beside the bed. Paks blinked her good eye. She had not really looked at the witness before. Now she noticed black hair streaked with gray, black eyes, dark brows angled across a tan, weathered face. She blinked again, her eyes dropping to Kolya’s broad shoulders, her arm–the sleeve of her robe covered the stump of her left arm.

See how we become Paks? Everything is told through her eyeballs, except for very infrequent POV breaks. To prove it, I opened the book to the second volume, and my eye landed on this paragraph:

Paks tried to hide her feelings, tried to argue herself into calm. She had spoken out once–that was enough for any private. As long as she wore her Duke’s colors, she owed him obedience. He was a good man; had always been honorable … she thought of the High Marshal and wished she had never met him.  He had raised questions she didn’t want to answer. Surely the Duke’s service was worth a little discomfort, even this unease.

Not only are we still in Paks head, but the language remains completely transparent. It never calls attention to itself. You don’t spend much time thinking of the author’s writing, even to admire her prose. You are simply lost in the story. Here, in the simplest language possible, we feel Paks moral ambiguousness. You know, even though she argued herself into putting up with the unease, that it is not over yet. And indeed, this is the beginning of Book 2, where many more quandaries of right vs. wrong presents itself.

Further on in book 2, Paks has a minor mission to fulfill, a delivery to make. Paks is told to deliver a message to a certain person, and the reader knows who it is. Later, however, she is bespelled, and her memory is replaced with another mission. The reader is not told that she is bespelled; simply Paks goes to do something else instead of the original mission. I, the reader, of course, still have my memories, and when she is going to someone else to deliver messages, I was frantically back-paging to see if I remembered it right. And I did. I wondered if the author had screwed up. I was left as clueless as Paks was–even worse, because I knew what should have happened, but Paks just thought this was what she was supposed to do.

But I trusted the author, so I read on. Hundreds of pages went by, and I forgot the incident as I was caught up in the story. Then, toward the end of Book 2, I reached this little scene.

This next example contains a minor but awe-inspiring spoiler, so if you want to read the novels, you might not want to highlight the following text. I would hate to ruin this moment for you. If you’ve read it, or don’t think you’ll read the story, go ahead and highlight this:

Paks is captured by an enemy that she hardly knows exists. A dark elf is taunting her:

“… Perhaps, also, you have been used by those you think your friends. Certainly the elves have not treated you fairly, stealing from you and clouding your memory.” He reached out quickly and laid a cold, dry hand along her brow. As suddenly as light springs into a dark closet, she remembered the Halveric’s scroll that she had sworn to take to his wife in Lyonya–and remembered the elves who had sent her instead to Brewersbridge, to take their messages, while they took the scroll. The iynisi smiled and nodded.

Not a word, not a hint in all this time that anything was amiss, and the author even taking upon herself the risk of looking incompetent, all so she could deliver this gem late in that book. It’s fabulous.

If you’re struggling with point-of-view, I highly recommend this series. It begins with Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, then goes on to Divided Allegiance, and concludes with Oath of Gold. Recently, Elizabeth Moon came out with another book in this series, Oath of Fealty, which is from the point-of-view of a minor character in The Deed. I’ll mention it here when I start reading it. You can read more about Elizabeth Moon at her website, where I see she has another book out this March.

So I went to the bookstore …

… and was wandering around the Fantasy/Science Fiction section, looking for a new author to read. Not new as in debut, but new as in new to me. Almost bought Naomi Novik’s Temeraire omnibus, but decided I’d rather have it in ebook, and besides, I already have the first novel. I read it several years ago, but it’s on my keeper shelf. 🙂

Then, I thought of Brandon Sanderson. I thought, I really ought to be reading Brandon Sanderson. He’s one of the hot new authors, and I’ve never read him. And from what I heard of him, I thought I’d enjoy his stories. So I headed to the S section and picked up his first novel, Elantris.

And then I realized I was doing it again. This is exactly what I used to do years ago, before I started Fantasy Debut. I can’t seem to kick the debut habit. Amused with myself, I picked up the second story, Mistborn. I liked the idea of a female protagonist, so I decided to start with it. And so I did.

Another debut author who I really think I need to read is Audrey Niffennegger because she wrote a time travel story (The Time Traveler’s Wife) and I’m working on a time travel historical. Occasionally. When I’m not writing fairy tales. Which is almost never these days.

So I’m sampling Mistborn, but the book I’m earnestly reading right now is L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Prospero in Hell, which is the second novel in the Prospero’s Children series. I love it!

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Speaking of fairy tales, I decided to write a prequel to my Cinderella retelling and post it as a free read. I’ll be playing with ebook formats when I do, and I may even load it at Amazon, if it doesn’t look too time consuming. I’m really, really pleased with the story so far. I think it will only run 3000 words or so. The Cinderella story, however, will be close to 40,000 words, if it doesn’t go over.

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This week, I am scheduled to have Shawn Kupfer as a guest on Thursday. Shawn is the genius behind tweet_book, which was the first draft of a novel — 47 Echo — written entirely on Twitter. He is going to write about his unusual path to publication.

What I Learned from Harry Potter

Way back when, before I started Fantasy Debut, I would read successful debut fantasy novels in an attempt to discover their secrets of success. Harry Potter was one such novel. I didn’t generally read YA, although I do enjoy the genre from time to time, and I wasn’t interested in Harry Potter because in my mind, it didn’t even qualify as YA. The protagonist, after all, was only 11.

But this was about when book 3 came out, and there was considerable hoopla building up along with talk about a movie. I decided to read it because I figured as a serious writer, I had to. My niece had the first two books, so my sister lent them to me.

ChamberOfSecretsI found the opening chapters to be fun, but I had suspension of disbelief problems. Things got better at Diagon Alley, and more so at Platform 9 and Three Quarters. And by the time school was in session and the Quidditch season got going, I was rolling my eyes. The whole invention of Quidditch seemed so obviously constructed to appeal to little boys. (I learned from that too — although I didn’t want to admit it.) I finished book 1 in short order, and started book 2.

Then, I started noticing something. The scenes all had structures that went something like this:

Scene set-up
build-up
plot advancement
teaser

Rowling didn’t do much of this in book one–I just looked. I noticed it in book 2. Here’s an illustrative scene. Everyone get out your copies–you do have a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, do you?– and turn to Chapter Fourteen, Cornelius Fudge. The first scene is about Hagrid. The second scene is about choosing subjects for the next year at Hogwarts. It ends with this little paragraph:

But the only thing Harry felt he was really good at was Quidditch. In the end, he chose the same subjects as Ron, feeling that if he was really lousy at them, at least he’d have someone friendly to help him.

What do you think the next subject is about? That’s right: Quidditch. That short scene ends with a revelation about the main plot, and the next scene is about a Quidditch match that gets cancelled and ends with McGonnagall about to address the students about canceling the match. The next scene is about that announcement, and ends with Harry deciding to snoop around in his dad’s invisibility cloak. And the next scene is about sneaking around with the cloak and listening to a conversation between Fudge, Dumbledore and Hagrid, and ends the chapter with a speculation about the overarching plot.

Each scene led to the next one with a little nugget about what was to come. It wasn’t obvious, and they weren’t always cliffhangery. But whenever a scene change leads to a subject change, you almost always know what is coming next.HalfBloodPrince

Let’s check out how good Rowling got at this technique by her later books. I’m going to open Book 6 at random and find a scene break.

Ok, I opened to chapter 6 and it appears to be all one scene. And so does the next chapter. Hmm. Rowling seems to have dispensed with scene breaks entirely, and scenes are now chapters. But the technique still stands. At the end of Chapter 10, Harry notices a ring that Dumbledore is wearing. He asks Dumbledore about the ring, and Dumbledore responds that Harry will have to hear the story another time. And so the pages turn on and on.

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Before I noticed this in Rowling’s books, my scene transitions were nonexistent. Now, I always think of the next scene as I am concluding the previous, and I try to think of a segue that works with both scenes.

If I may be so bold as to put a quote from my own book on the same pages as a quote from Ms. Rowling, here’s how Chapter 5 of The Sevenfold Spell ends:

I was picky, in my own way. I looked for the men so often rejected by other women: the too thin, the too chubby, the too pocked, the too graying. But I also looked for shyness, for awkwardness, for the socially inept. Was I looking for another Willard? Perhaps. I never found one, but I did find some men who stayed with me for lengths of time that measures in months rather than weeks. One even stayed with me for over a year.

Only one was handsome.

And what do you think Chapter 6 is about? Yes–the handsome man.

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Please let me know what you think of this little series. I’m already thinking of the next one, where I’ll take an opposing approach–I’m going to write about something I learned not to do from an author whose earlier books I admired.