In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.
<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language’: what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>
So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.
Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.
‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.
And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.
Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.
My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.
Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”
I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.
A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.
It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.
Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:
Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
|“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.|
Did he receive you well?
|“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.|
[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I'm pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you'd see in dialogue in a novel.]
Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.
Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.
So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.
And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)
- The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
- I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)
The premise: We have a serial killer who kidnaps his victims and then sends out an email spam exhorting people to email it to ten friends, and they mail it out, and they mail it out . . . and if one of those friends of friends of friends happens to be one of his friends, he won’t kill the victim. If he doesn’t get the spam back, the local police receive a package: the victim’s lower jawbone, boiled and polished.
Now, on top of this, throw in a main character whose wife is taken by this killer, but the police never receive a jawbone. Neither, however, is she released, so of course, they police suspect him. And throw in a man who confessed to the murders, but who can’t be the killer, because he’s never left his hometown. And throw in another man who confesses, and ends up serving time for the crimes. And two seemingly unrelated murders. And family secrets. And betrayals. And a twisted cast of characters, any or all of whom are probably capable of being this Vacation Killer.
The pace is good, the characters are believable, and the situations are believable.
I can’t say too much else without massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that because I enjoyed each new revelation too much to deprive others of that same sense of discovery. :)
I will say, however, that I did not figure out who the killer was until it was revealed in the text. But I wasn’t at all surprised.
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Are you tired of sexy, hot vampires who gaze at women for, like, a milisecond before said women rip their clothes off to throw themselves at him? Are you tired of werewolves who basically do the same thing, only hairier and more bestially?
Then this book is for you. Meet Earl the vampire and Duke the werewolf. Earl and Duke are basically good-ol’ boys who, through bad luck, became undead. They’re aren’t hot. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t even particularly nice or smart. But they have a knack for solving people’s supernatural problems, and that’s what gets them into trouble when they pull into Gil’s All Night Diner for a bite to eat (for Duke).
This was a fun read. There were a few things that annoyed me about it at first, such as the main characters’ propensity for using one another’s names more often than people in real life do. Luckily, that didn’t last long.
The pace is good, with a few curve balls thrown in. Both the vampire and the werewolf lore in this book is not what you’d expect if you’re into the more traditional mythology, but it’s consistent and explained well, and makes this Martinez’ own mythos.
It was a satisfying, fun, quick read, and I look forward to reading more by Martinez.
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Note: The summary below is for less than the first hundred pages of a 300-page book. I don’t consider them spoilers, but if you’re a stickler, don’t read beyond this.
There’s quite a lot to like about this book. The author, Stuart Jaffe, was unknown to me before I attended a small science fiction/fantasy con in Chattanooga, TN, in June of 2013. My friends and I met the author, spent some time with him, liked him, and I ended up buying two of his books because they sounded interesting. This is the first I have read. Note: The other author, Cameron Francis, is a magician, and all of the card “tricks” in the book are his. Jaffe and Cameron do a good job of showing card tricks without the use of cards. :)
The main character, Duncan Rose, starts out not very likable. He learned all about magic — especially card-handling techniques — from his great-grandfather, Pappy. But instead of using his skills to make an honest living as a stage magician, he cheats at cards. This backfires on him one night, and his partner in crime, Pancake, who also knows a little about cheating at cards, cheats the wrong people and nothing Duncan does to try to defuse the situation helps. Minor spoiler: Pancake ends up losing his hand to the Russian mob, and the men are told they have to come up with $20,000 before morning or worse things are going to befall them. [White-on-white text; highlight to read spoiler.]
Desperate, Duncan turns to his estranged family and gets no help. They’re all tired of his dishonest lifestyle. As a last-ditch effort, he goes to the one person he can trust: Pappy.
Who turns him down.
In despair, Duncan decides that he is going to have to do the unthinkable: steal from Pappy. Pappy has kept a mysterious, elaborately decorated door closed in his apartment for years, warning Duncan again and again never to open it. But suddenly, whatever might be behind that door sounds like the solution to Duncan’s problems. He opens the door and steps through.
And winds up outside a house in a small city in Pennsylvania. In 1934. He’s wearing different clothes and finds less than five dollars in his pockets. He tries to convince himself it’s all an elaborate illusion set up by Pappy, but quickly realizes that it’s real. For whatever reason, the door is magic — the real thing — and he really is in 1934. His goal: to get back to 2013 and fix things.
He immediately falls back on his one real skill and finds a card game he can cheat at. He discovers he’s not the only one pulling the same scam. He and the other magician, Vincent, team up and cheat some mobsters out of $100, which is a large sum of money in 1934.
Unfortunately, their boss figures it out and comes for Duncan. And makes him a deal: Duncan is to get himself into the local magic club (of which Vincent is the head honcho) and find out their secrets and relay everything he discovers to the mob boss “or else.”
He soon discovers that everyone is after the same thing: a mysterious Vanishing Door act performed by a magician near the turn of the century. An act during which several people actually disappeared. Lucy has drawn a picture of the door, and it looks strangely familiar: a lot like the door in Pappy’s apartment.
Vincent wants the door because he wants the secret of the trick. Duncan wants it because he believes it to be his ticket home to 2013. The mob boss wants it for the power he believes it will give him.
To complicate things, Duncan finds himself head over heels in love with Vincent’s sister, Lucy, and is torn between leaving her in 1934 or bringing her with him back to 2013.
I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say that the resolution was refreshing to me. Time travel stories generally have a number of problems, but Jaffe manages to thread that particular needle nicely, and finds a solution that didn’t make me groan and roll my eyes.
The tension is kept high as Duncan must satisfy the mob boss while simultaneously gain the trust of Vincent and the other magicians in the magic club and not betray his growing love for Lucy, and hers for him. The pacing is fast, and you will be kept turning the pages not only to find out how — or whether — Duncan manages to find a solution to all of his problems, but how the love story between Lucy and Duncan turns out.
I enjoyed watching Duncan grow from a likable character to one that finds true love and tries to do the right thing.
The characters are believable, the time travel is nicely handled (although never explained, which I’m fine with), and the resolution is satisfying. Although I did (eventually) see the end coming, it has a certain elegance that I wasn’t expecting from the trope used. (Is that mysterious enough?)
I would recommend the book to those who enjoy magic, time travel, “period pieces,” mysteries, and love stories. It has aspects of all of them, and yet isn’t purely any of them.
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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a book by Holly Lisle on my Kindle. She was talking about how she would occasionally have to delete many, many words from her novels because she went down a wrong path while writing. As much as 60,000 words, I believe she said.
Wow. That’s a lot of words to scrap.
Welcome to my psyche, ladies and gentlemen! Don’t mind the occasional flashes or thunderous explosions. It’s not a thunderstorm — those are ideas going off. And those cobwebs over in that corner . . . well, I wouldn’t get too close to that. Just in case.
Rereading and abandoning are opposite ends of the spectrum. A book you reread — especially multiple times — is one that is much like comfort food. Perhaps it reminds you of a state of mind you were in when you first read it, or helps escape from a mood you’re currently in because it did in the past. For whatever reason, there are books we come back to again and again.
I have probably reread The Chronicles of Narnia more than any other books. I first read them at age 13, pretty much all in one weekend. I would — to this day — like to go to Narnia. I would leave right now. Anyone got a magic wardrobe? They are my comfort books. Simple characters in a simple world with simple morality. There is nothing too high concept or ambiguous; the fact that most of the books take place during World War II is glossed over. There is right (Aslan, Narnia) and there is wrong (The White Witch, Tashban, pretty much everywhere else). It’s a nice vacation from the real world. (And that’s all I read it for. I purposefully don’t examine it any closer than that.)
The other book I’ve reread the most after Narnia is an omnibus version of F. M. Busby’s The Demu Trilogy. These are just wonderful reads. I find something different each time I read them. Some new insight into a character, some different angle from which to observe human behavior. It distresses me that the books are out of print. I hope they are reprinted someday. My copy is getting a bit worn. I love how, in the books, humanity is portrayed not as a blight on the galaxy or as some Star Trekian ‘noble savages’ who are, alone among all the races in the galaxy, possessed of that oh-so-indomitable human spirit which . . . I have to stop typing now or I’m going to vomit. Anyway, Busby threads a path between the two, and in the end reveals the true standing of man — and other races — in the nature of things, galactically speaking. If you can find a copy and you like hard science fiction, get it.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? When, exactly, does one abandon a book? Why? What are the criteria for giving up?
There was a time when giving up on a book was simply not an option. Once I had a book, once I started to read it, I had to finish it. I still think that way to a large extent, although I’m getting better.
Here are some I’ve abandoned, and why. Most of them with every intent to pick it back up and finish or reread it. Someday.
The Watchmen by Alan Moore (et al). Some of you are thinking right now, “Oh my ever-loving God, what is wrong with this idiot?” Because this is, like, one of the most beloved graphic novels in ever. It supposedly changed the way graphic novels are written. It revolutionized . . . whatever. I have read this up to the same, exact point four times, and then put the book down . . . and it somehow remains closed. That point is where the comic format is abandoned and I come to the first page of prose in tiny letters that fill the entire page like some manifesto. I get about two sentences into that, my eyes glaze, my mind wanders, and I have thoughts like, “You know, the cat needs waxing. I should do that.” I have every intention of finishing it. Everyone I know who has read it looks at me like I’ve grown a second head (I checked; I have not) when I admit that I can’t get through it.
Infected by Scott Sigler. I’ve enjoyed every other book by Scott that I’ve read or heard (he podcasts them). He’s a good writer, and I thoroughly enjoy his work. And, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy this one. But it’s so unbelievably gross and horrific from a physical standpoint (what the character does to himself to escape infection) that I can only read a few pages at a time before disgust makes me have to stop. I stopped reading altogether when I saw what was coming down the line involving the main character’s testicles, and I just can’t bear to even think about what he’s going to do. Gah! Just typing that hurt. Anyway . . . not sure if I’ll ever finish it. Much less the sequel, which I also own.
A Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole. With all due respect to Mike, whose other books that I’ve read I have loved, this one just bored me to tears. I think I got about 50 pages in. None of the characters resonated with me. Their mission (to map the world) didn’t resonate. I still fully intend to read it, because Mike uses it as an example for his writing podcast, but it’ll be forced. Unless I’m in a different state of mind when I re-read it, of course.
Moonseed by Stephen Baxter. I just discovered that this is, in fact, book 3 of a trilogy. No wonder I couldn’t get into it. At any rate, I stopped because the situation looked so bleak for the characters and for Earth that I couldn’t see any way out for them, and . . . just never picked it back up after the depressing spiral into awful that it was taking at the time I stopped. Perhaps if I read books 1 and 2 . . .
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I know, I know. I know this book won All The Awards™. I know it’s awesome and other adjectives of a superlative nature. But . . . I just couldn’t get into it. I found no character I liked. I didn’t buy into the culture. I just didn’t like it. Maybe it was because I was reading it for a book club and not for myself, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate. I hope to reread it some day and see what everyone else found so engaging.
There are several more books on my list. And by ‘my list,’ I really do mean that there is a list. I have a shelf on Goodreads called ‘currently reading but paused’ to store those books. And there are others that are not on that list because I haven’t put them on Goodreads, yet. Dozens. And I intend to finish each and every one of them, if it takes me twenty years.1
What books do you like to reread? Why? What books have you given up on? Why?
- It did actually take me twenty years — or more! — to finish Fire Time by Poul Anderson. I just kept losing interest because it was, for the most part, political, and that bores me to tears. But it was a book, I bought it, and therefore I had to read it.
This book was just freakin’ weird. That is the only word that suffices. Gross, horrific, and disgusting in about equal measure, it was also funny as hell and kept me glued to the pages from start to end. (It was kind of uncomfortable, actually.)
I’m not even sure how to review this thing without spoiling it. There’s this guy named David Wong, and his friend John. They . . . hunt monsters. Like this one monster that’s made of meat. Not in the way that you or I are made of meat, but in a more literal way. Like, it’s a monster . . . made of meat. Like, meat from a freezer, all held together in a disgusting way by a supernatural power of evil.
Which can be vanquished, apparently, by really loud, heavy metal music played on a boom box. Or mint candies with bible verses printed on them.
And there’s a dog named Molly who both is and isn’t a dog. Who can sometimes levitate and talk. Of course, all she says is something about Korrok.
Korrok . . . that would be the big, supernatural evil. Kind of. It’s complicated.
I’m making kind of a mess of this, aren’t I?
Um. There’s also a girl. More than one, actually. Jennifer Lopez and Amy. No, not that Jennifer Lopez. The less said about her, the better.
Amy, though . . . she’s the kind of girl who disappears from inside a locked room for several hours every night, to be replaced by a bag of what looks like fat. And a giant, levitating jelly-fish. Of evil. Only she doesn’t remember where she went.
Look, just read it. Seriously. I . . . just read it.
One of my goals for 2013 is to read more short fiction. This collection definitely fit the bill. I love short fiction, and I love well-done humor. This anthology is nicely balanced. The humor ranges from puns with elaborate set-ups that are a great deal of fun to more subtle humor that doesn’t make you laugh out loud, but may make you chuckle. Evilly, even.
I think there’s definitely something in this collection for everyone, no matter what your sense of humor. The comics are a nice addition I wasn’t expecting, although my one complaint is that they’re awfully hard to read on the Kindle edition. Luckily, I have a print edition, as well, so I can see them there.
I was just looking at the table of contents to see if I could pick a favorite. Harder than I thought.
“El and Al vs. Himmler’s Horrendous Horde from Hell” by Mike Resnick is definitely in the top few. Resnick is one of the masters of short fiction, and this story kept me giggling throughout. Just imagine Albert Einstein as a wizard fighting Himmler . . . and you still don’t really come close. You need to read it.
I also really enjoyed “The Alien Invasion As Seen In The Twitter Stream of @dweebless” by Jake Kerr. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll doubly appreciate the humor.
“The Velveteen Golem” by David Sklar also satisfied by providing an entirely hilarious story that surprised me at the end with a deplorable (meaning really good, in this case) word pun that I should have seen coming but didn’t.
I think of all of them, Jody Lynn Nye’s “The Worm’s Eye View” and Ferrett Steinmetz’s “One-Hand Tantra” were my favorites. Nye’s story is a good hard sci-fi story that manages to weave humor into it in a way that doesn’t detract from the science fiction. Kudos to her for that.
Steinmetz’s story…ah, what I can say about this that won’t get me banned from Goodreads? :) “Hilarious!” That works. I mean, who knew masturbation could be a magical power?
You’ll definitely find something here to tickle your funny bone.
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On the Quillian Chronicles, each time we present a story, we follow it up with an interview with the author. My interview is now live, if you have any desire to hear it. :)
I loathe the sound of my own voice. But I think everyone does. So . . . there you have it. Go. Listen. Download. Share. But only after you share the story as well. :)
Well, there were a few problems and episode 12 with my story was delayed a while, but it’s up, today. I would really appreciate it if you’d follow this link right HERE and download and listen to my story. :)
It’s just under 43 minutes long, including the intro and outro. John Lambert did a great job making my raw audio file sound good, and I couldn’t be more delighted with the music he chose (Skye Cuillin by Kevin MacLeod) for the episode.
I misread a pronoun at one point and referred to my dragon as “she,” but hopefully you can overlook that. :)
Squee! Go download! And listen! And share! :)