Review – Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I am trying to work my way through the Arthur C. Clarke award and Hugo award Shortlists before their award ceremonies at the end of this month and the start of next respectively. It’s quite a task, and I’m already a little bit behind. I will probably never get through them in time, which is a shame as I am entitled to vote for the Hugo, but it is a noble effort.

As I’m trying to do some reviews, both to get my mind in PhD setting, and to provide some content for this website, the best thing to do is review these as I go along.

I’m sure I will return to posting about writing and some writing advice soon.

For this week I thought I would talk about Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, published by Solaris. I’ve seen this posted everywhere on social media, and it has quite a striking cover, so I’ve wanted to read it for a while. It was handy that it happens to be on both the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo shortlists.

The first thing I noticed is that the opening is quite clumsy and there is a lot of exposition, trying to bring the reader into the world immediately. Exposition is a necessary and often important trope of science fiction, but it has to be done properly. It felt like reading a history text book for this particular world. I almost didn’t continue, it was that hard going. However, I’m someone that has to get to the end of the story whether I want to or not. My friend, and fellow writer, Reece has a 50 page limit where if it doesn’t catch him within the first 50 pages he moves onto another book. I’m 99% sure he would not have read past 50 pages for Ninefox Gambit, but I’m kinda happy I did.

While the description is nice the sense of being in the midst of a battle isn’t there. The character has time to stop and tell us about the different calendars and formations that their people use, but it makes it feel like there is a real disconnect between the action and description. There’s a lot of tell, but not so much show. The only description we get of the enemy that they’re fighting is that they are like the main character’s species, but alien. Not all that helpful, or really mental-image forming. It’s clear it’s a well thought-out world, but the technique isn’t great for getting that across to the reader.

I found the rhythm of the prose a bit jarring as almost every sentence had an interjection. “Nothing he kept in the office would intimidate Kujen, anyway, not the paintings of ninefoxes with their staring tails, not the lack of visible weapons, or the pattern-stones board with its halfway game, or the randomly selected images of still life.” I understand trying to have a narrative voice, but this isn’t one that’s particularly easy to enjoy. However, once the exposition is largely out of the way we start to see more of the character.

It could have started from chapter 3 as this is where the character and setting really start to come out and blossom into something that the reader can engage with. There is still some info-dumping, in an almost autistic way (I’m not sure how the reader is supposed to remember all the different signifiers), but it is much more from the character’s point of view, more natural, and the prose feels tighter for it.

In the middle of chapters there are often letters that the heretics send to one another. This are a nice touch, and it’s a decent framing device. It serves to give a lot more context than to the world that the main character is fighting against, and why they are doing what they’re doing. .

The relationship between Cheris (the main character) and Jadeo is by far the most interesting part of the novel, and really what this novel is about. It’s when the main character starts to really become a character rather than just a blank mathematical all-obeying nothing. While the dialogue can be a bit too much at times – chapters are often dialogue between the two without much else happening – it helps place the two characters, or rather give them character.

The fighting bits once the setting finally gets to the fortress (there’s a long and rather unnecessary setup) are good. They portray the common soldier quite well, and they often have more actual character traits, and are more engaging than the main character herself. These sections are much more compelling, and as a reader I want to follow the soldiers and what happens to them. They give a truer understanding of the world. It made me think of this quote by Orson Scott Card:

“Anyone who knows anything about the military will tell you, the commanders of ships and armies don’t have many interesting adventures. They’re mostly […] sending out the orders to the people who do the physically dangerous work.” (Scott Card, 1990)

While I don’t always agree with this point, I think it’s relevant here.

I like the use of flashbacks towards the end of the novel. Without trying to give too much away there is a clever device to it, and they really start to show you Jadeo’s character. The only downside is that it shows again how blank the main character, Cheris. It’s partly the nature of the fact that she belongs to the Kel clan, which as far as I can tell are brainwashed soldier class. However she does have independent thought, but none of it is compelling enough to really care about her.

Then again, the more you read this novel the more it’s about Jadeo than Cheris.

Overall, the novel is an interesting critique of a fascist regime (or perhaps of the author’s Korean background – I don’t know enough about Korea to say for sure), against democracy, but when the regime is so mind bogglingly complex that you don’t understand it, it’s hard to find empathy. (How on earth can technology be based on a Calendar system?!) I’m fairly mathematical, to the point that I can teach it, but this idea just seems bizarre and frustratingly complex.

You may think that I didn’t like the novel, and sure there is a lot that could be improved. I did spend up to page 300 not wanting to read the sequel, but then I read the ending, and I can’t help but feel that this is a set up for a much more interesting sequel.

Perhaps the author has got over the problems of technique and style in the second book, and the clever world and setting will come to the fore. I will be picking it up at some point.

Thanks for reading.

Bibliography

Lee, Y.H. (2016) Ninefox Gambit. Solaris Books.

Scott Card, O (1990) How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Writer’s Digest Books.

 

How to right a blog?

No, it’s not a typo. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to write a blog post, particularly as I write here on my personal blog, and on The Brush and Boltgun. What makes a good blog? What should you talk about? Why would anyone want to read it?

I think I’ve spent a lot of time in the past really planning out a blog post and trying to have a particular message, or piece of advice across. While that’s probably necessary for something like Brush and Boltgun, which is about the hobby, this blog is to showcase my skills as a writer and keep people up to date with what I’m doing.

As I’ve talked about before, planning and writing a blog can take up a lot of time. Time which I would rather spend writing stories, or working toward my PhD.

For a story, novel, short story, whatever format it may take, planning can be really important. Today I’ve been working on the plot outline for a submission I’m about to make. It can be quite tricky, but that time spent in preparation can pay dividends later on. It definitely helps me to think about things in the story I wouldn’t normally talk about.

But what is a blog if not just a log? This space should be for me to talk to you, my reader. Planning it out can be useful, but I think sometimes I just need to take off that handbrake and type. Sometimes you just need to put your thoughts down on the page.

So I think from now on, that’s what I’m going to do: tell you what I’m thinking.

Today, as I said, I’ve been planning a novella for a submission. I don’t want to tell you too much about that yet, but I will do soon. (I often keep things quite, because I have a slight superstition that when I tell people abut projects they fall through.) But it is a publisher I have submitted to before. However, last time they said they liked my writing, but that it was too similar to something they already published. I take that as encouragement, and this time I hope that not only is the writing good, but it’s suitably different, and interesting, for them to publish. I have had successful submissions before (although not all of them have then come to fruition – once accepted there is still some way to go to be published) so fingers crossed!

Tomorrow is my last day on a contract as a lecturer. That might be quite a shock to some of you. But with my health, I have decided to spend more time on my PhD (which I am supposed to be doing full time anyway), and make sure that I do the best possible work on it.

In order to pay the bills I will still be doing some freelance lecturing. Although, I am on the look out for more freelance work. If you know anything that might be suitable for me, particularly freelance writing or editing then please do get in touch.

I think that will do for now. I’ll be back next week with a further update, and perhaps a book review.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

Objection and ME

I’m annoyed. Annoyed at myself mainly, but also annoyed at this condition I suffer from. (Last week I published a post about ME, which you can read here.)

As part of my MA in writing I set to writing a World War One novel. There were two main reasons for doing this. The first was that I have always had a love for history, and learning the lessons of the past to contextualise where we are today. As a teenager, I visited the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres. The graves and memorials set off something in me, something that I can only describe as a longing to understand “why”?

The second reason for writing the novel is that I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone of science fiction and fantasy and take advantage of the advice and guidance available on my Masters.

The more I researched the setting the more I saw how much Liverpool was linked to the war, and how much it was shaped by it. Everything around me held some link to the war. There were also several Liverpool regiments that fought in the bloodiest battlefields of the Great War. There were so many stories that needed to be told. I’d also watched a Sky one show called ‘Chickens’ about the conscientious objectors, those that refused to fight in the First World War, and it struck me that even a hundred years later these people were considered to be cowards. It infuriated me, and I decided to put a conscientious objector in my novel; the soldier’s brother.

Through drafting it became more and more obvious that both brothers had a story to tell, and through their contrasting stories would show the greater horror of The Great War.

I’m annoyed because last May (2016) I finished the full manuscript of the novel. (The first part was heavily edited as part of my portfolio work for my MA), and I was fairly happy to start sending it out to agents.

I’m annoyed because I then got very ill. I had the worst sinus infection I have ever had, and begun to feel like I did before I was first diagnosed with ME. I’ve only recently started to get back on my feet.

I’m annoyed because I’ve been sending it out to agents recently, but I’m worried that they will think I only wrote this novel to ride on the interest and popularity of the centenary of the First World War, which to me was merely a coincidence for the reasons I have mentioned earlier. I’m also worried that because it is already 2017 and a publishing cycle usually takes about two years (or so I believe?), that agents/publishers won’t take a risk because they think that it will miss the centenary of the end of the war, and the resultant interest.

I’m also annoyed because the film Hacksaw Ridge came out of left field and told the story of a ‘conchie’ in the second world war. It’s a different story, as conchies in WWI arguably had to go through a lot more, but it’s still a concern that people may feel this novel was written due to that. (I wish I could write 130,000 words that quickly!)

I hope that someone will pick it up. It was a very important story to write, and an important story to tell. I genuinely believe people will gain something from reading it. It would be a shame for it to sit in my drawer for the rest of my days.

If you know someone who may be interested, or are interested yourself, please get in contact. I will be more than happy to hear from you!

To blog, or not to blog?

Yes, it seems I’m officially out of clever titles. I may have even used this one before, but any excuse to poorly paraphrase Shakespeare is okay in my book! (The academic in me really wanted to put a citation then.)

I’m annoyed with myself because I haven’t posted a blog in a few weeks. I promised myself that I would do a regular blog and try to build up my readership – you guys. But I’ve been busy – sure that’s everyone’s excuse. Trying to keep up with a part-time academic job, and a full-time PhD isn’t easy, but I should be able to find time to write a little blog, right? I’d hope so, and I’m definitely going to try harder, even if it’s just a book of the week post so you can hear what I’m reading at the moment.

The other reason I haven’t blogged is because I haven’t asked my students to in a few weeks. They’ve been too busy with assessments and it wouldn’t have been fair to make them do a blog too. They’re too busy…

I want to ask you a few questions. I will do some proper research on this, but I want a few opinions first to get a rough idea. (Feel free to comment below)

How important is a regular blog post, or is it better to wait for good content/ideas? Is it good to write a regular post so that people know when to expect it?  When should that be?

I’m trying to work out how to manage this blog, and I want to know how people interact with blogs. Such as how long a decent post should be?

I’ve made a short survey that you can fill out to help me with this, if you have time: Blogging Survey


I’m also looking at increasing my freelance workload. (After complaining about being busy? I know…)

So if you’re a student and you want sometime to check through your work for you and check the content (no promises about grading!) or just to edit/proofread, or if you’re an aspiring author and you want some critique on your writing/some help, then please get in touch. We can work out what you need and sort out an appropriate way of payment.

If this sounds like you, then please send me an email and we can sort something out!


Book of the Week

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

So, I’ve finally got to last year’s Arthur C. Clarke award winning novel. I was going to wait a bit to read this as I’ve got a few things on my reading list that I really want to read, but then I got a few recommendations for this in a matter of days.

I’m now 150 pages in (which may sound like a lot, but it’s only a quarter of its 600 pages), and I’m really enjoying it. It’s nice to pick up a sci fi book that feels fresh and pulls you along for the ride. Adrian is typically a fantasy writer and this is his first science fiction book. It reads like a fantasy writer writing sci fi, but that’s not a criticism. The world building is so strong and so believable that it can only be written by someone who has written fantasy. A common pitfall, and one that I am guilty of, with sci fi is to assume that you can make everything up. But you must absolutely understand how your world works, in as much detail as possible.

Adrian provides that detail, but unlike a lot of sci fi authors he doesn’t hit you over the head with it with long exposition, but rather intertwines it expertly into the narrative.

The other thing that I really like, and it was so subtle it took me about 80 pages to notice, is that both the civilisations represented in the novel are represented by a different tense. The humans are a typical third person past tense, which feels natural. Then the aliens (no spoilers!) have a third person present tense narrative. A subtle difference when kept to different chapters, but a striking one when you realise what it means.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this technique pans out, and how it helps the story.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and please get in contact/leave a comment below!

15 Things to Tell a Writer

Okay, so it has been a while since I have added anything to my blog post.

I have been busy working on my first novel, which is also my portfolio for my masters degree. I thought I would have a break and update my blog. This blog post has been sat in my drafts folder for a while, so I guess point number 1 should really be ‘finish things.’

The last session we had on the masters was a visit from the lovley Jenn Ashworth. One of the things she talked about is her ’15 things to tell a novelist’, which I found quite interesting. Some of the points were things I probably take for granted, but it was nice to see them written down and they are often things that as a writer you forget.

It was mentioned that we could write our own list of 15 things, and I thought that it might be a nice idea. There are some things that I have come across and/or struggled with in my writing that it may help other writers to see. I’ve not called this a 15 things for novelist as I also write short stories and I think the disciplines apply to all types of story whether prose or otherwise. This list is in no way a rulebook, but merely some thoughts that might help you to either produce more, or better work.

Here is the list, in no particular order.

1. Plan your Work. 

There are two main writer paradigms, the ‘planners’ and the ‘seats-of-pantsers’, and either method is fine, but I think in any story there will come a point where the writer needs to know where they are going. This could be a fully outlined synopsis, or chapter breakdown, or by simply researching and knowing your world well enough to wing it. Synopsis have definitely helped me when I’ve got stuck with a story, even if they are the devil to write.

2. Know your Characters

I think that in order to qualify the names you have written in your work as characters then they need to have a backstory. You need to know as much about them as possible. That way when you write them, you will a) know where they are going, and b) give your readers something to care about. It doesn’t need to be a character-driven story, but the reader wants someone they can invest in.

3. Don’t be a Slave to your World-Building

Along the same lines as character backstory, world-building is important. In some genres more than others. But if you do create your own world, as much as you should know everything about it, it is there to serve the story, not the other way around. Don’t let what you want the world to be hold you back in writing the story you want to write. The latter is always more important.

4. Don’t Edit as you go Along

One of the biggest ‘mistakes’ a new writer can make is to try editing as they go along. I even tell this to my academic writing students. Get to the required word count (or end of scene/chapter is probably fine) and then go back and edit it. Otherwise you will spend hours berating yourself over one sentence and never getting anything finished. You may have one perfect sentence, but a sentence does not a story make.

5. Always Show your Writing to Someone Else

One of the main things we learnt on the masters was to be less precious about our work. We were all writing for it to be read, but even then it was a struggle to give it to someone else. One of the most valuable parts of the masters was the workshops we regularly engaged in, and we still meet as much as possible to carry them on outside the course. A reader can tell you things about your work that you take for granted, or simply miss. It may require having a thick skin, but it will definitely improve your work.

6. Set Yourself Targets

Writing regularly is an absolute must if you are serious about writing. Of all the advice I got from published writers when I was starting out that was what they all said, without exception. Obviously, the day job and other commitments can get in the way and things like family always come first. However, if you can set yourself targets then this can ease the pressure. I have a daily word count that I need to meet, which varies depending on the project. Others I know have a monthly word count, or simply set themselves a deadline for having something finished. This allows you to add an element of professionalism even before you have been published, or have a book deal. It will be important then.

7. Allow Yourself to Write Crap

I guess this sits with my ‘not editing as you write’ point, but one of the most difficult things to do as a writer is not worry about the writing. I honestly believe the best way is to turn your internal editor off and get the words down on the page. An analogy that I always use with my writing students is ‘a sculptor cannot sculpt without stone to chip away at, and a writer can not make good work without the words in place.’ I once went to a seminar on ‘Fear and Writing’ with the excellent Kim Newman and the one thing she said that has stuck with me is ‘Give yourself permission to write shit. The first draft is always shit, but you can improve it.’ Excellent advice.

8. Draft and Redraft

Never hand in your first draft for anything. For most editors – and I find the same in an academic setting – a first draft is very obvious. Often you need the first draft to get the story on the page and then use it to figure out your POV, key themes and subplots, to name a few. At the very least you should read it through once and make any obvious edits. I’m not talking spelling and grammar mistakes, everyone makes typos, but glaring story problems, etc.

9. Read Aloud

When I’m reading through a draft I find it immensely useful to read the work aloud to myself. I can’t remember who first told my this tip, but it has been useful to get things like dialogue right. Feel free to put on accents, but simply reading the words aloud helps you to see if the dialogue is wooden or unnatural. I also find that if you stumble over a sentence, or have to read it twice then that highlights that there is something wrong with that sentence and it needs a fix. This obviously can be difficult if you live with other people, but if you are serious about writing then I am sure they will understand. I often have conversations with myself to test dialogue. I’m not mad, honest…

10. Know your POV

One of the most distracting things for a reader is when they don’t know who is telling them the story, or is the prose is confused. This can often be caused by the writer not really knowing what POV (point of view if you don’t know the term) they are trying to employ. Third person past tense is very common these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write it in another style. Just make sure you know how you are trying to write it and stick to the same narrator and tense. That way the reader can get inside the characters head, or follow the story in the way you intended. It can also help you avoid story mistakes.

11. Think about the Function of each Scene/Chapter

Yes, fiction should be fun to read and that is the most important part. But to have a truly effective and fun story the reader needs to know why they are reading. We could talk about character development, arcs and such things, but it can be simpler than that. What is this scene doing? Is it designed to show us the character’s motivation? Is it simply setting out the world? Thinking about it lets you know what you need to include and what is unnecessary information. It will make the writing stronger and more focussed, not to mention fun.

12. Keep Reading

Never stop reading. Well, okay you can go have a wash, books get wet in the shower, yes, but you should always have a book on the go. A writer can learn so much from their peers. If you want to write Science Fiction see what other writers are doing and how they tackle issues. If you want to write historical fiction see how other writers get across the setting and dialogue. See what works and what doesn’t work. Even if you are reading ‘just for fun’, you are always learning. It can be worth trying to pinpoint why you really enjoyed a book, or what it was that meant you put that book down after fifty pages.

13. Don’t take all Feedback as Gospel

At the beginning I stated that these are in no way, shape, or form a list of rules. Find what works for you. If you show your work to others don’t always make the changes that they suggest. Learn to way the good and bad suggestions and edits. The more people you show it to the easier this will be, but there will always be subjective stuff that others don’t like. Be true to the story you are trying to tell, but take on board suggestions and see if you can compromise. If a few people are giving you the same feedback, then maybe you really should delete that needless sex scene…maybe.

14. Research is Key

You might think that certain genres of fiction require more research than others, but that’s not really the case. Readers of science fiction are just as particular as historians, or readers of historical fiction. If you have sound in space then someone is likely to put down your book and go read something else. Research is absolutely key, and it helps you to build a true world, whether it is fantastical or not. It helps make the characters more than just pronouns you have moved around on a page, but actual characters.

15. Always Backup

Almost two years ago I had my Macbook stolen at work. On this laptop was over 15,000 words of un-backed up writing. You can imagine how devastated I was. Sufficed to say, I am yet to return to those stories because I can’t bring myself to realise the loss. The most annoying things is that even then I used a word processor called ‘Scrivener’, that can automatically backup to dropbox. Only, I had not ‘got round’ to setting it up yet. Now I have and every single word I type on my laptop, or my iPad is automatically saved there, as well as a cloud storage device I have at home. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

(I almost lost this blog post because my internet connection keeps dropping on my Mac and I hadn’t realised when I clicked ‘publish’.)

Well I hope some of these rules help you, feel free to comment with your own suggestions, or maybe make your own list. I would love to read it!

Thanks for reading.