Monday, December 20, 2010

Reading for Writing: The Abhorsen Trilogy

Many published and prospective authors who blog seem to purposefully avoid doing regular book reviews. The concern is that eventually they'll have to write negative one, and it’s not a good professional move to bash someone who might share an agent/editor/publisher/conference stage someday. I’m happy to join the trend, especially since there are already plenty of excellent book review blogs out there. I’d rather keep my reviews on Goodreads where I can be brief and relatively private. Although I just realized that even if I do have a public Goodreads profile someday it shouldn’t be much of a PR problem, since most of my 1 and 2 star authors are dead. (Don’t worry, many of my favorite authors are dead too.) 

In any case, there seems little need for book reviews here, BUT, since I do love to read and discuss books, I’ve found a different way to fit them in. Whenever a book I’ve read offers a helpful example for writing – how to craft a compelling villain or solve plot problem X, for example – I’ll try to write up a blurb on it here.  I’ve actually wanted to keep track of helpful examples and lessons for myself for a while now, and this way I can organize them AND share them with others. I really wanted a catchy title for these segments, but the only options I can come up with at the moment are Reading for Writing, Lit Lessons, and Writer Reads (or Writer’s Reads or Writers’ Reads, depending on how you look at it), some combination of which will have to do for now. 

I'll start with the last series I finished: the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. I actually listened to all three (Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen) on audio as narrated by the always entertaining Tim Curry. This is one reason for the entry on audiobooks yesterday (and by yesterday I mean several days ago because I am a slow blogger).

Lit Lessons from the Abhorsen Trilogy:

It is possible to use a third person limited POV that switches from one character to another. While listening to this series I was struggling with POV problems in my WIP – I wanted to switch back and forth between two characters but I felt squeamish about “breaking the rules.” To soften the shifts, I started to make chapter divisions whenever I changed POV, but that simply didn’t work for some scenes. Seeing how Nix made this sort of shifting work in Lirael and Abhorsen really helped and freed me up. I also learned from the few times when it didn’t work as well – when he showed the point of view of a minor character out of the blue. His moves from one protagonist to the other, however, always felt very natural, and it was a relief to see how it could be done.  

It is possible to reuse motifs and character shells from your previous works, as long you do it well, meaning (1) the new situation or character has to be different enough to feel distinct and unique, and (2) something about it or the story has to be more exciting or extreme than the original. In Sabriel, Nix combines a headstrong heroine trying to find her place in the world with a significantly less confident male character and a sarcastic talking animal. In the second book he introduces three new characters that fulfill those same roles, but they are well-defined as distinct characters and he increases other factors (the danger, the action, the number of supporting characters) so that readers don’t feel like they’re reading exactly the same story. Obviously I’d rather have a new angle entirely than have to take on this tactic, but it’s interesting to see it done successfully. 

Which leads me to my brief but important third point: talking animals are awesome, especially sarcastic ones. Also, any books I write with cats are definitely being narrated by Tim Curry in my ideal world.

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