Love and Hate in Reviews

There’s been a bunch of conversations happening online recently focusing on book reviews, and the necessity of having good reviews for writers to reach any kind of critical mass in readership that allows a book (or book series) to take off.

It’s certainly true that having a bunch of good reviews for a book will encourage other readers to give it a chance. As long as the marketing blurb is also good. And the cover. And the actual writing in the sample chapter.

It seems to be true that many readers rely on reviews to determine if a book is worth buying and reading. There’s certainly an overlap between books with large numbers of positive reviews and those that sell well.

But, from a writer’s perspective, reviews are a funny thing.

I was thrilled when I got my first positive review. It was from someone I didn’t know (which meant it wasn’t just one of my friends being nice), and I was very happy that an individual out there in the world had gotten some pleasure from something I had created.

I got a few other reviews, and they were also generally positive. And since I hadn’t gotten enough actual reviews to make it impossible to follow, I would usually check out each new review as I became aware of it.

And then I got my first negative review. I read it, chuckled, showed it to my wife and said “I’ve got one!” It was a 1-star review and it pulled no punches on explaining that I had no ability to set a scene or tell a good story.

Apparently, getting a negative review is a big deal to many writers, especially to indie writers. Negative reviews are seen as an indication that there is something wrong with the book, something big and terrible that can’t be ignored. Something that needs to be fixed.

Now, negative reviews might occasionally help you…if you’ve got a bunch of reviews that tell you that readers liked your book but almost didn’t buy it because of your ugly, unprofessional-looking cover, then maybe you should consider your options. After all, even the big publishers change book covers on a regular basis to appeal to different regional markets or just to refresh interest in a book.

But that has nothing to do with being a writer.

The hardest part for any artist is to reach a point in which he or she determines that any particular piece of art is finished. I’ve spoken to many artists in many different mediums, and knowing when it’s time to stop fiddling with a piece of art (regardless of its form) and put it out there for public consumption is something with which we all struggle.

And then the dreaded 1-star review comes out and the artist thinks, “maybe if I had spent another few weeks tweaking Chapter 3, or deepening the motivation of my villain, then people might like it.”

But the reality is that no book is going to make everyone happy. Every book gets a 1-star review eventually, assuming that people read it.

Here are some actual 1-star reviews that I found on Amazon, to show you what I’m talking about.

“I can understand why it was not popular in its time. What I can’t understand is how it ever became popular. It is simply a turgid, unreadable slog.”

 

“I really couldn’t stand this book. Long and drawn out. Same points over and over. I love reading and honestly have to say was incredibly hard to force myself to pick it up.”

 

“It’s like a book to read to say you read it. Love his other stuff. This is crap.”

 

“The characters were so pedictable [sic].”

 

“What a waste of my time! I could have been infinitely more culturally enlightened by watching Sanford and Sons sitcom reruns, I’m sure of it.”

 

“The book just did not hold my interest. I do not have time for self-pitying, whining, or lack of motivation, even in fictional character.”

 

“You get the author’s message in the first chapter, and he spends the rest of the book beating you over the head with it.”

  • 1-star review of 1984

 

“When people gloat about finishing the whole thing, you know it’s bad.”

And if we’re considering material in the science fiction and fantasy genre specifically…

“The taste I walked away with is that the work, at its best point, is a half-baked religious-political-science concoction. It is undoubtably, the most arbitrary book I’ve ever read.”

This next one makes me laugh out loud…

“I feel like it was the base for fan fiction because there were so many holes to fill.”

  • 1-star review of Dune

 

“Very slow character and plot development and too many useless details. Gave up.”

 

“Very slow, dull, predictable, and wholly uninteresting.”

1-star review of A Wizard of Earthsea

Yes, I’m having some fun here. For every one of those 1-star reviews, there are hundreds—in some cases, thousands—of 4-star and 5-star reviews.

But that’s my point. No matter how beloved a book might be, whether it’s a new genre novel or a “literary classic,” there are people out there who are going to hate it.

As a writer, as an artist, there is only one thing to do. Finish the book, the painting, the drawing, the photo, the sculpture, or whatever it is you do, and put it out there. And then get working on your next piece.

Let readers worry about reviews. Artists need to focus on their art.

Books I wish I had written

(Or…What Inspires Me as a Writer)

We all have our favorite books—those we read again and again, that speak to us directly and touch something inside of us.

Writers have a slightly weird relationship to novels, especially great novels. Before I wrote my first novel, I could get sucked into a great story and let myself go, enjoying it for what it was and reveling in the world unfolding in the page and in my imagination. But things are different now.

Reading a truly great novel brings me a strange mixture of emotions: joy at finding a story that resonates with me, jealousy that I didn’t think of this idea first (and that I may not have done such a wonderful job with it), interest in the craft that went into the creation of the story, curiosity about the influences on the author both before and during the writing, and others.

It’s rare that I can lose myself in a story that I’m reading anymore. In some ways, I’ve lost something that I can’t ever get back. On the other hand, I know what It’s like to write a novel (or a few), and I’m intimately familiar with the hard work, the emotional roller-coaster, all the behind-the-scenes stuff, and that almost makes up for what I’ve lost.

Almost.

To be sure, the joy of actually writing—and make no mistake, I do absolutely love the process of writingdoes make up for what I’ve lost when I’m reading someone else’s work. But that’s a different kettle of fish, as they say.

As a reader, I’ve got a list of books that I love. And as a writer, I’ve got books that I wish I had written. The lists certainly have some overlap, but aren’t exactly the same.

And I’m not talking about the obvious books, either. Sure, it would be nice to be the person who wrote the Harry Potter series (and have the money that came with that incredible success), but that has nothing to do with the words on the page.

It’s also hard to put these in a particular order, so I’m just going to go alphabetically. I originally was going to name my top five, but keeping to a particular number was difficult, as you’ll see.

Amber by Roger Zelazny (1970 – 1978)

I’m cheating here a bit with this one, because the first chronicle technically consists of five novels (Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos). However, these are very short books (all but one are under 200 pages), and these five novels make up a single, continuous story. As I wrote last month, the prose is an absolute joy to read, and the characters are amazing. Zelazny makes the twists and turns of the chronicle seem effortless, and I’m driven to study his style of writing and figure out how he does what he does.

I’m not nearly as much of a fan of the second chronicle, which suffers from some problems. It’s not terrible, but also not a series I plan to ever reread.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

I’ve read Dune too many times to count. In fact, I’ve read every Dune novel by Frank Herbert, and then went on to read every other novel by Herbert that I could get my hands on. But this was the epic science fiction story that started it all, and it has everything I could possibly want in a story.

Herbert himself played with the elements of narration in this book, burying haiku poems within the prose and other fun experiments, and it flows like no other book I have ever read. If there had to be a #1 on this list, Dune would be it.

It’s also great to note that Dune was turned down by over twenty publishers before “a little-known printing house best known for its auto repair manuals” published the book in 1965. It then went on to win the 1966 Hugo Award and inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel, and is considered the best-selling science fiction novel in history. Yeah, big publishers are the gatekeepers of quality all right.

Important Note: I suggest you avoid the Dune novels that were not written directly by Frank Herbert (which are only the six books Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune). I have literally nothing good to say about any of the others.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979)

This is much more than just a horror story, and Straub’s cast of characters are about as real as they get in a piece of fiction. Forget the movie, which simply couldn’t capture the weight of this story (and changed the villain to make it easier on viewers). Sure, Ghost Story is scary at times—in fact, it’s terrifying at times—but it’s a lot more than that, an exploration of how the past can come back to haunt you, both figuratively and literally.

The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker (1990)

I’ve been a big Clive Barker fan for a long time, and I’ve read almost every one of his books. But I honestly wish this particular one was mine. While the theme of the hidden supernatural world that exists behind the scenes of normal, everyday life is present in most of his stories, this is the one grabbed me and didn’t let go. From the very first chapters in the dead letter office, to the hut of the sorcerer Kissoon that exists in a few looping seconds of time, to the veil that protects the world from the Iad Uroboros, there is so much there. It’s not just what he includes in the book, but all the stuff that its existence implies that really touches me, and it’s masterfully done.

The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons (1989 – 1997)

Like the Chronicles of Amber above, I’m cheating here a little, but it’s nearly impossible to choose one particular books out of all four in this series by Dan Simmons (Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion). They are all fantastic, and together they make up one amazing story. The Hyperion Cantos (as the series is called) is an epic science fiction story, broken into two parts. The first two novels make up the first half of the story, and the last two novels make up the second half that takes place 272 years after the first half ends. I’ve read a few other novels by Simmons, and it turned out I didn’t enjoy them at all. But that’s okay, because these four books really inspire me as a writer.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2008)

As much as I love this book, I know I could never write something like this (which makes even more painful because I really wish I had it in me). As the most recently-published book on this list, I’ve had the least amount of time to reread this one (though I’ve already read it three times since it came out). This is an amazing combination of heist novel, fantasy story, and world-building. The dialogue is a joy to read, you can’t help but love the characters even when they’re being annoying, and Lynch makes the complicated plots-within-plots look effortless. Some people feel the sequels aren’t as good, but I think that’s mostly because the next books don’t have that feeling of discovering something brand new that the first novel had. Besides, when your debut is this amazing, it’s nearly impossible to meet fan expectations for any follow-up books.

Conclusion

Looking at the above list, it’s quite a mixture of horror (Ghost Story, The Great and Secret Show), science fiction (Dune, The Hyperion Cantos), and fantasy (Chronicles of Amber, The Lies of Locke Lamora). I hadn’t really given that any thought when I decided to make a list for this post, and it surprised me a little as all my novels so far sit fully in the sword & sorcery sub-genre of fantasy.

Now there are plenty of other individual novels and series that I love, and some I have read multiple times, but I love those purely as a reader. These are the ones that inspire me and, yes, do make me a bit jealous of the skill these authors display. But writing is an ongoing process, and all writers who keep writing continue to learn and grow.

And I’m driven by the combined process of creating and learning that is writing, which is why I see myself continuing to do so as long as I am able.

If you’re a writer, what books have you read that make you think “I wish that one belonged to me?” If you’re a reader, what (ideally fiction) books inspire you the most? Tell us about it in the comments.

Through the eyes of the first person…

Recently, I began reading the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny to my son. I’ve had The Great Book of Amber, which collects all ten novels in the series (though not the short stories) for many years, and this series has stuck with me since my initial read of it.

Zelazny published the first of the Amber novels, Nine Princes in Amber, in 1970, and the last novel, Prince of Chaos, was published in 1991. The series has had major influence on the fantasy genre since it was released, and Roger Zelazny is known as one of the great storytellers of our time. George R.R. Martin credited the Amber books—and Zelazny himself—as a major influence on his own career.

At this point, my son and I have just started the third book in the series, Sign of the Unicorn. They are not particularly long books, especially compared to the 500+ page epic fantasy novels that are published these days. But that makes them easy reads and the story always keeps moving.

The Viewpoint of One

Those who have read the Amber novels know that they are all written in the first person, with Corwin narrating the first five novels and Merlin narrating the last five. This is notable because there are few long fantasy series being published these days with first-person narration. You certainly couldn’t have a Game of Thrones or Malazan Book of the Fallen series told in first person simply due to the sheer number of viewpoint characters in each of those series.

Bernard Cornwell uses first-person narration to great effect in his Warlord Chronicles series and the epic Saxon Chronicles (also known as The Last Kingdom stories due to the television series). I can’t say if he uses that same narrative approach in his other books, as those are the only two series that I’ve read (and loved). But there’s no doubt about the popularity of Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles books around the world. They are at the top of the historical fiction genre.

And, of course, there is the Black Company books, by Glen Cook. Another great series that epitomizes the military fantasy sub-genre, the Black Company stories are told by the company’s historian, Croaker.

What all these series have in common are the way the voice of the narrator becomes an essential part of the story. The Corwin stories in the Amber Chronicles simply wouldn’t have worked if it they been written in the third-person. Corwin’s voice, his choice of words, what he chooses to tell the reader and what he withholds, all combine to bring the story to life in ways a third-person narration couldn’t possibly do.

What you learn about Corwin’s siblings only comes from his own point of view, and you cannot separate what he tells you from how you feel about them. Was Eric really evil? He certainly seems so at times, and yet the reader never sees Corwin’s hated brother through any other eyes. And so the reader’s experience is filtered through a single viewpoint, a single frame of reference, and this impacts the story directly.

When writing The Tower of Dust, I originally planned the novel to be in the third person. In fact, there’s a draft of the first couple of chapters on my computer written in that way. But by the time I had reached the beginning of Chapter Three, I was struggling with the prose. I kept slipping into Borolt Zale’s voice unintentionally. Finally, I went back and rewrote those early chapters in first person and everything fit into place.

For my other novels, though, I found that third person worked much better. Those novels have multiple viewpoint characters, and that was necessary for me to be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Having them be in first person would have changed them too much from what was in my head.

But when reading the Amber stories to my son, I’m really enjoying Corwin’s voice. There’s a rhythm to the prose that makes the story flow off the tongue. There are no awkward phrases or unusual word patterns that take me out of the story. Instead, I’m able to put myself into the mind of Corwin and tell the tale as I imagine he is telling it to his own son (which is actually what’s supposed to be happening as you read the story).

Conclusion

I’m glad I picked the Amber series as the next one to read after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. My son loves the books so far, and he’s bugging me to read more to him every day. He can’t wait to find out what is going to happen, now that Corwin has returned to Amber and the attacks on the city are growing more numerous and deadly.

Despite the first-person narration and the style of the prose, the books don’t feel dated at all. They hold up well despite the 47 years since the first was published. Corwin is a great protagonist, flawed in many ways but with a charm that is undeniable. You can’t help but root for him, even as his own arrogance gets him into trouble again and again.

What do you think of the Amber Chronicles? What other fantasy series have you read that were told in the first-person? And how did it contribute (or detract) from the stories themselves? Tell us about it in the comments.

Reading and Writing: Reader Expectations

As I mentioned many times, I love to read out loud to my wife and son. I’ve gotten to share so many books with them over the years, and it’s so much fun to do.

Over the last month, I introduced my son to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. In the past few weeks, I’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, The Universe, and Everything.

And that’s it. I have to admit I’m not a fan of anything that came after the original trilogy, so we’re stopping there.

This series, originally written and performed as a radio play, works wonderfully as a read-aloud story. There are some funky things done with the spelling of names that I had to stop and explain as it’s not obvious from the pronunciation of the words, but otherwise I had a great time reading the books and my son—who had never encountered the series before—really enjoyed them.

Of course, I can never read a story anymore without part of my brain thinking about the craft that went into the creation of it. And what really stood out to me while reading these three books was Douglas Adams’ excellent use of reader expectations.

Experienced readers are tough to surprise. They’ve seen it all before—the tropes, the twists, the characters, the three-act structure, the misunderstandings, and the resolutions. Really savvy readers will almost always see what you’re going to do before you do it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy the story, but it takes a lot to surprise a reader these days.

The best way to do that is to play with their expectations.

Douglas Adams was a master of this technique. It starts right away, in the prologue.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

And you think that this is introducing the girl, and the story might just be her story, about how she makes the world a better place. But then…

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

And finally…

This is not her story.

That’s just a taste of how Adams plays with the reader. This same technique plays out in some form in almost every conversation Arthur Dent has with Ford Prefect, for example. It’s what makes reading these exchanges so wonderful.

“All right,” said Ford. “How would you react if I said that I’m not from Guildford after all, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse?”

Arthur shrugged in a so-so sort of way.

“I don’t know,” he said, taking a pull of beer. “Why, do you think it’s the sort of thing you’re likely to say?”

In most of these cases, the words spoken and the questions asked are taken completely literally by the character hearing them. In the above exchange, for example, Arthur reacts to the question that Ford literally asks, “How would you react if I said [a particular thing]?” And his answer addresses that question, and only that question, completely ignoring the [particular thing] that Ford was really trying to get across.

In other instances, he takes something with which most people are familiar, and adds an unexpected twist to it.

“No, don’t move,” he added as Arthur began to uncurl himself, “you’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”

“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

“You ask a glass of water.”

It’s been mentioned to me by a number of different people that they didn’t get this joke the first time they read or heard it. I didn’t get it the first time either. If this is your first time with it, give it some thought…it’ll come.

These kinds of conversations and events occur with great regularity throughout the books. Adams takes a common phrase, or an overused trope, and then sees if there is a way to use it literally, and what the literal words actually mean. It helps the reader get into the mindset of the protagonist, Arthur Dent, who is completely out of his element throughout the entirety of all three books.

Douglas Adams used this technique for comedic effect, of course. But the same technique—playing with readers’ expectations and then throwing them off balance—can be used in more dramatic storytelling as well.

One of the more famous examples is the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. It’s a common element in fantasy stories that the protagonist(s) generally survive to the end of the story. But Martin took the “life is cheap” trope literally, and decided that the vast majority of his main characters were expendable. Many seemingly essential characters have died throughout the novels, and it led to the feeling among readers that almost anything could happen, and the ending was always in question.

Obviously, that’s a large-scale example of playing with expectations. This can also occur on a smaller scale, and it’s often used to keep the reader off-balance, or to disturb them.

In my own novel, The Tower of Dust, the character Sulid and his friend Weese discuss a place where Weese works called The Black Door. I hint that this “club” uses boys and girls without going into any detail about what disturbing things go on in there. I’ve been told by a number of readers that they had very specific expectations about what was happening, and when Sulid finds himself inside and sees for himself what is really going on, the readers were thrown completely off-balance. It made the entire situation even more disturbing, because the readers had prepared themselves for what they thought Sulid would see, but that left them open to something completely different.

Conclusion

So my son enjoyed laughing at the absurdities of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original trilogy, and I loved reading these again. They are pretty short books, and we managed to get through all three of them rather quickly.

Douglas Adams was a great writer who obviously loved playing with language and with reader expectations. It’s one thing to have a big plot twist in a novel, but Adams managed to keep readers off-balance in an enjoyable and quirky way by playing with expectations constantly throughout the stories. I’m a big fan of writers who can play with language like that, but there are lessons to be learned from his techniques in many other ways as well.

Next on the reading-aloud list is a rather long story by Roger Zelazny, The Chronicles of Amber. Though I will probably stop at the end of the Corwin cycle, it’s still a five-book epic and will take us much more time to get through than the Hitchhiker’s trilogy did.

Take care and see you next week.

Introduction to Sword & Sorcery

 

I’ve been reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to my son and my wife over the last couple of weeks. My wife is familiar with them, but they are complete new to my son, and he’s enjoying them immensely.

However, I’ve found that there are opportunities for me to read to my son when my wife is not available (she runs a board game group, for example), and so I needed something else to read to him during those times. Last week, I decided to introduce him to some sword & sorcery classics, in the form of short stories by some of the greatest s&s writers who ever lived.

I started with a Conan story, of course. Now, there are a many Conan stories that contain problematic language in the form of racist diatribes and misogynistic ideas. On the one hand, I think that these stories should be read in the context in which they are written—Robert E. Howard wasn’t alive during the civil rights movement, and his beliefs were shaped by when and where he lived. On the other hand, some passages in his stories are just vile, and I’m not sure I want to say those things out loud to my 12-year-old son.

So I started with the most innocuous story I could think of off the top of my head, The Tower of the Elephant. This story takes place early in Conan’s career, and really drips with flavor in the descriptions of the setting and the tower that Conan decides to plunder.

My son enjoyed the story, but afterwards he commented that there “wasn’t that much to it.” When I asked what he meant, he said that after the cool battle with the spider, Conan really doesn’t face any other difficulties. My son was actually looking forward to an epic fight with the sorcerer, but there isn’t one, and he felt the ending was really anticlimactic.

This was his first exposure to any Conan story, and I found his comment interesting. He’s right, of course, the “excitement” ends after Conan kills the spider. After that, there is tension, and mystery, but it really amounts to the alien telling Conan to “take this, go here, and win.” And then Conan does exactly that, and wins without any further challenges.

It’s still a great story in my view, especially because of Howard’s prose. But one of the reasons I love reading to my son is that I get to see some of these novels and short stories through the eyes of someone who has never been exposed to any of it before.

I followed it up with the story Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber. I have the complete run of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories in paperback and they are some of my favorites. Like Howard, Leiber’s prose is wonderful, but its appeal comes from a different place. Leiber is a master of friendly banter and elaborate verbal explanations from the titular characters, and it’s a pleasure to read it out loud—it flows just as wonderfully off the tongue as it does off the page.

My son found Ill Met in Lankhmar to be more compelling than the Conan story. He really took a liking to the Grey Mouser right away, and he cared about how they fared in a way that didn’t happen with the Conan story.

So I talked to my son about the two stories and what he liked about each one, and didn’t like.

He felt The Tower of the Elephant was neat, and the alien creature was very cool. But he felt that there wasn’t really much to the character of Conan himself. He said that you could take any other strong warrior character and slip him in there, and the story would be essentially unchanged. It wasn’t Conan himself that made the story, but the things he encountered.

On the other hand, Ill Met in Lankhmar couldn’t be about anyone but Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Their unique personalities are what drive the story, and they are more than just the vehicle by which you experience the city of Lankhmar. In Lieber’s story, my son wasn’t entirely sure at any point that they were going to escape unscathed (and you can argue, after the deaths of Ivrian and Vlana, that they don’t escape unscathed at all).

Between the two stories, my son really wanted to know what happens to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser next. He’d be okay with more Conan stories, but doesn’t care if I choose something else instead.

At this point, my son is not quite ready to appreciate the prose of Robert E. Howard on its own merit, and perhaps there are better stories with which I could have introduced the character. But I find it’s an interesting reaction between the two.

It reinforces the idea that character is a vital element of any good story. Even the most action-packed tale can feel as if it’s missing something if there isn’t good characterization.

This week, as part of this introduction to sword & sorcery literature, I’m going to read a couple of the original Thieves’ World stories to my son. I believe he’ll enjoy these as well, but sometimes he surprises me. I managed to find the complete collection of original Thieves’ World paperback books at a used bookstore last year, and I haven’t read any of these to my son yet. So I’m really looking forward to this.

And then there is always the Elric stories. I think I might wait a bit before diving into those, however. I have a feeling they won’t be enjoyed quite as much as the pair from Lankhmar.

What was your introduction to sword & sorcery literature? What elements about these stories, especially the many short stories that make up a great deal of the genre, appeal to you the most? Tell us about it in the comments.

Lord of the Rin…uh, Flies!

Over the past couple of weeks, I read William Golding’s classic book, Lord of the Flies, to my son. This was a bit of a departure from the fantasy and science fiction books that I’ve been reading to him, but it was a book that I read in school a long time ago, and I thought he might find it interesting.

Now, I do have to say that I didn’t really care for it much all those years ago when I was forced to read it and write essays on the themes of the book. I didn’t feel it was terrible, but it was a bit too long, a bit too drawn-out, and felt like it there was too much set-up to get to the good parts (you know, where everything finally breaks down and the direct conflict begins).

But I was ready to give it a second go, and I figured that I could talk to my son after I read to him and discuss what was going on in each section of the book.

I needn’t have worried. He was captivated and wanted me to read it to him as quickly as possible.

There has been a great deal of debate about the value of this book over the years, and about its author (especially after the official biography released in 2009 revealed his attempted rape at 18 of a 14-year-old girl). Many call this book a piece of tripe, and many others revere it as a classic novel that explores the breakdown of society into savagery.

Regardless of where you file the book in your own mental library, the fact remains that it is a touchstone of literature that has had long and enduring influence on people’s discussions of the supposed beast that resides under the face of civilization and society. Whether you agree or disagree with Golding’s premise, Lord of the Flies still remains relevant to the overall discussion.

But, for all that, my comments on the books I read are focused on the actual writing, and the things I noticed when reading the book, aloud, to my son.

The element that immediately stood out to me was his use of repetition in the text. Repetition can be a great tool when used wisely. It can underscore a feeling, or a thought, and add emphasis through the rhythm of the words.

One of the greatest uses of repetition comes from the beginning to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of belief,

it was the epoch of incredulity,

it was the season of Light,

it was the season of Darkness,

it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—

Shakespeare was also a master of using repetition to good effect in his plays. From Richard III:

“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.”

Golding does use repetition well in a number of places in Lord of the Flies. But, in reading the book aloud, I found many places where his repetition of a word, or of a description, felt artificial and broke the rhythm of the narrative.

The best example is in the final chapter of the book, in which “ululation” is repeated over and over. It doesn’t feel like this is intentional, but rather that he couldn’t think of another word to use, or he just didn’t see it in his own text. In seven pages, I found nine uses of “ululation” scattered throughout the text.

An example from page 200:

Behind him the ululation swept across the island once more and a single voice shouted three times. He guessed that was the signal to advance and sped away again, till his chest was like fire. Then he flung himself down under a bush and waited for a moment till his breathing steadied. He passed his tongue tentatively over this teeth and lips and heard far off the ululation of his pursuers.

Each time he refers to this call, it is always “ululation” rather than any other descriptive word.

Like my comments on Raymond E. Feist’s book, Magician, these are elements that most readers wouldn’t notice when reading to themselves. But reading these books aloud really highlights anything that breaks the flow of the text.

On a positive note, I found that his descriptions of the island to be vivid and clear, and I was never left wondering how a particular scene should appear in my mind’s eye. While Golding was certainly not the best at descriptive prose in all the writers I’ve read over my lifetime, he had a skill that brought the island to life as I read the book.

And I’m quite happy that my son’s experience with this novel was enjoyable, in contrast to my own original reading of it so many years ago. In fact, I personally found it much better in my second reading, and at no point did I feel it was a slog to get through. That is, of course, the result of a few more decades of reading experience and maturity on my part, so I’m glad I gave it a second try.

What do you think of Lord of the Flies as a novel? What other writers use repetition particularly well (or not well at all)?

(Please confine any comments to the writing, and not the writer. This isn’t the place to hash out what kind of person Golding was in life, but to discuss the book itself.)

Reading and Writing: Out of Order

I recently finished reading the original trilogy in the Dragonriders of Pern series (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon) to my son. He quite enjoyed the books, especially The White Dragon, and the mix of fantasy and science fiction elements was an interesting departure from the pure fantasy stories I’ve read to him in the past.

I originally read the series back in 1982 when I discovered a copy of The White Dragon in the public library.

thewhitedragon1sted

At the time, I didn’t notice that it was the third book in a series. I just saw that cover and decided I wanted to read it right away. And that’s exactly what I did.

Of course, once I had visited the world of Pern, I immediately sought out the first two novels and devoured those, and then eventually read the Harper Hall Trilogy. I remember finding it really interesting to read about events that had been mentioned in passing in The White Dragon, which assumed the reader was already familiar with them. Reading the series out of order provided a different perspective.

Over the years, I’ve met at least another five people who also read The White Dragon before reading any other Pern books. It seems the Michael Whelan cover was a masterpiece at attracting young people to grab that novel and dive in.

What is great about this book is that it presents an interesting, almost self-contained, story that paints a vivid picture of the world without leaving a new reader stranded. This is something that is not often done.

Many series are written in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to read them out of order. Imagine trying to read The Song of Ice and Fire series by starting with A Feast for Crows. Or grabbing House of Chains as your introduction to the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

Other series are originally written out of chronological order. The first book to star the now-famous dark elf ranger, Drizzt Do’Urden was The Crystal Shard. R. A. Salvatore later went back to write Drizzt’s origin story in The Dark Elf Trilogy (starting with Homeland), and now it’s possible to start reading the series at either entry point.

One of the most famous examples of non-chronological publishing is the original Conan stories. While these are short stories rather than novels, Robert E. Howard jumped around to different periods in Conan’s life as he wrote the individual stories. There have been many later attempts to put the stories in chronological order, but the reality is that they can be read in any order with no loss of understanding.

This was what I was going for in my own Tales of the Undying Empire series. I wanted the reader to be able to jump in with whatever book first captured his or her interest. While there is a basic chronology—the events in the books happen in an ongoing timeline—each story can be read on its own. By contrast, my new trilogy, Undying Empire: Rebellion, is really meant to be read in the order it is being written.

Conclusion

Most book series are meant to be read in a particular order, and just don’t really work if you start at any point after the first book. The White Dragon is an exception. There are others, of course—the Diskworld series comes immediately to mind—but they are not common.

But when they work, they present an opportunity to explore a story from a different perspective, to experience the characters in different ways, than the author originally intended. And that’s what art is all about, really—bringing new perspectives to the people who get to experience the art with a fresh set of eyes.

What other series have you read out of normal reading order? What worked really well, and what didn’t work at all? And how many more people first experienced Pern by starting with The White Dragon?

Tell me about it in the comments.

 

 

Reading and Writing: Books have soundtracks, too!

Movie soundtracks are pretty popular. In fact, many soundtracks are worth listening to even when you’re not watching the movie. And there are quite a few films that wouldn’t be nearly as good without the score underlying the drama.

But books don’t have soundtracks. Everyone watches a movie at the same speed, but different people read at very different speeds. It’s a completely separate experience from watching a film. And then there is the logistics of trying to match a soundtrack to events in a book.

Despite all that, many writers I’ve spoken to listen to music while they write. And it’s not uncommon for there to be a specific selection of tracks that tend to be repeated more often than others while an author is working on a particular book. I’m certainly no exception to this.

Music often helps to set a mood, to put someone into a mindset in which the writing just seems to flow onto the screen. And if you know the music to which the author was listening while writing a novel, hearing a few tracks might help you get an even more immersive experience while reading.

I’ve been curious about what various writers have listened to while writing novels I particularly enjoyed. But this information is pretty hard to track down.

So this week, I’m going to list the music that was a major influence on my mood/mindset while writing my novels. Note that I never made a conscious choice beforehand on these bands. Rather, I just found myself selecting them over and over without really thinking about it. It wasn’t until each book was nearly finished that I realized how much a particular band had been played throughout that book’s writing process.

The Tower of Dust

This was my first published novel, and I really wanted to get into the feel of Ythis. Let’s face it, the city is a pretty dark place, full of people with questionable morals and dubious intent. Demons follow the commands of dark and twisted sorcerers, and the Church is full of madmen who sacrifice innocent lives to their alien gods.

While I’ve really enjoyed Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career, I have to admit that early Black Sabbath really didn’t do much for me. My taste in heavy metal ran in different directions. But when Ozzy left and was replaced by Ronnie James Dio, Sabbath put out two fantastic albums. The first was Heaven and Hell and the second was Mob Rules. Unfortunately, a falling out among band members saw Dio leaving after Mob Rules, and so that was it for this era of Black Sabbath.

But while writing The Tower of Dust, those two albums played almost continuously on my iPod. There’s a certain darkness, a certain thickness to the music that really helped me envision the city of Ythis, and the eponymous Tower of Dust itself.

The Severed Oath

My second novel was a different experience than the first, and I wanted a different feel. That last thing I wanted to do was simply repeat my first book, and so I found myself naturally changing the type of music I wanted to hear while writing it.

For this book, I found myself selecting Wolfmother as the band of choice. Now, Wolfmother has a very different sound from Black Sabbath. That thickness that I used to describe the Sabbath albums is now replaced with a thinner, more raw feel to the music.

At the time I was writing The Severed Oath, I only had Wolfmother’s first two albums, the self-titled Wolfmother and Cosmic Egg. Many tracks on Cosmic Egg, in particular, captured the essence of what I was trying to create with The Severed Oath.

The Witch’s Path

This novel was significantly harder to write than either of the first two. I’ll be honest here and say that it was a less pleasant experience than my other books, and there were times I really struggled to put what was in my head down onto the page. It’s a different style of story, and I wasn’t entirely ready to write it when I started.

Befitting a different style, my music choices changed to a different style of band. Ultimately, the band Queensrÿche ended up providing my soundtrack for this book.

(Note that above link takes you to the official Queensrÿche website, but my personal opinion is that it’s not really Queensrÿche without singer Geoff Tate. His voice is an essential part of the music the band created.)

I find it interesting that this became the music that I most wanted to hear while writing The Witch’s Path, because reading up on the band itself, I discovered they had a lot of struggles as well, including line-up changes and a lawsuit over the use of the name of the band. Without knowing it, my selection reflected the struggle I had bringing this book to life.

For The Witch’s Path, I mostly listened to the early Queensrÿche albums, including the first self-titled mini-album, The Warning, Rage for Order, and a couple of tracks from Empire. As much as I love Operation: Mindcrime, I didn’t listen to it during the writing process as I felt that album already has its own story and so I couldn’t pretend that this music was written just for my book.

The Soldier and the Slave

After completing The Witch’s Path, I wanted to return to a more familiar feeling with The Soldier and the Slave. I had a need to listen to something pretty heavy, with a hard beat and pretty fast songs.

Thus, Disturbed was my band of choice.

The albums Believe and Ten Thousand Fists were easily the most heavily played on my iPod while I was writing. The particular sound of David Draiman’s vocals just seemed perfect for the feel of the novel, and there were times I literally pictured scenes in the book as movie shots with Disturbed’s music as the soundtrack.

Other than the pairing of The Tower of Dust and Black Sabbath, this was probably the closest marriage of what I was trying to write and the music I was hearing of all my novels.

The Traitor and the Thief

Finally, we get to the novel in progress. This new book continues the story begun in The Soldier and the Slave, and so I still feel the need to listen to something fairly heavy. But I’ve moved on from Disturbed to a band that I’ve been a huge fan of since the early 1980’s when I heard The Number of the Beast for the first time.

Yes, the soundtrack for this novel is provided by Iron Maiden.

Right now, I’ve been listening to a mix of old and new. Piece of Mind is one of my favourite Iron Maiden albums, along with Live After Death (in my opinion, one of the greatest live albums of all time). But I’ve also been playing The Book of Souls heavily—it’s a great album—and I even enjoy The X Factor (mostly for its really dark tone, and despite the lack of Bruce Dickenson).

Conclusion

So there you have it. I’m obvious a big heavy metal fan, but I also listen to all kinds of other music. My iPod had a wide selection of music styles on it. But the reality is, when I’m sitting down to write a novel, my music choice tends to go back to heavy metal automatically. It just seems so appropriate for the stories I’m trying to create.

Of course these are just my selections. I know many people who listen to music in the background when they’re reading books, and those music selections are probably very different from what the writers were listening to when the books were being written.

Do you listen to music while reading—or writing—a novel? If so, what kind of music works best for you? Is there any particular pairing of writer and band that you feel matches really well?

Let us know in the comments.

Reading & Writing: The Crystal Shard

The roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has been around a rather long time, going through multiple editions (commonly considered five, if you don’t count Original, or the various versions of Classic, etc.), two different companies, and countless writers. And over those years, the D&D and property has been used for a lot more than just roleplaying games, including video games, a few (terrible) movies, boardgames, t-shirts and other clothing, an animated children’s television show, and a crazy list of strange products during its fad years (such as a D&D-themed woodburning kit…seriously).

But one particular long-running and obviously successful tie-in to the D&D property is the line of novels.

Since the first authorized novels in the early 1980s, there have been literally hundreds of D&D novels published in the intervening years. Besides the well-known Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the most famous D&D character of all time is a certain drow elf named Drizzt Do’Urden.

I originally read The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore back in 1989, the year after it was published. A few of my friends had read it, and it came highly recommended.

The Crystal Shard propelled Drizzt to the status of legendary hero in the eyes of fans of the Forgotten Realms. Drizzt has appeared in no less than 31 novels, and every single one of them has made the New York Times Best Seller List. These days, it’s quite common for players of D&D to make fun of Drizzt and the style of his character, but the reality is that the books have been incredibly popular for 28 years.

Someone is still buying and reading them.

I had fond memories of The Crystal Shard, so it made its way onto my list of books that I read to my son. I didn’t have an original copy from back in the 80’s, so I bought a more recent Kindle version.

What’s important to remember is that originally, Drizzt was supposed to be a sidekick for the barbarian character Wulfgar. It was not Salvatore’s intention to make Drizzt the star of the book, nor was it expected that Drizzt would become such a long-running, successful character. But that’s exactly what has happened.

And it’s what I’m writing about this week—when a character takes over your writing, either from inside the book or out.

Inside the Book

Back when I was a much younger lad, I often read interviews with various writers, and would occasionally see a writer mentioned that a character had taken over a book, or refused to behave, or forced changes to the storyline. This often confused me for obvious reasons. The writer is in charge, and the characters are merely figments of his or her imagination. Right?

And then I wrote my first novel.

Now, I’m a plotter when I write. What I mean is, I fully plan out my novels before I write a single word. I know what’s going to happen in every scene, what the conflict is, how the characters are going to react, how the scene will resolve and (hopefully) hook the reader into sticking with the story into the next scene (and the next, and the next, etc.).

But then I get to a scene and start doing the actual writing, and suddenly I find the characters taking on a life of their own. They say things I never intended, take actions I didn’t plan, and generally make the entire process more difficult.

And when it starts to happen, I start to smile. Because it means the character has truly come alive in my head. I understand them as a real, living being, instead of just a puppet that does whatever I want. And I believe it makes my characters more believable, more real, when I write that way.

This is what R.A. Salvatore says happened with Drizzt. In one interview, he mentioned that while writing The Crystal Shard, Drizzt just kept elbowing himself into the centre of the story. It was supposed to be Wulfgar’s story, but it became Drizzt’s story instead. The characters didn’t cooperate and it became the beginning of a legacy.

Since then, Salvatore has spent a vast amount of time with that drow ranger. I imagine Drizzt is as real to Salvatore as anyone he knows.

Outside the Book

The character of Drizzt is immensely popular. There was a time in the early 90s when clones of Drizzt showed up in D&D campaigns around the world. Uncountable players created their own characters based on Salvatore’s character, to varying degrees of success.

Unfortunately, the writer and the character became inextricably linked. Salvatore wrote another D&D-based series, called The Cleric Quintet, but sales of that were not nearly as good as the Drizzt books, so TSR (at the time) pressured him into focusing his writing on that character.

Salvatore has written other novels, not related to D&D. His most famous is The DemonWars Saga, though it doesn’t have nearly the popularity of his Drizzt novels. Fans continue to demand more stories about Drizzt, and Salvatore continues to deliver.

This is always a danger for a writer when something they write becomes so immensely popular. How many people can name the last novel J.K. Rowling wrote outside of the Potter-verse? Like an actor that becomes known only for a particular role, it becomes difficult to break away. And if you need to stretch your creative muscles with something different, you may find resistance from both publishers and fans.

Conclusion

As writers, we imagine people, and then place them into the context of a story. But they can take on a life of their own. This is often a blessing, but it can be a mixed one when the character becomes such an icon that it ends up narrowing your creative options later on.

But no writer knows at the beginning if a character will truly capture the imaginations of his or her readers and become something more than words on a page (or screen). All we do is imagine the most real people we can and work hard to make them interesting and develope an emotional connection with the reader.

As for my son’s opinion of The Crystal Shard? He enjoyed it well enough, but he preferred the original Dragonlance trilogy over this story. Regis is no Tasselhoff, and there was a serious lack of dragons (in his opinion). So we’re probably not going to move on past this first story of Drizzt.

But that’s okay, there are more books to read than we’ll ever have time to complete. And at least he got to meet the most famous drow in the Forgotten Realms.

(As an aside, I have since started reading the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy to him. It’s already got me thinking about next month’s post on Reading & Writing, so you can expect me to talk about it here eventually.)

So what about you? Are you a fan of Drizzt? How many of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels have you read? What are the best and worst books in the series? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Reading & Writing: Epic Beginnings

Epic fantasy has been an extremely popular subset of the fantasy genre for many years now, and shows no signs of stopping. Trilogies have been replaced by huge series spanning (for example) 7 books, 9 books, 10 books, and 14 books.

Tolkien did it in under 500,000 words in The Lord of the Rings, but others have decided to tell much longer epics. George R.R. Martin has published just under 1.5 million words in his A Song of Ice and Fire series so far. Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company sits around 2 million words. Steven Erikson told the Malazan Book of the Fallen story in almost 3.5 million words. And Robert Jordan (along with Brandon Sanderson) reached an impressive, and staggering, almost 4.5 million words in the truly epic Wheel of Time.

But ultimately, what all these series have in common is a beginning (and a middle, and an end of course, but I’m focusing on beginnings in this post). It’s “common knowledge” that book buyers will often read the first few paragraphs of a book and make a decision right then whether or not to make a purchase.

In an epic series that spans more than half-dozen (or dozen) large books, that can be quite a commitment based on a few paragraphs. Of course, no one will keep reading a long series if the rest of the first book doesn’t live up to those first few paragraphs, but they are the first hurdle that must be overcome to make a sale.

Below, I’m going to take a short look at each beginning and make a couple of points.

Song of Ice and Fire

From the Prologue in A Game of Thrones

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The Wildlings are dead.”

“Do they frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just a hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”

“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that’s proof enough for me.”

Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.

“My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilit forest.

“We have a long ride before us,” Gared pointed out. “Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling.”

This is the text on the first page of the mass market edition of A Game of Thrones. What I find interesting is the focus on the word “dead.” It appears eight times in the first 186 words. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers when I say that death is pretty common in the lands of this series. Life is cheap, no character is sacrosanct, and death can come for anyone, at any time, without warning.

The second noticeable thing is that this series starts with dialogue, rather than description. You’ll see how it differs in the other series below. As much as there is a great of action in the series, in many cases words end up being far more powerful and more important than any battle to the overall story. This is a story of characters—everything that happens in this series is driven by character needs, desires, and actions.

The Black Company

From Chapter 1: Legate of The Black Company

There were prodigies and protents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye’s handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.

Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts of livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.

Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets, proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.

But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.

Unlike the passage from A Game of Thrones above, this opening just drips with flavour. There is no explanation as to what the Necropolitan Hill is, or Paper Tower, or the forvalaka (though we know it was confined in a tomb by magic). But we know that priests sacrifice victims to their gods, and astrologers and soothsayers try to predict the future. And the references to the military elements (the Bastion, the Urban Cohort) indicate a familiarity with that subject that reveals something about the narrator.

But the most important element of this passage is the foreshadowing. We know something big is about to happen, and the first two sentences tell us that the main character and his companions were unprepared for whatever it was. Disaster is looming, and there are just enough hints about the setting in there to awaken our curiosity and desire to know more.

Malazan Book of the Fallen

From the Prologue to Gardens of the Moon

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The winds were contrary the day columns of smoke rose over the Mouse Quarter of Malaz City. The Vane’s silence announced the sudden falling-off of the sea breeze that came clambering over the ragged walls of Mock’s Hold, then it creaked back into life as the hot, spark-scattered and smoke-filled breath of the Mouse Quarter reached across the city to sweep the promontory’s heights.

Ganoes Stabro Paran of the House of Paran stood on tiptoe to see over the merlon. Behind him rose Mock’s Hold, once capital of the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist’s holding. To his left rose the pike and its wayward trophy.

The opening passage here really focuses on a sense of history, of the vast roll of years that precedes the beginning of the story. The “stains of rust,” the “century old” pike, the “ragged walls of Mock’s Hold,” and the fact that the city was “once capital of the Empire” all combine to show the reader that this place has been here a rather long time.

Of course, the weight of ancient history is a major theme in the series, and events from eons before have a direct impact on the current situation in the books.

This section also introduces one of the main characters of the series, someone who becomes quite important to events later on. While he is only a boy in this scene, it shortly becomes obvious that he is observant, intelligent, and driven.

The following paragraphs after these three add a heavy dose of military elements, and the unease which seems to permeate the population of the empire. This is a civilization on edge, and it won’t take much to push it over the tipping point into chaos.

The Wheel of Time

From the Prologue to The Eye of the World

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals, which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet. The dead lay everywhere, men and women and children, struck down in attempted flight by the lightings that had flashed down every corridor, or seized by the fires that had stalked them, or sunken into stone of the palace, the stones that had flowed and sought, almost alive, before stillness came again. In odd counterpoint, colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed except where bulging walls had pushed them awry. Finely carved furnishings, inlaid with ivory and gold, stood untouched except where rippling floors had toppled them. The mind twisting had struck at the core, ignoring peripheral things. Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved.

“Ilyena! My love, where are you?” The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman, her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moments, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief.

“Where are you, my wife? Where is everyone hiding?” His eyes caught his own reflection in a mirror hanging askew from bubbled marble. His clothes had been regal once, in gray and scarlet and gold; now the finely-woven cloth, brought by merchants from across the World Sea , was torn and dirty, thick with the same dust that covered his hair and skin. For a moment he fingered the symbol on his cloak, a circle half white and half black, the colors separated by a sinuous line. It meant something, that symbol. But the embroidered circle could not hold his attention long. He gazed at his own image with as much wonder. A tall man just into his middle years, handsome once, but now with hair already more white than brown and a face lined by strain and worry, dark eyes that had seen too much. Lews Therin began to chuckle, then threw back his head; his laughter echoed down the lifeless halls.

This opening is focused on two things. First, there is destruction wrought by some kind of magical power. And it’s not indiscriminate—innocent people have been killed while inanimate objects have been left alone. This is targeted destruction, designed to slay the living only.

Second, the passage highlights the madness of the character Lews Therin Telamon. He seems unaware of the dead bodies around him. He’s lost, looking for his wife amidst the death around him, but caught by his own reflection. He laughs without purpose, obviously unhinged.

Of course, madness is a key element in the series, as the main character, Rand al’Thor must try to hold onto his own sanity as he learns to harness the magical power that is his destiny.

What do these passages do?

In all of these cases, the first few paragraphs give the reader a real sense of at least one of the core themes of the series. These aren’t standalone scenes—they reflect what the reader will experience if he or she continues to read. In some cases, the individuals introduced in the first few paragraphs do not survive the Prologue or first chapter, but they still set the tone for the books to come.

This is something for writers who want to produce epic stories to understand—an early scene must show the reader something important that reflects the themes of the book. Sometimes a writer will try for clever, hoping to hook the reader with an opening passage that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the story. But when the tone shifts, when the story starts going, the reader may end up feeling unsatisfied, as if the opening was a bait & switch.

In a seminar I attended at GenCon a few years ago, the writer Michael Stackpole said “The beginning must ultimately reflect how the book is going to end.” That means, as a writer, you need to finish the book before you can go back and make sure the beginning is right for the story you actually wrote.

I think these passages I’ve highlighted above show why these series have become so popular. Readers know what they are getting from the opening pages, and the writers deliver.

What other series have great openings that really hook you as a reader? What openings felt completely disjointed from the rest of the book? Share your opinions in the comments below.