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.