Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

When To Stop Reading, Part 3: Short Stories

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A multi-part series where I address the question, When to stop reading?

This is part 3 in what's become an ongoing series on when to stop reading a book. Each post stands alone, but feel free to read part 1 and part 2 before jumping into this one.

We often think of only novels when someone poses the question,

"At one point do you give up on a book?"

Maybe the question is better phrased as:

"At one point do you give up on a story?"

Short stories, whether standalone or as part of a compilation, fall into the 'when to stop reading' conundrum just like novels. Especially those which infringe into the length territory of novelettes. The further we get, and the more our frustration grows, the more likely we're going to put (or throw) that book down.

For purposes of this discussion, I'm going to use an example: The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. TSBONF is a compilation of shorts by such notable authors as Mark Chadbourn, Janny Wurts, Jeff VanderMeer, Chris Roberson, Lucius Shepherd, Steven Erikson, and others. I just finished the book, so I'm at a good point to discuss it's highs and lows. In particular, there were stories I stopped reading simply because they were going nowhere or just weren't holding my attention.

Some people say you have thirteen lines in which to hook the reader of a short story. I found this to be more or less true as more often than not I knew just by looking at that first page whether or not the story was going to hold my attention. It's not a hard and fast rule, of course, but it's often easy to get a good feel for what the story is about and if it's your cup of tea.

In the following list I'm going to use some clever graphics to indicate whether or not I finished the story. "Thumbs up" means I finished. "Thumbs down" means I flipped through the remainder of that story and went on to the next one.

1. "Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast", by Mark Chadbourne

thumbsup

2. "Reins of Destiny", by Janny Wurts

thumbsdown

3. Tornado of Sparks, by James Maxey

thumbsup

4. Grander the the Sea, by T.A. Pratt

thumbsup

5. The Prince of End Times, by Hal Duncan

thumbsdown

6. King Tales, by Jeff VanderMeer

thumbsup

7. In Between Dreams, by Christopher Barzak

thumbsdown

8. And Such Small Deer, by Chris Roberson

thumbsup

9. The Wizard's Coming, by Juliet E. McKenna

thumbsup

10. Shell Game, by Mike Resnick

thumbsup

11. The Song Her Heart Sang, by Steven Savile

thumbsdown

12. A Man Falls, by Jay Lake

thumbsup

13. O Caritas, by Conrad Williams

thumbsdown

14. Lt. Privet's Love Song, by Scott Thomas

thumbsup

15. Chinandega, Lucius Shepherd

thumbsup

16. Quashie Trapp Blacklight, by Steven Erikson

thumbsdown

A quick tally shows that I finished ten out of the sixteen stories in TSBONF, or 62.5%. Six stories remained unfinished, or 37.5%.

I don't know what ratio indicates I didn't waste my money. I read ten stories, most of which I enjoyed. I remember a couple leaving me a little dissatisfied, but nothing like the sheer "WTF is this about?" I thought as I skipped through the six stories I did not finish.

For me, this is a lesson. Not only in what I like to read, but also what elements keep someone from putting a book down. I can only attempt to instill such elements into my own writing.

As always, I'll end with a question: What makes you put a book down?

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

 

Robin Hobb is one of my favorite writers. I devoured The Farseer Trilogy and tore through The Soldier Son Trilogy.

It was with the same excitement that I dove into Ship of Magic, book one of The Liveship Traders. Unfortunately, this particular journey ended in disappointment.

Hobb's greatest strength is twofold: her characterizations and her world-building. She has a knack for creating believable, likeable, even detestable characters. Also, the settings she creates are top-notch: well thought out, realistic, and most definitely populated by 'believable' characters.

Ship of Magic does not falter in these areas. But ultimately it did fail to present to me a character which I could readily identify with. Therein lies the true strength of The Farseer and Soldier Son trilogies. Both have strong yet flawed and very sympathetic characters. Ship of Magic has Althea, who fits this bill to some extent, but because there are so many other characters and other plotlines, she gets lost amidst the clutter.

Which brings me to my second contention with Ship of Magic: it's just too darn long. Standing in at a hefty 800 pages, this monster of a book is, in my opinion, about 400 pages too long. I've given up such weighty (no pun intended) series as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for wasting my time with books that go nowhere. While Hobb's pace moves along well enough, I still felt it suffered from bloat.

My last issue with Ship of Magic has to do with the characters, or rather my dislike of most of them. Kyle Haven is an ass. Wintrow is an unlikable wuss. Malta is useless.

Althea, already mentioned, stands out amongst these less than likable personas. Brashen, also, as a well thought out character whom I found myself genuinely rooting for.

At this point, I don't know if I want to invest the same amount of time in books two and three if book one is any indication of things to come. I don't know if either gets any better or worse in terms of page count. Also, as engaging as some (OK, two) of the characters are, the story lags. There's just not enough going on. It's mostly this trader family does this and the other one does that. The great thing about The Farseer Trilogy is that it has all the great characters but also an overlying mystery—what are the Outislanders doing to the people of the Six Duchies to turn them into such monsters and how are they going to stop the invasion? It's a strange happening that kept me reading on and on.

Ship of Magic just didn't have this same attraction.

When To Stop Reading, Part 2: The Page 99 Test Put into Practice

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A multi-part series where I address the question, When to stop reading?

1. When To Stop Reading, Part 1: The Rules
2. When To Stop Reading, Part 2: The Page 99 Test Put into Practice
3. When To Stop Reading, Part 3: Short Stories
4. When To Stop Listening, Part 4: Audiobooks

A while back I blogged about when to stop reading a book. As the post detailed, there are many criteria, not the least of which is your own good judgement. But there's also quantitative measurements one can take, including the Page 99 Test.

The Page 99 Test is simple, and explained best by this quotation taken from the Page 99 Test web site:

"Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." --Ford Madox Ford

I decided to try the test on my own book, The Hall of the Wood, which I've offered as a free download for some time now.

For purposes of the test, I'm going to start at the first paragraph on the page, so I'm leaving out about 2-3 lines at the top.

Here's the page 99 text from The Hall of the Wood:

Murik raised a finger to his mouth and whispered, "Shh."

The man trembled as he sat up and pushed himself backward. There was nowhere for him to go, though, as he backed into the wall. Murik knew he had found Graewol, for the man looked every bit the crazed lunatic Relk had made him out to be. He wore only pants with no socks or shoes, and his hair was a greasy black and gray with no order to it. His untrimmed beard shot off in all directions.

Murik held his hands out to the man. "I mean you no harm." The sorcerer's voice soothed him as his trembling lessened. "Are you the one they call Graewol?"

The man's chin rose, then went back down. He repeated his nod over and over, stopping only when Murik spoke again.

"My name is Murik. The citizens of this town say you are a wise man who knows many secrets."

Graewol smiled. "Ah know many. Many ah do. Secrets, secrets ah know. All the secrets."

"I need to know of only one this night, my friend. Can you tell me a secret about the lands around Homewood?" Murik tread lightly, not wanting to unduly upset him.

"Secrets, secrets, ah know the secrets..."

The first thing I immediately had to resist was the desire to clean it up a bit. I've noticed as I edit my current novel (The Five Elements) I'm much more judicious, and I dare say merciless, in chopping out unnecessary words, consolidating character movement, and just being more concise overall. But none of that is the point of this post. The point of this post is to determine if my page 99 makes The Hall of the Wood a worthy read.

I'm biased, no doubt, but I like what I see there. There's a certain amount of intrigue and mystery, and hopefully a desire on the reader's part to want to know what secret Murik is after. I'd flip to page 1 and give it a try.

So, for me, The Hall of the Wood passes the Page 99 Test.

Agree or disagree, let me know.

Backing up is (not) hard to do

harddrive-crash

Computer crashes and lost data are all the rage these days. So many people are beholden to their computers and other electronic devices, backing up your data at regular intervals is more important than ever. Of course, and unfortunately, it's a process too many people fail to integrate into their daily process.

As writers, we all know the consequences of not doing regular back-up's can be catastrophic. We labor for weeks, months, even years on a story or feature, only to lose it in a nanosecond because of a hard drive failure.

Not good.

There are many options available for making backup copies of our work:

  1. Make a new copy of the file in question at regular intervals. For my current work-in-progress, I like to prepend the date to the document filename each and every day. This way not only do I have more than one copy (in the case of file corruption) but it also gives me a sort of poor man's version control.
  2. If your application supports a "make backup copy" feature (like Microsoft Word), use it.
  3. Periodically copy your data files to a secondary hard drive or, if possible, another computer. Other options might include an external hard drive, USB key, or CD or DVD. They all work, and mostly just come down to convenience as to the choice. An alternative to copying the files is to use a backup solution. I just started using Windows Backup. It comes with most versions of Windows and, so far at least, seems to work.
  4. Make backups to removable media, like a DVD, and take that media to an off-site location. This might be a bank safe deposit box or your workplace. Just make sure it's secure if you're storing sensitive data. Having multiple copies on different mediums inside your house or apartment is great, but what if there's a fire?
  5. Use cloud storage. Amazon S3 is a relatively inexpensive option. If you use Firefox, there's even an add-on available that eases its use. (see Amazon S3 Simple Storage Service - Everything You Wanted to Know for more information on S3 and the utilities that make it a breeze to use)

The above is more or less my backup strategy, minus #4 which I have not yet utilized.You can take it even further if you so desire.

Perhaps I'm a bit paranoid, but I've not lost a file in longer than I can remember. I know one thing: I'd rather jump through hoops making sure my precious data is safe than take the chance I lose years of work.

Tor Free E-books: BSG by Jeffrey Carver and Flash by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

I'm combining this week and last's Tor Free E-book Giveaway cause I was fairly underwhelmed with last week's offering and never got to posting about it.

In any case, let's get to it.

Battlestar Galactica, by Jeffrey Carver

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Tor gave us Battlestar Galactica by Jeffrey Carver last week. Ordinarily, I might have been excited about this, but the book is an adaptation of the show's pilot which I'd seen at least twice already. Once we get past the initial "human gets greeted by the cylons and blown up" sequence, we're shown Starbuck running through Galactica's corridors shouting "Make a hole!" to ordinary citizens come to tour the battlestar before it's decommissioned.

Huh, how's that for deja vu? Just like the pilot episode.

I can only assume the book continues to follow the storyline as dictated by the pilot (it is an adaptation, after all). Sorry, that just doesn't do it for me. Book closed, didn't even bother saving this one.

As an aside, I've developed quite a love/hate relationship with the show. Sometimes, it's the best sci-fi I've ever seen. Other times (usually when they're dealing exclusively with Gaius Baltar), I'm bored to tears and my wife gets to listen to me swear off the show again and again. But I'm always back the next week hoping to see the show's true potential. Sometimes, I'm rewarded, and that's what keeps me coming back for more. Right now, I'm swearing off the show again cause they're making us wait until 2009 for the remainder of the episodes. I'm sure I'll change my tune by then.

For a running list of all of Tor's free e-books, go here.

 

Flash, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

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Next up, and this week's giveaway, is Flash, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Cool cover, and you have to love a book that throws you into the action from the very first sentence:

Cracckk!
“Down!” Down! At the sound of the ancient slug-thrower,
I dropped flat onto the squashed soyl plants at the edge of
the field.

Similar to Tobias Buckell's Sly Mongoose, where the opening begins with the lead character hurtling through the atmosphere on a collision course with a floating city, this sort of opening promises a lot of fast-paced plotting, kick-butt action, and some general edge of your seat escapades.

Let's see what Amazon readers thought.

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Not bad. 4 1/2 stars out of 5. As one would expect with a rating that high, most reviews are favorable, though one reviewer who gave it 4 stars notes that the book "ultimately falls short as the world doesn't quite support the plot".

Guess I'll have to read the book to see for myself.

Modesitt has an extensive list of books to his name, so if you like this one you've got plenty of others to keep going with.

For a running list of all of Tor's free e-books, go here.