Monday, July 30, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #24

The end of last week’s discussion on the beginning of Deryni Checkmate and openings that start with the weather had me thinking about the opening passage of one of my favorite novels, The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler (you can read my review here). I think I’m on the side that believes opening with the weather is not a big deal, especially if it sets the mood for the story to follow:


A September storm battered a sleeping London. Barrage after barrage of gusting sheets drummed on the rooftops and loosened clapboards. Raindrops like silver dollars pelted the empty roads and forced families of pigeons into huddled clumps atop the gaslights.
Then it stopped. 
The trees of Kensignton Gardens swayed, and the city held its breath. It waited a few dripping moments, then relaxed. 
Just as suddenly, a Model-T Ford swerved past Marble Arch in Hyde Park and buzzed around Speakers' Corner, peals of laughter following in its wake.
– Thomas Wheeler, The Arcanum

I liked this opening, even if it was mostly setting the mood and had just the barest hint of conflictor a sense something bad might happen – in the last sentence. But what do you think? Is it bad to open a novel with the weather?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Lions of Al-Rassan

For several years now, I’ve been interested in medieval Spain, and about a quarter of my first novel takes place in tenth century Córdoba (which was part of a Moorish caliphate, back when the Iberian Peninsula was called Al-Andalus). Knowing this, it’s astounding (and a bit embarrassing) that I waited so long to read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the more famous novels with a medieval Spanish setting. Boy was that a mistake, as you’ll see from my review after this image of the book’s cover.

Here is the blurb from the back of my paperback edition:

Over the centuries, the once stern rulers of Al-Rassan have been seduced by sensuous pleasures. Now King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, adding city after city to his realm, aided by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan – poet, diplomat, soldier – until a summer day of savage brutality changes their relationship forever. Meanwhile, in the north, the Jaddite’s most celebrated – and feared – military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Ammar meet. Sharing the interwoven fate of both men is Jehane, the beautiful, accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond ...
The Lions of Al-Rassan is every bit as epic as A Game of Thrones. Much like the fate of the Kingdoms of Westeros, the fate of the kingdoms of Al-Rassan and Esperaña are at stake in a fictional world that starkly resembles medieval Spain and the Moorish kingdoms of Al-Andalus. Like the characters of George R.R. Martin's epic series, the character's of Kay's novel are richly drawn. His heroes are Ned Stark- admirable and his villains are painted in various shades of grey, for like A Game of Thrones, the world of Al-Rassan is never black and white.

While the book contains an abundant cast of characters, three in particular drive the story, each one a member of the story world's religious faiths: the Jaddites (Christians), Asherites (Muslims), and Kindaths (Jews). The first is Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite war captain modeled after the legendary Spanish hero El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), and many of the book’s plot lines seem based on El Cid’s historical tale. The second is Ammar ibn Khairan, a dashing Asherite poet and swordsman responsible for murdering the last khalif of Al-Rassan, which put the first of several story villains, Almalik of Cartada, on his throne. And the third, and perhaps most central character of the lot, is the Khindath physician, Jehane bet Ishak, who ends up the object of both men’s affections.

It is the epic story, however, that makes this novel so special. The book is filled with political intrigue involving the Ashertite and Jaddite kings and their cunning advisors, as well as a host of clerics, some of whom are bent on plunging the land into holy war. Kay does a great job of making the reader feel for these lands and their people, as the rising conflict between the Asherites and Jaddites threatens the friendship between Rodrigo and Ammar, and leaves Jehane with the decision of which man – and which fate – to choose. The reader faces a similar choice as it becomes clear that only one side will win this war, and that the people of the other two faiths shall pay a grave price. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel as much as A Game of Thrones, but it’s a very close second, and unlike Martin’s epic, the story is resolved in a single, satisfying volume.

Monday, July 23, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #23

I’m returning to the realm of vintage fantasy for this week’s “beginning.” Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Chronicles books are among the classics from the early days of the historical fantasy genre, and here is how the second book in that series, Deryni Checkmate, begins.


March has long been month of storms in the Eleven Kingdoms. It brings the snow sweeping down from the great northern sea to layer a last coat of winter on the silver mountains, to seethe and swirl around the high plateaus of the east until it finally funnels across the great Gwynedd plain and turns to rain. 
March is a fickle month at best. It is the last stand of winter against the coming spring, but it is also harbinger of the greening, of the floods which yearly inundate the central lowlands. It has been known to be mild – though not recently. Still, it is spring – close enough for men to dare hope that winter might end early this year; it has, on occasion. 
But those who know the ways of Gwynedd do not build their dreams on the chance of an early spring. For they have learned through hard experience that March is capricious, often cruel, and never, never to be trusted.
March in the first regnal of King Kelson of Gwynedd was to be no exception.
– Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Checkmate

Some may believe that this beginning violates one of the “rules” of fiction writing – never open a book with the weather! – while others find this “rule” to be a myth. Regardless, I doubt this view against opening with the weather was a big deal in 1972, when this novel was written. As far as vintage beginnings go, I like this one, especially with the hint of conflict at the end. But let me know what you think – does the opening of Deryni Checkmate have the makings of a great beginning?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Indie vs. Traditional Publishing, One Year Later

On July 18, 2011, I wrote my first blog post on the debate between indie publishing and the traditional publishing model. One year later, the conversation continues. Just this week, Joe Konrath discussed how e-book sales between traditional and indie published authors are not a zero sum game. Meanwhile, successful indie author Lindsay Buroker asked, “Is it Harder Today for Self-published Authors to ‘Break’ in at Amazon?” And the Passive Guy (quoting from an article on The Fictorian Era) posted portions of an interview with author Brandon Sanderson, who suggests both forms of publishing have their merits and their place.

Is traditional vs. Indie Publishing still like the Battle of Agincourt?
Although the conversation between these two publishing alternatives has persisted over the past year, I sense it’s becoming a less contentious debate. It’s no longer like the Battle of Agincourt – a bloody war between one viewpoint or another. Instead, I’m finding it a more reasoned discourse. So while it’s clear to me the world is still changing, both forms of publishing seem to have their merit, and whether one is better than the other may depend on the author’s personal situation, his or her financial means (because indie publishing done right can involve a substantial out-of-pocket spend for an editor, cover art, etc.), and his or her goals.

But let me know what you think – is the debate between indie and traditional publishing still a war, or has it become merely a dialogue about two equally viable publishing paths?

Monday, July 16, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #22

Last week I published my review of Graham Joyce’s new novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, so it’s only fitting that the opening passage of this story serves as my “beginning” of the week.

In the deepest heart of England there is a place where everything is at fault. That is to say that the land rests upon a fault; and there, ancient rocks are sent hurtling from the deep to the surface of the earth with such force that they break free like oceanic waves, or like monstrous sea-creatures coming up for air. Some say that the land has still to settle and that it continues to roil and breathe fumes, and that out of these fumes pour stories. Others are confident that the old volcanoes are long dead, and that all its tales are told. 
Of course, everything depends on who is telling the story. It always does. I have a story and though there are considerable parts I’ve had to imagine, the way I saw it was as follows.
– Graham Joyce, Some Kind of Fairy Tale

This is one of those stories that sticks in your head long after finishing the novel. The opening sets a tone that the story will be about something deep and old in the earth. It also hints at a mystery surrounding the story’s narrator, one that lingers throughout the novel. There is even a hint of conflict, namely whether this narrator is trustworthy. But enough of my thoughts – let me know what you think about the opening passage of Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fresh-scraped Vellum Is A Year Old!

A year ago today I published my first blog post titled What is Fresh-scraped Vellum? It analogized the medieval art of bookmaking to the task of writing a publishable novel in today’s world. It also promised book reviews and commentary on both classic and recent fiction in the historical and fantasy genres, along with posts on writing fiction and tales from my own journey in seeing my first novel to print. Here is my personal assessment of how things have fared since then.

What is Fresh-scraped Vellum?

The Arcanum, My First Book Review
I’ve offered a whole series on “beginnings,” including the beginnings of vintage fantasy fiction, with works by Michael Moorcock, Stephen R. Donaldson, Anne McCaffrey, and Robert E. Howard. I’ve also looked at the beginnings of some of the greatest works in historical and fantasy fiction, such as Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. And throughout, I’ve asked the question: What Makes A Great Beginning?

One of the Best Beginnings!
I’ve commented on writing historical and fantasy fiction, and these were among my favorite blog posts. I discussed the Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction, which was really an exploration of the critical archetypes essential to a genre we know and love. I also analyzed issues with narrative viewpoint in my series on Narrative Viewpoint: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. My bottom-line advice: stay away from Third-Person Ugly!

I was on the warpath against bad narrative viewpoint!
And finally, I gave you insight into the writing of my first novel, including My Revision Odyssey. You’ll be happy to know that my novel is currently in the hands of a wonderful editor and I expect it will be published by the end of 2012. But more on that to come. For now, I’d like to thank all those who have followed Fresh-scraped Vellum, or followed me on Twitter, or liked my blog on Facebook. It’s been an amazing experience, and I hope it will continue for many years to come.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Thanks to the kind folks at Random House, I received an advance copy of Graham Joyce’s new novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale. I’ve been pretty jammed up on my books to read and review, but this one jumped to the top of my list due to its intriguing premise. More on that and my review of the novel after this image of the book’s cover.

Here’s the premise: Tara Martin disappeared in an English forest at the age of sixteen only to reappear twenty years later, yet she’s barely aged. Her parents and brother are shocked, having believed she’d been murdered years ago and that her ex-boyfriend Richie may have been to blame. But Tara has a different story, one that echoes those old folklore tales about people abducted by fairies to the Otherworld, where time behaves strangely. Yet is Tara telling the truth, or is she delusional, as her psychiatrist tends to believe? Or worse, is the person who claims to be Tara really someone – or something – else?

Some Kind of Fairy Tale reads like a cross between urban fantasy and literary fiction, and reimagines the classic folklore fairy abduction tale from a modern day perspective. The novel unfolds slowly, but the story of what really happened to Tara – including whether she’s even who she claims to be – is gripping enough to keep the reader turning the pages. (I know I did!) The characters are wonderfully wrought, from Tara herself to her various family members and her ex-boyfriend Richie, who suffers quite a bit when the police presume he murdered her years ago.

A good portion of the novel concerns Tara’s “fairy” abductors, but whether they are real or just figments of her imagination is one of the major story questions. For those who prefer an explosive climax, this novel may disappoint – or it may serve as a welcome change of pace, as it did for me. The conclusion doesn’t answer all the story’s questions, but it keeps the reader thinking, and I found myself pondering it for days. I suspect that’s what the author wanted, which in my view makes it a job well done!

Monday, July 9, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #21

A while back I was focused on Viking tales since my second novel has a big Viking component. I’ve unfortunately fallen way behind on both novel #2 and my reviews of great Viking tales, but at least one such tale can serve as my “beginning” of the week. So without further ado, here is the first paragraph of Bernard Cornwell’s The Pale Horseman (you can read my review of the novel here).
These days I look at twenty-year-olds and think they are pathetically young, scarcely weaned from their mother’s tits, but when I was twenty I considered myself a full-grown man. I had fathered a child, fought in the shield wall, and was loath to take advice from anyone. In short I was arrogant, stupid, and headstrong. Which is why, after our victory at Cynuit, I did the wrong thing.
– Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman


In my view, this opening works wonderfully. There’s a hint of conflict (something bad happened, he did the wrong thing) and the narration, from the viewpoint of the main character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (one of my favorite antiheroes), sets the perfect tone for the novel. And it reminds me why Bernard Cornwell is one of my favorite authors. Let me know what you think about the opening passage of The Pale Horseman.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4, 1776

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
– The Declaration of Independence              

The Writing of the Declaration of Independence 1776

Monday, July 2, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #20

Last week’s review of The Wind Through The Keyhole had me thinking about another of Stephen King’s more fairy tale-like books, The Eyes of the Dragon (you can read my review of it here). This is one of those rare novels that pulls off the use of an omniscient, storytelling narrator, and here’s how it begins:


Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons. Delain was a very old kingdom and it had had hundreds of Kings, perhaps even thousands; when time goes on long enough, not even historians can remember everything. Roland the Good was neither the best nor the worst King ever to rule the land. He tried very hard not to do anyone great evil and mostly succeeded. He also tried very hard to do great works, but, unfortunately, he didn’t succeed so well at that. The result was a very mediocre King; he doubted if he would be remembered long after he was dead. And his death might come at any time now, because he had grown old, and his heart was failing. He had perhaps one year left, perhaps three. Everyone who knew him, and everyone who observed his gray face and shaking hands when he held court, agreed that in five years at the very most a new King would be crowned in the great plaza at the foot of the Needle . . . and it would only be five years with God’s grace. So everyone in the Kingdom, from the richest baron and the most foppishly dressed courtier to the poorest serf and his ragged wife, thought and talked about the King in waiting, Roland’s elder son, Peter. 
And one man thought and planned and brooded on something else: how to make sure that Roland’s younger son, Thomas, should be crowned King instead. This man was Flagg, the King’s magician.
– Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon

The narrative viewpoint in this opening makes it read differently than some. There is clearly no scene here, just set up and a hint of the conflict that will drive the novel. But, as always, let me know what you think – does this have the elements of a great beginning?