Monday, April 30, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #12

For my second post on the opening passages of vintage works of fantasy fiction, I’ve chosen the beginning of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Rising. Published in 1970, this novel was one of my favorites growing up. It has a puzzle-like plot filled with murder, intrigue, and magic. I’ve read this book more than once and enjoyed it every time.

Brion Haldane, King of Gwynedd, Prince of Meara, and Lord of the Purple March, reined in his horse sharply at the top of the hill and scanned the horizon. 
He was not a big man, though regal bearing and a catlike grace had convinced many a would-be adversary that he was. But his enemies rarely had time to notice this technicality.  
Dark, lean, with just a trace of grey beginning to show at his temples, in the precise black beard, he commanded instant respect by his mere presence in a room. When he spoke, whether with the crackle of authority or the lower tones of subtle persuasion, men listened and obeyed.
– Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Rising

This is a great novel, but the question for today is whether it has a great beginning? Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Best Beginnings

Last week I wrote about What Makes a Great Beginning to a novel. Today I am focusing on two beginnings that in my opinion best reflect the elements of a great opening passage. To recap, these elements include conflict (or the hint of conflict) and writing that sets the tone or mood for the story. The presence of an interesting character (though not necessarily the main character) can also be important. With that said, here are my top two.

The first is the opening passage of Stephen King’s fantasy masterpiece The Gunslinger:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  
The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.
– Stephen King, The Gunslinger

This opening is hard to beat. It begins with two interesting characters: a gunslinger and a man in black. On top of that, there is immediate conflict: a chase across the desert; pursuit by the gunslinger. The second paragraph does the rest, setting the tone and mood of the story, and describing the story world in less than a hundred words. We can already imagine this post-apocalyptic wasteland, and we want to read on about this gunslinger and the man in black racing across it.

The second top beginning – and my personal favorite – comes from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth:

The small boys came early to the hanging. 
It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting. 
The boys despised everything their elders valued. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. They boasted of injuries and wore their scars with pride, and they reserved their special admiration for mutilation: a boy with a finger missing could be their king. They loved violence; they would run miles to see bloodshed; and they never missed a hanging.
– Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth

Few beginnings set the tone for a novel as well as this one. The Pillars of the Earth, in part, is about the violence of the Middle Ages, and the small boys with all their love of violence encapsulates this notion perfectly. We also get a good sense of the medieval setting: hovels and huddled wooden huts, a silent marketplace, and waiting gallows. In addition, there is a strong hint of conflict – after all, someone is about to be hanged! The complete scene contains a number of characters critical to the novel, even if they take a few more paragraphs to appear in the opening. But the absence of an interesting character in the first three paragraphs is of little consequence. The point is the small boys and the violence they represent, reflecting the theme of the novel.

There were many other good beginnings on my list of ten, yet I thought these two were the best examples of a great beginning. But let me know what you think: are these the two best beginnings, and if not, why?

Monday, April 23, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #11

Last week I wrote about what makes a great beginning to a novel. This includes the hint of conflict, an interesting character, and, perhaps most importantly, writing that sets the tone or mood for the story to come. My first 10 “beginnings” focused on a number great works of historical and fantasy fiction, some of which remain bestselling novels today. For the next seven or so weeks, I plan on featuring the opening passages from vintage works of fantasy fiction to consider whether they have the elements of a great beginning, or whether the standards back then were a bit different than today’s.

For the first vintage fantasy “beginning,” I’m featuring the opening passage of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, the first novel is his most famous fantasy series, published in 1972:
It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows beneath his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeve of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.
The crimson eyes are troubled and sometimes one hand will rise to finger the light helm which sits upon the white locks: a helm made from some dark, greenish alloy and exquisitely moulded into the likeness of a dragon about to take wing. And on the hand which absently caresses the crown there is a ring in which is set a single rare Actorios stone whose core sometimes shifts sluggishly and reshapes itself, as if it were sentient smoke and as restless in its jeweled prison as the young albino on his Ruby Throne.
– Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melniboné

This is one of the all-time fantasy classics!
So read my post on What Makes a Great Beginning? and let me know what you think? Is this one as good as  – or better than – those that proceeded it? Or were the elements that make a great beginning somewhat different back then?

Friday, April 20, 2012

All About Books Reviews

Let me begin by saying I’m flattered. When I started Fresh-scraped Vellum in July of 2011, I never imagined authors would begin contacting me about reviewing their books. A few months ago, I received such a request. The book looked interesting and I quickly agreed to review it. Nowadays I’m getting several requests per week from authors and their PR folks to review new novels. I wish I could say yes to all these requests. But here’s where reality sets in.

Unlike some of the more established book review sites, Fresh-scraped Vellum is a one-man shop. Just little ‘ole me. And my biggest constraint in life is time, especially given my own writing schedule and my job as a practicing attorney for the past seventeen years. I wish I had more time to read, but I don’t. And my "to-read" list already exceeds a volume I could ever hope to conquer by year’s end. Also: (i) only about half my blog posts are book reviews; (ii) I typically only publish one or two such reviews a month; and (iii) I’m fond of reviewing books that have been around quite a while. In other words, there isn’t much shelf space on the blog for new material.

My bookshelves back home are jammed!

Does this mean I’m closed to reviewing new books? Absolutely not. It just means the chance of it happening is low. Basically, an author needs to break into my existing “to-read” list, which usually means that I find the concept of the book to be more interesting than the others in line. To achieve this, it usually helps to be a work of historical or fantasy fiction set in a Medieval setting (or some earlier period in history) with a compelling concept. This is not to say I only read Medieval fiction, but that happens to be my sweet spot these days. For a better idea of the types of books I read and review click here and here, or visit my bookshelves on Goodreads or Shelfari.

So here’s the deal. Feel free to contact me (preferably by email) if you want me to read your book, and include a link to it on Amazon or Barnes & If I’m interested, I’ll buy a copy (I like supporting fellow authors; there’s no need to send me a free copy). If I start reading it and it seems like it would make a good review, I’ll let you know. This means you’ve broken into my “to-read” list. This could also take quite a while, so if you don’t hear back from me, it simply means I may still be considering whether to read your book. If the book is clearly not the type of thing I read, I may let you know. And if you can’t wait a while to see if you break into my “to-read” list, let me know your time frame. If it doesn’t work with my schedule, I’ll be honest with you.

I hope this helps. Fortunately for authors there are a ton of great book review blogs, many of which have multiple reviewers. I have links to a number of them under the Blogs I Follow in the right-hand column. Best of luck to all—and again, I’m flattered.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Makes a Great Beginning?

For the past ten weeks since I started my “Beginning” of the Week series, I’ve been asking this question in one form or another. So this week, I thought I’d discuss in a little more detail what makes a good beginning to a novel. Author Nancy Kress in her book Beginnings, Middles & Ends argues that a good beginning has at least four essential qualities. The first is the presence of an interesting character, though not necessarily the main character. The second is conflict – or at least the hint of conflict. The third is the use of specific details. And the fourth is a writing style that proves the author is credible.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, one of my favorite books on writing (albeit one focused on screenplays, but equally applicable to novels), comes at it a little differently. Snyder wrote that the opening provides the first impression of what the story is about. It sets the tone and mood, and signals to the reader the type of story he or she is about to experience. He also noted that the opening image should be the opposite of the story’s ending, setting up the dramatic change to come. 
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."
To me, tone and the hint of conflict are the most important elements. We need to get a sense of what type of book we're about to experience, and we need to feel like something important is about to happen. Otherwise it’s too easy to stop reading and pick up something else. An interesting character is a plus, but I’ve read many good beginnings (usually prologues) that involve less significant – and often expendable – characters. (By the way, the prologue could be the topic of its own post; some folks hate them, some folks love them.) But given Kress’ and Snyder’s criteria, how would you evaluate the ten beginnings I’ve featured on this blog? To recap, my "beginnings" have focused on the opening passages from the following novels:
  1. The Gunslinger by Stephen King
  2. The Book of Splendor by Frances Sherwood
  3. The Briar King by Greg Keyes
  4. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  5. Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish by Morgan Llywellyn
  6. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  7. A Games of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  8. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
  9. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
  10. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
To be fair to the authors of these fine works, a “beginning” is more than just the first one or two paragraphs I’ve highlighted on this blog. But given consumers’ busy schedules, short attention spans, and virtually unlimited options in purchasing fiction, that may be all some folks read of a sample chapter on Amazon or Barnes & Noble before deciding whether to buy the book. I’ve often been guilty of this myself when perusing novels before determining whether to download one to my Kindle. So, if you’re interested in entertaining this little challenge, take a look at each of these beginnings and tell me what you think.  Which one is the best, and why?

(I promise to deliver my verdict next week ...:)

Monday, April 16, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #10

For my tenth “beginning,” I’ve chosen the opening passage of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. This is the first novel in his excellent The Saxon Tales series about the conflict between the Vikings and the English during the reign of Alfred the Great. You can read my review of The Last Kingdom here. This is undoubtedly a great novel, but the question for today is whether it has a great beginning too?

My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred. My father’s clerk, a priest called Beocca, spelt it Utred. I do not know if that was how my father would have written it, for he could neither read nor write, but I can do both and sometimes I take the old parchments from their wooden chest and I see the named spelled Uhtred or Utred or Ughtred or Ootred. I look at those parchments, which are deeds saying that Uhtred, son of Uhtred, is the lawful and sole owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea, and I dream of those lands, wave-beaten and wild beneath the wind-driven sky. I dream, and know that one day I will take back the land from those who stole it from me. 
– Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom

I’ve always liked this beginning. It ends with tension – the desire to take back stolen lands – and tells us quite a bit about the main character for an opening paragraph. It is also a clever way of dealing with a main character's name that may by hard to pronounce. But let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fantasy Cliché #5 – The Overwhelming Ancient Evil

The final “cliché” in fantasy fiction needs little introduction. He is the granddaddy of all antagonists, the embodiment of evil that threatens the main character, and often the survival of kingdoms, continents, and worlds.

Relatively recent incarnations of this antagonist, whose power usually dwarfs that of our poor hero, include Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Warlock Lord from Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul from Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and the Crimson King from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Other manifestations of this character which may be less potent, but no less evil, include an archetype called the Warlock or the Sorcerer. Lord Voldemort from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Randall Flagg from Stephen King’s The Stand, and Emperor Palpatine from George Lucas’ Star Wars provide a few examples. But more so than any of the other so-called clichés I’ve explored in terms of literature and mythology, this character goes back the farthest. To quote Mick Jagger, “Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.”

Sauron was one of many incarnations of this great villain.
Neil Forsyth, a retired Professor of English at the University of Lausanne, wrote an excellent treatise on this antagonist as a narrative character titled The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth. Forsyth detailed the existence of this antagonist throughout time, beginning with the oldest recorded stories, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa. 2001 B.C.), where the antagonist took the form of a dragon-like being called Huwawa. Most Westerners today recognize this antagonist as the serpent from the Garden of Eden, the adversary from the Book of Job, and the great dragon from the Book of Revelation. In Greek mythology, he may have taken the form of the dragon Ophion, the serpent cast down by the Titans Kronos and Rea. In Persian/Zoroastrian mythology he is Ariman, the god of darkness. While in many religious accounts he is the rogue angel spreading his evil in the world.

If only we had a Magic Weapon to vanquish evil!
In all of these various and ancient incarnations, the great antagonist is a primary actor in the struggle between light and darkness, good and evil. And since fantasy fiction so often concerns itself with such fundamental themes, the existence of this adversary in such stories is not only unsurprising, but wholly understandable. After all, in the past hundred years, history is filled evidence of a fundamental evil at work in the world: 9/11, the Holocaust, and the Killing Fields provide just a few examples. I believe one of the reasons folks read fantasy fiction is to escape the fears of such evil in our own world and experience a story world where evils like this can be vanquished. This is one of the reasons we have the Messiah archetype and the Magic Weapon as common elements in fantasy literature. It’s also the reason Frodo destroyed the One Ring and Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Because these things give us hope. And amidst the terrors and injustice of our own world, that is something for which many readers yearn.

The great antagonist, like all of the so-called clichés explored in this series, plays an important role in fantasy fiction – a role often essential to many stories. That is why this character has stood the test of time, and why the great antagonist, like the other elements I’ve talked about, are here to stay.

One of the best Good vs. Evil books around!

Monday, April 9, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #9

Since this typically is a joyous time of year, I tried to find a happier “beginning” for this week – which should be a challenge given the desire to create tension in the opening passage of a novel. The beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring comes close to fitting this bill, while still giving the impression that everything is not quite right:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. 
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There was some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth. 
“It will have to be paid for,” they said. “It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fantasy Cliché #4 – The Magic Weapon

As an element of fantasy fiction, the Magic Weapon is so often used it’s either the most cliché item on my Top 5 list or it’s an essential ingredient of such stories. Now, we know the latter’s not true as we’ve all read great works of fantasy fiction that lacked any emphasis on magic weapons. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones jumps quickly to mind.

So we’re stuck with cliché. And given the horde of magic weapons stuffed throughout fantasy fiction over the past 50 years it’s hard to argue that they haven’t become a bit overdone. Starting with Tolkien and going back to The Hobbit we had the swords Sting, Orcrist and Glamdring, only to be followed by Narsil in The Lord of the Rings. The series that came after Tolkien brought us the Sword of Shannara, Callandor, and the Sword of Truth, while Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels gave us an array of weapons in Stormbringer, the Runestaff, and the Sword of the Dawn. More recently, J.K. Rowling gave us the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, and let’s not forget the three Deathly Hallows.

This has to be one of my all-time favorite magic weapons!
As with our Orcs and Wise Wizard, the Magic Weapon was popular long before Tolkien penned his first tale. By the end of the early Middle Ages, Arthur had pulled Excalibur from the stone, Roland fought bravely with his sword Durendal, and El Cid had routed many an enemy with his blade, Tizona. But even these gentlemen were following in the footsteps of far more ancient heroes and their magic weapons, such as Cúchulainn and his spear, Gáe Bulg, and Perseus with his sword, shield, and helm from the gods. Magic weapons are as old as mythology itself, but what purpose do they serve?

Cúchulainn looks like he has an arsenal of magic weapons!
Joseph Campbell, who wrote about universal myths in his famous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, notes that almost every culture has stories of heroes obtaining a magic item from some old crone, fairy godmother, or other benign or godlike being. Campbell believes these events and gifts symbolize the protecting power of destiny; the supernatural guardian has given the hero a tool to aid him on his quest. This same concept may explain the lure of the magic weapon in more recent fiction as it becomes the device that gives the hero a chance to defeat the much more powerful antagonist (more on him next week). This arguably is appealing to readers who like the idea of a weapon that can be used to bring down the bad guys, something that makes the hero a little extraordinary, evening the odds a bit against the greater evil he or she must face.

The Magic Weapon has appealed to listeners or readers of stories since ancient times. It’s no wonder then that something so longstanding now seems so overdone. Yet I, for one, don’t mind seeing these in a story provided they fulfill an essential purpose. After all, isn’t this one of the reasons we read fantasy fiction in the first place? Once all the magic is gone, we’re left with nothing more than what the average work of historical fiction already gives us. But I think readers of fantasy fiction are looking for a little bit more.

Monday, April 2, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #8

Yesterday’s premier of Season 2 of HBO’s Game of Thrones was as good as expected. This season is based on A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin’s second novel in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series. Last night’s episode stayed true to some of the novel’s memorable early scenes, even if the show rearranged their order somewhat. The novel’s prologue, for example, which involves Stannis Baratheon and the red priestess Melisandre of Asshai, was moved to the middle of the episode in favor of an opening scene from the second chapter concerning Sansa Stark and King Joffrey’s Name Day celebration. Meanwhile, the novel’s first chapter, involving Ayra Stark, was only hinted at in the episode’s closing image.

I can’t argue with the decision to open with the Name Day scene as it reintroduced us to familiar characters, including Tyrion Lannister, who is played by the Emmy Award winning actor Peter Dinklage. Yet because my Monday series focuses on the “beginning” of a novel, Joffrey’s Name Day will have to wait. So without further ado, this week’s “beginning” features the opening passage from the prologue of A Clash of Kings:
The comet’s tail spread across the dawn, a red slash that bled above the crags of Dragonstone like a wound in the pink and purple sky.
The maester stood on the windswept balcony outside his chambers. It was here the ravens came, after long flight. Their droppings speckled the gargoyles that rose twelve feet tall on either side of him, a hellhound and a wyvern, two of the thousand that brooded over the walls of the ancient fortress. When first he came to Dragonstone, the army of stone grotesques had made him uneasy, but as the years passed he had grown used to them. Now he thought of them as old friends. The three of them watched the sky together with foreboding.  
The measter did not believe in omens. And yet ... old as we was, Cressen had never seen a comet half so bright, nor yet that color, that terrible color, the color of blood and flame and sunsets. He wondered if his gargoyles had ever seen its like. They had been here so much longer than he had, and would still be here long after he was gone. If stone tongues could speak ... 
– George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

I think I prefer this opening to last week’s “beginning” from A Game of Thrones. But let me know what you think, either of this beginning or the opening of Season 2 of Game of Thrones.