Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review: In His Command by Rie Warren

A dystopian military adventure with a great supporting cast. 5 stars.

Don't let this boring cover fool you. In His Command has a strong military/political clash set in a post-plague dystopian world where homosexuality is a crime against humanity. The main characters are gruff, opinionated, and have more walls than a military base.

The supporting characters in this book do as much to reflect the main characters as they do to move the plot along. Backstories are woven together in this broad net of relationships that is revealed over time, tying people to each other even if they don't want to be.

Romance is the main thread, of course, but the political/personal clash of beliefs is a strong second place contender. Government propaganda, childhood baggage, and military expectation all fight in a wonderful chaos.

I love a great story that doesn't skimp on the erotica and In His Command is exactly that. It took a while for the main characters to figure themselves out, but once they did the sex was hot, heavy, and often. Perfect for the kind of intense men they are.

TL;DR: 5 stars, military/political clash. Hot, hot, hot!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: The Way Home by Anastasia Vitsky

A piece of art as much as a story to enjoy, 4 stars.

The first thing that struck me about The Way Home was the format in which this story is told. There's a very non-traditional series of time jumps that, at the start, can be hard to follow. The blurb description does this story an injustice. It sets up a plot expectation that the format doesn't fill, and the novel is so much more than that.

At the heart of the narrative is a friendship-maybe-more that grows over the kind of timespan you simply do not encounter in most romance books. And this is a romance, make no mistake. There is a domestic BDSM aspect (power exchange, spanking) that hints at some sexual overtones near the end of the story that I thoroughly enjoyed.

[trigger warning: major self-harm]

The major critique I had of this story surrounds the dominant conflict. Kat has depressive tendencies which culminate severely in two suicide attempts via sleeping pills. Either the format or the writing or both got in the way of my fully understanding this aspect of Kat. I didn't see a build-up to this kind of behavior so it caught me off guard. I'm not sure the first attempt was on-screen-- if it was then I didn't recognize it for what it was.

Anyone who enjoys the craft of writing, if you're into Tolstoy and Hemingway for their format as much as their content: read this book. If you're on vacation lounging for hours with nothing to interrupt you: read this book. There are beautiful scene pairs and excellent pacing throughout.

TL;DR: 4 stars. Beautifully written and as such, requires focus to enjoy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

P2P: Give Your Ending Room To Breathe

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The ending of your short story or novel is what will stick with your reader the longest. Nailing the ending is how you evoke the catharsis feeling of a great story and there are some concrete ways to get there.

A good ending needs two things:

  • inevitability (the feeling that this is what everything leads up to)
  • offers closure (the satisfaction feeling)

And a great ending needs one more:

  • unexpected (the 'what? I didn't see that coming!')

Inevitability is the momentum you've built up over the course of the story into your climax and ending. It's the feeling in the reader that this is the only way things could have worked out. This means the 'easy' solutions to conflict are dealt with in some logical way. If the problem can be resolved with a frank conversation between the right people, you don't have a solid conflict.

Stay in tune with your protag's motivations: also known as staying 'in character.' The protag and antag of your story have their own histories, their own wants and desires. They need to constantly strive for those desires or the reader can't root for them. If Jimmy wants juice but keeps asking for water and then complaining about it, your reader has no sympathy for him. Replace 'juice' with anything your character wants: love, recognition, power, a puppy, revenge- as long as he strives for his goal throughout the story, you'll build the momentum necessary for an inevitable ending.

Reflect the beginning of your story in the end. Either mimic or oppose the situation you started with to evoke either coming full circle or growing beyond one's starting place. Your protag's motivations can help you identify which of the two would feel better. If your protag wants something back the way it was, a circular ending will feel conclusive. If she wants something to change (and gets it) an opposite ending will reflect that.

The protag's direct actions need to result in the ending. Have you ever read a book where at the very moment of crisis something comes out of the blue to save the heros? This is a technique called Deus Ex Machina- a latin phrase for 'god in the machine.' It means, essentially, that the protag hasn't caused his own ending which means all of that momentum you've built up means nothing. Of a cascade of coincidences solves the major conflict of the story, your reader will be cheated of their feeling of satisfaction. The protag needs to kill the king himself, needs to rescue the little girl, needs to master his power through his own force of will. Arbitrary coincidence can't do it for him.

Bring conflict to its full conclusion. The easiest way to cheat your reader of a satisfying ending, is to skip over consequences. Getting characters in trouble is the fun part, but if there are never any consequences to those actions, what do any of them matter? If your protag kills someone and it doesn't effect him in any way, if his sidekicks don't seem to care, what weight does that action hold? None at all. If the climax of your story involves a deadly battle with a werewolf and he barely survives but then you skip right over how he gets help and lives so you can show happily ever after, you've cut your reader out of half of the emotional arc. Gunshots leave holes, death leaves trauma, marriages are extended relationships- not one-time events. Make sure all of your protag's actions have consequences, good or bad, that you're not skipping over.

If you have everything above, a reader can come away from your story satisfied, having enjoyed the experience. But they may have been able to guess your ending, which leaves some people less-than-thrilled. It's still a good book, but they're not going to rave to their friends about it.

To be truly great, an ending must be unexpected. One way to twist the ending is to defy traditions: genre, age, gender, sexuality, caste, and more. The fantasy genre tends to bring the protag and most of their sidekicks through the plot alive. Kill them all off. Romance sub-plots end where the guy eventually wins over the girl. What if she's asexual or lesbian? The hero's usually the one saving the princess. What if the princess saved herself to rescue the hero? Twists on the inevitable ending your plot drives you toward will surprise your readers. If you plant three or four subtle clues throughout the book, your more astute readers will be very pleased they figured it out.

Throw in your voice below. What other ways have you seen endings twist for that 'wow!' feeling?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: Rescuing Jack by Caitlin Ricci

A solid hurt/comfort but the ending is rushed. 3 stars

I love a good hurt/comfort story and Rescuing Jack is a great entry for this genre. It's a werewolf story where the paranormal is just a side-note to the character-driven focus. Marius (werewolf) who works and owns an animal shelter has a talent for pairing animals with new owners. Jack (human), recently sexually assaulted, thinks he needs a guard dog to keep the world at bay.

I enjoyed the details of Jack and Marius' progressing relationship and the reflection of Jack and Missy's trust issues. The biggest disappointment for me, however, is how quickly the sexual recovery happens. The majority of the progress Jack and Marius make in this book occurs over a 12 hour period maybe a week after they've met.

The external consequences of the attack (a video, extortion) are also treated like window dressing. The situation never felt very dire for me as Marius simply calls in his brother to take care of the issue.

I'm fond of the characters in this story. Everyone is distinct and running their own lives beyond Jack and Marius. Each voice remained clear and I'm particularly fond of Marius' brother even though he only got a few pages of screen time.

I feel like the book ended before it needed to. Jack grows rather dependent on Marius and the timeline doesn't provide enough room to show him growing into his own. I would have liked to see more of Jack standing on his own feet and knowing he could make it. Marius' brother also stirs up the comfortable relationship Marius and Jack have established but the book ends before any of that can be explored to resolution.

Over all, a solid book that I enjoyed in a single afternoon. Characters are relateable, the violence in Jack's past is handled realistically, and I'm fond of the animal shelter backdrop. Marius tries his best to do good, makes mistakes, and owns up to them.

TL;DR: 3 stars. Not much closure at the end, but an interesting character drama nevertheless.

Monday, February 3, 2014

P2P: My War Against Had and Was

Photo by Anonymous
Arguably one of the easiest ways to tighten up prose and bring a punch to your settings or action is to strike out most mentions of 'had' and 'was.' These words crop up to indicate complex past tense states that are, on the whole, unnecessary for clear prose.

Past Perfect Tense

  • He had faltered up the steps.
  • She had sang until her throat became hoarse.
  • They all had left a mess of the balcony.

The past perfect tense indicates a time period before a time in the past. It frequently crops up in past-tense fiction when referencing something that has already occurred. Since the story is written in past, the past perfect tense offers a double past indicator.

In almost every instance, had is unnecessary for the understanding of the sentence, slows down the scene, and takes the punch out of the verb that follows it. Also in almost every instance, all you have to do is remove it.

  • He faltered up the steps.
  • She sang until her throat became hoarse.
  • They all left a mess of the balcony.

Tighter, stronger. The reader doesn't need a double past indicator to understand when something is happening before something else. Context within the story provides that information as does simply placing the earlier event earlier in the draft of the story where it would have happened.


  • They were going to visit his Aunt.
  • He was planning on skipping stones on the lake.
  • She was going to cut vegetables for the stew.

Was/were is a little trickier as it's used for two different past tenses. The future-in-the-past tense indicates a plan for the future from a point of view in the past. There is an implied 'but something happened' in a future-in-the-past tense. 'She was going to cut vegetables for the stew, but traffic made her late.'

This tense format is useful in fiction, especially for close points of view. But 'was' tends to be a habit of unplanned prose as it's the context of the scene or a previous scene that tells the reader what the characters plan on doing. The writer shouldn't need to specify directly, it takes all the showing out of your story and places the sentence firmly in the telling category. 

The fix is not simple, unfortunately. If you've spent chapter one establishing that Boy's mother wants him to run the basket of apples to his Aunt in the woods, it's unnecessary to open chapter two with 'They were going to visit his Aunt.' But usually a rejigging of the paragraph is needed if the information isn't already obvious to the reader. 

Cutting vegetables, for instance: Sally slumped against the window of her bus seat. She couldn't drum up a smile for the little boy waving at her in the car next door. Traffic snarled in every direction and she checked her watch for the third time. Seven oh six. Mother came home to unchopped vegetables. 

Past Progressive and Gerunds
  • She was skipping with us.
  • He was throwing the ball.
  • They were cutting, taping, and gluing their craft projects.

 Past progressive tense indicates a thing that started in the past and continued for a while (either specified or vague). Again, there's an implied clause that something occurs to interrupt  the event that was happening. 'She was skipping with us until she fell down the hole.' 'He was throwing the ball until he hit a window.'

In conjunction with 'was' the following verb is forced into a gerund format, a verb that acts like a noun. They're easy to spot with 'ing' at the end of them. All verbs in the sentence that follow a 'was' or 'were' need to adopt this gerund status to maintain the correct subject/verb agreement.

But a verb that's forced into a noun isn't a strong verb at all. The easiest way to change this is simply remove 'was' and convert the gerund back into a verb in the simple past tense.

  • She skipped with us.
  • He threw the ball.
  • They cut, taped, and glued their craft projects. 

Notice that the sentences still work if the event in question is interrupted. 'She skipped with us until she fell down the hole.'

More Past Tenses

If you want to look into even more varieties of past tense, I recommend this post from Daily Writing Tips. They give good examples and decent explanations of each tense (though no cool visual timelines).

As always, editing guidelines are 1) subjective and 2) not set in stone. Great writers break rules all the time, but you should always know what the rule is for so you can break it deliberately.