Thursday, February 03, 2011

Day ? of Ice

It's day whatever of the Ice Storm That Will Not Go Away. No new accumulation since Tuesday (though we're supposed to get snow tomorrow), but it's been so bitterly cold that what is there isn't leaving. My front porch looks like it's covered in fluffy drifts of snow, but when I picked up my newspaper this morning, I bent down to touch the "snow" and found that it's actually a couple of inches worth of solid ice, and it's that way all the way down the sidewalk. We might get above freezing on Saturday, but I suspect it will take a while for all this to melt. No power failures last night or this morning, so at least that's improved. I've got a split pea and ham soup in the Crock Pot for dinner tonight. I figure that the power going out for fifteen minutes wouldn't have a huge impact on something cooking all day on Low.

It is nice that the being iced in coincides with a between-books break and a nasty chest cold, so I can have a guilt-free wallow. I'm trying to turn this into a mood-setting "retreat" to prepare for the next book. Yesterday, though, I decided to heed the urgings to reduce power consumption, so I kept the TV off and just read. I don't do that as often as I'd like or as often as I probably should. Other than when I'm reading in bed just before going to sleep, I seldom just sit down and read, without doing anything else at the same time. It was nice to spend hours on end curled up with a book.

In a mad burst of nostalgia, I took an old favorite from my high school years off the shelf to re-read. I guess the circumstances were similar to the first time I read it, and that was what triggered it. Back when I was in high school, I got really sick (turned out to be a tracheal infection -- not fun), and after going to the doctor and finding out I'd be out of school for a while, my mom and I stopped by the used bookstore near the hospital district. That was really the only decent bookstore in town. We just had a tiny B. Dalton in the mall that mostly had romance novels, the latest bestsellers, children's books and cookbooks. Their science fiction/fantasy bookshelf was smaller than the one I currently have dedicated to that genre at home. But this used bookstore had a great selection (with so few new books coming into the area, I'm not sure where they got their supply of used books). I had just read The Sword of Shannara from the library and was excited to see that there was a sequel at the store. But, alas, the only copy they had was a fancy trade paperback with illustrations, and it was more money than I had to spend. The lady who ran the store took pity on me, since I was so obviously ill, declared that the book was damaged, and cut the price. It was actually fairly damaged -- it had some water stains and the cover was pretty battered -- but I don't think that was the reason she dropped the price. To show how much book prices have gone up, the cover price on that book was $7.99, and I was balking at paying $4 for a book, but at that time you could get a new mass-market paperback for $2.25, so $4 for a used book did seem very high. Anyway, it was winter and gray and nasty, but I was able to lose myself in another world for quite some time.

I was almost afraid to re-read it, for fear that much of what I liked about it had to do with those circumstances, but I did still like a lot of it. I liked the main characters and the quest part of the plot. I'll admit to skipping the Epic Fantasy part of the story with the huge battle scenes. It was easy to skip those scenes, since Terry Brooks so kindly provided a recap at the end of each section. There would be about five to ten pages of "Thrust, parry, spin" and demons attacking, with a paragraph at the end in which the viewpoint character surveys the scene of the battle and thinks about how X, Y and Z had fallen in battle and A, B, and C were wounded and being treated, but they had held the line for now -- and yet the enemy was regrouping. Which was all we really needed to know about the battle, anyway, unless you like dwelling on the detail of every single sword thrust. But I really did like the more intimate side of the story, in which our two unlikely heroes set out against all odds on their desperate quest. Those were nice characters, and I liked the way their relationship developed along the way.

There was just one thing that started driving me insane the more I read, and I suspect it was a combination of Brooks' relative lack of writing experience at the time that book was written and the fantasy conventions of the time, in which a pseudo-archaic tone was the norm. He had this strange aversion to pronouns, and instead of using pronouns, he used descriptors of the characters. In places where "he," "she" or "they" would be expected, he would use things like "the Valeman and the Elven girl." Think about how many times in a paragraph the words "he," "she" or "they" would pop up, and you can imagine how cumbersome it got with those descriptors instead. This was in sections where there were generally only two characters, a guy and a girl, so he could have gone for pages and pages using only "he" and "she" without any confusion at all. You could have cut 50 pages from the book just by substituting "they" for each time he used "the Valeman and the Elven girl." Even worse, these scenes were from the point of view of one of those characters, so did they really think of themselves that way?

I do see this occasionally pop up in unpublished attempts at fantasy when I'm critiquing or judging, and it's a good reason why you read recent books to get a sense for what can fly in the market instead of bestsellers from thirty years ago. I burned out on epic fantasy in the mid-90s, so I haven't read any Brooks since then to know if he's still doing it. I think that style is used in Beowolf, so it does have that epic fantasy feel to it, but these days unless you're really, really careful, it reads as kind of amateurish (maybe because of so many people whose idea of fantasy was heavily influenced by Terry Brooks). Find one good way to refer to your characters that makes sense for how the viewpoint character would think about them (usually their names unless it's a person the viewpoint character would think of by title), and then stick to that plus pronouns, except for in specific circumstances. Pronouns are your friend. They're kind of invisible words, like "said," that we don't really notice in repetition. You can say "he" or "she" a dozen times in a paragraph and no one will notice. Use a description several times in one paragraph and it makes readers like me itch for a red pencil. It's even worse when you mix up descriptions to avoid repeating (which Brooks didn't do -- at least he was consistent), like referring to the same character various times as "the young man," "the trainee warrior," "the youth," etc. Then it's hard for readers to tell if you're talking about the same person or multiple characters.

Now I almost want to find some current epic fantasy to see if this style is still the norm or if I'm totally off-base. I just don't really have the patience for "epic" these days. For today's reading, I think I may be leaning more toward something chick-litty.

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