Review – Book 2 of Embracing Entropy

You know what I never do? Review a book. Mostly, it’s because I generally suck at it. I want to say things like: Read it, you’ll like it. That’s not a review. I’m also one of those jerks that usually gives books I like 4-stars, with a few exceptions. I mean, like, Harry Potter, yeah, 5 stars, but most everything else I like – 4 stars. It’s just how I think. As a writer, I know nobody wants to see that, they want to see 5 stars. With that in mind, I read a book over the weekend that I want to talk about. Yes, I gave it 4 stars, and I like it and think you should read it. The book I want to talk about is a novella, Wish for survival, by Jessica Marie Baumgartner. It’s really the middle part of a trilogy of novellas that have been turned into a book Embracing Entropy which was released today (03/15/2016). I haven’t finished the 3rd book, yet.

I did a couple of brief reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, about the book itself, to be honest, these reviews are only a little bit more informative than: read it, you’ll like it. I’m not going to directly re-hash those because this blog is supposed to be about writing, and one really interesting thing about this book is the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong, the story is good too, and if you want to read it for just the joy of reading a good book, do that.

First off, it’s in first person present tense. If I were forced at gunpoint, or knife point, or just asked politely to choose a single piece of writing advice to dole out it would probably be: “Don’t ever, ever, ever write a book in first person present tense”. However, and this is truly interesting, Jessica M. Baumgartner pulls it off. It works. Why does it work? I don’t know for 100% sure, but I’ve got an opinion, but first another observation. The book isn’t just a series of events that builds to a climax where, against all odds, the hero pulls off a win. I mean, it is that, that’s what books do, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s from a completely different angle. It’s for this reason, I think, that it works. So what is the angle?

As a reader, you experience events through the ‘right now’ emotion of it more than a description of events that have already occurred. Thinking about first-person past tense, I’d argue that the focus on emotion wouldn’t be nearly so complete and might even be a little distracting. This style gives the flow a slightly clipped, raw feel, where the reader is bouncing through the emotions of the main character, it’s a bit like each event being a slightly larger wave crashing into the reader.

In spite of the unusual approach, the story is engaging and doesn’t prove a difficult read, it reads quite as well as anything else. As with so many cleverly constructed books, I did find myself stopping to ask: “What about…?” This happened to me when I read the Martian. For the first pat of the book, I found myself being not super impressed, until I realized that the writer was being intentional and, in fact, it was all very well done.

For most of us (writers), having a reader stop to ask a question is a bad sign. You don’t want that. In this case, I think that’s the point, perhaps not intentionally, I don’t know, but the reader isn’t meant to know the answers to a lot of questions. The main character doesn’t know the answers to the questions we’re asking, she’s asking the same questions, or would be if there weren’t more important things to think about. We’re supposed to be experiencing her part of the story through her feelings and the narrow band of what she can see. By the end of the book, I reached the point where I realize that the questions I was asking myself: Why are the bad guys attacking? What do they look like? What sorts of weapons are they using? didn’t matter. What really mattered was what the main character was feeling, the immediate need to resolve the right now concerns. Who cares about the motivations of the bad guys when a close friend might be dead? Does it matter what they look like if there’s no future for the children? That’s what is important in the moment, not motivations or the mechanics of the enemy weaponry.

See that? It’s the right now that’s important, and that’s why this story could pull off the first-person present tense, and actually, in order to have the same impact and feel, it almost has to be written from this perspective. We as readers are meant to be standing in the moment where we’re blind to so many of the events going on outside the direct sight of the main character.

So, from that perspective, I’d recommend reading this one. Not just because the story is solid, but because the execution of the story is unique and compelling.

Writer’s improvement hell – tag lines in dialogue

writers improvement

As I steadfastly continue to procrastinate on finishing up the last few chapters of my book, I’m making a mental list of problems I need to sort out when the process of iterative revisions begins. One issue that came to my attention a couple days ago is the use of tag lines. You know, those bits of sentence at the end of dialogue that run ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’.

Usually, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the dialogue tags. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. Anyhow I started thinking about it because I ran across a blog post on the topic -and not the first. The basic take away of these various posts has been to avoid the use of dialogue tags. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting these bits of advice, but I’m not so sure. The favored approach seems to be to simply use the ‘he said’/’she asked’ variety of tags, if you must use any at all. Naturally, this gets me to the question “Do I have a problem with dialogue tags?”

To start off, I’m going to disagree with the advice that one shouldn’t use dialogue tags outside of the plain-jane variety. Not that I don’t think this advice has some merit, because I think it does speak to a problem.

When it comes to disagreeing with folks on topics I don’t consider myself an expert at, I tend to second-guess my opinion, and try to understand why I must be wrong (Note: Once I’ve concluded I’m right, good luck blasting me out of that position.) The first thing I did was walk over to my bookcase and pull off four books to see how they handled dialogue tags. I chose books I enjoyed and that I remember reading fairly well. These were: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Pale Horsemen by Bernard Cornwell, Lord of the Rings, and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. All of them use dialogue tags, though Rendezvous with Rama is virtually all exposition and so examples were harder to find. That set me to Internet searching, which mostly came up with the same advice I’m disagreeing with right now. The next place I went was to a book called Fiction First Aid . This book covers the topic in about 3 pages, and it doesn’t say to avoid dialogue tags, it just provides some very broad guidelines on how to approach them.

I have come to the conclusion that dialogue tags and their use are stylistic. For the purpose of illustration, here’s an example of what I would regard as a bad use of a dialogue tag:

(A) “I don’t remember if I mentioned my plan or not,” she blatantly lied.

But, is it really bad? Well, I think so, but I lifted it from a book my wife loves, and she’s fairly particular about reading material. I think it’s bad because blatantly isn’t necessary – this is true even once you drop the line back into context in the book.

Here is a made-up one that I think is heinous:
(B) “I’ve got something for you young lady,” he intoned smarmily.

Is the use of the tag the thing that’s heinous? No, in my opinion, it’s the word choice. In fact, just because I hate it doesn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t think it’s a nice bit of descriptive -and maybe it is.

Giving general advice is hard when style is involved. Every writer does it a little differently and, anecdotally, genre plays a role too, although I’m having a tough time seeing even that. It seems that you should use dialogue tags that are appropriate, and necessary. This is KEY – if you have a reason for ‘he said grudgingly’, then use it, if you don’t have a reason, attempt to apply the rule of less is more. I think it’s also appropriate to sprinkle in things like ‘replied’ to break up the ‘she said’ sort of tags, IF that’s your style. Although, I will go a little further to say that if you’re hitting a thesaurus to find new tags, you may need to tone it down a bit.

All this said, I re-examined my writing. Turns out, I make fairly limited use of alternative tags, usually I use stuff like ‘replied’, ‘growled’, ‘shouted’ or ‘called’, but in fairly limited measure, and even less frequently with an adverb (like example B.) More often though, I use action or dialogue beats. Here’s an example of what that looks like:

Lord Feorun smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. “What I have in mind for you is far worse than death.”

When it comes to dialogue, I think tags are likely to be the least of your problems. Tags can, of course, be done badly, but if you read enough, you probably already have an intuitive feel for what doesn’t work for the reader you’re trying to engage with. The bigger problem is repetition, if you repeat ‘he said’ too often, or use dialogue beats for every speaking character, or alternate tags with adverbs at the end of every piece of dialogue, it will have the feel of repetition, and that more than the use of tags is likely to read badly. Anyhow, this is one of those instances where giving advice might be pointless, and so here I am, right where I started – Do I have a problem with dialogue tags?

Incidentally – it’s my opinion that this is not one of my weak areas.


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