Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Nice Review of "How Dark The World Becomes"

I've been pleased with the reception of How Dark The World Becomes. It's gotten a solid 4.6 stars on Amazon, with only a single three-star review and all the rest fours and fives. It hasn't gotten a lot of published reviews, however, so I was glad to see the SFcrowsnest site in the UK post a nice review last month. Here's a link.

I'm pleased by the review not only because it's positive, but particularly because the reviewer, Kelly Jensen, finds the strengths of the story to lie above all in its characters and world building, which are two of the three parts of the novel I like most and worked hardest on.

For those curious, the third part (for me) was pacing.

On January 9th I also got a short but nice review in  the Philadelphia Weekly Press from Henry Lazarus. "Very exciting," the review claims (in part--it's not that short). I guess he noticed the attention to pacing.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Descriptive Prose

I write pretty much full-time these days so expect some blogs about writing now and then. Can't help myself.

I recently read James Lee Burke's early novel THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in addition to re-launching his career. I've enjoyed his writing for many years but had never read this early novel and I'm very glad I did.

Burke is a master of descriptive prose. Some criticize him for going to that well too often, or for dipping too deeply. Me, I eat it up.

The novel is the story of two men who have made some seriously bad choices and are trying to put their  lives back together. One (Buddy, a blues piano player) dies, but the protagonist survives and finds a measure of peace, as the end suggests. Here are the last two paragraphs of the novel:

It’s May now, and the runoff from the snowpack on the mountain behind my house has filled the creek bed in the canyon with a torrent of white water that bursts over the boulders in a rainbow’s spray, lighting the pine and fir trees along the bank with a dripping sheen, and then flattens out at the base of the mountain and runs in a brown course through the pasture toward the river. The grass is tall and humming with insects where the water has flowed out into the field, and occasionally I can see the sun flash on the red beaks of mudhens in the reeds. The river is high and yellow, the sandbars and gravel islands have disappeared under the churning surface, and the bottoms of the cottonwoods cut long, trembling V’s in the current. I can feel the spring catching harder each day, and the irrigated fields across the river are a wet, sunlit green against the far mountains and the patches of snow still melting among the pines on the crest.

In the early evening it turns suddenly cool, you can smell wood smoke in the air, and mauve shadows fall across the valley floor as the sun strikes its final sparks against the ridge. From my front porch I can see Buddy’s cabin faintly in the gathering dusk. Even after it has dissolved into the darkness and black trees and the laughter of his sons playing in the yard, I can still see it in my mind’s eye, lighted, the wood stove lined with fire, and sometimes in that moment I’m caught forever in the sound of a blues piano and the beating of my own heart.

Beautiful, isn't it? Spring coming to the valley is an obvious metaphor for the protagonist's own possible rebirth--so obvious I think it would be clichéd if it weren't for Burke's prose.

Why does that prose lift this metaphor from cliché to something profound? I think it's because what we really see here is the rebirth of the ability of the protagonist to experience and appreciate beauty and the promise of life. This isn't what the coming of spring looks like; it is what it looks like to him. That he is capable of noticing this amazing level of detail tells us more about his soul than about the mountain valley.

I think that may be part of the secret to powerful descriptive prose: it has to tell us as much or more about the character noticing the thing as it does about the thing itself, because stories are about characters, not things, right?
I think another part lies in the fact that stories are about change. That's what distinguishes them from sketches and vignettes.  Very powerful description doesn't just tell us what a thing is, it shows us that thing in a moment of the present as it careens along the path from what it used to be to what it will inevitably become. But for just this one fleeting instant it is this.

That's part of it, part of great descriptive prose, but not all of it. Passages like this probably can't be completely deconstructed, analyzed, and explained without losing some of their magic. And maybe that's the real secret of great descriptions--magic.


Sorry there's so much variation in font style and size. I've fiddled with this for an hour trying to get it right and Blogger (the host site) just won't cooperate. It's getting very fiddly lately, sending me odd messages about incompatible browsers (same one I've always used). I hope we're not building up to a crash of some sort, but we'll see.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Forever Engine is Live!

Today's the first official day when The Forever Engine is live. Amazon has been shipping the advanced orders and is now posting reviews.(First one's up--four stars and a very nice write-up.) It should be in the stores as well, although I haven't yet braved "The Killer Storm of the Century" to find out if it's in my local Barnes & Noble.

Although the ratings change hourly, last time I looked the book was at number 13 for both time travel science fiction and steampunk on the Amazon best-seller lists, and that's mostly based on preorders. I don't really understand how those rankings work (and they make a point of telling you they will not reveal how they come up with them, I suppose so folks can't game the system) but since the sample size is over a million total book-like products, whatever 13th means, it can't suck.

Of course the book's been trickling out for a number of weeks. The Baen Books eArc (electronic advanced reading copy) was available a while ago and I've heard from folks that Amazon went ahead and sent the Kindle versions upon ordering starting sometime  in December, and we're right at a point in the History of Book-like Things where the electronic version approaches the importance of the physical product. We've certainly passed it for some forms of Book-like Things.

Those of you in the Midwest and east coast: stay warm. Maybe curl up with a good book.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year one and all! 2013 was a busy year for me, and a very good one. I have a number of resolutions for the new year, one of which concerns this blog. I'll leave what that resolution might be to your collective imaginations.

The immediate news is that The Forever Engine will be on the shelves in bookstores within the next week, and also available in all e-formats from Baen Books (here's a link to their site) and also available online in paper and Kindle versions from Amazon. I received a very nice advanced review in Publishers Weekly back in the November 4th issue. Here's what it said, in part, with potential spoilers left out:

"Legendary game designer Chadwick taps into his popular Space: 1889 steampunk setting with this exciting prequel novel, which sees soldier-turned-historian Jack Fargo catapulted from 2018 to an alternate 1888 by a mysterious explosive event. Although alternately amazed and baffled by a world that features airships, interplanetary travel, America split into the Confederate States and the United States, and Europe laid out along different political lines, Fargo just wants to go home. . . .(T)he world building is rock solid, the plot fast paced, the action visceral, and the stakes high. Chadwick balances scientific theory, steampunk imagery, and memorable characters with flair. . . "

I blush.

Relating to the novel, Baen Books (my publisher) and I also have a New Year's present for you. They contracted a short story from me as a prequel to the novel and as a way of giving a little more background on one of the characters. The story is called, "Murder on the Hochflieger Ost," and takes place a year before the events of the novel on an enormous luxury zeppelin plying the Berlin-to-Istanbul route--the Space: 1889 equivalent of the Orient Express. It's a free download at the Baen Books site. Just click on this link.

Tony Daniels, my editor at Baen Books and a fine writer in his own right, had some great ideas for the rewrite and nudged me toward a far better final resolution, in my opinion. A book ends up being a collaborative effort and much of the success stems from the help the author receives from others. It still ultimately comes down to the author, but I think the current trend toward self-publishing risks losing some of the collaborative effect of going through a publishing house. Yes, you can hire editors and proofreaders, but I'm not sure it's quite the same thing. Nevertheless, it's certainly here to stay, and will certainly become an increasing part of the literary scene. The economics of publishing almost dictates it for most writers. Who knows what the future will bring, but I'm happy to be with a publishing house like Baen, one that's still intimately connected to their authors and to their customers.