Reviews 2 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Page-turners To Study
Reviews 1 (not really the first reviews I've done on this blog!) is here:
This series of "Reviews" is about books you can study and learn from.
Here are three innocent looking books, but they are anything but innocent.
Each is a 2013 entry in a long running series of novels guilty of being page-turners. Each one is a complete novel in and of itself, a whole story. Each one is an "episode" in a longer story arc -- as we've been studying episodic structure and the use of "Interesting" to achieve that structure. Each one is a page-turner. Each of these authors has hit the rhythm the current publishing establishment needs to make a profit.
Gini Koch's ALIEN series is Fantasy Romance with the structure of military science fiction -- that good, old fashioned, traditional military-action-formula stuff that has sold well for maybe more than a hundred years. But Gini is doing it as Romance!
Judging by the vigorous market for very simple shoot-from-the-hip video games, COMBAT based stories are still popular. Every generation becomes enamored of "winning" in a combat situation -- just being faster, stronger, more skilled than the opposition is every teen's goal in life (for a while, at least).
So there's always a market for stories about vanquishing foes by blasting them to bits.
The same is true of Romance genre. There's always a market for stories about "dazzlers" (a term Gini Koch uses in her ALIEN Series to good advantage) when you (the writer) can bring the reader into the character of a dazzler whose power over men is devastating. Making the reader feel what it's like to have such power over others is the same as making the reader feel what it's like to have the power to blow adversaries to bits.
Here is the Gini Koch page on Amazon, though I rather imagine readers of this blog have not missed a single one of the Alien novels:
Touched By An Alien, Alien Tango, Alien In The Family, Alien Proliferation, Alien Diplomacy, Alien vs. Alien, Alien In The House and in December 2013, Alien Research are the ALIEN SERIES titles.
This is the series that connects these other two series of Military Science Fiction/Fantasy.
Note, that I have told Gini Koch several times that the ALIEN novels need to be line-edited to soak about 20% of the words out -- a couple of reviewers have noted that, though often readers just don't know WHY they have a hard time "following" a story or remembering the huge list of characters as they pop up, then vanish from the pages.
That difficulty is often from a lack of vigorous line editing rather than an innate structural problem.
The story Koch is telling in the ALIEN series is complex, far-flung, passion-driven (what will a heroic type person do for the sake of maintaining a love-life?), and crazy-funny all at the same time.
What constitutes "Interesting?"
It is possible to review the ALIEN novels in a dozen different contexts, illustrating many story-telling techniques that are all highly marketable (other than being just plain fun to read) -- but today we are continuing the discussion launched over the last couple of weeks involving the subject of what, exactly, constitutes "interesting?"
Here is the index of previous posts relevant to this discussion of writing a Page-turner:
In Part 3 of this series on story-springboards,
...we started sketching out the issues and topics relevant to constructing an Episodic Plot, one of which is a "springboard" with enough potential energy to hurl the story and plot all the way to The End.
In Part 4 we analyzed "boring" - where it comes from and how it happens.
Now we're looking at what makes a reader turn the page -- want to know "what happens next" -- or be eager to pick up a book they had to put aside because it's long, like the ALIEN SERIES novels are.
What makes a reader buy a sequel?
Well, each reader is different, and a given reader changes taste over the years. But there is a one-word answer from the point of view of a writer -- "suspense."
Soap Opera structure -- the episodic structure is best exemplified by the old-fashioned soaps - is generally considered to work well with suspense because the 'characters are interesting' -- watching a Soap even after missing a few episodes is a "visit with old friends."
The suspense element can be "what will this old friend do about this new problem?" or it can be just, "what's going on with this old friend now?" Either way, it's "what happens next to my old friend?"
Life, in general, is all about "what happens next."
There are two main categories of "happens next."
A) the consequences of what was done before (Saturn)
B) a NEW Event that blindsides the characters and changes everything (Uranus).
Remember, in the vocabulary we've adopted for this blog, "Plot" is the series of Events; "Story" is the meaning of those Events to the characters.
You will find these two structural elements referred to by various terms elsewhere, but every professional writer knows the structural function of these two elements and - consciously or unconsciously - knows how to weld them together using Theme as the glue. It doesn't matter what you call them. You just have to know how to work with them.
Genres are distinguished to some extent by which element dominates - which element has the most words devoted to it, STORY or PLOT.
In the "Action" genres (Fantasy or Science Fiction, Men's action, war stories), Plot is supposed to dominate.
In Romance, Story dominates.
Thus in Romance genre, many long paragraphs between lines of dialogue are there to detail the emotional motivations slowly developing into the next utterance.
In Action genres, many long paragraphs are between lines of dialogue to detail the moves and counter-moves, the narrative of what the characters did to deliver which blows to the opponent.
In Romance, the plot is carried on the story.
In Action, the story is carried on the plot.
When Story and Plot are about equally balanced, each explicating the same Theme, each progressing in a smooth dance rhythm (what editors call "pacing."), you get the broadest audience appeal. Half the audience will be frustrated there isn't more story, the other half will be frustrated there isn't more plot, and neither half will be so frustrated they stop reading.
The best way to learn to balance Story and Plot in your writing is to practice doing one without the other -- like "Dancing With The Stars" it does take practice.
But you won't get it just exactly right on first or sometimes third draft. It takes editing, right down to the minute the novel goes to press, to get the balance correct for the intended audience.
Gini Koch has nailed the "pacing" of the overall novel -- the beginning is in the right place in Plot and Story, the Plot and Story start of on the correct foot, mirroring each other like dance partners on Dancing With the Stars, the quarter point turn is right where it should be, the middle is smack in the middle, the 3/4 turn into the final action is on the nose, and the ending rises to a massive climax spectacle, then glides to rest -- with a few loose ends trailing to suggest the sequel as an episodic series should.
Take any one of the ALIEN novels and find the page numbers for those turning points, write down what happens at those points, read the whole novel, then graph plot and story and see what you find.
So if you wanted to improve the reader experience for the ALIEN novels, you would have to line and word-cut, trim, rephrase sentences, condense -- painstaking, and time-consuming (thus expensive) work. And you'd have to cut enough so that there was room to add reminders about "who" each of the characters is when they pop up again.
Would it be worth it? Would you lose some of the humorous banter that fans love about Koch's writing? Yes, you would lose some readers that way -- would you gain more? I doubt it.
Now look at the two other long-running series in the photo above, The Destroyermen by Taylor Anderson and The Lost Stars by Jack Campbell.
These are essentially Combat Strategy Novels -- more about maneuvering fleets, resources, playing politics and diplomacy as forms of combat, deploying fire-power of every sort from explosions to one-upsmanship surprises.
The Lost Stars is a spinoff series from Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series - same universe, but subordinate characters become the main characters.
The Destroyermen is more of a Fantasy type Science Fiction series. Some World War II Navy ships get sucked into an alternate universe Earth where evolution took some different turns, producing aliens of various sorts on various continents. These Destroyer crew people from our world are Americans of the "Can Do" generation who land in the midst of a very confusing multi-cultural world-war situation -- and basically change that world by introducing technology and tactics.
STORM SURGE is the 8th book in a series. It's hardcover from RoC, and has gained great praise for a reason. It's a page turner!
But like Gini Koch's series, the cast of characters is vast and hard to remember.
Unlike Gini's series, though, DESTROYERMEN has resorted to following different characters into different theaters of conflict -- and only by reading very fast do you see the overall tactical situation. The strategies though are lost in a shimmering fog.
There is, however, one driving objective -- each set of characters has the objective of getting out of this shooting war alive.
They do not spend any paragraphs thinking or dreaming about the perfect life they want to create on this strange Earth. They form war-buddy relationships, but don't get a lot deeper than that. To them, the most important thing in life is not the fulfillment of a deeply satisfying Relationship with the Soul Mate who completes them. The most important thing in life is LIFE -- i.e. staying alive long enough to take the next breath.
The second most important thing in life to these lost Americans (and there are some Japanese warship survivors who allied with the "other side" on this alter-Earth), is doing "the right thing." Even when living like "drunken sailors" they strive for a solid moral footing. They have Honor, and won't sell that just to survive.
The oddly non-1940's element is that these Americans unquestioningly accept the non-human allies with all their cultural quirks. There's little of the prejudices that shaped those decades in the USA.
So, yes, it's Fantasy, but with all the elements of Science Fiction. These Americans offhandedly re-engineer, re-invent, and originate technology -- and while they're at it, they teach non-humans how to create technological innovations. By Book 8, Storm Surge, the non-humans are the primary source of innovations -- new aircraft, new torpedoes, new ways to create and deliver explosions, and of communicating over long distances. Meanwhile, the majority non-humans adopt 1940's slang English.
Along the way, you learn enough about the characters (human and not) to be rooting for these folks and against those folks -- you want to know "what happens next" because the action never pauses, even during the tense waits while forces and fleets reposition.
To find the secrets of the "page turner" of episodic structure, check the Events (plot developments) at the beginning, quarter, middle, 3/4 and end points in each volume. Each volume has a complete story, but leaves over some "loose ends," for the next part of the story. You can learn more about page-turner structure from books you do not like than you can from books you do like because, without the glamor of an enchanting novel to suck you in, you can see through the surface to the mechanism below.
If Taylor Anderson gets to finish the DESTROYERMEN series, I suspect it will be the entire story of World War II in all its theaters. The canvass is vast -- as is the multi-planet canvass that Gini Koch is painting her love story against.
Taylor Anderson seems to be telling a story of Honor using a plot of Technology.
Gini Koch seems to be telling a story of Romance using a plot of Family Dynamics.
Which brings us to Jack Campbell in a far-far-far future Interstellar War.
Campbell builds fleets of interstellar combat vessels -- of various sizes and purposes just as a sea-going fleet of today is composed of various sorts of vessels. Then he pits them against each other, each driving toward a specific strategic goal.
Campbell's far-flung canvas is stitched together with 2 kinds of "wormhole" transportation gates -- one natural, scattered among various star systems, and the other constructed in strategic locations to facilitate the war, and trade. The constructed gates are "gifts" from the mysterious aliens, which the main hero of Lost Fleet discovers are really weapons to destroy humanity.
Attacking, defending, and using these natural and artificial "gates" is the main plot dynamic.
Most of the words of the The Lost Fleet series are devoted to maneuvering through or around these gates, and out-foxing a rival Fleet for control or access to a gate.
Most of the words of The Lost Stars series is devoted to exactly the same sort of maneuvering, but via politics more than spaceships. In The Lost Stars, one star-system decides to secede from one of the star empires and declare independence. That's not working too well, so they start trying to create allies among their nearer neighbors.
Taken together both series paint on an even larger canvas than Koch or Anderson use -- because here we have a Game of "Let's You and Him Fight" -- where an alien species is manipulating Humanity into a centuries-long war, human against human. There are a couple other alien species just discovered, but we don't know yet if the first aliens have conquered them, or what kind of allies they might make to humans.
So Campbell's canvas shows a Humanity Divided sitting in the midst of a giant sea of Hostile Unknowns, and one Hero from humanity's past awakened from cold sleep with a way of thinking alien to "modern" humanity.
Both Jack Campbell series, Lost Fleet and Lost Stars, are First Contact stories carried on a Plot of Strategies and Tactics of Warfare.
Campbell takes more time to go into the intricacies of Relationship, develop smoldering love stories that show every sign of developing into full fledged Romances, and to reveal the depths of human psychology that form the platform of warfare.
Now you may be wondering why this blog is focusing on Military Science Fiction when the ostensible subject here is Romance.
Consider Sex and Violence, and their relationship to each other within the Human Psyche -- the origin and nature of what is "interesting" to a reader, and what exactly a writer does when creating the "climax structure" of a novel.
And there is the larger question of whether sexuality has anything at all to do with Romance.
These 3 novels series, taken together, provide a context for exploring the relationships among these abstract components of human nature.
If you decide you don't want to read Jack Campbell or Taylor Anderson -- try Mike Shepherd's Kris Longknife series. It's fabricated of the same material, and has a terrific love story thread.
We will return to this subject, and very likely use off-hand references to these novels with the assumption you are acquainted with them. Even if you don't read them all, every single word, do take a look at the Amazon pages and figure out what about them is "interesting" to the people who like them. At the same time, study what it is about them that seems so very "boring" to you.
Check the author's pages on Amazon and note especially the "Customers Also Bought Items By" section on the right.
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