Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reviews 23 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg - Stone and a Hard Place by R. L. King

Reviews-23-by Jacqueline Lichtenberg Stone And A Hard Place by R. L. King

R. L. King is one of the writers highlighted on my page of writers who have been influenced by my writing.

I want to point you to Book 1 in R. L. King's series The Alastair Stone Chronicles,  because I truly admired the strong, disciplined structure of this novel.

It's an easy, quick read -- great kind of thing to read on an airplane but you won't toss it in the trash when you get to your destination (or delete it from your phone -- paper and Kindle versions on Amazon).

cover of R. L. King's novel

Besides being a great story about a master of Magical Craft taking on an Apprentice while dealing with a cross-dimension incursion by a genuine Monster Entity, this novel is worth any writer's time to study.

It's not a Romance, but the plot is driven by Relationships and a good, solid sexual relationship, too.

All the Characters (except the Monster) do things because of how they "relate" to the other characters.

We see what it means to hold someone in contempt.
We see what it means to think you should hold someone in high regard.
We see what it means to acquire high regard for those who supply "strokes" or good feelings, who      bolster your self-esteem whether you should have any self-esteem or not.
We see what it means to perceive an elegant devotion to Charity and  throw down in support of that  lofty goal.
We see what it means to be self-critical.

This novel creates an interlaced web of Relationships all of which contribute materially to the plot.  There's love, contempt and even embryonic hatred.

We can see all of this in one panoramic perspective because of the underlying structure of the novel.

That structure is invisible to the consumer, the casual reader, which is just as it should be.  The casual reader should swoop through the story eager for "what happens next" -- and indeed that is exactly how this book reads.

The strict, disciplined structure reminiscent of Hollywood movies or network TV shows causes the page-turner effect.

After you've read the book, check the beginning then check the ending.  Also check the middle.


But the truth is the following analysis does not spoil the pure enjoyment in this novel.

There is an unexpected death near the end.  It is not foreshadowed, except poetically.  You keep asking yourself how in the world is the writer going to keep this character alive after all this -- but all indications are that the writer will keep that character alive.

But no.

Poetic Justice is served up cold.

Here's the relevant 3-part series on this blog on Poetic Justice and how to use it as a device.




Now, given that the plot calls for that shock-scene of the death, and a huge Karmic Reveal, together with (all in a couple of paragraphs) a glimpse into the future lives of this character, and possibly the past lives of the Main Character who survives, maybe into the Relationship between them established over lifetimes, -- how can the opening of such a Paranormal Action-Mystery novel be structured so the ending makes sense, but is not telegraphed to the reader?

If the opening telegraphs to the reader too much, then the reader will become bored and stop turning pages.

Well, the genre is "Mystery" primarily (not Romance).

If it were a Romance it might be classed as Paranormal Action-Romance and the opening would be the first meeting of the two characters who would fall in love -- very likely opening on them fighting each other, maybe in Arcane Combat.

This is clearly a MYSTERY.

But it partakes of the elements of Science Fiction, too.

The mystery in question is the arcane equivalent of a science mystery -- a piece of data that doesn't fit accepted theory.

So as the author says, it is an Urban Fantasy because the setting is contemporary (sans cell phones), and the science involved is Magic.  From my NOT SO MINOR ARCANA series on Tarot:

I think it is much more than just Urban Fantasy -- mixing many genres seamlessly, including hints of a coming Romance.  Some major publishers still shun this type of mixture -- but of course it is my own personal favorite.

So as the novel progresses, investigation shows there are some theories that cover the observation, but no big detailed reference works to cookbook through fixing the problem.

Since paranormal mystery genre is to be the envelope, the writer chose to open the plot as you do with a mystery, and to close with the solution, and a denouement as you do with a mystery.

The typical closed-form detective novel, or TV show, starts with the discovery of the body, or a bit of evidence that a crime has been committed.  This kicks off the Plot -- but not yet the Story.

Stone and a Hard Place starts with a prologue, and a wildly gorgeous opening line.

"Adelaide Bonham was convinced that her house hated her."

The whole novel is about that House, it's hatred for Adelaide, what kind of person she is, how she manages to accept an unacceptable explanation of what she has observed, and what she does both because of that acceptance, that observation, and what she does in spite of that acceptance, and what becomes of the House because of it all.

Adelaide an old, frail, infirm woman, a widow who has inherited the house passed down to her husband by his ancestors.

She is not a typical old widow.

She's courageous, exemplary, set in her ways but willing to accept new ideas.

But she is not the Hero of this Story -- not the Main Character.

That's why her conviction that her house hates her is in a prologue, not the opening of Chapter One.

Stone And A Hard Place is not about her, not her story, not her destiny.

She, like the first character you see on a TV Series episode opening where the week's body is discovered, is part of both plot and story -- she is obstacle, goal and enabler, even perhaps Protagonist, but not Hero, not Main Character.  She both prevents and then instigates plot events.  But the novel is not her Story.

Many readers of this blog know I usually send back (mostly unread) any manuscript sent to me for evaluation that begins with a Prologue.

The art of the prologue is incredibly difficult to master.

Artistically, the prologue must be a major narrative hook -- draw the reader into the story.  But at the same time, it must not fix the reader's attention and present the reason to read this novel.

The reason to read the novel is paragraph 1 of Chapter 1 -- it is not the prologue, which as it's name indicates is the "log" (like Captain's Log) of "what came before the story" that instigates the plot.

Be advised, most readers routinely skip anything labeled prologue, so usually it's better to call it Chapter One and make it the springboard into Chapter Two.

In this case, though, what you have here is a perfect example of a novel that must have a prologue, and a perfect example of a prologue that contains nothing but prologue material.

You find perfect examples like this in Mystery and Police Procedurals -- the Event that the Main Character must investigate.

The beginning writer tends to grab at the prologue to solve a writing structure problem no other tool in that writer's toolbox seems suited for.

Usually, that is the beginning writer's up-welling urgency to write the story, shoving aside anything that would slow down the writing -- including learning new techniques necessary to tell the story in just the way that the story demands.

That is not what happened here in Stone And A Hard Place.

This prologue is a precise example of not only when to use a prologue but how and why.

This prologue is part of the formula of the Detective Story, and sets out the main problem The Detective will have to solve.

The plot has "reveals" about the way the Reluctant Detective gets sucked into solving this problem, what he discovers that's vaguely suspicious, what he learns that is definitely suspicious, what makes him very wary of the size of the problem (tip of the iceberg and he knows it) -- what and how he researches, what is known about this problem, what he thinks about what he discovers, what he decides to do about it, what happens (not as a consequence of his decision plot-wise, but as a consequence poetically, karmicly, of who and what he is).

Each bit of information about the mystery, about why this old woman thinks her house hates her, what she does about that, what the Detective ( a master Magician named Stone who is facing a very hard place in his life) does as a consequence of what the old woman does, is Revealed at exactly the correct place in the narrative all the way to The End and the epilogue.

The precision pacing is not just the order in which information is revealed, but also how many words are devoted to revealing each piece and giving the reader time to absorb and understand that information.

The information feed in this novel is perfect.

The Mystery Plot begun in the Prologue forms the backbone of the Plot.  The Mystery Formula sets the pacing.

The Story begins at the Chapter One opening.  (for a Mystery formula this is exactly the correct choice.)

Chapter One introduces our Reluctant Detective with his awareness of the karmic problem of his life, the life-stage he is passing through at this very moment.

The opening line is perfect:
"Alastair Stone suspected the Universe was conspiring against his desire to keep the two sides of his life separate."

And at the end of the novel, we see that is indeed the case -- poetic justice, karma, has overwhelmed and transformed his life, and he is complicit.

The next few paragraphs of the opening (brief, hard-punching paragraphs perfectly crafted) convey the information that Stone will now take on an Apprentice at the behest of a figure who is an Old Friend.  That figure is thought of many times throughout the novel, and then tinkers with Stone's destiny again in the Epilogue.

The epilogue is titled appropriately Chapter Forty-Six, Two Weeks Later, instead of epilogue.

Why is this not titled epilogue?  Because it does not cap the prologue with a final bit of information completing the plot begun in the prologue.

It is not an epilogue, but a denouement to the mystery, dealing with the damage left in the wake of resolving the conflict.

Chapter Forty-Six delineates the wrap-up of the Story (not the Plot) and indicates what the Reluctant Detective will choose to do next because of the losses sustained in this adventure and the scars only beginning to form on his psyche as the two parts of his life have been smashed together with the force of karma.

Within the first few paragraphs of Chapter One we also meet Stone's "magically oblivious girlfriend" -- who later figures in the story significantly, particularly in saving Stone's life.  They're sleeping together but  not living together -- lots of romantic tension that isn't yet a romance.

Then Chapter Two introduces Stone's everyday life (as a Professor of the arcane at a regular university where the topic is treated as a mythical curiosity), and his first meeting with his new Apprentice.

The main characters are all introduced in the correct order, the order of their effect on the ending.

The body of the novel is all about juggling responsibilities to train the Apprentice while dealing with the Monster In The House, and with the overcoming of the personal angst caused by Stone's inability to keep the two sides of his life separate and still keep his self-respect.

The Point of View shifts, but never wanders.  The writer does not use point of view shift because she doesn't know any other way to get the information to the reader.  She chooses Point of View Shift because it is the correct tool for this information feed at this specific point in the novel.  It is all very disciplined, very precise.

The entire composition follows the "Beats" delineated in Blake Snyder's Save The Cat! series on screenwriting.  Scene structure, climax points, each one is placed exactly where it belongs by adjusting the number of words necessary to move the story and the plot ahead.  That word-count discipline is a big factor in the page-turner effect.

Read this novel, enjoy it, then dissect it beat for beat, count paragraphs, words, and how dialogue is mixed in tempo with narrative, exposition, and description.  There is a firm hand behind this novel, and a very high precision sense of structure and pacing.

As Save The Cat! points out repeatedly, structure and pacing make the difference between an "Opens Everywhere" film and a campus Arts Playhouse showing or two.

Structure and pacing are all about audience size.  But though both structure and pacing are necessary conditions for wide distribution, they are not sufficient conditions.

This novel has the potential to reach and please a very large, very broad audience given the right kind of publicity and promotion.

In today's world, that kind of publicity and promotion is rarely possible for a work of mixed genres like this one.  Urban Fantasy is one of the labels that allows for such a mixture.

If you are writing a mixed-genre -- or perhaps think you are writing a very pure genre -- study this novel's ingredients.  It is a smoothly blended mixture of all my favorite genres.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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