Book Review: Red Rising

Hunger Games baked in Divergent Sauce, with a sprig of Gattaca on the side.

GENRE: Science Fiction: Dystopian
MARKET: Not Young Adult
CONTENT WARNING: Violence, Some Profanity, Off-Scene Rape

Red Rising 3D
I won’t say I’ve been avoiding dystopian science fiction, but I have been struggling to find time to read lately. So a friend suggested that I try Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. “The audio version is excellent, Ben.”

So I bit the bullet, bought a few extra credits on Audible, and downloaded a copy of Red Rising.

First I noticed this: there’s a big difference between the Scottish lilt of the Leviathan audiobook and the narrator’s Irish brogue early on in Red Rising, but in some ways that made the world even more interesting and real. I guess I’m a sucker for accents, if they’re well done. Even if you take accents off the table, I still enjoyed Red Rising enough to spend the last few days wandering around in a daze, cleaning, over-washing my hands, and hunting for mindless house chores as an excuse to stay in the story.

While the Red Rising concept rolls out like a grown-up merger of Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Gattaca, and Divergent, it offers an escape from those sometimes simplistic views of good versus evil. Red Rising starts in a subterranean mining colony on Mars, where “Helldivers” lead their drilling crews deep into the red planet’s crust in search of precious Helium-3, the core ingredient needed to turn the lifeless planet into a flowering oasis.

Darrow is the best “Helldiver” around. He’s got quick fingers and a sharp wit. He’s smart, capable, and driven to provide the best scraps he can for his beautiful bride, Eo. Darrow, his clan, and his caste, “The Reds,” think they’re preparing Mars for the rest of humanity, when, unbeknownst to them, humanity has already spread across the surface of Mars.

As this deception unravels for Darrow, a shady paramilitary group offers him a chance at vengeance if he will leave his clan beneath the surface and pledge himself to their cause. Because of his talents, Darrow is chosen to infiltrate the Gold caste and attend their elite “Institute.” Thrown into the deep end, Darrow struggles earn a position of influence that will help him instigate a successful rebellion.

Red Rising’s oppression feels authentic, which means that it probably isn’t appropriate for the Percy Jackson crowd. People die, and the characters, choices, and consequences feel real, albeit couched in a highly fictional setting. By the end of the book, the boundary of villainy moves beyond caste and into personal choice. It’s science fiction, but it’s more about the people than the science or technology.

I especially liked the author’s portrayal of conflicting viewpoints and priorities. Pierce Brown is unflinching in his assertion that certain choices preclude others. Darrow isn’t allowed to have his cake and eat it, too. His rational choices are some of the most poignant moments in the story.

I wanted things to move faster in first few chapters, but once that foundation was laid, there was no looking back. The twists kept me guessing about which avenue Darrow would take to achieve his goals, and his solutions often had realistic and unintended consequences.

It’s not hard science fiction, so don’t expect The Martian, but the tech is fun to think about and described only where it impacts the story. I especially liked the grav-boots and ghost cloaks, though iterations of these ideas are present in both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and explained with an equally vague feel of “magic.”

Red Rising sits firmly in the dystopian sci-fi camp. It’s not written for younger audiences, though teenage boys will likely identify with the protagonist. If you don’t like seeing multiple sympathetic side characters meet an untimely fate, this may be one to pass on. If you don’t mind a slightly darker tale with the promise of redemption, pick up a copy of Red Rising. Darrow’s willingness to buck the establishment makes the ending especially enjoyable.

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Writing: Shaving Pains

“We edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
—Arthur Plotnik

IMG_7097

Last week, I started building a metaphor between writing and shaving. In my example metaphor, I had irregular hair patterns after knee surgery that kept drawing the wrong sort of attention in public.

In fiction, anything that calls undue attention to itself is a problem. The secret to a captivating story isn’t just artistic words and phrases, but the camaraderie that exists between them. Every time a reader comes across a misfit word—even a beautiful one—their suspension of disbelief risks being damaged. I tried to read The Fellowship of the Rings in second grade, but I spent more time in the dictionary than in the story. Granted, I probably should have been reading something else at that age, but . . .

One priority for fantasy and science fiction authors is transporting us from our reality into an alternate reality. Words that break that magic, by being inauthentic, confusing, or awkward, should be cut. Even a gentle reader will become a critic if they get bumped from a story one too many times.

Here are a few issues I see often in the manuscripts I read:

Overly Dramatic Adjectives
Overt attributions of emotion/drama (e.g. merciless army, breathtaking vista, furious opponent) should not be used in place of more descriptive narrative.  A reader should feel these things through the actions taken by characters, rather than by getting beaten over the head with the word itself.

Example: “The merciless army advanced upon our breathtaking city.”

A reader can tell if an army is “merciless” independent of the word if the author has already shown (1) the body count, (2) a city in ruins, and (3) a parent so desperate to protect her daughter as to consider killing the child in advance of the army’s arrival. All of these things do a better job of casting an invading army as “merciless” than the word itself.

Smart words
Sesquipedalian. Pontificate. Prognisticate. It’s fun to show people how smart you are, but words like these score way more points on a Scrabble board than they do in a manuscript. There are exceptions—a character that uses big words to annoy your protagonist (and readers), perhaps?—but generally, if it isn’t an everyday sort of word, think carefully about using it.

Example:  “As he ran, Vance cursed himself for not being more perspicacious.”

One of my beta readers marked this word out in bold red strokes and replaced it with the more pedestrian word “clever.” This alters the meaning slightly, but works better for commercial fiction.

Awkward Expressions
These are expressions that get in the way of the story. They often stem from an author’s desire to be poetic, or say things in a new way, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth to the average reader. If the average reader has to spend too much time decoding a book of idiosyncratic (unusual) expressions they’ll get irritated. (And editors have an even lower tolerance for awkwardness.) It’s okay to use conventional language.

Example: “The stillness halted his feet with fear.”

This is an awkward way to say, “He stopped walking when he noticed the eerie quiet,” or “He halted, suddenly apprehensive in the unnatural silence.” Feet don’t feel fear and stillness won’t halt them . . .

🙂

Obviously there’s more to revising than just shaving out these little indiscretions, but if you find beta readers, agents, and editors looking at your manuscript funny, it might be time to go hunting for dramatic adjectives, smart words, and awkward expressions. And if you are getting weird looks, pat yourself on the back. It’s a sign of progress. It means you have a knee worth shaving.

 

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Anecdote: The Pain of Shaving (Your Legs)

“Legolas! What in Durin’s name am I supposed to do with this thing?”
–Gimli

I need a bigger razor finished

I’ve never liked shaving. It’s too close a compatriot to tender skin and bleeding chin. And now I have another reason to dislike it. . .

Some of you know I like soccer. I play on an Over 30 indoor team and play pick-up on Saturday mornings when I get the chance.  Or perhaps I should say “I played.”

Here’s a bad formula: Uneven Soccer Field +  Trash-talking 36-year-old + Changing Directions = Knee Surgery

One minute you’re an all-star and the next minute you’re flat on your back staring up into the concerned faces of 20 friends, wondering when you got old and what you’ll write about this painful experience. You worry that now you won’t be able to finish your novel by the deadline, and all sorts of other irrelevant things.

Everybody’s milling about, telling you to stay down. The doctor in the group has you by the ankle and calf—you don’t remember him picking your leg up—and is checking to see if everything lines back up. The hot Texas sun is pounding on your face and the St. Augustine grass is stabbing into your bare arms. And there’s the white hot pain of knowing you screwed up.

They help you get to your feet and tell you you’re done for the day, even if you think you can play a little more. After a few steps you realize you’ll at least be able to make it to the car.

It’s hard to know right away just how bad it’s going to be, but after the swelling and the denial wear off and the doctor orders an MRI, things come into focus pretty quick: lateral meniscus, medial meniscus, and anterior cruciate ligament, all blown.

I don’t do things halfway.

Now for the humor. Plenty of things to manage during this whole process: recovery time,  family obligations, writing schedules, and telling my indoor team the bad news. But I didn’t expect hair growth to be one of them. On the morning of the surgery, I’m lying in the hospital bed and a nice girl comes in and wants to see a little leg. The hospital smock isn’t exactly modest, but I pull it up past the knee anyway. Best not to argue with them, not when they’re holding power tools and you’re in a drafty smock and getting an intravenous drip.)

The nice girl shaves my knee bald-baby in less than a minute. She wipes the area down to sterilize. Because my knee feels cold and and naked, she lets me cover it back up. Then the sleepy drugs kick in. I dream about getting wheeled to out to the car and pretending to eat some food.

I wake up a few weeks later in physical therapy doing an excruciating knee bend.

ME: “Where am I?”
DEVIL: “The place where bad little children go.”
ME: “Really? Why?”
DEVIL: “You missed your shot in that soccer game.”
ME: “Ah. Makes perfect sense.”

During that first hour of therapy I re-notice the hair: my right leg is perfectly normal, but there’s a swath of deforestation, ending mid calf where the surgery prepper left off with her power tools. The transition from bare leg to hair is so abrupt that every time I look down I forget about the pain of rehab and wonder what might come crawling out of that jungle and onto the empty plain. It’s seriously distracting. I keep waiting for the therapists to say something, but they never do. They see weird stuff every day, I guess. One more half-shaved leg isn’t going to throw them.

But the naked knee and the Black Forest on half my calf is a problem, even if the physical therapists don’t say anything about it. People in Houston are still wearing shorts in December, and I want to fit in. Every time I go out in public, I know people are staring that that transition line and wondering why I didn’t just shave the whole thing. “Doesn’t he know how bad it looks?”

Don’t laugh.

Eventually, the stares get inside my head. This is not the sort of thing I want attention for. People shave their legs, right? I decide I can make two-equally naked legs and grow it all back the same length. Problem solved.

Smart men consult the internet before taking on a job like that. Smart men start with the hair clippers and then use a razor, if they must. Other men (men like me) just watch their wives surreptitiously and then go for it. It can’t be that hard, right?

Well, first off, twenty years of not shaving your legs can make the first outing a bit rocky. Where did all this hair come from? I can’t even grow a full beard, but one little swipe on my leg is enough to put my Gillette Mach 3 out of action.  I sit in the shower for an hour, wiping the excess off my razor, cursing myself for another dumb idea.

I’ve got golf-ball-sized bare spots all up and down my leg and now the shower is running out of hot water, and everything looks just as hairy as before. I can’t let the hair go down the drain because I’m the one who handles the clogs, and I may have teased my wife a bit about her bathroom sink, so if I clog this one . . .

Then I start to notice how cold the bathroom really is. It may feel like summer outside, but a Texas bathroom always knows it’s winter. The tile is cold. The air is cold. The shower curtain is slimy and cold. The lukewarm water only makes the goose bumps worse.

There’s a writing lesson in this, but I’m going to save it for next week. The important thing? It took me three days to finish. I went as high as men’s 1970s basketball shorts and called it quits.

This is why I will never tear my ACL again.

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Sample Reviews

Down to Brass Tacks. What does an awesome review look like? I’ve been grateful for every review that I received on DARTS and RINGS. Each review helped me see my work from a different angle and improve my approach to SWORDS. Here are a few (of the many) reviews that hit on key points:

SAMPLE REVIEW #1 (DARTS)
Star Rating: Four Stars of Five
Tagline: Hero and protagonist not always the same person
Date: October 23, 2015
Amazon Verified Purchase
Review Text: DARTS is a solid introduction and does a good job of building the world and establishing the characters for future installments. The main character Teacup is enjoyable as an atypical protagonist who does a few dastardly things during the course of the narrative, yet still manages to retain our sympathies with his basic decency and familial responsibilities. He is not actually the hero of the story, though, and is an observer of the plot rather than its driving factor. In the future I look forward to seeing him become more entwined in the various intrigues that surround him.

While generally a low-key and character focused work framed around a game of darts in a fantasy tavern, the narrative occasionally touches on larger issues and features some interesting and unexpected twists. The writing is clear and efficient.

REVIEW OUTBRIEF
The review above is packed with information about the story. The tagline highlights for shoppers that the protagonist (Teacup) isn’t the hero, and drives this home with words like “dastardly” and “atypical.” It describes several strengths of DARTS—“clear and efficient” writing, sympathetic characters—and expresses a clear interest in reading further (referral).

I particularly like the words “low-key and character-focused.” The reviewer states that he’d like to see the protagonist “become more entwined in the various intrigues. .  .” It’s a gentle nudge for the author to pay special attention to improving the action in future installments, and giving Teacup a more direct role. The review uses keywords for the genre (fantasy, tavern). This helps elevate DARTS ever so slightly among the millions of other self-published fantasy works available on Amazon.

“You can write this stuff, George, but I can’t read it.” –Harrison Ford

Harrison hugs George

Ever since that first viewing, I’ve been fascinated with Star Wars: glowing light-sabers, thundering star ships, and brilliant dialogue (cough, cough). As a  wee youngster, I even checked out a fancy book about the making of Star Wars. Besides the curious technique for making  the light-saber, what stuck with my ten-year-old brain was the fact that it took Mr. George Lucas at least four official drafts to get things “just right.”

Young Ben (Hewett):   At least four drafts? George Lucas must not be a very good writer!
Old Ben (Hewett):        Err… I just started draft seven of my book.
Young Ben (Hewett):   YOU must not be a very good writer. . .

Fortunately, I’m realizing that most first drafts stink and that good writers are lucky for a second draft that doesn’t equally stink. And Uncle George didn’t do it all himself. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there were editors and beta readers. They helped him get from a lame, clunky script to one that broke box-office records. (Even after extensive script revisions, Harrison Ford still crossed out many of Han Solo’s lines in his script and scribbled in better ones.) Lesson for aspiring writers: an outside perspective is essential to producing fiction.

In celebration of The Force Awakens, due out December 18th 2015, I imagined what an early beta reader might have said about the first or second draft of Star Wars. Don’t be fooled. These problems are [mostly] mine; I’m just pawning them off on George for fun.

 

Letter to George Lucas, circa 1973.

Dear George,

Finally read your script. Unfortunately, I’ll never get that time back.

In short, your ending fell flat and your characters have no soul. I’ve made some comments on the larger issues, but be sure to get a second opinion, because I was pretty numb by the time I reached the end.

RAISE THE STAKES
I didn’t buy that final assault. You had Luke fly in there, single-handedly shoot down a bunch of TIE fighters, and detonate the core. Is this Boxcar Children? You called it a Death Star so make it look hard. (Incidentally, what is a TIE fighter? Bow-TIEs? Windsors? Doesn’t sound very intimidating.)

People need to fail. A second run down that laser trench is a must! Have the actors hold their breath, sweat, and curse. There ought to be swarms of lasers and exploding starships. Forget the effects budget for a minute, because that’s what today’s audiences want. Make them think that Luke is going down in flames.

AMP UP YOUR VILLIAN
The dude in the black suit and the James Earl Jones voice is cool, but he ought to be practically on top of the audience, breathing heavily and saying creepy things like “The force is strong with this one.” He should also be dealing out death left and right. Can you make him choke some people? For extra points, make him Luke’s actual father. Homicidal father, reckless son. Good drama.

TWO WORDS: CHARACTER GROWTH
Make the finale both universally and personally significant. Luke’s been a whiny farm kid most of this movie script. To have him blowing up the evil empire by virtue of his well-honed pilot skills is a missed opportunity. Stop talking about this mysterious force and show it. Maybe that old guy you unceremoniously killed in the second act can speak to him from beyond the grave. “Use the Force, Luke,” or something like that. Listening to advice from the “afterlife” shows either personal growth or an unhealthy fixation on death. Both are interesting.

Also, Han shouldn’t fly off at the last minute to pay his debt. He’s a scoundrel, true, but he’s also a business man, and that Death Star crowd is bad for smuggling. His own character arc will be more interesting if his self-interest is in conflict with his hidden need for friendship. Have him put that awesome-fast ship right out there on the poker table and risk it all.

NOT EVERYBODY CAN WALK AWAY.
Don’t cheapen the victory by saving every wingman. Somebody has to die. Why not Biggs, the childhood friend? (His death would have more impact if we see him more than once in the script.)

“TIE” IT ALL TOGETHER (Ha!)
Make every moment play into the final scene. If Jawas die and generals get force-choked, then we can see a little better why dethroning Darth Breather is so important.

George, I know I’m riding you hard here, but face it: It doesn’t take a genius to write a B-grade science fiction flick. Somebody might fund this, but not me. Do yourself a favor and write another draft. Or seven. This finale could  hit like a heavyweight boxer, but you’ve got to have likeable characters and a plausible plot to make emotional impact. All the special effects in the world won’t give it soul if you mess that up.

Good luck,

FFC

Enough from me. This is good (fake) advice for anyone trying to finish their first novel. Or a long-awaited movie sequel. 🙂

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What made you smile today?

I worked a bunch of hours today and didn’t have any high expectations, except maybe for  the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. But today wasn’t so bad:

1) I got a call from my beautiful wife.

2) I got a call from my older brother.

3) I got a ton of work done, both NASA and NOVEL . . .

4) And I got tagged in a funny post. (I don’t know why, but seeing someone reading your book in print, when you haven’t publicized it, put a huge grin on my face. Yeah, the print version is live!)

Thanks for each of you that made my day special.

Facebook Surprise from Virginia

And thanks to the USWNT for a strong defensive performance. Cheers!