Monday, January 28, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: "Steam & Sorcery" -Fascinating Characters in a Flat World

"Steam & Sorcery: The Gaslight Chronicales #1". Author Cindy Spencer Pape
Fascinating Characters in a Flat World by Nakeesha Seneb

Steam & Sorcery, the first book in Cindy Spencer Pape's Gaslight Chronicles had a really great premise and conflict: a governess, hit upon one too many times by her employers, meets a determined bachelor with "special" children that need her care. Pape set Merrick and Caro up for a bang of a love story with great internal baggage. Their internal baggage, you'll come to learn, has everything to do with the steam punk world that they live in. Merrick is a Knight of The Order, an organization that fights against the otherworldly creatures that go bump in the night like vampyres and rogue wizards. Unbeknownst to Caro, her good looks and desirability have something to do with this world too. Merrick and Caro were both interesting leads, but after their introductions I never reconnected with them on an emotional, compassionate level. The reason why? I found the world building was lacking.

The rules of the world were just written down; told. They never came to life because they didn't complicate matters. Its brilliant that Caro is part fae and that's where all her drama of employers chasing her around comes from. Merrick isn't compelled by her fae-ness. In fact, fae are natural enemies of the Order. But this complication is dealt with quick and neat and everyone accepts it. Merrick, after trying to tamp down his feelings for Caro and his insistence on not marrying because of his dangerous job, one day wakes up and decides he'll marry her. And that's it. No angst. No tossing and turning over the decision. No confrontation with the Order of his choice of bride. Its just announced and done.

In her How to Revise Your Novel course, Holly Lisle tells us that "Worldbuilding is the process of creating a setting that interacts with your story, your characters, and your readers." Lisle insists, and I agree, that setting is not passive. Just like we're told to show not tell with the plotting, writers should be expected to do the same with the background of the story -especially if there's an element of the extraordinary.

Caro, the novice to this brave, new steam punk world, just accepted everything about the setting without question, which was not helpful to me as a reader trying to understand the scenery and customs. Her acceptance cast everything into an ordinary light, but I was left in the dark as to the workings of things.

Setting should also be unique, Lisle teaches. Unique things inspire awe.  When Caro's told of the creatures creeping in the night, the unique talents of the children she's charged with, the occupation of her new employer, and even the fantastical things she learns about her own background, she never bats an eyelash or asks a question or even doubts the veracity of the happenings. As a reader, I was woefully cheated out of delving deeper into the world because Caro never made a big deal out of the extraordinary things happening around her.

Lisle also tells her students that gimmicks of the setting should provide conflict by creating obstacles. Knights of the Order had magical ability. In one scene, Caro and Merrick happen into a brothel enhanced by magic. In one room, a sex spell has been cast that's causing group orgies. In another room, another spell has been cast that makes people feel lucky and they gamble. Caro and Merrick merely poke their heads in each room and duck out before any conflict can ensue. Missed opportunity here. We could have had the opportunity to understand how spells were cast, how they were broken, a bit of history about the magicks and its weak points, etc. But nope. Caro and Merrick dash out and head home safe, sound and with no complications.

I read another of Pape's steampunk books awhile back and loved it! She's a very talented and fun writer. I'm giving her a pass on this one based on my belief that sometimes the first book in a series, just like the pilot of a television show, sometimes misses the mark with all the heavy lifting it must to do introduce character, setting, and plot. There were great characters and an interesting plot here, but the setting (worldbuilding) was really lacking.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

TV BREAKDOWN: Scandal Pilot -Loosen Up Your Buttons Baby

Scandal: "Sweet Baby" written by Shonda Rhimes
Loosen Up Your Buttons Baby by Nakeesha J. Seneb

I think Shonda Rhimes, and her writing round table, are some of the most prolific storytellers of our times. Yes, I said prolific and I'm going to stand by such a big SAT word. Prolific actually means producing much fruit. I don't know about you, but I love fruit. I can't get enough of the juicy, sweet treats. That's exactly how I feel about Scandal.

Where most screenwriters are taught to button up their Acts, Rhimes plays fast and loose with that rule and goes so far as to button up her scenes. Like a period, exclamation point or question mark, a button is a punctuation mark at the end of an act, or in Rhimes' case, a scene. When we think about punctuation marks we most commonly think of, and use, the period. A period signifies the end; finality. You won't find many period-buttons in Rhimes' scripts. You'll most often find exclamation points, which indicate strong feelings and high volume. In fact, the exclamation point wasn't introduced until the 1970's, and then only in comic books to indicate a gun bang or punch!

Button Up Your Act
The pilot episode of Scandal is divided into five acts. Acts typically end at commercial breaks. The commercial break is a dangerous time for television writers because the audience now has a choice of getting up to use the facilities, grab a snack, or worse, turn the channel. If you study the end of each act in Scandal (or Grey's Anatomy or Private Practice), Rhimes buttons up each act-end by raising the stakes before the commercial breaks. The punctuation marks she places at each break serves to keep her audience pinned in their seats. Let's take a look at the structure of Scandal's pilot episode, "Sweet Baby." Here's a link to Rhimes' original draft script.

In "Sweet Baby," Act One ends with a murder suspect walking into the office with blood literally on his hands. Act Two sees that murder investigation and raises us a POTUS (President of the United States) embroiled in a sex scandal. In Act Three, Olivia's conservative-soldier client, the alleged murderer, gets arrested because he refuses to be "outted." By the end of Act Four, Olivia "handles" the POTUS's sex scandal by destroying the life of the President's accuser/mistress who then tries to kill herself. In the middle of Act Five is where we learn the biggest scandal of them all: that Olivia and the President were having an affair. By the end of the show, the stakes are raised sky high when Olivia, feeling betrayed by her married ex-lover, takes the President's mistress on as a client. 

I strongly feel that these act ends are all exclamation points! They're also a lot to cover, so this breakdown will only focus on the first act. The first act of a television show is known as the setup. A setup has three goals: to be immediate, quick, and grab attention.

Act I Scene 1: Exclamation Button
The setup starts immediately with the first scene. We are introduced to  newcomer, Quinn, who's trying to escape an undesired blind date. Rhimes grabs our attention with witty dialogue delivered by attractive individuals. Quinn believes Harrison is her date –whom she wants to ditch. Harrison is nonplussed by her attempts, instead he seems amused. We want to see how this ends and then -surprise! It's not the man that every woman dreams of getting set up with. No, it's better. It's a dream job, and of course, every 21st century woman is going to jump at the chance of her dream job. Though Quinn doesn't shout out loud at the prospect of working for Olivia Pope, strong feelings are written all over her face at Harrison's offer. "I wanna be a gladiator in a suit," is said with wide eyes and quiet awe.

Act I Scene 2-4*: Dash Button
In the second scene, we meet the famous Olivia Pope, and her dashing rogue of a colleague, Stephen. We meet them in the midst of a deal about to go wrong. Olivia momentarily halts the conversation with Stephen about engagements to smooth over the dilemma of two Russian bad guys pointing pistols at each other. Olivia comes off as badass, uber-confident and smart. With the deal settled, she and Stephen take their "package" and continue their banter about his impending nuptials as though no one was just in mortal peril.

The scene starts with Olivia and Stephen--then there's a conflict, which is resolved--and the scene concludes with Olivia and Stephen continuing their banter. It's a set of dashes. "The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you're about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course," instructs Lewis Thomas. The playfulness comes across in the scene as Olivia and Stephen leave the danger giggling over how much they love this job.

*Its divided as three scenes because of location. If you know Final Draft, or any screenwriting software, you'll understand. Scene 2: Olivia and Stephen are walking into the building. Scene 3: is the confrontation with the bad guys. Scene 4: Olivia and Stephen walk out of the building.

Act I Scene 5-7**: Exclamation Button/Act End
Scene 5 starts with Quinn, our novice, coming into the extraordinary world of Olivia Pope and Associates. Through her, we begin to learn the rules of this new world. Olivia's crew is introduced, along with their respective duties, and Quinn is quickly schooled that this is not a law firm but a firm of problem solvers. We learn the package Olivia negotiated for was a kidnapped baby who is promptly picked up by its diplomat parents.

The setup is complete by the end of Scene 5. Everything and everyone we need to know has been established. Now the story is about to get moving. A disabled, Iraq war hero appears in the office lobby with blood on his hands. "My girlfriend. She's dead," he says. "And the police think I killed her." In a comic book, the exclamation point follows the BANG! In this scene, the gun has already gone off and we are seeing the effects of the aftermath. Harrison turns to Quinn and says, "Welcome to Pope and Associates!"

**Scene 5: Quinn and Harrison are walking into the office. Scene 6: they enter the office with the others. Scene 7: they are in the lobby.

Early on in our grade school education, we are taught how to construct sentences in order to get our points across. Today most of our writing is peppered by the point of periods. Punctuation marks, like exclamation points, dashes, and even the ellipses, we’re told to use sparingly. Rhimes and her team pays no heed to that grammar lesson. Their characters shout it out, are elliptically coy, and dash off with our hearts. And it has paid off for them episode and episode again!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Sea of Tranquility -a Greteling of character

The Sea of Tranquility. Author: Katja Milly
A Gretel-ing of Character by Nakeesha J. Seneb

This is a Breakdown, not a Review so spoilers are inevitable.

I'm a student of plotting. I can talk to you at length about the Hero's Journey, Three Act Structure, the 9-point system, 15-point system. I can talk to you for hours about the sequencing of actions. Where I find myself lacking is when the hero or heroine's character drives the plot. Luckily, there's a plot system for that! In his book Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction Jeff Gerke outlines five phases in a character driven plot. They are, in order, the knot, the inciting event, the escalation, the moment of truth and the final state. In this breakdown I want to focus on the yin and yang moments of this method: the knot and the moment of truth.

The Knot
Gerke tells burgeoning authors that "the knot is the thing that is wrong with your character." Both Nastya and Josh are damaged by death. Nastya was "murdered;" Josh has systematically lost everyone in his family to the Reaper. Nastya's death is a spiritual (as well as physical) assault because its her dreams, her life's purpose that have been decimated. She can never be who she once was, and her resurrection is unpalatable to everyone in her family. Since Josh is marked by death nearly everyone gives him a free pass and a wide berth. The force field surrounding him is impenetrable and he aims to keep it that way so loss will never touch him again.

We know their knots but we don't know the details of their troubles. Its been drilled into my head that we need to get all the important details about the MCs upfront, before the first third of the work is done. We should know the important things (their motivations) before the inciting incident so we understand the characters reaction to the obstacles that get put in their way.

The first half of this book is spent slowly Gretel-ing out the details of their knots. Like the siblings of the grim fairytale, Millay leaves bread crumbs that we first examine slowly and then are racing ahead to find the next and then the next as though we're on a sugar rush from too much gingerbread. Its a twisted, delicious foreplay as Millay parcels out the details of Nastya's assault and decent into self-hatred. My heart ached and yearned and broke as I discovered Josh's backstory of loss. Millay takes 50% of the book to do this -maybe more. And though the details are Gretel-ed (and I credit Gretel because of course its the female who takes precautions with the directions) slow it felt like a high-speed chase by a witch on a broom because my heart pounded and I was literally at the edge of my seat gripping my eReader.

Moment of Truth
Josh's moment of truth is pretty straightforward. Josh admits to himself that he loves Nastya and he accepts the very real possibility of losing the damaged, self-destructive person that she is. You'd think Nastya's moment was when she finally comes face to face with her murderer, but I beg to disagree. Her moment came when she decided she didn't want to be date raped. She's been 'dead' for three years, but in that moment with an unwanted hand against her genitals and her panties yanked to her knees -that's when this character's knot unravels and she decides she wants to live.

Moments of truth are doors: choices. Nastya clearly sees what's behind door #1 where she'd actually embrace her made up Russian whore persona; or door #2 where she'd decide to fight for what's left of her life. That's what this story was truly about. Nastya deciding to live, deciding she was worth life. I love that I was mislead to think it was about revenge. I love that along the way I was distracted by themes of loss and worth, by the definitions of love and family. This is a book about what it means to be alive.

ARC courtesy of Net Galley.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

BOOK REVIEW "The Man Plan"-well planned love arc

The Man Plan Author: Elise Ackers
"A Well-Planned Love Arc" by Nakeesha J. Seneb

There are four elements to every love story that make up The Love Arc. First, we must start out with a man and woman (or any variation or number thereof in 21st century Earth) who have internal and/or external needs. Second, a problem arises that creates conflict between the two. Then as our hero and heroine try to solve this conflict their internal and external baggage gets in the way, creating wonderful tension down the path towards love. And finally, as they realize their love is once in a lifetime stuff, they find a way to claim their baggage and start their journey towards happily-ever-after together.

That's every romance novel in a nutshell.

The Man Plan followed this arc perfectly with a simple, yet quirky, plot; likeable, well-thought out characters; and well-written prose. Cora, our heroine, has recently lost her father and she's having trouble dealing with that loss (her internal baggage). She meets Matt, our hero, who has commitment issues because his family is seriously dysfunctional (his internal baggage). Christmas is fast approaching and Cora is determined to be in a pair-bond by that family-themed Holiday. So, she devises a Man Plan to achieve this goal.

Her Man Plan is truly inspired and all single gals should take note. From the flat tire in Daisy Dukes to her attempts at giving out her number at red lights using hand signals, Cora is on a mission to eradicate her single status. Matt, who's at first amused, comes to detest the plan (conflict), but his banged up, grinchy heart keeps his mouth shut and his hands to himself. Matt begins to monopolize all of Cora's time and throw wrenches into her Man Plan. But still, he can't man up even though he's coming to realize what he's feeling is indeed love. And for her part, Cora is terrified to trust Matt with her heart when she knows he has no clue what to do with it.

Ackers takes this simple, predictable plot and tells a sweet story. Cora and Matt's chemistry is a slow burn. There's no heavy loaded exposition where we learn each characters' entire life story in chapter one before the word "go." All backstory is woven in and appears when appropriate to the storyline -thank you Ms Ackers! Other than an intense, uncomfortable emotional in-burst at the top of the story; and an intense, uncomfortable emotional out-burst at the tail of the story, I thought this was a perfectly paced romance. But I have to say that I was quite taken aback at the Breakfast at Tiffany's style love scene. You know the scene: Holly Golightly and Paul hang up their masks and start kissing. Then fade to black and its the next morning. I think that must be Destiny Romance's style. I wanted something with a few more jalapenos!

ARC courtesy of Net Galley and Penguin Books Australia/Destiny Romance.

Monday, January 7, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: "The Importance of Being Wicked" -Bartenders Need Foreplay Too

The Importance of Being Wicked Author: Victoria Alexander
"Bartenders Need Foreplay Too" by Nakeesha J. Seneb

Victoria Alexander has a great grasp of prose in her historical romance, "The Importance of Being Wicked." However the exposition left me feeling like an overworked bartender. You know the stereotype: someone gets drunk at a bar and winds up telling their whole life story to the bartender who won't remember any of the details. That's how I felt while reading the Prologue, which introduced Lord Stillwell, and Chapter One, which introduced Lady Garrett.

The purpose of an Exposition is to describe how the main characters got into the conflict, or catalyst, which they currently find themselves in. In my opinion, special attention should be paid to the word "currently." Backstory does not always (if ever) mean your character's whole life story. Readers and viewers meet your character in this moment when a particular problem has them in its clutches. Reading or hearing too far into the past can be overwhelming in the first couple of pages.

The Prologue sets up the catalyst that brings these two together. That catalyst is that Lord Stillwell's homestead has sustained major damage from a fire and he'll be in need of an architectural firm. I gleaned that Stillwell was devastated but hopeful as a result of this catastrophe, and that he was the responsible type and up to the challenge of the repair efforts. This story is written in 3rd POV, staying close to Stillwell. In the prologue, Stillwell's cousin Gray is introduced. A lot of writing focused on Gray, and Stillwell and Gray seemed very similar. So much that I often forgot who was speaking and had to reread. The two men talked about a lot of characters while out surveying the damage; a lot of characters who we had yet to encounter. Add that to a male lead and a male support who were very similar and it became overwhelming for me.

In Chapter One we meet the heroine, Lady Garrett, while she's at lunch with her sister who is prattling on as Lady Garrett details her entire backstory, her secrets, and her future motivations in internal monologue. Its very interesting that Lady Garrett is secretly a business women in a man's world. Its even more interesting that her prattling sister wants a divorce and Lady Garrett sanctions something so scandalous. But I had already lost interest by the time we learn all this near the end of Chapter One. There was no room left for foreplay or finding out anything new because Lady Garrett told me her whole life story and future endeavors, including hinting at her willingness to be seduced by the Hero. Even though the "cherry" hadn't been popped, as a reader I knew it was loose and that released a lot of potential dramatic tension.

I decided to give the story until the Lord and Lady met. I didn't have to wait long because that happens at the top of Chapter Two. Yet when these two characters came face to face, they read to me like two totally different people. Lady Garrett came off cold and distant "reminiscent of a governess that said, far louder than words, that this was a woman not to be trifled with," and Lord Stillwell turned his devastated, responsible eyes from his ruined property and was fixing her with a charming smile that labeled him a rake. Perhaps if the work had started with Chapter Two and I could have discovered these two and their backstory in action I would have maintained my buzz instead of acquiring a hangover.

ARC courtesy of