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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Writing: Creation or Discovery?

Writing doesn't seem much like sculpting.  They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but it doesn't have much in common with the chisel.  And yet, when I was in the Galleria Accademia in Florence, Italy a few weeks ago, I learned some things about Michelangelo's sculpting process, things I can't stop thinking about in relation to my own writing.

When Michelangelo worked on a sculpture, he never felt like he was creating anything of his own.  His pieces were never things he built up or made.  Instead, he simply freed the figures from the marble.  The figure had always been buried inside the stone; his job was to uncover it, to discover what already existed inside.

As you stroll down the main hall of the Galleria Accademia, the first thing that commands your attention is David, standing like a monument.  He's what you paid to see, after all, and every line and curve in the gallery is designed to lead your eye back to him.  But he's all the way down at the far end of the hall.  First, you have to walk between rows of odd, blocky semi-figures known as the 'Prisoners' or 'Slaves.'  They look something like this:
Michelangelo's 'The Atlas'
It doesn't look finished.  None of them do.  All you see is a body trying to fight his way out of the rock, like Michelangelo never got around to chiseling out the rest of him.  These sculptures, however, are in their finished state.  Michelangelo was satisfied with them (much to the chagrin of his sponsors).  He wanted to show a process, not a completed product.  He wanted a figure in motion, still emerging from the marble, rather than standing free.

I had already seen more art that day than my brain knew how to comprehend, but these figures stuck with me.  I've always felt much the same way about my writing.  For my bigger projects, I don't have the feeling that I have created a final, tangible product out of nothing.  I don't feel like it is entirely my final product, or that it has come from me alone.

For me, fiction writing is more about discovering what is already there.  It's as if the story has always existed, somewhere deep, buried.  My characters--Mason Ardale, Everett Flinch, Davi, Ayin, even the random guards that populate everything I write--were just waiting there, ready to be written.  I feel less like I created the story and more like I simply uncovered it.  For whatever reason, I was the writer who brought it to the surface.  The story needed to be told, and I told it.

It sounds easier than it is.  I still have to plan.  I still run into roadblocks, and I certainly can't uncover the entire story all at once.  But I can't shake the feeling that I haven't created anything; I've merely chiseled it out of the marble.  

Is this really how writing works, though?  I can't provide any scientific or metaphysical explanation for it.  Maybe it comes from the sheer wonder of writing whole people into existence with nothing but a writing utensil.  Maybe it's my brain's way of coping with the fact that I have absolutely no idea where my story ideas come from.

But maybe there's some truth to it.  What if writers aren't creators at all?  What if we're Michelangelo, freeing complete figures from the block of potential stories?

If nothing else, it's almost unbearably poetic.  There's always that.  

What do you think, fellow writers?  Do you share in this feeling? 
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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Inventor's Secret (The Inventor's Secret) by Andrea Cremer

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte and her fellow refugees have scraped out an existence on the edge of Britain’s industrial empire. Though they live by the skin of their teeth they have their health (at least when they can find enough food and avoid the Imperial Labor Gatherers) and each other. When a new exile with no memory of his escape from the coastal cities or even his own name seeks shelter in their camp he brings new dangers with him and secrets about the terrible future that awaits all those who have struggled has to live free of the bonds of the empire’s Machineworks.

The Inventor’s Secret is the first book of a YA steampunk series set in an alternate nineteenth-century North America where the Revolutionary War never took place and the British Empire has expanded into a global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery.
Released: April 22nd 2014    Pages: 336
Publisher: Philomel              Source: Library

First Look: ****I love the premise of this.  British Empire where the American Revolution never took place? It's an interesting concept, and even more so when you throw steampunk into the mix. This was actually one of the very first books I ever marked as "to-read" on Goodreads, even before it had a cover image, but I never got around to reading it until recently.

Setting: ***** 
The idea was there, but the execution didn't follow through.  We're told that there's a revolution brewing, but we only see this through descriptions of the main characters talking about it.  Apparently it's a revolution stemming from the original American revolutionaries (in this alternate history, the American Revolution was defeated and the British have taken over everything).  The author drops a few hints about the governmental situation being less-than-ideal, but we're never shown this.  

Characters: ***** 
There isn't much to like about Charlotte.  There isn't much to get to know, either--she's a flat character.  She reacts rather than acts.  She's defined in relation to her brother and two love interests rather than any aspect of her own personality.  Her attraction to Jack, a childhood friend, seems completely arbitrary.  Does every girl in YA have to fall in love with the old friend who is actually a jerk?

I never liked Jack.  He's charming, but he's also annoyingly secretive and borderline creepy.  Charlotte's brother Ash is a bit better.  He, at least, has more personality and believable motives.  This book is full of extra side characters beyond these, but none are memorable, especially not after I've put off this review for over a month.  

Plot: ***** 
The first half of the book is mainly sibling bickering. It starts out interesting, with a bunch of unsupervised teenagers discovering a mysterious boy with no memory of his past or how he got there. This dissolves into the main characters arguing among themselves over what to do with this boy. I could get sibling bickering in real life--in my own house, if I wanted (here's the thing: I don't want it). I thought things would pick up when the characters left the caverns to do some actual work for the revolution.  Unfortunately, the book took a turn for the worse.  The plot became less revolution, more love triangle between Charlotte, Jack, and Jack's brother Coe.  Romance plots have their place, but when the author has teased exciting things like revolutions and steampunk, I want those things, not Charlotte trying to decide which brother she loves more. 

Uniqueness: ***** 
The concepts are unique: steampunk world where American Revolution was unsuccessful, teenage descendants of the original patriots still trying to run this revolution, etc. However, these aspects get pushed aside to make room for the romance, so the novel as a whole didn't have that unique feeling.

Writing: ***** 
The writing is decent.  I remember several moments when it disoriented me, usually due to lack of "grounding" description--description to give me a concrete idea of where things are happening, who is there, and what is going on at the beginning of a scene.  Then again, I read this book over a month ago, and the writing is usually the first thing to fade from my mind, so I feel like I can't rightfully say much about this category.


Not-so-great: N/A.

Overall: The Inventor's Secret has an interesting premise, but left me feeling 'meh' about it.  We're told there is a revolution brewing, but we're shown nothing to prove this.  Charlotte, the main character, has little personality of her own and spends half the book trying to decide between two boys in a love triangle.  If you're looking for a book that's heavy on the romance, light on the steampunk, this is for you.  If you're like me and want some actual depth and grit in your steampunk, you're better off reading something else.

Similar Books:
It's a steampunk novel that's light on actual steampunk elements like The Iron Thorn or Clockwork Angel.  It features a crew of teenage misfits in a setting similar to that of The Girl in the Steel Corset.
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