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Douglas Adams – A to Z: D

D is for Douglas Adams, the author who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Dirk Gently series, and a number of other books, TV series scripts (including Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus), and many scripts for BBC radio broadcasts. He was born in 1952 and passed away in 2001, depriving the world of one of the greatest comedic writers.

Apart from being a writer of some of the funniest books I’ve ever read, he was also actively engaged in raising awareness of endangered species and environmental issues.

Some of the things that still make me smile years after last reading the HHGG books (I really should make the time to re-read them, shouldn’t I?) and the things that are running “insider jokes” among many people I know who have read them as well, are listed below. If I really stopped to think about it, I’d probably write half a novel’s worth, so here goes, just off the top of my head:

  • Towels – never go anywhere without them.
  • 42 – the answer to the ultimate question about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Seeking an answer to this ultimate question, some hyper-intelligent beings build a supercomputer, which, after several million years of calculations, announces that the ultimate answer is… 42. They then figure out that they may need to find the actual ultimate question, and end up building an even more powerful computer, which is so huge that it is commonly mistaken for a planet (sorry, slight spoiler: that computer is… Earth). The number of cultural references to this number is staggering.
  • Don’t Panic” – one of the reasons the HHGG has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica is that it has these words written on the cover in large, friendly letters. (The other being that it is slightly cheaper.)
  • Mostly Harmless – the two-word entry in the HHGG on the topic “Earth”. The entry used to be “Harmless”, but Ford Prefect, after spending years stuck on earth, submitted a lengthy article to the HHGG, which was then edited down to these two words.
  • An SEP – anything not your problem, or something you don’t want to deal with just now, is considered to be “an SEP” (Someone Else’s Problem).
  • The Rain God – a truck driver who doesn’t know he’s actually the God of Rain and absolutely hates any form of rain. Of course, since rain loves its god, it always rains wherever he drives, and he is constantly miserable. He’s read that eskimos have 217 (I could well be remembering that incorrectly, but you get the point) types of snow (including the yellow kind on which the sled dogs have peed), and he has names for over 300 types of rain. To confirm his theory that the one currently happening is the one he thinks is a particularly nasty type where it doesn’t matter whether he has the windscreen wipers on or off, he switches them off. It gets worse, and one of the wiper blades starts to get loose. In the book, there follows a one-sentence paragraph that, despite being made up entirely of onomatopoetic words, describes what follows to such perfection that I start giggling stupidly just thinking about it (sorry if I don’t get this entirely right, I don’t have the book in front of me): “Swish swish swish flop swish swish flop swish flop swish flop flop flap scrape.”
  • This is not her story” – after the prologue introduces a character who finally figures out how everyone in the world can live together in harmony, and has the reader wanting to know what this wonderful solution is, it ends with the sentence, “This is not her story.” (I think it was the fourth book that has almost the exact same prologue, except that it ends with, “This is her story.”)
  • Pain – there is a section in one of the HHGG books where Arthur Dent tries to figure out where he is hurt, and every body part he touches causes a jolt of pain. After a while, he finally figures out that it is in fact his hand that is injured….
  • Marvin the paranoid android – worth a separate blog entry in the A to Z Challenge.
  • I’m sure there are countless more… but I’ll stop here 🙂
Don't Panic - Towel Day

“Don’t Panic” – the famous words written on the fictional “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in the (real) novel of the same name are shown here on a towel on Towel Day… if that doesn’t make sense, read at least the first HHGG book.

Thank you, Douglas Adams, wherever you may be (he was a self-declared “radical atheist”) for many, many laughs.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Chapters – A to Z: C

C is for Chapters. Chapters typically divide distinct sections of a book so that words, sentences and paragraphs that belong together form a logical piece of a book. We all know what chapters are, but have you ever given much thought to how many different ways there are to use (or not use) chapters?

The grouping of pieces of a book into chapters can happen for a number of reasons, such as different points of view, different spans of time, to give the reader a natural time to take a break (or intentionally the opposite, with a mini-cliffhanger at the end of a chapter), or simply because the author wants to emphasise a change of pace, or attitude. A chapter can be a single sentence, or dozens of pages long.

There can be “special” chapters: the prologue and the epilogue to start and end a book, respectively. Often, these can be separate from the main story, or tell a piece of the story that lies outside the “normal” narrator’s knowledge, to offer the reader special insight to what’s going on.

Some authors don’t use chapters, even in rather long books. Wilbur Smith’s African-themed adventure novels come to mind: they’re usually divided into sections (separated by a row of a few asterisks) that can be any length, but no chapters. Many authors number their chapters, but some don’t. A chapter can be called simply “Chapter 5”, or it can have a heading of its own. It can be numbered or not; chapter titles can be unique or repeated. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, uses the name of the POV (point of view) character as the chapter heading but leaves them unnumbered. Some books, especially in sci-fi, can use dates or timestamps instead of chapter names.

Some authors use simple chapter titles, some use very descriptive or poetic ones. In some cases, chapter names or numbers can even be used to give the reader meta-information of some sort. The number of chapters can be significant or completely coincidental. Wikipedia’s article on book chapters has some interesting examples of unusual numbering schemes. Robin Hobb’s Farseer and The Tawny Man trilogies use short “meta-story” excerpts describing the first-person narrator’s experiences as he is writing the main story. Her Rain Wilds Chronicles use short letters sent by bird between the world’s birdkeepers; taken together, these tell a “meta-story” of their own. Patrick Rothfuss prefixes some chapter titles with “Interlude” to emphasise that these lie outside the main story, in the “story around the story”. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story has 26 chapters, beginning with the letters A to Z, with fancy-looking drop caps specifically designed for the book by an illustrator – how fitting is that for the A to Z Challenge?!? 😉

The Neverending Story, Chapter 3

The Neverending Story begins each of the 26 chapters with a full-page drop-cap letter of the alphabet; Chapter 3 begins with “C”

Which chaptering style do you prefer a) in books you read, and b) in your own writing? Let me know in the comments.

Book One – A to Z: B

Book One – more than anything else, that is what I look for when I’m at the bookstore searching for the next great read to sink my teeth into. I’ll admit it – I’m a sucker for series. A book that ends after a few hundred pages without hope of ever encountering its characters again? Hmm, if it’s really well-written, great, I might read it. Personally, though, I’d be much more reluctant to invest my emotions in it than if I knew it’s just the start of a series.

There’s a reason that, these days, a larger and larger section of the Blu-ray and DVD shelves is dedicated to TV series. And even when it comes to films, many studios see the allure of producing sequels. In my genre of choice – fantasy – what are the great films people know, what are the best-selling books? Feel free to give counter-examples in the comments if you disagree, but to my mind, they mostly consist of multiple parts. From Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time to Robin Hobb’s series to George R. R. Martin to Patrick Rothfuss. Too many more to name.

Maybe it’s a bit too melodramatic if I say something like, “A truly great story doesn’t fit in one book.” Some really great ones are very short. Nevertheless, I enjoy intricate character development, following a character’s convoluted trains of thought without being rushed from action scene to action scene like a tourist on a bus tour. “Got a photo of that building? And that tower? Good, let’s go, we’re on a tight schedule, people!” Life moves pretty fast, but (thankfully) it isn’t like that.

What about you? Do you prefer epic series of doorstopper-sized books like me, or shorter, more succinct, more poignant, stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Assassin’s Apprentice – A to Z: A

A is for Assassin’s Apprentice. During my first A to Z challenge post, I might as well reveal that “Amos M. Carpenter” is the third pen name of the author also publishing as “Megan Lindholm” and “Robin Hobb“. So, it should come as no surprise that I’ll shamelessly plug the first book I published as Robin Hobb back in 1995: Assassin’s Apprentice, Book 1 of the Farseer Trilogy.

Assassin's Apprentice

Assassin’s Apprentice, Book 1 of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy

Before you go running off to tell anyone about this revealed identity, may I kindly (and with my tongue firmly in my cheek) point you at today’s date. April Fool’s! (Sorry, couldn’t resist – of course I’m not really Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm. I wish….)

Assassin’s Apprentice begins slowly. Robin Hobb manages to draw the reader into the well-crafted world with rare skill, setting the scene and developing unique characters. The initially nameless character, dubbed “Fitz” because he is a royal bastard, tells his story in the first person from when he was a bright six-year-old until he is a young man by the end of Book One. Along the way, he discovers that his affinity for animals, which he always thought normal, is due to a magic called “the Wit”, despised and misunderstood by most. He also tries to learn the “royal” magic called “the Skill”, but his illegitimacy causes some to consider him to be dangerous to the throne (or to those who aspire to sit on it) and that he should be eliminated, while others believe that he is a tool that should be trained and used for the good of the crown. Thus, he learns to read and write, courtly manners, and, secretly, the fine art of assassination.

I wish I had more time to delve into the intricate details of the plot, the depth of each and every character, whose ideas and ambitions are incredibly believable within the context of the world, but I’m afraid I’ll have to keep this post relatively short. Let me just say, though, that Assassin’s Apprentice is not only an awesome book (whether you’re a fan of fantasy fiction or not, I’m sure you’ll love it), it is also the introduction to Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings”, in which three partially interconnected trilogies are set, plus another tetralogy, plus the next series fans are eagerly anticipating:

  • The Farseer Trilogy
    • Assassin’s Apprentice
    • Royal Assassin
    • Assassin’s Quest
  • The Liveship Traders Trilogy
    • Ship of Magic
    • The Mad Ship
    • Ship of Destiny
  • The Tawny Man Trilogy
    • Fool’s Errand
    • The Golden Fool
    • Fool’s Fate
  • The Rain Wilds Chronicles
    • Dragon Keeper
    • Dragon Haven
    • City of Dragons
    • Blood of Dragons
  • The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy (yet to be released)
    • The Fool’s Assassin (due August 2014)

Warning: do NOT begin reading Assassin’s Apprentice if you do not have much time to spare. You will want to pick up Book Two, and Book Three afterwards, and although they will not leave you wanting, they will leave you wanting more.

A to Z Challenge – accepted!

Challenge accepted

“Challenge accepted!”

Being an absolute blogging-noob (having started less than a month ago), I’ve read about this “A to Z Challenge” on a few other blogs but didn’t really get what it was about. So when I came across this post on Daily w(rite) (thanks Damyanti!) and realised there were only a few days left to sign up, I had to make up my mind, so I headed to the official site and ended up signing up as number 1649.

Screenshot after I signed up for the A to Z Challenge

Screenshot after I signed up for the A to Z Challenge

Yay! (*Gulp*)

Apparently, I’ve just committed to doing 26 blog posts over the course of the month of April. That should be interesting. Oh great – posting the screenshot, I just realised I forgot to add the “(WR)” category, as my blog is mainly about writing. (At least it was prior to accepting this challenge. No guarantees about next month.) Doesn’t seem like I can change or redo that. Go me.

At this point, I’m guessing my April blog posts might be relatively short, or at least shorter on average than they have been thus far (I tend to ramble on a bit if I have time). But it’s a challenge, it’ll get me to look at some (hopefully interesting) content other people blog about, and it might get a few people to look at my blog who otherwise wouldn’t have found it. Don’t look a gift challenge up the… no, wait… don’t look up a challenging horse’s… whatever.

Can anyone recommend a couple of good blogs I can check out to get an idea of what type of content other people (writers or not) typically blog about during this challenge? Please have mercy and let me know in the comments if you can.