Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: girl with the dragon tattoo

Book Review: The Girl in the Steel Corset

Every now and then, I will be posting book reviews on my blog. I know this can be challenging, as we all have personal tastes. What rings true for me might be in complete opposition to your own experience. This is 100% okay, and I welcome differing opinions.

That being said, I hope to use these reviews as an opportunity to explore where novels did or did not succeed.  These are the lessons I took, and, with a little luck, they might be helpful in your own work.

The Girl in the Steel Corset, by Kady Cross.

This young adult novel is a steampunk adventure. It has received a lot of praise, sales, and even an award or two. It has a sexy cover, its title evokes the popularity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the premise is pretty neat. I was excited to give it a read.

From the back-cover blurb:

“When a young lord tries to take advantage of Finley, she fights back. And wins. But no normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch…

Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she’s special, says she’s one of them. The orphaned duke takes her in from the gaslit streets against the wishes of his band of misfits: Emily, who has her own special abilities and an unrequited love for Sam, who is part robot; and Jasper, an American cowboy with a shadowy secret.

Griffin’s investigating a criminal called The Machinist, the mastermind behind several recent crimes by automatons. Finley thinks she can help – and finally be a part of something, finally fit in.

But the Machinist wants to tear Griff’s little company of strays apart, and it isn’t long before trust is tested on all sides. At least Finley knows whose side she’s on – even if it seems no one believes her.”

The novel is published by Harlequin Teen, and I will acknowledge that I am not the target demographic. That’s okay. Good stories can have universal appeal, but sometimes they target a specific group of people. That being said, we should be able to appreciate aspects of the story – characters, plot, atmosphere – regardless of the genre.

A cursory scan of the reviews on-line suggested that a number of readers have thoroughly enjoyed this book, so I acknowledge I may be in the minority in my opinion. But the story didn’t sit as well with me. I’d like to explore the reasons why as an opportunity to learn.

I struggled with the plot. I felt like I was never given a real sense of the antagonist. Right from the get-go, we’re given the impression that perhaps it’s one guy. But after a single scene, he is all but forgotten. We’re given a hint that this other fellow named The Machinist might be the antagonist, but he seems so much on the periphery that it is hard to believe he’s truly important to the story. At the half-way point of the book, I was still at a loss for a clear antagonist, and that’s problematic.

The lesson: It is important to establish the stakes of the antagonist as early as possible. We need someone to be worried about – someone that will pose a threat to the survival and well-being of the protagonists, the characters we’re going to root for. If the protagonists aren’t in jeopardy, how can we become thoroughly invested in the story?

Some novels manage to accomplish a subtle antagonist – someone who doesn’t clearly jump out as “the bad guy.” And please note, an antagonist doesn’t need to be “the bad guy.” They simply need to provide the conflict – the challenge – to the success of the protagonist. And without strong, clear conflict, it becomes difficult to invest.

The story had multiple points-of-view. I found this problematic. The story starts off by introducing us to the protagonist, Finley. But after one scene, we jump into another point of view. And then another. I never really got a true enough sense of the characters to care about them long enough to give their perspective up, and this proved problematic.

The lesson: If we’re going to use multiple point-of-views, it is worth-while to ensure the reader develops an attachment to the character – roots for them, wants them to succeed – before we dive into another. Multiple points-of-view can succeed and be highly effective, but I think it occurs in situations where we’re truly invested in the heart and soul – the ambitions, challenges, and humanity – of the character.

The editing posed a problem. It may be a matter of personal taste, but I felt this book could have used a little more massaging. Several scenes felt clunky. There were run-on-sentences – which I acknowledge can be used to drive tension, to up the ante, as it were – but unfortunately it often came across as grammatically flawed. There were also instances where a simple re-ordering of sentences would have done WONDERS for the scene… and other instances where sentences could have been cut to help drive the story – the action, the plot – forward.

The lesson: Be diligent. Challenge sentences every step of the way. Does it further the story? Does it add to the atmosphere? How about the pace? Editing can be tedious, but 99% of the time it’s what makes your story sing. Janice Hardy has numerous excellent articles on editing, and if you choose to invest the time, it will take your novel to the next level. I highly recommend her blog.

The Girl in the Steel Corset was a fairly easy read. It didn’t bore me to tears, and I managed to move through it fairly quickly. I’d actually love to see the film version of this book, and I hope that we’re given the opportunity. For the book, however, I simply felt that with a few little tweaks, it could have gone from an acceptable story to an incredible story.

I encourage you to see for yourself.

Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with any of my observations? Please share your opinions in the comments below – I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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Alchemic Nameology – The Challenge of Fantasy Names

When reading or writing fantasy, we’re often faced with the challenge of character names. Some names roll off the tongue, while others trip us up and become recurring problems throughout the duration of the text.

There’s an expectation in the fantasy genre for names to sound a little heightened – a little more exotic – and if a name is too common, it’s scoffed at and frowned upon. If it’s too complex and missing vowels, it’s equally dismissed as distancing. So we must find the right balance.

Some family friends recently read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Stieg Larson’s subsequent books, and most of them commented on the challenge of keeping track of all the similar-sounding names. Far too many character names began with the same letter, or had nearly identical construction with l’s and j’s and b’s. I know I’ve seen similar problems in some fantasy novels (particularly those involving a non-humanoid race), so I understand the complaint.

The names just don’t work. Or rather, they create obstacles for the enjoyment of the story – and that’s never a good thing.

During the beta reads of my novel, I, too, received some feedback that two character names sounded too alike, and it became a challenge keeping track of who’s who.

Both were secondary – or perhaps tertiary – characters, and they appeared in the same locale. In a couple of instances, I even made the mistake of typing the wrong character name – which definitely added to the confusion. In case you were curious, the names were Corella and Corinna. I’ve since changed Corella to something else.

Part of the problem stems from how our brains read English text. Our brains don’t read every single letter. They’re highly efficient (or perhaps lazy) so they try to make sense of the word based on an image-capture of the word. The order of the letters within the word doesn’t seem to matter – the brain gets a “hit,” makes sense of it, and moves on. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out this example at Help.com.

On the flip side of the coin, readers would also comment on a name sounding “too common” – that it would take them out of the mythic realm and send them crashing back to the real world.

We’ve likely all encountered some characters with unpronounceable names, or names that simply roll poorly off the tongue. There has to be a balance. But what is it, and what’s a writer to do?

Fantasy Faction posted an article back in September, 2011, called What’s In A Fantasy Name?, and they brought up some valid observations.

“The temptation is to develop names that are imaginative and unique to the created landscape. That’s a great idea but remember to keep the names pronounceable. Imagine someone reading your work aloud. Will the names detract from the flow of the story? A short common name can often allow for a character’s formal title to be a little more imaginative.”

So how do we go about choosing a name?

Some authors choose historic names or names from mythology, and tweak them – changing the vowel sounds, adding in additional letters here and there, etc. Some will scour foreign-language dictionaries or documents, looking for names that have a specific meaning in another language. Others will seek out names with sounds that evoke the character personality – or the base stereotype or archetype they’re trying to conjure. These are all valid tools, and can lead to some wonderful names.

For me, I look for names that suit the style of my writing. Some cultures in my world have very specific name constructions (and name lineage), while others are vowel-heavy. And as a voice, speech, and text specialist in the theatre, I understand the impact of vowel and consonant sounds, so I tend to make use of them to help underscore or produce meaning. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it falls flat. But for the most part, I’m always game to tweak the names until they’re just right.

Have you ever encountered names which turn you off? What are some examples of overly complex names? If you’re a writer, how do you choose your name – and how much does that name define the character for you? Would you be heart-broken if a publisher asked you to change the character name? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.