One Man’s Second Book Problem . . .

One person’s trash is another’s treasure, as the saying goes. I think the literary version of that might be that one person’s second book problem is another person’s interesting, deep dive into character lives.

Remember last year when I blogged about the second book problem – the tendency for middle books in trilogies to sag a little bit given their place in the middle of the overall narrative? At the time I was laboring under the assumption that most people would agree on when second books were problematic or not. A recent experience has convinced me otherwise.

A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy.

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It’s set in a kind of alternate history world during the 19th century where there are actually four Londons existing in parallel worlds with different levels of magic (ours is “grey” London, which about sums up the magical nature of it). The first book in the series, A Darker Shade of Magic, has a lot of hopping between worlds as it spirals towards a universe-altering conclusion.

The second book, by contrast, is a lot more sedate. It takes place mostly in red London, where magic is like air and just about everybody makes use of it in some way or another. A kind of World Cup of magic called the Element Games brings together the two main characters, Kel and Lilah, who were separated at the end of book one. We get deep into the tournament and what it means politically in the world of red London. All the while, occasionally, we pop over to black London (where a magical incident years before basically turned it into a burned over hellscape) and see that something bigger is brewing.

To be honest, the brewing seemed like it was part of another book. I was really grooving on the tournament, the way it allowed us to get more into the heads of Lilah and Kel (and his brother, Rhyl), not to mention a couple of new characters. It seemed like the perfect use of a second book, to deepen both the world in which the story takes place and the people in it whom we are supposed to care about. Then the tournament wraps up a little early and the black London stuff comes crashing down on our heroes. It all happens so fast that I think it would have worked better as an expanded second part of the book or as a short, brutal epilogue to setup the final book in the series. Still, overall, a good read and I’m definitely on board for the conclusion of the trilogy.

And, don’t get me wrong, lots of people love this book (and the series). But there were more than a few super pissed fans of the first book who thought A Gathering of Shadows was just boring filler – until the very end, when the black London stuff comes calling. In other words, they felt just the opposite of the way I did about it (one reader said it was “is majorly afflicted with the infamous 2nd book syndrome”). One person even suggested that all the important things that happen in this book could be collapsed into the first chapter of the final volume of the trilogy.

Are those folks wrong? Yes and no. I think they’re wrong because books (or stories of any kind) do more than simply push the major plot along and there’s a lot of other stuff going on for most of A Gathering of Shadows, stuff that I happen to enjoy (a lot of books, beginnings of them, get described as “slow,” but I love the time spent settling into a place or getting to know characters). On the other hand, it isn’t wrong to say that by the end of A Gathering of Shadows not a lot has happened on the grand “fate of the worlds” scale on which the first book operated. I can understand the frustration, even if I don’t share it.

While this is another in a long line of examples of why all are is personal, it’s also an example of people wanting different things from extended works. A trilogy or series, by definition, invites readers in and lets them spend more time in a world than a single story. It’s not surprising that a writer might take that time to do things other than move the plot along. But it’s also no surprise that fans brought back to the world by a quick-paced first book might find a second one slow if it can’t match that pace.

Neither set of readers is wrong in their expectations (or their permissions), but neither is a writer “wrong” for taking one path over the other. It’s worth thinking about what people said about the first book before deciding to slow things down in the second. Maybe that’s the best way to tell the entire story you mean to tell, or maybe it’s a second-book trap you’re falling into. As with most things about writing, a little forethought can head off some disappointment down the road.

Should Sean McVay Pull a Wenger?

Unless you were in a coma last weekend you’ve probably heard about the end of the NFC Championship game, where the Rams wound up beating the Saints on a field goal in overtime. It only got that far, largely, because of a horrible blown call by the officials near the end of the game:

Had pass interference been called on the Rams, the Saints likely could have just run out the clock or, at worst, pushed their lead to six with an easy field goal and left the Rams with little time to score a needed touchdown. Instead, the Rams tied it up, then won.

Many people are pissed about this, for good reason. This isn’t a “bad call” in the usual sense, where there’s some grey area as to whether the refs made the right call or not. The penalty in this instance was clear and unambiguous. Is there anything to be done about it? As Michael McCann over at Sports Illustrated explains, probably not. The only NFL recourse is for the commissioner to step in under authority to deal with “emergencies” and “extraordinarily unfair acts.” However, that rule explicitly exempts refereeing decisions from its scope, so there’s little hope for any kind of do over or make up. Nor are there likely to be options outside the NFL (ludicrous lawsuits like this don’t help).

However, as McCann points out, there have been examples in other sports of do overs. Those are clearly covered by the rules. One important one he didn’t mention, however, comes from the “other” football, the one they play in the rest of the world and is a little more wide ranging.

It’s February 1999 during the fifth round of the FA Cup, England’s all-comer knockout soccer competition. Arsenal, defending champions of not just the Cup but the Premier League, are playing Sheffield United, then in the First Division (now Championship). Tied 1-1 late, Sheffield’s goalkeeper kicks the ball out of play so an injured player can get treatment. A show of sportsmanship, the proper response to which is for Arsenal to then throw the ball back to the keeper when play restarts. Arsenal’s Ray Parlour tries to do just that, but recent singing Nwankwo Kanu (just on as a sub, if I remember correctly) sprints onto the ball. He passes it to a surprised Marc Overmars, who puts it into the net past a really surprised Sheffield keeper. Arsenal wins 2-1.

What happened next is what’s really relevant now. As The Guardian said way back then:

A Frenchman taught the English an extraordinary lesson in sporting etiquette last night. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal football manager, graciously offered to stage a rematch after his side won an FA Cup-tie on a controversial winning goal.

In an unprecedented move, the Football Association gratefully accepted Wenger’s offer to make Arsenal replay their fifth-round match with Sheffield United, scrubbing out the London club’s 2-1 victory yesterday in the interests of fairness.

* * *

After offering a replay, Wenger said: ‘The second goal is a controversial goal and we feel that it is not right. We have the feeling that we didn’t win the game like we want to win our games.’

So the two teams played again, with Arsenal winning (again) by a score of 2-1 (again).

Now, there are vast differences between the Arsenal situation and the Rams. For one thing, replays are baked into the FA Cup. Outside of the last couple rounds, if a game ends tied the two teams play again in a week or so. Had Arsenal not scored that controversial second goal, the fixture would have gone to replay, anyway. There’s no similar method in the NFL, which only has two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. For another, goals in soccer are precious things in the way points in American football just aren’t, so a questionable goal is a bigger deal than a single blown call.

But, finally, the Rams didn’t break any unwritten rule of sportsmanship. They played the game and let the refs enforce the rules, which is how the game is supposed to work. Teams work the officials the entire game trying to gain advantageous calls. Bad calls – close ones or just blown ones – are part of the game in a way that the Arsenal goal isn’t supposed to be.

So, no, I don’t really expect Rams coach Sean McVay to say, “hey let’s do this again,” even just the last 1:49 that remained (as McCann explains, that would raise a lot of interesting procedural questions). But wouldn’t it be cool if he did? Wouldn’t it be cool if in a land torn apart by tribalism and “us versus them” one team said “we don’t want to win the wrong way?”

Weekly Read: 1632

I’ve never had so much to say about a book I decided not to finish.

I’d had 1632 on my “to read” list for quite a while. For one thing, it’s got a hell of a setup, an elevator pitch for the ages (more of that later). For another, the way author Eric Flint has let in other authors, and even fans, to help build and flesh out the world he created is a really interesting phenomenon. With that said, the book is clearly not for me, as I could only make it about a quarter of the way through before throwing in the towel.

As for that pitch – Begin with the fictional small town of Grantville, West Virginia, where a wedding reception is underway at the local high school. There is a literal blinding flash of light and, all of a sudden, the town – all the people in it, all its associated real estate and tech – is transported into rural Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War. An explanation for this (alien art project gone awry!) is given in the prologue,* clearing that off the table. So what happens next?

There could be a struggle to survival and a town torn apart under the strain of such a weird event. Flint doesn’t go there, however. Instead, he focuses on how the Americans interact with their newfound neighbors. Some are hostile, of course – the Americans did land smack dab in the middle one of Europe’s bloodiest religious wars – but many are more than willing to join up with the Americans who are united in the idea to begin the American revolution just a little bit early.

I mention the unanimity because it highlights the biggest problem I had with 1632 – a lack of believable human tension. Put simply, the folks of Grantville, not to mention the folks who were just visiting for a wedding, adjust to their new reality way too easily. I can see not wanting to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of survival and Flint cleverly sidesteps this by allowing Grantville to have most of its modern technology remain workable.

That still leaves a lot of rich ground for drama with the relationships between the various characters, but there’s none of that in 1632. Since there’s very little stress about survival there’s really nothing to expose fissures that would already exist in such a community. I mean, in a rural West Virginia community right now there are people who would gladly persecute their neighbor for worshiping the same God in the wrong way so it’s unbelievable that none of the residents of Grantville succumb to the sectarian madness in which they’re dropped. In Grantville there are no old grudges, no low-level feuds that explode in a new context. People just get along too well. I know it’s a little stilly to complain about realism in a story based on time travel, but the lack of strife in this community just passes my flying snowman point.

The oddly low stakes were confirmed for me in a scene where the town gathers together in the high school to sort of take stock and elect leadership (without any serious challenge, naturally). One of the science folks (a teacher at the high school, IIRC) makes the obvious, but still devastating, point that they’re probably never going home. To this announcement there is pretty much no reaction. Nobody weeps. Nobody storms out, unable to face the truth. Even the few characters who we know came to Grantville from out of town to the wedding don’t seem bothered. This was, like the death of a semi-major character in Saturn Run, a scene that made me wonder why I should care about any of this. Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t.

In an afterward, Flint explains that he was sick of fiction, particularly of the speculative sort, that was negative and focused on the worst of humanity. He wanted to write a positive portrayal of common folk who, if mentioned at all in such stories, tend to get cast as ignorant hicks. I appreciate where he’s coming from and, as a native West Virginian, appreciate the fact that his characters don’t fall into traditional stereotypes about the state (except that lots of them are coal miners). But all that’s still possible while providing some tension and strife amongst the people. Flint swung too far the other way, making his Americans too good, noble, and respectable.

Not every story works for every reader. Flipping through the Goodreads comments on 1632 I see a lot of people who love the book (and its sequels) for the precisely reasons Flint set forth in the afterward. Good for them. But I also see a good number of people who feel about like I do. Such is life; such is art.

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* Regardless of my other thoughts on the book, this is a brilliant gambit. Get it out of the way early and make it clear that’s not what the story is really about. It also makes me want to dive into just what genre this is – sci-fi because aliens or fantasy because, well, there’s no real science involved? Just one more thing to think about.

Hello, 2019

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not as if you file them with some official registry and, when you start to slip, government drones bust in to keep you on the straight and narrow.

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I prefer to use the start of the year as a time to take stock, to think about what the coming year might hold. So let’s do that, shall we?

To start with, my initial goal for 2019 is to finish up Gods of the Empire, the first book in my new trilogy. As you’ll recall, this project was originally going to be a series of shorter books, but morphed into a trilogy of longer books. As a result, I basically wrote the first book in two separate parts. They’ve now been fused together for a complete manuscript. It’s a couple of edits away from “done” and, I hope, will see the light of day this year.

Beyond that, things are fairly wide open.

Obviously, at some point, I’ll need to get cracking on the second book in this trilogy, Widows of the Empire. It’s largely planned out (in broad strokes, at least), but I’m not sure whether I’ll want to jump right back into that world or get some distance before I get working on book two in earnest.

I’m also planning to go back and revive something I thought was a standalone novel – Moore Hollow. I’ve had more than one person ask about a sequel, which I’d never intended, but I’ve come around. It’s now going to be the first book in a series in which Ben Potter moves to West Virginia and investigates various weirdnesses. Getting cracking on the second book in that series is high on my list of priorities, too.

There are bound to be some shorter projects that pop up here and there, too. Last year, between rounds of Gods of the Empire, I actually wrote a novelette (I think) set in the expanded Moore Hollow universe because the idea lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t go away. That same kind of thing is likely to happen again. Only time will tell.

So there you have it – no resolutions, but some plans and some goals. Now let’s get out there and take on 2019!

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