A New Review of Winds and an Interesting Conundrum

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Far Beyond Reality, the relatively new review site from Stefan Raets, has a brand new review of The Winds of Khalakovo. The review, which you can read in its entirety here, is quite complementary. Here's my favorite part:

The Winds of Khalakovo is a debut that merits your attention. The way Bradley Beaulieu focuses on the emotions of his characters in the midst of political turmoil is reminiscent of Robin Hobb or even George R. R. Martin. The world-building, especially the spirit realm of Adhiya and the way supernatural and historical events affect the present, makes this novel read like it would fit neatly into one of Steven Erikson’s Malazan tomes. Those aren’t bad names to be compared to for a debut author.

I adore Robin Hobb, and anyone who knows my knows that one of my exemplars is GRRM. I've tried the first book in Erikson's Malazan series, but have yet to break my initial resistance to a new (really long) series to go farther than that, but I've heard great things about his writing and will one day soon read them.

That isn't what I want to talk about, however. Toward the end, Stefan says:

Whatever the case may be, The Winds of Khalakovo delivers enough material to fill more than one novel. The book is actually split in two parts, with the first one ending on a spectacular climax. Part two is so full of crazy escapes and wild battles, on windships and cliffs and in the dark, often described at length and in great detail, that it all gets to be a bit much towards the end. The tension is there, but it’s maintained at such a high pitch for so long that it becomes numbing after a while. I loved the first part of this novel, getting to know the fantasy world and the characters, but part two simply wore me down. The main issue with The Winds of Khalakovo, like with many debut novels, is that the author has crammed so much material in this first book that I was simply exhausted towards the end. Possibly it would would have worked better as two separate novels.

I just finished writing an article on "Tension on Every Page" for the SFWA Bulletin, an idea I was first introduced to in Donald Maass's excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel. The notion here is that every page should be filled with tension of some kind. As simple as that idea is to express (and I do believe it's one of the keys to great fiction) it's really hard to execute properly. In the article, I talk about the notion of varying levels of tension and varying types of tension. I won't repeat the article here. Suffice it to say that finding a pleasing landscape of tension while painting real characters living in a real world is the thing I work hardest at, and it's also the thing that's most difficult to pull off.

I don't care to judge my own book. It's out in the world and it is what it is. But Stefan brings up something very interesting that all young writers should be aware of. And that's what I want to talk about: this notion of too much tension. To a young writer, this may seem silly. How can a book have too much tension? This is something that's admittedly hard to do—and perhaps I was a victim of my own mantra; something I'll ponder in the weeks to come—but one of the traps is using the same type of tension too often. As Stefan says, too much tension produces numbness.

The first house I ever bought was about twenty yards from an elevated train track. The house shook lightly when the trains came by, and the sound of it was incredibly loud at first. I would wake up at night when they barreled through. I would get annoyed by the interruption when they rumbled by during the day. But eventually I came to accept it. And then I kind of liked it. And then I HARDLY EVEN NOTICED THEY WERE COMING BY. The mind is really good at adjusting to things that are the same. Our danger senses relax and begin looking for other threats, because it's identified THIS ONE as non-threatening.

And so it is with fiction. Too much tension numbs the reader. Interestingly enough, Stefan not only identifies the problem, he also reveals one of the remedies: "The way Bradley Beaulieu focus on the emotions of his characters in the midst of political turmoil…"

This—the focusing on the emotions of characters even in the midst of tension—is one of the primary tools in the writer's toolbox when you feel like things are ramping up too high. Easing away from action or suspense or dread will naturally lower the ambient level of tension, but it will subtly draw the reader to the reason why they care. And why is that? Because they care about the characters themselves. This literary "stepping away from tension" will act as a reset of sorts, a recalibration, so that when the tension resumes, they are reoriented to the stakes of the characters' efforts.

Let me be clear, though, lest you fall into a trap. Don't take this to mean that these "lower tension" scenes (not low tension, but lower tension) should not contain tension themselves. They should. It will just be of a different type. Think of Frodo on his long journey toward Mount Doom. There are times when he and Sam talk about The Shire and how their lives used to be. They lament for their younger, simpler selves. This kind of scene isn't laced with tension, but it certainly creates a longing within the reader, and it plays foil to the other, higher-tension scenes that tend to bracket them.

I'm running into these very problems now with the third book in The Lays of Anuskaya series. I'm writing a sequence that's building toward the end of the book, much like I did in Winds, but it's feeling very helter-skelter right now. I know it's one of the weak points in this early draft, even with the high tension that's present. Why? Because tension in and of itself is not enough. Tension must rise and fall. The various incarnations tension takes must change constantly.

Lest they become "numbing after a while."

10 Comments

  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    March 22, 2012 at 9:39 am

    I have noticed in both books that you like to build things up in a very noticeable fashion as the books progress. They are freight trains, gaining momentum as the plot and story open up.

    I think, since both books took a bit for me to get rolling, that when they are rolling along, I don’t want the momentum to necessarily get derailed and defused. I don’t think your books numb me to the tension, but I can see how an excess of this technique could lead that to happen.

    • Brad

      March 22, 2012 at 9:47 am

      It was definitely a conscious decision to ramp up toward the end. For good or ill, the third book will be somewhat similar, though I’m trying to start faster and keep things moving at a lively pace. Another topic that’s been my bugaboo is explaining the magic. I took more of a hands-off approach, hoping the mechanics of it wouldn’t be all that necessary for the reader, but lots of people like to know the hows and whys. Perfectly valid desires; they just weren’t things I concentrated on in Winds and Straits.

      I’m eager to start my next series, which is planned as a single POV epic fantasy. I’ve written a few chapters already. I’m hoping it’ll be more of a quicker start with more mystery elements than the ANUSKAYA trilogy.

      • Paul (@princejvstin)

        March 22, 2012 at 9:53 am

        I did want to know more about the magic, because I am wired that way. No one expects everyone to go all Sanderson on that, though. :)

        • Brad

          March 22, 2012 at 10:01 am

          I’m going to use that phrase at my next convention: You didn’t have to go all Sanderson on us…

          • Paul (@princejvstin)

            March 22, 2012 at 10:17 am

            :chuckle:

            I’m pondering eating the gas and crossing the state for your signing party thing you invited me to. It’s a bloody 5 hour trip one way though.

          • Brad

            March 22, 2012 at 10:47 am

            It’d be good to see you there. Long trip, though. We’ll be gathering at a pub nearby afterward. Not sure who just yet, but you’re welcome to join us there and meet some friends and family. Or you could find some things to catch in Milwaukee while there. Also, I might have a B&N signing in Madison. No confirmed dates yet. I’ll also be at WisCon in May for a reading and general convention-going. That might make the trip a little more do-able.

  2. Stefan (Far Beyond Reality)

    March 22, 2012 at 10:13 am

    First of all, thank you for responding and linking to the review! Your article is very thought-provoking, as it draws attention to a story-telling mechanism many people probably hadn’t considered in such detail before. Including me, actually. Your point about *different* types of tension is very well made. It’s making me replay certain scenes in the first novel from that perspective, as well as a few scenes from The Straits of Galahesh, which I’m reading right now. (The dinner scene when Bahett’s wives dance is an excellent example, and one of the most memorable parts of the series so far.)

    I remember picking the word “numbing” because I’d used “exhausting” twice in a row, and in retrospect it’s really more the latter than the former. In either case, I do stand by the part of my review you focused on: as much as I enjoyed the novel, I felt that there were a few too many high-tension climactic scenes.

    (An author who is absolutely masterful at managing tension in her novels, by the way, is Janny Wurts. I have a feeling you would very much enjoy her work.)

    • Brad

      March 22, 2012 at 10:54 am

      I’ve heard Wurts’s name a few times, but have never read her work. More books added to the pile (a Good Thing, to be sure).

      And thanks. I rather liked how the dance turned out in Straits. It was interesting (and gratifying) to me that one of the most memorable scenes in WINDS that people commented on was the dance between Atiana and Nikandr. In this context, though, both cases are an interesting study, because they play an upfront, physical sort of tension (dancing) against underlying emotional struggles.

  3. Anne Lyle

    March 22, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I sympathise – I’ve had a few reviewers say that the pace of my first book flags a little towards the end (though not everyone has had that complaint). Maybe between the two of us we can create the pitch-perfect ending!

    I shall have to pick up a copy of “Straits…” – I like both Martin and Hobb, so it may well be my sort of thing :)

    • Brad

      March 22, 2012 at 10:48 am

      In another universe, we rule the literary world!

      Not sure if you’re aware, but Straits is the second book in the series that starts with The Winds of Khalakovo.