Reading as a Writer: The Sarantine Mosaic

5 Nov

I’ve got a problem.  I’m trying to save some money, and at the same time, I’ve committed on Goodreads to read 50 books this year.  I’m at about 35.  Part of my problem is that I start reading books and then abandon them if I don’t like them.  So I decided to go back and reread a series I liked very much, to see what I could glean from it.  I picked The Sarantine Mosaic series from Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s two books, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors

After finishing them, I discovered that I’d already marked them as read in Goodreads, so I couldn’t count them toward my 50.  

Excellent.

But, snatching victory from incompetence, I did learn quite a bit about how GGK writes by paying attention to his craft as I went.  It was easier to do this on a reread, because I wasn’t distracted by being all entertained and stuff.

So here’s what I noticed.

1.  Many, many plots, but they all move forward.  Reading a GGK book is a bit like playing Civilization II.  You have all these little plots that you keep visiting.  You take one or two little steps, and then move on to the next one.  Half of Lord of Emperors covers one day, from about six different points of view.

If you’ve never played Civilization II, first of all, congratulations on having an extra six months of free time that I lost.  But the thing that made that game so addicting was that you always had One More Thing to do.  And that’s what works with GGK, too.  He pulls me away from one character and lets me find out what happened to this other guy, and just when I’m about to put the book down, he dangles another guy I’ve been wondering about in front of me.  

He’s also dialed up the drama.  The very first scene shows what’s at stake: nothing less that the throne for the empire.  He also shows right away that death is no big thing; people get killed all the time for what most people would consider a small mistake.  So, again, the stakes are high, which keeps me reading.

What I learned from this:  It can be cool to show one event from lots of points of view.  It’s a neat way of exposing characters without having a ton of plot.  And keep the stakes as high as possible; life or death 24/7.

2.  Everyone gets a backstory.  I would love to be an extra in a GGK novel.  Every time he introduces a character, with very few exceptions, he gives us their background.  Just a page or two, nothing big, but enough to flesh out these people.  And he does this consistently throughout the book.  We meet a new character, a Sarantine soldier, in one of the last chapters.  Normally, that would kill the forward motion, but it doesn’t, partly because of the high stakes I mentioned above, and partly because GGK is just that good at creating engaging characters.  It also helped that this was a technique he used from the beginning. I got used to it, and I knew that when we shifted to a new head, it would be interesting and relevant, and we’d get out again soon.

What I learned from this:  It doesn’t take much to flesh out a character.  Readers will read a little bit of backstory, as long as it’s engaging.  

3.  Thoughts.  Holy cow, were there a lot of internal monologues in this.  Seriously, it was about a quarter dialogue, a quarter action, and half internal thoughts.  And yet, it kept moving.  I’m really not sure how he did it, to be honest.  

What I learned from this: I’m not as good as GGK.

4. It’s getting tense.  He did this super cool thing where he changed from past to present tense for scenes between Petrus and Alixana, the Emperor and Empress.  Their relationship was central to the book, and this little change, which I probably didn’t even notice the first time I read it, really highlighted their love for each other.  Their time together was outside the rest of the story, in a way. It felt luxurious and peaceful, and also had the thematic bonus that they were together in the present moment, never mind the past or the future.  

What I learned from this:  Tense (and other tools) can be used for dramatic effect.  

So, there you go.  Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors, even though I don’t write like him. But I enjoyed going back and noticing some of the tricks he used.  

What author tricks have you noticed?  Have you been able to use them yourself in your writing?  

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One Response to “Reading as a Writer: The Sarantine Mosaic”

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  1. How I Fought Writers’ Block Yesterday « Mary Mascari - February 1, 2013

    […] Reading as a Writer: The Sarantine Mosaic […]

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