Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nitpickery: Volition Agent

Hey y'all.  So I got in a free book on a facebook contest.  It's called Volition Agent.

I call it terrible.

Just to ask, is everyone sick of me talking crap about books?  I swear I don't mean to read only negative things, but besides Rurouni Kenshin, that's what keeps happening.  I really need to assess more nonfiction works.  I like nonfiction, so I can be positive on those.  Anyway, leave a comment if you don't like me being negative too much.  I try to make it more about the critiquing than true negativity, but just let me know how it comes across.

So, Volition Agent is the story of a woman, Lexia Santarelli, who is a volition agent, someone being physically controlled by a "handler."  In Lexia's case, the handler is a man named Lance.  They work for The Agency (yes, that's what it's called in the book) to perform assassinations, spy work, and other shifty stuff. When a job goes wrong and Lance forces Lexia to kill two people against her will, the Agency abandons her to the police to be captured for murder.  Lance helps Lexia escape by sending her off to Eli, an old friend. But instead of running away, Lexia chooses to help those she feels she has wronged, and maybe even take down the Agency along the way.

Actually, I'm not sure about that last plot point.  Lexia seemed to want to simply get away.  Eli definitely wanted to take down The Agency, but Lexia went along with it, so I assume she's at least alright with the idea.

In any case, I signed up for a facebook contest for the specific purpose of getting this book.  A friend of mine, Joy Anna, is the girl on the cover.  She's not a famous model or anything, as she's pretty young and her mom doesn't want her to go too far into the modeling world.  Which makes it really, really creepy to read this book.

Now, when you see the cover of a book, if there's a person's face prominently on it, you imagine that person taking actions when you see their character in the book, right?  Thing is, Joy is under 18.  And Lexia has a scene where Lance forcibly takes control of her body to look at her with a mirror after her shower.  Given Lexia's unremarkable reaction, this is probably not the first time Lance has done so.

Have I mentioned how much I hate modern novels?

Yeah, action/thriller books aren't for me.  Like romance novels, they serve the emotional purposes of the target market.  Romance readers want their happily ever after, and thriller readers want an exciting time. Neither of these markets really care all that much about worldbuilding or detail in the same way I do, so these genres are automatically at a disadvantage went it comes to suiting my taste.  Richard Flores IV, you're going to have to work really hard to get me on your side for your book, particularly after you do this to my friend.

Well, I've got a free book, so why not nitpick it?  Nitpickery is spoilers.

This is clearly an amateur novel.  The printing is cheap, the secret agent silhouettes at the beginning of each chapter are cheesy, and the narrative...has interesting issues. While it's definitely not good narration, it has a sort of weird advantage, in a way, especially when I compare it to all the Starcraft official fiction I've been reading lately.  But first let me explain the bad.

One of the bad things a large percentage of new writers do is to describe actions in too straightforward a manner.   As a writer rises in skill, they begin to see with their own eyes what novice narration really means. Until then, they say things like this:

She went past them into the door for the kitchen.  She pulled out a box of cereal and some milk from the fridge.  She checked the date on the milk; who knows when the last time someone was here to drink it.  It was good for another week.  She poured a bowl and sat down in the corner of the room.

You don't have to be a writer to know there's problems with this paragraph.  What should be a scene of Lexia showing the readers what a typical morning at a safe house means becomes the literary equivalent of a student forced into doing an essay about an animal they don't care about.

Look at the sentence structure. With the exception of the second half of the third sentence, each part is "She did ____.  It was ____." in its structure. There's very little attempt at creative sentences.  Most of the sentences there even have roughly the same syllables.  Nothing about this narrative shows Lexia's mood, reveals how she feels about her surroundings, or gives the readers anything to feel. There's literally no purpose to this entire paragraph, other than to flatly state Lexia's actions.  Plus, the "who knows" part needs to end with a question mark.

Compare this to the narrative in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Even though the entire story of Denisovich was just a guy going through his daily routine at a prison camp, the powerful narrative makes readers feel like they're right there with Shukov as he delicately eats his makeshift gruel, sweats over bricklaying, and desperately wishes he'd either feel better or get sick enough to miss work.  You can see and smell everything Solzhenitsyn writes.

Okay, fine, I'll stop comparing a poor guy to one of the greatest writers of the last century.  What I'm saying is that the purpose of narrative is to make your readers feel the same way as your character. Look at this example rewrite of the above paragraph.

Lexia yawned and shuffled past the safe house's employees.  She tugged at the door of the fridge, staring at the eggs for several seconds before deciding she was too tired to make a real breakfast. She reached in the fridge for milk.  After a quick sniff of the jug, Lexia judged it fresh enough before heading for the cabinets for some kind of cereal.  Hopefully they had a brand with raisins in it.  Lexia liked raisins.

Note several things about this new paragraph.  Lexia is showing with her actions that she's exhausted, which is a distinct physical state to be in.  This connects with the readers because everyone's been tired before, and we can relate to being too tired to cook.  It also sets the tone for the paragraph, showing that Lexia's exhaustion is going to affect what she does in the upcoming narrative.  Adding the bit about raisins makes Lexia a distinct person, as not everyone likes the same foods.  There are also longer and shorter sentences in combination, making the paragraph feel more natural.

In short, all narrative must have more than one reason to exist.  Besides telling the reader directly what is going on, it has to make the reader feel a certain way, as well as communicating things about the setting and characters present in the scene.

However, there's a flipside to this narrative.  Yes, it's too straightforward.  Yes, it flatly states what's going on without remembering that tone and mood exist.  At the same time, it has no emotional manipulation.  Some authors go on and on, trying to force the reader to feel the things they want.  Those authors try so hard to make the reader feel, that the reader is off-put by the sheer emo-ism of what is before him.

They do this with things like:
Memories fluttered through her mind like gossamer-winged insects: a word that shattered centuries, a though that changed the course of a civilization.  Individuals whose insights and aspirations and even greed and fear turned seemingly inalterable tides of destiny into something new and fresh and hitherto inconceivable.  Moments where everything teetered precariously on a crumbling brink, where something as intangible as an idea would sent everything hurtling into oblivion or pull it back to safe, solid ground.

If you say that you understood what that paragraph means, you're a liar.  Oh, but we'll get to you soon, Christie Golden.  Mm-hm, yes we will, my dear.

Some writers end cryptic sentences with ellipses.  Like -
The whole land shook, as though it knew the pain Duncan felt.....

My "favorite" is when people think that describing characters with fanciful ambiguity actually communicates with the reader.
With not a twitch to telegraph his movements, he exploded into action.  Valerian moved through the elaborate, graceful poses of the forms with speed and precision.  Block, strike, whirl, slice, duck, roll, leap, and again and again, the blade making a sharp sound as it cut air, his breathing coming more quickly with exertion but still regular and steady.

A note to all fight writers: don't describe a martial art or swordplay style if you don't know anything about it. It's usually really obvious that you're a noob.

To Flores' credit, he doesn't do any of that.  His overly simplistic narration has the advantage of allowing the events of the story to create emotional resonance.  After all, if something very powerful happens in your story, it should speak for itself.  It doesn't need the writer to go on a ten minute diatribe about why a girl will be devastated that her best friend is dead.  The writer has to make the reader feel for his characters, and then when that person dies, it becomes significant without another word.

Flores achieves this, somehow.  His overly straightforward narrative makes emotional events feel more significant.  Either that, or I personally find the overall plot points interesting, and the narrative didn't stop the ideas from working.  Trouble is, after the first three or four chapters, Volition Agent has plot points that would make a science fiction soap opera proud.  Heh, he could write episodes of Deep Space Nine.

So Lexia escapes from being set up by The Agency into killing two people.  Only it turns out that one of the two people, Jamie, was herself a volition agent, and in the past had an affair with her own handler, Alden. She ended up having a baby, which she tried to pretend was her ex-boyfriend's (the other person Lexia killed). Only later does it turn out that The Agency secretly arranged for Alden and Jamie to meet, because the volition technology opens neural pathways in the brains of both the handlers and operatives.  And then it turns out that Lance himself has had an affair which likewise produced a baby girl.  These two children (huh, you'd think they would be more) are apparently The Agency's next step in creating the perfect agent.

Does anyone else think it's odd that all these agents are constantly referred to by their first names?  It makes sense that Lance and Lexia would be on a first name basis, but you'd think that officials and strangers would call each other Agent Such'nSuch, or Mr. Whatever.

Anyway, the soap opera doesn't end there.  Before Lance severs his connection to Lexia, he sends her to a friend of his (the person who trained him, of course), an old guy named Eli.  As it turns out, Eli was once married to a higher up person in The Agency, a woman named Maria.  He left her and rebelled against the agency because his and Maria's daughter was a volition agent, one Maria accidentally killed when the girl wouldn't follow through with her mission orders.  Eli never forgave her for it.

To make it even more dramatic, Lexia meets up with Alden, befriending him because she feels bad that The Agency won't let him have his son.  It them becomes a choice between Alden and Lance for who she wants to be with when everything is said and done.  Yeah.  It doesn't end that simply, and Lexia doesn't appear to be in love with either of them, but for a while it's a thing.

The trouble with making Alden a good guy is that there's no reason for him to be.  The only reason he accepts Lexia at first is because she can help him get his son back.  If it weren't for that, he might not have forgiven her for being the vessel that Lance used to kill the woman he loved.  That's a screw up on The Agency's part.  All they had to do was tell Alden about the whole neural pathway thing as though they just discovered it, and then let Alden decide to stick with The Agency to make his boy a superhuman.  Or they could have simply asked Alden to take part in the experiments before setting him up with Jamie.  Not smart of them to make a needless enemy by forcing his kid from him.

Wait, why didn't the Agency just ask for volunteers?  If the volition agents are willing to let themselves be put into the physical control of other people, surely they're willing to create babies for science.  They don't sound like bright people.

Yeah, this agency isn't that smart at all.  First of all, if they know that this dude Eli has been finding agents and using them to attack The Agency, how come it took them so long to find him?  They traced Lexia pretty well before she was disconnected from the volition technology.  You think Maria would have long abused her knowledge of her husband to trap him somehow.  Or used all the technology and agents in her power to catch him.  Oh, whatever, it's not a huge deal.  Maybe he hasn't been out as long as it feels.  After all, Eli was still pretty torn up about his daughter, to the point where he was at risk of crying when she was simply mentioned.  Maybe the wound's still fresh.

Despite an initially bad first impression, Volition Agent actually did come around.  I like the characters.  Even if Flores wasn't the best about showing who his characters were, it's obvious that he himself understood them and felt strongly about them.  They feel as much like real people as the narrative allows.

I really do like Lexia.  She's a very emotional, sensitive person for someone who kills and spies on people. It sort of makes me wonder if she was forced to work for The Agency in the first place.  I like how she wants to help Alden find his baby, and that she's reluctant to kill people who aren't deserving in some way.  The bit where she pretends to be drunk is funny.

Most of the characters are fine.  Maria and Lance are probably the only characters that don't work completely right.  Maria herself is just too plain underdeveloped.  We don't even know her last name.  We don't know her motivations, and never even learn them when she's defeated.  Her dementia worked, it just needed expansion.

As for Lance, we never really get the guy at all.  At the beginning, when Lexia is being set up, the book gives the feeling that Lance is involved in setting her up, because he forces her to kill two people she didn't want to.  But then in the next few chapters, it's revealed that he knew nothing.  He even helps Lexia escape.  And then Maria tells him about his science experiment baby girl, for some reason taking Maria's word for it that the baby girl is his.  Lance then shoots Alden and betrays Lexia and Eli to attempt to get his baby back, despite knowing Maria's not the type to keep a deal.  And then he kills himself, despite having worked so hard for his little girl and having no idea if she'll be okay after he dies.

Sheesh, inconsistent much?

That's not to say I didn't like Lance as a character.  It's just that his reasoning was so out of joint that I have little idea who he is as a person.  Is he a self-ambitious agent who ends up crushed by guilt?  Or his he a generally moral man whose system of morals fly out the window when his emotions get tugged?  What's his deal?  His level of morality needs to be decided.

That's the main conceptual problem with this book.  Nothing's properly fleshed out.  Sure, Lexia is, to a degree, but even she gets inconsistent with her rules about who it's okay to kill, and there's little reason for her sudden obsession with Alden's baby.  Alden I like more as the book goes on, but his feelings of hatred toward Lexia turn too quickly into love.  After all, she was involved in the death of his lover, and nothing really happens for him to change his mind into trying to convince her to stay with him when all is said and done.

Everything that happens in this book could have potentially worked.  It just needed a lot more fleshing out, more narrative detail, and more understanding of why characters do what they do.  The concepts themselves work, even if there's a moment of the classic "which man should she choose" conflict.  If the relationship between Lance and Lexia had been clarified, this could work.  If Lexia remains more or less friends with both Alden throughout the book, the romance aspect of it will be diminished to acceptable parameters for an action novel.  Especially if they have a really cool gun fighting rivalry that helps Lexia decide.  In the end, however, she doesn't get the chance to choose.  Lance kills Alden, and then later himself.  While far from acceptable in romance novels, it works for a thriller.

Before I wrap this up, let's go over some narrative errors.  This is supposed to be a writer's blog, so let's talk writer's issues.  For example, when we first meet Eli, he clarifies his friendship with Lance like this:

"Because, I trained him."

Awkward comma is awkward.  It's a good idea to think about how your narrative sounds spoken aloud when editing.

Lance cringed a little.  He didn't want to see Lexia killed.

Why is Lance's reaction to fearing for Lexia's life is to just cringe a little?  If Flores had just ended it at "cringed," I wouldn't have noticed this bit.  But only "a little"?  Does he care about Lexia or what?  He's only been controlling her body for mission after mission, apparently having some sort of neural effect on his own body.  So wouldn't his instincts be more apt to react?  And if he was trying to hide his reaction from Maria, then why doesn't it say so?  As is, the sentence comes across as him feeling momentary pity for some pathetic girl he doesn't know.  Not really a great reaction in a story that's so emotional.

There was still a hint of warmth.  It was still drinkable.  "It's fine.  Where are we?"

Here Lexia has accepted a cup of coffee from Eli and is assessing whether or not she wants to drink it.  The trouble with this bit is that it's repetitive.  The first three sentences all have similar implications, and the second and third even communicate the exact same information: the coffee is acceptably warm for Lexia.

The most obvious fix for this is to remove the second sentence.  That way the reader gets the information that the coffee is good enough without directly being told.  Or the "I'm fine" can come out, provided that Flores mentions that Lexia tasted the coffee.  Or both of the first two sentences can be eliminated entirely, implying that Lexia isn't picky about coffee, at least for the moment.

It may seem like I'm nitpicking, but a large number of writers tend to repeat their ideas too much, and it hurts their narrative.  These things need to be noticed.  There's so much that can be revealed about a character or scene simply by a couple of effective words.

"Something tells me I won't fair well in an assault with them."

Fare, not fair.

"Is it supposed to be a Mexican restaurant around here?"

"Is there" not "is it."

"She was a mom; that baby has no parents now thanks to your trigger finger."

Semi-colons don't really work in dialogue, especially emotional dialogue.  They make the words feel too serious.  Also, the second part doesn't sound natural.  "Thanks to you" is what most people would say, and at a high volume to boot.  Nice emphasis of Lexia's motherly tendencies, though.

Yeah, these sorts of errors are pretty common in the book.  Obviously this Flores published this without an editor.  It's sad, though.  All you really have to do is find someone like me who loves to stab books to death, I mean, edit things, and the whole book could have gone up another level.  Maybe one of his writer friends is an editor-type.  That's why it's important to have writer friends.  Supporting each other in different ways will help all of the group get published.

So you want know how this book ends?  With Lexia, fresh from her victory over Maria, going to a sunny island to raise both Alden's and Lance's babies, in the new mansion Eli somehow procured for her.  After she tucks the babies in for a nap, Eli gives her a gun so that she can defend herself if anyone else from The Agency goes after her.

The fudge?  From secret agent to single mom of two?  Uh....that's quite a transition there.  To be honest, the whole thing is so absurd to me that it's really funny.  You would never see that in an action movie.  Still, it's hard to get all those ideas out of my head about how hard it is to raise kids alone, and Lexia never asks Eli how she's going to make money. I've heard that going from one to two children is a transition as huge as no children to one, so Lexia's got quite a hurdle ahead of her.  Does she even know how to mix formula?  Has she changed a diaper in her life? Does she really have the strength and love to raise two little kids that she didn't know existed as little as a week ago?  Well, at least she has the sense to ask Eli to stay and be the kids' "grandfather."

At the end of the day, this book amuses me.  It made me laugh, it made me smile, and despite its flaws, I had a good time reading it.  I just wish Lexia's pre-agent background was sorted out, so the audience would have some idea why she had no trouble going into a future that's going to involve more onesies and boo-boos than guns and excitement.  Volition Agent won't deliver on its premise and expand on the world of body-controlled agents, but it'll be a fun time that won't take too long.  Seriously, this book is short.

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