Monday, January 26, 2015

Lessons from Stormdancer

© St. Martin’s Press
Recently, I had the opportunity to read Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer. Well, more like I saw the book in the store, thought, “Sweet!” and bought it. I had it read in two days, but alas: my bookstore no longer has the sequel, Kinslayer. I’ll just have to wait patiently, or order it on Amazon. Considering I found it at the local bookstore, though, it feels weird to buy it somewhere else (Hey, bookstore, thanks for the tip! Now I’ll buy this at your competitor!).

Here’s the back cover copy (“copy” is publishing jargon for accompanying promotional material):

The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshippers of the Lotus Guild. When hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a legendary griffin, they fear their lives are over. Any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her. But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

Sounds cool, right? I thought so too. As I read it, and then proceeded to read reviews that other people had left on Amazon – I was curious to see what others had thought – I realized that Stormdancer has a couple of valuable lessons for aspiring writers.

Lesson #1: You can’t win ‘em all

I really enjoyed this book.  By no means was it perfect, and it certainly wasn’t mind-blowing in the way that earns a book a spot on my super-special bookshelf (yes, I have a super-special bookshelf). Nevertheless, I liked it, and I’d probably read it again.

However, a few people left scathing – and I mean scathing – reviews on Amazon. They called it crap, and junk, and a hack job, and said that the protagonist was a Mary Sue – one of the worst insults in the industry, for some reason – and said that Kristoff screwed up all things Japanese culture due to poor research. (I’ll touch on the Mary Sue conundrum in a later post.)

This book had hundreds of glowing five-star reviews, slightly fewer fair, balanced four-star reviews, a good share of three star-reviews, very few two-star reviews, and a nice big handful of one-star reviews.

Do you think Jay Kristoff is worried about those negative reviews? He might take some of the criticisms and apply them to become a better writer in the future, but is he worried? Do you think he beats himself up about it, because not everybody liked his book?

I highly, highly doubt it.  The book is raking in money for the publisher, which means it’s raking in money for him, and I imagine he’s quite content with the state of things.

As an aspiring author, take this lesson to heart.  Haters gonna hate. Are you going to listen to them, or to the people who support you? Choose wisely.

Lesson #2: Nobody’s Perfect

I certainly have my criticisms of this book.  A lot of them, actually. None of them so bad as to warrant a one-star review, though. Were I to leave a review on Amazon, it would probably be a three- or four-star review. (Note that despite this, I still want to buy and read the rest of the trilogy.) Stormdancer was not as fresh as say, The Hunger Games. While Collins borrowed some stuff from ancient Rome for her stories, Kristoff practically takes Japanese folklore word-for-word (not quite). He added a little of his own mythology, but it was all heavily, heavily borrowed.

He also committed what is, in my opinion, a most egregious error: referring to the character by multiple names within a short amount of space. One character was called by his name in one paragraph, “the giant” in the next, and “the tall man” in the next. Firstly, to me, ‘giant’ indicates extremely abnormal height, where as this guy was just about a foot taller than most of the people around him. Not my first word choice.  Secondly, it’s a little disorienting to always have to figure out to whom the author is referring; names should be, more or less, transparent.  (I’ll touch on what I call “transparent words” this Friday, so be sure to come back.)

Another thing I didn’t like so much was that he used Japanese phrases and English phrases interchangeably – and he would always, as soon as he used a Japanese phrase, explain it in English.  It sort of bogged down the story.  My preference would have been to either use the Japanese and let context explain it, or simply use English.  The important thing, in either case, would be consistency. His use of Japanese words bordered on what James Blish (a prominent Sci-Fi author) calls “shmeerps.” Basically, a shmeerp is giving something an exotic name just for the sake of making it sound exotic. It’s a little silly, but hey. It wasn’t enough to keep me from finishing the book.

Other people, more learned in the ways of Nihongo than I, pointed out that Kristoff’s use of Japanese words were clumsy at best – apparently he misused the suffix ‘-sama’ to disastrous effect. And he also referred to ‘chi,’ which is a Chinese, not Japanese, concept.

There was even a typo where Yukiko’s name was spelled ‘Ywukiko,’ but let’s face it – that is the fault of the editors, not Kristoff. (It’s kind of their job to catch that stuff.)

Oh, well.

The book is far from perfect. Of course, perfect is a word like ‘normal’ – nobody is really sure what it means. At any rate, the book’s ‘flaws’ are not a deal-breaker.  Remember the question, “Is it more important to be a good writer, or a good storyteller?” Kristoff is a good storyteller, which, if you’re in the business of telling stories, is most important.

As an aspiring author, you can know that your book will be imperfect.  You can also know that, in the long run, it just has to be a good story. (Get somebody to edit it, though, because sloppy grammar and spelling makes it super hard to enjoy that good story. And even if your editors miss a stray ‘w,’ most people will be too caught up in the story to care that much.)

So, there you have it. Two lessons you can take to heart: “You can’t win ‘em all” and “Nobody’s Perfect.” As you go about your writing, for goodness’ sake, just relax. Relax and tell your story.  The more you enjoy it, the more likely it is that other people will too.

Do you put a lot of stock in the fear that you’ll be criticized? What do you think is more important: good writing, or good storytelling? Share your thoughts or any questions in the comments.

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Note to those who are considering reading Stormdancer and are concerned about such things: Stormdancer has one occasion of the “f-bomb” that I remember and contains some innuendo. In addition to that, it is made clear that protagonist has sex, but it is very subtly done and there are no explicit details. I always caution individuals under the age of 18 to check with their parents regarding books not specifically targeted at a YA audience. Yeah, I know, I’m no fun.  


  1. I think that my more frantic proofreading episodes are based on that fear, but like I've said before, I'm the harshest critic that I'll ever face, so I don't feel too much pressure from others. Knowledge and understanding demand that I concede good storytelling to be the more important trait, but the fact remains that I can't write a sentence without checking it for grammar before I move to the next. NaNoWriMo was torture with respect to that particular quirk.

  2. There is a time and a place for frantic proofreading, and even a time to be your own harshest critic. The best time for that is not while you are writing. I know it's tempting to obsess over that comma placement, or that split infinitive, or that odd looking semi-colon, but if it takes you more than ten seconds or so to realize what needs to be fixed, leave it and come back later. When you go back, feel free to obsess away and proofread like a bawss! Be your own harshest critic until you're happy with the work. (But if you edit every sentence, it will take you a really, really long time to finish something. Trust me. I've been there.)

  3. Very, very true. I'm working on it, but it's hard to give my focus to writing quickly when my school classes require writing accurately.