Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Moving on...

FYI, I'm no longer updating this blog. I've copied the posts and comments over to the new blog at and will be working there from now on. Blogger was nice, but WordPress offers more flexibility, allows me to put stories up, and integrates with my home page at, so that's where things are going.

Keep following me over there!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Processing Clarion

Six instructors, seventeen classmates, twenty-three friendships.
Over one hundred stories read and critiqued.
Seven stories written, plus two more started and not finished (one nearly done).
Four new story ideas to work on, six stories to revise and possibly send out to markets, two novels awaiting application of learnings, one website to construct.

Clarion was amazing, life-changing in certain ways (not as much for me as for some of my classmates), incredible fun, and incredibly intense. We saw few people apart from each other in the normal course of the day, thought about writing all the time, read an incredible variety of stories from some amazing talents, and had to think up something useful to say about each and every one. In between, we had some wonderful professionals giving their thoughts on our stories, giving us tips from their lives, and playing drinking games with us on weekends.

I really loved the experience, and I'm so excited to be moving on into some story projects, finishing up other stories, working on the novels. It isn't that I feel I wasn't a writer before; none of us should have felt that, because we were told over and over that we are a talented group (otherwise we wouldn't be at Clarion). It's that I feel more confident. I know a few more tricks. I have a list of things to keep an eye out for. And I have a feel for what makes a good story, just by dint of having read wildly different stories from wildly different people. I know I can make mine better in ways I wouldn't have thought of before. It means more work, but I'm so looking forward to it.

And we're already starting to plan meet-ups at future conventions. Which is cool--I already can't wait to see everyone again, and it's only been three days since we were all together last (two and a half days since I said good-bye to my roomie at the airport). We are all full of bright plans and dreams and hopefully some measures of confidence, and it's going to be a fun few years coming up. :)

One thing on my list is getting my vanity domain up, with this blog moved over there and a few stories up for people to read. August is kind of a busy month, but I think I can get some of that rolling. So watch this space for pointers to the next space...

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Clarion Reflections

It's not over yet; we have two more critiquing days and three more wonderful evenings to spend together before we go our somewhat-less-separate ways. But this has been a truly remarkable experience, participating in the creation of a new community, or, perhaps more accurately, a new iteration of an existing community. We have been assured by previous Clarion graduates that we are all part of the same tribe now. Still: eighteen people from geographically and somewhat culturally diverse backgrounds have spent five and a half weeks together, and now people whose names I did not know four months ago have become close friends and trusted writing companions. And we have learned a lot about writing along the way, and learned even more about ourselves as writers.

It'll be bittersweet, the leaving, because of course I love my normal life and would not trade it for anything in the world, except for possibly a life identical in every way with a healthier bank account (but who wouldn't want that?). The few occasions on which I've gotten to see my husband over the last six weeks have not been compensation for the time without (though I am dearly grateful for them). This little bubble we've lived in, though, where literally nearly everything is about writing--we critique, we write, we read, we repeat--has been a really wonderful experience. And will continue to be for three more days.

It's kind of like that Avenue Q song, "I Wish I Could Go Back To College." I always have, and for this summer, for six weeks, I kind of feel like I did.

(Of course, sitting in a library doing research kind of helps...)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

*cough cough* Wow, the dust in here. It's been over a year since I posted. There are a number of reasons for that, most not worth going into in a movie review post. But hey, just to catch people up: I am in my fifth week of Clarion, which is awesome in too many ways to describe without its own dedicated post (forthcoming). As a result of Clarion I will be setting up a site and probably moving this blog there sometime in the next few weeks. Also there will be stories and such so lots of work to do. Fairly warned, be ye, says I.

Clarion bears mentioning because it was with several of my classmates that I saw "Cowboys and Aliens," and if you have not yet had the chance to see a badly-structured SF movie with a bunch of SF writers, then I highly recommend it.

The trouble actually started, had we known, before the movie. The trailer selection was schizophrenic, including a heist movie (which actually looks fun--Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy and Alan Alda in a Bernie Madoff wish-fulfillment vehicle), a horror movie (disease--"No one is immune--FROM FEAR"), a twenty-something comedy that turns into a horror movie (sharks? really?), a SF war movie ("Battleship." Christ.), a historical drama/specfic ("Three Musketeers" with cannon-laden airships--actually looks visually awesome), and a Robert Downey Jr. Movie (Sherlock Holmes 2). I asked at one point, "Do they know what movie we're here to see?" Answer: yes. Yes, they did.

"Cowboys" starts really well. I mean, for the first half or so of the movie we had nothing to say. You all know the plot from the trailers. Daniel Craig wakes up with no memory and an alien gizmo strapped to his wrist, kicks ass. The setup of the town he wanders into is pretty neat too. Paul Dano is more or less wasted as rich entitled kid of cattle magnate Harrison Ford, taking advantage of all the money his dad brings to the town. So, right, redemptive arc for the son? Not so much. Conflict is ramped up when Craig and Dano are to be turned over to the federal marshals, and Ford comes riding in to save his son. He has a beef with Craig, it turns out, which Craig doesn't remember. Pretty good, right? Decent character conflicts and motivations, a few pretty good actors, a reasonable script to that point.

Then the aliens attack. The attack itself goes on probably about half again as long as it needs to. That early in the film you just want a fast exposure. But the aliens strafe the town approximately seventeen times (by my rough count) before Craig shoots one down. The other aliens get away with a bunch of the townspeople, including Dano (and pretty much ending his role in the movie). Craig is the only one who can shoot them down; Ford must go save his son. An uneasy partnership is born.

Except it isn't, not really. Craig has no real reason to chase the aliens except the vague memory that someone he cared about is also a kidnap victim, and the bonds of affection he is forming with the townspeople in his essentially new life. There is a powerful story buried there about reform, how a hardened criminal whose past is wiped away might be able to start anew and be a good person, but that is only one of the dozen or so stories the filmmakers were attempting to explore.

From about that point, things rapidly spiral into incoherence. There are outlaws, cringe-inducingly stereotyped native Americans (both the war-whooping and mystically spiritual kind). There is a Mysterious Plot-Advancing Woman. There is a gang of outlaws who might have made Craig question his current path if they were anything more than buffoonish stereotypes themselves. There is a surrogate son--actually there are like three of them by the end of the movie, four if you include the dog who was apparently in the movie because hey, one of the people had a dog and he can sit on command and look cute. There are three dying-in-someone's-arms death scenes which would be tear-jerking if any of the dying people had enough character for the audience to latch onto. There are aliens, of course, and there are at least three moments where the "alien jumping out at you" is telegraphed so loudly that I was counting off the beats on my fingers. There is alien technology that works according to Plot Necessity (one of my classmates leaned over and said "You know who's really bad at using the alien super-weapon? The aliens."). All of the things you see set up in the first act are paid off fairly artlessly in the second half. I can't even analyze it in terms of structure because I think the main character is supposed to be Harrison Ford, but then again Daniel Craig sort of changes, but then again I can't tell where the real character change is for either of them, and hell, you know, at some point you can't build a house out of Silly Putty.

On the plus side, there is a lot of pretty scenery. Daniel Craig does wear him some tight pants. And there are two attractive women with long dark hair, who seem pretty interchangeable, not only to me, but also at one point to characters in the movie. Harrison Ford is still Harrison Ford; Paul Dano does a pretty good acting job and provides some of the best comic moments. And there is some pretty alien tech. Also a cute dog.

So y'know, go with a group of people and advise the people around you that you will be making whispered comments throughout and that they are welcome to join in. Or wait for the DVD and watch it with friends at home. I have a feeling that you could make a few pretty awesome drinking games out of it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: The Book of Basketball

"The Book of Basketball," by Bill Simmons
9/10, a thorough review of the history of basketball in the NBA

All sports are, at their heart, human stories. We like to reduce them to box scores and statistics, but the best stories are the ones about the people behind the numbers. Simmons has been following the NBA up close for over thirty years, and he knows the people as well as the numbers. Better yet, he knows how the people and the numbers go together. Take the NBA's most famous debate: Chamberlain or Russell?

Well, Simmons grew up in Boston watching the Celtics. So you can guess which side of that debate he lands on. But he backs up his conclusion, not just with numbers, but with stories and quotes from people who played the game with both.

His love for the game and the players shines through on every page, and because he cares so deeply, he uncovers stories. You can feel his pain in talking about Bernard King's knees, or Chris Webber's head. You can feel the joy he feels in talking about transcendent players he's seen or watched on TV: Jordan, Walton, Bird, Magic. The majority of the book is dedicated to ranking the top 96 players ever, an admittedly futile exercise, because within months of the book's publication, the 2009 playoffs had thrown a half-dozen of his rankings into disarray.

Each of the 96 rankings leads with statistics about the player. Each one then goes into that player's story, encapsulated in two or three pages. His highlights, lowlights, what other people said about him. The tragedy of the black players who had to play in towns where they couldn't stay in the hotels. The drugs that nearly ruined the NBA of the 70s and early 80s. The me-first mentality that threatened to do the same in the late 90s. Players who landed in the perfect situation; players who never reached their full potential. These are human stories, human tragedies, projected into the black-and-white world of basketball.

His chapter on Shaq is one of the most fascinating. Shaq, one of the most dominant players of the 00s, could have been much better, in Simmons' opinion. Instead, he chose to be merely very good--and pursue other things he loved doing. He wasn't all about basketball, and he made sure to live life while he played the game. Ultimately, Simmons regrets not having seen the best Shaq had to offer, but he has to admit by the end of Shaq's section that in his place, he might've done the same thing.

If you have any interest in basketball, you should absolutely buy this book. Simmons is a talented writer and a sports fan, and he has managed to walk a delicate line between being a fan and being an insider. Early in his career with ESPN, he seemed star-struck with the access he had, and played it up too much. Now, he is back in his fan mentality, sharing stories about stars not in a "look what I did" way, but as a friend telling you about the cool things that happened to him. The implication is that he wishes you coulda been there. You can't, but you can do the next best thing. Buy his book.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Review: Empire Falls

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
7.5/10, a well-written but sprawling Small-Town Drama

It seems odd to be disappointed in a Pulitzer winner, especially one recommended by a friend, but I think expectations were just high. The story of Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill, is an epic drama about the lives of people in a dying small town. Miles himself, at the center of the drama, is undergoing a divorce (while subjected to his ex-wife's new fiance's blunt attempts at friendship), pining over a years-long unrequited love, fending off a years-long unwanted love, resisting pressure from his brother to upgrade the diner, and dealing with the memories of his childhood that suggest, strongly, that he should have made more of his life.

If that seems like a handful, well, just wait until you meet the other characters: the town's matriarch and owner of the Grill; the waitress who is the object of Miles' affections; his high-school classmate, now an aggressive policeman; his daughter's classmates, from the vapid girl to the popular bully to the silent loner; his crippled brother; the matriarch's daughter, still in love with him; his ex-wife; her annoying fiance, later husband; not to mention all the characters from memory who intrude and add texture to the experiences of Miles and the others.

Miles and Tick occupy the bulk of the narrative, though his ex-wife has a bit of her own story going on, never really resolved. In fact, most of the issue I had with the book was that few of the storylines are resolved. There's a climax at the end, which wraps up some things quickly and neatly; others persist through the end of the book. You all know how I feel about endings; this one bothered me a little.

The other issue I had with the book was stylistic. In a Pulitzer winner, I expected a little better than some of the awkward, heavy-handed description that I found in "Empire Falls." There were a few compelling story arcs, but they weren't that compelling. A lot of the description was telling rather than showing.

That said, there was a lot of good writing in it. There were passages that made me laugh out loud. Russo has a good sense of irony, and a great talent for description and imagery. I thought the characters were distinctive and interesting, so there's definitely a lot to recommend the book, here. It just felt like it could've been better, which is not a feeling I got from the other Pulitzer winner I read recently, "The Age of Innocence". Still, it's worthwhile, though I understand the movie is pretty good, too. Maybe you should just rent that.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: Self-Help

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore
8/10, an evocative collection of short stories with wonderful language but little story

I first heard of Lorrie Moore in a writing class, because of her short story "How To Become A Writer," included in this collection. It's a wry look at the writer's life in the second person ("Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than ten minutes a day; like sit-ups, they can make you thin."), a format that most of the stories in this collection follow.

They're much more than just a gimmick, though. Moore has a real gift for language and description, real situations and three-dimensional characters. The stories are all rather depressing in tone, but the writing is lovely and immersive. Moore creates a world rich with detail, full of characters and places, and her eye for the important details is terrific.

What I missed from this collection was some sense of resolution to the stories. Moore's characters move through their situations, changing and reacting, but their situations rarely come to any character resolution. While the stories themselves are engaging and quite well written, a real pleasure to read, none of them stayed with me long after reading the book.

To study the craft of writing, Moore is a great read. Learning how to pace a story, what details to include, how to build characters and situations, all of that is here in these stories. But it's harder to figure out what to take away from the stories. Don't worry too much about that and you'll enjoy this collection.

Review: Number 9 Dream

Number 9 Dream, by David Mitchell
8.5/10, a surreal multi-layered coming-of-age adventure

The beginning of "Number 9 Dream" is tough to get into. Eiji Miyake, a young man in Tokyo for the first time, is searching for clues to the identity of his father, but sorting out his fantasies from reality is challenging; like the flood that overtakes him (or does it?), we are plunged into his narrative with little preparation or context. But the story eventually sorts itself out, the magical realism elements fall into their place, and Eiji's story moves along.

Each of the first eight sections of "Number 9 Dream" is split between the present day narrative and some other narrative, whether youthful fantasies, dreams, letters or memories from the past, or something else. In most cases, the "background" narrative provides support and foundation for the ongoing one. In a couple of the chapters, the foreground narrative actually becomes more bizarre than the background. Through all of it, Mitchell explores the lines of reality and fantasy, desire and expectation, promise and hope with all the skill you'd expect from his other works.

One of the reasons I think he likes to play with split narratives ("Black Swan Green" is his only single-narrator book) is that he is so good at character voice. Eiji has a distinctive voice, but so do his fantasies, so do the memories and the other characters he encounters, and so, in fact, does each setting he passes through, from his job at the train station to the gleaming corporate tower where his father's attorney works to his filthy apartment with its transient feline roommate to the countryside where he grew up.

If there is one flaw in "Number 9 Dream," it is that, being used to Mitchell's transcendant endings, the finale of this one does not quite measure up. Either it requires a bit more study and thought than I've put into it, or it simply leaves the narrative somewhat unresolved--which, given the rest of the story and the style, is fine. I'm not sure what I was expecting, only that "Ghostwritten," "Cloud Atlas," and "Black Swan Green" all had terrific endings, with "Cloud Atlas" and "Black Swan Green" among the best in modern fiction.

Still, as with a few creators like Kazuo Ishiguro, Pixar, and the Beatles, the weakest of Mitchell's books is still a delightful, thoughtful experience, well worth picking up and enjoyable from beginning to end. Its complexity makes it probably the first of his books I would want to re-read, if only because of the feeling that there were connections between the various parts that I'd missed. If nothing else, it's instructive to see him develop the techniques that allowed him to write "Cloud Atlas," and to see parts of the stories begun in "Ghostwritten" continued here.