Thursday, December 28, 2006

Milestones and future lists

That last post, though I didn't realize it at the time, was my fiftieth, and this one is likely to be the last of 2006. I hope the folks reading this have found it useful or interesting, and stick with it in 2007!

As a result of many generous friends and family over Christmas, I now have a big stack of books to read, so I thought I'd share the list. The first three were actually rescued from Tower Books before they went out of business, the rest are new additions to my stack. I can't wait to get to them!

Fudoki - Kij Johnson
I loved "The Fox Woman," Johnson's first novel, and this one is set in the same semi-mythical Japanese universe. The clerk at Tower told me when I bought it, "This is really good!"

Get Shorty
- Elmore Leonard
Loved the movie, kept hearing about his writing, have never experienced it. Can't wait.

Time and Again - Jack Finney
An old writing friend of mine loved the Jack Finney "Time" books, but I never managed to make time to read any, until now.

The Hunt Ball - Rita Mae Brown
Okay, just because it has foxes in it. And it's a mystery. I'm always a sucker for a good mystery. Or even a mediocre mystery.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy - Jonathan Stroud
Relatively new books that people keep telling me about. I'm all excited to read these.

American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now
This one looks really good. Lots of movie reviews collected from this past century.

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Another one that's pretty new but looks really cool!

Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man - Dale Peterson
I met Dale Peterson while he was researching one of his books. He's written a few with Jane, and now he's written one about her. Curiously, I found a positive review on this one just a few days before I got it, and had been thinking I should check it out. Bonus!

So that's just a taste of the reviews you should be seeing in 2007. I'll also be immersed in numerous writing projects, so there'll be writing posts as well.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"New" story for sale

"Life Is Beautiful," one of the stories from the "Shadows In Snow" anthology, is now for sale as an Amazon Short. If you've already got the collection, no need to buy this one. I cleaned up a couple minor things, but it is largely the same as the version in the book. The Amazon Shorts folks decided to open up the program to previously published works, and since SIS is also being sold on Amazon, they thought it would make for some nice cross-linking.

The Amazon Shorts people, on the whole, have been extremely helpful. Phil Geusz, a friend of mine who also writes, has also found their program to be a good outlet for short fiction, and they have a bunch of stuff there by more famous authors. I'm not sure how to judge whether the program is a success, but if you judge by the catalog alone, they're doing great, and I hope to see their program continue. The venue is much appreciated for smaller-name authors like Phil and myself, because most people will happily spend four bits for a story, and with Amazon's delivery mechanism and trust behind it, it's nearly effortless for the author and reader both.

At any rate, the link will be in the sidebar sometime soon. I need to send them something unpublished next.

And a very Merry Christmas (belatedly) to you and yours. Here's hoping for wonderful things in 2007.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Review: Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower V), by Stephen King

7/10, an adventure story that's more about the action and world-building than about the characters

Going from Kazuo Ishiguro to Stephen King is rather like getting up from Le Petit Bistro (a fine French restaurant in Mountain View) and going next door to the El Paso Cafe (a fine Tex-Mex taqueria). No offense is meant either to King or to the El Paso Cafe, both of whom produce fine quality fare of which I am a big fan. It's just not the kind of fare that feels like an experience. They are also aimed at such different markets as to make the comparisons nearly meaningless unless you're just trying to open a Stephen King review with an amusing comparison that hasn't been done before.

The Dark Tower series is King's most ambitious work, a seven-volume epic chronicling the quest of Roland of Gilead to find and save the Dark Tower, the hub at the center of all the worlds that holds them together. Book 1, though I didn't particularly like the style, was inventive and concerned primarily with Roland. In Book 2 (or II, I suppose), Roland acquires two companions, Susannah and Eddie, from various times in New York. Book III follows their travels to and from the city of Lud, while book IV is mostly taken up with Roland's tale of his childhood first love, a story that, while interesting, seems not too relevant to the quest. In book V, the quest is again sidetracked by our heroes' encounter with a small town periodically raided by sinister Wolves, who take one of each set of identical twins. That doesn't sound particularly harmful or sinister until you learn that the proportions of twins to single births that we are familiar with is reversed in this community, for reasons never explained. Everyone has twins; singletons are rare and prized, because they are safe from the Wolves.

It's an interesting setup, unfortunately used more for effect than for any real social exploration. The main theme returned to again and again is that some in the town don't want to fight the Wolves. After all, they only come every twenty-some years (in this farming community, there are no reliable calendars), and they leave half the children. That's better than taking them all, right? Well, by use of clever analogies to orchards and displays of fighting prowess, Roland's group convinces the townspeople to stay and fight. Meanwhile, in New York, there's another sort of battle going on, more relevant to the quest itself. In addition to which, each member of Roland's group has some secret he or she is struggling with, resolved to various degrees over the course of the nine hundred page long book.

The central character in this book, and the series, is Roland. His dour determination to finish his quest at any cost, built up over the thousands of years he's been alive (calendar years, one assumes, not human-lived years, due to time-slips) is his defining trait. At one point, when asked to make a special effort to spare some individual life, Roland replies that he seeks to save the Tower, which will save all life in all universes everywhere, and that one person can't be weighed above that. Now that's perspective. He's mellowed somewhat since the first book, though, and at least experiences some measure of regret that he has to be so determined, and that he has to force the same determination onto his companions.

Roland and his group are the best-drawn characters, though we spend a good many chapters reliving the tale of Don Callahan (more on him later). Still, we don't get the sense of progression from them very much. Although there is relatively little action in this book, it is very much an action-adventure story. The three main stories (the Wolves, the New York drama, Susannah's secret) would seem to have little to do with each other, but then, there are two more books to go, and perhaps King intends to weave them all together. As an action-adventure book, it's maybe not a "ripping yarn"--too many digressions, side stories, ponderous moments, and a strange romantic subplot--but it is a page-turner, if only because King's worlds are so inventive that I just love seeing what he's come up with. Whether it's Calla Bryn Sturgis, 1977-era New York, or a strangely shifted early 80s American collage, he has (as always) a terrific feel for detail, how to paint a picture, how to give you just a few details that are exactly the right degree "off" to make you feel creepy, and how to place his characters within the world perfectly.

He's pretty good with his characters, too. Just because they don't grow doesn't mean they aren't interesting to follow. Roland could easily become boring because of his extreme confidence and competence, but he is open to mistakes. The others have adapted pretty well to their new life, but still raise echoes of the old. And the action and suspense, of course, are very well done. That's King's bread and butter, and even if the pacing suffers from the scope of what he's trying to do, it works anyway. Even the digressions are fun to read.

The part of this book that started to annoy me was King placing his work inside it. To rescue Don Callahan from "'Salem's Lot" and place him in the Calla, fine. I liked his story and the torment he was going through. But in a couple places in New York, King has inserted his own books, and eventually a copy of "'Salem's Lot" turns up, leading the characters to the inevitable and trite "what if we're all just characters in a story" theme. Again, with two books left to go, perhaps King has some new take on it, but it seems to be a completely unnecessary twist to a story already complicated enough that it doesn't need more twists. Besides, it's been done, and better.

In all likelihood, of course, this review is meaningless. If you're a King fan, as I am, you'll read the book regardless of the flaws. All you need to hear is "it's better than "The Tommyknockers"." If you're not a King fan, you're certainly not going to start with a seven-book epic. And if you've enjoyed the Dark Tower series so far, you'd read book V even if I said it was worse than "The Tommyknockers." But it isn't. It's a Super Burrito from El Paso Cafe: a huge portion of good food, well made; you know what you're getting, and it's worth having even if they can't keep out the cilantro, or the hubris.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Review: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro
10/10, a gorgeous memoir/adventure of an English detective in pre-war Britain and Shanghai

Kazuo Ishiguro is fast making his way up my list of favorite writers, and the one he most resembles, I think, is Joseph Conrad. This similarity is most apparent in "When We Were Orphans," an adventure set in the 1930s first in England, then in Shanghai, although in Ishiguro's typical style, the present-day narrative is interspersed with memories from the main character's childhood in Shanghai. The older setting recalls Conrad, as does the pervasive sense of melancholy and the character's battle not only against implacable external forces, but also against himself.

Christopher Banks, the child of British parents in Shanghai's International section, has not always wanted to be a detective, but was driven to that goal by a set of incidents in his childhood. We get the gist of those incidents almost immediately, but the details are doled out slowly and methodically, paced beautifully throughout the story.

Even when Christopher becomes a successful detective, he remains unable to objectively examine his own life. Ishiguro uses the "unreliable narrator" as a common device in many of his books as a way to add depth to the story; here it is the story. Christopher trusts his own perceptions and memories of his life above all else. When a former schoolmate remarks on how they were both loners and outcasts, Christopher assumes he must be mistaken because he, Christopher, doesn't remember being an outcast.

The filtering is so extreme that in many cases it becomes as difficult for the reader to piece together what is really happening as it is for Christopher himself. He perceives that there is great demand for him to help with the international situation, and when a country policeman comments offhandedly that someone should go to where the "heart of the serpent" is, Christopher immediately assumes he means Shanghai. His past, seen through the lens of current troubles, draws him inexorably back there. Once in Shanghai, he undertakes the investigation he has wanted to since childhood, but the war makes every move difficult. He makes progress towards his goal, but as the war tears apart the city, the illusions he's shielded himself from fall away as well.

This is a double mystery, for the reader has to unravel not only why Christopher's past unfolded as it did, but also what actually happened, given only Christopher's memories to serve as guide. The story is engaging and fascinating, the characters wonderful, and the language pure delight to read. Only the denouement disappointed me, and then only slightly, as it seemed to be a little less elegant than "The Remains of the Day" or "Never Let Me Go". I wavered on the numeric rating for this book a couple times, going from 9 to 9.5 and then finally 10, reminding myself that it is not being measured against his other books, but against all books. Maybe 9.9 is correct. In any event, like the worst Joseph Conrad book, it's still better than 99% of what you could pick up in the bookstore.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Plot Peeve

Reading a Stephen King book now, which I may or may not post a review for because it's book V of the Dark Tower series. Anyway, with the disclaimer that I like a lot of his work quite a bit, there is one thing that came up in this book that annoyed me, and I recalled the same device from "Pet Sematary."

This comes about when a character knows something that, if he or she were to communicate it to the other characters, would seriously change the direction of the plot and would better prepare the good guys to battle evil. But of course, it makes for better tension for the character NOT to tell the others. This is the kind of thing where, if you pull it off right, it has great tragic gravitas. One of the best examples is in the film "West Side Story," where after Anita is taunted and bullied by the Jets, she bursts out into the lie that Maria is dead, which leads to Tony's death.

Now, we've got that situation in "Dark Tower V," except that the character who knows the information is a sworn companion to the others, a member of a bond stronger than friendship, and the information he holds is, if not immediately relevant and important, at least strange enough that we as the reader can put it together and say, "Hey... you should mention that, because I bet that's got something to do with what's happening." (Given, we have the advantage of knowing what the author chooses to show, but still.) So how does King work his way around this? The character doesn't tell any of the others because of "a feeling."

This is SO unsatisfying for me as a reader. I mean, come on. Give me more than that. In "Pet Sematary," he wrote himself into a situation where he couldn't reasonably have a character arrive too late to save the main character unless a string of bad luck happened. So of course the bad luck happens and he blames it on this vague villain called the Wendigo, without explaining why it is that if the Wendigo can reach all the way to Portland to knock out someone's car, it's so fixated on getting this one guy in a small town in upstate Maine to bury crap in its field.

So anyway. I know it's hard to make all your characters seem realistic. You want them all to do the right thing, but sometimes it'd work better for the plot and tension if they don't. That's okay. But give them a reason of appropriate proportions. If you're withholding information from your ka-tet (loosely: band of brothers), it better be something really fundamental and terrifying to you.

That's all for now.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Food, Glorious Food

I had a revelation a few months ago: I love food. That doesn't sound too astonishing; I mean, who doesn't? But it was interesting considering I have been making a conscious effort the past couple years to eat less, and eat healthier. Maybe when I was just eating whatever I wanted, I appreciated food less, but I don't think so. I think it's just that food is so plentiful that we don't normally think much about it. I really associate my home here in California with terrific food, and part of that is through the unceasing efforts of my partner to keep us eating high quality stuff at home and in restaurants. It's easy to take for granted when so much of it is so good, and so fresh, that it's only when you go elsewhere and are unpleasantly surprised that you appreciate it.

(And I don't mean to be all arrogant about California, though I have heard friends who moved away complain wistfully about missing the quality and/or breadth of dining choices here. I think any urban area now has pretty good food choices, in general. But still, we are an agricultural and coastal state, so our fruit and fish are going to be a little fresher here than, say, in Kansas City--though our barbecue won't be as good.)

For that reason, I think, it is an often overlooked detail in stories. If you're just trying to get your hero from his hotel in St. Petersburg to the top of Big Ben where he has to meet and dispatch his nemesis, who cares what he ate along the way? You can write a quick note about how he stopped for dinner and then went to bed and not have to make up a whole three-course meal that isn't relevant to the plot.

Well, think of it this way: what would you think if James Bond stopped at a McDonald's for a sandwich on his way to the Atlantis Casino? Just that quick phrase, "stopped at a McDonald's," tells you about the type of food he ate and about the type of character he is. Doesn't it say something if a character goes to a steakhouse and orders a salad? Or if he selects the cheapest wine? Food also brings the reader closer to the narrative--just describing "a succulent steak, cooked just right" is all you need to give the smell, taste, and look of the meal, and if you don't want your readers drooling, you can turn it around and tell them about "the mushy tomatoes and wilted lettuce leaves in the uninspiring salad." Good food and bad food all form a part of the overall atmosphere, and are a nice rounding touch to your scenes. Recall the Narnia series: Turkish delight, the meal the Witch creates out of snow in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"; the apples the children eat when they return in "Prince Caspian" (and the description of bear meat); the toffees in "Magician's Nephew".

So as you're writing your story, don't forget the food. One story to close: For the longest time, after reading early fairy tales and their descriptions of "cunning marzipan sculptures," I thought marzipan must be this amazing sweet treat, because it was always associated with high class, royalty, and elegance. Of course, it was mostly prized for its ability to take color and keep a molded shape; in reality, it's rather almondy and not terribly sweet. I was disappointed, but because of those early stories, there will always be a part of me that reaches out to try it, and for the moment before the taste kicks in, will imagine that I am at a banquet in a castle, among princes and fairy godmothers and magic.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Review: Sister Noon

Sister Noon, by Karen Joy Fowler
8/10: a twisted, semi-magical tale of self-discovery in turn of the century San Francisco

In our fabulist fiction class, we read a story by Karen Joy Fowler titled, "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man," which was not very fabulist but was extremely funny and very well written. On the strength of that story, I picked up "Sister Noon," one of the quartet of Karen Joy Fowler books available online.

I was a little disappointed in that "Sister Noon" lacks the pervasive humor of "Invisible Man." It is, however, a fascinating exploration of the landscape of San Francisco, of the link between race and identity, and of the role of women in the 19th century. Her dark humor still comes through in many passages, fortunately, and the characters are so well drawn that once I got into the story, I didn't miss the humor--much.

"Sister Noon" is the story, mostly, of Lizzie Hayes, an aging spinster who manages the finances for an orphanage. Mammie Pleasant, a servant who is black but used to be white, drops off an orphaned girl whose race is just as malleable as her own, and in whose case Lizzie takes a special interest. Lizzie herself is drifting through life, so the arrival of Jenny and the resulting turmoil is not entirely unwelcome. As a result of Jenny's stay at the orphanage, Lizzie finds herself encountering voodoo magic, migraine headaches, the ghost of her mother, and Mammie Pleasant's history, which reveals the astonishing power a woman--a black woman, at that--can have over the highest echelons of society.

In the process, we discover with Lizzie a meticulously rendered San Francisco, from the houses and carriages to the shine of a gentleman's coat and the blooms of certain flowers. It occurs to me that, at least in this effort, "Sister Noon" reads as though it were written by a female Tim Powers, and you know what I think of his work. The magical elements in her world lack the coherence and breadth of his, but the feel is very similar, that these elements are a part of our world, available to anyone who knows how to contact them.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and liked the resolution, but the narrative was rather episodic and a little scattered. It took a good deal of thought to assemble the description of the plot for this review, and even so I dare say you're still not sure what the book is about. The best I can do is to say that it's about Lizzie's search for her own identity through her interest in Jenny, but the primary pleasure of the story is learning about the history of San Francisco and the backstory that Fowler weaves effortlessly into it. And of course, there are numerous passages like the one I excerpted that just make you laugh.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Review: Other People's Worlds

Other People's Worlds, by William Trevor
9/10, a lovely, sad story of several unfortunate people brought together by another unfortunate.

William Trevor specializes in writing Irish stories, which are not only stories that take place in Ireland, but stories in which sad things happen to good people in beautiful, lyrical ways. His books (the two I've read) stand out in that they chronicle events that would be fairly dramatic, if summarized, but they happen in the least dramatic way possible. There is no lingering over the moment when the earth-shattering telegram arrives, no attention paid to the flood of emotions in the wake of betrayal. He chronicles lives rather than events, seeking to show how each of the things that happen to a person make up that person's character. The Story of Lucy Gault (previously reviewed) focused on the lives of Lucy and her parents; in Other People's Worlds, he spreads a wider net.

Julia is the nominal heroine of the story, excited over her engagement to Francis, a young actor she recently met. Trevor switches points of view throughout the book, and immediately after we experience Julia's happiness, we see from Francis's point of view that he's happy as well, but for a different reason. It isn't as simple as a scheme to steal Julia's land or money; he really is happy to be with her, but he's happier to be playing the role of the groom. As the story progresses, we are introduced to Doris, a previous girlfriend of Francis, and her (and his) daughter, ironically named Joy.

The unfolding of the wedding, the honeymoon, and, in larger part, the aftermath, form an intricate braid of characters. Julia, Francis, and Doris find their lives intertwined, with Doris's mental health particularly suffering, and it is Julia's quiet acceptance of her fate and attempt to understand and help others that carries us through the book. Although Francis does terrible things, Trevor makes him nearly a sympathetic character, so that by the end of the book, you're left with the overwhelming sense of feeling sorry for everyone involved, and admiring the steady Julia for making the best of a bad situation.

Trevor writes characters and settings beautifully, and even though the book is fairly languidly paced, there's never a drop in interest. You can see where most of the events are going, but he sneaks a few surprises up on you in the way P.G. Wodehouse can do (though to tragic rather than comic effect), or Kazuo Ishiguro. Above all, this is a book about people, and if you like meeting flawed, sad people, do not miss this book.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

An excerpt

I'm currently reading Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler, another author from my Fabulist Class. Full review eventually, but I wanted to share this excerpt as well, about a girl growing up in the late 1800s:

"As a child she'd been passive and biddable. [...] But just beneath this tractable surface lay romance and rebellion. She loved to read, engaging books with such intensity that her parents had allowed only the dullest of them, and then curtailed the time she spent with those. Her mother was quick to spot the symptoms of overstimulation, and Lizzie had spent many hours lying in bed, sentenced to absolute inactivity until she could be calm again.
"It was an ill-conceived punishment. With everything but her imagination forbidden to her, Lizzie's reveries grew ever more fevered. She could lie without moving for hours in the semblance of obedience, and all the while an unacceptable cascade of pirates, prophets, and Indians pounded through her mind."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Review: A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby
8/10, a darkly humorous (laugh out loud at times) novel with four main characters and an unsatisfying ending

If there's one thing Nick Hornby does well, it's characters. I can't remember the name of the record store clerk in High Fidelity, but I can't forget his penchant for making lists, nor his hiding in shame in a neighbor's flower bed for most of an afternoon. Marcus from About A Boy (whose name I only remember because of the wonderful movie) and his intelligence and inability to fit in are as memorable as Will's self-enforced isolation from the same book. Even Fever Pitch features the narrator himself as a character charting his own fortunes with those of his favorite team, Arsenal.

A Long Way Down is no exception. Hornby branches out to four characters this time, all so well drawn that he might have entirely omitted all the dialogue attributions. The interplay and dialogue is terrific between Martin, a fallen former TV personality; Maureen, a despondent housewife; Jess, a precocious and outspoken teen; and J.J., an American ex-musician. They all meet on the roof of a notorious suicide spot on New Year's Eve, having gone there with the intention of enhancing its reputation. Through an amusing series of events, they talk each other out of their suicide attempts, but if you were expecting that they would show each other the value of their lives immediately and renounce the thought of suicide, you don't know Nick Hornby. They are only postponing their suicides, because the moment has clearly passed.

The thing is, that little secret bonds the group together despite their wishes to fade to their respective blacks. Jess is the energy in the group, but Maureen is really its focus, and they are such different people that their interactions remain fun and real throughout the book.

The problem with the ending is that Hornby sets up the characters to say that they aren't going to make any big changes in their lives. This sort of paints him into a corner. By the end of the book, the characters have changed frustratingly little, and even a cute metaphor with the London Eye (which you almost have to have seen to appreciate) can't save you from the feeling that there's more to the story--or that there should be. In all the books I mentioned above, the characters change and grow in believable ways over the course of the book. Here, I think the setup almost doomed him: you want to feel by the end of the book that none of them will contemplate suicide again. But if he were to present that, it would invalidate the premise by implying that their original reasons for committing suicide weren't substantial. Hornby being the talented writer that he is, he does as well with that premise as one could hope, and while I loved the journey, I wanted more from the ending.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rolling downhill

A problem I tend to run into while writing is that when I get near the end of a story and I know I'm near the end, I "hurry up" the scenes to get to the ending. That finish line is a great motivator--perhaps too great, actually. People have actually remarked that the ends of some of my longer stories seem to take place fairly quickly, and when I go back and edit now, it's something I look for.

A corollary to that is a little enjoyment I get out of books when I'm not completely absorbed in the story. It's fun to imagine the author writing the story, wandering about enjoying the landscape in the beginning, getting excited as the plot picks up the pace, and relaxing as everything winds down. That kind of thing comes through in your writing, which is why I always tell people that if they're not enthusiastic about what they're writing, if they're just writing to get to the scene that interests them, skip it. Go right to the fun parts. Your enjoyment--more generally, your attitude--communicates itself to your reader.

I'm trying a tactic with a story I'm working on now where I'm sending updates to the person who provided the idea, and trying to make sure that each update ends with a "what will happen now??" moment. Not necessarily a cliffhanger, but something that catches the imagination. This is a trick from film and is stolen from the screenwriting class I'm taking now, but it applies to stories too, I think. Good practice for keeping the reader interested in your story as it goes along.

Chapter 2 of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" ends with the sentence, "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" I remember reading somewhere that "the title of Chapter 3 may be the least-read chapter title in literature."

I like that notion.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Review: Willful Creatures

Review: Willful Creatures: stories, by Aimee Bender
8/10, An enjoyable and well-crafted collection of fabulist stories

Aimme Bender gains the dubious distinction of being the first author to be reviewed twice in this blog. I very much enjoyed An Invisible Sign Of My Own, and when I had the chance to pick up this collection of her stories, signed, I grabbed it. I'd already read "The Leading Man" and "Deathwatch" in our fabulist workshop, stories about a boy born with keys for fingers and ten men told they have two weeks to live, and their different reactions to it. Among the other memorable stories in "Willful Creatures" are a story about a man who buys a little man as a pet, two girls whose friendship dies in a record shop, a writer told by God to stop writing, and a mysterious double murder illuminated by a set of salt and pepper shakers.

Bender's stories move fluidly and enjoyably through their own realities, somewhat askew from the one we're all familiar with. The boy with keys for fingers searches for the doors his fingers unlocks. The little man bought as a pet belongs to a whole world of little people that begins to fascinate his owner. The worlds are more or less fabulist, depending on the story; sometimes Bender is content just to play with language, and she's good at that, too.

The stories are a pleasure to read, if only for the language, but Bender's imagination makes them a delight to experience as well. Sometimes the allusions are clear, as in "Jinx," the story about the two girls in the record shop. Sometimes it seems like she is just letting her imagination roam free. Either way, it's a beautiful, strange book that I was sad to get to the end of.

Friday, October 20, 2006

F*** off, sunshine!

Garrison Keillor has been writing some interestingly political articles for Salon. His latest one (membership or reg may be required) is no different, a pleasant tour through the hospitality of the South covering a barb about the character of Southern politicians.

What's interesting about the column is the letters accompanying it. They contrast the cultures of the South, New York, and the upper midwest (Keillor is from Minnesota); if I were to summarize them with a word apiece (a useful writing exercise), they would be, respectively, warm, cynical, and polite. There are proponents of each culture: people claim that the warmth of the South is genuine, that the cynicism of New Yorkers is refreshingly honest, that the polite but distanced courtesy of the midwest allows people to get along while affording them their personal space. You read one letter in which the writer gushes about the virtues of living in a Southern state where the neighbors care about you and ask after your family; the next writer talks about how "creepy" it was to move to a Southern state and have everyone in her business, asking how long she was staying, where she was from, what her husband did, and so on.

When inventing a culture, or writing about a culture, we tend to build cultures that mimic what we're used to, or differ from them in striking ways. Dean Koontz's crowded southern California differs from Stephen King's small town/rural Maine: Koontz's stories take place over sprawling urban landscapes crowded with people (with exceptions like "Phantoms," where the small-town character of the ski resort is necessary for the story), while King's stories by and large feel very familial--everyone knows everyone. Neither writer draws undue attention to his setting, but the setting and the culture it contains are critical parts of the story.

Think about the world your characters inhabit. Did they grow up there? If not, how have they adapted? What's different about where they live now? I had dinner last night with a Ukranian woman who said that in the new Ukraine, many people wish for the communists to come back because under the new government, there is less structure and the culture is too mercenary. Not many Americans would imagine people might wish for the return of communism, would they? And yet, there they are.

Where are your characters?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Review: Collapse

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
9/10, gripping social histories and not entirely pessimistic modern relevance

I am way behind on reviews, and waffled over whether to write a review of this book at all. After all, it isn't fiction; what relevance does it have to a writing journal? Its main message is: Stop screwing up the environment if you don't want to end up a puzzle to archaeologists in a thousand years.

That said, Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" was not only a great history of how societies become established and spread; it was also a useful tool for world-building. Climate dictates the spread of societies on an east-west flow rather than north-south (because you can cultivate the same crops at roughly the same latitudes), so civilizations in the east-west Eurasian landmass spread and grew, where the north-south orientation of the Americas slowed the growth of the societies that began there. Interesting stuff to know when you're making up your own world and civilizations.

"Collapse" is similarly helpful. Given the establishment of a civlization, "Collapse" examines the stresses it can fall victim to, and the various responses that affect its survival. With few exceptions, the pattern seems to be: establish a population that is at the limit of what the land's resources can provide, then get in serious trouble when the limit drops. That drop can happen as a result of climate (decade-long droughts did in the Anasazi and the Mayans) or as a result of transplanted people not understanding the land properly (in Greenland and on Easter Island, overplanting and overharvesting of trees made it impossible for people to survive). There are other factors--many of the societies that collapsed were isolated , but some were not, and Diamond provides a couple instructive examples of isolated societies that survived (Iceland, Papua New Guinea, Japan). Diamond points out that the intertwined effects of globalization in the current century are to eliminate isolated societies by connecting everyone, and to make of this Earth a single society that is more isolated than even tiny Easter Island or remote Greenland.

If you're building a world, "Collapse" will get you thinking about resource allocation, societal attitudes and traditions, and the tricks a world can play on its people over the course of centuries. Even if you're not, it's worth reading for its sober assessment of our current civilization and the reasons for despair, and for hope.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

That ol' draft magic

First drafts are always tricky. Well, so are second and final drafts, but in different ways. In a first draft, you're still discovering what the story is. It's not uncommon for me to go back to the beginning of a first draft and think, "what the heck was I writing about there?" and ax a bunch of stuff. It's also not uncommon for me to get stalled as the story just eddies about aimlessly. What I always have to keep reminding myself is to keep the boring parts as short as possible (preferably eliminating them altogether) and to wait for that part that reminds me why I started writing the story in the first place. It's so nice to get back there, it's like coming home after an exhausting day at work.

I'm certain that there will be a lot of things that get refined, rewritten, or streamlined in the second draft of this story, but the scene I'm in now likely isn't one of them. It's flowing well and it's got me engaged in the story again. Good times. (Well, except for outside, where it's the second day of the rainy season. But that means it's nicer to curl up inside with the laptop and get some story done.)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
10/10, a delicate, poignant story in a well-crafted modern alternate reality

From the first paragraph, in which Ishiguro's heroine identifies herself as a "carer," it's clear that we're in a slightly different world. That is the first and one of the best examples of Ishiguro's lovely language telling you many things in one. There is indeed in this world an occupation called "carer," distinct from "caretaker," but in addition, our heroine Kathy is a carer in life.

She introduces us slowly to the basics of her profession without anything that feels like needless exposition. Ishiguro reveals his world at just the right pace, allowing us to discover what Kathy already knows, so that by the time she dives more deeply into reminiscing about her childhood at school with her friends Ruth and Tommy, we have a context into which to place these memories. School brings up more questions: the children are educated in Hailsham, an isolated boarding school with some secrets that they are as ignorant of as we are. Kathy, from her adult perspective, lets us know that the secrets will be resolved with lines like, "Of course, if we had known then," and narrates her past with an affectionate melancholy, whose cause becomes clear as we read.

The dynamic between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy forms the core of the book, carrying the book from the point at which we know what the secrets of Hailsham are. They are never exposed in a dramatic reveal, but after a certain point it is just assumed that you understand, just as Kathy says the children figured it out, but never talked about it. It's just not as important as the relationships developing between the three of them. The synergy between the world and the characters kept me engaged, turning pages all the way up to the end.

The narrative voice, though subtle, is one of the strengths of Ishiguro's work, and here it is beautiful, artfully rendered. I picked up my copy of "The Remains of the Day" (another brilliant book) to compare, and was amazed at how, upon opening to a random section, I was immediately immersed in the voice of the butler. It was really only that contrast that made me go back and think about how perfect the voice in "Never Let Me Go" is done. Kathy really is a carer, explaining at every turn how she felt and how she supposes other people feel, in an authentic and entirely sympathetic way. She is the perfect character to carry the story and message through the book.

Lovely language, a touching story, and characters so real you feel like you used to know them, once upon a time. What more could you ask from a book? If you are unfamiliar with Ishiguro's work, you are doing yourself a disservice. Remedy that immediately.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Review: Assassination Vacation

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell
8/10, a funny, educational tour through the tragic history of the country's most dangerous job

Sarah Vowell is probably best known at this point for her work as Violet Parr in the Pixar movie "The Incredibles." Before that, and since, she has been featured on NPR ("This American Life") and has written several books. "Assassination Vacation" is the first thing I've read of hers, but I was immediately enamored of her wry manner, which is not quite self-deprecating, but more unabashedly self-revealing. Like David Foster Wallace, her quirks and foibles take center stage from the first anecdote, in which she regales an older tourist couple from Connecticut with her gushing review of the musical play "Assassins," about the three men who killed the President of the United States in 1863, 1881, and 1901.

These three men form the core of her book, in conjunction with the men they killed. She says that the hubris required to kill a President is almost as much as is required to actually run for the office, which links the men together. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's son, is the other link between the three assassinations, having been present at all three. That and other fascinating facts, like the existence of a free love colony in upstate New York in the late 1800s, make this book a quick, engaging read, and Vowell's voice is an entertaining companion throughout, though I admit I didn't really imagine Violet reading it aloud until I listened to a sample of the audio book.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Describe what you see

In our workshop this past week, we read a story in which the characters were anthropomorphic, but apart from the lines in the story where the species were specifically noted, we didn't feel that the anthropomorphic nature of the characters came through in the description. This likely leads to the "humans in animal suits" criticism leveled at some furry fiction.

As an exercise, we tried a technique stolen from a previous workshop: writing a piece or description without using the verb "to be," so you can't just say, "Martin was a fox." You have to describe the character in action, letting his or her characteristics come through in activity rather than in passive description. Overall it was a success; the trick is to remember that through your writing. Sometimes, I know, I focus more on the characters and let the descriptions lapse, but on an editing pass through, you should definitely be aware of the unique way each character acts and moves. For me, that's part of playing the story as a movie in my head, so I watch them and then write down what I see. I don't know whether that technique will work for you, but give it a shot!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Review: The Story of Lucy Gault

The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor
9/10, a beautifully told story of a girl's life in Ireland

I was introduced to William Trevor in my first fiction workshop, with a short story "Death in Jerusalem," about an Irish priest who travels to the Holy Land with his brother. In that story, the brother is reluctant to leave his ailing mother, as he's her only companion; the priest is more carefree and pushes him to come along.

"The Story of Lucy Gault" has the same rich sense of character and place, set in a small village in the hills of Ireland where the Gaults have lived for years. Their time has been peaceful, if not prosperous; Trevor recounts a stretch over which a good portion of their fields were lost to neighbors in "a series of disastrous card games." This sounds like an amusing throwaway detail, but it is more than that. The history of the Gaults, and of Lucy, is shaped by tragicomic events like this one, and Trevor has a magnificent, gentle touch in his rendering of the characters who grow from that history.

The events of the book are set in motion when the Gaults' home is attacked by local youths, because the captain served in the British army and took a British wife. This was just before the Irish Civil war, when tensions were high. A number of other families have already left Ireland, but the Gaults stubbornly remain--until their daughter, Lucy, wanders into the surf and is drowned. Grief-stricken, they leave for England but decide to wander Europe, leaving no forwarding address.

Lucy, however, did not wander into the ocean but the woods, where she broke her ankle and nearly starved to death before being found, a day after her parents left. The two servants left behind to tend the estate bring her back and raise her in her family home, while various parties attempt in vain to contact her parents. Lucy grows up with a sense of guilt at the pain she's caused them with her foolishness, in desperate need of forgiveness. How she attains it, and what she does with it, are at the core of this lovely, sad book.

Trevor's writing is beautiful and gentle, evocative of the beauty and poverty of Ireland and the people who inhabit it. His vivid descriptions and just slightly larger than life events and personalities make the book a pleasure to read; while you ache for Lucy, you can't help but envy her life, as she makes the best of her predicament. Subtly, Trevor takes us through the ages and the changes in Ireland, which have little effect on Lucy herself, but serve as backdrop to the constant life she crafts for herself.

Friday, September 01, 2006

More "fuzzy" words...

...and not in a good way.


I found my copy of "The Ten Percent Solution," which goes (in my thinking) a bit overboard in its pursuit of fuzzy words, but which is a useful guide, and reminded me of the above. My thoughts on the above words:

VERY. I'm proud of the fact that I didn't use this one too much in the manuscript. I check for it while writing now, because I'm aware of it. I leave it in when people are speaking, because it's more a spoken modifier than a written one--we want to convey an amplification of something in speech. In writing, there's almost always a better way to do it, unless there's a rhythm you're going for. For example, "Something was very, very wrong" doesn't have the same ring as, "Something was wrong." But you could say, "Something was drastically wrong."

ALMOST. I use this one a lot. Almost too much. Here's an example: "a faint scent that disappeared almost as soon as she noticed it." That's a colloquialism; wouldn't it be better as, "a faint scent that disappeared as soon as she noticed it"? What does "almost" do there except take up space?

ABOUT. This isn't in the sense of "I asked her about the movie," but in the sense of, "it was about three feet long." Other ones like this I use a lot: "a few," "a couple," "some."

The joys of editing! These little things don't make a huge difference in the individual cases, but I do think the overall cumulative effect makes your prose sharper and easier to read.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Common and Precious cover

Heather's finished the cover (she works fast!) and it's gorgeous. Take a look over here and leave her a nice comment! I will be getting the layouts ready for the review copies this weekend, hoping to have them done by mid-month so we can ship copies to get reviews in prior to the January release. The text still needs minor tweaks and proofing, but it's in pretty good shape overall. I'm happy with it, anyway.

It's a great feeling to see a project come together like this. I'm excited!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Review: Pacific Edge

Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson
7/10, a well-written future California story that's lacking a spark

In college, I took a class in science fiction during which we read "The Wild Shore." I found it difficult to start but it became one of my favorite books, a coming-of-age story in a post-apocalyptic Orange County with a strong central character. In "Pacific Edge," the third in the "Three Californias" triptych (not a trilogy as the books are not sequential) of which "The Wild Shore" is the first, the setting is just as engaging, but the strong central character is missing.

For sheer imagination and descriptive skill, it's hard to beat Robinson. I read "The Wild Shore" before setting foot in Orange County; I read "Pacific Edge" after having lived near there for three years. It didn't matter. The settings are brought to life, from expansive vistas down to the smell and feel of the ground on a particular hill. Where "The Wild Shore" depicted a post-apocalyptic California, "Pacific Edge" depicts a utopian society, where the balance of man and environment is strictly enforced. As in "The Wild Shore," the details of the society are introduced naturally: people live (mostly) in large family houses and child care is communal; everyone has an assigned set of families somewhere else in the world that they connect with once a month; individual wealth is capped, as is corporate wealth. In flashbacks, we see how this radical change came about. In the story itself, we see that there will always be people trying to circumvent them.

That conflict, though billed as the central point of the story, seems of little interest to the characters. Most of them are concerned with more personal issues of relationships, and maybe that's Robinson's point, that in a utopia our concerns become very small, focused on one or two people instead of on wars in the Middle East, terrorism, corporate wealth, and so on. But it saps energy from the plot when nobody can get very worked up about it, and the main characters are more interested in who's hooking up with whom than in stopping the mild expansion of corporate interest in their town. To further de-energize the plot, Robinson allows the main "villain" to explain his plan in a fairly reasonable way.

The characters are all very interesting, but none of them really has a strong character arc. Robinson switches points of view several times per chapter, and though it's enjoyable, ultimately I was left wanting more from them.

I haven't read the middle book in the triptych, "The Gold Coast," though it's supposed to be more on a par with "The Wild Shore." Linking the three books is the character of Tom Barnard, storyteller in "The Wild Shore," idealistic lawyer-turned-hermit in "Pacific Edge." Someone in one of the Amazon reviews posited that he embodies the change in the societies through the three books, which is an interesting thought. Certainly in "Pacific Edge" he is very focused on his own problems and needs to be drawn out to care about the rest of the world. As I said above, maybe this is ultimately Robinson's point, that utopia can be dangerous in that it makes it us more inwardly focused and less vigilant, more centered on our private worlds, more trusting that the outside world will be just fine. But the ending does nothing to drive home that point.

Robinson's books are always a good read, and this one is no exception. Unlike his other works I'm familiar with, though, this one left me unsatisfied. It's still a fun read, and worthwhile if only for his concepts of how a utopia might be brought about and the philosophical question of the nature of utopia and "pocket utopia," as well as his lovely descriptions of the people and landscapes of southern California. Just don't expect too much from it.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Apologies...and minor news

I switched to the new Blogger beta today and in changing the RSS feed location, it appears to have flooded the LJ syndicated feed with a recap of a bunch of old entries. Sorry to anyone whose friends list is swamped with my chatterings...

In other news (so this isn't a completely off-topic post), I now have seen sketches for the cover and interior illos for "Common and Precious" and I'm very excited. Sara Palmer is doing her usual excellent job on the interiors (she's illustrated a couple other books for Sofawolf), and Heather Bruton just delivered a lovely sketch for the cover. I'm hoping to get some review copies printed to go out to a few places this fall while final proofing happens, and having the cover done would be a definite plus for that. I'll post the final cover here when it's done.

This is one of the really exciting parts of being a writer--seeing talented artists take your work and create beautiful images. Seeing how the emotions and characters built up through your words translate to characters and expressions in images is something I never get tired of, and I'm deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to work with talented artists like Heather and Sara.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Satire is not dead

I didn't realize this book was out until a friend pointed me to the Quill Awards, for which it's been nominated in the "humor" category. If you're not familiar with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you've been missing out--it's an "alternative" creation theory to Intelligent Design that requires its adherents to dress in full pirate regalia, among other things. The creation of an "out of work physics major," it's really taken off as an outlet for people's frustration with the whole ID movement.

Proof, again, that with the web, you just need a good idea and a presence online. People will notice. You'll get a book deal. These things really do happen. Now if someone could satirize Ann Coulter...oh, wait, she's already doing that herself.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Going Clubbing

In an essay by John Clute in Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, he talks about "Heart of Darkness" and the great stories of the 1890's (Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan," Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and Wells's "The Time Machine"). All of the stories, he notes, are Club Stories; that is, stories that are wrapped in a retelling within the narrative, as of (literally, in some cases) the narrator telling the story at a gentleman's club to his friends. He notes that it's curious that the stories created around that time are all presented in such a way as to require a witness to the tale. In other words, the reader is not just presented with the story; the reader is also presented with the reaction to the story of the narrator's contemporaries. He theorizes that this is due to the nature of the stories and the times they lived in, and I won't go into that here. I just like the term "Club Story."

These days, the Club Story has fallen somewhat out of favor. Ned and I have had discussions about why that is (in the larger context of why stories that remind you that you're reading a story are out of favor). I like the genre, myself, partly because I think I'm fascinated by the layers in it. Not only do you have the story itself, and then the narrator's reaction to the story, and the audience within the book's reaction to the story, but then you as the reader can respond to the story itself or to the audience's reaction. And I think there's an additional element of reassurance that it's going to be a good story. otherwise the narrator wouldn't be wasting his time telling his mates about it, would he?

I suppose "The Life of Pi" would qualify as a Club Story, and a successful one. So the genre isn't totally dead. But there's something really cool about starting a story out with a fellow clapping his hands together and saying, "All right, chaps, listen to this one."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

It seemed like a good idea...

An example of the type of writing mentioned in the previous post:

"Jason seemed to understand the significance of what he’d said, because his ears were down too, and his eyes lowered as he handed over the bag."

"Seemed" just muddies the waters there. Better is:

"Jason understood the significance of what he’d said; his ears were down too, and his eyes lowered as he handed over the bag."

One reason "seem" is a good word to search for is that it is often used to tell the reader what someone is feeling rather than showing it. Even better:

"Silence followed Jason's words. His ears were down and his eyes lowered as he handed over the bag."

It's pretty clear from that narrative that Jason understands the significance of his words, unless the words were cryptic. It works a lot better if you just let the narrative show the reader that rather than explaining everything out.

Another word I forgot to mention looking for is "sudden." I use it too much myself (I found one sentence where I'd written "The air seemed suddenly to be..."). Again, let things happen suddenly in the narrative. Don't tell the reader they happened suddenly.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Don't think--do!

My first drafts contain a lot of wishy-washy sentences like this: "Jura seemed to shrink back into his chair." When writing, I (and many other people, apparently) equivocate a lot. "It looked like something might be going on behind the wall." This fluffy writing doesn't stick out, but it creates an overall impression of fuzziness; you're obscuring the action. Better: "Jura shrank back into his chair." "Something was going on behind the wall."

Do a search through your manuscript for "seem," "might," and "thought." Do they really need to be there? Everything in editing is about making the manuscript better at conveying the ideas behind the words. Don't obscure them with wishy-washy words.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Review: The Other Nineteenth Century

"The Other Nineteenth Century," by Avram Davidson
7/10: Inconsistent collection of alternate histories and other stories by a great writer.

As a kid, some twenty-odd years ago, I was given an anthology (which I still have) called "A Treasury of Modern Fantasy." That may still be the single best collection of fantasy stories I've ever encountered(*). It was my introduction to H.P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, Fredric Brown, James Blish, Theodore Sturgeon--and, as it turned out, Avram Davidson.

I recently compared Ted Chiang to Avram Davidson, a comparison that arose partly because I had this book on my stack to read. When I found 1998's award-winning Avram Davidson Treasury, I devoured it, reveling in his brilliant imagination and wit. His style is so distinct that it was only after reading some of the stories that I thought, this resembles that story about the camera in my Treasury of Modern Fantasy. And voila--same author.

I found this book on a bargain stack last year and snatched it up, only now getting around to reading it. Davidson lived in the heart of the 20th century (he died in 1992) but had a fascination with history. The stories don't stick religiously to the 19th century; in fact, the first one is an alternate take on the American Revolution. Neither are all of them concerned with events of such a scope as to be noted in History. What they do share is that distinctive imagination and style, which feels very Victorian in and of itself, so the time period is a good match.

The first half of the book is generally up to the level of the 1998 collection. As the stories go on, they become less crisp and tend to feel more like second drafts that could have stood a bit of editing here and there. His wonderful descriptions still pop out from a paragraph here and there, but the stories are looser and less compelling. The last two are longer tales, one complete and one collected from fragments and stitched together with interstitial pieces by Michael Swanwick, who raves about how brilliant it is. The complete story was interesting, but should have been much shorter than it was. And the incomplete story had some nice images and ideas, but didn't live up to the breathless excitement Swanwick displayed in writing about it. I found it more interesting to read his interpolations and extrapolations than to read the actual fragments.

If you're interested in reading Avram Davidson, go get the 1998 collection. It's brilliant. If you've already read the 1998 collection and are hungry for more, this book will satisfy your appetite for a while, but it is clearly the second-best collection of his work.

(*) In going back to that listing to recall the authors, I noted one story by Joanna Russ, whom I just read about this morning in an article on James Tiptree, Jr. and wouldn't have recognized otherwise--this collection is the kind of book I keep going back to and finding more things about it to like. I linked to the Amazon listing because the one reviewer listed all the stories; you may be better off going to (look for the Avon 1981 paperback edition).

Monday, August 07, 2006

Second Drafting

The second draft of "Common & Precious" is structurally done, by which I mean all the pieces are in place. I tried to review it yesterday and am still too close to be able to tell whether it works or not. I do think it's better, at least, and I'll spend this week doing some polishing to individual characters and storylines to improve them as well. Goal is to have the second draft done done done by Sunday evening.

It's tiring work, really it is. But extremely rewarding as well.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Review: New Coyote

"New Coyote," by Michael Bergey
6/10 - A fun-filled half-mythical romp with some technical and story issues

I love mythology and I love animal stories, especially in the Canidae family, so "New Coyote" sits squarely in my sweet spot, as it were. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the Native American mythology parts, but was left somewhat dissatisfied at the end of it. Partly, I'm sure that's due to my recent workshops and laser-like focus on editing, which has rendered me unable to look at even a simple billboard without thinking, "Surely they mean 'fewer' rather than 'less'?" Sometimes even when those words aren't present on the billboard. Yes, yes, I'm like that most of the time anyway, but it's been worse lately.

"New Coyote" is a lot of fun to read. The main character has a great mischievous nature befitting his name--he is an actual coyote, living on a sort of commune in Washington (state), enhanced somehow (how becomes clear over the course of the story) to be able to talk and think as humans do. The book is his journey (part one of three, apparently) to discover his true nature and purpose, along which travels he meets many mysterious beings and has a number of adventures and misadventures.

Some of the other characters are well done, too: Mouse, a blind girl who befriends Coyote, has a touching story and is heartfelt and complex. John, who knows about Coyote's past; Mr. Burrey, a teacher with a secret; Fox, Coyote's spirit-brother; Ciceqi, one of Coyote's spirit guides: all these supporting characters are simpler, but effective in their use. My biggest gripes character-wise were with Mooney, Coyote's owner and best friend, who seems reduced to a simple "mom" stereotype and drifts in and out of the narrative after being set up early on to be important, and with the host of supporting characters who get just enough introduction to be interesting without enough face time to be developed. I've talked in this space about the ability to trim down characters in a story: there's a balance to be struck between having not enough characters to tell your story and having so many that some of them drift around without any purpose. A couple times, I had to flip back to remember who some character or another was.

I loved Bergey's descriptions of the Pacific Northwest. Clearly he's familiar with the area, as the lush forests and landscapes are brought vividly to life. The weather is so alive it might almost be another character in the novel: hail, snow, rain, wind, and the clear sunny days are all a beautiful backdrop to the story. I could close my eyes and see and feel the chill and damp after reading about them.

The story is told episodically: Coyote starts off alone in a house with Mooney, as the two of them worry about the government trying to take her land away. We get a nice little adventure that shows off Coyote's abilities and personality, and then abruptly get swept into another little narrative that takes him away from Mooney. This may be intended to mimic the episodic nature of the Native American folk myths of Coyote: How Coyote Foiled The DEA; How Coyote Went To School; How Coyote Accidentally Summoned A Crazy-Ass Demon, etc. For me, though, I was expecting more of a novel format, and though I enjoyed each individual adventure, the abrupt transitions left me somewhat disoriented on occasion. Within each story, the pacing is pretty good. The story never stalls, always keeps moving at a good pace, and kept me turning the pages to see what happened next. That's not an easy thing to pull off, and Bergey does it throughout the book.

Of more concern to me, story-wise, are two big issues. First, although Coyote is a great character, he's very passive throughout the book. He mostly gets dragged from one event to another, and even though he often escapes the adventures using his wits, he rarely makes any decision determining the course of his life. This may be something Bergey is building up to in his three-part series, but it left something lacking for me in this book. Second, the book's ending (minor spoiler) felt a little too happy to me. There was genuine tension at some points in the middle of the book, when Coyote meets Fox, but by the end of the book, everything seems to have worked out for the best and nobody's had to make any sacrifices to get what they want. I'm all for that, and sometimes things do work out that way, but when characters get to the ending of their story and achieve their goal, their story has more resonance if they had to give up something to make it there, even if it's something symbolic like your unqualified love for your father ("A Wrinkle In Time") or the reverse ("Field of Dreams").

Overall, I found this a good read. The issues I mentioned above didn't keep me from enjoying Bergey's imagination and sense of fun. He has a lively story and a great main character, and that's enough to recommend this book.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

"Stories of Your Life and Others," by Ted Chiang
8/10 -- a collection of great idea-based SF stories

Ted Chiang sounds like a character in a story himself. "The best SF writer you've never heard of," he's called (by me, if nobody else), having published only eight stories in the last fifteen years or so. Of course, from those stories he's won the Nebula (three times), Hugo, Sturgeon, Asimov, and Campbell awards. Seven of the stories are collected here, in a collection that is absolutely worth the money.

I tend to like character-based fiction these days, as I've mentioned before, but this collection reminds me why I started reading SF. Chiang reminds me of Avram Davidson or David Brin in the clear, pure originality of his ideas and the skill with which he constructs a story around them. Here is a story about the Tower of Babel and what they found at the top; here a story about golems in the Industrial Revolution; here a short piece about the evolution of scientists; here (one of the two most character-centric pieces) a story about what a scientist's work means to her and her husband. Chiang combines the sciences of mathematics and language with a keen sense of history and religion to produce some truly original stories.

My favorite is "Story of Your Life," in which a linguist communicating with aliens slowly learns their language and gains new insights into not just their behavior, but the world in general. It's one of those great stories with a slow reveal and that feeling that you're building toward something, and a terrific "a-ha!" when you figure it out. It's the best character portrait in the book, and the most successful at melding scientific theory with the protagonist's development as a character.

Chiang attempts that elsewhere with less successful results: the mathematical "Division By Zero" and the religious-historical "Tower of Babel" both felt like they were missing some dimension. "Understand," on the other hand, is a great contrast in characters in a "Flowers For Algernon"-like narrative.

If you like the science fiction of ideas, you should not be without this book.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
8/10, great social insight and humor, occasionally too thick or esoteric to follow

If Dave Barry had gone to Princeton rather than Haverford, he might have become David Foster Wallace. Not that it's a bad thing that either of them followed the path he did; both of them bring great insights to their work, and both of them show a tremendous versatility in the subject material they're willing to cover. Barry has toured New York and gone Extreme Sporting; Wallace, in this volume, visits the Illinois State Fair and takes a Princess Caribbean Cruise. Barry monitors tabloids for exploding cow stories and their relevance to society, while Wallace investigates the relationship of TV to modern literature. Both of them, oddly, share a moderate obsession with toilets.

Wallace's articles tend to be less accessible than Barry's, perhaps the reason I'd only peripherally heard of him. He seems to be part of the McSweeney's crew, the sort of intellectual satire I associate with New York writers, and while Wallace does live up to that stereotype, he also demonstrates a vivid awareness of his own faults and limitations. In visiting the Illinois State Fair, in one of my favorite passages, he finds a booth selling t-shirts bearing statements like, "I GO FROM 0 TO HORNEY IN 2.5 BEERS," and after a page of analysis about what these shirts signify to the people here and what the shirts as a whole say about them as a class of people, he comes back around: "The woman at the booth wants to know why I'm standing there memorizing t-shirts, and all I can think to tell her is that "HORNEY" is misspelled, and now I really feel like an East Coast snob..."

His insights into the game of tennis are fascinating and fun to read, and the titular essay, the one about the cruise, is brilliant and hysterical. Where he loses my interest is in his academic essays, like the aforementioned one on TV, and another explaining and critiquing an ongoing debate about the role of the author in book criticism. The latter is bearably short; the former lost me several times. Even those essays are worth reading for the ideas, but Wallace is at his best when he is wryly commenting not just on tennis, or the Midwest, or a cruise, but also on his own place in his subject. It's that endearing self-awareness that brings him back from the edge of being annoyingly smug and superior: he'll tell you how silly people are for falling for some marketing ploy, for example, and then frankly admit that he falls for it all the time too. That allows the reader to identify with him, which works well for me, because he's so smart in his writing that identifying with his flaws makes me feel smarter.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Perfect! Let's do it one more time...

So I have been editing the novel lately. This is a particularly painful process, but a necessary one, and one in which I try to find scraps of joy, much as someone in my office apparently digs for the Cinnamon 'n' Spice oatmeal flavor in the big box we get from CostCo every month and hoards them from the rest of us. The problem with editing is that either you're editing someone else's work, in which case you always have in the back of your head that this is Someone Else's Vision, or you're editing your own work, in which case it's Your Vision, and you end up either reluctant to change anything or disgusted at how amateurish it is, and in any of those cases there's a sort of despairing tedium to the whole process that makes you want to chuck it out the window and go do something fun again, like writing.

If you are (as I am now) editing your own work, and you've gotten feedback from others, then you have to reconcile all of their visions of your work with Your Vision, and it's a difficult line to figure out, that balance. Because they are your readers, and their visions are not irrelevant. At the same time, you are the author, and Your Vision should be the one in the driver's seat. Your beta readers might insist that you stop off at Stuckey's, and you can do that, but don't let them take you to L.A. rather than Lake Destiny. (It is possible, sure, for one of your readers to have a vision that you like better than your own, but that usually will involve a rewrite rather than just an edit.)

So where is my Cinnamon 'n' Spice oatmeal in all this? Well, for starters, just the fact that people have read the manuscript and have put a significant number of cycles into trying to help me improve it is really flattering. Secondly, I've managed to take a little time away from the manuscript by working on the 48 Hour Film Project, so coming back to it, I can see the little problems here and there; the blinding glare of My Vision has faded somewhat to a nice office lamp. Thanks to my readers, I have a sense of the larger issues, too, so I can keep those in mind while tightening up language. So it's exciting to me, getting to go back and add more in to some of the characters--one of the comments I heard was that the characters needed to be more sympathetic, which I interpreted to mean that you needed to know more about them and understand them better, not that I want to put in pages of exposition, but maybe an action here and there. It's almost like I'm discovering the story again as I go through it, but this time with full awareness of how it will end.

That is, I have to admit, pretty cool.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Characters revisited

A thought that occurred to me over the weekend, as I'm revising my novel with an eye to bringing out the characters:

What a character does makes him or her believable; it's how the character does it that makes him or her memorable.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Think fast!

Last weekend, I participated in the 48 Hour Film Project for the third year in a row. This year, our film company joined forces with Bay Area Pictures, a group that had also entered last year. What this meant for me was that I handed off the directing responsibilities to someone else and focused on writing the screenplay and editing the footage.

Writing for this contest is always a fun challenge. The elements of the screenplay are in place at 7 pm Friday night, and generally you need to have your script done by 7 am Saturday, when the filming crew is ready to go. Besides the time element, there's also the collaborative element, which I actually find both immensely helpful and disconcertingly difficult.

When writing fiction, I tend to go off by myself and just work things out in my head until they feel right, then get them down on the screen and examine them as they come out. It is, as writing should be, a very solitary process. Editing is more collaborative, even if it's not always what we used to call in the telecom business "full duplex" (that would be sitting in the same room discussing the work). The collaborative screenplay process combines the writing/revising/editing phases, so you're throwing out ideas, kicking them back and forth, testing and adding to them, circling around to other ideas, presenting advantages and objections. Much as I hate to admit it, years of experience in corporate meetings is actually helpful in this process. Keeping things moving forward is essential.

By the time you've talked for a couple hours, you have a pretty good idea of which story "sticks" best. We were trying to come up with an idea for a "buddy film" this year, and the first idea we had kept coming back up as we brought up and discarded others. By about 9 pm, we were sure that's what we were going with. Then it became a process of working out the story.

One of my weaknesses in writing is that I'll have a beginning and sometimes an ending, and then a "here there be dragons" in between that I'm confident I'll be able to map as I actually come to it. That doesn't work so well in the collaborative writing environment. People kept asking "so what happens in here?" and then throwing out ideas as I was trying to think about it. This is the second part of the night where your intuitive sense of story becomes important. You have to be able to look at the individual scenes as assembled and hover above them, making sure the story feels right holistically. By about 11, we had the story nailed down enough to start writing.

The writing itself went smoothly. Mostly it was a process of creating the characters and throwing them into the story. Between myself and the others in the room, the dialogue flowed pretty naturally. I would write down the way I felt one scene going, and other people, looking over my shoulder, would offer opinions. If I liked them, I kept them. If not, we discussed them.

By 2, we had a first draft, which we read through. By 3:30, we had a draft ready to show the crew four hours later.

The takeaway from this writing exercise (which we did twice--we did a dry run the previous weekend) was the importance of several elements: character, planning out your story, and keeping everything to the bare minimum needed to tell your story. There were a lot of scenes that I thought would have been funny, but they didn't advance the story, and with limited time, you don't want to spend time writing scenes you won't include.

I realize that this is starting to sound suspiciously like an endorsement of outlining. Far from it, unless of course it works for you. It doesn't work for me, because as I'm writing, I discover new things and everything changes anyway. I'd rather jump right into writing and then go back and edit the story. But as you're writing, you can look for opportunities to overload your story with tricks we've talked about before: subtext in dialogue, for one; plot elements in description, for another. As you write, look for those passages that are just pretty and either make them relevant or eliminate them. You'll find that that will make your editing go much faster.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
10/10: a brilliant journey through time and culture in six parts

I should preface this by saying that a 10 is not a rare shining gem of perfection. I hope to hand out many 10s as I work my way through books. If I look closely enough, there's always something that can be done to improve a book. Les Miserables? Sure, it'd be a ten, even though it rambles on about French and Parisian history interminably. Anyway, a "10" is something I enjoyed about as much as I've enjoyed any other book I've read. And with that out of the way...

Cloud Atlas is six stories loosely connected and interwoven, beginning with a journal kept in the mid-1800s by a notary who's been sent from California to Australia to track down the beneficiary of a will. He discovers the islands off New Zealand in the throes of colonization, where churches, plantations, and bordellos run by white men give the natives something to occupy their "previously pointless" existences. His journal, interrupted mid-sentence, is discovered by a young British man in 1931 who recounts his journey to become apprentice to a famous, ailing composer in letters to his best friend. His letters pass from the friend to a young journalist in 1974, and so on through the present day, a near future, and a far future. At the end of the sixth story, the fifth story resumes and concludes, then the fourth, and so on until we read the end of the notary's journal.

What is stunning about this book is the utter confidence with which Mitchell inhabits each of the six different voices, not only in attitude but in language, each section appropriate to its time, or convincing (in the case of the future times). It is rather intimidating to think of how much craft and research went into it, but none of those things enter your head upon reading it. With a couple minor slowdowns, the prose is delightful and the stories engaging enough to make any one of them worthwhile, let alone all six. Though they only connect very loosely on the surface, each one resonates with the same themes, and together they make for a very impressive cycle.

Mitchell's main theme is the question of what constitutes civilization. One character states that civilization is determined by how those with power treat those without, and that theme recurs again and again through the book. The theme is skilfully explored, but the real joys in reading Cloud Atlas come from reveling in the lush prose and voice, and from watching Mitchell's expansive imagination explore our past and paint our future. I loved the Infocom game A Mind Forever Voyaging, in which you get to explore the future in ten-year jumps, and while this is nothing like that, it evoked the same feelings in me.

This was a recommendation from my Fabulist Fiction workshop, and I can't pass on the recommendation strongly enough. It's the kind of book that leaves me thinking about it for days after finishing it, perhaps even weeks. It makes me want to write wonderful things.

Monday, June 19, 2006

That's as trite as a cliché!

In reading Bill Walsh's wonderful "The Elephants of Style" (full review to come), I was struck by a quote he reproduced on clichés: they are "first-draft placeholders." The idea is that you use the phrasing that leaps to mind to hold the idea of what you want to say, and then when you go back and revise, you come up with something more original.

I like that thought.

Of course, clichés have other uses too. Sometimes a cliché really is the best way to say something, and you should leave it be. Sometimes you can use the reader's expectations of a cliché to deliver a little twist, one of the pleasures people get from writing. For instance, I knew I was going to like the movie "Garden State" when it began with Zach Braff looking in the mirror and the voiceover: "Some mornings, I don't recognize my own toothbrush." It was paced perfectly to bring up the expectation that he was going to say "my own face." Which would have been fine, an okay opening to a movie. A little predictable, but it sets expectations about where you're going.

The problem with it is that he just said, "toothbrush" to make it jarring and funny. It didn't really mean anything. If he'd gone on and had a story about how there was a relationship where the woman kept switching toothbrushes on him, then the line would've been perfect. As it was, it gave me enough of a laugh that I thought, "hey, this is going to be fun."

If you do use clichés as first-draft placeholders, here's another thought. The usual rule in revising is to trim out whatever is noticeable or distracting from the story. Clichés, though, can do exactly the opposite: make you glide over passages where you'd like the reader to linger. You need to walk a line between being too distracting and being too formulaic, and only you know where that line is. Would you rather say, "he was a mountain of a man" or "he stood a lofty six feet tall, muscles straining at the bonds of his flannel shirt"? The first is a cliché, but it conveys the sense of him well. The second is more distinctive but also draws attention to individual details, which you may not want to do.

Be aware of clichés; don't be afraid of them. Use them when appropriate, twist them when necessary. Just don't skewer them, or turn them on their heads--those are clichés too.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Story for sale!

Through my small press publications, I have gotten enrolled in the "Amazon Shorts" program, whereby authors can sell short stories or essays digitally for cheap. I've uploaded the workshop story from my English 101 workshop, "Soft Release" (link is to the right). It's a story about a guy returning to his hometown in northern Minnesota after getting a University degree. He feels a connection to the woods and has spent the last several months rehabbing an injured wolf to release to the wild. The connection between him and the people in his hometown is much more tenuous, made more so by his decision to release what they see as a dangerous predator. As the story progresses, he has to come to terms with where he feels he belongs.

Anyway, I'm doing this Amazon thing to increase exposure. The story's only forty-nine cents, so I'm not going to retire. I'd ask you, if you get it and like it, to recommend it to other people you think might like it. If they like it, hopefully they'll tell people about it too. Hey, you can't even get a soda for $0.49 anymore! Why not try half an hour of entertainment? :)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Review: An Invisible Sign Of My Own

"An Invisible Sign Of My Own," by Aimee Bender
8/10 - A very enjoyable fabulist narrative about a young woman trying to find her place in an offbeat world that doesn't quite fit her quirks.

Mona Gray, the protagonist of "An Invisible Sign of My Own," once had a math teacher named Mr. Jones who lived next door to her parents and wore his moods around his neck in the form of wax numbers. The higher the number, the better the mood. By the time Mona has turned twenty and begun teaching math herself, Mr. Jones has retired to open a hardware store, but she continues to watch his numbers. The practice strikes her as odd, but not bizarre; the same could be said of her decision to mark her twentieth birthday by purchasing an axe at his store.

I first encountered Bender's work in my fabulist fiction workshop. I was impressed with her sparse prose and eccentric characters (a boy with keys for fingers!), and her ability to use fabulist elements to draw out people's characters. "Invisible Sign" showcases that talent as well, brimming with lovely word pictures and funny, poignant characters. Mona's second grade math class is richly drawn, eight-year-old kids with fully developed personalities; her father is trying anything he can think of to get rid of an illness that's dogged him for a decade, leaving him faded to gray; one of her fellow teachers, a young man with burns on his arms, assigns the children diseases to act out.

The joy in this book is watching the genuine emotions of Mona and her fellow townspeople in the array of familiar and absurd situations they encounter. Despite her eccentricities, Mona is an engaging and sympathetic heroine, and by the end of the book, I really cared about her and wanted her story to end well. I didn't always quite understand everything she did, but I felt the force of emotion behind it, and that carried me through the parts that didn't jell as well for me.

This reminded me quite a bit of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," with the strangeness of that book's protagonist diluted somewhat and spread out through the world. The styles are similar, very matter-of-fact and direct but with a wealth of detail pressed into compact sentences. Both books are a quick read, but well worth it. Simply because this one is less famous, don't pass it by.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

When to stop editing

Inspired by the news that the original Star Wars movies on DVD, to be released this fall (packaged with the newer edits, apparently), will be not from the original prints but from the laserdisc transfer (why would they do that? --scroll down to the May 19 entry), and by my own current issues in working with various pieces of fiction, I wanted to take a look at editing.

Most aspiring authors I know have one of two issues with editing: either they don't do enough, or they do too much. The don't-do-enough crowd tend to be the people who are less passionate about writing, who get their idea down on paper and then think the fun part is over. I'll save that for another time. The do-too-much crowd are often those who are either perfectionists or unsure of their ability or both. And the thing is, it's likely that at one time or another, or from one project to another, everyone who writes will be part of one crowd or another. I certainly have been.

But: editing too much. There's always going to be something you can improve in your story. Read through any published book you like, and chances are you'll find a sentence that could have been tightened, a description that's a little too vague, a piece of dialogue that rings just a little artificial. If you keep going through the edit -> give to friends -> incorporate comments cycle, you'll never be finished, and the goal of writing is to produce something that people can read. So get it 95% there. Get it 98% there. Get it 99% there. Whenever you're seeing that the edits you're making are too minor to matter, declare it done and stop messing with it.

Of course, it's not done, unless you're publishing it yourself or sending it to your website. If you're sending it around for consideration, and you get some suggestions back that the publisher says would improve your manuscript's chances, go ahead and make some tweaks. This is toward a specific goal of getting it published.

And then, when you're world-famous and everyone is clamoring for you to reprint your work, what do you do? Do you take out the publisher's suggestions? Edit your work to fit your current sensibilities?

That will (hopefully) be your decision. My thinking right now is that your readers know and love your stories based on what they read. A story is a discussion between the writer and the reader, and to edit your work after your reader has engaged in the discussion devalues their participation in the process. You're the writer. If your old stories bother you, write new ones.

Are you listening, Mr. Lucas?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Review: Adverbs

Adverbs, by Daniel Handler
8/10 - delightful tragicomic collection of vignettes about love, and people, but mostly love.

Possibly, you know Daniel Handler better under his psuedonym, Lemony Snicket, author of the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books. Unfortunately, this is likely to remain the rule rather than the exception, since "Adverbs" does not lend itself well to a movie adaptation (though I did get to see a staged performance of four of the chapters by San Francisco's "Word for Words" troupe which was very entertaining). Unsurprisingly, if you enjoy the "Unfortunate Events" books' clever and smart wordplay, you will enjoy "Adverbs."

Initially you might think that all the vignettes are connected by the characters that inhabit them, moving back and forth in space and time. Subsequently, you would notice that although many of the characters share identical or similar names and circumstances, they are not all the same--for example, not all the characters named "Tomas" across different stories are the same character, except perhaps they are. Cannily, Handler keeps us guessing about the characters and their histories, weaving the stories together with small tugs of reference here and subtle and not-so-subtle themes there. Familiarly to fans of the "Unfortunate Events" books, the narrative's images also recur throughout (magpies and volcanoes, for instance), here in a more grown-up if no less fantastical setting.

Delightfully, Handler crafts wonderful sentences and characters and situations, each one a joy to read about. Often I stopped just to read a sentence back to myself, and I am not usually a proponent of the "beautiful sentence" school of writing. Unfortunately, I wasn't as clear on how some of the stories fit into the overall narrative, though I enjoyed them all. Sometimes it seemed as though he were more interested in writing something offbeat than following the narrative, which is fine, I suppose, since as I said, I enjoyed all the stories on their own. Thankfully, Handler does expose his hand in "Truly," giving us his message in case, like me, we're too dense or too impatient to puzzle it out on our own. Admirably, he has a good reason for the way the book is structured, and an important message to deliver, unlike this review, which has neither, whose only point is to tell you that if you like sentences like, "Love is candy from a stranger, but it's candy you've had before and it probably won't kill you," then you should pick up and read this book. Definitely.