Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: The Unconsoled

"The Unconsoled," by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a puzzling but lovely work of magical realism

As I may have mentioned, Ishiguro is probably my favorite contemporary writer (though as Rikoshi points out, I have not read enough David Mitchell, a deficiency I intend to remedy in 2009). Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are an amazing pair of books, and even When We Were Orphans, though not quite as good, was still head and shoulders above most other contemporary fiction. Ishiguro shares with Mitchell a gift for character voice, and both are expert at pulling the reader into the character's experiences. Ishuguro in particular loves the device of the unreliable narrator, allowing his protagonist to present the reader with "facts" that the reader can only glean from other hints are perhaps not as rock-solid as the narrator might think.

The Unconsoled is more reminiscent of When We Were Orphans than of either of the other two books. The narrator, Mr. Ryder, is a celebrated pianist, arriving in an unnamed Central European city for a recital. It soon becomes clear that this visit is for more than just a recital: Ryder is expected to attend all manner of community functions, to weigh in on local affairs, and especially to witness the revival of a Mr. Brodsky, a former conductor who took to drink but is looking to the night of the recital to resurrect not only his career, but also his image in the town.

So far, so good. But within the first few pages, Mr. Ryder is confronted by his publicist, who assumes he has read his schedule, which in fact he has not. He meets a porter named Gustav, who takes such pride in his profession that he has organized the other porters in the other hotels in town, and they have set up a code for porters to follow. Gustav has a daughter and a grandson, and the daughter is having emotional problems, so he begs Mr. Ryder to do him the favor of talking to her. Ryder demurs, not wanting to be involved in family affairs, but Gustav implores him, and so he agrees, the first in many diversions from the schedule he has not read. When he meets Sophie, Gustav's daughter, she greets him as though he is part of her family--which it turns out he is; Sophie is his wife, and Boris his son.

These sorts of revelations are parceled out to the reader throughout the book. The puzzling and intriguing thing is that they appear to be revealed to Ryder at the same time. "I suddenly recalled sitting in an apartment with Sophie while she prepared a meal," he will think, and from there he accepts the familiarity of the situation. It is almost as if he arrives in the city a blank slate, prepared to accept whatever past the inhabitants choose to impose on him.

The world becomes dreamlike in other ways: time dilates, such that an urgent engagement might still be met after three or four diversions; a long car ride from the hotel through the city to a dining hall might end with a walk back through the dining hall to the hotel via a connecting corridor. Buildings connect, places are impossibly far or close, people turn up where they are meant to be without any prearrangement, and Ryder is forever recognizing people from his past.

The various subplots are too numerous to describe, but the main contrast is between the inhabitants of the town, who are all striving to do something, and Ryder himself, who sometimes renders an opinion, but in the end is revered by the townspeople for doing exactly nothing. Forever a spectator, an arbiter, he keeps himself forcibly at a distance from his own life even while lamenting that very distance. The book ends, as many of Ishiguro's books do, with an analogy that keenly places Ryder's dilemma (I won't spoil it by outlining it here). We end with him planning his next visit, to Helsinki, leaving us wondering if he will land in Helsinki and find another family lamenting his frequent trips, another set of past acquaintances, another shadow of a life that is the only substitute he will allow himself.

Ryder has a weaker voice than the other Ishiguro protagonists I've read, but the story is no less compelling. Each of the townspeople has a beautifully crafted, often tragic personality, which they are given ample time to explore in monologues to Ryder (or, sometimes, monologues and memories that he somehow "hears" anyway). His eye for detail in description is marvelous, and all the dialogue is outstanding. Despite the puzzling magical realism of the book, I felt compelled to finish it, and actually felt satisfied with it when I was done.

I wouldn't start with this book if you're unfamiliar with his work--pick up The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go--but if you love his writing, this is definitely worthwhile. You may be confused, but you won't be disappointed.

EDIT: I went looking for other people's opinions after writing this, and found one reviewer who makes an interesting case for Ryder being a dementia sufferer. I prefer to look at it metaphorically, but this is an interesting take on it as well.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


The ever-gracious, always worth reading Lance Mannion has linked to "Common and Precious" in a roundup of writers who read his blog. Thanks! If you enjoy trenchant political insight, movie reviews, and photo-essays of New York and New England--heck, if you just enjoy good writing, head over his way. You'll be a convert soon too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

So You Want To Go On A Book Tour?

Read this: http://open.salon.com/content.php?cid=64473

Heck, my book tour was almost more successful, and I just walked .75 miles from my house for one evening. I will say that the Index is very funny, especially at the end.

(I'm also not sure whether to be amused or sad that he, a writer, twice uses "it's" incorrectly.)

I confess I haven't read much of Elizabeth Bear's award-winning work, but I do enjoy her blog. And if you are a writer, or want to be a writer, or want other people to think you're a writer, you need to read this. Seriously. Go. Do it now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Murder? Not so fast

One of the popular cliches of graduate writing seminars is "murder your darlings." This is the rule that guards against a writer becoming so emotionally attached to a scene that he or she keeps it in the manuscript even when it doesn't belong. We've all done that, right? Written something that made us bounce in our chair, something that was so good that we had to keep it in the story, or change the story to make the scene fit? Well, that's not good writing. All scenes should serve the purpose of the story, so if your amazing, wonderful scene doesn't work, take it out.

That said, I've noticed that some people have taken this philosophy to extremes. To them, "murder your darlings" means that any piece of writing that you're too emotionally attached to should be cut. I'm not sure why; maybe because they think they'll never be able to judge it objectively. But I don't agree with that.

The people who read and like your work like it because they share a good number of your sensibilities. If you absolutely love a scene, chances are they will too. So the last thing you want to do is make your work duller by cutting all the parts you really love. As I've written before, keep the scene in, rework it to fit the story if you can, and if it absolutely won't fit, cut it.

But don't murder it. Save it for later. You will write another story.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Comfort Reading

I've talked before about writing for your audience. We tend to think of our audience in terms of demographics: women, teenagers, intellectuals, history buffs, science fiction fans, office workers. But there's a strong case to be made for thinking of your audience in terms of needs, in terms of situations.

It's a short, powerful entry. Go read it.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Review: The White Jade Fox

The White Jade Fox, by Andre Norton
8/10 for Andre Norton fans, 7/10 for non-Andre Norton fans

I grew up on Andre Norton. I could probably reel off a dozen titles I read of hers off the top of my head: Year of the Unicorn (still one of my favorites), The Jargoon Pard, The Zero Stone, Uncharted Stars, The Plague Ship, Quag Keep, Fur Magic, Dragon Magic, Star Ka'at, Octagon Magic, and the two sequels to "Plague Ship" and "Star Ka'at." Okay, I missed a couple titles--the point is, she was one of my two favorite SF authors growing up. So it seems odd, given my later preference for foxes, that I had never heard of this title before stumbling across it in a Seattle used bookstore.

It's the early-1800s story of Saranna, arriving in Baltimore after her mother's death to meet her brother, who through an odd quirk of marriage, is actually old enough to be her father--literally: his daughter Honora is more or less Saranna's age, and is immediately set up as the opponent. Saranna soon finds herself at Tiensin, the estate of her grandfather(?), a ship's captain obsessed with China. He brought back a number of artifacts from China and has willed them to his granddaughter by a different branch of the family, young Damaris.

Damaris knows all the secrets of the estate. She doesn't trust Honora, but Saranna soon wins her confidence. As she uncovers the secrets surrounding the artifacts and the strange foxes that haunt the estate, she must fend off the unwelcome advances of the housekeeper's brother and cope with Honora's scheming. Fortunately, Damaris knows how to marshall the ancient secrets to help them both.

If you like Andre Norton, this is a terrific example of her work. She does do character and description well, and her specialty is this kind of world: all normal and usual, with just a little bit of magic (or an unexplained alien) to introduce problems. But the problems are always those of the characters; the magic just dresses them up well. Even if you can see where this book is headed (and you can), the ride is still enjoyable, and she (surprisingly) stops short of the stereotypical romance novel ending.

It's a good read if you can find it; unlike some of her books which remain in print, like the Witch World books or the Magic books, this one's only available used.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another PSA: Discreet/Discrete

DISCREET: private, quiet, not publicly known. As in: Let's keep this little matter discreet, shall we?

DISCRETE: separate, individual, unrelated. As in: 'Discreet' and 'discrete' are two discrete words.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How Do You Stay Sane?

Kelly McCullough has some excellent advice for writers.

I particularly like "whatever you're writing is the best thing you've written" and "when you're finished with it, it no longer exists."

Monday, November 10, 2008

How Do You Feel When You Finish A Book?

This is how Roald Dahl's grand-daughter widow remembers him feeling:

He used to get grumpy when he was finishing a book and I remember saying, "But you should be so pleased you're reaching the end!" And he used to say, "You don't understand - it's the fear of never writing another one."

(Edited to correct grand-daughter to widow--I misread the preceding paragraph.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

On Obama, and on Prop 8

If you like sports, or just good writing, and you haven't read any of Joe Posnanski's column, for shame. I read his book, The Soul of Baseball, about his year spent with Buck O'Neil touring America, and found it a very affecting portrait of a man who knew what was right and was willing to wait for it.

Joe has a column in SI today which is about Buck, and Obama, and not about Prop 8. But I can't help but take some of it in that light. If you can't read the whole thing, here is what I think is the most relevant excerpt.

Buck O'Neil became the first black coach in Major League Baseball -- that was in Chicago, for the Cubs, in 1962. He was, in too many ways, a token hire; he was as qualified as anyone to be a big league manager, much less a coach, but realistically they brought him in mostly to serve as a bridge to Lou Brock and Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and the other African-American players. The Cubs never let O'Neil on the field, not even to coach first or third base. "I would have liked to do that, even if it was for only one game," Buck said. "But it just wasn't time yet."

He said that with no bitterness -- Buck just seemed to have no bitterness in him. He believed in the passing of time and in the slow but steady rhythms of change. He had seen so much of it in his life.


Again and again, I saw him light up with joy as he saw what America had become. "Yeah, we have a way to go," he would say to those people who sounded discouraged. "We'll get there, man. I wish you could see what I've seen."

He could not get enough. He spoke in classrooms and chatted with people at ballgames and went up to complete strangers in restaurants and at airports, and he believed in this America. It isn't perfect, of course, nothing close to perfect, and there's always a lot to do. Buck said that plenty. But, more, much more, he said: "Look how far we've come. Look how much we've grown. Look how much closer we are."


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Review: Passage

Passage, by Connie Willis
9/10, a science fiction thriller with gorgeous, real characters

I posted previously about the effective tricks Connie Willis uses to build tension in "Passage," a science fiction thriller about life and afterlife. By the time I got to the end, it was seriously almost impossible to put the book down. I'm pleased to report that she brings it all to a satisfying conclusion as expertly as she built it up.

To tell too much about the book would be to ruin its surprises, so here's simply the premise: Joanna Lander, a doctor at Denver's Mercy General hospital, is studying Near-Death Experiences. NDEs are the visions people experience when they die and then are revived (possibly also when they die and aren't revived, but those we can't get any record of), and while Joanna is taking a scientific tack at them, the wonderfully named Dr. Mandrake at the same hospital is taking the John Edward approach, urging people to remember the angels he's sure they saw. This infuriates Joanna and her scientific mind, so when Dr. Richard Wright shows up with a neurochemical-based approach to the research, she joins him in his project.

The tug between spiritual and scientific energizes some of the book, but is not the central conflict; this is a science fiction book, after all, and there's little doubt which side is favored. That's not to say it's never in doubt (nor that the ending is predictable), just that there is a more central theme to the book. Joanna's central problem is the quest for knowledge, for truth, and the lengths to which she will go to get it are what really give the book its momentum. In every scene, she gets maddeningly close to finding what she thinks is the key to unraveling the mystery of the NDEs, taking us along with her from promising lead to dead end, from helpful but annoying friend to frustrating but ultimately helpful colleague.

What keeps the book's energy up throughout are the characters. Joanna is a terrific main character, driven and sympathetic, but I could rattle off half a dozen tremendously drawn personalities off the top of my head and still be missing another half dozen. From the over-protective mother of a dying little girl to a character who spends most of the book in a coma, Willis's characters are all alive in a way that any aspiring writer should study and take notes on. We feel for them and want them to succeed, Joanna as much as any of them.

I admittedly have a weak spot for death/ghost stories, but I can't recommend this book highly enough for anyone who loves a good thriller and doesn't mind a few gruesome medical details.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Review: Cybermancy

Cybermancy, by Kelly McCullough
8/10, a solid, fun adventure in urban fantasy with great setting and characters.

Disclaimer: I read Kelly's writings over at Wyrdsmiths and have corresponded with him.

When last we left Ravirn, McCullough's hacker/spellcaster/immortal from Webmage, he'd defied his powerful ancestors, the Fates, who had in return cast him out from their family and given him a new name, Raven. It seems that the biggest difference with the new name is that it's easier to pronounce(*), but while Ravirn thinks so, most of his friends seem to attach a greater significance to it.

(*) I know exactly how this happens. You're writing a story, you're trying to come up with a unique name for your protagonist, and you get this weird combination that ends up getting attached to the character. It sounds okay in your head and it looks great on paper, but you never really try to pronounce it aloud until you're already well into the manuscript. Then you realize, hey, this might be a bit tricky, but it's unique! it's different! People will figure it out. And then the book gets published and everyone's like, "is it RAY-vurn? rah-VEERN?" and some people come up with crap out of nowhere like, "well, according to the ancient Gaelic, it would be "chrah-VEYE-ur-enthch"," and you just throw up your hands and say, "Okay, fine. It's 'RAVEN.' It's in the dictionary, you can look it up. Are you happy now?"

Anyway, Ravirn has a problem. His girlfriend, Cerice ("say-REESE"? "SEH-ruh-say"?), is uber-stressed about finishing her dissertation in computer science without her webgoblin/laptop Shara ("SHAH-rah"--sorry, I'll stop now), who was sadly killed in the previous book. But hey, Ravirn and Cerice live in a modern world built on the underpinnings of the Greek mythos. So no problem: he'll just go to Hades and get Shara back.

From there--and this is in the first few pages--the action rarely stops. When it does, it's to explore the relationship between Ravirn and Cerice more deeply, and what's great about that is that they feel like real people with real relationship problems and pitfalls. As I'm discovering is usual for McCullough, he fills his book with distinctive, likable characters, and of course, having grown up with D'Aulaires and working in software, I love his Greek Myth/twenty-first century Internet setting.

McCullough knows how to keep a story moving along, and behind the surface adventure of getting someone out of Hades, there are questions of relationship and identity to be addressed. Some of his resolutions may feel a bit like deus ex machina, but as Ravirn/Raven is a demi-god, that's not entirely inappropriate. As with the first book in the series, "Cybermancy" is an enjoyable, fun read.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More on Tension

I'm reading Connie Willis's "Passage," picked up (and signed!) at ComicCon, and it's almost a textbook in how to build tension.

Willis is the author of one of my favorite short stories ever, "The Last of the Winnebagoes," and a terrific time travel/British comedy novel, "To Say Nothing of the Dog." I grabbed "Passage" at ComicCon because it was there and she was there (I also picked up "Bellwether," because they were giving it away, but that was later). A full review will come later, but here are a few of the tricks I've noticed her using:

* The main character always, always goes into a scene wanting something. Either something as prosaic as food, or to get away, or to get a crucial piece of information.

* She often interrupts the back-and-forth of dialogue where something is being revealed to the character to insert a little description. Lets the reader pause and makes them wait before going on.

* She often interrupts conversations altogether. There are a couple characters in the book who are always trying to corner the main character to tell her something, but they never say it right away, and she always finds an excuse to get away. She's convinced that they don't have anything important to say, but as the reader, the interrupted conversation plants the seed of doubt. What if they DO have something important to say and it comes back later?

I am having serious trouble not reading this book whenever it's around. I had to leave it at home because if I brought it to work I would be taking two-hour "coffee breaks" with it down at It's A Grind. But I'm also trying to learn from it and admire what she's doing and WHY I can't put it down.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Just to clarify

PRINCIPAL: primary or main: The principal reason Columbus sailed to America was to find a trade route. Also, the head of a school: Principal Skinner was caught with his pants down again.

PRINCIPLE: 1. an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct: a person of good moral principles.
2. a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived: the principles of modern physics.
3. a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a distinctive ruling opinion: the principles of the Stoics.

Okay? Dictionary.com is your friend.

That is all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Spellchecker Rant

Okay, so I'm reading though and it takes me about two sentences to identify that it is Spellchecked. I have ranted about spellcheckers before, but let me be 100% clear on this: Spellcheckers are the worst things to happen to amateur writers since Papermate Erasable Ink Pens(*).

(*) Papermate Erasable Ink Pens smelled horrible and, what's more, DID NOT ERASE, at least not completely. In grade school and junior high, we thought these were the best things ever. When our sadistic teachers would demand that we take our tests IN INK (for some odd reason that I find hard to process even now--something about how if we made mistakes we'd have to cross them out and they could see every mistake?), we would gleefully whip out our erasable pens and take the tests, secure in the knowledge that we could cover up our errors if need be. Of course, we never could, because the pen always left faint lines. Did I mention the smell? Still, it's interesting in that it was, I believe, my first experience of a technology vs. authority arms race. The teachers did eventually forbid the use of erasable pens in ink-only test taking, but at that point we were in high school and didn't care.

This manuscript that I was reading had every word spelled correctly. The problem was that the correctly-spelled word was, almost more often than not, the WRONG WORD. A spellchecker will not tell you that "where" is wrong in the sentence, "My parents where sad." It will not pick up the mistake in, "I came form a small town." It will not, further, tell you that the sentence, "I found my father in the shed we called it that, even though it was a garage that, we could have parked a car in if we had on, doing drugs" is an abomination.

What a spellchecker will do is give you the illusion that it is editing your manuscript for you. "Just run it through a spellchecker before you hand it in," the amateur writer's instinct, with all the wisdom of Candlewick, tells him. And so he does so, congratulates himself on catching all those misspellings, and turns in his manuscript.

There is no substitute for reading through and editing your own work. No spellchecker, no grammar checker, no proofreader can do this for you. Yes, it's not as much fun as the writing part. Yes, there are often two or three words at a time that don't need any more editing. But yes, it is an essential part of being a writer. And when you turn in a spellchecked manuscript, it is blindingly, glaringly obvious that you are missing an essential component of being a writer, and the manuscript reader will treat your manuscript accordingly(**).

(**) In my case, writing blog posts about it and complaining about it to my friends.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
8.5/10, a touching and richly textured story of family and atonement

Stories of redemption and atonement pluck at our heart more strongly than any other theme. In our past, we've all made mistakes, but the opportunity to make up for them rarely greets us in as perfect a fashion as it does in fiction. So we live along with our fictional hero, cringe at his fall, and return with him to the state of grace.

Of course, our own mistakes are rarely as life-altering as the one made by Amir, the hero of "The Kite Runner," who doesn't quite abandon a boat full of people to fire, but it feels about the same to him. His best friend Hassan, the son of his family's servant, gets into some rather serious trouble, during which Amir stands by and does nothing. He isn't sure Hassan has seen him (at least, I'm not sure whether he knows or not), but that isn't really relevant: Amir feels the press of guilt immediately, and even though he's only twelve at the time, his life is forever altered.

Thrown into the mix is Hassan's race: he is a Hazara, while Amir and his family are Pashtun. Amir's peers mock him for his friendship with a Hazara boy, a taunt which Amir is not strong enough to confront. His strength is an issue for his father Baba, who wants him to become as strong and proud a man as he himself is. Baba seems, in Amir's eyes, to prefer Hassan to him, which further stokes his resentment and his guilt.

How does a young man become worthy of his father and his best friend? This is what Amir must ultimately discover, after leaving Afghanistan for California. Though he has a reasonably good life in California, he knows there is something missing.

Hosseini writes vividly, with wonderful detail. He shares my love of food, never hesitating to tell us what is being cooked. The smells of the city are an integral part of the landscape, and his portrait of post-war Kabul is one of the most heart-wrenching cityscapes I've read since war-time Shanghai. The characters are just as vividly drawn: Baba, the demanding father; Hassan, the devoted best friend; Amir, the conflicted young man struggling between what he feels and what society and his family tell him.

Indeed, if the story has a weakness, it's that the characters are too perfectly drawn, making this almost more of a parable than a story. It seems to shift between the two: the characters stray little from their archetypes, but the setting they move in is lovingly, richly detailed. This story has the feel of a fairy tale, but a fairy tale set in our unpleasant, gritty, modern world.

Certainly I recommend it, especially as our involvement in and attention to Afghanistan creeps back up. Apart from the wonderful characters, the book does provide a nostalgic look at what life was like once for the Afghanis, how they suffered from the Alliance and then the Taliban, and what exactly has been lost. I don't quite see a connection to Amir's own story--Afghanistan seems more the victim of a whole schoolyard full of bullies than a country trying to atone for some transgression--but then, there doesn't really have to be. The writing is simple but effective, and the story keeps moving briskly all the way through.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Be Yourself

Good advice in any profession. Joe Posnanski (yes, I read a lot of his columns) has a take on what this means to a major league manager. The same goes for being a writer. Don't write in a way that isn't you just to please an audience. Write what you love, be who you are, and then find your audience. It's much more worthwhile in the long run.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Review: Finn Family Moomintroll

Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson
9/10, lovely sweet Finnish stories about a family in a magical world

I was somewhat apprehensive that the Moomin books would turn out to be pixibooks, but after picking up the lovely Drawn & Quarterly collections of Jansson's daily strips, I finally bit the bullet and dropped five bucks to get Finn Family Moomintroll, the first in the series.

I don't remember how many of these we had when I was growing up, but it was a lot of them. This one, though it is the first, seems to take place in the middle of the lives of the moomins. There's reference made to the comet which is a story in a later book, and we seem expected to know all the characters already. Fortunately, Jansson is so sure of her characters that we have no trouble picking them up right away and growing very fond of them. They are more or less at the center of the stories, so a quick dramatis moominae is probably better than a plot summary.

Moomintroll, the main character, is sort of a young teenager. He lives with his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpappa, and his friends Sniff and Snufkin. He has a little thing for the Snork Maiden, who lives with them along with her brother the Snork. If that weren't enough for a house, you have the Muskrat, whose favorite book is "On The Uselessness of Everything," and the Hemulen, who is quite despondent when it turns out that he has collected all the stamps and his collection is complete; he has nothing more to do. Snufkin is sort of a tramp of a character, who loves his friends but also craves solitude and the open road. Sniff also loves his friends but also loves himself (when they discover a boat and are arguing about what to name her, Sniff's contribution, yelled out loud, is "SNIFF!"). The Snork Maiden is a perfect teenage girl, young and romantic but also slightly insecure and prone to snubbing Moomintroll for slights against her that he hasn't realized he's made.

The gang have many magical adventures, many of which center around the Hobgoblin's Hat, a large top hat that mysteriously transforms anything that falls into it. This is a children's book, but doesn't shy away from some mature problems: how do you get your friends to like you, how do you get something back that someone's taken from you, what use is a lot of money? All of these problems, it turns out, have relatively simple solutions for the Moomins, but the wit and charm of this series lies in watching the characters go through the ridiculous predicaments and resolutions that Jansson's vivid imagination concocts for them. Her little asides (Moominmamma makes orange-peel teeth for her children to play with; a footnote says, "Ask your mother how to make them; she is sure to know.") are as delightful as the story itself.

If you like stories of children's adventures and magical fantasy worlds, it's hard to imagine that you would not enjoy Jansson's Moomin books. Thanks to Drawn and Quarterly, her comics are enjoying a renaissance; let's hope this spreads to the books as well.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Review: Swann's Way

Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust (translation by Lydia Davis)

9/10, a classic of literature in a new translation


Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" is one of the most lauded and least read classics of literature. A staggering seven thick volumes, it's a daunting read for even pretentious Ivy League graduates. But I decided I wanted to read it before I turn 50, which seems like an achievable goal, and a journey of a thousand books starts with a single page, so I picked up "Swann's Way." The new translation is getting rave reviews for capturing the spirit of Proust more elegantly than the older but classic Moncrieff translations.

There's a lot to love about Proust, and one big thing to dislike, or fear, or grow tired of, which is also one of the things to love: namely, his tendency to write sentences that stretch into paragraphs so long and dense that after hacking your way through the undergrowth of dependent clauses, some of which decide to tell their own story in the middle of the sentence, rather like one of those hard candies that abruptly shifts from one flavor to another on your tongue as you're holding it in your mouth, you will sometimes turn around, look back, and realize that although you've quite enjoyed the path, you have in fact lost sight of your subject. Sentences the size of paragraphs; paragraphs that go on for pages; it's like "The Lost World" for literature.

The good, though, is as monumental as the prose, and it's hard to read even a few pages without gaining a huge amount of respect for both Proust and translator Davis. The first twenty or so pages of the book describe what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night. Really. But Proust gets away with it, by examining every nuance of feeing and perception and exploring its relation to his own humanity and ours in general. If this sounds dry and academic, it's because I'm not doing it justice in the least. You end up reading passages and thinking, "I know exactly that feeling"--he describes them more thoroughly and accurately than anyone else I've ever read.

You don't even notice, at first, that there is no real story, that you've been reading for thirty pages and the narrator is still lying in his bed in the middle of the night. But Proust slides easily from the general to the specific, and in the middle of a discussion about his neurotic need for a good-night kiss from his mother, mentions the cases in which this became embarrassing, usually when company was over, and thus M. Swann enters the picture.

Swann dominates the first book: as a guest in the first part, the subject of the second part, and the father of the narrator's sweetheart in the third. By the time we're done, we know him backwards and forwards, as a young man pursuant of ideals and trapped in his own conceptions of what is worthwhile and proper; later as a father, mellower but still kind at heart. We know our narrator well, too: his insecurities and desperate need for female affection.

There are other terrific touches of character, like this, one of my favorites in the book:

[Mme. de Gallardon has drawn the attention of her cousin, the Princesse des Laumes, to M. Swann at the party they are attending, where the pianist has just begun to play a polonaise by Chopin.]

[Mme. des Laumes] belonged to that half of the human race in whom the curiosity the other half feels about the people it does not know is replaced by an interest in the people it does. As with many women of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the presence in a place where she happened to be of someone from her set, though she had nothing in particular to say to him, monopolized her attention at the expense of everything else. From that moment on, in the hopes that Swann would notice her, the Princesse, like a tame white mouse when a bit of sugar is offered to it and then taken away, kept turning her face, which was filled with a thousand signs of complicity unrelated to the feeling in Chopin's polonaise, in Swann's direction, and if he moved, she would shift in a corresponding direction her magnetic smile.

"Oriane, don't be angry," resumed Mme. de Gallardon, who could never stop herself from sacrificing her greatest social ambitions and highest hopes of someday dazzling the world to the immediate, obscure, and private pleasure of saying something disagreeable, "but people do claim that M. Swann is someone whom one can't have in one's house, is that true?"

"Why...you ought to know," answered the Princesse des Laumes, "since you've invited him fifty times and he hasn't come once."

If you love language, you owe it to yourself at least to pick up Swann's Way and read a couple pages in the bookstore. It's a daunting task, and I'm glad to have a friend reading it at the same time I am, or else I'd never get through it (that and a lot of plane flights helped). This translation is copiously footnoted, in case you are curious about questions like "what is Les Filles de Marbre?" or "who is Nicolas Maes?" Proust is sometimes a struggle to read, but the moments of delight, like the one listed above, are so unique that they are worth the effort.

And now, on to book 2...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Review: Darwin's Radio

Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear

7/10, a well-written but ultimately scattered hard science fiction story with an interesting premise


I love Greg Bear's Songs of Earth and Power (originally The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage). It's one of my favorite fantasy books of all time. And yet, I was strangely reluctant to pick up his science fiction, for some reason. Darwin's Radio had been on my radar for a while--Nebula award-winner and one of Bear's most popular books. So I was pretty excited to get the chance to start it recently.

It kicks off with an almost literal bang, an exploration of a glacier in the Alps that ends in an avalanche and an exhumed mass grave in eastern Europe. It turns out that there has been an increasing incidence of miscarriages in the United States, which is also linked to the discovery of prehistoric corpses in the glacier and the recent corpses in Europe. It transpires that the fetuses being miscarried are deformed, and it's up to Kaye Lang, chromosome expert, and Mitch Rafelson, explorer and biologist, to work from opposite ends to figure out the connection between these different incidences.

The scientific mystery is engaging, but by the middle of the book it's pretty much resolved. Bear focuses on the United States' political response to the crisis, as the number of miscarriages mounts and the public grows restless. Combining this story with the biological story is a bit overwhelming for the book, and about two-thirds of the way through it collapses under its own weight. The political story becomes rather fragmented, and taking the place of the biological mystery is a personal story about a mother going through the pregnancy and experiencing the political changes (most of which consist of the government insisting that she register with them).

I'm sorry to say that I have a hard time seeing why this book won a Nebula. The science is interesting but ultimately left me with questions--for example, why, if the biology is correct, were there sporadic outbreaks everywhere except the United States until the mass outbreaks started? Does that mean there were mass graves somewhere in the U.S. that we don't know about? There are some other, more specific questions that were left hanging, both about the biology and the politics, but by the end of the novel we do have a sense of how the whole thing is going to play out.

It just seems to happen a little too abruptly and easily. Things change, and Kaye comes up with a theory to explain the change, and it's correct. There are entire periods of the political process that are just skimmed over. Most of the personal section of the book focuses on Mitch and Kaye struggling against the politics that have been set in place, with some introspection about what this whole change means for them and for humanity.

It's engaging stuff, and Bear's touch for characters is terrific. Kaye, Mitch, and several of the supporting characters are three-dimensional and engaging. His imagination and science research are beyond reproach as well. The theories about what might happen as a result of the DNA wound in our chromosomes that we don't really understand are fascinating and believable. It's just that the book needed to choose the political path or the biological path, and it tries to encompass both, ultimately fulfilling neither.

Review: Smilla's Sense of Snow

Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg

8/10, a mystery with beautiful evocative writing, a carefully constructed plot, and a rambling third act

I have no idea how they made this book into a movie. It's dense, from a writer who is clearly from the "beautiful sentence" school rather than the "plot" school, which makes it somewhat of an odd duck because those kinds of writers don't usually tackle murder mysteries. But Hoeg acquits himself well, setting up a strange and intriguing cast of characters and an engaging mystery.

Smilla, a Greenlander living in Denmark, comes home to find a friend of hers lying dead in the snow, having apparently jumped from the roof. That's what the police believe, but Smilla knows better: he was afraid of heights, so if he wanted to kill himself, why would he jump from the roof? She thinks he was chased up there and off, and her unraveling of the mystery surrounding her friend's death is a confusing but compelling journey through Copenhagen's upperworld and underworld, and through the tangled trauma of Greenland's assimilation into Danish culture.

Sounds like a great movie, huh?

Anyway. Smilla is a terrific character, and her "sense of snow" is a peculiar ability she has to know where things are and which direction to go, which has not helped her do the same in life. She's scornful and afraid of love, inconvenient considering she begins to fall for the mechanic who's helping her unravel the case.

Hoeg does a terrific job at doling out information piece by piece, occasionally keeping too much back but generally giving you some great surprises. One of my favorite structures in a mystery is the scene that the protagonist plays along with you, and then at the end pulls out that one detail you might have missed that is the key to moving forward, which changes the whole cast of the scene before and the story to date. That's hard to do, but Hoeg pulls it off a couple times here.

He's also great at building tension throughout the book, though by the end there's so much tension that you feel it's impossible to get a real payoff from it, and in some sense you'd be right. The end is rather anticlimactic and deliberately obscure--a disappointment to someone who considers endings the second most important part of a book. But there's enough other good stuff here, albeit densely packed in, to make the book definitely worth a read.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I Want This Conversation To Be Over

David Foster Wallace hanged himself Friday.

I was a great fan of his essays. I never read his fiction. Infinite Jest sounded like a wonderful, dense, monumental read, but I'm already trying to read Proust, and, y'know, one literary mountain at a time.

Throughout his work, Wallace's genius was to get to the heart of what people are and why they do what they do. He found it perverse and often baffling (*), but never let his perspective slide too far into condescension without reminding himself that he was no better. His comments on the t-shirt booth at the Illinois State Fair remain my favorite in this vein; I don't have the text at hand, but it boils down to "who on Earth would wear these idiotic t-shirts...and who the hell am I for judging them?"

And there was the twist: his investigations never seemed to make him happy. At times (the titular essay of "A Supposedly Fun Thing..." is one example), he spiraled into a whirlpool of self-examination that was so critical it might have been called self-loathing if it hadn't been so funny. In "Consider The Lobster," in an essay on the English language, he laments his occasional social paralysis and inability to choose among the myriad different ways of expressing, for example, that he's tired of talking to someone and would like for them to leave so that he can go to bed. He ends up, he says, by blurting out, "I want this conversation to be over and for you to be out of my apartment." That he can see the humor in it and make us laugh doesn't make it any less awkward.

I feel like he finally figured out the way to say it. I wish he'd found another way. While I'm glad he left behind his humor, his insights, and his immense talent in writing, I'm angry because it's all tinged with sadness now. But in the end, we all have to choose our own path in this world, and sometimes out of it, and as Wallace himself might say, who the hell am I to judge?

Thanks for all the words. So long, DFW.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Y'load Sixteen Letters and Whaddya Get?

On the subject of making your words work, some interesting stuff from Elizabeth Bear (recent Hugo winner).

I have a book review to write and things to say about writing, mostly related to the fact that I'm in one of those states where I know I have to be writing what I'm writing but I want to be writing something else but I don't know what that is or I'd just do it ... anyway, the thing is that if you just keep writing what you have to be writing, eventually the "have to be" kind of fades out and you start enjoying it. At least, I do.

I'll worry about how much work my words are doing later. I'm reading "Smilla's Sense of Snow," which is at the same time a mystery and a really dense, literate book full of images and metaphors and characters and it's great and it's daunting because my story contains none of that.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review: Amulet

Amulet volume 1: The Stonekeeper, by Kazu Kibuishi
8/10, a gorgeous graphic novel of a fantasy adventure

Kazu Kibuishi first came to our attention through his webcomic "Copper," which led us to the anthology book "Flight." Last year, we picked up Kazu's book "Daisy Cutter: The Last Train" (which I believe is his first published graphic novel) and loved it, so we bought "Amulet" pretty much automatically.

The story, in a nutshell: after the loss of their father in a tragic accident, Emily and her brother Navin move with their mother to an ancient family home that once belonged to her grandfather. The grandfather, as often happens in stories like these, was exploring some other world connected through the house, and left an amulet behind , which Emily finds and puts on. Almost as soon as they venture into the other world, their mother is kidnapped, leaving the children to fend for themselves, with the help of the mysterious amulet and another voice. They are, of course, stalked by a shadowy presence whose motives are hidden, and chased by monsters whose motives are all too plain.

The story itself is compelling enough, if rather plain. Emily and Navin both want to be grown up, but they also seem to be aware of the carefree life they're leaving behind as they take on the responsibility of finding their mother. The characters of the children and the people (and non-people) they meet are nicely developed, and the story is beautifully paced and engaging.

But the real treasure in Amulet is the art. Kibuishi is a master at shading and depth, and under his talented pen (digital or not), the world and its inhabitants come alive. He imagines Victorian fantasy constructions: houses, castles, dungeons, laboratories, creepy monsters, ancient relatives, all with the delicate, confident touch of a master of his art.

Kazu posts updates to his blog about "Amulet," including tips about how it's produced. If you like fantasy adventures, Amulet is a gorgeous find, and one that deserves all the attention it's getting.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Did You Get It?

A couple people have commented that "Common and Precious" is "not subtle." I guess that's true (and honestly, if that's the biggest complaint people have about it, I'm thrilled), though it's not something I'd really thought about when writing the book(*).


So I have been thinking about it a bit recently, trying to toe the line between the perfectionism that demands that I correct every flaw perceived by every reader and the self-contained arrogance that sits in its cushy armchair and smugly says that the writing is what it is and that any flaws in the book are flaws in the reader reflected in the mirror-perfect surface of my work(**). I think what I've arrived at is the conclusion that there are some subtleties to the book--while Meli is never shy about shouting her preconceptions of lower class, her father's views are a bit more nuanced, his motives in chasing his daughter not as crystal-clear as they might be. But the book itself, no, is not subtle, and there's a good reason for that: I'm writing for an audience that does not easily pick up subtleties.

(**) The "Anne Rice" side of a writer.

Now, by that I don't mean to cast any aspersions on the perceptiveness of my readers, who are all wonderful people and obviously have excellent taste. No, I mean to cast aspersions on myself.

I grew up reading (a) science fiction, and (b) quickly. Neither of these things really lends itself to ponderous examination of a work for subtle nuances. So when I come to write the kind of book that I want to read, I don't put lots of layers in it. That would take time and effort. I want to make sure everything's more or less explained on the surface, because I hate going through books and coming to the end while still wondering why on earth the main character was so dead-set on catching that darn roadrunner, having to look up on some internet blog that oh, if you notice, his father was killed right around the time of some famous battle mentioned in another chapter in which the roadrunners had routed the coyotes, and didn't I notice that every time the main character's father is mentioned he starts getting hungry for poultry? Also, it should be noted, I am not Kazuo Ishiguro, who has the magical ability to plant an idea in your mind in chapter one and then poke you in chapter five to turn around and see that it's apparently been there all the time.

That said, it is something I'm working on. I think I can add layers without detracting from the surface plot, things like imagery and theme (and there is imagery and theme in C&P, albeit handled with all the grace and skill of an elephant on ice skates), things like word choice in certain situations. The thing is, what I don't know is whether someone complaining about a lack of subtlety is complaining about:

* Everything being laid out too much on the surface so there is nothing to figure out, or

* Nothing being underneath what's on the surface.

Because it is possible to write a book in which the story and plot and character motivations are all quite clear on the surface, but which also has layers underneath for those who care to look for them. I think that's what I will shoot for, because I don't really want to write a puzzle book and, as has been noted before, I am not all that skilled, really(***). I have also had readers fail to pick up things that I thought were obvious, and in the long run, I would rather have a couple readers complaining about lack of subtlety than a couple complaining about lack of understanding.

(***) This is only a little bit of false modesty. I am aware that I write like I read: too quickly and impatiently. I'm trying to teach myself patience and skill, and to get better at the minutiae that more demanding readers look for.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How Do You Start A Novel?

Kelly McCullough has some good thoughts on the matter...

I particularly like the comparison to an essay: get to your thesis statement, prove your thesis statement, recap your thesis statement. In essence, as our screenwriting teacher would say, your story is a thesis about the best way to live. The main character is missing something, or is doing something wrong, and in order to change his life, he needs to learn a lesson, gain an understanding, something like that. So it helps to think about that when you're structuring your character arc: show the reader what he needs; show the reader how he gets it and why he needs it; show the reader how much better life is when he has it (or how miserable he continues to be without it).

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Review: Nurk

Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew, by Ursula Vernon
8/10, a cute and engaging children's adventure story

Disclaimer: I work for Sofawolf Press, publisher of Ursula's comic "Digger," Artistic Visions sketchbook, and novel "Black Dogs."

Nurk is Ursula's first foray into the world of children's literature. To her established fans, the story will be a delight. Her whimsical, sarcastic humor and lovely illustrations are up to her usual standards, and the characters are fun, adorable, and engaging. It's a cute story, complete with mistaken identity, kidnapped princes, grounded boats, and a star-nosed mole.

I enjoyed Nurk thoroughly, not least because of the humor Ursula scatters through it. A lot of it (specifically, his grandmother's diary) is aimed at adults, and will no doubt go over the heads of kids (for example: "The best plan for any sensible adventurer is to sweep in, take the throne, live like a king for a few weeks, and then sneak out in the middle of the night before people start asking unpleasant questions about road maintenance and tax relief."). But the story is enough to keep kids engaged, a good adventure tale along the line of "The Hobbit," with Nurk the reluctant hero swept into a quest that is--at first--beyond his capabilities, learning about himself as he rises to the challenge.

For adults, the story won't be quite as engaging as "The Hobbit." Though all the trappings are there, the stakes for Nurk are never so high as to make the adventure compelling. At every step, he is driven mostly by a vague discontentment with his own life and the memory of his grandmother Surka, who was, according to her own diary, an accomplished adventurer. The perils in Nurk's quest come quick and fast, and toward the end, they seem rather random.

But it's a fun story, for all that, and definitely worth a read. Your kids may have questions like "what's tax relief?" after reading it with them, but, you know, best they start asking it now.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Harsh Glare of Fame

So there's this online magazine Anthro that has an interview with me and the other co-founder of our little small press, Jeff. If that sort of thing interests you, then you should go read it, and if it doesn't, then, well, you shouldn't. We mostly say fairly professional (bland) things about our goals and stuff and why am I even still talking about it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mistakes You Can Avoid

Over on PubRants, an agent has a couple posts up about mistakes beginning writers make. Not your standard stuff, pretty informative to read. A lot of it boils down to "show, don't tell," but in ways you might not initially pick up on. (I particularly like the second one: having characters in the story tell the reader about something that happened... because it feels like showing, but it's really not.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

What is your writing about?

Two posts in one day! This one's just a link to lot of things I've said about making your writing crisp and compelling, but said better and gathered into one place.

What is your story about?

A conversation between me and Ned, in e-mail. Yes, we are geeks who talk about this kind of stuff all the time. Ned's comments quoted.

I guess the thing is that Horror is usually a form of Mystery. Just the solution is a terrible one. Just never realized the link.
Is all genre fiction with a plot mystery? (he said provocatively!)

I actually said a while ago that any fiction with a plot (and some non-fiction with a plot) is a mystery in some sense of the word. The author is proposing a problem or conflict which the character must resolve, and our mystery is how the main character's going to do it. "Mystery" is actually a weird genre in that regard because in the really good ones, the question is not so much how (excepting locked-room mysteries) but "why." In standard fiction you know the "why" up front.

There is a funny bit in the Thursday Next books where all the members of the Literary police are talking about what every book really is about, what are the basic plots and what do they boil down to etc. etc etc and one guy, sort of grumbles. "Self discovery. It's all really the journey of self discovery." And maybe it is.

In our screenwriting class, the teacher discussed how in many movies, someone actually asks the main character the basic question he's trying to solve over the course of the movie, and 80% of the time it boils down to "Who do you think you are?" We watched "The Verdict" twice, and there's a great bit in the beginning when Paul Newman as the at-the-bottom-of-the-barrel lawyer goes to a funeral and gives his card to the grieving widow. Her brother throws him out and yells, "Who do you think you are?" It's a wonderful scene, and it fits so smoothly into the action that you don't really notice until you've watched it a couple times that that is the central question of the movie, for him: who IS he?

So yes, I would agree that most good stories are about self-discovery, and that in the process of the main character discovering him or herself, they teach us something about ourselves too.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Review: Thousand Leaves

Thousand Leaves, by Kevin Frane
8/10, a thrilling story with great characters in a completely realized furry world

Disclaimer: Kevin is a friend of mine and I edited "Thousand Leaves" for Sofawolf, so I am admittedly somewhat biased. :) I read it a while ago, but because it's just been released, I can post this.

Furry fiction lends itself to one of two main types of story: one in which the characters cannot stop obsessing over their "furriness" (whether good or bad), and one in which the furriness barely plays a role. It's rare to find a world that is so internally consistent that the ramifications of a society composed of so many different species are apparent to the reader, but completely ordinary to the characters. It's even rarer to find a good story set in such a world.

The world of "Thousand Leaves" is a multi-species community, at a level of technology roughly contemporary to ours. The city itself is a marvel of architecture and class distinction, with three levels separated from each other physically as well as by class. Reeve, one of the heroes of the book, has just come off a relationship that propelled him into the higher class briefly. He misses both the higher class and the relationship, but more importantly, he's starting to feel that something is wrong with him. His ex, who has taken up with a new boyfriend, misinterprets Reeve's attempts to warn him, even when some of their other upper-class friends start to get sick. Reeve has to turn to their mutual friend Monique and, in a strange turn of events, his ex's new boyfriend, to get to the bottom of the disease.

To tell more about the plot would be to ruin the excitement of what is a tautly constructed thriller. The early part of the book starts slowly, introducing you to the ensemble cast and the spiderweb of relationships that connect them, while laying the groundwork for the medical thriller to come. Think of it as the clack-clack-clack of the roller coaster mounting the hill. Once you crest the hill--and you'll know just where that is--the book doesn't let you go.

Kevin has a terrific touch with character, which allows him to pull off the very tricky feat of having an ensemble cast with character arcs of their own. Each of the personalities in the book is distinct and well-realized, with marvelous dialogue between them. The real joy of "Thousand Leaves" is getting to know the characters, and that's what gives an extra dimension to the medical thriller: you've come to truly care about the characters whose lives are at stake. That's not to short-change his ability to describe the city or the pathos he plunges his cast into, nor the complex plot he has his characters navigate, nor the textured feeling of the world they live in. But the characters are the heart of this book, and a vibrant, engaging heart it is.

I don't usually review Sofawolf books because I'm so intimately involved in the selection, edition, and production. And of course I'm going to say good things about our titles. But I'm particularly proud of having been a part of the release of "Thousand Leaves," not only because it's good for Kevin and good for Sofawolf, but because it's such a great story and exemplar of what we look for in a furry novel. So take my review with a grain of salt, but give "Thousand Leaves" the benefit of the doubt. We wouldn't be printing it if it weren't a great book.

Review: Ghost Map

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson
9/10, Fascinating examination of the causes, revelations, and impact of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic in London

I secretly love the science of epidemiology: tracing the cause of a disease by looking at the patterns of how it spreads. The modern father of the science is John Snow, a British physician, and his seminal case was a cholera epidemic that struck the London slum of Soho in 1854. In order to prove his theory that the disease was transmitted by water, he created a map of the area showing cases of cholera in relation to the pumps that dispensed fresh water to the neighborhood. The prevailing theory of the time was that disease was spread by foul air, or a "miasma," and the Board of Health authorities were so fixated on this theory that even Snow's map did little to convince them.

"Ghost Map" traces the life of Snow and his partner in the investigation, Reverend Henry Whitehead, as well as the life of the small community that was devastated by cholera. Johnson views cities as life forms, their residents the "cells" that contribute to the overall health of the whole. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the opening section, in which he discusses the organically developed solution to the problem of recycling waste (human and otherwise) in London.

The book chronicles not only the spread of an epidemic, the birth of a science, and the lives of two remarkable men; it also traces our migration from an agrarian life to an urban life, with all the benefits and challenges that accompany that change. Johnson sees the response to the Broad Street epidemic as a turning point, where cities began providing solutions to their own problems. His overview of those problems and benefits is just another wonderful piece of this work.

For the writer in me, this book is a reference I will keep around. If I have questions about cities in Renaissance or Victorian-era times, or thoughts about what problems future cities might solve more effectively than we have today, I have only to pull out "Ghost Map" for a refresher. It's hard to find intimate details of life in those early cities without reading through a Dickens novel, but here again "Ghost Map" proves valuable. And finally, the portrait of the two investigators, as well as the forces arrayed against them, is a wonderful character study.

Anyone interested in epidemiology, disease, Victorian-era society, city life, or simply a good story will love this book. Just don't discuss the finer details of cholera transmission over dinner.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Sometimes none of the projects you're working on really excite you. If you're tired (as I am today despite having had reasonable sleep this week), it's a lot harder to make yourself work on things. I know I'm excited at some level about all of these things I'm writing. It's just that I haven't been thinking about them recently, so they're not front of my not-particularly-active mind.

But that just means it's a good time to do some reading. I'll have a review up for you pretty soon.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

* Unrelated to Writing

It's that time of year again, when Mark and I join the SF AIDS Walk. They've got a very nice donation system up, and if you want to help out, you can sponsor me with any amount... every little bit helps. We have made lots of progress towards helping those suffering from AIDS, but there's still a lot of work left to be done. Thanks for anything you can do--and sorry, I won't hijack this space that often. :)

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I love stuff like this. It's all real! Huge counterweights inside buildings that cause earthquakes!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How To Practice Your Writing Every Day

Life is complicated. You want to think that the guy who just cut you off in traffic is just a jerk. You want to be the victim or the hero in all of the little stories you live every day. And sometimes you are, sure. Sometimes you're not. Sometimes you're both wrong, or both right, or both just operating under bad assumptions.

Take a moment and step into the other person's shoes. This is what every good writer has to be able to do. You need to see things from other points of view. Maybe the guy in traffic is a jerk who needs to get ahead of other people. What kind of insecurities make him that way? How does it manifest at his job, in his relationships, his life? There's a character for your next story.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Remembrance of Things Past

You can always count on Garrison Keillor for some nice, lyrical writing. On the rising price of gas and the falling stock of Winnebago, in Salon:

So when gas passes $5 and heads for $8 and $10, we will learn to sit in dim light with our loved ones and talk about hunting and fishing adventures, about war and romance and times of consummate foolishness when we threw caution to the wind and flung ourselves over the Cliffs of Desire and did not land on the Sharp Rocks of Regret.

I'll tell you about the motor home trip and how lovely it was, cruising the prairie at night and drinking beer, stopping by a little creek and grilling fish on a Coleman stove, listening to coyotes. The vanishing of the R.V. only makes your story more interesting. One thing lost, something else gained. Life is like that.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I'm Bleak!

This is probably the only time I'll be on a list with Cormac McCarthy...

Nice to see my books out there on sites like this, though. :)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Different Kinds of Writing

On Reporting vs. Journalism, some--okay, a lot of--very insightful words by one of this blog's favorite writers-at-large, the guy with the gay porn star name, Lance Mannion.

There's no real 'money line,' but here's a good one for writers to keep in mind:

And journalists, real journalists, don't go out into the world just to talk to people. They go out to see how the world is working. They have to collect data. Writers and poets and painters and most other people call this data the details that God is in. Journalists have to see the landscape, they have to see and be able to identify the flowers and weeds dotting the landscape. They have to observe processes and understand how those processes function to the point where they can explain them as well as any expert but in language non-experts can follow (and there's some of the writer's work that has to be done even before sitting down at the keyboard; gathering the details precisely requires finding the right words on the fly), they have to know so they can describe it later, as Hemingway said they had to be able to, how the weather was, the weather being both a metaphorical and a literal fact.

Getting published

I did a panel at the recent Rocky Mountain Fur Con called "From Writer To Author: Getting Published," which went okay. At least, it generated good discussion and I ended up rambling on about character wants and stuff. I thought I'd post my notes here for interested people. It includes a rather long quote from the fangs_fur_fey LJ community, because I'm lazy and didn't want to take the time to say it myself.

The problems most people have with getting published--by a moderated, edited press or journal, as opposed to a "throw whatever online" site--come down to two large areas:

1. Make your writing better
2. Figure out how to submit

So here's my thoughts on those two:

Making your writing better
1. Learn to read with a critical eye.
2. Read a story twice, first to get the feel of the story, the second time to read it critically and pick out what the author is doing and how it contributes to the overall tone of the story.
As an exercise: pick two of your favorite books/stories from the past year. List three things you really liked about each one. This can be anything—a character, a setting, a twist of the story, the way the author uses language, whatever. Now, for each of those things, take some time to figure out why you liked it. Don't just say, “because it was cool.” Try to figure out what the author did that made that particular character, setting, language stand out for you. Look at other books with similar stories, similar characters, and compare. Why does one appeal to you more than another? Take those lessons and apply them to your own writing.
3. Read your work out loud to a friend. Reading out loud forces you to consider every word, to hear them rather than letting your mind skim over them.
4. Join a workshop or form a workshop group. Get critiques from people who are actually interested in critiquing, not in either tearing you down without being helpful or building you up without being critical. Learn how to critique: this will help you look at your own work more critically.

How to submit
1. Do some basic research on the publication. Make sure your submission fits their profile and guidelines.
2. Read what else is being published in the field. Your work is going to be read in that context, so you need to understand the context too. This doesn't mean you have to write something that's exactly like everything else, or completely different from everything else. Ideally, you should be in the ballpark, but distinctive enough to make an editor sit up and notice.
3. Format your submission properly and follow all submission guidelines. When you think your submission is ready, go back and read the guidelines again with a fine-toothed comb to make sure.

On that topic, a comment on author-editor relationships from Phil Brucato, in the fangs_fur_fey LJ community:

As a professional author, an occasional publisher, a writing professor, and an editor for over five years, I think I can answer your question... though my response might not be the answer you want.
Editors receive massive numbers of manuscripts. In order to process even a fraction of them, they (and/or their assistants) must scan copious submissions, applying a number of criteria(*) to see whether or not the submission in question warrants deeper consideration. This is not an elitist power-trip, but an absolute necessity. After all, even editors need to eat and sleep, and there's far more to an editor's job than simply scanning, reviewing and polishing manuscripts!
From my own experience, I can say that barely 15% of submissions get beyond this stage. The majority of submissions are poorly written, grammatically appalling, stylistically unsound, unproofed, badly-printed (if printed at all!), or otherwise violate basic publishing standards. I have no idea whether or not your manuscript fit any of those categories, but the overall rule is usually "If it violates Standard A, B or C, I'm not reading past page 1." Again, this is simple practicality. An editor simply does not have the time to make personal in-depth evaluations of everything s/he receives. There isn't time or energy enough to do so!
Beyond that, an editor must judge submissions by other criteria: whether or not the author(s) meet the promise of their premise; whether or not the project holds that reader's interest; whether or not the proposal fits the plans, needs, identity or limitations of the publishing company; whether or not a similar project is already in the works or on the schedule; whether or not the book is likely to exceed the H-U-G-E costs involved in producing, printing, stocking, shipping, marketing and producing said book; and finally, whether or not the editor enjoys, agrees with or believes in the proposal at all. Any or all of these considerations may derail a book during the reading stage - and believe me, an editor is too busy to keep detailed records about each element of every project that crosses his/her desk, especially at a major publishing house!

Friday, May 23, 2008

MythAdventures Remembered

I met Bob Asprin while I was in college working for the science fiction magazine. We wanted to do interviews with authors, an initiative that lasted exactly two authors, but if they'd all been like Bob, we would never have stopped. He was friendly and accommodating, talked a mile a minute, and was as entertaining as his stories, if not more. We followed up and he was extremely helpful in editing the interview and allowing us to go to press with it. There are plenty of nice people in the science fiction community, but he was more than nice.

I remember picking up the Myth-Adventures series and loving the balance he struck between fun and a serious story, something I've never been able to quite get to my satisfaction in my own work. He slung puns with the best of them, but never lost sight of the heart of his story. His characters, larger than life, remained true to it throughout, or at least as much as you can in a fantasy world.

After the interview and perhaps during the same time as the interview, which was longer ago than I care to remember, he was dealing with other issues that took his energy away from writing. I heard through the grapevine recently that he was working on projects again and was delighted.

Today I heard that he passed away.

His MythAdventures books stay on the shelves, published and republished through Meisha Merlin and others. They're perennial favorites and have now, I think, become firmly cemented as a part of essential fantasy reading.

They'll always be a fondly treasured part of my own reading memories. I can still remember sitting in the room, thanking the heavens for the tape recorder that was capturing everything he said, because my pen couldn't keep up. And I'll remember the conversations afterwards, a young fan being treated like a professional, the way he treated his stories: with humor and respect. Thanks, Bob.


Anyone who's in Denver over Memorial Day weekend, come by Rocky Mountain Fur Con and attend one of my two panels. The first, Saturday at 2, is "From Writer to Author: Getting Published." The second, on Sunday tentatively at 2 (I had to rearrange the schedule I got from them only a week ago) is "Building Furry Worlds," about creating an engaging setting for your anthropomorphic characters. I'll also be around the Sofawolf Press table, so swing by and say hi!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review: City of Ashes

City of Ashes, by Cassandra Clare
7.5/10, a worthy and exciting sequel to "City of Bones"

SPOILERS for "City of Bones" contained herein...

In "City of Bones," Clary, a teenaged girl growing up in New York, spots what appears to be a brutal murder in the back room of a dance club. The three teenagers involved are surprised that she's seen them, and lead her into a world of demons and angels, werewolves and vampires. More shocking than that is the realization that she herself is a part of this world, more intimately than she knows.

"City of Ashes" picks up right where "Bones" left off, with Clary's mother in a coma and herself torn between feeling not romantic enough about her best friend Simon, and too romantic about her newly-revealed brother, the Shadowhunter (demon slayer) Jace. Meanwhile, her--and Jace's--father, Valentine, has stolen one of the Mortal Instruments that will allow him to overturn the rule of the Shadowhunters, and has designs on a second one.

Clary, Jace, and Simon get tossed right into the action, fighting not only Valentine, but also demons, werewolves, vampires, the faerie court, and other Shadowhunters. "Ashes" does what every good fantasy sequel should: keeps the story racing along while expanding the world. We get to meet Valentine for the first time, see the world of the Downworlders (werewolves and vampires) more in depth, meet more Shadowhunters, and witness an existential argument between a werewolf and a vampire over who is more human. Clare's prose carries the story well, building rich, vivid descriptions and terrifically bright characters.

The characters are one of the strongest points of "Ashes." Clary is a pretty typical teen, as is Simon, and the secondary characters in their world have the distinctive palette of a good supporting cast. Especially entertaining are the gay warlock Magnus Bane and the Queen of the Seelie Court. The weakest point is Jace, who is flip and sarcastic almost to the point of being a caricature, even when his life is threatened, his father confronts him, and he's trying to reconcile his love for his sister. But his sarcasm is at least amusing, and it really balances Clary's serious nature. To be honest, I have a bias against all-powerful pretty-boys (see Aiken Drum from the Saga of Pliocene Exile), so that might be coloring my perception. Certainly I'm not the primary audience for the book.

The book is a fast, fun read, and if the plot occasionally hinges on a character's stubborn refusal to listen to advice, it never stretches believability to do so. By the end of it, as is appropriate for the middle book of a fantasy trilogy, things look pretty dire, both for the characters' personal lives and for the world at large. If you like urban fantasy, this is one of the best examples of the genre--the major strike against it being that you'll have to wait a year or two for the third book.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Review: Webmage

Webmage, by Kelly McCullough
8/10, a solid, fun adventure in urban fantasy with surprising depth

Disclaimer: I read Kelly's writings over at Wyrdsmiths and have corresponded with him.
In fact, I picked up "Webmage" at a book signing and feel bad it's taken me so long to read it!

I can't really complain about the modern fantasy market being dominated by cookie-cutter Dragonlance adventures, because I only read fantasy that's come with pretty good recommendations, or else authors I know and trust (like Tim Powers, who could not by any stretch of the imagination be called "cookie-cutter," unless you happen to have a trans-dimensional cookie-cutter, and even then it would have to be shaped like an ancient god or something). That said, I picked up Webmage largely on the strength of having read some of McCullough's short works--and attending his book signing.

The big hook of Webmage is that it melds classical mythology-based fantasy with modern technology (hence the title). Ravirn, the protagonist, is a descendant of Lachesis, one of the three Fates (Clotho and Atropos are the others). He and his family stand for Order, in opposition to the goddesses of Chaos. He's an expert hacker--not as good at coding spells, but great at digging into them.

The problem he faces is that one of his aunts has gone a bit too far. She wants to impose a lot more order on the universe--namely, getting rid of that pesky free will that knots up her threads. Her spell doesn't quite work, however, and that's where she's tried to rope him in. Ravirn doesn't like the sound of the spell, and goes about trying to expose his aunt to the other Fates.

Webmage keeps the reader involved with some great chases, problems, and characters. Ravirn, though clever and resourceful, relies heavily on the assistance of others, most frequently his snarky laptop/familiar Melchior. Even though the "familiar with attitude" is a fairly common modern fantasy archetype, it works wonderfully here. Mel is a great complement to Ravirn; together they can muddle through lots of situations, and other characters show up to help when they can't.

In the end, the hook is really little more than an entertaining magic system, but it adds enough originality to the book to elevate it above the traditional fantasy. McCullough has a great touch with character, description, and action, but beyond that, the question of free will is woven nicely into the book in a way that makes it more than just an adventure. I love mythology-based fantasy and Webmage did not disappoint. Having attended the U of M (Minnesota), I particularly enjoyed following Ravirn through its campus (and in one scene in which he breaks into the hated Weisman art museum, I was cheering for him to do more damage).

If you're looking for something that stands out from traditional dragon-fighting medieval quests, or just for a good story, Webmage is a fun, engaging read.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good Writing

You want good writing? You want a great story? You want a lesson in how to build up your readers' expectations, build tension, give them way more than they thought they were getting?

You want Gene Weingarten. You want the Great Zucchini.

(It's a couple years old, but this is the first time I've seen it.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: The Soul of Baseball

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, by Joe Posnanski
8.5/10, a terrific look back at the Negro Leagues through the eyes of its most enthusiastic ambassador

I grew up a Philadelphia Phillies fan, becoming aware of baseball some twenty years after Jackie Robinson made his historic debut. In the mid-to-late seventies, the Philly press had still only grudgingly accepted African-American ballplayers onto their club: Mike Schmidt was the hero of that team, Greg Luzinski the slugger, Larry Bowa the scrappy shortstop. Garry Maddox, who served just as faithfully in center field for years, was one of the only non-white players on the team, let alone starting.

A kid growing up in a liberal household had no idea that there were differences or attitudes. It was only later that I recall my father telling me how cold the Philly fans and press were to embrace Maddox, compared to the affection they lavished on Schmidt and the others. In my mind, his is the only name I can remember the announcer saying, the name, "GARRRRY LEEEEEEEEEE MADDOX" echoing through the ballpark.

I had no idea the Negro Leagues existed until college, and then it seemed to me that they were a loose, patchwork show, a bunch of guys who weren't allowed to play baseball in the bigs, so they got together just to play, like a grown-up sandlot league. I had never heard, nor heard of, Buck O'Neil.

In the past few years, his name has been all over, from his famous Hall of Fame snub until his death last year. Joe Posnanski, a Kansas City sports columnist, traveled with Buck for a year, admitting that he himself didn't know what the book was going to be about until he started to write it. He found his topic in Buck O'Neil himself, the man more than the collection of his stories.

Not that the stories aren't great. His "Nancy" story is worth all the buildup. But the stories are only pieces of the whole, the experience of the men in the Negro Leagues, including Buck himself, who played as fiercely, as colorfully, and as competitively as their "official" counterparts.

Buck's story, encompassing the stories he tells over the course of the book, is compelling and moving. There are some former players who are consumed by bitterness at the discrimination they suffered, others who have learned to live with it. Buck, magically, seems to be free of it. And that is at the heart of "The Soul of Baseball," the paradox of this man who experienced firsthand the worst in people and chose to see only the best.

Posnanski's writing is skillful and evocative, crisp and colorful as a sportswriter should be. In fact, my main complaint about the book is that he doesn't let enough of himself show. I picked up the book because of Joe's blog, a consistently entertaining and insightful look at sports in general and baseball in particular. The personality of the author is one of the great delights of the blog. But in this book, I understand his dilemma: the book is about Buck, and to color it with himself would be to overshadow Buck. I think he made the right choice, but it wasn't the book I expected to read.

It's still a great read, even if you're not a baseball fan or a Joe Posnanski fan.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Fight Against Evil

In lieu of my own words, some wise ones from Eleanor Arnason, explaining her aversion to "quest against evil" fantasy novels:

In so far as evil exists, it is people, and they are evil either because they have malfuctioning brains or because they have become corrupted. Evil is not creatures with many legs that remind you of spiders, and it isn't dark lords who loom in the distance. It is the greed heads and power freaks who decided to invade Iraq and destroy a nation to meet their personal needs, whatever those may be.

If fantasy is going to help us understand the world, then it ought to come up with descriptions of evil that help us recognize evil in the real world. Tolkien does this in Saruman, Wormtongue, Boromir, Denethor, the thugs in the Shire and so on. He shows us a wide range of corruption: those who intimidated by evil, those who are tempted, those who utterly corrupted.

I guess what I am saying is, evil is not The Other. It is right here in our neighbors and allies and the leaders we trust.

I like that. I've always thought that the corrupted friend was a better villain than the guy who was just "evil" for whatever reason. Even though I do write some fantasy, I don't think I've often, if ever, written a "pure evil" villain. The villains in my stories are, as Eleanor says, the people among us who feel themselves above our moral codes, better than our society, more important than you and me.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Last Day for Voting

Hi all!

Today's the last day for voting in the Ursa Major Awards. If you haven't already, it's important to go vote for your favorite works!

(Especially if, y'know, those works happen to be a certain novel or magazine...)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Busy busy!

Apologies for the lack of posting, if anyone's noticed. I have been traveling the last three weekends, and am trying to wrap up layout on two Sofawolf books for the summer. Hopefully this weekend will see the bulk of that work done. I have a book to review and writing to talk about, so look for more postings soon! And keep an eye on http://yourtablesready.blogspot.com for restaurant reviews and maybe a neat surprise...

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
9/10 because I love history and science and Bill Bryson and this has all of that

One of my favorite books during my childhood was Isaac Asimov's "The Universe," a non-fiction* exploration of how we have looked at the universe from historical times to the present day. It's where I learned about the Cepheid yardstick being wrong, about the redshift discovery of the universe's expansion, and about the steady-state vs. Big Bang controversy. Along comes Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything," a sort of updated and expanded "The Universe," focusing more on Earth than on everything else. Asimov, for instance, spent no time on the evolution of man or the history of Earth except insofar as it related to our understanding of the age of the universe.

* It's interesting, I think, that when we want to say a book is based on fact, we have to specify that it's "non-fiction." I was trying to think of another adjective and could only come up with "fact-based" or "factual," neither of which sounded right. We just assume a "book" is fiction unless told otherwise.

Bryson's "History" (technically, that is the subtitle, footnoted to a picture of the Earth, but I'm too lazy to find a picture of the Earth to put everywhere I want to show the title), conversely, does cover the establishment of our view of the universe, but only to show how we view our place in it. Fully half the book is devoted, lovingly, to the history of the Earth itself and the development of life thereon.

The strength of Bryson's work has always been his stories about people, and in this book, he humanizes the science by focusing on the scientists. He tells us that one of the scientists really responsible for the discovery of the structure of DNA (who was never recognized with the Nobel that Watson and Crick received) was a scientist who jealously guarded her findings because, as a woman, her male colleagues never stopped trying to take advantage of her. We learn about the great international project to map the transit of Venus in 1761, for which scientists were dispatched around the world, including one tragic Frenchman who missed not only the 1761 transit, but the subsequent one in 1769, and whose story just goes downhill from there.

Every chapter is full of these stories, balancing the enormity of the discoveries with the humanity of the discoverers. From Aristotle's greatest insight to Einstein's greatest mistake, from cyanobacteria to antibiotics, Bryson shows us not only the history of our humble home, but our place in it, concluding with a moving chapter on our responsibility to our fellow inhabitants.

Not as consistently entertaining as Bryson's other non-fiction work, but just as engaging and more informative, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a great read and a great story, and best of all, we're all characters in it.*

* Not really.