Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: August 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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 abebooks.com (look for the Avon 1981 paperback edition).

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.

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.