Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Monthly Archives: August 2007

Writing meme from Wyrdsmiths

Via Kelly McCullough over at Wyrdsmiths:

What do you find _______ about writing?

Hardest? Description. Every time I write out a description I worry that it’s too long, or not long enough, or boring or stopping the action or whatever.

Easiest? Dreaming up the stories and watching them unfold in my head. The characters and situations all work together well in a good story.

Most fun? Translating the stories in my head to the written word, watching them take shape and sometimes a life of their own.

Most Tedious? Forcing myself to write when nothing’s flowing, when I know I’m going to not get much done and will be revising most of what does get written anyway.

Coolest? The life that the stories and characters take on when the story’s done–part of that being the reactions of other people upon reading them.

Least cool? The fact that 1/4 of Americans didn’t read a single book last year.

Best? The joy of creation.

Worst? It’s a pretty mild worst, but the fact that it takes so much time and that I don’t have enough to do all the writing I wish I could…

Join in below, or comment with a link to your own post…

Review: The Final Solution

The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon
8.5/10, a lyrical Sherlock Holmes pastiche

After reading his award-winning epic “The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay,” about a pair of childhood friends who draw a comic book and grow up to become important figures in the industry, I wanted to read more of his stuff, and only just got around to picking up a couple more books. This was the shorter one, so got read first.

Disclaimer: I love Sherlock Holmes and own all his stories. Chabon lets anyone who’s familiar with the mythology know right away that this is Holmes: an old beekeeper retired to the country who analyzes the people he meets for clues about their habits, as sharp as in his heyday, if less active. But he never uses the name, whether out of copyright issues or for the purposes of the story, I’m not sure. Still, it’s clear who the “old man” is, and within the story, his name is well known.

The story kicks off when he meets a young boy with a parrot on his shoulder. The boy is mute, but the parrot is not. The old man fails to make much sense of their story, but the encounter is significant, because the bird becomes the key element in a murder at the house where the boy lives. The year is 1944, and the war figures prominently in the story.

What is always a joy to read is Chabon’s simple, lyrical descriptions, the kind that make you want to stop and read them out loud to someone. He gets under the skin of people and tells you how they tick, what makes them happy and what makes them afraid. In this way, he’s rather the opposite of Holmes, who makes his deductions based on leavings and traces; Chabon shows us the insides of everyone. The old man, though the primary character, is not the only point-of-view character. We even spend a little time getting to know the parrot.

The story is simple, the characters complicated, the language beautiful. At the core of it, the story is about people finding a purpose. The old man ponders, in a lovely passage, that he is more afraid of dying without dignity than of dying on its own. When detecting, looking for clues, he feels death could come upon him then and he wouldn’t mind, because detecting is his life’s work. We see that same lack of purpose in the adoptive father of the mute boy, a vicar who does not feel very religious, as well as his wife, struggling to come to grips with the attitude of their natural son, and even in the parrot itself, who holds a surprising number of secrets in its little head.

If you are a Holmes fan, you will enjoy this; if you like good writing and characters, you will enjoy it. The story feels more organic than planned, but that didn’t bother me at all, nor will it stop me from recommending this book.

Review: Brighten to Incandescence

Brighten to Incandescence, by Michael Bishop
7.5/10, great writing and ideas that aren’t as engaging as they should be

My first exposure to Michael Bishop’s writing was back in the late eighties, when the science fiction class I was taking studied “No Enemy But Time.” It was a fascinating idea: a man going back in time to live with a family of early hominids. Problem was, I found my attention wandering, and partway through the book, he introduced a plot twist out of nowhere that I just didn’t get. It won a Nebula, so what do I know, but there are so many other authors out there that I just never bothered to pick anything else up by him again, until this year.

He had a story online with intelligent rats (“O Happy Day“)that was included in this collection. As I’m trying to collect authors for New Fables, it caught my eye. These are short stories, I thought, so I gave him another shot and bought the collection.

It’s a mixed bag. To continue forward the topic of the last post, Bishop is definitely a Good Writer. He demonstrates in this collection an impressive range of ability in science fiction, from aliens to the dusty southwest to the near future. His imagination is seemingly boundless, taking the reader through different places and ideas in each story, building vivid worlds and scenarios and characters. He has a deft talent for description and dialogue particularly; his worlds feel textured and real, and his characters rarely, if ever, sound fake.

But it’s the stories themselves that stop this from being a brilliant collection. Sometimes they take a really odd turn midstream, as when a story of courtship and romance becomes an odd stalker-thriller. Sometimes they just end when the idea is played out, without any change in the characters, leaving you wondering what you’re supposed to get out of the story (the rat story was one of these). And in light of Eleanor Arnason’s posting about male SF writers being violent and all about the technology, well, Bishop is certainly much more about society and ideas than about technology, but it seems that at least half these stories deal with murders, and the ones that don’t deal with some kind of emotional violence.

“Murder on Lupozny Station” (co-written with Gerald Page) was probably my favorite in the volume, a story of a human-alien dyad, linked as starship pilots. Bishop gives us enough glimpses of the alien culture to make them feel real, and brings off a nice murder mystery in the process.

His afterword is worth reading. In it, he talks about each of the stories, and also about his collaborations. He feels that SF/fantasy is a more collaborative genre than some others (mystery is notoriously competitive and, forgive the term, backstabbing), and I’ve found that in my work as well. Even if collaborations don’t always pan out, there is always someone willing to try them and they turn out to be a lot of fun.

I admire Bishop’s writing and hesitantly recommend this volume. Because the stories are short, you can read one or many, depending on your time, and certainly the ideas themselves are worth exploring. I just wish he’d do a little more with his characters.

David Simon Does Not Care To Explain Himself To You

Via Nancy Nall, an excerpt from an interview with David Simon (payment required), creator of “The Wire” (apparently the best TV show I’ve never seen), in response to a question from Nick Hornby (!) about how he gets all his slang right:

DAVID SIMON: My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

We go back to science fiction here, with the question of how much you have to explain your world. As always, a single success outshines a mountain of failures, so who knows how many writers are currently muttering “fuck the average reader” as they rummage through dumpsters or look out their parents’ basement window over their pile of uncompromising, unsold manuscripts. But he makes a good point: your writing has a core audience. Don’t worry about making everyone else happy. Make sure your core audience is excited and engaged with your story. If you do that, the people who don’t know what your world is about will make the effort to learn.

Seth Godin puts it another way, to look at it from a marketing perspective: “In actuality, though, most markets aren’t big enough for two blockbusters. The first one dominates the little market, which allows it to break through and capture the attention of the big market. The bestseller creates the problem (I haven’t read that/tasted that/been there) and then solves that problem.” Get your core audience excited enough, and chances are your work will start to reach outside it. Write to satisfy everyone and you’ll never get enough people interested to reach all those people you wanted to satisfy.

Harry Potter (again)

One of the interesting memes in the wake of the release of the last “Harry Potter” book has been whether J.K. Rowling is a Good Writer. Many of my friends say no (some with the caveat that she’s a great storyteller); they point to the worst section in the series, the first third/half of book five, in which the relentless dismantling of all the joy of the first four books is nearly unendurable, or they talk about the difficulty in reading “ALL CAPS” Harry. To be fair, there are times when Rowling seems downright uncomfortable with her writing, most often (as Cassie Clare pointed out) when writing about romance. The “monster coiling in Harry’s belly” seemed like someone trying to describe a boy’s awakening to puberty without (a) having gone through it, or (b) being explicit about it at all.

In Salon, Laura Miller (day pass or subscription required) says of Rowling that “the texture and color of her imaginary world is earthy (but not lusty), homely, grounded, irreverent, antic, perfectly suited to the audience of 10-year-olds she first devised it for 10 years ago. Her voice, tone and imagination are rooted in social comedy and observation, not in the metaphysical and transcendent…” This is the best analysis of her writing that I’ve read. I have little to add to it.

Stephen King, in a long article in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, says “she was and is an incredibly gifted novelist.” Novelist (a term Laura Miller also uses) simply means that she writes novels, stories about people, rather than Significant Works such as Paradise Lost, or your average Don DeLillo book. King, whatever you may think of his actual writing, knows a thing or two about the craft (his “On Writing” is one of the best books for writers I’ve read), and I would at this point trust him more to evaluate another writer than to pen a brilliant story.

At the core of it, it feels to me like all of the debate over whether Rowling is a Good Writer or not stems from a touch of professional jealousy, a desire to take down the hugely popular books or demean them because they are so popular. “Yes, well, of course the masses love her, but they don’t know what good writing is.” She is not Dorothy Parker, she is not Madeleine L’Engle; in the world of children’s books, her nearest peer may be Andre Norton, who filled many hours of my childhood with delightful science fiction and fantasy stories that, at their core, were always about the people in them. She introduced me to many strange and wonderful characters (Eet remains one of my favorite sidekicks ever), told gripping and beautiful stories, and took me to faraway worlds. Whatever the quality of her prose, those are the marks of a good writer, and that is as true of the late Ms. Norton as it is of Ms. Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Fundamentalist Deconstruction

[No spoilers]

I haven’t actually heard much about the Fundies’ response to HP7. Perhaps they’re just happy the whole thing is over with. But Lance Mannion has a great take on why they object to Harry Potter in the first place, and what Rowling’s message in the books is. Excerpted:

When all is said and done, Rowling makes one very key point about magic.

It’s not important.

Harry does not succeed because he is a great wizard. He is, as it happens, not particularly adept at being a wizard.

Magic isn’t what saves the day. To say it does is like saying that the hero’s gun saves the day in a Western.

Magic is just the technology of the wizarding world and Rowling makes it clear that putting one’s faith in magic is a sign of stupidity (the folks at the Ministry) or inhumanity (Voldemort and his followers). To trust in a tool or a technology is to give up thinking for one’s self or to give up one’s soul and make a tool of one’s self.

To make a belief system out of trusting in tools over people is an insanity.

It isn’t hard to make the leap from that to the conclusion that Rowling isn’t fond of any belief system that encourages people to put their trust not in their own selves but in the authority of the belief system and its ruling elders.

Dumbledore, the greatest wizard ever, performs very little magic over the course of the first six books, and he teaches Harry very few tricks.

His main, and almost his only lesson, for Harry?

Think, Harry! Think!

The whole article is a bit long, as Lance’s sometimes are, but worth it, as they almost always are. And if you want more reading, his post is a followup to this post about why the fundamentalists hate Harry Potter. Which I admit I haven’t read all of, yet, but the parts I did read look good.

Return from ComicCon / New book on sale

San Diego Comic-Con International is quite the event now, making national headlines and attracting Hollywood and its satellite industries (now including video game producers and toy companies). I love comics, and my favorite part of Comic-Con (apart from all the restaurants in San Diego) is walking around the independent publishers and small press tables to see what the individual creative spirits are up to this year.

This also awakens in me a yearly desire to Do A Comic, mainly because any story without a graphical component is largely ignored here. That desire gets worse when you spend the entire weekend sitting behind a table watching your novel be ignored while people coo over some (admittedly very good) graphic novels. At any rate, I’ve had a comic idea in mind for, oh, years now, and though I can’t draw quickly or all that well, I can draw passably and in the past week I’ve fleshed out the world and plot of this comic considerably (in past years it had never really gotten beyond the layout for page 1, followed by “and then some stuff happens”). So we’ll see how it goes–I will update more in this space as time goes on.

Speaking of projects that don’t require me to draw, though, my literary journal New Fables is now on sale online from Sofawolf. This project grew out of a Fabulist Fiction class I took at Stanford, when some friends and I realized that “furry” stories with literary merit could be classified as fabulist, and when our classmates in that class really enjoyed our stories without questioning too much why they all involved talking animal people.

Neither of those stories are in this anthology, but in addition to my own contribution (which is set in a future Earth in between our time and the time of New Tibet, intended to be in the same world though nothing really establishes that), there are stories by Michael Payne, Kevin Frane (my former classmate), and Ryan Campbell. In addition, Phil Geusz and I wrote essays; Ryan, David Cowan, and Elizabeth Barrette contributed poems; and Sara Palmer and Heather Bruton added one-page illustrated stories. Ursula Husted drew a lovely cover for us, and the ever-talented Blotch and Jill C. also helped with interior illustrations.

I’m really proud of it. Please go check it out!