Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Monthly Archives: July 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?

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.)

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.

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.


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.