Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Monthly Archives: August 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.


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.

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.

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).

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.