Adventures in writing

I haven’t done much writing of my own for a long time (blog posts and e-mails excluded). There’s always something getting in the way – a job, dirty dishes, children requiring attention…

But over the last few years, I’ve slowly and tortuously managed to write a novel-length piece of fiction. This is a pretty Big Deal for me. Growing up, I always had my verbal/writing skills praised, and this was couched in terms of intelligence. Even as an 11 or 12 year old, I can remember a specific incident of putting a writing project away and deciding not to continue because I feared that it wasn’t perfect enough, that anyone who read it would decide that everyone had been wrong all along and I would be exposed as the unintelligent fraud I had always been. Since then, I’ve found writing extremely difficult. I would start a project, get midway through my first draft (which is about where the initial euphoria of inspiration starts to wear out), realize that what I was writing was the kind of thing only an unintelligent person would write, and give up.

So being able to stick with a project for so long (and to actually reach an end, no less!) is a very big step for me.

Even bigger was letting anyone see it.

In addition to my concerns about appearing unintelligent, I also worried about what I might accidentally reveal about my private psyche. My main character is a lot like me, in both personality and formative experiences. Even though the situation she’s placed in is entirely fictional (there’s magic and vampires, so rather out of my realm of experience), her perceptions of those events are very much mine. And very much private. They are the things I would perhaps rather no one know that I secretly think about them.

I had to close my eyes when I hit “send,” but I did it. And it took me a week after getting the first review back before I was finally able to open it and look.

As worked up as I had made myself, the comments my reviewer left really weren’t that bad! Still, it’s quite a process to dissociate myself as I read. There are times when I play around with words or grammar, when I invent words that have the right feel for what I need, when I omit punctuation to convey a particular messiness of thought, that my reviewer didn’t grok at all. Worse, she thought them errors, and so I appear unintelligent.

But I expected those feelings, and the week I took before opening her comments document was precisely intended to prepare myself, to get into the right frame of mind to read her comments impersonally.

What I didn’t expect was her disbelief at several details of my main character’s past. These events, she writes (I paraphrase), wouldn’t happen like that. Couldn’t happen like that. Yet they would and could, and I know that because they did. The parts she found most unbelievable were the parts I had borrowed from my own experiences.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I found it upsetting, so much as unsettling.

In any case, I’m glad that I went through the exercise, as painful as it was. I feel looser now, somehow, like I’ve already been for a swim in the deep end so there’s nothing to fear from the kiddy pool. I’m already excited to work on a final draft, incorporating the comments I’ve received (and I need to re-write the denouement, which is bloody awful right now), and then to move on to something new.

I’m also incredibly proud of myself just for finishing. Good or not, I did it, I wrote a novel. If I die tomorrow, my eulogy could honestly call me a novelist. I am brimming.

    Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

    Read: 29 June 2015

    As with Starship TroopersStranger offers up a buffet of thoughts and philosophies, provoking quite a bit of introspection, if not agreement. The premise of the novel is that a human born and raised on Mars is brought back to earth, juxtaposing human (mainly North American, but there are smatterings of Islam) culture to the fictional Martian way of thinking. Much of the difference, it seems, stems from humans having two biological sexes, while the Martians have only one.

    The problem, the same problem I had with Starship Troopers, is that some pretty awful things are presented as Truth, delivered by characters who are set up all-knowing (or close enough) Truth Tellers, without even so much as the balance of a dissenting voice. In Starship Troopers, what stood out the most for me was the proposition that we could solve our social ills by reinstating corporal punishment (from babyhood and into adulthood). Here, my big issue had to do with the novel’s attitudes toward women.

    Women are treated rather atrociously throughout the novel. There are brief moments where Heinlein seems close to acknowledging this, such as when he has Jill bristle at being called “little lady” by Digby (and Harshaw underlines the point by bringing it up again, mocking Digby by using the term himself). This comes so close to being a condemnation of the casual infantilizing of women that was so common in the 50s and 60s. The problem is that Digby is far from the only character who does this (and his “crime” seems to be more the awkward repetition of the phrase, rather than its use in the first place). Throughout the novel, women are referred to as “little girl” (and equivalent terms), and generally treated like some odd cross between child and servant.

    But the true shocker is when Jill claims that, 9 times out of 10, women are at least partially to blame if they get raped. This is presented as instructional, teaching Mike (the “man from Mars”) about The Way Things Are, and the statement is never challenged. It is simply dropped as a logical and accurate observation, one that anyone other than a cultural newborn like Mike would know, if they gave it any thought.

    Even once we get to the nest stage of the novel, where Mike becomes a messiah figure leading his disciples in what is presented as a perfect human state, when the male and female characters are at their most equal, the banter still reveals deep prejudices. As do the assumptions made by the characters, and how many of the duties are arranged (it is women who do the bulk of the “service” work, such as running Harshaw’s bath).

    The problem, as with the issue of corporal punishment in Starship Troopers, is that Heinlein presents himself as a philosophical forward thinker, capable of seeing through the cultural prejudices that blind most people. And yet, when it comes to certain issues, he seems just as unwilling to consider alternatives as anyone else.

    The issue of homosexuality in Strangers (and in Heinlein’s broader body of work) is a much more complicated discussion. On the surface, Strangers seems as indisposed to challenge the social mores of the 50s and 60s with regards to homosexuality as it is with regards to women.

    There main pull-quotes are:

    1. Jill is very concerned that Mike, being from genderless Mars, might not know not to accept advances from gay men, so she issues a rule against it. She is relieved that Mike chooses men for his inner circle who are very masculine (and women who are very feminine), emphasizing both her ideal of sexual binarism and her distaste for homosexuality.
    2. When Mike allows Jill to see women through a man’s eyes – as sexual objects – she is relieved to find that she goes back to viewing women in a non-sexual way once she sees them through her own eyes again. The narrator says that “to have discovered in herself Lesbian tendencies would have been too much.” While the argument might be made that this is all from Jill’s perspective, a remnant of her somewhat conservative upbringing, the view is never challenged (even though Jill’s views in other areas are being challenged in nearly every scene in which she appears – first by Harshaw, then by Mike).
    3. When Ben tells Harshaw of his visit to the nest, he is forced to admit that, in the nest, men kiss men. This, he assures Harshaw, is “not a pansy gesture.” Harshaw then talks about the Kiss of Brotherhood, and a fair amount of effort is put into reassuring themselves and the reader that there is nothing homosexual about the expressions of physical intimacy between men in the context of Water Brothers.

    But then there are hints of a more accepting perspective. Jill is no Lesbian, we are assured, yet her Kiss of Brotherhood with Patty is described as “greedy.” Not only that, but men are expressing physical intimacy with each other, and frequently doing so while completely naked. Like I said, it’s a complicated issue, and one that I don’t feel prepared to parse out. I did manage to find a good article on Strange Horizons that tackles the issue. 

    My final complaint about the novel is that Harshaw feels far too much like an author insert. He is an outsider, a prime mover, and he is a dispenser of wisdom through nearly the whole book. His role is almost exclusively to drop down into the other characters’ lives, tell them everything they’ve been doing wrong, deliver snippets of great wisdom, and swoop back into the sky. Pages upon pages are devoted to his rants, and all the other characters fawn over his superior logic and wisdom. At one point, a character exclaims that Harshaw is the only person to be capable of groking Mike’s mysteries without first having learned to speak Martian. It’s not until the very end that he is taken by surprise, and then it’s only to pump up Mike’s own specialness and to set Harshaw up as his spiritual successor.

    The novel feels rather uneven, divided into two (arguably three) very clear parts that struggle to fit together as a whole. Still, I found the novel very interesting and thought-provoking, despite its flaws.

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      Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

      Read: 27 June, 2015

      Bird by Bird is another book about writing, based in large part on the classes Lamott teaches (the conceit fades in and out, but by the end she addresses her readers directly as if they were students who had just completed her course). The style reminded me more of Writing Down the Bones, rather than Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, in that it was more of a pep talk, more about attitude, rather than the actual mechanics of writing. And pep talk it certainly was. In fact, if I were to summarize the thesis of the book, it would be: “Keep at it, don’t be discouraged, you can survive this!”

      I enjoyed the book, and I mostly liked Lamott’s writing, but I didn’t feel like I got as much out of it as I had from Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s book make me keep putting it down to go write, and I’m still using many of its prompts. Bird by Bird never really gave me that feeling. As I finished the final page, I did feel like I wanted to pick up my writing project and work on it for a bit, but it wasn’t the frantic feeling I got from Bones.

      Still, I found Lamott’s writing to be interesting, if not truly engaging, and the book is full of little gems, little pericopes that I thoroughly enjoyed. I doubt that this is a book that will stick with me, but I did enjoy the ride while it lasted.

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        Wheel of Time #13: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

        Read: 23 May, 2015

        Where The Gathering Storm mostly focused on Rand and Egwene, Towers of Midnight brings us back to Perrin and Mat. Sanderson has explained that, while Jordan had originally intended only one more book, Sanderson felt that the material really needed three. And the divide in focus between these two books shows that they had originally been planned to be one. We saw the same problem in George R.R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons. And, as in Martin’s books, I felt it gave the two books an uneven feel.

        That’s certainly not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Cruel as it may be to say, and sad as the precipitating event was, I find myself glad that Sanderson took over the series. I find that his version of the characters are more compelling, and are capable of a greater range of emotions. And while some of the very uncomfortable gender dynamics remain (I don’t think it would have been possible to eliminate them entirely, given the worldbuilding and characters Sanderson had to work with), they’ve been quite muted. The greatest change, though, is in the pacing. The books are just as long, but so much more exciting to read!

        I have little to say about Towers of Midnight in particular, though. Things happen, the resolutions are all much as anticipated. In fact, I can only recall one moment in the book that bothered me. (SPOILERS: It was Noal’s death, which felt so meaningless. Mat tried so hard to come up with a phrasing that would protect his party from the Eelfin and Aelfin, yet left a gaping loophole. Noal was only put in the position of having to sacrifice himself because of this absurd mistake. Not only that, but we then learn that the time he bought the rest of the party was unneeded in the first place because Mat had the key to get out of Eelfinn/Aelfinn lands the whole time anyway! He was a somewhat interesting background character who just died, seemingly for no reason at all.)

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          Kon Kon Kokon, vol.1 by Koge-Donbo

          Read: 20 May, 2015

          A friend was moving some time ago (an embarrassingly long time ago) and offloaded a bunch of books – including a rather large collection of manga. Of course, this all sat in a closet until my recent major purge effort. I’ve gotten rid of several dozens of books in the last few days, but there are some that I wanted to read quickly before giving them away. The manga, which only takes 20 minutes or so per book, seemed like something I could at least skim through before the collection passed on to its next owners.

          I should probably preface this review by saying that I don’t generally read manga. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read manga before. So I’m sure that a lot of the conventions went right over my head, or maybe I just didn’t get it, I don’t know.

          The description on the back of the book tells us that this is a story of a young man, Ren, who very desperately wants to be the Cool Guy in school. He is met by a fox-girl, Kokon, who claims that he saved her many years previously and she has now come to repay him.

          So that’s the synopsis, and it’s perfectly fine. It has the potential to be interesting (which is why I picked the book out of the box to begin with). The problem is that these two plot points – Ren’s desire to be cool and Kokon’s desire to repay him – are mentioned over and over again on almost every page. With every new thing that happens, Ren freaks out that this will make him uncool, Kokon repeats her desire to repay him, things work out, Ren is gratified to learn that the awkward situation actually made him look cooler. Over and over again.

          The story telling is far too hyperactive for my tastes. Every emotion is presented as extreme. Meeting someone new leads to an inner monologue of questions: “Who is she?? Where does she come from?? Will she find out that I’m secretly a total nerd?? Will meeting her make me look uncool??”

          I can accept that some of this might be due to poor translation, but I suspect that it’s just bad storytelling.

          The artwork is fine. It doesn’t stand out, but it isn’t terrible, either. The main problem I had was keeping the characters straight, since they all rather look alike.

          I was intrigued by the concept of mythological creatures coming into a “real world” setting, but Kon Kon Kokon just fell flat for me.

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            Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

            Read: 15 May, 2015

            When the inventor of a revolutionary virtual universe (OASIS) dies, he wills his vast fortune and control over the OASIS to the first person who can find the ultimate easter egg.

            The novel is an unabashed ’80s field trip, or “nostalgia-porn” as some reviewers are putting it. If people who were kids/teenagers in the ’80s generally thought something was cool, it’s likely mentioned somewhere in this book (plus a few nerdgasms from later decades). Want to see an X-wing fighting a Firefly? Done. Want to see if a Leopardon could beat a Mechagodzilla? Covered.

            Of course, the book was written by the fantasies of a nerdy white boy, which is a shame. There was/is so much more to nerd culture that that demographic seems to have completely missed (and, being the group with the most media attention, they’ve managed to really control the narrative of nerd-dom as being a thing that belonged entirely to white boys in the pure Golden Days, which others are only now trying to infiltrate). Surely, despite the image of nerds manufactured by media like Revenge of the Nerds, Cline could have imaged a distant future where even women would have a place. Instead, the default characters are all white men.

            Aside from the default, there’s a Love Interest, two Samurai-obsessed Japanese boys (no surprise there), and three background mother-figures who are dead by the end of the third act (so the MC can have a little angst). It rather struck a nerve since, as a geek girl, the only role my friends could slot me into was the Love Interest. This meant that I had to be perfect – I had to be beautiful, I had to be funny, I had to be completely knowledgeable about every single little piece of trivia, and I had to do it all in a way that never made me “intimidating”. You know, all the things Art3mis is in Ready Player One. Of course, this was impossible. And every time I failed to live up to the Love Interest ideal, my right to membership in the clique was questioned. I couldn’t be a friend, so if I couldn’t be the perfect Love Interest, what was I even doing there? It was exhausting having to put in so much work just so that I could play some games and feel like I belonged for a little while.

            (SPOILERS: Yes, I know about Aech. I’m not really counting her/him, though, since the reveal happens right at the end, and it felt like he/she was just a “have POC/Woman in book” achievement for the author. Because Aech is a white male through the entire book save for one small part – after which she/he returns to being a white male – I count the character as such.)

            So, fine, that was kind of the reality for the ’80s and ’90s. The geeky girls had to fit that mould, or they had to learn to work their hobbies into their “totally normal, totally not a geek” social circles (which many did, as I discovered far too late for my child-self’s peace of mind). So I can buy the idea that a white guy who grew up in the ’80s just wouldn’t have noticed all the nerdy POCs and women around him if they weren’t love interests, but this novel is set decades into the future. Why is this still the case? Particularly when women and POC gamers are becoming so much more visible now? It’s frustrating.

            The off-hand transphobia was rather jarring as well. When Wade is talking to Art3mis about her meatspace identity, he mentions something about hoping she’s really a woman. Then clarifies that he means “a human female who has never had a sex-change operation.” I mean, just, why?

            There’s more, of course. It’s the Revenge of the Nerds demographic, where stalking a woman gets her to fall in love with you, where the Love Interest has to be perfect in every way except at the one skill – playing video games – that the protagonist most closely identifies with (lest she be intimidating, of course!), or that the Love Interest must be gorgeous but very insecure about her appearance (but don’t worry, she’s still gorgeous!! That’s extremely important and must be dwelled upon!!).

            It’s frustrating, because I really enjoyed the book. I loved the nostalgia (that was my childhood, too), I loved the set up of meeting someone in cyber-space and not being quite sure how to take it offline (my spouse and I met online – in fact, our most recent Date Night was spent playing Ironclad Tactics), and I loved the sheer “IDGAF ’cause this is just cool” playfulness. But at every turn, I felt like I was being written out of my own childhood, and it’s just rather depressing.

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              Huntress by Malinda Lo

              Read: 9 May, 2015

              Summer has failed to come, the land is starving, and strange monsters have begun to appear. When an invitation is received from the Fairy Queen, no one thinks it’s a coincidence.

              There was so much about this book that I liked, and so much that made me like the idea of the book, but I found that it just fell flat.

              For one thing, there’s the non-stock fantasy backdrop (in this case, Lo has created a classical Chinese-inspired culture). It was very refreshing to see, and would have been interesting if it had lasted for more than a few pages. As soon as the initial quest is established, the questing party heads off into the woods, leaving culture behind, and the remainder was indistinguishable from any other fantasy setting (particularly the fairy town, which had absolutely nothing of note to it at all).

              The lesbian romance was a draw as well, but its development felt somewhat clunky. By the end, when Taisin had to finally make the choice between her career or her feelings for Kaede, I had trouble caring much. Perhaps because the characters never felt particularly developed.

              I had some problems with the ending. (SPOILERS: The whole ending, for example. The “twist” that the Fairy Queen was actually Elowen’s real mother was not only predictable and overdone, it was also utterly uninteresting. I hadn’t been given any reason to care about either character, since they had occupied such a tiny fraction of what had been, essentially, a long walk through the woods punctuated by occasional attacks, that it felt completely unnecessary. To then send Kaede on yet another quest, apparently for no reason other than to add to the page length, felt rather silly.)

              Much of the book felt rushed and unpolished. The easiest example would be the baby the travellers met in Ento. As they approach and then enter the home, the baby is first crying, then begins to cry, then is asleep and coos as it wakes. It’s hard to imagine that this sort of thing survived the first edit.

              And, of course, there was the POV jumping. It was all over the place. I understand that Lo wasn’t going for a straight Third Person Limited, but the POV would sometimes jump several times a paragraph, and at least a few times I caught it jumping in a single sentence. It was too much, too abrupt, and it added little to the telling.

              My final major grip was Lo’s use of the word “for.” Over and over again, we saw the following construction: “So and so did this, for they wanted to.” Two sentences in a row might have the exact same construction. And it was doubly strange because it’s something that I associated with purple prose formality, while much of the narrative tone was more informal. Which, I suppose, is a bonus complaint: the tone-hopping.

              Overall, I enjoyed reading it, but I was disappointed by the overall sloppiness of the writing. I’d still recommend it, if only as short, fun read, but with too many shortcomings to really be taken for anything more.

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                Quest by Aaron Becker

                In our nightly family readings, we’ve been moving on to books with more words and fewer pictures, encouraging our child to use his imagination to “see” what was happening. Quest is the opposite – it’s book with lots of pictures and no words.

                We saw (and loved) the same thing in Owly & Wormy, but Quest is a bit different. While Owly & Wormy was something of a graphic novel, with a very defined storyline, Quest is a bit more flexible. The images, of two children brought into a magical land where they must find magical crayons to make a rainbow, are very stimulating to the imagination, and they leave a great deal room for the “reader” to add their own details. Who was the king who gave them their quest? What was wrong in the land before they made the rainbow? Why was the rainbow necessary? None of these things are explained by the book, and my son and I had great fun as I prompted him to come up with answers.

                This was also the perfect book at the perfect time, as a bad cold left me without my voice for the last few days. Thankfully, with Quest out from the library, my son was able to take over the “reading” in the evenings.

                The images are gorgeous, and full of detail. And, as I said, drawing them with such open ended interpretations was a great choice.

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                  Wheel of Time #12: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

                  Read: 28 April, 2015

                  Sunk cost fallacy is a nasty trick. After reading so many books in the Wheel of Time, there was no way to stop. I’d invested too much of my life in this series (I began nearly a year ago), so how could I stop now? Even so, Crossroads of Twilight severely tried my resolve. Knife of Dreams was back to form (great ideas, interesting characters, but all surrounded by so much slog) and gave me the push to continue, but I have been getting rather annoyed with the series for a few books now.

                  Which perfectly primed me for The Gathering Storm. This was a fantastic new addition to the series. Brandon Sanderson managed to revitalize the plot and get me excited about what was going on in a way that I just haven’t been in a while (and, honestly, other than a few peaks per book, haven’t been at all in this series). Best of all, he did it without allowing me to notice the change. The continuity between Jordan and Sanderson was impeccable, yet I suddenly found myself on the edge of my seat, fairly consistently from about 1/3 of the way into the book until its end. He did a great job of capitalizing on the character histories set up by Jordan to raise the stakes.

                  The book is focused almost exclusively on Rand and Egwene. Egwene has been one of the characters who’s kept my interested throughout, and it was great to see her reunification of the White Tower.

                  Rand, on the other hand, has been almost a sort of side character for most of the series. Here, however, Cadsuane’s warnings about his inability to laugh start to make a lot more sense as we spent more time in Rand’s head. His insistence that he feels nothing even while he does terrible things while overcome with anger felt very real and familiar (I’ve certainly known my fair share of young men who claim to be beings of pure rationality, far beyond the petty emotions of ordinary people – particularly women and minorities – even while it’s plainly obvious how completely they are deceiving themselves).

                  (SPOILERS: I’m not sure how I feel about Rand’s sudden epiphany at the end. After such a slow descent, the speed with which he appears to recover at the climax of the novel seems a little forced. It works as a climax, and it’s certainly interesting to see Rand defeating the Dark One in himself rather than an external threat, but I dislike epiphanies in general. I reserve judgement until the next book, however, since we won’t see until then how well or how easily it takes.)

                  I really enjoyed this addition to the series. As I said above, I was on the edge of my seat for most of it, which is no small feat when the conflicts were either internal (in Rand’s case) or rather complex (in Egwene’s). For the first time in a while, I’m really excited to begin the next one.

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                  Continue reading

                    Bunnicula by Deborah Howe & James Howe

                    Read: 21 April, 2015

                    This is a small chapter book intended for early readers. I read it to my four-year-old son. We found the human characters to be rather ill-defined and boring, though I suppose that’s to be expected. The story is really about the three pets in the house – Harold, dog and narrator; Chester, the suspicious and excitable cat; and, of course, Bunnicula himself, the rabbit.

                    In a delightful twist on the classic vampire tropes, Bunnicula doesn’t drink blood from people, but rather sucks the juice out of vegetables. My son found this absolutely hilarious, and spent about a week trying to suck all the juice from tomatoes, tangerines, and even a zucchini.

                    Chester’s antics as he tries to prove that Bunnicula is a vampire were quite funny and we both had some good laughs. Things turned rather dark, however, when Chester failed and decided to try to kill Bunnicula instead. I was worried that this would disturb my son, though thankfully he was more focused on Harold’s efforts to save Bunnicula, and was glad that all three animals were able to (mostly) be friends by the end.

                    All in all, we quite enjoyed the book. It name-dropped a lot of other books that we then got to talk about (Treasure IslandDracula), it had a lot of funny moments, and the premise of a vegan vampire was just absolutely charming.

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