Writing Updates & A Few Musings on Story Length

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Well, firstly, the big news of the month is that I sold a story. It won’t be published until the fall, but this brings my grand total up to three, a modest number, but it’s a start. There was some rejoicing to be had, and then a quick return to the grind. I imagine that like many writers, I have an ever-expanding number of projects of varying sizes and levels of completion. I’ve decided not to actually count because the number would probably scare me. My brain can’t help itself. I’m always thinking, plotting, imagining, and I hop from idea to idea. It all adds up. But not every story has to be the same length.

This sounds like a fairly simple concept. Of course not every story has to be the same length! But it’s not as self-evident as one might expect. At least it wasn’t for me. I like knowing the rules and understanding the guidelines, and one consequence of spending a good portion of my life studying literature is that I’m very aware of the different categories: drabble, flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella, novel, etc. And each category has word counts. Training my brain to think in word counts was a process in itself. But the point is that there are options and rules. In the digital age, the rules aren’t as important as they used to be. The novella and the novelette have been rescued from the dustbin. Drabbles and flash fiction have taken a new popularity. And given the amount of effort I used to put into stretching my stories, making them longer, it is ironic that the realm of flash fiction is where I’ve had the most success thus far.

There is a great deal of freedom in allowing a story to be the length it wants to be, rather than forcing it to conform. This has resulted in several shorter than expected pieces, and more troubling, some longer than expected pieces. The novella may be staging a comeback, but the in-between realm of short stories that are a little too short to be a novella and a little too long for the average short story market remains a bit of a no man’s land. The question of whether to wheedle them down or expand them is one I’m still considering. The unfortunate answer is probably that it depends on the story. I’m currently working on a story that will clearly fall into that no man’s land, and these questions will determine what I do for the next draft.

 

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Book Review: Shade’s Children by Garth Nix

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There are some books that it’s hard to see straight, some books that you love no matter what. <Shade’s Children is not the most original book ever, and in the cold light of day, it is not even Garth Nix at his imperious best. It’s not as deep or as well rounded as the Abhorsen Trilogy, but I have read it more times than any of his other novels. It’s simple, well-written YA, and more importantly, it’s fun. That’s an odd thing to say about what is essentially a post-apocalyptic novel and the world is overrun. Years before, all the adults vanished leaving the children behind in a world ruled by the Overlords and their mechanical monsters in an endless series of war games. In this new world, children only live until they’re 14 before being sent to the Meat Factories and made into raw parts for the war machines, but some children have developed special powers.

A few such children have escaped the factories and camps—Gold-Eye, Ninde, Ella, and Drum—and joined the beleaguered resistance, run from an old submarine by Shade, who claims to be the last adult left from before the change. More machine than man now, Shade proves increasingly untrustworthy even as victory and freedom is closer than ever before. This is a workman like setup, even more familiar now than it was when it was first published, but Garth Nix imbues both the setting and the characters with an unusual depth and complexity. Interspersed throughout the novel are Video Archive excerpts, interviews from years of child freedom fighters, Shade’s titular children. Shade himself, and his evolving identity crisis are a particular highlight.

Shade’s Children isn’t a classic. It’s a relatively early Garth Nix effort; he still had a few kinks to work out. But it is a competent and memorable YA novel, one that has stuck in my memory for almost 20 years, and has enticed me to read and reread many times.

Book Review: Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest by A. Lee Martinez

 

 

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After reading two of his books now, A. Lee Martinez has become one of my favorite authors. He doesn’t offer anything deep, or terribly original, but rather pure unadulterated, clever entertainment. Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is no exception. The world of Greek gods,heroes, and quests is transferred into a weird, and always amusing road trip across America. There are ogres, three-legged dogs, witches, orcs, old gods, secret agents, and, of course, our titular heroes: Helen the cursed minotaur and Troy the…almost impossibly perfect human.

This novel follows what appears to be his sucessful formula of jumping from one genre and mileu to the next, populating each with a cast of well-drawn, slightly off-beat characters, throwing in a escalating series of wacky set-pieces, and then just having fun. Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest exists in its own complete universe with its own rules and narrative logic. As the title suggests, it is the story of a quest, and as always, Martinez has done his homework. The genre conventions are all present with a twist. The action moves along with a great sense of pace and infectious excitement. It is a quick and easy read, which is its great joy. There is the sense of the reader and the author both just loving the ride and the thrill of well-told amusement. This does, however, make at least the two books I’ve read, difficult to really talk about. Martinez updates and twists conventions and creates delightful juxtapositions for comic effect, but this isn’t a satire. I don’t get the sense that he’s truly commenting on the ideas or the genres. He’s just moving from sandbox to sandbox having fun, and while some readers might want a little more depth, I’m more than willing to follow him and give in to the ride. Sometimes all you need is the pure joy of storytelling.

Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

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Raising Steam is Terry Pratchett’s 40th Discworld novel. It’s been over 30 years since the first book, The Color of Magic, was unleashed upon the world. Discworld (and Roundworld for that matter) has changed a great deal since then, and so has Pratchett’s writing style. The satire has gotten more biting, the plots tighter, the philosophic musings more subtle, and the unrepentant silliness has long since faded. This is not a criticism. Forty books in, any author’s interests and preoccupations would shift, and this series is a rare opportunity to watch it unfold in front of us—book by book.

Raising Steam is about the railroad and the industrial revolution. Steam power has come to Discworld, and a role call of favorites is on hand to profit from, or at least survive, the shift. The Wizards make their cameos (including Rincewind), the Watch, the Dwarves, the Orcs and Goblins, even Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler puts in an appearance. But this is first and foremost a Moist von Lipwig novel as he desperately tries to keep the trains running, and manages to talk himself into and out of the usual amount of trouble, while Vetinari is suitably threatening.

Terry Pratchett has created a vast and highly populated world that is now more than capable of propelling an entire novel on its own power. The cameos and honorable mentions are more than just fan-pleasing moments, although they are that too, they are also demonstrations of just how rich Discworld has become. One of the joys of this book was the interactions between Lipwig and Vimes, two characters who despite living in the same city have previously had only limited interaction. The copper’s copper and the ‘reformed’ con man make an amusing pairing.

Nevertheless, for all the fun cameos, and delightful pairings, there is little that is new here. Novels such as The Truth, Going Postal, Making Money, and even Unseen Academicals all dealt with issues of modernization, and although the railroad is a new technology, the pattern has already been set, and the larger philosophical and satirical comments been made. But as I said earlier, after 40 books, one of the central joys of reading a Discworld book that it is a Discworld book, and while Raising Steam did not quite rise to the heights of previous novels, Pratchett remains highly enjoyable, and it is a welcome opportunity to become reacquainted with old friends.

Book Review: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

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The unnamed city in Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection is a surreal world of rain, gunmen, femme fatale, reluctant detectives, murder, stolen days, and stolen dreams. This is a noir novel set in a Jorge Luis Borges world and from the first sentence onward is utterly engrossing.

Charles Unwin is the unlikely and unwilling hero. A clerk in the monolithically bureaucratic detective Agency that looms over the city, he has spent his life meticulously documenting, filing and cataloguing the exploits of Sivart, the most celebrated detective in the Agency. When Sivart goes missing, Unwin finds himself promoted to detective, framed for murder, and on a reluctant quest to solve a series of surreal mysteries, clear his name, and find Sivart, armed only with a copy of the titular Manual of Detection that is suspiciously missing Chapter 18.

There are the requisite number of femme fatales, twists, turns, and hardboiled detectives, necessary for any noir fiction. The real success of the novel is the nearly seamless welding of those hardboiled noir sensibilities with the increasingly surreal and fantastical into a baroque, timeless setting.

The Manual of Detection is not flawless, however. The setting and the brooding, off-kilter surreal atmosphere are superbly constructed, and the plot is tightly structured, but Unwin is by nature a very passive main character who spends the novel following in others footsteps and reacting to circumstance. Likewise, Berry looses his tight grip towards the end, and the climax is a little disappointing. Nonetheless, The Manual of Detection was an impressive debut. I fell in love with the writing style, and have been waiting impatiently for his next novel.

Book Review: Horns by Joe Hill

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Whatever Ig Perrish was expecting when he woke up this morning, it wasn’t the two horns that have mysteriously sprouted overnight, but there they are. And no one but him seems at all surprised to see them. Worse, people start telling him things, terrible things—their secret desires, their worst secrets, their buried urges—and asking for his permission, his approval. Ig finds himself inadvertently transforming into the devil, or at least, a devil. So begins Joe Hill’s third novel, Horns, and things only get stranger from there.

Ig Perrish’s life was a mess, even before he started growing horns. It’s been a year since his girlfriend was horribly raped and murdered, and his life has been hell ever since. It doesn’t help that, despite the lack of evidence, everyone seems to think he did it. Everyone. Except his brother, and possibly his new girlfriend. With his newfound powers, Ig slowly begins to unravel the mystery, a journey that will unearth childhood secrets, and take him down many weird paths.

This is a darkly comic novel that weaves together black comedy, a revenge thriller, and a debate about the nature of good and evil. The plot itself is relatively straightforward leading inevitably towards Ig’s fiery confrontation with the real murderer. As a thriller, the novel is workmanlike. The murderer’s identity is revealed about halfway through and does not come as a great surprise. The fun of the novel lies elsewhere. Hill is far more interested in the dark humor and theological questions inherent in his premise. This is a thriller written as a weird nonlinear black comedy. The question of whodunit is less important than why, and how that plays into the larger issues at stake.

With his newfound powers, Ig learns the secret thoughts and desires of his family and neighbors, which are by turn depraved, sickening, sad, and horribly amusing. It turns out that the Ig, widely believed a murderer and a rapist, is the kindest most sensitive character of all, even, or perhaps especially, when adorned with horns, a pitchfork, and a congregation of snakes.

Horns takes the reader on a journey through the depraved and the perverted and with devilish glee, asks the reader to love humanity as much for its depravities as in spite of them. This is not a new idea, but Joe Hill presents it in a wildly inventive, thought-provoking novel, that easily breaks the confines of its genre and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

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The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir is a page-turner, pure and simple. This is a story of one man’s survival in the face of the harsh Martian landscape. In the opening pages, astronaut Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead, in a Martian dust storm. His ingenious and increasingly desperate gambits to survive form the bulk of the novel. Weir has put a great deal of thought into the scenario and each disaster and obstacle that befalls Watney feels logical, the solutions plausible. As a thought experiment on Martian survival, this is an astonishing achievement, and Weir is able to bring a visceral sense of tension and momentum to what could have been simply a dry recitation of problems and solutions.

Most of the novel takes the form of Watney’s log entries, as he charts his various attempts at survival. His entries are occasionally slightly awkward, filled with facts that the character should already know, but that is a problem of the form rather than the author. There is, however, a sudden shift, when the point of view abruptly leaves Watney’s logs and widens to other characters on other planets. This expansion of the story allowed a fairly short premise to be stretched in new and interesting ways. The world of the novel was expanded and enriched. However, the sudden use of shifting viewpoints was initially jarring to the point that I had to go back and check.

This was a minor flaw in a narrative that was generally a very well constructed series of events. Weir parceled out information and made use of dramatic irony to wring as much tension as possible from the situation. The characters, however, fair less well than the problem solving and the plot. Watney himself functions largely as a problem-solving machine, although some attempts are made to fill in the edges of his personality. Outside of Watney, sarcasm seems to be the default setting.

InThe Martian, Weir has constructed a fast-paced, cleverly constructed survival thriller. In the end, everything beyond that is nit picking. I didn’t love this book, but I enjoyed it, and despite minor reservations, devoured it within a matter of hours.

Book Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

I first read Garth Nix’s Sabriel sometime in the late 90s, when it was just a stand-alone fantasy novel, before it was the first book in the Old Kingdom Series.  I have read it several times since.  This is good old-fashioned high fantasy done with surprising depth and invention.

This is a world split between the Old Kingdom of Magic and a more modern world called Ancelstierre, clearly modeled on England. These two realms are divided by a fantasy version of Hadrian’s Wall, which keeps magic and monsters in the Old Kingdom. This is a world populated by spirits of the dead of numerous shapes and sizes. The title character is the latest in a long line of necromancers, but these were no ordinary necromancers. Called the Abhorsen (a title Nix took from an obscure Shakespeare character. Always a good place to shop for names) they possess the same knowledge and skills as other necromancers, but they do not raise the dead, but rather ensure that the dead remain so. This intricate system of necromancy revolving around the ringing of magical and extremely dangerous bells, and the mythology around death and the realms and gates of death, are two of the greatest assets of the book. Nix clearly spent a great deal of time and thought in constructing a world bound by consistent rules. He has the gift for suggesting a wealth of history and depth with only a stray sentence or an offhand remark. This is why he was able to later return to this world and expand it into a trilogy and a collection of short stories.

The novel itself is well written. Sabriel is an intelligent, proactive young woman who has spent much of her life outside of danger, but who, in the nature of heroines, comes into her own and discovers her element. There is an element of cliché to her arc, especially her romance with the lost heir to the throne, Touchstone, but she never becomes simply a cypher. Her arc may be familiar at times, but she remains a rounded character. Touchstone is a well-executed version of the lost prince, albeit an amnesiac one. It is the third member of their quest, however, who more or less steals the book, and subsequently the entire series. This is, of course, the talking cat, Mogget, or rather, an ancient sardonic and dangerous spirit in the shape of a cat. Mogget is the most memorable and certainly the most fun of the cast of characters.

Rereading Sabriel I find it to be as engrossing, fast paced, and fun as I did when I first read it over 10 years ago. It’s not a perfect book, Nix was still developing as a writer, but any novel that can hold-up under multiple rereadings over a wide gap of years is certainly doing something right.

This is one of those novels that I would love to see the movie (or indeed tv) version of. There were rumors back in 2008, but like so many would-be adaptations it appears to have died and gone to “in development” limbo…

Book Review: Offworld by Robin Parrish

Robin Parrish’s Offworld is a page-turner, if nothing else. The novel opens with an astronaut collapsing during a dust storm on Mars! And it continues to deliver a never-ending series of intriguing mysteries and heart-pounding incidents. The astronaut, Christopher Burke’s, inexplicable survival is quickly supplanted first by the astronauts loosing all contact with Earth, then by the terrible discovery that all life on Earth seems to have simply disappeared, including the animals. As the reader gets deeper and deeper into the novel, the mysteries get broader as well. I found myself reading more and more simply to figure out where Parrish was heading and if he would manage to tie up all his mysteries in a neat bow.

This preoccupation with the concept and with figuring out the mysteries seems to have been shared by the author. The characters are for the most part cyphers. Some effort was made to give them all a backstory and believable relationships. There are two romantic subplots, one that flows relatively naturally, and the other that feels largely tacked on. The enormity of returning to an empty world after years in space is only lightly touched upon. Each character is granted a moment, and one is allowed to have an entirely rational (given the circumstances) breakdown, but this is not a character piece. It is the mystery that is important—the mystery, and the action sequences. There are hurricanes and dust storms, floods, and shootouts. This is a novel stuffed with incident but in some ways these action sequences are simply treading water until the people who can explain the plot show up.

There is another word to describe Offworld that it would be remiss of me to forget: Christian. This is Christian Science Fiction, and the author was as a journalist on the cutting edge of Christian culture. This is not every reader’s cup of tea, and cards on the table, it isn’t quite mine either. But I left this observation until the end because until the climax Christianity plays a subdued part in the novel. In the final pages, however, Parrish makes a spirited attempt to meld Hard SF and Christian Theology into an explanation for all the mysteries of the novel. I don’t object to such a melding on principle, not if the author can make it work within the world of the story, but it is a very tricky combination and Parrish doesn’t quite pull it off. Partly because it is a very tricky combination and would have to be done very very well for me to accept it. But also because it is too rushed. After an entire novel’s worth of mystery and action, the actual explanation is done in a matter of pages. Far too quickly for the concept, and far too quickly for the climax. Offworld is a novel of ideas and of adventure that doesn’t quite stick the landing.