Thursday, November 20, 2014

Winter Reading, part 1

As the end of the year approaches, my stack of to-be-reviewed books grows ever taller. I realized to my horror that I am rapidly approaching the point of not being able to remember what I liked or disliked about each story. So here are reviews of varying lengths for your amusement – and hopefully a few will pique your interest enough to check out the books themselves.

Tin Star by Cecil Castelluchi (Roaring Brook Press, 2014). First, a disclaimer. I met (and instantly adored) Cecil (a she-Cecil, not a he-Cecil, sometimes known as Miss SeaSkull) at Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2011. This story, she says, was inspired by all the space science we learned together. I got to be one of her early readers, so I had seen a rough draft of this story before. But one of the cool things about the passage of time is the sense of reading the story for the first time, maybe a story a friend told you about so you have some idea what to expect, only what is there is so very much better than what you r/e/m/e/m/b/e/r/e/d expected. Tin Star delighted and absorbed me at every turn, and I honestly can’t say whether any of my comments had anything to do with the marvelous finished product. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all Cecil’s doing! So here’s the skinny: Tula Bane, a young colonist from Earth, is left for dead on a space station, home to a host of alien races. As she learns to survive without friends or resources except her own wits, she plots revenge on the colonist leader who betrayed her and blew up the ship carrying her family. With deceptive simple language, Castelluchi takes us on a journey of growing up and learning what it is to be human. Highly recommended for adults as well as teens.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013). I was a little behind the curve in checking out the Collaborators, as Deborah Wheeler, in which humans make contact with a gender-fluid alien race), I was particularly curious about how Leckie handled the topic. Her alien race is binary gendered, but gender is not important or even a thing to be noticed; hence, the universal use of the feminine pronoun, leaving it to the reader or members of other races to guess who is which. I can see why readers got excited about this novel; it’s a very, very competent debut novel. It certainly grabbed and held my attention. The one thing I felt uneasy about was that the sense of a moral center was very slow in development, and on the way, there were too many times when I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Leckie pulled it together at the end and it might not bother other readers, so this is a highly personal quibble. I will look for her future work, but probably not set in this world. Well worth checking out, especially if you like military science fiction.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Midwifing A Story: The Trusted Reader

Some writers do all their work in isolation. They are the creative hermits of the literary world.  When they get an idea for a story, they tell no one. This isn’t always the misplaced fear that the other person will “steal” their idea. Few ideas are so strikingly original that they have not already been told in a myriad variations. Even if the other person were to write a story on the same idea, the stories would have different executions. Knowing this doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some folks just work better alone. I’ve heard some of them say that if they discuss a work in progress, the very act of telling it aloud dissipates the creative energy: they’ve told the story, so there’s no reward for writing it. Some of them never improve as writers, but others seem able to teach themselves and to produce work of quality.

I’m not one of them.

First of all, I am, as the French say, “très sociable.” I flourish with regular chats with other writers. More importantly, I learned early on in this business that if I am left to my own devices, I will come up with the most dreadful poppycock and think it’s great. My stories will have plot holes you could ride a tyrannosaur through. And let’s not mention grammatical atrocities, inconsistent characterizations…you know the drill. Fortunately, my second and third drafts are a whole lot better than the drivel I throw together as a rough draft. I revise a couple of times, just to get the words on the page into some correlation to the story in my head, before I let anyone else see it.

At some point, however, I need feedback. I need an ally. Better yet, several. I benefit from having a “story midwife” to help me with the process of pushing and squeezing and ruthlessly pruning a story into the form that is most true to my creative vision.

A “story midwife” is someone whose insightful feedback helps me to make the story more fully what I intended it to be. It is not a person who rewrites my work to their own agenda, sabotages my writing efforts in order to make themselves feel good, or who goes about claiming credit for having salvaged or inspired my work. These things happen (and they’ve happened to me), but they’re not only not helpful, they’re potentially devastating. All these things happen because the person reading the story has motives other than being of help to the writer. These folks are often unsuccessful writers themselves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Meditation for Today

It’s been a brutal year for me in terms of stress. Some of it was outright loss, other parts happy but pushing me over the edge of tolerance, for stress  too, which is a loss of calm. Whatever is happening, I keep up the mantra, “This too shall pass!” 

Life sometimes sideswipes us with occasions for rejoicing or unspeakable tragedy, but hard times run in cycles. It’s important to find ways of reminding ourselves of this rhythmic nature. Outward-facing periods of great vigor and challenge are followed by periods of apparent stagnation. These fallow times can feel like the pits of despair when nothing seems to be changing (except for the worse) and no matter how hard we engage with the problems in our lives, we seem to make no discernible progress. Winter is never going to end; all our senses convince us of it. We are never going to find “the one,” or sell that first story. And we’ve heard enough tales of folks who actually never do find a partner or make a sale that we are sure we belong in that group. As the days shorten and snow or rain turns into mud, we become even more certain the sun will never return.

That’s when I need black belt survival tools. My mantra (above) is one of them. Here are some others that work for me.

  • Every day, I speak with someone who loves me.
  • I try to do a daily act of kindness in a way that I will not be found out.
  • I try to begin each day with trust and end it with gratitude. These can take whatever form seems good to me on that day.
What helps get you through winter blues?

The painting is by Karl Roux (1826–1894), public domain.