Tool–for the mind

Despite a not-fully-favorable review here of Paolo Bacigalupi’s ShipBreakers, I just picked up the follow-up, Drowned Cities. And again, despite a high level of suspense maintained by a high level of violence, I again find myself praising his book. For one, Bacigalupi did not choose one of the main characters, but rather a secondary one, to provide the link for the sequel. And the new characters wrestle with important questions, ones readers will benefit from wrestling now rather than waiting for the future. Their struggles brought me back to a stunning memoir of child soldiers by Ishmael Beah. Warlords (such as Beah’s Sierra Leone or Satrapi’s Persepolis) with different religious/patriotic realities but equivalent methodologies–All War, All the Time, With All Comers–fight right here in the former U.S. of A. The author shifts the chaos from a distant place to a not-so-distant time, challenging readers to take a clear look around them.

The genetically-engineered killing-machine Tool, introduced in ShipBreakers, here shows a heart-wrenching soul within his cynical freedom.


Guns Kill People

Strangely timely, given the ongoing national discussion surrounding gun laws and repeated acts of public violence, I stumbled across Tim Wynne-Jones’ recent book, Blink & Caution, simply because of its position on a YALSA list of 2012’s Best YA Novels. But Wynne-Jones’ poignant personal Afterword explains the seeds for Caution’s haunting nightmare and finishes by saying that anyone who tells you that it’s not guns that kill people, well, ‘they’re wrong.’

Nonetheless, the story refuses to dive into pedantry. Many issues forge their way into the challenges the two main characters grapple with: drug dealers, prostitution, family violence, uranium mining, corporate law, First Nations rights, street life vs. lives of wealth. Some of the background is revealed in the daily actions launching the characters on the story’s specific quest, while more complicated pieces are explored by quick surfing online, a modern way to cover a lot of territory in a short space. This approach to figuring out the clues to the puzzle they’ve been presented demonstrates one of the advantages today’s young people have, a way past the slow mentoring requirements of medieval days.

The  internal conflicts, however, offer the same taut lines that have always created the most engrossing stories. Blink and Caution battle back their self-destructive or self-negating tendencies with resourcefulness in ways so true to the confusions people often face, in their teens or later in life. And the story’s most heartfelt long-term solutions are the ways in which ‘family’ steps up to welcome and support these two teens who had believed themselves thrown away:  in Caution’s case, first by a skillfully portrayed cousin and then by her dead brother’s previously unknown girlfriend, and in Blink’s case, by grandparents his mother had shut him away from. These relationships stick with me the strongest, even though they are peripheral to the main puzzle/action. They are what matters in the surrounding dilemma of how the two teens got into their predicament in the first place. Wynne-Jones’ mastery is in showing these relationships with such brief and visceral strokes.

The Outside of a Horse

RavenWhen someone tells me that they like books to really tug at one’s emotions, I’ve got a sure bet for them with Ginny Rorby’s story about a girl who turned to horses to forge a connection with her father, away fighting in Iraq. This teenager faces down a slew of family- and horse-related trauma, and I don’t think it was just my exhausting week that was responsible for the cathartic waterworks of my morning. When Hannah’s father returns with an amputated leg and PTSD, parallels between horse relationships and human ones  create a fairly non-stop emotional intensity, off-set by moments of hope and growth and the occasional filly frolicking in the northern California surf.

For high-strung young people with lots of passion about the issues raised during the story, Rorby includes several links to further information and ways to get involved in everything from equine therapy programs to Parelli horse gentling methods, and even encourages people who can’t have animals of their own to spend a little time at their area  shelter walking dogs and visiting cats. The urge for connection and kindness is given lots of encouragement here–making the novel a noble gift.


Reality in Fiction

I let myself get persuaded into watching an old John Wayne/Katherine Hepburn flick last night–Rooster Cogburn and the Lady. The horses and landscape in the lead-in were both spectacular, so I just shrugged when Corrie, knowing my obsession with accuracy, told me not to fret the details too much. “You just have to ignore that they’re hauling nitroglycerin,” she says. So I was prepared not to worry about the raft not blowing up as it crashed into cliffs and boulders along the river. Still, though the story never specifies its location, the dense spruce forest and high mountains set me up to cringe when someone mentioned catfish, and I snorted when the young ‘Indian’ (tribal affiliation undisclosed) brought in a possum for dinner. When the credits rolled, I saw the movie was filmed along the Rogue River in Oregon, which wasn’t far from my guess, after following the story, of western Montana or Idaho. No possum there, and no catfish. Didn’t faze Corrie a bit. But that sort of dissonance can throw a person, if they happen to know those kinds of things.

Since I know next to nothing about UFO conspiracies, or theories about bird migration and electromagnetism, I didn’t have any problem suspending my disbelief for the much more in-credible happenings in Malinda Lo’s new book, Adaptation.  Maybe there’s a twinge here and there when the writing dwells on articles of clothing or flavors of doughnut that don’t seem to have any bearing on plot or character. But the layers of both character and plot that do build together are so convincing that I eagerly recommend this story to anyone who doesn’t mind waiting for the sequel (not due out until late 2013). I’m not at all worried about looking up alien research in Nevada. I really like these characters, and I really am curious where Lo will take this fiction next. That’s the truth that counts.

Ambiguous Ending

Oooo–I’ve been toying with the idea of an indeterminate end for my next story, and I just fell into a disturbing example when I finished Tim Tharp’s 2008 novel The Spectacular Now. The technique certainly got my attention, and not just as a writer but first as a reader. It requires re-reading:  the last paragraph, the last page, the last scene. That increases the pressure, I’d say, for a writer to pull something strong into the finale’. How rewarding though, in this case, when Tharp fully succeeds. The re-readings are beautiful, transcendent, still boldly cryptic–which is what keeps the “preach” stunningly at bay. This is a book that will stay on my shelf.

Drafty Crafting

I’ve had lots of recommendations for great craft books that can help me think about ways to sharpen up the draft version of this work-in-progress. Unfortunately, my little library doesn’t have any of them. Fortunately, it does have two that are being helpful, so why not pass those titles along for other people to try?

Fiction–the Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published, by Michael Seidman

Sure you should have thought of these things before you got started, but at least for me, chapters on Developing Characters, Theme, Scenes, and Style all offer someone in revision some great points to consider. After drafting a pitch and a synopsis, has the theme shifted, or emerged more clearly–and does that help focus the work better; might it give me courage for cutting storylines that don’t contribute, or that muddy the waters? Have certain characters been given short shrift? What can they tell me now that I wasn’t hearing before?

I didn’t want to get deeply into Parts Two and Three, on Networking and the Business of Publishing, until I am more satisfied that the story is ready to move on to the professionals, but I’ve had enough fun with Part One to return when I am ready.

A surprising chapter in the Writing portion offers ‘Some Random Thoughts on Creativity’ that might be incredibly useful if I could gather myself to practice with them. At least to experiment with the suggestions…let me know if you try any and if your writing results improve!

The Plot Thickens–8 ways to bring fiction to life  by Noah Lukeman

Again, I found myself jotting notes for insertions, deletions, character messages, changes in scene placement to achieve better pacing. Yes, characters are on journeys, and chapters on suspense, conflict and context–though expected–yielded some new perspectives from which to spy improvements. The unexpected chapter in this one is called Trancendency. In a culture renowned for shallowness, what a joy to find a whole chapter of incentives and techniques to go beyond our cultural tendencies toward the quick sugar fix and prepare a  several-course meal for savoring. While avoiding a work that is merely confusing, writers are encouraged to consider how ‘multidimensional characters and circumstances open a work for interpretation.’ Importantly, he reminds us that ‘Interpretation does not come with lack of meaning. It comes in abundance of meaning.’

Ahh. Relish the challenge of revision.


After the writers conference, many of us return to our own efforts quite energized by the electricity of writing surrounding us. My hiatus from the Wyoming story continued for a little longer while I sorted out just what Big Picture changes needed to happen to tighten it up and give it both more logical consistency, and more verve and virility. But the fermentation for a second YA story, to be set in Maine, bubbled over:  in one night, while listening to banned fireworks going off all around me, the first 13 scenes were outlined into my notebook.

So apologies to the books (and their authors) that aren’t being reviewed here at the moment. New books are trying to peck their way out of their eggs.

In order to continue my efforts at professionalizing my creative work, I’m even gathering application material for a 2-week artists residency supported by the UCross Foundation in eastern Wyoming. More excitement ahead!

Jackson Hole Writers Conference 2012

Yayah! So much fun to have such a great opportunity close to home (well, just under 150 miles round trip, but we do still have compressed dinosaur blood, so relatively easy to get there and back every day). No Flash Fiction or Flash Poetry contests this year, but volunteers still participate for free, so all is well. All except for my ongoing and useless shyness–go figure! In the Forest, I can walk into almost any camp of strangers and strike up a conversation, cuz it’s my job. So, it is paramount upon my writing efforts to say–it’s my job to connect with strangers who are professionally attached to the writing/publishing communities in order to better my prospects of becoming more professional myself. So that is my primary goal for this year.

While none of the attending agents look to be a great fit, won’t that make pitching to them in the halls alll that much easier? Of course, it is disingenuous to pitch a story that is not ready to go yet. So easier yet will be preying on fellow writers. It has been a useful exercise for me to practice pitching and writing a synopsis just so I can be more clear about where the story needs to get cleaner and more precise. So I’ll be participating with documents in hand as I search for the appropriate writing partner(s). While I have Beta Readers lined up, none of them are writing, and I’d feel better about using people’s time if I could offer mine in return. So that is goal two.

Perhaps upcoming blog posts will be devoted to ice-breaker questions that can help me vet my prospective partners? Uh, no, that’s cheating. Will save those for my pen-and-paper notebook. If you’ll be there this coming weekend–drop me a line and let me know!

What’s up, Doc?

Have you noticed? Mary Doria Russell is a new favorite at our cabin–and I add Doc, her latest title, to my list of great reads. Unlike the famous movies about the shoot-out at the OK Corral, and the aftermath, this story explores Doc Holliday’s life before he moves to Arizona with the Earp brothers and their women compadres.These years show Doc in the center of a spiderweb of diverse relationships, as a consummate reader of people, and a cultured southern aristocrat who opened himself to the real stories of individuals from all walks of life and parts of the world.

This story defies conventional contemporary storytelling advice in many ways–and never failed to intrigue and enlighten as Russell rolled out her scenes to cast a little lamplight on the famous gunslinger. The first questions to set up a plot–What did Doc most want?–have surprisingly mundane answers.  Family, and to be useful. and life. What made him happiest? Kindness, and kindred curiosity, and the emotional resonance of classical music.

The book’s structure was based on card games and gambling–and served to highlight an interesting point about the volatility of the world before our dependence on multiple insurance policies. What you had to pull you through slim times was the family of solid friends you might create if you had no family at hand. Russell twice turned an expected understanding of gratitude around. 1) Doc expressed his idea of ‘selfish’ motivation for hosting John Horse Sanders’ wake and funeral: that he had taken the boy for his own, without John even knowing it. 2) Morgan echoed that sentiment to explain why the Earps were so dedicated to Doc’s care during his illnesses: that they had claimed him for their brotherhood. The costs of these claims were insignificant compared to the perceived benefits.

The Omniscient point-of-view is used again here, but with clear authorial intrusions that change the narrative feel almost to reportorial mode. The rhythms, though, carry echoes of Greek tragedy, and certain conventions, like the Fates, are specifically named. The prefacing quotation from Ernest Hemingway clues us in from the start: “This book is fiction, but there is always a chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” The frame for the story is thereby set, and despite the potential for such techniques to hold a reader at distance, Russell’s power as a storyteller overcomes that pitfall without a second glance. One particular scene still brings me to tears simply remembering its emotion (in the chapter, Playing for Keeps). Reading its full beauty, its immense sense of life lived to the best even given a bad hand, is by itself worth the price of the book. The cover art magically, surprisingly, conveys the passion and pathos of that scene. At a glance, I can return to it all.

‘Character’ Novel

It looks like I might be narrowing down my target for ‘how I want my story to work’ by noticing what I don’t like about how some other stories are put together. Several blog posts have expressed frustration about typical tension-creating devices, such as fear for one’s life. So I investigated in the other direction–a book called The Folded Earth, by Anuradha Roy, an ‘evocative and deeply moving tale of a young woman making a new life for herself amid the foothills of the Himalaya’. Expecting a forward-looking desire to pull the story, rather than a backward-looking fear to push it, I was disappointed to find the narrative drive almost so subtle as to be practically hidden. Elegant descriptions of place-as-character and of well-drawn people I am unlikely to meet in my daily travels sufficed to keep me reading, but I am enough of a plot-snob that I would give this story pretty weak marks in that category (of course, I am not a highly-trained critic, either, and since The Folded Earth was longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize, don’t just take my word on this).

I took particular offense that nothing actually resulted from the point of most violence, which readers are led to feel has great portent. Impending catastrophe managed to be avoided off-stage, by the amorphous larger community, in the passive voice. Our characters don’t have much to do with actively resolving the civil strife that the moment of violence supposedly foreshadowed. My frustration could easily be a cultural thing, or partly that I’m still watching closely the learnable craft points that seem to be given short shrift here. Quite likely more literary readers are perfectly comfortable with the required amount of suspended disbelief in order to slip past a number of plotting inconsistencies. The backcover blurb, after all, indicates that someone considers this a masterpiece.