Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Idea Train and the Alluring Countryside

Work was slow this evening, and I had ample time to think about writing and life as I priced a seemingly endless pile of books. I got several ideas for stories and solved an impasse I had in one that I am trying to complete right now. The idea train was chugging along, which was nice, but then I turned to some practical considerations, such as timetables for writing, noting to myself that, during Nanowrimo I had done a decent job of putting words on the screen, but since the end of that exercise my fiction writing had slowed down. The stories I've been working on have not flowed as well as the initial novel-writing had in November.

I started thinking about why this was so. It was partly due to illness (myself and the kidlet both has stomach bugs, and she got a second one), and partly due to the season. There was more to it than that, though; my work habits had not slipped, but I was much less productive with the short fiction in the time that I wrote. One problem? The gods-cursed internet!

It came to me a little while later, as I noted to someone earlier this evening, that when I am writing non-fiction, the internet is both more necessary for research and sourcing, and less of a distraction. When I am writing fiction, however, it is hugely diverting, like losing yourself watching the endless countryside roll by. The idea train barreled along with no problem, but when it came to settling in with the idea, distraction was a given. At the time, I wasn't sure why I had thought of that, or why that might be the case, but as I pondered this conundrum on the way home from work, some ideas came to mind.

Non-fiction is relational, links much more to external matters, and does not come from deep inside me, unless it is some sort of memoir. And non-fiction is easy for me; after years in academia I can formulate arguments, outline papers in my head, calculate paragraph proportions, and put the puzzle pieces into place quickly. I can theorize, criticize, and analyze adeptly. But fiction is more creative, comes from inside, and is more contingent on a combination of confidence and interior generation of material and structure. Fiction is more personal, comes more completely from me, and having not written much of it in the last decade, I am both getting back into the groove and rediscovering my voice now, unearthing ideas and meanings and connections that are dependent on me much more intensely than a piece of criticism.

And my confidence in that process is rather shaky.

When I feel particularly distracted I usually get off the main laptop and pull out another machine to write upon (longhand is not really an option, given my horrid handwriting and the speed at which I write) that is not connected to the internet. That helps sometimes. But what I need to cultivate more is confidence and a sense of groundedness in my creativity. Nothing in my life has done more to keep me sane and happy than writing, and more than ever I am committed to writing as much as I can, to get published, and to live the life of a writer as fully as possible. It is easy to lose that anchorage when you're careening down the tracks and there are so many interesting things outside your window. It is easier to watch the world go by. But that is not the point of the ride.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Few End-of-Year Thoughts

With the closing of the calendar year comes many things. First, my final Forces of Geek column. After over 18 months in residence, it was time to move on. I really enjoyed writing the column, and I think I wrote some good ones (and a few, well, OK ones), but I felt a bit like the oddling out there, sandwiched between TV show discussions and viral videos. I am very appreciative for Stefan's support, however, because the column got me back into writing.

It was the confidence I gained from writing that column that made me take up Jason Sizemore's invitation to write for the Apex Book Company blog, where I had the, ahem, honor of writing the the Christmas Day entry this year. A totally random honor, you understand, but it made me think about celebrations, stories, and endings. I tend towards the dark and critical perspective on some things, and I tried to write something a bit brighter, but still smart. It was a bit of a challenge and a lot of fun to write.

And now I am moving on to something bigger, in three senses. First, I will soon be the newest columnist for a website that is much more my cup of tea than FoG. It should be set up by the New Year, and I am extremely excited to be writing for these folks. Second, I am at the critical point in writing my novel, just over the 50K mark, and I have had an avalanche of ideas come crashing down on my head, and I am currently digging my way out of the pile and figuring out how to put all of this material together in a strong narrative edifice. Third, I will have two stories ready to send out after the first of the year, perhaps three if I can get past my thinking that it's "not my kind of story."

I am writing more, and more seriously, now than ever. It is so gratifying to be doing the work, even if I still need to work on consistency and discipline a bit more. For the folks who read this wee blog, and my work, and for the support and comments you have sent my way, thanks. 2010 was difficult, but productive, and I look forward to 2011 being much better in every way.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Since Everyone Else is Doing a Fraggin' Top Ten List. . .

. . . allow me to jump onto the bandwagon!

I've been meaning to do some reviews for a bit, but NaNoWriMo and illness delayed them. So, I can banish two daemons with one incantation via a Top Ten List. These are the ten creative works (not all released in 2010) that I most enjoyed and admired this year.

The List, in no particular order:

---The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: A rich and provocative book that takes the fantasy tale and brings out new features for us to marvel at. I love the world-building and the care with which Jemisin put this book together. It is wonderfully written, enjoyable, and thoughtful all at the same time. I am looking forward to The Broken Kingdoms, which I just received, to see what happens next.

---Blood of Ambrose/This Crooked Way: I discovered James Enge through his story in the Swords & Dark Magic anthology, and I am so glad that I did. His work has rekindled my love for sword & sorcery through its combination of vigorous action, depth of character, and crisp prose. People who call his prose "slick" are missing some of its deeper pleasures, such as his economy of description, his deft characterizations, and a cavalcade of fascinating ideas that are woven together unassumingly into a cultural fabric that makes his work both warm and visceral. He takes the basic heroic mode of sword & sorcery and expands upon it even as he plays with it. His books have a classical heft to them, but are neither stiff nor dated. He refreshes the genre by taking old roads and then suddenly going off into the misty woods beyond, making new paths that wind in and out of our expectations. Really top-notch stuff!

---Haunted Legends (Tor, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas): This is the best anthology of the year in my book. It is a collection of literate, evocative, well-crafted stories; even the few stories that did not appeal to me were well-done, just not my cup of oolong. What makes this collection so great is that many of the stories are not what you would expect; this is not a compendium of spooky ghost stories or tales of bloodcurdling horror. Most anthologies have a thematic that you expect will be directly reflected in the story. In this anthology, the theme is far more inspirational than that, and is taken in many different directions by the contributors.

The great pleasure of this anthology is that you find so much that is unexpected; stories that are not just about spooky monsters or strange folklore but about people, about regret and loss and wonder expressed and explained through parables and yarns of the unconventional and the painful. In many of these stories legends integrate anguish, the unnerving, and the inexplicable into our lives. Our trespasses against each other and the world, or those of others, becomes the stuff of chagrined, sad tales. Our feelings of suffering and powerlessness are explained by forces outside our control: our loneliness both revealed and, sometimes, combated by strange fables that integrate the cryptic and peculiar aspects of the world around us into something culturally manageable and socially connective.

---Agents of Atlas/Agents of Atlas: Turf Wars/Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign: These three volumes contain some of the best comics I have read in a decade. Writer Jeff Parker takes a group of forgotten characters and makes something fresh and lively out of reuniting them to help their erstwhile leader become reborn and deal with a family legacy that would make the Corleones flee in terror. It's consistently quirky, almost campy at times, but leavened with fast pacing, delightful twists, and genuinely likable characters. Comic-book soap opera is left by the wayside, as are most of the more tired cliches of the superhero genre. Parker instead goes for smart, punchy stories mixed with intrigue and humor. Leonard Kirk, Gabriel Hardman, and Carlo Pagulayan all do excellent work on the art, although Kirk is my favorite artist for the Agents.

---Farthing: Jo Walton is a treasure. She writes great books and perceptive criticism, and her love and critical appreciation for speculative fiction comes through in all of her writing. Farthing demonstrates this in a curious way: by reproducing an entirely different genre (the English country-house mystery) packed with speculative twists that are so well blended into the narrative that you feel transported into that other world. Her deep understanding of the genre comes out in the careful crafting of this novel, which is note-perfect in tone and consistently subversive. I don't like mysteries, but this book is much, much more than "just a mystery." It is an astute, engrossing novel that makes you think hard about what we take for granted.

---Who Fears Death: Nnedi Okorafor's book was a revelation for me, in ways that I am still pondering. As I wrote in one of my FoG columns, the book "mingles destiny, brutality, and liminality in the story of a young woman's coming-of-age in a harsh, dystopian future. Despite a few missteps, the book is 'without preachiness or didactic overkill,' and demonstrates both Okorafor's gift for storytelling and her ability to create deeply grounded stories out of folkloric traditions and speculative insights." It is a very hard book to read sometimes, challenging and discomforting, but consistently engaging and often poetic.

--- Wizardry & Wild Romance: This is a re-issue of Moorcock's extended ruminations on the history and state of epic fantasy. As I said in another review "Moorcock employs detailed discussions of older, sometimes obscure works and weaves them into larger literary trends and literary-historical forces to produce a critique of fantastic literature and its niche in Western cultures. Moorcock's analysis is fun to read and persuasive, and made even a devoted Tolkien fanboy like me start to question what I find so compelling about his work. What this book does best is get under the skin of both individual works and broader ideas and engage the conundrums contained within them. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Moorcock makes a compelling case for viewing fantasy critically and productively that will help you read the genre with discernment and inquisitiveness." I am still chewing over this book, and will for some time.

---Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, And Society in Saga Iceland: This book is simply fascinating. William Ian Miller takes the sagas and legal codes of old Iceland and performs a stunning act of legal and anthropological interpretation on them. He teases out assumptions, inconsistencies, and deeper meanings in both story and conduct and outlines the interrelations between law, culture, and myth. It is an intelligent analysis that is also a joy to read, and that spends most of its time on the source material instead of theory. I learned a lot from this book that I am applying to some of my fiction.

--- Apex Magazine, Issue #18: This was the Arab/Muslim issue that came out in November, and Cat Valente did a stellar job of assembling and editing this issue. The three short stories were wonderful, and the implicit themes of identity and authority heightened the intensity of the works. The poetry was gorgeous and evocative, and the inclusion of a Turkish fairy tale rounded out the offerings and gave the issue a definitive continuity and context. Certainly the best single-issue periodical I read this year.

2010 was a good year for reading, personally. I read much more than I have in several years, and I feel that I read a lot of good work. Best of all, I found a lot of inspiration in what I read; not just ideas, but creative energy as well. I'm looking forward to tackling my big stack of To-Be-Reads in 2011.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An Assortment of Merriments, Confabulations, Imagos, &co.

1) Been poleaxed by a stomach bug for most of the week. Today is the first full day of a regular food menu and normal functioning. Still rather drained, but pretty much back up to speed.

2) I have not had a drop of coffee since Tuesday. I think that some of the feeling unenergized (and feeling down as well) may come from a level of caffeine withdrawal. Not sure if I will try this out a little longer or not. Coffee has some cultural and symbolic significance for me, I've found. It's hard to not want to pick it back up again.

3) Books obtained in the past week:

The Alteration is going into my reading queue right away. It just sounds far too naughty and odd to miss.

4) As a result, not much writing. I re-read the first half of the novel draft last night, and made a few notes (and got some good advice from Will Shetterly and my friend Judd about it). Tonight I am wiped from a super-busy day at work and I think I will crawl off to finish James Enges' excellent This Crooked Way. I was a bit trepidatious about the book at the start, especially when he used a bit of slang that shattered the suspension of disbelief for me, but it's full of fascinating ideas and driven by a solid story.

5) Want a bit more excitement? Go over to Blake Charlton's website and witness his snarkfest with Sam Sykes. 'Sfunny.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

STORY EXERCISE: "The Woman Who Was Worried That She Was Half-Chimpmunk: A Tale of Woe"

So today on twitter an acquaintance tweeted the following:

"I woke up with a swollen face-I look like half a chimpmunk!! That's it. I'm going back to bed."

We then had a joking exchange about a story title I made up based on the tweet (the one in the title above). It was amusing, but I could not get it out of my head. I decided that it might make a good seed for a writing exercise, so I set one up and the result is below.

The rules I made were: write for 40 minutes twice (it was originally 45 minutes but my daughter woke up a little early from her nap), then edit for 15 minutes. That's it. Nothing amazing emerged but it was a great loosening-up exercise. I ended up using some pretty traditional tropes, but it was enjoyable to write something quickly that did not have a lot of expectations hovering over it. The result is below:

She looked in the mirror again. It was the eighth time she had examined her face since she had gotten home. The pain had subsided. . . well, the physical pain had. Now she had to deal with this:

The reflection of her left profile was her: lustrous skin over high cheekbones, sparkling green eyes, and burgeoning, supple lips. Well, OK, the lips were a bit thin and the sparkle was contacts, but still, it was her. No question.

The right profile was completely different: puffed-out, reddened cheek; a squinty, dull eye; lips almost completely gone, enfolded by the fleshiness around them. And for the love of all the holiest things, her left incisor seemed to be poking out! As she looked at the reflection the eye twitched, and her nose, also a bit puffed-up, did the same.

And . . . was that a small, dark hair, under her nose, starting to poke out?

She shook her head; no, that was ridiculous. It was just a bit more root-canal swelling than usual. She resolved to stop worrying and get on with the day.

Until she came downstairs and her husband, returning home early from a meeting, burst into laughter upon seeing her. She snarled at him, and then immediately wondered why that had come out of her mouth rather than the snappy reply she had intended. He did his best to control his mirth, and opined that, perhaps, spending the rest of the day in bed was a good idea.

She shrugged; that had been her thought anyway. She glared at him as she went back upstairs, and stifled an irritated chitter when he chuckled again.


The next morning she awoke and looked at the clock with surprise: she had slept for almost 18 hours. She still felt exhausted as she got out of bed. Her husband was still asleep, but she decided not to wake him yet. She went into the bathroom to check on the swelling.

The right side had changed overnight, but in a way that contracted her stomach. The cheeks were not just puffy; the skin's texture had changed, and was that . . . fuzz appearing on her face? The little hairs under her nose were now numerous, longer, and black. They felt strange, as if she could taste the air with them or something. Her nose was darker too, and the teeth. . . she shook her head. No, the incisor couldn't be longer. . . .

She turned on her heel and marched out of the bathroom. Now she was worried; at the very least the swelling should have gone down, but it looked as if that side of her face was more than just puffy. It was different.

It was changing.

She shook her head again; no, she was just too anxious about the puffiness. That had to be it.

"Oh, that's not looking better," her husband said, sitting up in bed.

She stopped, cocked her head, and twitched her whiskers at him. "What do you mean?"

He yawned."Still puffy, and there's something over your lip." He put his index finger under his nose to emphasize his point.

"That's it?" she asked, trying to not bounce on her feet.

He shrugged, and squinted at her. "Your makeup looks awful."

She made sure to flip him the finger twice as she went out the door, once before and once after putting on the hoodie.


The dentist's office had just opened, and there were no patients when she arrived. It was five shades of taupe and suffused with hammered dulcimer music clearly playing off of a cassette. She had not realized how boring and old it felt.

The receptionist smiled up at her when she came in. "Can I help you?"

Her speech was bit funny with the odd-sized teeth, and her tone was guttural. "I want to see the doctor, please."

"OK. Do you have an appointment?"

She was about to answer when a door opened down the hall and out came the dentist. He was short, wiry, and moved with. . . she could only call it a sinister grace. How had she not seen that yesterday?

"So, what time is. . ." he stopped speaking and walking when she saw her, still hooded, but a bit of light glinting off the incisor. "Ah, good morning." There was silence for a good ten seconds. "Mrs. Yuen, please tell my 8:30 that I have an emergency patient." He gestured for her to follow and headed into a room on his right.

She narrowed her eyes; something smelled wrong about this. But she went down the corridor and went into the open doorway. As the door was slammed behind her, the tang of something bad hit her whiskers, and she turned and grabbed the descending arm of the dentist, which held a creepy-looking hypodermic needle with. . . fins? She squeezed with her right hand, and he squealed and dropped the needle, which shattered when it hit the floor. She spun him around and slammed him into the cabinets behind him.

"What have you done to me?"

"What, what, what are you talking about?" he said, with absolutely no sincerity.

"If you don't tell me, the last thing you will see before you lose consciousness is the room spinning as I slam you into a wall and turn your clavicle into a jigsaw puzzle!" She ooked at him to drive the point home.

He stood up straighter and tried to surrender with dignity. "Well, seeing as you're so upset, and incredibly buff, I'll tell you." He dramatically closed his lab coat; she flexed her left eyebrow and he quivered. "OK, fine. I gave you an experimental genetic growth hormone."

You . . .WHAT?!?!?"

He tried to smile, but her combination of human and simian rage was unnerving him. "A new medication, designed to encourage rapid healing and dental health." He again tried to recover his composure. "I mean, it was approved by the FDA . . ."

She took a step towards him and he shrank back. "This . . . is . . . CANADA, you idiot!"

"Oh, right," he smiled again, and the light reflected strangely off of his glasses. Were they fake?

In a flash, she leaped at him and grabbed the collar of his lab coat. "WHO ARE YOU?" she chitter-roared.

"I'm. . . I'm. . . "his voice started to rise, get weirdly squeakier, "I'm just a dentist. I was born in Montreal, Calgary!"

With a bellow that would have done Mighty Joe Young proud she lifted him off the floor by his lapels. As she started to shake him, he undid the remaining button on the coat and fell out of it. As he hit the floor he went onto all fours and scampered, quite ferret-like, for the door, glasses and wig falling from his head as he zipped out of the door.

She threw the coat to the floor and gave chase, but by the time she got to the lobby, he was gone. The receptionist had stood up and looked at her in terror. She turned to the receptionist and showed her some teeth. "So, what's your story?"

* * * * *
The story was that the receptionist had been hired the week before, that the dentist had very few patients, and that when the cops were called they looked at her funny and said that she should sue. They filled out a report and escorted her out of the building. When she called the next day the phone was disconnected, and a trip over to the office found it completely cleaned out. A few days later she noticed the swelling and other aberrations abating. By then she had been checked out by three doctors who shrugged and called it, in order: an allergic reaction, a random mutation, and obviously some kind of weird experiment gone awry. And then she looked fine, and her tests came back with no problems, and that was that.

Until exactly 26 days later.

She decided to take a walk in the cool night air, which didn't seem to bother her much anymore. The only thing that really annoyed her was that the incisor never completely grew down. She had a permanent scowl, but it proved useful sometimes. So what was she? Child of the night? Alien experiment? Victim of a global humanimal conspiracy? She shrugged at the sky, looking at the moon, not yet full. Whatever it was, in a few days it would give her a good excuse to stay in bed.


The ending is abrupt due to time constraints; next time I should spend a few more minutes on getting to the end and see if I can improve it. As I said, a lot of recognizable tropes. It puts me in my of some recent writing advice I read that said you should discard the first three things you think of in a story, to get the the better, deeper ideas. I might try this again, with the same title, and take it in a different direction, and see if that notion bears fruit. Hopefully it's enjoyable to read, raw as it is. Comments are encouraged.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Damp Books, Undampened Spirit (A Roundup of sorts)

So I finished Nanowrimo last night at 40,153 words. That is not a win in Nano terms. However, it was a personal win as I now have the core of a novel and have demonstrated to myself that I have the discipline to put words on paper just about every day. This makes me happy. The next step is to build on this momentum, which means working on some short fiction I put off during the month and then going back to this 40K lump and shaping it more, which will mean cutting a fair bit out as well.

I have gotten some books in the last several days:

Sadly, the Lady Churchill's and my copy of Haunted Legends are now both slightly water-damaged due to the torrential rain we had today. I did not realize how utterly soaking the weather would be; usually my trusty courier bag keeps things safe, but by the time I got to the bus stop I was thoroughly drenched and the bag was saturated, even though I had protected it as best I could. I was so miserable and dripping on the bus that I did no reading, but I am looking forward to some reading time at breakfast.

Off to write now.