Thursday, 14 October 2010
As in, I was almost a Writers of the Future winner. Probably most folks reading this knew I was a finalist for the second quarter of the WOTF contest this year. That means my story—entitled "A Phalanx of Flowers"—was in the top eight, from which three would place as winners and get published in their anthology. I just found out, after an exasperating three month wait, that I didn't place.
What is one supposed to say in this situation? It's hard to be discouraged—after all, the fact that my story made finalist is plenty of validation that it's good. In fact, the contest administrator made a point of telling me multiple times that it's publishable, that I should submit it elsewhere. And I will—but the fact remains, yesterday the story had a three in eight chance of being published, and today its back to the slush pile. (Actually I told WOTF that they can hold onto it until March; sometimes they will publish non-winning finalists if they need to fill out their anthology, so I'll cross my fingers for that.)
I guess the real reason I'm discouraged is that this story was probably my best bet for winning the contest. I've come to a pretty good idea what the contest is looking for and my finalist story hit it dead on, but what I usually write isn't quite a match. I've already entered stories for the third and fourth quarters of the contest, but I know that neither of them is as good as "Phalanx".
All that aside, it doesn't really change anything. I'll still try to write every day. I'll keep submitting. It just gives me some motivation to finish off the novel I've been working on and get some more short stories written, so that I can keep entering WOTF. I know that I'm capable of reaching that winner's circle, so now it's just a matter of time and persistence, right?
Saturday, 07 August 2010
Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief is a novel both broad in scope and minutely personal. It is the story of Gen, a talented thief that at the story’s opening is captive in the king’s prison, victim to his own bragging. But when the king’s magus wants to steal a fabled relic from another kingdom he needs a master thief, and none is more skilled than Gen. So begins Gen’s adventure, as the magus and his companions set out on a journey to steal the unstealable.
Turner fashions a well wrought web of history and political intrigue, painting it on a canvas of half-forgotten gods and myths. The first half of the book is relatively slow as we learn about Gen’s companions and the kingdoms they inhabit, but I was never bored. The world, based loosely on ancient Greece, is lush and interesting, and the characters are all deeper than they first appear.
Unfortunately The Thief suffers from one major flaw: the story is told from Gen’s point of view, but we know next to nothing about his personal history or motivations until the very end. Gen isn’t an unreliable narrator, which, handled well, can make for a clever twist; he is a deficient narrator, simply omitting key pieces of information until he springs them on the reader with self-satisfied relish. It makes an otherwise thrilling story somewhat flat; Gen could have been a lot more interesting and sympathetic a character if we had known his plans all along.
Despite my complaints, I did enjoy The Thief. I have it on good authority that the following books are better, so I’m looking forward to reading those too. Megan Whalen Turner has created a vivid, fascinating world, and I can’t wait to see what else happens there.
Tuesday, 27 July 2010
Pushing Daisies was on the air for one year, eight months, ten days, two hours, and fifty-nine minutes before the series came to a premature end, a casualty of low ratings and an unfortunate proclivity for cancelling outstanding shows in their infancy. Even so, this zany fantasy-comedy—part modern day fairy tale, part detective series—is worth watching for just the twenty-two episodes that were produced.
The facts are these: Ned is a pie-maker with a gift—he can bring dead things back to life. But there are a few caveats. Touching a dead person once brings them to life, but a second touch makes them dead again...forever. And if Ned leaves anything alive for more than a minute, something else must die in its place. When a private investigator discovers his magic touch, he concocts the perfect use for it: Ned touches murder victims, asks them who killed them, re-deads them, and together they collect the reward for solving the murder.
With a concept like this, you can imagine the stories are all pretty outrageous—this isn’t a show to take too seriously. Much like its predecessor, Wonderfalls, every episode has it’s quirky, off the wall premise, but what makes it work is that the characters, the relationships, their joys and sorrows, are all very real and heartfelt.
And it’s the characters that make the show. Ned, as proprietor of “The Pie Hole”, is charming and humble. Emerson Cod is the ornery PI, a perfect foil for Ned. Charlotte “Chuck” Charles is Ned’s alive-again girlfriend, who he can never touch. Chuck’s aunts are more than a little eccentric, but have their own charm to them. And the lovelorn Olive Snook, played by the luminous Kristin Chenoweth, brightens every scene she’s in. I’ve come to despise her character on Glee (though, damn can she sing!), but I adore her in Pushing Daisies (and she sings here too!)
A comedy like this lives and dies by its dialog, and in Pushing Daisies it comes fast and clever, easily on a par with shows like Gilmore Girls or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’ll have to watch an episode more than once to catch every subtle reference and play on words. All the actors are up to the task, including the one gem that never appears on screen: Jim Dale as the narrator, wry and intrusive, yet so perfect as the all-knowing voice of the fairy tale that is being told.
The final piece of the Pushing Daisies oeuvre is its visual design. It’s like nothing you’ve seen on TV before; every set is full of bright colors and eye-catching shapes, like a storybook come to life. Sometimes the frequent use of CGI can be jarring, but overall the look fits the tone of the show perfectly.
I can only lament that, like so many of my favorite shows, Pushing Daisies was cut off so abruptly. The final episode of the series does nicely wrap up one major storyline, and there is an awkward effort to wrap up a few others. Other threads left hanging. Even so, don’t let that deter you; step on down to The Pie Hole, order up a slice—a la mode, if you prefer—and prepare to be entranced.
Sunday, 11 April 2010
My grandma passed away this week, and my dad asked me to say a few words at the funeral. This is what I said:Many of my fondest memories of childhood are of time spent with my grandma, and who I am today is in large part because of her attention and care. I suspect she thought I would become an architect, the way we would play with building blocks for hours on end. I'm sure the beginning of my engineering nature can be found in the precise folds of the origami she helped me construct. Most of all I can see her hand in my love of writing. She fostered my imagination, reading to me and encouraging me to come up with my own stories.
I remember some of the things Grandma would feed me. It sounds awful to me now, but at one point I really liked her liver sausage spread on bagels. She always had curious opinions to share when it came to food. I shouldn't have whipped cream on my hot chocolate because the air in it would fill me up before I got to the rest of the meal. And all the vitamins! There was always something I should avoid or be getting more of. But judging by how long she lived a healthy and independent life, she was right more often than not.
The last time I saw Grandma was a few months ago when my wife, Tracy, and I told her that we were expecting a baby. "You're going to be a great-grandma," we said. We had to repeat it a little louder for her to hear. In her spirited way, she quipped, "But I'm already a great grandma."
I'm sorry that Grandma won't have a chance to see the baby after it's born, but I do know that my daughter will see Grandma's mark on my life every day.
Saturday, 06 March 2010
I really wanted to love The Poison Throne. Not just because it sounded like the sort of book I should love—Mystery! Intrigue! Romance! Adventure!—but because I picked it up in New Zealand, several months before it would even come out in the US. And while I usually depend on other people's recommendations for my reading selections, it would be nice, for once, to be on the cutting edge, to discover a gem before everyone else and be the one doing the recommending.
And it is good. Its setting was exquisitely realized, a faux-European kingdom of the middle ages with a realistic feel that I haven't often seen. The characters are deep and intriguing. And there is a promise of mystery and profound happenings.
But that's where the book falls flat. For that's all the promise ever is—a promise. Wynter Moorhawke, our intrepid heroine, returns home after a five year absence, to discover that something is not right with the kingdom. We see a lot of what is wrong, but we never really learn why things have changed so much; for that matter, we never really learn the circumstances under which the king sent Wynter and her Father away in the first place, except in the way of the most roundabout and vague hints.
And so, while the characters go through trying times and make difficult choices, I was never entirely sure what their motives or reasoning were. It was too clear that there were things they knew that I did not. (Or else they blithely ignored the questions that any rational person should have been asking in their situation.) It kept me from being as involved as I should have been and, even though I enjoyed my reading of the story, by the end I was left asking: what was the point? This is the first in a trilogy; I can only hope that the later books fill in everything that was missing here. But even if they do, it leaves this first installment wanting.
Sunday, 29 November 2009
Well, as of yesterday, I am officially a NaNoWriMo winner. See? Winner.
I'd like to say I am all psyched about it, that all the time and hard work paid off and I'm so happy with the result. In a way, it did. The discipline of it is good: forcing myself to sit down and write every day, whether I want to or not. I really believe that that is what makes you a writer, more than getting published or winning awards or having monuments built in honor of your literary genius. (Although if anyone is in the monument building business, I won't turn you down.)
Here's the thing: NaNoWriMo is great for volume; it encourages you to get a lot of words out, and quickly. Tracy and I went to a write-in, the first week of NaNo. We didn't know what to expect, except that a bunch of other NaNo'ers would be there, and writing would occur. This one was in the back room at a Panera; something like twenty writers, armed with laptops, trying to meet their quota for the day. The main event was a series of word wars, where everyone would write as much as they could for ten or fifteen minutes and whoever wrote the most would get a prize.
I hated this. Don't get me wrong—it got me to write quickly. I think I hit almost 500 words once, in the time limit. But everyone else would call out their counts: 600, 800, even 1,000. What were they writing? Could it possibly make any sense? I knew what I had written didn't. Heck, I can't even type that fast!
I felt like all of NaNoWriMo was a big word war. Every day, I'm barely at the starting line and, BAM, the gun goes off, and I'd better start running or I'll fall behind. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words. Knowing that there would be some days that I just couldn't write, that meant about 2,000 words per day. There was no time to think, no time to breathe; I constantly felt like I just had to write.
But the act of writing is more than just adding text to your novel. There's brainstorming and planning, and sometimes you really do have to just throw something out rather than go endlessly down the wrong path. NaNoWriMo encourages you to stifle your internal editor and not worry about the quality of your prose, and that's great, very necessary for writing a first draft. But the hectic pace of it didn't give me time to worry about the quality of the story, and that is something that I can't compromise on.
I appreciate NaNoWriMo for what it does for aspiring writers. If you've always said you want to write but never opened a word processor and faced the terror of a blank screen, then NaNo is a good kick in the duff. But am a writer; I already make a point of writing most every day. I'll be happy now to turn off the deluge of words and go back to writing at my own pace. I know my stories will be the better for it.
Friday, 11 September 2009
Who would have thought that you could take the disparate legacies of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and conflate them into a novel that not only makes sense, but pulls it off with panache? And yet Galen Beckett does exactly that with The Magicians and Mrs. Quent.
(Incidentally, the dust jacket and even the author's website are frustratingly evasive as to Galen Beckett's gender. I assumed—even though Galen is usually a male name—that this meant the author was female, and I had to go to wikipedia to disabuse myself of this notion. So, in case you were wondering, "his" is the correct pronoun.)
Mrs. Quent opens in a clear homage to Pride and Prejudice, but it is quickly clear that this is no typical regency novel. The dialogue, the narrative voice, and even the feel of the society are very much Austenesque, but then there are the magicians, the otherworldly creatures, and the dark magic of the wild places in the finest traditions of epic fantasy. Halfway through, the book flips to a much more somber tone and we pick up the story as written in the hand of the protagonist, much in the spirit of Jane Eyre.
As a fan of all of these influences, I was easily engrossed in the book, even when some of the references felt a little too similar. (Stern Mr. Quent is no less severe than Brontë's Rochester when our heroine enters his employ, and the two conceal a similar quantity of secrets in their Gothic homes.) That's part of the fun—catching the references to classic English literature. And the story itself is original enough; the manner of telling it just makes it that much more fresh and enjoyable.
If I was frustrated with any part of this book, it was the final section of it. The ending was satisfactory but not satisfying. All the major issues were resolved, but many of the climatic moments were glazed past or even skipped altogether and only referred to after the fact. And while the major problems were wrapped up, there were several persistent questions that were not even addressed. I realize there is a sequel in the works, but it was annoying to see an issue get solved without ever understanding why it was a problem or what the nature of the problem was. Not to worry, though. Galen Beckett has convinced me that he knows what he is doing, and these lingering questions will only make me more impatient for his next volume.
Thursday, 27 August 2009
I really want to give The Name of the Wind a glowing review. It is an enchanting, intoxicating story, a bold adventure, epic and personal and everything that the best of the fantasy genre has to offer.
But there wouldn't be much point in giving it a review like that. It's been done. Everyone seems to love this book. It's like J. R. R. Tolkien and apple pie and rock 'n' roll all rolled into one. So even though I adored it as much as everyone else, even though I couldn't bear to put it down and now will curse Pat Rothfuss for not chaining himself to his desk until the sequel is finished, despite all that, I'm going to have to go against the grain and pan it.
Because on the underside of this magificent tale of a hero in the making, there is a tired, dull, pointless story about a washed up hero trying to escape from the world.
Perhaps I am to harsh. Let me explain.
The Name of the Wind is a tale told in a bar. Kvothe, the hero, has retired to some backwater town, assumed a new name, and is evidently trying to live out his life in peace. Only a wandering scribe happens upon him and recognizes him for who he is, and after some doing convinces him to tell his story.
All well and good. Frame stories are nothing new. Only, it takes fifty-nine pages to get to the story story. That's fifty-nine pages of frame, plus various interludes throughout the book.
And I quite honestly found everything in the frame dull.
Things are happening. Interesting things, even. Subtle hints and mysteries that are no doubt going to be explored in the next volumes. But it's all sabatoged by the abominable point of view Rothfuss has chosen to use. Which is...none at all.
Not really true. Technically it's an omnicient point of view, but at all the important points it becomes entirely cinematic. The fact is, we, the readers, see what is happening, but we have no context or explanation for it. Even the dullest events in Kvothe's story are brought to life by the rich voice that is telling them, but in the present day frame, despite a fair bit of intrigue and action, I don't know why any of it is happening or what it all means.
Having said all that...just ignore me. Read the book. You'll like it, I promise. Just make sure to give it more than fifty-nine pages.
And remember that somebody probably said the same thing to you about Tolkien when they recommended Lord of the Rings.
Friday, 14 August 2009
Boot Camp was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Even now that it's done I'm in a sort of awe that I was able to attend it, to take this big step towards something that I'm excited about and really care about. It would be impossible to enumerate everything that I took away from it, but there are some big things.
The workshop opened my eyes in a new way to the process of writing. There was a lot of technical material—things like point of view, exposition, story structure—that was a good refresher for me, but it was stuff that I was already familiar with. OSC helped me take a step back and look at the end to end process for coming up with a story.
I need to be more rigorous about asking the creative questions—"Why?" and "What result?"—so that I'm never satisfied with the first idea that comes to me, the one that's certain to be a cliche. I discovered the value in getting feedback earlier in the creative process (since normally I don't like talking about a story until I'm done writing it, at which point it's a lot harder to actually make changes based on feedback). Tough as it is, I need to stop thinking about words and sentences, and instead just tell the story. I've never been good at suppressing my inner editor. On the flip side, I need to remember that those creative questions don't end when I've finished my outline and start writing; every moment in the story can be a springboard for interesting new possibilities.
And then there's the skill of looking at a rough draft and figuring out what it needs to become, like Michelangelo seeing his sculpture in the raw stone. That's not a skill I've mastered yet, but I've seen OSC do it and I know what is possible. I figure that's the first step towards getting there.
Besides these matters of craft, the other huge thing I got out of Boot Camp was the friendships. Writing has always been a solitary art for me, and even when I've gotten critiques it's been through the relative anonymity of the internet. I'm far from an extrovert. Yet this experience wrought a camaraderie—born of shared suffering, no doubt—that meant I was comfortable sitting down with any of the Boot Campers, at any time of the day or night, and chatting about whatever. These are great people: brilliant, funny, creative, insightful. I expect that their encouragement and their thoughtful criticism will be greatly helpful to me as I continue to write. (Or at the very least I'll get to say, "I knew them when...")
So what am I going to do now that it's over? Write, of course! I have too many ideas and too little time. Before, I would measure progress by word count and time spent, but I don't think that's good enough; progress is finishing things and submitting them. Boot Camp has given me confidence that I have the skill to get published, or nearly so; now I just need to supply the persistence. So excuse me while I go back to ignoring my blog and writing some stories...
Thursday, 13 August 2009
With stories turned in, it was time to start the workshop portion of the week. Ours was a good group—all but one of us turned in our stories on time (and the latter had computer problems as an excuse). Evidently most years there are a sizable number of people that don't finish on time and struggle to keep writing in whatever free time they can come by.
And let me tell you, there is no free time. I heaved a sigh of relief when my story was finished, but the respite was short lived. I still had to read a story from each of the sixteen other people. (And besides writing faster than previous Boot Camps, OSC pointed out that we also wrote longer, meaning we had considerably more pages to get through in not enough time. Things were supposed to be done by 3:00 on Saturday, but we didn't finish until 6:00, and that was after hurrying things along towards the end.) We read over meals, we read late into the night, and we read when we woke up in the morning until it was time to start workshopping.
The way the workshop worked was this: We all sat around a group of tables and, going around the circle, each person gave their thoughts on the story—where things were unclear or unbelievable, where we found ourselves losing interest, and any suggestions to fix those problems. There was no repeating what someone else had said, but it was rare that someone didn't have something new to add, even when they were the last to speak.
I was a bit wary of this format at first. I don't mind jumping in and giving my thoughts, but as someone who hates public speaking this felt too much like giving a mini-presentation on every story. I always got tense as my turn approached, making sure I had organized all the comments I wanted to make and then constantly revising them as other people made similar points. Ultimately, though, it worked out very well: since everyone only had one chance to speak, it avoided long, drawn out discussions (which was important since we were already spending about an hour per story) and it guaranteed that no one (i.e. me) got drowned out by the more vocal people.
And then, after all the Boot Campers had had their say, OSC would give his thoughts. And after listening to him read and respond to seventeen stories, I'm left with only one conclusion.
OSC is a storytelling genius.
He cuts to the heart of a story with the ease of a magician performing for a crowd. Only there is no legerdemain here; when he delves into even the most abstruse story, he sees not only the story the author actually told, but the story the author wanted to tell, and sometimes he draws out of it a story even more fantastic, one that the author had never thought to imagine. Yet he's not inventing whole-cloth; he's picking up on little details, on untold motivations and snatches of backstory, and combining them in a way that makes a beautiful sort of sense once it's pointed out to you.
It's odd that, when faced with this sort of creative prowess, one's only reaction is to sit back and laugh. It's not at the humor of the thing—though OSC did come up with some funny ideas—but with a childish sort of glee: there is magic in the world, and we are its practitioners. Or we can be, with practice.
My story came up for critique late Friday night. I came away with copious notes and ideas that don't need to be reproduced here, but I will mention the highlight, which was (and I'm paraphrasing from memory here) when OSC said that he would not have been surprised to come across this story in a published magazine. (Witness my ego get uncomfortably inflated!) He then went on to explain why he wouldn't publish it in his magazine...but really that was the good part—I came away with a lot of constructive feedback and great ideas for improvement.
And in order to keep my ego properly in check, the next morning he proceeded to buy a different Boot Camper's story straight out of her crit. But it was a great story and she every bit deserved it.