Thursday, January 22, 2015

Loving the One You're With

Check out more of Erik Johansson's surrealist pictures!

And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with.
~Stephen Stills
Oh, I want to write all the stories. I want to write them all the time and all at once! In December, I took stock of all my open projects. I’ve blogged about how important it is to finish. I believe that it is one of the keys to improving as a writer. Good stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end – and the process of creating a story has the same components.

Yet over last twelve months I managed to accrue several unfinished* projects.

When I get stuck, or my current draft starts feeling like a slog, that’s when one of my other unfinished stories starts to look oh so much more appealing. Writing a good story isn’t just mentally difficult, it’s emotionally challenging. I believe writing a good story, one that’s at the top of my game, should scare me. It’s natural when things get tough for that little voice to start saying that maybe I should jump ship.

This is the danger of multiple projects. I’m certainly not going to say you shouldn’t have a few irons in the fire. There are solid, legitimate reasons to let a certain piece of writing marinate for a time and that time can be spent on another project. But, it’s important to examine your reasons when the going gets tough, because that’s when you’ll hear the siren call of an unfinished project. I know, that other project looks amazing! And suddenly you’ve got so many great ideas for it. That’s what your journal is for, scribble down those ideas and get back to the project at hand; because it is crucial to commit emotionally to the story you’re writing. It’s scary. As a writer you know that it will cost something, but that’s your job – to give a little piece of your heart away with every story.

The good news is that all those other stories vamping around in the unfinished pile will wait until you get to them – and when you do you will be fully present when it’s their turn.

* I have finished things! I currently have ten stories in various slush piles, just no publication announcements yet. So the grind goes. The cure is to keep writing more and better material and to keep launching it out there.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Other Story Forms: Comics

A panel from Beautiful Darkness

It all started for me when I was a librarian at the Queens Public Library in the early 90s. Shortly after I arrived, I was charged with starting and curating a comics and graphic novel collection. I hadn’t grown up reading comics and was a complete newbie. The library entrusted me with a budget of a few hundred dollars, which I took to a comic book shop (can’t remember which one now, or even which borough it was in). When I told the guy at the desk that I needed to start a collection for a public library, well his face lit up like Christmas. My only limit was that I could only buy bound books (actual comics are too ephemeral for public library use). He got out a big cardboard box and filled it with the basics from DC, Marvel, Vertigo, Dark Horse, Image and others. 

Curating a collection means you have to read it, or as much of it as possible. I’ve been reading comics ever since. While I appreciate DC and Marvel, the classic superhero comics don’t really light my fire (I prefer the movies as my superhero delivery medium). What really turned me on were the darker, quirkier graphic novels like V for Vendetta, Sin City, Watchmen, Maus. These are the comics I would later go on to buy for my own personal bookshelf.

Like genre writing, comics are often pooh poohed as a literary form, but they have so much to offer! If you love the lush visual stimulation of movies and also love reading, comics are the best of both worlds. Yet they are very much their own thing. They are a variety of story telling experience that shouldn’t be neglected. While it is important for writers to learn guidelines about plot beats and characterization. The greater the variety of storytelling experiences you engage in, the deeper your intrinsic understanding of story will be, and it will pay off in your writing.

There are a million million comics out there, and a million websites and blogs to tell you about them.* Here is my idiosyncratic list of the best comics I read over the last year (many of them borrowed from my local library, so not necessarily published recently – the Austin Public Library maintains excellent comics collections for both adults and Kids, BTW).


If you’re curious about comics, but feel like you can’t quite connect with the form, a good place to start is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Written in 1993, it is still a relevant and passionate primer for medium.



Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fionna Staples. Vaughn also wrote Y: The Last Man. This one has me hook line and sinker. It’s a sci fi soap opera in the best way. At the core it tackles issues of relationships and family.

East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta. Apocalyptic (as in the Book of Revelation) religious themes set in a science fictional weird west. Volume 1 was an excellent beginning, the following volumes are a little uneven in their pacing. The large cast of characters can make it hard to connect to emotionally, but when it hits its stride it’s brilliant. 

Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. Another weird western about love, both twisted and true, and sacrifice.

Big Questions

Stand alones:

Big Questions by Anders Nilsen. A flock of small birds trying to make sense of a strange event. Very post modern in the literary sense. Beautiful minimalist artwork. Here's a NYT article about the book.

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann. A miniature world rendered in beautiful watercolor that is both violent and poignant. It captures the darkness and light touch of true fairytales perfectly.

Trillium by Jeff Lemire. I found this one challenging but worth it. Some sections are intentionally formatted upside down or progress backwards through time as truly star-crossed lovers travel through time, space, and alternate universes.

The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple. I found the artwork arresting and the characters fascinating. Ultimately, the story failed for me. It had too many ideas, which made the plot hard to follow and required too many characters, so that I couldn’t connect with the core of the story. Still, so much potential! I will read more by Dalrymple.


Some things for younger readers:

Stuff of Legend by Mike Raicht. This is a little dark in places, but the whole family fell in love with the characters and the world.

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel. We've been reading the very productive TenNapel's books for years. He's the creator of Earthworm Jim, Tommysaurus Rex, Ghostopolis, Bad Island... Cardboard is one of his bests IMHO.

reMIND by Jason Brubaker. Talking cats, and evil lizard king ruling an underwater kingdom. Great stuff! This comes as a gorgeous hardbound two volume set or you can read it for free on his website!

Monster on the Hill by rob Harrell. Adorable characters, lovely story. Great for younger kids.

Marzi by Marzena Sowa. A memoir in comic book form.  Marzena shows us what her childhood in Poland was like during the end of communism there. Beautifully told with lots of history
Clan Apis by Jay Hosler. A good story with real science about bees written by a biology professor.

The Wrenchies

* Criminally omitted from this post is the fact that the web is bursting with amazing web comics, only a fraction of which get bound into physical books. They deserve a post of their own, but since I have no idea when I might get around to writing such post, check out io9’s list of Best New Web Comics of 2014, or their 17 Fantastic Completed Web Comics to Binge Read.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Hello, New Year

This year, instead of making resolutions, I’ve made a plan. Heading into the second half of December, holiday and family obligations avalanched and, as usual, my writing ground to a halt. Instead of feeling bad about this (like I do every year), I spent those last couple weeks creating a plan for 2015.

A plan that includes not only weekends off, but writing vacations. I’m building in two weeks off at the end of December, one week in June (when school ends for my girls), and I’m keeping one vacation week in reserve to be slotted in as needed (spontaneous road trip, anyone?).

Over the last couple years I’ve established a daily writing habit and I have a good idea of how many words I can write in a typical day and how much I can accomplish in a day, a week, a month.

The plan has me drafting, revising, and finishing:
6 flash fiction stories
4 short stories (3,000 – 5,000 words)
2 novellas
1 novel

2014 was the year when a lot of my short stories grew into something longer and I ended the year with a lot of open projects as I learn to manage longer forms, both in terms of writing skills and writing time. The flash and short stories will be new. The novel and novellas are projects started in 2014 that I will finish this year.

I’m budgeting two weeks for short stories, a month for the novellas, and six months for the novel, which is really a guess. This is the novel I began late last year, so a lot of the preliminary work is complete. 

The closest thing to a resolution I have is that I intend to track my daily work in a log book. An actual paper journal, because I’m old fashioned that way. At the end of this year I will have better data to further refine and improve my process.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I Opine about Movies Over at SF Signal's Mind Meld

Today, I'm blogging over at SF Signal's Mind Meld about my favorite movies (I couldn't pick just one) of 2014. There were a lot of fantastic movies this year, and this Mind Meld gathers a great collection of writers to talk about them. Check it out.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Haiku me

A little cuckoo across a hydrangea by Yosa Buson.
The time from Halloween through the first of the year is always busy and full of family commitments -- and all the joy and holiday cheer that goes along with it. 

Keeping up with the writing, say nothing of this blog, is a bit of a challenge. Lately it appears that my story-writing draft/rest/revise/finish cycle has been biting me in the ass. I find myself with a dearth of time and an excess of UNFINISHED stories. I'll be looking to that in the next weeks.

Here are some haikus about it. 

While story drafts are resting
New stories are born
Now, so much unfinished work.

Writing in bits and pieces
Sentences and scenes
Must fit in between errands

Sentence by sentence
These tales and their characters
Will be brought to “The End.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Here's Ursula K. Le Guin's Fiery Speech from Last Night's National Book Awards

Give that woman an mic so she can drop it! Last Night the National Book Awards honored Ursula K. Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. You can read more about it at NPR and Motherboard. It would be enough that one of my favorite feminist, science fiction authors won a prestigeous literary award, but then she gave a speech that encapsulates and articulates the zeitgeist of the world of letters right now.

She starts out by recognizing the importance of fantasy and science fiction in literature, and then wades into speak truth to the world of publishing. This vast and chaotic, somewhat broken machine that commodifies our art and letters for mass consumption. She uttered a battle cry that both gave no quarter and inspired hope - at least in this writer.   

According to NPR, at the after party, Le Guin said of her speech: "I hope it goes outside this room."
Parker Higgins transcribed her entire speech. I'm reblogging most of it below. Check out his post for her speech in its entirety, and stick around to check out his super cool parker higgins dot net blog.

"I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom."

Neil Gaiman presents Ms Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Naturalism and the Fantastic in Snowpiercer

I’m continuing my tradition of writing about movies long after they’ve been released.
I was lucky enough to see Snowpiercer in the theaters this summer. It was, refreshingly, not a typical summer blockbuster. I expect no less from the always-interesting Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Actually, I first heard about this movie because of Bong’s feud with Harvey Weinstein, the producer who bought the U.S. rights to the movie. Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer to make it more appealing to American audiences. Bong felt the movie should stand as it is, and so did many of the fans who’d already seen it in its international release. In the end, the twenty minutes stayed, though the movie got a more limited release.

Now, I don’t know exactly which twenty minutes were on the chopping block, but I can understand why a big name producer might want to fiddle with this story. Snowpiercer worked for me, but it’s an odd movie and definitely not for everyone. Even my genre friends were pretty divided about it. To me, the main difficulty that this movie faces is one that affects genre storytellers more than others.

I believe it has to do with science fiction and fantasy’s tricky relationship with naturalism in storytelling. According to the dictionary:

“The term “Naturalism” was given to a 19th-century artistic and literary movement, influenced by contemporary ideas of science and society, that rejected the idealization of experience and adopted an objective and often uncompromisingly realistic approach to art.”

Great genre stories often employ naturalism. In science fiction, outrageous premises and alien worlds, when rendered in a naturalistic style, gives the fantastic elements a sheen of believability. It’s a literary of sleight of hand. When it works no one complains, when it doesn’t the audience will find the story “unrealistic” and pick apart every detail exclaiming, “But that’s impossible!”

Great fantasies are often grounded in naturalism, too. The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones are drenched in naturalistic details of our physical world and grounded in modern theories of social behavior. This backdrop makes the magic and strange creatures that populate these worlds seem immediate and possible. The fantastic elements are given the weight of reality by details that we recognize, objectively, as part of our world.

The use of naturalism in science fiction and fantasy stories often works without us really noticing. But stories like Snowpiercer are different. On one level, Snowpiercer is a grim dystopia and an action flick with a social agenda. It also stuffed with many strange, scenes and elements that don’t immediately make sense. The movie employs gritty, naturalistic effects, but the story is not realistic, it’s symbolic.

I was just getting around to this realization when I came across a post examining Snowpiercer as an allegory. Go check out Michael Hughes' excellent: How an Obscure Second Century Christian Heresy Influenced Snowpiercer.  Later, in an online discussion about the movie, Ted Kosmatka, wrote: 
 "Here’s the deal I made with the movie: Spin me a good parable, and I won’t hold you to reality."
Allegories and parables are both species of metaphor. In the case of long works, like Pilgrim’s Progress, they are extended metaphors that reveal hidden meanings and illustrate concepts.

Symbolic stories like Snowpiercer that employ naturalism risk creating a kind of cognitive dissonance in a viewer who takes naturalism as a cue that the movie is realistic. As I watched Snowpiercer, I quickly realized that I needed to decouple the idea that the movie’s naturalistic detail had anything to do with reality. Once I did that, I was free to enjoy the story on its own terms.

This is a challenge particular to speculative writing. Not only must the storyteller tell a compelling story, they must make clear to the audience just what type of story they’re telling. Of course, success also depends on active participation from audience. I have no real solution to this aspect of the genre, as I think the best stories; the best art pushes exactly these boundaries, forcing our brains and hearts to reach for new levels of understanding and connection.

Many of my favorite stories fall along these lines: KarenRussell’s novella, Sleep Donation, which I read (among other things) as an allegory for the cost of giving set in a fantastic tale of modern day epidemiology; The movie, Gamer, which I saw as a dark, inverted fairy tale. These layers of meaning double the fun for me, because every scene, every action, every line of dialogue has one meaning while other meanings move along underneath, underpinning and obverting every moment.