On the benefits of ‘failure’

I set myself a goal at the start of the month.

In fact I set several.

The most salient goal for this blog was the #NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words written in November. I did not achieve that goal. I didn’t even come close. It wasn’t a case of ‘just one more day’, or ‘just a little short.’ I failed to achieve 50,000. I failed to achieve half that.

 

from this blog on why we shouldn't fear failure: http://aib.edu.au/blog/fear-of-failure-4-reasons-embrace-failure/

sourced from this blog on how to embrace failure

And that’s ok.

Coincidentally, at the start of November, I also started a new job. It’s a similar role to the role I previously had, but the small and specific differences are significant. It’s at a different organisation, and a much larger organisation, than my previous employment. I’ve had to learn the new culture, the new hierarchies, the systems and protocols and all those elements of a workplace which go so often unstated. I’ve had to meet new people, learn names, determine the interconnections between each of them and me, between their roles and mine, how I can help them, how they can help me. It’s been a big transition, and in many ways one which is time-consuming and mentally demanding, coming into an existing project and quickly evaluating how the expertise and experience I bring will contribute. And I feel (one month in) that it has been a success.

I also set a personal health goal at the start of November, because I was feeling run-down and unhealthy, I was overweight (no shaming intended, but overweight for me. You be whatever weight you’re comfortable and happy with. I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy, so ‘overweight’), I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I was stressed… I was struggling. So I made some changes, on my own terms, and I set some health goals and behavioural/habit goals. And I’ve been successful there too, both in terms of the numerical targets I’m hitting and the general feeling of wellbeing.

And then there was the election of course, and all of the existential doubt and fear that flowed from it.

Graph of November

Graph of November (from here)

Life is about balancing things. That’s probably as true for you, reading this, as it is for me. It’s probably true for all of us. But sometimes we see people doing amazing things, devoting a lot of time and energy we don’t see to produce fantastic results we do. I had a friend posting astounding word-counts for the first week or so of #NaNoWriMo, an the temptation to compare myself unfavourably was strong. But I wasn’t competing with her, and her circumstances were not my own.

Recently Kameron Hurley spoke on Twitter about being a ‘binge writer’: writing tens-of-thousands of words a day, for several days on end, rather than writing every day (a nice antidote to the ‘write every day‘ mantra which can lead to feelings of guilt or failure when your life doesn’t allow you to write). But I’m not competing with her, and her circumstances are not my own.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the discipline of writing. One of the most striking changes I see in myself between my earliest dilettante days of ‘aspiring’ to be a writer (the advice to drop that qualifier was invaluable for self-perception) and the ongoing development in the midst of which I sit today, is my understanding of what writing is, what it is not, and what it requires.

Among other things, writing requires failure.

Initially in the sense that you need to accept failure merely to write anything at all, because it’s important to give yourself permission to suck, and to accept that your first draft of anything is shit.

But more than that I think writing (and really any creative/artistic endeavour) requires that we strive for something we know we may never achieve. And yet that we keep striving.

This is why we should not hate bad art. Peter Ball pointed this out for me, and it has changed the way I look at the Beibers of our world. We should critique, of course. We can express our dissatisfaction or distaste. We can call out problematic or offensive tropes and features. But bad art is important. It’s especially important if other people (for some unfathomable reason beyond your ken) like it, even love it. It’s the creative endeavour. It’s someone trying to make something and share it, and maybe you don’t like what they made, but then again maybe you’re not the intended audience, or maybe it doesn’t matter if no one else likes it because bad art matters to the artist. And bad art is so often a precursor to good art, or to better art, at least. If people stop making bad art, or are afraid to make bad art, how can they ever move through that phase to what comes next? As Alison Gerber points out, bad art benefits us all.

If you are serious about writing, you will create bad writing. You’ll fall into cliche, lean heavily on tired tropes, trot out stock phrases, overuse your pet words. You’ll make errors, break grammatical conventions accidentally or with ill-conceived intent, run-on your sentences, split your infinitives, dangle your participles, changed your tense mid-sentence. You’ll be incomprehensible, miss the mark, wander off on tangents, maybe be bland or boring. All of this is part of the process. If we castigate ourselves for these ‘failings’, or worse, if our fear of them paralyses us, we will never achieve the greatness which may lie just beyond them, just a little further along the path, just beyond the work-shopping and revision and re-writing which can only follow once a thing is written.

So what benefits are there in this failure, my #NaNoWriMo failure?

  1. I have about 20,000 words about a weaponised infection, a dying city, and the reluctant poetry student who may hold the key to the cure.
  2. I added another 5,000 words or so to a separate story about a retired government cyber-agent drawn into an international quest to learn the truth about her high-school sweetheart’s death.
  3. I have a much clearer sense of where both of these stories are going, and more fully developed planning documents which will guide me there.

And I have perspective.

The month was not wasted because I fell (well) short of the arbitrary figure set for #NaNoWriMo. I have another month, and another after that, and at 25,000 or so words per month, I’m only a couple of months away from finishing another novel.

That’s an exciting feeling.


Review: “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” (Short story)

I don’t normally review short stories because I read quite a few and I don’t often get time to reflect on them and write up those reflections here, but I’m making an exception, in part because this is a pretty exceptional story (and in part motivated by a tone-deaf review I read which seemed to miss the point of this story completely. I won’t link to it. If you’re desperate to know, trawl my Twitter feed for my reaction).

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies appears in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 13.

You can read it (or listen to it) here: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/talons-can-crush-galaxies/

issue13coverv2_large
(Cover art by Julie Dillon, www.juliedillonart.com)

I first read Brooke Bolander’s work with her rightfully acclaimed And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead, which was published in Lightspeed Issue 57 (Feb 2015). That story went on to be a finalist for Nebula and Hugo and set a high bar.

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead - illustration by Galen Dara
(Art by Galen Dara, 2015, which accompanied Bolander’s story in Lightspeed, 57)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies is a much different story, and much shorter, but it packs much of the same punch.

Bolander has a talent for an opening. In And You Shall Know Her… that was in a first paragraph with deep hooks in it. Here, she has boiled that down to one sentence:

“This is not the story of how he killed me, thank fuck.”

One of the most remarkable features of this story is how compact it is. It comes in at barely more than 1,000 words, but it’s full to the brim. It’s as lean and muscular as a prizefighter, not a word wasted.

Bolander’s opening paragraph makes the thematic purpose clear. For all the otherworldly elements, (copper feathers, wing stubs, immortality, multiple realities, black holes and parallel universes, to name but a few), this is a story about our world: a world in which the victims of violence become anonymised and the perpetrators become celebrities, where women’s brutalised bodies are ignored at best, displayed as warnings or entertainment at worst, and where excuses are found for nice boys from good families.

But while the reader can make connections between this story and the Stanford rapist, the Steubenville rapists, the likes of Ted Bundy, this is not a story about them. It’s a story which deliberately and explicitly ignores any temptation to sympathise with, or even to explain or understand, guys like that. It doesn’t want to tell their tale. This is someone else’s story; not theirs.

With theme established, Bolander delivers the main narrative in sparse but descriptive detail. Each piece of information is a bullet-point on a list, and we as readers must bring these discrete facts together. We co-create the narrative. I’m not always convinced by this as a story-telling form, but this proves that the technique–done well–carries power.

The final paragraphs bring it all back together, and broaden the scope from the gritty detail to the epic scale suggested by the title.

This is an excellent short story. A galaxy full of stars for it, from me, provided it is a small galaxy with 5 stars in it (or a crushed galaxy, perhaps, wherein 5 stars remain).

 

 


NaNoWriMo 2016

Last year I took my first run at getting 50,000 words written in the month of November. This is the goal of NaNoWriMo, but I consider that my efforts ran parallel to, rather than within, that program. I certainly used NaNo… as impetus to write more and more frequently, but I didn’t sign up to anything or really participate in the community of it.

This year, more of the same.

Here’s last year’s results:

You may need to zoom in to make sense of that

You may need to zoom in to make sense of that

I made it, by the skin of my teeth. The novel I worked on with those words needed extensive reshaping and revisions and edits, but it’s a 90,000+ manuscript now which I completed in February of this year.

Since then I’ve written half a dozen short stories, and made starts or false starts on five novel projects. Clearly I’ve got a problem with diving into an idea and then wandering off to a new idea rather than sticking through.

So, this year I want to get more than 50,000 words in the next 30 days, and I want them all on a single project. I’ve got one with two versions I’ve abandoned, one at about 5,000; the other just shy of 10,000. I’ll maybe draw on work already done in these, but quarantine those words from my monthly total. Adding some of those to the 50k I want to write this month would probably be enough put me in range to finish the novel draft by the end of the year, based on an 80,000 goal.

Whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or running alongside like me, or if you’re a professional FT author for whom 50,000 words a month is just you doing your job, I wish you the best of luck. Feel free to check in here, or on my Facebook page (link should be in a menu to the right of this post) or on Twitter (@jmmelican) and we can arrange some writing sprints or similar.


Review: ‘Road Brothers’ by Mark Lawrence

Disclaimer — All the way back in 2013, elsewhere on this site, I sung the praises of Mark Lawrence‘s Grimdark Fantasy trilogy, the books of the Thorns: Prince, King, Emperor. They’re very good. If you haven’t read them and you like that sort of thing, you should check them out. Unexpectedly, my faint voice of high praise reached Lawrence himself and he has such a commendably fine memory (or perhaps more commendably, fine record keeping practices) that he offered me the opportunity to read ‘Road Brothers’ a little earlier than many and for free. He didn’t specifically ask for a review (I don’t think), but I intend to give one and in the interests of open transparency, I felt you should know about how I came to read it. I judge this a fair & frank review, but you’re welcome to make your own judgement too.

First, the spoiler-free:
This is a collection of short stories set in Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ and featuring characters from the two series he has set in that world.
If you know these characters, you learn a lot more about them, get to spend more time with them, understand their histories, gain insights into the thoughts and motivations which inform their actions… all of which is great if you’ve read the earlier books. I have, and I enjoyed (most) of these stories largely for those reasons. More on that later.
I wouldn’t recommend this collection as an entry-point to Lawrence’s work, but in this I’m in accord with the author himself. It opens with the advice to people who haven’t read his earlier work, and who are picking this up without that existing familiarity with his world and characters, not to buy the book.
The author. Telling potential readers. Do not buy this book.

It’s a gutsy move, but consistent with a similarly gutsy decision Lawrence made at the end of his first series and explained in the postscript of Emperor.
So if you’ve read Lawrence’s other books, this is definitely worth your time and money. If not, look elsewhere first and come back to ‘Road Brothers‘ when you’re ready.
Spoilers ahead:
image via Goodreads

image via Goodreads

You’ve been warned
.
.
.
The positives:
Much of this is exactly what you are expecting, and that’s likely a good thing, because you’re expecting well crafted stories with a strong sense of character and a a bit of black humour and a hard edge and difficult moralities. This book delivers all that. Blood, betrayal, lies deception, the callous and banal cruelties of which humanity is so exceedingly capable. Weak men pretending at strength, strong men worn down, widowers and one-time fathers bearing the great burden of inconsolable grief.

Lawrence has a gift for metaphor and simile. He scatters quotable bon mots and wry observation throughout these stories. He often holds up a critical mirror to our own world in the world of his Broken Empire. He asks if ours is less Broken, after all.

To the complaints:

There are flawed and burdened and broken women here, but significantly fewer of them and cast in lesser roles. In some stories, none at all. In others stories perfunctory or peripheral appearances. This is ‘Road Brothers’ after all, but Lawrence’s female characters are so significant and complex and interesting in his novel-length trilogies that their absence (or at least their lack of centrality) is felt here. It’s not that he can’t write women well, it’s just that here he doesn’t seem as interested in their stories as in the stories of his men.
If binge-reading, these stories take on a sense which might be called ‘consistency’ but is perhaps more a sense of sameness. Again the village raided. Again the murdered family. Again the man’s need for revenge. Again the witty remark, the clever ploy, the fortunate hand of fate. Always, always, burning thatch. Lawrence here burns a hell of a lot of fictional thatch.
This complaint only occurred when I read several end-on-end. When I spaced things out, about a story a week, the problem wasn’t so apparent.
My top three stories (and an honourable mention):
Sleeping Beauty
Know Thyself
Rescue
Bad Seed
To the specifics:
Below, my thoughts story by story. I took these notes contemporaneously, sometimes immediately upon finishing the story, sometimes as I was reading. I’ve cleaned them up for spelling, grammar, etc, but they’re otherwise my thoughts as they occurred.
Rescue –  Makin’s story. Very short. Effectively three scenes and heavy on memories and Makin’s internal thoughts. It becomes, quickly, Jorg’s story, even while Jorg takes no action within it. Makin loses centrality in his own story. Does a good job explaining his back-story and his loyalty/connection to Jorg.
Sleeping Beauty– This was a strong story, and perhaps because of being back in Jorg’s head and in first-person it felt more familiar to the Broken Empire. I got Resident Evil vibes from the bunker. Lawrence intertwined sci-fi and fantasy elements well (as he does in his long form writing) with the additional thread of the fairytales. The Goldilocks diversion wasn’t necessary to the tale, but worked. The revelations about the hook briars was good, but does this retcon his scars from the novels?
Bad Seed – great first line drops always to a slow build, and the little play on the 6th Sense twist is obvious early but confirmed late (in the sense it was confirmed after being obvious to the reader for too long. Guessing the twist a moment before the reveal is exciting. Guessing it and waiting on the ever-more-obviously-inevitable reveal, less so). The gap between childhood and adulthood is well-written. The loss of the family in a manner repetitive to others (Makin’s notably) felt unnecessary. We had no real connection to wife/sons, so would a burnt house not be enough to set him off? If he’s a natural born killer, why does he need the family-loss motivation? Surely the soldiers’ arrivals are sufficient motivation. He wanted to go to war, but war came to him. The scene in the field was very good, but the latter fight (1 v 6) was best when it was general ‘he threw himself amongst them’, rather than the blow-by-blow which slowed things down and made it all a little overly described. This especially the case when those blows rang at odds with a farmer who had done no violence for years. Throwing the perfect sword stab, sliding and cutting…
The skill in the writing elevated the story. The passage on a farmer’s relationship to killing (as contrast to soldiers’), and on tendons and slaughter and such were all poignant and offered depth to the narrative.
The frisson of meeting Jorg through Red Kent was good fan-service, as was the explanation for the name as a growth from the Old Tongue. Unlike Makin’s this was Red Kent’s story throughout.
Nature of the Beast: Sabitha (as with Lynch’s Locke Lamora stories?) It’s interesting that Rike’s story is not in his head (as others have been). The author’s note at the end of the story addresses this. Afemale first person protagonist, but even with a view from within her head, she’s secondary. This is not her story; it’s Rike’s. More burning thatch. Stakes are suddenly life and death and why we should care about either is never well established. We’re not sure if we should care about her curse or her death, and we’re given no real reason why we should. The curse is the link back to the main books, but while thematically ambitious (that compassion is a curse and a cause of suffering) I would have loved more exploration of that theme. Without it, the curse loses some of its gravitas.
Select Mode:
I had read this before as stand-alone.
Now, as then, this seems an earlier effort. I’m not sure where it comes in ML’s writing chronology, but the prose seems an earlier iteration, less practised and assured than he becomes with experience. I like the concepts here, of slow time, of the post-apocalyptic ruins, of meaning created in misunderstanding. But overall, for reasons I’m not sure I can entirely explain, I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I was intrigued by those elements of it.
Mercy
Another Makin story?
Oh. It’s a Gorlan story. Did we head-hop, or was that my misreading from the start?
And that ending left me wondering what was the point of having read it. Some minor tweak late to misdirect the real threat from a known character to an unknown? It then became a climax played out between two characters I didn’t care much about because they hadn’t been made important to me. Both were significant only in how they related to Makin. Put him in and his gravity pulls the narrative toward him. Take him out and the vacuum he leaves is too great.
A Good Name.
Intriguing first line. Concern creeps in that this is going to be mired in noble savage tropes, but I think Lawrence avoids falling for that. The exoticism is filtered throughout the story, rather than dwelt upon or fethisized. Usually, this is done deftly, but sometimes with a heavy hand. Snaga’s introduction is at best a convenient contrivance. I don’t get Harrac’s motivation here. He didn’t want to wait a few hours but then he gives years in service with Snaga. Why? Then a head-hop? It’s Snaga’s story now? Only briefly.
I loved the character in the Broken Empire books and he fascianted me for his (seemingly misplaced) loyalty to Jorg and in Jorg’s dependence on him. Here, with his younger version, I didn’t feel the same way. He didn’t feel like the same character, whereas the farmer who would become Red Kent felt like Red Kent even before he was (that makes sense, trust me). Younger Rike was obviously Rike. Makin too.
Choices:
Lawrence does an opening line really well, but some feel as though they were crafted independently of the story they open and then bolted on to draw the reader in. Gorgoth and… Jane. What were those parents thinking? That’s a strange pair of names to give. The ‘darkness is patient…’ line is a killer line. Lawrence sure knows how to write those lines. The descriptions here are well done, and I like the quest/journey through the ruins. It has a little the feel of a video game. The fight scene with the bot is a bit silly/contrived. Sudden introduction of Jorg feels rushed/forced.
The Secret:
The different structure here offers promise. The narrative within a narrative, interwoven timeframes, flashing back and forward. It’s good to see Lawrence experimenting with form. His novels and several of these stories are first person perspective, so this is a fresh approach.
The ‘lie’ which Sim reveals was revealed far before the narrative means to reveal it, or perhaps was obvious enough that the reader should have been expected to ‘get it’ before being given it. The explanation of Sim’s diversion is unnecessary. Again Jorg twists the piece to himself.
Know Thyself:
Where Jorg’s presence, or even nearness, seemed to drag other stories off their tracks a little, here he is at once absent and central from the start. It is Jorg’s actions which provoke the narrative here and thus he belongs in the gravity well of the story. Where elsewhere (to varying degrees) he felt like an intruder, here he truly belongs.
But it did make me think of the dog (Justice) again and I never wanted to think of the dog again.
Gomst is an interesting character and the hints at an interesting past are deft and full of intrigue.
I like that the focus shifts from Jorg to William, and that it is through Jorg that we get the first earnings of William
Hope you enjoyed the review. If you’ve read this far you’ve probably read the stories already, but if you just skipped to the end for my verdict it is thus:
This is a good collection of Grimdark Fantasy stories which I’d happily recommend to fans of the genre and of Lawrence’s other work.

‘Illuminae’ Review

In the interests of full disclosure, the authors of this are known to me: I met Amie at a convention some years ago and have kept contact with her (infrequently and mostly electronically) ever since. I was invited to a launch in Melbourne, where I met Jay. I think they’re both great authors and great people, so to the extent that those opinions affected my reading of their book, I declare my bias.

I’m going to (do my very best to) keep this spoiler-free, so read ahead freely, whether you’ve read the book or not.

 

Credit: amiekaufman.com

Credit: amiekaufman.com

 

Firstly, ‘Illuminae’ is a beautiful book. It is a triumph of type-setting and visual text effects. It is creative and chaotic in a wonderful way, playing with form and experimenting with the construction of each page. It shifts between text-types, one moment you’re reading emails, the next a transcript of an interview, the next a chat log, the next a scientific report. This potentially confusing collision is expertly handled, so that the narrative is formed from each of these things in part and from their interaction and overlap. It’s a method for a modern age, an information age, where a great volume of seemingly disconnected facts are made to coalesce into meaning by their relationship to each other, and the inferences of the reader.

The construction of the novel suits its audience. It is clearly and primarily meant for Young Adults, but I am far from young, and I found it engaging and interesting. It does not condescend. The foul language is redacted by black bars (a conceit allowed by the central conceit that this novel is a collected dossier of documents, and that the person for whom it is being collected has asked for the swearing to be censored) but not entirely absent. Like the narrative more generally, it is hinted at on the page but exists really in the mind of the reader. Other than this allowance to the YA audience, this novel would not be out of place on adult shelves. It deals with deep emotion and the ideas it explores have complexity and meaning: the value of love, sacrificing the few for the many, the strength of familial bonds, the human response to tragedy.

The narrative itself starts as a fractured romance, two young lovers, separated by circumstance, on a quest perhaps to find one another again and make amends for past mistakes. Or perhaps not. With ‘Illuminae’ there’s the sense that it will be free to pick its own direction, should it wish. The threat or promise of subversion runs through it at every stage. As with the different forms it takes, ‘Illuminae’ has a free approach to genre. Strong Sci-Fi elements complement the Romance and provide a foundation for elements of Horror and Mystery. It is each of these things, at various stages, and none exclusively.

The characters are well-drawn, and I found myself invested in both Ezra and Kady, and in them as a couple. It is well-balanced, but ultimately Kady’s story, more than Ezra’s. Of note, the secondary characters are plentiful and support the main cast well. Each is given a sense that they have a story of their own, and a life of their own, beyond the text. They don’t exist merely to serve the protagonists. Details of each life are provided, often to heighten the tragedy of death or to raise the stakes of a conundrum. The author’s drew upon their friends for the many hundred names and identities they needed, but there are also nice little pop cultural references, characters with namesakes from The Wire, or from the author’s favourite bands. These provide Easter eggs which reward the attentive reader.

The plot has plenty of twists and turns, meandering at a relatively sedate pace in the early stages before shifting into high gear and delivering a fast-paced, page-turning, late-night, one-more-chapter-Mum, final act. There are questions to be answered, false leads, double-crosses, betrayals, confusion, misunderstandings. Most impressive were the shifting alliances, the way a character could be seen differently by the different protagonists, or the way a seemingly irredeemable character would be given an opportunity to redeem themselves. The form helps here, in that we can head-hop with relative ease and see from multiple perspectives. This is more so the case in the first half, whereas the last half of the book beds us down into a more traditional (albeit nearly omniscient) narrator.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Illuminae’, and would recommend it without hesitation. Certainly it’s a great book for the teen in your house or in your life. For anyone with a creative mind, or an interest in narrative craft, it serves as a fascinating exploration of the possibilities of form and alternative modes of storytelling.