Author Archives: Josh Melican

Mid-year reading reviews

At the beginning of 2017 I set myself these reading goals:

  • Read 12 novels (one per month)
  • Read 50 Short stories (approx one per week)

Mid-way through the year, I’m tracking ahead for the first one with 8 titles completed and a 9th about 50% done (on the proviso that one accepts novellas in place of novels–more on that later). I’m a long way behind on the second.

What I have read though has been of an excellent standard. I’m really enjoying the novellas I’ve read. The novella, as a form, has been undervalued in recent years (decades), and there are fewer markets publishing novellas, but there’s something really pleasant (for me at least) about having a slimmer story which I can get to and complete with less ongoing time commitment. Novellas are more binge-able, and when there are breaks between reading opportunities or I have to step away from my reading for a length of time I find it’s easier to come back to the novella. The start is still recently enough in my mind that it’s not lost to the fog of time and distractions.

The books I’ve read (with brief reviews) are:

Gemina (Book 2 of the Illuminae Files) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

29236299

This book follows the same structure and style of the previous in the series (Illuminae, which I also loved). This time we have two new protagonists but there are a lot of parallels: boy/girl, separated from one another, smouldering coals of a possible romance… all of which keeps the book familiar, but Hanna and Nik are their own characters with well-developed identities and personalities, so the material is still fresh.

The action has moved from the fleeing fleet of rescue ships of the first book to the space station which was due to provide our erstwhile heroes an escape route. The same nefarious corporate forces which set everything in motion are back again, looking to cover up and save face (and legal consequences).

Kaufmann and Kristoff play off each other’s strength and the banter between the characters sizzles along. There’s a lot of moving parts at play here, some established in the previous book but a lot brand new. The threads of the narrative are interwoven throughout and only start tying in as we approach the climax. There’s a little narrative cheat in there, near the end, but it was well foreshadowed and probably earnt.

Would recommend this series to anyone but especially mid to upper teens.

Half Resurrection Blues (Bone Street Rumba #1) by Daniel Jose Older

22393174

I had been meaning to read Older’s longer work for a while now, ever since I read a good short story of his (‘Anyway Angie’, from Tor), found him on Twitter, and appreciated some of the writing advice and cultural representation thoughts he shared.

This novel was a good intro to his world and his style. The New Yorker setting came through with a strong sense of authenticity and Older’s affection for the place was obvious on the page. The people too. In many ways this is a tribute to the grimier parts of NY’s boroughs, the alleys and bodegas, the clusters of community, the street celebrations, the hidden bars and the sense of having tourists and others intrude on your place like it’s some sort of urban cultural safari.

The plot was solid, taking a few turns at speed without ever really giving you the feeling that you’d lose a sense of where it was all going. In that regard there was a sense of safety or familiarity at work. Carlos’ half-resurrection was a cool concept, as was the ghostly world overlaid on the living world. Older introduces some cool concepts and gets creative with some of the tropes and cliches that the genre offers. He controls the tension well, and the climactic battle(s) fought almost simultaneously in different worlds are well-handled.

If you’re looking for some urban fantasy with ghosts, sword-fights, otherworldly conspiracy and world-saving that starts local, this is for you.

Home (Binti #2) by Nnedi Okorafor

30038654

The sequel to ‘Binti’ (which I read and enjoyed last year) picks up almost immediately after the end of its predecessor. Binti is settled into the University now, but things haven’t been easy and she hasn’t integrated as well as she would have liked. Okorafor treats the trauma Binti carries with respect and she fleshes-out and realises that sense of dislocation, of homesickness. As someone who left a rural home to come to a large metropolitan university, that resonated with me. Binti, of course, first of her kind and survivor of the horrors in Book 1, has more to deal with and decides to head home and reconnect with her roots.

This novella gives much more depth to Binti’s world (galaxy?) and to her character. She is changing, and those changes add to her but also strip away parts of her foundation. She is desperate to reconnect with her family and the life she once had, but struggles to return to things as they once were, because they are no longer like that, and she is no longer as she was.

An unexpected quest leads her deeper into self-discovery and reveals secrets of her parentage and ancestry, challenges assumptions she had made about her world and her place in it. Throughout the story, Okorafor keeps the focus tightly on Binti and her inner struggles, even as the world around her unfolds. She also elevates to role of culture and spirituality, and allows these elements of Binti to co-exit with her scientific and mathematical strengths, indeed for these different world views to be complementary and mutually-beneficial.

I’d recommend this to anyone interested in seeing where modern Sci-Fi is heading.

(Recent side note: another of Okorafor’s novels, ‘Who Fears Death’, recently picked up for TV with an Executive Producer who is famous for some show about thrones and games).

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

17934530

This novel has been getting a little buzz (and will get more in coming months) as a Hollywood film version is being made. In part I wanted to read this before the film came out, but I didn’t really need that excuse. I read ‘Finch’ some time ago and since then have been meaning to dive deeper into VanderMeer’s worlds.

This is sufficiently ‘Weird’ and VanderMeer handles the weirdness with relish. The characters are kept anonymous, including the protagonist whom we know only as The Biologist. She guides us through her entry to the Southern Reach as best that she can, given the shifting sense of the place and the uncertainty and unreliability of her own senses, the influence of hypnosis and other less explicable factors.

VanderMeer doesn’t explicate too much, which is a welcome decision. The reader is left to piece things together, decide who to trust and how much. It’s a book in which you, as reader, must be an active participant. Making meaning from the fragments and clues and hints. As anyone familiar with VanderMeer’s work might expect, the novel delivers fungi, dysmorphic bodies, impossible mysteries and the central (unresolved) question of what it means to be human and how the line between the Human and the Other might be blurred.

I’d recommend this to anyone willing to walk a few steps through the darkness and investigate the strange things they find as their eyes adjust.

All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells

32758901

This Tor novella was a great advertisement for the strengths of the form. Wells gives us our narrator in first person very quickly, building an amazing amount of world- and character-building into an economical opening without expository dump. She hints at a much larger world and a rich history for the character, but is very disciplined in keeping her focus on the story she is here to tell.

That story is great. A self-described ‘Murderbot’ (possibly a reprogrammed human, possibly a cyborg more machine than flesh), overcomes its control protocols and discovers a love of soap operas and personal freedom. The Murderbot is a sympathetic, snarky, and very enjoyable character.

Wells handles the action elements well, with sparse but evocative description which doesn’t bog down in the minutiae. She is also able to reveal her human characters slowly through the Murderbot’s narrative lens. The agency of the Murderbot is the crucial question here, and Wells maintains that agency right through to a very satisfying end.

River of Teeth (River of Teeth #1) by Sarah Gailey

31445891

This Alt-History Adventure/Heist has one of the best set-ups I’ve come across in a long time. It’s the early-20th Century in the southern states of the young US of A and some enterprising types have taken to importing African Hippopotamuses and farming them along the Mississippi River and the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. Of course, the life of a Hippo (‘Hop’) Rancher is a hard-scrabble one and former-rancher turned general ne’er-do-well Winslow Remington Houndstooth has a scheme (“It’s not a scheme!”) to make some money moving on some feral Hops. A side-order of revenge is quite the motivator too.

This is another Tor novella, and Gailey has great fun with its premise, playing up the familiar tropes of the American frontier all while a semi-submerged hippo waits to rise out of the water and change everything. At times that happens, but overall I found the hippos became too peripheral. They were more than background colour, more than a quirk to the setting, but sometimes not much more.

The human focus is good, and the characters full of colour and movement. They’re a proudly diverse crowd in terms of gender and sexuality and melanin, and that’s a strength of the narrative. Houndstooth’s relationship with Hero is sometimes touching and beautiful; his relationship with Archie hints at a deeper history and mutual respect (along with mutual wariness). But ultimately there didn’t seem enough time to invest in these relationships to the extent that they deserved and sometimes the ‘team’ Houndstooth assembles feels paper-thin, the antagonist likewise a silhouette threat rather than an actual villain: the long shadow cast around the corner but the anticlimactic arsehole in the full light.

I’d recommend this for a quick, fun read for those who liked old westerns, heist films and hippos (but never expected to see them all in the same place).

This Census-Taker by China Mieville

25489159

If you go poking around this blog for a while you’ll soon see that I hold Mieville in high regard. He’s one of my favourite authors. Having read other reviews of this novella, I’m left to wonder whether my fanboying may be lending a rose-tint to my reading glasses (metaphorically speaking), but…

I liked this a lot.

Even more after reading it than while reading it, I find my mind returning to its images, to the central conundrum of it all, to the problems and passages and moments of it. This novella wormed its way into my brain and was leeching its influence through my thoughts for weeks after I set it down. It’s beautiful and stark and confusing and contradictory and strange. Often weird, always uncanny, sometimes fantastical.

I want to stay spoiler free, so by way of setting things up this opens with a boy coming down from his isolated home high on a rocky mountaintop to the villagers who live a little further downslope. He come with a horrifying tale of having witnessed a murder: his mother has killed his father… or did his father kill his mother? He can’t recall exactly and there’s some doubt anyone died at all. The boy is unreliable as a witness and as a narrator, a point Mieville reinforces throughout with sudden shifts of narrative perspective, person and tense.

This is full of high ideas and beneath its surface you get the sense of a vast and urgent backstory, a history to this world beyond the relatively small tale of the boy on the mountainside. Mieville handles this expertly, but expect to do some work. There’s not a wasted word here (though if you’ve read much of Mieville you’ll know there will be a few which will have you reaching for the dictionary), and even the tangents and digressions come back around to aid what understanding the reader might be able to draw from the novel. It doesn’t move quickly. It’s more atmosphere than plot. It feels much more dense than its length suggests.

I’d recommend this to fans of Mieville, of weird mysteries and creepy, unsettling horror.

Thunderbird (the 4th Miriam Black book) by Chuck Wendig

20582841

Miriam Black is back and she’s on a health-kick… of sorts. She’s jogging. She’s quit smoking. She’s on a path of self-improvement. The good news is she’s still cantankerous and nasty and if anything the ‘nic-fits’ she’s getting from quitting only make things worse.

She’s also dragging around the guilt and wreckage of her various past adventures. While this does give a sense of building consequence for the character (she can’t just fuck things up and then move on to the next episode. Things don’t reset for the people she’s collided with through her travels) it also means that a good memory of the previous three books is required. I don’t know how much you’d lose picking this up as your first Miriam read, but I suspect a lot.

Despite her best efforts, she’s drawn back in, perhaps by fate, or her Trespasser, or her own much-beaten but unwavering sense of decency. As much as she might deny that such a thing exits. She can still see the deaths of those she touches, and her connection to bird-life is only growing stronger and more powerful. But Wendig here populates Miriam’s world with others who also have ‘powers’, as he has started to do in previous volumes, and I felt that detracted a bit from what made the first book (especially) great. There, Miriam was a one-off–an anomaly in a very ‘real’ world for the reader. Here the balance of the scales has tipped, so that she’s not really operating in our world any more, but in a Fantasy setting which is like our world, but not.

Wendig’s taken a lot of heat from certain internet denizens for the politics in his novels, especially in his Star Wars novels. It’s never bothered me (perhaps because I think our politics probably coincide more than they contradict). In this novel, the rise of a Trumpian Far Right in America comes through in Wendig’s antagonists, but really that just made me barrack for Miriam all the more.

I’d recommend this to fans of tough, sweary, angry chicks who kick arse and talk back, who are stubbornly good despite many temptations to go bad.

*

So that’s it for the mid-year novels. I’ve read some great short fiction too, but not on track for the 50 for the year so will have to get my head down and get to work.

Might be a review post for the top five I’ve read so far coming soon.


The One Piece of Writing Advice I Dare Give

I spent some time recently caught in a malaise. I hesitate to say that I was blocked, because I don’t believe in ‘block’ (at least so far as the romanticised,  anguished, cliche the term evokes) and because really I was still able to write, it was just… crap.

I wrote smaller and smaller spurts of words, a few hundred before I became distracted or drawn away. I was not immersed in what I was writing, in the way that I normally become when the words are flowing more freely and the fingers flying across the keys. Nor was I producing quality, I think. I read back over some old stuff I wrote and it didn’t seem half-bad, perhaps even read quite well if I do dare say… but then I read back over something I wrote more recently and I couldn’t stand it. Its flaws towered over the page, casting long shadows. Its cliches snapped and snarled from between the lines, or from within the lines, warty and ugly and plain for all to see. The prose limped along, workman-like. Plots stagnated. Characters gathered in bland surroundings to have inconsequential conversations that meandered around rather pointlessly, their disembodied dialogue ping-ponging back and forth, leading nowhere, signifying nothing. Idiots telling each other their idiot tales.

The difference, of course, is that the older writing was the result of a process: was drafted, revised, revised again, edited, modified, corrected and brought to a point where I was happy with it. My more recent work was only at the start of that process. It was nascent, and thus found obviously wanting when compared to its more polished predecessors.

So not block, but perhaps something worse. A pipe half clogged but still able to spill a trickle of septic sludge.

And I thought for days stretching into weeks about what might be causing it. I hadn’t settled on a project, and I flitted between several unfinished drafts of grand ambitious plans, and I’m sure that didn’t help. As a writer, I find that I need to sit in a narrative, to live with the characters talking and arguing and plotting and scheming in my head, mentally writing and re-writing their lines before I even sit down to the computer, before I even take a pen to hand. And sometimes I did but than I would leap across to one of the other worlds, to characters from another story. They are diverse enough that I could still track that leap, but would I not have been better to have written one novel than to have four drafts in the 20-30,000 word range?

And what does it say for the quality of those drafts when even their author seeks greener grass in another document?

I sought solutions…

I bought Scrivener. It helped me make some truly excellent plans. It has a virtual corkboard and virtual notes on which I planned scenes and chapters and character descriptions and setting notes… and all of these wonderful satellite resources to my writing are marshaled now. Their creation came at the expense of words on the page. The delicate restructuring and rearranging of labels at the expense of a chapter or two. I was able to convince myself I spent an hour writing and have not a single additional word on the draft to show for it. So Scrivener is good at what it is designed for, but it did not solve my problem.

I read. I finished the book I’d started last year. I went to the Kindle store. I read books for my work and for my sons. I read short stories and online zines. I read the draft work of fellow writers and friends. I read guides on writing and pitching and querying, on synopses, on the industry. I read Twitter and Facebook and learnt from professionals and publishers… this too was valuable. This too produced not one single word on any of my drafts, and so it has not solved the problem. One must beware of writing-like activities through which one might convince oneself that progress is being made when in fact it is not.

And now I blog about it, so that I can reacquaint myself with writing, with getting the words down, with the tap of the keys beneath my finger tips and the wonderful march of letters across blank space. I haven’t written here for 6 months, and perhaps that was a part of the problem, and perhaps it needs to be part of the solution. The feeling of being productive, the experimenting with words and sentences, the shaping of thoughts into physical form–or digital form at least–and sharing them with the vast and global void into which we all stare. And yet for all the good that comes from the thousand words here, not one of those words adds to any of my drafts, and so this too has not solved my problem.

There is but one solution then.

This is the only advice on writing I dare give, and I give it primarily to myself:

Write the words.

Even though they are crap. Even though they might need to be re-written, many or all, almost certainly, even almost entirely. Just write the words. Finish the draft.

 

Get yourself into a position from which there is no way out, but through. Break the 30,000 barrier, and the 40- and the 50- until the ending seems so much nearer and you can fall toward it. Know that ‘THE END’ is not the end, and you will always be able to come back and rewrite the few thousand you forced onto the page, even if those few stretch out to 20,000 and even if all 20,000 are irredeemable, still you’ll have a draft. You cannot have a book without a draft, and so the finishing of the book is not your goal… not yet. It is the finishing of the draft on which to set ones eye, and even before that on the finishing of the chapter, or the page, or the paragraph or the line… on finishing the word and selecting the next and so on, onward.

So that is my advice, as much for myself as for you, dear reader. More for myself, really than for anyone else.


2016: A Year in Review

Hmmm, what to say about 2016…

It’s pretty widely acknowledged that this year was not the best, for a great many reasons. For me there was a tragedy in my extended family near the start of the year, like the rest of you a cavalcade of deaths of celebrities I admired, the US election result, and then it ended with more bad news for good friends of mine.

So perhaps F-U 2016 is the best response. Good Riddance.

fu-2016

Image from this article (which was written before we lost Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds)

Which is not to say there were no positives (for pop-culture, the resurgence of Star Wars through both Force Awakens and Rogue One, and the return of Spidey to the MCU) but, yeah… not a year for the highlights reel.

As a writer, this year was a tough one. I had my first short published in 2014, in a tiny token-payment magazine which is now defunct. In 2015 I had a story in one of Australia’s most significant SFF magazines, and felt like I was making progress. In 2016, no shorts published. I did have a greater focus on novel writing between late 2015 and now, but there were a few short stories I put out there, without any of them getting published. Hit the second round on a few magazines, including one major Hugo-award-winning international magazine. I’m taking that as a sign of progress in the quality of what I’m putting out there, but near-misses are still misses.

Novel-wise, well, ups-and-downs. I started well, in February completing a manuscript of a sequel to my novel ‘Rakan’. That makes the third full-length novel manuscript I’ve written, and I’m definitely feeling the improvement in understanding the process and in getting the work done. I’ve had some success with ‘Rakan’, some full-requests and some great feedback on what it does well. Still querying and still waiting on some decisions, so that’s in a bit of a holding-pattern. Watch-this-space. After finishing the Rakan sequel and mapping out the third of the trilogy I have shifted focus, experimenting with several novel ideas without really committing to any until late in the year. Now I’m committed to ‘Biotropolis’, which is at about the 30,000 word mark and looking like it’ll get to somewhere between 70 and 80k.

As a reader, I’ve shifted through a few genres. The year started with a classic: ‘The Big Sleep‘, by Raymond Chandler, which helped me a great deal in understanding Crime Noir’s origins and the value of a tight, well-paced plot. Road Brothers is Mark Lawrence’s collection of short stories based on characters from his Broken Empire trilogy, and a good example of character-driven Fantasy (Grimdark?) shorts. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was Hard SF, harder than I’d normally read but I really enjoyed his science, moreso than his characters. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, was much different Sci=Fi, a sharp little novella full of ideas and alien images. I enjoyed the focus on communication, rather than conflict. 2016 was also a year where I read more YA, and Aussie YA at that. Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight was a Fantasy revenge tale of a young girl honed into a master assassin. The first of a trilogy, it was more violent and sexual than I’d expected from a YA novel. Also by Kristoff, co-authored with Amie Kaufman, ‘Illuminae’ was a highlight. A Sci-FI adventure narrative cobbled together from transcripts, emails, message boards and other non-standard narrative forms. I’m currently reading the sequel, ‘Gemina’ which is as good and features illustrations by Marie Lu. The release of ‘Gemina’ interrupted my reading of Ninefox Gambit’ by Yoon Ha Lee, which had an intriguing start and which should be right up my alley, being space-opera with weird and mathematics mixed in. I’m looking forward to returning to once ‘Gemina’ is finished.

For short stories, I enjoyed Brooke Bolander’s harpy revenge story, Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, published in Uncanny, and Cassandra Khaw’s dark mermaid horror, And In Our Daughters, We Find A Voice, published in The Dark Magazine.

In other media, the Star Wars films were a highlight, as I said. ‘Captain America: Civil War’ was also great (team Cap!). ‘Zootopia’ and ‘Finding Dory’ were good fun with the kids. ‘Jason Bourne’ was a disappointment. We don’t get many chances to go to the movies, and that was one wasted. We missed a few I want to see as well. I did discover the most excellent movies channel on YouTube: ‘Movies With Mikey’ which is amazing and wonderful.

On TV, I finally discovered Black Mirror, I enjoyed the crazy/horror/comedy/gorefest nostalgia of Ash Vs Evil Dead, and the Marvel TV Shows. Liked the Punisher storyline in Daredevil S2, but was less interested in the Elektra and ninjas and all the rest. Jessica Jones was great, but sometimes very difficult to watch. Luke Cage was stylish and cool and excellent while Cottonmouth was around, and spiraled hard toward a disappointing finale when he wasn’t. The Brazilian sci-fi 3% was pretty interesting, even through the bad dubbing. The Expanse started pretty well but for some reason failed to keep me hooked. Netflix has me watching more than I used to, but there’s still not a great deal of time for TV. Game of Thrones, always an exception.

I got stuck playing ‘Fallout 4′, in Survival Mode, slowly rebuilding the wasteland with comfortable beds and dining areas for all my multitudinous Minute-Men-loyal settlers. I got the remastered ‘Skyrim’ too, and sometimes I just go and walk by the lake I can see from the manor I built, just enjoying the way the water moves and fending off the occasional threat.

And what will 2017 bring? Who knows. There’s an unpredictable geo-politic at play and a sense that things will get tougher before they get better, (near-future sci-fi will be difficult to write, as the ridiculousness of our reality outpaces it), but there is no way out but through and the rewards will come to those who keep working for them. Persistence and progress. It can feel like a tough slog at times, and each hard-fought inch of forward motion can sap our energy, but ever-onward. Write the thing, submit the thing, write the next thing. Keep writing, keep submitting. Keep reading, keep learning.

Keep going…

My reading/writing goals for 2017:

Read 12 novels (one per month)
Read 50 Short stories (approx one per week)
Finish ‘Biotropolis’ by mid year
Finish at least the full first draft of another novel
Keep querying with ‘Rakan’
Start querying with ‘Biotropolis’
Write 6 short stories
Keep on submitting…

All the best for 2017, you guys. Thanks for stopping by and reading, and thanks for giving me an audience while I shout out into the void.


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).