Wanna Read My Novel?

Is it finished? No. Well, the first draft is. Which is great as far as that goes, but let’s face it: it’s not worth a serious reader’s time and attention in its present form. And that’s okay, because now I’ve got to the end, I have a much better idea how make it so it is. I’m currently outlining the second draft, and I anticipate having it done around the end of summer.

So what’s the story about, you ask? Here’s a stab I made at some back-cover teaser copy:

Once upon a time, magic powered a civilization so advanced they made their gods themselves manifest. Then came the Wars of Avaree, which destroyed all they’d built. Centuries later, magic is the province of the powerful, looked on with suspicion and distrust by common folk.

Brenaea is a young woman with a quick mind and a talent for magic. When her father catches her practicing it, he casts her out, leaving her to wander the forest of the Greenswath with only her dog, Lively, for company. When she learns of the Celestere Academy, a school of magic rumored to accept women as students, Brenaea resolves to journey there, leaving behind everything she’s ever known.

The road is long, but the dangers Brenaea faces along the way pale in comparison to those she’ll face once she arrives. The Celestere Academy lies at the heart of a fragile political balance, one Brenaea threatens to upset. It will take all of Brenaea’s skill and determination to navigate its intrigues, along with help from a brilliant highborn student named Kian and a foul-mouthed tavern-keep named Marinie. The only question is whether she’ll be in more danger if she fails, or if she succeeds.

 

The novel’s working title is Neither Threat Nor Prey. It’s book one of a three-to-four book fantasy series chronicling Brenaea’s unlikely rise to power and prominence during a time of personal and political upheaval, which will change the course of history. It’s got magic, adventure, romance, intrigue. The whole project started life as a short story about two and a half years ago, but the characters weren’t satisfied with that, and the world just kept getting bigger and the story longer and I’ve just been running with it, trying to keep up. Continue reading “Wanna Read My Novel?”

You Don’t Have to Attend Clarion to Be a Real Writer

But it helps.

For those not in the know, the Clarion and Clarion West Writers’ Workshops are intensive six-week residential programs where aspiring, semi-professional, and early-career professional writers are exposed to and connected with accomplished working professionals in the speculative fiction field. The focus is on writing short fiction, and critiquing it (building a less-shitty first draft, if you will). But as much as that, it’s about learning what it is to be a professional or at least serious writer, both in terms of lifestyle and in terms of the business of speculative fiction and the people and standards within it. I have, for many years, described it as a provisional membership in the kool-kids club (please note the tongue planted firmly in cheek).

Both are currently accepting applications.

As you’ve likely guessed, or knew already, I attended Clarion in 2010. It was, in many ways, a watershed experience. I met and studied under some of my personal heroes. I made friends I expect to keep for the rest of my life (many of whom have gone on to do amazing things). I got the aforementioned provisional membership in the kool-kids club. But more than anything, I had the incredible privilege and luxury of six whole weeks where writing, critiquing, and talking about writing and critiquing with seventeen peers and six bad-ass instructors was all I had to do and to worry about. For someone who was insistent on toiling away in solitude and obscurity until he applied on a whim six months after his mother died, it was a life-changing event.

Then, today, this happened:

Gaiman.jpg

And, this being the internet, outrage ensued. Continue reading “You Don’t Have to Attend Clarion to Be a Real Writer”

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

I read a lot of great books, is the short answer.

So, a few days ago writer K Tempest Bradford published this article, in which she challenged readers to stop reading white, straight, cisgendered male authors for one year. Sadly (and predictably), certain corners of the internet exploded in rage at the notion (she has assembled a lovely collection of rage-tweets here, if you enjoy that sort of thing). I won’t reprise their objections, which savvy interneteers will likely be able to intuit themselves, nor pass judgement on any validity those objections may or may not have. But it so happens that I recently spent the better part of a year doing something very similar to Ms Bradford’s challenge. From roughly November 2013 until late last year, I read only books by women(*), many of them women of color, others not cisgendered (two of the new favorite writers whose work I discovered are married).

I did so for my own reasons, both personal and (for lack of a better term) professional. On a personal level it was simply the realization that the vast majority of the books on my overstuffed shelves were by men. I fought it for a long time, that realization. I mean, these were great books, each easily defensible on the merits. I have, if I may say, damned fine taste in literature, and reading material in general. Ask any of my friends. I’ve been an obsessive reader since kindergarten, the kind of person who never goes anywhere without a book and hasn’t since he could carry one. But looked at en masse, the unconscious bias in my collection was (and is) painfully clear (in my defense, I actually am a cisgendered white male).

My bookshelves.
My bookshelves.

When I was younger, the notion of placing any kind of limitation on my reading material for a whole year would have seemed preposterous. Now comfortably ensconced in middle age, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It wasn’t like I was going to run out of good books to read, and while it might mean holding off on some things in my to-be-read stack, it’s hardly without precedent for a book to be in that stack for years before I get around to reading it. Really all I had to do was rearrange the order, though of course I used it as an excuse to go book-shopping, which is one of my favorite things to do.

The timing that November seemed propitious. I’d started writing Continue reading “I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened”

Things I Learned on the Internet This Week 8/8/14

Another week gone, and the internet (and the world it reflects, or possibly refracts) continues to fascinate. So, in my continuing efforts to excuse to myself the embarrassing amount of time I spend surfing the internet, here is a selection of highlights from my procrastinations this week:

Warren Layre, 61, told The Inquirer in an interview last year that the officers beat him with a steel bar and kicked in his teeth during a warrantless raid on his machine shop on West Sedgwick Street in June 2011. Speaking to a reporter two years later, he pulled back his lip to show the gaps in his teeth that remained.

According to Wednesday’s indictment, Liciardello reported less than $7,000 of the $41,158 they seized from Layre’s shop.

Truth really is stranger than fiction, as this story of six corrupt cops up on racketeering charges in Philadelphia attests. For ten years, these guys ran rampant through the city, shaking people down and sending people to jail on trumped-up charges and basically running a standover operation, and the only thing that stopped them was that one of them finally got caught and turned stool pigeon. If this was on TV, it’d be a huge hit, and I expect some day it will be. In fact, I think these guys are a natural extension of the portrayal of law enforcement in our entertainment culture, which I think has a lot of similarities to what happened (and continues to happen) between Hollywood and the Mafia.

Moving on to American law enforcement at the institutional level, we learn from the Washington Post that

Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.

For years, even decades, a team in the FBI crime lab misrepresented its results in order to secure convictions. Not unlike the situation in Philadelphia, the problem was known but institutional inertia prevented it from being attended to until outed by investigative reporter Spencer Hsu.

The review comes after The Washington Post reported in April that Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people but had not performed a thorough review of the cases. In addition, prosecutors did not notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.

Worst of all, innocent people may have been executed. The first article in the series sums it all up pretty well, I think.

Officials started reviewing the cases in the 1990s after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials. Instead of releasing those findings, they made them available only to the prosecutors in the affected cases, according to documents and interviews with dozens of officials.

In addition, the Justice Department reviewed only a limited number of cases and focused on the work of one scientist at the FBI lab, despite warnings that problems were far more widespread and could affect potentially thousands of cases in federal, state and local courts.

As a result, hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects.

And, just in case you weren’t yet fully convinced of the dysfunction in US law enforcement culture, here’s one more slug to the guts.

“I felt so vulnerable being laid out on a table, with all my clothes off and in a bag and all the swabs and brushes and combs,” she recalled. But at least, she figured, the police would use the swabs and hair samples to help catch the rapist.

They did not. Like hundreds of thousands of other rape kits across the country containing evidence gathered from victims, that of Ms. Ybos lay untested for years on a storeroom shelf.

(hat tip to Charles P. Pierce, one of my favorite writers, period, for this post, where I found most of the above)

Having gotten through all that, I think we could all use a break. Here’s a picture of the sunset at Second Beach, where I went camping with my girl and just the loveliest bunch of people you could ever want to hang out with last weekend. Continue reading “Things I Learned on the Internet This Week 8/8/14”

Montages and Leveling Up

I’ve come to dislike the montage, despite its clear utility in modern storytelling, especially in visual forms like television and movies. I mean, I get it. As a viewer it’s not exciting to watch the mind-numbing repetition of martial arts training or the boring minutiae of repairing the space ship while adrift in alien space or documenting the research that goes into finding the likeliest place to start looking for the lost city where the artifact that will save (or destroy) the world has lain hidden for millennia, only to be discovered now by the worst possible antagonist. It’s a great big derailment, putting the story on hold while a character or team get ready for a mission or a boss fight or final arguments before the jury. Skip the boring parts is Storytelling 101, right? Get on with the plot.

The problem with the focus on plot is that it distracts you from the narrative, which Chip Delany taught me is a different beast altogether, and far more significant for a storyteller (and, I would add, a person; more on that below). The plot is a sequence of connected events, and indeed affects the narrative. But the narrative is what drives the plot, the why that produces the what. As heroines and heroes of our own personal stories (I really do believe human consciousness is best understood in narrative terms), what connects us to stories emotionally is the narrative. If we don’t care about characters or what’s at stake then what can a story really tell us? It’s why so many modern science fiction movies fail to stick. So much more thought and effort goes into the eye candy aspect than goes into creating multidimensional characters or situations that you can guess each character’s fate from their first onscreen appearance nine times out of ten.

From a plot perspective, the hero’s confrontation with the big bad is the culmination of the movie. But the story, properly understood, is not the fight scene and who wins, but what the hero undergoes in becoming the hero, how she develops and changes and reconciles inner conflicts in order to risk all for some greater good. In any good story, she experiences setbacks, and must level up in some significant way (usually leveling up as a person as a byproduct of the requisite dedication). Without this period of meditation, preparation, hard work, and evolution, the hero doesn’t qualify for the final showdown.

Without character development, basically, it’s not much of a story. Continue reading “Montages and Leveling Up”