It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

perfect

Not a review this week, but some encouragement for any aspiring writers-

         In some form or another, by the time I could comprehend sentences, I’d overheard or been the recipient of the phrase, “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Especially when it came to writing fiction, I was warned by other writers about the snare of perfection. Well of course it doesn’t, I thought. It’s not like I’m Midas and every time I touch the keyboard I expect pure gold sentences to string themselves across the page. If anyone thinks that, he or she is clearly delusional. The problem with delusion is that if you are, you don’t know it. When the depths of my delusion were brought to my attention, I was able to come to a new understanding of just what was meant by not having to be perfect, how it changed my writing life, and how it could change other writers’ perspectives as well.

A few years ago, during an afternoon lull in the workday I lounged at the computer tinkering with one of my stories. Banks are notoriously slow during summer months, and staying awake is important. A coworker, Elizabeth, noticed my tapping. She leaned back in her swivel chair to get a view of my interest. “How many stories have you written?” she asked.

My mind jumped to the numbers game: Written, like, ever? Abruptly, I wanted to be Midas. I wanted to parade my myriad perfections across her desk in pompous fanfare. However, I was simultaneously seized by profound fear that nothing I’d written would ever be good enough; it would never be perfect. I inhaled a deep breath of the office air conditioning. “Well,” I said, “do you mean how many have I completed or how many am I working on?”

Working on, in that context, was a clever euphemism for started and got about a page in before abandoning. But she didn’t need to know that. If she’d said, completed I probably would have lied anyway. Still, it was a relief when she said “working on.”

“Gosh, I don’t know.” A pregnant pause was needed to illustrate the immense calculation of fabulous stories my pen had etched. “Probably seventy-five to a hundred.”

“Wow,” she said. “That’s a lot. I wish I could do that, but nothing I’d write would be any good.”

I knew exactly how she felt. I turned away and began typing to make it appear that I was furiously constructing the next bestseller. Meanwhile, what I was actually doing was scrolling through a story I’d started three years previously. And after all that time, I had exactly one and a half pages completed. I’d fixed grammar and changed the characters’ names about seven times. Did that count for anything? I mumbled audibly enough for her to ascertain that the characters in my head were manifesting themselves and demanding a seven book series. “Seven is the number of perfection,” they intoned.

After lunch Elizabeth returned to her desk and said she’d love to see something that I’d written. “Maybe you can show me the one you’re working on now.”

My worst fear: someone would see my wholly imperfect writing and they would know I was a fraud. I choked on my pomposity. “Er—I don’t normally like to show anything that’s incomplete,” I told her.

“Then you’ll show me when it’s finished?”

“Definitely.”  So between fifteen years and eternity I should have it wrapped up, I could have said. I’d always enjoyed writing, but I enjoyed writing five paragraphs or a snippy zinger of dialogue and then forsaking it in the deep crypt-like recesses of file folders on my laptop. How could I show the world something so pathetic?

“I don’t know how you do it,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that sometimes we set our standards so high it actually limits us from being effective because we want everything we do to be perfect. It’s great that you don’t have that problem. You just let the words flow.”

There that word was again: perfect. Elizabeth had spoken in sincerity, but it could have as easily been satirical commentary. I examined the blinking cursor on my screen. The page was blank. Maybe I could write a poem about a blinking cursor. But I probably wouldn’t finish that either. Better yet, I could write a poem about procrastination, and it would only have a title. So post-modern! No, I was sure someone had beaten me to it. If I considered myself a writer, why didn’t I have anything to show for it? Something needed to change. But what was the problem? It was obvious. I was terrified that someone might think it wasn’t good enough. That it wasn’t perfect.

If I ever wanted to make something worthwhile out of my writer-life aspirations, I’d have to capitulate to imperfection. I turned the monitor off and began to type. If I couldn’t see the words, I wouldn’t be tempted to fix them. I resolved that if I wrote the crappiest story on earth, it was going to be the finished crappiest story on earth. No ifs, ands, or hard-drive failures.

After an hour, I’d written almost 1200 terrible words of prose and I could not have been more ecstatic. The story was finished and my understanding had changed.

To be a writer means that you write. If I continued to write daily, excusing the catastrophic mess on the page, then I was a writer and I had evidence to show for it. No where did it ever say that what I wrote had to be perfect. Heck, that’s what revision’s for.

 

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Make Room for the Future—Kind of.

make room

Just finished Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! It was adapted into a movie (Soylent Green) starring Hollywood’s preeminent tough guy, Charlton Heston in 1973. I’m told I should read Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series, but alas, I’m on the standalone shtick right now.

Anyway, I write this review with relief since lately my selection of novels has been less than satisfactory. When I consider how many books there are—and how many I want to read—it’s frustrating to spend time on a story I don’t enjoy. But Make Room! has thankfully bucked that trend.

However, Make Room! isn’t so much a science fiction novel, strictly speaking, as it is a futuristic novel. Well sort of. Let me explain. The world is overpopulated to the point of suffocation. Crime and starvation are at all time highs. The population of New York City alone is over 35 million and that’s where Detective Andy Rusch is heaped with the task of handling his normal civic duties along with investigating a murder—all the while getting into a romantic tangle with the deceased’s girlfriend.

First off, as you can see from this summary, there’s very little science involved, and more of a mystery than anything else. In fact, Harrison almost exclusively avoids technology. The most advanced system I recall reading about is a television (and a tube telly, no less!) Fortunately, the eschewing of technology plays up the notion of an unsustainable infrastructure and has helped the novel age somewhat elegantly.

Where the novel falls short in its futuristic expectations is in estimating physical space, and more specifically, the square footage of planet Earth. Harrison predicts that the population of the world is over 7 billion—which it is. He also predicts that the population of the United States is 344 million—which is pretty darn close. It’s 325 million according to the last census. So while his numerical estimations were nearly prophetic, he erred in thinking the world would be jam-packed by then.

If you think I’m criticizing the novel, I’m not. I loved these inconsistencies because sometimes I think they’re a part of why I read science fiction—to see how clairvoyant the authors of yesterday were in imagine our futures. I want to be amazed by their foresight or to chuckle at their oversight. Did they foretell Ipad Tablets like the cover illustrations on Arthur C Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey?** Or did they goof like in Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? where characters zoom around in flying cars and then answer a call by picking up the car phone still connected by a wire?

In either case, that’s what makes the reading fun. And that’s why I’m doing it. 3.5/5 stars.

 

**2001: Space Odyssey was published in 1968 if you’re curious.

2001 space.jpg

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A Non-Stop Good Time! …Until About Halfway

nonstop

One of my more recent personal reading goals is essentially to do a survey across the landscape of science-fiction to glean a baseline understanding of its historical auspices within the literary community. I’m intending to accomplish this by reading standalone novels by many of the major science fiction writers. It’s easier to read a standalone than, say, reading the first installment of a twelve book series—forming a dozen untied ends—and knowing I wont return for a few years. Plus, if I end up liking the series, it will derail my mission since those novels will get bumped to the top of the reading list.

Having said that, my family and I took our vacation last week and I brought along Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (a standalone volume). I finished the first chapter and said “Oh man, this is going to be good.” The way Aldiss set out world building immediately had me hooked. He described it much better than I will, but here’s the gist: protagonist Roy Complain, along with a few of his rowdy, rag-tag companions set out to discover what lies behind the confines of their primitive (hunter/gatherer) society. They live in an alien jungle where the vegetation grows like asparagus on steroids and these “ponics,” as they’re called, are harvested to create defenses and sustenance for his civilization’s constantly nomadic encampment. Meanwhile, there exists lore and tall tales of other species lurking within the depths of the jungle and the left behind evidence of their existence indicates (spoiler) the trappings of modern, yet extinct race. As Roy Complain and his cohorts explore deeper into the jungle, they unveil more enthralling secrets. Slowly the details are unfurling—and I’m so into this! And then, quite unexpectedly about halfway though, rats appear.

Okay, I mean, so? Not exactly a revolutionary cameo. Except that these rats are wearing armor, have a language, and are also in possession of a kind of mind hypnosis power. “Well, that’s—er—different?” I frowned. “Did Brian Aldiss just turn into Brian Jacques and I’m at Redwall now?” But swiftly my level of reading pleasure up to this point rebuked me. “No,” it said. “Trust the author. He will answer this and many other questions at the end.” So I read on. And read on. More unusual questions arose—more concern about when certain subplots would be wrapped up. Flashbacks of revelation were revealed, minor elucidation ensued but sufficient explanation had yet to be given for the truly pressing questions. And then!—It’s coming soon it has to because the pages are running out—but it’s going to be a “Wow-I-never-saw-that-coming-awesomeness” moment”—And then!—the book ended.

“But what about the rats!” I cried. Truthfully, they could have been nixed from the narrative and not have changed a whole lot. But it wasn’t just the rats. Several smaller tangents were never revisited in addition to a massive plot contradiction explicitly expressed by a character only a few pages earlier. Without going into exhaustive detail, it amounted to something akin to:

“You can’t go outside because if you do you’ll die.”

“Well I don’t want to stay in here.”

“Okay, then go outside because you won’t die.”

Sigh. I don’t think I’m being too harsh a critic because until I reached the halfway point, I was raving about it to my wife (who doesn’t read sci-fi) and even made a recommendation to someone else. But I guess you’d have to read it to know what I’m talking about. I won’t even say you shouldn’t because the first half really is that good. On a similar note, anyone want to offer me suggestions of a standalone volume that you’re confident I’ll enjoy all the way through? Leave comments! Post to Facebook! Correct my typos! Nevertheless, major props to Aldiss for his world building and intriguing story line, I’m just disappointed it didn’t carry through. 2.5/5 stars.

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I’ve Totally Eclipsed This Review with a Craft Discussion

ECLIPSE

Since we’re expected to have a partial eclipse in these parts on Monday, it only makes sense to have a review of John Brunner’s Total Eclipse. Unexpectedly, however, the title of the novel is where references to eclipses end. The word “eclipse” was not mentioned anywhere in the entire book. That being said, I’d like to have a kind of craft discussion which eclipses (see what I did there?) the review of the book—but is inspired by it (and some other novels I’ve read lately).

Let me explain. Characters in books think. This is immutable. What differs from novel to novel is how, aesthetically, characters’ thoughts are portrayed on the physical page. Particularly in Brunner’s Total Eclipse, the novel is narrated in third person point-of-view, but the protagonist’s thoughts are in first person point-of-view and italicized. The protagonist thinks often, therefore italics appear in prodigious quantities. What I would like to argue, is that in most instances, ITALICS TO REPRESENT THOUGHT ARE ABOUT AS UNNECESSARY AND DISTRACTING AS ALL OF THESE CAPS.

You probably think I’m yelling, but I’m not. So we’ll add “misleading” to the list with unnecessary and distracting. But let me elaborate on my point before I alienate scores of people who will tell me, “But Stephen King uses italics all the time for his characters’ thoughts!” Yes, I know.

Italicized thought almost exclusively appears in third person point-of-view (POV) since in first person POV essentially everything an “I” narrator tells the reader (everything that isn’t spoken aloud dialogue) is his or her thoughts. Readers are so close to first person narrators that we’re reading their minds. In like-minded fashion (see what I did there?), my proposal is that the same level of closeness to a first person narrator can be achieved with equal success in third person narration. As authors, we get to make up the rules about how close we get inside our characters’ heads, so when it comes to thoughts in the third person, why not simply slip inside our characters’ eardrums, pop a squat on their temporal lobes, and hang on for the ride?—While. Still. In. Third. Person. Point. Of. View.

Here’s an example from Total Eclipse of the protagonist’s thoughts and following it is my rewritten version of those identical thoughts in third person POV.

Original: I wish that bloody man would get off our necks! I want to start work on these printed crystals he doesn’t give a hoot for. Back on Earth I had how many through my hands—eighteen, nineteen? And most of their patterns scrambled. But here there are hundreds, and at the digs there are thousands, and I’m itching, absolutely itching to get at them!

Rewrite: He wished that blood man would get off their necks! He wanted to start work on the printed crystals Ordonez-Vico didn’t give a hoot for. Back on Earth he had how many through his hands—eighteen, nineteen? And most of their patterns scrambled. But here there were hundreds, and at the digs there were thousands, and he was itching, absolutely itching to get at them!

The reason this reads better is that (as the reader) I never have to break from the narrative flow. Nothing changes and I stay in the narrative dream. Every time the italics jump into the frame, it’s like being jolted around the back seat of a vehicle with someone who’s driving stick shift for the first time. Common critique verbiage in writing workshops is to say that a particular passage “took me out of the story.” This means that the narrative dream was temporarily broken. Much of the purpose of reading—reading fiction, anyway—is to be entertained. If I’m not having fun because I keep jerking my arm out toward the dash or slapping the back of my noggin on the headrest, I’m not enjoying the ride. And similarly, I’m not enjoying the read.

It’s been said authors are world creators. If that’s true, then make a world that’s worth living in for a while. Take the liberty to zoom into your characters’ heads for a little. And then? Zoom back out when it suits you. Just keep the dream alive.

I could say more, but I think I’ll stop here. My conclusion is that while I’m not completely ruling out italics-as-thought in every circumstance, I persist in the belief that if that a story can be written without them, why not opt for the simpler more straightforward method? On the whole, italics should be used for two reasons: titles (such as Total Eclipse) and emphasis (such as, italics are not necessary).

That’s where I stand, but I’m still open to some discussion on it. If you have strong thoughts on the matter, chime in with a comment here or on our Facebook page post underneath this review.

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But soft, what light from yonder (browser) window breaks? It is a review—of The Long Ride Home

long ride

The inherent nature of a used bookstore lends itself to the fact that the books are not, in all likelihood, new. However, I’m rather punchy to say that I’ve been given the opportunity to review Tawni Water’s forthcoming young adult novel The Long Ride Home due out September 5th from Sourcebooks. Tawni (yes, we’re on a first name basis) advised me on my novel manuscript two years ago, and a professional relationship rife with literary blessings has developed from it. I consider promoting her new book to be an honor and the very smallest of compensations.

Harley is a do-it-yourself, screw the world, biker chick (and Shakespeare aficionado) who despite her tough, outer-crust is daily decimated after the death of her mother. Opting for some closure, Harley, accompanied by her sort-of-boyfriend, Dean, decide to drive across the country on her motorcycle to scatter her mother’s ashes. On the way, they meet the normally-abnormal cast of eccentric characters that a transcontinental road trip can’t help produce for better or worse. Bigger than that—spoiler alert (but not really)—Harley is also pregnant. The journey to come to terms with her mother’s death takes on a whole new meaning since Harley will soon be a mother herself—or will she?

I think what defines Tawni Water’s novels is that they mirror reality. It’s been said that art imitates life and The Long Ride Home points to a dilemma that so many, especially young women, are dealing with right now. I’m not a woman, so obviously I don’t know the precise emotions associated with pregnancy and childbirth. But as a father, I get at least a glimpse of the immense burdens involved. Alternatively, I laud Tawni (and Harley) for acknowledging the equally immense joy that comes even from an unexpected (unwanted) pregnancy.

As the young adult genre has boomed, it’s important to understand that “YA” doesn’t mean diluted content. Young Adult fiction is intended to challenge its readers with language and awareness of their world. Although The Long Ride Home is clean, poetic “neighbors fight, staining the air with verbal graffiti,” and straight forward, it is also crammed with heart-tearing conflict, brutal honesty, and endlessly complicated questions: Where is Home? What is Home? And even, who is Home? The answers to these questions don’t remain static for very long. So don’t think, teenagers, that you can sleep through your Shakespeare class and go home to read some easy-peasy junk food. Because this isn’t that.

And here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s website if you have any pre-order interest!

 

 

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I’d Like to Forget this Memory

memory earth

Orson Scott Card can lay claim to the title “prolific.” A quick review of his works shows that he’s released at least one, sometimes two, even three novels in a year. At least two of his novels have been adapted for film (Ender’s Game and Pathfinder)—are there more? Obviously, he has clout and talent. He must, how else could he sustain such a career?

When the bookstore had a completed (matching) set of his five volume “Homecoming” series, I thought that might be a great way to introduce myself to his writing. I’d recently seen a couple of the sets sell, too. Book one, The Memory of Earth, opens with several maps of an ancient city which I immediately mused “Hmm, this is rather reminiscent of Jerusalem.” Card even provided a name pronunciation chart and a genealogy which was again indicative of biblical records in first and second Chronicles (and elsewhere). The minimal plot summary plays out to something like this: humanity has basically been rebooted on another planet because they destroyed earth with warfare. However, no one knows this except for the super computer which has been established as the guardian of the world to prevent humanity from developing the technology to kill each other again. A hybrid of sci-fi and fantasy in an ancient-world city drawing on biblical records sounded gripping.

So I say all of the aforementioned to say this: I cannot dismiss any of Card’s other works, nor can I draw definitive conclusions on his clout, talent, and unique narrative abilities—but very little of them were evident in The Memory of Earth.

Now I don’t want to say I disliked a book and not provide some evidence to defend that indictment. So here are my three primary beefs:

1). The means did not equal the ends / the ends did not equal the means. Characters’ motivations were wholly unjustified. On several occasions a character’s action played out like this:

Character: I’m going to do something!

Me (as reader): Why? That’s inconsistent with your motivations.

Character: Well because if I don’t, then the story can’t continue!

Me (as reader): At this point, maybe that would be for the best.

2). The world building was underwritten/under-explained. Take for example in multiple scenes protagonist, Nafai (among others) eat from a refrigerator. You can’t grab (a never elaborated meal—also a disappointing lack of detail) out of a refrigerator in an ancient city and not give some hint as to how that’s perfectly normal. Someone may refute this by pointing out that it’s only (spoiler alert), in essence, a replica of an ancient city. But I maintain that if they don’t even know what a chariot is (plot point) then they absolutely have no business not explaining the presence of refrigerators.

3). The dialogue was clunky, cliché, and indistinct. I am of the opinion that you cannot merely write words and include attribution tags (example: John said, Sue yelled) and expect that to be enough distinction between characters. Dialogue itself is a means of characterization. Therefore, if the dialogue tags were removed from a conversation the reader, in most cases, should still be able to tell who is speaking because of the way a certain character speaks, the words only that character would use. It’s not idealism. If I write the sentence of dialogue “It’s gunna be YUGE!” I bet just about everyone knows who’s talking—even without context. Halfway through The Memory of Earth I started covering attribution tags up with my thumb and I was clueless who was speaking the dialogue.

Beyond my gripes, I did a little research and discovered that the Homecoming series is actually a thinly veiled retelling of the Book of Mormon. The protagonist of that book “Nephi” has been slightly altered to “Nafai” here. The similarities continue on and on until it begs the question, should I just read the Book of Mormon instead? Maybe the dialogue would be better. 1.5/5 stars (.5 for the maps).

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This Review is a Bit of a Reach

Reaches

Ready for a brief story in irony and also, somewhat, in superficiality? A month or two ago, I picked up a copy of The Thirteen Gun Salute – one of the many “Maturin/Aubrey” novels by Patrick O’Brian. These are better known as the “Master and Commander” series of which a movie was made starring Russell Crowe. Anyway, I had decided to read at least one of them because I’ve seen them everywhere.

Well, I read roughly forty percent of the novel and put it down. The surplus of nautical terms and places and people and—I don’t know, except that it wasn’t for me. I confess there are readers who find that level of detail enthralling. I’m simply not one of them.

Since I usually don’t give up on many books, I needed to dive back into something fresh right away. Because I liked the cover illustration, I snatched an omnibus copy of David Drake’s The Reaches Trilogy. Nothing like a little science fiction junk food to clear my head.

I began reading the first novel in the series Igniting the Reaches, but to my subtle consternation, I couldn’t help thinking that The Thirteen Gun Salute had made a kind of lasting impression on me because the events in this trek through space struck me as similar to those of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Well, halfway through, I did something I often do at the end of books. I looked up David Drake’s bio on his website and Wikipedia. Turns out, David Drake specifically cites being inspired by the Aubrey-Maturin series in his own writing. In fact, The Reaches is actually supposed to mirror some of Sir Francis Drake’s voyages. What are the chances?

My superficiality in judging a book by its cover (even positively) had created a predicament. But I wasn’t about to abandon a second successive novel. I pressed on, and although pirating and/or Napoleon-esque privateering aren’t my favorite subjects, I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t blown away either, but I will say that Drake did enough world building to pique my interest for its eventual explanation in the sequels. I just hope he does explain (more on that in a future post). So while sea (or space) jargon can be off-putting (dare I say, even burdensome), it is consistent to the setting, the characters, and the characters’ actions. A lot of reading is about expectations—expect the wrong thing and you might end up dissatisfied. It’s an odd psychological game we, as readers, play with writers (“surprise me! …but not too much”). So let me set some general expectations should you choose to read Igniting the Reaches: Essentially its the Age of Discovery (in space) where Piet Ricimer and Stephen Gregg are cutthroat merchants intending to strike it rich by harvesting valuable microchips from various planets. They use about any means necessary including capturing and selling members of an alien race, or hiring the smartest of that race to work for them. Deadly battles with rival merchants ensue. At its core, however, this novel wrestles with questions of morality (and the suspension of it) at the expense of wealth and advancement.

If you’re into military sci-fi, give it a shot (pun intended). 3/5 stars.

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