Posted on Leave a comment

It’s not a bear hunt, but…maybe go through it anyway.

That is: you can go over it. You can around it. You don’t have to go through it.

But sometimes you should.

Here’s what I’m talking about: the other week when I was having tea with some writer friends, one of them started talking about a problem she was having in her work. Let’s say that it was that people were finding her settings too generic. (It wasn’t. But let’s say that it was, because I like my friends to be able to discuss their problems without feeling like the whole internet will then become their confidante without their permission.) And the way she phrased this problem meant that the rest of us were helping her brainstorm ways to make a generic setting okay–the sorts of plots where a generic setting would not call attention to itself or bother anybody, the sorts of characters that could do their own personal, individual pyrotechnics and not make anybody go, “…does this person actually come from anywhere in particular? it feels like not.”

And as she was listening to us, she backed up and said no, what she actually wanted now that she was listening to us all was to make her settings less generic. How to work on that. And we immediately switched gears. Oh! You want to work on that, right! Let’s talk about ways to work on that!

There actually could have been three things there, though: 1) Her settings were not actually generic, but the unique stuff was not coming through. Work on how to bring out the unique stuff. 2) Her settings were generic. Does not actually care much about setting compared to other elements. Make other elements so amazing that people are too busy going, “wow, I love this protagonist,” or, “I could not wait to find out what happens next!” or, “What snappy dialog!” or whatever. 3) Her settings were generic. Try to make them less so.

#2 is risky in some ways–the good-enough story element–because on the one hand you have to admit that the odds that you will knock everybody’s socks off in every single aspect of a book are essentially nil. But on the other hand…deciding right up front that you don’t actually care if a major element is very good leaves you pretty vulnerable, especially if readers don’t like the basket you put all your eggs in. “I have really awesome speculative ideas!” you might say, and I might roll my eyes and say, “wow, this is supposed to be hard science fiction? because let me tell you how the physics of that totally doesn’t work. And also the characters are completely cardboard. Yick.” That has happened. That has happened more than once. On the other hand, the authors with whom this has happened have plenty of fans. So–priorities. It’s really hard to identify everything you might want to improve simultaneously, even if you’re just pleasing yourself and not cranky people who majored in something related to your idea. Sometimes it’s really, really okay to work around one or two things that you know are weaknesses for awhile.

Sometimes it’s time to dive in and try to get better at them.

You’re the one who gets to say which is which.

Posted on Leave a comment

Eight happens to be my favorite number

In eight days I will be on the flight to HEL.

Which ideally will not be the flight from HEL.

Anyone who has ever told me that I am going straight to HEL: you are wrong. I have a stopover in Reykjavik.

Tip the waitstaff, friends, we’re here all week. And then we’re going to Finland.

Seriously, I do intend to think of other things in the next week. But not a lot of them. Because: Finland and Sweden. Sweden and Finland. Packing and getting foreign moneys and writing up informative house things for our dear housesitter/dogsitter and making sure the people who have May birthdays will have May birthday cards early rather than late and…stuff. The stuff that is stuff. Stuff like using up the remaining foodstuffs but not so soon that we have to buy a lot more of it to use up. That stuff.

If I did this sort of thing less often I would be worse at it, and if I did it more often I wouldn’t have to think about it quite so much. But I’m in this middle ground where it’s not old hat but there has to be a very, very detailed list.

So: blogging light over the next month. Is what I’m saying. I will have email. Email is so useful. Yay email.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, early April

John Allison and Lissa Treiman, Giant Days. A slice-of-life comic set among new university students in the UK. People sorting out their personal issues on a number of fronts. Charming enough that I kept going but not enough that I will seek out a sequel; it’s not really my genre-combo.

Walter Alvarez, T. Rex and the Crater of Doom. About the extinction event from the front lines of figuring it out. Nerds probably know all this stuff, so the value in this is either introductory or hearing it from the source. Alvarez is a little bit of a dinosaur himself in spots.

Marie Brennan, In the Labyrinth of Drakes. Discussed elsewhere.

Margaret Creighton, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. Fascinating stuff, emotionally wrenching, particularly in the intersection of these groups. White ladies of the time: not always filled with understanding of their fellow humans’ experiences, it turns out, particularly when propaganda they were exposed to at the time focused on the potential threat to them rather than the actual danger, injury, and loss experienced by Black people on a daily basis. The immigrant experience focused on here was German and Irish, in case that’s relevant to people’s interest level. Goes into the post-Civil War shaping of the Gettysburg story also.

William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. I would be fascinated to see how this book would be different if it was written today, but it’s still fascinating to have a look at how differently the two groups regarded land management, settlement, and sustenance/sustainability in the same area in the same period. Highly recommended, especially for speculative fiction writers who are thinking about cultural differences.

Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Justin Howe, The Homeless Moon. A chapbook put together by five friends. That is, five friends of each other; I only know two of them. My favorite stories were DeLuca’s and Hoffman’s, playing most directly with personal relationships, but it’s a fascinating project, and I’m glad they did more together.

Diane Duane, Games Wizards Play. Argh. ARGH. This is book ten in an ongoing series. Definitely do not read it if you haven’t read the other nine. If you have…well, look. One of the pleasures of book ten in an ongoing series is spending more time with the characters you like, and I feel like GWP fails on that front. Duane has spent nine books establishing Kit and Nita as people who don’t care that much about what Kids At School think, people who have lives ranging around the universe doing cool stuff and having lots of teenage peers outside Kids At School. Now that they are dating, nearly the entirety of their dating relationship for this volume is obsessing about whether Kids At School think they are definitely having sex or definitely not. (They are definitely not. But this is far less important, apparently, than what people who are not characters in this or any other book think about whether they are or not.) They go on and on for pages and pages about how stupid these jerks are and how annoying it is. I agree. It is annoying. SO SHUT UP ABOUT IT. Think about what you want and what the other person wants. If you have to, think about the people you actually interact with. But for heaven’s sake leave off about Sir Not Appearing In This Volume because I could not possibly care less. And speaking of things I could not possibly care less about: wizard’s tournaments that have never been mentioned before this volume. Yawn. Jerkface young wizards who are supposed to be mentored for such tournaments because the Powers That Be say so: oh, is that the time? YAWN. Sometimes the Powers That Be are getting awfully darn convenient in this series. Why should I care about this stupid character? THE POWERS WANT YOU TO. WELL I DON’T. So there is a little charming bit with planets. And there is some cultural iffiness. And there is the increasing problem of the time slippage of when exactly these books take place, having started in 1982, taken about four years, and are now set in 2016, which is not helped when the author herself is not hitting her marks on setting them in 2016 but is trying. And…gosh I hope she recovers from this one. Because I really do like this series and think it has good things yet to do if only it gets there. But YUCK.

Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850. This is an overview sort of book, and I read it after the climate change-related book below. I do not recommend that ordering. But if you don’t know a lot about the climate shift in that period and all the things that went into it–and came out of it–this is a good short summary sort of book. Or if you just want to refresh your brain in that direction, which was more my case.

Mark Forsyth, The Horologican: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language. “Lost” is really an overstatement. Most of them were mildly obscure at best. But Forsyth has an entertaining enough set of stories to tell. It was a fast read, occasionally too centered on his own cultural experience to the point of making sweeping pronouncements. If you can cope with that, it’ll stay fun. If that makes you wince too often, it won’t.

Faith Erin Hicks, The Nameless City. Discussed elsewhere.

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble. I went to write my thoughts on this book right after the Pulitzer Prize committee wrote theirs. Um. So I liked it too, it turns out. I liked it first? No, probably not. I feel like there is more of a YA shift here, but I haven’t read the intervening collections yet–they’re on my list–between this and Magic for Beginners–so I may just be late to the party. Anyway I approve of the teenward shift, of the awkward and hidden things in young people and the awkward and hidden things in the world finding their way toward each other in Link’s work.

David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. The section on symbiogenesis was really interesting. The rest…puts soil development and microbiome development together in interesting ways I guess but none of it is earth-shattering. Montgomery’s book on dirt is better. This meanders around food and cancer and all sorts of stuff that seems like it should be more interesting than it is, probably because this is highly popularized and not very deep. (Symbiogenesis, though! Let’s have more on that.)

Steven Ozment, The Burgermeister’s Daughter: Scandal in a Sixteenth-Century German Town. Sexual virtue and politics and lawsuits and female agency in the courts. Ozment is always so good at microhistory. He is my favorite historian of Germany.

Robert W. Patch, Maya Revolt and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century. Another book about agency in court systems where it tends to be discounted, and also what happens when that agency is undercut. In this case it’s indigenous people, including women but not limited thereto, whose agency is examined. Still, an interesting commonality with the Ozment that I didn’t expect. This is very very case-study based, giving the names of every single person involved.

Jeffrey Quilter, The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages. Lots of pictures of Moche pottery. This is the least obscene set of Moche pottery I have ever seen in my life. I don’t mean that as a criticism per se–there are some pieces like one of the llama ones that are really quite lovely. But I raised an eyebrow at how selectively non-obscene it was.

William Rosen, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century. This is a much deeper, more thorough, and more interesting exploration of the effects of climate change on a period of history. It’s also remarkably cheerful considering the title. The famine doesn’t come until well over halfway into the book, and there’s lots of squabbling over the throne of Scotland and various other upbeat topics. Um. I think the person who writes this sort of book must be a person very much like myself in some regards? might be why I can find it so chipper? But really it’s not a gloomy book at all, it races right along through rains and Viking raids and other things that make a person happy.

Oliver Sacks, Gratitude. A set of essays from the very end of Sacks’s prolific life. Not offensive in any way–cheering, in fact–but probably only of great importance to the Sacks completist.

Øystein Sørensen and Bo Stråth, eds., The Cultural Construction of Norden. A very curious set of essays about how the modern Norden countries (that is, Scandinavia plus Finland and Iceland) got to where it is, culturally. It makes several very weird assumptions, such as not talking about immigration or emigration. So…no Turks, no Finns-in-Sweden, no anybody, right then. Also the Haugean movement and similar movements are described as though their remains in Norway (or the rest of the Norden region) settled into their current form without any influence from bleeding their radical elements off into the US and Canada. As if by magic. So…I ended up eyebrowing at this book a lot more than I was enlightened by it, and I wouldn’t end up recommending it.

Posted on Leave a comment

where you go from here

One of the problems I have with our system of schooling is that it sets up the expectation that if you want to know something, if you want to know how to do something, other people will tell you what it is that you need to know, the steps you need to fulfill, the boxes you need to check off. Want to learn Spanish? Here is what learning Spanish means! First you pass Spanish 1! Then Spanish 2! Here are the vocabulary lists! Here are the grammatical forms you learn and the order you learn them in! Your Spanish class will vary from someone else’s, but you will each have external validation that you are doing it properly, you are doing the thing.

This is basically not how learning goes. It is not how projects go. Most of the time–most of life–there is no one you can ask and get a definitive answer: am I learning the thing? Am I doing it? And even more basically: is this the thing I should be doing? Either learning Spanish itself or this set of vocabulary words, this set of grammatical forms, this type of pronunciation: is this the thing I most need to work on in order to be better at this? Or is there something else? Because there is, isn’t there. If you’re doing translation, if you’ve gotten to the point of real conversation or real reading, there are the parts that are cultural. The parts that do not fit any list. Where no one can say to you, “here is your new list!” or even, “your long a sound, it sounds too broad, it does not match coherently with your i sound to make an accent recognizable in any Spanish dialect.” The parts where you have to reach for a phrase instead of a word, and you start learning about pieces of culture to know what phrase. People can tell you some of that. But if you don’t start reaching for those pieces yourself, you will stay adequate, never better than that. It’s like that with music, with math, with baking, with everything. You can start with the externally validated list of Things To Learn To Get Better At The Thing. You can consult the experts: how do I thing better? And they will have opinions. But if you don’t start having opinions yourself, you won’t become one of the experts yourself.

And this is where I think a lot of writers run into a problem with criticism, with what criticism is.

Criticism is not a substitution for these lists. It is not trying to set itself up as your new list. You can take it as one if that’s useful. When you’re saying to yourself, how do I thing better? In this case write. How do I write better? What do I want to get better at, in my writing? You can say, huh. A lot of people who talk about the last thing I wrote said that the dialog sounded very wooden, maybe I should work on that. But that’s not what they’re doing. They are not your teacher. They are not writing you a to-do list. They are saying what they thought. You can choose to try to work on that thing next time. You can choose to shrug and say, well, I agree or else I don’t, but that’s not what I’m going to try to do.

Your agent or your editor can say, “This needs clearer exposition,” or, “I’d like the voice to come out more vividly here,” or, “I just don’t think this will sell unless you strengthen the protagonist’s motivation.” And if you’ve chosen to go with a form of publishing where you have an agent or an editor, that’s part of why you have them. Your critiquers can do it. But that feedback can only take you so far if you’re not pushing yourself. If you’re not saying to yourself that you want your premise to be more ambitious, or your portrayal of working relationships, or your descriptive prose. They are working on selling the writer you are. They can see the outlines of the writer you could be. But only the outlines. You’re the one who has to color that in. And if you can’t–your critique group, your editor, your agent, your family, your friends, your mentors, all those people–they can give you a boost. They can try to extend your reach. But you’re the one who has to figure out what you’re reaching for.

The critics, the reviewers–they can point out weaknesses. But it’s up to you to decide if you want to work around them or strengthen them until they’re not weaknesses. Or ignore the criticism. It is there for readers. You can choose to learn from it, but it’s not there to teach you.

I am all in favor of clear communication, but it’s very hard to communicate to someone that they aren’t doing something no one imagined they might want to do. There are so many things to be done that if you don’t communicate that you’re trying something, the odds are pretty good no one will think that you are and tell you that you could and how to get there. This is true if you’re not making social efforts: no one will come in and say, “Hey, by not ever asking people to do anything, you’re failing to communicate that you want to do anything.” It’s also true for particular writerly ambitions. Mostly we try not to write reviews excoriating books for not doing what the reviewer imagined they could unless there is some good reason to think the writer meant to. I’ll have some things to say about Diane Duane’s Games Wizards Play in my book post, but none of them will be, “Hey, this is not a very reliable treatise on planetary astronomy.” And there will always be reams and realms of things you could be trying in your fiction that no one will come and chide you for not doing. Because they didn’t know you might want to. They thought you were content as you were.

Don’t be.

Posted on Leave a comment

Catching up on short stories a bit

It’s been quite some time since I made a post with links to short stories I liked, and truthfully I fell behind on reading them earlier in the year, so even more so than usual: if you have some that you’ve liked and want to link to them in the comments, I encourage that. But I also wanted to remind myself that I’m not trying to be comprehensive, I’m just giving you links to some things I’ve liked since last time I gave links to things I liked. So! Some short stories I liked!

Listen, by Karen Tidbeck (

Recalled to Service, by Alter S. Reiss ( (Note: I critiqued this story in draft.)

Project Daffodil, by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Nature Futures)

The Governess With a Mechanical Womb, by Leena Likitalo (Clarkesworld)

Big Thrull and the Askin Man, by Max Gladstone (Uncanny)

The Right Sort of Monsters, by Kelly Sandoval (Strange Horizons)

Foxfire, Foxfire, by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Posted on Leave a comment

In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author. Full disclosure: she is also a personal friend.

I don’t see any reason that you wouldn’t want to go back and read all the books in this series. A Natural History of Dragons is the first one, and it’s a good one, so: you can start there! It’s fine! But while I am usually a fan of reading things in their proper order, now that I’m an adult and live in a state with good libraries and mostly can, and while there are elements from this book that carry over from the previous ones, I think that actually it would be a perfectly reasonable book to read if you don’t have the others to hand to start with.

So. In case you weren’t with us for the previous three books: this is a quasi-Victorian lady who is a dragon naturalist, traveling the world having adventures and making thrilling discoveries about Dragons: How Do They (And Their Biology) Work. There are also discoveries about related species, about archaeology, about various cultures of her world, unwanted forays into human politics that Isabella (Lady Trent) finds annoying…but mostly there is dragon naturalism. Lots and lots of dragon naturalism.

(I was going to say that this is not to be confused with dragon naturism but I don’t recall a single one of the dragons wearing pants, so you know what? Knock yourself out, dragon naturism too.)

This one is a desert setting, with Isabella teaming up with locals to figure out dragon breeding in captivity if in fact it can be figured out at all. Gossip from at home and abroad plagues her and must be…dealt with. She is set upon by foreign spies and difficulties with logistics. Will she prevail? Well. Sorta. That’s the book, right there. There’s one more left to go, and I think there was snow foreshadowing for it in this one. At least I hope so….

Please consider using our link to buy In the Labyrinth of Drakes from Amazon.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Nameless City, by Faith Erin Hicks

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is a graphic novel that I think should be reasonably entertaining for anyone who likes its type of story from age about 7 or 8 up. It has fighter training and moments of violence, but not more than you would see on, say, Avatar: The Last Airbender–it’s not a graphic graphic novel, if that makes any sense. Nobody is having smoochy time. The main characters are kids, but their concerns aren’t trivial or mired in the kind of jokes that a friend of mine used to call “sixth grade fart poop penis jokes,” where the entire punchline is that body parts and functions exist. So basically I don’t see an upper age limit on the appeal to this book.

Older readers will spot that the multicultural city of the title is drawing many of its visual elements from East Asian cultures, but I don’t think that the mishmash should be any kind of detriment to enjoyment–rather the opposite. The two young main characters, Kai and Rat, are from different cultures within the city, very different backgrounds and lives, and while the arc of their friendship won’t be a new one to anyone much over 7, it’s a classic for a reason. They have things to learn from each other and things to share as equals.

And contrary to my initial fears from the first few pages, there are not interminable training sequences–just enough to whet the appetites of fantasy fans who like that sort of thing. Whew.

This is the first in a series, but it’s also a self-contained story, so people like myself who prefer an actual ending will not be frustrated by a complete “to be continued…” cliffhanger. Cheerfully recommended; good fun.

Please consider using our link to buy The Nameless City from Amazon.

Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, late March

Albert Goldbarth, Arts and Sciences. Reread. My standards for how a poet engages with the sciences are much higher than they were in my early twenties, and I just consistently am not finding that Goldbarth has much to say to me just because he has some things to say about science. Which is a shame.

Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart. Reread. This was another not entirely successful reread of something I read in my early twenties. Not only the forms of these poems but also their content are highly formalized, and knowing a bit more about Madeleine L’Engle’s life from outside sources made me wince in several spots. Still a better idea than reading news articles about Donald Trump over breakfast, though.

James Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532-1560: A Colonial Society. This goes through chapter by chapter discussing the different types of person in the colonial Spanish part of Peruvian society in this period (as opposed to the colonized indigenous part–though indigenous persons were discussed inasmuch as they engaged with the colonizers’ society/culture). Notaries, shoemakers, etc.: what part of Spain were they from, what was their role, did they stick around long-term, etc. Very useful sourcebook if you’re interested in the period, probably not very good as an overview or first source on it.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal to Noise. I wanted to like this more than I did: an old record player and teenagers making mixtape-style magic. But in the end I felt like the parallel timelines didn’t line up very well, their relative weighting and pacing didn’t work very well for me. Still an author I will continue to read, because it was not a catastrophic failure.

Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. This was her first collection, and I’m glad I read Vampires in the Lemon Groves first instead, because she’s gotten better. Also this contains several pieces that are either related to Swamplandia! or dry runs for it, and I felt that Swamplandia! did what it needed to do as a self-contained thing, and these pieces didn’t really improve anything. However, there were several of the unrelated pieces–the one with the minotaur, the title piece–that delighted me, and I don’t necessarily assume that’ll happen at all in a short story collection, so me, I’m sticking with this Karen Russell idea.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories. A four-part reflection of love and family and war and being broken and monstrous. I loved this. I liked it so much better than A Stranger in Olondria, which I also liked. I liked how the pieces doubled back on themselves and reflected the earlier parts differently. I liked how the characters were sometimes prickly and difficult. It was just what I wanted when I picked it up.

Thomas Siddell, Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 4: Materia. I don’t read this comic online because it doesn’t move fast enough for me to read one page every few days, so instead I read the collected volumes. Which, in this case, still did not move fast enough. I’m interested in what it’s doing overall, but the demands of art are hard, I guess, and we’re not giving up on those grounds.

Dana Simpson, Unicorns Vs. Goblins. Phoebe and Marigold go to music camp, among other things. That part I enjoyed; the goblin plot I felt was very brief, abrupt, under-handled, disappointing. I’m past expecting this to be “the new Calvin & Hobbes” and am letting it be its own thing; now I’m just wishing this volume was as good as Unicorn on a Roll.

Joyce Sutphen, Coming Back to the Body. Reread. Joyce was my intro creative writing prof in 1997, so returning to these poems is fascinating–many of them are strongly autobiographical, and I can still hear Joyce’s breathless voice reading them. They’re not my usual style of poetry, but I can see why she has met with the success she has (poet laureate of the state etc.).