Saturday, October 31, 2015


My carvings this year.

And the things that go bump in the night (or day).
The neighbors...
These people go all out. :)

Even the spiders are in the holiday spirit.
Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Small masterpieces: The stories of Kij Johnson

At the Mouth of the River of Bees is an astounding collection of stories. I rarely read short stories, preferring novels, and although I have loved some shorts, I have never read an entire collection that took my legs from under me like this did. Kij Johnson is without doubt a master of this form.

 Even more surprising is how different all the stories are and how each has a resonance felt after the last sentence. She never loses the thread of what the story is truly about. The emotional payoff of The Man Who Bridged the Mist is a thing of beauty. 26 Monkeys is clever, yes, but not a gimmick--it is deeply satisfying. The stories are so powerful I remember each one just looking at the titles.

Warning: one story, Spar, is definitely way too much for children or prudish adults, but if you are neither of those it is a brave piece of writing, going beyond inhibition into pure being/surviving.

Johnson puts her characters in strange, alien, off-kilter places but never loses the core of what it means to be human, to navigate the waters of life.

Disclaimer: I recently took a Clarion workshop with Kij Johnson, which was a day well spent. I had already read most of these stories and formed an opinion of her powerful skill. Meeting her did not change this review, it just made me admire her more. And, for the record, she brought up 26 Monkeys, saying she wrote it disjointed like grief is, a string of momentary details adding up to something bigger.

A writing snippet from Monkeys: No one seems to know how the monkeys vanish or where they go. Sometimes they return holding foreign coins or durian fruit, or wearing pointed Moroccan slippers. Every so often one returns pregnant or leading an unfamiliar monkey by the hand. The number of monkeys is not constant.

From Wolf Trapping: It was after midnight and nearly pitch dark. There was a full moon somewhere overhead, but heavy clouds concealed most of the sky. The wind was stronger, pushing loose snow along the ground in needling waves. There would be no way to follow her tonight. She would have to find her own way home.

For my writing friends here are a few nuggets Kij offered in that workshop:

Her goals--To change how people see something. Make it immersive enough they are carrying it with them, so they lose track of time and reality and the story comes out into the real world with them.

How weird can something be and still be accessible?
Understanding the mechanics of real life fiction is essential to understanding speculative fiction.
In an estranged, alienated experience, we are playing with the fact the readers know what we are writing is not true. We should start out slow, gathering information. She gave an example of Hunger Games--"We don’t start with Panem, we start with being hungry."

She noted that mainstream fiction also gets the need for setting. The first thing the reader is going, 'oh my god where am I and what do I need to do?'

And that needs hyper-precise focus--for instance, the character isn't seeing the whole spaceship but this moment, this room.

She discussed novum--the new thing that changes things. And that isn't one thing that's different but lots of things. "You have to bring something else, something they haven't seen before or a deeper place they haven't been before."

Friday, October 2, 2015

Collaboration super power

Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti spoke at my local indie bookstore, Third Place Books, last night, and, well, it left me panting to go to a pub with a couple of writer friends and brainstorm. That’s how their collaborative YA book, ZEROES, was born.

“We met at a pub every week for about four hours,” Westerfeld said. “We drank beer and talked about super powers. As you do.”

Okay, I’m all smiles by now.

I’ve long been a fan of Westerfeld’s imaginative storytelling. When I was first learning how to write a novel (as opposed to nonfiction, which had been my career), I studied his three-part organization of UGLIES, a book I adored for its biting view of societal constructs on physical beauty.

And Lanagan’s lush descriptions and haunting tale swept me away in BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND. I can still feel that place somewhere deep in my bones.

I’m not familiar with Biancotti’s work, because she’s published mainly in Australia. All three writers are winners of prestigious awards and come from Sydney.

 Biancotti had worked on a television show and fell in love with the writing room model, where writers bounce ideas off each other. “It was so much fun, so much more energizing and invigorating,” she said. “The ideas got crazier and weirder and more awesome.”

 Lanagan, who’s a literary writer of spec fiction and winner of four World Fantasy Awards and two Printz Honor books, said she spends most of her time writing alone, sometimes coming to the end of a draft to find it’s flat. But with this collaboration she said, “You have this sort of instant testing lab. You watch ideas disintegrate…or float rather beautifully.”

 Westerfeld calls collaboration a super power of the human species, and said when the three of them worked together it was like a hive mind. And that resembled somewhat how the characters in the story they were creating worked.

 In ZEROES, six teens have powers that set them apart, and they need each other to survive.

Each of the three authors wrote two of the characters, and they are proud that readers who know their styles couldn’t figure out who wrote what. “We did kind of breakdown each other’s styles,” Lanagan said. “We referred to it as the fourth voice,” Biancotti added.

One of the characters, Anon, is particularly interesting, because no one, not even the other Zeroes, can remember him. Westerfeld described him as the character from the film Momento turned inside out so that instead of the character having short-term memory loss it happens to the people around him.

All the characters were born in 2000, hence being zeroes, and they’re “internetty,” according to Westerfeld.

Will the three authors return to writing alone after they finish the Zeroes trilogy? Well, they all have projects of their own but plan to use skills they’ve learned working together. Biancotti said she’s a lot braver now. “I’m playing dare with myself.”