A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Harper Voyager, © 2016
ISBN 9780062569400
Print length 384 pages, $16.99

This stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, begins 28 minutes after a sentient AI personality has been transferred from the body of a ship to a human-like body. Nothing could have prepared her for such a drastic change—where she used to have wide-ranging vision and sensory input all through and outside the ship, now she is limited to input provided by her smaller body, her visual range reduced to a “cone” of visible space directly in front of her face. Not only is she completely unprepared for the adaptation and totally naïve in the ways of the world, she’s on the run from the authorities. Encasing an AI in a body kit is highly illegal. She has no idea how to navigate as a human through the colonial settlements without giving herself away, which could make things problematic. Except for her friend Pepper, she would never survive. At Pepper’s direction, she takes a human name (Sidra) and a job (working in Pepper’s junk shop), and begins learning what it means to be human.

In a second storyline, we meet Jane 23, a young slave child in a factory run by the Mothers, anonymous robots who keep the girl slaves in line and see that the quotas are met each day. 23’s simple thoughts range into dangerous territory, wondering about esoteric questions like the world beyond the factory until one night she finds herself outside the building and, when the Mothers discover her escape, running for her life. But 23 doesn’t know how to survive on her own. She’s hungry and cold and in fear of the wild dogs that roam in packs until she stumbles onto an old downed spacecraft whose AI, Owl, still functions. Together, Owl and 23 survive the harsh conditions on the planet until they can find a way out together.

Seemingly two separate tales, these stories collide in ways both subtle and direct. Chambers once again nails the interpersonal relationships in an intimate way that stirs the imagination and the heart equally. Rather than focus on war or crime or violence, the plot in both Chambers’ novels centers on the characters; but Closed and Common Orbit gets even closer to shine a warm light on their most vulnerable moments.

The story is told through the eyes of Sidra and Jane as each navigates her way toward salvation, contentment and safety. Though not directly connected to the initial book in the Wayfarer series, Common Orbit is set in the same universe and shares many details. If you loved the interaction with other species so prevalent in Long Way, you’ll find plenty more here. Sidra’s home with Pepper and Blue centers on an interplanetary market, of sorts, which is introduced in book one. It’s a place where almost anything can be bought.

Through Jane and Sidra, Chambers explores prejudice, personal rights, sentience, and what it means to be human. Once again, there’s no specific antagonist; instead the enemies are the Mothers, the dogs, failing equipment, the laws that would separate Sidra from her body and penalize Pepper for daring to help her in the first place. Sidra’s predicament forces others around her to see in new ways, and to realize that one’s own perspective is not so easily or comfortably thrust on another without consequences.

Common Orbit continues the feeling of Long Way in that it’s a moving, inspirational tale that takes an honest look at interpersonal relationships and challenges our authenticity—to ourselves and to each other. It was truly an enjoyable and uplifting read.

An Education In Craft

That first summer I worked with Paula on editing my manuscript, I read more than I wrote. Some of the books I read were helpful, and still sit on my shelf for future reference or inspiration. But the three that really stood out for me were Larry Brooks’ Story Physics and Story Engineering, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. All three point out how to plot a storyline—that’s right people. That’s when I left behind my “pantser” ways and became a “plotter.”

Okay, maybe not totally, but at the very least I added plotting into my wayward pantser process.

Books on the craft of writing marketable fiction seem (in my limited experience) to take one of two positions: a three-act plan or a four-part plan. Vogler takes the first; Brooks takes the second. If you are familiar with the great American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, you’ll understand the concept of the Hero’s Journey. That’s the structure that underlies Vogler’s planning tactics. And it works. I can see it in every book and movie (try watching Star Wars or the Matrix series without seeing the Hero’s story arc). It’s a timeless, classic method of storytelling that really works.

Brooks’s four-part plan in Physics and Engineering is essentially the same thing, just broken down differently. He teaches that the writer needs four major plot elements: a hook and three major plot points where everything changes for the protagonist. But he still breaks it down to the hero’s journey: the hero’s world changes, the hero reacts, the hero takes an active role, the hero succeeds, even if success doesn’t look anything like what she expected. Of course I’m oversimplifying here; the point is that there is a “formula” (I know, that’s a dirty word for pantsers) that works. What’s important to remember is that following a formula does not mean the story has to be predictable or boring.

For me, it’s sort of like using a map to plan a trip—it shows all the routes available to get a traveler from point A (her starting point) to point B (her destination). Once she knows her options, she can then select the route most suitable for her purpose. For a direct trip, perhaps interstates would be best. However, if she wants a scenic journey, the traveler might choose the most roundabout path. Either way, knowing the route ahead of time helps her to plan effectively.

It’s the same with writing a story. From the starting point (Scene 1, my hook, how my book will begin), I decide how I want my story to end. That final scene is my overarching goal, my objective. Knowing this helps me to aim my story’s course with every scene, every action and word from every character pointed in the right direction for maximum impact.

That doesn’t mean my characters can’t divert onto side roads, as long as those detours tie in to the main storyline in some meaningful way. Remember: publishing houses have very specific expectations on word count. Too many detours without meaningful connections waste those precious words that might otherwise be used to tighten and embolden the hero’s main journey. They detract from the reader’s focus. How many books have you read where the writer seemed to meander from the main plot without any rhyme or reason? Did you love it or hate it?

Think of it this way. An archer can’t really be effective without a target. That’s what a beat sheet (one of Brooks’s plotting tools) does: it offers a series of targets at which the writer can aim her scenes.

I said in a prior post that my old ways of writing left me not knowing from moment to moment what any given character would do, or how, or to whom. Having a beat sheet is, for me, like having a story skeleton, onto which I can then layer the flesh of characterization and scenes and twists. Without the underlying structure, the rest becomes a shapeless blob. I even use it for short stories now.

I won’t say plotting is easy. It ain’t. What I can say with confidence is that Brooks’ method of pre-planning through a “beat sheet” has been an incredible help for me! (Larry Brooks also has a blog called “Story Fix.” Check it out at http://storyfix.com/ to see more of his instructional writing.)

There are a ton of books out there on the craft of writing, and just as many on technique. If you’re looking to learn more, shop around. Read the reviews. Then check one out from the library. If you like it, buy it—mostly to support the writer, but also because you’ll want to keep it around for later reference. Just remember that every writer has her own process, her own style. Even if none of the books offers a usable recipe, you will have learned the necessary ingredients to create your own, one that will fit with the publishing industry’s wish list. And for those of us seeking publication through traditional avenues, that’s as good as the recipe for the philosopher’s stone.

Where It All Went Wrong

How hard can it be?

Remember that? Yeah. (Nostalgic sigh.) I must admit I was overwhelmed at the thought of reducing the 800K-word tome I’d produced to the manageable 120K draft manuscript recommended by an agent. After only a day or two of lingering freak-out, I took the figurative scissors to my draft and chopped out bits relevant to the main character—Alira—then laid them end-to-end and read it through.

No good. I’d relied too much on that other content to bring sense to Alira’s story in the larger tale. So I added in relevant details until it made sense, tweaking it along the way. In the meantime, a fellow writer had recommended an editor in Texas (Hi Paula!) who could help. I contacted her and worked out an arrangement by which she could give me advice and take me on as a client. When I thought it was ready, I sent her my manuscript.

Needless to say, it was garbage. My characters were flat, their reasons for doing things unclear. Overall, the story had no passion on the page. Those aren’t the exact words Paula used; she was much more diplomatic, much more encouraging. Still, hearing that I’d have to completely rewrite the whole thing was like a blow to the gut. I cried for two days. (Laugh, published writers. You know exactly what I’m talking about.)

When I stopped crying, I started reading. Paula gave me a string of books on the craft of writing, which I’ll talk about in a later post. I read—and learned—all summer, and when I finally put the books down, I picked the pen up. (Figuratively speaking.) I felt supercharged. This time, I’d get it right!

I wrote all through the Fall and Winter, and by late Spring, I had another draft for Paula. All during the few weeks she had My Baby, I filled my hours with things I didn’t normally have time to do, like visit friends, go to the beach, see a movie, spend time with my husband. It was almost like a mini-vacation, back then. (Since then, I’ve learned that a writer never stops writing. If it’s not on one project, it’s on another.)

Finally, Paula was finished. I read through her comments, and rejoiced: No Need to Rewrite!!! The manuscript did, however, require a lot of work. Paula suggested a few more books and resources, which I dutifully explored, then I got back to it. When I “finished” that draft, I enlisted beta-readers (Thanks, Laura! Thanks, Dominique! Thanks, William! Thanks, Hubby!), who gave me their unvarnished opinions and comments. I, too, re-read it and marked up the copy.

By the time I gave it back to Paula the next Spring, I loved the story even more than I had to begin with. All that work, all that focus, all those tears and late nights and lost sleep had resulted in a tighter, more fleshed-out version of my characters and their various worlds. Paula had offered to read the first 100 pages again without further fee, and you better believe I took her up on it.

Her response? It’s ready.

Can you see me happy-dancing all over my office? Can you imagine the squeal of delight? The power is real, my friends. Fiction-writing, along with my characters and the worlds that have blossomed and born fruit in my mind, has shoved its roots so deep in me I may never again leave its stony path.

My point is this: the writing was easy. Making it an acceptable piece of marketable fiction is proving more of a challenge. If a writer wants to make this business their career, it has to be an all-or-nothing approach. Presenters at this year’s writers’ conference all seemed to be pointing out the same theme: this is a business. Agents are looking for new clients, yes; but for every single client slot, there may be hundreds, nay thousands of writers angling for an opening. Every single word I write must shine, or no one will even notice my work. At least, not at first. Even once I make it (as of course, I will), I can’t stop striving for excellence. An old friend used to challenge me whenever I expressed weariness: “What, you’re going to sit back on your laurels? How far do you think that will take you?”

My advice? If you’re a budding writer (as I still am), find an editor, someone who comes recommended or someone you know and trust. Then—and this is the most important part—LISTEN TO WHAT SHE SAYS. Yes, it’s your story. Yes, you get final say. But unless you’ve been in the business a while, she’s likely to know more than you. You’re paying for her service. Stand back and let her do her job.

Don’t forget to keep writing, and never—NEVER—give up!

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

HarperCollins Publishers © 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-233451-0
880 pages, $35.00

When the moon blows up for no apparent reason, people first wonder what happened. Then the fuzzy, expanding cluster of seven enormous boulders that once made up Earth’s sole satellite becomes a curiosity. But once the scientists realize what’s going to happen next, the novelty quickly turns to fear.

Dinah MacQuerie and Ivy Xiao, stationed aboard the International Space Station or “Izzy,” soon learn that they’ll never be able to set foot on land again. That they’ll spend the rest of their lives on Izzy, in weightless space. That the families they’d left behind are as good as dead. From the moment “Doc” Dubois understands that exponential collisions of moon debris will bring down a “hard rain” of bolides which will destroy all life on the surface of the Earth, the race is on. Experts predict humanity will have two years to find a way to live in space until it’s safe to return—at least five thousand years.

I’m not giving anything away by revealing these details. The moon’s demolition happens in the opening sentence. Understanding that the further degradation and spread of its remains will eventually render the surface of the Earth uninhabitable comes close on the heels of that first, almost unnoticed disaster. Seveneves isn’t about that destruction. It’s about the frantic plan to save as many humans as possible by getting them off the surface before it’s too late. It’s also about the strength—and weakness—inherent in all of us, and the price everyone pays for one person’s hubris.

So much of the story takes place on Izzy that she almost becomes a character in her own right. Stephenson does an excellent job of portraying life there, as well as the experience of weightlessness and the quirky problems and challenges it presents. As Izzy fills up and builds out, her residents new and old learn to handle crowded living conditions, safeguard their fragile and vulnerable habitat and now scarce resources, and shortening tempers. In most cases, those involved grow closer, more bonded. But human nature will not long be denied and when it surfaces in the survivors’ tenuous setting, it starts a chain of events that eventually lead to one of the major plot points of the book.

Seveneves is definitely hard sci-fi; Stephenson does a good job of explaining the physics of orbital mechanics and the technological details of living in space, most of which even I understood enough to follow. I must admit, however, that some of his explanations seemed to plumb unnecessary depths, and I skimmed past before I could fall asleep. Even so, the premise of the story is fascinating, delving into sociological as well as cultural obstacles and solutions, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book.

The last third jumps ahead 5,000 years. Humanity has created a complete habitat ring in space around the Earth, and evolved into very different and distinct races. Life as it was pre-zero is only a memory and an Epic taught to the children. I found Stephenson’s description of this new human society fascinating and, in many ways, relatable, but somehow in the shift, he lost me. Perhaps it is because, in my opinion, he told me what the characters were thinking and feeling instead of showing me through the characters themselves. The end could have been much more compelling. Plenty of exciting things take place. Still, I didn’t feel what I imagine the characters were supposed to feel. When the monumental twist came, it fell flat for me. I was left unsatisfied and unmoved.

I’ve read other reviews of this book that disagree with my opinion here, so perhaps it is only a matter of taste. As this is my first Stephenson read, I can’t say whether this is a normal part of his style. I do know I enjoyed it enough that I won’t let it stop me from reading another of his novels. I encourage you to read it, and decide for yourself.