Seeding the Work

The day of the eclipse, a rabbi friend of mine posted on an interfaith newsletter how a Jewish person might get the most out of the eclipse. As I read his words I marveled at how closely his own ideas paralleled my own tendencies. Later that day, on Facebook, Pagan and Christian friends posted about their own experiences of the eclipse, how they enjoyed it, the energy they felt throughout its duration. Again, I recognized the similarities to my own feelings.

Me?

I was at my day job in a small law office, watching the quality of the light change outside my window. There was a palpable shift as it progressed, as if something weighty and intense hovered just around the corner. Everyone seemed to be holding a collective breath. With no eclipse glasses, and no punctured shoebox, I couldn’t actually watch the Moon take bites out of the sun, but I could still feel the experience.

Ten minutes before the peak, I took my bottle of bubbles outside (what? You don’t have a bottle of bubbles at work?) and stood under the darkening sky blowing bubbles. A gentle breeze blew them across the grass or over the roof or out into the busy street, but at one point, it blew them back toward me. One largish bubble came so close to me I could see my reflection in its surface, which caught me off-guard. I don’t think that’s happened before, or at least I never noticed if it did—mind you, I am no novice bubble-blower—and it brought back a conversation I had the week before.

My friend William suggested I should write a story that showcases my (non-standard) belief system. I told him I already had. That my beliefs are reflected in all my works. How can something so basic to my nature not show up in what I write? Every one of my stories has some taste of my spirituality, some more than others; my novel, The Founder’s Seed, is thick with it. Even were I to write a story about a Christian character, or a Muslim one, or a Jewish one, my own deeply held faith would leave its mark. I can’t help it.

Because isn’t everything we do, everything we create, every word we write a reflection of who we are? Whether the threads provide a subtle background or weave shining through the entire piece, they are most certainly present. At least they are in my own work. Behind the plot, between the lines, in the character’s thoughts or deeds—somewhere, in some small (or large) fashion, they shine a light on me and on my own search for answers. Perhaps they even offer potential answers to my questions or dilemmas.

Sometimes my stories stem from my beliefs, which prompt me to question everything. Nothing is sacrosanct. “What if?” comes naturally to me, and I often wonder at the Machinery of the Universe.

Many of my life experiences also show up in my created worlds. After 57 years, memories create a colorful tapestry of scenes and dilemmas from which to draw. Often my characters are a crazy-quilt of qualities or habits from long-time friends, short-term acquaintances, or someone I met once at the gym.

Just as my breath gave life to those bubbles on Eclipse Day, so too does my essence enliven my work. I absolutely believe that it is these pieces of myself, seeded carefully among my written words, that make my writing worthwhile. I can’t imagine doing this any other way.

The Fifth Season

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2015
ISBN: 987-0316229296
Paperback, 512 pages

In the Stillness, a land riddled with shakes and blows and hotspots, Father Earth never forgets his hatred for humans. Here, the world ends over and over in periodic Fifth Seasons, winters triggered by seismic events whose effects linger for months, years, even decades. Orogenes, trained by the Fulcrum in the art of manipulating kinetic and thermal energies, feared and hated almost universally, learn to deflect or even stop the shakes and blows as much as possible. But orogenes can’t be everywhere at once. And some orogenes don’t want to stop the destruction. They have other plans for the humans who have enslaved them.

When this Season begins, Essun saves her comm, but can’t save her son—an orogene, like her—from being killed by his own father. Now her murderous husband is missing, along with their daughter. Essun sets out through the ashfall and the end of the world to track him down and commit a murder of her own. She knows, as do other orogenes, that this Season won’t last a mere decade. This one will last a thousand years. This one is how the world ends, for the last time.

The first book in The Broken Earth series, The Fifth Season is absolutely captivating. Even though The Stillness is not a land with which we are familiar, it is enough like our own world that we can picture the landscapes and mountains and coastlines. We can relate to the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and the tragedies they sometimes bring. The Stillness might well be our own backyard. I could picture the cosmopolitan city of Yumenes and the provincial Tirimo. I could even imagine the island com of Meov, with its salt air and constant hiss of ocean sounds.

Every character is well defined, believable, and irretrievably woven into the story’s threads. Essun’s life unfolds throughout the book in various stages that jump back and forth between “before” and “after” the Season starts. Alabaster, a powerful orogene, develops in a more-or-less linear fashion through Essun’s interactions with him, yet he is still something of a mystery after the last page is turned. Alike in many ways, Essun and Alabaster are also opposites. Orogenes live precarious lives fraught with risk; some, like Alabaster, fracture under the pressure while others, like Essun, are tempered.

Other characters—humans, orogenes or stone eaters—fill realistic supporting roles that come together in complex ways, but it is always Essun we root for. She isn’t always likable, but that just made her more real. Her character develops in ways I didn’t see coming, but which made perfect sense as the story unfolded. At the end, I knew I’d seen only a hint of her power, that she was just getting warmed up.

Rich in detail and narrative tension, The Fifth Season is dystopian fantasy at its best, a masterpiece of storytelling that will draw you in and sweep you away. Jemisin absolutely deserves the Hugo award this book won for the best novel of 2016.

What’s In a Number?

Last night I finished the book I was reading (The Moon and the Other, see Reviews page), and started N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season for the second time, so I can review it here. I loved it the first time, got so lost in it that I forgot to watch for style and plot points and whether or not she was breaking “the rules.” (I’m pretty sure she is.) This time, though, I hope to maintain a bit of distance (yeah, right) from the story so I can observe her technique. Before I was even a full chapter into it, I could see Jemisin’s genius on every page. She fully deserves the Hugo it won. Now the third book in the series is out, of course—The Stone Sky—which occasioned my decision to re-read and review the Broken Earth series here, for all of you, but once I’m done with that, I think I’ll go back and read her earlier works, to see if I can track her evolution. Maybe I can reverse engineer some of her methods and adapt them for my own use.

Every published author touts their own process. Many emphasize that a daily word-count goal is a requirement, but that doesn’t work for me. Frankly, I’m not sure how it works for anyone who has a day job and no personal secretary. Even with Bobby shouldering most of our household day-to-day chores (kitchen duty, most laundry, grocery shopping, etc.), I find only a couple of hours most week nights to put toward writing, marketing or reading, not to mention website upkeep, or any number of everyday errands that I can’t foist off on my loving husband.

But we’ve talked about this before.

Still, I have to admit to having written nothing to speak of in over a month. (sigh) No real excuses, just riding the currents. Not sure where they’re taking me, but I’ve decided to go along, for the moment. We’ll see what happens. I haven’t been idle, though. Most evenings of late, the time I would normally sit down to write has been spent researching targets for my short stories. A few may not be publishable—I like them, I think they’re good, but I can’t seem to find the right e-zine or print magazine where they’d be a good fit. Research like can’t be rushed.

In the meantime, I’ve gone back to work on book two in my novel series. To my annoyance, I found there was a gap between notes I’d made when I first started planning this thing and the draft outline I’d pulled together, so I had no idea what I’d been thinking when I wrote the outline. Sheesh. Me, married to the Back-Up King, and I’d lost my notes somehow. I managed to put it back together, with one or two holes that can be filled as I go, and it might even turn out better than I originally intended, so it isn’t a total loss, but it took my entire Sunday to get that far.

I suppose I had naïve hopes of getting “discovered” and being able to quit my job and write full-time … sort of like when I was a kid and dreamed of finding Mr. Right, and living happily ever after. But Life is not a fairy tale. There are nitty gritties involved—every city, no matter how beautiful or sublime it looks on the surface, has sewers and traffic grids and urine or dog poop on the sidewalks and trash in the gutters. And all of that is part of the city’s character, part of its personality. It’s part of the Whole Experience. Learning a trade or a craft or an art is just the same.

So writing isn’t this romantic thing I’d envisioned. It’s messy. It’s hard. It takes over a lion’s share of your life. It’s both joyous and discouraging by turns. It’s maddening, but I love it so! It makes my heart sing….and right now, I can’t imagine anything else taking its place.

The Moon and the Other

By John Kessel
Saga Press, ©2017
ISBN:9781481481441
Hardback, 608 pages

In the mid-22nd century, humans have colonized the Moon in multiple domed cities. One, the Society of Cousins, is notorious for its matriarchal social structure and free attitudes toward sexuality. Another, Persepolis, is the SoC’s opposite in every way that counts—government, use of space, attitudes toward gender and religion and business, and treatment of its citizens.

Erno, born in the SoC, rebelled at great cost and was exiled as a young man to make his own way in one of the patriarchal lunar cities. Mira came as a child with her mother to the SoC and, through a series of tragedies, is left alone and hostile to the status quo, as well as almost everyone she encounters. Carey is son to one of the SoC’s most esteemed women. Handsome, charming, athletic, he is one of the Society’s most sought-after lovers. Amestris is daughter to one of the richest, most powerful men in Persepolis and wants nothing more than to be respected for her own merits despite the fact that she’s a woman.

As the lives of these characters intersect and intertwine, tensions are growing in the SoC, where men are protesting their treatment as second-class citizens without even the right to vote. Factions clash politically, but when the patriarchal city-states send a committee to oversee the treatment of men in the SoC, the simmering cauldron erupts, changing all their lives forever.

I must admit it took me a little while to really get into this story; it starts out slow, building the societies, the settings, and the characters a little at a time. Later in my reading, I was glad for this. The Moon and the Other is a complex, detailed story with believable tech and settings that I could see in my mind, rich tapestries of social structure, and true-to-life characters with strengths and weaknesses that made them feel especially realistic. And humans being who they are, the events that unfolded in the SoC rang true to what could actually happen, given those circumstances. Perfection is a dream, even for the utopian Cousins. Still, I was charmed by their social structure. I could see myself living among them, easily.

Once I was hooked, I didn’t want to stop reading. It was clear that Kessel was leading me in a specific direction, and I wanted to know where and why. About a third of the way into it, I realized that Moon is a book of comparisons: matriarchy to patriarchy, all the varieties of human gender identity, sexual freedom with sexual repression, goddess devotion to monotheism (though these are undercurrents), open society to closed society, privilege and want, expectation and reality, and others besides. I liked this—it made the conflict even more obvious when I could see something of both sides and how the two would never, ever find common ground. It also seemed to me a fictional illustration of social issues we face right now, in 2017, and how the violence wrought by extremists colors everything that follows.

Personally, I found this book to be an excellent, if heavy, read. This ambitious sci-fi tale has left me wanting more. Even if Moon has no sequel—and I’m not sure whether it will—I’ll definitely check out Kessel’s other works.

Words vs. Swords

A few weeks ago, I awoke in the middle of the night with a killer opening line for a short story about a man facing a firing squad. The idea so fascinated me that I got out of my nice comfy bed and fumbled in the dark bedroom to find a pen and paper, then wrote it out by the bathroom light. For days, the idea haunted me, followed me to work, to the gym, on my walks. But I was busy with other things and couldn’t begin on it right away, so I let it simmer.

Today I sat down to begin, but I have no idea whether firing squads are even still in use (they are) and, if so, what countries would use them. This is an essential detail, since it would determine my setting and cultural background for the story. As I perused the long lists of countries and their attitudes toward capital punishment, I remembered Freddy, and his story about how his family fled Tutsi genocide in Rwanda decades ago.

So I called up some background on the Rwandan genocide.

Oh. My. God.

First, let me say I am mostly a pacifist. Violence horrifies me. I am also politically naïve. I don’t understand the drive behind political ambitions and the power-hungry mindset. I don’t get why we can’t all just take care of one another.

I know. I told you – I’m naïve about that stuff.

Still, what I read in a few minutes about the atrocities in Rwanda will probably give me nightmares. Scholars estimate over 800,000 dead in only 100 days, though some estimates place that number at around 1.2 million.

100 days. That’s THOUSANDS of murders EVERY DAY. Most of them were Tutsis, though there were also Hutus, and Twa peoples (who lost as much as a third of their population). Though there were a handful of organizers, many people took part. Some say that if you were in Rwanda during that time, you were either a murderer, or you were murdered. People who refused to kill their neighbors were, themselves, killed. It boggles the mind—at least it does my mind.

How does it make any sort of logical sense to kill a whole tribe/nation/ethnic group of people? I’ll never understand it. There has to be a better way to resolve our differences.

So here I am, this idea for a story about the victim of a firing squad riding my shoulders and whispering in my ear, and I’m too sensitive to even read about a horrific genocide that took place in my own lifetime. I swear, I had to stop reading. It made me physically sick to my stomach. How the hell am I going to write something about a revolution, or a rebellion, or some sort of coup that leads to my protagonist standing before armed men with his hands behind his back, when I can’t even read about such a thing?

Of course, Rwanda was a much larger scale. Much. Larger. (Nearly a million bodies. 100 days.) That’s beside the point.

How can I bring myself to write about a subject so upsetting? I don’t know. But I’m going to write that story. If you are a fellow writer, you may understand what I mean when I say my stories are (sometimes) my voice. They are my way of making a statement. My protagonist facing a firing squad might tell a story that points out the futility of war, or the shame in corruption… who knows? He’s still whispering to me, but I’m not sure yet what he’s saying.

What I do know, without a doubt, is that I have yet to even know what this character looks like, and already he is teaching me. This is one of the things I love about writing—my characters so frequently become my teachers. It goes beyond what I learn when researching a subject. Seeing the story world through the character’s eyes is a way of walking in someone else’s shoes. For me, it helps to breed compassion. Understanding. A different perspective, one I might not have otherwise.

I have yet to write a story that did not change me in some way.

For tonight, I think I am done reading about genocide. I’ve surpassed my effective learning capacity, and lurched headlong into overwhelm. But that story, whether it’s about Rwanda or some other scene of political unrest, will see the light of day. I may not know the names of the dead—they are so many!—but maybe my story can in some small way speak for them.

May I live to see the day when compassion surpasses violence in all the many and varied nations of this beautiful world.

Waking Gods: Book Two of the Themis Files

By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Ray/Random House. ©2016
ISBN: 9781101886717
Trade Paperback, 336 pages

Nine years have passed since the formation of the Earth Defense Corps. Themis, Kara and Vincent have become parade attractions, t-shirt slogans and action figures while the science team continues to probe Themis for new technologies. Everyone has begun to believe the creators of Themis haven’t noticed her discovery by humans. Everyone but the science team, and their nameless and intrepid behind-the-scenes friend. So when a second colossal robot appears in Regent’s Park in London, they are among the few who aren’t surprised.

Human nature takes only a few days to rear a fearful head; Londoners and politicians sniffing for any chance at an opening against their opponents call for decisive government action, even as calmer heads advise a wait-and-see attitude. When the fearmongers insist, British armed forces close on three sides of the park with disastrous consequences. Kara and Victor bring Themis to the rescue, to everyone’s relief.

But the reprieve is short-lived. Soon, Titans begin appearing in major cities around the world – thirteen in all. EDC leaders debate the best course of action even as the stakes rise higher with every passing day. Surely Themis is their best chance, but she can fight only one at a time. With the fate of humanity hanging by a slender thread, Victor and Kara must make life-altering choices if they are to have any chance at all.

I said after reading Sleeping Giants that it was the best book I’d read in a long time. Waking Gods carries on that same feeling. Neuvel’s transition into book two is smooth, believable, intriguing. Again, the tale is told in the form of recorded interviews, news reports, journal or log entries, and it works incredibly well. From the very beginning, tension mounts until I found myself unable to put it down. And just as with book one, Neuvel throws in a wicked twist on the very last page. Masterfully done.

Many of the same characters are continued from the first book, changed in believable ways that are consistent with the flow of the tale. A few new faces make their appearance, including little Eva, who is no ordinary child. She knows things she shouldn’t, and is much stronger than she looks, strong enough to face the Titans with no (okay, a little) fear. But when the story’s tension peaks, the path to salvation comes from a surprising source.

I learned after starting this series that the author intends it to be at least three books, so there’s a third book on the way. Not sure when it’s scheduled for release; Neuvel’s own website is pretty out of date. But Waking Gods at least ends on a solid note. There is definitely a cliff-hanger, but at least it isn’t one that will have me pacing the room until the new release. I will be watching for it, you can bet, that and the movie release. Neuvel has a real winner here. I strongly recommend it.

Some Assembly Required

Our new treadmill arrived Friday. Not Saturday, as we’d scheduled it, but a whole day early. I just happened to be home, fortunately, and had the delivery drivers bring it in and set the box in the living room. They expected to set it up, too, but I –Ms. Speaks-the-Truth-Even-When-I-Should-Shut-Up—told them that if they really felt so inclined, I’d be happy for them to assemble our new equipment, but that I had not, in fact, paid for it. Thankful, they left to try and catch up to their schedule, which had been thrown off by having our delivery added to it a day early.

Yeah. Should have let them do it. That “30-minute-assembly” claim is total bull.

Bobby and I started setting it up around 11:45 a.m. on Saturday. At 6:30 p.m., we finally finished. It wasn’t so much putting the hard bits together. That did, indeed, take around 30 minutes. It was getting the treadmill belt to function smoothly that took so long. Here’s how it went, in a nutshell:

Loosen the belt. Oil the works. Tighten the rollers/belt back to where we thought they were. Turn it on. Belt immediately starts shifting to the left. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Turn it off. Loosen the roller, adjust the belt back to center. Tighten the roller. Turn it on. Immediate shift to the left. Scrape, scrape. Turn it off. Loosen the rollers, center the belt.

All. Dang. Day.

Eventually, we realized that removing the motor cover would not, in fact, invalidate the warranty as we’d feared. We pulled that sucker off and lo-and-behold, the front roller was skewed. No wonder nothing we did worked! Once that was fixed, it was only a matter of tweaking the end roller and voila! Even so, that process took over an hour. (A word of advice from your Auntie Drema: pay the extra set-up fee for the guys who’ve done this over and over and over and know what they’re doing. It’s totally worth it.)

But the whole thing got me thinking. That fumbling, learn-it-as-you-go was very similar to the process I went through with my first novel. Putting the bits together was easy. Keeping the plot (belt) centered and running smoothly (no scrapes or warping) took far longer—not because I have no talent as a writer, but because it was a new process to me. Like setting up a treadmill. We didn’t know how to do it, so we had to keep adjusting the roller and straightening the belt until we learned the little front roller secret. Even knowing that, it will take us longer to oil the machine, when next it’s due, because we’re still clumsy at the process. But the more we do it, the easier it will be and the more efficient we’ll become.

This works with writing, too. Over time, and with more practice, I’ve seen a difference in my writing. I do have a second novel in the works, a sequel to Founder’s Seed, which is on the back burner until I either find a publisher for the first book or decide to self-publish. In the meantime, I’ve been penning short stories. Each time, I see an improvement in my style, my process, and the overall quality of the piece.

The point is that for everything I write, there is some assembly required. I’ve read the instruction manuals (Brooks, King, Vogler, Bell, Brown & King, others). They all have suggestions for how to write sellable material, but unlike assembling a piece of equipment, there is no one right way to put together a story. Brooks says plot it out. Bell says stay focused on your WIP (work in progress), even when a new idea springs to mind (though his latest blog post on The Kill Zone adds a caveat to that rule). King says go with your gut and for gods’ sakes, don’t let a hot, exciting idea die of boredom while you’re planning it out to the last detail or finishing another story first.

All are successful authors. Who is right?

The answer is – you are. I am. I listen to the masters; I read or listen to their words, but I’ve decided not to tie myself to one way of doing things. Everyone has their own method, but if I try to force fit mine to theirs, it stifles my creativity, interferes with the natural process, slows me down. Assembling the bits to create an entertaining, moving, or inspiring bit of fiction takes time, flexibility, and patience. Sometimes, it all comes together in one seamless flow. Other times, I have to loosen and re-tighten the rollers over and over. A few times, I’ve been unable to keep that darned belt centered no matter what I did. Those stories-in-progress lie in an “Unfinished” folder awaiting attention at some future date.

For now, I’m in a stride, and producing enough to keep me happy. Is it sufficient? Only I can be the judge of that. I’m still trying to get a story published. No hits yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Until next week, happy writing!

Sleeping Giants: Book One of the Themis Files

By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Ray/Random House. ©2016
ISBN: 9781101886717
Trade Paperback, 336 pages

11-year-old Rose Franklin sneaks out of her house to ride her new birthday bike and wakes the next morning in an enormous metal hand lying at the bottom of a deep, square hole whose walls glow turquoise light through intricate carvings. Seventeen years later, she’s the senior scientist on a team assigned to study the hand, whose every detail defies understanding. Experts discount carbon dating results, but Rose isn’t convinced. It isn’t just the age of the thing; it’s everything else. The metals of which it’s made. Its weight and design. The symbols in the hole where it was found. The turquoise light. Despite herculean efforts, the team is getting nowhere. Rose begins to believe the mystery will never be solved.

Chief Warrant Officer Kara Resnik pilots a Blackhawk helicopter on a nighttime secret mission over Syria. As she returns to Turkish airspace, she and her copilot spot strange lights in a dark field below. Moments later, her engine dies, and the chopper drops like a stone. Kara escapes from the wreckage to find an enormous metal artifact with turquoise veins of light webbing the surface. Turkey wants it. U.S. military officials claim the find is part of an old U.S. plane crash. Kara doesn’t care, either way.

But Rose does. She believes the artifacts are connected, and so do the U.S. Powers That Be. The race for control that follows changes the course of history, and upturns the lives of everyone involved.

This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time. The entire tale unfolds in bits and pieces of interviews, log entries and experiment reports which reveal details in a round-about way that worked quite well. Giants takes place on a believable global stage full of intrigue and conspiracy. Location is usually revealed at the beginning each interview, report or news article. Passage of time is revealed in the things the characters say, either to each other or in their log entries.

We are seldom in a character’s head; instead, we learn their thoughts through probing questions from the interviewer—who is never named, but who we learn is powerful enough to know connections and details he shouldn’t, who has friends in many places, and who has private conversations with the U.S. President (who’s a woman, by the way).

I thought at first that this storytelling approach would grow old fast, but I was wrong. Ironically, it seemed to make the scenes even more intimate. In fact, Neuvel weaves an artful connection between the characters that grows, adapts and evolves over the course of the book as Rose and Kara and the others spend endless hours working together to resolve the mystery of the artifacts. Breakthroughs and tragic accidents serve to bring them even closer, as well as heighten tension both for the characters and for the readers. By the end, I didn’t want to turn the last page.

It’s worth mentioning that Neuvel tried and failed to find a publisher for this excellent novel so many times that he eventually self-published. Response was so overwhelming, the publishers began to approach him, and before the book was even released, he’d already sold the movie rights. Not sure when it’s due out, but you can bet I’ll go see it.

Neuvel’s tale is so riveting, I started this book on a Tuesday morning and finished it the very next afternoon despite working a day job and numerous other interruptions. Sleeping Giants is thrilling sci-fi fantasy at its best. I can’t recommend it enough.