Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Art of the Novella

There's a lot of reasons to love Tor publishing, from the book clubs and re-reads on their website to the annual Best of anthology, which is one of my favorite ways to discover new writers. (It's also offered for free.) But one of the things I love best about them is the selection of novellas they've published.

As a literary form, novellas usually get the short end of the stick. Few publishers bother with them, and even established writers tend to employ workarounds to get them published. (It's telling that even a writer like Stephen King, who has a massive following and regularly writes novellas, usually publishes them as part of larger collections.)

So the fact that Tor bothers with novellas at all is exciting to me, but I also love how they often serve as entry points for larger worlds. It doesn't escape me that some of my favorite Tor novellas -- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells -- either kick off a longer series or share a universe with other novels. It's brilliant marketing: Gunshy readers may not be willing to commit to a 400-page novel, but 150-page novella? Hell, why not?

But novellas, like other short forms, can pack a real punch in just a few words. The book that inspired this post, Victor LaValle's excellent The Ballad of Black Tom, opens with a paragraph that gets marvelous results from an economy of language. Ballad is a standalone book, set in a world of eldritch Lovecraftian horrors while also reckoning with Lovecraft's racist legacy and long shadow over the genre. It's an ambitious book, made even more so by the fact that it sets out to accomplish its aims in only 149 pages. And from the very beginning, you can tell that you're in good hands:

People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can't see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn't there. This wasn't all bad, though. Some New Yorkers had learned how to make a living from this error in thinking. Charles Thomas Tester for one.

There's a lot going on in this opening paragraph. For starters, look at the way it draws you into the story by establishing the narrative voice. This is someone telling a story, someone who has an opinion. We are firmly inside a particular point of view, but we don't quite know whose. Is it Charles? An omniscient observer? Another character who has not yet been introduced? We don't know, but we want to read on to find out.

Then there's the way it handles the setting. Once again, as readers we find ourselves a little off balance, not quite knowing what to make of things yet. We zoom in from New York to Manhattan, then out to Red Hook, before finally panning back out with the phrase "Some New Yorkers," which implies that Charles belongs not to a borough but to the larger city itself. There's an implication of movement here, but we don't quite know how, or what that says about Charles.

Finally, there's the question of character. What we know about Charles so far is that he makes a living off of other's mistakes. People come to New York in search of something, and somehow Charles has found a way to fill in that gap. But notice who is making the mistake -- people looking "for magic, whether evil or good." That tells us Charles is morally neutral, or maybe indifferent. He's trying to survive, and that means he'll take advantage of whoever he needs to, whether they're a saint or a sinner.

That's an awful lot of character and setting to establish in just 80 words, but a novella requires a certain economy of words. Like short stories or poetry, nothing can be out of place, and every word and each sentence has to put in the work. The fact that LaValle does it so confidently, and makes it look so easy, says a lot about his skill as a writer. And two cheers to Tor for their part putting that skill on display.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Wasting Time

One of the nice things about summer is that it's so insistent you go out and be in it. Left to my own devices, I might have spent the weekend reading indoors. But because everything outdoors is growing at an unbelievable rate, I've instead spent the last couple days mulching and weeding and mowing, and then mulching and weeding and mowing again. I also replaced a couple rotten planks in the deck, and repaired a couple others with Bondo. I can't remember the last time I worked with the stuff, but the smell snapped me right back to when I was a kid and my dad made the inexplicable decision to repair a broken refrigerator shelf by slathering it with Bondo.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Bondo is its powerful chemical scent, the kind that calls to mind the phrase "use in a well-ventilated area." Used inside of a fridge, it has the disquieting ability to make food smell (and taste) like acrid dent-repair putty. In the end, my dad had to concede defeat, and we got a new refrigerator.

I thought about that, and a million other things over the course of the weekend. That's another nice thing about summer: Plenty of opportunities to let your mind wander. I've been thinking about that a lot lately, as I keep coming across the idea of making more room for rest, daydreams, and letting the mind properly wander.

In his book "In Praise of Wasting Time," Alan Lightman makes a pretty convincing case that daydreaming is vital for creativity. Then he goes a step further and argues that it's also vital for maintaining a sense of stability and orderliness. He compares it to the same biological processes that allow organisms to maintain the right internal conditions needed to function. Here's Lightman:
"Homeostasis can happen at the mindless level of an amoeba. Or at the more advance level of a human being. And at that more advanced level, I suggest that there is a kind of necessary homeostasis of the mind: not a static equilibrium but a dynamic equilibrium in which we are constantly examining, testing, and replenishing our mental system, constantly securing the mental membrane between ourselves and the external world, constantly reorganizing and affirming ourselves. Dynamic rather than static because the outside world is constantly changing, and we ourselves are constantly changed by it. And yet we must maintain an equilibrium in the face of change. We cannot disintegrate. We cannot succumb to the random noise of the world. We must constantly examine who we are, revise when revision is needed, and bring coherency to all the parts of our whole.

Downtime enables now only our creativity and our need for rest. It also enables the formation and maintenance of our deep sense of being and identity."

We are constantly in a deluge of the new, the exciting, and the disturbing. These things can push us off-kilter, and sometimes they should -- I don't think we should become numb to the world as a coping strategy. But I also find Lightman's argument here very appealing. It's okay to be knocked off your center of balance, but there is also something vital and necessary about taking a moment to get your feet back firmly planted.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Ignore Everybody

I'm in Michigan this week, "refilling the well" by reading and taking long walks and sitting on a porch with my wife, watching the lake. We've seen snakes and turtles and all manner of bird, including a lone sandhill crane hanging out in a cornfield with two Canada geese. Next weekend, when the holiday arrives, so will the speedboats and jetskis and partiers. Fortunately, we will be gone by then.

Among other things, I finished Hugh MacLeod's book "Ignore Everbody (and 39 Other Keys to Creativity)." It wasn't earthshaking, but MacLeod is a pleasantly contrarian writer at times, and there were a few ideas in particular that stood out to me. (I will resume regular blogging again soon, but in the meantime I do like to share the bits and pieces I read in the wild, in hopes they may be useful to somebody else.)

Without further ado, here's MacLeod:

"The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the content ever will. How your own sovereignty inspires other people to find their own sovereignty, their own sense of freedom and possibility, will give the work far more power than the work's objective merits ever will."

"Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb. You may never reach the summit; for that you will be forgiven. But if you don't make at least one serious attempt to get above the snow line, years later you will find yourself lying on your deathbed, and all you will feel is emptiness."

"Frankly, I think you're better off doing something on the assumption that you will not be rewarded for it, that it will not receive the recognition it deserves, that it will not be worth the time and effort invested in it. The obvious advantage to this angle is, of course, if anything good comes of it, then it's an added bonus. The second, more subtle and profound advantage is that by scuppering all hope of worldly and social betterment from the creative act, you are finally left with only one question to answer: Do you make this damn thing exist or not? And once you can answer that truthfully for yourself, the rest is easy."

"Part of being creative is learning how to protect your freedom. That includes freedom from avarice."

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Light the Dark

Lately I’ve been reading Light the Dark, a collection of short essays edited by Joe Fassler. The jacket copy describes the book this way:
“Forty-six of the most acclaimed and exciting authors working today answer a simple yet profound question: What inspires you?”
But this description isn’t quite accurate. The inspiration in question is always another work of literature. These range from poetry to Bible stories to plays and around back to novels, but it all very much starts with the written word.

As a result, each piece ends up being a very short lesson on the craft of storytelling and writing. Here are five ideas from five different authors that have stuck with me so far.

William Gibson
"It is now second nature to me to plunge the reader into the middle of an unfamiliar world, with its unfamiliar language, and let them figure things out. … Productive ambiguity is not the same as lazy writing. But what’s the proper balance of mystery and clarity? We’re applying hundred-year-old techniques of literary naturalism to imagined futures."

Khaled Hosseini
"You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time the idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say."

Amy Tan
"Our uniqueness makes us special, makes perception valuable—but it can also make us lonely. This loneliness is different from being “alone”: You can be lonely even surrounded by people. The feeling I’m talking about stems from the sense that we can never fully share the truth of who we are. … But this loneliness is the impetus for writing, because language is the best means we have to connect."

Mary Gaitskill
"People sometimes turn out to be almost the opposite of how they present. It isn’t because they’re trying to fool you, or because they’re hypocrites. It’s because they badly want to be that thing, and so they’ll try to be it. … Fictional characters are different. … When something genuinely surprising happens in a work of fiction, you have to be very in the story, and very in the moment, to make the reader accept it."

Neil Gaiman

"They compost down anyway, good influences, no matter how old you are. It’s like when you put the scraps onto your compost heap: eggshells, and it’s half-eaten turnips, and it’s apple cores, and the like. A year later, it’s black mulch that you can grow stuff in. And influences, good ones, are that too. Trying to figure out what’s influenced you is as difficult as taking the black mulch, and saying this used to be half an apple."

Sunday, May 8, 2022


“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

-Stephen King, On Writing

I didn’t post on the blog last week. I didn’t do a whole lot of writing, either, last week or the week before. I’ve felt frustrated and guilty about that, despite having good reasons: We had a family member in and out of the hospital; work got busy in the final push before a project launch; I had multiple freelance commitments to keep; and my wife had her graduation ceremony to celebrate the completion of her accelerated nursing program.

In other words, I didn’t write much the last couple weeks because of life. The good, the bad, and the busy-ness of it all. If a friend were telling me this, and then confessed to feeling guilty about how little writing they’d managed, I would rush in to point out that there's no reason for guilt – writing can’t and won’t always be the priority.

But we’re kinder to friends than we are to ourselves. “You know you could have done more,” says the voice in the back of my head. Then it brings out the file marked Wasted Time. "You didn't have to play Wordle. You could have watched less TV. What's more important, reruns of Frasier or hitting your word counts?”

Maybe it has a point, but this doesn’t strike me as a good habit of thought. There’s enough going on in the outside world, I don’t need my internal monologue to be a stream of recriminations. Instead, I'm going to turn the to focus to more positive things. 

This isn’t so much about being a Pollyanna as it is a recognition of the brain’s plasticity. If we are the result of our thoughts, then we should probably exercise a little deliberation about what those thoughts actually are. Otherwise, that dark little corner of your brain will be all too eager to fill the void by reminding you how you wasted a full thirty minutes running back to the grocery store because you forgot to buy ricotta cheese.

Professional obligations are a reminder of how a professional works.

Yes, my day job got busy, and yes, taking on freelance can sometimes make for long days. But the positive here is the reminder that I know what it takes to be a professional.

In his book Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield lists some of these qualities.

The professional shows up every day. The professional stays on the job all day. The professional is committed over the long haul. ... The professional seeks order. The professional demystifies. The professional acts in the face of fear. The professional accepts no excuses.

Most of us can see these qualities in ourselves in the way we perform our day jobs. At the very least, the first two – showing up and staying on the job – are non-negotiables to gainful employment. When I get discouraged about writing fiction, or my ability to make time to do it, it's worth remembering that I know how a professional works. My day job sharpens skills I can apply to how I write fiction.

Pressfield makes another important observation to anyone who, like me, drives themselves to frustration and fatigue. He writes:
I got the chance a few years ago to watch a famous trainer work with his thoroughbreds. I had imagined that the process would be something hard-core like Navy SEAL training. To my surprise, the sessions were more like play. He explained:

"A horse is a flight animal. Even a stallion, if he can, will choose flight over confrontation. Picture the most sensitive person you've ever known; a horse is ten times more sensitive. A horse is a naked nervous system, particularly a thoroughbred. He's a child. A three-year-old, big and fast as he is, is a baby. Horses understand the whip, but I don't want a racer that runs that way. A horse that loves to run will beat a horse that's compelled, every day of the week. I want my horses to love the track. I want my exercise riders to have to hold them back in the morning because they're so excited to get out and run.

Never train your horse to exhaustion. Leave him wanting more."

Recognize the seeds that are blooming.

While my guilty conscience was kicking me around the last couple weeks, I got some great news: A story I’d been struggling to place was finally accepted. It was a piece I couldn’t give up on – there’d be a round of submissions, a round of rejections, and I’d put it away for a while. But every time I read it with fresh eyes, I would think, no, there is something here, and send it back out in the world.

Because I wasn’t writing very much, I downplayed the acceptance. “Oh, sure it’s good news,” I told myself, “but what have you written lately?”

That kind of pessimism isn’t new for me. The length of time that goes by between writing a story and getting it published makes it easy to think that the person you are now is not the person you were then, and during the interim you’ve become a terrible writer. As you can imagine, that’s not good for the work. Here’s how Bonnie Friedman describes it:
“If, while writing, you must always be proving that you write well, the writing will suffer. … One must arrogate the permission to write. One must shrug before icons.”
What a grim thing writing becomes when you turn publication into a chance for self-flagellation. In some sense, it's an iconography of the past in which Old You is somehow imbued with supernatural powers that Present You can no longer possess.

So instead, shrug before the icon. Enjoy the success. Take publication for what it is – a seed finally in bloom, and a reminder of why you keep sowing.

Remember your priorities.

Stephen King has written some very famous words, but it’s hard to think of any lines that get quoted and re-quoted by writers more often than the ones at the top of this blog. Here’s a longer version, as it appears on the back cover of the hardback edition of On Writing:
“For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room … In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study in the rear of the house. For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind ….

A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been …. In the early nineties, before they moved on to their own lives, my kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza …. I got another desk—it’s handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. Rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave …. I’m sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover. I’m doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to d it. I came through all the stuff I told you about … and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job ….

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Aside from the essential wisdom of this, what stands out to me as I read it now is the part about his kids eating pizza. As writing, it’s not very descriptive – I don’t know what the kids look like, what kind of evening it is, or even what’s on the pizza – and yet it conjures up such a vivid image. I don’t need more description because I recognize the moment so well.

It’s a moment that makes up real life, like watching your wife shake hands with her dean, cooking dinner for your in-laws, or marveling at a black-and-white sonogram sent by your sister. Would any of these moments be worth exchanging for more time to write? Or is it more likely you’ve already got things the right way around?

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...