The Great Pottery Throw Down

I’ve fallen in love with the Great Pottery Throw Down.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: a pottery version of the Great British Baking Show. It’s got all the elements you’d expect: ribald puns, diverse UK accents, creations both whimsical and twee.

But that’s not why I love it.

I love it because it celebrates amateurs.

I know that word has negative connotations to American audiences. We say something is amateurish as a way of calling it rough or unpolished. We use amateur as an insult, implying a lack of experience or motivation.

But that’s not the way I’m using it. And it’s not what the contestants on the pottery throw down are. I mean, there are folks that first picked up clay eighteen months before going on the show, sure. But there’s also people on there who have been throwing all their lives, with decades of experience. And they’re really good! They just never made a living at it.

That’s the real line that separates amateur from professional. It’s not the quality of the work. It’s not the dedication to the craft. It’s simply whether you earn money doing it.

There’s a lot of reasons a contestant might not have “gone pro” with their pottery. For some of them, it’s confidence, a lack of faith in their work that would allow them to put it (and themselves) out there (seeing some of the contestants cry when the judges praise their work, like it’s the first time anyone’s said something good about it, makes me choke up, too). For some, it’s a lack of time: they’re too busy taking care of ailing family members (or children) to be able to launch a career in pottery. For many, it’s a matter of money, because it takes a good deal of it to be able to quit your job and shift into something else.

It reminds me of writers, and how many of us (myself included) often don’t feel like “real” writers if we’re not doing it full time. Or if we’re not writing novels. Or if we’re not selling every story we write.

And I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We can be just as dedicated to our work, and just as exacting, just as precise with our editing polishes, if we’re producing it early in the morning before the day job starts, as any full-time author. It might take us longer, sure, but it’s the same craft, using the same tools. We can be, we should be, just as proud of the results.

So if you’re not writing for a living, embrace it! Embrace the freedom that comes with being an amateur, with being able to write what you want and then stick it in a drawer or try to sell it or just send it out to friends and family for their enjoyment.

Take the craft seriously, not the career. Maybe the career will come, maybe it won’t. But it’s the same act of writing that runs through it all, and it’s that act we can always work to improve, no matter our status.

Dune: Part One

There’s a moment in Jodorowsky’s Dune where the titular director, discussing how Hollywood canceled his version forty years ago, pulls a fist of euros out of his pocket and shakes them at the camera. “This system makes us slaves,” he cries, “With this devil in our pocket. This paper…It has nothing inside. Nothing!”

In the moment, the gesture feels melodramatic. A bitter cry from a man who was denied his chance to ascend to greatness. But after watching first Lynch’s Dune, and now Dune: Part One, it seems prophetic.

Where Jodorowsky’s version of Dune sought to change the consciousness of its viewers, and Lynch’s Dune tried to convey the weirdness of a future as far from ours as we are from the inhabitants of ancient Sumer, Dune: Part One is seeking to…tell us the story of Dune.

Yet even with this lowered ambition, the film is a failure. Dune the book fascinates in part because of its many colorful factions, all vying for power. But Dune: Part One doesn’t have enough ambition to be a Game of Thrones in space. Mentats here are just bland, faithful servants, denied even their name to let the audience know how special — and central — they are. There’s no mention of the Space Navigators’ Guild, leaving Spice’s centrality to space travel just an abstract thing, a line a character says while standing in the right spot wearing the right clothes, and nothing else. The Spice itself is barely present, looking more like someone turned a glitter filter on than a thing worth killing over.

The result is a film with no depth and no stakes, the world of Dune flattened to something completely mundane. It is a clockwork universe, made with stunning special effects and actors moving in expensive costumes.

In his past films, Villeneuve’s lack of interest in the human was an asset. Both Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 benefit from a style that is distant and alien, the former because it seeks to convey an alien perspective, the latter because it centers on an unfeeling android. But Dune doesn’t work unless the galactic stakes are connected to the personal, the planetary drama interlocked with the familial. Dune: Part One leaves the galactic stakes mostly untethered, and the family drama unexplored. We get an adaption that is faithful in every sense but those that matter.

If only there was something human at the heart of it all, some emotion, some sense of life and purpose. But Dune: Part One is content to just let events play out, with no rhyme or reason behind them, just toys — beautiful toys — going through the motions, propelled by money, and rewarded with the same.

Short Book Reviews: October 2021

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? checks calendar winces Way too long.

Part of that was the grind of the Book That Wouldn’t End. Not the novel I’m writing, mind you, but the book way down at the end of this list, the one that took me all of August and most of September to finish. And it was good! But very dry and dense in an academic way, and so reading it was like shoving day-old oatmeal into my brain. Healthy, for sure! But not fun.

And part of it has been simply time. I’ve neglected this blog, I feel, mostly because somewhere between July and now everything seemed to speed up, all at once, and I suddenly had no time for anything. It definitely contributed to the writer’s block I’m just now climbing out of. And it meant certain things — like these posts — just got dropped.

But! I’m on the mend, mental-health-wise (I think. I hope), reading again, and writing, so it’s time to pick things back up here.

As always, reviews are posted in reverse chronological order, with the most recent book I finished first.

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

Finally got around to this one. And I can easily see how it could become a TV series; not only is the book very visual and quick-moving (in terms of style), but each section forms its own little “episode” where a different character takes the spotlight and has a supernatural encounter (of various kinds). It all builds to a climax that’s so perfect — and perfectly justified — I’m looking forward to re-reading it just to see all the threads coming together again.

The Likeness, by Tana French

Jesus, this one sucked me in. The Irish lilt to the dialog, the immersive descriptions of the country house where most of the book takes place, the personal history of the characters…Can you want to live inside a murder mystery? Because damned if I didn’t want to spend more time with this one. Expertly done, from start to finish.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

Ok, this one had me with the title alone. I was worried that it couldn’t deliver on that promise, but I needn’t have been. It’s a cross of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, mixed with some classic Agatha Christie, topped with a powerful message about forgiveness. I don’t want to say anything more, for fear of spoiling it, but if that sounds like your bag, pick it up; you won’t be disappointed.

Luminferous, by J Dianne Dotson

The finale is here! A series literally decades in the making (the author wrote the first draft of what became the second book in her teens) finally gets the send-off it deserves. I won’t spoil anything here, just to say that this fourth book continues the trend of each one being better than the last.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, there’s plenty of twists and turns to keep you hooked. If you haven’t read any of them yet but enjoy old-school sci-fi (think classic Star Trek or Anne McCaffrey) you should check them out!

The Field and the Forge, by John Landers

The book that almost killed me.

It’s a survey — just a survey! — of the kinds of physical restraints an organic economy imposes on technology, culture, and warfare. It’s incredibly eye-opening, and completely ruins any sense of “realism” you might have felt lingered in shows like Game of Thrones.

Also, nothing makes me appreciate modern life more than thinking about how just to transport food (say, grain, or fruit) to a market in pre-industrial times, you were usually transporting by animal, but just to get there you had to bring food along for yourself and for the pack animal, which meant traveling more than a few hours (let alone more than a day) was simply not viable (because at some point the animal is carrying just food that’s going to be consumed along the way, making the trip worthless economically).

There’s some theory packed in there, which Landers is gracious enough to admit is completely bogus but serves to illuminate different aspects of these complex phenomena. The interaction between population, production efficiency, and military size is especially instructive. Ditto the possibility for certain inheritance schemes to lead to a surplus of “second sons” that have nothing and thus no stake in society, causing all kinds of trouble.

Anyway, I’m glad I read it, I might refer to it from time to time, but ye gods I will never be re-reading it.

Keeping Score: October 22, 2021

I’ve finally made it to the other side of my writer’s block. I’m back to working on the novel, hitting my word count every day.

Thank goodness.

It wasn’t any one thing that got me through it, either.

i started reading again, sprinting through two novels that’d been sitting on the To Be Read pile for a good while. They were both excellent, they were both slightly outside my normal genre, and they were both kindling to re-light the writing fire inside me.

I leaned into my schedule disruption, which meant calling a halt to my exercise routine for a week. I know, you’re not supposed to do that; it’s the exact opposite of the advice most folks give about writer’s block (“take a walk”, “clear your head”, etc). But it helped me to relax, to feel like I had all the time in the world to write, which made it that much easier to find my flow.

And I read a few chapters in the new Pocket Workshop book by the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. Specifically, Eileen Gunn’s chapter on writer’s block calmed me down significantly. It reminded me that blockages happen, and pushed me to interrogate it, rather than ignore it.

By forcing me to really look at why I was blocked, to listen to what the block was trying to tell me, I found my way forward. I realized that the novel section I was working on wasn’t working, really, and that’s why I was blocked on it. It was too passive, for one. Where the previous flashback section was very much driven entirely by the narrator’s actions, the current section was one where a lot just happened to her. Or where she stumbled across things, and reacted to them. It wasn’t compelling, and my subconscious knew it, but my conscious mind wanted to carry on like nothing was wrong.

So my subconscious went on strike. Writer’s block.

I spent a few days brainstorming ways to change the section, to make it driven by the narrator. And suddenly my writing brain kicked back into gear, generating conversations and visualizing scenes again. Not all of them lined up, but that’s ok, that’s part of the process.

In the end, I decided to trash the 5,000 words I’d written for the current section of the book. Goodbye, gone.

And started over.

But now, this time, the words are coming much more easily. I can sit down in the morning and get my word count in, without worrying about being blocked, or not knowing where I’m going. The narrator — the protagonist of this section — is back firmly in control of things, and that’s how it should be.

Instead of somehow wandering from Central Asia to Europe, she’s fleeing there, from the consequences of her own actions. Instead of stumbling on a town with a dragon problem, she’s seeking it out, because it’s the only way she can keep a powerful curse at bay.

She still faces constraints, of course. But the way she overcomes her challenges within those constraints is her choice, no one else’s. And that…that makes it a lot easier to write down her story.

What about you? Have you had a period of serious writer’s block, that you then worked through? How did you overcome it?

Keeping Score: October 8, 2021

I’m…well, I’m blocked.

Written perhaps 300 words on the novel in the last two weeks. No work on any short stories, no editing…nothing else.

I did finish the outline of the section I’m working on. It’s just when I sat down to start writing it, I just…didn’t. Couldn’t find my way back into the story.

Part of it is time; my morning schedule’s been chopped to bits, lately, and my afternoon schedule is gone because I’ve been working later (and as soon as I get off work it’s time to start making supper). And at lunch, well…at lunch I just want to turn my brain off for a while.

Part of it, too, is I’m just tired all the time. I wake up tired, I exercise tired, I sleepwalk through making dinner and fall into bed at the end of the day. My jammed finger from August still hasn’t healed — I have to pop it back into place every morning so I can bend it — my right thigh is sore every time I stand, and that foot will just give out without warning, sending me flailing for the nearest chair or counter to grab hold of for support.

Mentally, too, I’m worn out. It’s like the part of me that makes decisions is just done, completely finished, and refuses to make a single new one. Decide what to wear? Nope, grab whatever’s on top of the pile. Decide what to eat? Nope, get the same thing every day. Decide how this scene is going to play out? Nuh-uh, try again. Decide what other writing project to work on to get around the block? Hahaha, not a chance.

What’s really frustrating is that I want to work on the novel. I want to finish editing my short stories, and send them out, and then write the exciting scenes I’ve planned out for the book, and maybe start a new short story, and…so much. But I reach the end of each day, and nope, nothing.

I’m…not used to feeling this way. Used to feeling lost in the book, sure, given my tendency to write my way through it rather than outline. But not used to knowing where I want to go, and how to get there, but not having any fuel in my mental tank to get there.

Not sure how to get that fuel back. Maybe read more? I took a break after reading the last two books, and maybe that was a mistake. Maybe my horror movie binge for October needs to be a horror novel binge? Or something completely different, maybe I need to read nothing but cozy mysteries for a while.

What I fear is that this means I need to put the novel away for a while. I’ve heard of other writers doing that, hitting a blockage and setting the work aside for a year or two, before picking it back up again. I’ve also heard of writers that set something aside and never pick it up. The latter’s what I’m afraid of. I want to finish this book. Finishing things…it’s part of my identity. Letting that go would be very, very hard.

Which is maybe why I’m blocked? Too afraid to let go, but too tired to go on? sighs We’ll see.

Keeping Score: September 24, 2021

Zero words written on the novel this week.

The little parts I was writing last week, based on the outlining I did, ran out of steam. Turns out a single day of outlining isn’t enough for a section that’s probably going to end up being 30,000 words!

So this week I hit pause on drafting. Instead, I’ve spent each day’s writing time on outlining and research, trying to build a path forward.

Eh, that’s not quite right, either…More like, I started out the week with an idea of the beats this part needs to hit. Character X needs to meet Character Y in Town Z. There’s a Guild-sponsored dragon hunt, which both compete in. Something something something, they become friends.

Which is not a lot to go on! So this week I’ve been drilling into the “why” and “how” of things: Why is Character Y in Town Z? Why does anyone in the Town care about dragons? Why this Guild in particular? How does Character X find out about the competition? How do they meet Character Y?

That, in turn, has pushed me to do some more research into the history of the region, looking for answers about government structure, merchant shipping, relations between nobles and peasants, etc etc etc.

And it’s working! I stumbled upon an historic event that fits exactly with my generational timeline, and explains why Character Y is in town (and why they might join in a dragon hunt). It’s settled a lot of other questions I’ve had about the book — like when precisely in history everything is taking place — and even adds extra depth and drama to some later events.

So, am I ready to get back to drafting? Not yet. I’ve only got the first third or so of this section outlined so far. I need to work through the hunt itself, and its consequences, before I’ll feel comfortable putting fingers to keys again.

Hopefully that’ll be sometime next week. Wish me luck!

Keeping Score: September 17, 2021

Did I say I’d spend time outlining last weekend? How naive I was! No, last weekend was all house chores, with a single break — a fantastic break — to celebrate a friend’s new job.

So I did the outlining on Monday, and wrote Tuesday, and Wednesday was…a lost day…and went back to writing yesterday. And now it’s Friday, and I’ve only hit half my word count for the week. I’ve got some catching up to do.

And editing — that second flash piece I wrote last month needs another draft — and story submitting. It’s a lot to juggle!

But I’ve got today off, thank goodness, so there’s a good chance I’ll get some of it done before the weekend. And who knows? I might sneak some work in on Saturday or Sunday as well.

Meanwhile, the approach of fall has me feeling the need to be in a class again, leveling up my craft. I recently discovered Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers, and its set of self-paced classes looks like just the ticket. I think I’ll start with the one on editing (since knowing when to stop editing is something I struggle with) and go from there.

Keeping Score: September 10, 2021

Steady progress on the novel this week, even though the plot of this section is getting away from me.

I had an outline for this part, I swear. But that outline’s nearly a year old now. The characters have shifted, both in my head and on the page.

As a result, they’re doing and saying things that are blowing holes in my outline large enough for the Ever Given to sail through. A single representative of a merchant guild has become an entire squabbling panel. An orderly interview morphed into an impromptu witch trial. Three characters that were supposed to be at cross-purposes are now joining up to hunt dragons on the sea (!).

I’ve managed to wing it, so far this week. But I’d like to have some time this weekend to rework my outline, and plot out the new sequence of events, given how much has changed.

I could keep winging it, I suppose. But experience has taught me that without an outline, or some kind of guide, this first draft will end up being even rougher than normal. And it’s already going to be intimidating enough to revise a novel this long. I don’t want to be creating more work for myself down the line.

So: an outline there will be, if not this weekend, then first thing next week. After all, you don’t want to go sailing in search of Baltic dragons without a map!

Keeping Score: September 3, 2021

Novel broke through 60,000 words this week!

I’m back to working on it every day, so far. Picked up my brush, so to speak, and went back to filling in different pieces of the section I’m on. I’m still jumping around a lot, as different things occur to me (and as mental blocks come up for any one piece), but that’s just how this book is going, I suppose.

I am starting to get tugs to go work on other stories, though. Had solutions to two big problems with my first novel just drop into my head the other day, which made me want to pick that back up and edit it. Also there’s a short story I’ve been noodling on for several months, that I figured out how to tell just last week.

But I’m trying to hold to the novel for now, at least till this section of it is done. I know if I pull away for too long — longer than two weeks, say — the chances are I won’t come back and finish.

Which doesn’t sound like me, but…it’s just so dang big, this book, both in scope and in final word count, that I’m still intimidated by it. Some days I wonder if it’s worth it to finish, if I have it in me to pull something like this off. Not to mention concerns with getting all these different cultures and time periods right, in terms of representation. I’m far outside my comfort zone, here, and it’s hard not to look back at the cozy interiors of a smaller story and wonder if I should just go back inside.

But not yet. I want — I need — to get this draft done first. I think taking breaks, to work on shorter stuff, is good, and I’ll keep doing it. Work that into my mental schedule, so to speak, so that I let myself work on something else after each big chunk of the book is done.

But I’m going to finish, even if it takes me another year to do it. After all, I’ve got no deadlines, no publisher waiting on this. When am I ever going to get the chance to do something this risky again?

Keeping Score: August 27, 2021

Back to work this week, both day-job and writing. As expected, it’s been hard to get back into the groove, for both; I arrive at the end of each work day ready not to write, but to lay down on the couch and nap. Doesn’t help that I got two story rejections, one after another, this week, both stories and markets I had high hopes for.

That knocked me sideways for a bit. I started to wonder if I should maybe switch to self-publishing, just give up on submitting to markets. Or maybe give up on publishing altogether; just write the things, share them with friends, and that’s it.

But then I read this piece by Tobias S Buckell on the SFWA blog. It’s from 2013 — a blast from a better past? — but it hit home for me yesterday. I urge you to read the whole thing, but this is the passage that struck my heart like a bell:

I’m thinking of this because I recently sold a short story that had been rejected 18 times before. It has been going out for 13 years, making the rounds steadily for all this time. It’s one of three stories that I haven’t trunked b/c I still like them. It still has a spark of something that keeps my belief in it alive.

None of my stories, even the ones I’ve been sending out for a few years, have near that number of rejections yet. And here I am wondering if they’ll ever find a home! But my despair is linked directly to my belief; they still have that “spark of something” he mentions that makes me still like them.

So I’m going to keep sending them out. And as for the two new stories I started earlier this month: I’ve edited one of them, and finished the first draft of the second. They’ll soon join the flock of stories winging their way onto editor’s desks, looking for a home.