The Man Who Knew Too Much by G K Chesterton

A series of confusing, racist, Anti-Semitic stories. None of the characters are admirable. The mysteries are mostly atmosphere followed by “as you know” mansplaining. The only memorable characters are the ones he gives over to racist caricature.

Taught me several things not to do:

  • Don’t lean on description over plot. A thin mystery is a boring mystery, no matter how you dress it up in thick descriptions.
  • Don’t hold your characters in contempt. If you don’t like writing about them, why would anyone want to read about them?
  • Don’t assume that insisting two characters are friends is enough for the audience. If they’re friends, readers should be able to tell without being told. If no one can tell, then, maybe they’re not friends after all?

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Oddly compelling. Told any other way, it’d be just one more story about giant robots and the people piloting them. But by telling it through interviews, to make it feel like you’re reading a classified dossier, makes it feel fresh and compelling.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Even old ideas can feel new again when told in a different way.
  • Interviews can let you do first-person narration without having to actually narrate. No need for detailed descriptions, etc. Can take a lot of shortcuts and still feel real.
  • Don’t forget the interviewer! They have their own agenda, and that should come through in their questions and reactions.

Doctor Who Psychology edited by Travis Langley

Disappointing. Most of the essays are too short to be rewarding, stopping just when they might be getting to something interesting. Several of them repeat the same answers to the same questions (what is the Doctor’s personality?).

However, a few of the essays stand out as offering interesting takes on the Doctor and his world:

  • The Doctor is a combination of id (easily bored, cravings for fish fingers and custard) and superego (this world is defended). No discernible ego, though: his companions fill that role for him (!)
  • The Doctor and the Cybermen represent opposed views of masculinity. The Cybermen are an emotionally stunted (but all too common) masculinity: closed off, suppressing emotion, stoic and expressionless. The Doctor is a healthier alternative: still paternal, still protective, but emotionally open and compassionate.
  • Weeping Angels are terrifying because they turn what should be a Great Mother archetype into the Shadow. From nurturers they become deepest evil; and worse, we cannot run and hide from this evil, we must look at it, must confront it, even though we don’t want to.

The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Eerily prescient. Takes place in a California where water is scarce, most government has been privatized, and the President uses racial politics to push through reforms that weaken protections for workers and the poor.

Felt all too familiar. And she predicted all this over twenty years ago.

I usually don’t like post-apocalyptic books, especially ones that go in for the “slow apocalypse” where everything just collapses over time as people stop taking care of the things that keep civilization going. It’s depressing reading, but Butler’s writing is so compelling, I had to see it through.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Scarcities in society will be reflected in the social order. If food is scarce, being fat is a sign of wealth. If water is scarce, being clean (taking baths) will be seen luxurious. In both cases, being poor and engaging in “rich” behavior will be seen as uppity.
  • There’s life in the hero’s journey yet, if explored from different angles. Here the young protagonist grows up in a small town, yet feels called to greatness, then compelled to become a leader when driven out of their home.
  • Adopting a diary structure can let you skip past boring parts of the story will zooming in on the important ones. A well-written diary will do that, and still give you a chance to convey the rhythms of life, since it’s the story the person is telling themselves, as they live it.

Making Comics by Scott McCloud

Insightful, like all of Scott McCloud’s books on comics. Not enough on its own for me to go out and start writing my own comics, but helped me to see connections between storytelling techniques in comics, films, and novels.

Three things I learned about comics and storytelling:

  • Comics adds additional choices to the way you tell a story. It’s not just the events themselves, but which moments from those events you choose to show, as well as how you frame the “shots” for those moments, and how you render the images within those frames.
  • Manga often uses aspect transitions between panels to build a scene. Instead of a single wide establishing shot, will focus in on different “aspects” of a scene (e.g., rain falling from the sky, puddles forming in concrete, raindrops battering steel and glass buildings, etc) forcing the reader to assemble the scene in their own mind.
  • Giving your characters different philosophies of life can both enrich their inner lives and make the world you’re building feel more real to the reader.