Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

A 1990s trenchcoats-and-mirrorshades action film published in the 21st century with 1950s gender roles. An odd, frustrating, throwback of a book.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Be careful when porting an old genre to a new skin. Bringing along the social mores along with the other elements will make your book feel dated from the start.
  • Taking an otherwise-competent character and pushing them out of their element is a great way to both explore a new world and make it challenging for them.
  • In sci-fi, it’s not enough that the names of things — computers, cars, etc — change. Our relationship with them needs to change, too, or it’s just window dressing.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Basically perfect. It’s low-key, character-driven sci-fi, stuffed with cool ideas and diverse cultures. Completely scratched my Firefly itch, in a good way 🙂

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Can think of chapters as episodes of a TV series, with cuts between multiple points of view, similar beats, and cliffhanger endings.
  • Having the Shit Go Down at the end of the book rather than the beginning gives the reader time to know and care for the characters, making it more tense.
  • You can get away with an infinite amount of info-dumping if it’s a knowledgeable character explaining things to a clueless character.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Disappointing.

Starts out well, action pumping and character backstories fleshed out just enough to make you care, but not enough to stop the flow of the story.

But the world around them never congeals for me, and the atmosphere of threat and double-cross the story needs can’t happen without it.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Switching perspective characters early on is a great opportunity to give more context to what’s happening, since it’s another angle on the world
  • In a modern setting, you really can cut descriptions down to the bone, to put the focus on dialog and action
  • Can do character backstory in a single chapter, covering years of someone’s life, with breaks in-between

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Disturbing. Most of the characters are completely unlikable, especially the men: the worst are outright misogynists and racists, even the best act like superior assholes to everyone else.

Mamatas doesn’t pull any punches in exposing the sexism and harassment that happens at fan conventions. It makes for tough reading, both because the female protagonist is constantly experiencing it and because the male narrator, whose death she’s investigating, is one of the superior assholes it’s hard to sympathize with.

Worth reading, though, if nothing else than as a “Do I act like this?” check.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • – Can get away with very skimpy descriptions — or none at all — if you choose the proper perspective to tell the story from (in this case, a corpse’s).
  • Protagonist’s motivation for pursuing the mystery can be thin, if the reader’s interest is piqued enough for them to want to see it solved
  • Characters will always rationalize their behavior. Even when dead.

White Horse by Alex Adams

Frustrating and disappointing. Adams’ writing is stuffed with metaphors, giving everything a dreamy quality that makes it hard to take anything seriously.

Didn’t help that I just came off reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books, which do a much better job of narrating a woman’s journey through a post-apocalyptic world.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • If readers already know the narrator survives a scene in a flashback, don’t try to wring tension out of their survival.
  • Readers need to know not only what your characters are doing, but why, if they’re going to care.
  • When writing a character from a different country, do several editing passes to be certain their dialog, analogies, and expressions all match where they’re supposed to be from.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Prescient, gripping, and intimidatingly good. Definitely going to read more of Butler’s books.

I’m rather sad that she wasn’t able to complete a new Earthseed series, like she planned, before her death.

Three more things she taught me about writing:

  • Perfectly acceptable to have the sequel start out as more “and then this happened”.
  • First act turn is a great place to upend what the characters have built previously, have the outside world come in with the force of a storm.
  • Editors and compilers of biographies can have agendas just like other characters, and become more interesting when they reveal them

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.

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.

The Just City by Jo Walton

Inspiring. I could not imagine daring to try to write dialog for Greek gods and long-dead philosophers, but she did, and does it brilliantly.

Made me miss my days as a philosophy major, and that’s a good thing.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Long explanations of things are ok, but only after the reader has come to know the characters, and care about them.
  • Switching first-person narrators is fine, so long as you keep the number of them down and clearly label each chapter so we know which character is speaking.
  • Sense of place can come through not just by food and clothing, but architecture and leisure activities as well.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Moving. Robinson conveys both the triumphs and the horrors of interstellar colonization, covering hundreds of years in a single book. Almost cried at the end of the penultimate chapter.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • The experience of agoraphobia (possibly all phobias) is something the written word is much more suited to portray than film, allowing us to think what the sufferer thinks, feel what they feel, better than other media.
  • In a longer work, you can structure chapters as stories of their own, with a cold open, development, slow crisis, resolution, and a reveal
  • When narrating long periods of time, zoom out to establish rhythms or patterns, zoom in on unusual or unique happenings (or things that have an impact on the larger patterns)