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.

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.

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.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Easily worthy of the awards it won. Fantastic ideas, presented through conflicts with interesting characters, and writing that describes just enough and no more.

And I almost stopped halfway through.

There’s a point where the protagonist does something so amazingly dumb, that I wanted to put the book down in frustration. But I kept going, and I’m glad I did. Because it only got better from there.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Beware delaying explanations for too long. A character that says “I don’t know why I did X” too often, before their inability to explain is outlined to the reader, can lead to frustration.
  • Don’t have to wait for the character to say “and then I told them my story” to tell that story to the reader. Can layer it in, piece by piece, via flashback chapters.
  • Small touches, like bare hands being considered vulgar, when followed-through, can do a lot of work to make a culture feel real.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

One of those books I tried several times to read, failed to get into, and finally just plowed through.

I’m glad I did. Stross has created a fantastic updating of the Lovecraftian mythos, blending it with computer science, government bureaucracy, spy thrillers, and comedy (yes, all four).

The result doesn’t have the creepiness or the horror of the source material anymore, but is much more entertaining.

(Incidentally, this is the third novel in the series. Yes, I started with the third one. No, I didn’t feel lost, but I did feel silly for not starting at the beginning.)

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can still get tension from a narrative told as a memoir. When your characters can go insane or become disembodied spirits, terrible things can happen to them but still leave them able to narrate.
  • Writing what you know can give you interesting twists on old material. Stross was a programmer for a while, and that kind of thinking is what makes his take on Lovecraft’s old gods feel new.
  • Even in a first-person story, you can still show non-POV character scenes by cheating a little, and having the narrator imagine how they would have gone.

Time to Breathe

I haven’t written anything for the novel in a week.

More importantly, I haven’t let myself work on the novel in a week. I’ve been following Vivien Reis’ advice, giving myself time to step away from writing and focus on what’s happening right now with my family.

It’s turned out to be exactly what I needed. I’ve been able to focus better at work, I’ve been more relaxed about all the house showings and paperwork and myriad other little things I’ve had to deal with as we prepare to up sticks and move.

I still feel guilty, though. Like I’m shirking my homework, which is fine for a little while, but eventually you sit down for the final exam and you haven’t a clue what’s going on.

So I’m going to try writing again this weekend. Not much, just an hour or two at most, and with no word count in mind.

Perhaps this way I can use the novel to keep me busy, to keep my mind off things, on days when I’m not at work. And assuage some of the guilt I’m feeling.