Monday, August 30, 2021

Deborah Reads from "Eagle's Beak and Wings of Bronze, or Something Unusual Happens to Allis"

 Hope you enjoy this snippet:

When sweet, slow-witted Alis gets shipped off to be the bride of the Duke’s son, she isn’t quite sure what to make of her situation, especially the changes that happen to her during the full moon. Soon she’s holding her own in conversation with a sonnet-composing dragon and a contentious two-headed roc. Is she cursed to become a were-gryphon or is the world finally making sense?

Release date is September 1. Pre-order it from Amazon; or Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Overdrive, and other vendors.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Short Book Reviews: M. A. Carrick's Superb Fantasy Debut

The Mask of Mirrors, by M. A. Carrick (Orbit)

Much to my delight as a reader, I find myself in an era of stories that combine history-evoking settings (“big skirts”), fascinating systems of magic, and women who are powerful in deep and unexpected ways. The Women’s War (Jenna Glass) and The Midnight Bargain (C.L. Polk) are two recent examples. The newest addition is a complex tale marked by superb characters and intricate, well-thought-out world-building in a world that resembles Renaissance Venice. My introduction to the book was the guest appearance of the authors, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, on Juliette Wade’s program, Dive into World Building, in which they discussed the tarot-like system of divination cards. That would be enough for an ordinary fantasy, but here it’s only a small part of the whole: political history and current power struggles, magical systems and curses, poisons and hallucinogenic drugs, a long con, simmering revenge, and a generation-spanning Robin Hood-like cult figure. Friendships and feuds, masquerades within masquerades, romance in every sense of the word, and most of all, a heroine who is at once conflicted, determined, vulnerable, and resourceful. There are occasional echoes of Dickens’s London, as well as other, familiar worlds, but the whole is fresh and original, a page-turner that left me hungry for more. It's long, and this is a very good thing.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Perfectionism in Motherhood, Cooking, and Writing

"As a child, my family's menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it." -- Buddy Hackett

Just about everyone who reads this smiles, but actually I think they should be screaming. Either/or choices and black-and-white thinking serve none of us well. Either you get an A+ or you are a total failure. Your book is either #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and wins both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, or it is an abysmal flop. Your marriage is either the stunning example to all humankind or it's crap. Exaggerated like that, it's easy to see the ridiculousness of perfection-or-nothing. But how many times do we see ourselves and our lives through a perfection-tinted lens?

Years ago, when my children were small, I agonized over my many, many lapses in maternal perfection. At times, I was sure that a single moment of inattention or crabbiness had ruined my beautiful babies forever. A friend (who, interestingly enough, was childless herself) gave me a book in which I read that it isn't necessary to be a perfect mother, only a good-enough mother. Was I good enough? Even in my darkest moments, I knew that I was. For all the black marks, I could look at a thousand more times of games played, books read aloud, lullabies sung, trips to the zoo, mommy and me classes in everything from gymnastics to piano, walks along the beach... (And my daughters have grown up to be amazing, strong women, for which I take an eensy amount of credit, the rest being all their doing.)

I've also learned to relax about my cooking. I'm a good cook, although not given to following recipes too closely or attempting anything too fancy. My general approach is to grab a bunch of fresh produce, mostly from our garden, and not overcook it. But from time to time, the results might be edible but are unlikely to be requested again. Then there are the spectacular disasters. I am notorious for burning things in pots, which is what happens when plot ideas strike in the middle of preparing dinner. My best weapon against perfectionism here is a sense of humor. If I can laugh at the inedibility of an experiment (and follow it up with a 30-minute-or-less-from-pantry-staples dish) then it becomes a shared source of merriment. Silly, rather than tragic.

Why then is it so much harder to cut myself some slack when it comes to writing? In my saner moments, I know that no piece of prose is ever perfect. It works or doesn't work or sort-of works or works for some folks but not others. We say "perfect" when it carries us away so completely, we are oblivious to any flaws. But the flaws are there, and another reader (or viewer, or listener) might well find them looming large.

What would it take for me to say, "This is the best I can do right now"? To remember that, as Paul Valery wrote, "a poem is never finished, only abandoned."

Can I trust my creative instincts to know when to let a project rest and come back to it later, when to keep working away, or when to release it to the world, warts and all?

Friday, August 20, 2021

Book Review: A Literary Attempt at a YA School Story Mystery

The Temple House Vanishing
, by Rachel Donohue (Algonquin Books)

I requested an ARC of this book based on the description: a mystery set in a Catholic boarding school. Twenty-five years before the opening, Louisa, a brilliant but lonely student, and Mr. Lavelle, a charismatic art teacher, have mysteriously disappeared. Victoria, who knew them both, has just committed suicide at the school itself. Why did she kill herself? What happened to Louisa and Mr. Lavelle? Did they elope together? Were they murdered or did they perish through an accident? Or were the disappearances unrelated? The atmosphere of an isolated Victorian mansion set on a cliff in Ireland added to the appeal.

Very early in the book, however, I became increasingly disappointed and frustrated. By the end, I was ready to throw the book across the room in disgust, except that I was reading it on my Kindle and I don’t treat my electronic devices so cavalierly. Based on the description, The Temple House Vanishing promised me a genre novel – YA, school story, and mystery, all in one – and yet it consistently violated the conventions of all three, and not in a skillful way.

The opening point of view, a journalist who happened to live on the same street as Louisa and who is investigating the disappearance, was hard to relate to and never made any sense to me. She isn’t involved in the events, and her own life, irrelevant to the rest of the story, seemed remote and uninteresting. Then we get into Louisa’s story, narrated by herself. Therein lies the second hurdle, because Louisa doesn’t sound or act like a teen, even one who’s stuck in her head. Almost all teens, whether intellectual “brains” or not, center their lives around the fundamental issues of those years: independence from parents, confusion about who they are and what they want to become, desperate need for approval from peers, and so forth. Hormones saturate their bloodstreams, and the parts of their brains associated with executive functions, delayed gratification, and long-term planning, won’t mature until their mid-20s. It doesn’t matter how bright or academically gifted they are, they are still at the mercy of these internal storms. Louisa’s first-person narrative reads like the overly elitist pontifications of a writer with a very poor memory of her own teenaged years, or perhaps one seen through extremely adult-colored lenses, and with no understanding of the conventions of the genre. I cannot imagine a teen reader finding Louisa believable or interesting.

Then we meet Victoria, who becomes the object of Louisa’s bloodless passion. Both girls exhibit a disconnection between their intellectual philosophizing and their relationships so extreme as to verge into psychotic dissociation. I never perceived, through their speech or behavior, or through the inner voice of the narrative, any shred of genuine emotion until very near the end, when it became clear that Louisa was just as infatuated with Victoria as Victoria was with Mr. Lavelle. But for the most part, each experiences a pale, distant imitation of obsession, not the visceral stuff of teen suicide pacts or Romeo and Juliet. Not a hint of lesbian romance, requited or not, could I discern.

Monday, August 16, 2021

#Darkover Edits!

I just received editorial comments and a marked-up manuscript of The Laran Gambit from the editor. It's such a joy to work with a professional who "gets it" and offers intelligent, insightful feedback.

Next comes the process of working with the notes to formulate a revision plan. Yes, there is such a thing! Every author approaches revision a bit differently, and in my experience every book requires me to approach it from a slightly different angle. Sometimes the only way to grapple with a structural flaw is to take the whole thing apart, rewrite entire sections, and then put them back together in a different order. Think of it like a Christmas tree, where you're going to keep only half the ornaments but must replace the others as well as the tree itself . That pine tree just won't do—we need a noble fir! 

For other books, the basic structure or armature is sound but all the ornaments and branches are out of balance. There may be problems in pacing, for example, or characters that need to be more fully developed.

The first step is to read through the notes not once but several times, deciding firstly what comments are spot-on, which ones miss the mark—revealing how I failed to convince even a careful reader—which ones I have questions about, and so forth. From there, I make a problem list. By this time, it's usually clear how much rewriting (as opposed to tidying up, minor shifting around, tightening, emphasizing, weaving in themes, etc.) I'll have to do. Since it isn't a good use to time to just dive in, willy-nilly, I also create a priority list or diagram, sometimes a flow chart. Novels can be like spiderwebs, where a tug on one thread affects the whole. Rather than have to go through multiple rounds of revision, I develop a sense of the order of changes. That said, I usually do a round of revisions and then a "jeweler's polish" read-through to spot typos and inconsistencies introduced by the changes.

I love to revise and often fine myself immersed in it for long periods of time. This is a good thing because it involves keeping the entire story in mind—all 100,000-150,000 words (which is my typical novel length) of it.

Stay tuned!

Friday, August 13, 2021

Very Short Book Reviews: Memory Glitches, Anime Aliens, and More!

Take a Look at the Five and Ten, by Connie Willis (Subterranean)

Every family has its oddballs and oral history. In Ori’s uncomfortable extended stepfamily, the oddball is elderly Grandma Elving, with her endless, repetitive, boring, detail-ridden stories about the one Christmas she worked at Woolworth’s. Somewhat to Ori’s surprise, her cousin’s current boyfriend, Lassiter, is actually interested in Grandma Elving’s stories and wants to study her with a new memory-enhancing drug for his dissertation. With Ori as Grandma Elving’s chauffeur and caretaker, the experiment proceeds and Lassiter becomes convinced he’s on the brink of uncovering a decisive traumatic event in Grandma Elving’s life. A love story emerges from the past, just as Ori realizes she has fallen in love with Lassiter.

There’s a mystery here, of course, and a sweet romance, but the real pleasure lies in the wonderfully rich, quirky characters. My one quibble is that we used to call Woolworth’s the Five and Dime, not Five and Ten (and I never worked there), but maybe that’s a geographic difference.


A Question of Navigation, by Kevin Hearne (Subterranean)

I’ve read enough of Kevin Hearne’s work to know that his name on the cover guarantees a great read, often laced with quirky humor. This tale of alien abduction and prisoner rebellion is no exception. The narrator is physicist Clint, the aliens look like ultra-perky anime schoolgirls, and Clint’s T-shirt reads DO NOT EAT. Unlike the thousands of his fellow humans being stored as food for the long journey back to the alien home planet, Clint and a handful of other specialists are being kept alive to reveal humanity’s weaknesses in the most entertaining fashion possible. The survival of Earth seems a lost cause, between the aliens’ paralytic stingers, their complete control of the ship, and their ability to eavesdrop on any conversation. But put together a physicist, a marine biologist, a meteorologist, an expert in robotics, and a few equally qualified scientists, and mayhem is sure to result.

The ending is gloriously satisfying.

Doors of Sleep: Journals of Zaxony Delatree, by Tim Pratt (Angry Robot)

I’ve always loved stories that take place on one fantastically alien world after another, so I grabbed this book on the dual strengths of its author (Tim Pratt, master of space drama) and its premise. Every time Zax Delatree falls asleep, he travels to a different multiverse. Some worlds are eerily similar to his own highly technological world where he facilitates harmony, but others are devoid of life or filled with intelligent, carnivorous life, or gigantic gardens or bombed-out cities. He’s been traveling this way for a few years now, with no idea how or why. From time to time, he’s acquired companions, one of whom created a linguistic virus that allows Zax to understand the languages he encounters, and another, a farmer who can communicate with and control plant life, and yet another, a crystalline intelligence desperate for new horizons. Quickly Zax shifts from unwilling (and insomniac) tourist to fugitive. Someone’s on his trail, able to track him across multiverses, and that someone has just teamed up with a murderous, shape-shifting fungus.

The story is at once dramatic, playful, grim, inventive, and just plain fascinating. Zax sometimes reminds me of Doctor Who or The Flying Dutchman With a Heart of Gold. I definitely want to keep traveling with him!



Monday, August 9, 2021

In Troubled Times: How Stories Save Us

Stories can heal and transform us. They can also become beacons of hope.

Quite a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult personal time, I came across a book about the inherent healing power of telling our stories. No matter how scattered or flawed our lives may appear, as we tell our stories, we gain something. Patterns emerge from seeming chaos, and our lives begin to make sense. It may be dreadful, agonizing sense, but even tragedies have order and consequence. I found that over time, the way I told my story changed, reflecting my recovery process and new insight.

The mirror side of story-telling is story-listening. While a confidential diary or journal can be highly useful, having someone hear our words can be transformative, especially if all that person does is listening. Not judging, not analyzing, not wondering how to respond, just taking in our words, a silent partner on our journey. Often we feel less alone in retrospect, no matter how isolated and desperate we might have been at the time. Additionally, a compassionate listener invites us to be kinder with ourselves.

Perhaps this is how Twelve Step programs work, apart from any Higher Power mysticism or Steps: that by simply hearing our own voices relate our histories, and having the experience of being heard, we open the door to viewing ourselves through the lens of new possibilities.

Personal storytelling calls for discretion, of course. Although it may be true that “we are only as sick as our secrets,” casually (or not-so-casually) violating a confidence from someone else is not the same as choosing to include the listener in our own private lives. Some of us never learned healthy boundaries about what is safe to share, and when, and with whom. We, or others, can be harmed by indiscriminate broadcasting of embarrassing, illegal, or otherwise sensitive information. The kind of storytelling I’m talking about, on the other hand, is as much about the journey as it is the facts.

Stories can get us through dark times by giving us hope and inspiring empathy. Stories work by creating a bond between the narrator or central character and the listener/reader. Who wants to read a story about a person you care nothing about? And if that appealing character has a different history or journey, or learns something the reader never experienced, so much the better. We accompany them into darkness and out again.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Book Reviews: Reform School for Wayward Supernatural Teens

 Promise Me Nothing, by Dawn Vogel (DefCon One Publishing)

The snappy voice of Briar, the teenage fae who also might be a mass murderer, drew me in right away. Exiled from the realm of Idyll (for reasons that become apparent only later in the story) to the human world, she finds herself in juvie detention. Just as her life looks unremittingly grim, she’s unexpected offered a place at the mysterious private Dedwydd Academy. Here she’s assigned not only group and individual therapy sessions but classes in Anger Management, Algebra, and The Psychology of Terror. Her fellow students are not only supernatural folk like witches, angels, and demons, but also human changelings who have been harmed by the fae. Gradually she realizes that Dedwydd just might be the third chance she needs, a place where she can make real friends and learn to control her fae abilities. Then she finds a stone tucked into her bedding, one highly toxic to her kind. Who’s trying to murder her – and why?

Even before the Harry Potter series, “magical school” stories had strong appeal. Promise Me Nothing stands out for its great characters, strong voice, intelligence, and beautifully interwoven plot lines. Vogel offers just the right amount of backstory without bashing the reader of the head. She trusts her readers to make connections, even as Briar herself figures out the mystery while figuring out herself. It’s all very well done, with smooth prose, a dramatic mystery, and the kind of coming-of-age emotional journey that makes Young Adult fantasy satisfying for adult as well as teen readers.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Auntie Deborah Answers Questions on Writing

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
A: There are a gazillion tips on how to write, how not to write, do’s and don’ts galore. The best advice I can give to a young author is to fill your life up with experiences. You aren’t fully formed yet, either as a person or as a writer. So go have adventures; read widely; learn a second or third language; play a musical instrument; dance; study cultures other than your own, history, psychology, sociology, comparative religion, music theory. Anything and everything that interests you. Make friends who come from different backgrounds and listen to their stories with an open heart. Fill up your creative storehouse so that you will have something worth writing about.
In school, we learn how to write literate English (at least that’s the goal). We may analyze English literature, but usually the focus on reading comprehension not the mechanics of fiction. That often creates the illusion that we do or should know how to write effective fiction. That’s a bit like saying that because you can drive a car, you know how to build one from scratch. To create an inspiring story, you need a tool kit and skills. The tool kit includes a deep understanding of how and why stories move us, a wide range of life experiences (the raw material), and the basic mechanics of prose narration (exposition, dialog, theme and metatheme, rising tension that leads to climax and resolution, world-building, sympathetic characters, etc.) The skills are how to put together all these elements, when to introduce them or remind the reader, that sort of thing. There are perhaps as many ways of learning those skills as there are writers. Some benefit from reading widely and mindfully across a range of the best literature they can find. Others respond to “how to” books like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction. Still others do better with hands-on critiques and explanations (when I was a new writer, I had to have things explained to me in words of one syllable).
Q: What mistakes do new writers make?
A: There are a gazillion lists of specific faults in prose (such as grammar and punctuation) or story craft (such as the rise and resolution of tension). A new writer can get so overwhelmed by “dos and don’ts,” she ends up paralyzed.
So I’d like to take a different tack and suggest that new writers learn to trust their readers. Trust them to figure things out. Trust them to read intelligently and sensitively. Most of all, trust them to experience the story for themselves. If there’s a “don’t” here, it’s don’t tell the reader how to feel. Take the reader on a journey that will be different for each reader because no two of us are alike in temperament and experiences. Give them what they need to know what’s going on, but allow the story to flow through them, seen through the lens of their own lives. At the same time, play fair with your reader. That means no surprise out-of-nowhere endings that have nothing to do with the meat of the story. If you set up expectations for one kind of story, hard-boiled noir detective, for example, it’s not a good idea to switch to a fluffy sweet romance. You and the reader have an agreement: “Give me x hours of your time, and this is the reading experience I promise you.” Just as a new writer must learn to trust her readers, she herself must be trustworthy in fulfilling that promise.

Q: How do you build a science fictional world -- the prospect is overwhelming!
A: The most important thing to understand about world-building is that not every writer does it in the same way. For some, it’s important to have that world fully realized in every detail and all the technology and science worked out before beginning to write. Others begin with a character or plot idea and let the landscape unfold as they explore it. I’m in the latter camp: I often don’t know what questions to ask when I begin a project, but they become clear to me once I start developing those characters and human dilemmas. I end up pausing to do research and map things out in rough draft or outline stage. I used to feel overwhelmed by the notion that I had to know everything first, and only when I understood my own creative process did I follow my intuition and let my stories grow organically.
P.S. My science fiction has been praised for its world-building. So it doesn’t matter how you get there!

Q: What should I keep in mind when starting a science fiction novel?
A: I’d give the same advice to a beginning writer of any genre, including mainstream. Write the best stories you can. The same principles of effective prose and storytelling apply, no matter what type of story it is. Keep pushing your literary craft. Read the best literature you can get your hands on and critically analyze what makes it work.
Of course, you have to do your homework when it comes to science and technology, but also world-building that includes culture, linguistics, sociology, etc. But so does every writer.

Q: Why are books for young people popular when they're not well written?
A: I notice that you are referring to the books your kids read. Kids and adults read for different reasons. Children have not yet developed internal critics, they suspend disbelief readily, and they respond powerfully to tropes that leave adults cold. By trope I mean a motif, device, or cliche that has psychological resonance, for example in Harry Potter, you see The Worthy Orphan, The Prince in Waiting (The Chosen One), The Wise Old Mentor, as well as a school story and The Adventures of Friends. Kids also love stories in which the young protagonists have agency, the ability to have adventures they could never experience in their own lives. All of these things are more important to young readers (and many adult readers!) than literary quality.

Q: How do you write a novel?
A: A crucial part of writing a novel is discerning when you have a novel-sized idea, as opposed to one more suitable for a novella or short story. In order to carry the weight of 100K words, the concept of a novel must have depth and emotional resonance. It must be capable of maintaining tension and forward propulsion, and spinning off subplots that enhance rather than distract from the central theme.
Sometimes I’ll start with a notion (or character or line of dialog or scene) and let it play out in my imagination to see how it develops. In the first decade or so of writing professionally, I’d make mistakes, trying to squash a huge idea into 5K words or, conversely, to stretch out a single gem-perfect nugget into many chapters. But I learned by stepping back and identifying the skills I needed. Now I’m usually accurate (and with short fiction, I can tell within 1K words how long the story will be). That said, there are a gazillion ways to structure, plan, and actually write a novel. Since there’s no right or wrong way, only the final product, you can find what works best for you.

Q: What's the best advice about writing you've ever received?
A: The best advice I ever received came from my mentor. She encouraged me to “play it out,” meaning to explore all the nuances and emotional beats of a dramatic scene. Like many newer writers, I built up to those scenes and then rushed through them, thinking that if the action was happening very fast, so should the scene. I thought that I’d set up all the pieces so the reader would realize their importance when they came together. But really, I was selling my readers short. I didn’t realize that the more action, tension, and emotional weight a scene has, the longer it can — and should — be. Readers want to savor every moment, every breath of breathless action. They don’t want to have pages and pages of not-much-happening and then something incredibly important in a paragraph.

If you like my approach to writing, please check out Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life, available  in ebook and trade paperback (with room for personal notes) from all the usual vendors.