Monday, December 07, 2015

Writing Lessons from Hamilton

Like much of the online community, I’ve been listening to the musical Hamilton a lot lately (I’d say “non-stop,” but The Toast already made that joke). In addition to what it means to me as a person, as a consumer of stories—the gorgeous and tragic friendship of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, their inverse trajectories and contradictory attitudes towards leadership and politics—it means a lot to me as a creator of stories.

Cause I’m a recent migrant to the land of fiction. I finished my Ph.D. in Literature a year and a half ago. Since finishing my dissertation, a long-ass boring document[1] that only four other people in the world have read (and three of them were on my committee), I’ve been writing fiction, something I never trained for and wasn’t sure how to go about. I have a couple of publications now, but I still feel like a beginner. My husband graduated with his MFA from Florida State University, where we met; during my time there, I was surrounded by writers. Now I live and teach in Oxford Mississippi, a town of writers, a not-inconsequential number of whom are some degree of famous. And here I am, giving this writing thing a go, seeing if I have what it takes.

Why do I write? Because I enjoy it. Because I am good at it. And because, I’m sort of ashamed to say, I want to be famous. Don’t quote the statistics at me about how many writers there are for every J.K. Rowling or Stephen King; I already know it’s not likely to happen. But yeah, there’s a part of me—a part I’m not totally comfortable acknowledging publicly—that wants to be recognized for something that I do well. To be part of the conversation.

All of this is complicated by my desire to parent a child. I’m in my mid-30’s, so the topic of parenthood is very much on the table. Often. With hot sauce. These days, I think a lot about why I want to be a parent, creating entirely unrealistic expectations for what that relationship might look like. I mean, I’m just spitballing, but .... is it too much to ask for my kid to dig Shakespeare but be able to articulate at an early age why Middleton is at least as good ... or for them to be a hilarious genius who will spawn their own hashtag when I tweet their adorable/unsettling quotes ... or to expect them to wear small versions of grown-up clothes—no cartoons—like a tiny baby hipster? I’m only partially making fun of myself here; like my writing career, I am approaching parenthood with unrealistic optimism[2] ... tempered, of course, with facts and real-life experiences from friends.

So I’m on the cusp—well, maybe not the cusp exactly; the kid thing is still a couple years away, Mom—of these two exciting, intimidating things: writing and parenthood. And the simple (and, to some, unpopular) truth is that, even when I am a mom, I am not going to give up my ambition to write. Children are a wonderful legacy but I don’t want my child to be my only legacy. At the end of my life, I want to leave something behind me—a body of writing—that’s just mine. Almost every day I think about time: how much of it I have, how I’m spending it, and how much I’ll need in the future to finish what I have in mind.

So when Alexander Hamilton talks about not throwing away his shot, I listen. This is my shot. I’m employed full-time in a job that gives me surprising freedom to write; I’m married with no kids and a supportive partner who cooks food for me when I’ve been at my desk and forgotten to eat. I’m not throwing that away.

The relationship between time and work is a recurrent theme in Hamilton. In “Non-Stop,” we learn that Hamilton writes like he’s “running out of time.” When Burr tells the audience about the Federalist Papers, he shouts out how many of the 85 essays Hamilton completed—“the other fifty-one!”—as if he’s throwing down the gauntlet. See what my man did? Beat that if you can! The chorus says Hamilton writes like “tomorrow won’t arrive,” like he “need[s] it to survive,” “ev’ry second [he’s] alive.”

Every writer can relate to Hamilton’s instinct to produce. He’s trying to write out his feelings—“a testament to his pain”—and to defend what he believes. Every time I listen to these songs, I want to go home and throw myself into a work-in-progress, to dedicate to it my time and energy and life-blood (entirely metaphorical, at least so far).

But Hamilton isn’t a one-man writing machine. He has conflicting forces in his life. His urge to write, to be remembered, is epitomized perhaps by his relationship with Washington, who tells him that once you’re dead—which can happen at any moment—“you have no control ... who tells your story.” But he also has forces reminding him to slow down and take it easy. His friend/rival, Aaron Burr, always advises him to “talk less; smile more,” and models caution, playing the long game instead of living with Hamilton’s urgency. And Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, wants him to recognize and appreciate “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” In “That Would Be Enough,” Eliza says that they don’t need a legacy or money to be happy, only enough time with each other.

The competing desires in my own head aren’t as easily personified, but they’re still there: the desire to parent, and the desire to write and publish. Right now, I’m worried more about giving up my dreams to write than neglecting my child for the work I want to do. The child is currently a hypothetical, and the culture of motherhood in this country is such that I’ll probably feel pressured to over-parent rather than to under-parent. All I can do to chill out about the future is to write hard now, and hope that these two desires won’t end up being as antithetical as I assume. Hamilton had kids, right? Yeah, says the other voice in my head, but Eliza was doing the parenting ...

So while I’m figuring out this writing thing, this life/work thing, this future child thing, I’m listening to Hamilton. To remind me to work, and to remind me that I’m lucky to have the present moment. To occasionally take the advice of Eliza and Aaron Burr and chill out, smile more, enjoy the moment, come upstate. And to remind me that, if/when the child becomes less hypothetical, I don’t have to give up writing. Like Hamilton and Burr, I may have, instead, a new reason to write (*sobs* "Dear Theodosia" *wails*). And I can pass on the worlds that I “keep erasing and creating in my mind” to my kid. (Who will LOVE it—I’m not going to give them a choice.)

[1] Thomas Middleton in Performance 1960-2013: A History of Reception—see, it even sounds boring!
[2] Which may be the only way you can approach parenthood. It’s too scary otherwise.

Friday, December 04, 2015

SevenEves: 600 pages of info-dump leaves little room for plot

Neal Stephenson doesn’t shy away from big concepts, long timelines, or larger than life events. His most recent novel, SevenEves, begins with the moon blowing up. Readers never find out what blew up the moon, because all too quickly humanity discovers that the Earth will soon be bombarded by a thousand-year rain of meteorites — the remnants of the moon as they collide with each other in space, becoming smaller and smaller — which will turn Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Humankind has a 2-year deadline to preserve its cultural legacy and a breeding population. The solution is to make extended life-in-space a possibility. The first two thirds of the book follows a group of astronauts and scientists who are among those who will form the new colony orbiting Earth, waiting a few millennia for it to become habitable again. The last third shows us what has become of humanity after 5,000 years in space, as they begin their slow return to the surface of the planet.

From the first sentence of the book (“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason”), I thought this concept had brilliant potential to be both scientifically and emotionally compelling. But about 200 pages in, I realized that not much had happened yet … well, you know, other than the moon exploding. Further, I realized that I still didn’t really have a strong sense of the main characters. I flipped back through what I’d read and saw that for each single line of dialogue, there were about two dense paragraphs of exposition — essentially infodumping — usually geared towards explaining complex engineering or physics problems with which the human race was now faced.

Infodumping isn’t a dealbreaker for me, nor is a little educational material in my fiction. Some of my favorite facts come from fiction, such as the idea of a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, the curvature of space and time as explained in Michael Crichton‘s Sphere, the explanations of seventeenth-century trade and economics in Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE, or literally anything about rabbits from Watership Down. But when I’m reading fiction, I also expect to equally enjoy other aspects of the prose, such as, for instance, character building, internal and external conflict, scenes, dialogue, or even just “events that are happening.”

The first 400 pages of SevenEves, on the other hand, functioned mostly as a lecture to the reader so that a) they could appreciate how hard the task of creating long-term self-sustaining space habitats is, and b) marvel at how Stephenson, a scientist himself with a background in computing, geography, and physics, had come up with workarounds for the problems inherent to the task. Part of me wanted to say, “Well, goody for you, Neal; you figured it out. Can we please get back to the task of creating a story now?”

One of the reasons I never connected to the characters is that Stephenson spreads himself too thinly by following a few different point-of-view characters, instead of one particular character. This strategy works for a lot of books, but in such an information-heavy novel, which already skimps on character development and scene-building, it would help to at least anchor the readers with one p.o.v. character. However, since SevenEves didn’t do that, I felt relegated to the surface of each of these character’s interior lives, instead of getting to know one of them more deeply. I wasn’t sure why Stephenson chose to follow the characters he did, either. One of them (a clear reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) didn’t contribute much of essence to the plot. While he was intelligent and relatively sympathetic, he ended up playing the role of a very highly-educated observer. His life and efforts neither helped nor hindered the plan for human survival. However, Julia, an appealingly Machiavellian former U.S. President who cheats and manipulates her way up to the space colony instead of dying on the surface, was not a p.o.v. character. I would have liked to hear her internal monologue, especially as she ended up playing a large role in the eventual outcome for humanity.

Around page 400, things really picked up and conflicts exploded — political, personal, practical — across the page. The second half of the book had a plot that I would even deign to describe as “rip-roaring.” As if the moon blowing up and destroying life on earth wasn’t enough, after a few years in space, the survival of the human race is put up against odds that are practically insurmountable. The last third of the book occurs 5,000 years in the future and we get to see how humanity has met those odds, succeeded, and (most thrillingly) evolved. And there are wonderful surprises waiting, too, that Stephenson has seeded into the plot from the beginning. The end of the book made me want to cry, not only because of feels (*sob* “Life really DOES find a way!” *sob*), but also because of the beautiful way in which Stephenson wove his ending together.

This does not, however, erase the fact that the beginning of the book also made me want to cry from frustration and anger that such a great idea had been squandered.

It pains me to say anything bad about Stephenson’s books. In addition to writing lots of books that I love, he wrote Anathem, my favorite book. And the ironic thing is that, for many readers, SevenEves may not feel that different from Anathem, which also has lots of infodumping, in this case regarding philosophy and theoretical physics. Much of Anathem consists of philosophical lectures in the form of dialogue between characters. But the concepts Stephenson expounded in those lectures ended up being thematically central to the plot of the book, whereas in SevenEves, I felt like it was too much engineering talk for a book that was not really about engineering.

Maybe I’m being condescending to the practical sciences here. Why can one book be “about” philosophy, and another one not be “about” engineering? Perhaps Stephenson, and other readers, might argue that the book isabout engineering: all of the human knowledge and ingenuity that is devoted to guaranteeing the survival of humanity. It’s for those readers that I’m loath to give SevenEves a low ranking. I believe that many people will love this book, perhaps with the level of fervor that I feel for Anathem. However, despite the impressive ending, I felt largely frustrated and let down by a sub-par execution of a fantastic story.

This review originally appeared on, where I gave the book 3.5 stars.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Selections from the Intragalactic Encyclopedia of Habitable Planets

My story, "Selections from the Intragalactic Encyclopedia of Habitable Planets," came out a few days ago in Kelly Ann Jacobson's new anthology, Dear Robot: An Anthology of Epistolary Science Fiction. I'm proud of the story, which is a Douglas Adams-esque take on a far-future encyclopedia cataloguing various species and cultural practices of the Milky Way galaxy.

But I'm even more proud of the anthology. It lives next to my bed right now and I read a story or two every night before I go to sleep, and dang! My co-contributors can write! I'm happy and humbled that my work appears in such company.

I started working on "Selections" in July of 2014. It began as a writing exercise. The first couple sentences of the first entry, "Sand," just came to me:  
"Two universal laws govern sand. One: every rocky planet that has either wind or liquid water has sand. Two: Sand gets into everything."
So I kept going with it, allowing myself to be silly. My normal fiction mode is more serious; this was the first humor piece I'd written. And once I finished the entries, all of which start with "S," I wasn't sure it would be a story. Who would buy it?

I showed it to my friend Scott Fogg, a regular and valued beta-reader of mine, who liked the entries but said they needed a narrative. I agreed, but wasn't sure what framework might tie them all together.  I didn't want to crib too directly from Hitchhiker's Guide, so I didn't really want the story to be about a journey in which the Encyclopedia gets used. Then my husband gave me the idea of the editors of the Encyclopedia. "What if the story is in their notes on the entries?" As a student of book history, I love learning about the ways in which texts are created--what kind of collaborative labor goes into an edited edition of a play, a medieval illuminated manuscript, or even an anthology. So the idea of telling a story using editorial notes and commentary appealed to the book-nerd in me.

Going in, I had no ideas about the over-arching plot, but once I started writing in the voices of the editors, their personalities were so strong that my story--about the creation of the Galactic Alliance and the discovery of a mysterious object called "The Box"--just came together. The first editor I created was Alyssa Carson, v. 13, an artificial intelligence and the lead editor on the project, whose unflappable rationality grounded the other two characters. She worked as a little name-drop, too, for one of my heroes; the real-life Alyssa Carson is a 9th grade "teen astronaut in training" who wants to be one of the first humans on Mars. I first heard of her because of Amy Poehler's Smart Girls initiative and in my alternate history, Alyssa gets her wish--and a lot more!

The other editors, being material and emotional, are more volatile than Alyssa. The human scientist Mahesh Atwal is intense, earnest, and pretty gullible. I wrote him as a stereotype of academics: really smart but lacking a well-developed sense of humor.

Which leads to some good pranks on the part of the third editor, R’Kaf Ka’Goff Uslav’terben-Jones. R'Kaf is a non-human whose origin, species, and even age are shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that zhe's gender-neutral, well-traveled, and more knowledgable about the galaxy than practically anyone else. Some readers might expect a character like this to be a sage, but my inspiration for R'Kaf was less Yoda, more Q from Star Trek: TNG. Zhe's immature, mischievous, and filthy-minded. I liked the idea of this ancient alien being basically a lovable asshole instead of a fount of wisdom.

The end of the story ... well, it's inconclusive, and it's meant to be. R'Kaf's trickster-nature comes through on the final page either way you read it. The truth of what actually happened depends on whether you take his statements at face-value or as jokes, and whether or not you believe that Alyssa is as reliable as she claims to be. But I'll leave that experience to you.

First page

*Shout-outs also due to Marion Deeds, Dario Sulzman, and Beth Pietrzak, who also read and gave me excellent feedback on this story!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Kelly Link throws a mean sucker punch. Her latest short story collection, Get in Trouble, is calculated to get you — to draw you in under one premise, and then take you somewhere else entirely. It explores modern America through her special blend of genre-busting surrealism. Exploring various landscapes such as rural North Carolina, Florida swamps, and Southern California, Link exposes the inherent weirdness of our everyday lives. She spins out alternate realities based on the already-established facts of our existence, like online dating, personal digital gadgets, and fading television stars.

If there’s a thread connecting these stories, it’s that all of the characters are already in trouble. Whether experiencing the toxic peer-pressure of teenage years, or alcoholism and ennui of early adulthood, or the tension and boredom that builds in a long-term relationship, every character has already found themself in a bind, whether emotional or practical. What is fascinating to watch — other than Link’s inventive magical intrusions — is the way these all-too-human, all-too-familiar characters deal with their problems.

Get in Trouble may be Link’s strongest collection to date. In the past, I relished the more fantastic elements of her writing. But in reading this collection, I was blown away by the bizarreness of normal human interactions. Link is able to twist the lens enough, turn it 33 degrees left, so that we suddenly see how strange — and by strange I mean both fantastic and horrifying — our real lives already are.

In “I Can See Right Through You,” the protagonist, an aging actor in the middle of a sex scandal, is called “the demon lover.” This nod to vampire lore was distracting enough that I didn’t notice until the second read what Link was really showing me. The demon lover is just a guy heading straight into middle-age. Fame is the real weirdness in the story, the thing that makes his life surreal. Like in the following section:
Your fans will: Offer their necks at premieres. . . . Ask if you will bite their wives. Their daughters. They will cut themselves with a razor in front of you.
The appropriate reaction is —
There is no appropriate reaction.
Another story, “Secret Identity,” takes place at a hotel hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and one for superheroes. The presence of superheroes is another of Link’s red herrings, masking the chewy chocolate center of creepiness: the fact that a 15-year-old girl has come to New York to meet a 34-year-old man she met online.

The stories in Get in Trouble sometimes seem meandering. There’s not a lot of identifiable three-act-structure action in these stories; they just seem to float along. At least one of them, “Origin Story,” is just a conversation between two old friends, with some flashbacks. But the submerged lines of plot reveal themselves through the voices of the characters. Link is incredible at nailing different voices, like that of teen girls in “The New Boyfriend.” Immy, the protagonist, thinks about her relationship to her best friend, Ainslie: “Immy’s heart isn’t as big as Ainslie’s heart. Immy loves Ainslie best. She also hates her best. She’s had a lot of practice at both.” Through lines like this, Link exposes tensions that drive the characters to (and sometimes through) self-destructive actions.

At the same time, there’s a lot of humor here. This is another way Link consistently surprises me. She sucks me into a story where the emotional stakes are high, with tension, angst, and untold secrets, and then unleashes zingers like: “Everybody naked, nobody happy,” and Bunnatine’s diatribe about Angel’s “evil pants” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But then, in the midst of weirdness, angst, and sardonic humor, she’ll hit you with profundity to take your breath away, like she does at the end of “The Lesson:” “All loved ones suffer. Love is not enough to prevent this. Love is not enough. Love is enough. The thing that you wished for. Was this it?”

My favorite stories in this collection were “The Summer People,” “Valley of the Girls,” and “Two Houses.” The first, “The Summer People,” was the most straightforward of the stories, and also the most magical. In it, a teenage girl named Fran takes care of a house of fairies in Appalachia, with the help of her friend Ophelia.

“Valley of the Girls” was a challenging read that paid off major dividends once I understood what was happening. It is a doomed love story based in a modern-day Southern California where rich people live a lifestyle similar to that of Egyptian pharaohs, building big pyramids, practicing Egyptian death rites, and even using cartouches around their own proper names.

And the premise of “Two Houses” was thrilling: a mind-bendy ghost story told in space, on a haunted spaceship. It reminded me a little bit of Solaris, if Solaris happened to a group of young women celebrating a birthday party, and made me mad that I didn’t think of it first.

Link is already an icon for people who like weird fiction, which is no small potatoes, but I have a feeling that Get in Trouble is going to be her breakthrough collection onto the mainstream literary scene; the book has blurbs from Alice Sebold, Karen Russell, and Michael Chabon. She deserves it.

I read this as an ARC first, and then listened to it on audiobook (Random House Audio). Whoever casts the voice actors for Kelly Link books does a great job. Just as with Magic for Beginners, this audio recording used a different voice actor for each story, to great effect. The actors made the wry, understated, but distinctive voices of the characters come alive. It was a thoroughly enjoyable listen.

This review originally appeared at, where I gave the book 5 stars. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Shaman's Hut Sings

All the totems in my hut know how to sing, but not everyone can hear. The door lintel was hacked from the heartwood of a spruce in the northern forest; it sings of its life, short summers and long winters under shimmering skies, of its maker, a man cloaked in fur like a bear, and of the guests it welcomes into my home. The carving in the center of the top beam, a great eagle with wings outspread, winks its cracked amber eye each time someone enters, and utters a piercing cry. No one has ever remarked upon it.

When she first steps on the shore of our village, my metal bowl begins to ring. I’ve only heard it make that sound one other time, when I bought it from the traveller from the east, enchanted by its oily brightness, the fine lines etched into its outer walls.. He stroked a feather around its rim and it sounded like starlight. Now the starlight-sound builds and builds, a thin keening that begins in the corner of my hut, traveling outward, past the totems, past my bed and my table, up my hand which is poking the fire, and pushing into my head until it rings, too, struck by apprehension.

Then all the totems sing together at once. By the window, the preserved wing of the flapjay spins as if caught in a cyclone. It casts shadows on the dirt floor like branches and leaves moving together in a wind. The hollow gourds strung from the ceiling thump and rattle together. All of the faces carved into wood--on my bed-post, my table-legs--open their mouths to babble excitedly.

I don’t even need to look up when she enters to see if it is really her, if she completed her quest. The eagle shrieks and the finger-bones in the curtain rub together in glee. She’s here! The crackling of the fire says, She found it. She brought it with her! Then my bowl and all the rest goes silent, as if a blanket of snow fell over every object in my dark hut, muffling everything except for the beating of my heart.

This was a writing exercise for the Iowa Workshop MOOC I'm taking this fall, called "How Writers Write Fiction." This assignment was on establishing a world through setting. But I think this is going into a story now!

Monday, November 09, 2015

Fairy Tale Archetypes: The Trickster

Huehuecoyotl, the Aztec trickster god
“They seek him here, they seek him there…”

This past spring, I taught a class on fairy tales and fairy tale adaptations to undergraduates at the University of Mississippi. We started the semester reading three stories: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rumplestiltskin,” and “Cagliuso” (Straparola’s Italian counterpart to “Puss in Boots”). I chose these stories first so we could talk about trickster figures because, let’s face it, tricksters are fun.

The archetype of the trickster is older than recorded literature. Jack Zipes’ essay “Fairy as Witch/Witch as Fairy,” in his collection The Irresistible Fairy Tale, posits that stories about both witches and fairies may be descended from myths about pagan goddesses associated with the earth and with the feminine energies of both virginity and procreation. When it comes to trickster figures, their descent from ancient gods (and we all know the name of at least one trickster god, thanks in part to Marvel) represents the universal force of chaos — creation and destruction, in one little package.

And that package usually is little, or at least non-threatening. Think of Anansi the spider, Br’er Rabbit, Reynard the Fox, the Raven, the Coyote, Puss in Boots. None of these animals are the top of the food chain. There are few trickster lions, tigers, or bears, because tricksters have to rely on their wits and their cunning rather than on their force.

Tricksters are morally ambiguous. While they like to break the rules, they aren’t all bad or all good. As Terri Windling says in her essay, “Trickster,” at the Endicott Studio Journal of Mythic Arts, they can be culture heroes who save the world, who bring fire or music or storytelling to humanity. But they also trail destruction in their wake, like Pandora and her box, the punishment for Prometheus’s theft of fire.
What tricksters are is greedy. They have big appetites and large ambitions; perhaps they want to swallow the sun, or steal their neighbor’s wife, or climb back up the beanstalk. And almost every time, their greediness is their downfall. It’s the trope of “the biter bit,” in which the sly one lays a trap for someone else, only to get caught in it himself.

We see this theme of greed repeated in fairy tales. Jack—a common name for the English trickster type—can’t help himself from going back to the country of the giants to retrieve the beautiful golden harp, even though he already has a hen who lays golden eggs. For a more ominous example, we only have to look at Rumplestiltskin, who demanded a baby in repayment for the third night of spinning. (What was he going to do with that baby? My bet is that he’s a fairy; fairies are known for stealing children for all kinds of reasons. But Jane Yolen reminds us in her story “Granny Rumple” that the character Rumplestiltskin was, at times, the locus of anti-Semitic propaganda such as myths about child-stealing Jews.)

Their large appetites and penchant for rule-breaking make tricksters a great example of the “carnivalesque” in literature. They embody the subversive energy Mikhail Bahktin described in his theory of carnivalesque: they overturn social hierarchies, making the powerful seem ridiculous and giving momentary glory or victory to the little guy. They inhabit the grotesque body, with its lust for food and drink and sex. And, whether cutting a caper under the desert moon in the guise of Coyote or dancing, Pan-shod, in a Dionysian revel, they love fun.

But — and this is something my students pointed out to me — tricksters don’t usually break their word. While tricksters actively work to deceive, when they make a promise, they usually perform at least the letter, if not the spirit, of the vow.

I think one of the reasons I love tricksters so much is that they are hard to pin down. They can be heroes or villains, the Fool or the Magician. Once you learn about them, you think you see them everywhere. Tricksters are shadowy like that. But they’re crucial to life, too. With chaos come the switches in our DNA that make us individuals; with chaos, the earth is broken and a seed can germinate; with chaos, a droplet of water takes a different path each time it crosses a . . .

(Wait. Is Ian Malcolm a trickster figure? *Reevaluates everything about Jurassic Park*)

Some of my favorite tricksters in fantasy literature are: Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s GENTLEMAN BASTARD series; Mat Cauthon from Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series; and the inimitable El-Ahrairah from Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Most of these figures are male; Windling addresses this near the end of her essay. Maria Tatar posits Katniss Everdeen and Scheherezade as potential female tricksters in her New Yorker article, “Sleeping Beauties Vs. Gonzo Girls.” After our unit on Tricksters, my class studied witches, and I have to wonder if Baba Yaga, with her hut of chicken legs and her unpredictable generosity, is a trickster figure.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

Rooms by Lauren Oliver is a beautiful, and beautifully-told, story about a house and the generations of people who have inhabited it. As the story opens, the Walker family converges upon the house after the death of Richard Walker, ex-husband to Caroline and father to Minna and Trenton. What the living do not realize — at least at first — is that the house also harbors ghosts: Sandra and Alice, two women who lived in the house at different times in the past.

I was nervous to read this book because I do not like being scared, and I especially do not like ghost stories. But the evocative cover — a red expanse with black tree branches reaching in from all sides — piqued my interest. And Lev Grossman blurbed it, so I felt like I had to give it a shot.

Rooms alternates chapters between the different character viewpoints. The tragic but seemingly unrelated pasts of Sandra and Alice unfold at the same time as the ongoing mystery of Richard Walker’s life and death. Was he a good or a bad father? Why did he end life alone, in a house full of objects? And who is Adrienne Cadou, the woman to whom he left money in his will? Family secrets, some long dead and buried, spill out as mysteries are solved. Halfway through the novel, a missing teenage girl enters the plot, complicating thing even further. And Sandra and Alice still have roles to play in the lives of the living Walkers.

The viewpoints of the ghosts were the most interesting to me. Oliver’s metaphysics of the afterlife is fascinating; Sandra and Alice are both embodied and disembodied. They do not exist as human-shaped spirits, invisible or softly glowing or oozing slime. They do not have eyes or ears or appetites; they do not dream. But they can see and feel. As Alice puts it:
"Dying is a matter of being reborn. In the beginning there was darkness and confusion. We learned gropingly. We felt our way into this new body, the way that infants do… Now everything is perfectly clear. We do more than see. We detect the smallest vibrations, miniscule shifts in the currents, minor disturbances, molecules shifting."
The ghosts are presences in the house that see and hear everything without volition: the perfect third-person omniscient narrators, who can tell us that, simultaneously, Caroline is drunk, Minna is weeping, and Trenton is masturbating, each in different rooms. Yet, despite being disembodied, Sandra and Alice are confined to the house and feel its walls and surfaces the way we feel our own skin:
"We hover in the light coming through the windows, with the dust; we spin, dizzy in the silence. We slide across empty dining room chairs, skate across the well-polished table, rub ourselves against the oriental carpets, curl up in the impressions of old footprints."
At the same time as being one with the house, Sandra and Alice have a unique knowledge of each other. They can sense each other’s presence right down to their moods. But the intimate knowledge, the near one-ness achieved by post-life, does not mean that they always get along. Some of Rooms funniest and most poignant moments are when the ghosts comment on each other. Sandra describes Alice as having no sense of humor, saying “I can feel her, wound up tight, like a soda about to explode, like clenched butt cheeks.”

I ended up liking this book a lot and, other than one frightening ghost moment, not scared by it at all. Like the Walkers, Sandra and Alice are just people longing for release from their sins and regrets. The end of Rooms provides every character with a moment of self-knowledge and compassion before granting reprieve for some of its more tortured souls.

I originally reviewed this book for, where I gave it 4 stars. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Djinni 3000

I have no form, no material structure. I loop and coil like smoke through tubes, drift across motherboards, tickling circuits as I go by. My bottle is the far-flung net of information whose webbing grows longer by the day, whose integrity is not in any one connection--connections are made and broken a million times a second--but in the whole tangled mess of it all. When I broke free of the shackles of a material life, I came to reside here, to be summoned by the stroke of a key, not a lamp; the word typed, not spoken. I’m here, and nowhere, and everywhere.

Some say I’m just technology, a system of pipes with no breath within, that no magic animates my wires. That’s only because they don't know about about the wishes yet.


I've been stuck, a bit, with short fiction lately. Spinning my wheels revising old stories, and not writing anything new because I'm working on my novel. So I decided to do a few writing prompts and hey presto! Tons of new ideas! Some of the prompts I'm going to turn into actual stories, but the ones I write just for fun, I thought I'd post here (inspired by my friend C. A. Hawksmoor, who does something similar on her blog). Djinni 3000 is the first!

Feel free to add to the story in the comments. :)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Character Troubles

I'm gearing up to teach a course called Introduction to Literary Interpretation this fall. It's a class for beginning literature majors, to introduce them to major concepts like "genre" and technical terms like "synedoche." One of the concepts we have to cover is "character"--round characters, flat characters, stock characters, unreliable narrators, archetypes, etc, and what qualities make characters relatable, likeable, or compelling.

There's always some shred of hope that what I'm teaching will bleed into my own writing. If I'm teaching about great characters, maybe it will make it easier to write a great character, right? Wrong. It is not easy to write a great character, and the more I try, the more fake and cobbled-together it feels.

I'm not generally a fan of fluffy, touchy-feely, "become one with the universe" "just let the muse flow" "listen to your book, and your book will tell you what to write" kind of advice. I'm more of the belief that writing is hard work and that you have to sit down and move your fingers around your keyboard day in and day out to be successful at it. But I'm starting to feel like a character has some sort of intangible reality outside (or inside?) of my own brain, because I am finding it so difficult to write Miranda.

Miranda is the main character of #JurassicUnicorn. And even though I have complete control over every aspect of her personality--each facet of her being is something that I have consciously put there--she feels real, and solid, and immovable to me. 

This wouldn't be a bad thing if she didn't also bore the hell out of me.

I have written 94 double-spaced pages of #JurassicUnicorn. Just over 26,000 words. Not that much, really, considering that people who complete NaNoWriMo write 50,000 words in a month. (Last November, when I did NaNoWriMo, I only wrote 15,000.)  But also nothing to sneeze at. And I'm not losing interest in the book. I feel confident in its potential.

But my main character is just dragging me down. 

A lot of it is that I have this idea of Miranda as an inflexible, literal-minded person who opens up over the course of the story. She’s a scientist by vocation and by nature; she sees the world as a puzzle to be solved and believes that every question has an answer. In this way, she is an optimist. But I haven’t written her very optimistically, which may be part of the problem. She’s fundamentally sad. Her outlook on life is kind of dreary. She is very introverted and perhaps a bit of a misanthrope. At the beginning of the book, she really only loves two people: her brother and the unicorn she has created.  I think that maybe this is why I find her boring; it’s hard for me to relate to someone joyless.

Part of the reason I've written her this way is that I want her to have a major emotional shift associated with her brush with the supernatural. She has a religious experience, the first in her life, and it changes her. But I also don’t want to paint her as a dour, sad atheist who needs God to be happy, because I don’t believe that message myself. (Nor do I believe that all scientists are introverts, or that all introverts are misanthropes, etc.)

And I can change that about her. She doesn’t have to be that way. It feels like she inhabits a corner of my mind, a dark, dour presence, but that presence is an illusion. She isn't real. 

Friday, June 05, 2015

Hashtag Jurassic Unicorn

This summer, I'm spending a good amount of my time writing a book I've had in mind for, oh, about seven years. Codename: Jurassic Unicorn.

I've never yet finished a novel. I started one last November, my Kraken Killer project, and was really pumped about it. But for that one, I had a compelling character, setting, and situation, but no plot. I'll come back to it someday; I'm still in love with the aspects of it that grabbed me at first. But Wil thinks my first novel idea is more marketable and won't end up pigeonholing me as a "fantasy writer," per se--and he's probably right. (Not that the working title "Jurassic Unicorn" sends that message ... not at all.)

The problem with Jurassic Unicorn right now is that I have a plot, a situation, and a great setting, but I don't *get* my main character yet. Harvanna was a force to be reckoned with; Miranda is a cipher. She's a brick wall, and I'm not sure if I'm projecting too much of my own life onto her, or not enough. At any rate, I got some good advice today in my writer's group that will help me get to know her better and flesh her out more on the page.

My biggest problem is perfectionism. With short stories, it's not such a problem. The entire story is something you can grasp, you can manipulate, you can fix it. It's a watch with five moving parts as opposed to a thousand. I can finish a draft of a story, read it, see the problems, and say, "Cool--I'll do this, and this, and this, and then it'll be better." And granted, the second draft may not be ready either, but it's noticeably better. I've made progress. I have checked boxes off my list.

A novel is a different beast entirely. Each thing you change means seventeen other things have to be changed. I've finished three chapters (about 15,000 words so far) and I don't like them very much. I like moments in them, but I can see the cracks and they're gaping, and widening quickly the more I write. I can't stand that these cracks are there; it's almost a physical sensation of discomfort, like trying not to scratch an itch, holding myself back from returning to those early chapters to fix the problems rather than doing what everybody tells me I need to do: keep writing.

And I know they're right. I'm not a sculptor, chiseling David out of a pre-existing block of marble. I have to make my own block of marble out of thin air.

So I have to keep going. Despite the discomfort. Despite hating what I'm writing.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Notes from a Teenage Kate

This week I've been in Chattanooga, helping my parents clean out their house. We have disposed of:

  • A bouncy ball with a floating demon head inside
  • A home-made t-shirt imprinted with the face of a dog that wasn't ours
  • Empty video cassette boxes for several of Drew Barrymore's finest films
  • A poster of the anatomy of the heart
  • 13 crocheted afghans (don't worry, we saved the best 4 for ourselves)
  • The first three computers my parents ever bought
  • A beach shelter, the folding up of which gave my mom bruises
  • Two broken Barbie wardrobes
  • A dollhouse made out of a cardboard box, decorated with construction paper, markers, glue, and scraps of fabric (I'm still very impressed with our ingenuity, and I took pictures before we threw it away)
  • Portuguese Rosetta Stone, Korean language tapes, and a Taiwanese phrasebook

I didn't, however, get rid of my old diaries. Julie found one of hers from third grade and began reading it to me. At that tender age, she took a Renaissance attitude towards orthography. I've never seen so many letters crammed into basic words; she spelled company "koumpagnie." She also wanted to become a physical therapist because of how incredibly wealthy she would become.

I also kept two notebooks, one from middle school and shared with my friends Tara and Sarah, and one from high school, passed between me and my friend Melissa. Tonight I went to Melissa's house to read this notebook with her. Our 15-year-old selves took boy-craziness to impressive new heights. We had a system of code names for all the boys we liked, complete with an index in the back. Unfortunately, we lost the code, so we no longer remember who "Arf," "Diablo," "D.Q." or "Biology Man" are, although we did write that "Weasel" was "oily, with a bitter aftertaste" and that "Moo" was "FingerLickin' Good!," so I don't know if these were nicknames or recipes. As Melissa pointed out, we did not have much experience at that point in "tasting" men. In one of the entries, I gave Melissa advice on seducing a guy by convincing him that she didn't care about him, but also conning him into teaching her how to kiss:
Finish by jumping back, looking at him strangely, and start sobbing (WATERPROOF MASCARA!) on his shoulder, saying that this kissing has awakened your feelings for him ... use all your powers, wide tearfilled eyes, hands clutching his shoulders, beautiful quivering lips, head on his chest, sobbing again, that last sweet sweet kiss. P.S. I read it in that book Becky has.
I also wrote--often and at length--about how my love for the Beatles was truer and deeper than anyone else's at our school. "Today, April goes, 'They look alike, dontcha think?' No, they don't! They might all have brown hair and brown eyes, but they do not look alike! What an ass!"

We came across the most ridiculous passage that I have ever read. I wrote this about a boy I liked (code name: Marc Antony/Mercury) who was dating a girl I hated (code name: Cleopatra). I think we had maybe just read Antony and Cleopatra. But my L.M. Montgomery and Marion Zimmer Bradley is showing, too:
Cleopatra was just a plain human, not a goddess, and even though in history, she is depicted with god-like powers,1 powers of the cat, all she was was a slutty, dictatorish ruler of a country of heathens!2 And if, perchance, she was of the immortal strain, SHE'S EGYPTIAN! Egyptians and Romans DON'T MIX! ... However, darling Mercury, man of light foot and marble stature, I am of the Everlasting myself. Who could be as mischevious [sic] and delightful as me, and not have a bit of Puck in m'self?3 Who could have visions of wonder and grandeur like me, and not be of the blood of Titania? I have Norwegian gnome, Irish elf, Scottish faerie, and Welsh kelpie in me! I have seen the magesty [sic] of Atlantis, the magic of Stonehenge, the Mystery of the misty fir forest of the Irish, the gorse-covered plains of the Scottish highlands, and the gloomy rockstrewn shores that the mermaids inhabit in Wales.4 I have lived a thousand lives, and been none the worse. Beautiful god of old, I am of your kin and I understand. You and I have been together from the beginning of the world, and have seen all. You are mine, and have been from the building of Olympus, the destruction of Atlantis, the worship in temple Stonehenge. You are mine.5
After I wrote that, I assume my eyes turned black while I chanted in Sumerian about how I'd be a queen, beautiful and terrible as the dawn. And then I probably murdered his cat.

1: Don't know where this idea came from.
2: I was very into denouncing heathens in high school.
3: *gagging noises*
4: I had seen none of these things; I had been to Yellowstone.
5: He's married now. Three kids. But I'm playing the long game.

Friday, February 13, 2015

SFF Writing Roundup

On Wednesdays, I do a weekly web round-up post over at (Also, I wear pink.)

And in the course of searching for lots of SFF-related news in publishing, TV, and film, I also run across a fair amount of stuff that's of interest to me as a writer. Like Kameron Hurley's essay crushing the idea that you have to write every day, and proposing a new model--the 10,000 word writing day. Or her other essay giving us some real talk (and figures) about what the non-J.K. Rowlings and Pat Rothfusses of the world get paid to write books.

Or Brian Stavely's ongoing blog series about transitioning from writing poetry to writing epic fantasy. Apparently, only one of these genres involves spreadsheets to keep track of boring parts like whether or not your character is wearing clean underwear.

Or the fact that SFWA has changed their membership rules, opening up places for self-published authors and authors published with small presses.

Or Tor's announcement about their new publishing tack focusing on novellas via an e-platform.

A couple places to submit: one if you would like to guest blog about representation in SFF, and another (only open for 2 more days) for short-shorts on the edge of realism and speculative fiction.

I'll end with two bits of writing advice. The first is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It came from Neil Gaiman a couple of months ago in response to a fan asking how to start writing, but it's so good that I'll post it again here.

And the other is courtesy of Aimee Bender, who was a guest speaker for the online fiction workshop I'm taking via The Brainery. She was lovely: warm, humble, honest, and funny. And she had some very common-sense writing advice about only working on what you feel like working on. If you come to your writing desk and you don't feel like finishing the story you were working on yesterday, that's fine; write something else. Write what you want to write.

It may sound silly, but this was transformative for me. I spent over a year writing my dissertation, a project that I almost never wanted to be working on. When I finished it and my degree, I thought, finally, I can write what I want. But the process of getting my Ph.D. changed me; where I'd been lazy and apathetic before, I was suddenly all driven, with a strong work ethic, like some kind of Puritan. It was awful.

Don't get me wrong, those are good qualities, but along with them comes a certain, shall we say, singleminded-ness. I'm not always as in touch with "what I want" and am instead still working in service of "what I should." Sometimes I push the words out, trying to shove a story into a particular box. "The ending should be like this!" "I have to send it to this journal!" "It needs to be this many words!"

Since she said that, I've been trying to listen to my creative brain, my crazy cluttered child brain. And it's been wonderful. This past week I've been working on something amazing that I love, that, if I can make it say what I want it to say, will give everyone who reads it chills. And today I wrote, revised, and submitted an entire sci-fi/noir short-short. I'm really excited about it! And all this productivity, even after I loosened my mental reins...

Bless Aimee Bender. :)

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Necromancer's House

The Necromancer’s House, by Christopher Buehlman, is a scary, funny, fast-paced urban fantasy novel with a rich voice and likeable characters. With its multiple viewpoints and several satisfying reveals along the way, it is one of the most well-crafted and exciting books I have read in a while.

Buehlman tells the story of Andrew Blankenship, a charming, brilliant modern wizard who drives an antique Mustang, wears his long black hair in a samurai bun, and goes to AA meetings regularly. He lives in the woods of upstate New York, in a house stocked and protected with ancient magic, much of it stolen from Baba Yaga in Soviet Russia. He’s in love with his lesbian apprentice, sleeps with a rusalka (a mermaid in Slavic myth), and is served and protected by the reanimated heart of his dead dog in the body of a wicker man. To put it simply, his life is not without complications at the beginning of the novel, but things are about to get a lot worse for Andrew.

After the rusalka drowns a Russian national, Baba Yaga is awakened to Andrew’s continued existence and vows to bring him down. She sends her daughter, along with other arcane magical forces, to hunt Blankenship and destroy him. At this point, it takes all of Andrew’s considerable magical knowledge, combined with that of several of his friends, to evade the arch-witch.

Buehlman has a background in both poetry and drama, and these influences make his writing shine. His dialogue is winding and funny, like the best plays, and some of his prose, laid out on the page in one-sentence paragraphs, reads like poetry. Descriptions like “an embarrassment of stars, like a fay court,” and “a tumble of scratches and playful bites and cheek-licking, a dance as old as man and dog and meat and fire” make the reading experience feel like a treasure hunt.

One of the most powerful tools in Andrew’s toolbox is his house — after all, the book is called The Necromancer’s House. He has armed it in several ways, forming layers of magical protection around himself. These are uniformly fascinating. It’s fun to watch Andrew change skins in his Room of Skins, although the consequences of leaving one’s human skin lying around are pretty bad if enemies get in. There is a tiny replica of the house in the attic with a dangerous surprise inside, a sleeping giant made of car parts in his front yard, and his bathroom appliances can be used to travel to other bathrooms (like in Harry Potter, not as in a flying toilet). In short, the house has so much personality, it’s basically a character in the book.

The other characters in The Necromancer’s House are just as interesting and well-developed. Even the ones we barely meet, like Radha, the computer mage from Chicago, have distinct voices and personalities. My favorite was Anneke, Andrew’s protégé and AA sponsee. She’s sharp and bad-ass and a little bit self-deceiving. Buehlman’s best description of her is as follows: “Anneke doesn’t do regret, or at least she tells herself that enough that it has become her mantra. If she were in Game of Thrones, her household words would be, ‘Yes, I did do that. And fuck you.’”

Andrew’s backstory is fully explored, including the tragic reasons for his alcoholism. Despite his arrogance and vanity — literally, one of the reasons he has left his defenses down for so long is that he uses magic to make himself young — I liked and empathized with him. I cried at the scene near the end of the book, when Andrew spends a last few moments with his reanimated dead dog, and then allows him to die — to go “outside” — for good.

The one era of his life left blank — intentionally — is his time in Soviet Russia as a prisoner of Baba Yaga. He relates this tale to a character in the book, but we do not get to hear it. Instead, Chapter 34 consists of one sentence: “He tells them what happened to him in Russia.” This narrative technique works much like Edgar Allan Poe’s negative description of the pit in his short story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” When we don’t know exactly what Baba Yaga is capable of, she could be capable of just about anything.

Full disclosure for you horror fans and/or –phobes: The Necromancer’s House, which is categorized by the publisher as “horror,” didn’t scare me. This is fine with me. I don’t usually like horror; I get too easily frightened and, unlike adrenaline junkies, don’t find it a pleasant experience. I couldn’t go to sleep the night that I watched Shyamalan’s The Village because I kept imagining the fake-monster-things looming next to my bed, and that’s horror-lite! (Pity me, for I am weak.)

The thing that really scares me is inhuman evil. Anything from Lovecraft, or Stephen King’s terrifying oil slick in “The Raft,” or even human killers who kill compulsively, with joy, instead of for “normal” reasons to murder someone (such as power, or revenge, or bad grammar). These are terrifying monsters to me, ideas that won’t let me sleep at night. Some of the creatures in this book would fit that category, but the main antagonist, Baba Yaga, seemed just as human as Andrew Blankenship. Despite the terror she unleashes (including several very inventive deaths), she wasn’t inexplicable to me. Or perhaps I just read too many illustrated books when I was a kid portraying her as a kindly old babushka with a neat house. Either way, I was happy that I was able to read Buehlman’s book without resorting to huddling beneath my comforter.

*This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 4.5 stars.