Writing about Reading: Why William Gibson’s brilliant novel The Peripheral is dangerous for writers

December 22, 2014 § 2 Comments

peripheralBy the end of the first page of William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, I knew I was in trouble.

It’s not a bad book. That’s not the problem at all. It’s that it is such a damn good book, such a truly fantastic book, that my novel-in-progress looks pathetic by comparison.

Gibson is a genius for imagining the future. It’s not just the technological portrait he paints, but the way the characters talk, how they think, how they view the world around them. He doesn’t pander, doesn’t offer explanations. You’re in the deep end on page one, and brother, you’d better learn to swim fast.

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Creating Character Names

November 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

for-your-inspirationNaming characters has never been easy for me — especially those “walk on” characters that surprise me by turning up in a scene unplanned. That’s why I am sharing a link to this article: How to Invent Names for Your Genre Novel. It’s partly for those of you who also have this trouble, but mostly for me, so I can find it again when I need it. (Yes, I can and did bookmark it in my browser, but … well, I have a bookmark problem. I’m a bookmark hoarder. There, I said it.)

Going handily with that link is another article I stumbled across this morning about the naming of the characters in the Hunger Games series. (There are several articles about the Hunger Games names, by the way; that’s just the one I happened to read this morning.)

Do you have any tips for coming up with character names? Share them in the comments! I need all the help I can get.

Your Female Characters Need to be More than Strong

August 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Rosie-the-RiveterI like fiction with strong female characters. The novel I’m writing has a few strong women in it. The novels I like to read and the TV shows I like to watch have strong female characters in them. And, thankfully, there are more and more stories featuring strong female characters lately.

This is a good thing, a necessary thing.

But when your Strong Female Character’s only notable trait is her strength, you’ve committed the rookie mistake of writing a one-dimensional character.

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Changing the Story

May 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Women of the Military

Image from “Women of the Military” (http://www.womenofthemilitary.com/)

I have been hunting for just what the heck Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg had written in the SFWA Bulletin that has gotten so many people angry. I’m not a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), so I don’t get the bulletin or have access to the online version. But I started seeing tweets about it by outgoing SFWA president John Scalzi and incoming president Steven Gould, and I thought surely something this controversial would be made public somewhere. I have yet to find the original Resnick/Malzberg article that caused the uproar, but I have found many things about it, and the gist I’m getting is that Resnick and Malzberg made some sexist statements in a column they write for the bulletin, for which they were vociferously called out. Instead of apologizing, they wrote a second column saying their detractors were trying censor them and control their thoughts. Gasoline, meet fire.

But this post isn’t about that. Well, it sort of is. But it’s really about llamas.

In the course of trying to find the offending Malzberg/Resnick article, I went to SFWA’s website, where I found a post by Kameron Hurley. It’s titled “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative,” and it is very long, but it’s well worth reading. In fact, go read it now—the whole grande enchilada.

I’m glad I read it when I did. My little space opera has several women in it, and while I hope I’m writing them as strong characters, I’ll be going back and looking at them with a more critical eye now. I’m actually kind of nervous about it. I hope I like what I find. Even if I don’t, though, changing the story will make it a better story, and I’m fine with that.

So go read Hurley’s essay, and then change your story.

Make sure you get the llamas right.

A couple of things

April 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

joe-hillSo … it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything. Partially, it’s because I’ve started a new (well, returned to an old) job, which has freed up my evenings a bit, which in turn has gotten me back to work on my novel. Which is the other part of “partially,” really. All good news, then, being that I’m happier at work and finding time to write.

Part of the joy of being back at the new/old job is that I get to chat with my friend Paula whenever she isn’t up to her neck in software code. Okay, she’s always up to her neck in software code, but every once in a while, we cross paths in the break room and steal a few minutes to chat. She told me about Ilona Andrews’ blog post on ebooks and hybridization, which I’ve just read and thought it worth sharing, since I’ve kind of been hung up on the changing landscape of publishing. Andrews says:

Some people don’t want to bother with self-publishing and I certainly understand that.  Others treat the idea of working toward traditional publication as some sort of idiocy. It’s each author’s prerogative to steer their own career.  For us, I believe hybridization is the way to go.

And then goes on to explain why. It’s good, thought-provoking stuff, and a post I’ll definitely re-read when it comes time to decide what I want to do with my novel.

So that’s one thing. The other thing I wanted to share was an interview with Joe Hill about his forthcoming book, NOS4A2. There’s a lot of great stuff in this interview, like this bit:

I think ideas are the easiest part of it. A lot of people believe, “I could be a great novelist or a filmmaker if I had just one good idea.” But really, I think the execution is more important than the ideas. An idea is just an adhesive that you use to stick a reader to a character. But the adhesive doesn’t last for very long. And then if the reader hangs in, they’re only hanging in because they care about that character.

It’s almost like—the best and worst bubblegum is Juicy Fruit. Because it tastes so good when you first chew into it, but the flavor goes out of it after about 30 seconds, and then you’re just chewing this nasty lump of concrete. And a good concept can be a little bit more interesting than a stick of Juicy Fruit, it can have a little bit more flavor to it. But I do think all the nutrients are in characters. The satisfying meal is who these people are.

This struck me because of another conversation I had with Paula, in which we were trying to figure out why we only kinda like the new Syfy show, Defiance. We were specifically trying to figure out why Firefly worked from the get-go, while we struggle to connect with the characters on Defiance. A few lines later in the interview, Hill nails it:

The thing I like about Whedon’s work is, he’s always very careful to give every character their moment. A moment where they will stand revealed as hero or villain or clown. And that’s what I believe about both literary fiction and genre fiction: You can have great setpieces and a great concept, but people really want to fall in love with characters. They even want to fall in love with your bad guys.

Defiance has shown the spotlight on each main character briefly, but I don’t think any of them—including the main character, Nolan—have had their “moment” yet. But I digress. The point is, there’s a lot of gems of writing wisdom in that Joe Hill interview. Go read it.

So, apologies for the long silence. In the future, I’ll try to be a little more bloggy. (It’s a word … now …) I’ll at least try to remember to share inspiration, tips, and interviews with great writers as I find them. Until then—keep writing!

Writing about Reading: Gun Machine

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been a fan of writer Warren Ellis for a few years, and I can’t recall being disappointed by anything he’s written — and I’m including his tweets, blogs, email newsletters, and sundry other scribblings in that account. So when he announced that he was working on Gun Machine, it quickly became the most anticipated novel on my very short list of books to look forward to. I had months to heighten my expectations, and I sent them soaring into the exosphere. This, I knew, would be a Great Book.

Of course, you know what happens when you have such high expectations, right? No matter how wonderful the book or movie or meal or aged whisky, you often end up a little disappointed.

Not this time.

From the first page, Gun Machine grabbed me somewhere just south of my belt buckle and didn’t let go.

Ellis tells the story of NYPD Detective John Tallow, an aging cop going through the motions until he stumbles into the possibly biggest case in New York’s history — an apartment filled with guns.

The room was full of guns

Guns were mounted on all the walls. There were half a dozen guns at his feet. Turning around, flashlight at shoulder level, he saw that guns were mounted on the wall he had come in through. Some guns were mounted in rows, but the right-hand wall had them in complex swirls. Some were laid on the floor on the far side of the room, forming a shape he couldn’t quite fathom. There was paint daubed on those.

Tallow quickly discovers that this isn’t just a collection of firearms; each gun has been used in a single, unsolved murder. Hundreds of guns, hundreds of murders — one very dangerous killer. With no support from his department other than two eccentric CSUs, Tallow has to solve the case before NYPD politics force him out of the job, or the killer finds him, or both.

Gun Machine is by turns gritty and funny and gory and tense and batshit crazy — in other words, everything I’ve come to expect from Warren Ellis. And, as I’ve also come to expect, it is blindingly well written. Chapter Three stands out as a lesson in writing descriptively without stalling the story. A couple of chapters toward the end of the book are excellent examples of how to write fight scenes. The entire book could be studied for the way Ellis maintains tension throughout, easing off with humor just enough so that when he tightens the cord again, it bites even deeper.

In short, Gun Machine is a book you will find very difficult to put down.

I very rarely read books twice — too many books, too little time. Gun Machine, however, is a book I will return to again, and I am sure I will find much that I missed my first time through.

Dave Borcherding

Writng about Reading: After the Apocalypse

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

“The apocalypse is happening. These are the stories.”

That’s the first line of the sell copy on the back of Maureen McHugh’s powerful short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and it perfectly captures what the book contains. There are nine stories collected here, and each one takes place after some kind of apocalypse—zombie, plague, nuclear, economic, etc.

Rather than focus on the apocalypse itself, McHugh’s stories look at the effects of disaster on an individual level. These are character-centered stories with a very visceral, personal feel. “The Naturalist” is the story of an inmate trying to survive in the zombie-filled prison-city of Cleveland. “Special Economics” is the tale of a young Chinese girl trying to eke out a living in a post-plague Beijing. “Useless Things” is about a doll maker living alone in a mostly vacant New Mexico suburb after a catastrophic economic collapse. “The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large” tells the story of a boy who takes on a completely different personality following a dirty bomb attack on Baltimore.

Some of the stories aren’t about national or global disasters, but individual ones. People suddenly find themselves able to fly and are mysteriously drawn overseas in “Going to France.” A jilted bride picks up the pieces of her life by submitting to medical testing in “Honeymoon.” In “The Effect of Centrifugal Force,” the relatives of a dying woman must come to grips with the new disease that’s killing her—and may be killing them, too. “The Kingdom of the Blind” tells the story of a computer programmer struggling to communicate with what she suspects is the world’s first spontaneous AI before those up the chain of command pull the plug on it.

All are powerful stories and well told, but the best of the lot is the last—the title story—”After the Apocalypse.” In this tale, a woman and her teenage daughter are trying to escape the increasing violence and darkness (both figurative and literal) of a ruined America. They are on foot, carrying a few meager possessions, and facing daily danger from the other refugees they encounter. It’s a gritty, uncomfortable story about what people really do to survive. Forget the heroics of Hollywood; when faced with raw survival, saints are hard to find.

McHugh’s a powerful writer with a knack for creating characters we already know. We’ve met these people—worked with them, talked to them at parties, grew up with them, slept with them. McHugh shows us how they—how we—might act after the apocalypse. What we might do. Who we could become.

It’s clear that McHugh has thought a lot about the ways in which our comfortable world can end. The most frightening thing about the stories in After the Apocalypse is that each one of them could easily come true tomorrow, or in the very near future. Or they could be happening right now.

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