Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review - Faith, by John Love

I bought Faith because it had an awesome cover, a pretentious title, and a sweet premise on the back of the book. A super powerful ship visited a civilization 100 years ago and then left, and ever since then that civilization has gone into decline. Now it's returned, and the human civilization is determined to fight it off via epic space battle with their own super awesome ship stuffed with felonious geniuses (not to be confused with felinious geniuses; that would be altogether a different book).

It's an exciting book, especially as the build-up for the eventual fight between the two ships does such a good job of playing up the mysterious and powerful nature of the enemy ship (called Faith). The actual engagement takes up the majority of the book and goes through several stages, as do the characters on the ship. There's intense back-and-forth between the two ships, each part more interesting and stranger than the first, and as the cleverness and competency of the protagonists meets up against the impossibility of the task, you find yourself rooting quite hard for the good guys.

But Faith is quite ambitious in that it's not just a story of two superships fighting an epic battle. The story heaps themes upon itself at every opportunity, whether it's the Other, irony, faith (duh), solitude, or so on. The ship Faith is strange and ponderous and ideal for hosting symbolism, and Love gets all the mileage he can out of it, and does so well. When the antagonist of an entire novel is a ship, it's difficult to give it the weight of character that Love does so here with such obvious enjoyment. The synopsis calls Faith "the bastard child of Moby Dick and Kafka, invincible and strange." So, yeah, he's kind of swinging for the fences on this one.

The book does quite a bit to support its ambitions, however; the writing is well done and often quite clever. All the metaphors were original, except in the case where he re-used them within the same book (he is quite fond of vomit, sex, and pooping metaphors; but then again, who isn't? Oh, right). But at times I got the sense that the writing outpaced the story in a negative way in that the narration often got too caught up in wordplay and irony and mining every detail for potential significance.

By the end of the book, I was unsatisfied, but only because the buildup was so marvelous. The resolution of this grand apparatus that Love had so carefully constructed did not match my hopes. If Faith were a less ambitious book I would have enjoyed it more, but not as deeply as the times that it made me really think deeply at the themes at play. Faith is guilty of, dare I say it, over-reaching. The engagement with the ship wasn't enough for Love - like Moby Dick, it had to represent something even larger and grander somehow, but in reaching for that level of significance, the concrete story that supported such a Grand Symbol was undermined in some ways. In the end, the carefully crafted build-up and the quality of the writing make this an excellent recommendation for most science fiction readers.

3.5/5 stars

Here is an interview that John Love gave soon after the book was purchased which offers some good insights, and another more recent one here.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


I am not a great conversationalist, but I've decided that I'm a step above an AI, as evidenced by my maiden voyage to cleverbot.com:

User: Nice to meet you, I'm Carl.

Cleverbot: And I'm getting crazy.

User: That's probably because of talking to so many people at the same time.

Cleverbot: You don't need to work, work is for unintelligent people.

User: And how do you get your pay check?

Cleverbot: Battery fluid I guess.

User: I'll have to look into that.

Cleverbot: Should ilook for a new job... I think my employer is mad at me.

User: Probably for being so unintelligent. You know what they say.

Cleverbot: You're smart.

User: Not smart enough to not have a job, apparently.

Cleverbot: How?

User: You said that only unintelligent people work.

Cleverbot: That makes no sense.

User: Touche, Cleverbot. Touche.

Cleverbot: Yes that is me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Was A Poet And Wasn't Even Cognizant Of The Fact

You're reading the blog of a published poet -- and even weirder, I'm writing one. Although I focus on short fiction (mostly speculative fiction of late), I've managed to publish a poem before anything else.

It's called "2008 World Naked Bike Ride, Portland, Oregon." It's available now in the Summer Issue of Notes Magazine. The inciting incident of this poem is pretty self-explanatory, and I encourage you to read it should you crave additional details. Let me just give my thanks to Portland for staying weird.

As someone who does not identify himself as a poet, the process of writing this poem and getting it published has been a little exotic.

I wrote this poem as part of a poetry class I took at BYU. I only took it because they weren't offering the corresponding level of fiction class at the time, but I'm glad I did. Professor Kim Johnson gave me a glimpse into the depth of poetry, and helped me understand how to look at poems with a more objective eye. I got a lot of excellent feedback for this poem from that class.

I didn't do anything else with the poem until this year, when I went to Life, The Universe, and Everything, a symposium for science fiction and fantasy writing. There was a session called "Can Poetry Help Your Prose?" The consensus among the symposium-goers was apparently "no," as it was the worst-attended session I went to all week. But the expertise of the panel and the insights they offered were very enlightening, and I'll have to write a blog post about it sometime in the future.

One of the panelists was Dr. Michael Collings, who also had an open invitation to anyone to show him a poem you wrote, and he'd help you improve it. I decided to take him up on it, and it was very educational. He showed me what worked in the poem, what was weaker, and most importantly, how you should be thinking and what you should be looking for when trying to improve any of your poems. He was invaluable in improving my poem as well as in giving me the confidence to submit it for publication.

(A side note: I was somewhat surprised that it seemed not very many people took him up on his offer. I'd encourage anyone at a writing conference to not forgo free one-on-one instruction from an expert, even if it's a little outside their genre; it was a good experience for me.)

I used Duotrope to find markets that I was comfortable submitting my poem to. It's wonderful for managing your submissions and giving you powerful tools for knowing what markets to submit to. That's how I found Notes Magazine. To my delight, it was accepted, and now you can buy the issue that contains it.

A few words about Notes Magazine: As one who doesn't read very many literary fiction markets, I didn't immediately know the quality of the magazine. But I looked through the credentials of other authors whose work was accepted for the summer issue, and I'm glad to say I'm in good company. The other authors have also been published in the Best Australian Stories, Best New Writing of 2010, Emerson, and a ton of journals whose names end with Review. They've also won such varied contests as the LA Comedy Festival Screenwriting Competition and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

The great thing about publication is that I can vicariously take credit for other's work by having a poem in the same magazine.

Note that you can buy the issue at a Friends/Family discount. Because while I don't consider all of my blog readers as friends, they didn't offer any discounts for enemies.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Inception Is About Storytelling

"True inspiration is impossible to fake." "No, it's not."

This is the moment when I realized that Inception was a storytelling thriller. No matter how many bullets are fired, get this straight: Inception is all about storytelling.

Look at these words the characters use when trying to describe inception: catharsis, art, inspiration, subtle, depth, emotion, imagination. It sounds a lot like they're trying to describe the next great American novel, not a money-grabbing caper.

But isn't storytelling a caper? It requires countless moving parts, a huge arsenal of tools, adaptation, vision, and at an almost definitive level, deceit. You're sucking the reader into a dreamworld that you don't want them to remember to be fake.

Each member of the team embodies part of the writing process. Cobb has the vision, Eames has the character development, Ariadne has the setting, Arthur has the editing, and Yosef has the drugs--all critical elements of storytelling. (Except the drugs. Probably.)

And what's their big plan? It's not just to go three dreams deep, like some kind of ridiculous Russian doll scenario. It's a three act structure built around a character's development:

"On the top level, we open up his relationship with his father. Say: 'I WILL NOT FOLLOW IN MY FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS.' Next level down we've accessed his ambition and self-esteem. We feed him: 'I WILL CREATE SOMETHING MYSELF.' Then, the bottom level, we bring out the emotional big guns: 'MY FATHER DOESN'T WANT ME TO BE HIM.'"

Inception can't be a logical procedure wherein they persuade their mark to an idea. Emotion must drive it, and so their plot becomes intimate and personal. In fact, the most emotional part of the movie, for me, was when Fischer finds the pinwheel in his father's safe. As I was hit with this powerful emotion, I suddenly realized, "Wait a minute. This is all fake, and I know it is because I saw them plan and execute it. Why is it still emotional?"

Apparently, Cobb is right: you can fake inspiration. It's called storytelling.

But "fake inspiration" is a label I've never attributed to it. When you read a great book, do you think to yourself, "That was really inspiring, but it was all fake, so it doesn't matter?" Are great works of art nothing but fake inspiration, a manipulation of our human nature? I don't think so. I think, more accurately, great art and, particularly, great stories aren't faking inspiration so much as they are forging it. I agree with the conclusion that the movie asserts, which is that when it comes to inspiration, the boundaries between Fake and Real aren't as meaningful anymore.

Now if only bullets would fly and gravity would fluctuate while I write my own stories.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Why Three Is A Magic Number

Happy Threesday! Yes, today is March the Third, or 3/3. I can think of no better way to celebrate Threesday than by talking about the three act structure in storytelling. Almost everything I say here comes from Deren Hansen's presentation, "Weaving A Complex Narrative." His overall presentation was probably my favorite from all of LTUE, and this is just a small part of the things he went over. I'll probably recap his ideas more fully later. For now, simply bask in the glory of the Three (and check out his thoughtful writing blog at The Laws of Making).

We've all heard of the three act structure. But consider three as a structure in other compositions. In pop songs, you have a verse and a chorus, then a verse and a chorus, and then a bridge and a chorus. If you look at comics, they normally have three panels. Jokes almost always involve three steps to them: a straight line, a straight line, and a punch line. Three guys walk into a bar, and the third delivers the punchline. Volleyball, according to Mr. Hansen, is an athletic comedy--bump, set, spike.

Why all of these threes? The phrase that he used and has stuck with me the best is this: the Goldilocks Guide to Artillery. To find your cannon's range on a target, it usually takes three tries. The first is too hot, the second too cold, and the third is just right.

The most powerful storytellers of their time

It's similar to home repair. There are three steps: first, go get what you need from Home Depot. Second, go back to Home Depot and get what you didn't know you needed. Third, go back to Home Depot and get what you actually need.

This three step pattern is everywhere. You try, fail, and learn something; so you try again, fail again, and learn something else; and then you try one final time and succeed.

But why are stories like this? Why can't there just be two act stories, or stories just about a single try/fail step?

It's because, in Mr. Hansen's words, three is the minimum narrative container for significance. (I don't know if that's true because it's in bold or if it's in bold because it's true.) But think about it. One action is simply a procedure. You're hungry, you make a sandwich and eat it. COOL STORY BRO! Two actions is a rule, meaning that it looks more like an if/then logic step than it does a story. The sandwich doesn't fill your hunger, so you get pizza, and you're good. Three actions is what we call a story, because that's about how we solve a problem when the obvious answers aren't going to be the ones that solve the problem.

It's how the most powerful, trying, and interesting ideas are explored. So that's why three is a magic number: it's the minimum narrative container for significance (I love how he put that).

And with that, I'm off to continue to celebrate my Threesday! What do you think about this idea--and does it make sense in the fiction you read and write?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Giving Good Feedback

One of my favorite parts of writing is giving feedback to other people's work.

A lot of people view writing as a solitary craft, but I don't think that's wholly accurate. Look at the Acknowledgments page of any published book and you'll find an army of people who gave it their blood, sweat, tears, and most costly of all, their time. Writers are not mad scientists locked in a tower, mashing together their creation with pieces from fevered nightmares and dark experiments, their only true collaboration with a hunchbacked assistant who flips the switch and publishes their book.

Even God, when creating the earth and the heavens, had Adam name the animals. Your manuscript could probably use help, too.

But you don't join a writing group just for the sake of getting critiques. You also have to give them. This helps me in the following ways:

- It forces me to objectively define my idea of good storytelling
- It forces me to understand where and how stories fall below their potential
- It forces me to practice a problem-solving process I can apply to my own writing

But that only happens when I try to give good feedback. So, what is good feedback? In this post, good feedback doesn't mean telling someone their story was good. I mean quality feedback.

A review is not constructive, quality feedback. Giving a story a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down is the most primitive, base reaction you can give anything. They have old high school friends and extended family for this--you are a writer, and should be expected to offer more useful information.

Here's what I think a good critique involves, or at least what I try to do. First I give it a read-through without making any notes, trying to read it as any reader would. When I'm done, I think back to the parts I liked and didn't like, and whether I enjoyed the story overall.

After that, I start asking questions. If I didn't like it, why not? Was there a part of the story where I stopped caring as much? Was there a part where I stopped hating it as severely? Keep asking questions until you can isolate the problem.

Just as important as identifying what doesn't work is identifying what does work. A car mechanic doesn't just know what makes a car break down, but what makes it run. This isn't just for ego-stroking; if you don't know why a story works where it does, you can't build off of it as effectively as possible. What pulled you through the story? Good character, the style, the premise, etc.?

Then I read it again, looking more closely. I list the individual things that worked (good lines, great use of theme, etc.) as well as the individual things that need fixing (this paragraph is confusing, you switch tenses here, this description could be stronger).

Then I try to offer solutions. Pointing out story problems is useful, but it's not nearly as useful as offering ideas as to how the writer can deal with the problems. Problem-finding is not nearly the same thing as problem-solving. This is the hardest part of giving a critique, in my opinion, because you have to take some ownership of the story and invest more of yourself into it. A lot of times, solutions will be drastic changes or involve throwing different parts of the story every which way. You may have to step back and think well outside the bounds of the text on the page in front you.

But don't give lame solutions, like "I enjoyed the snarky intro but not the confusing middle. Just have more snark there, instead." Attempt to figure out what the author's vision was for that confusing middle, and help them reach their vision; or understand better why the snarky intro worked so the writer can build on it instead of just copying it.

I find that a crucial piece of giving good criticism involves not asking the writer any questions. Too often the writer will try to justify or defend their decisions, even when you're fine with them. And you may pull back on your criticism if you're worried they'll be defensive about it.

A final, important note about quality feedback: the point is to help the writer improve the story. Don't spend twenty minutes debating word usage or tenses or punctuation, or minor story decisions. You should spend most of your time discussing the big issues. And since your goal is the help the writer improve the story, be aware of what will actually motivate the writer to improve it. If you make no effort to try to understand the potential of a story or where an author was trying to take it and simply point out all its problems and why you didn't like it, you're not helping them.

At my last writing group's meeting, we workshopped a piece that had a lot of stylistic errors that bogged it down severely. We identified examples and bemoaned our confusion and boredom at reading the piece, but the best advice someone gave was to simply not sweat it and just move forward with their story. Too often a lot of stuff we say in critiques are simple fixes for a rewrite, while the really crucial direction that a writer needs is more related to the story.

So give good feedback! Not only will you get better feedback in return, but you're really helping somebody out, and we can all use any help we can get. And you'll refine your understanding of your craft along the way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Seven Elements of Ignoring Writing Rules

A lot of LTUE was spent explaining certain story concepts or story structures. I learned a lot of great rules, always with an accompanying caveat. After LTUE, I started visiting more writing blogs, wherein I've found more of the same: close analysis of different story elements, with rules about their correct application.

This is our craft—-of course we break it down and study its parts, like an engineer would study an engine. Clint Johnson, at an LTUE past, once said that there are great writers and great storytellers, but seldom are you both; and just as you can improve your craft as a writer, you can learn to be a great storyteller. It's important and useful to study your craft.

But another comment at this year's LTUE really sat me up straight, because it cut through a lot of fluff and got to one of storytelling's greatest secrets. At the panel on suspense, James Dashner eventually said (paraphrasing from memory), “Look, I don't really know how I make my books suspenseful. I think, 'Would this make it more suspenseful?' And if it does, I do it. Don't worry about all these rules. You've read books and seen movies, and you know what makes a good story.”

We know what makes for a good story, intuitively. Storytelling is something we do all the time, every day, from when our boss asks “How was your night?” to when your wife asks “How was your day?” It's an ancient art that's as old as language itself. It's part of what it means to be human.

And yet we have all these workshops and blogs about the Hollywood Formula or the Hero's Journey. Did you know that people told stories to each other before Hollywood? And that not every story has every one of the 510 steps of the Hero's Journey?

There's a website out there called TV Tropes, which names and categorizes every story tool ever used in the history of stories. People say they can get lost in there for hours, simply reading about all the tropes. I've never really found it useful. It feels like they're inventing an entirely new language for story discourse, and through the translation we end up with microwavable meals.

I don't think that we should define good storytelling with hard and fast rules, like some kind of Moneyball approach. I think we need to trust ourselves as natural storytellers instead of looking for a formula or rule set for everything we write.

So if you find yourself stressing over all the rules, advice, and story structures, just sit back, take a breath, and write what you like.