A Clarion West Reading List

Hooray for Spring Break! Now I can tackle more of my reading list for Clarion West more effectively. The instructors, of course, are Michael Bishop, Maureen McHugh, Nnedi Okorafor, Graham Joyce, Ellen Datlow and Ian McDonald.

I’ve finished Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, her first novel and an engrossing multi-perspective future piece. The short version: China basically runs the world after a revolution in the U.S., and we’ve colonized Mars with climate-controlled habitat domes. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s a character-driven story, and I loved those characters. I didn’t want the book to end.
I’m now reading Ian McDonald’s The Broken Land, which is probably set in one of the weirdest future Earths I’ve ever read. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it in brief! It has compelling characterization, too, but I’m most intrigued by the fluid manner in which McDonald switches from third to second person, from past to present tense, as suits the scene, often in mid-scene or even mid-sentence. It feels unexpected and sometimes jarring but always appropriate.
The rest of the list:
  • Eyes of Fire, Michael Bishop
  • The Shadow Speaker, Nnedi Okorafor
  • Requiem, Graham Joyce
  • Speaking in Tongues, Ian McDonald
  • Stolen Faces, Michael Bishop
  • Desolation Road Ian McDonald
  • King of Morning, Queen of Day, Ian McDonald
I’d like to add some more of McHugh, Joyce and Okorafor’s works to the list; this was just what I was able to get at my local used book store and on paperbackswap.com. Randy Henderson, a Clarion West 2009 grad, has suggested that folks also look at the Nebula Awards Showcase for 2009, edited by Ellen Datlow. I’ve been looking over some of Datlow’s horror editing, but horror is really not my genre at all.

God, help me!

I’m over halfway through Dead Until Dark, and a part of me wishes I’d never picked it up. Morbid curiosity, I reckon. Lite reading, because I’m supposed to be concentrating on writing, but I still need something to read while I eat my oatmeal.

I’m not one for vamp books (trashier versions of romance novels, generally), but I do like some vamp television, especially Buffy. The True Blood adaptation of the Sookie Stackhouse series is my guilty pleasure, with an extra helping of guilt. I feel nervous about exposing my affection for it; will you think less of me? Hey, what I am going to watch, now that Dollhouse is over and done?
We at my house are not big TV watchers, but as a writer, I am obsessed with story anymore, and grab at it any place I can find it. Harris’s book is one of those rare examples of those proving not as good as the adaptation, unfortunately. It sort of tanks along and is written so lazily that I’m blowing through it. Very low reading level, but by far better in terms of characterization and setting than Twilight (ugh). I couldn’t choke down more than fifteen pages of that absolutely terrible book. Heroines need to have spunk, and vampires should bite people.

Book Review

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I finished this book a few weeks ago, and when I finally put it down, I exclaimed to my hubbie, “This is the best f’ing book I ever read.”

Basic synopsis: A group of friends and colleagues, several of whom happen to be Jesuits, are sent to find the source of musical transmissions coming from another planet. The only survivor to return is a traumatized priest who can’t bring himself to discuss what happened to the rest of the crew. The restoration of his battered body and badly shaken faith, and the story of the journey itself, are interwoven into twin narratives that kept me completely hooked.

I read this book on a recommendation, and I am so glad I did. It is a very slow burn, but haunting and extremely well-done. While several characters in the book are Jesuit, I would not call it a Christian book; I’m not a Christian (but I am a student of faith), and I enjoyed the book immensely. Faith is just part of who the people are.

However, this is a sci-fi book that is about ethics and character, not about action. Readers who enjoyed Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, which I can’t suggest strongly enough, will like this book. Readers who dig on writers like John Ringo will dislike its attention to character and lengthy discussion about morality. The book’s greatest success, I think, is convincing the reader that each character is unique and interesting. It’s a tragedy, and the reader knows that from the beginning. I felt something for each character because they seemed like real people; I cried more than once. Not everyone’s cup of tea, certainly.

From a writer’s perspective, Russell’s narrative technique is what impressed me most and kept me reading. I have little patience these days for crummy language and trite ideas. The dialogue is nearly flawless, and effortless for the reader to experience. Well worth a read for the student of technique.

On Writing

This is more of a personal reflection than a book review, for what it’s worth.

I know I’m not the only person out there indulging in reading about writing rather than doing the work of writing (you know, some of the time). Classic procrastination disguised as progress. On the same note, there are plenty of writers who are penning “how-to” books instead of producing fiction. Most are not that worthwhile, and folks would be especially wise to avoid books that have big promises on the cover, like “Jumpstart your creativity!” and “Write your novel in three easy steps!” and so forth. This is probably self-evident.

However, a few decent books exist that are thoughtful, inspiring and actually helpful to my process. Right now, I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Now, before you say “Eww, not that guy,” just hang on a minute. I thought that, too, before I picked it up. King is one of those writers that people seem to love or hate. I used to love his stuff, but I was a ripe old seventeen years old. Then I moved on.

But this book is not (obviously) horror, and King is successful for a reason. Primarily, I think it’s his astonishing output. I admire that kind of work ethic, and many people suggested the book to me. I was able to overcome my initial reluctance, and I’m very pleased that I did.

What I’ve enjoyed so far about the book is King’s “memoir” bit, which is a brief description of events in his life that he believes “formed” him as a writer (he doesn’t believe that writers are made, BTW; they either have what it takes, and do something with it, or they don’t). I found it fresh and funny. I was thrilled by his descriptions of everyday encounters that later coalesced into story concepts and characters. Write what you know, right? For instance, an amalgamation of hapless girls he observed in school became Carrie (he always disliked her), the main character in his first successful book. He also engages the struggle that plagues many of us, balancing personal life with the demands of our writing ambition/addiction (are you listening, Oso?)

I found this so interesting that I sat down, and as an exercise, wrote an outline of my adolescence and filled in key memories from those times in my life. Nothing comprehensive, just random thoughts, really. I am shocked at how little I recall about my own life. King expresses his amazement at memoir writers who seem to recall every detail of their lives with clarity; he just doesn’t have that, and neither do I. In fact, I question the authenticity of those tidy autobiographies.

Then in the second section, King launches into a pleasant discussion with the reader about his personal sense of wonder concerning writing as “telepathy,” a method of communicating directly with another person on the page. The result is surprisingly intimate:

“I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room… except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.” (106)

In the next chapter, entitled “Toolbox,” he discusses ways to develop oneself as a writer. No discussion so far about plotting, or character, or any of that although it may come. A pleasurable difference from other books I’ve read about writing.

Somewhere, I think in a Nebula volume, Ursula K. LeGuin made a statement about writing workshops that went something like this: If we teach everyone tried and true methods for fiction writing, then we’ll probably get a lot of stories that sound pretty good. But they’ll all sound the same. We have to work on ways to help emergent writers find their own unique voices, or there won’t be any ground-breaking new work(s).

I’m enjoying the process of finding my own voice.