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On World Building

Occasionally, while reading or listening to a story, I’m struck by a sentence or a paragraph that is just . . . so perfect, it makes me want to throw out everything I have ever written. Or, alternatively, to fix everything I’ve ever written so that it comes closer to what I have just read/heard.

Today, on my way to work, I was listening to the Glittership podcast, episode 6: “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” by Lisa Nohealani Morton (@lnmorton).

The first two paragraphs of the story are as follows.

After the Collapse and the Great Reboot, Lila moved into the city and opened a barbershop.

Great things were happening in the city: spaceports and condominiums and public works projects outlined their soon-to-be-erected monuments to great men and women and superior city living in holographic glows. Angels patrolled the sky, resplendent with metal wings that sparkled in the sun when they banked for a turn. Everyone seemed to be full of exciting plans for the future, but Lila came from a long line of barbers and her humble shop only seemed fitting. She called the shop The Lion’s Mane, because there were lions, once.

It was at this point that I completely lost the story. Not because it was boring or because something had kicked me out, but because of the stunning simplicity and beauty of the world building behind the phrase “because there were lions, once.” My mind wandered, imagining this story’s world. Something called the Collapse and something else called the Great Reboot are hinted at, but the single phrase “because there were lions, once” conveys important things about the character and the world and her relation to it.

It’s wistful and sad (to me, at least), and stated so matter-of-factly that there is no question in the reader/listener’s mind that the character feels this loss deeply. So deeply, in fact, that she has named her barber shop The Lion’s Mane in honor of the once-proud beasts. It tells us that lions are going to matter in this story.

The lion has long been a symbol of strength and wildness. If lions — the apex predator of an entire continent — no longer exist, what kind of world do these characters live in? I personally experienced a sense of loss upon hearing that phrase, as though lions really had been announced to be extinct. (I love big cats probably above all other animals.)

I missed the next half-minute of the story and had to rewind to that point, and nearly zoned out again, but pushed through, and listened to almost all of the rest on my remaining commute. I’m almost done with the story, and the promise of that phrase “because there were lions, once” is being fulfilled. I knew that from the get-go, of course, but this is how a skilled writer does it.

If you’re not already listening to Glittership, consider subscribing. Keffy R. M. Kehrli is the host of and editor behind the podcast. I’ve been enjoying it as I catch up.

The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee
The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee by Talya Tate Boerner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How can one be accidentally saved? That’s the question that pops into your head when you see the title.

*** MILD spoilers follow ***

Gracie Lee Eudora Abbott is ten years old. The summer is almost over, and school is looming ominously on the all-too-close horizon. So every single day is important! But her mother, Anne, makes her and her sister go to church every Sunday. They can’t even play all morning because they’ll get dirty, so it’s basically an entire day gone out of their busy schedules of being kids in the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas in the early 70s.

Gracie’s father never goes to church with the girls and their mother. And that is totally not fair. If she has to go, why doesn’t he? Sure, he gets drunk (and mean) most nights after working all day on the farms. But that’s hardly an excuse.

So it’s only natural that Gracie would ask the preacher about it. Everything just . . . kind of got out of hand after that.

Boerner’s debut novel is full of wonderful prose, humor, and drop-dead serious situations that this plucky, curious, precocious ten-year-old girl has to navigate: school bullies, death, baptism, church camp, and the mysterious fate of the man in the gray house just down the street from hers. Did he really shoot himself? Is he all right?

*** END mild spoilers ***

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and look forward to Boerner’s future novels.

The writing reminded me a lot of A Painted House by John Grisham. It has a similar feel, and it’s also from the first-person POV of a child trying to make sense of adult situations. Highly recommended.

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Letters to ZellLetters to Zell by Camille Griep
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I unabashedly loved this book. It is full of humor and a lot of allusional gems to fairy tales and other works of beloved literature ranging from Oz to Narnia. And yet . . . it is not a frivolous story. These women (whom we would think of as Snow White (Bianca), Cinderella (CeCi), and Sleeping Beauty (Rory)) reveal real lives with real problems in their letters to their friend Zell (Rapunzel), who has recently upset their social structure by moving away with her husband and children to pursue her dream of raising unicorns. Her Pages (story) were done, so she was free to go “off-script,” as it were. In doing so, she allowed CeCi, Bianca, and Rory to dream of a different life after their Pages are completed.

But not every fairy tale ends with Happily Ever After. The friends have to find a new equilibrium as their relationships change, and yet fulfill their own Pages lest the very fabric of their reality (the Realm of fairy tales) is destroyed.

A wonderful read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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8

Silence, Be Broken!

So . . . it’s been a while. :) Unintentionally, mind you.

Last November, I was doing what I called NaNotWriMo, meaning that I ignored NaNoWriMo for the first time since 2008, and instead, I decluttered my office. I made it a lot better. It’s still not perfect, but it is orders of magnitude better than it was.

And then toward the end of November some stuff happened. Real-life stuff. Stuff I won’t go into. But it was enough that I didn’t want to blog or write or do much of anything else creative. So I left the office declutterization unfinished, abandoned all my writing projects, and every time I thought I had something to say, here, I’d talk myself out of it with a very old argument. “Dude, this is a writing blog. You should write about, you know . . . writing. And since you aren’t doing that, what’s the point?”

And that is how we end up at May 7th with the first post since November 18th.

But enough about that. I have ranting to get to!


What I was wondering is: am I the only one who, while reading, lets a name that appears to have several, conflicting, legitimate pronunciations throw me out of the story?

I can’t help it. Every time I see the name, I find myself pausing and thinking “Is it Lord High Emperor of Space and Time Potayto Salaad, Potahto Salaad, or Pah-tah-toe Salaad? And is it Salahd, Sah-lah-ahd, or Sah-lah-ahd?”

Yes, this kind of thing really does bother me, and it is literally every time I run across the name while reading. It slows me down and throws me out of the book. If it’s a name like Mary or Frank or Kira or even Binbiniqegabinik, there are very limited ways it could be pronounced. And in the case of that last one, it was made clear in the book what the proper pronunciation is, if I recall correctly.

A friend posted a question on Facebook, asking if she should use ‘Kira,’ ‘Brianna,’ or ‘Brienne’ as a character name. I voted firmly for Kira, because for me, those other two would cause me to read at half speed unless a pronunciation guide were given. Is the ‘i’ in ‘Brianna’ long or short? Is the first ‘a’ like the one in ‘bat’ or the one in ‘father’? We won’t even go into ‘Brienne’ and all the different ways I could find to pronounce it. I would probably have to just mentally call ‘Brienne’ something like ‘Bree’ or reading a sentence would go like this:

Brienne [Bree-en? Bree-en? Bry-en? Bry-en? Is the final ‘e’ pronounced? Gaaah!] and Gemina [Is the ‘g’ hard or soft? Is it ‘{G|J}em-i-na’, or ‘{G|J}e-mee-na’? Gaaah!] leapt into the saddle of Brienne’s [Bree-en’s? Bree-en‘s?] steed Fnaben [Dammit.] . . .

I’m guilty of it, myself, of course. On Second Life, I’m known by the name Sathor Chatnoir. Although ‘Chatnoir’ is fairly simple if you know French pronounciation, apparently ‘Sathor’ gives people fits. To me, it’s obviously Say-thor (where ‘Thor’ is pronounced like the Norse god), but when I heard people pronouncing it (we sometimes abandon typing and actually talk), people were saying it to rhyme with Dan Rather’s last name, or pronouncing the ‘Sa’ as “sah” instead of “say.” I was totally flabberghasted because to me, it’s so obvious. :)

And yeah, I know that it doesn’t matter how a name is pronounced unless there’s some poetry involved (A Elbereth Gilthoniel / silivren penna míriel . . .). I guess all I’m saying is that I like to know. Maybe it has something to do with being raised fairly early in my reading-for-pleasure life on books like The Lord of the Rings where there is an actual pronunciation guide right there in the book to tell you that the “C” in “Celeborn” is hard, or that the second syllable of “Lothlorien” is stressed.

Anyway, it’s probably just me, and this is just a rant, but at least it’s off my chest, now, and I can get back to plotting my novels and novellas. :)


You may notice over on the right of this page three circular graphs showing progress. Those are novels I’m working on co-plotting. They are the first three novels of my MCU Case Files series, and there are a lot of interwoven plots that need to all resolve by the end of Book 3, so that’s mostly what I’m working on. The current figures are only guesses, but I had to point out the cool graphs because cool.

The Shambling Guide to New York CityThe Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is probably the best thing I’ve read from Mur Lafferty, and I’m a fan of her work, anyway. Who knew that a book about a book editor putting together a travel guide for New York City could be interesting?

Well, I mean . . . it’s a travel guide for, you know, monsters. Except they don’t like that term. It’s kind of insulting. They prefer ‘coterie.’ And they are anything from dragons to fae to vampires to demons, and everything in between.

Where do dragons sleep when they visit New York City? Where should zombies eat? And what about visiting incubi and succubi? All these are answered in the book.

But, of course, the book wasn’t just ‘Zoë sits at her desk compiling a book about New York City,’ because that actually would be pretty boring. She works with a couple of vampires, an incubus, a succubus, a death goddess, a water sprite, three zombies, a dragon, and a construct (think Frankenstein’s monster). And there are no sexual harassment laws or health insurance. Still, it’s a good enough job.

But then there’s a zombie uprising because someone is poisoning their food supply, and the Public Works Department (the coterie police force) are suddenly having to battle all kinds of problems. Something big is about to go down in New York City. And to top it off, it looks like someone (other than / in addition to several of her coworkers) is out to get Zoë.

Being a book editor is dangerous business when you’re food to a good number of your coworkers.

Highly recommended. As much as I hate to use this phrase, “It’s a fast-paced tour-de-force that will have you on the edge of your seat.” :)

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Books by Moyan_Brenn, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Moyan_Brenn 

There’s this meme going around where people are encouraged to list the ten books that changed their life.

Well, a friend of mine (Terra LeMay) decided to change it to “ten pieces of fiction” because short stories, novelettes, novellas, flash, drabbles, etc. can also be transformative.

My problem is, I simply can’t limit it to ten. On my list of novels, alone, it comes to thirteen. With five more short stories.

So I decided to just toss out the rules and do it my own way. So here is the quasi-meme, “Ten or More Pieces of Fiction That Changed My Life.” With the life-changingness interpreted rather liberally. And in no certain order.

  • It by Stephen King (1987)

    This was the first book I literally stayed up all night to read (18 straight hours) because I literally could not put the thing down. Literally. It was super-glued to my hand. (OK, not literally.)

    I had never seen the story-telling technique he used in this book where each alternate chapter was set in either the present or twenty-seven years in the past, when all the characters were children. And the chapters were from alternating POVs as well. I learned a lot about that type of story-telling from this book.

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (1950)

    I don’t list all seven of The Chronicles of Narnia or count all of them as a unit because it was reading that first one that made me want to live in a fictional world and have the story never, ever end. It was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.

    As an aside, I still want to live in Narnia.

  • 1984 by George Orwell (1950)

    I was well into my adult years when I first read this, even though I was already very into dystopias. I was blown away by it. My mother got to gleefully say her “I told you so”s because she kept trying to get me to read it as a teenager, but it was Old™ and therefore Not Worth My Time™

    Irony Alert: take a look at the publication dates on most of these books. I’m just sayin’. :)

    Winston is a very good unreliable narrator, too, which adds a nice touch.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

    Pretty much the same thing. I read it way later in life than I should have, but it’s one of those books I re-read periodically because it’s just so wonderful.

    It makes the list because of how well it holds up for something written so long ago.

  • The Shining by Stephen King (1977)

    This was the very first “adult” book I read. I was in the sixth grade (age 12) and the book had just come out earlier that year. A friend in my class had read it and made it sound deliciously frightening. Up until this time, all the “horror” books I had read purported to be True™ or Based on Actual Events™. (I was heavily into ghost stories and aliens and Bigfoot and the like.)

    I got it from the Eutaw Library because I was pretty sure there was no way my mother would let me buy it if she knew what it was about. Shhh! Don’t tell her. :)

    I still get chills when I think about the scene where the topiary animals are chasing Danny Torrence.

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

    What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? It got me interested in epic fantasy, fat books with a lot of pages, and conlangs (constructed languages and alphabets). (I guess those things have been said, but I repeated them anyway. Because I’m a rebel!)

  • The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear by Oliver Butterworth (1960)

    This one requires a bit of explanation. I read it in either fifth or sixth grade as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program. We would read books from her carefully selected classroom library and then take an oral test on it to prove we’d actually read it. We’d get points based on our knowledge and the reading level of the book. We had to read a certain number of points for each six-week period of the school year.

    While I was reading this book, I was relentlessly harassed by the other boys in the class for reading a girl’s book. But it was good, and I didn’t care, and I finished it and enjoyed it, and got my points. I guess it taught me that just because a book is aimed at a target audience doesn’t mean others won’t or can’t enjoy it, too.

  • Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000)

    I read a selection of a story I had just started writing in my newly joined critique group. Someone told me that my story and the style I wrote in reminded them of The Dresden Files‘ author Jim Butcher. I’d never heard of him or the series, so I picked up the first book and started reading. It introduced me to the entire genre which I’m now hopelessly in love with: urban fantasy.

    And also, I want to be him when I grow up. That there’s already a him and that he’s younger than me are irrelevant.

  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1973)

    Another book written “for” girls but which I enjoyed immensely. Introduced me to tesseracts and was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.

  • The Old Powder Line by Richard Parker (1974)

    Also read as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program, I think it was the first book I had read where time travel was a major component of the story, and it dealt with sticky issues like what happens if you go back in time to before you were born.

  • Dixie North by Herbert Burton (1976)

    This one also requires a bit of background. My mother used to be the director of several things (over time) in the Hale County, Alabama education system. Sometimes, this led to her getting book samples. Sometimes, she brought these home to me. Sometimes, I actually read them. This may have been the first piece of fiction I read entirely voluntarily for pleasure. Plus, it was written by an author from Alabama. Who knew that famous writer-type-people could be from Alabama? It’s also one of the books actually aimed at boys, which is probably why I read it in fifth grade, just after it was published.

  • Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1975)

    To this day, this remains one of the pieces of fiction that my mind goes back to, randomly, from time to time. Such a wonderful story set in an imaginative world. Science fiction, probably mostly for girls, but we come back to that whole ‘audience’ thing.

    One of the three books that lit the spark of writing in me.

  • The Demu Trilogy by F. M. Busby (1984)

    Once more, this requires just a small amount of background. I used to make lists of books for Christmas and birthdays that my parents would distribute to people who wanted to get me something I’d actually use. But this one time, my mother just happened to be walking through a book store, saw this book cover with a cool spaceship and alien worlds on the cover and thought, “I’ll bet Gary would like that,” so she got it. I was in college by this point. I read it . . . and it blew my mind. I’ve read it over and over. It’s just so wonderful. It’s an omnibus collection of three novels and two(?) novellas that ‘fill in the gaps’ between the novels. The ideas presented in this book are just . . . my head just . . . I have no words.

And here are the short stories.

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Colliers, May 6, 1950)
  • “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury (The Saturday Evening Post, September 23, 1950 as “The World the Children Made”)
  • “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March, 1954)
  • “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (Astounding Magazine, 1954)
  • “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 1949, as “The Naming of Names”)

Each of those stories was mind-blowing to me. I read most of them while I was in middle school. They were in my Literature textbook (I believe), and like most kids that age, I read the entire book before school started.

What? You mean most people didn’t do that? What was wrong with them?

Anyway, the stories all stuck with me for years after I read them. I didn’t remember their names or the authors, but was able to find them later by asking a lot of questions online and running across them in anthologies and the like. Now, I’d just Google ’em, but at the time, there was no Google! I know! How did we live?

Anyway, I hope that didn’t bore you too much. If nothing else, it gave me a nice distraction from a frustrating day of debugging code that should work but refuses to. Because it’s clearly sentient and hates me.

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