Damn Fine Books I read in 2018

Sure, I’ll do a list. Everyone does. These were not all published in 2018, just read in the year.

Seriously, some of these were the best things read in any or all years. Presented in no particular order:

Tender by Sofia Samatar. This was probably on my list last year because I started in in 2017 and finished it in 2018. Simply a stunning collection of stories.

The only Harmless Great Thing by Brook Bolander. Elephants, radiation, and suffering, what more could anyone want? This book is easily the most emotional of the year.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. If you ever wondered what really happened in Red Hook when Lovecraft wasn’t paying attention.

Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip. A treasure of a collection by one of Fantasy’s grandest masters.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. If you were wondering how the world of Who Fears Death got that way, this book answers it and is just as good.

Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism: A Novella by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. This story about orphans and puppets just grabbed me.

Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic Edited by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown. This is also one I started in 2017 but finished in 2018. This is one of the best collections of Fantasy stories I have ever read.

Poetry as Creative Re-charge

I don’t know why or how I started doing this but recently when my energy to work on the novella, novel, or story in progress wanes, I find writing verse fuels my desire to work again.

Some days it’s just a warm up exercise; other days I don’t know what I feel like writing so I noodle with a poem. It adds to the daily practice of writing, and even if all I’ve done is scratch out five lines of verse I can look at that and say: I wrote something today.

Sometimes just completing a little thing is encouragement enough.

Finding the Genre Story’s Form

This shiny new idea that just popped into your head; that wormed its way out onto a page of notes – is it a novel? A novella? A novelette? Short story? Serial? How do you know what form fits the story?

I face this question more often and I suspect – or I hope – it is a sign of my progress in the craft. Ideas come from everywhere. They also arrive on a spectrum of completeness. I recently had an idea for an entire serial. I had all of the major elements from beginning to end in the length of time it took me to walk up nine flights of stairs. I’ve had another idea floating through my notebooks for nearly three years. So far it just a title with no story.

A million ideas but how many are stories, novels, or something else? I have learned to think through the following to find my story’s form. This is just my process and my thoughts on how stories work best. There are no absolutes in writing fiction, and I could change my thinking as I journey deeper into the craft.

First, is there a story? Is there some sort of conflict with at least two characters? They don’t have to be people but they do have to act as entities readers recognize as people. Without these two basic elements I think it is difficult to develop a story. You might have a setting or a contemplation but it won’t be a story.

If there’s conflict and characters in the idea—or I can see a way to those elements—is there a plot? A plot in the strict sense of three or five or seven parts is not always required. A plot could be something as simple as a character reaching a realization—an epiphany—that will change the course of their lives. This works well for short stories. In a very short story often the change or the epiphany is the point of the story.

Characters, some sort of a plot; now what? Setting. Where and when does the story happen? It rarely works to have characters acting in a place not firmly planted in the reader’s mind.

So I have all the elements, what story form should it be expressed in? In my experience this comes down to quantities. How many characters are needed to tell the story? One or two characters, one plot, one or two settings, try it as a short story or novelette at the longest.

In non-genre fiction you can write a complete novel with just a couple of characters, a restrictive setting, and a narrow, or even no plot. For genre writers this is more difficult. It’s not impossible but takes skill. Genre readers have expectations for the longer forms of genre stories. There have to be certain elements within the story to satisfy those expectations. Only the shorter forms seem to allow genre writers to work outside those expectations. Again, there are no absolutes, this is just how it works for me.

Have several characters and a couple of plots, and maybe several settings? Try a novella or novelette. Have a sweeping set of plots and subplots and a large cast of characters? Then try a novel, novel series, or even a serial.

Finally, what about the ideas that don’t make it as stories in any form? Keep them. They may fit inside another story later, or they may need just one more idea to flower into a story. And if it’s a strong idea but no story suggests itself, maybe try it as a poem. Let no good idea go to waste.

Picking Up the Workshopped Novella

A couple of months have passed since putting my novella Privilege and Longing through the Writing the Novella Workshop. The workshop experience was great, the feedback invaluable, and a camaraderie was created that has so far lasted beyond the workshop. But now comes the work. It is time to review the feedback and incorporate the best of it into the story.

Others have already edited or re-written the works they presented. I may be the last to do so. Partly, this was due to getting caught up in a shiny new project. Partly it was due to completing some short stories for submission. But the truth is, it is not easy to sit down to re-work something that has been so thoroughly analyzed.

I loved the feedback. Most of it was positive and does need to be incorporated to make my story stronger. But how do I know which suggestions work and which ones might be good ideas but don’t contribute to making the story stronger? It will take a lot of digging, trying things on the page, re-reading, and thinking. That’s the work that gets stories completed.

So the next few weeks I will be re-opening the innards of the story and performing surgery. Hopefully the patient will fully recover.

Prepping for NaNo

It’s only June but I was recently thinking about wether or not I would participate in NaNoWriMo this year. I decided I would, but I won’t be writing a novel. I have participated for several years now and had no difficulty in producing a 50,000 word draft for a novel, so it feels like there is no challenge. It still remains a great way to get a draft down but this year I decided I will try to write 50,000 words worth of short stories.

I know May is National Short Story Month but that celebration feels like one mostly for reading, plus I was focused on completing a novella that was due. It seems like a good use of the community and environment that NaNoWriMo creates to help me get more short stories written. So I’m going to call November, NaStoWriMo (sorry if that isn’t original) and over the next few months I’ll be collecting ideas for six or seven short stories. Then, for thirty days I’ll be writing them out fast and furious.

Anyone else interested in #NaStoWriMo?