Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Concrete Angel is a Finely Carved Debut

Note: Patti Abbott is a long-running friend of this blog, but rest assured that I purchased a copy of the title below with my own funds. ISLF doesn’t accept review copies.

Concrete Angel isn’t at all the sort of book I was expecting. Its author, Patti Abbott, is a prolific short-fiction writer and Derringer Award winner, having made a name for herself with a long-running stream of hardboiled- and noir-influenced stories. I expected that pattern to repeat in her debut novel, but while Concrete Angel certainly has a genre bent, it isn’t primarily about conmen and cordite. You really can’t even call it crime fiction. Instead, Abbott has chiseled a profile of a very fractured family, a kleptomaniac matriarch whose narcissism knows few bounds and a daughter so desperate to please that she’ll take any rap for the woman who gave her life—even murder.

The night Christine’s mother brought home Jerry Santini isn’t her first memory, just her most consequential. She doesn’t remember Eve Moran returning with him, a stranger she’d met mere hours before. Or how they shared drinks. Or how they shared a bed. But she does recall Eve emptying a pistol into him and then rousing her to help deal with the body. Seems Santini caught Christine’s mother trying to slip some cash from his wallet and made a move toward the phone, muttering about her “not getting away with it.” He didn’t know about Eve’s two overweening desires, namely to steal and stay free. Those obsessions cause her to convince Christine to claim that she killed Santini. After all, Eve reasoned, no judge would put the esteemed Hank Moran’s daughter in prison, no matter how estranged the man might be from ex-wife and child. And Christine will acquiesce like she always does, unaware that ordinary mothers don’t defraud major corporations, see the inside of windowless department-store security rooms, or receive shock treatments in asylums ...

Imagine how Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle might read if it were a novel rather than a memoir, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Concrete Angel is like. Abbott has the same understated touch as Walls, perhaps even more so, spinning significance from incidental details, stray lines of dialogue, recollections dredged up long after they’ve slipped down the well of years. Concrete Angel isn’t a barn burner or a page turner. Rather, it’s a slow, meditative, character-centered novel that will break your heart if you give it time to. Little niceties slowly accrue until you realize that Abbott isn’t merely creating a single supremely broken character: She’s putting down on paper how Eve’s actions ripple outward, a capillary wave unsettling generations of people around her. Unfortunately, such dedication to detail means that Christine doesn’t come into her own as a character until well past the halfway point and the ending feels a little abrupt. But these are minor quibbles. Concrete Angel is a finely carved debut.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Quinn Dombrowski)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Mims on the Rise of Killer Robots

In the August 17, 2015, edition of The Wall Street JournalI, Christopher Mims discusses killer robots, military research, and how murderous automata might rise from unexpected quarters. Excerpts:
Here’s the good news about killer robots: Despite their near ubiquity in science fiction, they aren’t inevitable.

The bad news is that stopping them is going to be much harder than simply banning government-sponsored research on them, as frequently proposed by technologists and nongovernmental organizations. Understanding why tells us a great deal about the massive impact that robotics and automation will have on every part of the 21st century. ...

Imagine the following scenario: It’s 2025, and self-driving cars are widely available. Turning such a vehicle into a bomb isn’t much harder than it is to accomplish the same thing with a conventional vehicle today. And the same goes for drones of every scale and description.

It’s inevitable, say the experts I talked to, that nonstate actors and rogue states will create killer robots once the underpinnings of this technology become cheap and accessible, thanks to its commercial use.

“I look back 10 years, and who would have thought people would be using cellphone technology to detonate IEDs?” says retired Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, who as chief of research spent four years heading up the Navy’s work on autonomous systems.
Read the whole thing. I'm a fan of genre conventions, mostly because they promote readerly enjoyment and clear composition. It's easier to have fun when both authors and audiences have an idea of where things are headed. But I'll readily admit that tropes can quickly become ossified. The evil corporation tries to squash the cyberpunks. Religious characters are ineffectual, hypocritical, or insane. The military performs clandestine experiments on a supersoldier who goes rogue. Sound familiar? Writers often fail to consider the thematic implications of such old standards and simply roll with them because they've accreted a kind of compositional orthodoxy. But as Mims points out, these tropes can prove problematic with more than just a story's message: They can clash with verisimilitude. The only way to avoid it seems to be solid research married to a measure of imagination.

(Picture: CC 2010 by JD Hancock)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Music To Write By: Andrew Peterson's "You Came So Close"

Why Listen? For an object lesson in the artistic power of surprise; melancholy and melodic ambient post-rock.

Longtime Andrew Peterson fans must've been shocked after first listening to "You Came So Close" on Counting Stars, the singer-songwriter's seventh studio album. Whether poppy or pensive, sophisticated or spare, almost all of his music had one thing in common: It was informed by folk music. But "You Came So Close" brushes all of that aside in the first few bars. Forget sprightly banjo licks and double stopped violin flourishes. Channeling Sigur Rós, an arpeggiated, three-note riff meets droning drum work, and the song structure itself reinforces the ambient effect. Essentially chorus-less, the tune slowly swells into two crescendos, each of which suddenly slumps into silence. Peterson's voice floats above it all, both melodic and melancholy as he recounts an adulterer's confession of unfaithfulness to his wife:
You could no more kill the darkness
Than you could raise the sun,
And the sky was cold and black
Like the barrel of a gun.
Apocalyptic imagery punctuates the man's struggle, emphasizing how he "came so close to letting go." Simple enough, but the song surprises, firstly by having the marriage miraculously survive the infidelity and secondly by throwing out a final verse that seems almost non sequitur:
And the sky in Nashville,
It can bend you low
'Cause the winter here is gray
Without a trace of snow.

But there is no shadow
On the silver stars,
And the colder the night is,
The closer the heavens are.
Of course, a little rumination reveals that the lines are entirely apropos, a metaphorical embodiment of the song's main theme. Hope exists. Darkness doesn't equal doom. Struggle on, and don't let go. It isn't an unfamiliar point, just one that Peterson drives home with the power of surprise.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Caleb on the Try/Fail Cycle

Over at Caleb's Book, Music, Movie, Story Blog, the eponymous Caleb talks about the Try/Fail Cycle’s role in outlining stories. Excerpts:
Okay. Now that we’ve covered that, let’s talk about the Try-Fail Cycle and the process of escalation.

If you’ve done any creative writing/story plotting before, you may heard of the Try/Fail Cycle. In short, before your protagonist succeeds at anything they’re trying to achieve, they ought to try and fail at least twice before succeeding. This creates sympathy in the audience. We feel like that character’s really earned it.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, that’s not true, some of my favourite characters are completely awesome and hardly ever fail, let alone two-thirds of the time.

Ah, young grasshopper, how wise you are.

You see, the Fail in Try/Fail isn’t necessarily failure to achieve one’s goal, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some unfortunate reaction or consequence to their success that makes their eventual job harder. We summarise this as writers as the Yes, But.. No, And.. rule.

It’s pretty self-explanatory when you understand it. Does my protagonist succeed? Yes, But.. (some sort of horrible/unforeseen circumstance happens as a result/in addition and everything is harder now) Does my protagonist succeed against this new complication? No, And.. (everything is now even worse because.. they just gave away their position/used up their last mag/now she thinks you like men)
Read the whole thing. Though I find value in the seven-point structure Caleb lays out in the beginning of his post (as well as Orson Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient, the traditional three-act structure, and Northrop Frye’s famous monomyth), I have something to admit: None of them help me much when it comes to actual composition. Now, analyzing? Most certainly. Revising? You betcha. But when facing a blank page—and the concomitant existential crisis it naturally entails—prefab structures only make my blood pressure rise. Sometimes I’ll start with an opening. Sometimes I’ll know the conclusion. I almost never have both and certainly couldn’t fill in five points between them even if I did. That’s why I find helpful the Try/Fail Cycle framework that Caleb lays out. I may not know if I’m at Pinch 1 or Plot Turn 2, but I can definitely throw a monkey wrench into my protagonist’s current plans.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Nima Badiey; Hat Tip: Eric James Stone)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

No Fibbing: Lies Is a Stupendous Read

Note: This review contains mild profanity used in quotation.

Goodness but Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is incredibly fun. Hold, though, I’m getting ahead of myself. Like any mature genre, fantasy has fragmented and splintered and calved until you can find just about any unique little sliver of content that you want. Looking for obsessively detailed secondary worlds, silly satire, noir-infused grimdark, military-themed maneuvering, or literate mythopoeia? It’s out there. However, what’s harder to lay hold of is a fantasy book that reads as though its author really enjoyed writing it. But that’s just what Lynch has managed to do with his debut novel. And the best part? He throws in most of the best elements of contemporary fantasy to boot.

Locke Lamora came to Shade’s Hill, the abode of the Thiefmaker and his pupils, the same way so many boys and girls did: He lost his parents. But whereas most of them were orphaned by a recent plague, Locke had lived on his own in the city of Camorr (a watery metropolis not unlike Venice) for a long time. He steals to keep ballast in his belly and enjoys the process of pilfering almost as much as its rewards. That troubles the Thiefmaker. He likes his underlings to be capable, confident—and without imagination. But Locke is criminally creative if nothing else. And when one of his more spectacular stunts draws the ire of Capa Barsavi, head of Camorr’s underworld, the Thiefmaker has two options. He can either kill the boy outright or sell him to Father Chains, priest of the Crooked Warden, the patron of confidence men and a heretical addition to Camorr’s pantheon of deities. The Thiefmaker never likes to turn down a profit. So coins jingle, and Locke finds himself under the tutelage of a schemer who promises to teach him all skills of swindling. As the years roll by, Locke learns how to impersonate the poorest mendicant or noblest lord. He’ll need those skills, because Camorr will soon face an enemy targeting everyone from the lowest thug to the Duke in his perch on Raven’s Reach.

If Patrick Rothfuss and Chuck Wendig decided to pen an Ocean’s 11 pastiche, they’d probably create something like The Lies of Locke Lamora. This is the kind of book where, after receiving counsel that may keep him from dangling at the wrong end of a rope, a character can solemnly intone, “Very noted. Received, recognized, and duly considered with the utmost gravity. Sealed, notarized, and firmly imprinted upon my rational essence.” Or be described as having “got larceny in his heart, sure as the sea’s full of fish piss.” Or intoning after an untoward development that “this is the damndest damn thing that ever dammed things up for us.” Lynch is obviously a bright fellow, but he doesn’t take his intelligence keep him from having a little fun. Some readers may find the occasional “torrent[s] of polysyllabic blasphemy” either too precious or obscenely over-the-top, but they more or less fit the book’s lighthearted tone—at least for the first half. After that, The Lies of Locke Lamora takes a turn for the darker. Think the stomach-churning action of Low Town cut with a healthy dollop of grue. Gritty stuff, but expertly executed all the same. The only point where Lynch errs is with some loose plot threads. No fibbing: Lies is a stupendous read.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Juan Salmoral; Hat Tip: /r/fantasy)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cho on the Practical Merits of Genre Structures

Over at her blog, Zen Cho (Sorcerer to the Crown) discusses how two failed novel-writing attempts led to her finally completing her highly anticipated debut. Excerpt:
In October 2012 I was ready for a new project and I found 10,000 words of an idea I’d written in early 2011 squirreled away in my hard drive. ... It seemed to me that they had promise. A frothy magical Regency romance with an earnest dude protagonist and a reckless female counterpart—it sounded fun. It sounded potentially easy: clearly I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to plot and structure, but I could just steal the structure of a standard Regency romance here. So I spent some time outlining the novel and in December 2012 I started writing the first draft.

This was the book that eventually became Sorcerer to the Crown.
I have wondered why it was this book that worked out, when most of my previous published work was set in Malaysia/primarily about Malaysian characters, and I think it’s because of the structure thing. I really did not know how to construct the shape of a novel and this is something I’m still learning. ... When you adopt a trope or subgenre like a Regency romance or, say, cosy mystery, that gives you a shape to work with. You make it your own, but you get some help with the bones.
Read the whole thing. Cho’s praise for the practical virtues of genre is part of the reason why I prefer it. I mean, I don’t hate literary fiction or anything like that. (Dare I offer the tokenism of saying that some of my favorite books are literary?) It often boasts beautiful verbiage, complex characters. But so very often I find myself at sea while reading it. The traditional literary preoccupations mean that its books tend to deemphasize pacing and plotting. Somewhere around the midpoint of most literary novels, I usually find myself wondering just where the author is heading, what point he’s trying to make, what the sum of this great whole will end up being. There’s nothing wrong with making a reader have to work hard to grasp The Big Picture. After all, the writer worked hard in creating the story. But it’s hardly controversial to say that that’s far less fun for most people. Not only does genre structure provide narrative signposts for readers, it frees up writers to focus on something they should never forget—enjoyment.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Owen Benson; Hat Tip: io9)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Kazan on Discouraging Procrastination

In the May 12, 2015, edition of The Atlantic, Olga Kazan discusses recent research insights into discouraging procrastination. Excerpts:
Procrastination is, in essence, stealing from yourself. The reason goals are so hard to reach, many psychologists think, is because each person believes they are really two people: Present Me and Future Me. And to most people, Future Me is much less important than Present Me. Present Me is the CEO of Me Corp, while Future Me is a lowly clerk.

“Instead of delaying gratification,” people “act as if they prefer their current self’s needs and desires to those of their future self,” write psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California in a new study in Psychological Science. ... So Oyserman and Lewis asked themselves: What if people could be made to think of their future selves as more connected to their current selves? ...

Through a series of experiments, Oyserman and Lewis found that if subjects thought about a far-off event in terms of days, rather than months or years, they seemed like they would happen sooner.
Read the whole thing. Call it self-denial, ambition, an overactive ego, a goal-focused perspective, or what have you. Successful people think differently, and I believe that the way they perceive the future truly plays a part. A family member who achieved substantial success in the thoroughbred horse industry liked to tell a story about how he lost his first big management position before he ever worked a day. (The owner canned him to provide a position for a relative.) He kvetched to friends, drank a few too many, and woke the next morning with a headache and a plan. By keeping that plan in the present, he eventually managed to go places that made that first job seem trivial.

Of course, there are downsides to a future-oriented approach, particularly for writers. The first that seems evident to me is the danger of developing an auteur's attitude, the belief that the unwashed masses are fools for failing to recognize your genius, which time will undoubtedly soon reveal. The second is magical thinking, a conviction that you don't need to sweat the details because Things Will Just Work Out. That's nonsense. No one owes us acknowledgment, and knotty matters should wring the dew from our brows. Our job is to realize that the present makes the future, put our shoulders to the grindstone, and push.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Matt Gibson)