Friday, July 4, 2014

My Writing Process (Blog Tour)

I was invited to this blog tour by friend and and writer of wonders Chris Kammerud (@cuvols).  For a good introduction to his work, check out his short story The Blue Wonder published in Strange Horizons.

In turn, I'm inviting Kaitlyn Sage Patterson (@ksagepatterson) and L. A. Whitehead.

1) What are you working on?

At the moment, I'm preparing the second draft of a near-future science fiction novel. The plan is to begin submitting it soon.  Previously (in April), I started a sequel to a young adult novel I've written, but I couldn't get any traction on it and life is looming, so I'm taking the more practical path of polishing what I have and seeing what I can do with it before I tackle a (fourth) new book.

2) How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

This is an interesting question, because it's not something I've really concerned myself with before.  To date, I've finished three complete novels, the second of which I've submitted and the third I'm currently working on for submissions.  The first novel, an epic fantasy, will be rewritten at a later date.  It explores issues of sex and race in ways that a lot of fantasy ignores, and women--whom much of fantasy under-represents--are the fulcrum points around which the novel operates.

The other thing this novel does differently is it largely eschews the Euro-centric world of fantasy and uses geography, plants, animals, cultural mores, and more from the pre and post-contact Americas.  The other two books are a young adult historical fantasy, set in Iceland in 1898, and a near future sci-fi thriller, set in the 2030s.  The Icelandic book asks what cost we're willing to pay for progress, and in some way this theme is echoed in the sci-fi novel: that book asks what we would be willing to sacrifice in order to end death.  These themes are perhaps not so different from some other work in the genre, which is where my settings (Iceland, 1898; France and New Zealand, 2034) and characters (black, female researcher; elderly, Jewish widow; unschooled crofter enrolled in an exclusive private school) take precedent.  There are also a lot of issues of class and social order, because for better or worse these are hugely important ways that others judge us, and unfortunately by which many of us judge ourselves.  Which leads to...

3) Why do you write what you do?

I write what I find interesting on a conceptual level and moving on an emotional level. I like characters with complex motivations who have to make hard choices, between a wrong and a lesser wrong, and then have to live with the consequences--because not only is this more compelling in fiction, but it's more true to the lives we all face.  Granted, in fiction those choices are often more dire, or have larger consequences, but rarely do we ever face important decisions where the "right" answer is clear and the results from choosing it positive and immediate.  I'm also interested in lesser heard voices: women, minorities, children, indigenous peoples... I have occasionally (and shamelessly) borrowed myths and legends from non-Biblical, non-Greco/Roman, non-Nordic traditions simply because those are overly represented and overly familiar in Western tradition, whereas there remains a vast sea of under-explored, under-appreciated treasures from the many peoples of the world.

As an avid traveler for the past decade, I've become very interested in food and drink and architecture and culture that is unfamiliar to me.  It's frequently assumed that such explorations represent an exoticization or orientalization of other cultures, but I think this is an easy label and can be a misguided one.  It's not the "other" that is fascinating, it's our shared humanness; in new arts and musics and foods and beliefs we may see strangeness, it is true, but it only seems strange when in those other people we also see ourselves.  This is not always the case, but by focusing on characters who love and hurt and despair and laugh and everything else, we see not the painted mask but instead the beating heart.  This is my hope, anyway.

4) How does your writing process work?

I look at it as having 2 stages: generation and revision.  The first works best for me when it is 5-6 days a week in solid blocks of time: 3-5 hours.  Anything less, and I'm only just getting started; anything more, and my brain starts to feel mushy.  At that rate, uninterrupted, I can usually average 3,000 words a day of new matieral. Not all of it is good, however, so there's the second stage of revision.  This goes both more quickly and more slowly, because I like to do multiple drafts. Big picture, wholesale changes are an entirely different matter than line edits and original phrasing and tone and rhythm.  From experience, I know that if I try to do both, I'll overlook the forest for the trees: I'll focus on the lines, and the holistic problems with plot or character or something else will be forgotten.

So perhaps there are actually three stages: generation, revision, and editing.  When I have the chance to work full time, or near full time, steps two and three can each compliment step one, though not at the same time, because steps  two and three are very different processes than step one, and feel like they require different parts of the brain.  My eyes get tired before my brain does when editing, but it's the exact opposite when creating new content.

I'm not one of those people who has to have everything exact: the right chair, or right coffee, or right music, or whatever.  But it does help having a schedule.  Nothing keeps me from writing quite like having an uncertain and unreliable schedule; I need those blocks of time, I need the regularity and reliability--and it helps with motivation if I have someone waiting on me to produce something.  I like reading chapters to my wife at the end of writing days, because it is very useful hearing them aloud and it helps create a sense of expectation that keeps me from slacking off.  I shouldn't have to need that external pressure, but there it is anyway.  It definitely helps keep me on track.

For further insights into the writing process, check out

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Reading Update 07 June 2014

A few words on the 13 books I've finished since my last update.

The Enchantress by Michael Scott
This was a fun, light ending to a fun, light series. I was satisfied with how the six-book saga wound up. If you liked the previous books, you'll like this one.

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
I liked this book a lot.  It's not quite as impactful as the first, as the novelty has worn off and we're clearly being guided toward a third book, but it is just as tense and gloomy and dark as the first, and I'm eagerly awaiting the third.

This is a bowdlerized version of a longer autobiography, pared down for children to read.  It's simple but harrowing.

Find Me by Romily Bernard
This is a good, fast-paced YA hacker novel with a great female protagonist and several interesting plot lines.  I'm glad to know there will be follow-up starring Wick.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I would have liked this book better if I hadn't had such high expectations from it being the *it* book a couple summers ago.  As it was, I liked the book, but not until about halfway through when the slightly predictable plot twist occurs.  A very fun read with complex characters.

This was a great exploration of PTSD from the point of view of a child whose father is shipped off to fight in WWI.  Boyne captures the emotional swings of an entire family to show us the real costs of war without ever falling prey to sentimentality.

The Eye of Minds by James Dashner
This was a disappointing book, especially because I so enjoyed his first series, the Maze Runner trilogy.  I could never quite get into the story or the characters.

This was a fun middle grade retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, from his perspective.  Don't expect anything like the book Wicked, but it's easy to fall into this story.

More Than This by Patrick Ness
This was an excellent book: tense, with complex, moving characters, and a compelling plot line. I recommend this book.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
If, like me, you've been putting this one off because the uninspiring cover art or the so-so title, shame on us both.  This was a superb book, my favorite new read in a long while.  It's very dark, very tense, very bloody--and Lawrence somehow convinces us to care deeply about a despicable protagonist.  This book sucked me in like no other in the past few months.  Highly recommended.

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler
This is Handler doing what she does best: telling compromising stories with hilarity and her signature debonair disregard. A very funny book.

I've been a fan of Pollan for awhile now, but kept putting this book off, I'm sorry to say.  It's excellent, insightful, and should be required reading for everyone who eats food.  Presumably, that includes you..

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
The sequel to Prince of Thorns, this book was equally as tense and dark and compelling.  We keep a similar pattern--cutting back and forth between present and past storylines--all of which are gripping.  Jorg is a little softened here, his bravado tempered somewhat with pain and perhaps a little wisdom.  But he's still the Jorg who wrung out our sympathy and admiration and disgust in the first book. Also highly recommended.

Until next time,

Happy Reading

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Finished Reading - 22 April - Catching Up

Once again I let a little too much time lapse between updates.  I've been really busy with a new job, and haven't had as much time to read lately, so I've only got 10 books to show for the last 6 weeks.

As with my last catching up post, I'll offer short microreviews for each.

Lirael (The Abhorsen Trilogy) by Garth Nix.
This book, like the first in the trilogy, Sabriel, was a delight to read.  The world of these books feels so comfortable and real, as though you're visiting a place you once knew that has been lost to memory.  Lirael is a great book in its own right, but is not quite on par with the excellent Sabriel.  Still, I very much enjoyed it, and am looking forward to the final book in the trilogy.  I recommend this title.

Looking for Alaska by John Green
A great book.  I didn't expect to like it as much as I did, particularly after reading The Fault in Our Stars (who could top that book?), but John Green is a master at facing head-on the darkness that a lot of teens experience, and he does it in a way that is honest and unforgiving and completely genuine.  Highly recommended.

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive) by Brandon Sanderson
Another very good book that is slightly over-shadowed by its prequel. All the risky elements I loved about the first book in the series, The Way of Kings, are still here--interludes, interior artwork, very original and alien worldbuilding, and a scope that is beyond epic--and we still follow the same main characters from book one.  I liked that this book was more about Shallan, but Kaladin's storyline was not as interesting and the book's ending left me a little disappointed.  Still, this is a recommended title.

The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy
I picked up this book after reading a NYTimes Magazine article on the 87 year old author that really caught my fancy. I can see why the book is still a bestseller 50 years later, and it's mostly stood the test of time.  It actually reminded me a lot, in both pleasant and not so pleasant ways, of reading Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.  I liked this book, but it did little else for me.

Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis
This book was fascinating in many ways, and I was happy to write a review of it for Strange Horizons. As I wrote there, this is part tongue-in-cheek noir detective story, part ontological examination of the foundations of reality, ever so slightly and amusingly absurd, and dripping with lush, weird descriptions.  It won't be for every reader, but some will find it as wonderful as I did.  I recommend this title.

The Leader Who Had No Title by Robin Sharma
I read this book because it was given to me by my new boss, who really likes Robin Sharma (he attends his retreats every year).  As I wrote in my Goodreads review, this book basically takes all the favorite tricks of pushy evangelists--saying your first name way too often, grandiose but vague promises, unnecessarily withholding "important" information that is the "key" to "unlocking" something, encouraging the status quo by telling people to always do their best no matter what their position in life is--and then combines it with very poor writing.  For even my low expectations, this was a very disappointing book.

Halftime: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance by Bob Buford
Another book given to me by my new boss.  Despite being outside both target audiences (businesspeople and Christians), I still found it interesting and engaging, with lots of useful lessons.  Buford is a good writer, and if he's only interested in a certain segment of the population, that's his prerogative. I ended up liking this book, despite its being heavy-handed.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Another book given to me by my new boss, and the best self-improvement book I've read. Carnegie clearly knows what he's talking about, and practices what he preaches. Plus his narrative approach is refreshing after the overload of superlatives and unlocked secrets found among contemporary writers of these types of books.  I recommend this title (and, as of this writing, it's only $2.99 on Kindle).

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The book that brought Asperger's syndrome into the mainstream when it was released back in 2004. This is a great book with an utterly convincing narrator, and his atypical observations and interpretations help us not only understand a little of what people with Asperger's go through, but they also help us see ourselves in surprising new ways.  Highly recommended.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Finished Reading 10 March 2014 - Catching Up

It's been a little while since I've updated my reading list, and in that time I've finished 16 more books.

To catch up I'll skip my usual short reviews and just give you links, a few words of description, and my rating.  Micro-reviews, in other words.

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 written and illustrated by David Petersen
Great artwork, a good story.  Like a darker, illustrated Brian Jacques. I enjoyed it, but wanted more story.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
The book that launched Doctorow's career as a novelist. Worth the praise it receives.  Highly enjoyable, quirky, sarcastic, satiric.  Joe Haldeman meets Robert J. Sawyer for the next generation.

Despair by Vladimir Nabokov, revised English edition
Not quite as brilliantly creepy as Lolita, but Nabokov's trademark lush, beautiful English is present.  Not a plot-driven story, but an exploration of character and self-delusion.  Engaging, but not captivating.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Smartly written YA book about a disfigured and often reviled boy, August. Just when I thought it was getting too much, Palacio wisely shifted gears and expanded the story with more viewpoints. Think Rudy goes to private school.

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
A great follow-up to The Lies of Locke Lamora, if not quite as tightly plotted as the first book. Locke and Jean take a meandering journey that somehow manages to always be fascinating and thrilling. Once again listened to the audio version, brilliantly narrated by the wonderful Michael Page.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Quiet and introspective, like Ishiguro's other novels.  I liked it, but wasn't head over heels like so many others. I suspect much of the buzz in the SFF community is because it's Ishiguro dipping into their backyard, not because the book itself is that great.  I preferred The Remains of the Day.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
My second foray into Discworld, after The Colour of Magic (which I previously reviewed here).  I liked this book better.  Reads much less like a Douglas Adams derivative, and Discworld feels more fully realized.  A really funny book.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Loved this book. Go read it now.  Seriously.

The City of Ember: Deluxe Edition by Jeanne DuPrau
A timeless tale.  Great use of archetypal characters and symbols, mixed with a very original idea of a damp, cool city mismanaged by corrupt politicians and surrounded by darkness.  And the lights are going out.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
A novel of poems describing a young girl's experience of fleeing the fall of Saigon and growing up a refugee in the American south.  Deep, moving, and a great use of form.

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson
The damsel-in-distress tale is flipped in this plot-driven story which nonetheless manages some great characterization.  A cut above the second book, The Crown of Embers (which I previously reviewed here).  The last (and best) book in a very good trilogy.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett
A YA historical fantasy from Pratchett about a "tosher," a boy who makes a living collecting things that wash down into the Dickensian sewers of 19th C London.  Speaking of  Dickens, he makes an appearance, as does Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, and a host of other notable figures.  A very enjoyable, always fun adventure story.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
A surprisingly good addition to the over-saturated YA vampire market. Black provides a refreshing and interesting twist on vampire stories, though it does still fall into the YA female protagonist cliche of the girl fighting against her feelings for the bad boy.  Still, a very creepy book in the best of ways.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.
Very imaginative use of found photographs to craft a tense, scary story.  Loved the idea for form, and found the concept of "loops" and "peculiars" very fascinating.  The book got off to a slow start, and it wasn't until halfway through that the protagonist became interesting for me, but around that point the book fell into place and started really working.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver is in my opinion one of the greatest living American novelists, but she's often overlooked because her favorite themes of environmentalism and the quiet desperation of women's lives are themselves often overlooked.  This isn't her best book, but an average showing from Kingsolver is still a very good book by any metric.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Based on the true story of a gorilla who lived most of his life in an enclosure in the middle of a mall, and told from the gorilla's perspective, this short novel has a lot of heart. Recommended for young readers and adults alike.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Camp NaNoWriMo

Hi all,

I just signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, starting this April. Just like NaNoWriMo you try to write a new novel in a month, but in keeping with the theme of summer camp you're assigned to a cabin of other participants (who you can select based on age, writing genre, and word count goals).

For example, I selected to be paired with other "campers" of any age who are writing young adult novels with word targets around 75,000.  I want people writing in that genre, and I want people who set ridiculously high goals for themselves, people who like to push themselves hard, and to think deeply about their work.  I also think a broad range of ages could make for more interesting discussion, so I left that parameter open.

i'll be writing a sequel to my first NaNoWriMo novel, Galdurheim (sample chapters here), of which I have since finished first, second, and third drafts, had read by my alpha and beta readers, and submitted for consideration with a number of good literary houses.  Fingers crossed on that one.  This sequel, which I'm perhaps even more excited about, picks up where the first left off.

Here's the blurb:

Set in Iceland in 1898, this is thirteen year old Leif's second year at school. Construction on the new school has been delayed due to sabotage and thefts each night, and when livestock begin being killed in the field people start to murmur about the hidden folk growing restless. With their access to Galdurheim cut off, the hidden folk are angry, and growing bold enough to break a nine century truce with the church. When students start disappearing, Leif and Fjola must find a way to appease them before it's too late. Meanwhile, Jens and Inga, sworn to vengeance over her brother Ragnar's death, continue his research into ways to harness the energy of the natural world. Inga resorts to deceit and tricks to try to get Leif and Fjola expelled, drawing their attention from Jens, who meticulously produces a new weapon capable of changing the world.

I really hope you'll take the opportunity to join me on this one.  I believe very firmly that everyone has a great book tumbling around inside the skulls, waiting for the right opportunity to spill itself onto the page.  All the usual obstacles stand in the way: work, lack of self-confidence, hopelessness, television, kids...  The thing that nobody seems to share is this truth: all of those are excuses, and phantasmagorical ones at that. They're not as real of impediments as we initially think.

Setting daily or weekly word goals, and setting aside time (even if it's just 15 minutes on your break at work, and an hour at night instead of watching that other show which you're not so crazy about--you know the one) makes this writing thing shockingly doable.  And fun.

One last thought: I've written three complete novels.  The first took me five years, and that's not the planning stages.  Five actual years of dickering around with words on the page.  The next two I wrote blitzkrieg style, and they took me 9 and 8 weeks, respectively.  And they were much better books.

I definitely encourage everyone to give NaNoWriMo a try, and the new Camp NaNoWriMo looks like it'll be a great (and fun!) opportunity to unleash your creative monsters.

Hope to see you there.

 - a

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Finished Reading 1/28/2014 - Counting by 7s, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

This is a great young adult title about a girl with Sherlockian intelligence who is given up as a baby, and then as a twelve year old loses her new parents.  Willow has a lot of trouble connecting with people, but when the new friend she meets at counselling intervenes to try to find her a home, suddenly the loneliest girl in the world is surrounded by a strange cast of characters who go to extreme lengths, some of them against their natural inclinations, to provide her a new family.  Somehow, the girl who by intellect and circumstance both is an outsider, connects movingly with the reader.  It's a subtle book, and though it's an easy read and one you will find yourself constantly wanting to turn the next page, it deals with the very weighty subjects of loss, grief, and identity with a very deft hand.  This is definitely a recommended title.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan



For me, this book appeared out of nowhere on a swiftly rising tide.  Around the same time I first saw this title on an awards list and got interested, several of my friends asked me if I'd read, or recommended I read, Mohsin Hamid.  I haven't read Hamid's other two novels, but this one deserves the buzz.

The book never names a city or a character, and it's narrated in second person point of view--all risky choices, but here they pay off big.  The frame is of a self-help book to assist you, the reader/protagonist, in doing just what the title claims.  It's broken into specific targets or goals, each of which is undermined by a multitude of factors that stand in the way: disease, poor infrastructure, government corruption, shady business partners, murderous business rivals, love.  Along the ride, the second person pov forces you to inhabit this unnamed city and rise through its squalor and filth and crime and death.  I was frequently reminded of the three months my wife and I spent in India.  For Westerners especially, this short novel goes a long way to helping readers understand the challenges and motivations of rising Asia.  Another recommended title.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid


Sunday, January 26, 2014

In Which I Use a Recent Misunderstanding to Reflect on Race and the Problem with Assumptions

Sorry in advance for the lengthy post; I wanted to give background, and the full text of the misunderstanding, and then segue into more general thoughts, and it took longer than I expected.

If you want the summary, here it is: be nice to each other, and try to read and write more fiction written by and/or about a wider variety of people.

And now to begin:

Last week a writing workshop I really wanted to get into opened for sign-ups.  It's called Out of Excuses, and is taught by Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells.  While I've read and admired Wells' John Wayne Cleaver trilogy and the current books in his Partials series, as well as Books 1-5 of Tayler's Schlock Mercenary series, I have to admit I was most excited about Kowal and Sanderson.  As in, I was afraid that if I got in I'd go all fanboy on them and embarrass myself.

For months I had a note on the refrigerator, and I went back and forth about the workshop--would I be able to afford flying back to the States to go? would I ever forgive myself if I didn't try?  The day registration opened finally arrived, and I waited on the signup page with bated breath, hitting f5 like a classically conditioned pigeon hoping for a treat.  One minute passed.  Two.  Three.  It was overdue, and I was beginning to panic.  Finally it cleared, and I scrolled frenetically down the page.  The lodging option I wanted was "pending."  I scrolled back up to get a general membership, figuring I could work out a hotel or something later, and there were still some available.  I clicked it, clicked register, and in those seconds it sold out.  It took about ten seconds in all for every slot to fill.

I was crushed.

But life moves on.  What else can it do?

Fast forward one week  I follow Mary Robinette Kowal's Twitter account, and have directed comments to her now and again.  She's always responded with graciousness and good humor, as she does to all of her followers who message her.  So when she tweeted that the single scholarship slot for the Out of Excuses workshop was still up for consideration, I clicked the link and read up about it.  According to the website, while the previous year's scholarship was open for everyone, this year it was focused on diversity, specifically for people of color.

Given Kowal's rapport with her Twitter followers, and my poor sense of humor and inflated quest for irony, I made a joke in admittedly poor taste:

*Note the hashtag #crickets, which I was using to imply shocked silence after an absurd comment--pointing out I meant it as a joke.  This is what I had in mind:

Funny, I thought.  There's no way in hell they'd let in a white male for a diversity scholarship, and with my clever use of the hashtag I show my hand and we all have a chuckle.  I thought it'd make an author whose work I admire smile, get a mild, good-humored reproach in response, and that'd be the end of it.  Apparently the internet had other plans.

Kowal, perhaps wisely, didn't want to touch it, and instead kicked it up to one of the adjudicators of the scholarship, K. Tempest Bradford:

Fair enough.  I missed the mark, which happens.  I figured I'd get an "I don't think so," perhaps a "smh" in response. Instead, I got my ass handed to me.

It started off as I expected, but then it went downhill fast.  There were a few things I objected to, which we'll get to in the next image, but mostly it was the overly officious tone, which I did not address with a response.  (Because, really, there's nothing more irritating than someone telling you they don't like your tone.)  I thought about the other points of contention for quite awhile, and eventually responded thus:

I'd like to take just a moment to elucidate, because this gets to the heart of what bothered me so much about the exchange. I was born in Florida, where because I had brown hair, tan skin (very dark tan in those days), and brown eyes I was seen as a brown person.  In that area of Florida, the default brown is Cuban.  So I was Cuban.  Then we moved to Tennessee when I was eight.  There, the default brown is Mexican, so I was Mexican.  We lived in rural TN, far from a small town; we had a forest, and I also discovered books, so I was in the sunlight less in those days; in addition, around puberty my eyes started getting lighter, eventually arriving at their current hazel color. So I guess I stopped looking less indigenous Mexican and more Spanish Mexican.  But, as far as other people were concerned, I was still Mexican.  (This was when I discovered that shades of skin are far more important to people of color, and of only limited importance to white people, who for the most part seemed to think brown was brown and black was black and that's all they needed to know.)  

It was something I dwelt on a lot.  A small, rural school in the South in the '90s was not a comfortable place to be in any way different, so I tried to minimize my differences as much as possible.  By the end of middle school, I wore long sleeves, pants, gloves, and hats with towels in the back to cover every inch of skin while I worked in my neighbor's tobacco farm so I wouldn't get dark again.  (Yes, I worked in the fields at a young age--starting at age 10, in fact).  

Then September 11, 2001 happened, and suddenly I wasn't Mexican anymore.  I had finally grown the year before, after being short my entire life, so I was a tall, thin, tan-skinned, brown-haired man in a country that was suddenly afraid of tall, thin, tan-skinned, brown-haired men.  Airport security was especially interested, and for ten years I was "randomly" searched before every single flight.  (And there were many; I especially loved to visit South America and Europe, where no one really knew--or cared--where I was from.)  

I worked very hard.  I got two degrees (not majors) in four years, while holding at least one job, usually two, and then went on to get my Masters while holding two jobs.  I learned a lot in college, and I don't mean from books.  Knoxville isn't the most diverse place in the country, but for the first time in my life my skin or hair or eye color didn't matter.  I had professors--professional men and women!--who would patiently listen to what I had to say, and would take the time to consider my arguments and reply in full.  That this could happen was news to me, and I gloried in it.  I worked as a writing tutor for the Black Cultural Center, and later the Student Athletic Center; I taught classes in Freshman Composition.  I learned more about myself and others, my opinions shifted, expanded, shifted again; my beliefs were tested, cracked, reforged, tempered.  The world became simultaneously larger and smaller.  In other words, I grew.  That's the most important, and the best, thing I can say about college: I grew.

My point is, you never really know someone's story, and the immediate supposition that I was a typical, ignorant exemplar of male whiteness really irked me.  I had hoped my response would help clear up that first of all, my initial comment was meant to be a joke, and second of all, the way Ms. Bradford responded to it was also misguided and offensive.  Surely things would smooth over and die down now, I thought.

Then I got this:

Once again, with the first few comments, I thought, Fair enough.  I, too, was unaware of the full context, which is what I'd objected to from her comments.  The tables turned, as they are wont to do.  Apparently there are humorless assholes out there on the internet (not a surprise), and they're bothering the scholarship committee for this writing workshop (a bit of a surprise).  

Then we get the shift in tone in the third comment, and once again it's downhill from there.  We also, once again, get firm assumptions about who I am and what that means, and added to them additional assumptions about my finances.  Am I a banker, a wealthy investor, that from my "privileged position" I can move to another country any time I feel like it?  I don't really follow the assertion that I can "just leave" Hong Kong at any time.  Perhaps I could convince my wife to break her contract, quit her job, forgo a reference, and have difficulty ever working again.  Perhaps I could break my lease and try to get out of the country before my landlord files a lawsuit for breach of contract and damages.  Perhaps we could scrape together enough  money to buy flights home.  Perhaps, once there, we could find an apartment, and pay a security deposit and the first month's rent.  Perhaps we could even get our utilities turned on.  Perhaps I could leave my friends, my life here, my home.  Perhaps.  

But perhaps not.  And once we were back in the states, with no money, no car, no phones, no health insurance, no jobs, and no prospects--what then?  As I pointed out in my response tweet the first time around, this is a ridiculous assumption, akin to telling people of color in America that if they don't like it they, too, can "just leave."  

It reminds me of how a number of Asian Hong Kongers feel about whites here: they should go back to England.  Never mind that many whites were born here, or that many whites are Australian, or Russian, or French, or Canadian, or American, or just about any other country you can imagine.  "Go home to England" is the slogan for racists here.  Which is as equally misguided and absurd as, and should be very reminiscent of, the old slogans of racists in America: black people should "go home to Africa," or Arabs should "go home to the desert."  I can think of any number of others I've heard for Native Americans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Central Americans, South Americans, Chinese, Koreans, etc. etc. etc.  But let's allow two examples speak for the others; there's no sense rehashing hurtful speech unnecessarily. 

As a self-described activist, and someone who blogs extensively on issues of race, and has had essays published in textbooks on the topic, I would have expected Ms. Bradford of all people to understand my point, and to not leap to a foggy assumption and from there to a faulty conclusion.  As a well-intentioned person, I also expected not to be addressed with such unwarranted aggression.

This is not the space to explore every wrong that every person of color, every woman, every African-American has ever been dealt in the United States.  I'm sure Ms. Bradford has plenty of reasons to be, as one of her many blogs is titled, an Angry Black Woman.  Doubtless she has reasons for automatically assuming the worst of a white male making a boneheaded remark.  The internet is a big, ugly place, and I can only imagine what kind of trolls breed there.  But that doesn't make such assumptions right, nor does it make it appropriate to make those assumptions so vociferously public.

It is very true, as has been previously noted by John Scalzi, that straight white male is the lowest difficulty setting in life.  Since college, I have mostly been accepted as a straight white male, and I am not unaware of how fortunate I am in that respect.  (Though the year I lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea--where being white is often looked down upon, and where my employer treated me and my white colleagues more as objects to display and prove affluence than employees and people--taught me that this is not always the case.)  In the general course of things, straight white men don't understand what it's like to be an Arab, or a South American, or an Asian.  Or black, for that matter.  And in the particulars of the experience, they can never know exactly what any individual goes through, or how they have been made to feel, or the looming specters of race, gender, sex, sexual preference, class and/or any other number of variables that make us all so unique and interesting and beautiful.  

But I'm a writer--empathizing with other people to try to understand how they feel and what motivates their decisions is my job, my hobby, my passion.  And, more importantly, I'm human. That simple fact means I have far more in common than I'll ever have in difference with anyone, and with a little explanation, a little effort, a little kindness--I think we have the ability to understand one another.  Perhaps not in every particular, but in the general, broad sweeps of our lives, yes.  

I firmly believe that.  I have to believe that, otherwise it would mean that our biological differences, over which we have no control, determine us, and I think that's bullshit.  I have to believe it because it means we can grow together, and become more and more equal over time; it means that if enough people are willing to accept and love one another for who they are, we can change the world.  

This already happening, has been happening for generations.  It's slow, let's be clear on that; so very, very slow, and it will take generations more.  But it's happening.  And it's easy: you listen to what people have to say more often than you assume you know them based on how they look or who they love or whether or not the practice a certain faith.  You listen more than you speak.  It's not that hard a task, in the end.  You also have to think a little bit, but we can all manage that, too.

As I mentioned above, issues of Otherness have been on my mind since I was child.  This is something I try to deal with in my own work.  To date, I have written three novels (for which I'm currently seeking representation, so if you're an industry professional reading this... :) ).  The earliest is a fantasy novel, in which I sought to escape from the European origins of modern fantasy.  I started imagining the world a decade ago, and started writing the book six years ago, and between those two stages I realized that my world mirrored a first contact scenario more than anything else, and consequently issues of race were very important to not just the story but the worldbuilding.  In the novel (the first of many, I hope), the main characters are all people of color; two are female, one of whom, as are several other important characters, is not heterosexual. (I deliberately say "not heterosexual" instead of "homosexual" because there are many more than two sexualities.)  Race is a very big issue in the book, as is violence against women.  These were not accidents.  I also wrote a science fiction novel set in the 2030s.  Of the three main characters, one is a white teenager whose best friend is black; one is a black woman who is a newly minted MD, and the other is an elderly Jewish woman.  These also were not accidents.  Finally, I recently completed my first short story since finishing my Masters degree nearly six years ago; it is a contemporary fantasy, and the main characters are both female, and of mixed Caucasian/Cherokee descent.  Again, a very deliberate choice.  My second novel is an historical fantasy set in the 1890s in Iceland, and as such does not have any people of color, but issues of class and sex are important to the characters and plot.

I think giving voices to the under-voiced and voiceless is important.  I think these people not only have stories worth hearing, but very often have the most interesting stories.  I believe in strong, female characters who are not mere stand-ins for men, but who have motivations and dreams and conflicts that are all their own, and may or may not involve men, but certainly do not rely upon them for definition or validation. I try to write fiction that involves a broad variety of people: characters who have prejudices and beliefs and backgrounds that are as varied as the places they come from.  This is important, but it's also important that such differences are not made out to be spectacles.  When the narrative takes for granted such things, points them out without fanfare and with little remark, and other characters react accordingly, then for the reader the result is the same.  The exoticism of the Other is decreased, and we focus instead on what's inside their heads and in their hearts, rather than what's on their skin or down their pants.  

Fiction, especially genre fiction, is the possessor of a most beautiful power.  It may not be as obvious or as powerful as people marching in the streets or being civilly disobedient, because its effect is slow and quiet.  But for readers who find the right books, its reach can be just as ineluctable.  The SFF community is already shifting wholesale in this direction--see the bandwagon for cons to have anti-harassment policies, for example, or the recent spate of anthologies celebrating women in the genre--and I'm proud to be a part, however so small, of such a great community.  Even if it involves an occasional misunderstanding; these things are to be expected, and the best thing we can do is reflect upon them and see what we can learn--about ourselves, and about others.

This, then, is my plea: let's all be a little more understanding, and a little nicer to each other.  Let's read, and write, more diverse fictions.  Let's help, one small step at a time, to change the world.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Finished Reading 1/25/2014 - The Crown of Embers, and The Dinosaur Feather

The Crown of Embers (Girl of Fire and Thorns book 2) by Rae Carson

This was an enjoyable read.  The characters are mostly well developed, the plot is interesting and engaging, and the danger to the characters feels real.  I was reminded on occasion that I was reading a young adult book with a female heroine, which might be just what some readers are looking for, but for the most part this read simply as a good book, without any needless classification of a good YA book, or a good fantasy book.  I had a few quibbles about minor plot points--my wife and I disagreed on them--and how a lack of realism in simple matters undermines when readers are asked to follow along with the more magical, less possible things.  But overall, this is leaps and bounds above most of the books being written for the same audience, and I'm looking forward to both the prequel novellas and the third book.



The Dinosaur Feather by S. J. Gazan

This book is in many ways, mostly good ways, odd.  Is it literary fiction? a myster? a thriller? a detective novel?  It defies genres and categorization with a refreshing blend of intrigue, character development, suspense, and backstory.  Some reviews I read found fault with how much we learn about the pasts of the characters, but for me this was a welcome departure from the typical plot of the murder mystery.  And the scientific conflict around which most of the characters' lives revolve was very interesting.  I became aware of this book because I saw it billed as the "best Danish novel of the decade."  While I wouldn't rank it so high as that--even having not read, to my knowledge, other Danish fiction, I hope for their sakes there is more and better--it is nevertheless a very rewarding book for readers who enjoy falling deep into their characters.  While readers who are more interested in plot may find themselves bored or frustrated, there are still pleasures to be had for them as well.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Finished Reading 1/20/2014 - Independent People

I started this book long ago as a nightly read-aloud with my wife.  We had each previously read Iceland's Bell (I loved it, whereas she thought it was merely good, and a bit boring).  Determined to convert her, I launched this book upon her; short of the halfway mark, it was shelved.

Time passed, and meanwhile the book lingered in my imagination.

I finally got back to it, and I'm glad I did.  I can say without hesitation that Bjartur of Summerhouses is one of the greatest protagonists of the novel form; he should be held alongside Don Quixote, and Rochester, and Milton's Satan (not a true protagonist, or a novel, but still), and Pickwick, and Jude the Obscure.  Bjartur stands--foolishly, obstinately, and heroically--unmoving as the world changes around him, and his story becomes the story of his country, seen through the eyes of its most stalwart and enduring (if not endearing) crofter.

Admittedly not the book for everyone, but for me this was a very fine read indeed. 

Independent People by Halldรณr Laxness


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Finished Reading 1/14/14 - The Color of Magic (and others)

One of the many blurbs at the end of the book states that Terry Pratchett does for fantasy what Douglas Adams did for science fiction, and I couldn't agree more--except I suspect the author of those words meant them as highest praise, whereas I don't.  I was amused by this book, much like I was with the Hitchhiker's Guide books, and I suspect I'll read the sequel before too much time has passed, but it didn't really do much for me.  As with Adams' books, of which I've read three, I don't yet see why Discworld has spawned such a rabid following.  For me, it amuses but doesn't delight, interests but doesn't engage.

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett


As a bonus, some words about two other books I finished in the past few days.

The titular doll of this book was really creepy, and I enjoyed the fantasy-meets-reality, nerds-on-a-quest plot.  The book didn't wow me, but it was a fun, quick read that leaves a bit of mystery for the imagination to decide.

Doll Bones by Holly Black, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler


This book was charming, and, thinking back, words like "classic" and, perhaps more appropriately, "timeless" come to mind.  It's a short book, more of a novella, really, and it reads quickly--unfortunately so, because the story, characters, and narrative voice are all so lovely. If, like me, you somehow managed to escape childhood having never read this book, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt


Friday, January 10, 2014

Finished Reading 1/09/2014 - The Book Thief

Another book that's been on my to-read list for awhile, but that I was in no hurry to read--until my wife told me the movie was coming out and that we would be going to see it.  Books that I know will be dark and depressing take me a long time to work myself up to beginning, and there's not much that's darker or more depressing than a book about WWII and the Holocaust told from the point of view of Death.

But greater than that inertia is my fear that a movie will spoil a book for me, so reluctantly I pushed The Book Thief to the top of my list.  I'm glad I did.  This story is beautiful, and the language used to tell it is constantly fresh, imaginative, evocative, and surprisingly apt.  I found myself wondering multiple times, why don't we say that phrase that way? or, why don't we use this word for that?  It's a lovingly crafted book, which helps underscore the love and humanity of the characters.  Even Death, on occasion, has a heart.

This is turning out to be a very good year for books so far.  I only hope I can find a few more titles as original and moving as this one turned out to be.

The Book Thief, but Markus Zusak.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Finished Reading 01/07/2014 - The Lies of Locke Lamora

I've been wanting to read this one for several years now, but never quite seemed to get around to it.  Now I'm sorry I put it off.  The worldbuilding here is very well done, and the characters are full of wonderful little quirks, faults, and gritty realities.  Plus Lynch is the best I've ever read at crafting curses and fitting them naturally into dialogue--difficult enough to do well, but he masters it.

But that's not what really charms in this book.  The core story--a band of suave, merry con men who jump in way over their heads--is beautifully unflinching.  This is not to say it's a flawless book (who would want to read one of those?).  There were several places where the purpose of a chapter is fulfilled, but we don't wind down for several pages.  It wasn't until halfway through the book that I began to appreciate these, as they offer us further glimpses of character and the society, and all the while we really are building toward the inevitable climax.  Yet even with that sense of inevitability, Lynch manages quite a few surprises.

Two final things of note that greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.  First, Scott Lynch is really fucking funny.  I laughed a lot as I made my way through.  Locke is one of the better characters I've read in years, and his sense of humor is a large part of that.  The other reason was that I listened to the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Michael Page.  If you can, listen to him read the book to you.  He's fantastic.

I cannot recommend this title highly enough.  I'm very eagerly looking forward to the second volume, which I'll be listening to again, once again narrated by Michael Page.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Finished Reading 01/03/2014 - Fortunately the Milk

This is a very quick read, and has some lovely illustrations by Skottie Young.  The story was interesting (like Big Fish, but with time travel) and I enjoyed it somewhat, but it's my least favorite of Gaiman's books for younger readers.  It lacks the poignancy of Big Fish, or most of Gaiman's other works, for that matter. He's shooting for a younger audience than that of The Graveyard Book or even Coraline, but this book only amused me, whereas the other two blew me away.

I could see myself reading and rereading this book back when I was eight, perhaps nine, but then I would have put it behind me.  Unlike most of Gaiman's other books, which hit on many levels and work for readers of all ages, Fortunately, the Milk didn't live up to my (admittedly very high--it's Neil Gaiman, after all) expectations.  Buy it for your kids, your nieces and nephews, but don't expect too much out of it for yourself.

Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Skottie Young


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Finished Reading 01/02/2014 - Collapse

I've been reading this one for a while, as it is a big, dense book, and its organization makes it well suited to reading a lengthy chapter and then putting it aside for a few days to ponder.  As with his previous work in a similar vein, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Collapse is above all meticulous and methodical.  Augustinian is the word that comes to mind.

Probably not the best book for every reader, but I find Diamond's approach to be very persuasive, and his look at past and present societies very compelling.  Recommended for those interested in history, the environment, politics, or international relations.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition by Jared Diamond.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Finished Reading 01/01/2014 - Academ's Fury

I read the first Codex Alera book, Furies of Calderon, last September, and liked it well enough to want to continue the story eventually, but wasn't blown away.  But then I kept finding my thoughts drawn back to Calderon, and the characters, with a surprising magnetism.  I didn't want to build up my expectations too high, only to have them let down, so it was with some trepidation that I began this second volume.

It didn't disappoint.

The characters are just as engaging as before, and the world is more fully developed and explored.  The overall plot felt a little bit contrived, but overlooking this overarching point, it was very easy to get lost in the story, as the action compels the pages to keep turning.

Fans of the first book in the Codex Alera will find even more to appreciate here, and I for one am looking forward even more to the third book than I did the second.

Academ's Fury (Codex Alera Book 2) by Jim Butcher.