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Today I "finished" my novel

Wednesday December 15, 2010 @ 10:00 PM (UTC)

I also “finished” my novel, for the record, last year at about this time in longhand, and some time later on the computer. But I wouldn’t let anyone read it, so the sense of “finished” which applied — has beginning, middle and end — was pretty farcical. Also, I later determined I’d chickened out on the ending and needed a new one. This “finishing” is a big, thorough revision — not the first, but the most thoroughgoing — with giant chunks of new material and a new end. It’s a whole thing, which someone is allowed to read. That’s today’s definition of “finish”.

This is the reason I hesitate to say anything about the state of the novel in public — or at least on the internet, which is like in public but louder and more persistent — the state is not determined. I know that what I have now is not what I’ll eventually send out. (Beta readers, start your red pencils! Yes, I know none of you probably use red pencils, and one of you at least probably doesn’t own one.) I know it will require more work. But getting it to this point, the point where I feel comfortable asking anyone, even Ryan, to read the whole thing and tell me what he thinks, was a job of work. Being here is a great and dizzy relief.

And how easy it was, now that it’s behind me! All that brain-mashing and despair, and really, it wasn’t so hard. All I had to do was write it! This must be the writer’s version of the endorphin rush that makes you forget the pains of childbirth. This is how we end up having more novels, and forgetting the horrible developmental stages we thought would never end. Just check back with me when the manuscript is in its Terrible Twos, when all the beta readers tell me how much they hate it. Then we’ll see who airily speaks of knocking out another novel or three!

My favorite reads of 2010

Monday December 13, 2010 @ 10:33 PM (UTC)

As usual, I read very few recent books last year. (In fact, one of my favorite reads was the Tao Te Ching, so that shows you how far back I sometimes reach for reading material.) So here, regardless of original release date, are a few more of my favorite reads of the year, along with excerpts from my reviews:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: A sweeping novel set before and during the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-1970. “Each of the point-of-view characters, who differ in age, race, gender and class, traces a believable and human arc….Adichie tells a complex and disturbing story with a large, vivid cast, and draws it to an ending that feels true. A remarkable book.”

Breath Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat: “This book started out as a quiet little story, and ended up thundering so loud I had to fall to my knees. It has similar extremes of gentleness and brutality, sometimes intermixed in a way that is so, so human.”

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson: Perhaps my most timely read. I took it off the ‘to-read’ list because it was the Multnomah County Library’s “Everybody Reads” book — for once, I was a joiner and I liked it! “A fascinating nonfiction book about cholera, Victorian London, epidemiology, scientific breakthroughs, social patterns, and more. As that suggests, this book ranges quite a bit in topic and scope, but the transitions are excellently accomplished, so that the reader’s mind happily follows the author from bacteria to waste removal systems and back again, forging unexpected connections and learning as it goes.”

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan: Seeing him speak at Wordstock made me finally heed my family’s call for me to read this book. “Come for the amazing stories of survival and inferno, stay for the perspective on the history of the American West, the Forest Service and conservationism!”

None of the books I read this year bowled me over sufficiently to join my list of all-time favorites, but these were solid, finely crafted books I enjoyed reading. I hope I read even more next year — I have such a stack to enjoy!

Mass Effect 2: Scorecard

Saturday December 11, 2010 @ 05:14 PM (UTC)

In my fine tradition of playing games long after they come out, I finally played through Mass Effect Two a few weeks ago. As that link I just threw attests, I loved Mass Effect with the force of several exploding suns. That’s right, several. I’d be embarrassed to find out, let alone disclose, how much time I’ve spent playing that game. And that was despite its flaws: the annoying vehicle and exploration issues, repetitive planetside encounters, inventory of doom, et c.

In the first post here I went over why Mass Effect is so incredibly awesome. In another post I outlined my hopes, as a storyholic player, for the sequel.

I didn’t focus too much on the gameplay quibbles for ME1, and that means I won’t focus too much on the way they fixed most of that stuff right up. They did fix the interminable off-roading over nearly undriveable terrain in order to do very repetitive planet missions; they did streamline inventory and equipment management. In general, they made the game much less granular. In some cases, like inventory, this delights, while in others it perturbs (the new, less driveable vehicle has no visual indication of its damage level or shield level. “Volume of klaxon” is not a system I embrace) and in others it’s likely to be a matter of opinion (fewer skills is simpler, but it does reduce the breadth of tactical options.)

That sort of game crunch aside, I’d like to assess how they did on my four suggestions (and suggested titles!) from that long-ago post.

My requests:
1. Plot-fanciers like to change the world.
2. We like our interactions to affect character actions.
3. Use your backstory to more effect.
4. Animate some object interaction.

Did they implement them?
1. Oh, heavens, yes. It would have to have been a shallow universe not to notice all the stuff my Shepard did last time, and this is not a shallow universe. There were at least whispers or news reports about all my doings — heck, even my non-doings were noted (I couldn’t get the Bring Down the Sky expansion to work, so apparently the sky was brought down.) They are making the world even more rich and multifarious, which just makes you hungry for Mass Effect 3. Huzzah for consequences!

2. They made the squad member rapprochement I used as an example before into a game mechanic, so I guess so! The relationships Shepard had with her ME1 squaddies did create lots of fun results in this game. I mean, I don’t know how it would have been different if I’d played through with a more Renegade Shepard in ME1, but the interactions with former squaddies mostly seemed rich. Mostly.

3. See #2. They’ve made the squad members’ histories a big part of the game. As for the history of the universe, well, I think that ties in pretty well, too. If I see one more “a civilization used to live here but they are ALL WIPED OUT” planet description, I may cry. As for the big moral questions like the Genophage — they are plumbing the depths of those issues.

4. Yes, they animated some object interaction. Not always well — while Shepard was wondering where in this large universe the Powers that Be had hidden her boyfriend, she took a few of the proffered drinks, and let me tell you, that animation is hilariously bad — but they did it. The world seems more endowed with useful objects: not just those you can actually interact with, but those the NPCs interacted with before they were (hey, it’s Mass Effect) slaughtered. Space coffee machines! Space TVs! Heck, we now have our very own space toilets. Men’s, Women’s, and Shepard-only. It’s the little things, you know?

My titles from the previous post:
Mass Effect 2: Now with 20% More Seth Green
Mass Effect 2: Kill More Things, Take More Stuff
Mass Effect 2: James Bond vs. Spectres
Mass Effect 2: Commander Effing Shepard Beats Up Everyone
Mass Effect 2: The Search for Liara’s Daddy

They fulfilled several of these — I think that was more than 120% the previous Seth Green levels. Joker forever! — and hinted at several of the others. (Okay, black tie garb does not a Bond make, but I said ‘hinted’.)

In general, Mass Effect 2 has done a fabulous job of continuing the narrative and deepening the universe of the first one while excising some of the things even die-hard Shepards like myself found incredibly annoying. Combat is smoother: taking cover works more intuitively and consistently, and my squaddies don’t run around with “press A to talk” on them, messing up my targeting. I love some of the new mechanics: the opportunity to do Paragon or Renegade actions as interrupts gets you very engaged during interstitial scenes. The new upgrade system is more sweeping, less fiddly. The game throws some amazing twists your way. There’s a lot of stuff here I wasn’t expecting. And there are a lot of fun in-jokes and touches for geeks like me, up to and including the stirring song “I am the very model of a scientist-salarian.”

This game still knows how to throw out geek references without sounding like they’re slavishly copying the latest hip thing. Example: Starcraft II’s attempt at Firefly fan-service was to make a previously non-cowboy character into one, with horrible accent, and ape its soundtrack instrumentation. Mass Effect II does stuff like name a colony “New Canton”. Subtlety, people. Subtlety and remixing creativity allows you to have a race in your game that lives in a nomadic fleet after losing their homeworld to an AI race they themselves created, and not have it seem a cheap BSG ripoff.

The game is not perfect (but then again, what is?) Some of the loss of tactical crunch was regrettable, especially the winnowing of biotic powers that move the adversaries around. As I said, while I appreciate not having to drive over endless mountainous terrain, I don’t like the new vehicle at all. As is unavoidable in these games, a few important character choices are made for you, which feels unfair when other characters cast those choices up to you. I already wrote about the way the new breadth of potential romances makes you feel harried and beset, and I suggested a social networking solution. This game felt a little shorter than the first, which means it felt a little less replayable — but we’ll see.

They even improved on some of the things they already did well: I think the soundtrack was better, and the voice acting is even more fabulous (it was already the best I’ve heard in any game save perhaps Uncharted — perhaps they used more multiple-actor recording sessions this time?). The cosmetic customizability of the armor adds a layer to the character-customization process they carried over. Changing the Captain’s Cabin from a useless room to a retreat that holds a few useful interfaces and accumulates souvenirs was inspired.

In general, this Mass Effect amply fulfilled the promise of the first: grand, epic space opera with lots of opportunity to affect and shake the world. Complicated politics, characters you can care about, fabulous performances. There were things I really wanted to do, faces I really wanted to punch, that I couldn’t — I’m assuming those will be forthcoming. I cannot wait for Mass Effect 3, and I’m already a little sad that that will be the last installment. I want to save this universe again and again.

P.S. Alenko spoiler: Saving humanity had better count as “things settling down,” Bioware. Shepard wants her boyfriend back.

Projected issue for "Apocalypse Daily"

Tuesday December 07, 2010 @ 05:10 PM (UTC)

My story “Apocalypse Daily”, whose sale to Asimov’s I trumpeted in an earlier blog post, has an ETA! It is slated to appear in the June issue of Asimov’s. I will post again when I know the exact newsstand date, but I believe it will be in April.

Click through to the original announcement if you would like to read a teaser from the beginning of this story. I’m excited for it to make its debut!

Contrariwise

Monday December 06, 2010 @ 08:43 PM (UTC)

Once, when I had a day job that often made me froth and rage with incandescent despair, I noticed that the more I raged, the more cheerfully I answered the phone. This went unnoticed by any save my sister, who once called and heard me sing out in saccharine tones, “Good afternoon, Day Job Incorporated! How may I help you?” and said in stricken tones, “Dear GOD, what is WRONG?”

In a similar vein, today I toiled my way to the grocery store through endless streams of totally unreasonable traffic. I avoided collisions with people driving irrationally and with 2" dowels sticking yards out of pickup trucks into the parking lot, and found that my heart was full of aggravation with my fellow man. In fact, to quote our friend Ishmael (with the exception that it was a crisp chill December within and without my soul), I did feel that it required “a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…” If not their heads. I avoided making eye contact, for fear of accidentally killing people with mind-daggers, and felt that if I were to inadvertently open my mouth, a sheet of baleful green fire might emerge, or at least that noise the monster made in LOST.

In this condition I gathered my vegetables and slinked to the register with my raw poultry. The cashier, a rosy-cheeked lad I had never before seen, asked me for my co-op membership card, and I, coiled in around my core of misanthropy and wrath…said, “Oh yes, here it is,” in a voice precisely one millimeter tall.

I’m amazed he could even hear me. Note to self for future writing reference: humans can be awfully contrarian.

A timely reminder: this is what we do

Friday December 03, 2010 @ 01:28 PM (UTC)

I love reading James Gurney’s blog, Gurney Journey. (I think Steve tipped me to it originally? If so, thanks, Steve.) I love Gurney’s work, and I love learning about art and how it works and has worked. Also, I find a lot of cross-disciplinary pollination in the things he talks about. Sometimes it’s hard to explain how the stuff he says about painting or drawing seems very apt for writing. Sometimes it’s not.

Here’s Thursday’s blog post, “Mutter and Growl”, about perennial Shoulders family favorite John Singer Sargent. It’s about his making a lot of noise as he worked, but here’s the part that really struck me:

Another observer noted that he talked to himself: “This is impossible,” Mr. Sargent muttered. “You can’t do it. Why do you try these things? You know it’s hopeless. It can’t be done.”

Then: “Yes, it can, yes, it can, it can be done—my God, I’ve done it.”

I always feel so grateful when I find that cycle of despondency and triumph in master artists, or hear writers whose work I really admire confess to it. It’s not schadenfreude, it’s recognition: oh, this is fundamental.

When you’re in it, you feel like the only one. Whether it’s a small cycle during one session of painting or a big long-form up-and-down, you feel trapped in the solipsistic agony of it. But you’re not alone. We’re all down there, toiling our parallel ways out of our oubliettes to stand heedless and triumphant in the light.

Mass Effect needs social networking

Thursday December 02, 2010 @ 05:45 PM (UTC)

I was working on a larger post about how Mass Effect 2 stacks up to my cherished dreams and suggestions, but one little digression started to snowball until I gave it its own blog post.

So, more generally about Mass Effect 2 later. One irritation I had with Mass Effect 2 early on was the seeming disappearance of my Commander Shepard’s love interest from ME1. This was addressed later on, and I am (mostly) appeased. However, let’s be clear: my extremely Paragon Commander Shepard puts the “fidelis” in Semper Fidelis. She is a one-fraternization officer. It does not matter what dizzying array of potential flirtations you put in her way, she is not interested.

And wow, does this game have a lot of potential flirtations. Just because I believe in human-alien cooperation, people, does not mean I am interested in that! It got so I was so relieved to chat with Grunt, say, or Miranda — just because I knew no inadvertent signals were being sent or received.

Of course, your in-character interactions in game are scripted, triggered by your choices in the conversation wheel, and there’s no way to tell the game “Please, stop having Shepard lean languorously at the beginning of conversations and lowering her inconsistently rendered eyelashes.” No way to preemptively tell all the potentially interested NPCs in the world that they can take a number if they want Shepard to save them from peril, but if they want Shepard’s number, they are out of luck. I understand, the system’s limited. How would they do that?

How could they implement a passive communication system by which everyone who makes Shepard’s acquaintance could learn basic information like whether or not she’s taken? One that operates on a simple system of checkboxes and information fields?

Yes, I propose SPACEBOOK.

In this as in so much else, your Shepard may vary. But this is my Shepard, and as such, you’ll note an important detail:

Many awkward situations could be thus avoided. Of course, Spacebook would be owned through shell corporations by the Shadow Broker, but who are you kidding? The Shadow Broker knows all that stuff about you anyway.

It’s that time of year again, when SFWA Members Active and Associate can help to form the short list for the Nebula Awards.

I had two short stories of my very own published this year, and I’ve posted them on the SFWA Members-only fora here:

Members can only nominate five pieces in each category, but they can comment on/recommend as many posted stories as they like!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled stuff and nonsense.

Thanksgivering

Monday November 29, 2010 @ 01:35 PM (UTC)

I only made four pies this year! I am such a slacker. Although I note that since we had our Thanksgiving gathering on Saturday rather than Thursday, my not posting the pie pics prior should not be proposed as part and parcel of my procrastination.

Felicity's maple custard pie
Maple Custard Pie, photographed by Ryan. Pumpkin in background. Pecan lurks.

As ever, the maple custard pie comes to us via Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-And-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie. Long may it reign!

Reluctant romantics

Saturday November 27, 2010 @ 03:25 PM (UTC)

At the beginning of the “Much Ado About Nothing” production in the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold, the credits roll over events several years before the action of the play. Beatrice is preparing for a big date; Benedick is preparing…to skip town for a big job.

Now, some of you may realize this isn’t countertextual: it’s a spinning out of one line:

DON PEDRO: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of
Signior Benedick.

BEATRICE: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave
him use for it, a double heart for his single one:
marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

I could go on at some length about the casting of this production — Damian Lewis as Benedick, be still my heart; and Sarah Parish, the pretty, witty Beatrice with the motile face. But I’m here to talk about the introduction and one shot in particular where Beatrice scatters red rose petals over her bed, then looks at them, goes off screen, and comes back with a dustbuster to remove them. With her expressive face, you see the whole thought process play out.

I love this moment. It crystallizes something very important: Beatrice is a reluctant romantic. She is a romantic, or she never would have thought of the petals: but once deployed they strike her as too much, too obvious, too vulnerable, too earnest. Too romantic.

I can sympathize. I don’t know what scholar put forward the idea of the romance cult, but I first read about it in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Basically, the idea is that as the power of the Church has declined in post-Medieval Europe (and the European-inflected West) the place of Christianity has been supplied by worldly romance. Sure, the Western world is still chock-full of Christians, but Christianity can no longer safely be assumed to be a universal constant. Stories told in the Renaissance and later depend on different universal truths and aspirations, a different transcendant happiness: romantic love. Love, moreover, that transforms and elevates, that is itself a destiny and purpose. True Love with One person, Forever.

It’s natural, perhaps, that this world order should have its cynics, just as the religious one did. But most of us — not all, I note — do crave companionship, and the idea of a lasting partnership that will fix us and save us from ourselves has been programmed in from an early age. Even those of us who believe more in density than in destiny often have a yearning heart.

And so, for us, there are the reluctant romantics, the bickering lovers, the banterers and sarcastics. Beatrices and Benedicks, Hans and Leias: characters who are strong and self-reliant, resistant perhaps to the vulnerability of love or belief in it, characters who demonstrate with every barbed word and cynical protest that they will not go gently into the sunset. It’s become an overused device itself, but done right, it still enchants. In the process of convincing their doubting hearts, they convince ours too.

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