Author: Elan

Starfire: A Red Peace – Spencer Ellsworth

A confession, reader, before starting this book review: when browsing Audible’s list of books for review, I saw a familiar name in the Narrator column, and chose this book before looking at the title or genre. Starfire: A Red Peace is jointly narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal and John Keating; long-time readers of this blog will recognize Mary as an author whose work I admire and someone who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and learning from, on that cruise as well as subsequent online classes. I knew that she was an audiobook narrator, but hadn’t heard her work, so I jumped at the opportunity to listen to the first novel in Spencer Ellworth’s Starfire trilogy. Before I dig into the book and narration, I want to thank Audible for providing this book for review, and flag for you, listener, that they’re running a promotion until May 4th, 2018 that gets you a free kindle when you sign up for a one-year membership—12 audiobooks and a kindle for around $130 is a pretty good deal, especially if you consider how they discount audiobooks if you already own the kindle version. I’ll stop that spiel now, lest my words meander into the realm of sponsored content.

Kowal and Keating’s performances for Starfire: A Red Peace are excellent, their choices of accents lending color to a space opera that could otherwise have seemed like yet-another-brits-in-space affair which, continuing my confession, I had been expecting. Instead, there was twang and grit, a bit of a different soul inside the characters. I found it particularly interesting that a change in accent could do so much for certain aspects of characterization—which, on reflection, could have been a result of my own ingrained biases. Something to ponder later, for sure.

What I found in A Red Peace surprised me. It has the pieces of a great space opera—a military populated with genetically engineered soldiers, aliens of various sizes and degrees of ferocity, a plucky young heroine with a knack for getting herself into trouble, and writing that echoes its forbears.

But Spencer Ellsworth’s novel took me by surprise, too. I half-expected to be nonplussed by A Red Peace; not enthralled but not bored. Instead, I found myself fascinated with the ways Ellsworth infused his take on space opera with a breath of fresh air, from the arthropodal spacecraft to the exquisite sequences of intoxication that painted the universe in haunting melodies and strange colors, scenes that lingered on my ears and tongue long after I’d finished listening to the book.

Because I’ve been somewhat derelict in my duties as a reviewer, the space between my having finished A Red Peace and publishing this review is, regrettably, nearly half a year. Many of the details of the story are hazy now, but there are things that do stand out: the excellent performances of the narrators, the spectacular execution of an addiction cycle powered by PTSD…these things stuck with me.

There’s a silver lining, however. Taking so long to publish this review leaves me with the opportunity to pick up the next two books in the series: Shadow Sun Seven and Memory’s Blade, which I intend to add to my to-read list forthwith.

Starfire: A Red Peace is a quick read that will sate your hunger for classic space opera while giving a taste of something new. You can support The Warbler by using these links to pick up the book on Amazon, or to find some of Spencer Ellworth’s short fiction in various magazines at Weightless Books.

Announcing: The Warbler Weekly (And a Book Review!)

According to the Gregorian calendar, it is nearly the end of February. Somewhere around the middle of this month—and truth be told, I can’t remember the exact date—The Warbler celebrated its seventh birthday. Seven years! It’s been an interesting time, to say the least, and I am immensely grateful to you, readers and friends, for helping me forge my love of reading into something tangible.

Today, I’m delighted to tell you about something new. More than a few of you know that I, along with several colleagues and friends, host a weekly writing podcast called Write Right on which we discuss a variety of writerly topics near and dear to my heart. I’ve been mulling over the idea of expanding this blog into a multimedia extravaganza for some time, and at the repeated insistence of my friend G. Derek Adams, I have done just that.

Meet The Warbler Weekly. It’s a companion to this blog (which I’ll continue trying to update with written reviews as often as I am able) in which I’ll cover one book or several works by a single author every week. The podcast will likely expand into other topics as I pursue a variety of endeavors, so I’m keeping it very loose. I’ll be publishing a post on the site every time I publish a new episode, too.

I’m using Anchor to host and distribute it, but the platform offers a bunch of neat features. For instance, if you download it, you can record questions or comments on episodes and send them to me, which I can in turn feature on future episodes. An asynchronous conversation, audible to all kinds of book nerds. Sounds fun, right?

The first episode is up right now, and you can subscribe to the podcast on any of your favorite services—links below to the big ones.

The first book review on The Warbler Weekly is Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, a book of nonfiction essays compiled by Jim Al-Khalili. Give the episode a listen and let me know what you think!

Anchor Podcasts      Apple Podcasts       Google Play Music      PocketCasts

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

While I haven’t read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first book in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series, I found A Closed and Common Orbit, last year’s Hugo-nominated sequel to that volume, a deeply enjoyable and approachable read. The characters are rich and honest, the universe is extensive and fascinating, and the writing is excellent.

At the core of A Closed and Common Orbit is one question, explored from several angles: what is personhood?

Whether the AI learning the limitations of a single body, an escaped genetically engineered slave finding out about the world outside her prison, a ship AI exploring motherhood, or an alien shifting between genders with fluidity, each character arc deals with the question of personhood. (Personhood as opposed to humanity is something particularly interesting to explore, given our own proximity to artificial intelligence and our somewhat limited understanding of consciousness.)

There isn’t an adventure at the heart of A Closed and Common Orbit, but there is action and change, despite the slow pacing of the novel. From a quick search, I gather that the pacing presented a problem for some readers, but I feel that a book about asking difficult questions and exploring them with genuine care should take it slow, be methodical, and not detract from it’s central premise with an epic dressing.

I am sure that, by making a categorical statement, I am shooting myself in the foot. There’s no doubt that it’s possible to write a compelling adventure that deals with the essence of personhood. That isn’t this book, though. This book takes time to show the confusion, fear, pain, and the joy, wonder, and curiosity that are part of the conscious experience. It made me think. A lot. And for that, I genuinely appreciate it. In a year filled to brimming with excellent reads, A Closed and Common Orbit may have fallen short of where it otherwise might have been on best-of lists. It’s an excellent book. One I won’t soon forget.

A Closed and Common Orbit is available on Amazon. (Use that link to buy it, if you like, and support The Warbler while doing it!)

2017 in Review

It is early evening on January 8th, 2018 and, having gathered the requisite statistics (and my thoughts, besides), it is time to wrap up the strange, beautiful, horrible year in a post. As I did last year, I’ll go over my stats and favorite reads of the year, but before diving into that, a bit of housekeeping and personal reflection.

The two-thousand-seventeenth year of the common era was a doozy. Sociopolitical upheaval without and myriad changes within put something of a damper on what I’d hoped would be a year of voracious reading and reviewing, owing largely to my ingenious plan to make my way as a freelance writer.

I started 2017 as a full-time writer at a startup in San Francisco, from which I shifted to an editorial stint at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. I had made plans to attend the Writing Excuses Cruise and, upon my return, kick my freelance career into overdrive. I had clients, financials planned, and my eyes on the prize, so to speak.

What is it they say about the best-laid plans?

I ended up (quite unexpectedly) interviewing for and getting a job with a tech company based in Cupertino. My title there is Writer, and it is a surreal thing. I started that job a few days after returning from Europe, and while I’m grateful for the work, and happy to be there, it’s much more demanding on my time than I’d estimated. You may have noticed the result, dear reader. I only managed four posts in the final quarter of the year. And while The Warbler is a work of love and, therefore, not subject to any kind of grueling content calendar, I must acknowledge that I felt its absence. I love reading these crazy books. I’ve love writing about them. And for some reason, there is a non-zero number of people out there who like to read these posts.

And so I will promise, once again, that this year I will post weekly. My goal is (again) to read 52 books this year. It would be an honor to have you swing by the blog now and again to see what’s up at Warbler way. Who knows? You may even come across a surprise or two!


Books read:

  • 45 Books Read (of 52 Goal) – 3.75 books per month
  • 10,238 Pages Read – 830 pages per month

Blog stats:

  • 30 posts – 2.5 per month
  • 3231 views by 1821 visitors
  • Total words – 21,036

The year’s best:

Best Novel:

Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

I haven’t reviewed this book on the site yet, but I will. The writing was extraordinary; truly far-out science fiction written in the style of, say, Daniel Defoe. Ada Palmer is a singular talent, and no mistake.

Summerlong – Peter S. Beagle

 

The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu 

– I will review this soon, but oh MAN did I sleep on this. People have been talking about it for ages, and I felt like something of a lout when I was hanging out with Ken Liu, the translator, on the cruise without having read his work. This is magnificent.

Honorable Mention: This Immortal

I had picked this book up by complete happenstance when I was living in Seattle, as part of a pulp-fiction sale at a cool bookstore near my house. It didn’t even register that the author was Zelazny, a prolific and decorated author who was a contemporary of Frank Herbert. Imagine my shock at learning that This Immortal shared the hugo with Dune. I resolved to read it while I was out and about in Europe, hugo-adjacent and surrounded by delightful nerds. I’ll review the book as a whole later, but suffice it to say that it was an exceptional read.

Best Novella:

Forest of Memory – Mary Robinette Kowal

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle

The Jewel and Her Lapidary — Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde brings every ounce of her poetic ability and vivid worldbuilding to this novella. It is a gorgeous read

 

Best Short Story:

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers

An amazing, surreal, beautiful story about loss and identity by Alyssa Wong.

The Game We Played During the War

Something about this story really stood out to me. Carrie Vaughn explores telepathy, chess, and the horrors of war.

 The City Born Great

N. K. Jemisin plays with the idea that cities are their people in a resonant and higly visual short.

Notable Non-Fiction:

The Princess Diarist

Carrie Fisher’s account of her time as Princess Leia was fascinating, sad, and uplifting. I recommend the audiobook read by Fisher.

2K to 10K – Rachel Aaron

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan, ever the extaticist (I just made up that word), seems out of character in this book, harshly critical as it is of non-scientific belief systems. He has salient points throughout, but it was a surprising read. Truth be told, it sends my all-too-willing mind down the conspiracy rabbit hole. Was Sagan threatened by the government, which caused a shift in his tone?

 

That’s it for the best-ofs, but 2017 was an incredible year for me. Here are just a few of the other things I did with my time, if you’re curious:

  • Writing Excuses Cruise – Traveled to Europe, attended a week-long writing intensive, leading to my attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland.
  • Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Intensive
  • Night of Writing Dangerously
  • Saw and chatted with Kim Stanley Robinson, Robin Sloane, and Nnedi Okorafor at Apple. One of the unreal perks of the new job.

So that’s 2017. Here’s hoping for a 2018 filled with indictments and inspiration.

A November Pledge

It’s the first of November. It’ll be one of busiest months I’ve had in as long as I can remember, and I’m sitting on the bus to work, typing this blog post instead of getting to work on any of the many things that will fill every minute of these next thirty days.

Because I just sat for about fifteen minutes and meditated. Specifically, I followed a guided meditation from the 10% Happier app, which has become a staple of my daily life over the last month or so. In this series, about developing emotional agility, meditators are asked to examine their feelings from a neutral perspective; to learn to identify the feelings, then identify how those feelings affect us. It’s a bit meta, to say “how do I feel about being angry?” or “am I okay with this frustration?” but I’ve also found it to be informative.

This morning, I identified anxiety in myself, a common thing, as I’m medicated for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The difference this morning’s meditation was that I knew what I’m feeling anxious about, and how I feel about that anxiety.

I feel resigned to it. The anxiety sparked by my fervent desire to “win” NaNoWriMo (by writing a 50,000 word novel this month), something I’ve never done despite years of trying. I have already resigned myself to the failure that will no doubt announce itself on November 29, as my 5000-word attempt at a new novel joins its companions in my growing trunk of unfinished stories, and I take my traditional two-to-three month sabbatical from writing at all, sparked by the feelings of failure and disappointment that NaNo brought, compounded by seeing so many people I respect succeeding. Shame at their kind words, confusion that they respect me as a writer when I can’t sit down and do the damn thing.

But then, something else happened, which hasn’t happened before. I thought about the prep work that I put into this year’s NaNo effort. I thought about the experiences I had only a few months ago, on the Writing Excuses Cruise and at Worldcon, where my status as a writer never came into question. I was a writer there. I am a writer here.

I thought about the new friends I made on that journey, and the things I learned from them, About my instructors, whose candid acknowledgement of the same anxieties that I experience around my writing was both a shock and a comfort. About my writing-world friends from before those experiences, in whom I’ve found inspiration and camaraderie. But before I delve into a cheesier realm than is necessary for this exercise, I’ll stop myself and say this: I recognized that the anxiety is there, I recognized why it’s there, and I recognized how I can circumvent its effects on me…hell, maybe even use them to my advantage.

I’ve got my outline, my tools, and my community. And I’ve got my anxiety to keep me honest.

And for now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to start writing.

This Census-Taker – China Miéville

In past posts, I’ve alluded to the divide within the speculative fiction world, wherein on one side stands the group that wants to elevate unheard voices, shine a light on different stories, and push the boundaries of our boundless universes just a bit farther. From the other side wafts a miasma, that same stench that has consumed U.S. politics which, in this case, wants to make science fiction “Great Again.” That group calls itself the “sad puppies,” which isn’t a joke, somehow. Anyway, their continued efforts to bend the system to push certain works toward award nominations have been less effective than previous years, though not entirely ineffective. Which brings me to This Census-Taker, by China Miéville.

I had planned not to read any of the puppy-nominated books from the 2017 Hugo nominees list, but I’d been meaning to read China Miéville for a while, having had his work recommended to my time and again by friends and colleagues the world over. Despite what follows, I will very likely try another Miéville in the future.

This Census-Taker is a book that, for me, never quite took off. It blends elements of fantasy and horror within a surreal framework, muddied by the unreliable narrator, a nameless boy who tells the story in pieces, from different periods of time, and with varying levels of basic knowledge. For all its artistry, the (quite good) writing isn’t able to give the requisite lift to the book. It falls flat.

There’s a murder (maybe), and a (possibly) bottomless hole where his (suspected) evil father dumps the (presumed) victims of his homicidal tendencies: animals and humans alike. Sometimes, the story moves one step outward, telling a loose frame story—the nameless boy, older now, in some kind of incarceration, is writing down the details of his childhood—but that, too, remains somewhat bland. This Census-Taker becomes even more lackluster when comparing it to the other nominated novellas from this year’s Hugos—Black Tom, Vellit Boe, and Every Heart a Doorway in particular, which I had read shortly before sitting down to listen to the audiobook of This Census-Taker.

As I implied above, I don’t indent to blackball Miéville from my to-read list as a result of my less-than-stellar affair with this novella. He’s a fascinating figure who has amassed an impressive corpus, and I’m curious to see his takes on other genres.

Maybe you, friend, can convince me to pick up one of his books sooner. Give it your best shot in the comments.

Penric and the Shaman – Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold, who won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Series (for the Vorkosigan Saga), is a fantastically decorated writer. Among her many accolades are six Hugos, three Nebulas, three Locuses, and as of 2010 (according to wikipedia), has sold over two million books.

And because I’ve been derelict in my studies of speculative fiction, I hadn’t heard of her until I saw Penric and the Shaman on the list of nominated novellas for the 2017 Hugos.

It’s tough to give a fair review to a novella that is set smack-dab in the middle of an established series: the second novella in a series of five that is itself set within a larger series. There’s an established world, pantheon, society, and long-standing relationships between characters, nations, and religious sects that would have been prohibitively difficult (not to mention ill advised) to include in the novella.

As such, there’s a bit of catch-up on the part of a reader hopping in to the Chalion series in its fifth installment. That being said, Bujold did an excellent job of back-filling questions for new readers while making sure that her pacing would keep knowledgable fans interested. Even with her admirable efforts, I found myself occasionally lost while reading Penric and the Shaman. There was just too much information to assimilate. There was plenty of available information between the lines, in character behaviors and dialogue, but keeping track of it is where I became disoriented.

But that’s part-and-parcel of my circumstance as a reader, and not a knock against the book. Bujold’s writing is very good—she imbues a sort of clarity in her writing that makes even the abstract and hallucinatory moments in the novella easy to picture, which helped me a great deal when it came to piecing the story together in larger, implied context.

Penric is a young (too young, according to most of the reactions to him in the story) sorcerer, advisor to a princess, and a divine priest of the “Bastard’s Order”—who represent the Bastard, the unnamed god of the forgotten, abandoned, and etcetera. Penric is also possessed, or perhaps in possession of, a demon, Desmonda, who hangs out in his brain and can occasionally, with Penric’s permission use his body.

Penric is sent off on a mission to capture a runaway shaman, Inglis, who has been charged with murder. When Penric and his cadre of soldiers finally catch up to Inglis in the snowy mountains, they discover that the situation is much more complex than they’d been led to believe, and Penric is tasked with balancing his roles as a clergyman and sorcerer, torn between his desire to help the man he’s chasing and appeasing the hard-nosed military leader who just wants to complete the mission.

Penric and the Shaman is, all-in-all, an excellent story that deals with intriguing themes of belief, death, personal responsibility, and agency within a wonderfully deep framework that I knew almost nothing about. I’m sure I would have loved the story if I was familiar with Bujold’s other work, but as it is, I really enjoyed Penric and the Shaman.

All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

So…hey there, reader. I’ve been away a while, with the exception of a few posts regarding that trip I took. Work’s been busy, life gets in the way, etcetera. In the couple of months since I last posted a review, I’ve read somewhere around a dozen books and stories, so in an effort to catch up to the schedule, I’ve set myself a rather aggressive review schedule. If, as I hope, I stick to that schedule, you can expect a review every other day through mid-November, possibly even into December. You ready? I am. Let’s do this.

[drop_cap]C[/drop_cap]harlie Jane Anders has been the talk of the Sci-Fi world this year, with her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, winning a Nebula and nomination for a Hugo, among its many other accolades. I think it deserves the praise.

All the Birds in the Sky is a story about abuse, growth, fear, artificial intelligence, the transcendental power of the mind, and the unknowable power of nature. It’s something of a treatise, from a Bay Area native, on the dangers of taking technology too far—something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit, incidentally.

The story follows the lives of two characters, Patricia and Laurence, who become friends as children, finding solace in each other’s company, processing their traumas together. They discover they’re a witch and gifted technologist, respectively, which drives a wedge between them, the resulting separation causing even more pain to each of them.

The three-act structure of the book is divided among periods in the protagonists’ lives, and leaps into their twenties—after Patricia has gone to Witch School after rescuing Laurence from a horrible military boarding school. Patricia has grown into a capable Healer, who cures people in San Francisco of all manner of ills, from actual sickness to fatal marital conflicts. Meanwhile, Laurence is a hot-shot engineer, whose connections and skill placed him in San Francisco as well, where he’s a rockstar in the tech industry. Our heroes meet again, at a party, and rekindle something of their old friendship. It blossoms into something more, and they work together to redefine themselves while recalling their traumas.

The final act consists of an epic conflict between the forces of witchcraft (nature) and technology, which, because it’s awesome, I won’t detail here. You’ll have to read the book. Which you should absolutely do.

Anders’s writing flows easily between ecstatic and window-pane, reserving stylistic flair for the moments of surreality that punctuate the novel. It creates a powerful effect—the contrast between the moments of magic and pain is stronger for it.

My only issue with the novel was the uneven pacing between the first act and the others. The first act—the childhood and abuses portion—was longer and slower-paced than its adolescent and adult counterparts and, for me, the latter two acts dealt with much more interesting philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness, morality, technology, humanity, and the limits of each of those subjects. Because the bulk of the action in the story takes places in the second and third acts, it feels like it races through those discussions, and I’d have liked to explore the topics a little deeper with her characters.

I loved the idea of putting technology and magic against each other in our world, especially one that I’ve become intimately familiar with throughout my (admittedly short) career. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are complicated places, and more than a few of the ideas that come out of these places could use the careful consideration that a book like All the Birds in the Sky gives to the merits of limitless technological progress.

I really enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky, and I think that chances are good that you’ll enjoy it too. If you’re eager to read it, consider clicking this here link to order it on Amazon, which will give your pal The Warbler a kick-back.

On Travels and Withdrawal

Is it possible to experience withdrawal from a trip?

It must be, since I’ve been feeling symptoms that I’d label withdrawal since returning from Europe about four weeks ago. It’s likely a combination of things: my partner, her brother, and most of our friends were away at a Certain Desert Shenanigans festival, leaving me plenty of time with my thoughts; and I just started a new job, so even though I’ve got plenty of time to myself, most of it has been consumed with adjusting to the implications of that new role.

But that isn’t an explanation of why I’m feeling the way I feel. It’s the setting in which those feelings have the opportunity to metastasize. To grow tentacles and explore the boundaries of their cage, to prod and test the limits of their power over my day to day.

It might seem strange to bestow agency and cancerous identity to these feelings. After all, you may find yourself asking, didn’t I have an amazing time?

I did. An overwhelming, immensely educational, mind-altering, perception-shifting, notion-rewriting time on my trip. And I came back to my life in the “default world”—as the Burners like to call it—and didn’t have the space I didn’t think I’d need to integrate those new pieces of me into this life.

How can I take the part of me that drank in the community like fuel, that ate up every spark of inspiration, that stoked the furnace that grew in me with reckless vigor, and fit it into the rest of this me, the one with the new commute and the past-due veterinary appointment?

Maybe one of the reasons it’s been more difficult than I’d anticipated is because the farther away I get from that space, both physically and emotionally, the more I think of it as the time I pretended to be a writer. I fooled so many of you, my new friends. Here you thought I was one of you, but I can’t hold a candle to y’all.

Part of me knows that’s absurd, and that I’m breaking one of the more important rules I learned on the journey, but I don’t have you with me to slap my wrist, crew! I’m here with my cats and my thoughts and there’s nobody who can stop this imposter train from barreling through.

So in an effort to stem the bleeding I am going to write about the trip, finally. Maybe it’ll remind me that I am one of you, after all.

###

Up until the minute Krystal dropped me off at the airport, I was terrified. I’d already spent the money—lots of it—on this trip, and I didn’t know anyone who would be there, at least personally. I’d be going to places I had never been, on a cruise for the first time (which I’d had reservations about anyway), to be a Writer in Public for what felt like the first time. (This isn’t entirely sensible, since I had been to a convention and had been working as a writer in the corporate space for nearly nine years. But feelings aren’t supposed to make sense, are they?)

But something changed when the car door closed and Krystal pulled away. I remembered what it felt like to travel, and to travel alone. I remembered that I love it. I was energized and ready to go.

On the first flight, to Copenhagen, I sat next to a young woman who was traveling out of the country for the first time, for a five-month study abroad program in Denmark. Her whole family was with her, but she wasn’t able to sit with them. We chatted a bit, mostly about her studies. When she asked what I was doing I kept it brief. A writing retreat. No, I didn’t know anyone else who was going on the trip. She said the idea terrified her. I told her I’d felt the same way until about two hours before we started chatting, and we laughed. I can’t remember her name.

After about seventeen hours of travel, I was in Kiel, a port city in northern Germany, standing on front of the hotel and deliriously recalling my reservations about the whole trip from the departures curb at SFO. All these new people, and what if my writing is garbage compared to all of them, it definitely is garbage, oh no, what have I done, now I’m Germany with all these people who will take turns telling me I should quit and they’re probably all very tall and this was all a mistake and maybe it isn’t too late to turn around and…

And I walked into the hotel, somewhat unhinged from the journey, and wholly unprepared for what lay in store for me.

I met my roommate, Travis (about whom I’ll share more, later), and went down to the opening event—a welcome and brief tutorial on how we’d go about boarding the ship. I saw people I recognized, but didn’t know personally. Authors I admire greatly, but hadn’t met personally. It was strange, to feel like I knew these people, but to know that because of our our long, asynchronous, one-way conversation, I was a stranger to them. Not for long, though.

That first evening was about meet-and-greets and learning to write through (and despite) fear. To understand that the fears that keep our fingers from putting words to paper can be looked at and analyzed (somewhat) objectively, and that we can develop techniques that allow us to either ignore those fears, or compartmentalize them, appreciate their strange value, and continue doing the work. It was an excellent way to start the trip.

The following day we made our way to the ship, the boarding of which could be called an ordeal, which in turn was overshadowed by the absurdity of walking onto what was, essentially, SpaceVegas.

Let me explain. The cruise ship’s ostentation was more than a little tacky, to the point where I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud when I finally made it through the various stages of boarding and saw the interior for the first time. It was like this Italian cruise ship line took their idea of what Vegas is, mashed it together with a single viewing of a Star Trek episode (for their signage and some of the decor) and said “yeah, that’s a good motif for our vessel, let’s go with that.”

I’ve made no secret of my newfound distaste for cruising (as you might recall from a certain poem published on this very blog), but that’s more a “me” thing than a “cruise” thing, I imagine. See, I used to have chronic vertigo as a result of stress-induced vestibular migraines, and a week on a cruise ship felt like being on the verge of a vertigo episode for nearly 24 hours a day. Not terribly fun. That being said, I will absolutely be going on a cruise again, next year, to attend the 2018 Writing Excuses Retreat. Because it was just that good.

Rather than go into the details of every day on the cruise, and our various stops along the way, I’ll go into what I’ve taken away from the retreat—which I recently did orally on that there podcast I have.

The retreat was unlike anything I’d done before. To be surrounded by a group of peers who’ve all signed up to take part in this creative growth, together, was motivating in a way I could never have anticipated. To hear their stories, both fictional and personal, to see them at work, to understand each other on a fundamental level, was overwhelming. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I was really part of a community. Sure, I have love, friendship, and community here and in other spaces in my life, but there was something different about this one. Writing is a personal, vulnerable, deeply strange thing, and to share it wordlessly (ironic?) with this group was like having a boulder lifted from my shoulders. I never knew I carried it until it wasn’t there. Instead of hedging my nerdiness in regards to writing, as I often do in the real world, here I was free to be me, and my own aforementioned nerdiness could barely hold a candle compared to the group at large. I had so much to learn from these people, and the only tragedy is that I had but one week to work with.

The instructors were fantastic. Caring, careful, intelligent, sensitive, available people who had no reason to be, other than that we share something outside of our relative levels of success. I got to finally talk to these people—these people—and they treated me like one of their own, no questions asked.

I got to pester John Berlyne with questions I never knew I had about agents, and rather than brush me aside he came and found me after his session so that I could ask the rest of the questions bouncing around in my head. I got to see Wesley Chu, delighted at finding his own books on the shelves of one of the best SFF bookstores I’ve been to in the world (in Old Town Stockholm), and I shared in that excitement with him—with a frikkin’ Campbell winner! I got to ask Tempest Bradford about my story, and she gave me such amazing feedback that I doubt I’ll ever forget our conversation. I got to know Thomas Olde Heuvelt and David Samwel, terrific people who shepherded me into meeting some of my idols at Worldcon. I got to sit down for an amicable lunch with Aliette de Bodard, who asked about my work with genuine interest, which lead to a long conversation about the nature of mortality and grief. I got to laugh with Dan Wells and his daughter, Audrey, about the boat-related shenanigans.

And that’s saying nothing of my classmates, who were every bit as stimulating and helpful as the instructors. I especially want to give a hat-tip to Travis Sullivan, my roommate on the ship, whose no-nonsense approach to solving story problems helped me break through on more than one idea that had been plaguing me prior to the trip. Also he somehow got me to go to the gym at 6am, which is a thing nobody has ever been able to make me do. Go figure.

Even if I went through the retreat moment by moment, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I think I’ve done a good enough job at showing how meaningful it was for me, though, so I’ll move on to Helsinki and Worldcon.

###

Arriving back in Kiel was surreal. The week on the ship had been both an eternity and a blip, and I was glad to be rid of the boat part of the ordeal. A week is a long time to spend thinking about writing all day, and while I felt ready for a breather, I wished that after a weekend of exploring I could go back to another week of retreat. But I had a flight to catch the following morning, to Finland.

That evening I went for a walk through Kiel with Yvette Keller and Mark Bessey, a wonderful couple from Santa Barbara with whom I felt immediately at home. We had an excellent (non-vegan, sorry) dinner, after which we returned to the hotel for the night. They were heading on the Castle Tour (epic, right?) with others from the WXR group, while I was heading directly to Finland to pretend I lived there for a week.

Helsinki is a wonderful city. It’s like a cross between Manhattan and San Francisco, but with a fraction of the population. Amazing food, beautiful architecture, water, parks, excellent public transit—Helsinki’s got it all. Not to mention that it was substantially more diverse than I’d anticipated. I saw mixed-race and interfaith families happily strolling about, like it was no big deal (because it is no big deal) and was refreshed. Granted, it’s more than likely that I’m applying a certain rose-colored lens to the place, but I was happily surprised by the positive commingling of cultures and backgrounds that surrounded me. I mean, I’m in a mixed-race relationship in Oakland, and I’ve gotten dirty looks walking down the street with Krystal, my partner. Go figure.

During the week leading up to Worldcon I explored Helsinki, eating delicious food and taking long walks, getting a bit lost and finding my way home—the kind of solo travel I prefer. I connected with folks from the cruise as they trickled into Helsinki, hitting up an Irish bar for a bluegrass band (that played R&B covers), or eating literally the best meal of my life (shoutout to Nina and Dan for sharing that with me). Suffice it to say that I had a love affair with Heksinki, and while I would love to return, I have no idea when the next opportunity will present itself.

Worldcon was huge, overwhelming, and as different as possible from the retreat, but valuable for a completely different set of reasons. I had an overfull itinerary planned out, with sessions overlapping each other throughout every day of the convention. But I didn’t account for the volume of attendees, the difficulty of getting into the rooms, and the general anxiety that comes from being squeezed through a fire hazard of a hallway while trying to beat the rush so that you’re not greeted by a “Room Full” sign on the door.

After the first panel I attended—in which every seat was taken, as was the standing room along the walls, and the floor space in front of the standers—I decided to forgo rushing to any other panels. I moseyed down toward the cafe, which turned out to be where I’d spend the bulk of my time over the next four days.

I was immediately greeted by one of the instructors from the cruise, who introduced me casually to the gentleman he was standing with, who turned out to be a Hugo-winning author of an excellent novella. From there, I was walked to a table full of kind folks who were more than happy to have me join them to chat. Only once we’d already been laughing did I learn that they, too, were quite successful authors, all with deals for forthcoming or in-progress series with major publishers.

And so Worldcon passed, with me bouncing from group to group, always feeling welcomed and treated as a contemporary, to the point where Charlie Jane Anders, who must have recognized me from a reading a few weeks earlier in Berkeley, asked where I’ve been published, why I looked so familiar, and if she’d read my work. It was surreal. I met so many authors and editors I admire and schmoozed with celebrities of my world, and it was the most normal thing in the world.

Worldcon had its ups and downs—downs being the somewhat broken mechanism of the event, ups being the incredible networking opportunities it provided—but I credit the success of that event entirely to having attended the Writing Excuses cruise. I felt like I was a member of a secret cabal of writers. Everywhere I turned I saw a familiar face, and was comforted. An environment that normally would have terrified me—an overcrowded convention full of tall people and lines and whatnot—became thrilling. Who would I see next? Who would I meet through them?

Worldcon came and went quickly, and I left with a huge list of books to buy, authors to catch up on, and friends to add to my various social media channels. By the time I was getting ready to fly back to the states, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I felt like I’d gotten a taste of the life I’ve been wanting to live for so long; a Writer among Writers, engaging with the creative content that means the world to me.

On the other hand, I was heading back home, to see my love, our cats, and to start a new job with one of the most exciting companies in the history of technology. A true win-win.

###

I look back on a particularly dark stretch of time, in my early 20s, wherein I didn’t have a clue where I was headed creatively or professionally, living paycheck-to-paycheck despite having a corporate job in entertainment.

I was terrified of settling for a life that amounted to a creative void, an endless chase of the illusion of success that would always move just out of reach. Of defining myself by my paychecks, and not by the substance of my interests. Of seeking the same kind of lobotomy that only substance abuse or self-help cults can provide. I worried that I was stuck on a path that led in a spiral, ever downward and ending somewhere too dark to contemplate.

One day, driving home and talking to my dad on the phone, crying and trembling with this overwhelming fear—as I did on far too many days back then—I set myself an ultimatum. I told my dad that I did not want to be having the same conversation when I turned 30. That I wanted to know what I wanted to do and how I would get there, that I would feel comfortable with who I became, with the plans I’ll have set for myself, that I would be proud of myself, and that my family would be proud of me.

I turn 30 in January. I’ve grown my book review blog into a “thing” that has fostered opportunities I’d never have anticipated. I have a new job, working for one of the biggest and most successful companies of all time. My title there is Writer. And I attended the Writing Excuses retreat, which left me feeling like I’d been strapped to a rocket and shot into the sun. And instead of bursting into flame, the great ball of pulsating energy reached out, collected me, and brought me into itself, all warmth and belonging and light.

I can see where I was then and where I am now, but if you asked me how I achieved the goal I set myself those years ago, I couldn’t answer. I don’t know.

But I’m glad I’m here.

2k to 10k – Rachel Aaron

Given that the podcast I’m on recommended this book almost a half-dozen times, I decided it would be prudent to read Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. 

So I did. And I’m glad we’ve been recommending it so heartily. The book is short and to the point, focusing on the author’s experience raising her own writing efficiency to (some might say) inhuman levels. 10,000 words a day is massive. It’s more than I write in a good week. And it’s what Rachel Aaron manages daily.

Her techniques for achieving that daily feat are not opaque magical rituals, nor do they require ritual sacrifice—much to the possible chagrin of folks hoping for a “secret sauce” to writing lots and lots of words. Rather, she has a three-part plan that she claims can double word counts.

I won’t dig into the details here, because the book can be read in an afternoon, but suffice it to say that the tips come down to time, enthusiasm, and knowledge. Not rocket science, necessarily, but when you have a strong sense of what you’re going to write, why you want to write it, and you make the time for it, you are guaranteed to get more work done than if you sit down to work without a game plan.

The most helpful thing in the book ties into something that’s been on my mind for a few months, since a particular episode of Writing Excuses aired. Specifically, it has to do with treating writing more like a fine art practice. Rachel Aaron’a take on this topic is simple: take the concept of a thumbnail sketch—wherein artists make a very small, abbreviated sketch of what they intend to work on prior to beginning—and translate it to your writing. Before you sit down with your draft, take five minutes to briefly write out what you’re going to write; get yourself from point A to B in brief, and discover if there are any hangups before you’re deep in word-selection mode.

2k to 10k is loaded with tips, most of which may seem like common sense, but the benefits of reading the effects of a carefully considered writing strategy cannot be minimized. If you’re a writer who is looking to improve your productivity at the page, you need to read this book.

2k to 10k is available on Amazon.