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Monthly Archives: October 2014

The End is the Most Frightening Part

Self Improvement 150By the time you read this I will have taken my very first behind-the-wheel driver’s test, with the hope of getting my license. Yes, I do realize that I’m pretty old to be getting my license for the first time, but that’s all right. I’m excited by the possibility of getting my license, buying a car and being let loose on the streets of Silicon Valley, but I’m also very, very nervous about the test.

I’m fairly confident about my ability to drive, mind you. But I’ve never been the best test taker. There’s something about the finality of it, the uncompromising focus on results; it doesn’t matter if you’re nervous, or in the middle of a bad day, or maybe just had a bounce of bad luck. If you don’t do well enough, you fail. And that failure is in the books and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

That’s heavy for me to think about. I’m…a bit of a perfectionist, and a lot of the time I would rather just not do something than do something poorly. So the idea of willingly putting myself into any situation where I’ll be judged on performance makes my nerves all jingle-jangle. Yet, at the time of my writing this, that’s precisely the situation I’m facing.

It reminds me a lot of my mental state when I’m writing. When I sit down at a blank page, or I’ve just finished writing a scene, I’m always taken with the sheer amount of potential that my story has. It’s just an idea, and depending on how well I commit that idea to reality it could be something amazing. Yet, by the time I’m closing in on the final sentences of a story I become very reluctant to finish it. Once it’s done, it needs to be put in front of other eyes. I need to willingly offer it up for judgement.

The driving test is almost easier to deal with; if I make a mistake or my nerves get the better of me, I fail and practice some more, then come back and kick ass. But if you write a bad story, that’s it; it’s out there, and though you can try to whip it into shape it’s going to always have those flaws and imperfections hard-coded inside of it. When you have an idea you’re excited about, you really want to do it justice. When you’re writing about themes that are important to you, you want them to be treated with the consideration and respect they deserve.

That can be extraordinarily difficult to pull off. And I’m not comfortable with putting something out there that isn’t perfect. It’s really scary to me to put out something that might be bad. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who wigs out about pouring a whole heap of effort into something that turns out to stink.

So, what do we do when we type “THE END” on a story that we know is no good? Do we send it out to our writing group anyway? Do we put it in a drawer and hope that time makes us a bit more objective when it comes time to edit? Do we cut our losses and abandon the story, hoping to cannibalize a bit of dialogue, or an idea, or a character?

I don’t think there’s any one right answer here, besides the obvious one. If you’re writing something, no matter if you know it to be the worst story this side of “Eye of Argon,” you finish it. Putting a stamp on the experience provides you with closure, which I’ve found to be invaluable with my work. Once I take a deep breath, declare a story “done”, that alone allows me to lay down a huge pile of stress. Sure, I’m not happy with the quality, but that can change through re-writing, editing or abandonment. I can learn the lessons I needed to and move on. That alone is worth the stress of slogging through those last few paragraphs, getting to the point where the character’s story is told. You can always tell it better, of course. But you need to finish it first.

So, that’s my focus these days. To write – and finish – all of my terrible stories, with the hope that with time and practice I can make them better. Even if something is an outright failure, at least it’s a completed one. Sometimes, getting it done is more important than getting it right. Though, by the time you read this, I really hope I’ll have aced my driving test.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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Book Review: The End is Nigh

Reading 150The End is Nigh (The Apocalypse Triptych, Book 1)
Edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Self-Published

My love of all things apocalyptic doesn’t know many bounds; chances are, if there’s the whiff of the end of days surrounding a project, I’ll at least have to give it a look. This has lead me astray in a few cases, especially once we got more and more apocalyptic projects off the ground (I’m looking at you, Revolution), but generally there’s always something worthwhile in apocalyptic work. Either we’re looking at the breakdown of society, revealing our relationship with it through that deconstruction; or we’re uncovering something surprising about us as people as traits emerge free from the binding of societal expectation. Really great apocalyptic fiction strips down complications to get to something fundamental, essential; they tell us what lies underneath all of us when you clear away everything that puts us into the positions we’re in.

When I heard about the Apocalypse Triptych, I was really excited. Not only do we get a great set of stories about a host of different apocalyptic scenarios, but we get a bunch of authors taking the scenario three each phase of the end: the tipping point where a problem spirals out of control; the point where civilization loses its fight against this threat; and what happens afterward, when the dust has settled and the survivors look out over an unrecognizable world. The triptych collection contains a collection of triptych stories, which I certainly haven’t seen done before.

The End is Nigh is the first collection in the series, focusing on the discovery of the threat to civilization. The threats range from the relatively common, like the impending asteroid in Jake Kerr’s “Wedding Day” or the disease apocalypse of “Removal Order” by Tananarive Due, to the truly weird — like the mass suicide depicted in “BRING HER TO ME” by Ben H. Winters or the slow but steady removal of our atmosphere in “Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg. But whatever the cause of our demise, each of the 22 stories brings something new to the end. None of the stories ever feel like a retread of something we’ve seen before, even when dealing with well-worn tropes in the apocalyptic sub-genre.

Take “Wedding Day” for example. Kerr centers the tale around a couple who want nothing more than to get married before the asteroid hits, even though it might mean one person might have to give up her ticket to have a fighting chance in a shelter. The already-engrossing story edges towards the political, as the couple in question are lesbians who are caught in a sort of legal twilight that never had time to get sorted. It’s heartbreaking to see these two stuck where they are, all forward momentum stopped by society crumbling around them. Had they been married, one ticket would have saved both of them or some other arrangement could have been made. As it stands, the nature of their relationship makes things exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

In the bio-apocalypse of “Removal Order,” Due’s protagonist is a young black girl who’s trying to take care of her cancer-stricken grandmother as the medical system falters under the strain of an epidemic ravaging the neighborhood. So often we see these apocalypses through the eyes of people in positions of power who are either able to fight the inevitable or connected enough to escape it. Due’s tale reminds us of all the people who are screaming and dying in the background, those who don’t necessarily have a chance. It’s fascinating to see the familiar landscape of medical disintegration through those eyes.

The diversity of the protagonists aren’t all outright political; in “Spores” by Seanan MacGuire, the same-sex relationship is treated as normal, almost incidental, and the focus is instead on our hero’s struggle to deal with her obsessive-compulsive disorder during the first bloom of a killer that will quickly spiral out of control. Ken Liu’s “The Gods Will Not Be Chained” features an Asian family struggling to deal with the death of their father, and “Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Desirina Boskovich sees the end through the eyes of a woman in a place of power over others, but still helpless in the face of what’s coming.

Even zombies get an intriguing twist. In “Agent Unknown” by David Wellington, a member of the CDC tracks down the spread of an illness that seems to make its victims hyper-violent, mindless killers. The answer to the riddle is effectively chilling, and sets the table for the inevitability of the fall of mankind. Almost every story here is a winner, particularly if you’re read a lot of apocalyptic fiction; either the cause of the end is scene through eyes that make it new again, or the mechanism for the destruction is so strange you have to wonder how they were even thought of.

The result is a collection of stories that are consistently surprising, engaging and tense. Some of them are clearly setting up for a continuation of the story in later volumes, so they don’t so much end as stop — “The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” in particular feels like an incomplete story, while “BRING HER TO ME” ends in a place that makes you impatient to continue the tale. “Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders is strange and full of energy, but by the time the story ends you’re left wondering if it even counts as pre-apocalyptic at all. These are all definitely worth reading, but it’s clear the structure has suffered in the attempt to break up the tale into three distinct parts.

Even still, the creativity on display in The End is Nigh is well worth the price of admission; I’m really looking forward to seeing how these stories continue and discussing the best, most frightening scenarios with people. If you’re looking for a mix of end-of-the-world stories that are challenging, involving and decidedly left-of-center, then this is the collection for you.

Interested in buying The End is Nigh? Go to the homepage for John Joseph Adams to get it in trade paperback or a variety of e-book formats!

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Novels, Reading, Reviews

 

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