“Writers Read” Update

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It’s been a bit more than a week since I decided on a one-month ban on writing or reading books and watching videos on how to write. The idea was to use my scheduled writing time to read fiction in hopes of refilling a dry creative well.

How’s it going?

I haven’t written. (Unless you count blogging, as I’ve done an uncharacteristic number of blog posts—which might make me the writing equivalent of people who declare themselves vegans while eating dairy, eggs, and fish.)

I have read. I’m concentrating on short stories, and I’ve polished off two-and-a-half anthologies and a science fiction magazine. Not exactly War and Peace but not bad for reading crammed into an hour or two per day.

At first, weirdly, I felt terrible writing cravings. As non-productive as I’ve been lately, I’ve always been quietly trying in the background—often writing thousands of words per week that just don’t see the light of day. So, I guess I missed the desperate trying. I also felt guilty—my inner self-hating bastard kept presenting a lack of desperate trying as laziness or quitting. I got over it.

After that, I passed through a brief phase of severely editing everything I read. Assuming that was the writing craving sublimating.

It took most of the week for me to settle into recreational reading and just enjoy it as reading. Very nice to have that pleasure back in my life.

In terms of results, reading has inspired a couple of story ideas, dutifully recorded for later. I think that’s a good sign.

As I say, I’ve been blogging again. Mostly reviews of what I’m reading, yes, but I’ve been echoing the reviews to Good Reads and Amazon, so it feels like good writerly citizenship.

Nothing huge, earth-shaking, or epiphany-laden. But I’m happy with it.

Mini-Review – Prehistoric, edited by SJ Larsson

PrehistoricPrehistoric is a collection of thirteen science fiction short stories edited by SJ Larsson, themed around humans and dinosaurs coming into contact in generally bloody ways. Overall, it’s not a bad collection. I admit to a fondness for dinosaur stories, and there are some good ones, here.

People who aren’t prone to dinosaurs, military science fiction, or monster stories might find themselves struggling. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a greater variety of dinosaurs, as T-rex, various raptors, and ankylosaurs tend to repeat throughout. And some of the stories don’t do fantastic service to the inclusion or depiction of female characters, in my opinion (though some do).

My present system for quick-reviewing short story collections is to copy and paste the contents page into my bullet journal and use coloured highlighters on title and author to indicate my feelings about a particular story. Red is bad. No highlight stands for a story that’s readable, neither bad nor good. Yellow is good. Green is fantastic.

Using that system, Prehistoric earned no red or green from me. The tally stands at:

Readable 38%
Good 62%

I view that as a ration justifying the purchase price.

The stand-out story of the collection is Alan Baxter’s Jeremiah’s Puzzle, which I won’t spoil but does have a T-rex action set-piece that would be splendid committed to film. (I’m thinking very natural Doctor Who adaptation.)

Also in the upper range of the good category:

Operation: Severn, William Meikle
Extinction, Rich Restucci
Closure, Tim Waggoner

Others getting the yellow highlighter of general goodness:

Apex, Jeff Brackett
The First Man On Earth, Geoff Jones
Lost Island, David Wood
Mantle, Rick Chesler

As I say, the remaining stories were not at all bad. I count “readable” as praise of any story’s chief virtue rather than damning faint praise. For a between-Jurassic-Park-movies fix of human on dinosaur survival of the fittest clashes, Prehistoric fits the bill well

Mini-Review – Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year, Volume Thirteen


The first thing I read after deciding to put writing aside for a month of revivifying recreational reading was The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Thirteen, edited by Jonathan Strahan.

According to the introduction, this is the final volume in this anthology series. Colour me sad. This has been my favourite of the annual “best of” anthologies. I can and will follow Jonathan Strahan to his subsequent projects, but I’ll miss this one.

The anthology is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of 29 stories published during 2018 gathered into one volume. My tl:dr review would be: it’s excellent; read it.

My longer review won’t be too much more substantial. I didn’t have time to take mountains of notes and deliver a vast, sweeping report. I just transferred the contents list to my bullet journal and, as I read, I left a highlighted the title of a good story in yellow and a great story in green. If the story were just fine, but not that special, it stayed unhighlighted. No stories ended up warranting a possible red highlight for actual badness, happily.

How did the anthology go?

  • Fine: 31%
  • Good: 28%
  • Great: 41%

Technically, three of the stories I rated as “fine” left me cold. I didn’t finish them. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to red highlight them. They were clearly well-executed short stories. They weren’t “bad”—just not to my taste.

Even so, it seems to me that 69% of stories in a volume being good to great is a solid hit rate, and the rest were, I stress again, nevertheless overwhelmingly an enjoyable read. I’d account myself very satisfied, overall.

Naming names, I would say the outstanding fantasy story in the collection is Garth Nix’s The Staff in the Stone. It was a really engaging high fantasy that crammed an awful lot of what’s good about that genre into a small space.

The outstanding science fiction story, for me, was Simone Heller’s utterly brilliant When We Were Starless, which was brilliantly written, sad, and hopeful.

Special mention for transcending categories of goodness has to go to Ursula LeGuin’s short Earthsea story, Firelight—which was wonderful and sad for many reasons.

Other recipients of the green highlight of general greatness were:

  • Mother Tongues, S. Qiouyi Lu
  • The Woman Who Destroyed Us, S. L. Huang
  • A Brief and Fearful Star, Carmen Maria Machado
  • Field Biology of the Wee Fairies, Naomi Kritzer
  • A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies, Alix E. Harrow
  • Okay, Glory, Elizabeth Bear
  • The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society, T. Kingfisher
  • If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again, Zen Cho
  • Nine Last Days on Planet Earth, Daryl Gregory

All of that said, I can only repeat my earlier summary that the anthology was a splendid year’s best, well worth the reading and your recreational dollar.

Overdrawn at the Writing Well


Of all the writing advice out there, top three are probably writers write, writers read, and show, don’t tell.

Well, I do write. Normally, I say this with my fingers crossed while thinking: Hey, academic writing counts. I’m just coming off my BA Sociology honours year and the first six months of my PhD candidature, both of which involve reading and writing a lot.

But, let’s face it, writers write and writers read are talking about the fiction or non-fiction that you love to write or read, in my case the speculative genres—fantasy, science fiction, horror. Those I’ve not been doing so well with, and haven’t been for some time.

I try to write, constantly, but it’s been increasingly a slog. I read so sporadically that rounding the amount down to zero doesn’t do much injustice to the actual number.

What do I read when I’m not reading academic material? Books and blogs on writing. What do I watch in spare moments? YouTube videos on writing.

Last week, I sat down with a problematic story I’m halfway through writing, determined to fix its plot before continuing. This was the third time I’d done that with this story. I’d broken it down into scenes, rearranged them, brainstormed alternatives, created and recreated the characters. I suddenly realized I had more than 6000 words of notes on what I’d estimated would be a 6000-word story… and, well, it struck me.

My creative well is probably a bit of a wreck. No fiction to replenish it and way overstuffed with all that writing advice that judges, rejudges, and damns every word, sentence, and paragraph as it emerges. Stories begin to drag themselves out of me only to be clubbed to death by my inner how-to-write monster. I’m all knowledge and no art.

So, I’m going to try to readjust my balance. No fiction writing for a month. No drawing from the dry well. No reading how-to-write books or blogs and no how-to-write videos until further notice. I’m keeping my scheduled writing time, but I’m using it for recreational reading.

Hopefully, in a month (or two if I deem it advisable to go again), I’ll see a little glitter of water down in the creative well and feel happy to send down a bucket.