REVIEW: “Thickening the Plot” by Samuel R. Delany

Review of Samuel R. Delany, “Thickening the Plot”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 29-37 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Delany makes an interesting argument in this piece, namely, that “plot” is an effect of reading, and not one of writing. If I were to put my philosopher’s hat on, I’d be tempted to describe what he is doing as arguing that plot is something that supervenes on a story, rather than is a basic structural component of the story. Thinking of plot this way immediately changes what advice one would give to a writer re: plot. Delany’s own advice is firmly rooted in his own specific process (cf. Connolly and Yoachim’s piece earlier in the collection), which is intimately linked, for him, with rendering in words visual representations in the mind. If you are like me and mildly aphantasiac, much of his process is not transferable; and yet, I still found value in reading through this piece almost precisely because it was so foreign to anything that I do or can do.

(Originally published in Those Who Can, ed. Robin Scott Wilson, 1973).

REVIEW: “Setting the Scene” by Nancy Kress

Review of Nancy Kress, “Setting the Scene”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 23-28 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I found this piece particularly useful, as I have only the vaguest idea of what counts as a “scene” in a piece of fiction. I’m not sure I could give you a complete answer even after reading the piece, but I certainly feel like I have a better idea of what gets to count as a “scene” and how scenes can (or should) be linked. And I really liked the “Kress Swimming Pool Theory of Fiction”: You don’t have to dive straight into the deep end, drowning your reader in world building and info-dumping, instead, you can push off from the side of the pool with some interesting action that will carry you far enough to glide “with a section of exposition without losing the reader interest” (p. 25).

REVIEW: “We All Have to Start Somewhere: Finding Your Process and Making it Work For You” by Tina Connolly and Caroline M. Yoachim

Review of Tina Connolly and Caroline M. Yoachim, “We All Have to Start Somewhere: Finding Your Process and Making it Work for You”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 17-22 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

What I loved about this co-written piece was the way the authors compared their own differences in process, using these as an illustration of how other writers can go about figuring out their own processes: What works for them, what doesn’t. Honestly, one of the most useful thing I’ve ever found, for my own writing, is listening to other people describe what they do, as it helps me understand the different ways the same building blocks can be put together, an invaluable skill when you’re sitting in a pile of bricks that keeps falling down around you. Watching some else build something out of their bricks can sometimes show you what you can do with your own bricks that you might never have thought of. And that’s what I got out of this piece — more ways to put my bricks together — but more than that, they also talk about what the bricks themselves can be, so now not only do I have more ways of building things, I have more things to build with.

If “we all have to start from somewhere”, where is that? Connolly discusses how she identified herself as a “character-driven” writer, and how this diagnosis helps her to troubleshoot blocks when they occur. Yoachim describes herself as “idea-driven”, and how much of the advice that is aimed at character-driven writers like Connolly doesn’t work for her. If your inspiration comes in the form “what if X were the case?”, then talk of character motivation is going to see irrelevant. Yoachim astutely diagnoses certain drawbacks that can accompany this sort of process, and provides advise on how to counteract them. But whether you are character-driven or idea-driven or something else altogether, their most important piece of advice works for everyone: The process of figuring out what type of writing process you use is itself invaluable.

REVIEW: “Being and Becoming a Writer” by Karen Lord

Review of Karen Lord, “Being and Becoming a Writer”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 13-16 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

How does one give at advice on how to write, when the ways of writing are as numerous and distinct as the writers themselves? This is the question Lord tackles in this opening piece of the anthology, and she attempts to answer it via a series of “things I wish I had known earlier” (p. 13). Her recommendations stem from the practical — learn how to schedule your time, how to meet your deadlines and keep track of your correspondence, how to negotiate — to the cautionary, reminding us of the danger of the “starving/suffering artist” (p. 14).

There isn’t anything groundbreaking in this piece, just good solid things that you may already have learned, but which it never hurts to be reminded of. My favorite recommendation is to “carve out time to keep learning”. So often I see people treat the old adage “write what you know” as a limitation — that if you don’t know something about it, you cannot/should not write about it — rather than seeing it as an opportunity: You want to write about X? Go ye thereforth and learn as much about X as you can!

REVIEW: Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer edited by Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans

Review of Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

And now for something totally different…

We don’t review much nonfiction on this site, and when we do we choose nonfiction that has close connections with reading SF and F. This anthology, on the other hand, is about writing, and while not everything in it is about SFF specifically, that is its main focus, and all of the pieces are good advice.

This collection is basically the Clarion West Writers Workshop in written format, a series of short reflective and didactic pieces by people who’ve attended the workshop as instructors, guests, and students, providing support and encouragement for writers whatever stage they are at, whether newbie, experienced, or somewhere in between. As a writer myself who has been in something of a dry spell during most of the Covid period, reading these articles has been balm for my soul; they are like written kaffeeklatsches with people you feel you could be friends with, telling me what I need to hear in a way that allows me to hear it. What I love best is how much the pieces themselves reflect the voice and advice of the person who wrote them, showing us how to write well and not just telling.

As is usual, we will review each piece separately, and link the individual reviews back here when they’ve been published.

  • “Being and Becoming a Writer” by Karen Lord
  • “We All Have to Start Somewhere: Finding Your Process and Making it Work for You” by Tina Connolly and Caroline M. Yoachim
  • “Setting the Scene” by Nancy Kress
  • “Thickening the Plot” by Samuel R. Delany
  • “Some Thoughts on Exposition” by Tobias Buckell
  • “The Devil Is in the Details” by Connie Willis
  • “Coincidentally . . .” by Stephen Graham Jones
  • “Channeling Voices” by Andy Duncan
  • “Status” by Helen Marshall
  • “Neowise” by Paul Park
  • “The Old Marvellous” by John Crowley
  • “The Three Laws of Great Endings and My Two Shameless Hacks” by James Patrick Kelly
  • “Diversity Plus: Diverse Story Forms, Not Just Diverse Faces” by Henry Lien
  • “Researching Imaginary Worlds” by Ken MacLeod
  • “Something to Cry About” by Nisi Shawl
  • “The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum” by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “Tapping the Source” by Elizabeth Hand
  • “Feed Your Engine” by Jack Skillingstead
  • “Congratulations on Learning to Juggle — Now Get on the Unicycle” by Daryl Gregory
  • “Writing in the Age of Distraction” by Cory Doctorow
  • “Going Through an Impasse: Evading Writer’s Block” by Eileen Gunn
  • “On Mentors and Mentees” by Cat Rambo
  • “Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy: General Useful Information & Other Opinionated Comments” by Vonda N. McIntyre
  • “Positive Obsession” by Octavia Butler
  • “* Take As Needed” by Hiromi Goto
  • “Matters of Life and Death” by Susan Palwick
  • “Proverbs of Hell for Writers” by Ian McDonald

I’m not normally one for taking advice on how to write from other writers. But I’ll make an exception for this book, and would recommended anyone else do too, whatever stage in your writing development you’re in. I can easily see this book becoming a sort of reference/trouble-shooting text for when you’re having trouble with a particular thing.

REVIEW: “Five-Star Review” by Beth McMillan

Review of Beth McMillan, “Five-Star Review”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2021): 121–124 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

When his car breaks down, the driver of an “Uber”-like service is worried that his passenger will leave him a bad review, effectively ruining his career.

It seems to be somewhat of a theme in this issue, but this was another very short piece full of info-dumping, much of it unnecessary or awkwardly conveyed. However, the final interaction between the protagonist and his passenger was very poignant and sent the story off on a good note. This dystopia the characters live in is a bit too over-the-top (although not entirely unrealistic), nevertheless it’s nice to see these two characters find a connection in such a selfish and judgmental world.

REVIEW: “Best-Laid Plans” by David D. Levine

Review of David D. Levine, “Best-Laid Plans”, Clarkesworld Issue 176, May (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

A fun, light story about genetically modified mice at a research station. In space. The station is hit by a micrometeoroid, and Dr. Yan, the researcher, attempts to save the day, and the space station from evacuation. I especially liked the elves – a tantalizing bit I would love to know more about. Overall, this was an exciting, fast paced story, and I’d certainly keep an eye out for more of this author’s work.

REVIEW: “The Message” by Bond Elam

Review of Bond Elam, “The Message”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2021): 111–113 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

An AI is infected by an alien virus that gives it consciousness — and a strange message: be wary of the nearby humans, because they don’t always take AI sentience kindly.

Other than the excessive “infodumping” and occasional plot hole that this story suffers from, I found it to be a rather enjoyable read. There isn’t a particularly deep examination of consciousness here, but the AI’s ability to make decision contrary to its programming is an interesting twist (although, it may also be acting purely in self-preservation, which would not necessarily be the result of consciousness.) Overall, this was a flawed but nevertheless fascinating story.

REVIEW: “A Home for Mrs. Biswas” by Amal Singh

Review of Amal Singh, “A Home for Mrs. Biswas”, Clarkesworld Issue 176, May (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

Our protagonists travel between worlds, Earth and Mars and back again. It was written by an Indian author, and being Indian myself, I absolutely loved the representation, not least because this was a beautiful story.There are Hindi words and references scattered throughout, and it made me inordinately happy.

Coming back to the story, it was thoughtful and quiet with restrained emotion. Past lives, memories and the draw of love across generations, millennia and planets make this a heartwarming story of love and hope.

REVIEW: “Dendrochromatic Data Recovery Report 45-274” by Steve Toase

Review of Steve Toase, “Dendrochromatic Data Recovery Report 45-274”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June(2021): 105–108 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

An engineer is trying to diagnose an unusual system shutdown in their arboreal server structure.

The idea of trees turned into computational units is interesting and – to the best of my knowledge – not really explored before. However, the story itself is a bit cryptic, exposition heavy, and the with rather unexciting prose. Still, given the story’s brevity, it might be worth reading just for the novel premise.