REVIEW: “Positive Obsession” by Octavia E. Butler

Review of Octavia E. Butler, “Positive Obsession”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 163-169 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In the review of the anthology as a whole, I said the essays “are like written kaffeeklatsches with people you feel you could be friends with”, and nowhere does this feel more true than with Butler’s essay, a quiet reflection on her life and growth of a writer, and on the central importance of positive obsession:

Positive obsession is about not being able to stop just because you’re afraid and full of doubts. Positive obsession is dangerous. It’s about not being able to stop at all (p. 168).

There’s no advice here, but one cannot help but learn from simply seeing someone else’s story of perseverance.

It’s also fascinating to see how things have changed since 1989. At the time this essay was writing, Butler was the only Black woman writing SF, and one of only four Black SF authors. How she would have loved to see the state of the genre today, with the likes of Jemisin, Okorafor, and Adeyemi writing at the top of the SF game, and the existence of entire anthologies to Afrofuturism.

(Originally published as “Birth of a Writer”, Essence, 1989.)

REVIEW: “Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy: General Useful Information & Other Opinionated Comments” by Vonda N. McIntyre

Review of Vonda N. McIntyre, “Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy: General Useful Information & Other Opinionated Comments”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 153-161 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.

In this extremely helpful essay, McIntyre identifies 14 concrete pitfalls, applicable to any writer but perhaps more apt for the SFF writer, and then provides advice on (a) how to detect these pitfalls in your own work and (b) what to do about them.

All of the advice she gives is great advice, nothing earthshattering but all worth being reminded of, including the advice she opens with:

McIntyre’s First Law: Under the right circumstances, anything I tell you could be wrong (p. 153).

But you’ve got to know the rules in order to be effective in breaking them, after all.

(Originally published in 2012 by Book View Café.)

REVIEW: “On Mentors and Mentees” by Cat Rambo

Review of Cat Rambo, “On Mentors and Mentees”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 147-151 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

If you aren’t already convinced of the benefit of being both a mentor and a mentee, as a writer whether of SFF or otherwise, then hopefully you will be after reading Rambo’s piece.

REVIEW: “Going Through an Impasse: Evading Writer’s Block” by Eileen Gunn

Review of Eileen Gunn, “Going Through an Impasse: Evading Writer’s Block”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 137-146 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Gunn’s essay is one of the longer ones in the collection, appropriate given how big a feature writer’s block often is in a writer’s life! — in fact, one could probably put together an entire collection on advice on what to do when you want to write but just can’t. Gunn’s approach is to talk about how to deal with writer’s block, rather than how to “cure” it:

I’ll help you analyze the way you experience blocking and offer some suggestions on how to circumvent the trauma and get on with your work (p. 138).

This process of analysis ends up weirdly feeling like sitting in a therapist’s office, being asked questions that probe us and challenge us to answer honestly and emotionally. I suspect people will have varying degrees of success with this approach: my own experience, reading the essay while in the midst of a writer’s drought, was to feel strong resistance to her questions and suggestions, a refusal to engage — even when her suggestions are exactly the same suggestions that I give to other people! And perhaps that’s part of my problem. 🙂

REVIEW: “Writing in the Age of Distraction” by Cory Doctorow

Review of Cory Doctorow, “Writing in the Age of Distraction”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 133-136 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

You might expect this essay to contain trite suggestions such as to get off the internet and write, but Doctorow’s advice is more nuanced than this. (1) Yes, get off the internet and write — but don’t expect to be able to sustain that all day. Or even a few hours. Aim for 20 minutes instead. (This advice resonates with me, as I’ve found I’m much more likely to hit — and exceed — my daily goals if I make them really really small.) (2) Stop in the middle of things. (I don’t like this advice. If I know how to start a sentence, I probably know how to finish it. If I don’t finish it today, I’ll probably have forgotten how to finish it tomorrow.) (3) Research isn’t writing. (Oh, god, yes, yes, I know, I know, you don’t need to remind me — except, you DO.) (4) Learn to write whatever the day/time/setting/level of caffeine/etc. (Advice that most writer-parents have probably already internalized. If you wait for things to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever.) (5) “Kill off your wordprocessers” (p. 135), i.e., turn off all the “helpful” suggestions. (I’d never thought about this before, but all the auto-format, auto-spellcheck, auto-this, auto-that that wordprocessers have is one reason why I do almost all my first-draft composition either in long-hand or composing LaTeX using vim. There’s zero automation. And Doctorow is right about the powerful search-and-replace functions in things like vim!) (6) Turn off realtime social media. (This is advice I can basically never follow, though at least I tend to work on a laptop with a small enough monitor that if I’m deep in composition mode, I don’t see the twitter notifications, FB alerts, slack mentions, etc. because they’re hidden underneath another window!)

Seriously good advice, and all the better for being — for the most part — easy to follow.

(First published in Locus magazine, January 2009).

REVIEW: “Congratulations on Learning to Juggle — Now Get on the Unicycle” by Daryl Gregory

Review of Daryl Gregory, “Congratulations on Learning to Juggle — Now Get on the Unicycle”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 127-131 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Like Skillingstead’s piece, Gregory’s essay is all about how hard it is to be a writer — in the most supporting and uplifting way possible. As he points out, “this continuing, ever-morphing, and escalating difficulty is a sign that you’re on the right track” (p. 127). Not only does Gregory discuss the difficulty of writing in a sympathetic and caring way, his piece contains many concrete things that he does to get past and to lean into that hardness in his own writing. Not everything he does will work for everyone, but if you’re like me and really benefit from hearing about other writers’ processes, this is a very useful essay on that count. And so too is the reminder at the very end that “there’s great satisfaction in creating something beautiful, and joy in knowing you can try again” (p. 130).

You can try again.

REVIEW: “Feed Your Engine” by Jack Skillingstead

Review of Jack Skillingstead, “Feed Your Engine”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 123-125 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The “moral” of Skillingstead’s very short essay is this:

I want to impress on new writers that “being a writer” has a lot to do with a working-class mindset (p. 124),

and it’s good advice, too, for writers that are not so new!

Writing is work. Oh, we’ve all had the days when the words come easy and flow off the tips of our fingers like magic; some of us have had the days when more acceptances than rejections arrive in your inbox; but for most people those days are probably the exception and not the norm, and those days only come on the backs of the days where every word is a slog, when “it can still be a real grind” (p. 124). It may seem like this is a sad, depressing piece, but in fact I found it the opposite: A reminder that we writer write because “it’s harder not to write than it is to write” (p. 125), and that while we may each be on our own train, there’s plenty of stations we can visit where we can meet up with other engineers. I, currently in a bit of a dry patch re: writing myself, found this piece enormously comforting.

REVIEW: “Tapping the Source” by Elizabeth Hand

Review of Elizabeth Hand, “Tapping the Source”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 119-122 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In this essay, Hand offers an alternative to the standard adage “write what you know”. Instead, she says “write what you’ve felt” (p. 119), and that the scenes which draw upon your own emotional experiences are the ones that will resonate with readers. In order to help people develop the skill of writing what they’ve felt, she provides a two-step exercise, one that she has used effectively in teaching over many years. It feels a bit awkward to simply repeat the instructions in this review, and I’m not sure that summarising would get me something much different, so I’ll leave it at: This exercise looks like a useful and valuable one, even if done individually instead of as part of a group, and I look forward to trying it.

REVIEW: “The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Review of Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 113-117 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I was let down by this piece, because I felt the title promised something that was never delivered on. The conundrum Le Guin identifies is this:

I believe a good story, plotted or plotless, rightly told, is satisfying as such and in itself. But here, with “rightly told,” is my conundrum or mystery (p. 114).

But what is the moral dimension of this conundrum? I even read the essay twice to see if I had missed the moral aspect the first time around, but didn’t learn anything new the second time around.

I’ll probably read it a third time, on the assumption that the flaw lies with me and not the essay, but it does seem like this piece was included more because of who it was written by than because of what it said.

(First published on https://www.ursulakleguin.com/ in 2004, reprinted in No Time To Spare, 2018).

REVIEW: “Something to Cry About” by Nisi Shawl

Review of Nisi Shawl, “Something to Cry About”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 107-111 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This essay was not at all what I expected it would be about. I thought it would be about how to write emotion, to get the reader invested, how to give them “something to cry about”. Instead, I was treated to an excellent essay on depictions of race, especially of people from the Afrodiaspora via a glimpse of a life, and a culture, unlike my own. It was another essay that teaches what to do by showing how to do it, rather than just talking about it.