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: “Across From Her Dead Father in an Airport Bar” by Brian Trent

Review of Brian Trent, “Across From Her Dead Father in an Airport Bar”, Flas Fiction Online 87 (2021): Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Andrea’s father died when she was young, but left behind a legacy of himself for his daughter; we meet both her and her father 20 years later, in the titular airport bar. While parts of the story felt very much “look how different 2040 will be from 2020!” in a way that feels doomed to not date well, I enjoyed the story for the depth of emotion it was able to wring, in so short a space, from the desire to be there to see your child grow up.

REVIEW: “Traffic Circle of Old Connecticut” by Susan Jane Bigelow

Review of Susan Jane Bigelow, “Traffic Circle of Old Connecticut”, Luna Station Quarterly 24 (2015): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Ever since the Kalo invasion, Tian has practiced forgetting — forgetting her younger sister, Asan, left with her grandmother back in the village; forgetting that she is Zaluat; forgetting that her Zaluat ancestors passed down their circle magic to her. But when her grandmother dies and Asan is put into the Training Institute, Tian can forget no longer. She attempts a daring rescue of her sister, and in their escape they both learn the truth of their ancestor’s circle power, in a very clever allusion to the title.

This was a story rich in magic, history, oppression, and strength, and was a very satisfying read.

REVIEW: “A Funnel of Time” by Kris Faatz

Review of Kris Faatz, “A Funnel of Time”, Luna Station Quarterly 24 (2015): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content note: Attempted suicide.

This story hops between 2005 and 1934, and the experiences of two women, otherwise entirely unconnected from each other, each undergoing electro-convulsive therapy to fix them, to make them forget. One woman is schizophrenic; the other, bi-polar. At least, that’s what the husband or the brother says, the one who committed them in the first place. Whether or not it’s true doesn’t matter, though; what matters is that somehow these two women manage to find each other and support each other, and help each other survive the abuse: “Through a funnel of time, two women hold each other up.”

This was not a typical LSQ story, and the use of real-world people in it (see note at the end of the story) was a bit off-putting for me; but I really liked the premise of women supporting women across time.

REVIEW: “Turning Song” by Fey Karvaly

Review of Fay Karvaly, “Turning Song”, Luna Station Quarterly 24 (2015): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content warning: Underage rape.

The Minstrel is in love with a girl who has become a tree — it’s the sort of premise that you’d expect to find in a fairy tale, and maybe this story is a fairy tale at heart, though on the surface it is something rather odder than that. I didn’t care overmuch for the Minstrel, but I found Plum’s existence fascinating (if the story of how she got there horrifying), and Miss Ursula who is old enough to call a snow-bearded minstrel “young” was equally charming. Best of all was the very satisfying revenge and comeuppance that Plum wrecked on the god that raped her as a child.

REVIEW: “Inspector 36” by Kristin Hooker

Review of Kristin Hooker, “Inspector 36”, Luna Station Quarterly 45 (2021): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

No one really worries about the arrival of our Robot Overlords, not seriously, not in real life. What worries 21st C first-world residents is the arrival of our Robot Colleagues, the self-checkout machines, the automations that will turn the working class into the unemployed class. Hooker’s story plays on that fear, giving us a world of bots “a quarter of which, which by law, had to represent a real person receiving a real paycheck” — but even those real people aren’t necessarily doing the work themselves, most of them just rent another bot to do the work for them. Short, but sweet, this was an excellent story.