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September 16, 2005

Recent Books, 9/16

books0916.jpg

As I've been jabbering about these things, a quick look at four books I've recently acquired:

* Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, by Kate Wilhelm (Small Beer Press): I actually bought this one, since I was interested in it anyway and because I wanted to support Small Beer Press, co-run by the excellent Kelly Link (Small Beer also published last year's Nebula finalist Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart, which I enjoyed). Wilhelm, if you can't guess from the title of the book, was intimately involved in the creation of Clarion, the premier writers' workshop in science fiction, and taught there for years.

I bought it because frankly I find the whole writers' workshop thing fascinating. Many excellent SF writers have gone through Clarion's guts over the years (here's an incomplete Alumni list, upon which, if you are an avid SF reader, you will see several familiar names), and there is no doubt that the workshop setting is extremely beneficial to many of them. However, I could never wrap my brain around the workshop concept, at least from the point of view of being a participant, either before I was published or especially now. Earlier in the year I was at convention and chatting with another science fiction writer when he mentioned that he participated in a workshop and casually (and in a very friendly manner) offered me a place at that table. I think he was surprised when I declined rather strongly, and I expect I could have declined the offer in a more politic fashion. The fact is, the problem is with me, not the workshop concept in general. Generally speaking the person I want telling my how to improve my writing is the editor who bought it. Yes, yes, raging egotist who will be one day put in his place, I know, I know. What can I tell you. Welcome to me.

For all that I think one day I would be interested in teaching in a workshop setting. At Penguicon this last year I rather unexpectedly got thrown in to a workshop teaching session (Literally, it happened like this: "So, John, thanks for agreeing to help teach our workshop this year!" "Uhhhhh... I didn't agree to that, actually. This is the first I've heard of it." "D'oh!"), and I found it to be an interesting and positive experience, and I think the people who I critiqued got something out of it as well. Although you'd have to ask them about that. Left unargued here is whether someone who does not see the value of a workshop for himself as a writer has any business trying to teach writing in a workshop setting. One day either I'll find out or I won't.

In the meantime I found Wilhelm's experiences very interesting, both as a personal history of the Clarion Workshop over the years, and also, by way of that personal history, lessons in writing well. People who are interested in workshops, either as writers or as readers, would probably benefit from checking this book out -- consider it an extended brochure on whether Clarion (and its various offspring, and other writing workshops) are going to be a good idea for you.

*Remains, by Mark W. Tiedemann (BenBella Books): Fun fact: on the Amazon page for this book right now, the top listing on the "People Who Bought This Book Also Bought" list is... Old Man's War. Make of that what you will.

This was sent to me a couple of weeks ago and I still haven't had time to do much with it, because of writing The Ghost Brigades, but I was exceited to see it nevertheless because it's the first book I've seen from BenBella, who is a relatively new publisher, going back only a couple of years. The company seems to be carving out a niche with their "Smart Pop" books, in which folks contribute essays that blather on in an educated fashion about various pop culture things, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to NYPD Blue, but they also have a sf/f line, which include originals and reprints. I've been interested in seeing how they did in terms of the production of their books, because I'm just a geek that way.

As it happens, as a matter of design, Remains seems slightly off to me. It's a little wider than most of the trade paperbacks I have, and the paper is different quality, and that combined with some of the interior design (including too-wide text columns) makes the book feel vaguely like vanity press. Bear in mind that this has nothing to do with the quality of the story itself, which appears to have been well reviewed, in Booklist at least (its review is on the Amazon page), so if the book sounds interesting to you, don't let that stop you from checking it out. But like I said, visually it was a little off to me. I contrast this with Chris Roberson's Here, There & Everywhere, which was put out by Pyr, another fairly new SF publisher. His book (which I did read, and enjoyed) had a somewhat friendlier design, which made it easy to read, and gave the book a professional feel; you wouldn't question that it came from an established publisher. Maybe these little design things shouldn't matter, but they do.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to reading Remains; if Tiedemann and I share an audience, I suspect that means something.

* The Road to Dune, by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor): Think of this book as the DVD extras disc for the original Dune series of books: It includes cast off chapters from Frank Herbert's original set of books plus some of Herbert's notes and letters. For people like me, who dig this sort of thing (I'm one of those people whose favorite Tolkien work is The Simarillion), this stuff is catnip.

The book also includes a new short novel based off Frank Herbert's notes, from Brain Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, who have recently been writing all those Dune prequels. I'm not a fan of the new Dune novels at all, largely because Herbert fils and Anderson have a combined writing style that is just all too underwhelming for the Dune universe; Frank Herbert's writing had a sort of stentorian majesty to it, and that style richly permeated the Dune universe just as much as the melange spice. Herbert/Anderson's prose is like a stick of Big Red by comparison, and continues to be so here. This makes me sad, as I've enjoyed Anderson's writing in other settings, but I wish they'd found a writer whose writing style would have been more appropriate for what had come before (A China Mieville Dune novel -- now that would be fun).

But if you do like the Dune prequel novels (and given their healthy sales, apparently many do), you'll have no reason to complain. For me, the Frank Herbert bits are what make this well worth looking at.

Trivia note: The Road to Dune is a "SciFi Essential" book, which is a distinction that OMW and The Ghost Brigades will have in January 2006.

Starwater Strains, by Gene Wolfe (Tor Books): Another book I've not been able to get to yet, alas, although the day Gene Wolfe puts out an underwhelming collection of short stories is the day either the fourth or fifth seal is cracked, so I don't worry about this not being worth my while (it got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, for what it's worth). In the meantime, I'm enjoying it just for its very whimsical cover:

Yes, I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover and all that, but come on. How could a book with a dog wearing a virtual reality helmet not be worth your time? Impossible, I say!

Posted by john at September 16, 2005 01:44 PM

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Comments

JimW | September 16, 2005 05:50 PM

Is the short novel contained within The Road to Dune the long rumored sequel to Chapterhouse?

Djscman | September 16, 2005 06:58 PM

This was my favorite critique of the new Dune books. Jim, Herbert the Younger & Anderson's contribution is set in "their" pre-Dune timeline, I think. How specific were those rumors of a Chapterhouse sequel? I wondered what would happen in the next book...and then found out Frank Herbert had passed away years before. That was a day for a sad emoticon!


John, did you ever tackle Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle?

Mike | September 16, 2005 07:31 PM

You will enjoy the new Wolfe collection a lot...

claire | September 16, 2005 08:52 PM

isn't that a coyote (pronounced "kai-yoat") wearing a virtual reality helmet?

RooK | September 16, 2005 09:06 PM

"This was my favorite critique of the new Dune books."

Exactly. EXACTLY.
I can't think of any other book I was as apalled by. Including my thermodynamics text books.

RooK | September 16, 2005 09:07 PM

"isn't that a coyote (pronounced "kai-yoat") wearing a virtual reality helmet?"

A coyote with a collar?

Harry Connolly | September 16, 2005 11:09 PM

The dude's name is "Tiedemann." Sheesh, it's right there in the picture.

When I first ventured onto the Internet, nearly ten years ago, I hung out on The Writers BBS, a site I haven't revisited for years.

Mark was one of the folks there who had sold some work, along with Victoria Strauss. I've been reading her fantasy novels for years, and excellent books they are. Thanks for mentioning his book here. He was nice to me way back when, and I'd like to check out his new work.

Thanks.

JimW | September 17, 2005 09:36 AM

Djscman:Jim, Herbert the Younger & Anderson's contribution is set in "their" pre-Dune timeline, I think. How specific were those rumors of a Chapterhouse sequel? I wondered what would happen in the next book...and then found out Frank Herbert had passed away years before. That was a day for a sad emoticon!

Should I be ashamed to admit that I've actually enjoyed the pre-Dune books?

Anyway, I read somewhere a couple of years ago that Frank had left fairly complete notes for the next novel and that the boys were going to finish it when they got done with the Jihad trilogy. I haven't heard anything since, though...

John Scalzi | September 17, 2005 10:03 AM

JimW:

"Anyway, I read somewhere a couple of years ago that Frank had left fairly complete notes for the next novel and that the boys were going to finish it when they got done with the Jihad trilogy."

Spice Planet, the short novel in the book, is based on F. Herbert's notes, so this is probably the one about which you speak.

Djscman | September 17, 2005 03:48 PM

Scalzi wrote:

"Spice Planet, the short novel in the book, is based on F. Herbert's notes, so this is probably the one about which you speak."


It's my understanding that "Spice Planet" was an extensive first draft of Dune, not its sequel. By the time it came out, names had been changed, plot points had been clarified, and the depth had been deepened. A clear analogy can be made to Christopher Tolkien's History of Middle Earth.

There are some who say that Frank Herbert had a dim understanding of the futures that will be. One of the timelines showed an Earth ruled by an oligarchic matriarchy. These five women ruled a Spice World. Their chief exhortation was to "spice up your life." Herbert was concerned about temporal copyright violations, so that is why he made the title change...yet he partially modelled the Qazarate on his vision.

Anna Feruglio Dal Dan | September 18, 2005 11:32 AM

I mostly went to Clarion because... well, damn if I remember. I think it was my way of seeing if I was good enough to be taken. I was, and they took me, and so I travelled to the fabled United States of America for the first time and I wasn't even sure I was going to understand what people said when they spoke to me, and had six weeks of pure ecstatic bliss, after which my life fell apart and is only now, three years afterwards, starting to function again.

I don't think the point of Clarion is that seventeen people tell you how to fix your stuff. Mostly it's seventeen people telling you with varying degrees of politeness that your stuff sucks. This, for mysterious reasons, makes people eager to write more stuff. What happened to me was worse, because seventeen people plus instructors and passersby told me without fail that I rocked, sometimes adding expletives, and this has gone a long way to ensure that I didn't write after those six weeks.

After having established that you either suck or rock, they tell you how they would rewrite your stuff. Usually it's bullshit, which is what everybody expects. It helps you to recognize bullshit and it helps the bullshitter to get it out of their system or whatever.

I think Clarion helps people in different ways, and each people in a different way. For me, it was a time of unprecedented productiveness, and that in itself was enough to change my whole view of my idea of writing. A lot of my Clarion mates actually learned things. I'm not sure I did, which may be why I suck so much at revising and why I never sold any of those wonderful wonderful stories everybody loved so much at Clarion (me, bitter?).

It is drilled very early on into you that nobody has the One True Way as regards to writing, and that everybody has to decide for themselves what's wrong, what's right and who to appoint head of FEMA... sorry, wrong post.

Regardless, it does provide with a huge amount of communal brainstorming and sets aside a mental space in which you give yourself permission to write and experiment among like-minded misfits. You basically step outside your life leaving everything behind for six weeks, and that in itself is a life-changing experience.

It can also provide an absolute newbie with a network of contacts, advisors, helpers and just plain friends, which is no small thing in the life of a writer.

Of course, it can also precipitate your divorce, wreck your life, plunge you into suicidal depression and lull you into a false sense of security regarding your progress as a writer, which was what happened to me. But I'm a sort of worst-case scenario as far as post-Clarion syndrome is concerned.

Dennis | September 19, 2005 03:08 PM

"A China Mieville Dune novel" would be amazing. I would love to see what that baroque communist would do with the politics in the Dune universe.


I think the coyote on the cover of Wolfe's new book is trying to experience a life of laying in the sun on someones front porch and having them bring food to you!

Cherie Priest | September 21, 2005 03:54 PM

That's a dog?
[:: double take ::]
Oh. I thought it was a kangaroo.
Perhaps I need more caffeine ...

;-)

John Scalzi | September 21, 2005 07:40 PM

It actually looks like James Lileks' dog, Jasper.

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