Thinking about stories


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The Pixar in a Box series on Khan Academy is fascinating in how it breaks down the behind the scenes process of one of the world’s most impressive storytelling bodies. I’ve long been impressed with Pixar’s ability to tell a compelling story that works for so many audiences; even when I’m less enamored with a particular film than I might be (I didn’t care for Up, for example), I can’t deny that they do it right, with interesting characters, inventive plots, and delightful settings.

The Art of Storytelling is of interest even if one isn’t writing for film, or for that matter writing at all, because it gets to what I think is the heart of the storytelling compulsion. It’s not about writing what you know in the sense of what you have the factual background to cover; a story isn’t a technical manual, and these days it’s easier than ever to find an expert in whatever knowledge you need for a story, be it firearms or mushrooms or the weather on Mars. I think the “write what you know” saying neglects to define its terms: what a person knows might be summed up as the totality of their life experience, beliefs, and values. One way of getting at that is to think about one’s favorite stories and why they are favorites, which is a module in the Art of Storytelling.

When I picked my desert island movies, the three I came up with were Thelma & Louise, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Strange Days. It’s not that I think these are the best movies ever made, though I do think all three are very good. It’s that I walked out at the end of each of them thinking to myself, “They get it.”

Most of my characters are women, though they aren’t always my protagonists. These three films all feature badass women juxtaposed with injustice. In reflecting I found it curious that while I write a lot of women, and at least a few of my stories have dealt thematically with injustice, none of them have thrown the two together with quite as much verve as my favorite desert-island movies have.

The Art of Storytelling also takes you through creating your own what-if scenarios, a thought experiment by no means confined to science fiction (though science fiction writers sometimes act as though we have a monopoly on the question). I guess what I’m saying is that if what comes out of this exercise is something that owes more to Thelma & Louise, Fury Road, and Strange Days than anything else I’ve written so far, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise.


Reading one’s work


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Some months back I heard about a local open mic and reading series called Two Hour Transport, focused on science fiction and fantasy. The invited writers were local and generally not rock stars on book tours, but people who’d had a certain amount of professional success. I’d at least heard of most of them, even if I hadn’t read their work.

I like doing readings. I mean I get massively nervous and often wonder whether it was a good idea to sign up and all of that, but that’s just stage fright. If I don’t get up in front of people occasionally I start to wonder if I can really do it, even though I’ve been teaching for over a decade and have done some acting as well. I’m nowhere near well known enough to be invited to read anywhere, so open mics it is. And one geared toward SF is perfect for me. Seattle has quite the community of SF writers, something I haven’t taken nearly enough advantage of in the time that I’ve lived there, and one of my mentors recently emphasized the importance of networking since I’ve just about finished the book. Plus, it’s just nice to read for like-minded folk, and hear their work as well. Everything I heard at last night’s Two Hour Transport, open mic and invited alike, was at least good, and some of it was very good indeed.

The other reason to read one’s work aloud, though, is that it highlights improvements that you probably won’t happen upon otherwise. It’s easy to forget that stories were oral before they were written–though now, with the ubiquity of digital media, we are perhaps beginning to remember this–and there’s immense value in hearing one’s story even if the principal way that people will consume it is through reading it in silence. In some sense we’re still “hearing” it, even if we’re not doing so consciously.

The excerpt I read last night was from “People of the Wild”, which was published earlier this year in Persistent Visions (and check out the awesome art they paired with it!). Even though it had been drafted, revised, critiqued, and had the magazine’s editors’ eyes on it (I read from the published version), I found myself making tiny tweaks to the excerpt as I read: smoothing out a phrase here, omitting an unnecessary word there. Huge changes, no, and nothing that would have substantively changed a reader’s experience of the story. But sometimes, if a paragraph or sentence feels awkward, or something about a scene doesn’t seem to be flowing, or the whole thing’s pacing seems off, reading the text out loud can pinpoint the problem quicker and more effectively than any number of beta readers and red pens.

I’m working on making reading aloud part of my process. Every writer’s process is different so I’m not going to assert that everyone needs to do this. But I’ve gotten good results with it. So might you.

Get Out



I saw Get Out last weekend, with a friend with whom I’ve written a few projects, and a couple of other friends. During our lively discussion afterward, one of the other friends asked us how the movie stood up for us as writers.

There’s a lot of good reasons to see Get Out, and the writing is definitely one of them. Jordan Peele wrote as well as directed. When I see a film where one person has done both I always wonder how they take on those two different perspectives on their own work. Is it easy or difficult to think like a writer one minute, a director the next? I’ve done a fair bit of the former and only a little of the latter, so I don’t really know.

Get Out is well written, though. My writer friend watches a lot more horror than I do and pronounced the plot somewhat predictable, but in an entertaining way. It avoids hewing to any one set of tropes and that’s part of what makes it work: sometimes you’re watching biting social satire, sometimes straight-up comedy, sometimes psychological thriller, sometimes (though I think this is probably the smallest portion) horror.  I found myself thinking that an excellent sense of timing is critical to both humor and horror, and can work the same way for both. It definitely does here.

Get Out is very funny, sometimes in ways that’ll make you wince. The dialogue crackles, and lest you think the people Chris meets at Rose’s parents house are exaggerated–they really aren’t. Not much, anyway, and often a slight exaggeration is funnier for sliding that much closer to the truth. These feel like real people even as you’re wondering what the hell is wrong with them. There are some great scenes, where just a few lines and some great subtle body language on the part of the actors communicates volumes. Peele doesn’t overly explain anything. He doesn’t have to. It’s all there already.

There are a few instances of handwaving. I have a far easier time believing that Chris’s friend Rod is smart enough to track him down than that he exercised some mysterious power of the TSA. Dean Armitage doesn’t seem to be running a very good surgery; with all his money you’d think he could afford breathing apparatus for his patients, and having what appears to be the world’s most hazardous halogen lamp in there for illumination is, as we see, manifestly unsafe.

These are minor quibbles, though. Overall the writing in Get Out is like the rest of it: lean, efficient, sharp, a clever puzzle of a story that reminded me a great deal of The Stepford Wives. You’ll never look at Bingo the same way again.


Remember when updating a website’s design or content was cause for an announcement, rather than at most a sense of irritation as we tried to figure out where they’ve moved things now?

Well, maybe you don’t. The Web and I are both old enough at this point that there are things I can look back on with nostalgia, if not exactly fondness. (People today who don’t remember MySpace, let alone GeoCities, aren’t missing a damn thing.) I teach people half my age who, understandably, get frustrated at clunky library user interfaces. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve grown up with an online that, if it’s not exactly seamless is, what, less seamy? That can’t be right.

Anyway, I decided to fix this space up, retire some old flash experiments that weren’t really that great to begin with, and actually update my publications list. It was nice to be able to add a bunch of stuff. I’m not famous or anything but I can at least say that I’ve knocked off the bucket list item of getting my fiction published in a professional venue.

I can’t say what else is going to end up here. Who knows? Stick around.