Book Review: The City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison

Some readers may wonder: What’s he talking about?  The City on the Edge of Forever isn’t a book; it’s a Star Trek episode.  It’s both, in fact.  The City on the Edge of Forever was the twenty-eighth episode of the original series of Star Trek; it first aired on August 6, 1967.  It is widely regarded as the best episode of the original series and even one of the all-time best episodes of all the various Star Trek television incarnations.

This book contains an eighty-five page introduction by Harlan Ellison, the award-winning author of the original teleplay, detailing the battles he had with the studio, and Gene Roddenberry the producer in particular, as he tried to keep the integrity of his original teleplay intact in the face of an incredible amount of studio-mandated changes, and the further problems he had in the ensuing decades with Roddenberry recounting a distorted version of the events during his numerous public speaking events.  Ellison then presents the original teleplay as he first wrote it, before any of the studio changes, in its entirety.  Then follows an example of a partial rewrite of the prologue and first act, and a series of essays about the episode by some of the actors and writers involved in the original Star Trek series.

I was fourteen years old when The City on the Edge of Forever first aired.  I was already hooked on the series; I had never seen anything like it on network television.  I watched it in black and white; my family never acquired a color set until I was grown and gone.  It didn’t matter: the heart of any teleplay is the script.  I remember being deeply touched, even at that young age, by the love story in The City on the Edge of Forever and its heartbreaking conclusion.  Even way back then, on first viewing, that episode became one of my favorites.

Later, I came across one of Harlan Ellison’s short stories, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” while taking a university science fiction literature course, and I came to the realization that I had to be a writer – that being a writer was my calling in life.  And when I had just turned twenty, in the summer of 1973, I attended the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop, and Harlan Ellison was one of my teachers.

But back to Star Trek and the teleplay – at least in a roundabout way.  In the evenings around eight or eight-thirty or so I usually watch a TV episode from Netflix or Hulu or Amazon while I’m eating dinner.  (We follow the Greek habit of the larger meal at midday and something lighter like a sandwich later on.)  In this manner I’ve watched several seasons of Star Trek Voyager, the full seven seasons of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and numerous other series.  (One of my favorite series was The West Wing, especially the first four seasons when Aaron Sorkin was still writing for it.)

Recently I decided to revisit the original series of Star Trek.  I hadn’t watched most of the episodes for several decades.  I opted to go through all three seasons in order, without skipping any of the shows no matter how bad I knew they were.  And some of them are bad – no, terrible.  There’s a fairly decent amount of good scripts throughout the first season and partway through the second season.  That’s when Roddenberry hired accomplished science fiction writers to pen the teleplays.  However, by the third season, the writing is very bad, and so is the production design.  The sets are almost non-existent – painted cardboard cutouts here and there and not much more.  Shows like Voyager and Deep Space Nine went far beyond the original series in terms of special effects, makeup, and the sophistication of their long, multiple-episode story arcs.  However, there are a few original series episodes that shine brightly despite the ravages of time, and one of them is The City on the Edge of Forever.

I don’t really want to get involved in the controversy surrounding the original teleplay and the final script that actually got shot.  In fact, both incarnations received honors.  The episode that appeared on television won the Hugo Award, and the unedited original teleplay won the Writer’s Guild of America Award.  To me, watching the old Star Trek episode and reading Ellison’s excellent teleplay in book form are completely different experiences.  Since this is a book review, that’s what I’ll focus on: the book.  The teleplay that never got produced, that was judged too radical and not Star Trek enough, is absolutely brilliant.  Ellison writes it with as much intensity and as careful word selection as is manifest in his short stories.  I would love to have seen it produced, but even in this form, as a work of literature, it is well worth reading.  As for the introduction, I recommend it to anyone who wants to work in film or television as a counter to any fantasyland delusions they may have that all is sweetness and light in the city of stars.

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On Rereading Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

While reading the encyclopedic collection of descriptions of worlds created by science fiction and fantasy authors called Literary Wonderlands I encountered a synopsis of a book I’d never read but I thought might be interesting.  It was famous and popular and critically well regarded, at least within a certain genre, so I thought I might give it a try.  When I acquired a library copy of the thick tome, I plunged in: ten pages, then twenty pages, and then more…  The problem was, so little happened that I began to get frustrated.  The descriptions were ornate and dripping with accomplished prose, sure, but there was no story.  I thought: Am I going to be able to keep this up for so many hundreds of pages?  The answer was no.  Life is too short.

I can’t be without something to read, though.  Casting about for a substitute to help get the bad taste of the last volume out of my literary mouth, I settled on rereading a novel by Zelazny.  His prose is as amazingly descriptive and ornate as the best of them, but he also knew how to keep a story moving at a decent clip.  At first I thought I might reread This Immortal, his first novel, but I had read it fairly recently, at least within the past few years.  Instead, I remembered I had a copy of Lord of Light, which I hadn’t read for at least a decade.

Lord of Light is Zelazny’s longest and most ambitious single novel.  Well, I can’t say that for a fact because I haven’t read all of his books, but I have heard it said.  I think I prefer This Immortal, which is about half the length and is much tighter and reads almost like an extended novella.  Zelazny excelled at shorter lengths.  His masterpieces are novelettes that he wrote early in his career such as “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.”  That’s not to say his novels aren’t great – they are.  It’s just that his shorter works go beyond great into sheer brilliance.

Lord of Light posits a world in which the original colonists from Earth have set themselves up as gods from the Hindu pantheon so that they might exploit and oppress later generations of the planet’s inhabitants.  The god’s powers and attributes and other relevant concepts such as reincarnation are all explained scientifically, elaborate deceptions to foster and continue the first generation’s claims of godhood.  Accelerationism, which is the granting of scientific knowledge to the mass of humanity that lives in subjugation to the gods, is ruthlessly crushed, as are any teachings that promote the theory that the gods are anything less than what they claim to be.  The novel is about a rebellion by one of the first colonists, who wants to expose the gods, throw down their celestial city and its oppression, and teach scientific knowledge to humankind.  He has various names such as Siddhartha, Buddha, Tathagatha, the Binder, Lord of Light, and Mahasamatman.  However, he prefers to call himself Sam.

Many of Zelazny’s primary heroes have similar attributes: they are physically strong; they are knowledgeable and clever; they are skilled in martial arts; and they smoke cigarettes and drink significant amounts of alcohol.  Sam is no exception.  Zelazny’s heroes are also typically tall, but because Sam has multiple bodies throughout the story, he escapes this attribute, at least in some of his incarnations.  I mean this in no way to detract from Zelazny’s abilities as a writer.  He was one of the greatest of the so-called New Wave writers of the late 1960s through early 1970s.  Tragically, he died of cancer in 1995 when he was only 58.

As I said, Lord of Light does not have as consistently strong narrative voice as some of Zelazny’s best shorter works.  It starts fast, slows down a bit in the middle, and then zooms to a smashing finish.  Overall, though, it is one of the best novels of the 1960s, a great read, and well deserving of the designation of classic.

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Book Review: Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, Edited by Laura Miller

This is a beautiful book.  I came across it while perusing new releases at Amazon’s physical bookstore in Seattle.  A relative caught me admiring it and bought it for me for Christmas.  It’s a heavy tome, more like an encyclopedia than a standard volume, and the text is interspersed with drawings, paintings, maps, and photographs to illustrate the fabulous imaginary realms it highlights.

The selections are arranged chronologically, with two to six pages for each book or series and the world it depicts.  It starts with ancient myth and legend, which includes classics such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, and The Divine Comedy.  The next section covers 1701 to 1900, which the editor refers to as the era of science and romanticism.  Among the diverse books described here are Gulliver’s Travels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, and The Time Machine.  Next is the golden age of fantasy from 1901 to 1945, with titles like The Lost World, At the Earth’s Core, The Castle, Brave New World, and Conan the Barbarian.  The time periods get shorter and the contents more extensive as it moves along to the present.  The new world order section from 1946 to 1980 has twenty-five entries, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, A Clockwork Orange, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Included in the section on the computer age from 1981 to the present are The Discworld series, Neuromancer, The Sandman comic series, A Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, and 1Q84.  The book culminates with Salmon Rushdie’s fantasy Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

These are all wondrous worlds to get lost in – but of course, what you’re really doing is skimming the surfaces.  The brief descriptions are teases that induce you to look further, to pick up the books themselves and dive into the details.  Through this tome you can get an overview of some of the important works of fantasy in literature, and it’s fun to visit these imaginary lands, albeit briefly.  Let’s say it’s more like going through a directory of alternate universes, but to really get to know any one of them, you have to visit it for yourself.

The selection is fairly well done, although some of the choices are obscure works and there are some notable omissions of groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy that should have been included.  I suppose the publisher and editor didn’t want to make the book too big; it’s already quite physically heavy.  However, considering some of the entries I’ve never heard of even after over five decades of reading in the field, there’s no excuse for not including Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from his seminal first volume of Dune.  Another strange land that should have been included is the fantasy realm that the title character finds himself in while searching for his lost wife in James Branch Cabell’s classic Jurgen.  I would also like to have seen Cordwainer Smith’s elaborate universe represented, among others.  There’s no mention of Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, and Roger Zelazny and the amazing worlds they created.  Be that as it may, there are doubtlessly many other worthy fantasy worlds that readers would like to include, but it inevitably comes down to editor’s choice.

Like an encyclopedia, this book is not written by one person but by a large number of contributors.  This leads to a lack of continuity in the contents.  Some writers focus on a description of the fantasy worlds, while others all but ignore the books and talk about the authors, their personal struggles, and the era in which they lived and worked.  Overall, though, this book is quite entertaining, and can also give you a lot of ideas for what to read in the future.

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Meditations on Late-Blooming Literary Success

While on the bus on the way to a gathering of local writers, I was somewhat ruefully contemplating the fact that many of my colleagues, although decades younger than me, have reached a level of popular and commercial success that I am still striving for.  And as I mentally perused literary history, I was reminded that many of the top literary figures of the past achieved recognition when they were young and maintained it throughout their lifetimes.  I don’t crave personal publicity, but I’d like my works to be widely read, and I’d like to have a much more comfortable amount of income.

There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy between my income and popularity and that of others currently producing literature, but I would say, admittedly biased, that the main one does not concern talent but circumstance.  I started out full of gusto and energy as a young writer in my early twenties.  I even cut loose from my home town and set out on the road for experiences that would make me a better writer, as I relate in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.  Many things happened while out there on the road, though, and in my late twenties I stopped writing completely for a decade and a half.  I only began again when I was in my early forties.  During much of that time my ex-wife and I began our family, which eventually grew to five wonderful sons.  However, those years of the late twenties to early forties are when most writers with sufficient talent break out into the literary mainstream and often write some of their best work.

I missed those years.  There is that huge gap in my growth as a writer.  Sure, in a sense writing is like bicycle riding.  I didn’t have to start from scratch but could pick up where I left off in terms of what I had learned.  Nevertheless, I have had to undergo a crucial formative stage of growth fifteen years later than those who plowed straight through without a break.

Additionally, the publishing world has changed.  If I had continued to write instead of stopping in the late 1970s, I would have had to overcome a different set of obstacles on the road to success, a set of obstacles I might have been better prepared to face.  Who knows?  Hindsight is an illusion – one might even say a delusion.  Once decisions are made, consequences follow: that’s the way it works.

Anyway, while ruminating on the bus, it occurred to me that for many famous writers, early success did not lead to an easy later life.  On the contrary, many writers who created early masterpieces faced difficult struggles later on.  For instance, Ernest Hemingway wrote his three greatest novels: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls in his late twenties to early forties – although admittedly he revived himself enough to produce the novella The Old Man and the Sea in his early fifties; afterwards, his work and his personal life deteriorated until he committed suicide just short of his sixty-second birthday.  He killed himself at a younger age than I am now.  Jack London burst into fame with the publication of The Call of the Wild when he was in his late twenties.  He continued with a prolific surge of well-received novels, short stories, and memoirs, but weariness and various illnesses took their toll and he died at the age of forty.  Philip K. Dick began to publish science fiction stories in his early twenties.  He became famous, at least in the science fiction world, with the publication of his novel The Man in the High Castle in his early thirties.  However, his mental and physical health deteriorated and he died of a stroke when he was only fifty-three years old.

Every writer is different, and there are so many diverse writers throughout history that it’s possible to come up with examples to illustrate almost any generality; nevertheless, contemplating these examples improved my outlook, so why not?  I’m a late bloomer.  I’m only now, in my fifties and sixties, producing the novels, short stories, and memoirs on which my reputation, whatever it ends up to be, will be based.  There’s no way I can mend the past and get back those fifteen or more missing years.  All I can do is make the best of whatever time I have left.  And I intend to.

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Book Review: Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories From the New Gilded Age Edited by Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi

I was in the mood to read short stories, and I found this collection during a random search through the Seattle Public Library database.  It had a lot of well-regarded authors in it, so why not give it a try?  When I picked it up, it struck me as the kind of volume an English teacher would assign to young people in a college literature course.

It turns out, though, that this book has a good selection of short stories in it – a better selection than in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, which I also read fairly recently.  100 Years purports to be a selection of the best of the best, but it obviously leans towards name recognition regardless of the quality of the individual stories in its selections, while this volume goes by sociological and cultural relevance over the past few decades.

I have to confess I didn’t really get what the editors were going on about in comparing contemporary America with the era of history known as the Gilded Age, but no matter.  It’s not really important as far as a reader’s appreciation of the individual pieces or even the collection as a whole is concerned.  The stories touch on family life, gender, race relations, jobs, immigration, the prison system, relationships between old and young, and all sorts of other pertinent topics.  Most of them are extremely well written, and all of them qualify as stories in that they have clearly defined characters and recognizable plots.  I mention this point because I was a bit put off by a best-of-the-year collection I read recently in which about half the stories weren’t really stories at all but rather literary exercises that didn’t lead anywhere.

One of my favorites in this collection is “Gogol” by Jhumpa Lahiri.  It’s a segment of her novel The Namesake, but it stands well on its own as a short story.  I enjoy everything that Lahiri writes, but I think that The Namesake is her weakest work.  It’s too long; it goes off on too many tangents that don’t directly affect the story.  In my opinion, the movie manages to focus the main points of the narrative better than the book.  But this section is superb.

Another stand-out story is “Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” by Ben Fountain.  A young American student who’s into ornithology is kidnapped by radicals in Columbia, and during his long captivity he begins to appreciate his unique opportunity to study the local rare wildlife.  In the end, he doesn’t want to leave.  I have found that the stories of George Saunders almost always please, and “COMMCOMM” in this volume is a near-future science fiction tale that turns into a wild supernatural tragic comedy.  “View From a Headlock” by Jonathan Lethem, an obviously autobiographical piece, tells the tale of a lonely frightened young boy who grows up in Brooklyn as one of few whites in a mixed-racial neighborhood.

These are just a few examples.  As I said, the overall quality of the stories in this collection is higher than that in many best-of-the-year volumes.  The original dates of publication range from 1982 to 2006, so they’re fairly contemporary, and the themes they deal with without exception certainly remain relevant.

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Snapping Out of It

We’re going to conduct a literary experiment, you and I.  Well, in fact you’re going to play the role of observer and I’m going to conduct it.  We’re going to see if I can snap myself out of the post-surgery doldrums by writing about it.

Yes, about a month ago I had to go into the hospital for surgery and stay there overnight.  Most of the hospital stay was very relaxing, in fact: a sort of vacation in which I could kick back and let go of all the day to day responsibilities and stresses I usually face.  There’s not much I can do about them anyway, is there, if I am on a hospital bed unable to move, a catheter shoved up inside me?  On the day of my discharge, though, the catheter was removed, which was exceedingly painful, and I was told that I had to establish a normal flow before I went home.  It was a suspenseful time, touch and go for a while, as I gulped down bottle after bottle of water and blood gradually gave way to something approximating urine.

Anyway, I don’t want to gross you out too much, so we won’t go into any more details of that at the moment.

Once home, I was unable to exercise, unable to lift heavy loads, unable to increase my speed to anything faster than a slow walk.  The first day after I got back, I couldn’t sit at my desk at all.  I had to move my computer and whatever other odds and ends I needed to my bed and work there propped up with pillows. Afterwards for a long time I couldn’t sit at my desk for very long without discomfort.  I tried putting cushions on the chair, sitting sideways on one leg and then the other, but the only thing that helped was to get up frequently and walk around.  So I did.  I did whatever it took to get myself back to at least a semblance of normalcy.  I couldn’t afford to take time off.

And I progressed, slowly and steadily.  The first week or so I had strong pain medication to help me.  I could understand why people got addicted to that stuff.  After I’d take one, a fuzzy warm feeling would cluster like a cushion around reality.  I kept to the schedule and didn’t take more than I was supposed to, but I did begin to look forward more and more to medication time.

Within a few days of my return I could walk a mile a day again through the neighborhood, as I used to do, although it took longer than before.  Within a few weeks I felt my strength returning, and two and a half weeks after surgery I resumed most of my three day a week yoga and calisthenics routine, although I had to leave off a few of the most strenuous exercises.

The thing that saved me along the way was the writing.  Since the beginning of the year, I have got into the habit of writing at least five hundred words of creative prose first thing in the morning before I do anything else.  I have kept it up seven days a week except for the day of and the day after surgery, when it was impossible.

It’s now been almost a month since my discharge from the hospital, and I feel much stronger.  I can walk faster; I can lift heavier loads, I can exercise without discomfort.  But some sort of psychic funk, some sort of mental unease, has remained.  The experiment I referred to at the beginning of this essay has to do with that lingering shadow.

I always thought, when I was young and in the midst of my adventures on the road in a multitude of countries and circumstances, that my experiences then would be enough to satisfy me when I was older.  I could look back at what I had been through, what I had accomplished, and masticate the memories the way an herbivore coughs up and re-chews partially digested plant matter while out to pasture.

It doesn’t work like that.  Sure, I have had these experiences, and I have written about them.  It’s good to have had them – much better than never to have attempted them and to have lived in a state of regret for deeds undone.  But I find myself longing for the open road sometimes, to stand at the edge of oceans, to hike through forests, to climb mountains – like Bilbo says to Gandalf at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring before he takes off again: “I want to see mountains, Gandalf…”

And yet my responsibilities, and my finances, and my health – they all keep me here instead.

And the experiment?  Hypothesis:  Can writing about it snap me out of my discouragement?

Yes.  Yes, it can.  And it has, for now.  I sure as hell better keep it up every day – to keep the system properly cleaned out.

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Book Review: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: Third Edition by Christopher Vogler

You may have heard of a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.  You may have even heard that George Lucas drew heavily on Campbell’s theories when he was creating the story lines for Star Wars.  I’m sure you must have also heard of the psychologist Carl G. Jung and his dream theories.  Adapting these concepts to the writing and story editing of screenplays forms the basis of this book.  The writer has been working on Hollywood productions, particularly for Disney and 20th Century Fox, for decades, and has a lot of insight into the process of creating workable screenplays.  The first edition of this book was published in 1992, the second in 1998, and the third in 2007.  Each time Vogler added material that he considered pertinent to his main theme.

The two sections that contain the core of the book focus on the archetypes of character and the stages of a hero’s journey.  These are the parts that are invaluable not only for screenwriters, but also for novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and anyone else who deals with fictional stories.  The appendices that were added on in the last third or so of the book do not carry the same weight, and you can take or leave them.

Vogler begins with an examination of the archetypes of character.  This section was so fascinating for me that I started taking page after page of notes.  I couldn’t help it.  I felt like a kid in college.  There was so much to read and absorb and I didn’t want to miss anything.  Near the end of the section I stopped, realizing that it would be much easier to simply buy a copy of the book for myself (I had borrowed it from the library) than to write a whole booklet of notes.

According to Vogler (and Campbell) the eight archetypes of story character include hero, mentor, threshold guardian, herald, shapeshifter, shadow, ally, and trickster.  It’s fairly obvious how these various types work in science fiction, fantasy, and adventure films, but Vogler also gives examples of how these principles apply in dramas, romances, and comedies.  He clarifies that in various stages of a story characters may switch from archetype to archetype or display characteristics of more than one archetype at a time.  These outlines are not strict rules that writers must abide by, but rather ideas that illustrate how stories draw from common elements in the mythic wells of world culture.

In the next section on the hero’s journey, Vogler again emphasizes that these stages can be mixed, eliminated, or used out of order.  These guidelines serve the writer, not vice-versa.  The stages of a hero’s journey include the ordinary world, the call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting with the mentor, crossing the first threshold, tests and allies and enemies, approach to the inmost cave, ordeal, reward, the road back, resurrection, and return with the elixir.  Obviously I cannot go into a description of every detail.  If you’re a writer, read the book.  And if you’re not a writer but simply someone who loves story, read the book.

I want to emphasize that Vogler clarifies that these outlines are not meant to constitute a formula for story, but rather as guidelines to help you along the writer’s journey, which is a form of the hero’s journey.

As for the rest of the book, some of it is interesting, and some of it not so much.  There is one fascinating section in which Vogler uses the archetypes and stages of the journey to explain several popular movies such as Titanic, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, The Full Monty, and Star Wars.  Of particular interest is how he explains the mythic structure and characters in Pulp Fiction.  Other parts of the appendixes such as the analyses of polarities and catharsis read more like college lectures: slow going compared to the rest of the book.

But never mind all that.  Writers, read this book for the presentation of the archetypes and the stages of the hero’s journey.  Take out of it what seems valuable to you, and then proceed to break any of the rules or guidelines that you see fit.  It’s still good to be aware of the patterns before you lay waste to them.

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A Ray of Hope

When I am unable to write, I begin to become discouraged and then to despair.  I have to write.  It’s my talent, my calling.  If I do not write regularly, I feel I am not fulfilling my life’s function.  And when I speak of my writing, I do not include the articles that I write solely for money.  I am talking about my creative work, whether it is novels, short stories, memoirs, book reviews, or essays.

My goal, my desire, my dream for years now has been to do my creative work full time.  For that to happen it has to be able to support me and those who depend on me.  Alas, although I receive income from the sale of short stories and from book royalties, this income is far from sufficient to meet our needs.  The article work must continue, at least for the time being.

The problem is, the article work saps my creative strength.  It is still writing, even though I am not writing what I choose.  Over the past several years, I have tried a number of things to be able to get in enough article writing to survive, but also to not neglect my creative work.

In Yakima about three years ago, I decided to try to get up an hour earlier and write a thousand words before beginning the mercenary work of the day.  That lasted a week or two before I collapsed in exhaustion.  Then I tried getting up normal time, which was already very early, and writing a thousand words before I began the day’s work of article writing, but I found that the creative work took up too much time, and I was not able to write enough articles to pay the bills.

For a time, perhaps several weeks, I stopped the creative work completely, but as I mentioned above, this got me down.  I eventually settled on the solution of writing at least five hundred words in the late evening after I had finished everything else.  That’s the schedule I have been keeping for the past few years, and out of it I have got at least three novels, several novellas, and numerous short stories and essays.

However, it was never my ideal.  Sometimes I have been just too tired, and I have had to forego writing the five hundred words.  Sometimes I had to proofread, or do layout, or market stories, and these activities had to take up that time at the end of the day.

I was out walking just a few days before the close of 2016, wondering what I could do to improve my situation, to get closer to my goals, when it hit me.  Why not try writing the five hundred words first thing in the morning instead of in the evening?  There is a vast difference between writing five hundred and a thousand words.  Five hundred words I can manage in the first great mental rush of the day, while when I write a thousand I have to take breaks, rest, and begin again several times.  My ideal life schedule is to put my creative writing first.  Perhaps I cannot write a thousand or fifteen hundred words a day, which I would probably do if the creative work supported us better, but I can at least do five hundred words.

And so I have been doing since the beginning of the year, since January 2nd.  I have missed a day or two, primarily when I had to stay at the hospital overnight for surgery, but for the most part I have been keeping up with this new schedule seven days a week.  Although usually I manage just over five hundred words, at times I have written over eight or nine hundred.  It’s thrilling for me to write my stories when my mind is at its freshest and sharpest.  I get in my minimum word count, and then no matter what else happens in the day, that at least is done.  In the evenings, I can still do the proofreading, marketing, and other extra work that goes into the creative process, and if I am tired, I can leave that work aside, knowing that my basic word count is already finished, and spend a little extra time with my sons.  I still have the ultimate goal of doing nothing but my creative work, but this has turned into a great victory, a great forward step.  I hope I can keep it up.

In conclusion, I say to other writers:  Be fluid, be flexible.  If something doesn’t work, try something else.  The main thing is to never give up.  Never.

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Book Review: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 Edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

In contemplating the merits of this new volume of the best speculative fiction of the year 2016, I am inevitably drawn to a comparison to Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, which I read a few months ago.  Dozois emphasizes only science fiction and does not consider fantasy.  His collection is also three or four times larger than the volume in question.  However, these are not the most important differences.  The main thing that sets the Dozois anthology apart from this one is that almost all of the short stories, novelettes, and novellas he selects are heavy on story, while less than half of the choices in the Fowler and Adams collection are story-oriented.  In fact, most of the selections are not stories at all, or at least qualify as stories only on the slimmest of pretexts.  Instead, they are dazzling literary exercises, flamboyant language dances, plot synopses, intricate lists and descriptions – but not stories.

I have no problem with literary exercises in the guise of story – I’m a great fan of Borges – and certainly the short form is the place to experiment.  What I object to in this volume is the preponderance of such prose.  Less than half of the selections are actually stories in the traditional sense, with well-developed characters and beginnings, middles, and endings.  I think for this reason that this anthology is imbalanced.  I don’t mind that an anthology has a few less coherent or experimental stories mixed in with the more traditional fare – even the Dozois collection has a few such pieces.  However, on my part, I prefer stories that are stories – that evoke a sense of wonder as I follow the journey of the main character or characters.  The best of the New Wave writers back in the late sixties and early seventies, the era when I became enamored of speculative fiction, such as Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delaney and Robert Silverberg, experimented heavily with prose styles, but they almost always took care to tell a recognizable story as well.  I wouldn’t like the field to get too far away from that.

As I said, I have no objection to most of the stories in question in this volume that lean towards experimentation instead of substance – it’s just that there are too many of them.

Having said that, I have to add that there are several great stories in this book.  A few are duplicates from Dozois’s anthology, notably Nick Wolven’s “No Placeholder for You, My Love,” about virtual personalities attempting to escape an endless cycle of parties, and Kelly Link’s “The Game of Smash and Recovery,” about a crashed sentient spaceship who finally remembers her mission.  “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh is an extremely strong story set in the exotic locales of Mongolia, Italy, and West Africa about people who discover strange devices that alter time and how their lives are changed as a result.  “Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson is a fascinating hard science fiction tale about a team of analysts that follow a human colonial effort into deep space to determine if the resulting civilizations deserve to continue evolving or perish. “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” by Charlie Jane Anders offers an absorbing look at the effect of gaming on dementia.

Yes, no doubt there are some first-rate stories in this book.  And my favorites may not be yours; that’s the beauty of diversity in literature.  If all best of the year editors thought the same and had the same predilections, the volumes would be identical and there would be no need for so many of them.  So if your tastes run towards stories that are light on plot and heavy on experimentation, this volume may be your cup of tea.  If you prefer stories with more coherent plots and characters, you’ll find many more of those in Dozois’s anthology.

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Book Review: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is somewhat of an anomaly in literature in that he has attempted and excelled in so many genres and media with overwhelming success.  He has won numerous awards, including the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award, Newbery Medal, and Carnegie Medal.  His works include the famous Sandman series of comics, the novels American Gods and The Graveyard Book, the children’s horror book Coraline, and numerous screenplays and teleplays.

The View From the Cheap Seats is a collection of nonfiction pieces he has written over the past several decades.  It includes newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, and introductions to books, films, and music albums.  It is divided into sections roughly corresponding to his various interests and fields of endeavor: science fiction, fantasy, films, comics, music, books and reading, famous people he has known, and descriptions of various unusual events from his life.  The title essay is a recounting of his trip to the Oscars ceremony when the film version of Coraline was nominated for best animated feature.

Gaiman has been on my radar for some time.  I think that the first long piece that I read of his was American Gods, which is a dark story of mythical beings who have emigrated from other older parts of the world, taken up residency in the United States, and spawned a reality apart from that which appears on the surface.  I have also read Coraline, a very creepy fantasy about a young girl who discovers a hidden passage in her home that leads to an alternate reality.  In anthologies I have come across several of Gaiman’s award-winning stories, which are distinguished by their atmosphere and sense of wonder.

In The View From the Cheap Seats, Gaiman writes in very informal prose about a very unusual life – because, of course, no matter what else he is writing about, he is always writing about Neil Gaiman.  In some ways I find him hard to relate to, as he achieved early and consistent recognition and award after award, while I struggle for readership and recognition late in life after publishing over twenty books.  It’s easy to grasp that he’s had his share of adversity when reading these essays; still, compared to the norm he comes across as living a charmed life, as if he exists in some other dimension apart from other poor struggling folks.  I do not intend this as criticism.  When I read this collection, I picture Gaiman as a character from one of his fantasies, going about his life in a reality with which I am completely unfamiliar.

It’s an illusion, of course, from a master illusionist.  He bleeds, just as we all do.  He has his secret and open sorrows, some of which he spills out in this book.  He has managed, however, to maintain a long and exceptional career in a field where many attempt but few succeed.

This book is a fascinating overview of an unusual life.  It’s well worth reading by writers, readers, and anyone else interested in glimpsing the thoughts of one of the most enigmatic literary figures of the era.

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