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REVIEW: The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin Title: The Broken Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Pub Date: November 3rd, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…

In The Broken Kingdoms (the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy, begun in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Jemisin successfully avoids the middle-book-blues by constructing a beautiful mosaic of unique and skillfully executed traits rarely seen in fantasy. Most importantly (and most impressively), you can enjoy it without having read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), although the experience will be richer if you have.

It is hard enough to maintain momentum, pattern, and voice in a single novel. But publishers love multi-book series for good economic reasons (who doesn’t love reprint sales?), and so do authors (who doesn’t love contracted advances?). Unfortunately, very few authors are up to the challenge of constructing a story arc that will span multiple books, not drag, let each installment work on a standalone basis, and do something new, meaningful, and entertaining. If Broadway is littered with excellent first acts, then Borders is littered with excellent first books. Readers of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be surprised to see few characters they recognize. While set in the same universe and dealing with the same (divine) conflict established earlier, this book is told from the perspective of a very different hero. It is a complete, and self-contained story that builds off of the events of the previous book and would be an excellent standalone novel in its own right. Jemisin is constructing a fascinating standalone epic trilogy that reminds me more of Homer’s Odyssey than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The Broken Kingdoms follows Oree Shoth, a blind artist living in Shadow, a city beneath the World Tree and the city of Sky perched atop it. Oree takes in a taciturn and mysterious lodger, and finds herself plunged into a conspiracy centered around the serial murders of godlings. The conspiracy, Oree’s involvement, and the steps she takes to survive give the book a solid rhythm and provide momentum that Jemisin maintains through to the end. And while this book’s plot is strong and engaging, the book’s real engine are the characters and their relationships and its fuel are the ways in which it subverts epic fantasy tropes.

Oree is a disabled member of a historically-oppressed minority. As a result, she represents a refreshing antithesis to the standard fantasy heroine (Oree is neither white, nor is she able to wield two swords at once in a spinning dance of death). In the hands of a lesser author, Oree’s race would turn this book into a simplistic caricature of contemporary racial relations, but Jemisin neatly avoids that trap. Oree’s background and the history of her race are intrinsic to the plot, but her character is woven of more complex strands than race alone. By taking the societal consequences of ancient choices and making them concrete through the experiences of her characters, Jemisin produces a rich and complex society, and avoids the solipsistic condemnation of either the majority or the minority. This enables Jemisin to introduce much stronger and deeper characterization for her principle actors, building a very subtle and effectively post-racial character without sacrificing the plot elements that hinge upon her narrator’s background.

Oree has some magical ability, but she neither understands it nor is it ever explained to her by a helpful teacher. Reading the book, we are as much in the dark as to her ability as she is, and we are pulled right along with her as she discovers the truth about herself. The emotional core of the book are Oree’s complicated relationships with the men in her life (the silent homeless man she names “Shiny”, and her godling lover Madding), and it is these relationships and her complex feelings for them that motivate her actions. The supporting characters are all drawn believably. The godlings – by their very nature – are flat characters yearning to break into three dimensions, and the sensitivity with which their efforts are handled really make you feel for them. Just like the mortal Oree, they are products of their own histories and their own family histories, and it is through this excellent characterization that Jemisin is able to explore her primary themes of choices, family, and relationships.

Oree, as the mortal narrator, provides us with a very identifiable perspective on these themes, both within herself (as a mortal Maro) and amongst the gods of her world. The characterization in this novel is the best part about it, although the characterization is so good precisely because everything else (the world-building, the language used, the magical system) contributes to it. Jemisin uses first person narration to extremely good effect, limiting the reader’s awareness to that which Oree herself would notice. But the real trick of characterization, and what seals the deal for me actually occurs at the end. I won’t spoil it here, but the denouement is used in an exceptional way to tie together the themes that Jemisin explores throughout. It brought tears to my eyes, which for jaded old me is not that easy to do.

By subverting so many fantasy tropes, it is difficult to categorize The Broken Kingdoms. It shares a palpable sense of consequence and history with Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, but it is (thankfully) more approachable, less convoluted, and less gritty. It shares the playful and sensitive touch when twisting fantasy tropes that can be found in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker and Elantris, but it is more powerful thematically than either. It has the gripping pacing and excellent characterization of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, but Jemisin’s novel is more complete on a standalone basis. Probably the closest comparison I can come up with is Suzanne Collins’ excellent Hunger Games Trilogy, which similarly deals unflinchingly with delicate, complex, and powerful themes while keeping each book as an effective standalone novel.

The Broken Kingdoms is an exceptional new chapter in the already-enjoyable Inheritance Trilogy. Jemisin has done everything right: her characters are rich and engaging, her world is complex and believable, and her plot is fast-paced. This is an ambitious book, and it satisfies by completely addressing important themes in an innovative and immensely readable fashion.

I will be eagerly looking forward to the third and final book in the series, The Kingdom of the Gods, which is due out from Orbit in 2011.

The Uses of Food in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

Thanksgiving’s secular ethos built around food, family, and friends (three things I love) make this my favorite holiday of the year. Superficially, it’s all about the great feast centered around the Thanksgiving turkey, and so I thought why not post about how food is used in science fiction, fantasy, and horror?

The Difficulties with Food

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are evolutionarily wired to pay attention to food. That makes it very difficult for food to appear in a story or scene without becoming a major facet. Genre films use the visual of food to great effect: who can forget the scene in The Return of the King when Denethor is feasting during the charge for Osgiliath? Or the dinner scene in Beetlejuice? And let’s not forget those movies that are all about the dangers of late night snacking: Gremlins and Gremlins 2?

The filmmakers all knew that the instant food appears on screen, at least for a moment, our eyes are naturally drawn to it, our focus shifts and – depending on how it’s depicted – our mouths start watering. It’s a Pavlovian response, and the best film-makers make use of it in their movie making. The same thing happens when we read. The feast-time strategy session is a trope of epic fantasy, and much horror (including the recent zombie resurgence) is centered around food (of one sort or another). Avoiding the cliche and making food a seamless, important part of the story is much more difficult. Too little focus, and the food becomes incidental, a cliche distraction. Too much focus, and the food becomes the point of the scene (which sometimes is what you want).

So how does genre fiction actually make use of food? Well, from a brief persual of my bookshelves, it seems that I can see four different uses:

  1. As a metaphor.
  2. As a characterization device.
  3. As a distancing device.
  4. As imagery of the sublime.

Food as a Metaphor

This is one of the more obvious uses, but can be quite difficult to do tastefully. Consider two different works and their metaphoric use of food:

A Christmas Carol
, by Charles Dickens

Dandelion Wine
, by Ray Bradbury

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses dinner as symbols of class division. The Spirit of Christmas Present shows us many people eating on Christmas Eve, the most memorable of which is surely the Cratchit’s feast. Poor, down-trodden Bob Cratchit and his family put together a lovely spread. Dickens knows that food is not just about the meal itself, but about the way it is presented, the way it is served, the company in which it is enjoyed. He puts all of this to mouth-watering use as he describes their (meager) fare of Christmas goose and pudding:

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds, a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course – and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot, Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigor, Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce, Martha dusted the hot plates, Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table, the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and, mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped.

Setting up the table, laying out the plates, anticipating the taste, these are the rituals of most any family. The “pre-game” sets the mood, establishes the characters, the joy of a holiday meal. Note how Dickens points out that geese are not that rare, that they are easy to be had…but that the Cratchits still rarely enjoy them: “you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds…and in truth it was something very like it in that house“. Or consider how the Cratchits react to the pudding:

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly, too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that, now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

The metaphor works here because Dickens does not beat us over the head with it. Granted, he beats us over the head with Scrooge’s mistreatment of Cratchit. But when describing the scene with the food, he implies its meaning quite rightly. The fact that the Cratchits eat a poor man’s meal are subtly implied, not stated. The focus is not on the meagerness of their meal: the text instead focuses on their dignity under duress, and that is what makes the metaphor effective. When, after his ordeal, Scrooge sends them the giant Christmas turkey (“It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim.“) the contrast with the goose and the small pudding resonates that much more strongly because it is not pointed out to the reader.

Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine uses a very different tact. Unlike Dickens, Bradbury hands us the key to his metaphor directly:

Danelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.

The entire third chapter of Dandelion Wine describes how the wine represents the joys of summer, bottled to bring a taste of summer into the cold winter months. With a book so nostalgic, the book itself represents an analogous metaphor. Just as the bottles of dandelion wine bring summer into winter, so too does the book itself bring magical childhood into adult life. Both Dickens and Bradbury use metaphor: one by implication and understatement, the other explicitly and structurally. Other authors in genre use food metaphors more obliquely (Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Christina Rosetti) but I find Dickens’ and Bradbury’s methods the most memorable.

Food as Characterization

One of my favorite scenes involving food takes place in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (first of his Gormenghast novels). The scene is a conversation between the ruthlessly ambitious social-climber Steerpike, the somewhat embittered Dr. Prunesquallor, the flighty but loving Fuchsia, and her shattered Nannie Slagg. In this scene, Steerpike endeavors to secure employment with Doctor Prunesquallor, and has coerced Fuchsia and Nannie Slagg into bringing him to the good doctor.

They do not eat at this meeting, but they do drink. And Peake uses the act of drinking to further establish his characters. Western culture associates certain traits with certain alcohols. Advertisers rely on this when crafting their brand messages: think of the archetypal images you see in the typical whiskey ad. Peake was a master of characterization (arguably, his trilogy is one long study in characterization), and he knew that he could use his characters’ chosen libations as a window into their souls:

‘Drink, my Fuchsia dear,’ [Prunesquallor] said. ‘Drink to all those things that you love best. I know. I know,’ he added with his hands folded at his chin again. ‘Drink to everything that’s bright and glossy. Drink to the Coloured Things.’

Fuchsia nodded her head unsmilingly at the toast and took a gulp. She looked up at the Doctor very seriously. ‘It’s nice,’ she said. ‘I like elderberry wine. Do you like your drink, Nannie?’

Mrs. Slagg very nearly spilt her port over the arm of the chair when she heard herself addressed. She nodded her head violently.

‘And now for the brandy,’ said the Doctor. ‘The brandy for Master…Master…’

‘Steerpike,’ said the youth. ‘My name is Steerpike, sir.’

The whole scene goes on for some paragraphs more. Fuchsia is confused, and easily distracted, and whether this is a result of the wine or her own nature is a matter of conjecture. Slagg falls asleep. Prunesquallor does not even so much as taste his cognac. And Steerpike? Steerpike keeps his distance. Verbally, he remains aloof and speaks and sips only to underline the specific points of his dialog and as a tool to help him achieve his goals. The differences in what they drink, and the differences in how they drink it, create a perfect alignment between character and action. If the characters all drank the same way (sipped, gulped, or ignored their glasses), we would finish the passage with a weaker understanding. If they were all drinking sherry, or wine, or beer, so too we would have a less strongly-formed sense of the characters. Using such half-measures would have weakened the unity between their words and deeds. But Peake draws characters too well for that.

Food as a Distancing Device

Food is often used for comedic/tragic effect in science fiction (“It’s a cookbook! It’s a cookbook!”). But perhaps one of the best ways that it is used is as a distancing device. The most memorable (for me) scene in Julie E. Czerneda’s Survival is when the heroine Mac finds herself aboard a Dhryn (alien) spaceship. In order for the rest of the book (and the rest of the series) to work, Czerneda needs to ensure that we view the Dhryn as aliens. They need to have alien value systems, alien biologies, alien everything, to establish that sense of Other.

When Mac first comes aboard the ship, there are no Dhryn to be seen. Instead, she is alone in her quarters, and must figure out how she is to eat and drink. She is offered what is – ostensibly – food, but it is so unlike any food she has ever seen that she has no way of knowing if it is even edible (for humans). With no food, and no water, and no ability to communicate with her hosts she finds herself in dire straits, until she attempts the following experiment:

Step one. After her experiment with the Dhryn shower, Mac wasn’t going to risk herself without due care. She chose the outside of her left arm as most expendable and pressed it against one of the cylinders.

It felt cold, which didn’t mean it was chilled. Room temperature, Mac concluded. She examined the skin that had touched the food. No reddening or swelling. She brought her forearm close to her nostrils and sniffed.

Blah! Mac wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t sure if it smelled more like hot tar or sulfur. It certainly didn’t smell edible.

Step two. She picked up one of the cylinders, doing her best not to react to its slimy feel or rubbery consistency, and brought it to her mouth. Slowly, fighting the urge to vomit – a potentially disastrous loss of fluid – she stuck out her tongue and touched it to the side of the cylinder.


Her tongue might be too dry. Mac brought her tongue back inside her mouth, letting its tip contact what saliva she had left, then, cautiously, she moved that saliva around so it contacted all the taste buds on her tongue.

BLAH! Mac barely succeeded in keeping her gorge in her throat. God, it was bitter. Putting down the cylinder, she crushed a bit of nutrient bar in her hand and licked up the crumbs. The sweetness helped, barely. She resisted the urge to take another sip. Thirty minutes until her next.

Step three. Mac breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth, centering herself, slowing her heart rate from frantic to tolerably terrified. Then she picked up a cylinder and took a bite.

BITTER! Before she could spit it out, moist sweetness flooded her senses as her teeth fully closed. Startled, she poked the jellylike msas around in her mouth. A tang of bitterness remained, but the overall impression was of having bitten off a piece of…

…overripe banana. Not that flavor, but the same consistency and texture. This taste was complex, more spicy than bland, and seemed to change as the material sat in her mouth. A good sign, Mac thought, chewing cautiously. The enzyme in her saliva was acting on what had to be carbohydrate. The moisture in the mouthful was more than welcome.

She swallowed. When nothing worse happened than the impact of a mouthful thudding into her empty stomach, Mac examined the cylinder. Where she’d bitten it, glistening material was slowly oozing onto her hand, as if through a hole.

Mac laughed. If the sound had a tinge of hysteria to it, she felt entitled. “I ate the damn wrapper,” she said, wiping her eyes.

The use of humor is an effective tool, a way of releasing the tension built up in the preceding pages. The systematic, experimental nature of the meal is in keeping with the character’s profession (scientist). And the description of the food itself is sufficiently alien that up until that last sentence, we can believe that this is whatever food the Dhryn normally eat. An effective way of establishing Mac as the only human aboard this very alien starship headed for alien lands.

Food as the Sublime

The final way for food to be used is as sublime imagery. There are many ways to do that, whether in genre or out of genre. But in genre, horror stories probably do this most frequently. A disturbingly fun example that makes me squirm whenever I read it is Micaela Morrissette’s Wendigo, published in Weird Tales. The whole story is one long description of banquets, and cooking, and feasting. But Morrissette’s language artfully sets up images that are unsettling, disturbing, but still clearly food that her character finds sumptuous:

She swallowed the wine that paused in her mouth, clung there, spreading itself. She swallowed the black soup: thin, sour broth swimming with clots that trailed delicate filaments. She swallowed the tempura of cobra lily, and, inside its cup, the pale, limp moth that seemed to sigh and dissolve on her tongue. When the songbirds were served, her gracious companion, sensing her confusion, placed a steadying hand on the back of her neck and guided her head under the starched napkin. She ate the scorching meat, needled with tiny bones her teeth had splintered. She felt little ruptures where they scratched her throat. Her companion was missing the fifth and second fingertips of his right hand, the entire middle finger of his left. Bluntly, blindly, fondly, the stubs knocked against her skin. The manservant brought the baby octopi in shallow bowls filled with, her host informed the company, vibrio fischeri, which sent a faint gold-green luminescence throughout the water. She dipped an octopus in the spicy sauce and trapped it lightly between her teeth. Its small heavings and sucks brushed against the pads of her cheeks like tiny kisses. She kissed back.

The imagery is sublime, and we’re drawn along with its magic. But what gradually becomes clear is that the sublime in this case is horrific, as the story descends into a rivetingly unsettling tale of cannibalism. This is horror at its finest, using sublime imagery to simultaneously repulse the reader and keep them rapt.

Fun Food Links in Conclusion

So now that we’ve talked about how science fiction, fantasy and horror often use food, maybe as you’re enjoying Thanksgiving this week you can benefit from some fun science fictional recipes and other fun resources:

I hope you’ll be having some fantastic food this week, and above all else sharing it with your family and friends!


The Difference Between Writing a Short Story and a Novel

So I finished writing my first novel last night. Typing it out like that makes it sound a lot more impressive than it actually is. It’s the first draft of an eighty-three thousand word fantasy novel, and is my first attempt at anything longer than a short story since I was twelve years old. Now, I’m going to put it aside for several weeks, work on other things, and then return to re-write it, and then maybe I’ll dance a little jig. Maybe. We’ll see how I feel about the finished product in a couple of months. But since this is NaNoWriMo, I thought it might be interesting to share some thoughts on how the process of writing this particular novel differed from my earlier experiences writing short stories.

DISCLAIMER: The experiences I’m describing here relate to this particular novel, and to me as a writer. Many of these experiences would not translate to a different novel with a different structure, and a different set of challenges. They might not translate to anyone else’s approach to writing, either. For that matter, I’m also new at this. This is my first novel, and so the observations and methods that worked for this one might be trashed by the time I’m on my sixth. So take anything you read here with a grain of salt, as I’m kind of making it up as I go.

Why I Write Short Stories, or Why I Didn’t Write Novels

At some point, I got it into my head that short stories demand tighter writing than novels do. I figured that if I could get my short story technique down, then when I applied my craft to the longer form, it would be better, faster, stronger. So in the last two years, I finished about fifty short stories, ranging in length from 1,300 words to 7,000 words. Mostly fantasy, spanning a variety of types from fairy tales, to (the very rare) sword and sorcery, some horror, and some mainstream literary stuff. I looked at it as good practice for when I started writing novels, and I definitely think that it helped me to write the novel in a number of ways:

1 Short stories are short enough to experiment with. Lots of people argue that writing exercises are a good way to practice, but somehow I’m always disappointed if I do a writing exercise that does not yield a fully functional story. I think of it like whipping up some pancake batter for the practice, then chucking it without putting it in the pan. It’s helpful, sure; but finishing something delicious is more so. Even if you write slowly, churning out a 2,000 word short story will take you far less than an 80,000 or 100,000 word novel – which makes them a great way to build confidence and develop skills, without the danger of discovering you’ve written yourself into a corner at 60,000 words.
2 Short stories have fewer moving parts. As I talked about in an earlier post, short stories just don’t have the room for a lot of complexity. This makes them easier to disassemble than a novel. I find that I can take a short story apart, look at all of the pieces that it’s composed of, and then re-assemble it differently, or fix a broken element, much faster than if I had to do that in a novel. It also makes it easier to learn the craft of plotting, or how characters get built, or how world-building works, than in a novel. I kind of think of it like learning architecture from LEGO’s, before moving onto bricks.
3 Short stories can teach you how to schedule productive writing time. I’ve got a full-time day job, I do volunteer work, I have a social life. Carving out time for writing is painful. But if I want to set a self-imposed deadline upon myself (e.g. “Write a novel by the end of the year”), I need to use an awareness of how quickly I write to schedule around it. That’s just the way my schedule, and my scheduling approach, works. Writing short stories taught me to think before I write. I learned to think through many different aspects of a story, starting from the voice, the plot, the characters, the setting, etc. By thinking (sometimes for weeks or months) before I ever write a single word lets me actually write the story extremely quickly once I do sit down. I know not everyone works this way. But with my schedule, it is easier to find time to think (shower, car, lying awake in bed) than it is to find time to actually write. So producing short stories trained me to think first, and then when I’ve thought it through enough, to sit down and write quickly.
4 Editorial Feedback Writing is all about waiting. You write something, ship it off to agents, editors, and someday (six months later if you’re lucky) somebody gets back to you with a response. In the novel market, my understanding is that it is almost always a form rejection. Thankfully, the professional (and semi-pro) short fiction markets have a faster turn-around. Taking what I considered my best short stories, I could expect a response in several weeks, rather than months. As my writing improved, I could see changes in the responses: fewer and fewer form letters, editors offering reasons (sometimes precise, sometimes not) on why a story didn’t work for them. This was enormously helpful. It helped focus my attention on what needed work in my writing, taught me to deal constructively with rejections (a vital skill for any aspiring writer), and gave me confidence that my hard work was paying off. By writing and trying to sell shorts, I was able to go through multiple feedback iterations in the same time it would have taken me to write a single 100,000 novel.

Novels Are Not Short Stories

Getting Ready to Write

But novels are not short stories. I usually write short stories in a two step process: I think about them enough to develop a narrative voice, identify my principal character, perhaps identify the general mood for the story. It’s the act of actually disciplining my imagination, and sometimes it can take five minutes or it can take weeks. But once this step is done, I can sit down and write the first draft of the story in a couple of hours. I don’t outline, I don’t take notes. I just write the story and then revise it after the fact.

I knew that this approach wouldn’t work for a novel. Structurally, it’s just too big: too many characters, too many side-plots, too many moving parts to figure them out in my head before sitting down to write. So I adopted a different approach. So I started by taking some notes. Not an outline, something a lot simpler. I started with my premise (“How a world built on magic responds to the invention of the printing press”). The world of my story would start from this premise. With a premise like that, I knew the conflict would be between groups in the society, and between specific characters within those groups. So I started by sketching a paragraph of notes about different groups in this society: their histories, their motivations, their value systems, etc. This didn’t let me identify any characters, yet, but it did allow me to sketch a basic plot. Each group would have to respond somehow to the printing press. And so these responses formed my high-level, basic plot outline. With that premise, with the social outline, the basic skeleton of a plot, I was able to (preliminary) identify my characters: after all, someone would have to actually do whatever the groups’ responses would be. I hadn’t had to do this kind of outlining for any of my short stories. They were simpler, with less complex relationships, and less complex conflicts. But if I hadn’t done this, I don’t think I would have found a way to actually start my novel.

Starting to Write

The first 17,000 words (20% of the finished draft) were very hard. I must have written the first several chapters five or six times before I was happy with them. I started with close third person, switched to first, swapped the point in my (very general) timeline where the story began once or twice, and changed a bunch of my initial character outlines. Getting past these false starts was the hardest part in actually writing the book.

In terms of my actual writing, I wrote each chapter as if it were a movement in a short story. When I write short stories, if I’m writing the beginning I’m already thinking about what needs to happen in the middle. By the time I’m working on the middle, I’m thinking about the end. I tried to do the same thing with chapters: while I was writing one chapter, I would be thinking about what needed to happen in the next. Characters would act in the “current” chapter, and what would follow could only be a logical continuation (a response) of that action, or a sidestep to establish a new side-plot.

At this stage, I didn’t have any kind of real plot outline. The focus was on setting the stage, establishing characters and side-plots. It was hard work to write each chapter, to set up the dominoes. But the next chapter would be that much easier to write, because by the time I had gotten there, I had narrowed down the places where I could go. Once I had set up one row of dominoes, I had limited where others could go if I wanted them to fall in sequence.

Getting over the Hump

The next 40,000 words (20 – 67% of the finished work) got much easier much faster. That’s not to say they were easy (they weren’t), but they did begin to flow easier. However, as the number of established side plots grew, I decided to get much more systematic in the writing. I actually made an outline, of sorts. It was an Excel worksheet, with one row for each chapter. Each row had four columns:

  • The chapter number,
  • The version number of my preferred draft for that chapter,
  • The word count of that chapter, and;
  • A couple of sentences summarizing the events of that chapter.

I had never needed anything like this for short stories, but this became an invaluable tool for me while writing the middle of the book. It allowed me to keep track of characters, events, pacing, and side-plots. The outline actually laid a road map for me as I wrote, because I was able to outline six or seven chapters ahead of my current place. As I wrote, I would revise the outline. I would decide to shift events to earlier (or later) chapters, and would revise as I went. But I didn’t actually extend the outline until I achieved certain key plot milestones in my writing.

During this phase of the writing, I was able to build a rhythm for the writing. While I couldn’t find the time to write every day (unfortunately), I was able to find a rhythm that let me write about 10,000 words a week, which struck me as a perfectly good rate if I could maintain it throughout the novel. The biggest trouble I ran into during this phase was my narrative voice. By the time I had written 20,000 words, I was certain I had lost my narrative voice somewhere around 10,000 words. I chose not to go back and revise. Instead, I chose to keep writing (trying to regain my original voice), and to focus particular attention on it when I re-wrote the book after it was done.

Whether this was a good choice or not, I don’t know. Whether my fear was real or not, I don’t know. I won’t know until after I have let the story sit for a couple of weeks and return to the re-write with a fresh mind.

Rushing to the End

By the time I had written 55,000 words, I had enough (plot) visibility to outline the last 20 chapters of the book. During this phase, my focus was on maintaining momentum and executing on the outline I had put together. I actually accelerated my writing pace during this phase, as if it were a sprint to the finish line. That may or may not have weakened the actual writing, but I also realize I am still too close to the story to judge that accurately. That goes onto the list of things to pay special attention to during the re-write.

As I neared the end, I also started to plan out the next phase: the re-write itself. I know that I’ll have to revisit the entire book. I know that before I do that, I’ll have to put it aside for several weeks, if not several months. I’ll work on something else, put it out of my mind, and only then return to the re-write. When I do start the re-write, I have a list of issues that I know I need to address. Some are major, functional issues (narrative voice). Others are problems that I know I need to fix (background that I came up with mid-way into the book, which I should have established early on). Or still others are thoughts I might have to put more meat on the book’s bones, since 83,000 words is a little light for a debut novel (most genre editors seem to seek 80 – 110k). But before I do any of that, I need to gain some distance from the book. Put the plot, the world, the characters from my mind so that I can look at it fresh.

Moving Beyond the First Novel

So now that I have finished my first novel-length work, there are two major things on my mind: first, the fact that most first novels become an author’s embarrassing baby photo. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a multiple-book author who loves the first book they ever published. Usually, they seem to prefer their later (more experienced, mature) works for a variety of reasons. And I’ve heard too many stories of authors whose first (or first several) books collect dust in some desk drawer, never seeing the light of day. That’s probably not unlike my first short stories, and I would not be at all surprised if my first novel joins them. I am perfectly comfortable with that. Even if this book never sells, I know that I have written it and I have learned a lot about writing through the process. Probably the most important lesson is that I can write novel-length works, which is worth a lot. And is also one of the points of NaNoWriMo (even if this wasn’t a NaNoWriMo book, I still think NaNoWriMo is a great initiative for startup authors).

Which brings me to the second thing on my mind: writing my second novel. I’ve already got it well underway. This one is more ambitious, more complicated, and a bit more difficult (stylistically and thematically) than the novel I just finished. I’m already about 25,000 words into it, and I am well into its middle. It has a very different structure, and practically inverses the challenges of my first novel. Either way, I’m having fun writing it and I think it will be a good way to clear my first novel from my mind…in time to return to my first book in December for a re-write.

So if you’re a writer reading this blog post, or if you want to be, what do you think about the differences between writing a novel and short stories? What have your experiences been? There are probably about as many methodologies and lessons to be learned as there are writers, so I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.

REVIEW: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman Title: The Half-Made World
Author: Felix Gilman
Pub Date: October 12, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exciting, adventurous, thoughtful steampunk fantasy.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman is the gripping story of war on a brutal frontier. This is Gilman’s third book, after his excellent 2007 debut Thunderer and its disappointing sequel Gears of the City. Set in an entirely different universe, The Half-Made World shows that Gilman has clearly disciplined his imagination and gained a focus that had been lacking in his last novel.

If you are looking for steampunk with Victorian mannerisms and airships, look elsewhere. While it shares elements of the steampunk aesthetic, it is firmly rooted in the oily, Wild West and Sinclair’s blood-stained Chicago stockyards. For those critics who complain that steampunk never has anything important to say, I recommend they read this book. It takes place in (as the title would suggest) a half-made world, where the east is settled and established, operating along “realistic” lines. The west remains wild, and reminds me of the aboriginal Dreaming. The rules that govern it are shifting, changing, and magic (of a sort) is real. From a thematic standpoint, The Half-Made World is a serious examination of the complex and conflicting values inherent in the romantic and manifest destiny movements of the 19th century. But despite its important themes and artful writing, it is an entertaining and exciting read, striking that rare balance between adventure and literature.

Gilman’s frontier is torn apart by an unending war between the Line (railroads, trains, manifest destiny) and the Gun (guns, fatalistically doomed heroes, romance). When the book opens, it is entirely plausible that the Line and the Gun are merely the colloquial names for a set of combating ethos: symbols, and little besides. But it quickly becomes apparent that these opposing forces are in fact very real spirits or demons, who embody particular mores and values and who attract particular types of followers. The opposing cultures of Line and Gun, and the setting they create, are some of the most important characters in this book.

The story is told from three perspectives:

  • Lowry, an agent of the Line,
  • John Creedmor an agent of the Gun, and;
  • Liv Alverhuysen, a “neutral party” from the settled East swept up in the frontier conflict.

While each of the perspective characters is engaging, the Line and the Gun themselves provide the text with a foundation. Gilman’s writing is extremely tight, and the natures of the Line and the Gun come through in the little details: the methods their agents employ, the territories they control, the people who live under their rule. Even the slight shifts in narrative voice used for the different perspectives help cement the setting. The Line and the Gun are not ephemeral constructs, or religious ideologies. They are real: dirty, smelly, and intensely human forces for all of their inhuman power.

Gilman does something very difficult with his three perspective characters. Each personifies a particular ethos: Lowry is the embodiment of the Line, with all its systematic and methodical values. Creedmor embodies the Gun, with its heroic strengths and tragic weaknesses. Liv personifies a third set of values (still nascent, I would say), which seems designed to balance the Line and the Gun. To paint characters who personify abstract values well is very difficult. It is so easy for them to become caricatures of their mores. Hugo pulls it off exceptionally in Les Miserables. Ayn Rand does it well, though less-reliably than Hugo. While Gilman is not quite as powerful as Hugo, nor (thankfully) as insistent as Rand, his characters remain true to the forces they personify, as well as to their own humanity. They are flawed and identifiable, in a most beautifully human way.

The jacket, designed by Jamie Stafford-Hill and with art by Ross MacDonald, drew my eye in the bookstore, reminding me of the futuristic designs drawn by Albert Robida in the late 19th century. While I don’t think the image depicted on the cover appears at any point in the action of the book, the design is elegant and understated. It captures the spirit of the text, if not its literal action. The book opens slowly, but gathers steam after the first eighty or so pages. The prose is dense, and rich throughout, and Gilman fleshes out his principal and supporting characters gradually over the course of the book. The last third is especially well-paced, and I found myself on the edge of my seat. The perspective and writing remain crisp, and at no point does it come off the rails (no pun intended).

While on the whole this book was excellent, I was mildly disappointed in how Gilman dealt with one of the characters at its end. It is difficult to explain the details without giving anything away, but this is clearly the first book in a larger whole, and to make it self-contained, certain strands needed to be tied up. I understand that, and I understand that there were equally-good or equally-bad options for how to do so. Gilman chose one of them, and his choice is not in and of itself bad and I suspect other readers might be satisfied with it. But when I read it, I found elements of its ending to be slightly anticlimactic, almost bathetic. However, it is entirely possible that bathos was part of Gilman’s point, and while it was disappointing, I find myself waffling on whether it is a weakness or not.

The book ends poised for a continuation of the adventure, without crossing the liminal boundary into cliff-hanger. As a result, I am eagerly looking forward to the sequel. I strongly recommend The Half-Made World to anyone looking for thoughtful steampunk, or who enjoys the frontier adventures of Emma Bull (Territory) or Jeffrey Ford (The Physiognomy). If (like me) you were turned off by Gilman’s earlier Gears of the City, I’d suggest you give him another shot: The Half-Made World is incomparably stronger in every way.

Liking Little Things: Dissecting Short Stories and Flash Fiction

This past Friday, @tordotcom tweeted a fun challenge asking for six-word fantasy stories. Like all such challenges, it’s inspired by (what I consider to be) the best short story ever written (supposedly by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet):

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This challenge got me thinking about what it takes to write a great short story or flash piece, which I think is especially relevant to anyone writing in the science fiction, fantasy or horror genres. Basically, if we write short stories or flash fiction, odds are we’re writing in genre for the simple reason that there aren’t many markets outside of the genres for us to sell to. The literary journals are few and far between, literary anthologies tend to reprint old stories written by past masters, and there just don’t seem to be that many places for us to place something that isn’t a genre story. So given all of this, what does it take to write a great genre short story?

If they are successful, shorts can pack the emotional punch of a novel into a space one tenth the size. I find it hard not to appreciate the economy – the discipline – that demands. If you’re bumping up against your publisher’s 2000 or 3000 word cap, every single word matters. Of course, we like to think that every word in a novel matters too…but the fact is they don’t. They should, but with the reality of deadlines and the challenge of completing the novel-writing marathon, some poor constructions just squeak through the editorial cracks. It happens to every writer, good and great included. It’s just the way it works. But short fiction – whether short stories or the relatively nascent form of flash fiction – does not have that luxury.

Artistic Techniques of Good Short Stories

The Reader’s Investment Our reader is always going to be less invested in a ten-page, 2000-word story than the two-hundred page, 100,000-word novel they’re halfway into. If at any point our short story loses their interest, our reader might say “Screw it, this story sucks” and go back to playing Fallout. What have they lost? With a short story, a very small amount of time. Short stories are a lot less forgiving as a form, in relation to their length. As I write, I always try to remember:

  • Writing is re-writing. Revise the story with the eye of a zealot. Trim all of the fat we can find.
  • Big things are made of smaller things. For each act, each character, each paragraph, each sentence, we should ask ourselves: is this really needed? Can we say this more economically?
  • Don’t fear the delete key. It can be tough to cut something we’ve written. But whatever tightens the story, strengthens it.

Limited Cast of Characters We’ve all read the massive epics that require a dramatis personae either before or after the text to keep track of the cast of characters. Ever seen a short story with one? I always try to think about this in terms of:

  • Purpose. Any character (certainly any named character) in our story has to serve a specific thematic or plot purpose. He or she needs to perform some action, and every action adds words to our length. To keep it tight, we should limit these characters and their actions to that which is essential to the story.

Limited Perspective Each time we shift perspective, we have to pull the reader out of the character they have already invested in and convince them to re-invest elsewhere. Sometimes, this is necessary. But it should be used very judiciously. I usually think about:

  • Speed. Perspective is the key to getting our reader invested in our character and the world we create. We should grab our reader quickly and hold onto him or her throughout the story.
  • Narrative Voice. Who is our narrator? Can we tell the story from a first-person perspective? Can we give our narrator a distinct voice, spicing it with opinions/values to rapidly build our world around our reader?
  • Use of the First-Person. A great trick for maximizing speed is to tell our story from a first-person perspective. When we read something from an “I”-perspective, it instantly puts us in the character’s head, instantly builds the character’s world around us.

Limited Plot I love Byzantine side-plots, with twists and turns and double-agents and triple-crosses and all that fun stuff. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the space to cram a lot of that complexity into our short stories.

  • Choose your battles. Pick the plot arc that is most important to our story and its themes. Stick with that.
  • High stakes yield high emotion. If we want our reader to be invested in our story, the stakes at play must matter to our characters. If they don’t care, if they are not invested, why should our reader be?

The Ongoing Dialog in Letters Every editor is looking for stories that are “new” and “fresh.” Genre fiction pre-supposes some reader familiarity with its history and tropes. Back in January, Jo Walton posted a great piece on about the concept of “reading protocols”, which should be required reading for anyone writing or editing in genre. For our short story to be fresh it has to be one step ahead of what the best writers are producing today. To figure out what that is, we need to:

  • Know our markets. This is more than just reading submission guidelines carefully. It means following what the best writers are producing today.
  • Track trends. What are the over-saturated sub-genres in the marketplace? Seeing too many vampires, too much steampunk, too much “insert-trope-here”? Use what we see to stake a new claim.
  • Learn editorial preferences. Each editor has different tastes. By reading her submission guidelines, by tracking what else she buys, and by submitting different stuff of our own to her, we can (over time) learn what her tastes are.

The Rise of On-screen Reading As the markets for short fiction increasingly go online-only, odds are people will read our short story on a screen rather than a page. This fact has tremendous implications for how we construct our story: have you ever tried to read a 200-word paragraph on screen? Did you get through it all? Reading on screen is (for better or for worse) different than reading on paper, and it does affect how we should write our stories:

  • Use shorter paragraphs. They are easier to read on-screen, and they force a certain economy of thought into our writing, thus contributing to the story’s overall tightness.
  • Use clearly delineated sentences. This is another trend in English literature championed by Hemingway. Clarity in sentence construction is also a more economical use of words, and contributes to shorter paragraphs.
  • Avoid typographic chicanery. I love the poems of ee cummings. But in today’s short prose markets, there is precious little demand for typographic tricks of that nature. It takes a lot of work for a publisher to make complex typography display consistently across multiple different devices, browsers, screen resolutions, etc. Which is why if our story relies on typographic sleight of hand, it’ll be a much tougher sell.

The Economics of Good Short Stories

Competition in the Short Markets Two facts contribute to increased competition in the short fiction markets:

  1. The number of markets paying professional rates has shrunk. New markets are increasingly cropping up online, however the majority of them can afford to publish 2 – 4 short stories per month (as opposed to the 8 – 10 stories the old print magazines used to run).
  2. Computers and the Internet make writing easier. Everyone has one, and everyone (myself included) thinks they have a story or two in them. This means that slush piles today are larger than they were thirty years ago.

Thus, there are more stories out there fighting for fewer publishing spaces. And that’s just if we’re talking about slush: let’s not forget many published stories are solicited, by-passing the slush piles entirely. This makes short fiction an extremely competitive market, and it means that in order to break into the space we need to:

  • Write better.
  • Not give up.
  • Know what the markets we’re submitting to like to buy.
  • Write better.
  • Network: meet the people (online and offline), because people buy from people.
  • Write better.
  • Keep at it.

Less Money in Short Fiction The last ten years have seen a huge shift in how short fiction gets paid for (at least in science fiction, fantasy and horror). A quick glance at the listings on Duotrope suggests that a majority of short fiction markets paying professional rates are now online-only, and donation-funded. This introduces revenue uncertainty and irregularity for the publishers, which drives down what they can pay for stories, and limits the number of stories they can buy/publish. If an editor can buy two powerful (but shorter) stories for the price of one longer story of similar resonance, which would make the most sense? This is one of the main factors that is driving the increased call for flash fiction (short shorts < 1000 words, though definitions/preferences vary).

The Art of Implication

So given all of the above, what makes Hemingway’s six-word story so damned good? Why does it resonate so well? Because it adheres to all of the principles outlined above, while packing a tremendous emotional punch in only six short words. How does he do it? He employs what I call “the art of implication”. It’s a theory that Hemingway himself outlined in Death in the Afternoon and which since has come to be called the “iceberg theory”.

In a grossly over-simplified version, the theory says that the reader will fill in the blanks if the author leaves things out of the written story. The author can leave out events, characters, opinions, plot, etc. If what remains is written well enough, if there are enough context clues embedded in the text, the reader should be able to intuit or imagine what was left out. Each reader might intuit something different, but that would not detract from the overall emotional resonance of the story: if anything, it would strengthen the story by making it more resonant across a broader range of readers. That short, six-word sentence is a perfect example of this theory in practice:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
The Reader’s Investment This story is six words long. Hemingway is asking us for a very small investment of time. Who wouldn’t invest the time to read six short words?
Limited Cast of Characters This story – ostensibly – lacks characters. The characters are implied by the text. Who is the narrator? Who is selling these shoes? Is it the baby’s mother? The father? Some other relative? A stranger? A neighbor? Each of us fills in this blank for ourselves, putting a character into the story that they we will identify closely with.
Limited Perspective This is one of the very few stories I can think of that has no perspective. No matter how hard I try, I cannot read that sentence and determine (based on the evidence in the text) who is speaking. It does not feel like an omniscient narrator, but there is no evidence to the contrary. There is no hint of first person narration in the text itself, but (to me) it feels like there is. There is only one perspective in this story, and that perspective is whatever we put into it.
Limited Plot This story lacks a plot. That’s not a bad thing: some of the best stories lack a classic plot. In this case, the plot, the conflict, the events of the story are also implied. They take place in a time leading up to those six little words, and whatever occurred is something we intuit or imagine.

The urban legend states that Hemingway put this six-word story together to win a bet. He didn’t sell it anywhere, it wasn’t published anywhere, it is just one of the many anecdotes that follow legendary writers. Of course, it’s impossible to state definitively whether it would sell today. I doubt there’s an editor working in the English language today who isn’t familiar with this story.

However, if we’re looking to make a living writing six-word stories, I’d suggest we reconsider: while it’s an interesting exercise, there isn’t terribly much commercial demand for it. While stories of this length are clever, and can be momentarily satisfying, the investment and payoff are not – in and of themselves – quite satisfying enough. It’s a nice entre cours, but what readers are looking for is an plat principal with a little more meat on its bones.

So what do you think makes short stories work well? What kind of structures do you like to see? What are some of the best six-word stories you like? If you want to see the stories people came up with in response to’s Twitter challenge, just do a Twitter search for #sixwordfantasy (or today’s #sixwordscifi).

And in case you’re wondering what I came up with:


Murder! Hungry witch roasted by kids!


Traveler constructs her own quantum fates.

Nowhere near as good as Hemingway’s, but hopefully fun.

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