February Newsletter: Storytelling and worldbuilding

So there I was, leaned back in my IKEA poäng, road noises and children’s laughter streaming through the little window in my attic study. I gesturing at the phone clipped to its wobbly stand, trying to ignore my own image and its distracting double chin (it’s just the low angle!). I tugged on my necklace, which is something I only do when I’m in a call. And I had my little notebook open in my hand, with its pencil cut down small enough to fit through its spiral binding. I was talking to  Paul.

For some reason, I have a lot of friends named Paul. This one is Paul Lefevre-Venet, who…how do I even talk about this guy? Here’s his instagram, if that helps. His studio’s instagram?

Paul is one of those people who reveal some fascinating aspect of their personal history every time you talk to them. “Well, it’s like when I was a pilot, you know?” or “When you’re coming home from a day of catching lobsters, and the setting sun shines on the heads of the seals…” or “War is impersonal.” And that’s just scratching the surface. Stories on top of stories.

I’d ask Paul, like, “how was your week?” And he’d tell me about the cats who hang around two old men in the shopping arcade where he lives, their constant conversation both a part of everyone’s life and a reflection of it. Paul told me about his father, who used to take him to the barber so he could listen to how men talked. He said “you know how when you ask an old man a question, he gives you a story instead of an answer?” Maybe he was feeling self-conscious.

I think I responded with something like “but I like your stories!” Then, after we were done talking, I ran races outside with my kids. I made myself coffee and kissed Pavlina as we brushed past each other. I had my class, and when I and my students successfully our stories, we became closer. I went to pick up my daughter’s package from the post office, and when the lady there tried to give me a hard time for collecting someone else’s mail, I said, “but she’s just five years old.”

“Five years old? Oh, she’s a sweet little girl!” said the mail lady. “I thought your daughter was an adult.”

“Do I look that old?” I smiled when I said it, and she smiled back and gave me the package. I felt as if Paul was standing behind me. It was just like one of his stories. It is this sort of world his stories build.

I ought to be a story teller. I am, after all, an author. But until recently, I didn’t know how to tell stories outside of my work. “Deinonychus hunted in packs,” I’d say. Or, “I didn’t like that book.”

But what if instead I said, “there I was, cleaning clay off this Tenontosaurus vertebra, my fingertips all gritty with dried glue, and I come across this sharp little black tooth, about the size of your pinkie nail.” Or. “There I was, trying not to think about problems in my life, and this story I’m reading just plows into a wall. ‘Is this supposed to be the end? This howl of hopeless frustration? This isn’t a story, it’s fancy complaining!’ I know my anger is just another attempt to distract myself from my real problems, but that doesn’t make me less mad.”

Maybe I’ll tell the ending of that second story later. Maybe you even want to hear the one about the Tenontosaurus. Tell me, what stories do you want to hear from me? I’ll try to write them.

In any case, I’m going answer more questions with stories from now on. Telling a story forces you to stop hiding behind abstractions. It makes you put more effort into understanding what happened to you, and who it is who you’re talking to. You’re kinder and more generous, specific and vulnerable.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if it was stories that made us real?

Well. In other news:

I posted two short stories this month: a piece of “aspirational hard SF” where I think about what Sofia might look like in 30 years*, and the flash fic I wrote for an exoplanet demographics conference.

The Centuries Unlimited is grinding through its zeta(!) version. But now I’m finding myself deleting sections, adding them back in, and deleting them again, which is a sign that it’s finally done. Let’s hope my agent agrees.

And I finished the first draft of “Levski’s Boots!” I’m really rather proud of it. It has some fun alternate history in it, as well as real work in figuring out how to make decisions for the right reasons (even if they don’t turn out to be the right decisions). I’ll hopefully have it ready for beta-readers in the next two weeks or so, so if you want to critique “Levski’s Boots,” please tell me. 

And here’s what I liked this month:

“Love is a Bonus Book,” Studio Dragon’s first attempt to write “It’s Okay to Not be Okay.” “Okay” is way better (it’s male love interest has a personality, for one thing), but there are moments in “Bonus Book” that really shine. Oh, the existential angst of the shredding machine!

I discovered Oranges by Lawrence, Appalachian Wine by Eleventyseven, and On the Outside by Gentri. And I’ve been singing Into the West a lot in my head.

Then there’s Jingo by Terry Pratchett – I don’t think I’d read this since high school. I picked it back up to inspire me for “Levski’s Boots,” and boy did it ever! The geo-politics, the meditations on seizing opportunity, and the terror of what might have been. Exactly what I’ve been writing. A little bit what I’ve been living, too.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni – It was written as an object lesson in teambuilding, and this story does teach a good series of lessons. I especially like how we get into the heads of people having an argument. None of them is perfect, none of them thinks they’re in the wrong, and they all want the same thing. So why don’t they work together? It’s a very interesting problem.

Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan – A mummified body is found on the moon. It’s human, but carbon-dated to 50,000 years ago. So what gives? The book follows both the story of the scientists who unravel the mystery of Charlie the Moon Mummy, and the story of Charlie’s own life as it’s pieced together. The science fiction is mostly in that second part, but the first part has some real scientific process and just people being people.

Oscar Wilde: Collected Stories by Oscar Wilde –  “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” and “The Canterville Ghost” especially are funny, ridiculous, and more compassionate than tragic. Oscar Wilde knew how people worked, and he forgave them for it.

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule – I was disappointed in this one. The writing is good and the premise is interesting (the main character has a list of predictions that all come true) but since we never find out where those predictions came from, who created them, how, and why, the story falls flat. It’s just people reacting to an arbitrary crisis.

As a Man Thinketh by James Allen – The thoughts you think effect your life according to their nature. If you want a good life, think good thoughts. And that’s it, repeated over and over in different words. I agree with the message, but I prefer The Book of Joy, which digs deeper into a wider range of advice, and backs up the advice with personal experiences. Stories, again.

The Brain Fog Fix by Dr. Mike Dow –  There are good lists here of more and less healthy food, and a decent hypothesis about how we can promote our mental health by eating the chemical precursors of neurotransmitters. However, Dr. Dow confuses correlation for causation and often stoops to scaring the reader. I finished the book, but it made me feel like I wasn’t enough.

Ruins by Orson Scott Card –  A solid piece of work. I liked the premise (hyperspace anomaly duplicates a single colony ship, which lands on the same planet fourteen times), and I really liked the characters struggling with self-transformation in a team. What sort of people must they become in order to effectively work together?

Imperium by Robert Harris – A calm read, but with just enough tension to pull you forward. There are some fairly deep meditations on how to be a good person in a bad society, and what good that does.

That’s all for this months. Let’s hope for some smooth sailing in March. See you then.

*This is the first fiction I wrote in Bulgarian, by the way. The English version is actually a translation.


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