Review: Born a Crime (Trevor Noah)

Born a Crime is Trevor Noah’s story about growing up in South Africa under apartheid, when his birth as the son of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father was a crime. It is the most powerful biographical story I have ever read, a truly mind-expanding experience as he conveys a life and a country enormously different from anything I’ve known. But it’s not just his story; it’s also the tale of Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, the woman who chose to bear him under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and how her character and her choices shaped his life. I can’t find it in myself to try to summarize any of the story itself; you should experience it in Noah’s own words, in the way he chose to tell it.

5/5 stars

Review: Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

I found about Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget via the required reading list for two different Writing The Other classes, and wish I’d read them sooner. Stant Litore’s books are fairly short and laser-focused on providing the most value to emerging writers in the fewest words. The two most valuable sections of the book to me were the first, on three specific features that make a fictional world memorable, and the last, on how to convey your worldbuilding to readers (no surprise: it’s not via infodump).

The book opens with a claim that a shortcut to making a world memorable are to define a unique set of physical circumstances (such as the all-desert world of Arrakis in Dune), a unique creature or type of creature (such as the sandworms), and a unique cultural element, typically responding to those things (such as the Fremen focus on preserving moisture and co-existing with the sandworms). He has other examples, but even that one was enough to inspire some creative thinking about my WIP.

Conveying the world is a matter of figuring out the minimum a reader needs to know at each point in the story, and introducing the world-building elements “just in time” for them to understand whatever is going on in the story at that point. I’ve read this advice in several other places. Litore goes beyond this to discuss the “threshold text” that, like the Star Trek captain’s logs, brings the reader into the story.

There are several possible types of in-world guide, characters who invite the reader over that threshold. The Innocent is as unknowing as the reader, who learns about the world at the same time as the character. The Embedded is the opposite: someone who knows a great deal, and conveys much through action, behaviour, and details they take for granted. The Immigrant combines the two, learning about the new world but also trying to set down roots, like Cordelia Naismith in the Vorkosigan Saga. The Disinherited underdog will notice many details a privileged character wouldn’t.

The largest chunk in the middle was about defining interesting cultures, and all the different aspects to consider: homes, religion, transportation, ruins and relics of the past, technology and magic, rites of passage, privilege, law versus justice, and more. Far more than a checklist, it goes into why these details are important, and how they affect characters and plot.

At the moment I consider this the single most enlightening and useful book on worldbuilding I have ever read.

5/5 stars

Review: Steering the Craft (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin is a short and fascinating book on the craft of writing. It ranges from the basics of writing (punctuation, grammar, sentence length, adjectives and adverbs, verb tenses) to higher levels of craft such as point of view, author and character voice, narration, use of repetition. One section that surprised me was on how your writing sounds when read aloud; it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be important.

There are ten writing exercises, one per chapter (some with multiple parts) that give you practice in applying the lessons of that chapter. Some of them look quite challenging for me. I haven’t tried them yet, but plan to do so as breaks for my current Work In Progress.

5/5 stars.

Unifying Three Story Structures

I’ve been reading about writing for years, and am often puzzled by the differences in what different people tell you are essential, approaches to various aspects of writing. I am usually skeptical of “essentiallism” and “only one way” approaches; one of my teachers, Mary Robinette Kowal , once said in one of her Patreon classes that “all writing advice, even mine, is what worked for that writer.” So I focus on what seems useful to me in my current state as an aspiring writer.

At the moment, what I’m working on is character development for my protagonist and secondarycharacters. I’ve been mostly plot-driven in the past, and my characters have to a large extent been “cardboard” plot tokens. So I’ve been studyingsources on creating character arcs; this is a summary of what I’ve learned.

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First Acts, Chapters, Pages, and Lines

At this point in my growth as a writer I’m a plot-oriented“plantser,” combining some planning with some discovery writing. At the moment I’m working on improving my planningskills, preparing for arewrite of my 2018 NaNoWriMo science fiction mystery novelette, expandingit into a full novel. I’ve read advice that mysteries require more planning than some other genres. So I’m working on thoseskills, and this year I’m primarily working on developing more interesting characters. I’ve researched how to develop engaging characters , including developing character arcs based on the character’s negative core belief (“Lie” the character tells themselves). Based on advice that it can take time to build up reader interest in a character, I looked into how to write bridging conflicts to maintain reader interest while developingthe main plot. Now it’s time to start rewriting the first chapter, and I didn’t like my first attempt of a few weeks ago, so I did even more research. Here are the results.

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