News, LARP writing, Pomodoro

One of my writing group friends suggested I try writing in 30 minute sprints, with a little (also pre-measured) time off between sprints for breaks, other work, other projects. It’s a minimally different variation on the Pomodoro technique. I’m surprised I hadn’t learned this work method before.

I was hesitant to take their suggestion. I usually struggle to fall into the zone that I find so helpful for writing. Writing without being in the zone feels like pulling teeth, getting into the zone takes a while, and… round and round the problem goes. But I’ve been pretty desperate to get more writing done, so I tried it.

It’s fucking phenomenal. I don’t know why it’s working for me right now. And I’m not going to look a gift writing-hack in the mouth.

The other important piece of implementing this for myself has been stricter limits on what I can and can’t do before I start writing in the morning. Listening to music is good, physical movement is good, but reading anything is dangerous, and watching a video is right out (doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s news, documentary, someone’s Let’s Play, or what). I could probably find something that would be okay for me to watch (maybe a sped up painting process for a fantasy landscape), but that would require me to navigate past lots of other enticing videos which would drag my eyes in.

Safer not to risk it. More productive not to risk it.

This is a little awkward, since it means I can’t safely read news before writing. Not even the tech news I use to doublecheck my various sci-fi projects. I also have to avoid responding to any notifications on my phone, which pile up quickly. In fact, this makes it difficult to use my phone at all, even though it’s currently my alarm clock, morning music source, and timer for this approach.

But the upside to this improved morning mental hygiene is that when I set that 30 minute timer I make significantly more progress.

A little context.

I used to regularly produce 2k words a day, mostly without a struggle. Being in that rhythm felt a lot like any other fitness regimen: it hurt to get up to speed, and every so often one of those days would be a total drag. But when I was regularly writing 2k a day, it felt… familiar. Not necessarily comfortable, but certainly not onerous. And at the end of producing that 2k, I felt good. Energized.

Writing with this timer system, with better morning mental hygiene, feels like that. I’m reaching rates close to my 2k a day. It feels great. And when the timer goes off, I can do something else that’s been weighing on my mind before I go back to writing… because I’m free of the need to be writing. I’m not constantly should-ing myself, scolding myself for insufficient focus or insufficient productivity.

I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve found so far. This external practice frees up my internal judgements. When the timer is on I know it’s time to go. When the timer is off I know it’s okay that I’m not going. That state of being okay with not writing is incredible for my state of mind.

I’ve felt able to let go and make more new stuff that isn’t connected to anything else (yet). That isn’t helpful to my pre-existing projects, but it feels good, like I’m clearing out old pipes that had rusted nearly shut with arterial blockage. Setting aside time like this lets me turn off the voice that’s constantly worrying about what I should be doing right now, what I should be doing next, and just make stuff.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’m really appreciating this. I don’t know to what degree this is better brain weather, or better mental hygiene, or a useful way to guide my brain in the right direction. I don’t especially care. I’ll probably try tweaking the lengths of work sprints and breaks, but I’m definitely keeping this.

It’s even helped me feel so much less stuck that I’ve felt free to help friends with material for their LARP. I’m putting together group backgrounds based on a few objectives and a thin thread of preexisting setting, and its rewarding to quickly share those with an appreciative audience. Helps to remind me that I’m competent at this, pulling voice and larger worlds together from a few scraps.

Contracts, Art, and making World Seeds

My World Seed creation process has slowed down. The hard part isn’t the words, though.

The hard part is finding artists. Locations keep coming to me, but without art I’m reluctant to publish the Seeds. I know I have good written content, but the art really helps. It convinces me that I’m offering something more than my own words (the value of which I’m far too ready to dismiss).

Sorry, I was wrong about the hard part. The hard part is having a contract I’m willing to use with artists. I’m sure I can find artists via several different channels, if I reached out through those. I have a short list of places to put calls for art, after all. But I don’t want to reach out without a written contract.

I might be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, from the horror stories I’ve heard I’m also confident that having a bad contract can and will come back to bite me.

My first two World Seeds have art made by people with whom I have some kind of personal relationship; either I know the artist myself, or they’re within my immediate circle. There’s some basis for mutual trust. There’s some history of collaboration with myself or with someone else I know.

Without that, I don’t want to move forward on a wing and a prayer. Is that a mistake? Maybe. It certainly feels like one. It feels like I’m sitting on my hands and doing nothing, even though I keep adding to my collection of location descriptions to use in the future. I’ve posted forty nine of those so far to Patreon, and have thirty one more finished first drafts waiting in the wings (eighty in total). I average a little over a new one every week, more or less.

I have a few leads on contracts and contract advice, and expect to receive those reference materials in the near future… but there isn’t a clear timeline for that beyond “soon.”

Maybe, then, the right choice is to put together art-free versions and sell them for less. At least if I do that I’ll be moving finished products out the door, things that will require a minimum of additional work to fill with art once I have a contract ready. Doing that would allow me to publish an art-free Seed within a couple weeks, and another one within a couple months.

That isn’t what I’d dreamed of for this project—I’d thought about selling art-free Seeds while first developing this project, but incorporating visual art was always the goal. Sadly, that’s not where I am right now. If I want to make visible progress, it’s time to change course and ship something while I wait for the contracts and visual art to catch up.

Expect to see those art-free versions come out soon. In the meantime, if you want to see the currently available World Seeds, check out my stuff on DriveThruRPG.com.

Genre fiction, Mercantilism, Geology

This series of thoughts arose as I started composing a review for Even Though I Knew The End, a book by C.L. Polk coming out this November. I’m really enjoying it so far, I might talk about it more here. The review will be on GeeklyInc.

These thoughts have almost nothing to do with that book.

The genre fiction conversations I grew up hearing, and the ones I’ve usually seen bandied about in pop culture, approach genre fiction the way mercantilists approach markets. By this logic, genre fiction is a zero-sum game of capitalistic bloodsport. Any pieces of art inside the same niche must beat each other to pulp as they fight for limited market share and cultural value, to the exclusion of any other piece of art. This is a perversely Highlander-ish perspective in a world built from layers upon historical layers of art, influence, and nuance.

From an artistic perspective, from the perspective of someone who loves genre fiction, this zero-sum game is a lie. Every new piece of genre fiction isn’t slipping in others’ blood as it bludgeons the opposition in a mercantilist cage match. Instead, it’s adding another layer to the geological strata of our culture and our art.

Art builds on art builds on art, in a continuous dialectic. Genre fiction responds to the pressures and inspirations of culture and life, and it grows out of the art (and other influences) which feeds its artist. Genre fiction isn’t inherently locked in a murderous struggle with itself, because every new piece broadens our experience and our palette—and various pieces may coexist despite their dissonance.

Two (maybe obvious) caveats:

The artists, their ideological perspectives, and the ideologies espoused in their art may all be in conflict with each other. Some points of view aren’t hospitable to the existence of others. I’m just saying that their art isn’t inherently in conflict outside of its ideological disagreements.

And I’m not trying to belittle the marketing departments who struggle to win that aforementioned market share for their companies’ projects. They’re working within the constraints of their system, the constraints of our current publishing industry, and I’m not offering alternatives to that system here. Beyond that, as long as we’re in a capitalist system there is pressure to fight for the audience’s time and attention—artists need to be paid for their art, so they can support themselves. I’m simply saying that the art exists outside the market free-for-all as well.

Back to my geological metaphor for the dialectic…

I like the image of geological strata of culture because it gives me concrete imagery with which to talk about synchronic and diachronic perspectives. In this the synchronic is a snapshot in time across a broad area, a landscape painting or topographical map, while the diachronic is a deeper dive tracing one particular vein of (l)ore as it changes over time, an excavation of one location tracing its history back through time layer by layer. The synchronic speaks to a broad simultaneous state of the cultural experience, giving precedence to the most recent and the most impactful influences at the specified time. But the diachronic reveals how a genre emerges from its precursors, how it differentiates itself and grows, and how it diverges from and interweaves with other pieces of the creative cultural landscape.

I also like this image because it gives the lie to the idea of genre canon. There is no past piece of genre fiction which is mandatory reading, only pieces which give diachronic context for current art. It may be useful to know about the presence of those old stories, ossified to the point of cultural bedrock, but they should be read in context as the product of their own cultural landscape rather than as essential cultural truths.

With that in mind, I find it easier to listen carefully when someone says “you must read this.” Do they mean “I require that you read this before I consider you part of my group”? Or do they mean “this will give you important context for these other pieces of culture”? If it’s the first they’re probably being an asshole. If it’s the second, maybe they’re offering a route into the diachronic cultural depths.

And because of all this, I love asking people about what else they’re reading (or watching) that is similar to other books they’ve mentioned, and what else they’ve enjoyed in general. No one person is broadly read enough to give a full synchronic view, and so each individual snapshot gives me a better understanding of the genre landscape overall. Trying to make my own map from all the different pieces is like a game for me, and sometimes I’m fortunate enough to learn of stories taking their genres in totally new directions.

Speaking of which…

Even Though I Knew The End is so beautifully aligned with noir (so far, I’m not done reading it yet) that it doesn’t feel like it changes anything about its genre. Except… so much noir is almost comedically devoted to male protagonists and period-piece toxic masculinity, and this story—despite all its love of the trappings and conventions of noir—isn’t that. It feels reminiscent of Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw in that way. I love it. Something about how it approaches noir genre fiction from a queer woman’s perspective feels revolutionary, a little like how the first season of Jessica Jones felt years ago (though less gut-wrenching so far). It is a beautiful diachronic gift, so like and yet so unlike its own genre. I haven’t finished it yet, but I expect I’ll recommend it as soon as I do.

Stranger Things s4 and breathing room

I enjoyed Stranger Things season 4.

But the last episode felt rough for me. Maybe that’s because it was almost two and a half hours, or maybe that’s because it was interrupted more than once.

I paused the last episode a couple times due to normal life, including once right at the height of the climax when the show had already been drawing out the tension for as long as possible. Turns out that last pause was the hardest on me.

I’ll come back to that.

Stranger Things has previously been pretty good about modulating its narrative and dramatic tension. The show has woven pauses into the bigger action sequences, with each interlude giving the audience time to breathe and notice how tense they are, and giving characters time to express how previous consequences are still effecting them—it’s the moment for characters to reel from the last blow, collect themselves, and push themselves unsteadily to their feet. It’s also the moment when the audience can be reminded what’s at stake in the narrative, why the tension matters. There’s a basic rhythm to these moments. If you are paying attention you can usually guess where and when the pauses will happen, even without paying attention to the background music (though that does help).

A quick aside:

These breathers are an elementary fight-scene choreography technique. In a fight scene they’re vital to giving your performers a chance to rest, check in with each other between bouts of action, and sell the drama of the fight. Almost exactly the same is true of these pauses in any other high tension segment of narrative. While these pauses are less mandatory in written work (written characters aren’t facing physical limitations after all), written action sequences still benefit from them. First, that’s because pauses are believable, and they help build the audience’s sense of a written character as a relatable, exhaustible being. Second, each pause is a chance to reorient your reader to the larger scene, to pull back slightly from the rush of the moment and take stock of the situation (whether that’s an internal emotional experience or an external assessment). Third, pauses allow the audience to unwind a little bit—they don’t release narrative tension so much as let it settle into a more stable state while you ready yourself for the next bit, a resolution-in-miniature.

Many big exciting movies these days forget these pauses, or use them on what feels like the wrong rhythm. This is wild speculation, but… maybe that’s because so much is done with CGI now? Animated figures don’t need time to check where they are in the choreography, they don’t need to take a moment to breathe, they don’t feel how the last four big stunts (done over who knows how many takes) are wearing them down.

But those pauses aren’t actually for the actors. You could easily edit a film to remove all the downtime. I just think the film would be worse for it. That’s because the pauses are there for the narrative and the audience. Missing those breathers also gives the audience no time to breathe. There’s no moment to let recent consequences sink in, there’s no time to see the ways in which the characters are reeling, there’s no time to process the emotional weight of whatever just happened.

The only thing worse, to my mind, than having no downtime is having pauses where characters feel none of the consequences of what just happened to them. Telling stories is about spinning lies so consistently that they all ring true. Ignoring the last lie you told introduces discord and undermines the whole thing (which happened for me in the last episode, when *SPOILERS* Nancy, Robin, & Steve don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from their several scenes of almost-dying *END SPOILERS*).

So, back to my poorly timed pause.

The last episode of season four is a heck of a ride. It’s long, it’s full of action, there’s a ton of build up and payoff. And for better or worse they draw the tension out, and keep ramping everything up, for a long time.

That progressive heightening of tension might have been tolerable if I hadn’t paused right at the peak. But I did. I paused for a little over half an hour to eat dinner, and I did it before the episode gave me any resolution in its dramatic climax.

That pause—without a breather’s usual resolution-in-miniature—gave me time to reflect, when I think I was supposed to just finish the narrative ride. In that pause, I could recognize how much the show had wrung out of its escalating tension, how it had pushed past its previous limits, and how it had pushed me to my limits. I just felt worn out, a side effect of how successfully the show had pulled me in and connected me to these characters and their story.

On further reflection, I think I noticed this so acutely because Stranger Things has previously done a good job of including breathers and not pushing its escalation too far. Or maybe I’m full of it and would have felt just as wrung out in previous seasons if I’d paused at just the wrong time. Either way, I really hope that season five takes a slightly more balanced approach.

It looks like they’re setting themselves up for a big finale, and if they try to maintain peak intensity for as long as they did with the last episode of season four I’ll be too worn out to enjoy it as much as it deserves. Furthermore, if they don’t build in those pauses they’ll fall into the same trap some MCU movies do: lots of big flashy scenes and moments of great import, without the variation in action and tension, or the foundation in narrative consequences, that lend meaning and emotional weight to those big scenes. I think they’ve set a big task for themselves; they’ve got four seasons of previous drama to (mostly) resolve, and bigger stakes than before.

My hope is that season five will take the time it needs, and the slow scenes it needs, to build its drama. I’m down for some big flashy stuff, yes, but it was the small-scale moments of emotional poignancy that grabbed me in the first few seasons: the emotional stakes, the fear and uncertainty, the mystery. That’s way more exciting to me than a big set piece of blockbuster spectacle. I don’t know how they can best deliver those things given what they’ve established so far, but I really hope they do.

Removing old stories, discovering old habits

I have finally taken down an old post, a story that I am now submitting elsewhere in a far more polished and developed fashion. What I originally posted here as rough draft flash fiction under 2k words is now a story over 5k words long that has been through multiple rounds of edits and rewrites.

I’m not sure to what degree my old stories here are impossible to sell elsewhere. It probably varies by how strictly other publishers interpret the “first publishing rights” required of nearly all publications. But perhaps via extensive additions and rewrites, and pulling the original rough draft down, I can make some of my flash fic more salable.

This process is a bit dispiriting, in some ways. I found posting flash fic here quite satisfying, and I wrote a lot of it. The whole experience gave me good practice sharing things with the rest of the world (a frightening prospect, usually), and the structure and rhythm of it meant that I managed pretty regular output. Knowing that some people would enjoy seeing the story, even when it was only a few folks, was a nice incentive.

My hope is that I can instead (finally) reach the same feeling of regularity in submitting finished stories to paying outlets. But I’ve been hoping that for years, and it’s been quite difficult for me to achieve. My perfectionism doesn’t help, nor does the frequent rejection, nor does the difficulty of sharing the piece with excited friends beyond whoever helps me with critique and revisions. At least when I post on the blog I can send people an simple link.

And with all those issues, there’s also the simple fact that I can’t submit (or can’t bring myself to submit) the same one-and-a-half-drafts quality work to publishers that I would regularly post here. Even if I could bring myself to do that, I suspect it would scupper my chances of being published. This means that—where I had previously beaten out my perfectionism by allowing myself to be wrong on the internet—I now *do* turn more of my critical focus on my work before sharing it with the rest of the world. That critical focus is a huge stumbling block when it comes to producing anything.

In some ways, I taught myself to produce work consistently by convincing myself that the final quality of the piece didn’t actually matter. Ceasing to post rough passes of material here makes that belief feel more and more like the lie that it is. The final quality does matter, when I change the context in which it’s being submitted. All of that means I have to relearn how to make myself produce regularly. Funny, I hadn’t recognized the extent to which that’s true until now.

Narrative Responsibility

This could be a very long post. Instead it’s a short rant, because I’m short on time and haven’t given enough space to myself to write this one in detail. But if you’re going to write stories for other people you are responsible for shaping their worlds. I wish people paid more attention to that, and thought more deeply about the implications of their actions.

This is less vital when you’re writing fiction, and when you’re explicit about how what you write should be considered as opinion or not-fact. Your responsibility is not obviated by those things, you’re still accountable for what you make and how it shapes our world, but it’s not as critical. When you report on facts, however, you’re literally shaping how others understand the world.

Yeah, I’m talking about news media.

If you balance side-vs-side when one side is pro-authoritarianism and the other is not, that is an excellent way to shift norms towards authoritarianism. That’s on you. You did that. You could have instead reported on how that side is embracing authoritarianism and a cult of personality, but you didn’t. False equivalency is easy and comfortable and it soothes marketing groups’ fears of losing consumer demographics. And it makes money.

If you insist on every battle in a war being the deciding moment of that war, instead of looking at the larger strategic picture, you risk telling people that the war is lost (or won) when it is instead simply continuing. War may be exciting at times, but mostly it’s cruel, and grueling, and boring. It’s not about flashy weapons or single individuals. It’s about logistics, and money, and numbers.

It’s about systemic and structural advantages and shifts. Both war and politics. And reporting, for that matter. And while those things may be boring, and may not have the It-factor that gets people excited and pulls in views, it is wildly irresponsible to pretend that you can replace that analysis with snazzy and dramatic narratives about the next silver bullet or a final throw of the dice.

I don’t have an easy solution to this. I’m simply frustrated that so many people, and especially media outlets, willfully ignore these truths.

Teen Killers Club, by Lily Sparks

Sometimes books read like TV shows. This is one of those times. Hardly surprising, given that the author has a background writing for TV dramas. She does a good job of it here, too.

Lily SparksTeen Killers Club handled me roughly. I loved it. Riding its ups and downs, I felt emotionally whipsawed and had to set it aside a few times to take breathers and regain equilibrium (something our poor narrator never has a chance to do). By the time I finished, I felt like I’d just gotten off a roller coaster. I wandered around in a daze for an hour or so, still locked in admiration for the ways the story had pulled me back and forth time and again. Because for all that I’d been on a ride, it was an impressive ride. Sparks knew how to grab my heartstrings, and she did it fearlessly. The book had caught me and reeled me in, and pulled me along for the whole thing.

Well, not quite the whole thing: at the start I was partly distracted by needing to finish another book. But it was easy to slip back into it after finishing the other book. Then, of course, it was hard to put it down.

And yes, I’m on board for reading the sequel (which I suspected would exist, but wasn’t certain about until writing this). I’m a little concerned about it, for reasons that are lightly spoiler-y and which I’ll share in more detail below. Blandly put, I’m not sure which genre tropes the story-to-come will follow. There are a variety of options available, after all. But the story’s overall tone could go in several directions, and I won’t know how well it will fit my palate until I read the dang thing—which I will definitely do.

All of which is to say, if you like YA teen drama and serial killers and murder mysteries, this is a great book for you. Be ready for a heck of an emotional ride.

Now.

I can’t go into detail about this without implied spoilers for the book. But this series of observations are eating my brain, so here goes.

*IMPLICIT SPOILERS*

This varies by subgenre, but dramas don’t like to kill characters or let them stay dead. This is especially true of TV dramas, which often suffer from what I’ll call a dramatic conservation of characters.

I say suffer, but in moderation this conservation is a positive thing. Because dramas build up value in their characters, investing them with growth, backgrounds, and relationships that make them richer and more interesting, these dramas are loathe to sacrifice their developed main characters or let them die—even when that death would make sense. This dramatic conservation of characters feeds into the “main character glow” or “plot protection” that shields developed characters from death. But this conservation also provides the audience with reliable narrative focal points, and both encourages and rewards the audience’s emotional investment.

Some stories are more prone to this than others, but I think it’s especially prevalent in character dramas that specialize in arranging (and rearranging) their characters along various social faults of contention. Characters twist or are twisted into new disagreements, the situation is milked for all the drama it can hold, and then some new development arises that prompts another realignment. The longer a story runs, the more realignments happen, and the more strange situations people end up in as the writers try to deliver new and exciting stakes. This is the process that leads to jumping the shark. It’s also the process that results in somebody being caught in a terrible accident or dangerous what-have-you and then miraculously surviving (possibly with some character-altering development, like amnesia).

Usually, dramatic conservation of characters is maintained. Usually the characters don’t actually die, or if they do they aren’t actually gone for all that long. That’s part of the reason that so few character deaths are treated seriously in these stories… or at least, why so few are treated seriously amongst these stories’ audiences. The genre-savvy know from past experience that characters don’t usually die or stay dead.

This, sadly, only makes it harder to actually up the stakes in these genres.

It doesn’t help that these stories sometimes try to up the stakes by killing off people the audience has little attachment to. Instead of demonstrating that the situation is dangerous, this only reinforces the relative safety of the main characters. Scalzi’s Redshirts is all about this trope as it exists in Star Trek. Other stories try to demonstrate how dangerous and gritty they are by killing off characters seemingly at random—sometimes this works, and sometimes it just feels like the author is trying to be edgy.

I think character death in these stories usually works best when it’s given space and weight, or at least makes an impact on other characters (I’ve written a bunch of posts about this). There are a handful of exceptions.

But the thing that’s eating at me, the thing I’m concerned is going to happen in the sequel, is that Sparks won’t let characters die when they really ought to… or will kill more characters just to show that she can. She’s set herself up for a tricky path going forward, and I suspect *EXPLICIT SPOILERS* based on the end of the book that she won’t let characters stay dead when that would actually fit her story well. But I don’t know! Maybe she’s just lulling me into a false sense of security. As I said above, I’ve got to read the sequel to find out. *END SPOILERS*

Still on board for YA drama about teen serial killers, with some murder mystery on the side?

Get thee to the library (or bookstore).

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang

The author’s name has changed since initial publication, hence the different name on some hard copies and publicity images

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang, left me feeling a little narratively unmoored.

I suspect that the biggest cause for that was my own fault: I put the book down about halfway through, and then took over a month to return to it and finish it. But that means that I’m writing this from an odd place. I’m not sure how much my perspective has been shaped by that prolonged delay, and I can only recommend that you take my review with a grain of salt or three. The book certainly seems to have worked better for other people than it did for me.

Part of my sense of being narratively adrift grew from the way in which the book is divided into sections, with each section separated from the last by a big temporal gap. Each section felt like an extended short story about that time period in our POV character’s life. But chaining those extended short stories together into one novel didn’t feel like it created the narrative cohesion I wanted.

In some ways, this is the opposite of the cool technique that Martha Wells used for her first four Murderbot novellas. Where Wells wrote a series of four stories that each gave a snapshot of emotional development and then kept them in separate novellas to let them stand on their own and build on each other, Yang has written those separate stories and put them all in one book. It didn’t work as well for me.

Writing is all about adding just enough to let your audience fill in the rest, without adding so much that they get tired of it. I think Yang went just a little too light for me. I could sketch out the narrative arc and tell you what the points of growth and resolution were, but it didn’t feel like there was quite as much connective tissue between the narrative dots as I would have liked.

Maybe, if I’d expected the book to consist of those discrete mini-stories beforehand, I’d have a different opinion of it now. Maybe, if I hadn’t put the book down halfway through, I’d feel like Yang cut out just the right amount of material. Instead, none of the smaller segments individually brought me the kind of narrative movement or growth that I wanted. And the individual segments didn’t quite gel together to make the larger whole feel quite right either.

But…

Maybe I’m still looking at this the wrong way. There are several other books out by Yang, all in the same series, at least one of which looks like it’s supposed to be semi-contemporaneous with or closely following this book. Perhaps those, in connection with this one, would give me the more complete perspective and narrative arc that I’m looking for. I’ll probably pick those up and read them just to find out. Maybe not right away.

Having said all that, I should add that The Black Tides of Heaven has solid child-parent struggles, a setting that feels refreshingly distinct from standard Western fantasy, and lots of good queer content. And it’s well-written! I feel bad complaining so much above when the fault may be my own. Whoops.

So, if any of those things sound interesting to you I suggest checking the book out. And I recommend reading it all in one go, or at least not stopping for over a month right in the middle. That was definitely a mistake on my part.

Exit Strategy, and more Murderbot from Martha Wells

Martha Wells does an excellent job of wrapping up her arc in Exit Strategy (Murderbot #4).

Her habit through the first four novellas of layering in emotional struggles alongside but separate from the underlying physical plot—separating the drivers of the physical and emotional plots in ways that are contrary to most current practice—works really well here. That separation allows her to write Murderbot as a proactive character, reaching for goals that it chooses for itself, without requiring Murderbot to be complicit in pushing its own emotional development. That’s important, because Wells has created a character with zero desire to engage in personal emotional content (despite its love of human media), which means that Murderbot starts the series uncooperative in pursuing any emotionally charged plot.

It’s a neat combination of a driven and reluctant protagonist, in one package.

Murderbot’s reluctance to engage in emotionally charged plot only makes the conflicts Wells builds towards in Exit Strategy even more satisfying. And because of all that, because of the character transformation that Wells laid out over the course of the first four Murderbot novellas, I cried as I neared the end of book four. It was that good.

Having now read the rest of the (currently available) series, I think Wells’ use of a multiple-novella arc was ingenious. I think those first four novellas together may even be stronger than the novel-length Murderbot story. This isn’t due to a lack on the novel’s part—rather, I think it’s an outgrowth of how the novellas serve Murderbot’s growth uniquely well.

Some thoughts on this…

Any time that a character needs to experience emotional growth and change, it helps to have your story cover a long enough time period for that change to feel real. It’s also useful to have there be multiple mutually reinforcing circumstances that coincide, over time, to produce the gradual shift. Both of those things are easier to do over the course of multiple novellas, where literary convention allows the story to wander across more spaces, times, and situations without the requirement of tying all the developments into a single cohesive unit of story. An obvious parallel: it’s the same freedom of expanded narrative space that allows a six hour miniseries to offer more character growth than a three hour movie. Spreading that character transformation out, especially when it’s a big and complicated one, gives the character’s growth space to breathe, expand, and feel less forced.

The usual alternative—the approach most similar to a movie’s, and the one favored by action and adventure stories since the 1800s at least—is to have the story produce a high-tension crucible of a climax, where all the preceding character development comes to the fore and shakes out like an earthquake of personal growth. That single big conflict has to encompass, even prove, all of the character’s transformation in the story. That means that if there are multiple points of change, they all need to be set up ahead of time. The groundwork is often elaborate, and a large degree of genre-savviness is simply learning to recognize those story preparations.

Storytelling is all artificial; it’s artifice working as hard as it can to look natural and real. And it’s harder to make something look real when you’re forcing it to go as fast as possible, with nary a moment to breathe. Giving a big character transformation more space therefore helps to smooth everything out and make a tumultuous period of transformation look right.

That’s what Martha Wells does with her first four novellas.

I think her novel length piece, Network Effect, is still good. I enjoyed it a lot, and happily recommend it to anyone who likes the Murderbot series. But it doesn’t do all the same work that the first four novellas do. In some ways, the important emotional journeys of Network Effect belong to people besides Murderbot… and they aren’t as resonant or rewarding for me as the arc Murderbot completed in Exit Strategy.

They’re still good though.

But now I’ve run out of new Murderbot to read, and I’m at a bit of a loss. My next few library books aren’t ready yet. And once I have them I don’t expect them to be as good, or as good in the same ways, as Murderbot.

I’m really looking forward to whatever Martha Wells writes next. I hope it’s more Murderbot, but I’m excited for whatever it is.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot.

I’m late to the game, I know. But if there’s any upside, it’s that there are already a bunch of Murderbot stories for me to read. I don’t have to wait for them to be written and published.

The downside, of course, is that I’m reading them through the library and other people are being slow and I just want more Murderbot now please and thank you. This enforced wait is especially jarring given that I got my hands on the first two on the same day, blazed through them both, and now have to wait for the rest of the series to be free (in order, no less).

Why do I love Murderbot? Probably for many of the same reasons that other people do. Martha Wells has done an excellent job forging a voice for this character, dry, wry, and full of sardonic wit. And Murderbot is not an especially reliable narrator, even if it may think of itself as one; while it does generally admit to its emotional experience eventually, it spends a good deal of effort trying not to. Plus, while it so clearly wants to think of itself as not-a-person, Murderbot’s internal monologue is extremely easy to sympathize with—which makes it feel even more person-like, even while it protests that it is not a person.

The inversion of expectation is another part of what I love so much about Murderbot. Who’d think a security cyborg would want to spend all its time watching soap operas, listening to music, or binging its way through trashy fiction? The fact that Murderbot simply wants to be left alone, not be looked at or spoken to, not be asked to do anything, and simply be allowed to indulge itself in stories… it’s delightful. It’s relatable. To my reading, Murderbot is anxious and depressed and just wants some peace and quiet. But it’s (of course) Murderbot’s inability to get the peace and quiet it desires that makes this all work so well.

I have mixed feelings about reluctant protagonists, mostly because of how our collective love of them in media shapes the way many people make their characters for RPGs. Players’ desire to make their characters match that popular reluctant archetype often plays out to their and their play group’s disservice, in my experience. But when a narrative is so wonderfully fit around that reluctance (much easier to manage in a linear narrative, of course)… well. It’s hard to match that narrative tension, and the struggles of someone with so relatable a set of goals and desires, faced with extraordinary circumstances, only make it better.

This character is very good. The story is very good. Martha Wells has done wonderful things here.

I owe my mom for this next observation, given that she made it while I was telling her about the book.

In some ways, Murderbot is reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull (one of my favorite childhood characters and books). 

Murderbot is seen by everyone else as an object, and an object of fear, violence, and suspicion at that. But much like Ferdinand, it only wants to spend its time quietly, peacefully, not bothering anyone and not being bothered.

Unlike Ferdinand, Murderbot struggles to see itself as anything but an object—finds its own object-hood safer, maybe more comfortable, than thinking of itself as a person—and works to avoid any confrontation that might jostle the status quo. Better to remain in the limbo that you know, be it ever so depressing, confining, and uncomfortable, than to risk seeking something better. Though in Murderbot’s case the risk involved is quite literally obliteration, so maybe the caution is warranted.

Extremely vague *SPOILERS* follow.

I’m also fascinated by the shift from the first story to the second. Where the first felt like a more whole story, something that contained a more complete and satisfying emotional & character arc, the second story felt like an installment, another step along a longer path. The second also had elements that left me thinking of the differences between what a character *thinks* will be important—as well as what the longer term plot demands as another step along their path—and what is actually most transformative for them.

The Witness for the Dead might be a good example for disambiguating this: there are a lot of mostly-unrelated side plots, and only one or two of them tie back into the central intrigue of the story. Katherine Addison could have cut those side plots, or rewritten and collapsed them into the central plot somehow, but the first option would have left the story feeling sparse and the main character’s emotional journey unsupported… while the second would have felt too contrived, unreal. We put up with the second (those contrived, perfectly neat stories) in our fiction all the time, because we’ve been trained as readers to expect the elements of a story to all tie in together in the end, but that’s rarely very true as a depiction of real life—and allowing for divergence in those plot lines is both freeing and lets the author give more space to the rest of the world beyond the immediate plot of the story.

So in The Witness for the Dead our narrator pursues a series of different investigations and jobs, only some of which tie into his primary task. And while he’s trying to resolve one central investigation, it’s his struggles with the other ones—which have little bearing on the first—that inform his emotional growth and development. His initial concern is less important to his personal realizations.

All Systems Red meshes these struggles. All the plot conflicts, Murderbot’s personal emotional conflict and its external physical plot conflict, are wound together into one thread. There’s no real divergence, the whole thing is extremely neat.

But Artificial Condition makes space for divergence by containing parallel plot lines that feed into each other while remaining separate. Murderbot’s biggest emotional and personal growth comes from the plot line, the conflict, that it is less initially invested in. Thus Murderbot thinks that one course of action, one set of objectives, is the important one… only to find out that the other holds at least as much importance to it, that the way it is treated by humans matters far more to it than it had ever realized or accounted for before. This means that Artificial Condition changes the way the story had approached its combination of character development and physical plot in All Systems Red, and that’s at the core of why this sequel feels notably distinct from the first story.

*END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I’m loving the Murderbot Diaries. I recommend them completely. They’re very good.