Writing Life: Time Change

I have one particular writing nemesis, and that’s the time change.

Every year at around this time — when it’s getting dark at 7p and earlier — my writing suffers. I write in the evening, after coming home from work, but now, the encroaching darkness tricks my brain into thinking it’s bedtime. I can’t possibly write right now. Not enough time, not enough time…

I think I read somewhere that the cold and the dark are what triggered the idea for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to happen in November. Now that Halloween is over, what else are we writers going to do?

Yet as the nights have grown longer in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a downswing in my productivity. I cannot even imagine trying to drag 300 words out of my brain right now, let alone 1600+. Better to slowly get used to writing after sunset again, until sweet, sweet Daylight Savings Time rolls back around.


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Book Review: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, it also now must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit.

Artificial Condition Synopsis

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s website)

My Thoughts

I was terrible and picked up both Artificial Condition and its sequel Rogue Protocol from the library at the same time so no one could snag them before me. Muahahahaha!

What I Liked

Plot

Murderbot undergoes some serious character changes in Artificial Condition as it works to uncover its past and, in the end, make some decisions about its future. For once it works for humans it chooses, not ones chosen for it by its company, and though its responsibilities change as such, it still gives all its effort to protect them. Almost as if, given the opportunity, bots might be capable of decency when not controlled and governed by corporate overlords. All this while keeping its own identity as a dangerous rogue SecUnit a secret.

Plots, subplots, and revelations populate Artificial Condition, packing action and intrigue into just a handful of chapters that I wished would go on forever.

Characters

In Artificial Condition, our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, now it must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit. It also has to deal with the responsibility of when those choices go badly wrong for the humans it contracts to protect.

In All Systems Red, Wells casually introduced polygamy into this sci-fi future world. Artificial Condition zooms in on this aspect with the appearance of three young technologists who are married to each other and a few others still back at their base. To cap this off, one of them, Rami, identifies as a third gender, or a tercera (third, get it?), using pronouns like ‘te’ and ‘ter’ (because ’tis’ would just be confusing). I. love. it. This essentially non-binary character acts centrally to the plot in a leadership role for the other two, making choices that drive the story forward.

Theme

Embracing humanity. Sort of. Murderbot would much rather remain the SecUnit it was created to be, but to get the information it wants, it has to reluctantly keep building on its previous character development and manage to act human enough to fool other humans, even going so far as to dress like a human, shedding its comforting armor.

The narrative of Artificial Condition also shows a Research Transport Vessel whom Murderbot dubs ART displaying emotion, both for humans and for MurderBot as it prods its SecUnit passenger toward character growth. (‘ART,’ ‘Artificial Condition,‘ do you get it?) Even a handful of ComfortUnits show something like soul in their decision making, both in positive and negative choices.

All, however, retain their bot-ness, their otherness, their deep-seated difference from humans. I appreciate so much that the narrative arc for freed bots or otherwise doesn’t just focus on them becoming human. They are allowed to simply equip human behavior where applicable and necessary for individual evolution.

Ending

The conclusion of Artificial Condition kicks ass. After experiencing Murderbot’s fighting capabilities in All Systems Red, the reader knows things are about to go down (possibly in flames) as the plot hurtles toward the end.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.31 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer 26 – An Inviting Stairwell

Dug several levels into the earth, a double set of stairs twisted around and around each other in graceful spirals – spirals that put me in mind of the arms of a galaxy. Black wrought-iron railing echoed the emptiness of space. This and the marble flooring below suggested opulence and grandeur deep underground. Warm, inviting light illuminated the steps, which were somehow clean despite exposure to the open sky. From my position where raw dirt met carved step, I straightened, taking in the contrasting ruined city around me, reminded of things like illusions and trapdoor spiders.

Below, what I had mistaken for statuary centered between the staircases suddenly moved. A man swiveled his head to look up at me, his handsome face illuminated in the weak afternoon light. He grinned and his smile was all white teeth. Making an invitational gesture, he said, “Come on down here.”

With a shrug, I obliged. The handrail bit my bare palms with cold but warmed as I descended. The man kept his eyes on me, contorting his neck around when I passed behind him. Predatory, hungering. Obvious. At last, I came to a stop before him, hands in pockets, eyebrows raised as if to say, well?

A pause. Then the man lunged forward, fingers outstretched, mouth open wide, wide, wide. But he stopped short, arms windmilling when his feet did not follow. He was stuck to the floor.

“I know of you,” I said, as he collected himself. “The townspeople entrapped you here, so you could not lure their families into your lair.”

His face contorted into misery. “Please free me,” he whimpered.

I shook my head. “Ask the descendants of your victims; maybe they’ll let you out to kill again.” At his hopeful expression, I said, “Somehow, though, I doubt they will.”


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The Ghost in the Basement – A Halloween Special

Nobody believes you when you tell them there’s a ghost in the basement.

And why would they? The one time the surveillance camera caught me, I was only a quick flash of light crossing the view. “There! Right there!” you said, voice cracking with fear as you pointed me out on the footage playback. I know, because I was watching over your shoulder. Maybe it was my icy breath down the back of your neck that had you so convinced. But your co-workers just smiled, shook their heads, hand-waved. Rationalized. Laughed. Like I said, no one believed you.

So now you’re down here in my basement to prove a point.

I can guess why you crept down those creaky steps after business hours. You’d be embarrassed if one of your co-workers caught you down here, what with your obsessive behavior this week. Your boss already had a talk with you about your productivity drop and the IT department had to report you for excessive internet searches relating to “how to find a ghost.” But that research paid off, because now you’ve got a top-of-the-line (free) EMF sensor app on your phone, even though cell phones are crap at detecting electromagnetic frequencies.

The beam from the flashlight in your other hand shivers as you pass it over boxes full of junk from the ’90s. Don’t you know there’s a light switch right beside you? To my surprise, no one else comes downstairs behind you. What, like you don’t even have a friend to back you up? Wow. Irritated, I push over a stack of files. I swear you jump three feet as you swing your light around, illuminating the yellowing papers slithering across the concrete floor. But you don’t scream. That’s the impressive part. You don’t expect anyone to come help you.

You’re going to be so fun. I let a little giggle bubble from my mouth.

“Who’s there?” you whimper. I roll my eyes; you and I both know no one else is down here. Your voice echoes back at you from deep within the vast basement. “We’re closed.”

“Closing time!” I sing out, mimicking in my raspy voice that popular song retailers like to play to get customers out of the store. I don’t quite remember all the words. “Duh duh duhduduh duh but you can’t stay here!”

You whirl around, flashlight beam swinging crazily, until it lands on that creepy mannequin someone left down here ages ago. You freeze to the spot, your eyes growing huge and your mouth making an O shape when you see what I’ve written in red Sharpie on its bare, silicone chest.

GET OUT.

“We’re closed,” I whisper into your ear.

You swallow, gaze jumping to the EMF reader app. I’m right beside you, but it’s not detecting anything at all. Like I said, useless. I let the silence grow heavy. Just your flighty breaths, in and out. In, out.

Then, I scream. “WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT…!”

My chanting matches rhythm with the crash of your footsteps as you dash for the stairs. You’re making some kind of weird “aaahaaaahaaahaaa” noise as you go, but still no screaming. Of course you drop the flashlight and your phone. The bulb shatters on impact, plunging us into darkness, but the screen does not.

I let you go. This time.

After you’re gone, I retrieve your cell phone. You’ve got a pattern lock on it, but that doesn’t stop me. I take a selfie, flashing a peace sign and a smile full of sharp teeth. Then I replace your phone back on the floor, knowing you’ll come looking for it tomorrow.

But when you find my picture, all you’ll see will be a quick flash of light in the dark.


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Book Review: Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater

Sometimes you find a book that’s just about you, about the things you love and the longing in your heart and the fears that consume you at night, and Ballad is of all that for me.

Ballad Synopsis

In this mesmerizing sequel to Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception, music prodigy James Morgan and his best friend, Deirdre, join a private conservatory for musicians. James’ musical talent attracts Nuala, a soul-snatching faerie muse who fosters and feeds on the creative energies of exceptional humans until they die. Composing beautiful music together unexpectedly leads to mutual admiration and love. Haunted by fiery visions of death, James realizes that Deirdre and Nuala are being hunted by the Fey and plunges into a soul-scorching battle with the Queen of the Fey to save their lives.

(Via Goodreads)

About Maggie Stiefvater

I am Maggie Stiefvater. I write books. Some of them are funny, ha-ha, and some of them are funny, strange. Several of them are #1 NYT Bestsellers.

I play several musical instruments (most infamously, the bagpipes), I make art, and I sometimes write about cars for magazines like Road & Track and Jalopnik.

I live in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia with my husband, my two children, some cows, five dogs who fart recreationally, a horse of many colors, a criminally insane cat, an interminable number of miniature silky fainting goats, and one 1973 Camaro named Loki.

I like things that go.

(Via Maggie Stiefvater’s website)

My Thoughts

Every year in October, I reread Ballad. I even just saw a photo in my Facebook memories of when I was reading it this time three years ago. Sometimes you find a book that’s just about you, about the things you love and the longing in your heart and the fears that consume you at night, and Ballad is of all that for me.

What I Liked

Plot

The synopsis, in my opinion, does not quite do Ballad justice. As a sequel, one which could almost be read alone, so untethered does it become from the prequel, Ballad does not waste time on convincing characters or the reader of the reality of faeries. They exist, are deadly, and intermingle with the cast on the regular. Like wolves wandering around in sheep folds but not quite making meals with lamb chops because some of the sheep know what’s up.

While Lament focused on Deidre and her absorption into the world of Faerie, Ballad switches to the point of view of her best friend James, a piper with incredible talent and a smart mouth, very human and with no interest in the faeries who shattered him in the previous tale. His self-absorption with the pursuit of greatness draws Nuala into the mundane, awful, magical reality of being plain old human.

Also, for those of you who have read Maggie’s Stiefvater’s later (and unrelated) series The Raven CycleBallad carries the embryos for many of the characters and concepts explored by way of the raven gang.

Characters

Used to be, I really disliked this representation of Deidre, even though I’m always on board with her when I read Lament. Only in this reading did I catch the moment when James understands why she behaves so terribly throughout Ballad, in such a way that I understand, too. It doesn’t help that she’s clearly wrong for James and everyone but he can see it, and she’s still falling apart from the ending of Lament, which went not at all well for her.

Also, maybe I grew up a little more.

I identify with James so much. He’s a raw version of the artist, the musician, the creative of any stripe dying for more, yearning for meaning, desperate to untangle the inner mess. Nuala, in addition, represents all of us who want greatness but do not try for fear of pointlessness. These two kill me every time I read them.

Theme

Metaphor, baby. Ballad practically drips with ways to say one thing while meaning something else, or something similar, or the opposite. The characters all disguise their truths, other characters misjudge based on appearance, some of them even compare each other to characters in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, which also threads its way throughout the narrative.

Ending

The ending is an ending is an ending. While it hints at a possible third book, it neatly wraps up all the loose threads dangled before the reader. I always want it to continue, but I also close the book feeling satisfied with the completion.

What I Disliked

Nothing, really. After 5+ rereads of Ballad, it’s a little easier to pick out the minuscule flaws, but I love it so I can forgive them.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 3.79 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer 25 – Hungering Mountain

Perched upon a porous boulder at the toes of a fiery mountain, I regarded a distant but nearing lava flow. No flames breathed from the peak above, but smoke billowed moodily into the evening sky. The ground vibrated with constant rumbling and heat soaked my hair with sweat. This was no place for people, yet many had waited here before me, judging by an ash-dusted stack of stones nearby.

It was not until after nightfall that the approaching lava flowed close enough for a vapor spirit to step from the fiery goo. The smokey creature billowed forth, eyes and mouth mere burning pits. Behind it, the lava strip glittered like a golden ribbon.

“My master has accepted your request for audience.” The spirit’s voice hissed like escaping gas. “You may ascend.”

I nodded my thanks, holding my breath against its toxic vapors behind a cloth mask.

Upon the mountaintop, I found bubbling magma simmering within a massive crater. Extreme heat snatched at my eyebrows.

“What would you ask of me?” the mountain growled. “A bountiful crop? Love? I cannot grant those wishes.”

Keeping my distance from the rim’s edge, I held up a carved jade figurine – a stylized bear, all wide eyes and snarling maw. “An offering. For safe passage.” With a grunt, I hurled the figurine far into the center; it burned up before even touching the surface.

The entire mountain hummed. “Delicious,” it rumbled. “You will pass in safety.”

I glanced out at the huge lava field blocking my way forward. Before my eyes, distant glowing stripes of melted rock and pockets of fire blinked out as the magma cooled and solidified. When I passed by the stone pile below, I set another on top, for solidarity with those who’d told me the secret of what to offer.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 24 – Cat Curiosity

Upon a stone fence along a country road, a cat rested in the warm sunshine. It was doing that thing cats do where they stare into space at something invisible, perhaps at a lingering spirit, perhaps at a mere dust mote. This cat’s eyes moved back and forth, like the perpetual swinging of a clock’s pendulum. Curious and lulled with the heady scent of lavender and honeysuckle, I paused next to it. Squinting in the direction of its gaze, I expected to perhaps find that the passing of a distant train or something had its attention.

After a moment, the cat said to me, “What do you see?”

Excitement surged through me; at last I could ask a cat why cats did this. I said, “Nothing that I expected.” Certainly, no train or anything else of interest appeared in this direction. “What about you?”

“I see the passage of time,” the cat replied. “Streaming and streaming and streaming by.”

I blinked, at once uneasy. “And… how does time appear?”

“Like a road of stars leading into eternity. But the ones which have passed glow brighter than those still to come.” Now the cat looked at me. I saw its pupils had become ticking hour and minute hands, spinning around the clock faces of its eyes. “Your time is running out, Wanderer.”

The afternoon closed in, the musty scent of rot rising with the wind. I took a cautious step backward. Though my heart tapped against my collarbone at this brush with the future, I kept my voice calm. “Time runs out for all eventually.”

The cat returned its gaze to the horizon. “Small comfort, that. But if you must.”

I hurried on down the path, prickling with the sense that as the cat watched time, it also watched me.


I’m always tired, so please consider buying me a coffee to keep me awake while I write the next story. To read more free original short fiction, hit that follow button, subscribe through email, or throw a like on the Word Nerd Scribbles Facebook page.