14 March 2005 by Published in: entertainment 2 comments

I’ve been turning over in my mind something from one of Merrie Haskell‘s recent entries on writing, and it is this : “1) Internet (after work) shall not exceed reading. Reading shall exceed internet, in fact, by a 4:1 ratio.” I spend too much time on the internet. The internet is my TV. I have no TV to cut out in order to gain more writing time, because I don’t watch any. Oh, but I spend plenty of time on the internet. So that’s what’s getting fleeced next. I’m not a big ratio person, but I think I can roll with an hour of reading buying me 15 minutes of internet. I think I need an egg timer, though. Oh and btw, blogging? That counts as internet. Reading blogs and writing in blogs both count. Maybe that, if nothing else, will finally work to make my postings more concise. I’d actually be happy enough with a 2:1 ratio, but why not set my goals higher? This means that despite all the new blogs I’ve found that I want to read, I’m not going to add anything to my regular list right now. I’m also going to be ruthless about giving people the hatchet or not fully reading their posts if they meander too much. I hope you’ll do the same for me. Neil Gaiman, of course, gets a pass no matter how far afield he wanders in his ruminations. (But you already knew that, didn’t you?)

So because I have a contrary nature, I have to immediately think of ways to defeat any rules I come up with (or borrow) to improve myself. Call it my inner hacker. In some situations, this urge might be a good quality. Like in… or when… or… confound it. Good quality or not, it’s my leopard’s spots, and it’s not changing anytime soon. And so I’ve been poking at the rule, thinking about what can be exceptions. One of the things I’ve decided to make not count against my internet time, is reading actual stories. So if I join a critique group and start reading for credits, for example, that won’t count against my 4:1 ratio (and it might even count for it, hah!). Also, reading fiction from online magazines like Strange Horizons is still reading (and also research into markets!), so it doesn’t count either.

I hadn’t realized that I’d read that many online stories until I started trying to find one in particular for this review and was stumbling through my history. Was that it? No. How about that one? No. And that one? No. So now I’ve got a good handful of stories to review, where I was really only thinking about doing one or two. Where to start?

The toss-away, I guess. “Alien Animal Encounters” by John Scalzi was amusing, quick to read, and enjoyable but of no particular depth. I imagine he tossed this one together pretty quickly. If you want a quick ten minute break story, this will probably be your ticket. It will demand nothing of you and give you chuckles in return. It will be over in just the right number of words and leave you smiling. Like a clever commercial, or a funny piece out of an earlier incarnation of The Onion. Still, I do tend to like a tad more meat on my stories, as a general rule, which is what makes this one the toss-away.

Next I’m going to talk about Elizabeth Bear. She has a new book out called Hammered that various and sundry internet people keep saying good things about, but that for some reason I’ve not been particularly excited about and hadn’t felt any urge to buy. Still, I kept hearing her name all over the place, so when I found some of her stories online, I read them. I’d be exaggerating if I said my reaction was wow, totally blown away, that was incredible. Yet without going that far, I will assert that she’s truly a gifted writer. I read five stories in all:

I listed those in the order I read them. There was about a month between my reading of the first and second stories, and about three days passed in my reading of the next four. Once I’d read “One-Eyed Jack” I was hungry enough for more to try and hunt down anything she’d written online. I do now have a keen interest in reading Hammered (but alas, no cash to indulge on new books).

“One Eyed Jack” is hands down the best of those stories, and the one I would recommend vociferously and without caveat to anyone out there looking for a great read and a taste of Bear. I relished the premise. I loved what was funny and what was serious and how these were juxtaposed. There’s some archetypes that are so played out you think they can’t be used in new ways, and then someone like Bear picks them up and breathes new life in them and makes them all sparkly again. I liked the pacing, the opening line, the characterizations. In short, I liked everything about the piece and can’t really think of a single ding against it. Go read it now, and enjoy. Tell them I sent you.

Second prize would have to go, in my opinion, to “This Tragic Glass”. Bear succeeded in making this tale riveting even though it was filled with elements that I would have thought so cheesy had someone told me about them instead of my having read them. Everything just worked perfectly within the story. It was a happy little clockwork of cohesion and coherence. I love it when every aspect of a story, no matter how disparate, just serves to pull it more decisively together. This story was so polished. Bear has an undeniable gift for language. I could have used just a smidgen less bludgeoning on how touch averse one of the primary characters was, but other than that it was a wondrous, magical tale. She also very deftly managed a largeish ensemble (for a short story) of characters here. I knew who everyone was: they were all necessary to the plot, and quite easily distinguishable.

We go a little downhill from here but I want to make clear that downhill for Bear is more like a small slope. “Two Dreams on Trains” and “Follow Me Light” are both fine stories that would be well worth the time it takes to read them, they just didn’t have quite the luster of the other two. “Botticelli” is fanfic and I found it fine and even clever in parts but not as meaningful as some of the other stuff. In particular the worlds in all the stories (except “Botticelli” which obviously takes place in a pre-established world) are expertly crafted. Even when the characters are not as convincingly drawn as I might like, the worlds are. I guess that both “Two Dreams on Trains” and “Follow Me Light” left me a bit unsatisfied because at the end of them I still had questions about the world. There were things I wanted to know that I couldn’t let go of just because she’d stopped, if you know what I mean. And even though I’d gladly have read more of the worlds in “One Eyed Jack” and “This Tragic Glass” the story resolution was enough to satisfy me in both cases, so I wasn’t hung up on little unexplained details about the world.

In short, Bear’s a genuine talent, and someone to watch for. If you find stories of hers online that I’ve missed, be sure and point them out to me.

And lastly, I’m going to review another Joe Hill story. I visited his site after he’d left a comment, and discovered that he has a pdf of one of his stories available for download. It says something about being available for active members of the HWA yadda yadda which I’m clearly not, but heck, I couldn’t resist it, especially not after seeing the spooky artwork for it. It’s apparently been nominated for some kind of award, and I can easily see why. “The Black Phone” is one of those white-knuckled grip reads. You just cannot put it down. Of course, at the end you realize the horror of it all was mostly your own imaginings of all the terrible things that you were so sure must happen (not that terrible things don’t happen because duh, it’s horror, only what you think is always so much worse than what is and this story illustrates that really well). Great closing line too, and I won’t say anything else because I don’t want to spoiler a really prickly, gooseflesh inducing read. Good pacing, lots of tension, great visual imagery. Go on, you know you want to read it.


elizabeth bear
Thu 24th Mar 2005 at 1:21 am

This is incredibly self-serving of me, but I was pointed to your (very flattering) blog entry, and I can’t help but answer your question.

There’s a list of all my available fiction (online and otherwise) here:


And thank you very much for your kind words. They made a silly writer very happy.

Tue 29th Mar 2005 at 7:56 am

Elizabeth Bear isn’t the only silly writer you make happy. Glad you liked "The Black Phone."

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