The stream, the trees, the words

picture of two pens on a notebook

My favorite pens, which were an anniversary gift from Bell Telephone to my grandfather in 1978.

Last month I received a scholarship to attend Writer Camp, a yearly retreat for writers put on by the folks at literary journal Barrelhouse. It. Was. Awesome.

The five days away from the stresses of work, ongoing renovations on my house, dealing with my dog’s degenerative condition, and the general stress of being me in my brain was restorative. For five days, I had nothing to do but write, and talk about writing with other amazing writers, and eat delicious food prepared by our hosts. I am so grateful for that time and the company.

I wrote 39 new pages of fiction, reworked the outline for my novel-in-progress, sent out a few query letters for my short story manuscript, and had two very productive meetings with my editor, Amanda Miska of Split Lip Press. I also met some wonderful people, and had so much fun chatting over food and our nightly bonfires with a glass or two of wine.

Writer Camp is held at the Godspeed Hostel in Port Matilda, PA, which is a lovely area with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and a pleasant stream that you can swim in. The water is crisp and cold and so refreshing. There are hammocks everywhere, and a tree swing, and it’s not hard to find a comfortable place to write.

The stream at Godspeed.

I fell into a general routine of eating breakfast, writing for an hour or two, taking a stroll along the stream, working on my novel outline or sending out submissions, eating lunch, meeting with my editor, and then writing for another hour or two before our afternoon excursion and dinner. That right there is what I want my life to look like.

Of course I don’t have that sort of luxury at this point in time—I have to work to pay my bills, after all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put some elements of Writer Camp into my daily routine and writing practice. I live in a city and don’t have a stream nearby, but I have a big front porch and a big backyard that I’m slowly turning into my own little oasis. I can easily write on my porch in the warmer months, and on weekends I can take my notebook out to one of Pittsburgh’s many beautiful parks for more nature time.

Perhaps even more importantly than the real progress I made on a few of my writing projects is the reminder that writing time and time in nature are both an essential part of my self-care routine. Without both of those things, I start to go a little batty. I feel on edge, restless, unfulfilled. But when I make time for them I feel at ease, happy, content.

On the days that I write before I head into work, I feel productive and accomplished, and it doesn’t matter what happens at work. Writing is like a force field against all the little negative things that add up throughout the day. And Writer Camp was a way to recharge those force field batteries, make them strong again.

But just because I’m back in the “real” world doesn’t mean the work is done. The work of writing is never done, not really. So off I go, to do the work.

#FridayReads: The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie

cover for Ancillary JusticeJust yesterday I finished reading the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I enjoyed every second of it, and am excited to learn that a new entry in the series comes out in September, right after my birthday!

I’ve felt a bit out of the sci-fi loop for not having read this series since it made the awards circuit in 2014–and all of them are well earned, that’s for sure.

Science fiction has been asking the question, “What makes us human?” since its earliest days, and this trilogy continues that tradition with its own take. It also explores themes of colonization, empire, class, and gender.

The trilogy consists of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. In this universe, military spaceships and space stations are run by powerful, intelligent, and emotive AIs. Many of these AIs have ancillaries, which are human bodies essentially wiped of their consciousness and tied into the AI’s consciousness. It’s a brutal process that involves the death of the person inhabiting that body.

cover for ancillary swordThe leader of the expansionist Radch empire, Anaander Mianaai, has hundreds of clone bodies and has ruled Radch space for thousands of years. Several incidents with various alien species has caused her to split into multiple factions, which leads to the destruction of the ship Justice of Toren, minus one ancillary, who now goes by Breq.

The Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish genders, so all characters are referred to as “she” throughout the books, and we learn (some of) their genders through interactions with people who speak languages that do distinguish gender. Interestingly, we’re never explicitly (that I remember) told what gender Justice of Toren’s last remaining human body is. It doesn’t matter, though, and that, I’m sure, is Leckie’s point in concealing the gender.

cover for ancillary mercyBreq has set out on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, and thus sets in motion the trilogy’s plot. Leckie balances the demands of writing an overarching plot for the trilogy while also giving each book a true beginning, middle, and end. There’s a lot of internal tension, which balances well against the bursts of action and violence. This is definitely intellectual science fiction more than action-adventure-type sci-fi, though there’s plenty of action.

The trilogy is all about revenge, but I appreciate that the revenge Breq exacts involves out-maneuvering rather than outright killing the Lord of the Radch–which would be almost impossible, because of her many many of clone bodies (though Breq does try to kill as many bodies as possible anyway, and who can blame her?).

I could probably write at LEAST half a dozen critical essays on the way Leckie handles class, colonialism, and humanity in general, but I’ll leave this review here: If smart, well-written, character AND plot driven science fiction is your thing, you’ll enjoy these books. I can’t wait for the next one!

#FridayReads: Revenge of the Fifth Edition

Later this month marks the 40th Anniversary of my favorite thing ever, Star Wars. Now, pretty much every day is Star Wars day for me, but as May 5th is known as Revenge of the Fifth in the fan community, here’s a special edition (don’t worry, not that kind) of #FridayReads. Enjoy!

There are several things I want out of Star Wars movie novelizations: insight into the characters via inner monologues/descriptions of feelings, a few extra tidbits/tangents that shed light on a background element in the movie (character, droid, place, etc.), and writing that is decent or better. The novelization for The Force Awakens was a bit disappointing on the characters’ inner lives bit, which I imagine is because they’re keeping a tight lock on things to avoid spoilers for the upcoming saga films.

the rogue one audiobook

Rogue One doesn’t have such compunctions for obvious reasons if you’ve seen the films, and so far the novelization has met or exceeded my expectations on all fronts. The audiobook is extremely well-produced to boot, with sound effects and background music at appropriate points. The story follows the movie perfectly, of course, but I appreciate the little glimpses we get into Cassian, Jyn, and their growing friendship/feelings for one another.

We get quite a bit from Chirrut and Baze’s points of view, which was something I didn’t expect and am enjoying quite a bit (and we should get even more with the Guardians of the Whills comic series!). Director Krennic also makes POV appearances, and I like that his scheming to maintain power and control over the Death Star is a main focus of his inner thoughts. Plus, it’s very interesting to see Darth Vader through his eyes—there’s a lot of disbelief and resentment until he experiences Vader’s power first-hand.

Jonathan Davis’s reading of the story is  fantastic. He makes his voice sound like exactly like Cassian, Chirrut, Galen, and even Tarkin. His Jyn is a little off, but it’s a truly exceptional male narrator who can pull off sounding like a woman without making her also sound like a child. They put his voice through a modulator to create K-2SO’s voice, which is a nice touch.

The only point the background SFX became an annoyance was while they are leaving Jeddha to head to Eadu. There’s a constant, high-pitched whining in the background through that whole scene meant to duplicate the way ships sound in hyperspace, but my god was that irritating. I almost fast-forwarded through that, but it’s an important scene so I broke it up over days and suffered through it.

This has been my first Star Wars audiobook (books are my big collection so I usually just buy the hardcovers and read them the old-fashioned way). I’d definitely recommend this as an entry point into the canon beyond the films. I’ll certainly be checking out more Star Wars audiobooks for my daily commute.