Book Review: THE RESIDUE YEARS and the cycle of addiction

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction, so I tend to pick these stories without knowing exactly what to expect. If I don’t know the author or haven’t heard or read much about the book, then I’m basically just going in blind hoping I find something to connect with.

I just finished listening to The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson on audiobook. I primarily chose this book because it seemed like a perspective on drugs and addiction I had never really been exposed to before.

The Residue Years switches between the points of view of Champ and his mother, Grace. Following Grace’s stint in court-mandated rehab for her crack addiction, she and Champ try to reconnect with each other, with their family, and with the previous life and home they’d lost touch with. Champ, meanwhile, sells crack to support himself and his family, even as Grace tries to recover and find a new path in life.

Champ and Grace appear to want to change their lives, but they keep making poor decisions. As protagonists, you want Champ and Grace to succeed in reclaiming themselves and each other. However, Champ is too self-aware for his own good, convincing the reader that he knows that dealing crack cannot be his end-all-be-all, while continually making choices that pull him deeper into that life. Grace does all the right things on the surface. She gets out of rehab, finds a job, attends NA, finds a new church. She recognizes that she needs to stay away from the toxic people of her past and establish a new life, but she too easily allows herself to be dragged backward.

Jackson does an incredible job of making the reader root for these characters, to hope against all odds that they will break the cycle of crack, and to envision a better future for them. He does all this even as the characters make baffling decisions that just repeat the cycle.

This story is ultimately an intimate portrayal of the vicious cycle of addiction and how it erodes those bonds to family, stability, and love.

I don’t recall what made me buy this book initially, but I’m glad to have read it.

Steve D

A Mild but Hopeful Reaction to Rey’s Return to STAR WARS

Disney hosted Star Wars Celebration over the weekend and, as expected, made several announcements about upcoming projects for their TV and film slate.

I’m still behind on The Mandalorian and Bad Batch, so I don’t have much to contribute in terms of where Star Wars is at the moment and where it may be going.

However, the announcement of a new post-sequel-trilogy film featuring Rey is the best news I’ve heard about this franchise in quite some time. Evidently, the film will focus on Rey trying to rebuild the Jedi order. Here are my probably not-surprising reasons why:

  1. The Rise of Skywalker, and the sequel trilogy as a whole, was botched, and those characters and actors deserve a reboot (Finn, in particular, but I don’t think that’s likely). I greatly enjoyed The Last Jedi, but Disney didn’t stick the landing in the final film.
  2. Daisy Ridley is great.
  3. After seeing The Force Awakens, Rey instantly became one of my favorite Star Wars characters. She was funny, intense, relatable, and packed a believable punch in fight scenes.
  4. I’m always curious about what comes after the Big Bad is defeated.
  5. The sequel trilogy did not know what it wanted to say about the Jedi or the Force, and this could be a chance to correct the narrative.
  6. Overall, I’m glad Disney waited to do something different with Rey, but I’m also glad they didn’t scrap her and the sequel trilogy stories entirely. That trilogy had a lot of characters who are worth exploring, so why not start with the main protagonist?

That’s about all I have for the moment, because we know so little about what this movie will be like. Recent Star Wars entrants have been hit-or-miss for me, so I can’t say I totally buy into Disney’s own hype. I hope they get this movie right. I hope it revives Rey’s character and brings Daisy Ridley back into the fold as a staple Star Wars actor. And I hope it has something interesting to say about this universe.

I’ll be looking out for the first teaser.

Steve D

Creativity and Finding an Outlet

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

Creativity is tricky. Trying to be creative is even trickier.

In recent months, I’ve found myself searching for more of an outlet for my creativity. Writing stories is my first creative love, but the fact is that it comes with several limitations, some of which I may be unnecessarily imposing on myself.

I also struggle with a lot of the mental aspects of sharing my creativity with others, especially through social media. How much sharing is too much, too revealing, too damaging to my own privacy? Ideas run through my head all the time, and I feel compelled to share them with people, but I often don’t, or perhaps more often I share them in person with my wife or my friends. That type of creativity sharing can be quite cathartic, but it leaves open the question of whether, and what, and how I share my creativity beyond that limited group of people.

This very post comes out of a sense of frustration that I didn’t have something else to write about. So, I’m going to do some unpacking here and see where it takes us.

Limits on My Creativity

I mentioned above that it feels like there are limits to my creative outlet in writing stories. As soon as I wrote that, I thought that many of those limits must be self-imposed, so I’d like to examine them. In no particular order:

  1. Not enough time
  2. Worries over my copyright
  3. Keeping ideas about my fantasy world-building close to the vest
  4. Limited formats
  5. Limited platform(s)

Five off the top of my head; not bad. That should be enough to delve into for a bit.

Not enough time

I’m not a full-time writer and likely will not be in the foreseeable future, so this limitation is partially by circumstance. However, I think it’s also due in part to the way in which I approach writing. I primarily write novels or at least short stories, and so sitting down to write 100 words doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment.

Now, look, I fully realize that every little bit counts towards the greater goal. I get all the writing mantras. But it can be difficult to maintain that steadfastness day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month as you churn over a longer story.

Worries over copyright / protecting my ideas

I’m combining items two and three, because they feel very much related, although still different

Worries over copyright infringement is not easy to navigate, especially online, as I discussed last week. But even beyond the notion of someone stealing my work, I’m quite protective of my creative ideas, especially when it comes to my world-building universe.

With enough prompting, I can quite easily ramble about the myriad ideas I have for my fantasy universe, but I sometimes worry that speaking my ideas out loud will… release them from my mind. As if the words roll off my tongue and the ideas themselves evaporate.

Strange, I know. I’ve learned to be careful about how much I reveal about my stories, my ideas, and where I might take them, because I don’t want to lose the drive to write them down. Speaking them out loud is a form of sharing them with the world, but I know I can develop them in so much more depth and with more coherence if I write them down. So, I try to “save” my ideas for my writing, or maybe only discuss certain aspects of them, if I want to workshop them with someone I trust.

Another piece of “protecting” my ideas springs to mind.

Limited formats / platforms

I’m also combining items four and five.

I realize that there are tons of platforms out there where I can publish stories for various online communities to read. Wattpad, Tumblr, Reddit, IngramSpark, Kindle, this blog… and literally hundreds or thousands of other websites I cannot even name.

But does publishing my story in one space restrict me from another? Is a freemium story platform like Wattpad too open to exploitation of my ideas? Is there just too much damn content online for any of this to matter? I have no clue.

Creative Limits

If you couldn’t tell, I’m in the process of reassessing how I write and publish my stories. I love the idea of publishing novels, and I will continue to strive for that. But if I’m only publishing a novel once in a blue moon, then where do the rest of my ideas go? Is there somewhere else I can put them to get them into the world without feeling exposed — to copyright infringement, or loss of my ideas to the ether, or whatever else?

These questions bug me, so to this point I’ve resigned myself to the full self-publishing process with novels, novellas, or short stories, because it feels more official, and safer.

But I think I can find something else to fill the drawn-out in-between spaces — spaces in my head, in my publishing schedule, in my day-to-day schedule where smaller ideas can be nurtured and thrive. I just don’t know what yet.

Steve D

ANDOR takes the title for Best STAR WARS

I’ve recently caught up with and finished watching Andor, the latest show in the Star Wars universe on Disney+. Coming in a few weeks late to this show, I had heard good things about it, even if it wasn’t getting a ton of buzz. I came into this show with an open mind. The Mandalorian has been great. Boba Fett and Obi-Wan were decent, but flawed in their own ways. I felt like Andor had potential as a show that didn’t have to try to build around characters we already knew from the original trilogy, and I was excited by the show’s premise of focusing on the rebellion leading up to A New Hope.

With season one in the books, and a few days for me to think about it: Andor is the best that Star Wars has been to this point, from the storytelling, the writing, the world-building, and the meaning. I’ve watched it once through and am already watching it again with a friend who has yet to see it. I can barely contain my excitement to watch this show a second time, mere days after I’ve finished my first watch-through.

Spoilers ahead for Andor and for the movie it leads to, Rogue One.

Tony Gilroy, the writer/director behind the first three Bourne films and a ton of other action-thrillers, is the creative director and head writer for Andor. The 12-episode season is structured into four three-episode arcs, which presents an interesting ebb and flow of tension as the season progresses.

Let’s pause for one moment to appreciate that this show is a full 12 episodes, making it a legitimate season of television — not a 6-8-episode “limited series event” that feels like three C-average movies stuffed in a trench coat

I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of summarizing the entire season. Just go watch it and be amazed. Instead, let’s talk about some key themes.

Cassian Andor, as the titular character played by Diego Luna, is ostensibly the protagonist, but when we meet him at the start of the season — five years before the events of Rogue One — he is a scavenger and thief who seems to have burned a lot of bridges and eroded the trust of those whom he cares about most. He argues with his adoptive mother, Maarva, and his ex-girlfriend and partner-in-smuggling, Bix, does not seem to trust him. How did this guy become an intelligence officer within the Rebel Alliance and a hero who sacrificed himself for the rebel cause?

The beauty of Andor, and its writing in particular, is that we see this arc develop for Cassian over the course of the season. He becomes a critical role-player in a heist on an imperial vault that he had only learned about days prior; he helps 5,000 fellow prisoners escape an inescapable prison; and he returns to his home planet, Ferrix, to help the people he had left behind. He’s not an expert rebel spy yet, but his character shows us a lot of grit and heart over 12 episodes.

Stellen Skarsgard is also stellar in his role as Luthen, a rare artifacts dealer in Coruscant-turned rebel ring-leader. It’s not quite clear how Luthen became involved in his own rebellious network against the Empire, but his connection to Saw Gerrera, played by Forrest Whitaker reprising his unique role from Rogue One, and knowledge of the various factions fighting the Empire indicate that Luthen has been in this war for a long time. That history is what has been missing from Star Wars, at least from the live-action movies and shows.

What Andor really demonstrates is the cost of a nascent rebellion. The Rebel Alliance doesn’t even exist yet. There are just a bunch of tiny factions fighting the Empire in their own ways, with no common goal yet identified. So why are they fighting? Luthen, along with Cassian, and another character, Kino Loy, played by the incomparable Andy Serkis, each take their turn delivering the thesis statement for this show, and for the rebellion at large — no one can fight fascism without sacrifice, without pulling together for the people next to you, and that sacrifice is worth it, even if the players themselves never get to see the dawn of a galaxy without the Empire in power.

The Best of Star Wars

I will not be able to do this show justice in a single post, and I may need to follow-up with a ranking of my favorite Star Wars stories.

All I know is that I’ve never heard dialogue in Star Wars like I have in Andor. I’ve never seen a Star Wars property as well-written and deliberate as this show. I’ve never felt like a story in this universe was this important, or this of-the-moment in our current culture.

A lot of Star Wars properties have reminded us of what we loved about the original trilogy, or tried to upend our expectations entirely. Andor manages to do both. It is an affirmation that these stories, in this universe, can say something meaningful about sacrifice, hope, suffering, love, light, and darkness. And it’s a challenge to every new series or film in this universe to be great, not just for a Star Wars story, but for a story of any genre. This show demonstrates the universality of Star Wars in a way I’ve never seen before.

I can’t stop thinking about it, and I can’t wait for season two.

Steve D

Review: TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT overcomes Middle Book Syndrome

Towers of Midnight is the thirteenth and penultimate book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve been reading this series off and on for about six years. It took me some time to get through this book, primarily because I wanted to savor it, rather than rush through it to get to the end. That was a wise decision.

I consider this installment a “middle” book for two reasons.

  1. The Gathering Storm (book 12), Towers of Midnight (book 13), and A Memory of Light (book 14) are very clearly the final act in this sprawling series, narratively.
  2. They are also the final act in their production. Sanderson worked with the editor, Jordan’s widow, to split the final act into three books, and produced these three volumes.

This review contains spoilers for this book and those preceding it in The Wheel of Time.

So when I say that Towers of Midnight overcomes Middle Book Syndrome, I really mean that as a transitionary book to build to the climax that is surely waiting in A Memory of Light, this book succeeds.

Towers of Midnight is a compelling read jam-packed with fascinating plot lines centered around our main characters, especially Mat and Perrin, but also Elayne and Egwene. Other staple characters like Faile, Nynaeve, Lan, Galad and Gawyn also build towards a rich narrative.

It is very much a middle book in that these plot lines serve to close out long-running narrative threads, such as Perrin’s rise to leadership, Mat’s shifting focus back towards Rand and the Last Battle, Egwene’s cementing of her power as Amyrlin, and Elayne’s marshaling of power around her throne in Caemlyn.

These characters are shifting, slowly and inexorably, towards the Last Battle. In doing so, Towers of Midnight necessarily takes on the hefty task of transitioning the characters, all of the hundreds of characters, and the reader into Tarmon Gaidon.

That’s not to say that A Memory of Light opens with the Last Battle and is one massive compendium of fighting. (I’m a few pages in and can confirm this is not the case.) But after 13 novels of ever-increasing length and complexity, everyone is facing the same direction: towards The End.

Some sections of the book drag a bit — Perrin’s training in the wolf dream with Hopper and his inevitable face-off with Slayer took me a bit to get through, both because of the tension that had been built and because I wanted to get past it. Still, I understood in the moment that his realization and acceptance of his true self was necessary to Perrin’s facing of the Whitecloaks.

Overall, though, Sanderson churns through these plot lines and still manages to provide some surprises, some poignant moments, and some clean breaks with narrative threads that would no longer serve the end of this series.

After the numerous books I struggled to get through, or even to understand at points because they were so weighed down with characters about whom I could not bring myself to care, I’m honestly still a little awestruck at how neatly Towers of Midnight, and The Gathering Storm before it, have brought us to this point.

Like I said, I’ve already started A Memory of Light. I’m thrilled and simultaneously reluctant to get to the end of this series. That, I think, is testament enough to its storytelling power.

Steve D

THE LAST KINGDOM Finale: Epic TV storytelling

The Last Kingdom TV series recently debuted its fifth and final season, which I caught on Netflix.

The show follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon lordling captured and raised by Danes who rises to become an important warrior and warlord during the reigns of Kings Alfred and Edward of Wessex. This show is the reason I’ve started reading the book series by Bernard Cornwell that it’s based on.

Having now finished season 5 and gotten confirmation that it is, indeed, the last of the series, I find myself reflecting on what, to me, has been a truly great show.

While much of the story of Uhtred himself is fictionalized, the show is realized with impeccable detail in the settings, the sets, and the costumes. Individual fight scenes are well choreographed and the battle scenes are mostly good if not great.

I’ve watched this show from the beginning, and had eagerly anticipated each of the last three seasons in particular as the show really hit its stride. Alexander Dreymon’s portrayal of Uhtred evolved from that of an arrogant, if skilled, young warrior into a admirable, honorable, and relentless lord who manages to fight both for what is right and for what he is owed.

The rest of the cast is stellar to the point that you might as well read through the cast list on IMDB, because I don’t think there is a poor actor in the entire series. This is the type of show where I recognized basically none of the actors when I first saw them, and now I can only think many of them will go on to do incredible things in television and film.

Alright, that’s enough reflecting. The main element of this show I wanted to call out is the storytelling.

Beware spoilers for season 5, including the season and series finale.

The Last Kingdom’s Epic Storytelling

The main arc of the story centers on Uhtred in his quest to reclaim his ancestral seat as the lord of Bebbanburg. Throughout the first four seasons of the show, Uhtred is desperate to retake his homeland, but is always called by duty, by oath, by extortion, or by his heart to fight different battles. These are so often at the behest of King Alfred of Wessex that by season four, it is almost laughable, except the relationship between Alfred and Uhtred has grown into the dearest of friendships, and you can’t really blame Uhtred for being loyal to one of his biggest patrons.

Season 5 presents a key opportunity for Uhtred to attack Bebbanburg – held by his estranged cousin – at the head of the armies of Wessex and Mercia, now joined under King Edward (Alfred’s son and Uhtred’s liege lord).

In the season and series finale, Uhtred fights to take Bebbanburg, Edward’s armies are nearly thrown over a cliff into the sea, and the enemy they fight tries to burn Bebbanburg to the ground.

This is the moment that any long-time watcher of this show has been waiting for, and recognizes what the show is doing. They literally and figuratively bring Uhtred to his knees, so close to achieving his lifelong destiny, within the walls of his home, and it burns to ashes in front of him.

And then the show takes another predictable turn that is just perfect. They show a montage of previous scenes from the show, focusing on Uhtred’s friends, allies, family, all lost in the turmoil of the previous five seasons (and some 20 years) of Uhtred’s life.

Going into this episode, I was not aware that season five was to be the final chapter of this show. But this montage was so perfectly executed and attuned to the emotional weight of the moment that I immediately knew that this was the end of the series.

After the montage, the sky breaks open into rain, drowning out the flames that would engulf Uhtred’s home, and in a last desperate act, Uhtred and King Edward’s forces emerge victorious. Uhtred claims Bebbanburg and becomes Lord of Northumbria.

This moment would have been meaningless – or perhaps cheap – if the show had not had the patience to lead the viewer through five seasons of loss, failure, and shortcomings with Uhtred. Or if they had tried to drag the show out to extra seasons for no reason. They chose their moment to end the story, and they stuck the landing, something that more than a few shows in recent memory have failed to accomplish.

Finale Thoughts

I did not go into season 5 of this show expecting to write a review on it. I think I’ve only mentioned it in passing before on this site. That finale hit home to me, to the point that I’d like to rewatch the entire show at some point.

I’m also even more stoked to continue my read of the book series.

Please watch this show, if for nothing else, to give me someone to talk about it with!

Steve D

The 4 Most Frustrating Story Hang-Ups for Writers

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

As a writer, it feels great to find your rhythm with a story. You’re flying along the keyboard — or paper, or vellum — and the words seem to shoot from your fingers. You don’t even seem to have the same tiredness in your hands, or the ink stains on your pinky that you so often get with less fruitful writing ventures.

But we all know those high-flying moments are the anomalies when writing a long piece, like a novella.

More often, you find yourself caught up in some absurdly minute detail that you simply cannot leave behind until you find the perfect word, even if it’s just one among tens of thousands.

These hang-ups can be entirely derailing to a decent writing flow, but you’re not the only one it happens to. Here are a handful of the more frustrating writing hang-ups we’ve all likely encountered.

#1 – That. Perfect. Term. Word.

I mentioned it above, and we’ve all been there. How many times have you searched through a thesaurus to find just the right phrasing? Or some alliterative flair? (I know that wasn’t alliteration, but I didn’t feel like spending several minutes looking for a synonym for flair.) Or even the word with the right etymological root to fit the style of your story?

The answer is too many times. But we’ll all do it again.

#2 – An NPC’s Name, or Clothes, or particular shade of brown hair

I know, I know, writers aren’t supposed to refer to their own creations as “non-playable characters”. Every character is the hero of their own journey, et cetera. But every story has them — characters that you know for a fact you will never see again, but because they’ve met your Main Character in some backwater inn and happen to have a bit of knowledge to help your Main continue their quest, they just have to have a name, and maybe a few clothing descriptors. And a cool tattoo. And strangely penetrating eyes that seem to hide deep-seeded pain. Aaaaaand now you’re writing a short story for them.

I suppose that’s what name generators are for.

#3 – The Dreaded Scene Transition

I definitely struggle with this one. You’re writing a scene that you know has to take your characters to the next place, or the next plot point, but you just can’t seem to make the turn. So it feels like you only have two options: let the transition drag on for another several paragraphs, detailing every step each of your characters are taking, throwing in random chit-chat dialogue that, while entertaining, is certainly not getting them anywhere fast, and overall just refusing to end the current train of thought…

Or you could make an awkward narrative jump that feels like you’re leaving something behind, but you’re not quite sure what. And now you just have to move on.

#4 – The Scene that Grows Too Big

This is sort of the opposite of number three, where a scene grows far beyond what you had intended, either in length, or scope, or even in its emotional weightiness. Maybe some of you wouldn’t consider this a hang-up, but it can be disruptive if it no longer lets your narrative flow in the way you had it outlined. That’s when the Dreaded Scene Transition hits, but you can’t just delete all that great work! So maybe you reform it until it flows better. Or you leave it and change your outline!

More Hang-Ups!

Those are just four potential hang-ups that I definitely run into every now and then, and I’d bet a lot of other writers do, too. Leave a comment with your “favorite” storytelling hang-ups!

Steve D

Ending a Story is an Act of Courage

Endings are hard. I think writing endings is the most difficult and also one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process for me.

You spend weeks or months (or years) outlining, drafting, and re-drafting a story, and you finally get to the ending. Not just the end of your first draft, but The End. The ending of the draft that, while not final, is likely to be as close to final as you’ll come while writing new content.

That’s where I’m at with my current draft of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. I know I have a lot more editing to put into this story before it can be considered Final, but I also know that the ending to this draft will look very similar to the ending of that final published story.

I keep thinking about all of the other ways I could tell this story. What if my protagonist was less capable in her survival? What if the dynamics of her family were less positive? What if, what if, what if?

Writing a story is like entering the Multiverse and trying to decide which of the infinite timelines you and your characters will follow. Ending a story is deciding that you followed the most compelling, the most believable, and the most satisfying timeline.

That’s why I think ending a story is an act of courage, from a writing perspective. You need the determination to say to yourself, “Yes, this is the ending I have intended for this story.” And then you need to prepare to move on from that ending, whether that’s publishing the story or starting a new one.

So I’m overthinking my ending, even as I write it. The moment will come quite soon when I need to decide that it is The Ending. Now if I could just get back to writing it.

Steve D

Balancing Reader Feedback with Story Constraints

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

Today I wanted to bring up an interesting conundrum I’ve been facing as I write the third draft of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. In a story that is effectively about how one family — and one woman in particular — deals with her entire life being upended, I’m now trying to add more characters.

Uprooted is also a novella. I only intend for it to be 35k-40k words if I can help it, so adding more characters seems counter-intuitive on the surface.

Alpha Reader Feedback

Back in December I asked a couple people to read the second draft of this story and provide some feedback. One of my readers gave me great feedback that I’ve really tried to take to heart in this rewrite.

She said that in settings like mine — a small village in a firmly patriarchal society and culture — the characters would likely have much stronger kinship ties than I had demonstrated in my draft. I focused intensely on the nuclear family of my characters, but that left this reader asking about their immediate relatives, cousins, siblings. aunts and uncles, and the like.

The crux of the story is that tragedy strikes this village, causing my characters to flee. With this now expanded family dynamic, my characters are not as isolated as they had been, but the dynamics of their struggle change. They now have to feed 10 or 15 mouths rather than three or four.

But that’s also 10 or 15 more names to keep track of as the story progresses.

Too Many Characters?

I agreed 100% with this feedback, and I built out a family tree for my protagonist’s family and their clan. This meant that I had to explain what happened to a lot of those family members alongside the more immediate narrative of my characters. What I’ve noticed is that in my third draft, I have to decide when to talk about these extended family members, and when to leave them out.

It should be obvious that the larger clan is still traveling together, and I don’t want to have to list the actions of every single member each day. But I also don’t want to ignore these characters’ existence. After all, they make up the immediate support system for my primary character. She needs them, and thus the reader needs to know something about them.

So I’ve had to figure out how to balance these additional tertiary characters within the more personal plotlines of the three or four characters who really drive the story. If I were writing a full-length novel, I could consider POV sections for a few of these tertiary characters, but Uprooted is not that type of story.

My general rule of thumb has been twofold:

  1. Take a quick tally of the family as they’re moving or something is changing so we (both the reader and I) know where they are.
  2. Try to include these family members in particular scenes, even if they’re just in the background or only offer one line of dialogue.

I think/hope that this makes it clear that these characters are important to the larger family dynamics, but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many names to remember.

Discussion Time!

How do you feel about tertiary characters in a novella? How many is too many?

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading the last month or so, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media.

Spoilers ahoy.

Continue reading “Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1”