Apprenticing to be an Elder: a Cross-Generational, Cross-Cultural Gratitude Post

Over the last six years, I have been honored to mentor young people from across the globe, both in-person and on-line.
In turn, they have mentored me. Here are some examples:
* The young man who rehearsed his talk about culturally appropriate pedagogy (from the standpoint of a Native child in White American public school). His talk made me remember the struggles I had with learning everything from tying my shoes to long division to martial arts moves. Everything we learn creates a shift in our holistic sense of the universe.
* The young woman who introduced me to Kalia Kao Vang’s brilliant memoir  The Latehomecomer. The whole story is brilliant (nonfiction and poetry are twins) but the opening chapter is an example to fiction and nonfiction writers alike about the marriage of spirituality, metaphysics, and history both familial and national.
* The young people who brought me to the Winter Storytelling by the Ojibwe and Dakota language classes at the University of Minnesota, in spite of my shyness about buses/winter/not belonging there.
* My protege who invited me to the fall Community Dance and set me up with a plate of food as if I were his grandma.
* The young people with whom I conversed about science and philosophy in the Islamic world. (See the nonfiction history The House of Wisdom, in which we learn that grammar is a sacred undertaking, and translation one of the most glorious of the arts.)
* The young woman who brainstormed her paper about Botox and racialized/gendered standards of beauty. I realized that I didn’t have an age 50 midlife crisis because I was surrounded by young people from cultures that revere their elders. Instead of worrying about my fading (White Hollywood defined) looks, I was taking lessons from the young in how to live up to the status of Elder.

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Book Reviews: Discoveries New & Old (Thelonius Legend’s Sins of the Father)

Saturday night, I read Sins of the Father by Thelonius Legend. It’s a first novel, and (to me) even more importantly, it’s a novel that’s a sibling of one I’ve been struggling to edit, Annie Brown and the Superhero Blues. I was cheered to discover that I was not alone, that my novel had kinfolk and a context.

So before I write the review, I’m going to give you the full disclosure. I’m a reader, of course, and I’m also a novelist. I don’t know the author personally, but I bought his novel shortly after it came out, and then followed him as I got more active on Twitter. He hosts the #BlackWritersChat and #BlackComicsChat, and has a passionate interest in mentoring young creative talent. I spend some part of my Twitter time signal-boosting people and ideas that excite me, and our common interest in mentoring and community-building has brought us together.

I’m a novelist, who’s currently struggling through a backlist of work to be edited, fourteen novels at last count. I read for pleasure a lot, I beta-read a lot, but there are certain subjects close to my heart.

Sins of the Father hits several of my own favorite themes: young women growing up and finding their way in the world, figuring out family and culture and class and what it means to be who they are in America. Who they are, the Parker sisters, are a trio of African-American superheroes. Who else they are: the daughters of Barry and Michelle, descendants of a family with serious expectations, passionate student/athletes, and victims or beneficiaries (sometimes both) of an experiment done on their father.

They’re also funny, irreverent, rivalrous and affectionate by turns. As one of three sisters, I can attest to Mr. Legend’s accuracy in writing adolescent sibling dynamics. Superhero stories are particularly suited for exploring the roller-coaster of coming-of-age, where it’s drama and suspense one moment, comedy the next, with cloudbursts of angst and the lightning of young love or infatuation (sometimes hard to tell which).

While they’re bit players in a story that foregrounds their extraordinary daughters, Barry and Michelle are real people, frazzled parents who just discovered that their cup runneth over, very much in the fashion of Buckingham Fountain, complete with jets, spray, and light-show. He’s got me thinking about a Parents of Superheroes support group, with all the hilarity and exhaustion that implies.

This novel feels huge, in a good way. Our exuberant author has stuffed it full of good things, in the over-the-top operatic mode of truly great comics. Your typical comic book is a slim volume indeed, but the pictures are full of poetry and color and flow, and the true comics fan spends a lot of time on the re-read. The world between those slim covers expands to a universe, and comics fans and creators alike speak without irony of universes and even multi-verses.

Mr. Legend has a great touch with dialogue, once he’s well into the story; hang in there, because the first few chapters set up the game, and then the pace picks up (frequently achieving supersonic speeds). His timing with scenes of suspense and action is great, whether it’s three first-time self-taught covert operatives breaking into a Super Secret Facility, young athletes sparring in tae kwon do, or a star player learning teamwork in basketball. His comedic sensibility takes hairpin turns from laughter to ‘whoa this got real’ and back again.

This is a first novel, with all the exuberance and glorious excess that implies. There are more coming down the road (author has promised so in public), and I will add that the observations I’m about to make apply equally to me (she says ruefully, recognizing her own novelistic sins & virtues in another). 
There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, like the wild ride of a first novel in full flood. Everything wants to be included, and the miracle of this story is that everything does get included! There’s the thrill of achieving artistic self-trust, the manic joy of storytelling, and the thrill of mashing up what you know from life with what comes straight out of imagination, collective or individual.

Then comes the cold light of day, where you have to cut. The more I write, the more I treasure the opportunity to get it right on the second try. And what I do there is to cut and rearrange, just like my artistic brothers and sisters in video and film. My earliest novels are a lot wordier than their younger siblings, a lot less trusting in the reader to get the floor plan, the setup, the interplay between the characters and their setting. In Thelonius Legend’s first novel, I see another author learning that trust as he moves into the middle of the game, with strong and heart-stopping suspense and action.

Mr. Legend loves his big paragraphs. OK, I love mine too, because I am a child of the 19th century in spite of what my parents would tell you. I found Sins of the Father a sweet and easy read on my laptop Kindle app, but much bumpier on my smartphone. (Which is now a test I’m going to apply to my own work, note to self.)

I’ve learned a lot about what I want in my own craft by blue-penciling other writers. Classics and published writers, mind you: Dostoevsky and the Dresden Files, Proust and Harry Potter, all came in for the “if I were the editor” treatment. As a slightly more experienced writer, I can see the extra words in this first novel’s prose, but there are never so many that they obscure the heart of the matter.

Thelonius Legend has taken on a wild ride here, and the sheer exuberance of story and characters resemble a chariot pulled by six or seven hyperactive race horses. He keeps it going across hill and dale, without losing the glimpses of real heart through the action. If I had to choose, I prefer a loose limbed epic with heart to a Lean Mean Story Machine with all the feeling whittled away in favor of plot.

Tucked inside this production of a first-time novelist are the seeds of the many, many novelists he could become in future: the teller of thrilling sports stories, suspense thrillers, tender tales of first love. The potential revealed here is multifarious; this first novel is not perfect but it provided me with a rousing evening’s entertainment, as well as a sense of anticipation for things to come.

Take a flyer on this one, cause it’s good, and I am willing to bet some serious money that the next ones are going to be even better.

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Book Reviews: some notes in place of a manifesto

As various scandals have erupted in the SF/F and romance reviewing world over the last months, I’ve been (re) thinking what I believe about reviews.

In particular, I’ve been noticing that I read a lot of books, and I talk about books with friends and colleagues in person, on chat and email, and out on Twitter. So I may as well do it here.

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to post at least one book review a week.

In some cases, I know the authors personally. In others, I picked up their books either because someone else had talked about them, or because I saw commentary from the authors themselves. I’m a reader, a writer, and part of a community of writers, so there’s no escaping some kind of relationship to each and every writer.

I’m going to begin each review by talking about how I first heard of the author or book, and what my relationship is both to them and to the subject matter.

I’m going to write reviews on this blog both as reader and writer. The flaws and glories of other folks’ work teach me how to do my own, or give me ideas, and that’s an important part of what I bring to reviewing. I also post reviews on Amazon and other reader-focused spaces; there, I write as a reader for the most part.

The place I begin with both kinds of reviews is the first step of Liz Lerman’s Critical Response framework. I talk about the details of a story that resonate with me, what they bring up for me in feeling and association, and how I experience the work as a reader.

Years ago, I had a very fine reviewer who said, “I’m an English guy, so I’m supposed to be stiff upper lip and all, but this part here made me cry.”

Reviewing in our full humanity as readers is a vulnerable place, yet it’s the place where one reader can speak to another. It’s the place where readers can say, “Wow, this is very specifically what I loved, and how I connected to these characters.” It’s the beginning of literary community.

One of the things I love about fannish spaces is the unabashed feeling for characters, worlds, and stories. I’ve learned a lot as a writer from listening to fans: what they watch in character arcs, relationship arcs, and world-building. Watching fan theorists take a work apart and find its flaws is illuminating; it made me resolve to put my craft on the firmest possible foundation out of respect for readers.

Oh, and let’s not forget fear of embarrassment. ;)

Reaction to stereotypes, to unexamined assumptions, to the punch-in-the-face a reader gets from a writer that doesn’t see them as human, that’s legitimate too. That’s something I do in beta reading, and I consider it well within the scope of ethical reviewing.

The thing that’s not legitimate is attacking the writer personally. Books don’t change; they are artifacts. Writers are people.

Even if I might not like what they wrote, and say so.

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Weekend Writing Warriors: Sunday 14 December 2014 (NaNo 2014 WIP Romance with Rayguns)

“I’d really like to be much clearer on your cousin’s intentions in adopting Arna.”

“Martisset’s a reasonable person. I think you’ll like her.”

“Well, you seem to have a bit of a crush on her.”

“Proof positive she’s very much your sort. Though she was quite clear that she was spoken for, these decades, so no worries that she’s going to try to cut me out and run off with you.”

Taryn laughed aloud. “Every time I think I know where this conversation’s going, you take a hairpin turn.”


From NaNo 2014, untitled romance with rayguns. In which Taryn and Hernan, my romantic leads, talk about Hernan’s cousin Martisset, who has rescued 12-year-old Arna from a shipwreck.

Weekend Writing Warriors offers a selection of eight-sentence excerpts from many different writers. For the full selection, see here.


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Weekend Writing Warriors: Sunday 7 December 2014 (NaNo 2014 WIP Romance with Rayguns)

“Let’s eat before we discuss homicide.”

Taryn laughed. “Contemplating it is a lot easier before I’ve eaten, I’ll grant.”

“Then let me be sure you are always well fed,” Hernan said, “much as they say about beasts of prey.”

“The dismount is the difficult part. Advice to those who would ride the tiger.”

“Is that a proposition?”

“Not until I’ve had breakfast,” she said, and then they both laughed.


From NaNo 2014, untitled romance with rayguns. In which Hernan and Taryn, my romantic leads, prepare to discuss ways and means over breakfast.

Weekend Writing Warriors offers a selection of eight-sentence excerpts from many different writers. For the full selection, see here.

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Weekend Writing Warriors: Sunday 30 November 2014 (NaNo 2014 WIP Romance with Rayguns)

“From each according to her ability,” Taryn said, quoting some folk-wisdom that sounded vaguely familiar. “I’ll be frank, it was quite amazing watching you all. As if you were three parts of the same organism. Amazing. I wouldn’t have guessed that was your first time outside of a simulation.”

Timur sat down, abruptly. “Well, now that you put it that way, I think I’m going to go throw up.”

“Like going on a bender, without the fun of the actual intoxication,” Mattei said.


Excerpt from one of my NaNo 2014 projects: untitled romance with ray guns.

Weekend Writing Warriors offers a selection of eight-sentence excerpts from many different writers. For the full selection, see here.


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NaNoFeed: In the Wreckage of Folly (Excerpt with space archaeology!)

A colleague on Twitter, Lev Mirov (@thelionmachine) mentioned space archaeology. Which my NaNo 2014 project is full of… so here’s another excerpt, behind the cut because it’s lengthy.

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