The Incendiaries: a Glowing Debut

R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.

R. O. Kwon's The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.
R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.

I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.

The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.

Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.

The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.

Can We Still Think?

Often, an important new book is said to be “thought-provoking.” James Bridle’s New Dark Age aims to be literally thought-provoking—one of the book’s central contentions is that we have entered a new, dimly lit era, engendered by proliferating technology in every walk of life, which has clouded our ability to see and think clearly. Acknowledging this actual state of affairs, Bridle believes, is a necessary first step toward coming to grips with our current reality.

A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.
A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.

“We know more and more about the world,” Bridle writes, “while being less and less able to do anything about it.” New Dark Age traces this information overload (which produces confusion rather than knowledge) to computers and concomitant technology, and to our faith in and dependence upon technology in general. We have collectively bet that technology was our future, Bridle notes, and have thus effectively foreclosed that future (hence the book’s subtitle). Instead of a technology-driven golden age, we have today’s world of increasing environmental threat (to which server farms contribute significantly, BTW), political dysfunction and communications devolution, including the increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Trump and Brexit are but symptoms, and everyone is affected to a greater or lesser degree.

To some extent, the author believes, this new darkness can be a positive development, if we will only acknowledge it. We need to understand that we are unable to understand if we are to regain the agency we require to move forward. We need to stop believing in technology without question and start questioning it instead. We need to think about every aspect of what we are doing.

Bridle, who is a visual artist as well as a writer and technologist, provides numerous examples of technology gone wrong, from rogue algorithms that create pornographic cartoons aimed at children on YouTube to growing surveillance here and abroad to the increasing threat of widespread automation.

Facebook is a timely and accessible example. Apart from the role it played in helping to make Trump president (see: Cambridge Analytica), apart from the role it continues to play in fostering turmoil, apart from the self-contained, reinforcing bubbles of “likes” it places its users in, thereby underscoring social and political division, Facebook has an addictive quality for many of its users which may be even more insidious. And, by its very nature, it encourages the superficial while discouraging concentrated thought.

I still have a Facebook account, though I very seldom use it. Yet I have dear friends who practically live on the platform. My interactions with them on Facebook are akin to seeing them a block away in the city, headed in the other direction, and giving them a cursory wave. Facebook is distancing, despite its promise of making it easy to “keep in touch.” I will probably post a link to this review there, although it is essentially pointless, simply a habit because Medium makes it easy to do. Likewise with Twitter. If I take New Dark Age to heart, I’ll need to stop doing that.

(At least Medium attracts people interested in longer reads, though it’s not without its own issues.)

To sum up: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general today, try to make time to read this book and, especially, to think about what you’ve read. It doesn’t provide many answers but it will help you view today’s problems from a different and more conscious perspective, which is certainly a step in the right direction.

Open Source Writing

Update, 6/20/18 (see Bibisco section below).

I will acknowledge at the beginning that articles such as this one can be viewed as a distraction from, or evasion of, “real” writing. And God knows I have several projects I should be working on instead. But I find the tools writers use to be a fascinating subject (and I’m not the only one). Moreover, the focus of this piece—using open source tools to do your work—strikes me as especially timely in light of recent concerns about the intersection of commercialization, privacy and technology. I think most writers should find something of interest below.

This article, then, will provide a brief evaluation of a number of open source programs designed for writers. The one prerequisite for inclusion here is that such programs run on Linux. While I do much of my work on a Mac (which remains, in many ways, the “creative” platform), Linux has become increasingly important in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation and privacy (Tim Cook’s protestations notwithstanding). The OS is in the process of becoming quite a decent platform for writers, as well.

My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.
My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.

 

 

 

 

I’ll mention a few commercial writers’ programs up front, just for contrast. One of the problems with proprietary software is clearly demonstrated by the recent decision of Ulysses to employ a subscription model. I regard this form of pricing as a kind of extortion: pay us a monthly fee, or else. Unfortunately, this model has become more prevalent in recent years. Blame Adobe, the company that started it all. Microsoft isn’t helping, either.

Another potential problem with proprietary software involves security and privacy. Not every software maker is as transparent as it could or should be, and there are times when you should be very cautious as a consequence. For example, I was initially  impressed by the program Write!, which I’ve mentioned more than once on this site. But the program’s developers have not offered any public transparency concerning their location and personnel (both are potential issues), and the program itself still requires you to log in order to use it, which is both unnecessary and quite dubious from a privacy and security standpoint. I no longer use this software and can’t recommend it.

Not every proprietary program is potentially hazardous or exploitative to use, though—Scrivener is generally exemplary in its pricing, customer relations and overall quality. As I noted in my recent review of Scrivener 3, the program looks as though it will run fine under Wine on Linux, and I will be happy to buy a license to use it there, as well as on my Mac. But Scrivener is arguably an exception. You’re likely to encounter pitfalls of one sort or another with much commercial software, not least an endless, too-frequent “upgrade” cycle. Free and open source software is another paradigm altogether.

OK, then. Let’s start our survey with LibreOffice Writer, an extremely capable word processor that in my opinion renders Microsoft Word unnecessary for the majority of writers. Yes, Word remains the publishing “standard” for both books and periodicals. But Writer is so adept at producing compatible .doc and .docx files that Word really isn’t necessary in this context. Writer’s Track Changes feature operates seamlessly with Word’s, at least in my experience, and formatting for novels, short fiction and poetry is straightforward enough that compatibility issues are a thing of the past. It wouldn’t hurt you to have Word available for some unforeseen contingency but as a writer you really don’t need it. And Writer is available on Mac and Windows, as well as Linux (the same is true for all of the software mentioned below).

What’s more, Writer can be customized for particular needs. There is a terrific plugin called Organon which turns Writer into a Scrivener-like tool for novelists which can organize your work by chapter, scene or section and also give you a place to store notes on characters, locations, etc.

Here's a novel first draft in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Here’s the first draft of a novel in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Organon's Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.
Organon’s Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For shorter work, look no further than Graeme Gott’s excellent FocusWriter. This is a very attractive distraction-free writing program that can handle switching between individual scenes or chapters and also offers basic tools like daily goals and the ability to save to .rtf and .odt formats. FocusWriter deserves a review of its own, which I’ll try to provide at some point.

The following three programs try to do what Scrivener does so well: provide an environment conducive to longer creative work, especially novels. None of them can yet equal Scrivener but they are surprisingly capable in their different ways.

There is an update for the general summary of Bibisco below. The 2.0 version of the program is now based on node.js rather than Java, and it’s not backward-compatible. However, the look and feel are much the same as they were before (though full-screen mode is now possible). The program has now been divided into a “community edition” (free) and a “supporters editon” (minimum €10 donation). For the donation you get the option of enabling the ubiquitous “dark mode” that seems to have overtaken most of today’s software. Now, I have no objective to supporting open source projects with donations—I support several of them. But I think this new Bibisco “freemium” mode is inappropriate for an open source project. Either go commercial or don’t, but don’t try to split the difference.

Bibisco (I have no idea what this name means, but it sounds nice, like biscuits and cookies) is open source software from Andrea Feccomandi in Italy which is aimed at novelists. It is very much oriented toward planners rather than “pantsers” (as in “seat-of-the-pants” writing born of experience and instinct). The program asks you to define your characters and their desires in quite extensive detail before you begin writing, although of course you can choose to ignore this. Such extensive preparatory organization will suit many people; it doesn’t match the way I work (though I do appreciate having a section to define characters in briefer detail). Other sections are devoted to narrative strands and locations and the program does a decent job of exporting to .pdf and .rtf formats, though some after-export tweaking may be necessary.

Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.
Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibisco is Java-based and comes with its own runtime. It is the least attractive of the three programs we’re discussing here, in my opinion, and also the most rigid—there is no full-screen option, for example, let alone a distraction-free environment. The main editing/writing window is rather small and can’t be resized. Nevertheless, if you can work within the software’s current constraints it does offer all the basics that planning a long work of fiction requires. Many people seem to like it and I think it does show some definite promise.

Bibisco's editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.
Bibisco’s editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript and Plume Creator are more to my taste, both in the way they work and in their appearance. Both of these applications also come from Europe and were developed by Olivier Keshavjee (Manuskript) and Cyril Jacquet (Plume Creator).

Let’s check Plume Creator first. The application is organized logically, with the editing/writing space prominent in the center and various tools located in panels to either side. The right panel can be hidden entirely and there is a distraction-free full-screen mode available. Many other tools in various stages of development are also available—for example, there is a “Workbench” view you can overlay on the main interface in which you can provide synopses, notes, POV and status for various scenes. Workbench is somewhat akin to the Organizer view in Writer’s Organon plugin.

There is also a separate, standalone Notes area—Plume Creator is in development and many features are still being sorted out. Despite this, the program seems quite stable and it offers a great deal of flexibility in how you arrange things.

The Plume Creator interface, with tools to either side of the writing workspace.

 

 

 

 

 

The program offers an attractive dark theme as an alternative to the light theme shown above, and as already noted there is a distraction-free mode. This lets you shift from scene to scene while still in full-screen view: quite handy.

Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.
Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.

 

 

 

 

 

BTW, that red highlight on the 4,052 word count is to let me know that the story’s draft exceeds its target of 4,000 words. Again, quite handy. Plume Creator does an excellent job of autosaving your work and a credible job of exporting to .pdf and .odt (minor tweaking may be required). Given that this software has yet to reach version 1.0, it is quite impressive—I like it a lot.

But my favorite of the three open source Scrivener-inspired programs we’re examining here is Manuskript.

Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is logically organized with the writing area centered between two side tool panels. In this case, the left panel can disappear entirely while the right panel can be minimized. There is an excellent full-screen, distraction-free mode (borrowed from FocusWriter) which can be customized.

The Manuskript interface, Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.
The Manuskript interface. Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript, again like Plume Creator, is still working toward version 1.0. But the program seems very stable and I feel pretty confident my work is safe while using it (likewise with Plume Creator). I prefer Manuskript for its somewhat more intuitive organizational scheme and its somewhat greater flexibility; the program just “feels right” to me and I also think it looks more attractive than the other two.

A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.
A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Manuskript does fall down somewhat is in its exporting performance; both Bibisco and Plume Creator do a better job at present. Manuskript uses Pandoc to export (or “compile,” as Scrivener does) to a wide range of formats, including .epub, .odt, .docx, .pdf and even LaTeX. But there seems to be some sort of mismatch with Pandoc when exporting from Manuskript’s graphical interface. I’ve discovered a workaround of sorts on a Manuskript GitHub page: simply export to plain .txt format, then use Pandoc on the command line, like so:

pandoc -s -o myprj-output.odt myprj-export.txt

where “myprj” is the name of your Manuskript project. This will give you a LibreOffice Open Document file that at least separates your scenes properly. A more direct solution is to simply copy-and-paste finished scenes from Manuskript into LibreOffice Writer. I feel confident the developer will improve the export function in future versions of the program.

And there you have it: a (relatively) brief overview of today’s most popular open source creative writing tools. Since all of these programs are available for both Windows and Mac you can easily try any of them that pique your interest. With luck, you’ll find a writing app that helps improve your workflow, provides some added privacy/security (as long as you download the software from the developers’ sites linked above) and saves you a bit of money in the process.

 

Scrivener 3 Review

This is a somewhat belated review of Scrivener 3, which was released (for Mac only) last November. Scrivener is the dominant app for novelists and other long-form writers (not counting Word, which is still the publishing industry standard), and this latest update—which was years in the making—brings some important changes.

First, the program’s interface has been significantly improved. Scrivener simply looks better; it seems more modern and up-to-date. This is important, since competitors like Ulysses have long had an aesthetic advantage. Better-looking software seems more inviting and easier to use (even if it’s not), so Scrivener’s visual update is important. And Scrivener 3 is more inviting and easier to use (click the images below to enlarge).

Scrivener 3's 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3’s 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you might expect, this Swiss Army knife of writing programs has a lot of changes under the hood as well. Here are some of the more important ones:

  • The Compile function has been updated to be more flexible (although I’ve never had a problem with the previous version).
  • “Styles” have been improved (this will be important chiefly to those who self-publish).
  • Index cards can now be viewed on colored threads to differentiate them; this is more like a plot outline than anything Scrivener has offered before.
  • Outlining in general has been enhanced.
  • Up to four documents can be viewed in the main window using “Copyholders” features.
  • You can now see draft and session progress bars in the toolbar.
  • The new “Dialogue Focus” can highlight all the dialog in your text.
  • Scrivener’s codebase has been updated for 64-bit, making the program faster and more stable.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrivener’s visual update is important (there’s even a spiffy new logo). But how does it feel to work with the new version?

The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.
The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

Quite nice, actually. Scrivener has always had the ability to focus on just your words (it’s called “Composition Mode”), and this view is slicker and more useful than ever. It’s customizable, and it lets you access the Scrivener toolbar by moving your mouse to the top of the screen and access a word count and other helpful features by moving your mouse to the bottom. Plus, Composition Mode is very attractive at its default setting (which you can modify to your heart’s content).

Scrivener's Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.
Scrivener’s Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.

 

 

 

 

 

The chief complaint I’ve heard about Scrivener over the years concerns its complexity—there are so many tools available that the program can seem quite daunting, especially to newcomers. I think version 3 mitigates this to some extent with its compelling visual makeover. And in point of fact, you’re not required to use all the tools Scrivener provides. You can set up the program to simply work with chapters or scenes and forgo all the extras if this seems more appealing. This will give you a work environment much like Ulysses, but without that program’s unfortunate monthly subscription fee.

Actually, I suspect that for most professional writers Scrivener’s chief competitor is Word. Word contains its own universe of tools and options, but many people are accustomed to using it simply to outline and write. Scrivener can be used in similar fashion, but it provides a significantly more attractive environment for writing (and it exports to Word flawlessly when you’re ready to submit your work).

If you have Scrivener 2, an upgrade to version 3 costs $25. If you’re purchasing Scrivener for the first time, you’ll pay $45. In both cases, this is money very well spent.

Scrivener is cross-platform and version 3 for Windows is due sometime later this year. If you buy the current Windows version now ($45) the upgrade to version 3 will be free.

A couple of final notes. First, Scrivener 3 is not backward-compatible with the previous version, but this turns out not to be much of a problem—the program thoughtfully creates a backup in the old file format when it converts your work to version 3. You can go back and forth between the two versions, in other words. Second, there is a beta version of version 3 available for Windows now. I’m delighted to report that it works fine in Wine on my Linux system (and presumably on Windows itself as well). Scrivener originally had a Linux beta available, but as a small company Literature & Latte decided to suspend Linux development and focus on Mac and Windows (and iOS) instead. I commend them for taking pains to make sure Scrivener 3 can still be run on Linux, through Wine compatibility.

Scrivener 3 is an important upgrade and writers at every level should benefit from its improvements.

Love Poem

How does one cope with today’s endless stream of poisonous news? People have wide-ranging methods, none of which completely suffice. They console or goad one another on Facebook. They distract themselves with a binge-worthy streaming series or a good book. They (quite reasonably) decide to get drunk or high on occasion.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells himself, and us, that life is actually getting better in his new book, Enlightenment Now.

I decided to post this love poem, a bit belatedly after Valentine’s Day. The poem originally appeared in Antiphon’s Issue 21 last year.

New York's High Line. Photo: jharchitecture.
New York’s High Line. Photo: jharchitecture.

 

 

 

 

 

“High”

Sometimes I wish I were still back
in the city, astonished to find her
standing tremulous outside the door of
my fifth floor walk-up, radiating belief
and determination. Yes and yes and yes

and yes again, as a sudden cascade of
comprehension sweeps my wits away.
I feel my soft defenses dissolve
in a quickly rising light that seems to come
from everywhere as we embrace

and exchange our silent vows. The glow
envelops us and cushions us and lifts us up
to float on a stream of bodily joy
down the narrow stairwell to the streets below.

And now the city’s raucous throb drifts
outside as we walk hand-in-hand within our cloud
along the crowded sidewalk, awash in reflected
traffic lights, illuminated windows and the shimmer
of a thousand strangers’ eyes, who recognize us

and yet do not. We breathe in and leap up,
far above New York, to a night sky High Line
where our bodies feel free
to stroll forever
weightless and without pain.
We are amazed how time has flown.
We would do anything to fly again.

—Thomas Pletcher

Can AI Save Us?

In absolute terms, humanity hasn’t been around very long at all. From our own perspective, though, evolution seems to be taking an eternity. As a species, we remain profoundly stupid.

We haven’t learned to share, or to work toward our common interests. We befoul our own nest. We continue to develop weapons which threaten annihilation. With every small step forward made by an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Tolstoy, the species as a whole has trouble following. We lurch toward progress, then rapidly retreat again—witness the 2016 U. S. election.

Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom (Oxford University Press, 2014). Is it the answer, or the end?
Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom (Oxford University Press, 2014). Is it the answer, or the end?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do we need somebody—or something—smarter to step in and take charge? AI may fit the bill, especially artificial intelligence of the “superintelligence” variety discussed in Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book of the same name.

But of course, as with all things human, the answer is not so straightforward. You may have read that scientific and tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded warnings about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence technology. Indeed, Musk calls AI an “existential threat” to human civilization and has co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, open-source AI research company, to try to foster collaboration in developing “friendly AI” as a result.

Bostrom sounds an alarm in Superintelligence, as well. The concern is that research into and continued development of AI might lead to an “intelligence explosion” that would create an entity or entities so much smarter than us that we would become redundant and dispensable. Bostrom has coined the term “Singleton” to designate such an all-controlling superintelligence. A “bad” Singleton would be the end of us.

However, a vein of optimism runs through Superintelligence, too. Bostrom believes, or would like to believe, that humanity has a potential “cosmic endowment” which could be realized through a benign superintelligence. He acknowledges that the odds would seem to be against this, and likens humanity and superintelligence to a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands. The core problem is one of control: how do we create a superintelligence that will not jettison humanity but rather work to enhance it?

We must, Bostrom says, “hold on to our humanity … maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.” This is, Bostrom maintains, “the essential task of our age.”

At a moment in history when bellicosity and benightedness are ascendant, this is a very tall order indeed. Yet contemplating Bostrom’s suggested cosmic endowment is a worthwhile exercise in staving off despair. One must hope there remain enough intelligent and altruistic people at work in the field of AI (and in every other important field) to make envisioning a better future viable.

A Nod to Empathy

I’ve just published a poem, “Transient,” in Poetry Quarterly (issue #30, Summer 2017, running a bit behind schedule). Because the magazine is behind a paywall, you would need to purchase a rather expensive printed copy or else subscribe to the online version to read it. That being the case, and because the poem is about empathy, a quality sorely needed today, I’ll reproduce it here.

—Thomas Pletcher

Poetry Quarterly, Issue 30, Summer 2017.
The Poetry Quarterly logo. My poem “Transient” in Issue 30 is a nod to empathy.

“Transient”

A damaged person on the floor,
filthy, scuffed, like the station itself.
Above the person hulks a cop, hand
on holster. The cop smirks and says, get up.
Get up scumbag and move the hell out.
His victim tries to stand but slumps back down,
a person in transit who needs to rest awhile.
No vagrants in the terminal
the cop says. Port Authority badge.
I remember this the only way I can,
hazily, since I
was drinking myself.
All this many years ago, when
the city’s days were dim and grim.
What was wrong with that person?
Couldn’t he/she rise?
Has karma messed that cop up by now?
I walk over and see the dull badge
has no name, only a number. Meanwhile,
the individual moans.
We need some help here, I say.
Some help my ass the cop says.
He kicks the prone figure once, then leaves.
I bend down to check:
that numb stare could yet be anyone’s.
Yours. Mine.

Two Takes on Sin

Society’s conception of sin continues to evolve over time. Religious instruction we may have received as children might not match up with our conception of what’s thought sinful today. In addition, the categories of sin have expanded to include the institutional and the national, among others, in addition to the personal. And sin’s contextual setting is generally secular.

Despite this fluidity, two recent novels tackle subjects that qualify as sinful from almost anyone’s vantage point. The multiple-award-winning (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) novel  The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tackles America’s original sins of slavery and genocide (violence and theft perpetrated against Native Americans appears as a thread throughout the book). This year’s buzz-generating novel, My Absolute Darling by debut author Gabriel Tallent, is focused on the personal: child sexual abuse and incest. The two novels are quite different but both are intensely gripping reads.

The Underground Railroad provides an extraordinary and unforgettable journey.
The Underground Railroad provides an extraordinary and unforgettable journey. Photo: Amazon.com.

Let’s begin with The Underground Railroad. Whitehead has done a number of extraordinary things with this book. First, he has done a phenomenal job of describing the experience of slavery and the pervasive, lasting damage it caused. The novel’s primary heroine, Cora, is completely believable in her fluctuating fear and courage, hesitation and anger. Cora is pinpointed within her biological (her grandmother Ajarry and her mother Mabel are nicely delineated) and geographical (Cora starts her journey on a vicious plantation in Georgia and travels the railroad from there) settings, so she seems very tangible and real, as do her antagonists. One of these, the “slave catcher” Ridgeway, reminds me of of the judge in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian in his flamboyantly malevolent behavior and philosophizing. Among its other sterling qualities, The Underground Railroad is a real page-turner. It’s a hell of a story.

The story is even richer for its ingenious sci-fi twist: the underground railroad is a literal railroad, complete with tracks and actual trains traveling unseen through hidden tunnels laboriously carved out beneath the earth. The stations are hidden under the homes and barns of abolitionist sympathizers deep in the South. This literal railroad is handled with subtlety and actually seems quite believable in context. Its operators run enormous risks, and some of them pay dearly. The Underground Railroad presents a unique and unforgettable view of the horrors of slavery, and its lessons pack unfortunate relevance in today’s America. The fact that the novel is also a fabulous read only adds to its achievement.

The case for My Absolute Darling is not quite so convincing. It too is a stunning read, but in an entirely different and more claustrophobic way. It was published quite recently and hasn’t garnered any awards yet, but it has received extraordinarily extravagant, not to say hyperbolic, praise. Stephen King has already hailed the book as a “masterpiece”; this strikes me as a bit premature.

My Absolute Darling is painful to read and difficult to put down.
My Absolute Darling is painful to read and difficult to put down. Photo: Amazon.com.

The core of the book concerns the struggles of 14-year-old “Turtle” Alveston to survive the depredations, sexual and otherwise, of her charismatic but dangerously out of control father, Martin. The Alvestons (Martin’s wife has already died under sketchy circumstances) live alone, in a remote setting nearly off the grid outside Mendocino. Martin is a survivalist as well, and browbeats his daughter on a regular basis to master the necessary skills. Between that and the incest, it’s small wonder that Turtle struggles in every  way at school and is a conspicuous outcast.

It has to be acknowledged that the book is exceptionally well-written. Tallent’s mother Elizabeth (one of his two mothers; he was raised by lesbians) is a well-regarded writer in her own right, having published stories and essays in The New Yorker and many other publications. So writing runs in the family. And Gabriel was brought up in the area where the book is set, which contributes to its sense of authenticity. His writing on Northern California flora, and the distinctions to be drawn between various firearms, is incredibly detailed and adds another layer of verisimilitude. Furthermore, Tallent’s depiction of Jacob, a high school boy who starts to draw Turtle out and eventually draw her toward the outside world, is marvelously done. Jacob’s sophisticated banter and essential innocence ring completely true.

Yet there is an ugliness in the book that revolves around its subject matter. Tallent has stated, in interview after interview, that he wanted to handle the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her father gingerly without any hint of exploitation. He probably does this as well as it can be done but the subject stands regardless and continues to radiate its own unhealthy attraction for the reader.

I want to give Gabriel Tallent the benefit of the doubt, simply because this book is so well written. But the book’s denouement gives me pause: it is written in such a sweeping cinematic style that it is as though the writer were simply transcribing the scene from the film that is sure to come. My Absolute Darling is going to transform Gabriel Tallent’s life and make him famous (well, as famous as a writer can be these days) and wealthy. Did he set out to achieve this? You might reply that the book is so masterfully done it doesn’t really matter. But if Tallent chose to depict Turtle’s sufferings simply to draw readers in, wouldn’t that be a kind of sin in itself?

Ulysses Runs Aground

One of my first posts on this site was in praise of Ulysses, the very stylish and capable writers’ text editor I used to write my 50,000-word novella during last fall’s NaNoWriMo. I continue to admire and enjoy this software but I’m about to stop using it. The reason? Ulysses is switching to a subscription-only model.

I oppose such a model on philosophical grounds, which I’ll try to outline below. I also think this switch will prove to be a failing business model for Ulysses, unless there are more dilettante/hobbyist writers out there than anyone previously realized. In fact I hope this model does fail, and Ulysses returns to the standard software practice of buy once, then pay for occasional significant updates.

Ulysses is moving in the wrong direction.
Ulysses is moving in the wrong direction. Icon © Ulysses GmbH & Co.

Adobe was the conspicuous pioneer in subscription software and the model has apparently worked for them. The big difference here, though, is that Adobe is the industry standard for designers everywhere. (Since I’m not a designer, I promptly stopped using Photoshop and other Adobe products and was able to replace the functionality I needed with no difficulty.) The equivalent standard for writers, at least where submission for publication is concerned, is Microsoft Word. And Word still offers the ability to purchase the software, instead of subscribing to it. There is no standard software for the process of writing. If there were to be such software, Scrivener would probably be the most likely candidate.

Ulysses actually suits the way I write better than Scrivener does, but so do many of its rivals, some of which also offer cross-platform capability (Ulysses is Apple only). And Scrivener itself can be a marvelous writing tool when pared down to its composition mode. The program is not as “pretty” as Ulysses but it does far more. Scrivener is essential for its excellent templates and for its comprehensive export capabilities. You can use it to write fluidly, reorganize and revise in fine detail, and then prepare a flawless manuscript for submission. No other software, including Ulysses, can do all of that nearly so well.

iA Writer, Sublime Text (properly configured) and the up-and-coming Write! all provide attractive, customizable writing environments with a left-hand sidebar for project navigation and organization (Write! just recently introduced a local sidebar and is already working to improve it). Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. Any of these programs can substitute for Ulysses during the first draft process, with Scrivener coming into play after the first draft is complete. (The software I’m using to write this post, Byword, would also qualify if it would just add a navigational sidebar.) What’s more, all of these programs employ traditional files and folders to organize your work. Ulysses, in contrast, hides your work deep in a largely inaccessible database, though you can deliberately create external files and folders if you wish. Some people think this system provides advantages; I don’t.

Here are a few reasons why a I think a subscription model for Ulysses is a really bad idea:

  • The cost for the end user becomes disproportionate. Let’s say you paid $45 to purchase Ulysses. Suddenly, you’re asked to pay $40 per year to continue using it. (Granted, existing users pay “only” $30 per year.) Now, this isn’t cost-prohibitive per se. Ulysses is excellent software and many people would argue it’s worth the added cost. But suppose you also buy Scrivener for $45 and then pay for two upgrades at $30 each over a 10-year period. That’s $105 over 10 years for what is arguably the one truly indispensable writers’ program, vs $300-$400 for Ulysses. Ulysses is not worth that cost differential; I think its developers are being a bit greedy here.
  • Suppose every bit of software you use regularly suddenly demanded that you subscribe in order to continue using it. Apart from the significant added cost, it would drive you crazy to keep track of all the required payments. The historical purchase-once, pay-to-upgrade model for software makes far more sense.
  • Ulysses is writing software. Its developers argue they need the extra subscription money in order to deliver “continuous improvements”. Writing software does not need continuous improvements—indeed, constant change for the sake of some supposed “improvement” would actually be detrimental. Once a writing program offers a flexible and pleasing interface, basic editing features and word count and the ability to navigate and modify project file structures, anything beyond is extraneous at best. I don’t use many of the extra features Ulysses already offers.

So, unless or until Ulysses comes to its senses, I’ll be using iA Writer and Sublime Text, among other programs, for short fiction and poetry and Scrivener for long-form work and revisions.

Irrelevant Fantasy

In the Guardian recently, fantasy author “Robin Hobb” (real name Margaret Ogden) is quoted as saying, “Fantasy has become something you don’t have to be embarrassed about.”

I strongly disagree—I think readers and writers of fantasy alike should be highly embarrassed, and that includes writers as popular as Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin and as feckless as Lidia Yuknavitch, whose very poorly written The Book of Joan is briefly reviewed below.

The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com
The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com

Fantasy fans should be embarrassed because what they do has no bearing on reality, be it the reality described by astrophysics or the inner life of the mind. There is only the sketchiest, most tangential connection to real world concerns and problems. Fantasy enthusiasts are estranged from these concerns and problems, or hiding from them. They are children playing games of make-believe. They are fleeing adult responsibilities, including the responsibility to strive to make some sort of sense of the world.

I realize there are people who enjoy the genre, and these folks will obviously disagree quite strongly with what I’m asserting here. But consider: we as human beings have not yet gained the abilities to fully understand the universe we inhabit. Why waste time creating imaginary worlds that invariably pale in comparison to the mysteries of our own? It strikes me as an abdication of sorts, like a child turning his back on other children and retreating to a corner to play by himself.

I suspect deep psychic pain may make fantasy attractive for some people, as the genre offers a way to escape from the known world without the extreme of actually, physically quitting it. This is likely so in Yuknavitch’s case; the author apparently had a deeply traumatic childhood and the world limned in The Book of Joan features supernaturally strong women as a probable consequence. I can understand and respect this. But I can’t respect the way it’s done.

The following critique relates to The Book of Joan and extends to fantasy in general.

  • It’s intellectually lazy. Read this description of the scenario Yuknavitch sets up: “CIEL was built from redesigned remnants from old space stations and science extensions of former astro and military industrial complexes. We who live here number in the thousands, from what used to be hundreds of countries. Every single one of us was a member of a former ruling class. Earth’s the dying clod beneath us. We siphon and drain resources through invisible technological umbilical cords. Skylines. That almost sounds lyrical.” CIEL and skylines are key to the core plot of the book, yet we are supposed to take them on faith. Redesigned remnants and invisible technological umbilical cords. OK, got it.
  • It’s badly written. A sample: “‘Okay! You have my attention,’ I yell. The walls echo back at me. ‘What the fuck was that?’ My voice merely ricochets around. I walk closer to the wall. I put my hands against it; solid matter. ‘Nyx?’ Nothing. Just the vanishing points in the cave where light gives way to shadow.
    Then it’s Nyx’s voice: ‘Please take care to move slowly; you are not exactly among the living.’
    What the fuck does that mean? Not exactly among the living?”
  • It’s pointless. Various attempts have been made to link this … novel of a reimagined Joan of Arc to today’s controversies and dangers. All of these attempts are nonsense. The book has no bearing on today whatsoever. It’s pure escapism, for those who can buy into its lazy premises and tolerate its clumsy narrative and preposterous (yet clichéd) plot.

I really don’t mean to single out The Book of Joan for special abuse; for all I know, it may be one of the better recent fantasy novels. I think HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has all of the flaws found in Yuknavitch’s novel and then some. It’s every bit as irrelevant and yet it is wildly popular. In a similar vein, Donald Trump is completely unqualified for any sort of leadership role and yet he is President.

There are other, better ways to stretch your fictional boundaries, if that’s what you feel impelled to do. Science fiction? For sure. Speculative fiction? Absolutely. But fantasy? Sorry, no.