Reviews for Writers, Issue 2

I thought this might be interesting as there are many developing writers out there, and quite a lot of us are on WordPress. Simultaneously, there are a lot of people writing reviews of books. Maybe some overlap would be possible?

The idea here is that when I’ve read a book (and I often – but not always – read YA fantasy because it’s what I write), I plan to put up a review of it, but rather than simply saying how much I liked it and awarding it “three-out-of-four chocolate cakes” or something fluffy, I’ll write about what I learned from it and how it informs my own process.

I suppose it’s all about getting to know the market and audience better. Hopefully others among you who have read the same book or similar ones, or are working on fiction in this area, will benefit and feel motivated to comment.

I’ll put information about the book, so you’re familiar with what it is, and also a bit about how I got hold of it. I won’t be doing ratings.


Title and author: Stories of Your Life and Others:Ted Chiang

Length: 353 pages

Publisher: Picador

Primary category:  Kindle Store > Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Anthologies and Short Stories (Rank #5)

I paid: £5.66

Amazon description:

Includes ‘Story of Your Life’ the basis for the major motion picture Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner, and directed by Denis Villeneuve.

With his masterful first collection, multiple-award-winning author Ted Chiang deftly blends human emotion and scientific rationalism in eight remarkably diverse stories, all told in his trademark precise and evocative prose.
From a soaring Babylonian tower that connects a flat Earth with the firmament above, to a world where angelic visitations are a wondrous and terrifying part of everyday life; from a neural modification that eliminates the appeal of physical beauty, to an alien language that challenges our very perception of time and reality. . . Chiang’s rigorously imagined fantasia invites us to question our understanding of the universe and our place in it.


Why did I read it?

Well, Arrival came out last year! You know, Arrival, the Denis Villeneuve film that was a breath of fresh air as much for its realisism and intelligence as for its glorious lack of cynicism? You must have seen it, or at least heard about it when it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture (sadly winning only one, for best sound editing. To be fair, the sound was pretty on point.) Starring Amy Adams (who had a fantastic 2016, considering this and Nocturnal Animals, which I highly recomment as well if you’re into psychological thrillers), Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, it’s the story of a linguist simultaneously trying to make sense of a bereavement she’s suffered as well as the language of an alien race that’s dropped by planet Earth for reasons that are initially a mystery.

That’s the starting point. The film Arrival was my favourite film of 2016, so naturally I went in search of more information. It’s based on a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang, the well respected writer of several award-winning science-fiction short stories, called Story of Your Life. A little digging revealed this to be part of the above anthology, which contains much of his work. Having read it all now, even at £5.66 I’m tempted to call it good value.

What did I learn?

I learnt a couple of things reading through this. It’s a high quality collection of writing – none of the short stories here are duffers as far as I’m concerned, and the first thing that struck be about them is the value of writing when you’re inspired about something, when you’ve got an idea of something conceptual or philosophical that you are interested in as a writer and keen to explore. Obviously science fiction is an excellent genre for this as the nature of it invites invention technologically, socially, politically and so on, but even for something working (at the moment) in fantasy, I feel that there’s a lot that can be taken from that.

The stories here are not thematically linked in anything more than the sense that they tend to place psychological demands on their characters – though that mightly simply be a quality of any good story. That was actually a surprise when I approached it at first. Anthologies and compilations are not a form that I read, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Also, having seen the film first, I had a certain expection about the shape of the “headlining” story, Story of Your Life, on which the film was based. That part is saved for fairly late in the book, but I was never once bored or skipping ahead to see when I’d get to it. On the contrary, each story was so alive with imagination and so fresh compared with those that came before that every page was a pleasure in its own right.

There’s another lesson in there somewhere. I think it’s that writing in a compilation form allows for the freshness of the story to be repeatedly renewed. Of course, the success of the effort is very much dependent on the skills of the writer, and establishing divergent new worlds, character and concepts in only a few pages is no easy task. However, Chiang pulls it off with apparent ease, such that my abiding thought on beginning each story was “I wonder where this one’s going to go.” The relative disconectedness of the stories was like a procession of small, perfectly presented dishes of food, which one can no doubt contrast with vast stories that authors have allowed themselves to indulge to too great an extend, resulting in vast amounts of blandness. The follow-up point to that observation must surely be that the constraints of writing  in a short form, combined with the focus on exploring a particular concept of relationship of ideas, serves to keep writing fresh. This, I think, moves the role of creating content away from the plot, which is perhaps desirable, leaving it instead to package everything efficiently.

If I could find a balance between letting an overarching plot dictate events in a given passage, and letting the twin structures of intellectual curiosity and, well, structure, dictate it could be the way to go. Too much plot and you end up with colourless stodge that serves merely as a bridge from the last chapter to the next, and too much idea/structure, which might result in something that’s not a satisfying story.

Hmmm…balance. Ted Chiang gets it.