What Writers Can Learn from ACCEPTANCE by Jeff VanderMeer

htiONRbACCEPTANCE is not the book you expect. If you enjoyed the first two volumes in VanderMeer’s groundbreaking trilogy as much as I did (and boy, did I), you’ve probably spent some time thinking about the final chapter, perhaps even making a mental list of revelations and developments you expect it to deliver, à la the series finales of TV shows shrouded in mystery, like Lost or Twin Peaks.

Throw away that list. Forget all those expectations. Don’t worry: reading ACCEPTANCE after the first two Southern Reach books is akin to the grand finale of a fireworks show, but instead of bigger fireworks, you get the coda to Beethoven’s Fifth.

As mankind stumbles into the twenty-first century and beyond, we are destined for more frequent encounters with the unknown, thanks to the march of science. Whether it’s the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or new forms of life we didn’t think were possible, our understanding of existence (nature, the universe, etc.) is expanding at an unprecedented rate that will only continue to increase.

But how much are we really capable of understanding? What is the ceiling of the scientific method? Of nature’s ingenuity? How trapped are we in our own minds and bodies, in our ignorance of the self and the Other?

What else is out there? And what else is already here?

That’s what ACCEPTANCE is about: the limitations of human perception in a universe full of unknowables. After the breathless adventure in the wilds of ANNIHILATION and the claustrophobic chills of AUTHORITY, the third and final volume in the Southern Reach trilogy is a New Weird epic, a speculative tour de force that defies classification. Seamlessly spanning multiple decades and points of view, VanderMeer wrings the last secrets out of Area X in a series of shockingly beautiful twists and turns.

It is not hyperbolic to say that ACCEPTANCE is the worthy culmination of one of the seminal reading experiences of my life. It is a story and a way of looking at the wonders and horrors of nature and being alive that will stay with me for a very long time.

So. Though I lack the wisdom and scholarship to analyze ACCEPTANCE to the degree it deserves, here are a few aspects of the novel that writers can learn from. I will also have a brief piece on the entire trilogy published in the next issue of the Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction. Be forewarned that there are potential spoilers below if you haven’t finished the trilogy.

Stay Concrete, Except for When You Shouldn’t
Writing students are often urged to stay “concrete” and “low on the ladder of abstraction” in their prose, particularly when it comes to the visual detail responsible for establishing scene, setting, and tone. For the most part, this is good advice, and VanderMeer’s lush descriptions of marshes and salt flats and birds–taken from real-life hikes on the Gulf Coast–demonstrate the power of immersive, hyper-specific details, as opposed to the vague everycities and everywoods found in lesser fare.

But should everything in your fiction be so concrete? Particularly if you’re writing speculative fiction, which dabbles in the unknown and the never-before-seen?

There is a method of stargazing called averted vision, used to spot celestial objects too faint for direct eyesight. The literary technique VanderMeer uses when his characters encounter the unknowable is similar. Take this passage from ACCEPTANCE, where Ghost Bird watches something massive approach:

The hillside come alive and sliding down to the ruined lighthouse, at a steady pace like a lava flow. This intrusion. These darknesses that re-formed into a mighty shape against the darkness of the night sky, lightened by the reflections of clouds and the greater shadow of the tree line and the forests.

Note that VanderMeer chooses not to provide an all-encompassing, concrete description–not here and not in the pages that follow–and that the…being…is all the more real and interesting because of its slippery nature. Of course, the slippery nature of perception is one of the trilogy’s primary themes, and a common thread in speculative fiction, but it’s also the conceptual bedrock underlying good fiction of all stripes, as illuminated by Robert Boswell in The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction.

Challenge Your First Thoughts and Instincts
All of VanderMeer’s work is surprising in one way or anotherbut perhaps none more so than ACCEPTANCE. There are several episodes in particular that are so mind-blowing, I won’t even mention them here.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, along with many other how-to guides, extols the importance of surprising readers and audiences in ways that feel inevitable. I’m not Jeff VanderMeer, so I can’t say this for certain, but I doubt all the twists and turns of ACCEPTANCE’s plot were included in the first outline he used to start writing, if he even uses such things.

There is value in conceptualizing the structure of a story before you start writing, in building a road map or a blueprint, no matter how skeletal, to help you find a way through 100,000 words. But there is also value in challenging the first ideas your mind jumps to. Having read so many stories, you likely know what the “typical” or “industry standard” is for the next narrative step. You know it’s time for a good guy to be revealed as a villain, or for romantic tension to blossom, etc.

But sometimes you should ignore those first, instinctual narrative ideas. Look for new roads to take. Make an outline, sure, but give yourself the freedom to improvise while you’re writing, to play jazz, to take the story somewhere completely different than you thought possible. That’s how you surprise readers: by surprising yourself.

Get Off Your Ass
VanderMeer couldn’t have written this trilogy from the comfort of his own home. Well…maybe the physical, literal writing, but not everything else. Not without taking long hikes in the Florida wilderness and working some really weird day-jobs.

Sure, the discipline to sit at your desk and write for hundreds of hours is pivotal, and probably the aspect of writing that I struggle with the most. But you know what else is pivotal? Going for walks in the woods, talking to bizarre people who hang out in bowling alleys, exploring that random small town a few miles down the road you’ve heard so many weird stories about, reading newspapers and watching science documentaries, or working a few soul-crushing jobs that you’re definitely way too smart for.

To write something interesting, you need to collect and filter interesting material from outside your comfort zone. To borrow one of VanderMeer’s terms, messy real-life experiences provide the “mulch” your fiction needs to blossom.

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I can’t believe the Southern Reach trilogy is over. Word is we’ll see a short story set in the same fictional universe one day, so that’s promising. Did I want more “resolution” at the end of the day? Of course I did. But the books are about that wanting, that desire to know. It’s what makes us human and what ultimately fails us.

UPDATE: Another bit of writerly advice from VanderMeer himself, in response:

RGkBfEd

Book Review: CALIFORNIA by Edan Lepucki

californiaInstead of a sudden apocalypse, the world is suffering a slow, gradual collapse in Lepucki’s debut novel, the vaguely titled CALIFORNIA (is it a travel guide? a state history? at least the cover is beautifully disorienting).

It’s ambitious, intriguing, and frequently maddening. It’s THE WALKING DEAD by way of Emily Gould, sans zombies.

In the not-too-distant future, thanks to a variety of off-screen eco (-logic and -nomic) disasters, Los Angeles has decayed into a state of lawless chaos. “I can’t stand how awful everything is here,” says Cal, a young academic. His wife, Frida, agrees:

Because she understood, Frida didn’t ask him to elaborate. He could have meant L.A.’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and its sagging houses. All those dead lawns. Or maybe he meant the closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out.

Desperate, Cal and Frida flee Los Angeles for the California wilderness, where they settle in an abandoned shack. They survive off the land, thanks to Cal’s resourcefulness and Frida’s culinary knowledge.

Cal thinks they can remain post-apocalyptic pioneers forever, but Frida wants to continue exploring, to find other homesteaders like themselves who survived society’s collapse. It’s just one of about 800 things Cal and Frida disagree on, and if you keep score at home, Cal is right 799 times, but more on that later.

Turns out, they aren’t alone in the wilderness. A few miles east, giant metallic spikes made of found objects rise out of the earth. Are they a sign of new civilization? Or a warning to keep away?

A far as high-concept premises go, it’s a great hook. Lepucki knows how to ask interesting questions. She’s good at compelling us to explore the world she’s built. Unfortunately, CALIFORNIA only devotes about 10% of its pages to adventure and exploration, preferring to delay, digress, and withhold detailed world-building information.

Another 30% consists of wildly tangential flashbacks to Cal and Frida’s lives before the collapse of civilization, while the final 60%–the bulk of the book–is a series of spoken and unspoken arguments between Cal and Frida, ranging from the mundane (turkey basters) to the existential (“Should we bring a child into a world like this?”).

While the latter kinds of questions are certainly ripe for narrative exploration, far too often CALIFORNIA dwells on the former, with Cal and Frida’s positions almost always falling into clichéd gender roles, i.e., the rational male and the emotional female.

Conflict is vital to fiction. So why does the dichotomy between Cal and Frida’s perspectives feel stretched so thin over these 400 pages?

Perhaps it’s an issue of expectation. Given the book’s premise, one wouldn’t expect a slow-paced examination of the difficulties of marriage that uses the apocalypse as a backdrop without adding anything new or unexpected to the genre.

Wild Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Heart of North Carolina

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I’m happy to announce The History Press, the UK’s largest publisher of specialist history and natural history, will publish my next book in the summer of 2015, entitled Wild Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Heart of North Carolina.

When I moved back to North Carolina from Chicago last fall, one of the things I looked forward to most was writing about the most beautiful state on earth again (no offense, Illinois). North Carolina has no glistening metropolis to rival Chicago’s cultural and architectural prestige, but it does have the greatest concentration of natural wonders east of the Continental Divide.

I’ll be traveling to each of the 25 sites listed below later this year to conduct research and take photographs for the book. I’ll be tweeting and instagramming the experience as well, if you’d like to follow along.

After a broad introduction to the region’s natural history and character, each chapter will focus on one of the Piedmont’s celebrated wild spaces by detailing their geological and ecological profiles, seasonal changes, trails, plants and animals, as well as interviews with local experts and full-color photos.

Instead of a directional guide to the region’s trails, Wild Piedmont will be like taking a guided tour with a naturalist. The goal is to help readers of all ages and levels of experience find and understand North Carolina’s great wild spaces.

What’s the Piedmont?
Stretching from the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the West to the fall line in the East, the Piedmont region makes up the “middle third” of North Carolina, a hilly plateau between the mountains and the coastal plain.

The NC Piedmont is probably best-known as the epicenter of New South urbanization, including Charlotte, the Piedmont Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point), and the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill), but it’s also home to 11 state parks, 3 state recreational areas, 3 state natural areas, a national wildlife refuge, and a national forest.

However, Wild Piedmont will not be a simple, turn-by-turn hiking guide to the region’s trails. It will aim to enrich the reader’s knowledge of the area’s wild places, natural history, and beauty by exploring the narratives embedded in nature at all 25 sites listed below, with each chapter reading like a feature article in a magazine.

State Parks
1. Crowders Mountain
2. Eno River
3. Hanging Rock
4. Haw River
5. Lake Norman
6. Mayo River
7. Medoc Mountain
8. Morrow Mountain
9. Pilot Mountain
10. Raven Rock
11. William B. Umstead

State Natural and Recreation Areas
12. Falls Lake
13. Jordan Lake
14. Kerr Lake
15. Hemlock Bluffs
16. Lower Haw River
17. Occoneechee Mountain

Other Wild Places
18. Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge
19. Uwharrie National Forest
20. Yadkin River State Trail
21. Mountains-to-Sea Trail

City Escapes
22. Charlotte
23. Greensboro and Winston-Salem
24. Durham and Chapel Hill
25. Raleigh

More details to come!

Read this book: THE BLACK HOUR by Lori-Rader Day

9781616148850_p0_v1_s260x420THE BLACK HOUR by Lori Rader-Day hits shelves and e-readers today, July 8th. You can buy it here. She also has a gorgeous website over here.

Lori is a friend of mine from graduate school in Chicago, so I had the pleasure of reading her debut novel from Seventh Street Books several months ago. I read it in one sitting. It’s that good.

Over at Bookpage, I called it “a perfect thriller for the summer.” It combines three of my favorite things: Chicago, academia, and mystery.

THE BLACK HOUR is a mystery set in modern-day Chicago, on the lakeshore campus of a distinguished university with more than a few dark secrets. The world needs more Chicago-based fiction, and THE BLACK HOUR, is a welcome addition to the city’s canon alongside Michael Harvey, Jim Butcher, and Veronica Roth. Except this novel is better than any of theirs, because it goes beyond the genre’s cliches and archetypes, and really showcases Chicagoland instead of relegating it to background scenery.

The dialogue crackles like Mamet’s. The characters are fascinating and true-to-life. The minimalist prose flows like a well-honed screenplay. And the mystery…THE MYSTERY. It’s a killer.

It’s a perfect thriller to cuddle up with this summer, preferably at night, in the quiet of your own home. Just don’t expect to get much sleep.

Lori will be appearing at a variety of events throughout the Midwest this summer, so stop by and get her to sign that beautiful softcover.

Where To Visit Riven in Real Life

Last month, I showed you where to find the ages of Myst in real life. Compared to the islands of Riven (the sequel to Myst) that was a piece of cake. Riven is one kooky place, with landscapes and images right out of your strangest dreams, but here’s the closest you can get to its five islands in real life.

General landscapes: Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

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Nothing evokes the fractured islands of Riven better than Thailand’s beautiful sea stacks. Can’t you just picture a marble dome up there?

Temple Island: Power Plant IM Cooling Tower, Belgium

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Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of massive gold domes in the real world (although there are a few). But the interior of this abandoned cooling tower takes me right back to that creepy, cavernous room that powered Gehn’s fire marble domes.

Jungle Island: California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture

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You won’t find any submarines or whark gallows, but Nader Khalili‘s experimental adobe dwellings in the Mojave Desert–with applications ranging from the Moon and Mars to third-world villages and emergency shelters on earth–sure do look a lot like Rivenese homes. Their Rumi Dome also looks like something straight out of a Cyan world.

Book Assembly Island: Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand 

White Island

This rocky island’s discolored caldera lake is about as close as you could get to Gehn’s book-making headquarters. If only a steampunk-esque laboratory were perched on the rim…

Survey Island: Hammam Meskhoutine, Algeria

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These hot springs don’t even have an english Wikipedia page, but the travertine formations are nearly identical to the ones in Survey Island’s geothermal lake. Sans black spikey rocks, of course. And if you’re looking for Gehn’s whark throne room, Okinawa Churami Aquarium in Japan is just missing a few stalagmites.

Prison Island: El Árbol del Tule, Mexico

tule-tree-knot-24

You won’t find any giant half-trees growing out of the ocean in real life, so kudos to Cyan for their imagination. But the Tree of Tule in Mexico–the world’s second-stoutest–is definitely wide enough to hold Catherine’s prison if anyone would like to spend the rest of their lives chopping it in half.

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Next time, I’ll track down the ages of Uru.