Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

February 1, 2023

January Reading Recap

My reading year started off great, with lots of books and lots of variety:

AGE OF VICE by Deepti Kapoor opens with a gruesome accident: a speeding Mercedes mows down five people who were sleeping on a Delhi sidewalk. The drunk man who the police find in the driver's seat, Ajay, is well-dressed but recognizably a servant and not the owner of the car. He's carted off to jail, though there's a sense that he might be taking the fall for someone else. Then the story jumps back to show Ajay's impoverished childhood, the events that led to him being sold into servitude, and how he eventually became an employee of the wealthy and powerful Wadia family. Further shifts in time and perspective provide a deeper look at the characters Ajay quietly serves and observes. The heir Sunny Wadia dreams of doing something positive with his money, but he struggles against his father's corrupt influence and the ease of sinking back into frivolous partying. Sunny briefly finds happiness with the journalist Neda, who is also torn over whether to walk the difficult or the easy path. The narratives of these characters and others weave together to reveal everything that led toward and away from the accident, and how all that is part of a larger power struggle.

If you're at all interested in reading a literary crime thriller, I highly recommend this tense, layered novel. While during the short opening section I was unsure I liked what I was getting into, once the story flashed back, I was quickly drawn in and remained fascinated until the end. The prose is masterfully crafted, sometimes clipped and sometimes lush, to control the drama and emotion. My sympathy was with the characters even though their behavior was often reprehensible. I enjoyed exploring a world I knew nothing about, the extremes of wealth and poverty in Delhi and northern India in the early 2000s.

The book ends at a pivotal moment, leaving the reader to imagine the consequences. It didn't occur to me that made it unfinished until I learned this is the start of a planned trilogy. I look forward to more.

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE by V.E. Schwab: Addie made an ill-defined deal with a shadowy god, and now she's cursed to live forever but never make a mark on the world, including in the memory of people she meets. As soon as a conversation or a passionate night ends and she's out of a person's sight, they forget her entirely and have no idea what transpired between them. For three hundred years, Addie has survived in this lonely, precarious existence, holding tight to the moments of happiness since she can't keep hold of much else. Friendships or a job are impossible, and even securing lodging is unreliable because at any moment she might be mistaken for a trespasser. But Addie has persisted from eighteenth century France to modern day New York City, when she meets someone who just might change her circumstances.

I appreciate stories that do a good job exploring what it would be like to live under some strange magical constraint, and this novel delivers that. I enjoyed getting to know Addie and the other characters she encounters across a range of historical settings. I had fun guessing at what was coming and often being surprised. The book could have been shorter, because certain aspects of the story became repetitive after a while, but aside from some impatience in the middle, I was glad I picked up this novel I've been hearing about for a while.

THE ROUTE OF ICE AND SALT by José Luis Zárate, translated from Spanish by David Bowles: This novella is narrated by the captain of the ship that brings Dracula to England, though of course he's unaware what story he's a part of. The captain's own story is that he's filled with desire for other men but will not allow himself to do anything that would reveal this to his crew. He watches his men at their work and imagines licking the sweat from their bodies, but he will never touch, only fantasize and dwell on old memories. On this journey, the ship's only cargo is fifty boxes of earth, and this seems to be having some strange effects on the rats aboard. As the days pass, events grow stranger, and the crew becomes more uneasy. Then the men start to disappear, one by one.

The short book is divided into three sections, each with a different style. The first is atmospheric and often erotic, with gradually building dread. In the second part, the quickly escalating situation leaves no time for longing. At the end, the doomed captain is mostly lost in memories. Every section was interesting to read but more literary and abstract than I was expecting. Two introductions and an afterword provide useful context about the book, which was first published in Mexico in 1998 and translated in 2020.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy goes into the hospital for what should be a routine appendectomy, but unexplainable complications arise, and she's stuck there for almost nine weeks. During that time, her mother comes to visit her for five days. The narration establishes these durations at the outset, because Lucy is writing her story years in the future, so scenes at the hospital alternate not only with memories of her past, but also with events that occur after the hospital stay. Lucy's relationship with her mother is strained, following a childhood of abuse and poverty. Though their conversations during the five days together are mostly about other people from their small town rather than their own family, Lucy comes to understand her mother better, to a certain extent. Later on, when Lucy pursues her dream of becoming a writer, when her marriage falls apart, and when her own children grow older, she eventually understands how her relationship with her mother shaped her.

This short book read to me more like an extended personal essay of self-reflection than a novel. The writing is good, and what Lucy has to say about herself and her life is interesting enough, but there was less to the story than I was expecting. Strout has written additional books about Lucy and the husband she divorces, and I have it on good authority that the series gets better with each installment, so now that I've learned Lucy's background, I'll probably read on.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Dan Kois at Slate writes about the bittersweet feelings of publishing his first novel at HarperCollins, where junior employees are on strike: "So here's my novel, which I've spent years on. And here's my desire to feel joy and excitement about its arrival. And here's my sadness that many of the assistants and designers and marketers and salespeople who have helped get my book into stores remain poorly paid and disrespected. It creates a real dissonance—and I'm not the only one feeling it."

January 25, 2023

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter/Spring 2023

Now that I've finished looking back on my favorite books of 2022, it's time to look ahead to the books I'm anticipating in the first half of 2023:

THE TERRAFORMERS by Annalee Newitz (January 31): I always enjoy encountering Newitz's ideas, whether in fiction, journalism, or the podcast they co-host, Our Opinions are Correct. Their two previous novels, AUTONOMOUS and THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE, explore artificial intelligence and time travel in wild and unusual ways. THE TERRAFORMERS is of course about terraforming another planet, a subject I'm interested in, and the description mentions a whole lot of additional things I can't wait to read about.

MERU by S.B. Divya (February 1): Divya's debut, MACHINEHOOD, skillfully weaves together multiple story threads following characters in a near-ish future Earth. MERU goes far into the future and out into space, where humans must work together with "posthuman descendants called alloys". This is the first book in a planned series, and I'm eager to see where it goes.

THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS by Matt Ruff (February 21): Ruff has been one of my favorite authors for a long, long time. His imaginative books range across genres and always feature excellent characters. This sequel to LOVECRAFT COUNTRY marks the first time Ruff has returned to one of his story worlds. I'm looking forward to spending more time with Atticus and his family and friends as they fight more horrors, both supernatural and all too human.

LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle (March 28): LaValle's most recent novel, THE CHANGELING, fascinated me with the unexpected ways a realistic family story morphed into horror. It appears LONE WOMEN begins as a historical Western, and what follows is sure to be cleverly creepy and will probably keep me up at night.

YELLOWFACE by R.F. Kuang (May 16): I was recently impressed by Kuang's magical alternate history, BABEL. This new novel is something utterly different, a contemporary story set in the real world of publishing, about a writer who steals another's manuscript, as well as her Asian identity. The manuscript-theft plot isn't a new one (and this sort of cultural appropriation isn't confined to fiction), but I'm excited to see what Kuang does with it.

TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie (June 6): I'm a big fan of everything Leckie writes, so any novel is great news. When I learned the focus of this latest novel set in the Imperial Radch universe, I was extra thrilled. This book centers on the Presgr and their translators, who provided such memorable characters in ANCILLARY SWORD and ANCILLARY MERCY. I can hardly wait.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Los Angeles Times, Mark Athitakis considers how 2022 became the year of the fragmented-identity novel: "Throw in some overall social and cultural atomization, and it's coming to feel like we've become rhetorically unstuck in time. Fiction is usually a lagging indicator of global crises... but much of the prominent fiction of 2022 met the moment and captured this fragmentation, thick with code-switching, style-shifting and cacophonies of anxious narration."

January 13, 2023

2022 By The Books

Every January I take a look back at the books I read over the last year. In 2022, I found time for 45 books, a high number for me in a year when I was also consistently working on a novel.

In what has become a standard pattern, about two-thirds of what I read was brand new releases, a bunch more were catching up from the previous year, and most of the rest were from the past decade. I'm still enjoying keeping track of what's being published and reading the novels I'm most excited about while other people are discussing them and interviewing the authors. Last year I read a few books from small presses or that were otherwise more obscure, but I didn't make much of a special effort to do that, so like most people, I heard about and read books that were popular (because that's how popularity works). Maybe I'll mix things up some this year, or maybe I won't, but I have no regrets about the excellent variety of books that came my way last year.

In considering my 2022 reads, I identified five reading experiences that were the most memorable. (Follow the links to the monthly reading recaps for more detailed reviews.)

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin (August) is the book I've been recommending most widely. In this emotional story, a childhood friendship becomes a troubled creative partnership that results in groundbreaking video games and a lot of personal strife. I love the characters and their complicated relationships, I ache for what they go through, and I wish I could inhabit the game worlds they design. I still think about this novel often.

TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović (June) strikes just the right balance of fun and serious in this novel set at a residential school for Deaf students. With a mix of point-of-view characters, Nović explores numerous aspects of Deaf culture and politics in the course of a gripping plot. The illustrated lessons in American Sign Language are an excellent bonus to the great story.

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler (March) delves into the fascinating history of the family of actors that produced the assassin John Wilkes Booth. Fowler takes the true historical details, imagines rich inner lives for each family member, and masterfully weaves them together. I've long been a fan of Fowler's inventive writing and the understated humor she finds in human behavior, and this novel delivers everything I expect from her work.

→ I reread A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan in preparation for the followup, THE CANDY HOUSE (both in April). On my second visit with the original, I had a far greater appreciation for how the book's chapters, each focused on a different character and with a distinct style, fit together to form a novel. With those threads fresh in my mind, I was able to catch all the connections in the new book, which follows characters at the periphery of the first set of stories. The second book involves several futuristic technologies, and I liked it even better than the first, and even better because of reading both books in quick succession.

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel (April) is so strange and so connected to Mandel's previous work that I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who isn't already a fan, though prior knowledge isn't strictly required. This story includes time travel, pandemics, moon colonies, book tours, and wonderful characters, and I loved every weird page of it. I read it not long after rereading Mandel's previous pandemic novel, STATION ELEVEN (February), not long after watching that book's fantastic TV adaptation during a surge in our real life pandemic, so it was an intense few months of Mandel appreciation for me.

Beyond the books that top my list, many more impressed me. A big factor was generally that they told compelling stories about complicated relationships. I'll briefly highlight those books and their featured dynamics:

January 6, 2023

December Reading Recap

My reading year ended well, with a great month of books:

BABEL by R.F. Kuang: After Robin is orphaned by a plague in Canton in 1829, an Englishman he's never met arrives with an odd proposition: that Robin return with him to England and study languages. There Robin is tutored in Latin and Greek and continues practicing Mandarin and English until he's old enough to enroll at Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation, nicknamed Babel. Babel's scholars develop and control all England's silver-work, bars of silver engraved with language match-pairs used to power the country and keep it dominant over the colonies. Robin's first days at Oxford open up his previously lonely world, and he's quickly in love with the university, with the translation work, and with the new friends he'll spend the next four years studying beside. Then his eyes are opened as well, when he learns that while Babel's magic relies on foreign languages, its work is designed to oppress foreign nations, like the homelands of Robin and his new friends.

BABEL is a skillfully crafted novel that lives up to its ambitious intentions. The complete title, "Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution", conveys some of the story's intricacy and also warns that by the end, there will be violence and revolution. The plot gets brutal, and Kuang does not go easy on the characters after making the reader love them. In the story's calmer moments, I appreciated the time spent discussing languages and translation and exploring the workings of the language-magic. This is a fascinating work of alternate history in which magic has reshaped the world and yet real events still play out in much the same way, and that provides an illuminating perspective on colonialism and exploitation.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz opens with a section titled "Bonds: A Novel by Harold Vanner" that tells the story of an infamously successful and reclusive financier. Benjamin Rask's only interest is in analyzing the stock ticker, and as he makes more money, he withdraws further from society. But he knows marriage is expected of him, and he finds an appropriate match in Helen, who also values solitude and independence after her unusual upbringing. This novel-within-a-novel follows the Rasks' marriage and their growing wealth through the 1920s, and at the end of the decade, there are developments on both fronts. Then the narrative shifts to a different sort of text, attributed to a different author, and new light is cast on the story of the Rasks.

TRUST is a novel that requires some patience, because it becomes more interesting as each layer is exposed. The first section involves intriguing characters, but it's written in a style that's sometimes slow going, and I was glad to be aware that something else was coming after it. With each new section, I enjoyed the increasing fun of working out the connections and guessing at what the eventual reveals would be. Diaz does a great job developing and complicating the characters at each level of the story. The book as a whole is well-crafted and clever, and I only wish the final section went slightly more in-depth to answer some lingering questions.

LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY by Bonnie Garmus has the trappings and tone of a light-hearted comedy, but it's actually a heavy-hearted one. As the novel opens, it's 1961, and Elizabeth Zott is a single mother to a precocious daughter as well as the star of a wildly popular cooking show. She's also depressed, because none of this is the life she wanted for herself. Elizabeth is a chemist, and a good one, but she was thrown out of a PhD program after her advisor raped her. She still goes on to pursue a career in chemistry, though relentless sexism makes every day at the lab a struggle. Then Elizabeth meets a fellow chemist, the only man who doesn't underestimate her, and she finally finds love and happiness after a lifetime of tragedy. Alas, that happiness is short-lived, and Elizabeth winds up on her own again, with a child and without a job. That leads eventually to hosting a TV show, purportedly to teach housewives how to prepare healthy meals but actually a platform Elizabeth uses to teach women about chemistry and their own worth and power.

As I mentioned, this is a comic novel, but I want to make clear that it's a dark comedy about surviving trauma, which isn't something most descriptions of the book mention. While I ultimately liked it quite a lot, it took me some time to start connecting because my expectations were set wrong. Garmus is using a quirkily humorous tone and sometimes absurd situations to tackle the realities of misogyny through an entertaining story. Elizabeth and the allies she gradually gathers are all excellent characters, and they're well developed through shifting points of view, including that of a very smart dog. I recommend this novel and am glad it's finding such success, but I'm surprised most of the discussion focuses on the funny parts and not the serious ones.

EVEN GREATER MISTAKES by Charlie Jane Anders collects some of her many short stories, all full of memorable characters and inventive speculative elements. I was glad to have an opportunity to spend time with a range of her work, because though most of these stories are freely available online, I'd only gotten around to reading a couple of them before. The short introduction before each story providing context about Anders's career is a nice bonus.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection play with time. "The Time Travel Club" cleverly combines imaginary and real time travel in a story featuring a whole group of wonderful characters. (Really, wonderful characters are a hallmark of every story here.) "Six Months, Three Days" charts the turbulent romance between two people who can both see the future, but in different ways. "Ghost Champagne" is an emotional story about a woman who is tormented by the constant presence of her own ghost, back from the future to haunt her.

Finding and building community is also a big theme in Anders's work. I enjoyed "Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived By Her Mercy", a quiet story about people trying to make a community on the San Francisco archipelago after the sea rises. "The Bookstore at the End of America" takes place in a divided future country that wages nonstop civil war, but the story itself is a hopeful one about the owner and patrons of a bookstore at the borderlands.

While not every story was to my taste, I was a fan of others I haven't listed here, and the collection was more hits than misses for me. A big chunk in the middle of the book is the novella "Rock Manning Goes for Broke" (the first section is online), and I was wary since the introduction warns it's extremely violent. But I was quickly drawn in by the character voice, and the surreal, slapstick nature of the story appealed to me far more than I would have expected. Which is fitting, because the unexpected is a constantly impressive feature in the work of Charlie Jane Anders.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ R. K. Duncan addresses SFF's Big Fat Problem at Tor.com: "We should all be having a conversation about how fat caricatures as villains serve to harm an already marginalized community, about how casual use of medicalizing language serves to other fat people, about how so much unremarked fatphobia makes SFF an unwelcoming community for fat creators and fat fans."

→ Meg Elison writes at Uncanny Magazine about progress in portrayal of fat characters: "Like every author on this list, I'm putting my whole fat self on the page, in the worlds that I want to see, in the struggles I know to be real by the ache between my thighs, in the heroics and beauties I know we can achieve because I see and feel them every day."

December 21, 2022

Everything Old Is Novel Again

I spent all of this year working on a novel. For my life in general, this is unremarkable, but that wasn't how I spent 2020 or 2021, and the return to full-time noveling has been a welcome development. I'm pleased with what I accomplished this year, and I'm especially glad to have found my way back into a comfortable writing groove.

The first ten months of 2022 were all research and planning, in slow preparation for expanding last fall's hastily conceived and written NaNoWriMo draft. I didn't allocate all those months as effectively as I might have, but I did work consistently, and certain aspects of the story and its world gradually became clearer.

In mid-October, with the start of NaNoWriMo coming around again and providing the pressure of an external deadline, I turned the year's ideas into an index card outline. That gave me enough of a structure that I was able to begin a new draft on November 1, and I've been writing every day since then.

In November, I passed my personal 25,000 word goal and ended the month with 30k words. I was afraid I might lose momentum once the mass writing challenge was over, but I've been setting myself weekly word count goals that provide sufficient motivation. Today I hit the 50k word milestone. That gets me to approximately the midpoint of the outline, which is where I want to be, because the goal is not merely to accumulate words but to make progress through the chapters so I end up with a story-shaped draft of a manageable size.

I wrote at least a bit every single day of November, and of December so far, and that's been helpful in sustaining my progress. I'm ready for a break now, but I'll try to not completely lose contact with the story while I take some time to relax and recharge. In January, I want to pick up where I left off and keep writing until I reach the end. Then there will inevitably be more planning, and more drafts, in the now-familiar cycle of my life.

As the seasons turn once again back toward brighter days, I wish you all a happy novel year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, writing for the New York Times, examines how the term "magic realism" is overused and why it matters: "Magic realism once referred to the literary style of a loosely connected group of Latin American authors who penned works some 60 years ago, but in the English-speaking world, the term has become synonymous with Latin American writing in general. Picture every work by a British writer being called 'Austenesque' today, and you get an idea of this phenomenon."

December 2, 2022

November Reading Recap

I found time to read in November even while writing over 25,000 words:

MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite: When Korede's sister calls to say she's killed the man she was dating, Korede hopes this is the last time she'll have to clean up Ayoola's mess. Korede is good at cleaning, though, and she performs the tasks of mopping up the blood and disposing of the body as meticulously as she does everything else, including her work as a nurse. Ayoola is unrepentant as usual about the murder, insisting it was an accident that happened while she was defending herself from her boyfriend's sudden violence. Korede is skeptical and worries about who her sister will kill next, and the only person she can talk to is the patient at the hospital who's in a terminal coma. The nightmare of the whole situation grows worse when the beautiful Ayoola attracts the attention of the charming doctor Korede has been falling in love with.

This is a fast-paced read that kept me entertained. The characters and situations are larger than life rather than realistic, which makes the novel comic and fun instead of horrific. I enjoyed that tone, but I wouldn't have minded a longer story that went more in depth in some areas, especially the previous murders, to give a fuller picture of how Korede and Ayoola's relationship got to this point.

THE SPARE MAN by Mary Robinette Kowal: The famously wealthy inventor Tesla Crane is enjoying a rare taste of anonymity and peace while she and her new spouse Shal travel incognito on an interplanetary space cruise. But only a few days into their honeymoon, a fellow passenger is murdered -- and Shal is arrested as the only suspect. Nothing he or Tesla say can convince the ship's authorities that he wasn't involved, and they start to suspect they are being framed. While Shal is ordered to remain in their cabin until they reach Mars, Tesla roams the ship in search of the real murderer. As she questions passengers and crew, her adorable service dog, Gimlet, provides irresistible cuteness that makes everyone more amenable to interrogation.

A murder mystery on an interplanetary space cruise is a fun idea, and Kowal delivers a reliable sequence of developing complications and solid science about the journey and the ship (plus cocktail recipes at the start of each chapter). But I think the book would have benefited from another round of editing. Kowal has certain writing habits, such as focusing on characters' physical sensations of pain, that I find get repetitive after a while. I was also underwhelmed by the ending and unsure how all the pieces connected, so I would have appreciated that classic scene where the detective explains everything that happened.

MEET US BY THE ROARING SEA by Akil Kumarasamy: The protagonist is living in her recently deceased mother's house, which is crammed with objects of historical significance. She (or more accurately "You", since the narration is in second person) hasn't been coping well with the grief from her mother's death, so her cousin has moved in. The narrator works training AI models, and the cousin is developing a technology to extract memories. By night, the main character translates a Tamil manuscript about a group of female medical students practicing radical compassion on the edge of a camp where refugees arrive after escaping a civil war. Chapters of the manuscript appear between chapters about the protagonist, who reconnects with an old friend, an artist whose parents recently died as a result of the decision of an artificial intelligence.

All these elements set up at the beginning of the novel are fascinating, and I was excited by the story's potential and intrigued by the strangeness of the narrative. But by the end, I was frustrated that many of the most interesting threads weren't developed much and that despite all the different pieces, the story is fairly slow. This is a genre-bending, shape-shifting tale of grief and translation and artificial intelligence, and some readers are really connecting with that, but for me, this was the wrong combination of too much happening and not enough happening.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, John Perilli recounts the eerie experience of watching his science fiction story become real: "I remembered, though, my initial feeling of submission dread: that my story was not forward-looking enough. If the premise of my supposedly futuristic story had come to pass in a matter of six weeks, was I truly stretching my imagination as far or as deep as possible?"

November 23, 2022

NaNo Update

It's week 4 of National Novel Writing Month. I can confirm that as I planned, I will not be attaining 50,000 words this November, but I have already reached 25k, my tentative personal goal.

My half-NaNoWriMo has been going very well. I've written every day this month so far, and most days I wrote a thousand or more words. A thousand words a day feels like a sweet spot for me: high enough that I have to keep pushing forward, but not so high that I end up typing every random thought simply to make word count. It feels like a sustainable pace that I can continue on past November, as long as I keep the flexibility of having some shorter days and breaks.

Tracking my words and having a numerical goal is great motivation, and it's ensuring my progress doesn't grind to a halt whenever there's a decision to make (which is constantly). For example, I got to a point in my outline where some characters were supposed to have a tense discussion about a particular area of conflict. I didn't have any notes about what setting or context this scene might happen in, so I had to think of one on the spot. I considered sending them on a hike, but then I immediately had a million questions for myself about logistics and location and what other activities would fit the story better than a hike. But I didn't have time for any of that, because I needed to write the scene, and what's important about the scene is the conversation and how it leaves each character feeling at the end. That's what's moving the story forward, and that's what will most likely persist into the next draft. The details of the hike that I scattered in around the conversation can easily be changed in revision. Once I've written the entire story and can examine it as a whole, I'll have more basis for determining whether it would be most useful for these characters to habitually take hikes together or play games or do some activity I'm definitely going to invent to be popular in the hundred-years-from-now setting of the novel.

Next up in my outline is a scene in which two characters start a collaboration that becomes significant for everything that happens in the rest of the story. I don't think I've sufficiently established why they decide to collaborate, but in the interest of pushing ahead, I'm going to get them started anyway. Filling in the missing steps can happen in revision. So can addressing the many unknown details throughout this draft that I've marked with square brackets, like "They discussed [something related to somebody's job]" and "the program to do [whatever], which was located in [wherever]."

I've been thinking of this draft as a model of a bridge, constructed of popsicle sticks and string in a somewhat haphazard manner. It may not be possible to drive even a toy car across it without jumping over gaps, and it's certainly not designed for real traffic, but it should wind up approximately the right shape to represent the bridge I want to build.

The 25,000-plus words I've written so far are a much more solid start to this novel than what I wrote last NaNoWriMo. A good word count for the finished draft might be somewhere in the vicinity of 100k, but I'm not sure where I'll actually end up, or how that might relate to the length after revision. I know I've written a lot of long, throat-clearing passages that will be streamlined or cut, but I also have all those holes and brackets to expand.

After today's writing session, I'll be taking a few days off to gather with family and friends. Next week I'll get back to work, and I'll keep writing into December and beyond.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ B. A. Shapiro shares her visual and mathematical plotting strategy at CrimeReads: "So how the hell does one go about writing a novel with such a large unconnected cast and so many intertwining plots? Well, how about Excel spreadsheets, bar graphs, bubble maps, pie charts and scattergrams? Not to mention intersecting and overlapping normal curves. Not the usual items in a novelist's toolkit. But my tools, nonetheless. Granted, I have a math background—one of my areas of specialization in graduate school was statistics—and everyone knows that being able to invert a matrix is a prerequisite for a successful literary career. Or not."

November 7, 2022

October Reading Recap

Last month's reading was all brand new books I'd been anticipating:

BEST OF FRIENDS by Kamila Shamsie: Zahra and Maryam are fourteen in Karachi in 1988. They have been best friends for as long as they can remember. Also as long as they can remember, Pakistan has been under the rule of a dictator. In a year of many changes for the girls, they both experiment with first crushes and learn uncomfortable truths about their families, but their friendship remains a constant. When the president dies in a plane crash and a democratic election brings a woman to power, the future becomes bright with possibility. Then Zahra and Maryam share an upsetting experience with repercussions that will spool out over the decades to come.

I formed some early guesses about how this story would develop, then kept revising my predictions, but what actually happens in this excellent novel was always different and more complex. And often smaller, in a way I appreciated: For example, the event that sets pieces in motion is big by fourteen-year-old standards but not so terrible or significant in the scheme of things, and that makes what follows more interesting. This novel is all about the small moments between people and the effect of those accumulating over time, and Shamsie portrays those moments so well in every scene. I was invested in Zahra, Maryam, and their friendship from the first pages, and I remained captivated by every development.

THE FURROWS by Namwali Serpell: When Cassandra is twelve and her little brother is seven, he drowns in the ocean. Cassandra is there to witness Wayne's death, but his body is never found and the circumstances are confusing. As a result, Cassandra's mother believes Wayne is only missing, and her conviction interferes with the family's ability to grieve. Years later, Cassandra meets a man at a cafe and thinks he's her lost brother. At the moment of her realization, chaos erupts. Then the story seems to begin again, but this time, Wayne dies when he's hit by a car.

I spent the first half of this strange, absorbing novel wondering whether the shifting reality of the narrative would eventually have an explanation or was more of a metaphor about the uncertainty of grief. The answer is sort of both. In the second half, the book shifts even more, and certain mysteries gradually become clear, but not the expected ones. I never had any idea where the story was going, and I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. Serpell is a gifted writer, especially when it comes to narrative voice, and the characters she's crafted here feel solidly real even while the world around them fractures.

OUR MISSING HEARTS by Celeste Ng: At twelve, Bird is intimately familiar with PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, because its importance in saving the country from crisis has been drummed into him every day at school. Yet he's only starting to understand what PACT has to do with his mother leaving three years ago, or with other children being removed from their parents by the government. Bird's father says to forget about his mother, but the kids at school never let Bird forget that since she's a Person of Asian Origin, the whole family's loyalty is suspect. When Bird receives a mysterious letter from his mother, he knows he should burn this incriminating material. Instead, he tries to puzzle out its meaning, while investigating her possible connection to a string of artistic anti-PACT protests.

The dystopian near future of this story is chillingly close to reality, and Ng sets it up convincingly. The speculative setting isn't the only shift from her excellent previous novels, both set in the recent past of the real world. In what I took to be a reflection of the many folktales referenced in OUR MISSING HEARTS, the plot and characters are often fable-like, involving an epic quest, archetypal figures, and long sections of storytelling. This is a departure from the earlier books, which stood out to me for how nuanced and real the characters and their dynamics felt, and that was a bit of a disappointment. I still found this an engrossing novel, but I didn't love it like Ng's others.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Mosberg analyzes the trend of TV and movie studios preferring to adapt books and other media instead of seeking original scripts: "One reason seems to be that the agents and executives and managers and assistants are lacking confidence in their own ability to judge material. Oh, this is a book that a company published? Then it must be good. But of course that’s not true; many books aren't good. Scripts—even when written by produced, award winning screenwriters—don't come with an automatic stamp of approval. And yet an obscure self-published comic book with no fanbase somehow does?"

October 31, 2022

Getting Scary Real

It's the scariest day of the year: The last day to get my novel plans settled before I have to start writing on November 1! (Doesn't that imply tomorrow is scarier than today? Whatever, I have more urgent details to focus on.) Yes, as I teased a month ago, I'm going to use National Novel Writing Month as a reason to stop planning and start drafting this novel (again).

I'll be working on the same project from NaNoWriMo 2021, but my goals are different this time. Last year, most of my ideas about the characters and story were nebulous, and in my pursuit of 50,000 words, I churned out a whole slew of scenes, experimental character sketches, and authorial musings about possible plot directions. It was a fantastically creative month that gave me a solid foundation for working out what I actually want this novel to be. None of that NaNo material (except maybe snippets here and there) is directly usable for the next draft, but it was all useful.

This November, I'll be starting the novel fresh, with the goal of writing the beginning of a decent, coherent first draft. I don't expect to write 50,000 words, because that pace might result in generating too many words I have to throw out later. But I do want to use the collective word count challenge to keep me motivated and keep me writing. I'm tentatively aiming for 25k story words. I won't be counting all the notes I'm also sure to write, because tracking those would be more of a bookkeeping hassle at this point.

I've spent most of this year reimagining the novel, figuring out the world and characters, and outlining a plot. In truth, nearly all the plot work happened in the last two weeks, because of the power of a deadline. Faced with a pressing need to make progress, I turned to trusty index cards for the first time in many years. Once I began scribbling (almost illegibly) the ideas in my head onto little rectangles and moving them around my rug (obviously designed for this purpose), it was amazing how quickly the basic shape of the story emerged.

October 5, 2022

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading was once again an extremely varied selection:

NUMBER ONE FAN by Meg Elison: Eli is in the middle of a hectic book tour and glad to get out of the heat and into the ride she called, where a cool bottled drink is waiting. She wakes up chained to a bed in a basement. The man who has kidnapped her is obsessively familiar with her books, a magical law enforcement series that has been adapted into popular movies, but he seems to be having trouble understanding that Eli is the author of the novels, not the main character. When she refuses to play along with this fantasy, the physical and psychological torture begins. Through the pain and despair, Eli keeps looking for ways to save herself, because she doesn't know if anyone except maybe her assistant will realize she's missing.

As should be clear from that description, this is a disturbing novel, and often brutally detailed, but it's very well done. While the bulk of the story focuses on Eli's experience of her captivity and memories of past events, other character perspectives appear to give a fuller picture of what's happening -- and further increase the tension. Elison is deeply familiar with the nuances of genre, fandom, and social media, all of which adds realistic layers to the plot. I recommend this gripping thriller, but only to readers prepared for an intense book.

THE CITY INSIDE by Samit Basu: In a very near future Delhi, everything has become more extreme: climate change and pollution, political and societal divisiveness, surveillance, and social media. Joey works as a Reality Controller, managing the Flow of a popular online star, and she's talented at presenting the carefully crafted "reality" that endears him to both fans and funders. When she learns an old friend is under pressure from his wealthy and powerfully unethical family, she offers him a job that's intended to provide an escape. But Rudra's family seems to be exerting control over Joey's company now, and there's a whole web of conspiracies the two will need to investigate.

The characters and the well-developed worldbuilding pulled me into the story right away, and I remained immersed. I liked reading about the production and business side of Flows and watching Joey and her team sometimes work great together and sometimes clash. The many ongoing crises of the offline world are woven pretty well into the story, though there wasn't space for a full exploration of everything. I found the pacing somewhat uneven and wanted the story's events to form a more cohesive plot, but I still enjoyed this novel all the way through. (I also enjoyed Basu's Big Idea post about envisioning and reenvisioning the book.)

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks: What brings Hanna from her safe home in Sydney to war-ravaged Sarajevo in 1996 is a book. A beautiful medieval haggadah (a book used in the Passover seder) that was thought destroyed in the war has been rediscovered, and Hanna's skills as a conservator are needed. While taking the book apart to repair the binding, Hanna finds bits of debris including an insect wing and a white hair. After the work is done, she sets out to visit other experts who might help her understand the book's history, and along the way, she also learns more about her own. Alternate chapters set in earlier eras follow characters who played a role in the haggadah's survival across the centuries, explaining the mysteries behind Hanna's findings.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, and there's real drama behind what's known of its recent history. The extended history invented by Brooks is fascinating, though I thought a few sections heightened the drama to the level of melodrama. Extensive research clearly went into the novel, and while some of the setting descriptions were too detailed for my taste, I appreciated the specifics about how characters lived in the different times. Because much of the story necessarily focuses on Jewish oppression, there's a lot that's hard to read, but the overall story is one of perseverance. It also doesn't exclusively focus on hate, but instead shows the points that Muslim and Christian characters chose to help preserve this Jewish artifact. This novel introduced me to many places and times I knew nothing about, and I expect the story will stay with me.

IN CASE OF EMERGENCY by Mahsa Mohebali, translated from Farsi by Mariam Rahmani: Tehran has been shaking since midnight from a steady string of earthquakes, but what really concerns Shadi is that she's almost out of opium. Her panicked mother wants to gather the family and leave for safety, but Shadi is uninterested in escaping and knows the family car won't get anywhere in the snarled traffic. Shadi sets off on foot to check in on her friends and their opium stashes. The upheaval in the streets is more societal than literal, and there's revolution brewing as she roams the city, encountering old and new friends and strange adventures.

This short novel was interesting to read even though I wasn't wild about it. Shadi is a distinctive narrator who bounces between ideas, jokes, and deep ruminations. She talks about a lot of people in her life with very little explanation, and while the disorientation this creates for the reader is probably deliberate on Mohebali's part, it did make the story hard to follow in places. I'm sure I lacked plenty of cultural context that I wouldn't expect the novel to provide, but I would have liked more context for Shadi as a character so I cared more about her day's adventures.

I appreciated the afterword by translator Mariam Rahmani that explains her approach to translating a story that was radical when published in Iran but despite her best efforts won't seem as transgressive to readers from freer countries. Rahmani also wrote about the experience of translating the book in an essay in Granta.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bettina Makalintal at Eater digs into the recent bounty of romance novels set in the world of food entertainment: "Beyond mirroring an author's own hobbies, food is the perfect plot device for the kinds of moments and personal revelations that are essential for romance's meet-cute to conflict to happy ending pipeline, and whether it's televised competitions or dueling food trucks, the food world is a convenient setting for romance's popular tropes and story structures. Food, like sex, is a sensual experience that fits into romance's sense of delight. But above all is the evergreen popularity of food — there is more food to watch, read, listen to, and consume than ever, yet audiences remain interested."