Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

January 4, 2022

November/December Reading Recap

I wrapped up my reading year with a lot of great books:

NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Nisi Shawl: This anthology offers a great range of styles, tones, and genres, presenting science fiction, fantasy, horror, and stories less easily classified. Every story made an impression, but these are the ones that will stick with me most:

• The first story, "The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex" by Tobias S. Buckell, quickly drew me in with an Earth dominated by alien tourism and the problems of the tour guide protagonist.

• The engrossing "The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang is written as a scholarly analysis of archived documents that uncover the truths behind a misunderstood historical event.

"Burn the Ships" by Alberto Yañez is a gut-punch of a story about a husband and wife taking two different approaches to magic against the colonizing forces that have imprisoned their people.

• "The Freedom of the Shifting Sea" by Jaymee Goh tells an intense, sexy, constantly unexpected tale of love with an immortal sea creature.

• I loved the subtle shifts in "The Robots of Eden" by Anil Menon, a family story that gradually reveals its science fictional aspects.

• The anthology ends strong with the inventive "Kelsey and the Burdened Breath" by Darcie Little Badger, in which the lingering last breaths of the dead need to be herded onward by the human main character and her dead sheepdog.

BLUE-SKINNED GODS by S.J. Sindu: Since he was a little boy, Kalki has been told he's the tenth human incarnation of Vishnu. The proof is that he has blue skin, and Kalki accepts these facts about himself, believing he's a god. His parents raise him in an ashram, where villagers come to pay tribute and receive Kalki's healing blessings, and little of the outside world filters in. When Kalki is ten years old, he first begins to doubt his powers after a sick girl he tries to heal is slow to recover from her illness. As he gets older and learns more about the world, he has many more questions, and far more doubts.

I like the way this story develops, starting with Kalki narrating as a child who yearns to understand the events happening around him but has little information to go on. The plot takes many surprising turns as he grows up, and I never knew what to expect but was always deeply invested. Kalki is a complex character facing a slew of conflicts, both internal and external, and the members of his family also receive nuanced depictions. The novel wrapped up faster and sooner than I expected, and I was sorry not to learn more about how Kalki's life turned out.

SEVERAL PEOPLE ARE TYPING by Calvin Kasulke: Gerald finds himself in a strange workplace predicament: He's somehow trapped inside his company Slack. One moment, he was at his desk at home, and the next, he's a disembodied entity within the corporate chat application. None of his coworkers believe him when he explains this, of course, and they think he's abusing the work-from-home policy. But it turns out he's a lot more productive without the distractions of a body, and anyway his colleagues are all dealing with their own problems, some of which end up being almost as strange as Gerald's.

This workplace comedy written entirely in Slack messages is very weird and very funny. I had a great time getting to know these characters and following along with their jokes and dramas. The story really is odd, and the humor is quirky as well, but it worked for me. The book is a short, fast read, so if you're intrigued, I encourage you to check it out, though if you don't know anything about Slack, I expect it will be harder to get into.

THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz: Jake teaches writing at a third-rate MFA program because his career as a novelist fizzled after an early success. Every year he resents his job more, and he never expects to find any talent among his students. Of course it would be the most arrogant jerk in his class who demonstrates some skill, but Jake is skeptical of the guy's claim that he's working on a novel with an unbeatable plot. Then the blowhard privately reveals the plot, and Jake is seized with the jealous realization that this unworthy person is going to produce a bestseller. So when some time later Jake learns that his student died before ever completing the novel, it's easy to justify that he should bring the amazing plot to the world himself in a book that does indeed become a huge bestseller. After all, nobody will ever know, right?

This was a lot of fun to read. The insidery parts about the publishing world delighted me, the humor made me laugh, and I enjoyed guessing at what was coming next. While I did figure out most of the twists (brag, brag), I still found the story clever and well constructed. Much suspension of disbelief is required, but I was willing to go along with that in order to appreciate this entertaining thriller.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer concludes the Terra Ignota series, an ambitious story of politics and power set in the twenty-fifth century. In this fourth book, the systems that have kept the Earth peaceful for centuries have broken down due to pressure and corruption, and world war has erupted. While the major divisions of global society are divided into two sides, many smaller factions and hidden conflicts complicate the conflict. Everyone is fighting for what they see as the best path toward the future, and nearly everyone wants as little loss of life as possible, but war is still hell. This final installment switches up the narrator but continues to provide an insider's chronicle of world leaders as they scramble to gain control, maintain their principles, and eventually achieve a new peace.

Many aspects of PERHAPS THE STARS captivated me, many others left me frustrated, and I kept wishing I was reading a shorter novel. I've consistently praised these books for their ambitious scope, but in the third and fourth installments, I felt the story was attempting too many things that didn't all land successfully. I'm glad I read this series, which contains so much that's going to stick with me, but I'm sorry to not end up as enthusiastic as I was after the first two books. The story's culmination was still extremely satisfying, and I remain so impressed by the world Palmer has created.

December 17, 2021

Here Again

Here we are near the end of another year, the time to look back and cringe over whatever forecasts and hubris may have been expressed a year ago. Last December I had enough sense to keep a damper on my expectations, though I did still declare my belief in 2021 "growing gradually better." Progress has been a lot more forward and back, up and down than most of us might have imagined. I am grateful for the ways science made 2021 less frightening than 2020, and sorrowful that disease and human factors produced another year of tragedy nonetheless. I will predict nothing about what's ahead for the world. though my hopes are for the best, or at least the not-worst.

I remained extremely fortunate this year, staying healthy and safe, with many opportunities for joy even in the difficult times. Writing came easier than last year, and I was focused on fiction projects during more months than not. In 2021, I revised a short story to completion and began submitting it, and I built a solid foundation for a novel idea I intend to keep working on.

The short story was one I wrote in three days during August 2020 and did two more drafts of (well, maybe four, depending on how you count) before the end of the year. I spent much of the first half of this year on a slow, careful revision to address weaknesses pointed out by early readers and get the story into the shape I wanted. Then there was one more fast, intense, deadline-driven edit to make it as good as I possibly could, and I sent it out into the world. I received a polite rejection from the first publication I tried, and more from the next ones, because this is a competitive market, and there are so many good stories out there. I'll keep trying with this story, as well as mulling over some other ideas that might become short stories.

Getting started on developing a new novel idea was my biggest creative accomplishment of the year, even though I'm still a long way from having a solid draft. I'd been feeling a lot of angst about a lack of new ideas, so it was a relief to hit on a concept that has promise. I spent October on worldbuilding and preparation for writing, and November doing NaNoWriMo for the first time in many years. I successfully wrote 50,000 words that will form the basis for the large amount of planning, outlining, and drafting I have ahead. Go, me!

Also in 2021, I was active early in the year with FOGcon's virtual events committee. It was fun and rewarding to help create online gatherings for our usual con attendees, as well as welcoming far-flung speculative fiction fans who would never have made it to our small local con in person. Since the summer, I've been less involved in organizing, but others have continued to put on a series of great events that will extend into next year.

This was another year where simply getting through was achievement enough, and I am pleased and fortunate that I have so much else to report. As this year of uncertainty winds down with more uncertainty, I hope you have something to celebrate. I'm wishing everyone the best.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For The Millions, Mark Cecil talks to other authors about the emotional payoffs of stories: "If you're going to end high, you have to start low. If you're going to end low, you have to start high. The beginning is reverse engineered from the end. Most character arcs can be boiled down to this: 'It’s a story about a character who begins at X and must overcome Y to get to Z.' But in the writing process, Z comes first. Without Z, you don't know what Y or X must be. Without Z, you don't have a story."

December 8, 2021

Story Time

This is the usual point in the month when I post my reading recap, reviews of the generally three, occasionally more, books I read during the previous month. But in November, I was so busy writing 50,000 words that I only had time to finish one book and get through half of another long one. So I'll be discussing those books in a double-month recap in early January, and instead today I'm going to talk about reading short stories.

The one book I completed in the past month was a great story anthology, NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR, edited by Nisi Shawl. My review is already posted on Goodreads and highlights my favorite among the many excellent stories, with links to the ones also published online.

So much good short fiction is published online. This is a wonderful and also overwhelming thing. My computer is full of browser tabs open to stories, lists of links to stories in my notekeeping app, files in other applications containing more lists of links, and oh yeah, here are some more story tabs on my phone. I want to read all these stories, because they came recommended, or are by authors I like, or have an intriguing title and first paragraph that made me curious to read on. And while I know for sure I'll never have time for all the novels I want to read in my lifetime, it always seems within the realm of possibility that I'll get to all those saved-up stories.

Every once in a while, I'll try to establish a practice of reading a story every morning, or at bedtime, or whatever, but the habit never sticks for long. I am fortunate to have more time for reading than most people, but there is still only so much time, and though I want to read all those random stories, I also want to read from the infinite list of books. (It doesn't help that I seem to read far slower than the average person who does a lot of reading.) As a result, despite a recent renewed effort to read more stories online (specifically at several sites curating speculative fiction), I've had more success reading stories collected into books.

NEW SUNS was the second anthology I read in the past few months. The first was IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY, edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin, which I raved about in my September recap. I was previously somewhat hesitant about picking up anthologies, since they contain a bunch of different styles of stories by many different people I maybe haven't heard of... and now I realize that's exactly what's so great about a good anthology, and also exactly what I would get if I ever managed to read through my story lists.

During my latest burst of seeking out stories online, I noted a few I wanted to recommend. These are definitely a wide range of styles, with authors who were new to me:

"Saint Natalis of the Wolves" by Emory Noakes crosses Catholicism with animal energy.

"Proof by Induction" by José Pablo Iriarte tackles math, grief, and family. (I also enjoyed reading about their process of arriving at this story.)

"Rebuttal to Reviewers' Comments On Edits For 'Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol in a Human Subject'" by Andrea Kriz has a lot of fun with its format.

"Look to the Future" by Louise Hughes is a clever exploration of a character who is unusual in not being able to see the future. (The author discusses the story here.)

I'll keep attempting to make time for more online story reading, and I'll probably be checking out more anthologies soon. I'm also looking forward to reading EVEN GREATER MISTAKES by Charlie Jane Anders, a new collection of stories, many she previously published online at links that appear on my lists somewhere but that I never got around to reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Hilma Wolitzer describes What It's Like to Keep Writing at 91: "Elderly now, I find that language can be elusive, and not just when I'm trying to write. Like many people my age, I seem to lose a noun or two every day lately. They're like buttons that have fallen off my shirt and rolled under the bed, and I can't bend down to retrieve them. I can no longer count on my famous short-term memory either. Recent events can seem as ephemeral as dreams."

November 29, 2021

NaNoWriMo Success!

I've completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November. As I posted last month, this was my return to NaNoWriMo after many years away, and my hope was to kickstart the drafting of a novel I was still very much figuring out. What I wrote this month didn't turn out to be so much a first draft as a lot of finding my way into the world, the characters, and the story. The demanding word count goal forced me to make progress much faster than usual, and while that speed produced some garbage, it also sparked some new, surprising ideas. So I consider the month a success at all levels.

To reach the 50,000 word goal (the length of a short novel) in 30 days requires writing an average of 1667 words each day. I started out the month keeping to about that pace. The first few days were slow while I tried to remember how to not worry so much about sentence quality, and as I stopped to think up names for every character who appeared. Then I eased into the NaNo groove and began writing faster and with more abandon. Some days meeting the word count was easy, others it was a slog, but I made myself get my words in every day.

About halfway through the month, I'd written every scene I'd imagined in advance and then some. I had the setup for a story, not much sense of where to go next, and many doubts about whether there even was anywhere to go. I'd already written some scenes and character explorations that fell outside the main storyline I was writing, so I decided I'd better do more of that, plus some writerly musings that I'd allow into my word count. Writing down my streams of thought about plot and character turned out to be an even faster way to generate words, and I realized I could probably reach 50k before Thanksgiving and be able to relax over the holiday long weekend. I ended Wednesday, November 24 with 50,108 words, recorded my win, and then happily put the story almost entirely out of my head.

Now I'm ready to start looking again at what I produced in the mad rush of November. About half the words I wrote are the first part (and a bit of the middle) of the novel this will eventually become, though much will change based on some new directions I worked out later. About 10k words are me posing questions to myself like "Where are the current characters headed, and what would improve their arcs?" and then brainstorming answers. The rest are experimental threads of trying out different character voices, backstories, and world details, and some of those turned out to be the most compelling stuff I wrote. In the final three days, I came up with two new characters who I'm excited to figure out more about. This mess of words is hardly a novel, but it's a lot of good material toward a novel, and I didn't have any of it a month ago.

I'll be letting these ideas percolate as the year winds down. I may start on some research and outlining, but most of that will come in the new year, when I intend to get back to work on this story in a major way. The NaNoWriMo site is set up for tracking word count goals at any time, and since I found the graphs there motivating, I may give myself another goal early in 2022.

I'm glad I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year. The real goal of the event is the satisfaction of writing some words that wouldn't have been written otherwise. I've been happy to hear from many friends who also accomplished that success, regardless of whether they technically won. Congratulations to all of us!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Elisa Shoenberger at Book Riot offers A Tiny History of Miniature Books: "I was over the moon when I found out that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a famous collector of miniature books, amassing 750 of them, some gifts from Eleanor Roosevelt.... He's not the only president to have engaged with little books. There was a miniature book for Theodore Roosevelt when he was campaigning, [book expert Anne] Bromer said. Many years later, President Gerald Ford worked with a printer in California, Bromer noted, to make two miniature books of his speeches, which he signed." (And don't miss the link to the 1832 miniature guide to birth control.)

November 5, 2021

October Reading Recap

Once again, my reading month was busy, varied, and great:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff: In 1158, young Marie is ejected from Eleanor of Aquitaine's court and made the prioress of a remote, impoverished abbey. Marie has no desire to become a nun, to lead a religious life, or to be separated from the radiant Eleanor. Life at the abbey is terrible at first, and Marie goes hungry with the rest of the nuns and dreams of rescue. But when she accepts that nobody else is coming to save her, Marie takes control, making changes to bring the abbey money and status. She starts having visions that guide her in reshaping the community of nuns into a prosperous, powerful enclave of women.

I loved this beautiful, surprising story of a woman claiming power and wielding it for good. Marie is an excellently complicated character, motivated at different times by lust and love, by selfish and altruistic desires, by revenge and justice. (Groff created her starting from the few details known about the real medieval poet, Marie de France.) The many other women who inhabit the novel receive complex, compassionate portrayals as well. The story spans 50 years, with many events summarized, yet the narrative remains gripping and specific throughout. I wouldn't have guessed that I was going to find a novel about twelfth century nuns this compelling!

NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders is a mix of writing inspiration and craft advice on "How To Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories". The book was originally published as a series of essays at Tor.com that are still available online, but I appreciated having it to read in a single volume. This was definitely the writing guide I needed right now.

Anders talks about why stories are important even in (especially in) circumstances that make writing feel frivolous and pointless—and I found her arguments convincing in a way I often don't when this topic is discussed. She shares personal accounts of how reading and writing helped her through bad times, and she details how her writing changed in response to real world challenges. Interspersed with the encouragement is realistic, practical advice on producing first drafts even when writing is hard. I've long been a fan of Anders's craft advice, and here she focuses on the discrete elements and temporary decisions that can help get something down on the page to be improved later. The book includes some exercises to jumpstart writing sessions. While it's aimed at an audience of speculative fiction writers, most of the material would be equally useful for any genre. If you're feeling stalled or hopeless in your writing, I recommend this book or the individual online essays.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney is proud to own a legitimate business, a reasonably successful furniture store in 1959 Harlem that will eventually finance a nicer apartment for his growing family. Carney is definitely not a crook like his late father or his cousin Freddie, even if he occasionally moves some merchandise of dubious provenance. When Freddie shows up talking about pulling a heist, Carney wants nothing to do with it, but he ends up involved in the scheme anyway. In the following years, as business thrives thanks to both showroom and back room dealings, there are more schemes, and Carney has to figure out how to exist at the intersection of straight and crooked.

Colson Whitehead has of course written another novel full of impeccable sentences, nuanced characters, and well-considered moments. Because the subject matter of HARLEM SHUFFLE is less grim than his previous two books (THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS), he has more opportunities to focus on the humorous and ridiculous in his characters' situations, and this story is frequently funny. There is also plenty that's serious as Carney deals with racism, colorism, and the changes Harlem faces over time, through the riots of 1964 (in response to the police killing of a Black teen).

The plot of HARLEM SHUFFLE revolves around the details of several crimes, but this is a crime story in the same way that Whitehead's ZONE ONE is zombie story: heavy on digressions and character explorations that often leave the genre element in the background. But I'm a devoted fan of Whitehead's style by now, and I was happy to ride along with Carney even when it took a while to get to the action. I especially enjoyed getting to know all the story's excellent characters and watching Carney's life and the city around him evolve.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano: A full passenger jet crashes during a transcontinental flight, and the only survivor is 12-year-old Edward. His injured body will heal, but he's emotionally shattered by the loss of his parents and the older brother who was his best friend. Edward is barely functioning when he's taken in by his aunt and uncle, who are consumed by their own grief. The three of them have to figure out how to become a family and find a path out of tragedy, all while dealing with the media attention Edward is receiving as the miraculous sole survivor. The girl next door is the only person Edward encounters who treats him like a kid, not a miracle, and her friendship is the first comfort he finds after the accident. As Edward's life moves forward, another thread details the doomed flight from the perspective of several passengers, each focused on their own problems and planned destinations.

I liked many things about this novel, though others didn't work as well for me. I was most impressed by Napolitano's portrayal of Edward's mental state, which makes use of surprising metaphors and taps into some very raw emotions. In general, I appreciated everything in the story that was unexpected and specific, such as the way Edward's friendship with Shay develops and the nuanced dynamics between Edward and his aunt and uncle. While the characters on the plane have some original flourishes, they struck me as more cliched and not as fully drawn as the characters in the aftermath. I also found the letters somewhat contrived and was disappointed by where they took the plot in the last third of the book. This was a good read, but I didn't love it like many other readers.

October 29, 2021

NaNoWriMo Is Nigh, Once Again

It's nearly the end of the month, and so, as revealed in last month's peek behind the curtain, I'm up against my deadline to post another update.

More specifically, it's the end of October, which means it's almost the start of National Novel Writing Month. For many years, I spent every November writing first drafts at full tilt along with a growing number of writers around the world, in pursuit of the goal of producing 50,000 words in 30 days. NaNoWriMo changed my life and introduced me to many friends, and I have fond emotions about it every November even though the last time I participated was 2010, when I quit ten days in.

Well, the big update is that this year, I'm NaNoWriMoing again. In that post last month, I talked about the new idea I'd just starting mulling over, and I talked about how much I need deadlines. Early in October, I figured out that my new story concept was novel-sized, and the calendar had a perfect deadline just waiting there. In this case, it's the pressure to start writing on November 1 that I need most, because otherwise I might remain stuck in the planning stage of this novel forever.

This idea requires a lot of worldbuilding, and I've been plugging away at that all month and forcing myself to commit to a bunch of decisions about the story world. My sense of the plot is a lot vaguer than I wish it was, I'm still narrowing in on who the characters are, and nobody has names yet. But I know at least the first few scenes, so I'm going to start writing on Monday, and I guess I'll have to come up with something to call these people by that point.

I'm aiming for 50k in November, but I don't anticipate reaching the end of a novel, or even emerging with a coherent first half. There's so much about this story I'm still imagining, so I'm planning to write scenes as I think of them, expecting that they won't necessarily be in order and may often serve as backstory that doesn't belong in the book at all. I haven't deliberately written this way before, although of course I have written many scenes that were later moved or removed. I hope to find this method useful, and freeing.

I was amused/discouraged to discover that I had the same plan going into my last, failed attempt at NaNoWriMo. (And, yeah, weird fact, my final abandoned NaNo novel was about an apocalyptic pandemic.) This time around, I have a much more solid idea despite all the details left to figure out, and I'm hopeful about staying excited. I'll let you know how it's going, maybe even before the very end of the month.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ R.E. Hawley at PRINT analyzes an popular cover trend in Behold, the Book Blob: "As a marketing tool, cover design can get deployed to bring algorithmic logic back to the physical world. 'If you liked The Vanishing Half, you might also like You Exist Too Much and The Death of Vivek Oji,' these covers seem to murmur enticingly from the bookstore display."

October 5, 2021

September Reading Recap

I've been reading a lot, with a lot of variety:

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson combines thoughtful words and personality-filled illustrations to provide advice that any human can use. Among the special topics are chapters titled "How to Tell People Things They Very Probably Won't Be Happy to Hear, at Least at First" and "How to Avoid Getting Your Upset All Over Other People When You Feel Out of Control." Other subjects include how to take both criticism and compliments, a formula for apologizing properly, methods to keep disagreements from becoming fights, and several approaches to being a better ally.

Every aspect of this book is a delight. The advice is as enjoyable to read as it is useful. Bergman writes with his usual tenderness and humor, and his willingness to share his own flaws and vulnerabilities makes the guidance land that much harder. Freedman-Lawson's drawings add another layer of charming humor, and they've taken care to fill the pages with the widest variety of human beings. The great book design includes distinct color schemes for each chapter and summarized instructions for the step-by-step advice. Highly recommended for all humans trying to do better!

View some pages here, here, and here.

IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin: This anthology was created with the goal of curating speculative fiction that celebrates queer characters finding joy and affirmation. It succeeds wonderfully, presenting a wide variety of clever, inventive, and well-written stories. Even the selections that were less to my taste in style or subject matter often affected me emotionally, and among the stories I liked best, it's hard to narrow down my favorites:

• "The Ghosts of Liberty Street" by Phoebe Barton starts the anthology off strong and thematic with a beautiful story that's all about possibilities.

"Custom Options Available" by Amy Griswold features an excellent robot narrator who's on a carefully considered quest to explore sexuality, identity, and the parameters of a free life.

• "The Invisible Bisexual" by S.L. Huang takes the phrase literally, in a way that complicates the main character's love life.

• "Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank's Late-Night Starlite Drive-In" by Kristen Koopman is as weird and fun as that title suggests, with a really sweet story of a character coming into herself.

• "Midnight Confetti" by D.K. Marlowe uses delicious-to-read sentences to tell a reluctant love story with a light touch of magic.

• "The After Party" by Ben Francisco is a lovely imagining of an afterlife that offers a chance to grow and heal.

The book is available in multiple formats directly from the publisher, and through independent bookstores and libraries.

SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon: Vern has run away from the compound where she grew up to hide in the woods and give birth to twins. Her life before was difficult, as an unwilling bride to the compound's leader, a reverend who preaches a mix of Black power and oppressive Christian doctrine. Life in the woods is even harder, with two newborns to keep alive and safe from the fiend who's hunting them, but Vern revels in the wildness and her newfound freedom. In time, her body begins growing stronger in ways that seem extraordinary, but she also suffers from terrible pain and haunting visions. Eventually Vern finds connection with people who can help her heal and investigate the dark past behind her mysterious powers.

Like Solomon's other books, this is written with skill and emotion, and the story delves into many dark subjects that can be difficult to read. I anticipated all that going in but otherwise never knew what to expect from this novel. The story makes surprising shifts from survival to body horror to conspiracy to erotica, and while not every turn worked for me, I was always intrigued. I will continue to seek out everything Solomon writes, because their stories are truly original.

THE WILL TO BATTLE by Ada Palmer: Following the shocking revelations and developments presented in the first two books of the Terra Ignota series, the world of 2454 stands on the brink of possible war, after centuries of peace. Mycroft Canner, the faithful chronicler of those initial days of transformation, continues recording the historic events for posterity. Mycroft is a figure of contradictions, infamous for his past but currently a force for good in service of every global power. As the world leaders try to preserve peace while preparing for the threat of war, Mycroft struggles with what role he should play in determining the outcome.

I can't say enough about how ambitious and impressive this series is. Palmer has imagined so much detail about the world of 2454 and everything that led to it, then crafted an intricate plot involving dozens of characters and numerous political factions, and then given the novels several layers of unique narrative complexity. Reading this volume, I occasionally found it all a bit much in a way I didn't with the earlier books. One reason is that Mycroft spends more time with the characters I like less, and those interactions grew tiresome for me in places. I'm still excited to read the final installment and discover how everyone fares in the wake of this story's cliffhanger ending.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Danielle Lazarin grapples with the ambiguous loss of (probably) not selling her novel: "I wanted to write this essay before the book's fate was sealed, from the mucky and often-silent middle we like to skip over in favor of how it ends, as if we are only our results and not the waiting for them, which is its own complicated story, the one we live in longer than the moment of knowing if we should celebrate or mourn."

September 29, 2021

Getting Real

I accomplish very little that isn't motivated by an item on my to-do list. Sometimes I accomplish very little, period, but the to-do list keeps that from being all the time. What motivates me more, though, is deadlines, but I've learned they need to be at least in some way real and external, not arbitrarily self-imposed.

I don't expect even the people who consistently read this blog to put much thought into when exactly I publish posts. But there's an easily detectable pattern in the posts that are about my own writing, not other people's books. In recent years, these writing updates always appear in the last two or three days of the month. That's because they grow out of a to-do list item optimistically called "mid-month update" that gets postponed day after day until the end of the month looms. And it's because the end of a calendar month provides a real and unalterable, if silly, deadline that's made visible in the number of posts per month on the Archive section low in the blog's sidebar. I know my readers don't look at or care about these numbers, but I do, and it's a real enough deadline that I usually can't stand to miss it.

Only just, though. I delay writing about my writing because I approach the prospect with such ambivalence. I keep this blog to provide myself with both a record and accountability, and to give the people who care some insight into what I'm up to. For all those reasons, I want to post updates on my writing life, but the reflection involved is intimidating. And that's not only true when I'm feeling bad about not having any writing to report on.

I have been doing some writing work lately! In admitting that, I've created more pressure to follow through, augh!

First, I used a really real external deadline to push myself through an intense round of final edits on the short story I'd been fiddling with for a year. On the last day of a submission window, I submitted my story to a magazine. It was rejected. I immediately submitted it somewhere else, like a legit short story writer. Rinse, repeat. Someday this could end in triumph.

Second, I am just starting to noodle around with a new story idea that I like a lot. I know that sounds great, but it's scary and intimidating and pressure-filled, too. It's going to be hard work to get from the page of scattered notes to anything even vaguely story-shaped, and I never feel like doing hard work. But here it is on my to-do list, so I guess I'm off to try and accomplish something.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The New Yorker, Daniel A. Gross covers The Surprisingly Big Business of Library E-books: "I read more books in 2020 than I had in years. I was not the only one; last year, more than a hundred library systems checked out a million or more books each from OverDrive's catalogue, and the company reported a staggering four hundred and thirty million checkouts, up a third from the year before."

September 10, 2021

August Reading Recap

Last month I read two novels and a guide for writers, and all were excellent!

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell: Hamnet is a young boy living in Stratford in 1596 with his mother, his two sisters, and his grandparents. He misses his father, who spends most of the time away in London, working in his theater. When Hamnet's twin sister falls suddenly ill, the family is rocked by the terror of discovering the pestilence has reached their house. Though Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is renowned for her healing potions and has a gift for seeing the future, she finds herself powerless to protect her family from the grief to come. The narrative slips among the viewpoints of every family member to give an account of the fateful day as well as the story of Agnes's courtship and marriage to Hamnet's father. (It's William Shakespeare, though the text avoids ever naming him.)

This novel won much acclaim, and I found the praise well warranted. O'Farrell has taken the little that's known about Shakespeare's family, especially his wife, and imagined rich and surprising lives that have little connection to his work and fame. From the first page, there's a carefully crafted sense of foreboding. The whole reading experience is one of anticipating outcomes that we know are historically inevitable but the characters don't, and O'Farrell plays around with this in interesting ways by giving Agnes visions of the future (or at least, belief in her visions). The story unfolds slowly, through vividly depicted moments and compelling insights into the minds of the different characters. While I was completely engrossed throughout the first section, my attention waned some in the second, but I loved the satisfying conclusion.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker: Following the events of THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, the title characters have evaded the threats to their lives and secrecy, so now they can go on existing among the humans of 1900s Manhattan. The Golem has a few friends in her Lower East Side community, and the Jinni has his business partner in Little Syria, but their true natures keep them both isolated, except when they're able to be open with one another. As time passes, though, they seem to become less close, not more, and their disagreements intensify. Meanwhile, other characters and forces are gathering, both nearby and far away, and when these others reach the Golem and the Jinni's stories, everything will change.

Wecker has written a wonderfully rich sequel that expands and further complicates the already expansive, complex story and characters of the first book. While the initial installment built to its exciting climax in the space of months, this one spans years of the world changing around the Golem and the Jinni. The two of them never age, and each in their own way resists altering their carefully constructed lives until situations reach breaking points that are often emotional to read. There's perhaps more pain in this book than the first, though also plenty of hope. I loved the new characters we meet and the developments with those we knew already, and I'm once again impressed by how the many story threads converge to a satisfying end. I highly recommend reading both these books.

THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia sets out to address a sad fact of the publishing world: many good books fail to be published or noticed while many bad books succeed. Kanakia's aim is to help the writers of good books convince publishing's gatekeepers that their book is a potential success, even if that means making the manuscript look a little more like a bad book. It's a cynical perspective indeed, but based on years of observation and experience. This guide lays out many hard truths about publishing and the writing life, with some practical advice on failure-proofing your manuscript while protecting your creative ambition.

I read this because I've long enjoyed the opinions on Kanakia's blog, in addition to appreciating her novels. I found her perspective thought-provoking and the advice helpful. I'm a writer who likes picking apart what makes stories work, and this book approaches that from a unique angle. The cynicalness of it appeals to me and makes the book fun to read as well as useful. I recommend it to writers who have experienced at least some attempts at traditional publishing and are wondering how to get further.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Amy Zimmerman, writing for Electric Literature, contemplates autofiction, pandemic time, and the desire to be the main character: "What was missing from many of our quarantined existences was not the experience of time passing, but rather the presence of plot, of one event leading to another. This absence was at stark odds with the causality of the world beyond our quarantine bubbles. Out there, decisions, actions, fleeting moments of contact and exposure, all had serious, even deadly consequences. If we were lucky, we could afford to live in a room, in an apartment, where nothing much happened. Time moved forward, but didn't yield the gifts or the consequences that we've grown accustomed to. Without narrative movement, and so little to do or decide, it became harder to see ourselves as the architects of our own lives."

August 30, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2021

I'm excited about a bunch of books coming out in the next couple of months. Some are books I've been eagerly anticipating for years!

MATRIX by Lauren Groff (September 7): Groff's previous novel was the fascinating FATES AND FURIES, a relationship story nothing like I expected. I'm surprised again, and intrigued, to discover that Groff's newest book is set in the 12th century, based on the life of a historical poet, Marie de France.

THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne (September 14): I haven't previously read anything by Byrne, though I was interested by reviews of THE GIRL IN THE ROAD. I'm even more interested in this new novel, a global saga spanning two thousand years, from the ancient Mayan Empire to a post-apocalyptic utopia.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (September 14): Every anticipated list everywhere includes the latest from Whitehead, who produces literary masterpieces with impressive frequency. The new book has a family at the center, involves a heist, and sounds like a lot of fun.

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (October 12): Bergman has long been a great source of thoughtful life advice through his column Asking Bear (and as a personal friend). This delightfully illustrated comic book features practical, step-by-step guides to behaving better, demanding better, and thinking through how to be a human in this complicated world.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer (October 19): This will be the fourth and final book in the expansive Terra Ignota series, a narratively inventive chronicle of twenty-fifth century politics, technology, and philosophy. The first two volumes (which are essentially one long book) left me astounded. I decided to wait on the third until it was clear when the last would be published, and then I forgot to stop waiting, but I'm looking forward to diving back into this incredible science fiction series!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Atlantic, Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter chart The Rise of Must-Read TV: "As television scholars have noted, the plots and premises of 'complex TV' are structured primarily around characters and their development: Viewers want to identify with, relate to, and follow characters. Given that, the adaptation economy may well be one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of what literary critics call 'multiprotagonist fiction,' books with not a single protagonist (an Emma Woodhouse or Hercule Poirot, say) but a collection of main characters whose stories intertwine in surprising ways over the course of a single narrative."