December 21, 2012

It's Not the End of the World

The year is just about over, and I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to. I could put a lot of energy into berating myself for this -- and at times I do -- but I'm getting better and better at recognizing what a pointless exercise that is.

I worked pretty hard this year. I produced a lot of good words. Very belatedly, I emerged from my state of denial about this so-called revision I've been working on for almost two years. It turns out I've kept almost nothing from my previous draft and I've been more or less rewriting the manuscript over again, again, because that's what it needs. Now I'm somewhat within sight of the end, and it really is resembling the novel I want it to be.

At the end of last year, I wrote a post much like this one in which I came to grips with what I hadn't yet achieved and rejoiced over what I had. I stand by all that stuff again.

2012 still wasn't the year that everything started happening for my literary career. But you know what? It's not the end of the world.

Enjoy the rest of the year. Be kind to yourself. If you'd already accomplished everything, what would you do next year?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kristin Cashore shares the process of writing her most recent novel -- and then rewriting it from scratch: "It was an amazing mental freedom; it allowed for a freshness in my second draft, and a freedom from the swamp of my first draft. I was able to write a second draft while NOT stuck inside that first-draft swamp. I was able to tell the same story all over again, and this time tell it so much better." (Thanks, Lauren!)

December 20, 2012

Ready Player One

When READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline was published last year, I was intrigued by all the recommendations. The novel revolves around 1980s video games and pop culture, and it takes place mostly inside a virtual world.

I definitely fall into the target audience for this book. I grew up in the 80s playing ColecoVision and Nintendo. On at least one occasion, I held my birthday party at an arcade. Today I devote hours each week to completing quests in Skyrim.

So I'd been planning to read the book eventually, but the reason I got around to it now is that my mother raved about it. This surprised me. In all the afternoons my brother and I spent playing Super Mario Bros., I can't recall Mom ever picking up a controller. If my non-gaming mom liked this game-obsessed book, I had to check it out for myself. I mean, I wasn't going to let her out-geek me!

The story takes place in the 2040s. Things aren't looking so good in the real world, which is plagued with poverty, energy shortages, and war. Fortunately, technology has progressed to the point that everyone has constant access to an immersive virtual world called the OASIS. Compared to reality, the OASIS is a utopia.

When the creator of the OASIS dies, he leaves behind a message that his vast fortune will be awarded to whoever can find the easter egg he's left hidden somewhere within the game. The book's protagonist is a teen boy determined to solve the puzzle, which involves learning everything he can about the creator's 80s childhood and the video games, movies, and music he loved. The obssesive quest for the egg turns into a thrilling and dangerous adventure both inside and out of the OASIS.

READY PLAYER ONE kept me up too late reading for several nights. It's an exciting adventure with great world-building and tons of nostalgia. The story does occasionally suffer from long stretches of exposition and unnecessary repetition, but overall it's a lot of fun. I enjoyed recognizing the 80s references, but there were many I wasn't familiar with, and it's not necessary to know much about video games to appreciate the book, as my mother can attest.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rob D. Young offers 9 Tricks to Make Your Dialogue More Organic: "Regardless of what's being discussed, it's entirely normal for participants in a conversation to maintain multiple threads of dialogue. They can simultaneously be talking about the meaning of the life, what they had for lunch on Tuesday, and how stressed they are about homework--and none of this is seen as a contradiction."

December 14, 2012


Today I submitted my application to Lit Camp, the juried writing conference I posted about a while back.

I ended up spending quite a bit of time overhauling my first chapter and then going through it again to address the suggestions from my critique group. I finally got the chapter into a state I was happy with, and I ran it by some more people to make sure the changes worked. Thanks so much to everyone who read and gave feedback!

It will be another two months before I find out if I've been selected for the conference, so I'm going to try not to think about it for now. I really don't have the slightest idea what my chances are. It would be very cool to be accepted, but I'm not investing too much in hoping for it.

The good thing about the work I put into improving my first chapter, plus writing up a new description of my novel, is that it needed to be done eventually anyway. My submission package for the conference is similar to what I'll send to agents once I'm ready to start querying. It's nice to know that the opening of my novel has already been scrutinized and made strong. Now I have to make it to the end of the damn thing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Edan Lepucki at The Millions analyzes literary fiction as a genre: "The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It's a recognizable rhythm, it's a shimmering in one's veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he -- oh you see what I mean."

December 10, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan is one of those stories that makes me want to live inside it. But in this case, I kind of already do. The book takes place within my experience of the Bay Area and is set "at the intersection of books and technology." It has a friendly, funny style and an awesome cast of characters. And it's joining my list of favorites.

Our protagonist is Clay, a designer recently laid off from a startup "founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel." (Incidentally, right before the novel's publication, Sloan discovered that someone's actually doing this.) Clay gets a job working the night shift at a quirky bookstore where eccentric customers rush in frantically after midnight asking for volumes from the store's mysterious collection. Clay isn't sure what's going on, and he doesn't know how to find out, because Mr. Penumbra has instructed him never to look inside these books, and they can't be located on Google.

The word "Google" appears in this novel at about the same rate as in my daily conversation, which is to say, frequently, and with as little self-consciousness. This gave me a wonderful dizzy feeling. It's like when I read MICROSERFS right after moving to Silicon Valley, and I got to a description of a particular freeway interchange, and then later that day I drove past that exact cloverleaf.

In many ways, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE is MICROSERFS for 2012, with a literary twist. The characters represent the new generation of geeks. They live in San Francisco rather than Silicon Valley, though a job at Apple is still the holy grail. They think as comfortably about design as code. At one point Clay hacks together some 3-D graphics in Ruby, describes his creation, and says, "If this sounds impressive to you, you're over thirty." Guilty as charged.

Of course eventually Clay opens one of Mr. Penumbra's strange books, and this starts him off on a wild quest to discover the secrets of a peculiar literary society. Along the way he falls in love with a brilliant Googler and visits the Google campus, which is just a bit more Googley than in real life. (He has to use the visitor line at the cafeteria, because employees' food is personalized to improve their brain function.)

This is the most book-loving book I've read in a long time, which is impressive for a story that keeps bringing up Google and Ruby and the internet. If you love books, if you're exhilarated rather than dismayed by the implications of technology interacting with books, and especially if you're excited about a book that mentions both source code and shelf talkers, this is the book for you. Consider buying the hardcover. It glows in the dark.

You can find out more at Robin Sloan's web site, including interviews and the short story that evolved into the novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chuck Wendig offers an entertaining step-by-step explanation of how he writes a novel: "For me a novel is essentially a lesson in drunk driving (DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE THIS IS A METAPHOR): it's me starting at the beginning and then revving the engine and speeding sloppily and swerving dramatically toward what I've conceived to be the ending."

December 7, 2012

Drive-By Post

November got away from me, and now December is already whizzing by. It's the time to start looking back at the past year and ahead to the next one. The view in both directions is making me panic a little.

In the past month, I made some more progress on my regular revision, and I've also been working through the feedback from my critique group on my first chapter. I gave a friend feedback on her own manuscript, plus read some books that I'll be writing about here soon. And there was that whole Thanksgiving thing, which was lovely.

All of this means I have nothing of real content to post today, but I wanted to let my loyal readers know that I'm still plugging away. Hope all your December endeavors are going well.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Guardian Books Blog, Lee Rourke argues in favor of novels without neat conclusions: "We have no real way of predicting our future. So why do our novels have to tie all this stuff together, into a neatly packaged bundle of ready-made answers?" (Thanks, Henri!)

November 26, 2012

Ali Smith's Like

The novel LIKE by Ali Smith starts out as the story of a single mother barely holding together a life for herself and her seven-year-old daughter in a caravan (trailer) park in Scotland. It ends up somewhere rather different.

I loved the first half of this book. The mother and daughter are both fascinating characters, and their interactions are full of great details. I especially enjoyed the scenes in the daughter's point of view, which wonderfully capture what a child does and doesn't notice in the world around her.

The first half drops many intriguing hints about the mother's past, and as the story goes on, the reader starts to figure some things out and grow even more intrigued about the things that haven't yet been explained. The second half provides some insight into the mother's life before the daughter, but it left so much of the mystery unaddressed that I was unsatisfied and also puzzled, wondering if I missed something.

Overall, I did like LIKE. But I was disappointed by the way the story set up big secrets, seemed poised to provide illumination, and then failed to deliver. This is definitely a case where there's a disconnect between what the writer wanted a book to do and what I wanted from it as a reader. Still, the novel is beautifully written, and Smith is highly skilled at creating characters, so I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

Thanks to Sally for recommending, lending, and then discussing this book. It's a good one to discuss after reading, and our conversation did help to satisfy some of what I was missing at the end of the story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Geraldine Brooks confesses her book-organizing system in People Of The Bookshelf: "It's impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion. I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party." (Thanks, The Millions!)

November 16, 2012

Why I Love My Critique Group

My critique group is awesome. The three of us have been together for a decade (!), supporting each other through myriad changes in our writing and personal lives. Over the years, the focus and format of our group has evolved. We now meet once a month by video chat, mostly to talk about what we've been writing and reading. Our critique function is only activated occasionally, when someone needs it.

The group gave me incredibly useful feedback on the second draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, working through the manuscript a few chapters at a time over the course of several months (we were meeting weekly then). When I someday reach the end of this draft (I will get there, I will!), the big test will be how the two other group members react to it.

I can guarantee they'll have plenty of conflicting opinions. We met this week to discuss my revised first chapter because I wanted to get their feedback before I submit it to Lit Camp. We spent a good portion of the meeting laughing over how often the two of them had opposite reactions to the contents of the chapter.

Getting their differing perspectives was hugely valuable. Readers aren't all the same, and it helps to get as many opinions as possible. With only two people in the group besides myself, I'm working with a very small sample size, so it's just as well that they don't always agree. (Incidentally, I have more critique partners outside this group who will also review the full draft when it's completed.) The debate during the meeting allowed me to get a better idea of why they felt as they did and figure out how best to respond with changes.

I can't overstate the importance of having other people read your work before you send it out. It's impossible to judge your own writing as if you don't already know what you meant to say and what all the backstory is that explains why the characters are doing what they do.

For example, I worked for ages on my opening paragraphs until every word was perfect. The reaction from my critique group (in this case, the two of them were in agreement) demonstrated that I'd still written a very confusing collection of sentences that left the reader unclear about what was going on. Furthermore, our discussion of the opening made me realize that for some reason I'd fixated on conveying something that doesn't even really matter. I can adjust the opening to omit this, and it will be much clearer and more effective. Despite all my attention to these paragraphs, I couldn't get to that realization without the help of people outside my own brain.

It's not an easy thing to hear criticism of your writing, and I'm a little overwhelmed thinking about the work that still remains on this chapter (not to mention the whole novel, eventually). But I'm glad I have a critique group I can rely on to react to my work honestly.

For more of my thoughts about requesting and responding to critique, check out this article I wrote a couple of years ago.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Amwriting blog, Jason Black explains how readers are like Sherlock Holmes: "They miss nothing. Every detail matters. If you're a criminal, the very notion of trying to sneak something past Mr. Holmes should make you nervous. If you're a writer building the very world into which your Holmesian reader will stroll, you should also be nervous."

November 9, 2012

Human Foibles

1. The best cure for an intense aversion to the idea of ever writing anything again? Start writing.

2. Warning: This treatment may not be effective on a Friday afternoon.

3. I finished the overhaul of my first chapter that I was so absorbed with last week. I've sent it off to my critique group, and we'll see if they agree that it's looking good.

4. Returning to my revision where I left off wasn't as easy to get sucked into. But this week was kind of distracting.

5. If I were doing NaNoWriMo, I'd probably be really behind. Except that if I were doing NaNo, that in itself would keep me from falling behind.

6. It's Friday afternoon.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund endured a really terrible movie to bring us Better Writing Through Birdemic: "Somewhere into the opening credits, which drag on and on and on and on, it hit me: people can learn some writing lessons from watching this movie mocked by the RiffTrax crew (or by watching old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000). The things they make fun of are the things writers shouldn't do."

November 6, 2012

Cloud Atlas, the Book and the Movie

The most striking thing about David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is that it doesn't behave the way a story is supposed to. Normally when you read a novel, within a few pages you start to get a sense of what the story is. You understand why you're following the main character, and you can probably guess at the general sort of arc the story will take. If this information isn't apparent within a few pages, you'll certainly have a handle on it within a few chapters.

CLOUD ATLAS isn't like that. I was a quarter through the book and still unclear who these characters were and why I was reading about them. But this experience wasn't frustrating, because the problem wasn't a fault with the writing but rather a deliberately mysterious structure that Mitchell was building and playing with. I found this book fascinating, fun, and only rarely boring (the first 25 pages in particular are a bit of a difficult slog but well worth pushing through).

If you're willing to dive into CLOUD ATLAS based on that description alone, and you've managed to avoid learning anything else about the book, I suggest that you stop reading this review now and give the book a try. I enjoyed my relatively uncontaminated reading experience.

On the other hand, if you're not likely to pick up the book without some idea of what you're getting into, read on for an explanation that will still leave you with plenty of surprises.

October 31, 2012

A Pleasant Change

I've been in a different writing mode this week, and it's been a rather nice experience. I mentioned that for my application to Lit Camp, I needed to get my first chapter into shape, so I started by printing it out and reading it over.

That part of the experience wasn't so nice. The last time I worked on the first chapter was a year and a half ago, when I had progressed a year and a half less far in my development as a writer. Compared to what I'm writing now, I didn't think the chapter was very good. To be honest, I hated it so much that by the end I wasn't even reading all the words because I was so eager to be finished.

I knew this problem would exist, and I've written about it before. There's never consistency between the beginning and end of a draft on any lengthy pass. My best work is whatever I wrote most recently, but I'm not going to submit a chapter from the middle of the novel. Especially because my novel has a damn fine opening -- except that it was suffering from painfully awkward sentences and stretches of utterly boring dialogue.

So I took up my pen and started attacking the pages. I can't really say why this was a paper-and-pen task when I do most of my work on the computer, but it was. (Maybe I'll come up with some musings on this later.) I was ruthless, and I was working hard, and it was difficult, slow work, but I was making serious improvements. And then suddenly it was four hours later. The next day I continued where I left off, and same thing: I was shocked to find four hours had passed.

I'd love to tell you that every day I write for four hours straight without succumbing to any distractions, but that would be a great big lie. You might speculate that since I've been mostly working on paper, I couldn't as easily get lost in online distractions, but I don't think that's the main reason this was different. I was just highly focused in a way I haven't been in a while, and maybe it's due to the different nature of the task, or maybe it's simply that it's a different task and I've been desperate for a change.

If this level of editing is always going to be this engrossing and satisfying, I'd love to keep going with the next chapter and the next. Alas, I need to get back to the rewriting I've been doing and see it through to the end of the story. But I will get there. And then I guess I can look forward to this strange reward of crossing things out and filling margins with my indecipherable scrawl.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins talks about why The Novel with Many Narrators is a Multiheaded Beast: "More narrators means more work. No question. You need to know each of your narrators very well. Think out each of their back stories, mannerisms, quirks, fears. Know everything about how each one views the world, looks, moves, ties shoe laces."

October 26, 2012

Great Stuff Happening: FOGcon and Lit Camp

There are a couple of Bay Area events happening next spring that I've already started getting excited about and planning for.

→ Registration just opened for FOGcon, the speculative literature convention that I had a great time at last year and this year. FOGcon 2013, with a theme of Law, Order, & Crime, will be held March 8 to 10 in Walnut Creek (east of San Francisco and Oakland).

This is a convention for readers who enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related genres. Many of the attendees also write, so there are some events aimed at writers, but the main audience is fans -- people who like to read and think deeply about stories. The con activities are mostly panel discussions, some about the theme topic and some not. Now that the con is in its third year and growing in size, I expect the schedule will be fuller than ever.

I'm looking forward to my third FOGcon. I hope to see many friends there again and to recruit some new attendees! Register before November 15 for an early rate of $60.

→ Perhaps I shouldn't tell anyone about Lit Camp, because this new writers conference is juried, and the less competition for the 40 spots, the better my odds will be. I'm submitting a writing sample to apply for the conference, which will take place April 4 to 6 near Calistoga (north of San Francisco and Santa Rosa).

I have no idea what my chance of acceptance is, but I'd love the opportunity to attend this event organized by Litquake and the San Francisco Writers' Grotto. The faculty are writers and editors from a variety of publications who will lead workshops and panel discussions for the lucky selected attendees. (To be clear, after acceptance, there's still a rather sizable cost for the conference and accommodations.)

The submission deadline is December 31, leaving plenty of time to procrastinate, but I plan to get my application ready well before then. Next week I'll be pausing in the forward progress of my revision to go back to my first chapter and polish it as thoroughly as I can. After that, fingers crossed!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade offers a helpful explanation of techniques for writing in deep point of view: "Avoid ... putting extra words into your sentence that remove the reader from the experience of the character. When you go through your life you probably don't think distantly about what you're perceiving. You hear a car horn and you don't think, 'I'm hearing a car horn.' You think, 'Hey, that's a car horn!'"

October 22, 2012

Ramping Update

A month ago I announced a goal for myself. I said, "I'm going to increase my hourly goal each week for the next four weeks. At the end of that time, I'm going to post about this again and tell you how well I'm doing."

Well, it's the end of that time, and I am now bracing myself for your mild disappointment, because I have to admit that I failed in my goal. Go ahead. Lay it on me. Really let me have it.

Done? All right. Now I'm going to rationalize why my failure is okay.

(I'm only partly serious about it being okay, because part of me hates that I failed to meet my arbitrary goal and doesn't see any way to live with it. But another part of me understands that one of the least productive uses of my time is beating myself up over past failures to make productive use of my time. I'm telling you this to assure you that I'm neither consumed by self-loathing nor bathing in zen-like tranquility, but somewhere in the mundane middle.)

First of all, I didn't fail to the point of not working on changing my habits at all. The first two weeks of the endeavor, I ramped up as planned, and in fact I even did one more hour of writing than I'd committed to. Of course the project grew more difficult as it went on, and the third week was just a flat-out failure in which I wrote less than half of the hours I was supposed to for no particularly good reason.

I made an important realization during that third week. Some time ago I began calculating my productivity by week, and since then I've developed a bad habit of thinking, "Ugh, this week has gone badly so far and I'm way behind, so there's no point in even trying until next week." To counteract this tendency, it would work a lot better for me to think about each writing day independently and adopt the philosophy that every day is a chance for a fresh start.

So for rationalizing purposes, I would like to put forward the theory that coming to an important realization to improve future habits is far more useful than meeting an arbitrary goal. Therefore, this week of failure was probably the most useful one of the experiment. Heck, I'm so convinced of this that it doesn't even feel like a rationalization.

In the fourth and final week, I was determined to make up for my failings of the week before, and I had a carefully laid plan to fit in my required hours. But my calendar had different ideas, and I was up against a greater than usual amount of competition for my time during the week. I might have met my goal if I'd skipped some of those appointments, but instead I fell somewhat short. I've decided that my failure in week four was only a technicality.

The way I was focusing that week, I would have made the goal if I'd been home a little more, because I spent just about every non-scheduled hour working on my novel (that's why there were no blog posts last week). In the past, I've usually accomplished very little writing during a busy week due to my distractibility. For me, this week was a huge success, despite not quite meeting my numerical goal.

Now here's the biggest rationalization of all: It's kind of a relief that I failed to do what I committed to. If I'd succeeded easily, I'd be kicking myself for going so long without writing more hours all the time. As hard as it is for me to accept, I'm already writing at close to my limit.

Once I've had a chance to recover from your disappointment, I'll try to share some more embarrassing admissions on this subject.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Millions, Bill Morris looks at five cases of good and bad literary timing: "While Shakar's misfortune was that events [9/11] made his novel seem instantaneously dated in many eyes, Franzen's good luck was that those same events made his novel look prescient to just about everyone. Life is not fair."

October 12, 2012

I Am Uncomfortable Writing This

At various times, I've encountered the advice to not shy away from writing the things that make you uncomfortable. Jenn Hubbard touched on this topic recently, posting, "You must write about the thing you must not write about."

It's good advice. I often set out to write a scene one way, and then I think, "Oh, well, instead I could have them do THAT. No way, that's much too gross/shocking/ethically questionable. Well then, I guess it's perfect." I'm not proud of the twisted things my mind comes up with, and writing them sometimes gives me an icky feeling, but I know if I can produce the same feeling in the reader, I've created something powerful. (Yes, that in itself is twisted. Frankly, writing fiction is a sadistic practice. Also, I was lying: I'm very proud.)

Some of the uncomfortable stuff I'm talking about is of the obvious sort. For example, my novel contains more vomit than anyone really wants to read about. Including on the first page. In the abstract, I don't consider this an especially good strategy, and I know readers may find it off-putting, because I find it off-putting myself. But I've given that opening vomit a lot of thought (the writing life is so glamorous!), and I have clear, non-gratuitous reasons for including it. It's uncomfortable, but I believe it's good and effective for the story.

Last week I was contemplating a scene idea that made me uneasy in a very different way. There's a definite individual element to many uncomfortable topics -- some readers may be even more bothered by this story event than I am, and others won't give it a second thought. The incident involves an apparently atheist character who, in an extreme moment, is moved to prayer.

The character's beliefs don't play a large role in the story, but I have established that he's scornful of the idea of religion or a higher power. He is not a person who prays, and he would never anticipate that he might resort to prayer in desperate circumstances. But he does pray in this scene, and while it doesn't lead to a religious epiphany or anything like that, it affects how he views the outcome of the situation.

In the version of the scene from the previous draft, the character makes his appeal to God even while thinking that he doesn't know if God exists. When I reached the scene again during this revision, I wondered whether to keep the prayer at all, because the whole thing was fairly weak and uninteresting. Then I imagined the character actually getting to his knees and praying in earnest. The image of him down on his knees feels unequivocal to me. I was uncomfortable with the idea that he'd do that, because he would be uncomfortable with the idea. My discomfort made me think it might be good for the story.

As always, I won't truly know if it works until I get feedback from critique partners (who I hope won't be too biased by this advance out-of-context analysis). But for now, I like it. Because I don't like it one bit.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rachelle Gardner explains the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing: "When you foreshadow, the reader usually doesn't notice it when they initially read it. But later they might have an 'aha' moment, remember it, and put two and two together. Often foreshadowing can't even be detected until someone reads your novel for a second time. It's that subtle." (Thanks, Livia Blackburne!)

October 10, 2012

Podcasts for Writers

Yesterday I recommended podcasts for readers. Naturally, all those book discussions and author interviews have a lot of value for writers as well, but today I'm going to cover podcasts that are all about the writing process:

Writing Excuses is a very focused podcast from some very focused writers. Their slogan is "Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart," but that last part is false modesty, given that the hosts are successful professional authors from a variety of genres. Each week they discuss a specific writing problem or technique, such as using a city as a character or writing from the omniscient viewpoint. Occasionally they pick apart a work by one of the hosts, as in this episode analyzing an outline. Every episode is packed with great examples and ideas, and I always learn something from listening. While the time constraint keeps the discussion on topic, there's also a good deal of joking around among the fun group of hosts. The podcast has been running weekly since 2008, and I only tuned in about a year ago, so at some point I'm planning to go back and explore the archives for topics I'd particularly like guidance on.

The Deceptionists is in some ways the opposite of Writing Excuses. The hosts write fiction on an amateur basis, and the episodes are sprawling discussions that usually run at least an hour. The show resembles the conversations I have when I get together with my writing buddies, with plenty of debate and ideas to ponder. Each episode covers a broad aspect of storytelling, for example, characters or setting. When I discovered the show not long ago, I saw that there was a logical progression to the topics, so I decided to start at the beginning (there are 24 episodes so far, and I'm listening at a faster rate than they're broadcasting). In this way, I'm getting a sort of writing class experience out of the show. There's even a workshop component in which the hosts read from their own work. I was very taken with the first story contribution, How Smitty Smokes a Cigarette by David Accampo.

Obviously, this list of recommendations is far shorter than yesterday's. I know there are many podcasts about writing out there, but I haven't come across any others I really enjoy. Please tell me about your favorites!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford discusses Writing as Catharsis: "Even in the course of writing a wacky space adventure, I was still channeling myself into the novel. We all do, whether we're writing precisely about what we've gone through or not."

October 9, 2012

Podcasts for Readers

I listen to a lot of podcasts (if you're not familiar with the concept, here's a brief introduction), and that's where I learn about many of the books I end up reading. These are my favorite podcasts for readers:

Bookrageous lets you listen in on the conversation of some book-obsessed friends. The three hosts work as booksellers and critics, and they have a good range of literary preferences. On every show, they each share what they've read recently, and then they discuss the episode's theme topic, for example, nonfiction or taboos in literature. The chemistry between the hosts is great, and they often bring in guests who liven things up even more. The show is always a ton of fun, in keeping with their slogan: "We're serious about books, but we're not exactly serious."

→ I only recently started listening to Books on the Nightstand, but I'm not sure how I missed it earlier (especially since the Bookrageous folks credit the show as their inspiration). The hosts are both publisher sales reps, so they get to read advance copies of books and introduce them on the podcast right before the release date. A typical episode features some piece of book news, a short discussion about a subject like book jackets or the difference between mystery, thriller, and suspense, and a recommendation from each host of "a book we can't wait for you to read." Overall, this podcast is more formal and less chatty (and shorter) than Bookrageous, but it packs a lot of great information and ideas into each episode. The show also has an active community of listeners on Goodreads, which I haven't yet explored.

Inside The New York Times Book Review is just that: audio coverage of the content appearing in that week's Sunday Book Review. Each episode includes an interview with one of the reviewed authors, a discussion with a reviewer about a different book, news from the publishing industry, and a rundown of the best-seller lists. I especially appreciate these last two segments because they frequently allow me to appear more knowledgeable than I really am in later conversations.

→ The NPR: Books Podcast isn't specifically produced as a podcast but is rather a compilation of the latest book-related segments from NPR programs such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Fresh Air. It's a great way to hear NPR's author interviews, book reviews, and publishing news without having to seek out the relevant content from the different shows. (Incidentally, NPR offers similar podcasts that compile stories on various other topics, like technology and pop culture.)

I listen to every episode of the above podcasts (all appear weekly, except Bookrageous, which is less frequent). There are also some podcasts for readers that I enjoy listening to when I'm interested in the particular book or author:

Bookworm is the most hardcore author interview program I've ever heard. The host, Michael Silverblatt, has not only read the work under discussion, but he often has an analysis that even surprises the author. For this reason, it's especially interesting to listen to an interview after reading the book, though I also find it a good way to get a sense of whether I'll enjoy something.

Book Lust with Nancy Pearl is a Seattle cable TV show hosted by the famous librarian. I would happily listen to Nancy Pearl all day long because she's so delightful. On the program, she interviews authors of popular books for adults and kids about their new releases. The episodes are available in either video or audio format.

The Writer's Block presents recently published authors reading excerpts from their own work. The show is produced by San Francisco station KQED, so there's a bit of a Bay Area slant to the participants, but it features authors from all over. Though I don't tend to listen to audio books, I do like hearing a first chapter performed by the author when I'm deciding whether to read a book.

Am I missing any other good book podcasts? Tomorrow, I'll recommend podcasts that focus on writing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Amwriting blog, J. M. Strother shares his experience (another for my collection!) with starting a novel over: "My current experiment seems to be working out quite well. The new document, while essentially the same story, is developing with much more depth and texture than the old one ever had. Things like foreshadowing come much more naturally as you can imagine as I've already been there once before. The novel still has the same characters, the same setting, the same plot points, but the overall flow and feel are much improved."

October 3, 2012

Gone Girl

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn was the book this summer among people who obsess over books online. I'm always hesitant to read what's extremely popular, due to my contrariness (apparently I'm not the only one), but a friend talked me into it (thanks, Lauren!), and I'm so glad. And now I want everyone else to know: You have to read this book!

The story opens on Nick and Amy's fifth anniversary, which is an awkward occasion, because things are going badly in their marriage. Nick comes home to find the house in disarray, the kettle burning away on the stove, and Amy gone. He calls the cops, horrified, and we know he's horrified because he's the first person narrator, but... What exactly is going on here? Is Nick hiding something?

What's noteworthy about this novel, and the reason everyone's talking about it, is that it keeps you guessing. Honestly guessing, and second-guessing, and then changing your mind back again. Nothing in the story is what it seems. Flynn has done a brilliant job with all these twists and turns, taking care to provide details that answer every "but how did...?" and "why wouldn't he just...?"

From a writing perspective, I was in awe of the intricate plotting and the way the story unfolds. The book also contains some great examples of how to end a chapter or set up a cliffhanger. And Flynn does interesting things with character likability, the topic we were discussing last week.

A warning: I read the Kindle edition of the book, and it contains a table of contents with chapter titles that give away elements of the plot. I suspect the TOC is only for digital navigation purposes and that it isn't designed to be included in the book. So don't look at that (or any reviews of the book, for that matter) if you want a spoiler-free reading experience. And go out and start reading it, quick!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Etgar Keret presents Ten Rules for Writers: "Love your characters. For a character to be real, there has to be at least one person in this world capable of loving it and understanding it, whether they like what the character does or not. You're the mother and the father of the characters you create. If you can't love them, nobody can." (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 28, 2012

It's Not Just Me

I am insecure about my process. Sure, I make all these confident declarations about how everyone knows creating a novel takes a long time and that I'm committed to revising until it's right. But come on, would I really explain at such lengths if I weren't desperate to validate the fact that I'm still revising?

So it's always a relief to come across other writers talking about putting large amounts of time and work into revision. Yes, I know rationally that revision must be part of any successful author's process, but I still crave the stories of ripping a draft to pieces or starting over from scratch. Not every writer revises so extensively, because some manage to plan enough in advance that the plot and sequencing are more or less right the first time around. But I suspect that making huge changes between drafts is the more common phenomenon (and that when it isn't done, that can often be a mistake).

I was thrilled to read in a recent post by Jennifer R. Hubbard, "I spend 10% of my time drafting new material and 90% of my time revising." I thought, "Yes! I'm not alone!" Jenn's post is a response to one by Jane Lebak, who advises making drastic revisions by writing the whole story over again fresh rather than editing old material. Yes! I did that!

When the subject of big revisions comes up in author interviews, I always pay extra attention. Here's Michael Chabon's revelation about the first draft that eventually became THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION (a book I loved):

Mr. Chabon wrote a 600-page draft in the first person that he ended up trashing after a year. It had the same characters -- Landsman; his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, also a policeman; and his cousin and partner, a half-Indian, half-Jew named Berko Shemets -- but a completely different story. He feels as if "Policemen's Union" is its sequel, he says.

And here's Joshua Henkin, author of THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, which I'm looking forward to reading, discussing his process on an episode of Notebook on Cities and Culture:

I think you have to write a certain number of bad pages in order to get to the good pages.... MATRIMONY [his previous novel] took me ten years to write, this [THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU] took me five years to write, but in both cases I would say that the vast majority of the book that got published got written toward the end, like in the last year of MATRIMONY and the last six months with THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU. And it wasn't like I was sitting around eating bon-bons all that time and then I decided, "Okay, time to kick in." I think it's much more that you spend a lot of time making mistakes until finally something clicks and then in the last few months the book sort of miraculously starts to write itself. So I very much feel it's not throwing away stuff, it's more about investing all those days and figuring out who those characters are.

Yes, yes, yes! And also, see how speedy I am compared to him? At least so far, if I hurry up and finish revising?

I feel so validated.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jen Doll at the Atlantic Wire presents What Kind of Book Reader Are You? A Diagnostics Guide: "For as many books as exist, there are also any number of different reading types a book lover (or even a book hater) might demonstrate. What kind are you?" (Thanks, Books on the Nightstand!)

September 26, 2012

Characters Behaving Badly

Last month I mentioned that I'm writing an unlikable narrator. A number of blog readers expressed interest in this topic, so I've been trying to organize some further thoughts on it. It's a tricky subject to figure out, though.

I have read and enjoyed plenty of books with main characters I didn't like. There's the category of protagonist who makes your skin crawl -- the famous example is Humbert Humbert in LOLITA, as Henri reminded me. I recall that while Humbert is despicable, he's also far more pathetic than evil, and that's one of the reasons the story works as well as it does. It's a good tactic for a writer to humanize unlikable characters (and every other kind of character, too), because even if their weaknesses don't make readers like them more, it does build a certain sympathy.

Then there are characters you love to hate. In my recent review of BEAT THE REAPER, I guess I didn't mention this, but the narrator is kind of jerk. His morals are questionable, and he's not that nice to the people in his life. I might not want to hang out with him, but I still found him awesome to read about because he was so funny and competent. So that's another factor: An audience is generally willing to be impressed by characters, even when they're unlikable on a personal level.

Katje brought up the fantastic television series BREAKING BAD, which capitalizes on the "love to hate" element (pun intended). Walter White is a brilliant scientist and problem-solver who does a lot of horrible things. At this point in the series, viewers mostly can't stand him, but that hasn't made the show any worse. We still want to find out what Walt is going to do next and how he's going to overcome the latest obstacle. But it is important that Walt started out as a much more sympathetic character who evolved over many seasons -- the show wouldn't work if it started with the Walt of season 5.

By contrast, in the TV series MAD MEN, we find out right away that the main character, Don Draper, isn't a very nice guy. (I should blog more about all the TV I watch, because a lot of it has good writing lessons.) Don's a brilliant ad man, but he's arrogant about it, and he's a bad husband. He's a character I love to hate, but honestly, I don't really hate him. Don is human, flawed, and complicated, as are all the characters in the show, and the mix of good and bad traits works together to create people I want to watch more of, even when I'm not thrilled with their actions.

I guess the main thing that makes an unlikable character work must be the complexity. Because I've certainly read and watched stories with characters who I didn't like and also didn't care about following any longer. Once the audience stops caring, it's all over, so that's what I want to avoid as a writer.

When unlikable characters didn't work for me, often the problem is the character has only one unlikable trait, and that's it. I don't want to read about a greedy character motivated by greed who greedily lays off all the poor workers and then goes home to bask in the luxuries acquired through greed. If that's all that's going on, it's boring. But if the character is struggling with the memory of childhood bullying or caring for a sick parent or in the middle of a divorce from an even more greedy spouse, maybe you'd have something there.

I'm trying to write an unlikable character who readers will still care about following because he's a complex human with good traits as well as bad. He's a loving father, deeply devoted to the welfare of his family (Walter White's major redeeming feature), but he's also a bad husband (like Don Draper). I had intended to make him more sympathetic during this revision, and I think I've successfully made it clearer that the love for his family is genuine, but I also keep writing scenes in which he behaves worse than in the last draft. This bad behavior continues to interest me because the character has no idea what a jerk he is. He is so good at rationalizing that he always believes he's doing the right thing. It's awful, but it's intriguing. I hope readers will think so, too.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Hilary Smith explains common problems with story conflicts: "[I've] noticed a peculiar phenomenon: manuscripts with loads of conflict that are nevertheless deadly boring.... It turns out these writers had misplaced their conflict in various ways. It's like keeping gasoline in the trunk of your car instead of putting it in the tank. Sure, you have gas, but it's not doing you any good. Gas is only useful if it's in the tank--and conflict sort of works the same way."

September 24, 2012

The True Meaning of Smekday

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex is a hilarious book about a girl whose mom has been abducted by an alien species that takes over the earth and forces all the humans to leave their homes. Hilarious. I mean it. Oh, and also, this is a book for kids.

The hero of the story is an 11-year-old girl named Gratuity (it didn't mean what her mom thought it did). When the moving orders come down from the Boov invaders, she sets off in the car she's learned to drive, accompanied only by her cat, Pig. They soon run into trouble and receive unexpected assistance from one of the aliens, who calls himself J.Lo. He's friendly and eager to help, but he's also frightened, because he's made a very big mistake that will result in serious trouble for everyone on earth, both human and Boov.

Gratuity reluctantly teams up with J.Lo, and they go on a wild road trip across America, dodging obstacles and attacks and bickering all the way. They spend some time with an underground would-be rebel group at Happy Mouse Kingdom, a wonderful alternate version of Disney World (amusingly, the novel is published by Disney Books). In the course of the journey, Gratuity and J.Lo learn more about each other's cultures and form a strong bond that allows them to work together to save the world.

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY is a very clever book in a variety of ways. It's funny throughout, full of wordplay, ridiculous misunderstandings, and astute observations, particularly about the behavior of grownups. The book is enhanced with great illustrations by the author and even a few sections in comic book form. At times, the story points out or implies comparisons between the alien treatment of earthlings and the past actions of invading human civilizations, but the message is never heavy-handed.

I'm an adult reader, and I enjoyed this book and didn't feel it was too young for me. But it's written for children (or at least, marketed for children) with a designation for ages 8 and up. All the material is appropriate for kids, though some of it may go over the heads of very young readers. This would be an excellent book for a family to read and discuss together.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A Beyond the Margins contributor shares a 1960s essay by his father that shows how little a Day in the Life of a Writer has changed: "2:17 – Pose before mirror. Believe profile with pipe will be best for book jacket picture. 2:26 – Start third paragraph."

September 21, 2012

Ramping Up

Deadlines and goals are useful. I mean, duh, right? They certainly work well for me, so I always have this nagging feeling that if I were operating with a real deadline on my novel, I'd be a lot more productive and probably finished by now.

What qualifies as "real" in my head is a funny thing. I've successfully met the deadline for National Novel Writing Month many times -- and without it, I might never have written any novels -- but the penalty for failing is only self-flagellation and maybe some mild disappointment from friends. I'm great at self-flagellation, so I ought to be able to set up a personal arbitrary deadline at any point, and I can create the potential for mild disappointment by announcing it on my blog or even just telling a few people.

I guess I have done that at least once, when I committed to an hour count goal last November as a parallel challenge to NaNoWriMo. I met my goal, and it helped me be more productive than usual. I was kind of intending to repeat the challenge a couple of months later, but that never happened.

I'm constantly making goals for myself about when I'm going to finish this scene, this chapter, this whole damn draft. But I never make them real by telling anyone else, so they're meaningless.

Thinking about this more, I realize that I'm only comfortable committing publicly to a goal based on a certain amount of time (or in the past, a certain number of words), not to one involving progress through the story. That's because I can't know for sure if a scene or chapter will be painless to write or will require long thought and agonizing over every sentence. I'm afraid that if I have to meet a deadline, I'll rush when I shouldn't, and the quality will suffer. Which would be a counterproductive use of productivity, so of course that's why I'm not comfortable with it. I mean, duh, right?

Therefore, here's another hour-based goal. Back in the spring, I did an assessment of how much time I spent working, and I wasn't pleased with the results. I resolved to push myself to focus more on writing each day, and that's been going pretty well, if you overlook a summer full of breaks. I'm currently more satisfied with how much I'm getting done.

So now it's time to boost the numbers and raise the stakes. I'm going to increase my hourly goal each week for the next four weeks. At the end of that time, I'm going to post about this again and tell you how well I'm doing.

And if I don't, your mild disappointment will rain down upon me! Believe me, this is one of the scarier fates I can imagine.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Author Keith Ridgway confesses in The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, "I don't know how to write.": "I've written six books now, but instead of making it easier, it has complicated matters to the point of absurdity. I have no idea what I'm doing." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

September 19, 2012

Breaking the Monotony

My novel is roughly one-quarter characters talking over meals, one-quarter conversations while dishwashing or cooking, and one-quarter discussions in bed. Among the remaining quarter of the scenes are a small number of action-packed episodes, but the rest are characters talking in other locations. I desperately hope this doesn't make the story as boring as it sounds.

Since my novel focuses on the relationships between characters, I'm pretty sure it's okay that it's mostly conversations and arguments. And I guess it's inevitable that if over the course of the story I need to write dozens of one-on-one discussions between the same husband and wife, most of the scenes will happen in their home as they go through the activities of daily life. The story takes place over years, so while the characters are always wrestling with conflicts, most of the problems aren't momentous enough to stop the necessity of carrying on with eating and cleaning and putting the children to bed. That's life, in the real world and in my story, and when my characters take time to deal with their issues, it has to fit in with that reality.

I can't justify sending my characters off to gallop across the plains on horseback or jump out of an airplane or hit the blackjack tables in Vegas just so that they have a different backdrop as they negotiate the terms of their marriage. It wouldn't make sense in the story for them to go on these adventures, and anyway, it might make even less sense for them to have those conversations while doing such things. But I do get awfully tired of writing variations on, "That night, as we were getting ready for bed," and I worry that readers will be bored by the repetition.

Yesterday, I was facing this problem once again. My characters had an argument in front of their friends, so at least that provided a different setting, but I knew they had to deal with the fallout once they got home and put the children to bed. Where would they talk? In the bedroom? The living room? The kitchen? The idea of the scene felt equally flat to me in any of those locations because I was so bored of them all.

I thought, "Well, they do have a back yard, with patio furniture. But it's too cold for them to want to go outside." And then I considered that some more, and I thought about the effect if one of the characters is also so bored by the inside of their house and the routine of their life that she would rather sit outside in the cold. And suddenly I was interested again.

I wrote the scene that way, and it wasn't the conversation I'd planned for the characters, but it was better. There was less rehashing of the same conflict and more that went significantly unsaid. The characters looked at the night sky while they were out there, and that gave me an idea for a bit of backstory that intrigued me. I put the memory in but then reconsidered because it was largely irrelevant. Then I thought about it for longer and came up with a way to tie it in with the characters' current issues. And now I like this scene.

It's interesting how just a small break from routine can open up new possibilities.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Benjamin Percy, writing at The Rumpus, describes learning to slow down as a reader: "I realized--as do so many in their twenties--that no matter how swiftly I turned the pages, I wasn't going to make my way through all the books I ought or wanted to read. And then I realized, after taking a forms class with Mike Magnuson, what it meant to read as a writer, to truly relish every word and study every sentence strenuously so that I might pirate tools to employ on the page." (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 17, 2012

The Age of Miracles

THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker is a recent debut that received a lot of attention from critics, and for good reason. This is a gripping, beautifully told story that builds from an ingenious premise.

In THE AGE OF MIRACLES, the rotation of the earth begins to slow. Scientists announce that for no reason they can explain, the planet is taking an hour longer to revolve. The slowing, as it comes to be called, increases with each rotation, and the days and nights become longer and longer.

I love to see a good what-if explored well, and Walker does an incredible job of imagining the repercussions as the slowing grows worse. The change in the earth's rotation affects gravity and the magnetic field, longer days and nights impact ecosystems and crops, and everything that's happening changes human society in a variety of ways that all seem both plausible and insightful.

Walker, perhaps recognizing that one of the most immutable forces in modern civilization is the horror of middle school, presents the story from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old girl. Julia is a thoughtful, lonely child, unpopular for no reason she can explain. The boys pick on her and the girls don't invite her to parties, and the slowing doesn't change the misery of her school life. (Until I wrote out that description, I didn't really think about how fully I identified with Julia. I've tried to repress my memories of middle school.)

As Julia navigates sixth grade and watches problems develop in her parents' marriage, the slowing and its effects keep growing worse. Sometimes the events of the slowing are a background to Julia's coming-of-age, and sometimes they have a direct impact. The threads of the story blend together wonderfully. I was torn between not wanting to stop reading and not wanting to reach the end.

It probably goes without saying at this point, but this is a heavy, depressing book. As long as you're up for that, I highly recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Abouzeid at Beyond the Margins considers what writers can get out of the subjects they avoided in high school: "Huge portions of the working world deal in numbers: not just scientists and mathematicians, but tax auditors, computer programmers, game designers, pilots, actuaries, economists, bankers, carpenters, musicians, even drug dealers. If some of these showed up in my work, would I need to study calculus to draw their characters accurately? No. But think how much more convincing they would be if I understood what they do and how that affects their worldview."

September 14, 2012

Next Time

Next time I write a novel, I'm going to do a bunch of things differently to make the process easier:

1. The characters will always tell the truth and say exactly what they mean. That way I won't need so many notes to keep track of what's going on, and I won't have to write nearly as many scenes.

2. All the problems that the characters face will be simple to resolve. Again, this will help considerably with my book length problem, as it will take far fewer pages to tell the story.

3. I'll heed that old adage, "Write what you know." If I only draw on characters and situations similar to what I've encountered myself, I won't have to do much research or spend so much time imagining what experiences might be like.

4. I will make an outline in advance and stick to it faithfully, no matter what other ideas I come up with during the drafting process. It's way too much work to constantly readjust the plot by taking the story in directions I didn't plan.

5. I won't be such a perfectionist and insist on rewriting the manuscript over and over. This novel is taking so long, there may never be a next time.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Carl Wilkinson at The Telegraph takes a look at how different authors handle the issue of shutting out a world of digital distraction: "Clearly the distractions of YouTube cat videos, unsolicited tweets and the ping of an email arriving in your inbox are not conducive to writing an intricately structured 100,000-word novel." (Thanks, Christopher Gronlund!)

September 11, 2012

What I Do

Last week I once again had to answer that dreaded question from a new acquaintance: "So, what do you do?" By now I ought to have a well-rehearsed reply, but I always struggle in the face of this question and its inevitable followups.

This time, though, I think I nailed it, because I came to the question with a newfound perspective. I've had some recent insights about the whole novel-writing endeavor, partly due to time away from my manuscript this summer and numerous conversations with family members about my work. Also, I'd had some recent adult beverages.

"I hate answering this question," I said to the table full of non-writer strangers. "Because I'm an unpublished novelist. Eventually I'll be a published novelist, but the trouble is that it takes a very long time to write a book that's ready to be published. I'm already many years and many drafts into the process, so I'm well on my way, but I'm not there yet."

Then I knocked over my glass of water and it shattered into a plate of appetizers, but right before that, I think I saw everyone nod knowingly. They got it. I'm not an unpublished novelist because I've never made it past chapter 5, and I'm not unpublished because I'm a terrible writer but don't realize it. My dinner companions recognized that I'm doing whatever mysterious writing thing all those successful authors have done, but they're meeting me at the point before the success. Because there always has to be a certain amount of work before success.

Someday those people will hear that my novel is coming out, and they'll be pleased to be able to say, "Oh yes, I know her. She's the one who made a glass explode all over the chicken wings."

Good Stuff Out There:

→ David Abrams describes how he cut half the words from his debut novel after it was acquired and Laura Miller at Salon reacts by discussing why some novels should be longer than others.

September 4, 2012

Shine Shine Shine

Lydia Netzer does something brave with the beginning of SHINE SHINE SHINE: she opens the book with a man in a spaceship. A spaceship says "science fiction", but this isn't a science fictional story at all. It's a story about a family trying to live a normal, earthbound life when none of the members are quite suited to the world they've found themselves in.

The jacket copy and various descriptions I've read for this novel give too much away, in my opinion, so here's a spoiler-free summary:

The man in the spaceship is Maxon, a robotics expert on a NASA mission to the moon, where he's going to set up robots that will construct a colony where humans can eventually live. Back on earth is Maxon's pregnant wife, Sunny, and their four-year-old autistic son. Sunny has worked hard to build a perfect life for their family in their ritzy Virginia suburb, but while Maxon is away, the careful facade of normalcy begins to crack.

I loved this book. The characters are wonderful, complex, and deeply individual. Much of the story is about not fitting in and the various ways people either try to fit in or try not to care. Another significant part of the plot is the history of Sunny and Maxon's relationship, and I found their geek love story very appealing and romantic. SHINE SHINE SHINE is a little on the weird side, which I consider a plus, but I think it will appeal to anyone who likes reading about family relationships.

This is Netzer's debut novel, and she's hard at work on the difficult second one. I can't wait to read her next creation!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrew Shaffer at mental_floss tracks How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read, covering the controversial origins of mass-market and trade paperbacks. (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

August 31, 2012

Glamour in Glass

I previously raved about SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, Mary Robinette Kowal's novel that takes a Jane Austen-like story and injects a unique form of a magic into its world. The second book in the series, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, is just as wonderful, and it uses the same elements to tell a rather different sort of story.

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is mostly drawing rooms and courtship, though the story does involve a bit of action and danger. In GLAMOUR IN GLASS, the stakes get a lot higher, with characters risking their lives and some awful things happening. I think this is a good development for the series, because a second book with the same sort of premise would have been repetitive. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, Kowal designed the second one to stand on its own, so you could start with this one if you'd prefer more action and intrigue.

This story takes the British characters from the first book over to France. Napoleon has just been forced to abdicate the throne, making it safe for them to travel to a small French town where they can study with a fellow glamourist. But when Napoleon escapes from exile, the situation becomes more and more dangerous, and they have to use all their skills in glamour to get back home.

If you've already read GLAMOUR IN GLASS and would like to know more about it, I recommend listening to the episode of Writing Excuses in which Kowal discusses the choices she made when writing the book. I know that she has at least two more books in the pipeline for this series, and I'm really looking forward to them.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Allison K. Gibson has an excellent analysis of a problem that contemporary writers must grapple with, The Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction: "It isn't hard to make a case against including technology in fiction. First, technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It's embarrassing, really. So I understand an author's impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak."

August 29, 2012

Cover Love

I love book covers. I'm fascinated by the concept of designing an image to represent hundreds of pages of fiction. I love the experience of being drawn to a book by a jacket that captures my attention, and I'm also interested by what covers turn me off.

Many of the links I select to feature in my Good Stuff Out There sections are about cover art, such as this investigation of how ebooks are affecting cover design and this review of ugly covers for great books. I tend to read everything on this topic that I come across. I was recently intrigued by the blog Talking Covers, which asks authors and artists to discuss the design process, and I appreciated this detailed analysis of young adult book covers that includes infographics.

The discussion at that last link points out that there are trends in cover art within genres. For example, many bloggers have noted the current proliferation of dead girls on YA book covers, and the latest fad in literary fiction seems to be cover art consisting mostly of handwriting. So I wasn't too surprised when I was in a bookstore with my mom this summer and saw a book with a dog's head peeking out from the bottom of the cover.

"That looks just like the cover of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN," I told my mom. "I guess that's the requirement now for books about dogs."

A few minutes later, another cover caught my eye. "That book has the same photo as a different book I read."

"Oh, another similar cover?" Mom said.

"No, I mean, it's the exact same photo. That's so weird." I filed this information away and wasn't sure what to do with it until I listened to a recent Books on the Nightstand episode about book covers. They discussed a blog, Caustic Cover Critic, that collects examples of cover art using the the same stock photos or images. Turns out this happens all the time, and there are often even more than two books based on the same source image. I submitted my own duplicate find to the collection.

While books with nearly identical covers are unfortunate, I do enjoy the serendipity when covers with similarities come into my life around the same time. Right now, I'm reading two amazing recent releases, SHINE SHINE SHINE by Lydia Netzer and THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker, and both books feature gorgeous blue, star-filled covers. If I want to extend my run of blue, star-filled covers, I can move on to another intriguing new novel, THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller. Maybe I'll read nothing but blue, starry books from now on.

My love of covers is probably my biggest hesitation about ebooks. I'm reading THE AGE OF MIRACLES on my Kindle, so I haven't been able to really enjoy its cover. The Kindle gives me just a grainy black-and-white cover image to look at, so it's only because of encountering the cover online that I knew of its starry blueness. I still get all the words, and that's the real point of a novel, but I do feel I'm missing out on something.

On that bookstore trip with my mom, I purchased A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers mainly because it has a textured, tactile cover that made me want to possess it in print form. You can see in this photo how the letters and patterns are carved into the thick cover. I don't know if the future of publishing will be more collectible editions like this one, or if it will bring the extinction of hardcover books.

At least I have no doubt that there will still be books in print whenever I manage to publish my own novel. One of my many recurring daydreams involves musing about what my cover will look like. I hope my book's cover looks okay in grainy black-and-white, and but mostly I'm looking forward to holding the real thing in my hand.

August 27, 2012


EMBASSYTOWN by China Miéville is a fascinating work of science fiction with a lot going on. At times I felt like Miéville had perhaps thrown too many of his neat ideas into the mix, but overall the story works well and the concepts are thought-provoking.

Embassytown is where the story takes place. It's a small human enclave on a remote planet inhabited by aliens who speak in a language with characteristics unlike any other in the universe. The narrator of the story is a human woman from Embassytown named Avice. She's traveled all over the universe and encountered all sorts of aliens, but she's well aware that her hometown and its native population are unique in several ways.

I realize that description is all extremely vague. I'm reluctant to say more because I enjoyed how the circumstances of the story were revealed gradually, with details alluded to that aren't fully explained until later. This is something Miéville does well, and I don't want to spoil the wonderful reading experience for others.

I will say that the story revolves around language, so it will particularly appeal to anyone interested in that subject. Avice's time in Embassytown is long after its founding, but the story of first contact with the planet's inhabitants is included, and much of the plot concerns the evolving interspecies relationship and the problems of communication. It all leads to grave and engrossing conflicts.

Though I liked this book a lot, I didn't love it as much as one of Miéville's earlier novels, THE CITY AND THE CITY, which I read last year. That book blew my mind. I also think that one's more accessible, because while it does have one big not-of-our-world concept to wrap your brain around, the story is otherwise a standard police procedural. So, while I definitely recommend EMBASSYTOWN to interested readers, if it sounds too intimidating, check out THE CITY AND THE CITY instead.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A.J. Jacobs on writing blurbs for too many books: "I have blurbed memoirs, novels, comic books, children's books and a half-dozen book proposals. I accidentally used the exact same blurb on two different books." (Thanks, Bookrageous!)

August 24, 2012

It's Getting Better All The Time

The storyline that I'm currently revising (which, yes, is the third and final one, meaning that someday I'll actually be done with this revision pass) had some problems in the previous draft, obviously. I had planned out the changes I wanted to make, and I'm working on executing that plan.

What's amazed me since starting this storyline is just how many small and yet hugely significant improvements to the plan have surfaced in the process of writing. I've been injecting a lot of extra conflict into scenes, for example, and that seems to be working, because it's pretty much always more interesting when a story has more conflict, right?

The narrator of this storyline is the one I understood the least well, and readers of the previous draft had the most issues with him. I was intending to make him more likable, though I wasn't sure I could succeed. Instead, I think I'm making him less likable, but more interesting, and I hope that means readers will be eager to read about him even if they can't sympathize with the things he does. And I'm getting a much better handle on what makes him tick.

I could attribute this flood of brilliant ideas to various factors, but an important one is that I've now been writing for longer than I had when I started the previous storyline. Or the one before. The further I get through this revision, the more experienced I become as a writer. That's pretty cool.

That also creates a bit of an issue, which attentive readers may have already spotted. The chapters I revised at the beginning of this process are inevitably not going to be anywhere near as good as the last ones I work on. Yeah, I know. I've always known that problem would exist, and there's no real way around it.

I'll deal with that later. For now, I'm going to continue being pleased by how good this novel is getting.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Edan Lepucki offers advice on handling transitions in a story: "It's often these micro-level mechanics that slow a writer down, make her feel like she's oiling the rusty joints of robots rather than conjuring and exploring the lives of real people with meaningful problems."

August 22, 2012

Beat The Reaper

BEAT THE REAPER by Josh Bazell grabbed me from the opening sentence: "So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!" I love a strong narrative voice with a good sense of humor, and this book delivered that all the way through. I received the book as a gift from a friend (thanks, Alison!), and I'm hoping to pass the fantastic reading experience on to as many people as possible.

The narrator is Dr. Peter Brown, a first-year resident at a terrible hospital in New York City. It quickly becomes clear from the way he takes out his would-be mugger that Dr. Brown has skills not normally acquired in medical school. The story of his checkered and violent past is revealed in flashback chapters as he goes through his day at the hospital -- and today his past is finally catching up with him.

BEAT THE REAPER is an action-packed thriller that always kept me wondering what would happen next. It's full of weird medical details and intriguing (that is, horrific) information about the realities of health care. Dr. Brown has a talent for medicine, but his methods are often unusual, which is a real asset at a hospital with so few resources. The story has many disturbing parts, medical and otherwise, but the narrator delights in finding the absurdity of all of it, so the book is darkly hilarious even when he's talking about awful events.

Josh Bazell is a doctor himself, and he somehow found the time to write this novel during medical school and residency. As a result, the book is packed with insider knowledge. This is something I particularly love in books, when done well. I often despair over the fact that I have no extensive personal knowledge of anything that I could write a novel around. (The world has more than enough stories about writers writing.)

For example, here's one detail that really stuck with me because it sounds so authentic and also reveals a lot about the character. Dr. Brown is describing the process of scrubbing in to assist with a surgery: "Washing your hands, by the way,... is the best part of surgery.... You're supposed to do it for five minutes. You do it for three, which feels like a vacation." I love the way those simple sentences convey so much about the life of doctors in general and this one in particular. The whole book impressed me in that way, and it kept me turning pages and laughing out loud at the same time. That's a pretty admirable accomplishment for any author, let alone one in the process of completing a medical education.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Lydia Sharp speaks out on the difficult topic of knowing when to let go of an unsuccessful manuscript: "Right now I'm working on my fifth completed novel, and I'd tried (and failed) to get the four others before it published.... The public admittance that I have that many unpublished novels is, in itself, a risky statement. Sure, other authors have publicly admitted that they wrote many, many manuscripts before getting one published. But have you ever noticed that they don't do so until they DO have a book deal?" (Thanks, Jennifer R. Hubbard!)

August 16, 2012

How About That Novel?

Well, now that I'm back from my travels and blogging again, I guess I should update you on my novel revision.

Yup. It's coming along.

Okay, next topic...

No, the truth is, revision is actually going pretty well this week. It was tough getting back into the writing groove after so much time away, and as always, I'm not making progress as quickly as I want. But this week I've written a bunch of strong scenes that went in unexpected directions, and I'd like to believe I wouldn't have hit upon those ideas without the time away from the story.

So the novel is good. I'm trying hard to embrace the idea that as long as I keep working, it doesn't matter when I finish. What's important to me is to produce the best manuscript I can, and that's what I'm writing toward.

And now, it's time to get back to work.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times, Bruce Handy explains his Fabulous Boring Book Collection: "What I am after are books that are uniquely, exquisitely, profoundly boring -- books whose boringness intrigues, if that is not a contradiction in terms." (Thanks, Book Review Podcast!)

August 14, 2012

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

I heard about THE LEGEND OF PRADEEP MATHEW by Shehan Karunatilaka when it was announced as a pick for the Bookrageous book club. I enjoyed the book and am glad it was selected, because I doubt that I would have considered reading it otherwise. Both the subject matter and the style are potentially off-putting, which makes this a tricky novel to describe and recommend.

THE LEGEND OF PRADEEP MATHEW is ostensibly about the world of professional cricket. Specifically, the story concerns a retired Sri Lankan sportswriter searching for a cricket player -- possibly the best his country has ever produced -- who mysteriously vanished after a few incredible games. There's a ton of cricket talk in the book, including recaps of real matches and explanations of terminology. It's probably possible for a determined reader to learn quite a bit about cricket by paying close attention to the descriptions and hand-drawn diagrams, but the information didn't really stick in my mind, and I allowed myself to read on without understanding everything once I figured out that it didn't affect my comprehension of the plot.

You see, the book turns out to be at least as much about the narrator as about the cricket player he's trying to find. W.G. Karunasena was once an award-winning sportswriter, but alcoholism has destroyed his career, his health, and his relationship with his son. At the beginning of the book, his doctor says that if he keeps drinking, it's going to kill him. W.G. decides that with the time he has left, he wants to rescue cricketer Pradeep Mathew from obscurity, a goal that only his statistics-obsessed best friend can understand. In the rambling course of the search, W.G tells the reader about his own life and about Sri Lankan culture and politics, and he explores how all of these are tied up in cricket.

W.G. is a wonderful, complicated character. Sometimes it's fun and hilarious to spend time with him, and other times it's a painful experience. The book is full of other great, strange, and larger-than-life characters, including some real cricket personalities. I found W.G.'s story compelling, and I wanted to see him both turn his life around and succeed in his quest.

As a narrator, W.G. is disorganized, by his own admission. The story unfolds in many short sections, some that advance the plot (not always chronologically) and some with information about cricket. Overall, the book's style worked for me, but I imagine it would be irritating to some readers.

After reading, I enjoyed listening to the Bookrageous book club discussion, which includes spoilers.

Note that outside the United States, the book is published with the title CHINAMAN. As explained in the story, this is a cricket term referring to a bowling style, but the inappropriate ethnic designation is also part of the intended connotation. Racism plays a role in the book, and in Sri Lanka's history.

August 10, 2012

My New Reading Technologies

This summer, I've added two technological innovations to my reading life.

First, I received a hand-me-down Kindle. I've been reading ebooks on my phone for two years, and I was content enough with that system that I never bought myself a dedicated ereading device. But I sure wasn't going to say no to a free one!

I'm appreciating the Kindle's screen size, since a phone is a little smaller than I'd prefer for reading. The e-ink display is nice, but I don't find a backlit screen uncomfortable for my eyes, so that's not as significant a feature for me. Where the Kindle really outdoes the phone is in battery life, and that was especially important during my travels. If I know I'm going to be on the go all day and needing my phone for mapping and communication, I'm reluctant to use any of its battery on reading. With the Kindle, I can read for days without recharging.

I still don't see myself switching exclusively to ebooks anytime soon. I expect to continue in my habit of usually having (at least) one paper book and one ebook in progress. I'll probably get through ebooks faster now, though, if I'm not only reading on my phone during spare moments of waiting.

For my second reading life upgrade, I finally joined the book community site Goodreads after thinking about it for years (I really do everything at a glacial pace, huh?). I've been having fun organizing my virtual shelves and importing the reviews from this blog. I'll still post my book recommendations here, but look for me at Goodreads if you'd like to follow my reading progress in more excruciating detail.

I've added a Goodreads widget to the sidebar of my blog that displays the books I'm currently reading. I'm gradually adding more books to my Goodreads shelves. Eventually I'll have my whole to-read list in there, and we can see just how long it really is.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Patrick Somerville tells the strange and horrifying story of a bad review based on a serious misreading of his novel. His fictional character had to set the record straight.

August 7, 2012

Happy Release Day to Mark Hosack!

I met Mark Hosack at the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2008. At the time, he was just another unpublished novelist (though he's also a screenwriter), but today Mark has a book out from Simon & Schuster.

IDENTITY is a thriller about the world of finance, dirty dealings, and mistaken identities. I've just started reading, and the story is pulling me right in.

The novel is being released initially as an ebook only, but it may have a print release if the ebook does well. It's available for only $1.99 for the next two weeks, so if you're interested, buy it now.

Congratulations to Mark on the big debut! I can't wait to keep reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Maria Konnikova writes in the Slate Book Review about the history of the search for The Great American Novel: "But though the GAN as such seems here to stay, the way we think about it has evolved significantly from its original conception to the present day. And that evolution is as inevitable as it is profound." (Thanks, The Millions!)