February 21, 2012

Brief Blog Break

I have a couple of chapters left to go on the revision of my novel's middle storyline, so I've been focusing a lot of time and attention on getting the words out. Most days lately, I've also been planning to make blog posts, and even more interestingly, planning to contemplate some bigger ideas for the blog, but those items keep rolling over to the next day's to-do list.

My obsession with fiction often extends to the time-management expectations I fabricate for myself, but I think it's time to inject a bit of realism here. I'll be taking the next week or two off from the blog to concentrate my energy on the novel.

When I return, I'll get to the reader requests from last month's call for feedback. In the meantime, feel free to leave additional ideas.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Gabe Habash writes at PWxyz about The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books: "There are just too many books to read. And while one might make the very good point that you could just wait to buy them when you have more room, there's something about putting them in a row with other books, read and unread, that creates the cumulative impression of your reading self."

February 14, 2012

Book Club Podcasts

I wanted to call attention to a couple of podcast book discussions that I enjoyed for books I read in the past few months:

→ I'm not a regular listener of the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast, but I'd heard they run a book club and had downloaded some episodes about books that I intended to read. I finally got around to listening to the discussion of A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan, which I read in December.

The GOON SQUAD episode is a great conversation about the book as a whole and its individual chapters. After listening to the podcasters talk about some connections between the stories that I'd missed, I appreciated the book more than I did initially. In particular, I'm reconsidering my opinion that the book is linked short stories rather than a novel. I think A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD is definitely a book that could benefit from a second read.

I see that the Fuzzy Typewriter book club has a recent episode on HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu, another book I read and enjoyed, so I've downloaded that episode to listen to next.

→ I mentioned that ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead made my reading list because it was the first book club selection for one of my favorite podcasts, Bookrageous.

The episode about ZONE ONE was a fun book discussion, followed by a conversation with the author. I especially recommend the section with Whitehead to those who have read the novel. (The first section of the podcast, following the regular episode format, is a rundown of what the hosts have been reading, so isn't relevant to ZONE ONE.)

→ Unrelated to any of the above, since it's Valentine's Day, I thought I'd point my newer readers to a post I made a year ago that I'm still rather proud of: What We Write About When We Write About Love.

Love is tricky. Writing about it, even more so. I wish you all a Valentine's Day that's exactly what you want it to be.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford writes on The Art of Being Unsentimental About Your Characters: "We writers can get really, really attached to our characters. They become almost like family members. We want the best of them. And sometimes it becomes difficult to see them make mistakes and to see their flaws and to let those bad qualities shine through from time to time. We can be far too nice to them."

→ Publishing Trendsetter offers A Publisher’s Menagerie: Stories behind Publishers’ Animal Logos. (Thanks, The Millions!)

February 10, 2012

My Latest Book Haul

Yesterday I went to my favorite local bookstore, Books Inc., to pick up a book order. Because, obviously, I don't have enough books. I'll be reading a couple of these right away, but the others will join the many unread books on my shelves, and it's anyone's guess whether I'll read them next month or not for years.

GATHERING OF WATERS by Bernice L. McFadden - I learned about this new release from the blog White Readers Meet Black Authors. I was drawn in by a video of McFadden reading the first chapter, which introduces the narrator of the story as the town of Money, Mississippi. I'm interested in novels that involve real historical events, and this book centers on the murder of Emmett Till, which I only know a little about.

CHILDREN OF THE WATERS by Carleen Brice - Brice is the proprietor of the White Readers Meet Black Authors blog, and since I've enjoyed several of her recommendations, it occurred to me that I should check out one of her own books. CHILDREN OF THE WATERS is about families and secrets, two of my favorite literary subjects.

It's a pleasing coincidence that these first two books have similiar titles and covers.

February 7, 2012

Starting Tactics

Nathan Bransford blogged yesterday about How to Return to Writing After a Long Break. He discusses some great advice, including "Know that your first day back will not be productive" and "Badger yourself into opening up your novel and getting started again even if it feels like you are peeling off your own skin."

I was thinking about how most of this advice is applicable even when the break from writing has only been as long as a couple of days, or the hours since the night before. I usually find it really hard to get started on a writing session. I might be absolutely convinced that I never want to write another word in my life, right up until I wring out a sentence and think, "Oh, that's not so bad. It's even kind of fun."

Recently I've had a lot of productivity success (where "productivity" means "time-consuming systems for tricking ourselves into making better use of our time") by telling myself, "The next few hours are only for focusing on the novel, but as long as you don't think about anything else, you don't even have to write anything." When I'm intimidated by what I have to write next, it's comforting to know that I can just sit there for a few hours trying to figure it out. Inevitably, before too long I'll start writing, because for one thing, it's kind of boring to sit for hours not doing anything, and for another thing, thinking has a tendency to lead to ideas.

As Nathan says in his post, and as I've written about previously, the going is always slower at the beginning. But by the end of any writing session that I determined might not result in any actual writing, I always have plenty of words to show for myself.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Eleanor Brown posts at Beyond the Margins about Exposing the Dark Questions: "There were scenes in the book that made me cry as I wrote them, because writing them forced me to call upon emotions that I had, for a long time, tried to bury. I hadn't set out to write those scenes, hadn't set out to walk among those ruins, but there they were, and I could see that, painful as the process was, it was also catharsis." Today is the paperback release of Eleanor's THE WEIRD SISTERS, which I enjoyed a year ago.

February 3, 2012

February Reading Plan

For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading books that I wasn't super enthusiastic about, so I'm excited about having a personally thrilling lineup for this month:

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon - Left over from last month's list, when I didn't get to it. In the meantime, I've received a couple of glowing reviews from people I know. One friend said that Chabon's earlier book, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, is even more amazing, so in her opinion I'm doing the right thing by saving it until after this book.

THE FLAME ALPHABET by Ben Marcus - This novel has been getting lot of attention in the literary blogosphere. The premise is intriguing, but as I suspect it might be the sort of book that it's better to read without knowing too much, I'll just say that it involves language and an epidemic. If you want to know more, watch the haunting animated book trailer. After hearing about THE FLAME ALPHABET several times, I was interested but unsure if I actually wanted to read it. I picked it up in a bookstore, read the first paragraph, and made up my mind to buy it because of the way the opening dives right in.

THE MIRAGE by Matt Ruff - I've been eagerly awaiting this book for about six months. Well, more accurately, I've been waiting for this book since finishing Matt Ruff's last book in 2007. I can't say enough good things about Matt Ruff, and if I try, it's just going to be embarrassing for everybody, so let's move on. THE MIRAGE will be released next week, on February 7. It has an incredible mirror-history premise that I know Ruff has the skill to pull off. I can't wait.

HALF LIFE by Shelley Jackson - Jackson will be one of the honored guests at FOGcon, the speculative fiction convention I'm excited about attending next month. HALF LIFE is a story about conjoined twins, and it sounds fascinating and fantastical.

With all these great books to read, how will I manage to get any writing done in February?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A friend of mine is working on an impressive project: Rereading Every Book I Own. She's reading them in chronological order and writing entertaining reviews of each. Here's the introduction.

February 2, 2012

January Reading Recap

Last month I read three of the four books on my list:

MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer - This novel is about guilt and secrets, two of my favorite themes. I posted some thoughts on the book already from a writerly perspective. The richly drawn characters are wonderful, and the plot weaves together in an interesting and usually surprising way. This is a book I'll be looking at again to learn more about constructing a story, and I recommend it to readers interested in a suspenseful, character-driven novel.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides - I'm sorry to say that I didn't like this book as much as I wanted to. I loved MIDDLESEX, Eugenides's previous novel, and this one didn't engage me in the same way. However, since MIDDLESEX won the Pulitzer Prize, it's naturally a hard book to top. THE MARRIAGE PLOT still has fascinating characters and an interesting story, and other readers might connect with it more than I did.

The story follows three characters in the year after their graduation from Brown University in 1982. Madeleine is an English major with a thesis about "the marriage plot" and its gradual disappearance from Western literature. She's in love with Leonard, a manic-depressive biologist. And she's firmly not in love with her friend Mitchell, who travels to Europe and India seeking spiritual fulfillment and an escape from his unrequited love of Madeleine.

I eventually became attached to the characters and their various adventures. I was less taken in by the novel's digressions into cerebral topics such as semiotics and literary theory. Perhaps if I'd read the authors who are name-dropped in the story, I might have found these sections more engaging. I was startled to find this apt and possibly self-conscious passage near the end of the novel:

The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.

Does this mean my experience of reading THE MARRIAGE PLOT was exactly what Eugenides intended? Even if not, coming across this sentence increased my pleasure in the book.

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley - I expect it will not be news to anybody that this is the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who assembles and gives life to a monstrous creature. It was written almost 200 years ago and is considered one of the earliest works of science fiction.

FRANKENSTEIN is a fairly exciting tale, but with my modern reading sensibilities, I couldn't help but notice all the places where a different storytelling style would have better highlighted the excitement. The pacing and structure seem less than optimal, though I imagine they are in keeping with the conventions of the time. I was less impatient with this story than with some of the other old books I've read, and it's kind of cool that a 200-year-old novel can still be read and enjoyed.

A side note: I thought I'd read this book before, and in particular I recalled that I'd read about two-thirds and then stopped for some reason. My paperback has a bookmark around that spot, confirming this theory. But nothing in the book was familiar, and I would have concluded that I didn't read it after all, except that I recently reread another book and found that I didn't remember a thing about it. I think of myself as having a good memory for what I read, and I can remember details of many books that I read decades ago, but I guess I only retain some books and lose others.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne shares what she's doing differently as she starts her second novel: "While I love my cliffhangers dearly, they can only take you so far. I now see cliffhangers as part of a larger set of tools to keep readers invested. If readers build an emotional connection to the character, they'll keep reading -- plus, they'll keep thinking about the book after they finish."