December 18, 2015

Wrapping Up and Winding Down

The end of 2015 approaches, and I'm ready to switch my brain to vacation mode. Before I sink into a revel of books, knitting, and sugar, here's an update and overview of my writing year.

At the end of October, I mentioned I was a month into a new novel that I was writing with very little plan in mind. Yesterday I completed that first draft. I brought the characters and situation to a reasonable point of closure a bit past the 50,000-word mark that defines a novel in NaNoWriMo. The manuscript concludes with a self-indulgent epilogue that gives every character a happy ending, which was my reward for pushing through to the end.

Nobody gets to read this story. It's not at all good. Though I didn't restrict myself to writing in a single month, I basically NaNoWriMoed this first draft, and in true NaNo fashion, there are some tiny brilliant bits that emerged as surprises in the course of writing, and the rest is discardable. The premise turned out to be only marginally fruitful, and everything interesting happened in the subplots. I do like how many of the characters evolved, and some elements of the story have potential, so maybe certain parts could be salvaged and turned into something else. But that's a concern for another year.

At least I can report that I wrote a novel this year. I learned some things in the process and reminded myself what first drafts are like (bad). I derived some satisfaction from following through on a large project. It kept me from running wild on the streets or the internet for a couple of hours each day.

The more significant and satisfying writing endeavor of 2015 was yet another revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, which occupied me for the first half of the year. After confronting the fact that my manuscript was just too long, I shortened it by over 20%. By now I can't even remember how I possibly achieved this feat, so I'll have to review my series of posts about The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript.

All throughout the year, I've continued fiddling with the outline I keep talking about that I hope will eventually become another novel. This has been mostly a background project, and while I'm making gradual progress with it, I don't have any exciting milestones to announce.

I had a lot of fun this year composing blog entries that explore my childhood writing. Reading and analyzing the bizarre things I wrote as a kid has provided me with great amusement each month, and I'm glad my readers find these posts entertaining as well. I have more gems to share in 2016.

My final ongoing writing project is producing reviews of every book I read. The monthly recap format has been working out well for me, and I'll probably continue with that next year. Stay tuned for a January post with my favorite books of 2015, reading stats, and so on.

I'll wrap this up with two non-writing notes. First, for those who didn't see it elsewhere, check out the sweater I finally finished knitting and assembling this fall, a year and a half after starting it. And lastly, let's not forget that in 2015, we learned that I am a treasure chest once owned by the Visigoths.

May your 2015 wind down with some moments you can treasure. Here's to the end of another year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel considers genres and the myths of popularity, with statistical analysis and an overview of ongoing debates: "There is an odd cognitive dissonance that happens in these conversations, where we are simultaneously supposed to believe that literary fiction is 'mainstream fiction' and genre fiction is 'ghettoized,' and also that literary fiction is a niche nobody reads while genre authors laugh all the way to the bank."

December 10, 2015

Mental Turmoil Aboard Flight 103

The journey through my early writing efforts has brought us to my eighth grade English class, which as I explained last time placed an emphasis on both writing and revising. Today we're going to look at a piece of fiction that was more heavily revised between drafts than anything else that year, though unfortunately not wisely.

I have strong memories of writing this story and being quite pleased with it. Apparently it was my favorite of the works I produced that year, because I chose it as my entry in the collection our class published (Xeroxed) at the end of the year. Encountering the story again now, I found it odder than I remembered, but also duller.

I'd recalled this was a very short story, unfolding in the space of a single limited scene, but what I hadn't remembered is that the assignment was actually "Write a Story Opening That Shows Mood". That explains why this feels like the setup for something more interesting, though it doesn't explain much else.

Mental Turmoil Aboard Flight 103

The airplane glided across the runway, then left the ground with a sonic boom. A man gazed longingly through the window at the city of Chicago.

"Would you like something to drink, sir?"

George Loring looked blankly at the stewardess for a moment. He blinked and came to his senses. "Oh," he stuttered. "I-I'll have a Miller Lite."

"I'll need to see some sort of identification, sir," said the stewardess.

George, a man well into his thirties, was very flattered. "Why, thank you," he said, pulling out his license, "that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day."

After the stewardess left, George sank back into the plush seat and sipped his beer. He glanced through the stack of papers on the table in front of him. Most of them were forms that he had to fill out to get on the spaceship. "They can put men on the moon," he muttered, "but they can't eliminate the paperwork."

He picked up a pen and started writing his name, address, date of birth, eye color, hair color, and shoe size. Once he arrived at NASA, the papers would be processed, registered, examined, and re-examined. He knew the whole system by heart. In spite of all the hype, going to the moon just wasn't all that much fun.

"We are experiencing some turbulence," announced the computer pilot in an unnerving monotone.

"I can see that," said George, though his teeth, as his beer splashed onto the table, narrowly missing the important documents. "God, I hate traveling!"

"This isn't as bad as it seems," George thought. "I should be grateful that I am going to the moon. Most people would die for the chance."

"I wish they would," said George's cynical side. "There's a terrible population problem."

"Come on," said the optimist George. "Look around you. Don't you feel lucky?"

George looked around at the plane. It was tastefully decorated in silver and blue, with all the latest airline technology.

"No," said George, "I feel like an idiot talking to myself. But yes, I suppose that I am lucky, having an all-expense paid trip to the moon to do boring experiments." He sighed. "Oh, well. Anti-gravity is nice."

Before George could continue his schizophrenic debate, the computer announced, "We will be landing at Quayle National Airport in Cape Canaveral in five minutes."

December 4, 2015

November Reading Recap

I had a very bookish November, what with my trip to Book Riot Live and further adventures in New York City afterwards, but that didn't leave time to read as many books as usual!

CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell: Simon's last year at the Watford School of Magicks is off to a strange start. Sure, he's attacked by a goblin on his way to school, but that's par for the course when you're the Chosen One. What has Simon on edge is that Baz, his roommate and sworn enemy, hasn't returned at the beginning of the term, and Simon is sure Baz is plotting something terrible against him. The mystery of his vampiric roommate's whereabouts has Simon too obsessed to think about the danger posed by the Insidious Humdrum, who threatens to destroy all the world's magic if the Chosen One can't defeat him.

When I began reading CARRY ON, a couple of things were very distracting. First of all, Simon's world is unabashedly inspired by the Harry Potter series, so I had constant thoughts like, "Okay, that character's the Hagrid equivalent. That's a skewed version of the Sorting Hat." Second, Simon originated inside another of Rowell's novels, FANGIRL (a story I loved), where he was the hero of a popular book series beloved by the main character, and the subject of all the fanfiction she wrote. This origin story is a little difficult to wrap your head around; Elizabeth Minkel explains it in more depth.

But the farther I got into the book, the less these distractions bothered me, because this is a strong, exciting, well-developed story in its own right. The characters are complex, flawed people faced with all the awkward realities of human interaction. The plot is fast-paced and full of surprising turns. The writing is funny and clever (with bonus language cleverness in the magic system, as cataloged by Gretchen McCulloch). In short, CARRY ON has everything that makes Rainbow Rowell's books so wonderful, and I heartily recommend it.

You don't need to have read FANGIRL to enjoy CARRY ON, and you may even find it easier to get into the story without the confusion of previous knowledge, so start with whatever interests you more. Both books are great, and so is everything else Rowell has written.

CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman: Caden is a fifteen-year-old boy having a difficult time functioning at home and school because of the disturbing fears that fill his head. Caden is also, at times, a crew member aboard a pirate ship bound for the deepest part of the ocean, subject to frequent taunting and torment from the cruel captain. The novel's extremely short chapters bounce Caden back and forth between these worlds to portray his descent into mental illness and his struggle to accept and comply with psychiatric treatment.

I was moved and appropriately terrified for Caden as he found reality increasingly hard to grasp. The scenes set in the real world worked best for me because that was where the stakes and my sympathies felt highest. I was less engrossed by the story of the ship, which seemed partly Caden's delusion and partly more of a metaphor. Ultimately, though, I found the book very affecting.

I was curious to read this because for a while I was working on a manuscript that also depicted a character who traveled between the real world and a delusional realm. Unlike my trunked novel, Shusterman's story benefits from a well-informed perspective. His son received a diagnosis like Caden's as a teenager, and Shusterman drew on the experiences of his son and their family to present an authentic representation of mental illness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Tobias Carroll looks at board games adapted from books: "New York's King Post Games held a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013 for Moby-Dick, or, The Card Game, their adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel. Their version of Moby-Dick is both compelling and faithful in its translation of the bleakness of Melville's ending: rather than winning per se, a game's winner is the final player left alive after the white whale attacks."

November 20, 2015

An Introduction to Me, Age 13

Throughout this investigation of my childhood writing, I've been excited to get to the thick folder of eighth grade work. English class that year placed a heavy focus on writing, with an emphasis on the planning and revision stages. I was eager to examine pages of crossed-out sentences and scribbled notes that might reveal my early story development process.

Alas, while at least two drafts of every piece survive, the differences between versions are minimal in most cases, with only a few word choices improved, punctuation errors fixed, and maybe an occasional sentence rewritten. And really, that's not surprising, since I was a 13-year-old kid who'd always been praised for strong writing skills. Why would I bother to alter my stunning prose?

Based on my own experience and what I've observed in others, it tends to take a long time for writers to understand and accept that what pours out in the first draft is often nothing close to the best possible version of a story. Revision is time-consuming, difficult, and frustrating, so it's no wonder we resist it. Still, I applaud the Sudbury (Massachusetts) Public Schools for teaching revision in the eighth grade writing curriculum, even if this step was only cursory in practice:

November 14, 2015

Book Riot Live Report

The very first Book Riot Live conference was an incredible success, and I'm so glad I was able to visit New York City to attend!

I stayed in New York for the post-con week, hanging out with various family members, attending theater, and seeing sights, all of which was awesome as well. In quiet moments between the continued fun, I jotted down the highlights of my Book Riot Live experience, and I finished assembling this report on the flight home.

The programming at the con was excellent, and my only complaint was that at times there were too many cool things happening at once! I started my weekend -- after eating gourmet doughnuts in a car wash -- with a live recording of the Book Riot podcast. This show keeps me informed about the most interesting news from the book world on a weekly basis, so it was cool and strange to see the faces of the people with the familiar voices. During the Q&A period, I asked the first question, and I was tickled when the hosts recognized me from Twitter! You can listen to the live episode and hear me at about 33 minutes in. (Is that really what I sound like?)

The next day I attended another recording, this one for the interview show Reading Lives. The guest was announced only a couple of weeks before the con, and I was thrilled to learn it would be Angela Flournoy. Back in May, I recommended her wonderful debut, THE TURNER HOUSE, and it was great to hear about her development as a writer and reader.

Fighting the Good Fight: Turning Awareness Into Action was a fantastic panel of representatives from We Need Diverse Books, VIDA, First Book, and the Harry Potter Alliance, all great organizations working to increase diversity in publishing and accessibility of books. The panelists discussed their activism efforts and ways for readers to participate. In particular, there was much talk about noticing and counting who is represented on any list of books or authors, whether it's a personal record of books read or a set of award nominees or guest speakers. Striving for diversity in any such list, and calling it out when it's not there, has a cumulative positive effect. Personally, I've been very happy with how my reading life has expanded since I started paying more attention to who I read and recommend.

I was delighted at the prospect of attending a conversation between Margaret Atwood and N.K. Jemisin, two amazing authors I admire. The subject of the panel was Writing What You Don't Know, but the discussion was a wide-ranging one. I really didn't care what topic these two were speaking on, because everything they had to say was so smart and funny. The event was covered by The Guardian, which recapped the conversation, and I suggest reading that article for some choice quotes.

November 4, 2015

October Reading Recap

October was an exciting reading month, with one much-anticipated new release and two books from Book Riot Live authors:

ANCILLARY MERCY by Ann Leckie is the delightful and satisfying third book of a trilogy. I've previously offered strong recommendations for the first and second installments, and I'm happy to do the same for the conclusion. If you like science fiction and haven't checked out this series yet, it's now safe to get started, and I highly encourage it.

The trilogy follows Breq, an artificial intelligence who once controlled an enormous spaceship and all its crew, but is now reduced to a single isolated body. A quest for revenge drove Breq through the first book, and the second found her embroiled in political and personal complications. In this final book, she has to deal with the many consequences of what's come before, and it's a messy affair.

As with the other books, I was impressed by the way this story is simultaneously epic and intimate. It's an extraordinary combination of tense action scenes and people processing their feelings. Both Leckie's writing and Breq's unique worldview are always wryly perceptive, and this was probably the funniest installment of the series. ANCILLARY MERCY closes numerous arcs of plot and character development, some I hadn't even realized I was waiting to see resolved, and it brings the trilogy to a perfect ending.

EDINBURGH by Alexander Chee is a beautiful and difficult novel. It tells the story of Fee, who joins a boys' choir at 12 years old, becomes best friends with another singer, and falls deeply in love with him. The purity of this unrequited first love is quickly shattered when Fee, his friend, and the other young boys in the choir are molested by the man who directs the group. This sexual abuse continues for months, and after it's stopped, Fee and his friends can't escape the effects of the trauma. As Fee grows older, suffers through more unrequited crushes, and eventually finds happiness with a man who loves him back, all these relationships are complicated by his first great love and his first unwanted sexual experiences.

I'm not going to lie: This is a grim book. But I was engrossed by the unusual ways the narrative reveals and explores the horrific events and how they impact and confuse everything that comes later. The scenes of abuse are not explicit and are in fact often nearly glossed over, reflecting the first person narrator's discomfort with speaking about them. The disparate topics that Fee chooses to focus on instead form a fascinating and strange story. The writing style throughout the book is gorgeous, filled with delicious, well-observed details like "The sky outside my window is a dark door with light peeping under the crack."

Chee is a great writer. I look forward to his participation in Book Riot Live, and to the release of his second novel next year.

→ I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood, who has written some amazing novels. THE HEART GOES LAST is not her best work. The earlier part of the book explores some interesting worldbuilding ideas, and later it turns into an exciting conspiracy thriller that becomes rather madcap toward the end, so there's plenty of enjoyment potential, but much of the story didn't appeal to me.

In the wake of a large-scale economic meltdown, Charmaine and Stan are among the many who have lost their comfortable middle class existence. The couple is broke, desperate, and living in their car when they learn about a chance to improve their situation. They apply to move into an idyllic suburb, where they'll receive housing and good employment in exchange for spending every other month as inmates in the prison that fuels the local economy.

The premise behind the town's utopian vision doesn't make a lot of sense, but maybe it doesn't need to, because the town is actually funded by nefarious schemes Charmaine and Stan eventually uncover, though those don't necessarily hold up under scrutiny either. These issues of plausibility and some plot holes, as well as the amount of time spent on entertaining but unimportant tangents, made the novel feel unpolished to me. It's also the case that the author was interested in different aspects of the story than I was, and I wasn't amused by much of what was intended to be ridiculous or satiric. Despite my lukewarm reaction to this particular book, I'm still thrilled to hear Atwood speak at Book Riot Live this weekend.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Adrian Barnes writes in The Daily Beast about the strange and terrible synchronicity of receiving a diagnosis of brain cancer as his novel neared publication: "As both the disease and my novel progressed I began to notice eerie similarities between the two, even down to the physical similarity between the eye on the book's cover and an image of the tumor itself, with its vein-like tendrils spreading out across my brain."

October 30, 2015

Writing Methods

There's this idea that two methods of writing exist, plotting and pantsing (flying by the seat of one's pants). Plotters outline the whole story in advance, potentially in great detail, then write a first draft that follows the outline. Pantsers begin writing with no plan and discover the story in the process of writing it, knowing they'll revise later to make everything fit together better. Often these two strategies are discussed with the suggestion that any given writer is one type or the other.

As with most dichotomies, the reality is more of a spectrum. Plenty of plotters expect to adjust or even ignore their outlines once they start writing and think up new ideas. Pantsers usually have some overall plot concept in mind at the beginning and may have many smaller details planned out. People also swear by writing processes that fall in between the two camps or aren't identifiable as either. And while some writers can only imagine working at one or the other extreme, others try out both at different times.

A month ago I gave an update on the novel I'm plotting in a hardcore way. This is the first time I've done extensive outlining before the first draft, but much of the work feels familiar from planning subsequent drafts of novels I wrote pantsily. I'm now revising my outline, which is also a familiar process, and I'm still pleased at the idea that all this advance work will eventually lead to a first draft that's solid, well-structured, and doesn't require several rounds of rewriting.

In response to a discussion about that post, my friend Julia wrote an amazing breakdown of her writing process, which involves a great deal of outlining and advance planning. Many of the steps Julia details are similar to what I've been doing as I plot out this novel, as well as what I've done when preparing for past revisions. Some of the parts that resonate with me aren't things I was conscious of doing or wouldn't have thought to call out, so I'm very impressed with her level of insight into her own process. Do check out her post, and feel free to imagine me doing most of that stuff, especially lying on the floor in despair.

While I'm enjoying my plotting, other than the bouts of floor despair, I was growing eager to begin writing something new, and this plot-in-progress isn't ready to embark on yet. I'd been musing for a while on another idea I thought I might be able to start drafting, but once I took notes on what I'd thought of so far, I found I didn't have enough to work with. I went through the "I will never have another idea oh wait I have an idea" routine surprisingly quickly and came up with something that I was fairly confident could result in a novel-length text.

In the past month, I've written 25,000 words on this new novel, and while I will not claim that they are good words in their present combination, they do set in motion a story that I'm curious to get to the end of. I've been pantsing pretty hard, assigning the characters problems that come to me on a whim, setting up scenes with no plan for how they'll play out, and surprising myself with intriguing developments. I have a very general sort of conclusion in mind but only the vaguest sense of how I might get there, which is both fun and terrifying. I fully expect that if this story turns out to be any good, I'll have to throw out at least half the subplots and overhaul many of the characters in the next draft. This novel, unlike the one I'm pre-plotting, will require a ton of rewriting.

I like plotting, and I like pantsing. Maybe eventually I'll decide that one end of the spectrum is more useful for me to stick with, but at the moment, I'm quite content to be working with both methods.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Atlantic, Noah Charney explains the the reality of the modern book tour: "Then arrived another solution that I only learned about on my first tour, back in 2007 for my novel The Art Thief. It peeled back the veil over this quasi-legendary concept of authors on tour (I imagined groupies, whiskey, cigarette smoke, typewriters), and exposed me to a new, and completely fascinating, role that I never knew existed: that of the awkwardly named 'escort.'"

October 19, 2015

Thoughts I Had While Young

Earlier in this journey through my childhood writing, I noted that I don't have much in the way of fiction from sixth grade, and the same is true of seventh, probably because my middle school curriculum put a heavy focus on creative writing in eighth grade. We'll get to that soon.

The documents preserved in my seventh grade folder are primarily nonfiction reports and essays, though one exception is an afterword I was assigned to write for the novel SHANE, speculating on what happens after the end of the story. (All I remember of this book is that it involves a guy on a horse, or maybe that means all I remember is the cover.) Throughout my school career, writing an additional chapter to a novel was a frequent (and fun, for me) assignment. If this is a widespread phenomenon, it's just occurred to me that a lot more of us have written fan fiction than we might have realized.

The most "interesting" works from this time period are a number of opinion pieces, but before we check out those essays, I want to share one fact-based report, in part because it has such a ridiculous cover.

October 8, 2015

September Reading Recap

I read outstanding books last month, mostly. I highly recommend two recently published novels, MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS and SAFEKEEPING, which I hope are on their way to wider recognition. The graphic memoir FUN HOME has already garnered much praise, and deservedly so. I was less impressed by the acclaimed older novel RABBIT, RUN. Read on for full reviews:

MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS by Jennine Capó Crucet: Lizet has left Miami and her Cuban immigrant parents to attend a prestigious college in upstate New York. She's completely out of her depth there and in serious academic trouble by Thanksgiving, when she makes a surprise trip home. Upon her return to Miami, she discovers that her mother, along with most of the city, is more interested in the arrival of a young Cuban boy, the only survivor from an ill-fated boatload of refugees. As the fate of this youngster (a fictionalized version of Elián González) turns into an ongoing news story, Lizet keeps running up against the ways she's grown apart from her family and the ways she doesn't fit in at school.

This novel pulled me in immediately with a strong narrative voice, and I remained engrossed throughout. Lizet is an excellent protagonist. At times her stubbornness is frustrating, and she possesses the impulsivity and arrogance of a teen on the verge of adulthood, but that same determination is just as often admirable, and I felt great sympathy for her fear and confusion as she faces new grownup challenges. The story is beautifully, powerfully written, and every character and situation is real and compelling.

Lizet and her family are a product of Crucet's imagination, but the author drew upon her own experiences as a first-generation college student. She published a fascinating essay in the New York Times about her real life challenges and another on realizing this story should be told. I'm glad it's out there.

→ Jessamyn Hope will be one of the guest speakers at Book Riot Live, so I looked at a sample of her debut novel, SAFEKEEPING. Within a couple of pages, I was invested, and I only grew more intrigued as the story took me deeper into the problems and pasts of the characters.

When Adam shows up in Israel to volunteer at a kibbutz, he's in bad condition. He's suffering alcohol withdrawal, he's fled New York City after committing a crime, and his only possession is a brooch, the treasured heirloom of his recently deceased grandfather. The brooch is what's brought him to the kibbutz, where he expects to find a woman his grandfather loved long ago, but the search is harder than he anticipated. As Adam hunts for the mystery woman, other people he encounters on the kibbutz are caught up in quests of their own. The collisions between the concerns of different characters and the gradual reveal of emotional backstories propels the story along and makes this a gripping read.

Historical and cultural details are skillfully woven through the novel without ever slowing down the story. I knew almost nothing about kibbutzim and was glad the book portrays this fictional, but probably representative, kibbutz from its founding in the 1930s up to the 1990s, when the main story is set and the community faces a financial crisis. The book also introduced me to several other pieces of history that came as surprises when they appeared in the story. The unexpected connections in this novel impressed me most. I loved watching how different pieces were set up and then fell into place, satisfyingly but not too tidily. Hope is a masterful storyteller, and I eagerly await more from her.

FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel is an engrossing graphic memoir that I'm glad I finally picked up. I don't often make reading time for comics, and I'm not usually interested in memoir, but I'd been curious about this book since I started hearing praise for it, particularly since I like Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For strip. Since I'll get the opportunity to attend the Fun Home musical on my trip to New York next month, I knew it was time to check out the book. It's just as good as everyone says.

September 30, 2015

Fall Forward

Rain made an appearance today in the Bay Area, so it feels like an actual change of seasons as we head into October. My excitement is building for the fall literary events I wrote about last week. When I'm not too distracted by anticipation and precipitation, I've been busy with various projects, and I can report forward progress in several areas.

You may recall that in June I once again finished that novel I keep saying is done. You may have read the series of posts I made in August about how the latest revision led to a significantly shorter manuscript. You may wonder what's happening with that manuscript now. I've resumed sending query letters to agents, which means I tell them about THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE and share the opening pages in hopes that they'll be interested in reading more. I don't talk much about querying here because the process moves incredibly slowly, and there's nothing really to say about it until that glorious time when there might be something to say. But now you know that's in the works.

In that same June post, I also mentioned the novel I've been planning out in detail before writing, which is a new strategy for me. I reached a point in the outline where I discovered the plot was heading in a direction that didn't work, so I've returned to the beginning. A little at a time, I'm changing things around to make it all fit together better. Yes, I'm doing a revision of the planning stage and still haven't written a word of the actual novel. That means everything is going as intended, because so much less time and agony is involved in redoing an outline than in producing multiple drafts. I'll write this novel when it's ready, and in the meantime, finding the right version of the plot is satisfying and instructive.

That said, I've found myself itching to really write again, so I'm thinking of getting started on something else. It's been a while since I embarked on a first draft, with all the freedom and frustration that entails, and I could use the practice. Stay tuned.

This has nothing to do with writing unless I come up with a metaphor about stitching ideas together or something, but I've recently been spending a lot of time and attention on knitting after one of my occasional dormant periods with the hobby. (If you're a member of Ravelry, find me there.) Over a year ago, I finished knitting all the pieces of a sweater, and now in anticipation of cooler weather, I'm finally tackling the less fun work of assembling them. Yeah, there's definitely a metaphor in there somewhere.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Stephen Sparks at Literary Hub looks at novels written in invented dialects and some variations on this theme, "works that similarly inhabit languages unique to themselves, whether through dialect, an attempt at capturing the singular nature of consciousness, or in one case, unique because it is essentially alien."

September 24, 2015

Upcoming Literary Excitement

It's fall (supposedly -- the heatpocalypse continues in Silicon Valley), and I am excited about so many literary happenings coming up this season. I've been counting the days until some amazing book releases and movie adaptations, and I'm delighted to be heading to a big book event in November. Here's what has me full of anticipation:

Book releases from favorite authors: October 6 will be the best book day of the year for me, because it's publication day for two authors I adore, Ann Leckie and Rainbow Rowell.

ANCILLARY MERCY is the third and final book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, an epic, universe-spanning tale with a fascinating protagonist who was once the artificial intelligence of a spaceship. Last year I enthused about the first book and then had even more praise for the second. I'm expecting more of the vivid characters, clever worldbuilding, and tense adventure in the final installment.

In 2014, I devoured everything Rainbow Rowell has published after I read and loved FANGIRL. That novel features a main character who writes fanfiction based on the Simon Snow series, a sort of Harry Potter analogue inside the world of the story. Rowell's upcoming release, CARRY ON, is about Simon Snow and his magical world, based on the imaginary book series she created while writing FANGIRL. It's a strange and meta concept, and I'll admit it wasn't something I was hoping would exist in the world, but since Rainbow Rowell is writing it, I'm sure it will be fun and unexpected and emotional and great.

Movie adaptations of books I love: On the whole, I'm pleased when good books are turned into movies, and while I have seen some terrible film adaptations, I've found many to be good or even excellent. I have high hopes for two movies coming this fall.

I really enjoyed THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, and the book's fast-paced plot and cinematic setting scream for an on-screen depiction. I've been excited since learning that a movie was being filmed, and my anticipation has grown with each publicity video I've watched. These cleverly report on the mission to Mars as if it were real, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson got in on the act. I can't wait, and I don't have to wait much longer, because the movie opens October 2.

Emma Donoghue's ROOM blew me away, but I wouldn't have picked it as a good candidate for movie adaptation because of its extreme interiority, in two senses: the story takes place inside a single room, and much of what makes it fascinating is the five-year-old mind of the narrator. However, Donoghue wrote the screenplay and was very involved in the production of the movie, and that bodes well for the results. I'm intrigued to watch this film, which will be in released in select cities mid-October and widely in early November.

Book Riot Live!: I follow the Book Riot media empire (a site, several podcasts, and so on), and when they announced their first convention, I thought it sounded cool but didn't intend to travel to New York City for it. But months later, while planning an unrelated New York trip, I realized the dates lined up. I'll be attending Book Riot Live November 7 and 8, and I'm just thrilled.

The lineup of speakers is amazing. I'm especially excited about two of them: Margaret Atwood has long been a favorite and is coming out with another of my anticipated fall releases, THE HEART GOES LAST. N.K. Jemisin wrote the fantasy duology I read last year, THE KILLING MOON and THE SHADOWED SUN. I hope to read the work of several other participants before the con. Or maybe I'll just run around squeeing for the next six weeks.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, A.J. O’Connell interviews cartographers who make fictional maps for books about their process: "For the second book in Blake Charlton's Spellwright series, Spellbound, [Rhys] Davies and the author worked together to create a map of a city, and Davies found that he needed to make the city believable; he and the author had to decide on a workable street pattern and Davies had to draw buildings that corresponded with the income of the inhabitants in certain neighborhoods."

September 10, 2015

Behind the Eye-Mirrors of a Teen Poet

Our most recent look at my childhood writing explored a survey of poetry I wrote for my seventh grade English class. I mentioned that I also kept a personal poetry journal during that time, and today I cracked it open and winced my way through. Unlike most of the other early work I've shared, these poems weren't written for school assignments, so it's possible they've never been seen by anyone else until now. Exciting, huh?

The journal is a cloth-covered blank book I probably received as a gift from a relative, perhaps at holiday time, since the first poem is dated shortly after the beginning of 1988. In fact, it commemorates the start of the year:

Yelling, screaming
Hugging, kissing
Trumpets, whistles, laughing, singing
In the dark,
All alone,
Without a sound
The new year comes in

The structure of this poem seems influenced by the forms we were studying in class, particularly the diamond poem, but here and throughout this collection, I experimented with different styles. Incidentally, I likely spent that New Year's Eve either watching a Marx Brothers movie marathon or sitting in a wood-fired hot tub surrounded by snow. Either way, there was definitely no kissing involved, but there was certainly some singing.

I continued writing poems in this book throughout 1988, the year I turned 13, but the entries are sporadic, and the vast majority of the pages remain blank. I expect I knew even then that my path to literary fame didn't lie in poetry.

The next poem is the one I retained the strongest memory of and most dreaded facing, though I'm sure I was very pleased with it at the time:

An empty face,
With grief behind the eye-mirrors,
Reflecting back on happy days that bring no smiles.
A sad sigh,
Of sorrows and times gone by,
Ne'er to come again.
An ache of longing,
Of crying though the tear-well's dry.
A black dress of mourning.

That's an Extremely Serious And Weighty Composition right there. You can tell by the "ne'er".

As it happens, I distinctly recall my inspiration for this grief-stricken poem. I'd heard that a neighborhood dog was hit by a car, and later that day I saw one of the kids from that family at school, staring into the distance. Sure, I realized he was probably thinking about lunch or homework, but I connected the look on his face with his recent loss, and I was visited by the muse.

September 3, 2015

July/August Reading Recap

The middle of the summer was too busy for book reviewing, so I'm covering two months of summer reading in one big post:

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert: Alma Whittaker is born in 1800 to a wealthy Philadelphia couple, experts in the field of botany. She grows up on her family's estate surrounded by visiting scientists and other intellectuals, an upbringing that isolates her from the usual pursuits of young women but soon turns her into an accomplished naturalist. The novel follows Alma through the century as she investigates the world around her and strives for a better understanding of both plants and humans.

I adored this novel, which contains so much more than I want to reveal in a description of the story. It's full of wonderful eccentric characters, fascinating historical and scientific details, love and loss, and unexpectedly thrilling botanical intrigue. At each stage of Alma's life, she faces a new set of mysteries and embarks on a different type of adventure, and every one of these was a pleasure to share in.

I was surprised to realize that a good deal of the story is presented through lengthy passages summarizing stretches of time and that these sections are as gripping as the scenes that play out on the page. Gilbert pulls off this impressive feat by making the summaries vivid and specific, including only the interesting bits, and injecting whimsy into the narration. Since Gilbert is better known for her memoirs and inspirational writing, I'll admit I didn't expect to have so much admiration for her skill at crafting a novel, but this is a book I'll be studying in hopes of improving my own work.

THE SLEEPWALKER'S GUIDE TO DANCING by Mira Jacob is a wonderful exploration of how the past shapes and haunts a family. This is a common theme for novels (including my own), but this book stands out with its unusual situations, vivid characters, and perceptive narration. It joins my list of recommended heartbreaking family stories.

Amina is a photographer in Seattle who earns her living shooting conventionally gorgeous wedding photos but fuels her passion by capturing the ugly moments her clients would never want to remember. When her mother calls with concerns about her father's mental health, Amina returns to her New Mexico hometown to investigate. Flashback chapters present important events in the family's past, starting with a disastrous visit to relatives in India when Amina and her brother were young. As the story shifts between time periods, the reader comes to understand how a series of tragedies changed the lives of Amina and her parents.

Near the beginning of the book, I was less engaged with the story of adult Amina and her career issues, but once she reached New Mexico, the story became more compelling, and I was soon fully invested. I loved the characters, who are all well developed, with strong personalities and distinct ways of speaking. The family relationships are believably loving and frustrating, and there's a good sibling dynamic, which I always appreciate. While the overall story is quite sad, humor and beauty are sprinkled throughout. This novel is full of moments I'll remember.

August 31, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript: Case Study

So far in my investigation of how I shortened my manuscript, I've explained the big picture concepts that allowed me to cut 35,000 words without changing the story, and I've delved into the nitty-gritty of some recurring opportunities for compression. To wrap up this series, I'll share a before-and-after excerpt.

A couple of years ago, during a previous round of revision, I made a similar post, and I considered using the same passage again. However, the new changes don't serve as the best example, so I've picked another section to look at. You can still check out that old post for an illustration of the ideas I've been talking about (as well as an illustration of the infinite repeatability of this process). And in case you're wondering, I chopped 65 more words from that scene, including the narrator sitting down and then a minute later moving to his wife's side, a pair of actions that struck me as glaringly unnecessary.

I selected today's excerpt because it shows off a number of the small-scale strategies I discussed for saying the same thing in fewer words. The scene also makes sense out of context, though I'm riddled with anxiety that out of context, every page of my novel seems ridiculous and uninteresting. You don't need any information to understand what's happening here, but I'll mention that the narrator is the son of the narrator from the scene I used before.

August 28, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript: Nitty-Gritty

In my previous post, I explained that shrinking my manuscript by over 20% was as simple and as difficult as giving myself word count constraints and rewriting with those goals in mind. Here, I'll get into more detail about how that worked by discussing some categories of changes I made in the pursuit of compactness.

One principle behind my shortening method is that it allows me to adjust my sense of scale. If I've decided a piece of text must be this much shorter, I get an idea of how many of its moments and details can be kept in and how many have to go. When I reassess in light of this rationing, it's often quite clear which bits aren't significant enough to save.

For example, I knew in my heart that I had to abandon the couch argument. There's a scene where two characters are starting to work out the logistics of moving in together. They're in love, but they have incompatibilities that will present problems for their cohabitation, and this conversation is one of many escalating disagreements. I had a few lines of dialogue in there about whether to replace an ugly but comfortable couch, and at points later in the story, the ugly couch was referenced again. I liked the debate about the couch and the way it encapsulated the differences these characters continue struggling with, but the rest of the dialogue also illustrated these issues. The shorter the scene grew, the higher a percentage of text was devoted to the couch, and I couldn't justify giving the detail that prominence since there's no couch-based breakup farther along. Losing the lines about the couch removed 50 or so words, which may not seem like much, but making decisions like this on every page resulted in cutting 35,000 words from the manuscript.

This deletion was one of many places where I targeted repetition in the story, which required becoming a lot more diligent about identifying this problem. The couch exchange was a good, specific detail showing the mismatch between the characters, but it wasn't necessary, because everything else in the conversation demonstrated that point. I also cut multiple additional conversations from the novel that mainly served to convey the same idea about this relationship. In previous drafts, I'd worked hard to eliminate anything repetitive, but closer scrutiny revealed plenty of areas where sentences or scenes rehashed an idea that was already well established.

This time around, I was pleased to realize that addressing repetition didn't merely reduce word count. In many places, I'd inadvertently weakened my story by driving a point in a little too far, and easing back made scenes stronger. For instance, I minimized the number of mentions of a character's recurring worry, trusting the reader to interpret his actions appropriately, and those episodes became more powerful. When a sentiment was expressed with a few similar sentences, I dropped all but the strongest one, giving that best sentence an opportunity to shine.

Another place where less can do more is at the edges of scenes. Most of my scenes start with a paragraph or three to establish how much time has passed since the previous scene and what's happened since then. I trimmed almost every one of these so the action could start sooner, and in many cases, I also ended the scene earlier than before, as soon as the necessary points were made. The advice to get in and out faster is a good general writing tip I've encountered and experienced many times. With one of my previous novels, I dropped the first chapter during a rewrite and started the story with later events, and then I axed that new first chapter in the next draft. The chapter-level changes for this revision were in the middle of the story, and I made those merged chapters fit through a lot of compressing scenes at both ends.

Of course, while I deleted large chunks of scenes and removed repetitive sentences, I also inspected each individual word in the manuscript and discovered plenty that were easily discarded. Numerous instances of "I am going to" turned into "I will", and constructions like "she was wearing" often became the simpler "she wore". I didn't make these changes in every case, and I certainly didn't use a global search and replace, but whenever it was appropriate for the rhythm of the text, I was happy to bid a swift goodbye to these extra words. I eradicated an impressive number of unnecessary "that"s and suspect (that) many more could still be edited out of this novel as well as everything I write.

That sums up the common types of big and small changes I noticed recurring as I went through this revision. Next time, I'll conclude the exploration of my shortening process by looking at how these techniques played out in a real live scene.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Opinionator, Ben Dolnick explains what crossword puzzles taught him about writing: "It will very often happen that I return to a puzzle, after an hour or two away, and find the answers coming in such a cascade that I hardly have time to wonder what kind of idiot was working on the puzzle before. And so it is in writing."

August 26, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript: Big Picture

When I finished the recent revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I promised to report on how I went about making it significantly shorter. During the first half of this year, I took a 160,000-word manuscript and trimmed it down to 125,000 words. That's a reduction of over 20%, from around 500 pages to around 400. It took approximately 5 months.

The 160,000-word manuscript I started with had been pared down from a draft that was 20,000 words longer, so I'd already taken a good hard look at this text and removed everything unnecessary. My writing style isn't flowery, and I have little patience for scenes that don't advance the plot. I'd written a long book, but I was confident the three intertwined narratives and sixty-year scope of this family saga justified the length. (Earlier incarnations of the novel were shorter, but also far less complex and interesting.)

The new draft of 125,000 words still contains the three storylines and the same multigenerational tale. No major plot events were lost in the Great Shortening of 2015. In fact, no minor plot events perished, either. I cut surprisingly few scenes. Somehow, I didn't have to lose any part of the story to get my manuscript down to a more acceptable length.

So how did I cut 35,000 words without changing the story? I have no idea. Bye, thanks for reading!

Okay, fine. While I'm unable to give a complete analysis of what I did, I can probably explain a few parts of the process to satisfy the curious. I don't have a guaranteed, repeatable formula to pass along for other writers, but perhaps something can be learned from my experience.

The first crucial step was spending time away from the manuscript. Once I began querying this novel, I didn't look at it beyond pasting the first chapters into a great many email messages. Almost a year passed before I read the whole thing again, and that gave me the distance to evaluate the story with a different perspective than I had while deep inside revision. During my year away, I read all sorts of books and wrote things besides that novel, and those activities also developed my critical eye. Upon rereading the manuscript, I was very relieved to discover I still thought I had something good, but I noticed plenty of sections that dragged, plus numerous bits that made me cringe.

Those boring parts were also a relief to find, because they gave me hope that a shorter manuscript was possible, and I used them as a starting point for planning this revision. (I've written before about planning and how valuable it is for approaching a rewrite, or for avoiding ever starting that rewrite.) When I contemplated the sections of the novel that struck me as too long or even unnecessary, I saw scenes and chapters that could be merged, particularly in the middle of the book.

August 18, 2015

An Adolescent Survey of Poetic Forms

The previous installment of my early writing took us a bit out of chronological order to examine the museum-quality pieces preserved in my childhood home, but today we'll return to our journey through the main archives. We left off with a last look at fifth grade, and I said we were in for some middle school angst ahead.

I may have oversold the angst idea, since the trials of adolescence aren't especially apparent in the school assignments that make up most of what's been saved. I do have a personal poetry journal that probably contains a few emo gems, but I've been cringing too hard to look at properly. We'll get to it soon, I promise.

The most miserable year of my childhood was sixth grade, when I was bullied and nearly friendless (shout out if you're responsible for keeping me at "nearly"). The curriculum that year didn't involve much in the way of creative writing, and I only have one surviving piece of sixth grade work. It's a script called "A Broadcast From Valley Forge" that imagines a television news correspondent visiting General Washington's cold, starving troops to report on the desperate conditions. I have no idea whether the assignment called for this experimental anachronism or if we were expected to write something more conventional, but I do recall delivering this report in front of the class and playing all three parts. I can only imagine what this did for my social standing.

Seventh grade went better, and one bright spot was my wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Mahoney. As a unit in her class, we studied different poetry forms and composed examples of each. Let's see if my poetry skills improved any between fourth grade and seventh grade.

July 30, 2015

Summer Break

As is usually the case for me, this summer is full of travel and family, which is wonderful but not conducive to writing. For once, though, the summer break arrived at a perfect time, right after I reached The End and was ready to stop thinking about my novel for a while. I'm in the middle of several weeks of quality time with numerous family members, and I've been thoroughly appreciating it all.

I had this idea my vacation might involve some downtime that I would devote to a bit of writing or at least creative thinking, but that turned out to be a ridiculous theory. I also expected to tear through numerous books while traveling, but that's another prediction that never pans out. My family visits have been all about family, and it's been great.

Eventually it will be time to get back into writing mode, resume novel planning, and figure out what I'm doing next. And that's going to be great, too. But for now, I'm really enjoying the break, and the fact that my family tree is so sprawling and full of awesome people.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Naomi Jackson writes about the experience of selecting the perfect painting to represent the character and culture of her debut novel: "People told me not to get attached to the idea of using Sheena Rose's artwork on the cover of my book. Publishing companies have big art departments and are unlikely to use work by an artist of my choosing for the cover, they warned me. Still, I proceeded, hopeful as ever. And to my delighted surprise, my publisher was on board with this piece as the cover, a feeling of elation only surpassed by the moment, three months later, when Sheena graciously granted permission to use her piece on the cover."

July 23, 2015

My Earliest Publications

I'm currently visiting my family in the town where most of my childhood writing was produced, and this provided the opportunity to unearth some new old material. This work has been preserved for posterity in frames, because it had the distinction of being published in the town newspaper. I may have peaked at the age of 13, given that my acceptance rate has plummeted since then.

I'd actually forgotten how early my first publication was, because I didn't recall that The Craziest Rainbow appeared in the venerable Sudbury Town Crier on December 9, 1982, when I was 7. The illustration unfortunately wasn't printed in color, but you can see I made up for it by hand-decorating the frame. For photos of the original manuscript of this piece and my commentary, check out the first juvenilia post.

July 9, 2015

June Reading Recap

I had another excellent reading month in June:

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng: Lydia is the beloved middle child of the Lees, a mixed-race couple in a small Ohio town in 1977. Her white mother has groomed her for the academic and career success she was prevented from achieving herself. Her Chinese-American father dreams of Lydia attaining popularity and fitting in socially as he never could. Her older brother is Lydia's greatest ally against the parental pressures, but he's also deeply jealous of the attention she receives. Her younger sister, a quiet and thoughtful child, is largely ignored within the family. When Lydia is found dead shortly after her sixteenth birthday, the Lee family is ripped apart by the loss and by the realization that none of them knew Lydia -- or each other -- very well at all.

This beautifully constructed story is a mystery at heart, but just as prominent as the question of what led to Lydia's death is the puzzle of what drives the behaviors and emotions of every member of the Lee family. The narrative focuses on each of them in the months after Lydia's death, as well as exploring events in the years before, gradually revealing clues that add up to terrible consequences.

I admire so much about this novel. Ng's characters are real and unexpected, and their relationships are carefully developed. I especially appreciated the strong, though sad, depiction of sibling dynamics. This might be the best story I've read that revolves around misunderstandings and different interpretations of situations, a premise that's difficult to pull off well. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is heartbreaking, so it's not going to be right for every reader, but it definitely joins my list of favorite novels.

A GOD IN RUINS is Kate Atkinson's followup to the brilliant LIFE AFTER LIFE (my review), in which Ursula Todd keeps re-experiencing her lifetime until she gets it right. This companion novel follows Ursula's beloved younger brother Teddy, who serves as an RAF bomber pilot during World War II, beats the odds to survive the war, and goes on to have a long life, a daughter he struggles with, and two grandchildren he adores.

Unlike Ursula, Teddy lives only once, and he moves through time in an exclusively forward direction. However, the story constantly jumps back and forth across the years and between the perspectives of Teddy and his family members to gradually present a non-chronological account of their major life events. A scene focusing on Teddy in his old age might suddenly leap back to a wartime episode, mirroring the nature of memory. At other points, the text reveals incidents the characters haven't yet experienced that will take place decades later. It's a difficult narrative technique, but Atkinson skillfully wields all the threads of time and point of view to tell a fascinating story of the Todd family over the span of a century.

The Todds are a great set of characters with a range of conflicting personalities, and I was happy to reunite with the family members from the earlier book and meet the new ones. Again in this story, Atkinson excels at placing characters in historical context and particularly portraying how WWII redefined their lives. The scenes set during the war are vivid, and several intense chapters portray Teddy's harrowing experiences piloting bomber planes over Europe. There are many deeply sad episodes, both during and after the war, but Atkinson finds the wit and absurdity even in these moments, and the book contains a great deal of humor.

I guess you could enjoy this novel without reading LIFE AFTER LIFE, but there's no reason to, when the first book is so wonderful and this story points back to it in so many ways. Read them both! A GOD IN RUINS didn't delight me quite as much as Ursula's story, but I was thrilled by how close it came. I look forward to discussing it with others, because like the first book, the new one also leaves readers with much to ponder.

IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT by Judy Blume: In the winter of 1951-2, three commercial airplanes crashed in Elizabeth, New Jersey in less than two months. This real event loomed large in the childhood of Judy Blume, who grew up in Elizabeth, and she's built her latest novel around it. The details of the strange series of crashes are all historically accurate, but the rest of the book is fiction that follows a large cast of characters as their lives are shaken up by witnessing the falling planes or losing loved ones.

Miri, who is about to turn 15, is at the center of the novel, so there's a strong coming-of-age component to the story, and of course Blume is in her element writing about teens and their emotions. The adults in Miri's family, as well as the members of several other families, also play large roles and have plotlines around grownup concerns. I enjoyed the mix of characters and the various issues they face, some related to the planes crashes and some not, some particular to the 1950s and some timeless. Earlier in the book, I was occasionally bored when the focus wasn't on the crashes, but the less interesting plots eventually grew stronger, and by the end I was invested in every storyline.

Overall, this is an engrossing novel, most notable for depicting a very unsettling time in one city's history. The personal stories of the characters aren't the most nuanced, but they make for a good read. I grew up with Blume's books, and I'm glad that after a long career, she decided to use her memories of the plane crashes in a novel. It was great to hear her talk about it all last month at the Bay Area Book Festival.

June 30, 2015

Again We Come to the End

A month ago, I announced I was almost done revising. If you're familiar with my history of similar announcements, you might not have believed me, especially if you were aware that when I did in fact reach the end of the manuscript a couple of weeks later, I immediately went back to the beginning for another pass, claiming it wouldn't take long.

Well, I worked my way through the novel again in short order, reading the text aloud to myself and taking care of some final tightening, and I am now proud to say this novel is DONE! I mean, it's done until I'm under the guidance of an agent or editor who asks for further revision, but believe it or not, that's a future I dream about. But for now: DONE DONE DONE!

With that novel off my plate, I've gone back to the one I've been gradually planning out. I'm attempting to figure out the whole story in detail before writing it, a completely different process for me that I'm enjoying. I'm at about the three-quarters mark in the outline, so it's almost time to face the issue that I have no idea how any of the plotlines should resolve. So that gives me a project for the summer.

As another project, I'd like to write at some point about how I approached a revision with the goal of making the manuscript significantly shorter. Consider this another one of my bold proclamations, and we'll see how soon I can follow through.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Melville House blog, Zara Sternberg interviews Harvard University Professor Daniel Donoghue on his investigation of the theory that "until the late Middle Ages, most people were only able to read aloud and silent reading was an anomaly."

June 26, 2015

Fifth Grade Book Covers and More

We're almost done exploring the adventure-laden elementary school era of my childhood writing. Before we move on to angst-filled middle school, I have some remaining miscellany from fifth grade to share, including a couple of illustrated covers for book projects.

First off, I did get an early start on the angst in fifth grade for at least one piece of writing. In late 1985, I was assigned to write a haiku about my fears or hopes for 1986. Forget all those online lists and quizzes purporting to prove your legitimacy as a child of the 80s. This is the real deal:

Haiku About My Fears

Such a scary thought
Nuclear war is dreadful
It could kill us all

I also had less disturbing obsessions in fifth grade, such as Greek mythology. (On second thought, most of Greek mythology is pretty disturbing.) For what I imagine was a big final project for the year, I put together a pretty impressive report, complete with a cover depicting "Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods":

June 10, 2015

The First Bay Area Book Festival

I'm pleased to report I had a wonderful time at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley this past weekend. The event was well-attended and by all accounts a great success, so I look forward to seeing it continue as an annual tradition.

I spent all day Saturday at the festival, attending author sessions, browsing the art and booths, and hanging out with family and friends. I made it to three of the many scheduled panels, and they were all excellent.

New Views of Narrative: How Technology Interfaces with Story was moderated by Robin Sloan, author of MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, a novel about books and technology that I adored. Sloan did an exemplary job of moderating, using his extensive knowledge of bookish technology to draw out intelligent discussion from the innovators on the panel. Lise Quintana, CEO and founder of Narrative Technologies (and one of my NaNoWriMo buddies), talked about her company's ebook platform, Lithomobilus, which enables multi-threaded storytelling. The first stories launched on the platform, published by Zoetic Press, build on familiar classics such as the Grimm fairy tales and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but the authoring tools will soon be available for any purpose. In contrast to Quintana's reusable platform, Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn have collaborated on a number of interactive books that were each developed separately, including THE SILENT HISTORY and the forthcoming THE PICKLE INDEX, which will also be published as a traditional paperback. I haven't tried out any of these apps yet -- partly because they're all only available for iOS, a limitation the creators discussed during the panel -- but I'm fascinated.

The presenters at Lit Camp's Writers-Conference-in-a-Panel set out to share their most valuable advice during their allotted seven minutes. It was a cool idea and well-executed within the obvious constraints. Tom Barbash spoke on short stories, Robin Rinaldi covered memoir, Janis Cooke Newman talked about novels, Jordan Bass offered an editor's perspective, and agent Danielle Svetcov addressed query letters. Naturally I was most interested in the section on novels, and I appreciated Newman's thoughts. She made a great point about backstory, saying the writer has to earn its use by making the reader curious, and cautioning only to deliver those background details once the reader is in the position of wanting to know them.

The panel on Futurism, Fatalism and Climate Change, moderated by book columnist Mike Berry, featured authors of novels about cataclysmic climate change. These books appeal to my post-apocalyptic interests, and I loved the entertaining discussion among the smart and funny authors. I've already read and enjoyed Edan Lepucki's CALIFORNIA, which follows a young married couple in the wake of widespread environmental and economic collapse. I can't wait to pick up Paolo Bacigalupi's new novel, THE WATER KNIFE, about an all-too-plausible drought-ravaged future. I was excited to see John Scalzi, author of numerous books including the recent LOCK IN, after encountering so much of his thoughtful writing online. Antti Tuomainen was the one participant I wasn't familiar with, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about his experiencing publishing the THE HEALER in his native Finland, where apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is apparently an unfamiliar genre.

To cap off my day, I attended what was billed as A Very Special Evening with the Remarkable Judy Blume, and it really was a memorable event. Growing up, I read most of Blume's books, and I admire what an important influence she's had on children's literature. She turns out to be as awesome as I've always imagined. Local librarian and storyteller Walter Mayes, a longtime friend of Blume's, conducted a wonderful interview about her career and her latest book, a novel for adults. IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT puts a town full of characters into the midst of a real event that happened during Blume's childhood, when three unrelated airplane crashes occurred in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the span of three months. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Between events, I made several visits to Lacuna, an art installation at the center of the festival constructed with donated books. Visitors were encouraged to browse and take home a book, and over the course of the day I saw the shelves gradually emptied. Many photos of Lacuna, as well as of the Judy Blume event, appear in the festival's photo album.

The festival provided an opportunity for me to meet up with several cool people I know, some by design and some serendipitously. Getting to talk about books with friends made an already fun and book-filled day even better.

The one low point of the festival was a problem with ticketing logistics. Due to an enthusiastic level of attendance, I didn't get into a session despite having procured a ticket a month in advance. I wasn't the only person facing this disappointment, and it happened at more than one panel. I've submitted feedback, as I'm sure others have, and I expect the organizers will improve the ticket system for next year. I'll definitely be back!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Flavorwire, Sarah Seltzer wonders, Why Do We Re-Read Our Favorite Books as Kids, and Why Do We Stop When We Get Older?: "The last Austen novel I re-read was in early 2010 -- two apartments, three jobs, and five years ago. Until this week, I hadn't sat down and re-read a favorite book for pleasure since, and my re-watching had slowed to a trickle, too. I have given up a treasured part of my cultural life, a staple since I was in elementary school."

June 5, 2015

May Reading Recap

May was a busy month, so I only had time to finish two books, but they were both great! I'm still in the middle of the also-great A GOD IN RUINS, which I'll report on next month.

THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy isn't really a ghost story, but it opens with the family legend of the haint who appeared one night to young Cha-Cha, the eldest of what would eventually be thirteen Turner siblings. When Cha-Cha believes he sees the haint again fifty years later, it raises unpleasant questions about his mental health and his upbringing. Meanwhile, his youngest sister, Lelah, has troubles of her own. She doesn't want her siblings or her daughter to know she's been evicted, so she moves back into the family home, which is unoccupied and facing repossession. As their stories unfold in 2008, occasional chapters recount the early part of their parents' marriage, when the Turners came north to Detroit in the 1940s hoping the city would offer a better life for a black family.

Telling the story of an enormous family presents a challenge, and Flournoy handles it well by focusing on the oldest and youngest siblings and letting the other family members play roles with varying degrees of importance. Every character, no matter how minor, is fully developed, and the family dynamics are clear and realistic. I found this a very satisfying family story.

It's also an excellent novel about a particular place. The story is specific to the economy and culture of Detroit, and it's clear Flournoy has done her research. Detroit's economic decline plays an important role in the plot, since it revolves around the fate of the devalued house. The city's black-white relations are also explored, especially the way these have changed over time, as well as the different forms of racism encountered in the North and South. All these details of the setting are incorporated seamlessly into the story and provide a fascinating portrait of a city over time.

I admire Flournoy's strong depiction of both a family and a place (something I've set out to achieve myself), and I definitely recommend THE TURNER HOUSE.

OF NOBLE FAMILY concludes Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories (at least for now), and Kowal really outdid herself in this book. It was a delight to be back with the beloved characters in the wonderful Regency-era-with-magic setting, but this installment takes the familiar elements somewhere new. Jane and Vincent travel to Antigua after learning that Vincent's terrible father has died and the affairs at his plantation must be settled. There, they encounter the horrors of slavery and are confronted by unsavory family secrets and reminders of the past.

Kowal put a great deal of care into both the real historical details of this story and how these might interact with her magic system. As always, she's crafted an intricate and exciting plot, and glamour is tightly woven throughout, providing a surprising array of complications, obstacles, and solutions. The introduction of new cultures reveals that glamour around the world has broader possibilities than the British characters realized, and this is handled with sensitivity and cleverness. In this episode of Writing Excuses, Kowal talks about how she approached research and worldbuilding for the novel. (The discussion doesn't focus on many plot details, so you can listen with only limited spoilers or confusion.)

You could read this fifth book in the series without having read the others, though you'd miss out on some of the emotional impact without the background of the main couple's history. I'm a big fan of this series, and I love the skill and inventiveness with which Kowal assembles a story, so I look forward to her future work, in this setting or any other.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ben H. Winters explains why he works on two books at a time: "I like to be doing two things at once. I sort of need to be. One thing in active motion and one in the starting gate, warming up, ready to come out swinging--something else I've started to play around with, to make notes on, maybe done a wild first pass on."

May 28, 2015


It's almost time for the first Bay Area Book Festival, June 6 and 7 in Berkeley, and I can't wait! The organizers have put together an amazing schedule of talks and panels featuring an incredible set of authors, and there will be art, exhibitors, and food stalls to wander through. The festival is free and open to everyone, but to reserve seats for the indoor events and avoid waiting in line, you can purchase individual session tickets for a couple of dollars each. I have tickets for a bunch of Saturday events, and I'll report back on my festival experience.

I'm also excited about heading into the home stretch of this revision! As of today, I've completed all the chapters that I expect to be tricky. Yes, sure, two chapters ago I also declared I was through all the tough parts, but now I'm totally confident that the rest will be smooth sailing. And no matter how the process of tackling the remaining chapters goes, I will be done with this draft soon, and I'm thrilled.

What happens after this revision, you ask? Well, I'll send out the improved, shortened manuscript for another try, and then I'll work hard at distracting myself with other writing. Planning on the future novel has slowed the past couple of weeks due to putting more time into revision, but before that I was making steady progress on an initial detailed outline, and I'm somewhat close to the end of that as well.

Summertime means travel on the horizon for me, and I'm looking forward to enjoying that with at least one major writing project accomplished and some steps toward whatever comes next.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Hillary Kelly argues that publishers should bring back the serialized novel: "When we can freely turn to the next chapter in our novels, we can quash any suspense with the flip of a page. Slicing a novel into bits and slowly doling it out to the reading public takes control of that tension away from the reader, allowing it to ferment and blossom." (Thanks, The Millions!)

May 22, 2015

Early Book Reviews

During the investigation of my childhood writing, we've learned that in fourth and fifth grade, I especially enjoyed writing stories with mysterious and spooky elements. None of these efforts contain much in the way of actual mystery, but hey, mysteries are hard. Even after writing seriously for years, I still don't have any idea how to go about constructing a true mystery story.

As you might expect, this focus in my early writing was a result of the books I read. When asked in fifth grade to compose a brief essay about my hero, I turned in an enthusiastic tribute to John Bellairs, a writer of gothic mysteries for kids who I remember best for THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. While my hero worship didn't extend to spelling his name right, it's clear that his novels influenced my writing:

My hero is author John Belairs. He writes wonderful mysteries that keep me in suspense. His stories are mostly about kids my age. Mr. Belairs writes about magical things like magic rings and curses and stuff like that. His books always have some evil creature who is trying to harm the good people. Mr. Belairs has written seven books that I know about. I have read four and found each one fantastic. The books are the kind that you just absolutely have to find out what happens next. So if you asked me to rate John Belairs on a scale of one to ten, my answer would be, "Eleven!"

My fifth grade folder includes assignments on several mystery and suspense books I admired, and I took a pleasant trip down memory lane recalling the work of some excellent writers. I also found myself rather impressed by the reviewing competence of my young self. These book reviews (okay, fine, book reports) aren't bad for a ten-year-old.

On THE LONG SECRET by Louise Fitzhugh, a sequel to HARRIET THE SPY:

Someone is leaving mysterious notes. Mousy Beth Ellen is being dragged all over by her friend Harriet to find out who. Harriet "The Spy" Welsh is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. She'll rip apart the little town of Water Mill if that's what it takes. On the other hand, Beth Ellen has her own problem. She lives with her grandmother, but now Beth Ellen's mother is coming home. Beth Ellen doesn't like her mother, or her mother's boyfriend Wallace. Not that her mother particuarlly [sic] likes Beth Ellen. Getting back to the notes, Harriet now has a list of suspects who might be the note leaver. Is it the Preacher? Is it Jessie Mae Jenkins? Whom do you think is leaving the notes?

Sure, the final question seems a misguided attempt to "leave the reader in suspense", as instructed in the accompanying worksheet (and I believe the "whom" is both courtesy of my teacher and incorrect). But that's a pretty good summary of the plot and conflicts, and as the worksheet says, "It's not easy to tell the story of a long book in just a few sentences."


Is the epidemic that's going around really the flu? Alex Darlington, his best friend Mike Tolliver, and his neighbor Mrs. Potter think that the "flu" might be caused by vampires! Now Alex's sister Peggy is sick, and Alex is almost under the power of Radu, a peculiar character that he meets every day at the library. Why does Alex go to the library? To work on his report: a report on vampires! Garlic, crosses, stakes, grain. Vampires, bats, coffins, evil. Who will win?

Once you've begun reading Prisoner of Vampires by Nancy Garden, you won't be able to stop. Or at least that's how I felt about this spooky, suspenseful book. Ms. Garden forms life-like characters (except the vampires, who are not alive but merely undead), particularly when the grown-ups didn't believe Alex and Mike's vampire theory. This book is written well, it is highly descriptive and frightening. I enjoyed the fact that even though this book discussed vampire movies and books such as "Dracula", it wasn't essential to know these stories. And of course, the best part of this story was: it was fun to read.

There are some darn fine review elements in there, if I do say so myself. Plus, the format of a paragraph of summary followed by a paragraph of reaction is the same one I often employ today. Good job, Past Me!

Incidentally, Nancy Garden is better known for ANNIE ON MY MIND, a novel about two girls who fall in love that was groundbreaking when it was published in 1982. I think Garden once visited my high school's Gay-Straight Alliance to talk about the book, but I might be confused about that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Fiction University, Janice Hardy offers tips to Make the Most of Accidental Foreshadowing: "What almost happens is another potential area to explore for later use. Look at any close calls your protagonist has in the novel. Could they foreshadow another close call? You've already teased readers with it once, so if it happens again, they'll be all the more concerned that this time it'll be real."

May 14, 2015

April Reading Recap

Before May gets completely away from me, here's a look back at what I read in April:

THE RACIAL IMAGINARY: WRITERS ON RACE IN THE LIFE OF THE MIND is an anthology of essays edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. I read Rankine's excellent prose poetry collection CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC and posted about it in January. When I heard Rankine discuss this newer book on an episode of Bookworm (there's also a separate interview about CITIZEN), I was intrigued.

I'm always interested in the topics tackled in THE RACIAL IMAGINARY: how writers address fraught subjects, how to engage in discussions about race, how to write well about and across racial differences. In these essays, writers (mostly poets) reveal how race impacts (or doesn't) their work and their careers. The wide range of viewpoints and approaches make this a great anthology to read, study, and contemplate. The book itself is beautifully designed and includes artwork selected for its relevance to the topics under discussion.

The pieces in this collection are all thoughtful and unflinching. Many of the essayists discuss how difficult these subjects are to write about, or even to consider, and many reveal personal moments of shame or hurt. This book doesn't set out to be a how-to guide for writers (if you're looking for that, I recommend WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward as a good starting point), but I found it helpful in thinking about my own writing. I recommend it to any writer or reader.

→ In THE WILD SHORE by Kim Stanley Robinson, Henry is a teenager living in a small fishing community on the southern California coast. At least, Onofre is part of a place once called California, but that name has been fairly meaningless for sixty years, since a large-scale disaster decimated the population and isolated the small groups of survivors. Henry is fascinated by the stories of his teacher Tom, still spry at over 100 years old, though he's never quite sure whether to believe the tales. When strangers arrive from San Diego, Henry and Tom have the chance to learn more about what happened to the old America and what's going on in the wider world. It's information that may change their whole way of life.

I was excited when I realized Kim Stanley Robinson had written a novel in my beloved post-apocalyptic genre, since I was blown away by his Mars trilogy. THE WILD SHORE was his first published novel, and it turns out to be a rather less accomplished work. While many aspects of the book are interesting and entertaining (there's an especially exciting action sequence near the middle), the story meanders, and a lot of things are set up that didn't really go anywhere.

This is the first book of the Three Californias trilogy, which speculates on three different possible futures, so the other installments feature entirely separate stories and characters. I do plan to read the rest, and I'll be curious to see how they compare and whether this book works better as a part of the whole.

THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT MOON by Fatima Bhutto: It's the morning of the first day of Eid in Mir Ali, a town in the volatile semi-autonomous region of Pakistan near the Afghan border. The novel follows three brothers as they each rush off to important tasks and meetings before the start of noon prayers. Aman Erum has recently come home from studying in the United States, and he's struggling to adjust to life back in a place he never wanted to return to. Sikander is distracted from his work as a doctor by his troubled wife, who barges in on the funerals of strangers. Hayat, unbeknownst to his brothers, is involved in the underground rebel movement.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It offers a fascinating glimpse into a region I knew nothing about. The characters, family dynamics, and secrets Bhutto sets up are well-developed and rich with possibilities. The plot that unfolds is tense, with carefully placed revelations and buildup. Strong writing makes each scene gripping, and I was always absorbed and eager to find out what would happen next.

However: The political situation of Mir Ali is underexplained within the book, particularly early on when it would be most useful, and I had to do some outside research to orient myself. This is a surprising choice, since most readers won't be aware of the background and may pick up the book precisely because it portrays an unfamiliar locale. Even more confusing is the novel's abrupt ending. I don't expect stories to resolve with every thread neatly tied up, but so many pieces of the three plotlines were left unconnected that I felt like the book was missing its final quarter.

There is much in this novel to recommend, but it fell short of what it might have delivered.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mental Floss presents Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional: "It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded."