February 26, 2015

What's Up

It's been a while since I've posted anything about my current writing projects. That's because for much of last year I was frustrated by how little writing I was accomplishing. It was difficult to think what to say on the topic, and easier and more fun to talk about the many books I was reading and the awesome stories I wrote 30 years ago.

But writing has gone much better in 2015, so I think it's finally time for an update. I'm working on two projects right now: yet another revision of the completed novel and a detailed plan for the next novel.

Another revision? Scary, but true. I received a lot of interest and encouraging comments during my agent search last year, but so far nothing has panned out. After spending a year away from the manuscript, I gave it a hard look with fresh eyes (if that isn't scrambling a metaphor) and saw room for improvement. I'm making another pass with a focus on tightening and shortening, and then we'll see how it goes. I'm pleased with my progress on this revision so far. I don't want to get into the details of numbers and timeframes and so on, but I will try to corral my thoughts and advice about reducing word count into a post at some point. In the meantime, check the Good Stuff for someone else's tips.

For the next novel, I've decided to try a completely different process in hopes of cutting back on the number of revisions required. I'm doing very detailed advance planning and plotting so that I can identify problems with the story and make improvements while it's still in the outline stage. This method works great for some writers and not at all for others, and while it's a new strategy for me, I'm finding it useful. Of course, the ultimate test will come when I start the actual writing, but by then I should have a firm grip on the story and characters. No plans yet on when the actual writing will happen. I'm deliberately working slowly on this, only spending a little time on it each day, so that I have plenty of space for contemplation and random flashes of brilliance as I go along. I'm sure I'll post more eventually about my experience with taking this approach.

In addition to these major endeavors, I'm also pondering other short and long writing projects I might undertake. And I'm getting excited about attending FOGcon in a week! There's a fabulous list of panels lined up, and I'll be moderating one on apocalyptic fiction, one of my favorite genres. Again, I'm sure FOGcon will be the subject of an upcoming post.

That gives you the general idea, though. If you've been politely hesitant to ask about my writing lately, now you know that things are looking up.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Fiction University, Jodie Renner outlines steps for shortening your novel: "Delete or condense scenes that don't have enough conflict or change, or add much to the plot or characterization. Condense parts where scenes drag, eliminating the boring bits. (Take out the parts that readers skip over.) Summarize transitional scenes or chapters in a few sentences to tack onto another chapter."

February 18, 2015

Another Exciting Mystery

The last piece of childhood writing I shared was Captain Bandorf's Treasure, a story from fourth grade that aspired toward adventure and mystery. As we saw, its epic adventure lasted about half an hour, less time than it took to dispense with the exposition, and its biggest mystery concerned the questionable genetics of various characters.

I've found another "mystery" story from fourth grade that shares some features with CBT (as fans call it, leading to several types of confusion), though it's less ambitious in scope. I'm unable to determine which story was written first, so it's unclear whether this was an earlier, more primitive venture into the genre or a feeble attempt to capitalize on a previous success. Either way, as you read this untitled story, look out for the following similarities:

→ The main characters are best friends named Jackie and Anne. We know they're not the CBT characters because they have different (but equally unremarkable) surnames, as well as different (but equally important to describe) hair and eye colors, and they live in modern times.

→ The dialogue crackles with wit.

→ There's a serious inability to get to the point.

→ The mom is once again limited to delivering a single irrelevant line, though at least this time it's a whole coherent thought.

→ All mystery and suspense is killed by the instant appearance of convenient solutions.

See if you can spot more parallels!

February 10, 2015

January Reading Recap

This year, I've decided to revive my "monthly reads" tag. Each month I'll post a recap of books finished the previous month. If you're interested in more frequent updates on my reading progress, you can follow me on Goodreads.

TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt: When June is 14, her beloved uncle dies of AIDS, and her whole world changes. Uncle Finn had been her best friend, and she thought the two of them knew everything about each other. But after Finn's death, she's contacted by his boyfriend, a man she didn't know existed. June's moody older sister has information she might share, and at times June thinks they can use these events to find a way back to their former closeness. The relationship with her sister remains strained, though, and June forms a new friendship with Finn's secret boyfriend through their shared grief. The more she learns about him, the more she realizes how much she didn't understand about her favorite person, and her entire family.

This is a great, unusual family story. I was consistently impressed by the way it's such a character-focused book, with plot events that are often fairly mundane, and yet the story is gripping and full of mystery. I admire Brunt's handling of both the difficult material and the young narrator in this debut novel, and I eagerly await whatever she publishes next.

→ Reading CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine challenged me on multiple levels. The material examines issues of race in America and the daily experience of going through life as a black person. Whether Rankine is writing about the thoughtlessly racist statements made by friends and strangers or the tragedy of racially motivated killings, her words hit hard, provoking both discomfort and thought.

I wrote at length about this important collection of prose poetry in a separate post.

→ I have mixed feelings about MR. FOX by Helen Oyeyemi. It's beautifully written, and parts fascinated me, but much of it left me baffled, and it didn't fully come together as a story.

The main narrative concerns the tumultuous relationship between a writer, St. John Fox, and his muse, Mary Foxe. At the beginning, she challenges him over the fact that he kills off the women in all of his stories. This leads to some sort of magical literary battle in which the two of them are forced into a series of short stories. These stories appear within the book, taking a variety of forms and set in a wide range of times and places, and they always started off intriguing but often underwhelmed me by the end. The stories interact with and comment on the outer storyline to a certain extent, though much is left unexplained. Toward the end, I became truly interested in the characters of the main plot, but I wanted to get to that point sooner.

After I finished the novel, I learned that it takes inspiration from the story of Bluebeard and related tales, and then I learned that I didn't know a single thing about Bluebeard, who I'd always assumed was another pirate. Acquainting myself with the folktale didn't substantially change my feelings about the novel, but it did add another layer to my understanding. Oyeyemi is a talented and ambitious writer, and though I didn't connect with this particular project, I'll continue following her work.

I preferred her most recent novel, BOY, SNOW, BIRD, which is also a loose fairy tale retelling. That book, despite some odd detours, is primarily a straightforward story about a family. Many descriptions of it give too much away, but I wrote a spoiler-free review last year.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund ponders the changes that come with writing and time and the reality of What Goes Into A First Draft: "One of the reasons I'm not the biggest planner before writing a novel is things change. I always have rough ideas and things I write toward, but I've found that things often don't become truly clear until you're deep into a story."

February 6, 2015

My Year of Reading

Most of the 2014 book lists and reading retrospectives appeared in December, or at the beginning of January. I certainly intended to take my own look back closer to New Year's, but let's just say I wanted to be sure I'd spent ample time on reflection, okay?

I often link to The Millions, a great source for essays and intelligence about books and authors. Every December, the site runs a series called A Year in Reading and invites writers to share reading experiences from the past year. There's no specific format required, so some participants post a roundup of the best books they read, whether old or new, some highlight a single book, and others divide their reading into categories or consider themes.

2014 was my year of reading, for sure, so I thought I'd borrow the concept from The Millions and record some freeform musings.

In 2014, I read 66 books, almost twice as many as the year before. I know this number is still low by the standards of many readers and writers, but for me, it was a mind-blowing increase. I haven't read so voraciously since childhood. The big reason I had time to read so many books is that I did far less writing than I would have liked, so I have mixed feelings about the situation. I'm back into serious writing and revising mode this year, and while I'm also setting aside reading time, I likely won't match my 2014 book count, and that's fine with me.

I've long been frustrated by finding that my reading speed is slower than most word-focused people. I may have grown a bit faster during my mega-reading year, which would be a great development. Of course, reading isn't all about quantity and speed, but there are so many books each year that I want to read, and it would be wonderful to have the ability to pack in a few more of them.

I read 20 books that were released in 2014 and another 17 published in 2013 and 2012. That ratio is probably typical for me, as I'm often catching up on books I meant to read the year before. The vast majority of what I read is fairly recent: I only read 11 books published before 2000, and just one from before 1900.

My 66 books represent only 52 authors. Reading multiple books by an author within a short span feels like a departure for me, except that it also happened in 2013 due to my Start Here project, so maybe I should call it a recent development. Reading so many books in series is definitely a change for me. I read all the Hunger Games trilogy in three weeks and the whole Giver quartet over the course of a few months.

I wholeheartedly supported the year of Roxane Gay, who published both a debut novel and an essay collection in 2014. In addition to reading both of these powerful books, during the year I devoured a great many more of Gay's essays, reviews, and short stories that appeared online. She is astoundingly prolific, and I'll continue reading whatever she publishes.

This was also the year I checked out Rainbow Rowell, who everyone talked about so much the year before, and I gobbled up all of her books.

At the beginning of the year, I wasn't planning to embark on any reading projects, but I was so charmed by the Books on the Nightstand summer reading bingo cards that I organized my summer reading around picking books that matched certain categories or characteristics. It was fun, but this year I probably won't undertake any reading challenges. Probably.

As always, I read an eclectic mix of books, and I think I covered a wider range of genres than usual. The major theme that emerged, especially toward the end of the year, was the apocalypse. I've always been drawn to this genre, but the crop of apocalyptic new releases was especially strong in 2014.

The best of the apocalyptic books was the ambitious and thoughtful STATION ELEVEN, which was also my favorite book of the year. Other top recommendations:

AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxane Gay, a harrowing but beautiful story of trauma and survival.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE and ANCILLARY SWORD by Ann Leckie, the first two books of an inventive science fiction epic. (The final book of the trilogy comes out this fall.)

FANGIRL and LANDLINE by Rainbow Rowell, two emotional, funny stories of family, love, and creativity.

THE LAST POLICEMAN (and the rest of the trilogy) by Ben H. Winters, a gripping pre-apocalyptic mystery.

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri, the strongest short story collection I've ever read.

Okay, I think that's enough reflection. I've already read some great books in 2015, and I'm looking forward to many more!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ I'm appreciating the insightful Book Riot series on Reading Diversely: "If more people are buying/checking out books by diverse authors, then publishers will put out more. It's a pretty simple equation. And it starts with deliberately seeking out authors of color, by specifically paying attention to race instead of ignoring it like you've been taught your whole life. If you haven't been consciously seeking out diverse authors, then take a second to look at your bookshelves." Don't miss Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.