December 29, 2016

My Year in Sometimes Writing

Well, here we are at the end of one eventful year, facing the start of another. In 2016, my personal writing progress and accomplishments feel particularly small and unimportant, but this is my blog all about me, so I'm reviewing my year in writing and related activities. I'll do a separate post about reading and books in January.

For the first four months of the year, I didn't write any fiction. I did some research and idea generation for a project I'm still thinking about. I reread a few old manuscripts and considered what I might salvage from them. I wrote a couple of essays that didn't end up going anywhere. Writing-wise, the early part of the year was mainly about investigating possibilities.

Much of what I actually spent time on during those months was cleaning my writing room. I filed years of documents into filing cabinets, got rid of a huge amount of clutter, and rearranged furniture to make my space more usable. I meant to post photos of the final product, but then I never entirely finished organizing the last few small areas to make it picture-perfect, and my attention moved to other things. Until I maybe get around to someday sharing the results, just know that I'm very happy with what I accomplished, and my room is a great place to work now.

From May to July, I took an online short fiction class from Gotham Writers Workshop, and that provided deadlines and motivation to get me writing again, eventually. While some aspects of the class worked better for me than others, I got a lot out of it. I wrote two stories, in addition to some smaller pieces prompted by exercises, and the process of writing them, receiving feedback, and reading and critiquing the work of others was all very instructive. In the writing and revision I've done this fall, I feel like I've made noticeable improvement, and it's in part because of what I learned during the class.

I intended to try publishing my class stories and others in literary magazines, and I did get as far as researching the submission process and revising one of the new stories in September. The feedback I got from critique partners indicated that I still need to do more work, and then the project fell victim to timing, because I was hoping to finish the story while planning my next novel draft. Once I started the actual revising of the novel, I was reluctant to put any time into reworking the story, so I set it aside. I would rather not abandon the project at this stage after all the efforts of my kind commenters, so I want to return to the story with fresh eyes in the new year.

The latest revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE has been my big writing focus for the last few months. Unfortunately, timing also dealt a blow to this project. I completed outlining the new version and started revising at the end of October with grand plans for a productive November. Then the election happened, and focusing on writing got a lot harder.

I haven't made nearly as much progress on the revision as I expected back in October, but arguably, that statement was going to be true no matter what, because all writing is always slower than I anticipate. I produced good writing in November and December, but I spent a lot of time not writing. Some of the interruptions involved following the news and making phone calls and attending a town hall and learning about political action. Others were all the usual distractions of life, which tend to be especially numerous toward the end of the year.

2017 promises to bring more of everything: more revising, more reasons to take action, more real life. I have a lot to keep working on.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Lorraine Berry at Literary Hub contacted authors a few weeks after the election to find out how writers are getting back to work: "How are writers using their rage, their disappointment, their grief to get themselves moving? Mixed in each of the letters I received, even the ones where the sadness felt the most crippling, the writer recognized that action must emerge from the sadness."

December 6, 2016

November Reading Recap

What with one thing and another, I only read two books in November. Both were in part an excellent distraction from current events and in part painfully relevant, which I'm realizing is exactly the way I like my literature.

THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison: A nurse midwife is working at a hospital in San Francisco when a mysterious fever starts bringing in more and more patients, who soon die. Every delivery the midwife attends ends in stillbirth, and the fever usually appears and kills the laboring mother, even if she wasn't sick before. Within the space of a few weeks, the epidemic reaches apocalyptic levels. Our protagonist becomes sick, and when she recovers, she finds very few people are left alive, and almost none of them are women.

An apocalypse in which women are rare is a particularly brutal apocalypse, and this novel is committed to exploring that reality. Pretty much the first thing that happens to the main character is that a man nearly rapes her, and she has to kill him to escape. She decides to disguise herself as a man, which provides some safety but adds the constant danger of discovery to all other dangers of a collapsed society. The story is always tense and often upsetting, and I loved it for that realness.

Elison made a lot of smart choices in writing this book. A frame narrative establishes that the midwife's tale was preserved in journals, and some of those entries are presented for the reader. Wisely, though, rather than staying in that limited mode, most of the story is told in standard prose. While the focus is on one character we can get fully invested in, as the midwife encounters other survivors on her journey, we learn about different ways people choose or are forced to live in this future. The worldbuilding is well-considered throughout, particularly the details related to gender and sex. THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE is one of my new favorite books, and one of the best among the many apocalyptic stories I've read.

A sequel is coming out in February that follows a different character through the devastated world (and I can't wait to read it!), but the midwife's story wraps up in this book, so it can be read alone.

THE CUTTING SEASON by Attica Locke: Caren manages a former plantation in Louisiana that now operates as a museum and event venue, complete with daily theatrical performances that don't present the most historically accurate depiction of slavery. Caren's ancestors were enslaved on this very plantation, but she also spent her childhood playing with the brothers who own the estate, so she has complicated feelings about the place and her job. When a migrant worker from the neighboring cane fields is found dead on the plantation grounds, the lives of Caren and her young daughter become a whole lot more complicated.

Caren is a well-developed character grappling with a lot of conflicts related to both her work and her family. Locke makes good use of Caren's many facets, as well as the intriguing plantation setting, in constructing the mystery plot. As the story moves through the steps of the investigation, it never strays too far from examining how race and the legacy of slavery contribute to everything that's happening.

I don't have a ton of experience reading mysteries, but that part of the book seemed fairly solid to me, with clues gradually coming together while many secrets and suspicions turned out to be unrelated to the murder. Though I enjoyed being pulled along by the mystery plot, what interested and satisfied me more was the story of Caren, her family, and their history with the plantation. If that's what I was supposed to care about most, than this novel definitely succeeded.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ If you're at all intimidated by making calls to legislators, this guide for how to call your reps when you have social anxiety will help: "It is okay if your voice shakes. It is okay if you feel awkward. They get a lot of calls, so they don't have time to judge you by how well you delivered your message."

→ I'm fascinated by Edan Lepucki's summaries for five novels she'll never write: "Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative."

November 18, 2016

Focusing Efforts

When I announced my intent to focus on revising my novel in November, I didn't anticipate that the results of the election would leave me staring at the internet in horror for so many hours this month. I suspect I was part of a nationwide productivity dip as I neglected my usual work to stay informed and get angry and wonder what I could do.

Like many, I fear that under Trump, our government will have the desire and the power to strip away rights from segments of the U.S. population who already endure daily hate and obstruction. My privileges mean my life will likely remain as safe as it's always been, so I want to use my resources and advantages to protect others. I've been determining which of the organizations prepared to fight I'll continue or begin supporting with donations. I learned about calling my representatives and made those calls for the first time. I've started to investigate how I might usefully take other forms of action. Check the end of this post for some resources on these topics.

I have also been forcing myself to continue revising my novel, not because it will help, but because we all have things to get done. My novel is no more or less important now than it was two weeks ago, which is to say, it's not particularly important. This book matters a lot to me, and I hope it will eventually mean something to readers enthusiastic about getting invested in the lives of my characters for a little while, but it won't be making any sort of real difference.

That's fine. While an occasional novel tackles such significant material with so much skill that it can have a large, positive impact on the way people think, most fiction doesn't do that. Usually the role of novels is to entertain and provoke emotion and maybe communicate a couple of tiny points about some small aspect of the world. That's all great and sufficient, whether or not it's also true that fiction makes people more empathetic. Stories (in every medium) have their own value, though it's not a more special value than all the other valuable things.

I understand how to make my novel better, and working on it leads directly to progress. As hard as it is to focus on fiction when a lot of ugly reality also needs to be dealt with, it sure is satisfying to tackle a problem that's so easily solved.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jezebel offers a comprehensive list of organizations to support with donations.

→ The Effectivism blog rounds up some tips on Talking to Congress (and getting them to listen).

→ Activist Kara shares a Google spreadsheet with detailed instructions for calling representatives, scripts for current priority topics, and a suggested schedule for making your own calls.

→ Anil Dash urges that it's time to get to work and presents "concrete steps we can take immediately, which can set up habits that we can sustain for the years of struggle to come."

→ Slate provides options for How to Channel Your Post-Election Anger, Sadness, and Fear Into Action with a collection of places to put your time and money.

→ Maya Prohovnik's Looking to Help newsletter sends an email each day with helpful actions you can take right now. Past messages are archived.

November 7, 2016

October Reading Recap

In addition to two debut novels, last month's reading included a rare work of nonfiction:

THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD by Jade Chang: Charles Wang accumulated all the wealth and success America could offer, and now he's lost it. The cosmetics empire he founded after immigrating from Taiwan has fallen victim to the 2008 financial crisis, and poor investment decisions mean his family's luxurious Bel Air home and the rest of their property is repossessed. Charles, his second wife, and his two younger children leave California and drive across the US to find refuge in the home of the oldest daughter in upstate New York. As the family clashes with each other and copes with the disappearance of their affluent life, Charles remains fixated on reclaiming an asset his family lost long ago, the ancestral land in China the Wangs once presided over.

This is only the broadest summary of the novel, which goes deep into the lives of the five family members, exploring and complicating their failures, desires, and secrets. I loved getting to know each of the Wangs and watching them struggle to find their way through a world that once seemed so easy. Every character is unpleasant and neurotic at times, none are quite what they appear at first, and I was rooting for all of them by the end.

Chang brings this family to life with a series of unexpected choices and a strong vein of humor. The Wangs' road trip is an entertaining disaster, and this novel is a lot of fun.

THE MOTHERS by Brit Bennett: In the wake of losing her mother to suicide, teenage Nadia finds solace in a relationship with Luke, the son of the pastor in her San Diego church community. Nadia is college-bound, and when she gets pregnant, she knows she wants an abortion. Luke gives her money for the procedure but abandons her at the clinic afterwards. As Nadia struggles with losing another person she loved, she befriends Aubrey, another motherless girl from the congregation, but never tells her new best friend about Luke or the abortion. Nadia leaves for college in Michigan, Luke and Aubrey remain in California, and the three weave in and out of each other's lives during the years that follow.

The characters drew me into this novel, and I stayed invested in their growth as time passed. That passage of time is itself an intriguing aspect of the story, because Bennett takes an interestingly casual approach to leaping over years. She's a talented writer, rendering each scene with well-observed details and believable character dynamics.

However, the book fell short for me by not delivering quite enough of a story. I enjoyed following the characters, but I was well into the pages before I felt the plot moving in any clear direction, and when pieces eventually came together, they met with less impact than I anticipated. Many readers have heaped praise on this novel, but it left me unsatisfied despite many strong elements.

PANDEMIC: TRACKING CONTAGIONS, FROM CHOLERA TO EBOLA AND BEYOND by Sonia Shah: I don't often read nonfiction, but I was thinking about pandemics, because who doesn't, and I remembered hearing good things about this book when it came out earlier this year. It's packed with fascinating, terrifying details, presented in a highly readable narrative.

The book examines the factors that lead to diseases spreading and considers how they came into play during past outbreaks, comparing long-ago and recent scenarios. Some of the facts bode poorly for the future, as when Shah explains that diseases are more likely than ever before to jump from other animals into humans, since habitat destruction and climate change push these populations closer together. In other areas, progress works in our favor, and I was glad to have the benefit of historical distance when reading the horror stories of periods when mistaken scientific beliefs made people more vulnerable to disease. I was astonished to learn about the influence of pathogens on human evolution, and I was amused to come across some surprise Hamilton content.

My only disappointment was that the book didn't cover as much ground as I expected. I was under the impression there would be more speculation on future outbreaks, but that was less of a focus than I imagined. I was also surprised that certain famous pandemics, such as the bubonic plague and influenza in 1918, received little attention. I suppose Shah wanted to present less-explored material by focusing on cholera's long history and several diseases with twenty-first century outbreaks. So while I would have been happy for another hundred pages or so with those topics included, I enjoyed/feared all the information contained in this entertaining/horrific book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Electric Literature presents Jeff VanderMeer's Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories: "Once you get to the point where you have a sense of your story elements--the general situations, the impetus or driving force--you still have some decisions to make. You have the shape of your story--in this case, depicted as a lizard--but you still have decisions as to where you're going to begin and where you're going to end, not just the story but also your individual scenes. Where you end or begin your scenes is not only a question of pacing. It's also a question of what's right for the story you're telling, for the kinds of characters that you're using, and in the context of their unique characteristics."

October 31, 2016

It's Novel Season Again

Since I last reported in, the aforementioned revisions have been keeping me busy, and I'm making good if gradual progress. I devoted a solid, necessary chunk of time to planning the next draft of my novel but avoided getting trapped in that stage forever, so I'm now on to rewriting based on my plan.

My planning this time mostly involved making outlines, for some reason multiple partially overlapping outlines that I eventually had to merge together. Using these outlines, I tested out different ideas for new plot directions until I settled on the sequence that works best. I dealt in advance with many of the time-consuming logistics that so often stall me in the middle of writing, such as determining how to place a specific set of characters together with the motivation to discuss a certain topic, or deciding whether events should be shown, summarized, or skipped past with blank space. The scene-by-scene outline I wound up with gives me a place to keep adding any notes I think of while working on different scenes, or while lying in bed trying to sleep.

Tearing apart text I've previously worked so hard on is always scary (insert Halloween sounds), and I was nervous to begin actual revision, but I'm getting back into the swing of it. It's satisfying to recognize that I'm creating even better text, and I'm excited about putting my new plot and character ideas into action. Of course, I'm generally the least excited about writing at whatever moment I have to force myself to sit down and begin, but once I've stared out the window in despair for a few minutes, I tend to find that somehow sentences are coming together and time is passing and oh yeah, I guess I really do like this writing thing.

I haven't participated in National Novel Writing Month in years, but I'm still well-conditioned to find November an excellent month for writing productivity. As I'm cheering on my NaNoing friends, I hope to gain inspiration from the wordiness in the air this time of year. I don't have a specific goal in mind for next month, but I do intend to buckle down and focus on my novel (which originated as a NaNoWriMo project long ago).

In other seasonal developments, we've finally had some rain here in northern California, though the weather keeps climbing back to summer temperatures. While I do prefer sun to not, it's been such a hot year that I'm looking forward to chillier days and a chance to snuggle inside the cozy sweater I finished back in February, just before the weather started warming up. In case winter never comes, I've also started knitting a lighter weight sweater. And since the real purpose of this paragraph is to brag about my knitting accomplishments, I'll point out the two wraps I completed this summer.

Onward into autumn, and good luck to everyone embarking on NaNoWriMo or an alternate challenge!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Millions shares a comforting/panic-inducing conversation between Whitney Terrell, Emily Barton, and Alexander Chee about spending ten years or more on a novel: "Working so long on a book is a scary proposition in the supposedly 'fast-paced' media culture of the 21st century. But it happens more often than one might think. The three of us sat down to share strategies and retrace our steps in the hope that our experiences might provide a practical map -- or at least give some hope -- to other writers engaged in a long work. Here are our notes on a decade in the literary wilderness."

October 18, 2016

History in the Making

The end of this interminably painful election cycle is finally approaching, and that turns out to be shamelessly relevant to another installment of my childhood writing. I've unearthed two artifacts, one a piece of journalism and the other a work of fiction, that provide some historical perspective on the last time a Clinton entered the White House.

I wrote for my high school paper, The Centipede, and eventually became the Features Editor. (I'll delve more into my life as an intrepid student reporter in a future post.) When I learned there would be a polling place located at our school in November 1992, I mobilized some of the Centipede staff to conduct exit polls. The resulting article, "Poll Predicts Election Results", demonstrated that as Precinct 6 of Concord, Massachusetts goes, so goes the nation.

A refresher: In the 1992 presidential race, Bill Clinton was elected into office with a comfortable lead over incumbent George H. W. Bush. Independent candidate Ross Perot took a strong share of the popular vote. For me, and for most of the people around me in a largely Democratic state, Clinton's election was a significant triumph. I was 17, and I had no memory of a time before Bush and Reagan.

My article about the election is mostly a dry comparison of our exit poll to the election results of the town, state, and nation, for the presidential race and the state referendum questions. I report that some voters "agreed to disclose their choices only if the reporter stepped into the side hallway, away from the line of people waiting to vote," which makes me wonder how annoying we were and how well we planned the logistics of our polling. I do at least remember doing advance research to determine where pollsters were permitted to stand.

The closing of the article also sticks out in my memory, because when I got this scoop, I knew it would make for a killer ending: "Perhaps the most interesting result of the exit poll was the confession of a hassled looking woman with a young boy. When asked for whom she voted, the woman responded confidentially, 'George Washington,' before the toddler dragged her away."

Unlike the article, I didn't remember anything about the lightly fictionalized story I found in my notebook from a few months later, on the occasion of Bill Clinton's inauguration. As usual, this piece ends just at the point when it's starting to develop a plot, but it offers a good picture of my excitement over Clinton's election.

The night before the inauguration, Dana watched the superstars fawn over Bill. She lay sprawled across her dad's bed with her math book open in front of her and guiltily watched the Inaugural Gala. Sure she had a lot of homework, but this was, as her mother would say, "history in the making."

Dana felt a certain obligation to watch the show anyway, since she had missed most of the election coverage. She hadn't seen any of the debates, though she was sorry to have missed Stockdale from the imitations she'd seen the next day. She had watched most of Clinton's speech after he won the Democratic nomination, but that was mostly because she wanted to see what Gore looked like. And she'd only seen about 5 minutes of Clinton's acceptance speech in November.

The gala was probably the most interesting, and certainly the fastest moving, part of the '92 election. She hadn't been that transfixed since she watched the election results slowly trickle in.

October 4, 2016

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading was three very different novels, all full of surprises:

THE QUEUE by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette: Yehya needs surgery to treat an injury, but the mysterious and authoritarian Gate that controls the city has ruled his injury could not have been sustained, so operating is prohibited. In hopes of obtaining permission, Yehya joins the queue of citizens waiting for the Gate to open. As days and then weeks pass, the Gate issues ever more restrictive proclamations but remains closed, and the queue becomes a community with its own businesses, religious figures, and scandals.

THE QUEUE is compelling and unsettling. I was caught up in Yehya's ordeal and rooting for him and his friends to triumph even though success seemed unlikely from the start. The people Yehya meets in line are a fascinating group of characters, each set on pursuing a doomed quest to take back some control of their life.

At times the novel is playful about the absurdity of the situation, as when an argument breaks out over the length of the line and is resolved by a surveyor who happens to be among those waiting: "Asking for a bit of quiet, he ran some quick calculations, using his geographical knowledge of the area, information provided to him by both parties (representatives from the beginning and end of the queue), and a detailed description of the area's various landmarks and general terrain." More often, though, there's a grim hopelessness to what the characters are going through, and the book reads more like a plausible reality than an exaggerated satire. It's a fascinating, disturbing read.

→ In PLANETFALL by Emma Newman, a group of colonists left Earth in search of God's city on a planet seen in a vision by the Pathfinder Suh-Mi. After a successful journey across space, the colony has thrived for more than 20 years at the foot of the city, where Suh has retreated to commune with God. Renata, who was Suh's closest friend on Earth, is one of the engineers who built the colony. She's also one of the only people aware of the truth behind what happened during Planetfall, when some of the landing pods were lost during descent. It was believed there were no survivors, but now a young man has walked across the planet to the colony, and he's the offspring of lost colonists. His arrival threatens to expose the secrets Renata has lived with for decades, not only about the circumstances of Planetfall, but also about everything that keeps her apart from the rest of the colony.

This novel incorporates an interesting range of subjects. Highly advanced 3D printing and network-enabled brains are standard in this society, well-imagined by Newman, and used to good effect in the plot. Religion also plays a large role, and while I didn't get a clear enough idea of how the Pathfinder's vision first brought the colonists together, I was intrigued by the reveals about how technology and faith shaped the colony's belief system. In all areas of the worldbuilding, Newman mingles technology and the organic in ways I found inventive and unexpected. I was particularly impressed by the evolution of Renata's character, from the reader's perspective, and the additional subject this brings to the story.

I liked many things about this book, but there was much that frustrated me. Renata hints at and muses on the big terrible secrets of Planetfall repeatedly, offering the reader glimpses but not revealing the full story until the end, and eventually this withholding of the truth became too artificial a conceit. A couple of additional elements suffered from repetition or were drawn out too long, while the ending was rushed and underdeveloped. Though these problems made for a less satisfying book than I'd hoped, the compelling story and original worldbuilding offer plenty that's worth reading.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein: In 1943, a wireless operator working as a spy with the British Special Operations Executive is captured in Nazi-occupied France after her plane goes down. She's a defiant prisoner, but following weeks of torture and the indignity of being repeatedly called English when she's actually Scottish, she agrees to tell her captors everything she knows about the British war effort. Her account focuses on her friendship with Maddie, a skilled pilot who flies for the Air Transport Auxiliary (since women aren't allowed in combat). Eventually the reader and the Gestapo learn the full story of what led up to the two women's doomed flight to France -- sort of.

There are some narrative tricks in this novel, and I anticipated that going in based on the buzz surrounding the book, but that information sent my reading expectations in the wrong direction. I might have held back on becoming emotionally invested (I'm apparently the only reader who didn't cry, and I cry at books all the time) because I wasn't sure what to believe. I should have trusted the story more, so I recommend going with the flow instead of searching for the twist, because it's not quite that sort of twist.

This is a suspenseful book about friendship in extreme circumstances. The two main characters are wonderful to spend time with, and their fierce friendship made me happy even when their experiences filled me with horror. I was fascinated to read a war novel with women working in so many different roles, doing as much as they were permitted and a few things they weren't. A lot of research went into the book, and the details of history, piloting, and spywork are woven into the story well. If any of these elements sounds appealing, I think you'll devour this novel as eagerly as I did.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Yahm writes at Atlas Obscura about the history and operations of a library located on the U.S.-Canada Border: "It's easy for Americans to go into the Haskell--they merely walk through the front door. But for Canadians it's a little more complicated, because they technically have to cross the international line, which is demarcated by a cement obelisk and a line of flower pots." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

September 30, 2016

Build Your Own Religion

The last several examples of my childhood writing were from the many Steno notebooks I kept through high school and into college, so let's mix things up and check out some schoolwork.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, I got my first Macintosh during high school, and amazingly, most of the work written on that computer still survives. Yes, for 25 years, I've preserved my documents across computers and operating system upgrades so I can subject you to them today. In order to give you a full understanding of my sacrifice before you express your gratitude, I'll mention that a couple of years ago I realized I was on the verge of losing the ability to open files created in obsolete word processing programs, and I tediously converted them one at a time to a readable format. You're welcome.

Anyway, as mentioned in a different earlier entry, I thought a lot about religion and my lack of it during my teen years, so it's not surprising I took a class in World Religions as a senior. (Another important factor was that one of my favorite teachers taught this elective.) The class gave me an opportunity to submit some creative writing, though I'm not sure how many of the assignments were intended to take the form of stories.

In a previous class, I'd hit upon the idea of writing imagined dialogues with historical figures, and rejecting the usual essay structure earned praise from that teacher, so I milked the format again for a paper entitled "Hinduism Evaluation":

Lisa entered the temple in search of answers. "What is real?" she asked Krishna.

"Brahman is real," responded Krishna.

"But what is Brahman?" Lisa asked.

"Brahman is infinite," said Krishna. "Brahman is sat, chit, and ananda; that is to say being, awareness, and bliss. And Brahman is infinite in all these things."

"So Brahman is everything?"

"No. Brahman is not everything. Anything you can conceive is not Brahman."

"So then what is Brahman?"

Krishna pointed at a stone. "Neti," he said. "Not this. Brahman is not this stone." He pointed at a piece of wood. "Neti." He continued in this manner until Lisa motioned him to stop.

And so on, with Krishna explaining all the principles of Hinduism that I was presumably supposed to demonstrate familiarity with. I remembered none of it, so reading this paper was quite enlightening, as it were.

I don't recall the assignment for a file labeled "Build Your Own Religion". I'll speculate that at the end of the course, we were asked to construct a set of beliefs that a culture might develop. Whatever the expectation, I resorted to the power of fiction again and turned in this story:

One Who Dared To Question

[Note: It must be understood that words such as "spouse", "widow", and "All-Spirit" are merely the best English equivalents of terms which can be only roughly translated.]

In the beginning there was light and dark, sun and moon, earth and water, wind and rain, winter and summer, plants and animals.

There were people. They lived among the trees in huts made of branches and leaves. They drank water from the stream, gathered roots and berries, and hunted deer and rabbit with spears. They made tools from sticks and sharpened stones, cooked meat over open fires, and wore skins to keep warm in cold weather. They spoke to one another in words and drew pictures on stones.

Children were born and grew up in their parents' huts. They were taught the history and culture of the tribe by the widows. They learned from their parents and from the other parents how to gather, hunt, and cook. When children grew into men and women, they chose spouses and moved into huts with their partners. Soon, new children were born. Adults died, and sometimes children did, too. The tribe grew ever larger, and its members thanked the All-Spirit daily for their prosperity.

Owwoo was named for the sound the of the wolves howling at the full moon. She was born fourteen summers ago, at night, during a full moon. Owwoo's birth heralded good fortune for herself and for the tribe: each summertime birth foretold a more successful gathering season, and one born under the full moon was destined to bear many children. Owwoo began bleeding last fall, and her flow, too, coincided with the full moon, like that of her mother. Yes, said the widows to one another, Owwoo would bring times of much fertility to the tribe.

Now that Owwoo's body had changed, she was a woman, and it was time for her to move out of her parents' hut. Today was the day that she had decided to ask her closest friend Kaar to be her spouse. She had played with Kaar since they were very young, and lately they had talked together often about their futures, the tribal customs, and the All-Spirit.

September 16, 2016

Double Revision

After a wonderfully hectic summer filled with great visits to and from family members, I'm happy to be immersed in writing again this month. I'm enjoying having plenty of uninterrupted time to write, and I'm excited about moving forward on projects with some new goals and motivations.

Recently I received some very helpful advice and encouragement about THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, and that's inspired me to embark on yet another revision. The focus of my previous revision was shortening the manuscript, and I cut over 20% while keeping the plot more or less the same. This time, I have suggestions and ideas about improving some parts of the story that aren't as strong as the rest. I'm planning to add new elements and remove others that aren't working, ideally while keeping the length about the same, which I'm sure will require further use of the compactness techniques I relied on last time.

I started off by rereading the manuscript, which I hadn't really looked at in more than a year. As always happens after time away, I saw plenty I wanted to change, but I was heartened by how much of the novel I was happy with. Before the last revision, my reread of the previous draft put me to sleep at points and left me wondering if gremlins had rewritten my sentences for incoherency. It was an enormous relief to not have a repeat of that experience and to confirm I'm actually making the book better with each edit. I was also pleased to notice that some of my thoughts about improving sentences and paragraphs came out of what I learned from the writing and critique in the class I just took.

I'm now on the next step of revision, the planning stage. I've written before (while in the middle of a still earlier, quite lengthy revision) about the value of planning and the danger it can morph into procrastination. I think I'm doing okay at the moment. I'm outlining the changes I want to make and trying to figure out the best options for the story. Some of my notes are lists of pros and cons for different plot directions. Some include comments like "but is it all just too ridiculously melodramatic?" and "this needs to conclude whatever the conclusion turns out to be". It's a process. I'm making good headway, and the plan is gradually coming together.

I don't think I've blogged at all about the writing software Scrivener, which I began using a couple of years ago, I believe when I was preparing for the previous revision. It's a powerful application with a lot of features, and I'm starting to use more of these than I had before, though nowhere near all of them. Maybe later I'll write about my Scrivener techniques, but for now, here's a screenshot from my revision planning:

September 1, 2016

August Reading Recap

I got the pleasant surprise of reading all my remaining anticipated reads of the season last month, even though one wasn't supposed to be released for a couple more weeks, because Oprah picked THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD for her book club. I was also pleased, but not surprised, to find that these anticipated books were all excellent!

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia: Reshma Kapoor publishes an op-ed about her Silicon Valley high school that catches the notice of a literary agent, who asks if she's thought of writing a novel. Realizing a book deal would look amazing on college applications, Reshma replies to say she's almost finished a young adult novel. In fact, she hasn't started or even imagined writing a book, and she considers fiction a waste of time that could be spent studying, but she'll do anything to gain admission to Stanford. Reshma begins writing her novel, and to keep things simple, she makes herself the protagonist. Since her life of constant studying won't produce a good story, she decides to win friends, find a boyfriend, and undergo a transformation to complete her character arc. None of this goes as smoothly as anticipated, but Reshma is skilled at manipulating people to get ahead. When circumstances at school threaten her chances at Stanford, she incorporates the obstacles into her plot and sets out to overcome them by doing whatever it takes.

Reshma is a fascinating and infuriating character. She recognizes that she's not a nice, good, or kind person, but she doesn't have the self-awareness to realize that she's not always in the right. The shameless way she maneuvers and connives through the world is a propulsive force that kept me reading with gasps and laughter. Reshma's insecurity and anxiety occasionally broke through and allowed me to feel sorry for her, but I appreciated how much Kanakia was willing to make the character despicable.

The meta structure of this novel is a tricky conceit, and I can imagine many ways it might have gone wrong instead of succeeding as cleverly as it does in ENTER TITLE HERE. So much about this book is original and unexpected, and all of it is well-written and compelling. As a bonus, the hardcover looks great, with an eye-catching cover and another hiding beneath the dust jacket. I recommend picking up a copy!

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead is mesmerizing in several ways. The story of Cora's escape from slavery on a Georgia plantation is packed with danger, and the suspense of the plot kept me engrossed. Whitehead draws the reader in with sentences that are perfectly crafted but not showy: "George sawed with his fiddle, the notes swirling up into night like sparks gusted from a fire." Most powerfully, the world of the story blends the harsh reality of pre-Civil War America with invented elements presented with such authority that I frequently double-checked the facts of history.

The novel's core departure is the underground railroad itself, an actual system of trains operating in tunnels hidden beneath the ground. The railroad plays a smaller role in the story than I expected but establishes the concept of the not-quite-real. In each U.S. state that Cora visits on her journey out of slavery, she encounters a different form of oppression. While most of these societal practices and policies didn't literally exist as portrayed, they depict truths about the racism of our nation's past and present.

The nature of the subject matter means this book is not a pleasant or easy read, but I'm glad I spent time within its pages. This is a story that will stay with me.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal starts with a clever premise, fully develops a world in which this intriguing idea can exist, and sends great characters on a thrilling, suspenseful adventure through that world. In other words, the novel delivers everything I've come to expect from Kowal's writing.

Ginger is an American medium working with the British Army during World War I as part of the women-run Spirit Corps, a crucial branch of military intelligence. She and the other mediums take reports from soldiers who have just died in battle. It's exhausting, risky work, made more difficult by the army's sexist policies and attitudes. When the spirit program works correctly, ghosts are able to serve their country a final time by providing information about enemy positions that can be sent to the battlefield immediately. Unfortunately, the Germans are starting to figure out how the Spirit Corps operates, and they're doing all they can to sabotage the program. Ginger, her colleagues, and everything they've worked for are in danger unless she can discover the traitor who's passing secrets to the enemy.

Since this is a book about World War I, with an explicit focus on ghosts, there's a lot of death and sadness, and I teared up during the majority of the chapters. The tragedy is balanced out by the gripping mystery and fast-paced adventure, plus well-placed moments of humor and levity, so this ends up being pretty fun for a war story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood reports for The Guardian about an academic's discovery of significant differences between the US and UK versions of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS: "Mitchell himself explains the reasons for the discrepancies in an interview quoted in Eve's paper: they occurred because the manuscript of Cloud Atlas sat unedited for around three months in the US, after an editor there left Random House. Meanwhile in the UK, Mitchell and his editor and copy editor worked on the manuscript, but the changes were not passed on to the US." The paper by Martin Paul Eve is long but fascinating.

August 16, 2016

A Very Minimalistic Play

It's time to move ahead in our journey through my childhood writing, so I braved my next teenage Steno notebook (#4, for those keeping track). As I read through its pages, many entries made me laugh, and even more provoked cringes. One piece of writing stood out by causing the most of both reactions.

In addition to its other exceptional qualities, this work is noteworthy because it's written as a play. When I started writing creatively in my free time during high school, one of my first efforts was a short play, but I only experimented with the format once or twice more before the piece we'll consider today. I frequently attended theater at the time, both school and professional productions, and I auditioned for every school play, though I was rarely cast, so it's no wonder I had an interest in playwriting.

Like most of my adolescent works, this one is unfinished, exhibiting my usual struggle with plot, so prepare to be left hanging. As you'll see, I put a lot of thought (a lot of thought) into elements that in retrospect weren't the most important to focus on:

(This is a very minimalistic play. What else can you expect from a play that consists entirely of one side of a telephone conversation? Consequently, the set, props, and lighting are of little importance. The play takes place in CAROL's college dorm room. All that is required are some books, notebooks, a bag of pretzels, a can of soda, some other random clutter, and of course, the all important telephone. To eliminate the need for furniture or walls, the stage can simply be darkened, and CAROL may sit center stage in the light of a large spot. Make sure the light is not too bright or harsh, as the audience needs to look at it for the entire play. Another note concerning comfort: Be sure the telephone can be comfortably held for a long period of time. A shoulder rest which attaches to the handpiece may be used, if desired.

What is important in this play is that the audience be able to follow CAROL and NICK's conversation. The actress playing CAROL should determine exactly what NICK is saying at each pause and wait the correct length of time before speaking again. Small changes may be made in the lines as the actress or director sees fit, in order to aid in comprehension or to sound more natural.

There are few stage directions. The actress may do whatever seems natural while talking on the phone: sit up, lie down, eat, drink, doodle, do leg lifts, etc. These actions should be spontaneous and unplanned.

August 5, 2016

July Reading Recap

Last month, I happily devoured my first two anticipated summer reads, plus a release from earlier in the year.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters imagines a version of US history in which Congress passed the proposed Crittenden Compromise, guaranteeing the right to permanently practice slavery in states where it was already legal. The story takes place in a present day where slavery persists in four southern states. Elsewhere in America, the ramifications of slavery affect the lives of black citizens even more strongly than in our own reality.

Victor, who grew up enslaved, works undercover as a bounty hunter for the US Marshals Service, which has the responsibility to track down any "person bound to labor" who escapes to freedom. The job fills him with constant self-loathing, but he's very good at it. His latest case brings him to Indianapolis in search of a young man smuggled out of a plantation by the Underground Airlines (a metaphorically named movement: "Only very rarely is there a real plane involved.") Victor has to find the man before the Airlines gets him to Canada, but the further he investigates, the more unusual the details of the case become.

The conflicts inherent in Victor's life make him a fascinating protagonist, and each element of his character is well-developed and specific. I was glad to have him as my guide through the book's twisty plot and horrifying world. As with the excellent Last Policeman series, what most impressed me about this novel is how carefully Winters thought out every aspect of the premise. He's constructed a complete alternate history for the United States and its foreign relations, applied modern technology to the practice of slavery, and considered how systematic and individual racism perpetuates inequality. UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is an exciting mystery that grows ever more complicated and harrowing as the story progresses, but what kept me most enthralled was my desire to learn more about Victor and his America.

JULIET TAKES A BREATH by Gabby Rivera: When Juliet Palante reads the work of feminist author Harlowe Brisbane, it rocks her world. Juliet writes to Harlowe and scores a summer internship working out of the author's home in Portland, Oregon. It's the farthest Juliet has ever been from the Bronx, and she's excited and nervous about spending the summer with a white hippie writer in a white hippie town, far from her Puerto Rican family and the college girlfriend she's been afraid to tell them about. At the goodbye dinner before she leaves for Portland, Juliet comes out to her family, and the reactions are only the first surprises in what will be a wild, emotional summer.

This is a powerful coming-of-age story about a queer brown girl, and it pulled me in right from the start. Throughout the novel, I was caught up in all the raw emotions Juliet experiences, from joy to heartbreak, and I enjoyed her funny, opinionated commentary on the world and people she encounters. Juliet's summer exposes her to a wide range of approaches to feminism and identity. I was right there with her on that journey, having my mind opened and struggling against the ways white feminism excludes women of color.

While the writing is rough in places and the narrative doesn't always flow well, there is so much to love in this book, and I'm glad Juliet's story is out there.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown: Madeleine is suffocating in a loveless marriage, longing for the life of painting she gave up for her controlling husband. After the couple has a terrible argument, Madeleine returns to her small southern hometown and her mother, another controlling and critical figure in Madeleine's life. While she dreams of an escape from the crushing expectations of other people, Madeleine finds a box of diaries kept by her grandmother as a young woman. In their pages, she discovers that Margie struggled with an overbearing mother of her own and wanted to write rather than get married. In 1924, Margie travels to Europe as a chaperone for a younger cousin, and what she experiences in Paris changes her life.

I loved getting to know the two protagonists of this novel. Both are artists who don't conform to the roles demanded by their high society families, and I wanted to see them succeed in breaking free. Brown does an excellent job with the settings in this novel, delightfully skewering the culture of debutante balls and ladies association meetings and vividly presenting the energy of 1920s Paris. I was hoping for a bit more from the story, because despite the two separate timelines, not a lot happens. Still, this was an engaging read that kept me well entertained while traveling.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Cait Etherington reveals The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries: "In the early to mid twentieth century, the majority of the city’s libraries had live-in superintendents. Like the superintendents who still live in many of the city’s residential buildings, these caretakers both worked and lived in the buildings for which they were responsible. This meant that for decades, behind the stacks, meals were cooked, baths and showers were taken, and bedtime stories were read."

July 21, 2016

Mornings and The Open Road

At the previous stop on this expedition through my childhood writing, we visited steno notebook #3. In addition to the piece of fiction I shared last time and the angsty journal entries I definitely won't be sharing, a couple of other stories from that period are worth pausing at before we move on.

As I've read my old work, some pieces are immediately familiar, and I recall where the stories are going, or more often, failing to go. Others come as a surprise. An untitled story about mornings fell into the second category, and I was pretty engaged and curious to discover what was going to happen. Disappointingly, after seven pages written over the course of a few weeks, the story comes to an abrupt end.

More disappointingly, at the end of this notebook in an entry reflecting on the fiction it contains, I wrote, "Whatever happened to the mornings story? That was a damn good idea with an ending in mind. I'll have to work on it." I regret to say that whatever I planned is lost to the mists of time. It's always possible the rest will turn up in another notebook, but I don't expect it to.

So I present this work with the warning that it's unfinished. That property, along with some stylistic and character elements, makes it a representative example of my (non-death-related) writing at the time.

The sudden onset of bad music at full volume started her out of a vivid dream. Driven by the screaming voices and merciless electric whine, she leapt out of bed and lunged across the room for the clock radio. Her fingers fumbled automatically for the "reset" button, located it, and depressed it. The sudden silence felt as if she had been struck deaf. Then her brain registered the traffic sounds of the city that never sleeps three stories below.

Her mind cleared of the heavy metal noise, she encountered an overwhelming desire to stumble across the room and crawl back into bed. But as she was already at the door to the bathroom, she dragged herself in there instead and turned on the cold water to the shower.

Willing herself not to think, she stepped into the shower stall. The blast of icy water shocked her awake and sent her groping for the hot water knob. The daily struggle for consciousness was over.

Putting the alarm clock at the other end of her one-room apartment had been her father's idea. The moments between getting out of bed and getting into the cold shower were the toughest part of her day. After two weeks in her apartment, with the snooze button at her fingertips and no parents or roommates to make sure she was up, she had been late to work four times. A long phone conversation with her father had resulted in the wake-up solution and the rescue of her job from threats of dismissal.


Her first memory:

There was a hand on her shoulder and Daddy's voice in her ear whispering, "Julie, wake up. Mommy's going to have the baby!"

Three-year-old Julie got out of bed and put on her sneakers. The routine had been carefully rehearsed several times in the past month. Julie picked up her duffel bag, which had been packed and ready for two weeks, just like Mommy's. She took Daddy's hand and went downstairs.

Mommy was putting on her jacket. She handed Julie her windbreaker. "I called Aunt Jenny and the hospital. We're all set," Mommy said.

Daddy brought the car to the front of the house and came to get Mommy and Julie. Julie looked at Mommy's big stomach, but it looked the same as ever. She hoped the baby wouldn't come out too soon.

Julie had never ridden in the car in her pajamas before. It was dark outside because the sun hadn't woken up yet. No one was awake except Mommy and Daddy and Julie and Aunt Jenny and the hospital.

July 15, 2016

Classing Update

A couple of days after I posted about having no ideas for the second story I had to submit for class, I found a seed that gradually grew into a viable premise. Much of the concept was vague when I started drafting, and the lack of a plan for the end made the writing process especially harrowing. I did figure out a conclusion before I had to write it, and after several frantic days of work, I completed a story I'm quite pleased with.

I might be getting the hang of this short story thing. I still have novel ideas churning in my head, and I want to focus on those soon, but it's certainly satisfying to create something that can be finished in a few days or weeks. I hope I can continue to generate ideas for stories without the pressure of a class deadline.

Even before this class, I've been inspired to return to short story writing by my friend Christopher Gronlund, who like me, has put most of his time into novels for many years but recently set himself a short fiction challenge. He produces a monthly podcast, Not About Lumberjacks, in which he presents one of his short stories. Some are older pieces, but the project has gotten him writing a lot of new stuff as well. I especially enjoyed listening to his latest release, "Standstill", a sad and beautiful story about a couple faced with the problem of time.

I'm not a podcaster, but I would like to get some of my stories out into the world. The class is wrapping up now with a final week about the publication process. I intend to use what I learned in class to revise my new stories, plus some others languishing on my computer, and then I'm going to try submitting to literary magazines.

I've only made one tiny attempt at story publication before, because it's another time-consuming avenue for rejection on top of the agent querying I'm already doing. But this week I received such a kind and encouraging rejection for my novel that I'm actually looking forward to collecting more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Katie McLain reports that Librarians Don't Read All Day and tells us what they actually do: "When I'm at the reference desk, I can usually be found answering technology questions, helping high school students with research papers, showing someone how to create a resume, making book suggestions, notarizing documents, and restarting the public print station for the tenth time in an hour. And when I do have time away from the desk, you can find me planning the summer reading program, training coworkers, relabeling books, writing blog posts, or prepping for a high school book talk."

July 5, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2016

This season brings the publication of five books I've been anticipating for quite some time. I can't wait to finally get to read these new novels!

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters (July 5): I adored Winters's THE LAST POLICEMAN and its sequels, a trilogy about a New Hampshire detective who's still intent on solving crimes even though the earth will be obliterated by an asteroid in a few months. The new book is an alternate history, set in a present-day America where the Civil War never occurred and slavery is still practiced in four states. I'm fascinated by the premise, and I'm sure the story will deliver more horrifying worldbuilding, great characters, and gripping mysteries.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown (July 12): Brown's debut was a wonderful story about a family of Shakespeare fans, THE WEIRD SISTERS. I've had the chance to meet Eleanor a couple of times to talk about writing, and I was thrilled to learn that she has a second novel coming out. THE LIGHT OF PARIS is another family drama, this time about a woman escaping an unhappy marriage who finds the diary her grandmother kept during a summer in Jazz Age Paris. I'm looking forward to lots of family secrets and historical detail.

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia (August 2): I know Rahul from Bay Area writing circles, and through his blog, I've been following his journey to publication. The novel sounds like a lot of fun: The overachieving main character decides she can improve her chances of getting into a top university if she lands a book deal, so she somehow obtains a literary agent and then sets out to write a novel. The whole plan goes wrong in a way that I'm confident will be both smart and hilarious.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal (August 16): I'm a big fan of Kowal's Glamourist Histories, a series that concluded last year after five amazing books set in the Regency period, but with magic. This new novel, which will potentially launch another series, takes place during World War I and features a medium who contributes to the war effort through her work with the Spirit Corps, which gathers intelligence from soldiers who die in battle. Kowal writes excellent characters and plots, and she never shies away from facing difficult realities in her fantastical stories, so I'm expecting great things from this book.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead (September 13): I've read and enjoyed two of Whitehead's strange and beautiful novels, THE INTUITIONIST (my review) and ZONE ONE (review). His next book has been getting a ton of buzz. The story follows characters escaping from slavery, and it's alternate history of a subtler type than the Ben Winters book at the start of my list. Whitehead sets his novel in the real pre-Civil War South, but the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad of secret tracks, tunnels, and stops. I'm very intrigued by the descriptions I've heard, and I'm eagerly awaiting the book's release.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Kim Liao recommends aiming for 100 Rejections A Year: "My rejections became tiny second-hand ticks on the slow-moving clock of my writing career, counting down to an acceptance, another revision, a long rest for the piece in the bottom of a drawer--or possibly, a return to the clay pit of my subconscious."

July 1, 2016

May/June Reading Recap

I was too busy at the beginning of June to deal with book reviews, but now I've caught up on my past two months of reading. There's a ton of variety in this big list of books, and I hope you find something that piques your interest.

→ I'd encountered several rave reviews of HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi before putting it on my list of anticipated spring releases, and I continued hearing great things that got me reading as soon as the book was available. This novel is indeed as amazing as everyone says.

Effia is born in Fanteland (part of today's Ghana) in the middle of the eighteenth century, and when she grows into a beautiful woman, she's married off to a British colonizer to help her village prosper. Her new home is a castle on the Gold Coast where dungeons hold people captive before they're shipped across the Atlantic as slaves. Esi is born in Asanteland to the best warrior in the village, but her prosperous future is ripped away when she's captured during an attack and forced to march for days to the slave dungeon. Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never know of each other's existence. The novel follows their respective descendants through the generations, depicting the impact of slavery and its lasting repercussions in both the United States and Ghana.

We spend only one chapter with each character in the book, providing a snapshot of life on both sides of the Atlantic before we proceed to the next generation. With this structure, the novel presents an incredible range of experience across 250 years, but Gyasi writes with such care and efficiency that every character's story feels full and individual. All of the places and times are vividly portrayed, with the extensive historical research woven tightly into the narrative. As I read, I was always torn between slowing down to savor my deep investment in each life and hurrying to discover what the next chapter had in store.

HOMEGOING is an intense and fascinating read. I recommend it highly.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett also appeared on my spring releases list, and soon after the novel came out, my writing class happened to read one of his short stories. I was impressed by the strong writing in "Notes to My Biographer", a story dealing with mental illness through generations, so I quickly started the novel, which explores the same subject. Haslett is skilled at conveying the complicated emotions of a difficult family situation, and his characters are real and engaging.

IMAGINE ME GONE follows a family across decades, often jumping wide gaps of time to visit the big and small events that shape the characters' lives. The earliest event leads to all the others: After Margaret's fiance John is hospitalized with what's described as an "imbalance" in 1964, she makes the decision to proceed with the marriage. Margaret and John go on to have three children. The oldest, Michael, is an anxious, tightly wound child who remains a source of worry for the family as he grows into an odd and troubled adult. Michael's brother and sister find their own adulthoods overshadowed by his problems and their desire and obligation to help him attain a bit of happiness.

Each of the five family members narrates some of the chapters, and they all have their own storytelling style. The narrative takes on unusual forms in places, which helps the reader get deeper into the mental states of the characters. Every time the perspective switched, I was glad for the opportunity to get to know a character better. I cared about everyone in this novel, I felt their pain through the many hard scenes, and I kept hoping things might turn out okay for some of them. This is a rough and honest family story.

SPEAK by Louisa Hall had some buzz last year, and I'm glad I went back to discover the pleasure of this unusual and absorbing novel.

The story revolves around the themes of memory and artificial intelligence, and it's composed of multiple interconnected narratives. Through prison memoirs of a convicted inventor and chat transcripts presented as court evidence, we learn about the rise and fall of babybots, lifelike dolls with powerful AI that a generation of girls bonded with, causing disastrous effects. Two sets of letters chart the lives of a fictional couple involved in 1960s AI efforts and the real computer science pioneer Alan Turing. Finally, a diary from 1663 follows a young adventurer on her pilgrimage to America.

I quickly became caught up in each of the stories and enjoyed spotting all the ways they intersect. Though the book has a philosophical bent, each storyline possesses a compelling plot. My desire to understand the full story increased as the connections became clearer, so I was somewhat disappointed that so much was still unknown at the end. I'm not sure I grasped everything Hall was aiming for with this novel, but I still found it a worthwhile read.

→ I was curious about THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle because of a synchronicity with Matt Ruff's excellent LOVECRAFT COUNTRY: the books were published on the same day and both grapple with the racist work of H.P. Lovecraft. After I heard a great Fresh Air interview with LaValle, in which he reads the opening pages of his novella, I knew I wanted to read more.

June 24, 2016

Classing Up My Writing

The online class I'm taking with Gotham Writers Workshop is more than halfway through, and it's serving the intended purpose of helping me think about short fiction and generate new writing. Granted, having a deadline to submit a story for critique didn't save me from excessive procrastination, but eventually it did force me into several long days of writing. It's been a while since I've been deeply engrossed in a project, and I was happy to be back in that space.

I finished my story on time, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. Receiving feedback from my classmates was, as always, a thrilling and nerve-racking experience, and I spent the week constantly refreshing the class website to see if anyone new had commented. The students in our group bring a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives to their thoughtful critiques, as well as to their stories, and it's been fascinating to see how everyone reacts to each other's work. The feedback for my story gave me a lot of information about what resonated with people and what didn't work, and it will all be useful when I revise this story after the class is over.

Now, though, I have to write something different, because my second turn at the workshop is in two and a half weeks. So far I have no solid ideas for my next story, but I remain overly confident that the approaching deadline will spark inspiration soon enough. I may produce something promising in one of the short writing assignments we have for class each week, though more likely a decent idea will occur to me at some random moment. If I get desperate, maybe I can complete one of the unfinished stories from my teenage notebooks.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah S. Davis of Book Riot shares her experience of growing up as the English teacher's daughter: "I was cocky in English class, slaying the classic white male authors and tossing around literary jargon I'd gleaned from my father's theory books in his office. I thought I knew everything. I didn't."

June 17, 2016

Fear Itself

I'm aware that the earliest examples of my childhood writing were fun because they involved cute drawings and hilarious story concepts. Now that we're into the high school era, I hope nobody minds that it's all death and angst. I was prolific during high school, and most of my work from that period has been preserved, so we're going to be here a while.

While the Steno notebook I reported on last time is nearly all stories (or at least, story beginnings), the next one contains quite a few journal entries mixed in with the fiction. Among the raw adolescent emotions on display in these, there's the ongoing pain of that unrequited love I mentioned before: "When I am away from him I am seized with terror, and I imagine that he is hurt or dead." Also of note is the admiration I express for a friend's writing, coupled with doubt over my own: "She showed me her poems and stories all the time, and they were so good that I knew she would think mine were pitiful. Next to hers, they were."

At other points in the notebook, I'm more confident about my writing. Early in the summer after my sophomore year, I enthusiastically proclaim, "Well, today I finally began committing some of my stuff to disk. It's so nice now that I have Puck, my wonderful little Mac." (Puck was a Mac Classic, a one-piece computer with a handle, easily portable at only 16 pounds!) I write about looking through my notebook entries and deciding what to type into the computer and revise, and then I reflect, "I realized that I've got some good stuff. However, nearly everything I like is about death or dying. How totally morbid! The problem is that this morbidity is so typically adolescent that it's embarrassing." Very perceptive, Teen Lisa.

Here's one of my rare stories from the time that's not about death, though I'll warn you, it is a little scary. I suspect it's no coincidence that I wrote it just before Halloween.

Fear Itself

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheer terror. The American media thrives on the culture's love of being frightened. Stephen King, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Unsolved Mysteries spawn books, films, and episodes in rapid succession, making money off our desire for horror and fear. And I'm the biggest sucker of all.

After seeing The Silence of the Lambs, I couldn't sleep without the light on for a week. I haven't gone near a graveyard since reading Pet Sematary. "Laura, I wish you'd stop reading those ghost stories," pleaded my mother after I woke her up after a nightmare for the third night in a row. "They're really unhealthy, honey."

But I couldn't stop. It wasn't teenage perversity that drove me to devour every thriller in the library, but a burning need to feel my heart beat faster and my breathing quicken as I reached the climax, then slam the book closed and remember with relief that it was just a story. The terror is only fun, of course, if it goes away.

Except it didn't. It got to the point where not only couldn't I walk outside in the dark, even with other people, but I couldn't sleep with the light out, and finally I couldn't be alone, not even in broad daylight.

I tried to hide my fears from my mother. I would go along with her every time she ran errands, rather than stay home alone, claiming that I had to buy something or wanted to talk to her. I declined her invitations for moonlit mother-daughter walks, explaining I had too much homework. I waited until she had tucked me in and closed the door before turning on my bedside lamp. Sometimes I got my little sister to sleep with me, promising to tell her all the high school gossip as we giggled late into the night.

But still I read the horror stories. I couldn't explain why. It was my secret addiction, and I walked around with a guilty conscience. The stories were becoming more real to me, too. I would become so absorbed in the book that I would become oblivious to everything else. When I stopped reading, I would be drenched with sweat and shaking.

June 3, 2016

How To Not Write a Short Story Quite Yet

A few years ago, I outlined my no-nonsense, foolproof, sure-fire method for writing a short story. For the past month, I've been working on a new story, and at first I thought I was doing really well, since I breezed past many of the early steps and quickly arrived at the stage of beginning a first draft.

It turns out I probably should have followed the procedure more closely, because I got stuck somewhere in the process. As far as I can see, deviating from the original instructions is the only reason I'm not finished drafting by now, but in case something else went wrong, I decided to record the steps I took this time.

1. Sign up for a class to give yourself both a reason to write a short story and an opportunity to receive feedback and guidance on the story.

2. Clean the entire contents of your house. Consider the course information email that advised you to prepare for class by beginning work on a story, "or at least formulating a rough idea". Recognize that your brain might generate ideas if left unstimulated during the tedium of cleaning. Instead, catch up on dozens of hours of podcasts.

3. Decide on a extremely general topic for your story. Decide that constitutes a "rough idea", so you're all set for now.

4. Spend a long, tiring day fulfilling civic obligations. When it's over, attempt to nap. Find that your brain won't turn off, but that it now contains a fully formed and detailed idea for the story. You're ahead of the game!

5. Record all your thoughts about the story. Create an outline. Reason that you can't possibly start drafting yet because the class hasn't begun, so you don't know what the word count restrictions will be.

6. When the class begins, receive the word count guidelines, plus your personal date to present your story for critique. Rejoice and despair, for your deadline is approximately one thousand weeks in the future.

7. Continue rearranging the contents of your house. Participate eagerly in the many components of the class unrelated to working on your story. After all, you signed up for this class to reap the benefits of the entire experience, and your due date is infinitely far away.

8. Take the essential but time-consuming step of assigning names to characters you've been referring to with descriptors like "Younger". Write several opening sentences and nearly three paragraphs. You're really making progress now!

9. Assemble furniture, bake cookies, spend a lot of time traveling from place to place for frustrating purposes outside your control. Devote all your remaining time to writing thoughtful feedback on the work of your classmates. Reason that since critiquing others improves your skills at spotting problems in your own work, you're essentially also working on your story during this time.

10. Realize your class deadline is in three and a half weeks and the rough draft deadline you set for yourself is in three days. Struggle to write for about an hour. Recognize that the best sentence you produce during the session is this tweet: "I find it increasingly inconvenient that it's necessary to write a first draft in order to embark on the glorious process of revision." Also recognize that this feeling is an integral component of step 10 of your original 12-step story process.

11. Spend the rest of the week on tasks that circumstances render more time-sensitive and important than your story. It's important to deal with car maintenance, because that's what responsible adults do. It's important to take care of all your classwork early, because visitors are arriving. It's important to research recipes, buy ingredients, and do more baking, because yum. It's important to jot down notes for a blog post, because it's certainly a more promising piece of writing than the story you aren't working on.

12. Have a wonderful extra-long weekend with visiting family members. Relax. Don't worry about your story. Remember that after the visitors leave, you'll still have two weeks left until the due date, and there won't be so many non-writing demands on your time.

13. Look at the partial scene you've written so far. Look away in horror. Clean your house. Take care of your classwork, some of which involves rewriting a small section of the partial scene. Contemplate more baking. Read the book you've been neglecting. Remember you made notes for that blog post you should definitely finish writing now, so it'll be out of the way and you can focus on your story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily St. John Mandel reflects on her lengthy book tour in The Year of Numbered Rooms: "I was declining most event offers by that point, because it was clear by then that what had started as five cities in six or seven days was going to be something closer to 50 cities in 14 months. I am aware at all times of how lucky I was with Station Eleven, having published three previous novels that came and went without a trace, but it is possible to exist in a state of profound gratitude for extraordinary circumstances and simultaneously long to go home."

May 16, 2016

My Teenage Loves

After the trauma of sharing those two high school stories about religion and death, I avoided reading further in my old notebooks for a while, but now it's time for another entry in my childhood writing series, so I've bravely forged onward.

My earliest steno notebook contains mostly lists and notes, with some writing in the back, including the first draft of the theater scene from last time. The next is almost entirely fiction. I started my personal creative writing kick during the first year of high school but really got enthusiastic about it in the summer that followed. I've read through all of notebook #2, which takes me through the first half of sophomore year.

Since all the entries are dated, I can see that from summer on, I usually wrote at least a few days a month, with periods of regular daily writing mixed with gaps of weeks when I didn't write. I often worked on the same piece for multiple days, not only in close succession, but also sometimes returning months later. The constraints of a bound notebook meant that if I'd written something else in the meantime, I'd have to continue an older story some pages on, and I didn't mark this in any way, so certain sections of the notebook contain interleaved bits of stories diverging wildly in topic or tone.

I edited as I wrote, which is visible in the frequent crossed out words and sentences, plus occasional arrows indicating parts to be reordered. As we saw last time, I later did more serious revision of selected stories on my computer. Almost everything in the notebook is unfinished. Sometimes my interest in an idea fizzled out after a page, sometimes I wrote many pages and even multiple scenes, but very little became a full story. I'm sure I usually started writing with nothing more than a premise or an opening line in mind, and it can be hard to reliably wring a plot out of that. Today I still have just as many ideas that go nowhere, but I no longer take the time to write them down until I've given more consideration to whether they're viable.

The contents of this notebook are overall pretty boring. The stories tend to star teen girls, often attending a private high school similar to mine or saddled with an annoying little brother. In a departure from writing what I knew, more of these characters drink coffee than I would have expected, since I didn't start enjoying coffee myself until my thirties. Often some promising bit of conflict is introduced, as in the story of three friends discussing a generally beloved teacher who one of them dislikes, but the idea is abandoned before we learn the cause of the turmoil. I suspect I frequently wrote myself into a corner and was unable to imagine the dark secret driving whatever came before.

The first draft of the autumn story from last month's post is in here, and to my surprise, there's also a still earlier incarnation of that story. It's much shorter, mainly a riff on the "fall is the season of dying" idea I all but wrote out of the final draft. It features characters I used repeatedly around that time, initially only in stories I told myself inside my head but eventually in some I wrote down. I probably saw some promise in the concept and decided to try it again with characters who didn't bring along all the backstory I'd already developed.

As is the case today, I read a fair amount of science fiction as a teen but didn't write much that wasn't set in the real world. The one piece of science fiction in this notebook is the start of a story set in 2010, 20 years in the future, when the earth is in crisis due to overpopulation and the hole in the ozone layer. It starts strong: "Joanie stared out the window at the gray rain and remembered a time when there was color. From behind her came the sounds of children sleeping fitfully or crying softly." Alas, after a couple of pages explaining how the world went to hell, I stopped writing.

This notebook ends with a lone entry that's pure journal. It comments on what I was up to at that particular moment (watching a Paul Simon concert airing during a public television fund drive) but mostly analyzes my unrequited crush on one of my friends: "Dammit, I love him! Love. Love. That word. Do I love him? Am I 'old enough' to love a man? Oh, sure, why the hell not?" It's full of the turmoil of not-quite-16-year-old emotion, and I'm afraid there's going to be more of that particular agony when I move on to the next notebook.

The story from this book that's most worth sharing is unlike any of the other contents, but it does represent a major aspect of my life at the time. While I angsted over painful unreturned feelings for several friends during high school, my purest love was for the music of The Beatles. It's true that I did sometimes experience so much love for Paul McCartney that I was moved to kiss a photograph of him, but on the whole, The Beatles brought me more joy than anguish. Anyway, here's this thing:

May 2, 2016

April Reading Recap

I had another fantastic reading month with three great, recently released books:

WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN by Kaitlyn Greenidge: When the Freemans are selected by researchers to adopt a chimpanzee into their family and teach him sign language, Charlotte reacts with teenage skepticism and resentment. She's angry about leaving Boston to move to the Toneybee Institute out in the Berkshires, where she'll be one of the few black students at her high school. Charlotte's younger sister adores their new chimp brother before they even meet, but Charlotte remains wary of the experiment. Living at the Toneybee puts a strain on the whole family, and when Charlotte learns about racist studies buried in the institute's past, she questions the motives behind their selection.

This is a fascinating, unusual novel that covers a lot of ground. I was impressed by the range of topics woven into the story and delighted by how many happened to align with my own interests. The characters are well layered, with specific traits and flaws, and I was invested in every one of their problems. I only wish that some of the narrators had been given more chances to speak and that certain threads had been explored in greater depth. This is the rare novel that might have benefitted from being longer, but the story as it stands is an excellent, complex work.

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson takes place in the small English town of Rye at the dawn of World War I. Beatrice arrives in Rye to serve as the new Latin teacher, and she's immediately the subject of much controversy, because the idea of a woman teaching Latin is shocking. The declaration of war provides a new focus for local politics and gossip, as the most influential residents vie to surpass the patriotism of the others. Hosting a group of weary Belgian refugees offers the townspeople even more opportunities to display generosity and pass judgment. While those around her fret about respectability, Beatrice tries to concentrate on doing what's right, with the assistance of the sensible young surgeon Hugh, his flighty cousin Daniel, and their kind but fierce Aunt Agatha, who wields her power in the town for good, most of the time.

I haven't mentioned even half of the great characters in this novel, some I adore because they're wonderful people, some I adore for their ridiculous awfulness. The story is built around interesting dynamics between the characters, whether these take the form of possible romance or petty power struggle. It's a well constructed comedy of manners, but as Simonson warned at the author event I attended, the humor does give way to tragedy at several points. There's a war on, after all.

The middle of the book dragged, but just as I was worried it would disappoint, many events happened at once, and the rest of the story kept a tight hold on my interest. This is a worthy follow-up to the excellent MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND.

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter charts the development of the Broadway musical that has received and earned every praiseworthy adjective I might bestow. Short chapters describe each step of the journey from idea to opening night, introducing every person involved in bringing the show to reality. These alternate with, and often coordinate well with, the lyrics to the next song, which are presented in full, with fun and informative annotations. Scattered throughout are reproductions of other interesting documents, including pages from Lin-Manuel Miranda's notebooks and Alexander Hamilton's pamphlets.

The Hamiltome is a beautifully packaged book: large, thick pages with deckle edges, full color photos, a smartly designed layout, and a faux-leather binding. I savored it slowly, luxuriating in the fascinating look behind the scenes. If the cast recording plays on repeat inside your brain, I'm sure you'll appreciate this book. If you haven't listened yet but remain curious, perhaps experiencing the music and the book together will allow you to join us.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michelle Colman has analyzed book illustrations and real estate listings to value the homes of children's book characters: "Many children's books have been set in New York City--think Harriet the Spy or Stuart Little. In this day and age of record-setting prices, how much would those fictional characters have to pay to live in their homes today? Who would have seen the most appreciation, Eloise or Lyle Crocodile?"

April 29, 2016

New Leaves and Old Pages

I've been busy this month with various things:

→ Since I haven't worked much on fiction this year, I decided to take a class and give myself motivation and deadlines. I've signed up for an online short fiction class through the Gotham Writers Workshop, a well-regarded program out of New York City. It starts in a couple of weeks, and I'm excited to get started. In fact, I should get started now, because ideally I'll be working on a story when the course begins so I'm ready when it's my turn for critique. Time to turn my writing brain back on!

→ I reached an important milestone in my writing room cleanup project by completing the time-consuming process of filing many years of accumulated documents. Now our household has usefully organized filing cabinets, and I have floor space. There's still work left to get the room arranged the way I want it, but the rest should go quickly, provided I don't lose momentum.

→ I've looked through a bunch of my old writing lately, which is a lot more interesting than the old bank statements. In my high school notebooks, I found the embarrassing stories I shared, plus a list of books I wanted to read. There will more be teenage treasures as I continue my exploration. Additionally, I read a couple of manuscripts I wrote in more recent years, and I'm contemplating what works and what doesn't to improve my future writing.

→ Mid-month, I celebrated my birthday with baking and eating and more eating. A few weeks before that, I gave myself the early present of a new laptop, since my previous one was five years old. I'm very happy with the speed and power of my new computer, and I got it a decal to keep it cozy.

→ I have been doing a lot of walking around my neighborhood and admiring the flowers in bloom. We've had some rain, so my part of California is greener than it's been in a while. I have the window open, and I'm enjoying the spring weather and the view from my writing desk: