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!)