Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

November 29, 2021

NaNoWriMo Success!

I've completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November. As I posted last month, this was my return to NaNoWriMo after many years away, and my hope was to kickstart the drafting of a novel I was still very much figuring out. What I wrote this month didn't turn out to be so much a first draft as a lot of finding my way into the world, the characters, and the story. The demanding word count goal forced me to make progress much faster than usual, and while that speed produced some garbage, it also sparked some new, surprising ideas. So I consider the month a success at all levels.

To reach the 50,000 word goal (the length of a short novel) in 30 days requires writing an average of 1667 words each day. I started out the month keeping to about that pace. The first few days were slow while I tried to remember how to not worry so much about sentence quality, and as I stopped to think up names for every character who appeared. Then I eased into the NaNo groove and began writing faster and with more abandon. Some days meeting the word count was easy, others it was a slog, but I made myself get my words in every day.

About halfway through the month, I'd written every scene I'd imagined in advance and then some. I had the setup for a story, not much sense of where to go next, and many doubts about whether there even was anywhere to go. I'd already written some scenes and character explorations that fell outside the main storyline I was writing, so I decided I'd better do more of that, plus some writerly musings that I'd allow into my word count. Writing down my streams of thought about plot and character turned out to be an even faster way to generate words, and I realized I could probably reach 50k before Thanksgiving and be able to relax over the holiday long weekend. I ended Wednesday, November 24 with 50,108 words, recorded my win, and then happily put the story almost entirely out of my head.

Now I'm ready to start looking again at what I produced in the mad rush of November. About half the words I wrote are the first part (and a bit of the middle) of the novel this will eventually become, though much will change based on some new directions I worked out later. About 10k words are me posing questions to myself like "Where are the current characters headed, and what would improve their arcs?" and then brainstorming answers. The rest are experimental threads of trying out different character voices, backstories, and world details, and some of those turned out to be the most compelling stuff I wrote. In the final three days, I came up with two new characters who I'm excited to figure out more about. This mess of words is hardly a novel, but it's a lot of good material toward a novel, and I didn't have any of it a month ago.

I'll be letting these ideas percolate as the year winds down. I may start on some research and outlining, but most of that will come in the new year, when I intend to get back to work on this story in a major way. The NaNoWriMo site is set up for tracking word count goals at any time, and since I found the graphs there motivating, I may give myself another goal early in 2022.

I'm glad I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year. The real goal of the event is the satisfaction of writing some words that wouldn't have been written otherwise. I've been happy to hear from many friends who also accomplished that success, regardless of whether they technically won. Congratulations to all of us!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Elisa Shoenberger at Book Riot offers A Tiny History of Miniature Books: "I was over the moon when I found out that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a famous collector of miniature books, amassing 750 of them, some gifts from Eleanor Roosevelt.... He's not the only president to have engaged with little books. There was a miniature book for Theodore Roosevelt when he was campaigning, [book expert Anne] Bromer said. Many years later, President Gerald Ford worked with a printer in California, Bromer noted, to make two miniature books of his speeches, which he signed." (And don't miss the link to the 1832 miniature guide to birth control.)

November 5, 2021

October Reading Recap

Once again, my reading month was busy, varied, and great:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff: In 1158, young Marie is ejected from Eleanor of Aquitaine's court and made the prioress of a remote, impoverished abbey. Marie has no desire to become a nun, to lead a religious life, or to be separated from the radiant Eleanor. Life at the abbey is terrible at first, and Marie goes hungry with the rest of the nuns and dreams of rescue. But when she accepts that nobody else is coming to save her, Marie takes control, making changes to bring the abbey money and status. She starts having visions that guide her in reshaping the community of nuns into a prosperous, powerful enclave of women.

I loved this beautiful, surprising story of a woman claiming power and wielding it for good. Marie is an excellently complicated character, motivated at different times by lust and love, by selfish and altruistic desires, by revenge and justice. (Groff created her starting from the few details known about the real medieval poet, Marie de France.) The many other women who inhabit the novel receive complex, compassionate portrayals as well. The story spans 50 years, with many events summarized, yet the narrative remains gripping and specific throughout. I wouldn't have guessed that I was going to find a novel about twelfth century nuns this compelling!

NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders is a mix of writing inspiration and craft advice on "How To Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories". The book was originally published as a series of essays at Tor.com that are still available online, but I appreciated having it to read in a single volume. This was definitely the writing guide I needed right now.

Anders talks about why stories are important even in (especially in) circumstances that make writing feel frivolous and pointless—and I found her arguments convincing in a way I often don't when this topic is discussed. She shares personal accounts of how reading and writing helped her through bad times, and she details how her writing changed in response to real world challenges. Interspersed with the encouragement is realistic, practical advice on producing first drafts even when writing is hard. I've long been a fan of Anders's craft advice, and here she focuses on the discrete elements and temporary decisions that can help get something down on the page to be improved later. The book includes some exercises to jumpstart writing sessions. While it's aimed at an audience of speculative fiction writers, most of the material would be equally useful for any genre. If you're feeling stalled or hopeless in your writing, I recommend this book or the individual online essays.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney is proud to own a legitimate business, a reasonably successful furniture store in 1959 Harlem that will eventually finance a nicer apartment for his growing family. Carney is definitely not a crook like his late father or his cousin Freddie, even if he occasionally moves some merchandise of dubious provenance. When Freddie shows up talking about pulling a heist, Carney wants nothing to do with it, but he ends up involved in the scheme anyway. In the following years, as business thrives thanks to both showroom and back room dealings, there are more schemes, and Carney has to figure out how to exist at the intersection of straight and crooked.

Colson Whitehead has of course written another novel full of impeccable sentences, nuanced characters, and well-considered moments. Because the subject matter of HARLEM SHUFFLE is less grim than his previous two books (THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS), he has more opportunities to focus on the humorous and ridiculous in his characters' situations, and this story is frequently funny. There is also plenty that's serious as Carney deals with racism, colorism, and the changes Harlem faces over time, through the riots of 1964 (in response to the police killing of a Black teen).

The plot of HARLEM SHUFFLE revolves around the details of several crimes, but this is a crime story in the same way that Whitehead's ZONE ONE is zombie story: heavy on digressions and character explorations that often leave the genre element in the background. But I'm a devoted fan of Whitehead's style by now, and I was happy to ride along with Carney even when it took a while to get to the action. I especially enjoyed getting to know all the story's excellent characters and watching Carney's life and the city around him evolve.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano: A full passenger jet crashes during a transcontinental flight, and the only survivor is 12-year-old Edward. His injured body will heal, but he's emotionally shattered by the loss of his parents and the older brother who was his best friend. Edward is barely functioning when he's taken in by his aunt and uncle, who are consumed by their own grief. The three of them have to figure out how to become a family and find a path out of tragedy, all while dealing with the media attention Edward is receiving as the miraculous sole survivor. The girl next door is the only person Edward encounters who treats him like a kid, not a miracle, and her friendship is the first comfort he finds after the accident. As Edward's life moves forward, another thread details the doomed flight from the perspective of several passengers, each focused on their own problems and planned destinations.

I liked many things about this novel, though others didn't work as well for me. I was most impressed by Napolitano's portrayal of Edward's mental state, which makes use of surprising metaphors and taps into some very raw emotions. In general, I appreciated everything in the story that was unexpected and specific, such as the way Edward's friendship with Shay develops and the nuanced dynamics between Edward and his aunt and uncle. While the characters on the plane have some original flourishes, they struck me as more cliched and not as fully drawn as the characters in the aftermath. I also found the letters somewhat contrived and was disappointed by where they took the plot in the last third of the book. This was a good read, but I didn't love it like many other readers.

October 29, 2021

NaNoWriMo Is Nigh, Once Again

It's nearly the end of the month, and so, as revealed in last month's peek behind the curtain, I'm up against my deadline to post another update.

More specifically, it's the end of October, which means it's almost the start of National Novel Writing Month. For many years, I spent every November writing first drafts at full tilt along with a growing number of writers around the world, in pursuit of the goal of producing 50,000 words in 30 days. NaNoWriMo changed my life and introduced me to many friends, and I have fond emotions about it every November even though the last time I participated was 2010, when I quit ten days in.

Well, the big update is that this year, I'm NaNoWriMoing again. In that post last month, I talked about the new idea I'd just starting mulling over, and I talked about how much I need deadlines. Early in October, I figured out that my new story concept was novel-sized, and the calendar had a perfect deadline just waiting there. In this case, it's the pressure to start writing on November 1 that I need most, because otherwise I might remain stuck in the planning stage of this novel forever.

This idea requires a lot of worldbuilding, and I've been plugging away at that all month and forcing myself to commit to a bunch of decisions about the story world. My sense of the plot is a lot vaguer than I wish it was, I'm still narrowing in on who the characters are, and nobody has names yet. But I know at least the first few scenes, so I'm going to start writing on Monday, and I guess I'll have to come up with something to call these people by that point.

I'm aiming for 50k in November, but I don't anticipate reaching the end of a novel, or even emerging with a coherent first half. There's so much about this story I'm still imagining, so I'm planning to write scenes as I think of them, expecting that they won't necessarily be in order and may often serve as backstory that doesn't belong in the book at all. I haven't deliberately written this way before, although of course I have written many scenes that were later moved or removed. I hope to find this method useful, and freeing.

I was amused/discouraged to discover that I had the same plan going into my last, failed attempt at NaNoWriMo. (And, yeah, weird fact, my final abandoned NaNo novel was about an apocalyptic pandemic.) This time around, I have a much more solid idea despite all the details left to figure out, and I'm hopeful about staying excited. I'll let you know how it's going, maybe even before the very end of the month.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ R.E. Hawley at PRINT analyzes an popular cover trend in Behold, the Book Blob: "As a marketing tool, cover design can get deployed to bring algorithmic logic back to the physical world. 'If you liked The Vanishing Half, you might also like You Exist Too Much and The Death of Vivek Oji,' these covers seem to murmur enticingly from the bookstore display."

October 5, 2021

September Reading Recap

I've been reading a lot, with a lot of variety:

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson combines thoughtful words and personality-filled illustrations to provide advice that any human can use. Among the special topics are chapters titled "How to Tell People Things They Very Probably Won't Be Happy to Hear, at Least at First" and "How to Avoid Getting Your Upset All Over Other People When You Feel Out of Control." Other subjects include how to take both criticism and compliments, a formula for apologizing properly, methods to keep disagreements from becoming fights, and several approaches to being a better ally.

Every aspect of this book is a delight. The advice is as enjoyable to read as it is useful. Bergman writes with his usual tenderness and humor, and his willingness to share his own flaws and vulnerabilities makes the guidance land that much harder. Freedman-Lawson's drawings add another layer of charming humor, and they've taken care to fill the pages with the widest variety of human beings. The great book design includes distinct color schemes for each chapter and summarized instructions for the step-by-step advice. Highly recommended for all humans trying to do better!

View some pages here, here, and here.

IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin: This anthology was created with the goal of curating speculative fiction that celebrates queer characters finding joy and affirmation. It succeeds wonderfully, presenting a wide variety of clever, inventive, and well-written stories. Even the selections that were less to my taste in style or subject matter often affected me emotionally, and among the stories I liked best, it's hard to narrow down my favorites:

• "The Ghosts of Liberty Street" by Phoebe Barton starts the anthology off strong and thematic with a beautiful story that's all about possibilities.

"Custom Options Available" by Amy Griswold features an excellent robot narrator who's on a carefully considered quest to explore sexuality, identity, and the parameters of a free life.

• "The Invisible Bisexual" by S.L. Huang takes the phrase literally, in a way that complicates the main character's love life.

• "Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank's Late-Night Starlite Drive-In" by Kristen Koopman is as weird and fun as that title suggests, with a really sweet story of a character coming into herself.

• "Midnight Confetti" by D.K. Marlowe uses delicious-to-read sentences to tell a reluctant love story with a light touch of magic.

• "The After Party" by Ben Francisco is a lovely imagining of an afterlife that offers a chance to grow and heal.

The book is available in multiple formats directly from the publisher, and through independent bookstores and libraries.

SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon: Vern has run away from the compound where she grew up to hide in the woods and give birth to twins. Her life before was difficult, as an unwilling bride to the compound's leader, a reverend who preaches a mix of Black power and oppressive Christian doctrine. Life in the woods is even harder, with two newborns to keep alive and safe from the fiend who's hunting them, but Vern revels in the wildness and her newfound freedom. In time, her body begins growing stronger in ways that seem extraordinary, but she also suffers from terrible pain and haunting visions. Eventually Vern finds connection with people who can help her heal and investigate the dark past behind her mysterious powers.

Like Solomon's other books, this is written with skill and emotion, and the story delves into many dark subjects that can be difficult to read. I anticipated all that going in but otherwise never knew what to expect from this novel. The story makes surprising shifts from survival to body horror to conspiracy to erotica, and while not every turn worked for me, I was always intrigued. I will continue to seek out everything Solomon writes, because their stories are truly original.

THE WILL TO BATTLE by Ada Palmer: Following the shocking revelations and developments presented in the first two books of the Terra Ignota series, the world of 2454 stands on the brink of possible war, after centuries of peace. Mycroft Canner, the faithful chronicler of those initial days of transformation, continues recording the historic events for posterity. Mycroft is a figure of contradictions, infamous for his past but currently a force for good in service of every global power. As the world leaders try to preserve peace while preparing for the threat of war, Mycroft struggles with what role he should play in determining the outcome.

I can't say enough about how ambitious and impressive this series is. Palmer has imagined so much detail about the world of 2454 and everything that led to it, then crafted an intricate plot involving dozens of characters and numerous political factions, and then given the novels several layers of unique narrative complexity. Reading this volume, I occasionally found it all a bit much in a way I didn't with the earlier books. One reason is that Mycroft spends more time with the characters I like less, and those interactions grew tiresome for me in places. I'm still excited to read the final installment and discover how everyone fares in the wake of this story's cliffhanger ending.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Danielle Lazarin grapples with the ambiguous loss of (probably) not selling her novel: "I wanted to write this essay before the book's fate was sealed, from the mucky and often-silent middle we like to skip over in favor of how it ends, as if we are only our results and not the waiting for them, which is its own complicated story, the one we live in longer than the moment of knowing if we should celebrate or mourn."

September 29, 2021

Getting Real

I accomplish very little that isn't motivated by an item on my to-do list. Sometimes I accomplish very little, period, but the to-do list keeps that from being all the time. What motivates me more, though, is deadlines, but I've learned they need to be at least in some way real and external, not arbitrarily self-imposed.

I don't expect even the people who consistently read this blog to put much thought into when exactly I publish posts. But there's an easily detectable pattern in the posts that are about my own writing, not other people's books. In recent years, these writing updates always appear in the last two or three days of the month. That's because they grow out of a to-do list item optimistically called "mid-month update" that gets postponed day after day until the end of the month looms. And it's because the end of a calendar month provides a real and unalterable, if silly, deadline that's made visible in the number of posts per month on the Archive section low in the blog's sidebar. I know my readers don't look at or care about these numbers, but I do, and it's a real enough deadline that I usually can't stand to miss it.

Only just, though. I delay writing about my writing because I approach the prospect with such ambivalence. I keep this blog to provide myself with both a record and accountability, and to give the people who care some insight into what I'm up to. For all those reasons, I want to post updates on my writing life, but the reflection involved is intimidating. And that's not only true when I'm feeling bad about not having any writing to report on.

I have been doing some writing work lately! In admitting that, I've created more pressure to follow through, augh!

First, I used a really real external deadline to push myself through an intense round of final edits on the short story I'd been fiddling with for a year. On the last day of a submission window, I submitted my story to a magazine. It was rejected. I immediately submitted it somewhere else, like a legit short story writer. Rinse, repeat. Someday this could end in triumph.

Second, I am just starting to noodle around with a new story idea that I like a lot. I know that sounds great, but it's scary and intimidating and pressure-filled, too. It's going to be hard work to get from the page of scattered notes to anything even vaguely story-shaped, and I never feel like doing hard work. But here it is on my to-do list, so I guess I'm off to try and accomplish something.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The New Yorker, Daniel A. Gross covers The Surprisingly Big Business of Library E-books: "I read more books in 2020 than I had in years. I was not the only one; last year, more than a hundred library systems checked out a million or more books each from OverDrive's catalogue, and the company reported a staggering four hundred and thirty million checkouts, up a third from the year before."

September 10, 2021

August Reading Recap

Last month I read two novels and a guide for writers, and all were excellent!

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell: Hamnet is a young boy living in Stratford in 1596 with his mother, his two sisters, and his grandparents. He misses his father, who spends most of the time away in London, working in his theater. When Hamnet's twin sister falls suddenly ill, the family is rocked by the terror of discovering the pestilence has reached their house. Though Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is renowned for her healing potions and has a gift for seeing the future, she finds herself powerless to protect her family from the grief to come. The narrative slips among the viewpoints of every family member to give an account of the fateful day as well as the story of Agnes's courtship and marriage to Hamnet's father. (It's William Shakespeare, though the text avoids ever naming him.)

This novel won much acclaim, and I found the praise well warranted. O'Farrell has taken the little that's known about Shakespeare's family, especially his wife, and imagined rich and surprising lives that have little connection to his work and fame. From the first page, there's a carefully crafted sense of foreboding. The whole reading experience is one of anticipating outcomes that we know are historically inevitable but the characters don't, and O'Farrell plays around with this in interesting ways by giving Agnes visions of the future (or at least, belief in her visions). The story unfolds slowly, through vividly depicted moments and compelling insights into the minds of the different characters. While I was completely engrossed throughout the first section, my attention waned some in the second, but I loved the satisfying conclusion.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker: Following the events of THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, the title characters have evaded the threats to their lives and secrecy, so now they can go on existing among the humans of 1900s Manhattan. The Golem has a few friends in her Lower East Side community, and the Jinni has his business partner in Little Syria, but their true natures keep them both isolated, except when they're able to be open with one another. As time passes, though, they seem to become less close, not more, and their disagreements intensify. Meanwhile, other characters and forces are gathering, both nearby and far away, and when these others reach the Golem and the Jinni's stories, everything will change.

Wecker has written a wonderfully rich sequel that expands and further complicates the already expansive, complex story and characters of the first book. While the initial installment built to its exciting climax in the space of months, this one spans years of the world changing around the Golem and the Jinni. The two of them never age, and each in their own way resists altering their carefully constructed lives until situations reach breaking points that are often emotional to read. There's perhaps more pain in this book than the first, though also plenty of hope. I loved the new characters we meet and the developments with those we knew already, and I'm once again impressed by how the many story threads converge to a satisfying end. I highly recommend reading both these books.

THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia sets out to address a sad fact of the publishing world: many good books fail to be published or noticed while many bad books succeed. Kanakia's aim is to help the writers of good books convince publishing's gatekeepers that their book is a potential success, even if that means making the manuscript look a little more like a bad book. It's a cynical perspective indeed, but based on years of observation and experience. This guide lays out many hard truths about publishing and the writing life, with some practical advice on failure-proofing your manuscript while protecting your creative ambition.

I read this because I've long enjoyed the opinions on Kanakia's blog, in addition to appreciating her novels. I found her perspective thought-provoking and the advice helpful. I'm a writer who likes picking apart what makes stories work, and this book approaches that from a unique angle. The cynicalness of it appeals to me and makes the book fun to read as well as useful. I recommend it to writers who have experienced at least some attempts at traditional publishing and are wondering how to get further.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Amy Zimmerman, writing for Electric Literature, contemplates autofiction, pandemic time, and the desire to be the main character: "What was missing from many of our quarantined existences was not the experience of time passing, but rather the presence of plot, of one event leading to another. This absence was at stark odds with the causality of the world beyond our quarantine bubbles. Out there, decisions, actions, fleeting moments of contact and exposure, all had serious, even deadly consequences. If we were lucky, we could afford to live in a room, in an apartment, where nothing much happened. Time moved forward, but didn't yield the gifts or the consequences that we've grown accustomed to. Without narrative movement, and so little to do or decide, it became harder to see ourselves as the architects of our own lives."

August 30, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2021

I'm excited about a bunch of books coming out in the next couple of months. Some are books I've been eagerly anticipating for years!

MATRIX by Lauren Groff (September 7): Groff's previous novel was the fascinating FATES AND FURIES, a relationship story nothing like I expected. I'm surprised again, and intrigued, to discover that Groff's newest book is set in the 12th century, based on the life of a historical poet, Marie de France.

THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne (September 14): I haven't previously read anything by Byrne, though I was interested by reviews of THE GIRL IN THE ROAD. I'm even more interested in this new novel, a global saga spanning two thousand years, from the ancient Mayan Empire to a post-apocalyptic utopia.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (September 14): Every anticipated list everywhere includes the latest from Whitehead, who produces literary masterpieces with impressive frequency. The new book has a family at the center, involves a heist, and sounds like a lot of fun.

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (October 12): Bergman has long been a great source of thoughtful life advice through his column Asking Bear (and as a personal friend). This delightfully illustrated comic book features practical, step-by-step guides to behaving better, demanding better, and thinking through how to be a human in this complicated world.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer (October 19): This will be the fourth and final book in the expansive Terra Ignota series, a narratively inventive chronicle of twenty-fifth century politics, technology, and philosophy. The first two volumes (which are essentially one long book) left me astounded. I decided to wait on the third until it was clear when the last would be published, and then I forgot to stop waiting, but I'm looking forward to diving back into this incredible science fiction series!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Atlantic, Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter chart The Rise of Must-Read TV: "As television scholars have noted, the plots and premises of 'complex TV' are structured primarily around characters and their development: Viewers want to identify with, relate to, and follow characters. Given that, the adaptation economy may well be one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of what literary critics call 'multiprotagonist fiction,' books with not a single protagonist (an Emma Woodhouse or Hercule Poirot, say) but a collection of main characters whose stories intertwine in surprising ways over the course of a single narrative."

August 6, 2021

July Reading Recap

I packed a lot of reading into July:

FOLKLORN by Angela Mi Young Hur: Elsa is a physicist nearing the end of a season at the South Pole, where she studies neutrinos, sometimes called "ghost particles." Maybe it's because she's stayed awake too long under the endless polar sun, but before Elsa leaves Antarctica, she's visited by another sort of ghost. The woman who appears to her is the grown-up version of her childhood companion, a friend who was imaginary, or at least invisible to everyone else. This elusive friend resembles a character from Korean picture books, or the folk tales Elsa's immigrant mother used to tell over and over. But her mother hasn't said a word in years, since an accident left her comatose. Elsa has tried to get as far as possible from the whole combination of misfortunes that is her family, until her ghost friend returns and she receives word of her mother speaking again. These events draw Elsa into an investigation of folklore, family mysteries, and the questionable boundary between story and reality.

This summary only covers a fraction of the things going on in this fascinating novel. The story shifts in and out of the past, circles the globe, and slips between genres, often self-consciously. The characters' conversations shift quickly as well, between ancient legends and modern pop culture, from science to history. Elsa is a great narrator, funny and perceptive, except when she's oblivious and frustrating, which I was soon attached enough to forgive her for. This is one of those ambitious, unconventional novels that might so easily have gone wrong, and probably won't connect as well for all readers, but for me, it was a storytelling success.

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS by Rainbow Rowell: In the final chapter of the Simon Snow trilogy, Simon and his friends have just arrived back in England after their American misadventures. They've all come to various realizations about their lives and are ready to figure out what kind of futures are possible after saving the world a time or two. But some of those realizations still need some work, and definitely some working together, because much about being an adult is hard to figure out, both in and out of the World of Mages. Perhaps the rumored new Chosen One can provide answers, or at least raise different questions to get to the bottom of once and for all.

I'm very fond of all the characters in this series, and I was delighted to spend time with them again. The level of angst in Simon and Baz's relationship is less endearing to me, and while I appreciated watching them navigate their intimacy, I would have preferred less time spent on it. Mostly because of that focus, the story starts off slow, but once the plot is really in motion, things get exciting. The other characters have some great plotlines, though they all remain in separate plots for longer than I expected. Still, everyone comes together at the end to save the magical world again and conclude this wonderful trilogy.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by Matt Haig: Every decision Nora has ever made seems to be the wrong one, leading her to the worst possible life. After an especially terrible day that causes her to relive every regret, she decides to die. Nora takes an overdose and finds herself in a magical transition space, the Midnight Library. The librarian, in the form of a school librarian who was kind to her in childhood, tells Nora she has a chance to step into alternate versions of her life and experience what would have happened if she'd made other choices. By living out the result of each abandoned dream and possibility, Nora gets to choose a new future.

This popular novel is billed as a "feel-good" story, and I approached it skeptically for that reason, but I found it engrossing despite my preference for something less gentle. The smooth prose is a pleasure to read, the characters are lovely, and the story moves quickly through the expected beats, with a few surprises. I enjoyed this book, and though it didn't change my life, I don't regret following along as Nora changed hers.

LIBERTIE by Kaitlyn Greenidge: In 1860, Libertie is a freeborn Black girl in New York, where her mother is a respected doctor. She's in awe of her mother's accomplishments and wants to follow in her footsteps, but dark-skinned Libertie also knows the path of medicine will be harder than for her mother, who sometimes passes as white. As Libertie grows older, she discovers more differences in the way the two approach the world, and a rift grows between them. When her mother sends Libertie off to college to study medicine, she feels banished, and at school she realizes she no longer shares her mother's dreams of practicing together. In search of a different future, Libertie marries another doctor who is returning to Haiti. But life in Haiti is nothing like she imagined, giving Libertie more reasons to consider what freedom means and decide what kind of life she truly wants.

There's much to praise in the well-researched historical detail and lush writing of this coming-of-age novel. Unfortunately, my interest waned as the story grew increasingly slow and atmospheric, and I had more and more trouble understanding what was behind some of Libertie's reactions. Greenidge took inspiration from the real life of an early Black woman doctor, but when I heard her recount the whole story on the Code Switch podcast (audio and transcript), I was surprised by her choice not to use some of the most dramatic parts in the novel. Still, I admire Greenidge's ambitious use of history and structural experimentation, also evident in her first novel, WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN, which I recommend.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Drangle presents a typology of short story titles at Literary Hub: "The one-worder is a classic, from Chekhov's 'Gooseberries' to Mary Gaitskill's 'Secretary.' Both of those are decent, I'd argue—solid if unremarkable eighty percenters. Then you've got 'Gospel' by Edward P. Jones and 'Apostasy' by Mary Robison, both of which are fairly great, in my humble opinion. (Maybe one-worders benefit from religious connotation?) And then there's 'Give' by James Salter, which is just terrible. Poor James Salter—the man wrote exquisite, harrowing fiction, and his tables of contents read like the track listings of pretentious folk albums."

July 29, 2021

Where Do I Get My Ideas, Please?

Recently I've been putting focused time into brainstorming in hopes that I'll think up some viable story ideas. Writers are often asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" to which my instinctual answer might usually be a panicked "I don't know, I don't have any!" Many other writers seem a lot more full of ideas than I've ever been.

A more accurate assessment, though, is that without further qualification, ideas are easy, and I have a million of them. I have opening scenes and configurations of characters and a more interesting spin on that thing that happened in real life. Maybe I'm as full of ideas as those other writers I'm envying, but the thing I'm too often lacking is an idea that transforms some of this random stuff into a story. I don't have enough ideas about middle scenes or plots to send the characters on, so I'm left with no coherent shape to assemble the existing ideas into.

I have of course had viable story ideas before, and that suggests I surely will again. Most often, the good ideas come to me in a way that feels out of the blue, but very often following a period of despair and maybe a public proclamation that I'll never have another good idea again. So I figured I'd better make this post to move the process along.

I went looking through old blog posts to see what I'd written before about the search for ideas. I was thinking of this post on how to write a short story, though it turned out to focus less on the pre-idea stage than I remembered. I also found a sort of sequel post that's really more about procrastination than anything else.

I ended up reading through a lot of other old blog posts (speaking of procrastination) and was kind of amazed to discover how much I used to post and how much more full of ideas I seemed back then. I once came up with a whole story outline to use in a discussion of plot for a column I used to write, and then there's this other detailed invention for the sake of example. Possibly the answer is to get my ideas from Past Me, so I guess I'll be writing a story about the stress of unemployment and dolphin training.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Taylor Adams explains What Makes a Killer Plot Twist: "While out-of-nowhere problems are a great way to intensify the story's moment-to-moment suspense (I often delight in imagining things that can go wrong for the main character), it doesn't land with the same visceral impact as a plot twist because the groundwork isn't there. A complication can be simple bad luck, but a twist is inevitable. The clearer the reader can recall these 'signposts'—and the longer they've been embedded in the story—the bigger the exhilaration when you circle back on them to deliver an unexpected (but fully unavoidable) revelation."

July 8, 2021

June Reading Recap

Last month I read two brand new novels and a decade-old self help guide:

ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston: August is new to New York City, new to the easy friendship her roommates are offering, and new to the experience of falling so hard for a girl she doesn't even know. Her attraction to Jane during their first subway encounter is immediate, but it would have been a missed connection if not for the happy coincidence that August and Jane share the same daily commute. Jane is always on August's train, so there's time for their flirtation to grow into a possible romance, though cautious August isn't sure if someone as wonderful and mysterious as Jane could ever be interested in her. Jane is always, always on August's train, and eventually it becomes clear how odd that is, and just how much of a mystery Jane is, even to herself. All Jane knows is that she boarded the subway in 1976 and then time stopped passing for her, so August is determined to figure out what happened almost 45 years ago and how to fix it.

This is a delightful story about developing relationships that celebrates friendship as much as love, with a vibrant, constantly bantering cast of characters. The speculative element emerges gradually, and I really enjoyed the ways it impacts both plot and character dynamics. As August and Jane uncover Jane's past, the novel explores queer history of the early 1970s in fascinating detail. The story gets emotional at times, steamy at other times, and focuses on joy throughout. I loved the time I spent with August, Jane, and all their friends.

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Nella is the only Black employee on the editorial staff at Wagner Books, so she's delighted by the arrival of a new Black editorial assistant, Hazel. The two young women click immediately, and Nella is relieved to finally have a colleague who can share her perspective on the very white world of publishing. From the start, Hazel seems better at navigating that world than Nella has ever been, which Nella admires, then envies, then grows increasingly suspicious about. The sinister, anonymous notes Nella is receiving may be connected to Hazel, or may have nothing to do with her, but either way, Nella is paranoid about Hazel's motives and what exactly is happening at Wagner.

This novel begins as a sharp look at race in publishing and develops into an intriguing but not entirely successful thriller. I liked so much about the book early on, but once its secrets started to be revealed, I wished for a few more plot developments or layers to keep the tension up. Though each piece of the story appealed to me—the workplace dynamics, the mystery built through the different points of view, the accumulating clues—when they all came together, I felt there wasn't quite enough there. Harris is co-writing a television adaptation, and I look forward to seeing how that expands the great premise into a fuller story.

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT by Gretchen Rubin tracks a year in the author's life as she follows a set of resolutions intended to increase her happiness. The motivation for this project is her realization that while she has a pretty great life—a loving marriage, wonderful kids, financial security, and a career she loves—she is frequently unhappy about minor difficulties, annoyances, and slights. This well-structured, engaging book chronicles the changes Rubin makes, the results, and what she learns along the way from her experiences and her research into happiness.

To achieve her happiness goals, Rubin adopts new habits each month of the year, organized around themes. In January, to boost her energy for the rest of the project, she establishes routines for sleeping and exercising more, and she gets rid of household clutter that she finds draining. In later months, she works to strengthen the relationships with her husband, children, and friends using strategies that introduce more fun, patience, and generosity. Rubin pushes herself to expand her work and leisure by trying new things, but she also strives to recognize what she actually likes and values versus what she believes she should enjoy.

As someone coming from a similar position as Rubin, I was the right audience for this book, and it connected well for me. Like any self help guide, some parts were more resonant and applicable than others, but I found plenty to think about and try in my own life. I hope to use the ideas from this book to reframe my perspective and develop habits for more reliable happiness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller at Slate investigates how representation and casting is changing in the audiobook industry: "It's customary now in the audiobook business to try to match a book's narrator to the gender, race, and sometimes sexual orientation of a novel's author or main character. Yet most novels feature characters with an assortment of different backgrounds, and this can require narrators to voice characters with identities very different from their own."