March 29, 2013

In the Water

Once or twice a week, I swim laps at the Y. Here in California, we're lucky to not have harsh winters, so the heated outdoor pool is open year round.

Today was beautiful and warm, perfect for swimming. I let my mind roam free over this and that: my plans for the weekend, a friend's story I'm reading, the next scene I have to write. I worked out the flow for this blog post, which I've been meaning to write for a long time.

Sometimes I get in the pool with a specific writing problem to mull over. As I swim, I might set my mind to a difficult tangle of plotting or the question of where to set a scene. More often than not, by the time I've finished my half hour of laps, I have an answer. Or else it will come to me in the shower afterwards. Most of the good ideas I've ever had occurred to me in the shower. I'm convinced that ideas require water to grow.

There are no distractions in the water. There's nothing to look at except the pattern of light on the pool floor, and while that's pretty, it's monotonous. I have no task I need to perform except the automatic motions of swimming. I can't switch on a podcast or take my phone out of my pocket or click over to check Twitter. The water is the only place this happens, except for in bed when I'm trying to fall asleep, and then I'm supposed to be falling asleep. In the water, all I can do is think.

Christopher Gronlund linked to an article today about the constant distraction of smartphones and how they might be sapping our collective creativity. He often writes about distraction, and he makes a concerted effort to regularly disconnect. I'll admit that I don't really like disconnecting, at least not for long. But I do appreciate the time I spend alone with my thoughts in the water.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Brecheen looks at the kind of advice writers receive and how to tell when good advice isn't: "Strangely inflexible advice is usually bad advice. Humans are a species with large genetic diversity and huge cultural diversity. There really is no version of a one-size-fits-all advice once you get past things like 'Drink enough water,' 'Avoid standing in fire,' or 'Don't text in the theater.'"

March 25, 2013

Starting Sherman Alexie

Back in January, I announced a reading project based on START HERE: READ YOUR WAY INTO 25 AMAZING AUTHORS. I began the project right away, but since I read three suggestions for each of the first two authors, while also reading various other books, it's taken me a while to get to the point of reporting back.

The first recommended author is Sherman Alexie, whose work is championed in an essay by Kevin Smokler. I've heard Alexie several times on radio and podcasts, and I always find him an entertaining speaker, so I was glad for an impetus to finally read some of his books.

After reading one of Alexie's short story collections and two novels, I can say that he's a good writer with a style that doesn't suit my tastes very well. Sometimes it worked better than others, as I'll explain. Here's the reading pathway for Sherman Alexie, and my reactions:

THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN is a collection of short stories, most of them set on the Spokane Indian Reservation and featuring the same set of characters. I like Alexie's writing style, humor, and characters, but the majority of the stories didn't grab me. In general, I prefer novels to short fiction, and while reading this book, I was feeling eager to move on to a novel-length work by Alexie so I could see his talents at work with a stronger plot arc and more room to develop.

March 22, 2013

Ereading Update

On a recent episode of Bookrageous, one of my favorite book podcasts, the hosts revisited their attitudes toward and experiences with ebooks, because a couple of years had elapsed since they last discussed the topic in depth. Now that I've spent almost a year with my Kindle (after a couple of years of ereading on my phone), I thought it might be time for an update of my own.

I had this thought, and then before I got around to writing this post, another one of the podcasts I listen to also focused on ebooks. I haven't recommended The Readers yet because I only started listening to it a few months ago, but it will definitely be in my next list of podcast picks. One of the show's two hosts has often voiced his opposition to ebooks, but he admitted that he recently got a Kindle. The podcasters spent much of an episode discussing this big event and the list of Kindle commandments that Simon set for himself (and immediately started breaking).

My own Kindle ownership hasn't significantly changed the pattern I'd fallen into when I was only using the Kindle app on my phone: I'm still doing about half my reading digitally and half in print. Lately I've upped the number of books I have going at once in both formats, and that may be partly because of spending more time with the Kindle, but it's also because of so many reading projects. I read on my Kindle device more than on my phone, but not as much more as I might have expected. My phone still has the advantage of being in my pocket, so even if I'm at home and my Kindle is only in another room, I might not bother to get up and fetch it.

When I first started ereading, I wasn't buying too many books in Kindle format because I wasn't sure I wanted to commit. I downloaded a bunch of free public domain classics, and I split my purchases between Kindle and Google ebooks bought through my local independent bookstore. After Google discontinued their independent reseller program, and after I acquired a Kindle, I accepted that I would lock myself into a digital library controlled by Amazon. I have many mixed feelings about Amazon as a company, about the impact they've had on the bookselling and publishing industries, and about the good and bad things they've done for readers. Modern life is complicated.

Some people get a Kindle or other ereader, and they never buy another print book again. I'm not ready for that yet. I know that what matters about a book is the words, but I'm too much in love with books and covers and bookstores to abandon them. So every time I want a book now, I have to decide what format I want it in. This was a big point of discussion on both podcasts.

I have a not-huge-but-not-small collection of books that at this point just barely fits onto my available shelves. It's still the case that I haven't read most of them. I'm not getting another bookshelf, so I shouldn't buy any more physical books until I read and give away some of the existing books. But I haven't convinced myself to make all my new purchases digital.

Bookrageous pointed to an article by Amanda Nelson at Book Riot, The Largely Irrational Reasons I'm Not Ready to Go All-Digital, in which she expresses concern about her physical book collection becoming frozen in time and only reflecting what she read before she got a Nook. I hadn't specifically looked at it that way, but I do think this is one of the reasons it weirds me out to think of no longer adding to my shelves.

As a result of all this, there's a whole heuristic around my book buying. I consider the rather nebulous question of whether I want to possess the book on my shelves as evidence for the future and/or guests, which has partly to do with anticipated quality and literary merit. I guess at whether I'll want to loan the book, and to who -- I share my Kindle library with another member of my family, but for anyone else, a physical book is more sharable. If I have a personal (read: online) relationship with the author of a new release, I'll probably buy a hardcover to show maximum support (though I don't actually know if this is an accurate motive). In other cases, if the book is only available in hardcover, I'll buy it digitally because I find hardcovers less comfortable to read than paperbacks. If I want to start reading the book right this minute, I'll download it to my Kindle -- and I have a rule that I only buy ebooks when I'm about to read them, not because I want to read them someday, which more sensibly should be my rule for paper books. If I'm in or near an independent bookstore, I'll buy a book. If I'm having a bad week and need cheering up, or a good week and deserve a reward, I'll put in an order to pick up at my local independent bookstore. Oh, and if I need to read a book but don't expect to be excited by it, or if it's out of print, I'll borrow it from the library.

Basically, as with much in my life, I don't want to choose. Right now I'm in the middle of an exciting book on my Kindle that I'm eager to get back to after I finish this post about my ereading habits. But now that I've written all this, what I most want to do is visit a bookstore.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne gets her first editorial letter and learns how to be a better critique partner: "When I critique manuscripts, I tend to focus on things that I don't like. But I've come to realize that it's equally important to be look for good things so they can be emphasized -- for example, noting an intruiging character trait that be brought out more, or pointing out intriguing themes that are hinted at but could be developed."

March 20, 2013

Slow River

I read SLOW RIVER by Nicola Griffith because it was the selection for my panel at FOGcon. I'd never heard of the book until it was suggested, but it won several awards after its 1995 publication, including a Nebula. It's a strong work of science fiction that weaves together a variety of interesting and disturbing subplots.

At the beginning of SLOW RIVER, a young woman named Lore is acquiring the identity implant of a dead stranger in order to apply for a menial and difficult job at a wastewater treatment plant. Lore is immensely overqualified for this position, but she has to keep her true identity a secret so that she can remain in hiding. Through flashbacks, the reader learns about the series of horrific events that led to this point, and meanwhile Lore uses her expertise at the plant to uncover corruption and prevent a water contamination disaster.

This is one of the most exciting novels about water pollution that you will ever read (ZODIAC by Neal Stephenson is another top contender). I love stories in which the tension comes from science, either real or fictional. SLOW RIVER delivers that with a carefully explained, plausible system that uses bioengineered bacteria to remove contaminants from wastewater and send it back the drinking supply -- provided nobody ignores procedures or tries to cut costs. One of our panelists called this "the best fiction that I know of ever written about project management" (she also has some notes about what we discussed during the panel).

In addition to biotech, the science fiction in the book involves a lot of cybertech, with plotlines focusing on hacking and data theft. I enjoyed that the story had several completely different plots going on, some about various kinds of technology and some about Lore's relationships with her family members and romantic partners. For the most part, these fit together well, though I was disappointed by the way some of the subplots resolved.

Overall, I would recommend SLOW RIVER. The story does contain a number of types of sexual violence that could be disturbing for some readers, so it won't be a good choice for everybody. But if you can handle the content and you like the sort of science I've described, give it a try.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Hilary Smith addresses the myth that "writing is a job like any other": "It's okay to work in bursts and zigzags. It's okay to have a pace that doesn't conform to industrial time. It's okay, and maybe it's even important. Maybe it even has a value."

March 12, 2013

FOGcon Fun and More Adventures

I'm back from FOGcon, where I had a ton of fun and not much sleep. This was the third year the con was held and the third year I attended. I had such a great time in 2011 and 2012 that it's hard to say for sure, but I think this was my best FOGcon yet.

FOGcon is mainly about participating in and listening to in-depth discussions of stories, fictional worlds, and the things these lead us to consider about our own world. I love getting to geek out about these topics for three days. I also love meeting and hanging out with other people who find this an enjoyable way to spend a weekend. This year most of my outstanding con experiences were informal conversations at meals or in the hotel bar, rather than official programming sessions.

I did attend some great panels, though, and I had my first experiences as a panel moderator, which went well. My panel about dystopias was a lively discussion of what elements are necessary parts of dystopian stories, why these stories are perennially interesting to readers, how they reflect the era they were written in, and so on. We had a good-sized audience that contributed helpful comments and questions.

My other panel was a book club-type discussion of SLOW RIVER by Nicola Griffith. We selected the book and announced it a month in advance, but unfortunately we only had three audience members show up, one of whom hadn't read it. However, the five of us on the panel were so excited to talk to each other about the book that we didn't mind too much. We pulled our chairs into a circle to include our few attendees, and we had a fabulous conversation.

FOGcon isn't a writing conference, but because the set of people who care this much about fiction includes many people who also write, there are numerous panels about the craft and business of writing, plus writing workshops run by professionals. This year I only attended a couple of the writing panels, but I got the notes from some other ones I didn't make it to, and it seems like it was a particularly strong year for writing-related offerings.

And there was karaoke. I don't attend FOGcon merely for the karaoke, but it's always a highlight.

Tomorrow night I'm off on another adventure, flying to Florida to spend a long weekend with family. I made this trip at the same time last year and it was more of an adventure than I'd planned, since I ended up stranded overnight at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. (That post from a year ago turns out to be incredibly cringe-inducing, because I talk about how impatient I am to finish the revision that I still haven't finished now.)

This time my layover is somewhere else, and the weather forecast is nonthreatening, so maybe I can have a pleasantly uneventful journey, but you never know. Whenever I make it home, I'll be getting back to my normal writing schedule, and I'm really looking forward to that. I'll also resume blogging more regularly. I have lots of books to recommend and writing thoughts to share soon.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard shares her advice on common places to cut back a manuscript: "In real life, we exchange hellos and how-are-yous; we comment on the weather and the traffic and the fact that the coffee machine is broken again. But nobody wants to read those exchanges, unless the weather or the traffic or the coffee machine are directly involved in the murder/love affair/political plot that is the subject of the book."

March 1, 2013

Small Victories

Earlier this week I voiced some fears about my novel, but I wouldn't want you to get the impression that it's all doom and gloom around here. I am in fact still feeling quite optimistic about the quality of my story and pleased with my recent progress.

Nothing major has changed since my general update of a couple weeks ago, but today I'm celebrating small victories:

→ I was displeased with the chapter I'm working on and concerned that it would mess up my whole structure, and then I thought of a crucial addition that fixed all my problems.

→ Several people have asked me for writing advice lately. Like I'm some kind of mentor or something!

→ Also people keep acting as though I'm an example of discipline and focus because I've been working on this novel forever. I try not to laugh in their faces, because I've been working on this novel forever. Most of the time I think if I were truly disciplined, I'd be much further along in the process. Many days, I lose the focus game. And yet...

→ The past month has been full of fun distractions, and I managed to stay focused and get a good amount of work done while also taking time to play. So that's something.

→ This month is shaping up to be at least as hectic, but I've figured out a (hopefully) realistic plan to schedule writing time in the midst of everything else that's going on.

→ Since the start of the year, I've been imagining some deadlines for myself, and while I've had to make adjustments due to the aforementioned hecticness, the deadline thing has been working better than it usually does when I know the target is only in my head.

→ Lastly, and which I guess might even qualify as something major: I wrote a short story! Of course it was right after complaining about my inability to write short stories. I'm not ready to share it yet, but I expect I will be eventually. Just as soon as life isn't so distracting.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kristina L. Martin at the Amwriting blog repaints her dining room as well as her manuscript: "I found myself seeing my novel in much the same light as my dining room's paint job. The novel worked. But it could work better. There were areas with too much and others with too little."