December 18, 2015

Wrapping Up and Winding Down

The end of 2015 approaches, and I'm ready to switch my brain to vacation mode. Before I sink into a revel of books, knitting, and sugar, here's an update and overview of my writing year.

At the end of October, I mentioned I was a month into a new novel that I was writing with very little plan in mind. Yesterday I completed that first draft. I brought the characters and situation to a reasonable point of closure a bit past the 50,000-word mark that defines a novel in NaNoWriMo. The manuscript concludes with a self-indulgent epilogue that gives every character a happy ending, which was my reward for pushing through to the end.

Nobody gets to read this story. It's not at all good. Though I didn't restrict myself to writing in a single month, I basically NaNoWriMoed this first draft, and in true NaNo fashion, there are some tiny brilliant bits that emerged as surprises in the course of writing, and the rest is discardable. The premise turned out to be only marginally fruitful, and everything interesting happened in the subplots. I do like how many of the characters evolved, and some elements of the story have potential, so maybe certain parts could be salvaged and turned into something else. But that's a concern for another year.

At least I can report that I wrote a novel this year. I learned some things in the process and reminded myself what first drafts are like (bad). I derived some satisfaction from following through on a large project. It kept me from running wild on the streets or the internet for a couple of hours each day.

The more significant and satisfying writing endeavor of 2015 was yet another revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, which occupied me for the first half of the year. After confronting the fact that my manuscript was just too long, I shortened it by over 20%. By now I can't even remember how I possibly achieved this feat, so I'll have to review my series of posts about The Incredible Shrinking Manuscript.

All throughout the year, I've continued fiddling with the outline I keep talking about that I hope will eventually become another novel. This has been mostly a background project, and while I'm making gradual progress with it, I don't have any exciting milestones to announce.

I had a lot of fun this year composing blog entries that explore my childhood writing. Reading and analyzing the bizarre things I wrote as a kid has provided me with great amusement each month, and I'm glad my readers find these posts entertaining as well. I have more gems to share in 2016.

My final ongoing writing project is producing reviews of every book I read. The monthly recap format has been working out well for me, and I'll probably continue with that next year. Stay tuned for a January post with my favorite books of 2015, reading stats, and so on.

I'll wrap this up with two non-writing notes. First, for those who didn't see it elsewhere, check out the sweater I finally finished knitting and assembling this fall, a year and a half after starting it. And lastly, let's not forget that in 2015, we learned that I am a treasure chest once owned by the Visigoths.

May your 2015 wind down with some moments you can treasure. Here's to the end of another year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel considers genres and the myths of popularity, with statistical analysis and an overview of ongoing debates: "There is an odd cognitive dissonance that happens in these conversations, where we are simultaneously supposed to believe that literary fiction is 'mainstream fiction' and genre fiction is 'ghettoized,' and also that literary fiction is a niche nobody reads while genre authors laugh all the way to the bank."

December 10, 2015

Mental Turmoil Aboard Flight 103

The journey through my early writing efforts has brought us to my eighth grade English class, which as I explained last time placed an emphasis on both writing and revising. Today we're going to look at a piece of fiction that was more heavily revised between drafts than anything else that year, though unfortunately not wisely.

I have strong memories of writing this story and being quite pleased with it. Apparently it was my favorite of the works I produced that year, because I chose it as my entry in the collection our class published (Xeroxed) at the end of the year. Encountering the story again now, I found it odder than I remembered, but also duller.

I'd recalled this was a very short story, unfolding in the space of a single limited scene, but what I hadn't remembered is that the assignment was actually "Write a Story Opening That Shows Mood". That explains why this feels like the setup for something more interesting, though it doesn't explain much else.

Mental Turmoil Aboard Flight 103

The airplane glided across the runway, then left the ground with a sonic boom. A man gazed longingly through the window at the city of Chicago.

"Would you like something to drink, sir?"

George Loring looked blankly at the stewardess for a moment. He blinked and came to his senses. "Oh," he stuttered. "I-I'll have a Miller Lite."

"I'll need to see some sort of identification, sir," said the stewardess.

George, a man well into his thirties, was very flattered. "Why, thank you," he said, pulling out his license, "that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day."

After the stewardess left, George sank back into the plush seat and sipped his beer. He glanced through the stack of papers on the table in front of him. Most of them were forms that he had to fill out to get on the spaceship. "They can put men on the moon," he muttered, "but they can't eliminate the paperwork."

He picked up a pen and started writing his name, address, date of birth, eye color, hair color, and shoe size. Once he arrived at NASA, the papers would be processed, registered, examined, and re-examined. He knew the whole system by heart. In spite of all the hype, going to the moon just wasn't all that much fun.

"We are experiencing some turbulence," announced the computer pilot in an unnerving monotone.

"I can see that," said George, though his teeth, as his beer splashed onto the table, narrowly missing the important documents. "God, I hate traveling!"

"This isn't as bad as it seems," George thought. "I should be grateful that I am going to the moon. Most people would die for the chance."

"I wish they would," said George's cynical side. "There's a terrible population problem."

"Come on," said the optimist George. "Look around you. Don't you feel lucky?"

George looked around at the plane. It was tastefully decorated in silver and blue, with all the latest airline technology.

"No," said George, "I feel like an idiot talking to myself. But yes, I suppose that I am lucky, having an all-expense paid trip to the moon to do boring experiments." He sighed. "Oh, well. Anti-gravity is nice."

Before George could continue his schizophrenic debate, the computer announced, "We will be landing at Quayle National Airport in Cape Canaveral in five minutes."

December 4, 2015

November Reading Recap

I had a very bookish November, what with my trip to Book Riot Live and further adventures in New York City afterwards, but that didn't leave time to read as many books as usual!

CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell: Simon's last year at the Watford School of Magicks is off to a strange start. Sure, he's attacked by a goblin on his way to school, but that's par for the course when you're the Chosen One. What has Simon on edge is that Baz, his roommate and sworn enemy, hasn't returned at the beginning of the term, and Simon is sure Baz is plotting something terrible against him. The mystery of his vampiric roommate's whereabouts has Simon too obsessed to think about the danger posed by the Insidious Humdrum, who threatens to destroy all the world's magic if the Chosen One can't defeat him.

When I began reading CARRY ON, a couple of things were very distracting. First of all, Simon's world is unabashedly inspired by the Harry Potter series, so I had constant thoughts like, "Okay, that character's the Hagrid equivalent. That's a skewed version of the Sorting Hat." Second, Simon originated inside another of Rowell's novels, FANGIRL (a story I loved), where he was the hero of a popular book series beloved by the main character, and the subject of all the fanfiction she wrote. This origin story is a little difficult to wrap your head around; Elizabeth Minkel explains it in more depth.

But the farther I got into the book, the less these distractions bothered me, because this is a strong, exciting, well-developed story in its own right. The characters are complex, flawed people faced with all the awkward realities of human interaction. The plot is fast-paced and full of surprising turns. The writing is funny and clever (with bonus language cleverness in the magic system, as cataloged by Gretchen McCulloch). In short, CARRY ON has everything that makes Rainbow Rowell's books so wonderful, and I heartily recommend it.

You don't need to have read FANGIRL to enjoy CARRY ON, and you may even find it easier to get into the story without the confusion of previous knowledge, so start with whatever interests you more. Both books are great, and so is everything else Rowell has written.

CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman: Caden is a fifteen-year-old boy having a difficult time functioning at home and school because of the disturbing fears that fill his head. Caden is also, at times, a crew member aboard a pirate ship bound for the deepest part of the ocean, subject to frequent taunting and torment from the cruel captain. The novel's extremely short chapters bounce Caden back and forth between these worlds to portray his descent into mental illness and his struggle to accept and comply with psychiatric treatment.

I was moved and appropriately terrified for Caden as he found reality increasingly hard to grasp. The scenes set in the real world worked best for me because that was where the stakes and my sympathies felt highest. I was less engrossed by the story of the ship, which seemed partly Caden's delusion and partly more of a metaphor. Ultimately, though, I found the book very affecting.

I was curious to read this because for a while I was working on a manuscript that also depicted a character who traveled between the real world and a delusional realm. Unlike my trunked novel, Shusterman's story benefits from a well-informed perspective. His son received a diagnosis like Caden's as a teenager, and Shusterman drew on the experiences of his son and their family to present an authentic representation of mental illness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Tobias Carroll looks at board games adapted from books: "New York's King Post Games held a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013 for Moby-Dick, or, The Card Game, their adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel. Their version of Moby-Dick is both compelling and faithful in its translation of the bleakness of Melville's ending: rather than winning per se, a game's winner is the final player left alive after the white whale attacks."