Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

An excellent book, but one I wouldn’t have been able to finish without spoilers. It’s got a very slow start, and even 100 pages in I couldn’t tell most of the characters apart, or match character names to titles to dialogue.

I almost quit the book, but then I reread the essay in Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great that got me to read it in the first place. By giving away the ending, and filling in some of the gaps in a modern readers’ knowledge — for example, in 1936, when the book was written, if a college-educated woman got married, she could no longer teach at the university, making the family-or-career choice a stark one — Walton’s essay opened the book up for me, and let me pick up on the multiple ways gender politics is woven throughout.

This is the first time spoilers for a mystery not only didn’t ruin the story, but positively enhanced it for me. If you plan on reading the book, I’d recommend reading Walton’s essay first, if only to equip you with the knowledge of the day that Sayers assumed all her readers had.

I noticed two interesting things about the way the book was written.

First, almost all the action is conveyed through dialogue. There’s a few scenes where Sayers describes what a character does — flicking on a light, for example — but most of the time, Sayers lets her characters talk about the action, or lets us guess that action is taking place by having them describe it. It makes the dialogue feel more real to me, somehow, when we don’t have to interrupt the character’s speech to say something as mundane as “he put on his hat and coat.” Instead, we can let the character’s personality shine through by having them talk about their hat and coat as they put it on, or mumble about how they need to get that elbow patched or complain about missing buttons. However, it doesn’t seem to work well when the reader isn’t familiar with the actions involved; there was a scene in Gaudy Night where the main characters were boating down the Thames, and I couldn’t picture anything that was going on.

Second, the way in which the theme of gender politics gets echoed throughout the book felt masterful to me. It comes up in multiple conversations, it lies at the heart of the mystery, and it’s the core of the problem Harriet Vane (the main and only perspective character) wrestles with throughout: whether to marry Peter Wimsey, or rejoin the scholarly world at Oxford?

I think it even shows up in the structure of the book itself: most of the characters are women, all of the suspects are women, and it’s a woman that leads the investigation for 3/4 of the entire book. It’s a Peter Wimsey Mystery without much Peter Wimsey at all, and the only men that show up most of the novel are adjuncts to the narrative, distractions from the main events, rather than principal players. It’s something that’s all-too-rarely done today, and it must have seemed radical in 1936. I think it was also done deliberately, to make the book not only contain discussions of gender politics and the roles of men and women, but be a shot fired on the side of equality.

Off to Camp

I’ve joined Camp NaNoWriMo this year.

NaNoWriMo gave me the motivation I needed to start — and then finish — my first novel last year. The target word count for the month, the daily emails from professionals about their writing process, even the simple bar chart showing my daily progress, all pushed me to see it through.

I’m hoping to get the same kind of kick in the pants from Camp NaNoWriMo. It starts July first, but there’s no set word count goal, no restrictions on what you can work on, like for regular NaNoWriMo. I’ve set a personal goal of 30,000 words for the month, enough to challenge me but not enough to feel like a mad dash toward the finish line.

They’ve also got the idea of cabins, where they group you up with other writers for the month. I think the idea is that we band together to reach our writing goals, by maybe sharing snippets of what we’re working on, or just talking about our own writing experiences. In any case, I’m looking forward to finding out who my cabin-mates will be.

As for the outline, it should be ready to go July 1st. I’ve got the flow and basic challenges set, nailed down the start and finish, and am getting the characters personalities and voices set in my mind.

I’m still nervous about starting the actual writing of it, but I tell myself that’s normal, and that I have permission to suck on the first draft. But there won’t be a second draft unless I finish the first one, and I won’t finish unless I start, so there’s no getting out of it.

Refilling the Well

Every couple of weeks, I have to do what I think of as “refilling the well.” It’s something between relaxing and recharging, pouring equal parts inspiration and motivation into the well of my brain so I can keep writing, keep creating.

My primary means of refilling the well is going to bookstores (my current personal favorites being Mysterious Galaxy and Villainous Lair). I’m as big a bibliophile as anyone else, enjoying the smell, the touch, the weight of books, even the sight of them, but it’s not just that.

I look around the store, and marvel at all the different books that got published. Books about the history of the telegraph. Books about a fictionalized War of the Roses set on a world that’s not Earth. Books about minotaurs and paladins going on quests together.

Seeing so much getting published, across so many different genres and styles, reminds me that there’s room for what I want to write. There’s room for my characters, for my worlds, for my stories. Every one of the books on the shelves started out as someone’s pencil scratch of an idea, and they found room and space to be made. If they can do it, I can too.


Pushing Characters and Buttons: Lessons from Game of Thrones’ Season 5

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I’m not sure I’ll be back for Season 6 of Game of Thrones. I feel like this last season was the weakest one so far. I’m still processing why, but I suspect it’s because of the following things, mistakes that I’ll try to avoid in my own writing:

1) Focusing on the wrong things.

I think this season spent a lot of time lingering over details that it didn’t need to, and shouldn’t. I’d count Sansa’s wedding night sexual assault as one of them, for multiple reasons. First, I think sexual assault is one of the most terrible things that can happen to a human being, and I don’t really want to watch even fake ones any more. Second, we didn’t need to see the actual assault to know it’d taken place: the very next scene with Sansa, where Reek comes upon her laying battered and half-naked on the bed, tells us everything we need to know.

But because they did decide to show us the assault itself, they weren’t able to show us other things, like Sansa trying to work out different ways to escape, or talking to the different servants to find out which ones she could rely on. They couldn’t show us the preparations for a siege at Winterfell, with Sansa trying to take advantage of the chaos to send a raven to Littlefinger or study the walls to remind herself of the best way over them.

I think it was a similar mistake to insist on showing us the full extent of Cersei’s humiliation, including the entire walk of shame. I didn’t want to see it, I didn’t need to see it — seeing her at the next small council meeting, head shaved and face cut, shaking as she reaches for her wine, is enough — and it prevented them from showing me other things, like Kevan trying to get her back, or the whole of them dealing with the aftermath.

I’ll admit that GoT takes place in a nasty world, where nasty things happen. But I didn’t need to see Craster actually rape his daughters to know he was a nasty man and understand what was happening there. I didn’t need to see King Robert’s sexual orgies to know the humiliation his antics caused Jaime and Cersei. And I didn’t need to see Viserys force himself on his sister to know she lived in fear of him.

2) Moving characters around instead of letting them move.

A lot of the decisions characters made this season felt forced, as if they needed to move across the game board for plot requirements, and the writers found an excuse send them there.

Take Jon Snow going to Hardhome. Why was this necessary? I understand that without Jon Snow there, there’s no perspective character to show us the assault of the army of the dead. But it would have made more sense for Aliser Thorne to have gone instead of Jon: he’s First Ranger, and known to hate the Wildlings more than Jon. Wouldn’t the oath to give them safe passage have been more impressive coming from an old and known enemy?

Jaime and Bronn going to fetch Myrcella also didn’t make sense to me. I mean, I understand wanting to show a buddy knight trip between the two of them, but Jaime has little reason to go and Bronn has less, and their presence didn’t affect the outcome at all. If they hadn’t been there, the Sand Snakes would have tried to kidnap Myrcella, failed, and any messenger from Cersei asking to see her daughter would have given Doran the excuse he needed to send Myrcella away to safety.

Finally we have Jorah. His decision to sign up for gladiator combat the first time made sense, since it gave him a chance to see Daenerys again. But submitting to slavery a second time after being banished again? Only made sense as a way to place him near her during the Sons of the Harpy attack. For the character, it didn’t make sense at all.

3) Trying too hard for big moments.

So many times during this season, I felt like I was watching the “Are you not entertained?” moment from Gladiator. The music would swell, the camera would zoom in on some character’s face, and they would say a line that was supposed to carry a lot of emotional weight. But it fell flat for me, every time, no matter the character or the situation.

I think the first two mistakes, made often enough over the courseĀ of the season, robbed the emotional high points of any impact. Instead of caring that Brienne finally got to confront Stannis, I just saw a knight come upon an old wounded man in the forest, tell him her name, and deliver a killing blow. Instead of dying a little inside at seeing Jon bleeding out in the snow, I knew from the moment Olly came to fetch him that he was about to be ambushed, and the circle of knives was way too much “Et tu, Brute?” to make me do anything other than shake my head.

And Drogon saving the day . Well, of course he saved the day, then dumped Daenerys in the middle of nowhere instead of somewhere else in the city. How else were the writers to setup Daenerys being standard in the wilderness, needing her two bravest knights to come save her (groan)?

None of it worked for me, and the parts that did deliver an emotional impact — Sansa’s assault, Cersei’s humiliation — were entirely negative. For me, this season was a set of lessons in what not to do. Here’s hoping I take them to heart.

Working Forwards and Backwards

Outline’s not quite done. I keep bouncing back and forth between the plot and the characters, each change rippling out and making me re-arrange chapters and scenes.

It feels harder this time, and I can’t tell if that’s because it’s such a different book, or because I’m simply afraid of not being able to write a second novel, or because the idea’s not as good as I think it is.

The only thing I can do is keep plugging away at it, pushing the outline around until I have enough of a plot shape to start writing. I tell myself that all it takes is time, and I should be patient, but that doesn’t change the fact that my last outline took me two weeks while this one is a month and counting.

Maybe I should just dive in and start writing, outline be damned? Maybe what worked for the last book isn’t going to work for this one.

It might come to that. In any case, I’m setting a deadline for myself of July 1st. Outline or no, I’m going to start writing the first scene on or before then.

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin

Incredibly long, but eye-opening. So much more of the news makes sense to me now, like I’ve been given a set of mental footnotes for each story that mentions anything related to energy.

The book could’ve used some serious editing, though. I found numerous typos, misspellings, repeated phrases, even whole paragraphs that echo each other.

In addition, the book starts out at a good pace, but begins to feel like a slog somewhere around Part 4 (where he discusses renewable energy, then spends Part 5 going into more detail about renewables). Had to push myself to finish this one.

That said, I learned an incredible amount, including:

  • In 2011, the US was 78% self sufficient in overall energy: natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear, renewables, etc
  • Cap-and-Trade as a solution to carbon pollution was pioneered by the lead permits issued to refineries in the 80s to eliminate lead from gasoline
  • In 2009, newly discovered reserves equalled the amount of oil produced over the entire lifetime of the industry

Laying Down the Path

Thanks to the good advice from L.D. Parker in the comments, I resolved last week’s plotting dilemma by deciding to interweave the narrative from the trigger character and protagonist’s point of views. I’ll start with the initial “hook” scene I have in mind for the first chapter, then do an intro chapter with the protag, then alternate back and forth throughout the book.

I tell myself that even if it doesn’t work the way I want it to, I can go back and do whatever I need to fix it (probably drop the trigger character and focus solely on the protag), so long as I make it through the first draft.

With that problem solved, I finally started writing up the outline, character sketches, etc for the new book in Scrivener. This means taking all the notes I’ve jotted down — some handwritten, some typed up in Evernote, some dictated into my phone — and bringing them together in one place, and imposing some sort of order on them.

It’s the last step before I actually start writing, and it gives me a visual indication of holes in the plot, of weak points in the story that’s developing. For example, I can already see that I’m going to need a lot more background for my protag than I have worked out so far, simply because the number of their scenes aren’t balanced against the trigger character.

With luck, I’ll have the initial plan written up and into Scrivener by the end of next week, and then I’ll be ready to plunge back into the blank page and start swimming toward the finish line.