Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

A 1990s trenchcoats-and-mirrorshades action film published in the 21st century with 1950s gender roles. An odd, frustrating, throwback of a book.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Be careful when porting an old genre to a new skin. Bringing along the social mores along with the other elements will make your book feel dated from the start.
  • Taking an otherwise-competent character and pushing them out of their element is a great way to both explore a new world and make it challenging for them.
  • In sci-fi, it’s not enough that the names of things — computers, cars, etc — change. Our relationship with them needs to change, too, or it’s just window dressing.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Basically perfect. It’s low-key, character-driven sci-fi, stuffed with cool ideas and diverse cultures. Completely scratched my Firefly itch, in a good way 🙂

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Can think of chapters as episodes of a TV series, with cuts between multiple points of view, similar beats, and cliffhanger endings.
  • Having the Shit Go Down at the end of the book rather than the beginning gives the reader time to know and care for the characters, making it more tense.
  • You can get away with an infinite amount of info-dumping if it’s a knowledgeable character explaining things to a clueless character.

Best Book Forward?

At the Writer’s Coffeehouse this weekend, another writer asked what they should do when they have four novels, all finished, each in a different genre, that they want to pitch to agents. Should they target each book’s query to a different agent? Should they mention they have other novels when querying one of them?

The answer — which surprised me — was no to both.

Don’t mention the other novels when first querying. Save that for later, if they want to talk more.

And instead of sending out queries based on the book, pick the agents you’d like to represent you, and send them the book you think has the greatest commercial potential.

Agents will want to represent everything you have. But by querying with the book that will likely sell the best, it’ll be easier for them to imagine selling your book to a publisher, which will increase your chances of convincing them to represent you.

So now I’m confronted with the question: have I been editing the wrong book?

A frustrating question to have, when I’m only one editing pass away from being totally done. And I’ve already written the synopsis. And the query letter. And have agents picked out.

But maybe I’d be querying the wrong book? Of the three, I think my most recent one’s the strongest draft. The second one’s the best story, though, and my beta readers’ favorite. The first one is, of course, the only one that’s actually done, in the sense of being a final draft.

So which one do I query with?

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Disappointing.

Starts out well, action pumping and character backstories fleshed out just enough to make you care, but not enough to stop the flow of the story.

But the world around them never congeals for me, and the atmosphere of threat and double-cross the story needs can’t happen without it.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Switching perspective characters early on is a great opportunity to give more context to what’s happening, since it’s another angle on the world
  • In a modern setting, you really can cut descriptions down to the bone, to put the focus on dialog and action
  • Can do character backstory in a single chapter, covering years of someone’s life, with breaks in-between

My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland

Fantastic. Absolutely nails the smugness and insincerity of the South, along with the surprise of finding help in unexpected places. Protagonist is a perfect mix of insecurity and snark.

Thank the gods it’s a series; can’t wait to read the next one.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Narrating a character’s internal debate in long-form is fine, so long as it’s in the right place: when the character is away from other people. Don’t do it during dialog.
  • You don’t need dialect to write Southern characters. Getting their facial expressions and hypocrisy right is enough.
  • Finding a real-life struggle that mirrors the fantasy one is a good way to ground it.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Exasperating. With the exception of The Faery Handbag, none of the supposed stories in this collection actually contain a story at all. Some of them contain multiple stories, nested and incomplete, but most are just character and setting with a complete lack of anything happening. Ever. For page after page.

Possibly the worst short story collection I’ve ever read.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Story is supreme. Choose your words well, but make telling a good story your first priority.
  • Deliver on your promises to the reader. If you promise zombies, give them some damn zombies.
  • If your story can be summed up in a single sentence, maybe it doesn’t need to be an entire novel.

The End is Near

Novel edits are coming along faster than I thought. Might actually get them all done by the end of the month 🙂

It’s weird to see the novel being reshaped under my editing scalpel. I can feel the book getting better, little by little: its characters more consistent, the world more fully realized, the pacing tighter.

I’m remembering my plans for a follow-on book, and looking forward to writing it. Can editing a novel make you excited to write the sequel?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Masterful. Incredibly well-crafted series of nested narratives that simultaneously did a deep dive into Dracula lore and sucked me into a single family’s generations-long saga. Just…wow. So well done.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can use flashbacks to cover over narrative time that would otherwise be boring, like train (or plane) travel
  • To make an old myth feel fresh, look for the side that’s not usually given a starring role (like the Turkish side of the Dracula legend), and explore it.
  • Journals and letters are a great way to both nest stories, and keep each story personal, told by the person that lived it

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

It’s got an elderly kick-ass demon-assassin, zombies that can think, and a death goddess working at a small press. For that, I can forgive the continuity errors and the occasional odd plot point.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Watch out for the vague “some”: “something made her”, “something told her”, “some sort of sense”…it gets overused too easily.
  • Where you start your story affects how sympathetic your protagonist seems. Start it when they’re under stress, and readers automatically feel for them. Start it with them relaxed but complaining about how rough they’ve got it, and readers might not be as charmed.
  • Vivid, brief descriptions and snappy dialog can pull a reader through the roughest parts of your story.

Strangely Beautiful, Vol 1 by Leanna Renee Hieber

Gothic” in the overwrought, melodramatic sense.

There’s some fantastic ideas in here, but it was tough one for me to finish.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • People falling love notice everything about their beloved. If writing from the POV of a character falling in love, their thoughts will dwell on even insignificant details about their beloved.
  • Constant repetition of unexplained magical elements makes them annoying and boring. Conserve the magic, to make it interesting.
  • Use a deep dive into a character’s thoughts during conversation sparingly. Dialog should speed the story along, interrupting the flow with paragraphs of thought undercuts momentum and frustrates readers.