Keeping Score: June 4, 2021

I finished the eternal section!

Finally laid down all the connective text it needed. Final word count: 34,089 words, for just that one part of the book (!).

It’s a huge milestone. Means not only that I can move on to the next part of the book, a shorter interlude before the next large chunk, but I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book as a whole: 49,594 words. I said this was going to be a door-stopper, right?

I feel like I need to take a moment and look back at where I started. Not to brag, but just to survey the view from this part of the summit, so to speak. Because otherwise the moment’s going to be lost, mixed in with all the others spent putting one word in front of the others, trudging up the slope.

When I started out on this book, last November, I had a plan in a very loose sense of the word. I knew the beats I wanted to hit, and the general shape of the story, but that was it. I didn’t really know who these characters were, or what could motivate them through these events. I also didn’t know if I could even write this kind of historical novel, where I leap from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Central Asian steppe and back again.

But I have. I can. It might be junk, but the first draft of the steppe sequence is done. I conjured up a whole family from scratch! I worked out how to track a dragon across the plains. And discovered how a pre-teen could summon her inner strength to strike back at that dragon for her father’s death.

That’s not nothing! Again, it’s just the first draft, and I can already see that it’ll need a lot of edits. But after months of grinding away at it, wondering if I’d ever see real progress, wondering if I should just stop and spend my time doing something else, I can take heart in knowing that this piece, at least, is done. And if I can finish one section, I can finish the others. One word at a time.

So take heart, if you’ve been feeling like me! Like the work is never-ending. Afraid that none of it will be worthwhile.

Because eventually you’ll summit that mountain. And you’ll look back at where you started, and wonder how the hell you’ve come so far.

Short Book Reviews: May 2021

Took a break from my Stephen King read-a-thon to dive into some non-fiction this month.

As always, these are listed in reverse chronological order. So, the book I just finished is listed first, followed by the one I read before that, and so on.

Let’s dig in!

Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda

Polished, refined prose. Kocienda pulls just shy of a dozen stories from his time at Apple in the early 2000s to illustrate what he sees as the principles behind their back-to-back successes in that period, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad.

Each chapter begins with the story, and then ends with him picking it apart, revealing the particular aspect of the Apple process (really, more like goals or guidelines) that he wants to focus on.

It’s all well-told, and they’re entertaining stories, but I can’t escape the feeling that it could all have been summarized in one word: Demos.

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Ana Partanen

Absolutely fascinating. Partanen is a journalist and a naturalized American citizen, originally from Finland, and she wrote this book in 2015-2016 after living here for several years.

Her goal is definitely not to knock the United States — she bends over backwards, in fact, to insist over and over again how much she loves Americans and was excited to live here — but to point out the widening gap between what we say we value — families, children, individual choice — and what our policies actually value. She uses a “Nordic Theory of Love” as a through-line, connecting how Nordic policies on healthcare, vacation, school, parental leave, etc all enable a greater freedom of choice for the people that live there.

Full confession: My wife and I have been contemplating a move to Northern Europe, and I picked this up as part of some research into what it might be like to live there. While I think many of the policy changes Partanen outlines would be wonderful if adopted in the United States, given our current political climate, I don’t think they’ll be adopted any time soon.

Partanen, apparently, agrees with me; she returned to Finland after getting pregnant with her first child (shortly after this book was published, in fact), and she hasn’t returned.

Needful Things, by Stephen King

More King! A later novel, this one’s a bit of door-stopper. But it’s still King at the top of his game: small-town Maine rendered in exquisite detail, slow-building tension that explodes in gory violence, and a victory so Pyrrhic as to be more like a truce.

I thought I knew the plot of this one, going in, based on parodies and knock-offs. But the real thing is much, much better, both more unsettling and harder to predict. The villain’s motivation was a bit of a letdown, to be honest, but his methods were chef’s kiss perfect.

I also felt a bit of shear between the setting as written and the setting as placed in time. Having read King’s novels from the 70s and 80s, this felt more like that time period than anything else, let alone the early 90s, when the story is supposed to take place. There were some markers laid down — I think one kid’s t-shirt has a 90s band on it — but they felt more like window-dressing. As if King had such deep knowledge of the Maine of 1960-1980 that he had trouble writing about the present. Which is perhaps why he’s returned so often in later books to writing about that exact period?

Short Book Reviews: April 2021

Fewer books read this month. Between turning 42 and getting both doses of the vaccine, I’ve been reading less (but writing more?). I’d hoped to have a fourth book done before the end of the month, but that’s going to have to wait 😦

Anyway, here are brief, non-spoilers reviews of the three books I did get through, again in reverse chronological order (so the most recently read book is first).

Carrie, by Stephen King

At this point I should just confess that I’ve decided to read all of the classic King books. Everything I missed growing up (parents!): Carrie, Cujo, Christine, Needful Things, etc.

This was King’s first book, and it’s amazing how much his writing improved between it and his second (Salem’s Lot). Carrie is a lot faster paced than the other book, but as a result I didn’t feel like I really got to know (or care about) a lot of the characters.

Even so, it’s a gut-punch of a book. Would recommend.

Trade in Classical Antiquity, by Neville Morley

A non-fiction palate-cleanser between horror novels. Recommended by the author of acoup.blog, whose insightful and detailed critiques of the “medieval” world represented in the Games of Thrones TV series drew me in.

It’s a short book, more of an extended scholarly essay than anything else. Morley’s goal here seems to be to poke holes in two of the leading schools of thought about trade in the classical Mediterranean: one that holds trade couldn’t possibly have been worth noting because of subsistence farming, and another that basically says globalization arrived thousands of years earlier than we thought.

I’m not familiar enough with those other schools to tell if that’s a straw-person argument or not. But Morley lays out his own case well, arguing for a sort of middle approach, relying on archeological evidence that shows trade in certain goods was in fact massive, while admitting the large gaps in our understanding of the period. Certainly food for thought when designing a classical-like society, or writing a story set in the classical period.

The Dead Zone, by Stephen King

Published the year I was born! King’s fifth book published under his own name.

Again I could see both the commonalities in the way he tells stories (newspaper clippings and interviews sprinkled throughout, a sharp focus on the minutiae of small-town life) and the leveling-up of his skills in the use of those techniques (and exploration of those themes).

Very much a horror-as-dread book, rather than blood-and-guts. Reminded me of his later book 11/22/63, not in the time travel aspect, but in the dilemma the protagonist faces towards the end (no spoilers, it’s worth the read). King’s rendition of the political mood of 1976 jibes with everything I’ve read about that election by recent historians, and his construction of a populist politician with evil in his heart and elections to win felt…let’s say a little prescient, after 2016?

A Note on the Casual Racism in King’s Earlier Books

While I’m reading through King’s oeuvre, and enjoying it, for the most part, there’s a few…problematic things that pop up again and again, like sour notes among an otherwise well-written symphony. And I feel the need to call them out, rather than skip over them.

Most striking, for me, in reading these now, is the way King drops at least one racist bit of imagery in each of the books I’ve read up to this point. Adjectives like “n*ardly”, or describing a character’s grossly misshapen and swollen lips as “African”.

It jerks me out of the book each time, and makes me wonder why he (or the publisher) doesn’t go back and remove it. This isn’t in character dialog, it’s narrative description, and it would be easy — very easy — to remove the short phrase that contains it without really altering the book at all. Why not change it?

More insidious is the way these books have basically no black people. In Needful Things, which I’m reading now, there’s one (one!) black character, and he’s only allowed to be a janitor, and his dialog is written…well, let’s just say King tries to render what he feels is a Black manner of speech, and it comes across as a caricature. I know some of these books were written before I was born, but I swear there were Black people in America back then, even in Maine. Leaving them out altogether feels…strange. Less like oversight, and more like an authorial blindspot.

These elements might change in his later works (and I hope they do!). And I’m certainly not trying to say anything about King the person, especially given how much time has elapsed between when he wrote these books and today. I must hope that whoever he is now, it’s a better version of himself than when he wrote these.

But these racist elements are in the books, and I feel must be called out as such.

Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on acoup.blog. Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

Short Book Reviews: February 2021

With the new year, Biden settling into the White House, and the vaccines rolling out, my reading pace has picked up from its previous pandemic low.

So rather than work up longer individual reviews of the books I’ve gone through, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of them, all at once, in reverse order (so, the most recent book I finished this month is listed first).

Here we go!

Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg

A frustrating read. Zuckerberg (yes, the Facebook founder is her brother) provides a detailed, anthropological study of how the denizens of the manosphere wield Classical authors to promote their racist, misogynist views. What she doesn’t cover is any way to counter these arguments. If anything, she comes down on their side, agreeing that yes, the Classical tradition contains lots of misogyny (Though no racism, since race as a concept wasn’t invented till the modern period. Which makes it weird that she would fall into the right-wing trap of assigning Whiteness to the Mediterranean authors of the Classical tradition? But I digress).

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

A set of separately-published essays stitched together in book form. It works, because each essays illuminates a different side of the central question: What happened when an administration scornful of expertise took control of the nation’s experts?

This was published in 2018, and already Lewis could see — via his interviews and investigation — that disaster was coming. We’ve got a lot to rebuild.

The Mongol Art of War, by Timothy May

Discovered this via military historian Bret Devereux’s excellent series of blog posts about the historical accuracy of the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire (narrator: there is none).

It’s a fairly quick read, giving a detailed look — well, as detailed as we can get, given the reliability of our historical sources — at how the Mongol army was able to conquer so much of Asia and Europe in such a short period of time. Goes through command structure, tactics, even some detailed logistics. For example, did you know Mongols preferred riding mares on campaign, because they could drink the milk provided (and thus not need to bring as much food along)? Or that the Mongols built a navy from scratch (with Korean assistance) just so they could conquer southern China? Fascinating stuff.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This is one I’m going to be reading and re-reading. It’s basically a manual of all the different navigation techniques used by humans before the invention of GPS. How did the Pacific Islanders sail thousands of miles across open ocean to settle so many islands? Why did the Atlantic triangle trade develop the way it did (hint: it was the prevailing winds)? What sequence of clouds denotes an oncoming storm?

Simply wondrous. Made me look at the world around me in an entirely new way.

Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein

The final volume in Perlstein’s excellent series on the rise of the Right in the United States. This one covers 1976-1980, and it’s absolutely riveting. All of the techniques we’ve seen from the GOP under Trump — misinformation, distortion, and deliberate hyperbole — got their start in this time period, and coalesced around Reagan as their standard-bearer. His election cemented the shift to the Right that we’ve been suffering from for the last forty years.

I consider this book essential reading, if you want to understand how we got to this point in American politics.

Keeping Score: January 1, 2021

We made it to a new year!

In the past, I’ve taken that for granted. One year rolled into the next, I got older, and the world kept turning.

Not this year. This year, reaching January feels like an escape, like ducking under a closing door just before it seals itself shut.

So a sincere Happy New Year to us all!

Novel’s at 19,864 words. I’m still butt in chair every morning, forcing myself to stay there until I hit my word count goal. Some mornings it’s easier, some it’s harder, but…I’m always making progress.

I’m actually starting to run out of runway on the research I’ve already done about the setting. Which means I’m having to make more things up out of thin air, and thus getting more things wrong. I’ve already had to revise a few scenes based on new reading I’ve done. That’ll happen more and more, I expect, until I can catch up.

I know that ultimately, I’ll need to do some heavy editing of this draft, once it’s complete. Not just to fix some inconsistencies, but also to ensure the things that are consistent are historically accurate. Or at least, as accurate as a non-specialist like me can get them in a fictional tale.

But since I know I’ll need to do it, it doesn’t scare me to get things wrong now. What’s important now, I think, is to get the emotional beats of the story right. If I can nail down the characters, and how they react to the things that happen to them, I can fix the details later. Even if those details mean I need changes to the events of the plot, that’s fine. So long as the emotional arc of things is right.

That’s my theory, at least.

I want to thank those of those you who’ve been reading me regularly through this hell year. You give me hope that someday, these novels I grind away at will see the light of publication.

And for my fellow writers, I offer a hope and a blessing: May your writing be a joy and comfort to you. May your inner editor take a vacation when you’re drafting. And may all your tales be true.

Onward to 2021!

Keeping Score: December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays!

I’m finally back in my office. All the house work we’ve had done for the last three months — while we lived, worked, ate, and slept sealed-off in the guest room — is over. Taking down the barrier between the guest room and the rest of the house was like opening a huge present; we were grinning like kids the whole time.

And the work all looks fantastic, and a little unreal. Like we’ve stumbled into someone else’s house. But no, it’s ours! And we can once again use it all.

So I’m back to watching the sun come up over the mountains just east of the city, hammering out words before the work of the day begins.

Speaking of which, the novel’s up to 18,000 words. So I’m putting out about 2,000 words a week, which is not bad, but does mean this draft won’t be done until looks away, does mental math sometime in June (?!).

Which is…fine, I suppose. That’s still a novel draft in less than a year. But if I only work on one project at a time, that means it’ll be six months before I get back to editing my last novel. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from my beta readers, and I’d like to incorporate it all before sending it out to agents.

Maybe I can keep working on the new draft during the week, and edit the other novel on the weekends? That’s technically not taking the weekend off, but it is taking a break from the current draft. And editing’s the kind of work that’s hard for me to track, in the sense of how many words I’ve covered. These editing passes I’ll need to jump around in the narrative, adding a bit of dialog here, changing a description there. It’s not linear work.

What about you? Do you work only one project at a time, even if that delays things? Or do you find a way to juggle multiple pieces at once?

Anyway, as we wind down 2020, I hope you and yours are coming through the pandemic safe. I hope the vaccine gets rolled out to where-ever you are soon, and that enough folks get it for the danger to pass.

Good riddance to 2020. I’ll see you all in 2021!

Keeping Score: December 18, 2020

Novel’s at around 16,400 words. I haven’t done today’s writing session, though, so I should finish out the week closer to 17K.

The deal is working, so far. Holding myself hostage, unable to go for my morning job or take a shower or have breakfast or anything until my writing’s done for the day, has been rather effective.

And I’m looking forward to the weekend again, when I can daydream and doodle and research and not have to worry about hitting a word count. That recharge time is proving important, for my mental health and for my writing.

Funny, I think I started this year by throwing away word count goals and the idea of penalizing myself for not meeting them. Here I am at the end of the year, once again setting daily word count goals and forcing myself to meet them. It seems not only do different techniques work for different people, different things can work for the same person at different times.

What about you? What previous writing habit have you brought back this year, if any? Or maybe there’s an old trick you’ve dropped?

Keeping Score: December 11, 2020

Novel crossed 15,000 words today!

My pace has slowed since NaNoWriMo, but I’m still managing about 2,000 words a week, which is pretty good for me. Puts me on track to finish this draft sometime early next year.

I’ve changed up my writing routine a bit, both to give myself more time to write, and to have a chance to recharge.

So I’ve made a deal with myself: I have to write in the morning, first thing, as soon as I get up. No news, no twitter, no email. Just writing, until the day’s words (at least 250) are done. I can take however long I want to set those 250 words down, but I can’t do anything else until I do.

Most days, I end up going beyond those 250. Once the pump is primed, the words keep flowing.

In exchange for this early-morning discipline, I only have to write on week days. Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday are days off, now, just like they would be (I hope) if I were a full-time writer. If I did write full-time, I’d still need vacations. Still need days off. But I’d have no one to tell me when to take them, and I’d probably feel guilty if I did.

So I’ve made this deal. Treat writing like job, get it done first thing in the morning, and in return, I can take the weekends off.

Sunday was the first day I’ve deliberately taken off (from writing) in…months. I still did some research for the current book, digging up images and articles on Swedish manors built or renovated in the 18th century. I sketched some notes for future scenes. But I didn’t write anything, didn’t have to produce any words.

It was…incredibly relaxing. It was glorious.

And I came into Monday’s writing session recharged. Ready and eager to go.

This is the first full week I’ve been working under this self-made bargain. I’m looking forward to the weekend, having met my word count goal every day this week, first thing upon waking.

What about you? Do you ever take days off from writing? Do you feel guilty when you do, and if so, how do you handle it?

Keeping Score: December 4, 2020

So I didn’t win NaNoWriMo this year. It wasn’t even close.

But I’m not quitting on the novel. I’ve come too far not to see it through.

And NaNoWriMo has got me flexing my writing muscles again. After today’s writing session, I’ll have churned out almost 2,000 words in a single week. That’s not novel in a month pace, sure, but it’s a novel-in-a-few-months-pace, which is better than I’ve been able to achieve since the pandemic began.

Even so, I still feel pressed for writing time. I want to brainstorm for a bit, every day, before working on a scene. Or after finishing a scene, reflect on what might be missing from it, what I’ll need to add the next day. And that’s hard to do, when I’ve only got thirty minutes or so free to spend on the novel.

It’s good that I’ve got some vacation coming up at the end of the month, then. That’ll certainly give me more time in which to work.

But I want — I need — to carve out more time during a regular work day. Which might mean dropping some of my other hobbies (I’ve been brushing up my French, and learning Swedish) in order to make that time. Or maybe I’ll get up even earlier, so I can make that time at the start of the day.

Not sure what’s best. Gotta figure something out, though.

What about you? What do you do, when you feel like you’re not getting enough writing time?