Cicero, by Anthony Everitt

Masterful. Not only did I get a better sense of who Cicero was as a person, and why he was important, I also got a good feel for the politics of the late Roman Republic. More specifically, Everitt lays out the flaws inherent in the Roman system that — coupled with the stubborn refusal to change of most Senators — led to its downfall and the birth of the Empire.

I found this book easier going than Everitt’s biography of Augustus. They’re both good, don’t get me wrong, but I never felt lost in dates and events in Cicero, because Everitt constantly tied things back to the larger movements of the period. It gave me a better perspective, and also let me see how important Cicero really was.

For example, after watching the HBO series Rome (which is fantastic, highly recommend checking it out), I thought of Cicero as little more than a pompous windbag, unable to make up his mind or stand for anything.

On the contrary, while he could be long-winded, and tended to talk up his deeds too much, he was a capable administrator (he was only sent to govern provinces twice, but both times was very popular with the locals for being competent and incorruptible) and a rare thing in the late Republic: a Senator that sided with the wealthy (optimates) but wanted to change things just the same. Not to mention his original claim to fame as a great orator, which he won by ably defending clients in the courts.

He even, apparently, had some skill as an investigator. While on his second tour as a provincial governor, he uncovered a banking scandal that was being run by Marcus Brutus (the Brutus that later was one of Caesar’s assassins!).

In short: Highly recommended if you’re interested in Roman history, or even (like me) just curious to know more about the personalities glimpsed through series like Rome.

On The Origins of Totalitarianism

Recently finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

It’s hard for me to talk about, because the book is filled with such piercing, clear-eyed insight, that if I tried to summarize it properly, I’d end up reproducing it.

I could say that I think the book should be required reading for any citizen of any country, in any age, because I do. And not because of any simplistic need to show that “Nazis are bad,” which (while true) doesn’t need an entire book to demonstrate. The testimony of even one concentration camp survivor should be enough for that.

I think everyone should read The Origins of Totalitarianism because it shows how the logic of totalitarian governments grows out of capitalism itself. Not that capitalism must always lead to totalitarianism, but that it always can. Just as racism and nationalism don’t always lead to a Final Solution, but without racism and nationalism, without some ideology claiming to override our humanity, a Final Solution is not even conceivable.

And yes, I think there are passages of the book, describing the methods of the Nazis and the communists (for Stalin’s government was also a totalitarian one) that are too close to our current administration for my comfort. I can’t read about the Nazis contempt for reality, or the way people in totalitarian movements will both believe the lies told by their leaders and praise them for their cleverness when the lies are revealed, without thinking of how right-wing nationalists in my own country treat the current President. But even if these things were not happening in the United States, it would be a book worth reading.

It is, in short, rightly called a classic. A long one, and a hard one, if we take its insights to heart as readers (passages calling out the middle classes for abandoning their civic duties for isolated home life strike close to home for me; I feel I’ve worked hard for what I have, and want to cling to it, but how many others am I leaving behind, by doing so?).

And yet it is that wondrous thing: a book hailed as a classic work, that is worth all the time and study we can give it. If you haven’t read it, please do.

We’re counting on you.

Keeping Score: November 21, 2018

At 67,010 words, the novel’s done!

Been writing at a good clip while on vacation this week; almost 7,000 just since last Wednesday (!)

And of course, I already have a list of things I need to go back and fix. Characters that need to be combined. Personalities that need to be made consistent throughout the book. Even events that need to be reworked, because I changed my mind part-way through, so the latter consequences of the event doesn’t match the thing itself anymore.

But those can come later. For now, the first draft is done, and just in time for Turkey Day 🙂

Hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving (in the US), and a successful NaNoWriMo, if you’re participating!

Keeping Score: October 29, 2018

Last week was my first week back to a regular writing schedule, after traveling in Ireland for almost two weeks.

I worried I wouldn’t be able to jump right in to writing at my previous pace, but I hit a writing streak on Friday, and blew past my writing goal: 2,400 words written!

And thank goodness, because next month I’ll have been working on the book for a year. I’m ready to finish it off, and move on to the next project. (Well, until I come back and edit this one).

Very much hoping to be done with it before the end of the year. Would be nice to head into the holidays with the work complete, and have earned a little break from the daily word mines.

Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

Keeping Score: October 1, 2018

Scraped by this week’s word goal: 2,258 words.

The next week or two are going to be spotty, writing-wise. I’ll be in Ireland starting Thursday, partly for work and partly for fun, so between prepping for the trip and going on the trip and then recovering from the trip, there might not be much time for writing.

I will have a rather long plane-ride there (and one on the return), so I’ll try to get what I can done then. Other than that, my schedule will probably be so screwy I won’t be able to carve out any regular writing time.

I’m going to give myself a pass on this time, though. I’ve been working on the book almost a year now; hobbling along for a week or two while I’m traveling seems like a small delay, in the scheme of things.

Keeping Score: September 24, 2018

Wrote 2,404 words last week! That makes three weeks in a row I’ve managed to hit my new, higher target.

And I hit another milestone, as well: the novel passed 50,000 words!

I worried several times that maybe I didn’t have enough “story” there to hit 50K, and make it a proper novel. But I’m already there, and I haven’t yet hit the climax.

I should top out at around 60K, which’d be a nice size for trimming later on. A short novel, true, but a novel nevertheless.


Keeping Score: September 17, 2018

2,306 words written this week!

I’m trying to let go a little more this week. As in, stop worrying so much about what would be realistic and worry more about what’d be interesting. To approach the new scenes and descriptions thinking “what would be cool?” rather than “what would be expected?”

Again, I don’t know if this approach will make the book any better. No way to tell until it’s done. But it is making it both more challenging (I have to think things through a bit more) and more fun (anything goes! so long as I can describe whatever it is).

I’m heading into the final stretch of the novel, so I’m giving myself more liberty to experiment. Since I know where I’m going now, and who’s taking me there, I guess I feel more free to play around.

I’ll probably just end up making more problems for myself down the line, but for now, I’m just enjoying flexing my wings a little bit.

Keeping Score: September 10, 2018

I did it! Hit the new word count goal: 2,285 words written last week!

Again, I wrote most of them on the weekend. Mornings last week were consumed with vacation planning, as the trip we’re taking to Ireland in October is coming up fast. Had to get everything booked before it sells out, so that took priority over my writing during the week.

But I still got it done!

Pushing closer to the climax. Even this close to being done, though, I’m still finding things that I wrote earlier that I’ll need to change.

For example, while writing one scene, I realized the character I’d planned to have in it to do a certain thing couldn’t be there, because he wouldn’t do that thing; it just wouldn’t make sense for his character. So I had to change the scene mid-stream, as it were, and finish it out with a different character in mind (and even a different action, so the plot’s changing, too).

I suppose I should expect this by now, though. The book isn’t going to be right the first time, and I’m going to have to go back over it multiple times until it is right. I suppose I should be grateful I’m able to see any mistakes now, instead of having to wait for them to be pointed out to me by beta readers later (though I’m sure they’ll find more when they go through it).

So I’m keeping the higher weekly word count for now. Not sure what I’ll do when it comes time for the Ireland trip. Either take some time off, or maybe, just maybe, I’ll be done before then?

Keeping Score: September 3, 2018

2,050 words written this week!

That’s five weeks in a row of hitting my goal of 2,000 words. I’m consistently churning out 400 – 500 words a day, 5 days a week.

Hard to believe I was having trouble with just 250 words a day only a few months back.

So it’s time to up my goal once again. I’m targeting 2,250 words this week. Just an extra 50 words a day, but it’ll get me to the end of this first draft that much faster.

Speaking of which, I’m closing in on the tentpole event that will set off the last act of the book. I got the idea from Jim Butcher’s excellent post on how to handle the mushy middle, and it’s really helped me focus on something other than the climax to keep the book on track.

I’m also trying to embrace Peter Clines’ advice to accept that the first draft will suck. It’s still hard for me to turn off me inner editor, but I’m trying to give myself more freedom to play in this draft.

If I’ll have to go back and fix it anyway, why not have some fun with it first?