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

Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Beautiful. Simple, tight prose, telling a deeply moving story.

Can’t wait to read the next one.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • What a society condemns is just as important to making it feel lived-in as what it praises.
  • Characters don’t always have to be imposing their will on the world. They can show their inner character by the opportunities they take advantage of, as well.
  • In a world of bad choices and flawed people, heroes can be cruel and cowardly, and villains can show mercy.

Getting Back to Work

Haven’t been able to write since Tuesday. I’ve been too hurt, too confused, too angry to spin up my imagination and write about what’s happening in that other world.

It doesn’t help that it’s supposed to be a light book, full of whimsy and humor.

I don’t feel very funny anymore.

But I’ve got to get back to it.

Maybe the book will turn out a little darker than I’d intended, now. Or maybe I’ll find a way to recapture the fun spirit I started with, and use the book to remind myself of the good things that are still out there: the wife that loves me, the friends that support me, the peers that understand what’s happening, and forgive.

But most of all I need to finish it because this book has suddenly become more explicitly political than I intended.

My main character is a lesbian, which when I started out was just the way the character came into my head. Now it feels like writing her is an act of defiance, a way of pushing back against Trump and his ilk.

No one else may ever read this book, and it may never be good enough to be published. But damned if I won’t finish it, and make it as good as I can make it.

Because the importance of minority representation in fiction has just hit home to me, and I want to do my part.

Editing Day

Today is Editing Day.

I’ve patched the holes in the plot. I’ve gone through and made the language more consistent. I’ve checked the character’s backstory to make sure it all hangs together.

Now it’s time to do the cutting. Time to trim away the fat from my descriptions, to cut the unnecessary dialog, to skip over any boring action sequences.

It’s good I have the day off. I’ll be spending it making the first cuts, and planning the word culling to come.

Lustlocked by Matt Wallace

Brilliant. Wallace’s writing is as lean and focused as ever, keeping the action moving and the laughs coming.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Background action can be sped up, to keep focus on foreground.
  • It’s ok to stand up and cheer for your characters once in a while. It gives readers permission to cheer for them, as well.
  • Seeing the consequences of a weird event (transformation, spell effect, etc) before seeing the event itself can make its eventual description less confusing and more interesting.

Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez

Intimidating. Martinez mixes bits of Cthulhu Mythos with Norse mythology while maintaining a comedic slant throughout. How does he do it?

Three writing techniques that I think helped him pull it off:

  • Use the mundane to ground bizarre events. That could be the relationship between two characters, or the rhythms of work, or the ubiquity of bureaucracy.
  • When describing weird things happening, a deadpan tone with a bit of sarcasm can both help the reader sympathize with the characters and help them see the humor in the situation.
  • Voice goes a long way in defining a character. If each character has a very distinct voice, then the reader doesn’t need as many vocal tags, they don’t need as much description of the character, they can build it in their mind from the dialog.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Reads like a nineteenth-century fairy tale. Manages to weave these mythical characters into a bigger story about the immigrant experience in 19th century New York. Wonderfully well-done.

Taught me a few new things about writing:

  • You can use multiple perspectives to build tension into the narrative, by giving the reader access to thoughts and feelings that impact the main characters later on.
  • It’s okay to give opinionated descriptions. In fact, letting your character’s perspective color the way they describe the world around them is a great way to make both feel more real.
  • Even an absurd premise, if taken seriously enough, can become drama.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Medieval-level fantasy with goblins and elves, airships and intrigue, and race relations and gender politics and multiple sexual orientations. In a word, awesome.

Vivid and rich and alive in unexpected ways. The plot is rather basic — outsider unexpectedly inherits the throne, has to learn to rule people that look down on him — but the characters are so interesting, so well fleshed-out, that it held me all the way through. I might just read it again.

The big writing lesson for me from this book is exactly that: well-written characters that you want to spend time with will compensate for a lot of other shortcomings. For The Goblin Emperor, those shortcomings would normally compel me to stop reading.

I gave up trying to pronounce many of the fantasy words and names it introduces. The glossary of terms, which I found while desperately searching for some sort of help in keeping terms and titles and characters straight, proved to be worthless. Many of its definitions are either self-referential or refer to other terms which are. There’s also no map, so I had no idea of the relative size or placement of any of the cities and nations mentioned in the book. As some of the intrigue involves trade relations among neighboring realms, this was frustrating.

But I ultimately didn’t care. I cared about the main character from the first chapter, and cared about the others almost as quickly. I skipped over names, I couldn’t keep any of the titles straight, I had no idea where anything was, and I didn’t care. The main challenges of the book were people, and I wanted the main character to succeed with all of them. Everything else faded away.

Encouraging News

First reader review of the novel draft is in! And it’s generally positive!

True, it’s from a good friend of mine, who’s definitely biased. And yes, he had a list of suggested edits for me, from grammar mistakes to confusing descriptions to scenes that dragged on too long (all of which he’s right about). But overall he liked it, and he wants to read more.

Maybe it’s not as bad as I feared, after all.

Or perhaps it is, and he’s seeing past the mistakes to how good the novel could be, if edited into shape.

Either way, it’s encouraging for me to hear. If I can entertain one person with the first draft, I can entertain more with the second, and even more with the third. It’ll take work to get there, but this kind of validation, however biased it may be, makes me feel like it’ll be worth it.

Passage by Connie Willis

A frustrating book, in multiple ways.

Frustrating because it’s good, it’s really good, for about 2/3 of the book. Like her novel Bellweather, Willis really nails the feeling of trying to get something meaningful done while working inside a vast uncaring bureaucracy. By putting me through the minutiae of the main character’s days — including her thoughts on trying to decide what to eat — Willis pulled me into that character’s head, and gave me just as much emotional stake in her research as she had.

Frustrating, too, because the payoff kept getting pushed out. All that daily minutiae means it takes a few hundred pages before anything really happens in the book, and another few hundred pages before the next event, and so on. The last hundred pages of the second third of the book I couldn’t stop reading, I had to find out what was going to happen. This was partly because of how involved in the character’s life I’d become, but also because it took those hundred pages for something to occur.

I can’t decide if that technique is completely unfair to the reader — certainly felt unfair to me at the time — or a master stroke of writing something so addicting it kept me reading long past the point of where I’d have dropped something else.

I did drop it, though. The main storyline basically ends with Part 2. Part 3 is just other characters scrambling to duplicate the main character’s research from Parts 1 & 2, and by that point I’d gotten so frustrated with the pacing that I just skimmed the rest to confirm my suspicions about the plot, and moved on.

So I’m taking this book as a warning for my own writing. I think my novel has grown to the length it has partly because of how much time I’ve spent in my main characters’ heads, writing out their hopes and fears and internal debates. Looking at Passage, it’s a very powerful technique, but its use has to be balanced carefully against the action and dialogue that moves the story forward. Too much of it, and my story will become one long crawl upwards, with few drops or twists and turns to provide some release.