I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Disturbing. Most of the characters are completely unlikable, especially the men: the worst are outright misogynists and racists, even the best act like superior assholes to everyone else.

Mamatas doesn’t pull any punches in exposing the sexism and harassment that happens at fan conventions. It makes for tough reading, both because the female protagonist is constantly experiencing it and because the male narrator, whose death she’s investigating, is one of the superior assholes it’s hard to sympathize with.

Worth reading, though, if nothing else than as a “Do I act like this?” check.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • – Can get away with very skimpy descriptions — or none at all — if you choose the proper perspective to tell the story from (in this case, a corpse’s).
  • Protagonist’s motivation for pursuing the mystery can be thin, if the reader’s interest is piqued enough for them to want to see it solved
  • Characters will always rationalize their behavior. Even when dead.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Prescient, gripping, and intimidatingly good. Definitely going to read more of Butler’s books.

I’m rather sad that she wasn’t able to complete a new Earthseed series, like she planned, before her death.

Three more things she taught me about writing:

  • Perfectly acceptable to have the sequel start out as more “and then this happened”.
  • First act turn is a great place to upend what the characters have built previously, have the outside world come in with the force of a storm.
  • Editors and compilers of biographies can have agendas just like other characters, and become more interesting when they reveal them

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Oddly compelling. Told any other way, it’d be just one more story about giant robots and the people piloting them. But by telling it through interviews, to make it feel like you’re reading a classified dossier, makes it feel fresh and compelling.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Even old ideas can feel new again when told in a different way.
  • Interviews can let you do first-person narration without having to actually narrate. No need for detailed descriptions, etc. Can take a lot of shortcuts and still feel real.
  • Don’t forget the interviewer! They have their own agenda, and that should come through in their questions and reactions.

The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Eerily prescient. Takes place in a California where water is scarce, most government has been privatized, and the President uses racial politics to push through reforms that weaken protections for workers and the poor.

Felt all too familiar. And she predicted all this over twenty years ago.

I usually don’t like post-apocalyptic books, especially ones that go in for the “slow apocalypse” where everything just collapses over time as people stop taking care of the things that keep civilization going. It’s depressing reading, but Butler’s writing is so compelling, I had to see it through.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Scarcities in society will be reflected in the social order. If food is scarce, being fat is a sign of wealth. If water is scarce, being clean (taking baths) will be seen luxurious. In both cases, being poor and engaging in “rich” behavior will be seen as uppity.
  • There’s life in the hero’s journey yet, if explored from different angles. Here the young protagonist grows up in a small town, yet feels called to greatness, then compelled to become a leader when driven out of their home.
  • Adopting a diary structure can let you skip past boring parts of the story will zooming in on the important ones. A well-written diary will do that, and still give you a chance to convey the rhythms of life, since it’s the story the person is telling themselves, as they live it.

The Just City by Jo Walton

Inspiring. I could not imagine daring to try to write dialog for Greek gods and long-dead philosophers, but she did, and does it brilliantly.

Made me miss my days as a philosophy major, and that’s a good thing.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Long explanations of things are ok, but only after the reader has come to know the characters, and care about them.
  • Switching first-person narrators is fine, so long as you keep the number of them down and clearly label each chapter so we know which character is speaking.
  • Sense of place can come through not just by food and clothing, but architecture and leisure activities as well.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Easily worthy of the awards it won. Fantastic ideas, presented through conflicts with interesting characters, and writing that describes just enough and no more.

And I almost stopped halfway through.

There’s a point where the protagonist does something so amazingly dumb, that I wanted to put the book down in frustration. But I kept going, and I’m glad I did. Because it only got better from there.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Beware delaying explanations for too long. A character that says “I don’t know why I did X” too often, before their inability to explain is outlined to the reader, can lead to frustration.
  • Don’t have to wait for the character to say “and then I told them my story” to tell that story to the reader. Can layer it in, piece by piece, via flashback chapters.
  • Small touches, like bare hands being considered vulgar, when followed-through, can do a lot of work to make a culture feel real.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

One of those books I tried several times to read, failed to get into, and finally just plowed through.

I’m glad I did. Stross has created a fantastic updating of the Lovecraftian mythos, blending it with computer science, government bureaucracy, spy thrillers, and comedy (yes, all four).

The result doesn’t have the creepiness or the horror of the source material anymore, but is much more entertaining.

(Incidentally, this is the third novel in the series. Yes, I started with the third one. No, I didn’t feel lost, but I did feel silly for not starting at the beginning.)

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can still get tension from a narrative told as a memoir. When your characters can go insane or become disembodied spirits, terrible things can happen to them but still leave them able to narrate.
  • Writing what you know can give you interesting twists on old material. Stross was a programmer for a while, and that kind of thinking is what makes his take on Lovecraft’s old gods feel new.
  • Even in a first-person story, you can still show non-POV character scenes by cheating a little, and having the narrator imagine how they would have gone.

Time to Breathe

I haven’t written anything for the novel in a week.

More importantly, I haven’t let myself work on the novel in a week. I’ve been following Vivien Reis’ advice, giving myself time to step away from writing and focus on what’s happening right now with my family.

It’s turned out to be exactly what I needed. I’ve been able to focus better at work, I’ve been more relaxed about all the house showings and paperwork and myriad other little things I’ve had to deal with as we prepare to up sticks and move.

I still feel guilty, though. Like I’m shirking my homework, which is fine for a little while, but eventually you sit down for the final exam and you haven’t a clue what’s going on.

So I’m going to try writing again this weekend. Not much, just an hour or two at most, and with no word count in mind.

Perhaps this way I can use the novel to keep me busy, to keep my mind off things, on days when I’m not at work. And assuage some of the guilt I’m feeling.

Treading Water

Novel stands at 26,750 words.

Haven’t posted here in a while because my life is being turned upside-down.

My wife’s currently in Arkansas, tending her mother, who was admitted to the hospital a few weeks ago with a serious heart-and-lung condition. My wife flew out just three days after she heard, and has been there ever since.

Her mom has been discharged, and is recovering, but will need near-constant care for the next year or so. My wife’s currently providing that care, and intends to keep providing it. That means we’re looking at moving, at leaving the house and city and friends we’ve come to love here in California, and going back to Arkansas.

So my past few weeks have been a blur of getting my wife to Arkansas, supporting her through the early days of her mom’s discharge, and now putting our house on the market and preparing to move.

Needless to say, I didn’t hit my target word count for NaNoWriMo.

I’m finding it hard to write in general, not just finding the time but finding the mental space to build up the novel in my head and then set it down on paper. It’s like I have room in my head for my job and my wife and my move, and nothing else.

If I manage to squeak out just 150 words in a day, I have to call it a victory, because many days I don’t manage any.

But I haven’t given up, and I won’t stop writing during this new phase of my life. I’ll grind out what I can for now, and look to pick up the pace once we settle in to our new digs.

It’s Begun!

Started writing the new novel July 1st, as scheduled. Already 1,600 words in.

It was an incredible relief to write those first 250 words. I had such a hard time outlining the book that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to put anything down, that the magic would fail me this time.

But it hasn’t yet. I’m already adding things to the world, color and details I didn’t think of before, just by writing about it.

I forgot how much fun this can be, making things up and seeing where they lead. It’s addictive.

I don’t want it to end.