Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Monday, April 28, 2014

So Much for Resolutions

Though it doesn't look like anyone missed me posting here.

I have the just-back-from-vacation blues in a big way.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Two Chapters Down

I'm really glad I put together that list of Nice Things People Said. It's good to have that reassurance while slogging through the trenches of "should I keep this line of dialog" and "really, how dumb can I be" and "what, exactly, is wrong with that sentence grrr harrumph pout."

I'm pleased with the progress. The first two chapters are tighter. I've added description where it was missing, tried to make motives more explicit, and to keep up more sense of momentum. With chapter 3, I'm going to start a minor rearrangement of events, which I hope will keep that going smoothly.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Starting Draft Four

I never used to do drafts. I used to just tweak things endlessly and forever and occasionally do a ground-up rewrite, which may or may not have fixed anything, because I had very little idea what I was doing.

Now I do drafts. Drafts have goals.
  1. I may or may not have an outline, but the goal is to get something, anything, out there. Result: one horrifically shitty first draft.
  2. Fix gaping structural flaws. Result: One continuous story.
  3. Fix the remaining problems I am capable of seeing for myself. Result: One story I am comfortable having other people read.
  4. Fix the problems the beta readers found. Result: (I hope) One story I am comfortable submitting to agents.
There are still a few readers yet to report in, but as I said the other day, I'm starting to descend into bathetic depths due to not having a project in front of me. I can't seem to focus on research while waiting on tenterhooks for critiques, so I'm setting about the work. Instead of being cranky because I'm not working on a book, now I'll be cranky when people ask me to do anything other than work on the book! That will be much better for everyone, I'm sure.

First, because I like good things, here are some of the positive things people said about the draft:
  • "very professional"
  • "amazing, awesome concept"
  • "interesting"
  • "nice energy"
  • "a grand adventure"
  • "powerful playing with language" (this might be my favorite compliment ever)
Yay for that. On the less cheering side, I have the following:
  • "way more way faster"
  • "tighten up the pacing"
  • MC's motives fuzzy
  • one reader had a big issue with my version of Gawaine
  • MC "slippery", "flip-flops"
  • sketchy description
  • "orientation issues"
  • "under-described"
  • "murky scene transitions"
  • MC "some depth missing" "don't always know where she stands"
  • some confusion on the magic system for one reader
  • finale "needs more fireworks"
  • "wanted connection to art tighter"
  • "want more drama in her life"
  • why not (villain) seduce her
  • "doesn't seem black"
  • need to know more about relationship with (other character)
Some of them, I'm just plain not going to touch. The villain isn't going to try to seduce the protagonist, at least not sexually, because I think that's predictable and therefore boring. I'm not going to try writing the character to sound "more black," for several reasons.

I'm of two minds about a suggestion to rearrange one significant plot point to come earlier in the book; given that only one person seemed to find the pacing a problem, I'm likely to move cautiously there.

I'm also of two minds about Gawaine. There are smallish things I can do that will improve his characterization, and a few more things I can do to explain the changes in it, but if anyone out there is reading this and expecting Excalibur, they're doomed to disappointment. I'm not at all sure how familiar most readers are with this material. People seem to like the BBC Merlin, which makes my revisioning of the Malory version look downright timid.

Murky scene transitions and readers not being able to figure out what's going on in the MC's head, though, those are issues I need to fix. Even if it's only a subset of readers who were bothered, it's the kind of thing where fixing it will only help everyone. Unfortunately, it's kind of the toughest thing to fix. I know what's going on in her head at all times, so it's really easy to be blind to what I'm failing to put on the page.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Things Had Best Improve from Here

The first week of March... sucked, there is nothing else to be said for it.
  • Writing - Complete feedback or not, I need to start this revision. Putting it off is making me even more neurotic than usual. I have printouts and many colors of pen at the ready.
  • Reading - Got back into The Glamour Factory, one of my research books for the alien novel. Read Soulless, the first of the Parasol Protectorate books, and found it delightful. If nothing else, this is looking like the year I finally get reading back into my life. 
  • The stove is finally gone; long live the stove. 
  • My stand mixer broke. *cries softly*
  • Workouts have been more consistent, though my speed is not improving. 
  • I got a raise. Living in the vague state of financial dread that precedes getting our taxes done, and I have the strong suspicion that a car repair lies in our near future. I will never be a full-time writer; I couldn't handle the stress of that much financial uncertainty.
  • Although I didn't do most of the photography stuff I had planned for February, I did finally put the Christmas pictures online.

The March goal is supposed to be decluttering -- tackle closets, weed through things we have too much of, that kind of thing. Given the flop that was the February goal, I'm not holding out much hope, but I suppose it could happen. I did clean out the downstairs entryway during a bout of stress cleaning last weekend.

Here's hoping that the second week involves an upswing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February Wrap-Up

A few days early, but this month has been so damn quiet. Feeling crummy today, so I figured that a progress check would either cheer me up or motivate me.
  • Writing: Self-indulgent tragic backstory for my PT characters. In another week or so I ought to get some more beta reader feedback. Then I can get to grips with the revision, assuming I can drag myself out of the Swamp of Isuck. Which I will, but those first few days are going to be gross and full of tears. 
  • Remembered today that I submitted Fury  to the Angry Robot open door month. Checked my spam filter; doesn't seem like they've gotten around to me yet, and there's no announcement on their blog that they've finished slogging through the slush. We cherish these pathetic little flickers of hope so.
  • Reading: Historical fiction, of all things. A Morbid Taste for Bones was light and amusing. A Game of Kings, which I picked up because someone I follow on Tumblr keeps insisting that it's amazing, is entertaining but very slow going. I think there are 100 characters in this book. It is an example of a style I've run into in some SF/F novels, in which there is a central character around whom the plot and the rest of the characters move, but whose POV we never get to experience. I find that somewhat frustrating as a reader. 
  • The old stove is still in our living room. Thinking of hanging Christmas lights on it. 
  • Workouts continue to be spotty, with snowstorms and sickness and random interruptions keeping me to my three-times-a-week average. Still, my dumbbell rows are up to 30lb, I did 2 sets of 25 pushups this morning (knees down, I'm not Wonder Woman), and I had a decent run yesterday.
  • Finances scraping along as expected for the month. Have to make a tax appointment (don't. want. to.). 
  • Haven't gotten to a single one of the month goals. I'm not sure why photography is such a blocking thing for me right now. I know where my camera is, I know where my cable is, but connecting the damn thing to the laptop and doing anything just seems like some awful, insurmountable task that's just not worth it. March is supposed to for tackling the closets.
  • We did manage to have some friends over for dinner--twice! Yay for sociability. 
March is going to be busy, with a couple of milestone birthdays in our circle, and with any luck a return to the writing trenches. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Even Less Valentine-y Than Usual

I'm not one to make a big deal out of this holiday - I resent anything that appears to have no other purpose than to make me buy cards - but we do usually attempt to have a nice dinner or something like that. This year, Mr This is Boskone-bound. Which okay, for us, means more or less down the street, but anyway he won't be home.

Also, our 9yo is down with a fever. Also, it is the most archetypal gloomy, slush-coated February day imaginable out there. Also, today is Pay the Bills Day. So an accountability post can't actually make anything worse.
  • Still not working on the new book. I may, however, have come up with a strategy for improving the opening of the old book. I think I will have to actually write it and see how it works, though. 
  • I also seem to be inventing an entire alternate Arthurian history a la Marion Zimmer Bradley, although with less Mother Goddess stuff. 
  • Other than Arthuriana, not much reading going on. Gamification does not appear to work on me.
  • The new stove is installed. The old stove is still in our living room. I just... okay, fine. Whatever.
  • Weighed myself on Monday. The news was not good. Four workouts in a row this week was good, but I will now miss four days because of Things.
  • Finances okay. Slush fund will suffer this month because of the way our car insurance company does billing, but that's expected. Psyching myself up to deal with taxes.
  • Photography month has so far been a bust. People who manage to do the daily photograph thing must have a less boring routine than I do? Hoping that on Sunday I can find a couple of hours to deal with something thing on that list. 
In sum: blah. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Grail Quest in Malory: Bad Stitching

Having blazed through 3/4 of Malory in a couple of days (yes, I skimmed here and there) I got back to the question of the Grail Quest. The story bothers me, which is why I'm happy to dismiss the entire episode from my own version. The tone of the tales shifts drastically, and the prevailing mode is scolding didacticism.

The early books are notable for the absence of religion as a significant force. It's certainly a part of the environment -- the knights hear masses, observe holidays, get married, and take refuge in the occasional chapel -- but motivations are never described as religious. Holy objects and people play no role in their quests. Occasionally characters are praised for being "meek" or religiously dutiful, but far more often they get accolades for beating everyone else up. They're in it for glory, women, revenge, or fun, which makes perfect sense for echoes of a pre-Christian ethos.

When Galahad shows up in Le Morte d'Arthur, the party is over.

His arrival at the court so closely retraces Arthur’s accession as to suggest a deliberate echo. He is conceived under magical deception, and arrives as an unknown and untried youth. While I can see a reason for keeping young Arthur out of the public eye, Galahad's being raised in secrecy makes no real sense. There are no more warring barons; his father and everyone else at Arthur's court are pleased to make his acquaintance and duly impressed by all of the omens. Even Gwenivir, who you might think would be a little miffed at her straying lover, magic or no, is content to remark only on how much Galahad looks like his father. (Timelines! Even if one adopts the most generous possible definition of early manhood, that's a lot of years to have passed.)

The magic that saturated the early stories is replaced by religious symbology. Galahad pulls a sword from a stone, but this time it is described as a miracle, Merlin being long gone (later on he gets another, even more miraculous sword, with a sheath made from the actual Tree of Life). Galahad’s awesome is explained by him being a ninth-degree relative of Jesus, rather than being the rightful king. He is fated to heal the Dolorous Stroke delivered by Balin and fills the empty Siege Perilous, capping off untied threads from old adventures. The visitation that starts off the adventure is from the Holy Ghost, not a strange beast or mysterious damosel.

This newly revisioned realm cannot coexist with the previous, less godly version. There are heavy premonitions of doom, that many of the knights will die in their quest. In order for the quest to be accomplished, the Round Table cannot remain.

Off everyone goes on the adventure. Galahad's perfection is stressed so far that it sometimes seems unfair to everyone else. The rules have changed, and no one told them. Gawaine helps to kill seven wicked knights. That's good, right? Nope! Bad knight, no cookie. Galahad doesn't kill people willy-nilly. Galahad is also a virgin, as we are reminded on many pointed occasions. Galahad defeats both Lancelot and Percivale in one of those random anonymous combats, and the symbolism is not subtle; the old guard is no longer useful.

There is a chapter of what I can only call ret-conning regarding the Round Table. Malory starts with the version in which the table is a gift from Gwenivir's father, although the names on the seats are magic. In this flashback, it was made by Merlin, and he utters a prophecy about the three who would achieve the Grail.

Every few pages the knights find a hermit, a holy recluse, a monastery, or a mysterious chapel. Everybody has omen-filled dreams, which have to be laboriously explained by holy bystanders. Percivale and Bors both have adventures that ends with being tempted by a woman. Percivale maintains his virtue by stabbing himself in the leg, but he still gets killed later on. Magic has always been dangerous in these stories, but it has never been explicitly ascribed to Satan. Women have been dangerous because they would either kill you themselves or get you into a duel, not because they were literally fiendish harlots.

The cast of characters in the Grail quest is fairly small, and it gets smaller as it goes. Gawaine kills Bagdemagus, and in some versions, many other knights. Bors and a deeply chastened Lancelot go home. Percivale gets killed. Galahad too dies, of course--blissful and unstained, having achieved his quest and after receiving communion from the hand of Joseph of Arimathea himself. Having been used as a sufficiently blunt object lesson, he had nowhere to go from there but down.

It's hard not read a lot of this as a writer punishing the characters for their previous incarnations, when you go from "for in all tournaments and jousts and deeds of arms, both for life and death, he passed all other knights" to "for of a sinner earthly thou hast no peer as in knighthood." Clearly there has been a change in priorities.

And yet? A few chapters later, we're back in Camelot, and the queen is accused of murder. The plot is all vengeance and fighting. Lancelot is back to "the most man of worship in the world" and the only Galahad that gets mentioned is a different one (and about whom I am quite curious, as he is identified as "the haut prince," but prince of what is never specified).

The Grail quest is a completely different type of story from the others around it, and it's very badly stitched in here. Of course, Malory's isn't the only version of it, and Galahad himself appears to have been a late invention.

I'm going to gleefully ignore the entire episode. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Mucking About with Arthurian Mythology

While I wait for Prometheus crits to come in, I've been revisiting source material for the Arthurian segment of the story, which needs work in the revision. Things I glossed over in the last draft are going to take some more thought and digging. Horrors, I have to read more.

One thing I want to mention up front: I haven't seen the Merlin TV show or any of the movie adaptations other than Monty Python's. It may be quixotic (ha, ha), but I wanted to approach the characters from as close as I could get to their literary origins without learning any dead languages. Obviously there's going to be a modern lens applied, but I wanted it to be my own lens.

Because I am incapable of doing anything the simple way (see: including Arthurian mythos at all), I'm not going with any single source, but synthesizing a few versions of the story into one that suits my needs. I do this in the serene certainty that I am following not so much in others' footsteps as on an actual highway. I'm starting from Malory as readily available and readable, but adding and subtracting freely.

Even if I was going with just his version, I would have to do a fair amount of sorting and adapting, as he wasn't paying attention to consistency. Was Mordred Gawaine's cousin or his brother? Was the knight who followed the Questing Beast Pellinore or Palmides? Was Anguish the king of Ireland or Scotland? Really, "Anguish?" How many damn times did Tintagel change owners, since everything important happens there? Don't even get me started on Lancelot's family tree, which grew more cousins and nephews with every chapter.

Regardless. My story takes place in (mostly) the real world. Arthur did not exist as depicted in our world. Therefore, I have to come up with a version of the story that is identifiably itself, but which satisfies some basic rules for realism in my book-universe.

I had reasons for thinking this was a good idea, I swear.

From the outset I discarded the invasion of Rome. That story doesn't make sense as anything but exaggerated propaganda no matter how you slice it. I am on the fence about the Grail quest. It extends the timeline and the scope of the action enormously, and it requires going literal where I prefer to leave things metaphorical. Not to mention that if you were going on a quest in which purity by any definition was important, you could hardly do worse than this lot of characters, no matter which version you read.

Also, Galahad's existence bugs me. There is no way to un-squick fathers pimping out their daughters via magical deception -- the goal of which is to make a guy think he's having sex with a woman who's already married to someone else to begin with -- in order to satisfy a prophecy. While there are many interesting elements there that suggest alchemy to my imagination, it's hard to imagine God approving.

Slicing out both of those sub-plots simplifies things a lot. The next task is putting some boundaries on the story. When he first becomes king, Arthur is described as "beardless." I'm taking this liberally to mean that he was under twenty, not necessarily too young to shave. By the end of things, he is still a formidable warrior. I have a hard time buying this after age 50, and that's stretching. I don't care how bad-ass you are, that lifestyle takes a toll.  This puts an outside limit of 30 years on his reign.

This makes for further simplification, in that some of the tales continue into a third generation. Mordred, for instance, is supposed to have an adult son at the end of at least one version. Well, when could that have happened? Out he goes. This leaves me with a skeleton that resembles a single story, rather than the conglomeration of assorted individual tales that were smushed together willy-nilly in the sources. My simplified timeline breaks down into the following chunks:
  • Arthur's accession and the early wars to legitimize his rule. This period is capped off by his marriage to Gwenivir, which spelling I have settled on because it is the shortest.
  • A stabilization period in which many of the famous individual adventures happened. Room can be made here for Arthur himself to still be doing some solo adventuring, along with the big names from the first generation of knights.
  • Continental wars, drastically down-scaled from the invasion of Rome. This period includes some notable deaths from the first generation of knights, and Lancelot's early life. I'm using the French version of his story, in which he got kidnapped in infancy by the Lady of the Lake. I'm also putting him in the second generation of knights, because otherwise we have to believe that he carried on an affair with the queen for several decades, during which (per Malory) everyone in the kingdom except for Arthur knew about it.
  • A second period of stability is a false one, as evil is starting to get its act together and the queen is straying. A lot of the Tristram stuff would end up here.
  • The affair is discovered, war between Arthur and Lancelot, Mordred makes his move, everything goes to tragedy. 
This is relatively simple, but flexible enough to accommodate what I want it to. I may write later about some of the characterization issues that fell out of this syncretic approach.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

That Was Fast

I knew it was going to happen like this, but damn. One month already down. So how are we doing?
  • Alien Hollywood research has ground to a halt, though the stack of books to read grows. I have almost five thousand words of a Tapestry sequel and a ton of notes. Y'know, just in case. (Evernote is awesome for this stuff.) Three of my critters have sent their feedback. That's enough of a pool for me to start actually reading it and getting the brainwork of revision under way. Cue panic.
  • Not happy about the drop-off in reading. I'm going to try a new app this week and see if gamification works on me. However! I set myself a goal of reading two books per month this year, and got through five in January, which is slightly awesome.
  • Home life is good. The unending battle against chaos holds steady. We've been diligent about cleaning, and we've been making time to get out, to see people and do things. We have a new stove... in our living room, but hopefully that will be installed later this week. The end of this painful saga is in sight. RIGHT?
  • Workouts holding steady at 3-4 times a week, which means either running, weights, or yoga. Haven't been pushing very hard. Haven't weighed myself at all, which is either denial or mature acceptance of my body setting in. Have been paying more attention to stretching. It would be nice to see my flexibility improve this year.
  • January was Finance Month, and we did pretty well. I spent quite a bit on books, and there was that one splurge, so the slush fund grew less than planned. The dedicated savings funds are looking good. This may be a manifestation of my overall tendency to be goal-oriented; I do much better at tasks that have a tangible payoff ("save enough money to buy X") than general ("save money"). Now we just have to keep on with good awareness of where it all goes.
  • In assorted non-themed "to do" items, I decided not to finish a story that has been languishing for a long time; losses, cut. We got rid of two boxes of outgrown kids' clothes and two of toys. All of my cute new containers have been put to work in the kitchen.
February is Photograph Month. The goal, again, is to plan a series of small, do-able tasks in one area I've been neglecting. For this month, I want to try taking more pictures (maybe I will post some here), send out pics I owe to to relatives, and get some prints made.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Accountability in the "Meh" Weeks

My logbook for yesterday includes the end-of-workday note, "No fun was had today." I also listened to Stone Sour's "Through Glass" about ten times in a row, although I'm not sure if that was cause or effect. 

I was tempted to skip the mid-week accountability post this week. I can blame the office for some of it. Things have been busy and frustrating there. The cold weather makes burrowing into the blankets so much more attractive than the alternatives. Mostly, though, it's just that I haven't been paying attention, haven't been keeping on top of myself. Isn't week 3 traditionally when resolutions get blown?

I haven't gotten any work to speak of done on the new novel. My heart is not yet committed to the effort, still dawdling behind with my last set of characters.

Making slow progress through The Glamour Factory. My stack of research books is growing. I finished watching The Thief of Bagdad and moved on to The Iron Mask. We finished Half Magic and went to the first meeting of the new Grade 3/4 book club at the library. 9yo fidgeted a lot and announced boredom near the end of the discussion, but she took out some books.

We still don't have an oven. Sent another email this morning, offering to deal with it myself. Seriously, it's been a fucking month.

Gym attendance has been spotty, although this morning's run was all right. I've been making it three times a week so far this year.

I got a little too excited on the weekend's trip to Target. I knew at the time that I would regret that, but I really needed to start replacing my ancient workout gear. Despite the splurge, the Travel Fund has enough in it for a whole tank of gas (gotta start somewhere), the Household Stuff Fund is 10% of the way to a new bed for one of the kids, the 401(k) and the College Fund are up by the usual agonizing-yet-surely-insufficient amounts, and the Slush Fund is, well, I expect to end the month up a little bit there, although not so much as I wanted to be.

So not a horrible week in terms of productivity, just one that I haven't really enjoyed. The surest remedy is to get back on the stick with the new book.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Re-Reading Neverwhere

After reading a series of books that I didn't end up enjoying much, I decided it was time to read something I was sure I would like. Continuing with the urban fantasy theme, I chose Neverwhere.

At least in my memory, Gaiman's career has gone something like Sandman > Good Omens > Neverwhere > Terrifying Levels of Fame. I might have a few of those steps out of order. My copy is from 1996 and has the BBC cover. I got it at the Harvard Book Store, where I was working at the time. I read it promptly and have been carrying it around ever since; eighteen years later, I remembered literally nothing except for the bit about de Carabas' heart and the final page.

I enjoyed the reread. I think it's a better book than, say, Guilty Pleasures. Why?

Point one: we are not in the real world. Both Dead Until Dark and Guilty Pleasures are set in worlds exactly like our own, except for the vampires and werewolves wandering around. Neverwhere is built on the premise of two worlds--the ordinary everyday experienced by most people (London Above), and the mytho-poetic scavenger society, adrift in space-time, in which the adventure takes place (London Below). Since London Below only has to follow its own inner logic, there is no point at which the real world is subject to painful distortions in service of the story, no point at which I said, "But how is that supposed to WORK?"

Point two: characterization. This one is more arguably personal preference. Some people like a wish-fulfillment POV character, and for them, Anita and/or Sookie might fit that bill. I found both of them deeply annoying, Sookie because of her general clueless ineptitude and Anita because her behavior was consistently baffling.

Richard Mayhew is not a badass, not a Batman, and has no magic powers. He's an amiable nonentity. He gets himself into trouble by demonstrating compassion for an injured girl, whom he finds on his way out to an important dinner with his fiancee. He spends much of the book in a potentially-fatal state of confusion, but he has a good heart.

We get to see a fair amount of Door, including some scenes from her POV, which is believably sketched. Most of the supporting cast are self-interested to a greater or lesser degree. Croup and Vandemar are monsters, not people; we are not expected to understand them. Although they may veer into mythic archetype on occasion, there is no point at which the reader looks at these people and says, "But why would ANYONE do THAT?"

Point three: plot. Bad People (in the persons of the delightful Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar) are after a girl called Door, having already disposed of her family on behalf of a mysterious employer. Richard helps her, and as a consequence his life in London Above is erased, forcing him to join her and her band of protectors in hopes of getting back what he has lost.

That's it. Simple, straightforward motivations and actions. Hunters and hunted leapfrog across the bizarre world of London Below on a quest in which item A leads to item B leads to item C leads to Goal. Other than the identity of the killers' employer, there is little obfuscation. Although there are plenty of flourishes in this story, every element, every character has their role. The structure is simple and graceful.

Point four: writing. This is where things get a little gooey--and snobbish, but this is a post about why I think one book is better than another, so you're stuck with my opinion. Like all of Gaiman's work, Neverwhere drips with mythic references. It is a fairy tale. A man is taken away from the world he knows, has an adventure, and finds himself changed. The logic that governs is not that of our world, but it is logic we still find familiar. 

(The first time I read this book, I didn't like the ending. I'm still not entirely happy with it, but I think it's mostly because London Below is not presented to us as a place where people can actually live. We see scavengers and supernatural menaces, but no place into which it seems Richard might fit. Perhaps he'll go live with Door.)

The references give it a sense of layering and also of consistency. The book's foundation is strong in a particular literary place, so while the tone of a particular scene may be comic or tragic, it never strays far from its birthplace. You can feel all of its extended family crowd around while you read.

I'm not sure, as I sit typing this, whether it's possible to write a good fantasy novel without that kind of awareness of where it comes from, without invoking (or arguing with, perhaps) some kind of tradition. (I welcome suggestions to the contrary.)

One of the things that bothered me about the vampire books as I was reading them was their emptiness. There is nothing in them to reward a close reading, nothing below the surface. Their vampires and shapeshifters owe nothing to anyone but themselves, and the authors don't build out their worlds to any extent; as a consequence, those worlds feel small and thin. They might as well be cartoons.

Neverwhere isn't perfect by any means. I can see plenty of reasons why someone might not find it appealing. I don't, however, see any ground on which to argue that it's badly written--not in comparison to my other recent reading, at least.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2014 Week 2

When I can't post wordcounts, this is what you get. It's kind of funny, in that I'm reading a lot of people in the blogosphere who are abandoning goal lists for other forms of motivation--maybe with the Fitbit etc., we've hit Peak Metric? I'm a fan of everyone finding systems that work for them. Any map that gets you to your destination is a good one. My lists make me feel warm, so I will continue with them.
  • Research: The Glamour Factory, about the Hollywood studio system. Slow going. No other novel progress to speak of.
  • I've gotten one crit back on Tapestry, and indications that a few of my other readers have started. I'm going to wait until I have at least two sets of responses before I start looking at them. Otherwise I will end up fixating on the first one, rather than looking at them all in a balanced fashion.
  • Other reading: Finished Guilty Pleasures (see previous post). Started re-reading Neverwhere for the first time since it came out. Started reading Invisible Cities.
  • There's a kids' book club starting up at our local library next week. We're going to see if that will inspire our reluctant reader.
  •  Did two story crits for Critters.org, my first in ages, as I generally prefer critting novels.
  • Imposed a draconian regime of Order on the apartment, which will last a couple of days, max. A guy finally came, looked at our oven, and said it would be cheaper to replace than to fix, so we're back to waiting on the landlord. (And waiting.)
  • Gym attendance continues. Today marked my first good run since the holidays.
  • Since January is Finance Month, a halfway point check-in. Without going into all of the gory details: so far, so good. Of course, this tends to be one of those things that goes well for a little while, and then we have to fix the car or something, and the plan collapses. One thing I am doing new this year is a set-aside for travel. The payoff is likely to be be years in the future, but if I don't start, it'll never happen.
  • Went to the MFA with a couple of friends to see the exhibit of Sargent watercolors, which are spectacular, and then went out for dinner. 
I've also been doing the logbook thing. I think I like this. I never make the time for long-form journaling unless I need to work through some kind of a problem, but jotting down a few notes about the day? Totally do-able. So far I'm keeping track of when I get up in the morning, my workouts, reading, cooking, appointments, and overall mood/wellness.

No complaints about 2014 so far. Things are happening, and they are by and large good things. Top goal for next week is to finish at least one of the books I'm reading.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Dead Until Dark" and "Guilty Pleasures"

I read these books on a whim, spurred partly by a Chuck Wendig post in which he solicited recommendations for urban fantasy. These two series came up a few times, as did the Dresden Files. I had already read a couple of the latter and didn't care for them, but never gotten into what you might call the Sex With Vampires sub-genre, so over the past couple of weeks I read both of these.

I... am not the target audience, is the nicest thing I can say about them. Maybe I'm sheltered, but I was taken aback by how bad the writing was (even the theoretically sexy parts, which I assumed to be one of the selling points for both series).

I'm not going to write a long post reviewing these books. I suppose there's no harm in reading or writing them. It frustrates me some that books I consider to be so much more worthy of reward languish in unpopular corners while these sell millions of copies, but that's just how things are.

It does make me wonder a bit about what it is that I'm trying to do with writing. I wouldn't call my work so far highbrow or literary. The latest one is chock-full of references to Byron's poetry and Arthurian legends, but it's an adventure story, with no aspirations beyond that; the references are there mostly because they amuse me. The one before that, well, Gothic science fiction sex-fantasy mystery novel did not aspire to literary virtue as well; it was supposed to be a fun break from Trunked Grimdark Fantasy.

But you can write lightly and not be bad at it. A story can be a trifling bit of fun and still have coherent characterization and a plot that makes sense. I don't think it would have been that hard to fix these two books. Would they have sold less well? Failed to touch whatever popular nerve made them blockbusters? I'm going to reread some older Neil Gaiman next, I think; his books are also immensely popular, though I don't know the precise numbers to compare. Are the same people reading all of these? (I am, so... maybe?) Maybe this will be part of the work I have to do this year, coming to grips with this issue.

I was tempted to write about the Paul Kemp thing. However, I am sick, and sick and tired of essentialist bullshit, so I will refrain from doing so today.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Rocking Right Along

A whole week into 2014, and what's happened? Mostly I've learned that after my Q4'13 of Awesome Productivity, I turn moody and unpleasant when I'm not actively working on a book, as opposed to merely being distracted and laughing at things no one else can see when I am.

In trying not to turn into a raging jerk around everyone I know, therefore, I've started working on the new novel. Here's my week in bullet points, writing first:
  • Read The Dark Side of the Screen. Although the new book takes place before the noir period, I figured I had to start somewhere with learning about movies, and I'm likely to steal some aesthetic touches. This was a good introduction to its admittedly rather specialized topic. 
  • Did a lot of brainstorming, as a result of which I have sketched out the main character and the big-picture plot for the new book. A lot of details will have to wait until I have a firmer grip on the setting (why oh why did I decide to do a period piece?).
  • Finished reading Red Seas Under Red Skies. Have some issues with these books. I will read the third one, but after a break. Started reading Guilty Pleasures, as part of an ongoing project to get more familiar with popular genre tastes and expectations (even if I have no plans to ever write anything like it).
  • Cleaned up most of the post-holiday mess, put my new containers to use in the baking cupboards, cleaned out the medicine cabinet, and organized the kids' craft stuff (so. many. crayons.).
  • Made it to the gym a few times. 
  • Did almost all of the gross budgeting stuff that was on my to-do list for January (which is Finance Month). 
Not too shabby a start. I'm especially pleased with having gotten off to a good start with reading, which has been a real problem for me in the past few years.

It occurred to me last night that we are entering a new phase of life this year. Our youngest is three, and no new little one is on the way behind her. All three kids being three years apart, we are looking for the first time in nine years at a world without diapers, at a world where the primary parenting issues we deal with will not be those of infancy and toddlerhood. I have some hopes for this new world.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Magic "Systems"

I am not satisfied with the book I am currently reading. There are a number of reasons for this, but at this particular point in the plot, it's because I realized that much of the book reads like a series of random D&D encounters. The sense that things are happening but not going anywhere is, for me, a prime source of frustration in a book.

Announcing this fact to the household led to the conclusion that a significant number of authors in our generation who were weaned on D&D may betray this influence. One way this shows up in characters who all but wear their class as a nametag. Another is in the magic system. I enjoyed Sanderson's Mistborn, for instance, but the magic system seemed so clearly to be rooted in the idea of stat boosts that it hindered my ability to immerse.

At Taos we discussed the idea that if you're going to use magic in your book, it needs to have rules and limits. This I broadly agree with, at least if your protagonists have access to it, because otherwise it's difficult to challenge the characters. However, I don't think the reader benefits from knowing what those rules are.

To me, one of the reasons to include magic is as a means to introduce the numinous into the story world. If it doesn't contain ineffable mysteries, then it's not actually magic. You certainly can treat magic as just another piece of technology, with known and predictable results, a tool the characters can use just like a gun, but I will never not ask why? One of the problems with D&D is that systematization and predictability remove the mystery from magic, and with it most of the joy that is specific to magic (you can still feel the joy of vicarious destruction, of course, if fireball = grenade).

In my own writing I try to make magic weird and slightly scary, to maintain that sense that it cannot be entirely predicted, and to give it a bit of poetry, although writing that makes me feel like I'm being unbearably snobbish. I don't want to write game supplements.

Friday, January 3, 2014

New year. Now what?

It's 2 degrees Fahrenheit out there and snowing. 

What do people blog about when they're not actively writing a book? I'm so early in the research phase for the new one that I can't say much about it. I don't feel any need to pontificate on the deep questions facing genre literature today. My oven is still broken, so despite the prospect of a snow day stuck in the apartment, I can't do any baking. We're only three days into the new year, so goal accountability seems kinda silly.

One of the new things I am trying this year is Austin Kleon's logbook idea. I journal sporadically, but have never successfully made it into a daily habit. Might be interesting to just jot down a few things regularly over the course of a year and see what happens. Any excuse to buy a new notebook.