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"

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.