#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Don’t Ever Doubt Us”

Photo by David Tomaseti on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Generic gritty fantasy
  • Length: 1,253 words
  • Key Tropes: betrayal
  • Content Warnings: imprisonment, torture mention, dead body, wounded enemies
  • Explicit?: No

Mila expected, when the three hours were up, to see Belken pushed back into her cell by their captors. For the torture to be effective, she had to see it. She waited, and steeled herself against the horror she expected to witness, trying not to imagine what techniques would be used. She knew of many, but also knew a devious, sadistic mind could always find new ways to torment the human body. Belken might be tortured in ways she could not possibly imagine on her own.

She waited longer. Surely it had been three hours, at least, even with her skewed sense of time. Belken hadn’t blown out the candle nor replaced her blindfold when he left, and she studied what she could of the room by its light. She learned nothing that her other senses had not already told her–stone walls, damp and cold, a single door. The only true use of the candle was to gauge time passing by the wax it lost as it burned.

When the screams started, she couldn’t tell how far away they were. For any sound to reach her, it had to be loud and close, funneled to her by the hallway she expected lay beyond the door of her cell. But it didn’t sound nearby, by the quality of the echoes. These screams were faint, distant, and strangely enough, scattered and surprised.

If they were torturing Belken close enough for her to hear, to wear her down, why not do it in the room with her?

Because then they couldn’t fake it. That would explain why something sounded off to her about the cries of pain. She had seen a woman tortured, once. This didn’t compare.

The noise ceased abruptly, replaced by something else, fainter. At first Mila couldn’t tell what it was, and she leaned forward in her chair as far as her bonds allowed, closing her eyes and straining to hear more clearly, to make sense of the new sounds.

Footsteps on the stone. Fast. Heavy. People running. She couldn’t guess how many, only that it was more than one person.

The thudding slowed and stopped, but not at her door. There was a scrape of something along the stone, another door being opened. “Empty,” a deep voice said.

She had learned something new–there were other rooms here, other cells. And Belken wasn’t in the one next to hers.

Another door opening, closer. Across the hall. “Empty,” another, lighter voice said.

Those screams she’d heard had been Belken’s torture, real or faked. They’d been the cries of battle, of a quick, surprise attack. Her guild had come for her. She was being rescued.

She straightened and opened her eyes as her door swung open. When she saw the familiar gray leather armor, the black masks covering the lower halves of their faces, the soft black hoods, she sagged in relief. “Hey,” she said weakly.

The largest of her three guild mates crossed the room to kneel at her back, his fingers making quick work of the ropes. Their newest recruit six months ago, Peres was already proving himself a capable, silent asset. “Mila,” he greeted her briefly.

“Thanks for coming for me,” she said to all of them, studying the shapes of the other two, unable to recognize the small bits of their faces visible in the poor light. Neither was small enough to be the guild leader–Petralla wasn’t here. One she was certain was Nicora, a veteran she had seen around but rarely worked with or spoke to. The other was almost certainly Girard, who had joined up within a year of her and never seemed to like her.

Three people who don’t know me well and have no personal loyalty to me. Either this is a test Petralla set for them, or caution, in case I’ve been compromised and need to be put down. She suspected none of them would flinch at it, especially as no one had responded to her thanks.

Girard was hanging back, watching the corridor. The distant clang of battle song, blades against blades and bodies striking other bodies, filtered into the cell, coming from the other direction, not the way they’d come. When it stopped, Girard stuck his head out and whistled sharply, imitating a bird call. The answering whistle came instantly. “Let’s go,” he said.

Mila stood, and opened her mouth to tell them about Belken. But behind her, Peres grabbed her shoulders and propelled her forward, nearly tripping her in his haste. She wouldn’t make much headway, appealing to them to go after him–they clearly had one assignment, to secure her and her alone.

They brought her to a crossing of two corridors, where three more guild mates stood amid scattered bodies. Only one was obviously dead, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, while the others might only be incapacitated. Mila shrugged free of Peres’ grip, drew herself to her full height, and addressed the guild’s second in command. “Evran.”

“Mila, glad to see you in one piece. Now, report.”

Evran was always like that with her–a moment’s kindness before business, but serious as soon as that switch was flipped. She filled him in on what she knew as quickly as possible, constantly aware that they were not in a particularly defensible position.

“Hmm.” Evran stroked the mask over his chin, as if he were touching the beard underneath. “Peres, assessment.”

On her left, Peres snapped from scanning the empty hallway behind them to focusing on their commander. “If this Belken was coerced, as he said, we have a responsibility to protect him. He was targeted because of us.”

Mila held in surprise that their rawest member supported a secondary rescue. She drew breath to speak, but a look in Evran’s eyes warned her not to.

“Girard.”

“If he’s betrayed Mila, we still need him. Whether the threat of torture was a bluff or not, I’d rather we be the one to punish him. And we might get information in the process.”

“Nicora.”

“I agree with them both, but if you’re asking for a contrary opinion, commander, I’ll play. Petralla was clear in her instructions to get in, get Mila, and get out. We’re not here to start a war with the Bone Traders, not until we know it’s necessary. If they want our guild ledger, they’re up to something, and that war is probably coming soon. But that’s the leader’s call, not ours.”

Evran didn’t ask his aides, the two shadows who attended him everywhere, bodyguards, assistants, and sometimes, speculation said, lovers as well. They were guild mates, but their loyalty was to him–Mila didn’t even know their names, and had never heard either of them speak. “Mila,” Evran said.

She made herself say the right thing. “I don’t believe my opinion should be considered, commander. Whether he’s complicit or not, I can’t set aside my feelings.” Even if he had betrayed her, her heart burned at the thought of leaving him behind. Would their enemies punish him for his failure, for her escape?

Evran nodded. “Fan out and find him. Stealth when possible, fight when necessary. Mila, describe him for us, then you’re with me.”

After that was done and the others left, Mila followed Evran and his shadows down one of the hallways, the four of them moving slowly on silent feet. She leaned close to  the commander. “Thank you,” she breathed.

His eyes crinkled, evidence of a smile beneath his mask. “You love him–he’s family. We protect our own, and we punish them, too. You believed we’d come for you, right?” She nodded. “Don’t ever doubt us,” he added. “We all know the price of loyalty and love.”

Writing Homework #22: Write a Book Review

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

Let me tell you a story, even though this isn’t a Let Me Tell You a Story post. (Another neglected series of mine, sigh.)

So I’m looking over the topics I’ve already covered for Writing Homework, attempting to brainstorm new ones for this post and future entries.

I’d just written a book review beforehand, so I decide to mine it for inspiration. What didn’t I like about the book, and how could I turn that into a homework assignment? What problems had I already covered in past assignments? Were any of the new issues too large for the scope of this series?

I turned up one idea, which I’m hanging onto; I skimmed backwards on my Goodreads list to remember other recent, disappointing reads that might give me topics.

After five books, it struck me–I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees. All of these new topics I was listing, that I want to cover in future assignments–they all came from writing book reviews.

I wrote my first formal review for this blog in January 2016; since then I have written over 800 book reviews. And I have learned so much about writing in the process.

I’ve identified tropes I love and tropes I can’t stand. I’ve slogged through poorly-paced nightmares that inspire me to self-edit rigorously and try not to let my plots wander. I’m continually teaching myself to spot harmful representation. I’ve examined my own writing genre–romance–extensively, while also reading beyond it to incorporate other elements into my work.

The common advice to be a better writer is to read frequently and widely; but the reading itself is only part of the equation–you have to analyze what you read and reflect on how it relates to your writing.

So your assignment is to write a review of the book you’re currently reading, or the next one, if you’re in between. Now, you don’t have to post it anywhere if you don’t want to (and I obviously have no way of checking that anyway–these are all on-your-honor assignments and they always have been!) So if you’re worried that you “don’t know how” to write a review, don’t worry. There are tons of different reviewing styles, and my “word vomit like a journal with only minimal structure if my thoughts will fit into one” is not at all standard. Someone in my indie book club has an elaborate system of weighing different aspects of the book proportionately, giving each a separate rating, and combining them to get an overall score; I’m impressed with it but could never do it myself!

So don’t stress about format, just open a document and start talking to yourself, or a hypothetical audience of readers, about what you thought of the book. You don’t even have to give it a rating if you don’t want to, especially if you don’t intend to post it. Just jot down your experience, what you liked, what you didn’t. And then think about that in terms of your own writing. What strengths does this help you identify? What similar mistakes might you be making? What did you read that you would never, ever, ever want to include in your own work? What do you want to emulate about other writers?

If you truly don’t enjoy the book review process, even without the pressure to post it, then just do this once, for the experience of it; but if you find it helpful in any way, consider doing it again, if not for every book like I do (which even other book reviewers in my community sometimes find excessive, yeah, I know) then for particularly good or bad ones that make you think or make you happy or make you angry. You can learn an awful lot from “bad” books…

This Week, I Read… (2020 #39)

#148 – Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

  • Read: 10/9/20 – 10/13/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring the undead
  • Mount TBR: 127/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

As usual with a review where I have strongly mixed feelings about a book, let’s just break it down into what works and what doesn’t:

The good stuff: fantastic alternate-history setting with zombies, while I’m not up on every aspect of American history of this period all the changes that the book made flowed easily with what I knew and I never had a head-scratching moment. Strong criticism/commentary on racist ideas by portraying racism constantly and unflinchingly throughout the story. Surprise bi and ace representation! Well-developed, unapologetic, flawed heroine.

The not-so-good stuff: what the heck is up with this pacing? with this semi-directionless plot line? I understand to some extent because of the setting Jane can’t be proactive, only reactive, but the vague “I’m going to get back to Rose Hill someday” motivation doesn’t do much to carry the story forward or spur her decisions, because for most of the book she’s too busy trying to survive. And that return-home arc doesn’t even start until the second part, because in the first part, while she’s still at school, she doesn’t actively want to go home. She’s too busy there trying not to get kicked out, because graduating is necessary even if she hasn’t totally bought into the system.

For the whole 400+ page book, stuff just happens, and a lot of doesn’t really make sense. Most of the semi-mysterious goings-on at Summerland were never explained to my satisfaction–there had to be a huge fight with zombies, I guess, and the town had to be under threat from the looming horde, but why exactly where there giant breaches in the walls? That were repeatedly stated to be impossible to have been the result of zombies? But also there were never any explosions that I recall to account for them, and the town residents tearing holes in their own walls doesn’t make sense either, so all that danger in the final fact felt so incredibly contrived. Also its a big deal in the middle of the book that there are actually zombies inside the town for Reasons, but that doesn’t go anywhere. And everybody’s complaining about rations being cut as more families come to town, yet at the same time, townfolk are disappearing left and right, and only towards the end do we learn they’ve been turned, so they weren’t exactly collecting their food, right?

I had heard so often that this was amazing, so I’m mildly disappointed that I think it’s just good. It’s a solid historical-fantasy with lots of meaty, gory action. But it never achieved greatness for me, because it’s a string of zombie attacks held together with just enough world-building to make it work, and in the spaces that framework leaves, there’s a whole lot of typical villains, unsurprising “is this character dead or not” twists, and at the very end, our heroine revealing she’s more unreliable that I ever suspected, but not really in a way that made her or the story more interesting.

Some elements worked, some fell flat.

#149 – Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

  • Read: 10/13/20 – 10/14/20
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a spooky cover
  • Mount TBR: 128/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF after chapter 3, page 58, over 25%. I will drop books as low as 10%, and after the first chapter I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be finishing this, but I stuck it out through two more to be sure.

The concept is, a bunch of people go to an extreme writing retreat, where they’re cut off from their lives the whole time in order to foster creativity. The three chapters I read have the same components: a few pages of “real” time, where the narrator (whose identity is not yet disclosed by the time I quit) tells us about weirdly-named characters with a narrow selection of highly repetitive details; a poem about one of the other characters that somehow explains their life situation before coming on the retreat; and a short story by that character.

The format is experimental, and I would dig it, probably, if it weren’t incredibly obvious that everything was written by the same person, the actual author of the book. There’s no differentiation between author and character voice anywhere. All three stories had basically the same tone–bitter at the failure of their lives not being what they “should” be–and dealt with nearly the same themes–mistakes that changed the course of their lives somehow.

I’d be okay with the stories being thematically similar, because who, as a person, is likely to attend such an extreme workshop? People who feel they’ve failed at life and think they need a radical attempt to alter course. But I don’t see any excuse for three different characters with wildly different background sounding precisely the same in their writing. They wouldn’t, if they were real, and they still shouldn’t, even if they’re fake.

I’m not going to read the next twenty characters also being bitter cynics with nothing to distinguish them from each other. I’m just not.

As for the style, well, that first chapter managed to include a lot of off-putting gore without actually being horror, and while I was grossed out, I was also cautiously impressed. Though this is my first attempt at reading Palahnuik, because this is the novel of his that happened to fall into my hands at a used book sale, I’ve been aware of him since watching Fight Club, which I enjoyed, and I’ve been curious since one “who do you write like?” website spit out his name when given a chapter of my writing. (I know they go by grammar and word ratios and sentence length, not content; but I was still curious.)

I’ve gathered that for many the author is a love-him-or-hate-him creator, but I haven’t read enough by DNFing this novel to know for sure. I like some of the concepts of this work while being sorely disappointed in its execution–I don’t think it’s an unfair ask for a novel built around the stories of twenty-three different writer-characters to have them all not sound like the same person. I think that’s a fundamental necessity for my suspension of disbelief, and I didn’t get it, so I’m not bothering with the rest.

#150 – The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch, illustrated by M.S. Corley

  • Read: 10/14/20 – 10/15/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to witches
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring witches or magic users
  • Mount TBR: 129/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

First, the best thing: I did not know there was such a thing as a “Kindle in Motion” book that has animated illustrations, so when I started this I was pleasantly surprised to find them, and I really loved the art style. Anytime I flicked a page over and found a new one, I was delighted.

Too bad I didn’t think the story deserved the effort, though. This plot did not need to be nearly 450 pages long, maybe 300 at most. The story moved at a glacially slow pace, because it often took a character an entire page to perform one simple action, and many conversations between different sets of characters retread information I, as a reader, already had. The prose was plodding and simplistic, and the author over-relied on epithets stylistically, even for characters who had names; though in fairness, many didn’t, “the devil” in particular. But why was “the hangman” or “the midwife” or “the hangman’s daughter” or “the physician’s son” so prevalent when we know their names are Jakob, Martha, Magdalena, and Simon?

In addition, the scenes jumped from character to character in different locations abruptly, often without any sort of scene break, which made the narrative difficult to follow in places. I would be following Simon along his tramping through the forest, then next paragraph, I’m with Sophie in her hiding place; this isn’t a movie, it’s a novel, smash cuts don’t work mid-scene without something to tell me I’ve changed locations, like a scene break.

Overall, the writing struck me as amateurish, and as historical fiction, more concerned with accuracy and detail as proof of research than it was with plot and character.

At halfway through, I made the decision to skim instead of fully read, and I don’t regret it.

As for the plot, it’s not complicated, witchcraft is a sensationalized smokescreen for what’s really going on, and several key points are fairly predictable, though I didn’t solve the overall “mystery” myself. (I’m not particularly torn up about my failure to, because I wasn’t deeply invested.) Also, I’m on record disliking this about several other books, and it’s equally true here–why is this titled “The Hangman’s Daughter” when she’s nearly the least important character? She’s barely in the book for the first half, and in the second half she’s mostly an object, for Simon to lust after, for Jakob to yell at, for the villains to kidnap. She’s not interesting, she’s not vital to the central plot, but she’s the title, for some reason.

I did not enjoy this, I do not recommend it, and I won’t be continuing the series.

NaNoWriMo 2020: Project Announcement

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Last year, I hemmed and hawed about what project to work on, then wrote a weird experimental fantasy-romance I haven’t touched (barely even looked at!) since. Not every NaNo novel is worth publishing, and I don’t feel bad about it–plus, it’s always there if I decide I need to mine it for story parts.

This year there’s no doubt in my mind what project I want to work on, and I’ve already started brainstorming for it. Since Fifty-Five Days had an entire romantic subplot cut in the early stages because it wasn’t working, I’m moving that plot forward in the timeline to a second book, and adding some new elements.

Folks, I’m going to try to write a queer polyamorous romance novel.

So the project name (for now) is Rockstar Novel 2: Electric Bugaloo–because of course it is–and aside from lots of brainstorming notes and an extremely loose outline of the early chapters, I’m pantsing it. No hard outline, not even an outline of the whole story, just the ideas I have on how to start and what needs to be established early, then the rest of the novel will sort itself out.

Given that I tend to write first drafts in the 90-110K range, I will not finish during NaNo itself (I never do) but will continue to pound out the draft into December for as long as it takes to finish.

I have some qualms about doing NaNo at all this year, given my health struggles and the fact that I’m still trying to get Fifty-Five Days released by year’s end. But I think I can do it. I have a work plan for 55D that should accommodate both. And of course, I don’t have to win NaNo, though I generally do. I just want to keep my participation streak, if nothing else–I’m a proud NaNo veteran with a five year/six-project streak (thanks to me winning Camp NaNo as well one summer.) I’d honestly be sad if I didn’t attempt NaNo this year, no matter what else is going on!

Literary Pet Peeves: Describing People with Food

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

[This may or may not be successful post series, but I had an idea, let’s give this a try.]

In researching how to respectfully describe characters of color, I’ve encountered many voices saying “Don’t use food-related words for anything about them, especially hair, skin, or eye color.” (I’m paraphrasing from several sources, but as this concept is not at all my idea, here are a few to check out.)

That got me thinking about how common food is as a descriptor for people in general, and in more ways that the color of any given body part. Heck, I grew up with the term “pear-shaped” as an acceptable way to denote my body type, and the older I get and the more I read, the more irritated I am at the constant likening of people to food, even outside of racist connotations.

I don’t want to be “pear-shaped” anymore, not in reality, but in the way another writer might describe me or a character resembling me.

One of the worst offenders I’ve seen is the old, tired “her breasts were like apples.” I’ve seen it in older fiction, I’ve seen it in modern romance novels; I’ve seen it from male and female authors alike. This one in particular irritates me to no end because I’m immediately pulled out of the story every time I encounter it, by the image of an otherwise flat-chested woman with two red apples stuck to the front of her. I’ve never seen a breast that looks even remotely like an apple.

This vague idea I had for writing a “no food words” post was sharpened by a recent Tumblr thread about the “just-pressed olive oil” description of a character in Song of Achilles, which I have not read. The author mounts a compelling defense of her intentions in using it, and how it relates to ancient perception of color: totally worth the read. But I can’t help but think, much like apple boobies, that it’s such a jarring image that it’s not helpful in the story and doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to do. (Its “silliness” is a complaint I found in several reviews of the book that turned up when I was trying to find the post I remembered seeing and hadn’t saved.)

Where am I going with this? Well, mostly spouting off about how I’ve grown to think that nobody should be described with food terminology. What food color would my own skin be, anyway? Under-done bread? The lightest part of a tortilla? Nah, neither of those are pink enough–I’m really pale, which means I generally look pink or even red, thanks, sunburn/rosacea. I can’t think of a single flattering way to liken my skin to food, though I’m less insulted by “wheat-colored” hair for my blonde-ness.

You don’t have to take my advice to heart, of course. (I do suggest you listen to the people of color telling you not to compare them to food, still.) But the other aspect of this is that it’s so common, and it’s so easy, that even when it’s not done in a racist way, it’s still lazy! Why describe your characters the same way everyone else does? Why not stretch yourself to do something different by not relying on simple food comparisons?

Rant over, at least until next time I have a new literary pet peeve, with sources, to gripe about.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Are We Really Doing This?”

Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Meredith and Lily
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American town
  • Length: 1,417 words
  • Key Tropes: best friends to lovers, Big Scary Feelings, bisexual and pansexual MCs
  • Content Warnings: alcohol, swearing
  • Explicit?: not very

One slice of pizza remained in the box, and the bottle of wine was half empty. Meredith lifted the remote and turned off the TV.

Lily downed the rest of her glass and reached to refill it, sighing. “I wish this didn’t feel like doom,” she muttered. “I hate when you’re angry with me.”

Meredith leaned back against the arm of the couch. Her feet were inches from Lily’s leg, and she resisted the urge to unfold herself, to rest her legs across Lily’s lap. She wouldn’t like that yet. “Yeah, well, so do I.”

“I’d be handling this better if I had any idea what to say.”

“Okay, then, I’ll go first.” Meredith set her empty glass aside. “I’m completely on board with the idea of trying to make this best-friendship romantic. And sexual, when we both feel comfortable with that, though I admit that’s probably going to take some time for me, because I’m so used to trying not to think of you that way. It’s going to be an adjustment.”

Pointedly staring at the blank TV instead of looking at her, Lily sighed again. “How did I not know you were into me? This felt like a much bigger risk before I did it.”

“How was I supposed to know you had any feelings for me when half the time we go out together you end up going home with someone else?” Lily looked over at her sharply, but Meredith held up her hands in defense. “I am not shaming you for your one-night stands, you know that. But what was I supposed to think when you’re bouncing through three or four different lovers every few months? I thought you didn’t want anything serious, but I do. And you know I do, you know I’ve been looking for something stable, long-term. So why would I think you wanted to date me?”

Something in Lily’s expression softened. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. And because you would never shame me for my endless one-night stands–though some of my partners did last longer than that, I’ll have you know–you never realized that I was only having them because I thought I couldn’t have the person I really wanted.” She laughed darkly and looked away. “I’m so fucking trite, it’s pathetic.”

Meredith chucked a pillow at her, aiming for the arm not holding the wine glass. “So you’ve been pining for me, huh?”

“Go ahead, make fun of me.” She sipped her wine.

“Not now, when I’d only be indulging your self-loathing.”

That made Lily laugh again, more brightly. “I hate feeling this stupid.”

“You’re not stupid,” Meredith insisted, shifting so she sat by Lily’s side and could wrap an arm around her back. Comforting friend-level hugs were familiar territory. “Come on, how often do either of us get a new relationship right on the first try? We’re not exactly smooth talkers. You charm people into bed by being direct, then don’t end up keeping them. I mostly fail to get them into bed in the first place. Why would we be any different with each other?”

“That’s just it,” Lily whispered. “I want to be different with you. I want to be better. I know I’m picky about your partners and I never think they’re good enough for you. I can admit that, yeah, some of that might have been denial and spite, but at the end of the day, I was trying to look out for you. Just like with Jessie. If somebody gives me a bad vibe, I want you to know.” She laid her head on Meredith’s shoulder. “But since we’re being ruthlessly honest about everything tonight…I’m not good enough for you, either. As your best friend, I would tell you not to date me. I’m a mess.”

Meredith’s throat tightened with the first signs of tears forming. She leaned over a few inches to kiss Lily’s temple. “You’re my mess, though. After everything we’ve been through, after all the times we’ve put each other back together after breakups and job setbacks and family drama, don’t you trust me to have a little more patience with you than with some random guy I picked up at a bar, or a blind date a coworker set me up on?”

Lily’s arms came around her waist and squeezed, which put the sloshing wine glass dangerously close to her sweater. Meredith plucked it from her hand and set it on the coffee table. “Are we really doing this?”

“I am,” Meredith said simply. “You can still say no, and I’ll back off, and we’ll…we’ll figure it out from there.”

Lily lifted her head, gazing first at Meredith’s eyes, then her lips. “I don’t want you to back off. Can I kiss you?”

Meredith wanted to laugh at her remembering to ask first, but there was no laughter in her when Lily looked at her like that. “Yes, please.”

Lily’s mouth was soft, and the lingering taste of wine seemed different than what Meredith had drunk herself, the result of some alchemy as it combined with Lily’s own taste. Meredith yielded to the steady pressure of the kiss and let Lily bear her down to the couch and stretch over her, slotting their legs together, bringing them chest to chest. The scrape of Lily’s body against hers hardened her nipples, making them ache for a more direct touch.

Maybe she wouldn’t need much time to adjust, after all.

Too soon, though, Lily broke the kiss, pressing up on her hands, braced above Meredith. “Too much?”

“No,” Meredith breathed. “But we probably shouldn’t rush.”

“No, we shouldn’t,” Lily agreed as she sat up. Meredith pulled back as well, making space on the couch for her. “I meant what I said, Mere. I want to be better with you, and you know sex is easier for me than relationships. So I don’t want to take the easy way out, because that’s probably going to mess us up, and I don’t want to lose you.” She pushed an unsteady hand through her hair. “That’s what’s so terrifying about this. If we try this, and it goes badly–you’ll be an ex instead of my best friend. I don’t think you can be both of those things at once. So the only way this works is if it’s forever, and–” She broke off.

“And forever is pretty scary all on its own, at the beginning of a relationship,” Meredith finished for her. “I know. I think we’re still in a window, where we can step back and say, this isn’t a good idea, we’re making a mistake. Where we can still be best friends, even if it’s a little awkward for a while because we both thought about more. But Lils, I don’t think that window’s open much longer. If we really start dating, and definitely if we sleep together, I won’t be able to step back anymore. I know sex can be casual for you, but it never is for me. So if you’re still not sure you want to take this risk, I think you’d better decide now. Or at least, very, very soon. Like, before our first date, soon.”

“Okay.” Lily scrubbed the heel of her hand over her eyes, though Meredith hadn’t seen any tears falling. “Okay, that’s fair. I don’t–I wouldn’t want to hurt you, like that. So I will call you tomorrow, and I will either ask you on a date, or I will tell you I’m calling this off before it really starts. Because–because I’m too wrung out to make a decision that big tonight, tipsy on half a bottle of wine and one extremely good kiss.” She glanced at Meredith and smiled weakly. “I promise, this time, no ghosting. But I need to sleep on this and think about it more clearly tomorrow. Is that okay?”

Meredith’s heart squeezed painfully, and she hated that she couldn’t completely banish her doubt. But she smiled back, and stood, and lightly kissed the top of Lily’s head. “Get some rest. And I’ll leave you the rest of the pie, so have some for breakfast and think of me, okay? I’ll let myself out.”

“No, Mere, you don’t have to go yet–” Lily began as she reached out.

“Yeah, I do. If you want to be better with me, then I’ll be a good best friend for now and remove your temptation to be bad. No more kisses until we know where we stand.” At Lily’s pout, she grinned. “Can you honestly say you weren’t hoping we’d make out more?”

Lily sighed. “Okay, fine, go home.”

Meredith grabbed her purse and blew a kiss from the doorway.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #38)

#146 – Behold, Here’s Poison, by Georgette Heyer

  • Read: 10/2/20 – 10/4/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A mystery
  • Mount TBR: 125/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 127. It’s only partially the book’s fault, though.

I don’t enjoy mystery novels. Oddly enough, I do sometimes enjoy mystery movies, and I had my phase of watching investigative procedural shows with their mystery elements. But novels have always left me bored, frustrated, or bewildered.

This is no exception; but my dislike of the genre isn’t the fault of this particular book.

My yearly reading challenges, no matter the source or the year, always include somewhere “Read a mystery.” And I always put my game face on and try a new one, thinking “Maybe this time I’ll enjoy it.” And I never do. I should really stop trying.

So what portion of my disappointment with this is actually the book’s fault? It has a huge cast of characters that are uniformly obnoxious with very little in the way of differing personalities between them; the worst of upper-crust British society at the time, I guess, and so overdone to my sensibilities that if you told me this was satire I would believe you. The first seventy pages of the book were solely devoted to these dozen or so awful people constantly slinging accusations at each other and reiterating information that I, the reader, already knew; it was a slog, and I nearly gave up before the inspectors were even introduced. When I got that far, I gamely attempted two more chapters before throwing in the towel; the constant repetition of information in conversation between different characters was simply too exhausting, and the pace of the story was glacially slow.

I’m stating it now: I have no intention of ever reading any book whose primary genre is listed as “mystery” again. I never like them and I’m tired of trying to.

#147 – A Song for Arbonne, by Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Read: 10/4/20 – 10/8/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a bird on its cover
  • Mount TBR: 126/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

After a somewhat slow start that left me wondering (as I often do with GGK) how I would keep all the characters straight, this quickly became a story so compelling I didn’t want to put it down, yet sometimes I had to because emotion or inspiration overwhelmed me.

And I didn’t have trouble keeping track of everybody for long. I should really trust the author more by now, I’m most of the way through his catalog. His characters are never ambiguous or interchangeable.

While it’s inevitable for most readers, myself included, to compare this to Tigana, because of its similarities or because Tigana is often considered his best work or because, like me, it was the first GGK novel I read, I find the comparison favorable. So much of what I loved about Tigana is also present here; this is the work that reminds me most of it, in good ways. The complex layers of motivations to the characters, the emphasis on artistry, the nobleman-in-hiding, the way even minor characters are memorable many chapters later when they reappear to play some small but key role in the story. The only thing that felt missing was magic, which has a much smaller presence, but for this particular tale of love and grief and revenge and war, I found I didn’t mind.

I already want to read it again, and I think it will reward me when I do with extra insight and a deeper appreciation of how it balances large political forces against the small, pivotal actions of the individual, a characteristic of GGK’s writing that I don’t think I’ve found often from other authors. He takes the time to remind us that one person can still change a flow of events that otherwise seems inevitable, as well as taking the time to pause and really let us feel the emotions driving those characters.

Will it eventually unseat Tigana as my favorite GGK novel? I don’t know yet; it’s hardly fair to stack a first read against something I’ve reread at least half a dozen times. (Also, I should probably give River of Stars a chance as well, I adored it but also haven’t reread it yet.) But it’s the first novel since RoS that makes me feel like it might, given enough time and attention.

Editing Notes: Revisiting Filler Words

Photo by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

For reference, I last examined filler words over four years ago. After cutting a 110K manuscript down to 104K, I have new thoughts to share.

As before, none of these individual words should be considered forbidden. But there’s a middle ground between “never use it” and “don’t overuse it,” and that’s what a filler-word edit is striving for. Also, my guidelines aren’t intended to be as strict for dialogue; people do say “stuff” and “things” and “like” and “really” in daily life, and stripping filler words from speech can result in a sense of unnaturalness. Always keep that in mind when dealing with your own writing.

Let’s break this down into categories, to help you recognize words in your style which might not be on my list, but still need consideration. (Occasional sarcastic examples ahead.)

Unnecessary Emphasis or Conditionality

just / so / very / sudden(ly) / real(ly) / maybe / almost / nearly / even / quite

Is the problem really bad? (Is the problem serious?) Whenever you see an extra word for emphasis (very tired, so sad) consider if there’s a single word with the same meaning: exhausted, miserable. If you’re hedging about something, if you’re “not quite sure,” trying being uncertain. “Maybe she won’t show up” could be formalized as “she might not”–still a conditional, but it’s cleaner. If that uncertainty is necessary for the meaning of a sentence, keep it in, but consider how you include it.

Specificity

some / pretty / stuff / thing(s) / all / (a) little / (a) bit / (a) lot(s) / second / moment

This tendency runs to both ends of the spectrum; too vague and too specific are both problems. “Grab your stuff!” is a handy command when you’re in a hurry, but “he grabbed his stuff” is lackluster for a reader. What stuff did he grab? Papers and textbooks, or luggage, or a high-tech gizmo for saving the world?

You pretty much want to be specific when you can. If you don’t, things a reader’s experience can be pretty dicey frustrating.

But being too concerned with specificity also creates filler. You want to make sure a character pauses “for a second.” You say the next action happens “in a moment.” When describing something small, it’s “just a little bit.” These phrases are so common, so everyday, without searching for their key words, your brain can pass right over them when you read. A certain level of flow is good for your work (which, again, is why none of these words are forbidden,) but excessive filler gets in the way or even distances the reader from the meaning.

Perception Filters

seem / think / feel

Characters will think thoughts, and sometimes, it’s important for an action to seem a certain way, because the intention behind it isn’t clear. But are you leaning on these filtering verbs? How vital is it that something “seems” empty, versus actually being empty? Does it enrich the narrative for Bob to think Jeff is annoyed, or you let Jeff be annoyed without framing it through Bob? Are you stating how your characters feel, instead of showing it organically?

Time and Distance

here / there / (right) now / then / before / after / back / up / down / again

Description and stage direction are necessary, but keep them trim. These words are going to get you, sneaking in as part of everyday phrases: sit down, come back, over there. Sometimes, you keep them: saying something is “over there” might be your intention. But I found myself rewriting pauses in conversation as “before he spoke again,” or “after [performing some action].” Characters were constantly going “back,” coming “back.” “There” is going to snag with “there is” and “there was.” Many instances of these words you will ultimately need; they’re common for good reason. But that shouldn’t be permission not to examine them and cut them whenever possible.

Darling Verbs

look / walk / turn

Yes, as in “kill your darlings.” This is the most variable category on an individual level, but these three verbs are my over-work-horses. My characters are always looking at each other or giving each other looks. “Walk” might be a holdover from writing three post-apocalyptic road trip novels; I didn’t find it nearly as often in Fifty-Five Days during its filler edit. (Maybe I can take a word off my list instead of adding more, for once!) “Turn” also might be downgraded–I may have trained myself out of characters frequently turning to each other.

You probably have your own darling verbs, and I can’t tell you what they are. Think about your characters’ most common actions and see if you spot patterns.

Multi-meaning, Multi-purpose Words

that / like

I saved these for last, because they can be beasts. “That” is often completely unnecessary: “she thought that he wouldn’t call her.” Which is why you’ll see advice telling to you cut “that” completely out of your writing–but “that’s” not wise, because “that” is also a useful pronoun. “She pointed to a big red suitcase at the top of the attic stairs. ‘That one,’ she said to Jim, who fetched it for her.” Otherwise you’d have to say “big red suitcase” again. So you can’t axe every “that” with impunity, and even when you do need a pronoun, it can’t always be replaced with “it” or “which.”

Like? Oh, boy. I once heard a piece of advice which I’ll have to paraphrase because it was so long ago: “Every ‘like’ in a piece of writing can be replaced with a word better suited to the purpose.” But when two things are alike, you want to say “like,” not “similar to”–which is longer and more formal. When it’s a verb, sure, you can use “prefer” or “enjoy” instead, depending on context, though again, those choices are longer and more formal. And for similes, by definition, X is like Y, that’s the construction, “like” is in its DNA and if you take it out then you’ve got a metaphor: X is Y.

So, you should like, cut “like” when it’s clearly filler or affectation, but parsing its other meanings and cutting/replacing boils down to cases, because it has so many meanings and is so common.


I want to wrap up with a reminder that this advice is a synthesis of advice I’ve read or received over the years, and my own experience. Some of my filler words won’t be issues for you, and you’ll undoubtedly have ones I don’t; which I why I wanted to revisit my original thoughts, organize my word list by category, and offer enough explanation to show the reasoning behind those words and allow you to recognize others.

“Enough” is a good example. I barely use it, but if your characters often wonder if they’re good enough, strong enough, tough enough…you get the idea.

“Often” and “wonder,” too.

Down the TBR Hole #35

Down the TBR Hole is a (very) bookish meme, originally created by Lia @ Lost In A Story. She has since combed through all of her TBR (very impressive) and diminished it by quite a bit, but the meme is still open to others! How to participate:

  • Go to your Goodreads to-read shelf
  • Order by Ascending Date Added
  • Take the first 5 (or 10 if you’re feeling adventurous) books. Of course if you do this weekly, you start where you left off the last time.
  • Read the synopses of the books
  • Decide: keep it or let it go?

More progress! Between what I cut last month, in the post and for other reasons, and what I’ve read since, my TBR is down to 529 from 549. I even think I added a few things? Not many, though.

Let’s see what’s up for debate next.

#1 – Winter’s King, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wasn’t even going to mention this at first, passing right over it on the list, until it occurred to me that I might be able to cut it individually because it might be included in the Le Guin anthology I own but have yet to read. It isn’t, so it stays, because it’s a short-story sequel to The Left Hand of Darkness, one of my favorites.

No, I was never going to actually cut it, I was just looking to trim my total on a technicality.

#2 – Chromophobia, by David Batchelor

#3 – Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers

I added both of these the same day, and for once I even vaguely remember why–they were included in the sources of a YouTube video. Problem is, I can’t remember what I was watching? Something about art and color, obviously. My brain says “that NerdWriter video about chiaroscuro” but a) that was too recent, and b) even if it weren’t he rarely mentions references.

What was I watching frequently on YouTube in early 2018? I may never solve this mystery.

Anyway, looking more closely at the actual books, Chromophobia is less interesting to me than it first appeared and has many reviews remarking on its pretentiousness. Interaction of Color seems more like a book I’d want to read not for general knowledge, but if/when I get more serious about my art skills, which is a possibility. But there are also much easier sources on color theory for me to access. They both go.

#4 + #5 – Chaser and Last Call, by Staci Hart

I added the rest of the Bad Habits series after reading the opener, With a Twist, which was my first read by this author and one of the best rom-com novels I’ve read in the past five years. Duh, these are staying. But they escaped being catalogued in my Getting Serious About Series posts, probably because my 2018 tracking system was a nightmare, so I’m glad this reminded me I need to read them.

#6 – #10: The bibliography of Extra Sci Fi’s “The Forgotten Foundations Part 1”

  • The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers
  • In Search of the Unknown, by Robert W. Chambers
  • The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson
  • The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson
  • After London: or, Wild England, by Richard Jeffries

I have a source for these! I remember where I got them from! I stopped supporting Extra Credits after The Controversy, but that hadn’t happened yet, and we were watching the Extra Sci Fi series because we’re nerds.

My distaste for the source following The Controversy isn’t the books’ fault, though, they were written more than a hundred years ago. But am I still interested? I threw these on the TBR because I was all excited about the history of sci-fi, but am I now? Will I ever go back for these? Honestly, probably not. They all go. My interests have moved on.

Bonus #11 – Matilda, by Roald Dahl

Yes, somehow I’ve never read Matilda. I seem to remember reading James and the Giant Peach as a kid, but none of Dahl’s other works crossed my path.

I’ve never seen the beloved movie adaptation, either, and since I do want to at some point, I should probably read the book first, right?

It can stay. There’s (nearly) always room on my TBR for children’s classics I missed when I was a kid.


This was a doozy of a list, wasn’t it? I cut 7/11, in nice big chunks. It feels good. It feels like progress. But if I’ve caught any sci-fi history buffs who want to argue those books deserve reading, or anyone else who has read something from the list and has an opinion to share, let me know in the comments!

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Your Hands Are Cold as Ice”

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash
  • Introducing: Naomi and Joanna
  • Setting: Contemporary, no specifics
  • Length: 568 words
  • Key Tropes: established relationship, nightmare comfort
  • Content Warnings: none
  • Explicit?: No

Naomi rolled over and tried to get comfortable again, unsure what woke her. No light leaked from the edge of the curtains, so she didn’t check her phone for the time.

A weak whimper came from the heap of blankets on the other side of the bed.

“Jo?” she asked softly. “You okay over there?”

No answer. It had taken Naomi a while to get used to Joanna’s odd sleeping habits–the rain sounds she used to help her fall asleep, the multiple layers of thick blankets even in mild weather, the occasional kick if she was starfishing. It meant more nights of broken sleep than Naomi preferred, but she’d adjusted over the last year, and they were a small price to pay for near-constant daytime happiness. Joanna was the best part of her life, even if she wasn’t the easiest bed mate.

Naomi thought she might have nearly been asleep again when she heard a squeak, one that sounded remarkably like the word “help.” She scooted ungracefully across the bed, digging her way into the tomb of blankets, until she found body parts–a hip, a hand. “Joanna,” she said softly, settling herself beside her wife, whose body was tense, limbs contorted wildly. “You’re having a nightmare, Jo. Wake up.”

If it were that easy, Naomi would get more sleep. But Jo’s nightmares were strange, vivid things that held her prisoner sometimes in a state that edged on wakefulness, where she could talk but wouldn’t remember any of it later. Naomi’s only solution was to keep her talking until she made enough sense to prove she was fully awake. “Wake up, Jo,” she tried again.

“The Muppets,” Joanna mumbled.

As far as Naomi knew, Joanna loved the Muppets, so if they were in her nightmare, this was going to be a truly weird one to hear about. “What are they doing?”

“I have to find Kermit, he’s supposed to take me to dinner.”

That was more familiar ground. The nightmares almost always involved searching for something. She had a bunch of semi-logical questions to follow that up with, and she chose one at random. “Where are you going to dinner?”

“The Oscars.” She sniffled. “But I lost my dress, too.”

“That’s okay.” Naomi soothed her sudden tears with a hand smoothed over her hair. “I’m sure you’ll still look great.”

“I still have my sword. He told me to bring my sword.”

Naomi considered that and chose her next question. “What kind of sword is it?” Not that she would recognize the name of any exotic weapons, but Joanna was a fantasy nerd, so she could probably name half a hundred types, between this video game or that book series or her role-playing experience.

“It’s a sword,” Joanna explained patiently. “And I need to it get into the Oscars. Like a ticket.”

A world where every celebrity came to an awards show armed. That truly was a nightmare. “Have you found Kermit yet?”

Joanna groaned. “Kermit?”

“Small, green, neurotic but sweet frog? You were looking for him.”

“Jesus, Naomi,” Joanna said in an entirely different tone of voice. “Your hands are cold as ice.” She shivered once, violently, then pulled Naomi closer and wrapped her in a tangle of limbs, which melted, softened, completely unlike the vibrating tension of the nightmare. “I don’t understand how you can sleep when you’re half-freezing.”

Naomi pulled one hand free to arrange the edges of the blanket pile more snugly around them. “Good excuse for you to warm me up.”