Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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The blog will be on hiatus until Friday, September 29th. I’m going on vacation, and ideally I would have had post scheduled for the time we’re gone, but it didn’t work out that way. (Plus I’ll be reading while I’m away, of course, but I won’t necessarily have time to write up the reviews.)

So no reviews this Friday, I’ll do the two weeks’ worth all at once when I get back.

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This Week, I Read… (2017 #35)

116 - A Breath of Snow and Ashes

#116 – A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon

An unexpected improvement in quality over the last two books, though it was minor. The sections of this I liked, I enjoyed a great deal–but as always with this series, there were long, boring sections where not much happened.

On the up side, we’re finally at the Revolutionary War, which book #5 felt like it was killing time waiting for. On the down side, I got a serious case of emotional whiplash in the middle of the story–first a young woman from the extended friends-and-neighbors clan surrounding the Frasers managed to get pregnant then cheerfully commit bigamy by having Jamie handfast her to one of a pair of twins, then running right over to Roger before word could reach him and having him (newly a minister) marry her to the other twin. Though the moral atmosphere of the time certainly frowns on having two husbands, I was cheering for her–look at that girl go after what she wants!

The very next subplot, though, dealt with another young woman, Claire’s apprentice/assistant in medicine, also turn up pregnant–but then she’s murdered.

Umm, what? Did I just crack a vertebra trying to follow that plot?

The whole book is like that, though. It goes from one plot point to the next with very little continuity of tone, and little foreshadowing to get a reader ready for the abrupt shifts.

Six books down, two to go. I’m going to make it. I’ve still got three months.

117 - The Martian Chronicles

#117 – The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

I haven’t read this in about twenty years–I first read it in high school and loved it–and I wondered if I would feel differently now, if it would have lost some of its shine.

It hasn’t. I think I love it more.

Knowing more now about story structure, I can appreciate the difficulty of linking such disparate stories into a cohesive narrative, one that tells the story of humankind going to Mars, ruining it as they did Earth, then abandoning it to its desolation when the final war comes to Earth. But that last story, that glimmer of hope…still so moving.

The language is beautiful, even poetic in places, though it has a touch of the absurd that I enjoy so much–asking the reader to simply accept such oddities as the “crystal buns” in a Martian homemaker’s oven, and other descriptive phrases that don’t have a logical, human sense. Plus the silliness and brilliance of the Martians’ absolute lack of reaction to the visitation of the first human expeditions. Even though I knew why, it still cracked me up.

This really is some of the best that classic sci-fi has to offer.

118 - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

#118 – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

A disappointing end to the trilogy. I nearly gave up around 150 pages in–I was wading through a seemingly never-ending swamp of political exposition about the bad guys, and it was so tedious. But I did want to find out how it ended.

(I mentioned to a friend I was reading it this week, and she said she loved the first two and lost interest partway through the third. I can see why.)

On top of the sheer boredom of that section, the middle third of the book involves so many different characters investigating/spying on/sabotaging other characters that all reveals lose their punch. What do I care if the bad guys figure out Blomkvist + Co. have been duping them and running counter-surveillance, when I’ve known that for almost a hundred pages? It’s all retreading the same information with different characters again and again.

But still, I stuck with it. Things definitely pick up at the end, when Lisbeth gets to be a hacker again (and a real character too, instead of a vegetable!) Erika’s new job drama also kept me entertained, because though it wasn’t a life-or-death subplot, at least it was different.

Writing Homework #12: Try a New Outlining Method

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Since I’m trying to wrangle my plot bunnies and choose which one gets fed during NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ve got seven to choose from, I thought this would be a great time to investigate different ways to outline. I’ve already tried a few throughout my years of writing, with wildly varying degrees of success, but I got it in my head to try as many as I can now, while I have all these ideas to cultivate.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to take a story idea you have an try out a new-to-you method of outlining it. I’ve assembled several ideas, but there are certainly more methods out there.

#1 – Standard (Research Paper) Outline

Just like the ones back in school, this is your Roman-numeral, descending outline. Straightforward, especially if you’re already familiar with it from a thousand sheets of class notes or research papers–just change the sections from Introduction, Thesis, etc. to Act I, II, II (for the three-act structure) and make the subdivisions into chapters; or if that’s too rigid, use the sections for the major plot points you want to occur, the subdivisions for scene details, and figure out the chapter divisions as you write.

#2 – The Synopsis

Take a sheet of paper (or a blank document) and write out in simple action sentences the plot of your novel. This one’s quite flexible; it doesn’t need to be as formal as writing a synopsis for publishing agents, though it still shouldn’t go into great detail at this stage. Include notes for character motivation or settings where you already have ideas, but in truth, this is the bare-bones summary of what happens in your story.

#3 – The Snowflake Method

If the Synopsis is a quick-and-dirty approach, the Snowflake Method is its fractal cousin. Its creator explains it in more detail than I can–but briefly, you start with one sentence describing your entire premise, then expand that into a handful of sentences detailing the major plot points, then expand that into paragraphs with the first details of how and who and why, and so forth.

#4 – The Headlight/Flashlight Method

Useful for us pantsers who have a character already in mind or know how the story starts, this method (which I’ve seen frequently under both names) is a brainstorm-as-you-go plan, where you take what you already have and only plan a few chapters in advance. At each major decision point, you can explore as many new ideas for how to proceed as you want before committing to writing the next few chapters. By its nature, this method isn’t as strong for a situation like NaNoWriMo when you might want all your planning done ahead of time, but it certainly appeals to me!

#5 – The Zero/Discovery Draft

An anything-goes race from start to finish, written with more depth but less precision than a synopsis; the kitchen sink of outlines, where everything from detailed character descriptions to snippets of dialogue to [insert fight scene here] is acceptable. Author Leigh Bardugo describes her process for one of my favorite YA novels Six of Crows as “I write a skeleton and then put meat on its bones.”

#6 – Mind Maps

A visual, non-linear outlining method that I have no experience with myself, so I’ll point you here for a comprehensive breakdown. It seems a little intimidating to me, as I’ve never attempted anything like it–but that means I probably should, right?

#7 – Note Cards/Sticky Notes

Another visual method with the bonus of being rearrangeable, for stories without firm timelines at the outset. Depending on your planning style and level of abstraction, each note card can be a scene, a chapter, or a simple major plot point if you’re in the early stages. You may end up using the note cards to build a more classic outline in the end, but for strongly visual thinkers, it might be an easier way to get there.

I hope this has given you some ideas for the care and development of your plot bunnies–good luck!


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

Let Me Tell You a Story #27: Too Many Plot Bunnies

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With a completed series behind me and a NaNoWriMo novel draft I’m not ready to tackle rewriting, I’m stuck firmly in Plot Bunny Land. I have seven WIPs at the moment with drabs of story notes, partial scenes, and the vaguest of character sketches and outlines–they range from a mere 581 words to a fat-bunny size of 5,941.

I’m still writing nearly every day, but over the past few weeks I’ve added a few hundred words at a time to four of those seven bunnies.

I have no idea what to write next.

Each one is appealing to me, in one way or another, or I wouldn’t be writing them in the first place. I’ve got ghosts in a library, reunited old friends (two takes on this one), geeks in love, lesbian witches, a werewolf shifter pack with a family structure instead of the debunked Alpha/Omega nonsense, and a man belly dancing on a bar. They’re all fun.

But I don’t know where any of them are going. The downside of being, in all major ways, a pantser.

So today I’m brainstorming ways I can choose between these fluffy little rabbits and focus on just one story to write.

  1. Continue as I am, adding to each story as the ideas come, until one takes over naturally. PRO: doesn’t force me to choose. CON: getting one project finished will be extremely slow.
  2. Pick one at random and force myself to write it while ignoring the others. PRO: might help me get my work ethic (and word count) going again. CON: higher risk of burning out on a story midway through.
  3. Spend some time developing a rough outline for each one, then choose which one to work on based on whatever feels more complete/inspiring. PRO: will probably lead to the most informed choice and best first draft. CON: does not at all play to my strengths and will involve a great deal of work up front before making a decision. PRO #2: at the end of whichever project I pick, I’ll have still outlines and notes assembled for the rest of them.

Given that it’s the middle of September and I’m about to go on a week’s vacation (yay!) I’m leaning towards #3, despite it not being my usual style. If I take the next six available weeks before NaNo starts, I can probably work up a reasonable plan for which story to choose and be ready to write a draft of it in November.

Wish me luck, my lovelies. I think I’ll start this afternoon.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #34)

115 - The Girl Who Played With Fire

#115 – The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Considering how much I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this more. I can’t pin down the exact reason why–it might be a lot of small issues instead of a few big ones.

The narrative style is still simple and direct, which made this 700+ page tome a quicker read than its page count would suggest–but since I was familiar with the style this time, the flaws stuck out more. Do I care about all the food Lisbeth buys? Or how many sandwiches Mikael eats? There are so many mundane details clogging the text.

And at times, I felt really uncomfortable with the way both mental illness and non-straight sexualities were discussed by the characters. Yes, some of them were unredeemable assholes for many reasons, so if they’re throwing slurs around I don’t mind so much. But even the “good” characters slipped a fair bit. (Though credit were credit is due, the actual word “bisexual” does appear in the text, in reference to Lisbeth, who clearly is bi based on her in-story relationships, even if she doesn’t call herself that. Her female lover does–close enough for me, because Lisbeth doesn’t seem like the type of person to bother labeling herself, and that’s not the author copping out.)

I guess the ultimate problem for me is pacing. The search for Lisbeth by the police/media/Mikael takes most of the middle of the book, and since we the readers know she didn’t commit the murders she’s accused of, it felt really tedious. Then the actual murderer isn’t revealed by deduction, but by a POV section from his perspective where he thinks about having done it. (We did already meet him before that, so his existence wasn’t a surprise, but I felt the same way reading that passage as I did when a video game character dies off screen, in so-called “box text.” A botched climactic reveal.)

I didn’t hate it, though, and I already  have the third book in the original trilogy, so I’ll keep going. (I already don’t plan to read the extra books in the series written by another author–I just don’t do that, whether it’s the recent-ish continuation of the Dune series, or the Wheel of Time, which I gave up on long before Robert Jordan’s passing and didn’t care when Brandon Sanderson finished it.)


And that’s it for this week, because this took most of the week, and then I picked up the next Outlander book, which clocks in just shy of 1000 pages, so yeah–not finished with it yet.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #33)

110 - Tattered Loyalties

#110 – Tattered Loyalties, by Carrie Ann Ryan

The worldbuilding in this was terrible. I know all the titles of the various positions within the shifter pack, but aside from the obvious Alpha, I have little knowledge of what any of them do.

The story zips along at a fast pace, glossing over any explanation, any detail, that would  have helped me understand the world. For example: these “wolves” live in the Middle of Nowhere™, Oregon. They’re protected with magic from the outside world knowing about them–but they have homes with electricity and running water and all the usual first-world amenities. Who built these homes out there in Nowhere Land? How are the residents “hidden” if they’re hooked up to the power grid–are they doing it illegally, or is some shell corporation the pack has set up paying their bills? Do they have actual addresses and get mail service from USPS? Does “magic” account for everything with no explanation of how?

How on earth can they live in secret and still have nice things?

So I hated it, basically. The rushed, semi-forced “mating” romance isn’t even the biggest disappointment I had when the worldbuilding had more holes than a screen door.

111 - More Than A Feeling

#111 – More Than A Feeling, by Sara Richardson

Built from a puzzle kit of standard tropes–the untrusting battered woman on the run, the cop who can’t shut down his need to know the why of everything–but reasonably enjoyable, even if it was predictable at times. Ruby was annoyingly flip-floppy about her interactions with Sawyer (kiss, no wait I can’t, another kiss, this is a terrible idea, yet another kiss) but Sawyer was more interesting, with him trying to cope with his feelings about the loss of his unborn child and the recent divorce that stemmed from it.

In fact, Sawyer was most of the reason I liked this book at all, because Ruby’s tragic backstory felt heavy-handed, doubling down on how awful her life was by pairing foster-kid life with later domestic abuse.

Bonus points, though, for being a true standalone within a series–this is the third Heart of the Rockies novel, and I never once felt adrift for not having read the earlier ones.

112 - Wild Irish Ride

#112 – Wild Irish Ride, by Jennifer Saints

DNF around 30%. This was over-the-top in every possible way it could be.

Runaway bride? Check. Former almost-lover she hasn’t seen in twelve years standing around nearby to rescue her? Check. Immediately having drippingly-purple-prose sex with him? Also check. Her family reporting her kidnapped so the police drag her back? …Really?

Oh, and of course her family is excruciatingly overbearing and awful, telling her to marry her fiancé anyway, even she’d seen the photos of him having group sex. (Which is horrific and completely shameful, by the way–I mean, being down on him for cheating is fine, but the sheer level of moral outrage over the way he did it was amazing. You’d think he was drowning puppies, not engaging in consenting-adult funtimes.)

Why should she still marry him? Oh, my dear, that’s just what men do. They’re not faithful and you can’t expect them to be.

Listen, I know this is because her family is supposed to be horrible, but they don’t have a shred of redeeming value, they’re villainous on the level of Snidely Whiplash. It’s not credible.

And, on top of this, I had to stop when I realized the bride had this horrible confrontation with her family while covered in cinnamon oil. That’s right, she got totally greased up during her “wild” romp with the hero, and she was immediately returned to her home by the police with barely a chance to put clothes on, let alone shower. So she should have been glistening and uncomfortable, but oops the oil is never mentioned again. At least not before I gave up.

113 - Inevitable

#113 – Inevitable, by Angela Graham

So I said I wanted a single-dad romance to scratch an itch, and it turns out I’d already picked up a free one back in one of my Kindle binges. Too bad it wasn’t very good.

Dad is a total player who we’re supposed to believe goes strait-laced for the (much younger) girl next door. His son is believably adorable and by far the least annoying character in the book, which is a total surprise because kids can be a pain to write. But our heroine bounces between being disgusted by Dad’s player ways and deliberately flaunting her singleness and attractiveness under his nose because she knows he’s into her.

Then, somehow, they actually become friends? Like, real friends, who talk about their days and their troubles with each other and don’t constantly flirt. Well, he still flirts a little.

So then, finally, something approaching a real romance develops, and I found myself liking the second half of the book much better–

Until the cliffhanger. I’m not morally opposed to cliffhangers if done well, but I didn’t like these characters enough to want to buy the next book, so I’ll simply never know how it’s resolved.

114 - The Long Road Home

#114 – The Long Road Home, by Danielle Steel

DNF @ page 90-something, though out of curiosity I skimmed the rest briefly.

My first Danielle Steel, and most definitely my last. It was wretched.

From my imperfect skim of the overall plot, this is the story of an abused little girl who grows up to have three different love affairs over the course of her life, the third one being the one that finally sticks.

Her first lover is a priest who commits suicide after their affair is discovered. Or at least that’s what she’d told–I found that part, but for all I know that’s just what she was told. Traumatic.

Second lover also abuses her? Because, you know, the first 90 pages I actually read about her childhood weren’t bad enough. Newsflash: her entire personality is that she’s abused. There is nothing else interesting about her, hence why I stopped reading.

Third lover is apparently okay, because that’s who she ends up with. But what I saw of that seemed pretty bland.

Where I stopped reading was when the girl’s AWFUL DISGUSTING EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING OF A MOTHER WHO HAS NO GOOD QUALITIES SO THE READER CAN’T POSSIBLY HELP BUT HATE HER drops the girl off at a convent because she doesn’t want her anymore.

Which is where the story should have started.

If I’d picked up a book that began with a ten-year-old girl starting a “new” life at a convent, and gradually her troubled past and lack of real love from her parents came out organically as part of her character development as she formed new relationships with not-terrible adult figures–that could have been a good book!

But front-loading the character’s misery was well, miserable for me to read through.

On top of that, the writing style was also miserable–paragraphs shouldn’t always be pages long. WALL OF TEXT ALERT.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: August 2017!

This month, the big news is that I finished the What We Need trilogy by releasing What We Need to Rebuild! I’ve also set up a book-for-review exchange–something I’d call an ARC Team, if only I’d known to do it before the books were released–and I’m still accepting review requests if you’re interested! (If you know someone who might be, feel free to refer them here.)

In reading news, I’m finally on track with my Mount TBR 2017 Reading Challenge, in which I set myself the (somewhat ridiculous) goal of reading 150 of my already-owned books this year. I’m at 103/150, with a third of the year left to go, so I’m just slightly ahead.

I am still acquiring new books, of course, but at a slower rate. My TBR, thanks to used books sales, has gotten wildly out of hand.

My quick catch-up is entirely thanks to August being #ReadRomance Month, so I pulled out my romance books on hand and dashed through a few on my Kindle as well, reading a total of 17 books. (It would have been more, if not for The Dark Tower taking me a whole week to finish! Blast!)

That being said, I do still have two other reading challenges to check in with: Beat the Backlist 2017 (27/40 down) and the PopSugar 2017 Reading Challenge (40/52 down). My immediate goal is to restructure my upcoming TBR to finish both of these as quickly as possible. I already have most of the books I need for PopSugar, and all the ones I need for BtB, since that’s another work-down-the-TBR challenge.

Here’s what’s coming up:

Beat the Backlist

  1. The Sandman, Vols. 7-10, Neil Gaiman
  2. The Sandman: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman
  3. A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
  4. Blood of Elves, Andrzej Sapkowski
  5. Ruined, M.C. Frank
  6. The Outlander series, books 6-8, Diana Gabaldon

PopSugar:

  1. A book by a person of color
  2. An espionage thriller
  3. A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
  4. A book I’ve read before that never fails to make me smile
  5. A book I loved as a child
  6. A book with an unreliable narrator
  7. A book about an interesting woman
  8. A book I got on a trip
  9. A book with a family-member term in the title
  10. A book about an immigrant or refugee
  11. A book from a genre/subgenre I’ve never heard of before
  12. A book about a difficult topic

How is everyone else doing on their personal reading challenges? Is the end in sight already, or are you in the weeds?