This Week, I Read… (2020 #49)

#173 – The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 12/17/20 – 12/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 150/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I generally liked the “unreal” stories and generally disliked the “real” stories. I don’t think Le Guin is at her best when trying to stick too closely the real world–I’ve always enjoyed how she combines SF/F elements and her anthropological bent on writing to examine humanity through the “unreal.”

The notable exception in Part I of the anthology was “The Diary of the Rose,” which I loved. Other favorites: “The Fliers of Gy,” “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which might be my new favorite UKLG short story of them all, and unlike “Omelas,” one I’d never heard of prior to reading this collection.

So why didn’t I like most of the stories I didn’t like? The Orsinian tales at the beginning were dour and stereotypically bland to me–they read like Orsinia was a predictable extension of Western thoughts on Eastern European countries, but without anything new or interesting to differentiate their fictional culture from its real-world counterparts. That bleak tone also cropped up in several other stories, and I didn’t care for it. Another reason was that many of the shortest stories didn’t go anywhere, didn’t have much in the way of plot, and/or didn’t feel done when they were suddenly over. I was reminded too often of that “what the heck” feeling I got earlier this year reading Cloud Atlas when the first chunk of narrative cuts off abruptly mid-sentence, because some of these stories felt similarly truncated and incomplete.

In a career so long and varied, I’m not going to like everything by even one of my all-time favorite authors, so I’m not particularly heartbroken, only mildly disappointed. And it’s possible, even likely, that coming back to some of these stories in a few years will change my perspective and make me appreciate them more, because I’ve found rereading her work to be valuable in the past. But overall, and right now, there seem to be as many misses as hits in this collection.

#174 – The Replacement Crush, by Lisa Brown Roberts

  • Read: 12/23/20 – 12/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 151/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While I enjoyed the story overall, I also had a lot of issues with it. Call it a 2.5 I’m rounding up for Goodreads’ no-half-star system.

Vivian as a narrator could be irritating, but not so much that I ever wanted to put down the book because of it. Mostly I think she and her close female friends are a reasonable approximation of teenagerhood–they sound like teenagers to me, when half the time I read YA and teens sound either like ten-year-olds or adults, with no in-between.

That being said, I’m not convinced Dallas is a teenager, not because he doesn’t talk like one, but because anyone that accomplished in life by 17 or 18 (I don’t remember his exact age being specified, but he’s a senior, so that’s my ballpark figure) is not going to have social skills to match his feats of computer coding, cello playing, and the surprise “twist” skill that gets revealed at the end which I won’t spoil, but took me right out of the book for a minute. Vivian has a single teenage passion/hobby and a skill set based around it–she loves books, she works in a bookstore, she’s a book blogger. See how all those go together? While Dallas is handsome (in a nerdy way, which Viv never lets us forget,) reasonably charming, and he’s fantastic at everything he does, which when added together, is beyond my suspension of disbelief.

Compared with everyone else in the cast, major and minor characters alike, Dallas doesn’t feel like a real person. I get that romances can be escapism and wish fulfillment, but the rest of the book felt real (if occasionally over-dramatic) and Dallas simply didn’t fit, because he was too perfect. The only substantial flaw I could come up with when thinking about him was that he’s a bit argumentative, but a) so is Vivian, and b) he likes that in a romantic partner, so the story doesn’t view it as a flaw the same way I might if Dallas were a friend of mine in real life.

As for more minor complaints, I wondered for most of the book where the subplot involving the rock-star-in-hiding was going, and when it wrapped up, I wished it hadn’t been a part of the book, it was pretty weak.

This had its cute moments and I never wanted to throw it across the room, but by the end I was ready for it to be over, and I’m not going to seek out any of the author’s other work.

#175 – Paper Towns, by John Green

  • Read: 12/24/20 – 12/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 152/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

The good thing is that I found the writing style incredibly easy to read, and since my familiarity with John Green prior to this is entirely through Crash Course, I’m used to listening to him talk; he writes in much the same way.

The bad thing was literally everything else. I hated the story. I didn’t like most of the characters, who had quirks in place of personalities, even beyond our Manic Pixie Dream Girl Margo. And yes, I’m still calling her that even though the story is clearly meant to subvert the trope. Margo only swoops in to radically alter Quentin’s life briefly, then disappears, which is usually the whole MPDG plot, but here it’s only half the book, and the second half is Quentin chasing her, even while realizing he had never really known her and placed her on a sort of pedestal. That should be better. I should like that more, I love trope subversions and deconstructions. But it led to an ending that didn’t feel satisfying, and somehow that’s the point, and I don’t think that’s a particularly enriching experience for me, who’s not a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood who needs to realize that other people are actually people and not limited collections of ideas living in his own brain.

I could go off on a long tangent here about my relationship with people-as-idea-collections and the inherent inability to ever truly know another person fully, but my bent on it is almost always romantic, and that’s not relevant here, because the “romance” is only a function of the MPDG structure, and the ending demonstrates that to be a lie as well. I never expected this to be a romance so I’m not disappointed it’s not, but since romance is my preferred genre, it’s tough for me to get behind a story that’s basically it’s diametrical opposite, where the entire point is that no one falls in love at the end and Quentin’s “love” for Margo throughout the book wasn’t real.

Since the other major criticism I often hear leveled at Green is that his novels are all basically the same, now I know I don’t have to read any others. He isn’t telling stories that I personally find valuable.

Merry Christmas 2020!

Photo by adrian on Unsplash

My little household is experiencing quite a few firsts this Christmas–the first time we’re celebrating at home instead of with family, so also the first time we actually have presents under our own tiny tree, rather than boxed up to take with us to visit someone else. The first time we have to plan and cook our own Christmas dinner, so we’re going to have fun with it, just like we did for Thanksgiving (though not to the same scale, we’re not having seven dishes, just three.)

For me, this is the first year of no Christmas Book Haul, a staple of years past. Everyone in my family who usually gives gifts sent money instead, and I’ve spent a little of it already–I bought myself a set of three cookie scoops in time to help with the last round of Christmas baking before I had to mail the packages. They’re something I’ve been wanting for years but always felt like a bit of an extravagance, you know? But now that I have them, I love them.

So, obviously I could buy myself books. And I considered it–Thriftbooks in particular has been running special sales almost continuously for a month and emailing me about them every few days. But after looking at the state of my bookshelves, and seeing just how much of my backlog I got through this year versus how much there is left to go, I sort of don’t want a stack of random new books to read? I used to give my parents a list of books I was excited about, too many to actually buy all of, and they’d pick a bunch from it so I’d still sort of be surprised. Buying them for myself directly isn’t a surprise and doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Here’s what I’m going to do instead: set aside a certain amount of that gift money to purchase books in 2021 specifically to continue series I’m already reading. My Getting Serious About Series wrap-up post is next week, and minor spoiler, no matter how much I read I never feel like I’m getting anywhere because I have so many free/on sale series openers, thanks to romance authors often having freebies, and the Tor newsletter offering great stuff. So I’m going to spread Christmas out through the year in order to give myself little book gifts when I need them.

I am going to buy myself one new book today, though, and read it right away, as much to celebrate the day itself as to celebrate finishing my 2017 backlog–the last book of it gets reviewed tomorrow in the post I postponed a day to wish everybody Merry Christmas today. I haven’t decided on the book ahead of time, but knowing me, it’s probably going to be a romance.

Merry Christmas, everybody. I hope you’re staying safe, celebrating as best you can, and reading something fantastic.

From My Art Journal, #18

My goal for this month is to finish my smallest, strangest, and generally messiest art journal, the Ice Cave journal (so name for its cover, which I made out of a National Geographic photograph of a famous ice cave that I do not remember the name of and couldn’t pronounce even when I did know it. Pretty sure it’s in Iceland.)

This has been kicking around since late 2017, when I started it as part of that year’s Inktober, which I abandoned after only a few days. The bulk of the pages have definitely been filled this year, as I got reinvested in art as a fun hobby.

I’ve done a spread nearly every day this month, and because the journal itself is small, and I have been busy, I’m often challenging myself to make a spread quickly all at once, or in five-minute bursts squeezed in throughout the day. So I let myself get really weird sometimes, which was fun!

I haven’t set any firm goals for journaling and art journaling in 2021, but I have ideas. I might not commit to all of them, but I bet I can do at least a few:

  • Finish the art journal I designated as completely for found poetry (Rose) — which is even older than Ice Cave, started in March 2017.
  • Use up at least a few of the small handmade books I have stashed, as themed “art” books, little projects centered around one subject or technique. They’re nice breaks from interminably working on larger art journals for years at a time, like I tend to.
  • Get back to my drawing lessons, which I set aside at the end of October to make way for NaNoWriMo.
  • Continue to write in my personal journal (nearly) every day. (This one should go without saying, but I often end up setting these aside for months along with my art journals.)
  • Make at least one new altered-book journal to have ready when the two I have now get finished.
  • Try my hand at a few more bookbinding styles I passed over the first time I went through Making Handmade Books.
  • In general, branch out with other media and techniques, because I’ve been leaning really hard on collage, especially this month. I have so many random art supplies I hardly touch, and I’ve only just scratched the surface playing with the new ones I got myself recently–I actually forget I have them, sometimes!

…I just had an idea to make up a numbered list of all my different materials and use dice to roll for what I have to incorporate that day. As a game, sometimes, not all the time. I should totally do that!

Writing Homework #24: How to End a Chapter

Photo by Annelies Geneyn on Unsplash

I’ve covered chapters before, way back in 2016 when this was a new series. I’m not trying to revisit that assignment directly to change or improve it–I still think it’s a pretty good exercise–but while I was brainstorming future chapters for the NaNo20 novel, in my very stream-of-consciousness style, I wrote myself several questions when I was having trouble fleshing out a scene:

What does this scene need to accomplish before it’s over? What do I need to include and when do I need to end it?

When I see people asking writers for direct advice about chapters, it’s almost always “how long should my chapters be?” I’ve said it before and I will say it again–as long as they need to be. I have chapters in Fifty-Five Days as short as just over 1500 words and occasionally as long as 6K. Part of that is the style I’ve developed for myself over several novels–I set each chapter at a specific time, limit myself to one POV, and gloss over passing time, all of which means that the “long chapter, frequent scene break” style I’ve seen often lately (I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King these last few months, and he’s fond of that structure) doesn’t work for me.

To some extent, chapter length and structure is both a personal choice and a natural outgrowth of the story you’re telling. It’s up to each of us to find the right balance between those two influences.

But I still had more I wanted to say, coming at the idea of chapter breaks from a brainstorming angle.

I’ve always thought that the real question underlying “how long should my chapters be?” is “how do I know the chapter is over?” Which is what I was trying to discover when planning the difficult new scene in my own novel, asking those questions that get to the meat of the scene and what its purpose is.

So, outside of personal limitations such as mine that are self-imposed, how do you figure it out? How do you know when a scene is over? Some questions to consider:

  1. Does a significant change in time or place need to occur to move the story forward? That’s usually a sign for a scene break, if not a chapter break. It doesn’t have to be, certainly, but if you’re unsure, it’s a good spot to consider.
  2. Do you need to switch narrators? Again, this can be done within a chapter (especially with in-chapter scene breaks) but it’s common in multi-POV works to stick to one narrator per chapter.
  3. Has your POV character accomplished whatever goal they started the chapter with? If they have, it’s almost certainly time to wrap up and move on to the next plot point. But failure to meet this goal doesn’t mean the chapter has to go on forever–what prevented them from success? What new problem have they encountered? Is it time for that “open” ending I mentioned in WH#3, where the ending of one chapter leaves a strong question in the reader’s mind that the next chapter can/will/should provide an answer to? Just Write (one of my favorite writing YouTubers) recently put out a video on the Mulan remake that discusses how its scenes fail to “respond” to each other–one scene asks a question, and in the original movie, the next provides its answer, and so on; but in the 2020 version some scenes have been reshuffled and the new order breaks the flow. That’s the idea I’m getting at here–have your chapter either asked a new question, or answered one already set by the story? Then it’s done, move along.
  4. If you are choosing to use mini-scenes within a chapter, are the ones you’ve grouped together linked by something distinctive–time or place or some thematic tie? And does your next scene diverge in some way? Then you’ve probably got enough scenes for your chapter and you should start a new one.

Ultimately, knowing when a scene or chapter is done is a skill, developed through a combination of consuming and analyzing other stories as well as the practice of writing your own. On some levels, it can almost be a thing you don’t plan as much as feel–I struggled to put words to some of these concepts in drafting this assignment (which is really more of a worksheet of questions than an actual to-do) and had to think hard about what I feel when I “know” I’m done with a chapter and it’s time to move on.

Which isn’t to say I always get it right the first time, of course I don’t. The revision process on nearly all of my books have found me shortening long chapters or breaking them into two different scenes to switch POVs partway through or occasionally putting two shorter chapters together (though in my style that’s a tall order and requires some serious rewriting, because they were usually separate chapters already for a good reason.)

My advice for chapter breaks and length is especially forceful for first drafts–do not worry about chapter length and just write whatever you need to write to make the story move, whether one scene is 100 words or six thousand. You can fix it later. But even in revision, I believe you’ll do more harm than good to your story by imposing a strict limit (or minimum, for that matter) on how long a chapter is; it’s far more important to make sure it says what you want it to say, however long that takes.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #48)

#170 – Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Read: 12/10/20 – 12/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 147/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The rare two-star DNF review, for me, at least. I gave up around 100 pages in.

A few Kingsolver novels I love very much, and after reading those early, I started on her back catalog, which has mostly underwhelmed me since. I mostly finish them anyway–The Lacuna being the notable exception until now–but this story sat wrong with me on a personal level from the very beginning. I hate adultery in my novels, I don’t think cheating is inherently interesting as so much “literature” believes it is. The fact that our protagonist is prevented from following through with her proposed tryst by something doesn’t really negate for me that that’s her introduction, the entirety of the first chapter. I don’t really care how beautiful the language is or how much nature it’s got stuffed in it (two aspects of Kingsolver’s style I generally enjoy) if I can’t care about the characters, and me and Dellarobia got off on the wrongest of wrong feet.

Once the story moves past the almost-adultery, though, it didn’t get better. Her lot in life is being an unhappy mother, indifferent wife, and badgered daughter-in-law, and I never found any of that comfortable to read about. I have complicated thoughts on the status of American motherhood for many reasons, and I’m fully aware that plenty of woman out there who have children never really wanted them, but whatever about Dellarobia’s situation that was supposed to make her relatable or sympathetic was simply missing to me. I could not form a bond with her, everything about her story was just so unpleasant to read. (For me. I want to stress again that I know this is me not liking the work because of strong personal bias, not because there’s anything wrong with writing about unhappy women/mothers, there isn’t.)

And I’m just not going to wade through 300+ more pages of a story I find so unpalatable. But as always with Kingsolver, the language is beautiful and the details of everyday life and nature are vibrant and interesting, which is why the second star is there. It’s probably a good book for someone else, but it’s a terrible book for me, and I can’t be objective about it.

#171 – The Regulators, by Richard Bachman

  • Read: 12/14/20 – 12/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 148/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

All action and very little heart–if that’s even a fair criticism when leveled at “Bachman,” Stephen King’s supposedly conscience-less alter ego.

On that note, so long after the fact, everything at the beginning about Bachman’s “death” and “lost manuscript” struck me as silly marketing at best. I don’t remember exactly what I knew about King’s pseudonym in 1996–I have no clear memories of when I learned they were the same person, but it was long enough ago that I feel as if I’ve always known, though obviously that’s not possible.

But on to the actual content of the book, which was disappointing even without the marketing surrounding it. I loved Desperation when I read it earlier this year, and I actually didn’t know when I bought this book used on a whim that the two works were at all related, so I’m glad I accidentally read them in the right order.

The thing is, though, I don’t see how this novel stands on its own without Desperation propping it up. It’s not even a matter of Tak–who is far better characterized in this work, actually, than in the novel where he was introduced. But all of these other shivery doppelgangers of characters from Desperation simply never become real people. None of them have more personality than the author can shoehorn into a few brief snippets, a handful of details to transparently attempt to tug on our heartstrings before they’re brutally killed.

When it was just the paperboy at the very start, and “oh, look, he’s going to die a virgin” and never go to college and all that tripe, fine, it’s the first death, we know we’re not going to have time to actually get to know this kid. But characters drop faster than snowflakes in this novel, and the only one that even got to me the tiniest bit was the one who did a quick, so-called “impulse” suicide late in the story.

The huge cast makes it hard to keep track of who is physically where/doing what at any given point of the story, and since so much of it is action, that means much of the narrative is actually stage direction, explaining the placement of these twenty different people and/or their corpses. (Have I mentioned that almost all of them die? That it’s not at all an exaggeration to say you literally can’t predict who is going to bite it on the next page?)

As disposable as that made nearly everyone, I was most attached to Audrey, and to a lesser extent Seth. I have had very little exposure to autism in my life and I’m not clearly aware of how autistic people feel about their representation in media and what they’d like to see more of–but I don’t feel confident that “very special little boy possessed by cruel wannabe-hypersexual evil psychic vampire” is a good idea. Yes, this book is twenty-four years old, and yes, times and attitudes have changed, so I’m not calling for a boycott of Stephen King over it. But it didn’t sit right with me, either, despite the number of times Audrey vehemently spouts off about how much she loves Seth and how wonderful he is when he’s himself and not Tak.

The ending was…an ending. The book was over! And as unsatisfied as I felt about the necessity of having twenty million characters with no personalities just so they could die gruesome deaths for constant shock value, I felt unsatisfied in much the same way by the ending. I was mostly relieved it was done without really feeling it had any meaning. (And that shock mostly stopped having value when it was a constant state throughout the read. You just get numb after a while, especially when no one is worth investing in.)

#172 – Bittersweet, by Sarina Bowen

  • Read: 12/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 149/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Well, I sat down and read this in nearly one sitting on a snowy morning. Would you believe that the only break I took was to make myself a fancy-ish egg sandwich on an English muffin for lunch? Because this book was so “foodie” that it made me want to bake, cook, and generally stop doing myself a disservice by snacking on whatever instead of eating solid meals. (Which I have a tendency to do on low-energy days.)

I could seriously bake a pie right now. I have a pie crust in my freezer leftover from Thanksgiving. I just might do it.

But enough about how inspiring the book was to my inner food nerd. It was actually a really sweet love story too! I can be leery sometimes of the big city girl/rural guy dynamic, but that’s not quite accurate to this situation, because Audrey isn’t some high-powered corporate bitch who needs a little country in her to relax (that’s actually probably a fair assessment of her man-hating mother, actually, I just caught on to that, which I hope is a deliberate nod to the stereotype.)

I was completely sold on her chemistry, both physical and emotional, with Griffin, who was just the right amount of grumpy for my tastes. They laughed a ton together, they talked about things that mattered, they had real external conflicts, I just sailed right through this story like a hot knife slicing butter. (Okay, yeah, there are a lot of food metaphors, obviously, which took a little getting used to, but I didn’t mind.)

The family/minor characters were vivid enough for their place in the story without overshadowing the main couple, and bonus: it wasn’t immediately obvious who was being set up for the next installment in the series. I was actually surprised when I got to the end matter and it said Jude is up next! That genuinely makes me want to keep going with the series, on top of enjoying this book on its own merits so much.

If I seem like I’m damning this book with faint praise, I’m not, I guess I’m just not used to articulating what I like about good romances, with as much time as I spend criticizing bad ones, because I have high standards. But I see my first and only previous Bowen novel (from three years ago, yikes) got four stars from me, and I have several more on the TBR, so at this point, consider me an interested reader looking to read more and become a real fan!

FIFTY-FIVE DAYS is Here!

Fifty-Five Days is now available!

All Digital Editions :: Paperback Edition


It was supposed to be a fling.

After events beyond her control upend the course of Amber’s career, she decides never to return to the band she helped found, Not My Best Day. She’s done with the rock-star life, the highs of performing weighed down by the lows of grueling schedules, endless travel, and the uncomfortable intimacy of living two feet from everyone else on the bus.

But when her replacement has to bail a week before the new tour starts, the band asks her to fill in temporarily. What else can she do? They’re still family.

Rob, as the other new member in their revamped lineup, is doing his best to fit in. His time with Not My Best Day has been defined as much by Amber’s absence as his presence. When she returns in their time of need, he sees what the others don’t-–how much it’s costing her to save them from disaster. When his supportiveness becomes attraction, and mutual attraction becomes a fling, Rob faces decisions he never expected. He may doubt their secret affair is good for the band, or even for himself, but he’s certain it’s what’s best for her.

But what becomes of them when the tour is over? Can they really go their separate ways like nothing ever happened?


I said I was going to release a book in 2020, and I made it!

I’m really proud of this one. In some ways, it ended up more personal than my previous novels (despite the fact that I am not and will never be a rock star) but I definitely think that makes it better, not worse, than what I’ve written before.

This is where I would usually share the first chapter as a sample, but with the structure of this story, the first chapter on its own is not all that representative of the book–I’d really need to post the first two, maybe even three, chapters, to get the ball rolling. Instead, because music is even more important to this story than it was my last series, I’m going to share the novel’s playlist, all the songs performed as covers by any of the main cast. (There are a few more mentioned than this, but they’re not story-relevant, they’re details.)

“The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley

“Cornflake Girl” – Tori Amos

“Dancing With Myself” – Billy Idol

“Not An Addict” – K’s Choice

“Curl Up and Die” – Relient K

“Santa Monica” – Everclear

If you can believe it, none of those songs are the ones I used in the first draft of the story–everything has been replaced at least once, sometimes twice, with songs I eventually decided were more appropriate for some reason. That’s what happens when it takes four years to get something from rough draft to published form!


Those of you who’ve been following me this year know what a struggle it’s been for me, so I’m glad I ended up with something to show for it. And not just this book–I do intend to make it a series, I’m still chugging along on the NaNoWriMo ’20 project that should end up being the sequel to this, following characters from this novel on their own romantic journey. I’ve got to at least finish that draft before I make any big plans for it, but if I can get back to my previous one-book-a-year publishing schedule, then that’s my goal for 2021.

Thank you to everyone for your support, and if bisexual rock-star contemporary romance isn’t your cup of tea so you’re not going to read the novel, would you consider mentioning it to a friend or three who might be interested? Independent authors survive on reviews and word-of-mouth, so anything you can do to spread the word is greatly appreciated!

“Headlight” Outlining: What It Is and Why It Might Work for You

Photo by adrian on Unsplash

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

E.L. Doctorow

“Headlight” outlining was something I knew about prior to NaNoWriMo 2020, but I’d never tried it. Then, because I decided to participate relatively late, with little time to prep, I only had a rough scene outline for the first five chapters when November 1st came.

When I reached the end of those five chapters, I took my writing notebook to work with me, and during downtime, I thought, “okay, so what happens next?” and wrote down everything I could think of. Before my next writing session, I turned those notes into a few more chapters of outline, and then turned that outline into a few more chunks of story.

When I got to the end of that, I got out the notebook and did it again. I had no intention of reinventing the wheel, but because of my situation, I did “discover” the headlight novel-writing method for myself.

I’m not done with that novel–I got through roughly 2/3 of it that way before the event was over, and my usual diligence in keeping “NaNo” going until I had a finished draft fell by the wayside in favor of working on the Fifty-Five Days publishing process, because I didn’t have the energy to do both. I’ll go back to it as soon as possible, but I did enough that I feel comfortable talking about (and possibly recommending) the process to others.

Pros:

  • It’s plan-as-you-go, which alleviates the mental burden some writers feel when trying to follow outlining advice that suggests everything about your story needs to be worked out ahead of time. For many, that’s their preferred method, but for others, that’s simply too big a task to undertake.
  • It breaks a long project into smaller pieces by alternating the type of work done. Write what you have at the beginning until you run out of steam, stop for a bit to brainstorm more. Do it again, and again, until you get to the end of your story.
  • It allows you to get started when you have a beginning and an ending, but not necessarily a middle (which is a common thing for me, since I write romance, and happy endings are the norm to shoot for.) The middle will mostly take care of itself once you get the story underway.
  • Because not everything is set in stone at the beginning, this method can allow for more freedom to explore new ideas that come up during the writing process. Don’t like where that brainstorming session took you? Go back to the last chapter you like for sure and take a new path to your destination. (The road trip metaphor really shines here.)

Cons:

  • For writers used to strict planning, this might feel too loose and wishy-washy. No one method is right for everyone, all the time, so if you’re happy with your stricter system, whatever it is, run with it.
  • It does rely heavily on linear chronology within the story to make the method work. If you already know your story isn’t going to fit within those bounds, the natural “if this happens now, then that happens next” logic that the method uses isn’t going to help you plan much. It’s possible, of course, to write the first draft chronologically and rearrange it later in revision, but depending on your process, that might just be creating more (unnecessary) work for yourself.
  • For anyone who struggles with finishing a first draft, those “stop to brainstorm” points might turn into “but I’m out of ideas so I’m giving up” points. I’m a little worried for myself, despite my early success with this method, because I’m taking a break to work on something else–I know I might have trouble getting started again. (Though for me, obviously it’s too late to get off this train, because I can’t go back in time and have it all planned out retroactively.)

With each book I’ve written (or attempted to write) my process for the first draft has looked a little different, depending on what ideas I started with, what I didn’t find working from my last project, and what advice I’d absorbed in the meantime. My first two books were written non-chronologically, both starting in the middle where I had the best scene idea, and working outwards to some extent from there. (Also, I wrote the last five chapters of What We Need to Decide in one go, very early on in the drafting process, then had my action meet up with it later. I changed the middle of that story three times before I made it work.) What did I learn from that? Well, everything I’ve written since has been largely chronological, because it makes less work for me in revision, though if I have strong feelings about the ending ahead of time I will write a sort of zero-draft set of notes on it to aim for, even if I no longer commit to writing the actual chapters.

One novel I wrote (and may never go back to) I wrote chronologically, but with absolutely no planning at all, relying on daily prompts for the inspiration for the first half, and my own “well this is how it started so this is how I’ll finish it” inspiration during NaNo for the second half. What did I learn from that? Prompts are fun and I enjoyed the process, but I didn’t get a very solid story out of it in the end, and even after substantial rewrites I left a lot of plot holes and unanswered questions. Conclusion: complete lack of planning is murder on consistent worldbuilding, not well suited to a fantasy setting.

So what have I learned from this newest almost-novel? Headlight outlining seems to be a good fit for me, though next time I try it I should probably plan my time better so that I don’t have to take a break during the drafting process to work on something else, because I feel myself losing momentum and enthusiasm for the project. (I can also blame the pandemic-altered holiday stress, too, writing never exists in a vacuum.)

While I know about myself at this point that I’ll never be a total plan-ahead type–the Snowflake Method, which I tried for an abandoned idea back in 2015, basically reduced me to tears within two hours–I’m open to changing my process from project to project in order to find something that suits me better than however I did it before, and this time, I might have struck gold. It’s not going to be right for everyone–again, no one method is–but as I had such a positive experience with it, I wanted to talk about why and inspire others to try it, or at least consider it.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Want You to Want Me”

Photo by Alfred on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Rita and Andy
  • Setting: contemporary American
  • Length: 1,471 words
  • Key Tropes: dating, new relationship, aggressive woman/passive man dynamic
  • Content Warnings: Nothing
  • Explicit?: Yes, very

Andy thought about taking his clothes off while Rita was out of the room, to surprise her–at least a little bit of a surprise–by being naked on her couch. But he was losing time to actually do it, while he was taking the time to talk himself into it. And he wanted her to want him so much she stripped him herself. It fit with the take-charge attitude she’d had all night, and how easily she’d accepted his change of heart.

She wanted him, no question.

When Andy’s heart rate climbed a few notches, he told himself it was excitement, anticipation, not fear, but underneath, in a place so deep he could barely admit it to himself, he was afraid. Afraid that even this was too much to want, afraid that he was too big and strong and awkward, afraid that his naked body on her couch was a ridiculous sight and not a sexy one.

But then she came back, and she smiled like he was a present under the tree on Christmas morning, and Andy knew, whatever was about to happen, it was all going to be fine. She crossed the room, straddled his lap again, and set the condom on the cushion beside them. Her weight on his legs, her body pressed tight against his where it counted, set some of those fears away while bringing his excitement to the surface.

“What do you want?” she whispered, her lips hovering over his, a temptation to kiss that he reveled in not taking.

His hangups were too complicated, too painful, to explain at length, but he still had an answer ready. “Tell me what to do.”

“You like being ordered around?” Her tone was sly, indulgent, not actually questioning. She liked that he liked it.

He nearly said it then, said he was tired of the pressure to know exactly what his partner wanted without being told, with being punished somehow for asking, and then always feeling like he was getting it wrong anyway. His sex life with other women had been like trying endless outfits on in a dressing room only to find not a single one of them fit right. But his frustration had no place here, with Rita, who felt different, who treated him better, who had given him no reason not to trust her.

So he decided to trust her more. “I think so,” he whispered back. “I’ve never gotten to really try it.”

She leaned back, and for a heartbeat Andy feared his confession had pushed her away. But she smiled again, sweetly. “Oh, honey, that’s a shame. We’ll go slow, okay? And if something feels wrong, anything at all, tell me, and we’ll try something else. Promise me.”

Andy licked his lips. “I promise.” Nothing felt wrong yet, not that gentle command, not her hands on his shoulders, her subtle musky scent in the air mingling with their cooling mugs of chocolate.

She stood up. “Take off my tights. Slowly.”

When he ran his hands up the back of her legs, he groaned, because she wasn’t wearing panties underneath. He found the waistband beneath her dress and tugged at it, carefully, because the last thing he wanted to do was put in a run in her tights with his big, clumsy fingers or their unfortunately sharp nails. When he slid his hands back down, he could feel the indentation in her skin where the seams had pressed into her flesh, and that brought an inexplicable tenderness to his movements. His hands no longer felt too big or rough on her body.

As soon as she stepped free of the garment, she took his shoulders in her hands again and pulled him up. He stood patiently as she stripped him of his shirt, followed her instructions when she told him to take off his jeans and socks. She left him his boxers, but smiled at his obvious arousal. After handing him a pillow from the couch, she pointed at the floor between it and the table. “Kneel down there.”

Andy immediately saw where this was going, or at least he hoped he did. He knelt.

Rita sat down on the couch and arranged herself around him, feet on the table, legs bent and arching over his shoulders. The hem of her dress covered her even in this pose, but Andy didn’t have to see her pussy to be excited about getting his mouth on it.  He was practically vibrating with the need to touch her, but he waited.

“I haven’t seen you yet,” Rita said, her tone thoughtful, “but I felt you. You’re big all over, aren’t you? If you want me to be able to ride you, you’ve got to get me ready.” She reached out to twine her fingers in his hair, and he tilted his head, pressing into her caress. “Make me wet, Andy. No hands, though, just your mouth. Put your hands on my hips and keep them there. I want the first part of you inside me to be that big heavy cock you have.”

Something living deep inside Andy’s brain exploded, almost like he had an orgasm without being touched, though the relief this sensation brought him had nothing to do with his body, and certainly not that big heavy cock, which only pulsed inside his boxers more urgently. No, this was something in his mind letting go, relaxing, giving in to Rita’s demands. He placed his hands where she told him to, and she drew him in with the grip on his hair while she moved her dress out of the way.

Nothing had ever tasted so good to him, not chocolate, not wine, not his favorite comfort foods or the fancy dinners he kept eating with those other women on their dates before going on to have sex that left him confused and frustrated. He dove into Rita like a cold pool on a hot day, eager for the relief it brought, not to his aching body, but to his mind, or maybe even his soul. In that moment, there was nothing else he needed to do and no one else he was expected to be. It was freeing in a way he’d never experienced before.

Over the years of trying to please women who didn’t seem to get him, he’d picked up plenty of tricks, and he used some of them on Rita, but some of them were forbidden inherently because he couldn’t move his hands. He squeezed her body in his grip as he licked and sucked and stroked, and her mix of moans and giggles and encouraging words, sprinkled with short commands, went straight to his head, spinning out a headspace were nothing else mattered but what he was doing to her, and what that was doing to him, and how natural it all felt.

He was so effortlessly focused that when she came, it was a surprise, one that started with a fierce rhythmic tugging on his hair, hard enough to skip past exciting into actually painful territory. He drew his mouth away. “Rita, please, that hurts,” he told her as he moved one hand to the one of hers on his scalp, alternately trying to pry it loose or press it flat against him, whichever would stop the pain.

It was when he saw her head tossing back and forth he realized what was happening. “Oh,” he said lamely. He hadn’t noticed the change in the sounds she was making, either, but he heard it now.

“Sorry,” she gasped. “Got carried away.” She let go of him and laughed softly.

He laid his cheek on her thigh and breathed in the scent of her, of what he’d done to her. “It’s okay.”

She laughed again, louder, longer. “I’ve never had somebody get so into going down on me that he didn’t actually notice my orgasm. I could get used to that.”

Andy waited a second to see if that joke hurt, but there was no sting. “Kind of a first for me, too.”

All at once, Rita was moving, her dress rustling, her body twisting. The sudden bout of energy after the lassitude of her post-orgasmic haze started Andy, but all he did was move slightly so her leg didn’t knock him in the head when she swung it around. “Alright,” she said. “Take those boxers off, lie down on the couch, and let me get a look at you.”

This Week, I Read… (2020 #47)

#168 – Four Past Midnight, by Stephen King

  • Read: 12/2/20 – 12/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 145/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This was a slog, and it never grabbed me. With anthologies, at least there’s the chance that starting a new story will revive my interest, but I found these all about equally lackluster.

So, The Langoliers. I have incredibly vague memories of watching the TV-movie adaptation in my teens, but all I really remembered was the antagonist and his paper-tearing glee. I was hoping the story itself would be more substantial, but surprise surprise, it felt to me like half the scenes were just this one mentally unhinged dude and his nervous habit.

Secret Window, Secret Garden was billed in King’s brief introductory comments as “what if I did The Dark Half over again but slightly different?” And seeing as how my review of The Dark Half was “there’s a good novel hiding somewhere inside all of this inane repetition,” I had higher hopes for this novella. I was disappointed. It was not better, and in some ways it was definitely worse. I knew what was going on long before the reveal (and I’m pretty sure I was supposed to) yet there wasn’t a lot of factual detail to support my (correct) assumption, and the explanation after the fact was tedious.

The Library Policeman tried my patience even more, because the word/phrase repetition that irks me so much in general, and specifically in “bad” Stephen King writing, was even more on display here than in the previous two novellas. Dude could not go two pages without obsessing about the freaking suspended ceiling in the library. And I didn’t find Ardelia Lortz the sort of creepy-compelling character you want in a villain, and the whole thing was just a mess to me.

…I didn’t finish The Sun Dog, which technically makes this a DNF review, but I was just out of interest at this point, and I want to read other things. Even other Stephen King, I’ve got The Regulators lined up before the end of the year. I’ve long since accepted that while I admire King as a person in many ways and love many of his books, he’s also written SO MUCH and some of it is just not very good. This is one of those collections for me.

#169 – Yellowstone Heart Song, by Peggy L. Henderson

  • Read: 12/9/20 – 12/10/20
  • Mount TBR: 146/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Our heroine starts the story with a serious case of Too Stupid To Live, and it never gets any better.

My minor complaint about the beginning is that I was like, “this is the first novel in the series, right? Because who is Zach and why is he sending this random woman back in time and HOW is he sending this random woman back in time? What am I missing?” We get Zach’s/Daniel’s/time travel’s backstory at around 80%. Far less than ideal.

But my major complaint about the beginning was that I’m meant to believe Aimee is both a nurse and an experienced wilderness enthusiast/hiker, but then when she’s offered the opportunity to go back in time to an unspoiled Yellowstone (for no apparent reason,) she packs a woefully insufficient kit to take with her, so that for the rest of the plot she can magically have some things from the modern era in order to save the day, while missing other far more basic supplies so she has to rely on Daniel, her woodsman love interest.

So from the get-go, Aimee has to be an idiot. If she truly didn’t believe Zach could send her to the past, fine, don’t bother packing at all. (But then when she didn’t, he could refuse to try, and spoil the entire plot.) OR take him seriously even if you don’t really believe him and PACK ACCORDINGLY. Seeing Aimee start the story by treating her own survival like a joke does not make me like her or want her to have a happy ending. How many times did I have to read something like, “wow, I really should have packed X or Y or Z, that would have been great!”

Her stupidity continues through the rest of the story, because she’s a Modern Woman Who Doesn’t Need a Man to Tell Her What to Do. Which means she repeatedly puts herself in danger for no good reason, out of sheer stubbornness, in order to feel like Daniel’s not pushing her around. Which means, of course, that she constantly needs finding or rescuing. Daniel always saves her.

And that’s the problem with the ending. After a whole bunch of time jumping by various characters, Aimee ends up back in her present day life, but Daniel comes after her and says “Well, you’ve proven to me you’re capable of living my rugged mountain lifestyle, so come back with me and be my wife.” When? When did she prove that? When she wandered off and got lost? When she got kidnapped by the French fur traders who were going to rape her? The only thing she seemed to be any good at in the past was cooking. The narrative glosses over all the parts where Daniel is supposedly teaching Aimee more about how to survive, and only shows the big events when she’s in danger (and it’s almost always her own fault.) Daniel comes to save her, and they make moon eyes at each other with no real chemistry between their personalities (the attraction reads as entirely physical for the bulk of the book) and then eventually they just have to hop into bed together.

Even the sex scenes were dull.

Down the TBR Hole #37

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?

My master TBR list is under 500! I’m really getting somewhere this year, between not buying new books nearly as often, reading the ones I already have, and being more selective in adding want-to-read titles. So let’s see what I can accomplish this month in terms of purging things I don’t want to read anymore.

#1 – What If It’s Us, by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera

As soon as I saw this was the first title up for consideration, I thought, of course I’m going to keep this. I’ve read one book a piece by both authors, loved one, liked the other. That’s a strong recommendation in itself.

But when I started skimming reviews, both those of friends and strangers, the reactions to this work are mixed at best, and I was seeing a lot of “if this is by two authors I like, why don’t I like this book very much?”

I definitely want to read more queer stories, but I don’t want to spend too much time reading middling or even bad queer stories. (No, Blue is the Warmest Color, I haven’t forgotten about you, you tragic disappointment.) So this can go, and if someday in the future I’ve read more Silvera and/or Albertalli (she’s got another on my TBR that survived the cut) and I’m curious, I can always go back for it.

#2 – Flesh, by Kylie Scott

I do not recall where I found out about this book, but post-apocalyptic (zombie flavor) MFM menage erotica? Of course I put it on the list, that’s ticking several boxes I’m generally interested in.

Since adding it, I have read the one Scott novel I owned, Dirty, and gave it three stars. I refreshed my memory by rereading my review and it boils down to “solid writer, but for some reason the story didn’t actually grab me.”

Flesh can be the author’s second chance for me, despite some minor red flags in the reviews. If a thruple in the zombie-infested ruins of the world doesn’t hook me, then I’ll know in the future to avoid the rest of her catalog, and the matter will be settled. This stays.

#3 – The Last Namsara, by Kristen Ciccarelli

A book that was everywhere on social media for about ten seconds after its release, and that I really haven’t heard much about since. So much so that I didn’t know until just now that there are two more books in the series, neither of which I’ve ever heard of.

With YA, especially YA fantasy-romance, that lack of hype is often a warning that it’s not great. On the other hand, I’ve ended up hating YA series that everyone else loves (too many to name names, in this case) and loving series that are older/have very little hype (like Graceling and its sequels, which are back in the spotlight again briefly in the runup to the surprise fourth book release.)

Fantasy-romance is where I grew up, thanks to authors like Sharon Shinn and Juliet Marillier. So I’m inclined to keep this after all, mostly because the entire series is available in both audio- and ebook formats on Hoopla, so the only thing I’m risking is my time, not my money. But given the generic-ness of the blurb and my spotty history with YA of this type, the availability actually was the deciding factor.

#4 – Time’s Convert, by Deborah Harkness

I enjoyed the All Souls trilogy a great deal (3, 4, and 4 star ratings) and when I saw this on the new-release shelf at my library, I almost grabbed it on the spot. Instead I came home from that trip, put it on my TBR, and actually forgot about it for quite a while.

I read the trilogy in 2015, the year before I started reviewing every book I read, and I do wonder sometimes how Harkness’ style would hold up to the standards I’ve developed through that diligent reviewing–my memory of reading them is filled with “get to the good part already,” ie, the romance. So the idea of a book about Marcus and his backstory is less appealing to me directly, but the blurb also promises romance, and on some level it feels silly to me not to read this book, because I did enjoy the trilogy so much.

At the same time, I feel like I need to reread it before I dive into this, and that’s a pretty major undertaking. But that’s a self-imposed stricture that I may let go of at some point, and I have been meaning to reread anyway, once I clear out some more of my unread stacks. That’s a long-winded way of saying this can stay for now, though if enough time goes by and I’m still waffling, I may purge it then.

#5 – Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

Sounds interesting, I generally like Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic was only so-so for me, but The Archived series is fantastic and I’m avidly awaiting the long-delayed third book.)

I dig superpowers in stories and while I’m never the one on the “love the villain” train for any given fandom, I’m not opposed, either.

Bonus: it’s a duology, and it’s already finished, so if I like this I won’t be suffering more from series withdrawal.

I can’t see any reason to cut this. It stays.

#6 – The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

I really enjoyed the first book, I even own it, and yet I’ve neither reread it since I first got it, nor read any further in the series. In fact, I completely missed adding it to my ongoing series list that I’ve been tracking! (I’ll make sure I do that in the 2021 overhaul, because once again the posts have gotten unwieldy and I need to create a smoother system.)

Why am I sitting on this? The short answer is, I spent all of this year trying to read My Own Damn Books and that simply meant I’m not continuing series I have to get from the library. At least with this one, I can, it’s even on Hoopla, so this also stays.

Man, I am just not cutting that much again this month…

#7 – Sawkill Girls, by Claire Legrand

Pretty sure I put this on the list because I saw it everywhere and said “sure why not” but didn’t really look into it.

In many ways, the blurb and the general vibe remind me of Wilder Girls, which I read earlier this year and did not care for. But there are clearly aspects here that make it a different story, so I skimmed reviews trying not to hold that similarity against this book.

…Still not impressed, though. Many people like or love it, but the negative reviews sometimes paint some of the queer rep as “man hating,” especially in the latter half of the book, and there are some other red flags I’m not going to ignore, especially when I don’t have a strong interest in the book in the first place and mainly added it because of hype. This can go.

#8 – Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

So here’s my history with this book. I put it on the list because it sounded interesting, but I wasn’t so excited I had to read it now. It was a “get it from the library sometime” title.

Then the movie happened and Michelle Yeoh was in it and I love her to pieces and she did a fantastic interview in Vogue, I think, though don’t quote me on that because I’m not going to dig it up right now. Which made me far more interested in reading the book, because I like to do that before seeing the movie, when possible. I ordered the book, but I won’t say from where, because when it got here it was so damaged it was unreadable and I had to get a refund (and literally throw the book away, it was useless.)

That incident cooled my enthusiasm somewhat, but it’s not actually the book’s fault, so I’m still going to read it. But I’ll go back to my get-it-from-the-library plan.

#9 – Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Nearly everyone I know who has read this adores it, and while I’m unfamiliar with Kristoff, I loved Kaufman’s other major sci-fi/romance collaboration, the Starbound trilogy.

I could stop right there and tell myself that was enough and I should just read this book (and probably the rest of the series.)

But what do I know about the book itself? Weird, visual, highly experimental in style.

I don’t love that kind of thing. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’ll adore it, but most of the time I’d really rather just have words on a page in simple order telling me a story, instead of trying deliberately to turn my brain into mush with constant cleverness. I’ve seen pictures of some of the pages, and the thought of trying to get through a whole book that way just makes me exhausted. I’m genuinely concerned I’ll burn out on this one.

Do I give in to the fear of missing out? I’ll never be able to read all the books I want to, of course, but is this so great that I’ll regret not reading it? I’m keeping it for now, I’ll add it to the pile I should get from the library so I can give it at try. But if it makes my brain bleed, I’m DNFing it.

#10 – Marriage of Unconvenience, by Chelsea M. Cameron

I see why I added this–F/F fake marriage turns real–and I dig that, let’s let queer people in on the beloved fake marriage train–but now that it’s been out for a while and the reviews are piling up, this isn’t as shiny and cute as it first seems.

I’m seeing a lot of people mentioning writing-style problems like poor editing, which is the kiss of death for me with indie authors, and simple inconsistency of character details, even over the space of a short novel that’s barely more than a novella.

I’ve had another Cameron title on the TBR (Style) so long it’s practically at the top, as I’ve read things ahead of it, and somehow I never quite take the plunge to buy it, as it’s not available to me any other way. The poor reviews for Marriage are so poor I’m considering purging both books, because this author doesn’t seem like she’s for me. Let’s cut them both. I’ve got too much else to read.


I cut 3/10 again this month, though with a bonus cut from earlier in my TBR. Usually I like to cut more, but it happens–sometimes good-looking books end up all in a row. And with my overall TBR shrinking due to reading/not adding new titles, I’m to the point where I could conceivably read all of it in, say, the next three or four years, so it’s not like I have to cut massive numbers of books, as I felt like I did at first.

As usual, if you’ve read any of these works and want to share your opinion, whether to agree with my decision to convince me to change my mind, drop me a comment and we’ll talk!