Essential Skills for Writers: Reading Critically

Story time: I have a post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since July 2017. I last added to it in February 2019. Its working title: “If You’re a Writer, Read These Books.” I started it when I read The Poisonwood Bible, and it seemed like a thing everyone could learn from. Whenever a book or series struck me as having something particularly strong about it, from a writerly perspective, especially if it was rare in my experience, I put it on the list.

The problem was that it took me almost two years to come up with three entries for it, and I never actually wrote the whole post. Here are my notes, which for posterity’s sake I have not altered at all:

The Poisonwood Bible: this is how to juggle five (!) different first-person narrators with profoundly different character voices. Not necessarily the best for pacing, but you can always tell who’s telling you their story by the word choice and tone of the narrative.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Using show don’t tell to define the main character, who hardly ever speaks. Clear characterization through reaction to other people.

Graceling Realm and/or MaddAddam series: multibook “trilogy” structure doesn’t have to be chronological if you plan carefully for it

But I never wrote that post, and now I never will. I’m going to write this one instead.

It’s not my job as a writer to tell you which books to read to get better; it’s your job to learn from the books you choose to read.

So when I say “read critically” in this context, I don’t mean “read like you’re going to trash the book in a review.” I have definitely learned a great deal from committing to reviewing every book I read, but a) that’s a lot of work; b) reviews are generally for sharing and not everyone wants to share their thoughts; and c) you’re not necessarily going to pick up a new tidbit of learning from every book you read. I’ve read four books so far this year, but I’m only going to mention three of them.

So what did I learn from…

Full Dark, No Stars? This doesn’t apply to me directly, as I write novels and not short fiction, but I definitely find anthologies more enjoyable when a theme connects all the individual stories somehow. I saw this before, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness–those novellas had a strong central theme. On the flip side, it’s why I found Ray Bradbury’s The October Country relatively hit-or-miss, for example, despite loving his work in general. If I ever do write short fiction again (I did a lot of stories and poems in high school and college, not so much since) I will put together collections that “go” together, rather than a random sampling.

Sunshine? This one hit close to home, because the most pressing issue I had with it was something I struggled with myself in the first draft of #spookyromancenovel: overindulgence in world-building. In Sunshine the title character will go on pages-long tangents about interesting but ultimately obscure facts about her world; in the NaNoWriMo-fueled race to finish #srn’s first draft, I did exactly the same thing. If a thing was interesting and I had thoughts about it, I wrote about it, even if it broke the scene into pieces. Perfectly fine for a first draft! But in Sunshine it got to print that way, and while I enjoyed the book, I consider that its biggest flaw. In #srn’s second draft, I cut as much world-building as possible based on relevance, shortened the rest, and left copious questions for my beta readers at the end of each chapter begging them to tell me where it was too much and where they had questions.

Autonomous? This gave me an even stronger example of not seeing the forest for the trees–as hard sci-fi this was so focused on building the tech of its world that it left hanging a huge number of questions I had about the societal and political structure that created the setting for this story. While its over-indulgence in world-building did mess up the pacing too, it was more that I felt like I was getting to examine this new world through a microscope but never being allowed to look out a window. The bigger picture just wasn’t there.

If I boil this down to writing advice snippets for consumability:

  1. Central themes can enrich and connect the various stories in anthologies.
  2. Over-indulgence in world-building details can bog down the pacing of a novel.
  3. Consider the scale of your world-building; don’t focus strictly on the micro and ignore the macro (or vice versa.)

Have I seen this advice floating around before? #1 and #2, yes, definitely. I don’t really think I’ve seen anyone address #3 in any great depth (not saying it doesn’t exist, only that I haven’t been exposed to it.) But even if I knew the first two bits of advice already, finding them illustrated so clearly in my reading drives them home more than just reading an article someone else wrote about those bits of advice. And “discovering” #3 for myself is even more powerful.

This advice applies equally to positive and negative aspects of your reading–admire and emulate the things you find successful, even if the scale is too ambitious: I wouldn’t tackle five first-person narrators in one go, but I could use my experience with The Poisonwood Bible to help me craft two or maybe three distinct personalities. And avoid or minimize in your own work the things you don’t like in what you read. Which seems an obvious conclusion when stated so clearly, but the how of getting there is the important part.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #1)

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#1 – Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

  • Read: 1/1/20 – 1/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 1/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book without the letters A, T, or Y in the title
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a new-to-you author
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is, perhaps, the most unconventional story about vampires I’ve ever read/watched/experienced.

It’s an alliance between a human and a vampire, but it’s not a romance, at least not in the traditional sense: it’s got a few confused elements of romance, but it’s far more about developing a deep bond with someone that isn’t romantic or sexual or even familial. Sunshine and Con save each other’s lives so often she stops being able to keep accurate track.

I’m there for that bond. I’m there for the mutual suffering that leads to closeness, and the cultural misunderstandings (if vampire can be said to be a different “culture” rather than a different species) that cause the rifts between them that need to be healed through discussion and the kind of tentative reaching-out that is all people who have been burned too often can manage. This books hurts, at the same time it feels so good. This kind of intense relationship is one we don’t usually get as readers without attaching sex or romance to it, or dressing it up in military garb and pinning some patriotism on it. It’s two warriors who will always, always have each other’s backs, even if they didn’t start that way. And that’s a great story.

But as much as I love the emotional guts of it, and I do, it’s overly indulgent in its style and world-building. Now, the world-building is great, the problem is is that there’s too much of it. Sunshine goes on pages-long tangents explaining some aspect of wards or some obscure fact about vampire-related fiction or some detail about their world’s computers, and five minutes later when it’s over I’ve completely forgotten what was being said in the middle of the conversation she zoned out of to tell me about the world she lives in. And this happens constantly. It’s not that any one piece of information isn’t interesting or something I probably would have wanted to know, but as an aggregate, did I really need all of it? Wasn’t there anything that could be cut without sacrificing clarity in order to move the story along faster?

In addition to that, I had to keep reminding myself that Sunshine was in her mid-twenties. The constant whining (often justified but definitely not always,) the tendency to lose focus and go on a tangent at the drop of a hat, the mental inability to use certain words or phrases and leave the reader to fill them in at the “…” at the end of her sentences–all of these together contrived to make her sound like a younger narrator than she is. Yes, she lives alone and has a steady job and a steady boyfriend and she’s not just independent but semi-distant from her family (despite the fact they all work together) and all sorts of other markers of adulthood, so I know she’s an adult, but most of the time she sounds like a teenager. It’s not a deal-breaker but I did sometimes find it irritating.

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#2 – Bound to Be a Bride, by Megan Mulry

  • Read: 1/4/20 – 1/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 2/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were aspects of this that were fun enough to keep me reading–Javi and Isabella’s banter being the key one–but most of it was a little too rushed, a little too contrived, a little too inconsistent. Since I know absolutely nothing about this part of history, I can’t comment on its accuracy, but I will say that Isabella’s time at the convent teaching her hard work is believable, but the survival skills, not so much.

Good thing the runaway bride meets up with her runaway husband almost immediately so he and his companions can look after her.

This is interesting, in a way, though, as an example of a narrative style that keeps everything snappy and interesting even when the plot or the characters fall apart the second you examine them closely. Isabella is an inconsistent mess of wantonness and sudden shyness; Javi is hell-bent on being a revolutionary and not a husband, until he gets a sweet little thing who likes to be tied up, and then he’s fine with staying in Spain and being himself again for a while. (Actually, now that I type that out, his character arc does make a fair bit of sense in context, it’s just very rushed. Isabella’s still a flip-floppy nightmare.) The entire point of the novella, two people running away from their own marriage only to find each other anyway, is ridiculous to the point where you can almost appreciate it just for its brazenness as a romance plot. So this is bad, yet somehow still really fun? Usually when I rate something this low by a new-to-me author, I’ll ditch whatever other books of theirs I have on my TBR, but the first Regency Reimagined novel, which I also own, sounds a lot like this–kinky fun without being worried too much about making sense. I’m surprisingly okay with that.

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#3 – Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

  • Read: 1/5/20 – 1/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 3/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author whose last name is one syllable
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast or online book club
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is a story collection that holds a mirror up to you as the reader and asks, “What would you do?”

Usually when I review an anthology I have to say, well, they’re tough to rate because the stories are all so different, and I liked some better than others. Though in most cases I don’t take the time to do a story-by-story breakdown, especially when there are a lot of stories. But here there’s only four novellas, with the bonus short story in my paperback edition. So it’s far easier to say “I loved these three and didn’t care so much for this one but I see how it fits into the book’s overriding theme.”

Which is what I feel. The one that sticks out to me is “Big Driver,” but mostly because I’m always wary of a male author writing about the experience of rape from a woman’s perspective. In that story, I wasn’t so much looking in the metaphorical mirror and asking, “What would I do if I were her?” I was constantly thinking, “Is this how I would feel if I were her? Does this sound right to me?” It didn’t seem as authentic as the others, though I still appreciate the message it sent.

“1922” was terrifying, and had the strongest supernatural elements of any of them, though it can be interpreted as the narrator’s mind coming loose from its moorings, rather than actual otherworldly happenings, if a reader chooses. I certainly read it that way, though there’s room for interpretation. But as an opening story it’s a solid introduction to the bigger picture. “Big Driver” does carry on that picture, though as I said, it’s not as strong for me. “Fair Extension” surprised me with its apparent lack of closure–Dave Streeter makes his deal with the devil and just gets away with it? It’s rare to approach that sort of tale that way. But the best story, by far, was “A Good Marriage.” That was the clearest moment of “holy hell, what would I do? How on earth could I deal with that?”

As for the bonus story, “Under the Weather,” I actually didn’t like it at all, and I had it figured out almost instantly, and wading through the boring minutiae of the main character’s job to find out if I was right about my suspicions wasn’t tense or interesting, but plodding and dull. That was a swing and a miss for me. But it’s so short, and it’s not in all editions of the book, so I’m not really counting it in my rating.

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#4 – Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

  • Read: 1/8/20 – 1/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 4/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a title that starts with “A”
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at 60%. I know I didn’t have much more to go, page-count-wise, but I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

This book is a mess and I don’t think any of its messages are clear.

On the level of societal commentary, tackling health care issues via patent law and piracy makes it appear to some extent anti-capitalist, but it’s really just anti-monopolist, because mostly everyone is still out to make money. We live in a society, and all that. As an American I’m used to medical dystopias revolving around insurance, rather than drug prices/availability, though this future doesn’t seem to have medical insurance at all, so I guess Big Pharma is the only enemy in that regard. It’s interesting from that perspective, but this story does little to establish the state of the world beyond its level of science and technology. There’s vague reference to “the Collapse” which apparently altered the world to the point of complete political and social restructuring–people can be indentured or enslaved and that’s normal, citizenship is a commodity, the maps would look incredibly different if any were included, I’m sure–but it’s all “this is how the world is now” without much “this is how it got that way.”

On the level of interpersonal relationships, how does this literally get everything wrong, from my perspective, about positive representation? The bisexual main character is shown throughout her life to fall into bed with anyone at the drop of a hat. The nonbinary character is a robot. The man in love with the robot is homophobic to the point where he doesn’t “have sex” with the robot until “she” reveals “she’s” discovered her human brain came from a woman, and changes her pronouns to match, not because “she” cares either way but because it will make him feel more comfortable with “her.” All of these things are harmful tropes or stereotypes.

And what’s more, even if the (cough) “romances” in this story weren’t harmful or degrading, they take up so much space on the page that there’s no tension in the chase between the pirate and her pursuers. At all. The pace is plodding. She has a chapter where there’s a lot of science talk, maybe a flashback about her past, maybe there’s some implied off-screen sex with the dude she rescued at the beginning who is waaaaay younger than her and she’s basically keeping around as a sex toy even though she wants to get rid of him for practical life purposes. (I’m not even going to stop to unpack all that, because it’s also gross and I don’t want to.) Then we switch POVs to the nonbinary robot, who is some ways is actually rather charming in his/her attempts (I’m using both pronouns because both are used in the story at one point or another) to learn and process human behavior. I would have been much happier if the entire book were just Paladin figuring him/herself out in the world of humans, even though I know that’s not a very original story concept; Paladin is by far the most interesting character of this cast. But his/her chapters focus so much on that (and his/her exploration of and research into what robot-human sexual relationships would be like, and eventually are, when “she” and Eliasz finally sleep together, which was a bizarre scene that made no physical sense) that the chasing of the bad guy is a subplot at best when it actually should be the main story line linking these characters together.

Also, am I supposed to feel sympathetic to Jack? She’s a drug pirate, fighting Big Pharma to bring cheap and necessary drugs to the masses who can’t otherwise afford them. That’s Robin-Hood-esque, in a sci-fi kind of way, but her mistake in distributing an addictive drug that’s getting people killed doesn’t hold up well in that light. The drug wasn’t medically necessary to anyone–it’s a stimulant to make doing your job more pleasant–and she wasn’t exactly handling it responsibly, reverse-engineering something that wasn’t yet fully tested or available for public distribution. If she’s so altruistic, shouldn’t she have been making useful things like insulin or anti-cancer meds or basically anything else? It’s lampshaded in the story as not-stupid by saying “well people on [this drug] are more likely to get hired or keep their jobs because they enjoy working, so people without it are at a disadvantage.” Except…it’s not in large-scale distribution yet, so has anyone actually lost their jobs at that point because they don’t have access to the drug?

Jack comes across as a pretty cold, unfeeling person who, past and present, uses sex to manipulate people, justifies her not-life-saving drug-running by saying she’s sticking it to Big Pharma, then screws up royally and gets people killed. Her attempts to “fix” that, even at 60% where I gave up out of annoyance, don’t amount to much at all, which is another reason there’s no tension in this story. She’s not on the verge of some drastic breakthrough to create a drug to counteract the bad one, only pursuit is hot on her heels. Pursuit is too busy falling into bed with each other and drowning in homophobic angst to bother doing their jobs properly.

Even if I only had a little over a hundred more pages to find out how this story turns out, I could not make myself go on any farther. It’s a mess and I just don’t need to know how it ends.

Getting Serious About Series 2020 #1

I won’t lie, my old format for the posts tracking my series-reading progress got really complicated, really quickly, and focused far too heavily on whether or not I owned the books in question, so I ended up with far more categories than I needed.

This year, I still want to track my progress, but I’m going to try to streamline it.

The first category, though, sadly, stays the same:

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published (still)

The next category is all the series I have in progress that I could keep reading because more books do exist (whether or not I own them yet):

Series in Progress (books read/total books)

And the “I should get to these soon” series:

I Own The First One (or More) But Haven’t Started Yet

Then, because I regret not doing this last year, a list of every series I’ve completed (or abandoned for whatever reason) since starting the tracking:

Off My List in 2020

  • [nothing yet]

I still intend to come up with a system of color changing text, or possibly just using boldface, to mark items that have changed, but this is the baseline for the start of the new year, edited from my list last summer. There are items missing here, compared to that one: I ditched one series without reading it due to author shenanigans I couldn’t support, another I started and DNF’d the first book because it was that bad, and so forth. But clean slate this year, here’s where I’m starting.

As for overall series goals, I often pick one big series a year to make sure I finish (The Dark Tower back in 2017, for example, and Saga in 2019 when I meant to do the James Bond books but had to ditch them because I hated them so much by the end of the second book.) In 2020, the top-priority series is Robin Hobb’s Realms of the Elderlings, which I am just shy of halfway through. They are all big, dense fantasy novels that generally take me a solid week to read, even at my fast pace, so that’s about two months of my reading time spoken for already. I’m hesitant to pick a smaller series to go with it right out of the gate, but I’m sure I can knock off at least a few other easier goals as well.

 

 

Down the TBR Hole #26

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?

New year, same meme!

#1 – Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

776573A post-apocalyptic story that is also a linguistic puzzler. Don’t remember where I stumbled across this title, definitely see why I added it.  As to whether it should stay? I may never write another post-apocalyptic work myself, or I may, who knows at this point. But I didn’t lose interest in the genre. I’m interested enough that it can stick around.

 

 

 

#2 – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

2195464._SY475_One of the top-rated reviews on Goodreads, under “who do you recommend this for?” says “runners and writers.” I am not a serious runner, a marathon runner, but I am both of these things. I have a piece of Murakami fiction on the shelves already–Norwegian Wood–and ordinarily I’d do the thing where I say “if I hate that then I’ll come back and cut this” but fiction and nonfiction are different beasts, even from the same author, and I’ll probably still want to read this even if I don’t end up liking Norwegian Wood. It stays.

 

 

#3 – Chemistry, by Weike Wang

31684925._SY475_I heard a lot about this leading up to its release and just after, then it sort of disappeared from my radar. I’m pleased to rediscover it, because a) it still sounds awesome, and b) I need “a book with a protagonist in their 20s” for the PopSugar challenge this year and that spot on my list was still blank, waiting for me to read a book on a whim and find out it qualified. But now, I’ve got a plan! It stays and goes on the challenge list.

 

 

#4 – The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

15819028Wooo boy, I do not remember putting this on the TBR. Rereading the blurb makes it sound okay, but just okay. Skimming my friends’ reviews section on the Goodreads page leads me to believe this is a love-it-or-hate-it book, because the downside seems to be an incredibly slow pace to the story, but the upside of that is “lush, evocative prose.” I’m not going to invest the kind of time that kind of book needs on a blurb I think is so-so. This definitely goes.

 

 

#5 – Persuading Prudence, by Liz Cole

11329359What exactly the heck? I reread this blurb and have no memory of finding this book or putting it on my list or any reason why I might have done so. If you’d asked me about this title before I did this meme, I would have said, in all honesty, “Never heard of it.” Doesn’t seem like my thing at all, away it goes.

 

 

 

#6 – 8  — The NOLA Nights series, by Thea de Salle

These are on the list because a Tumblr mutual, back when book 2 of the series was released, was hyping it to the stars like it was her own personal mission to make as many people as possible aware of this book and hopefully get them to read it. I was convinced enough to throw the whole series on there, but let’s reexamine that, shall we? Book one has lovers with a pretty large age gap, older male/younger female, and that can be a turn-off for me, but reviews point out that she’s plus-size and he’s bisexual. Bisexual male lead? I can forgive a lot of other things that might make me hesitant if that’s good, because bisexuality as a whole doesn’t have good rep, but within that bi ladies are far more visible than bi guys. So I’m on board so far. Book two, the one that was shoved under my nose so vocally, also has bi rep apparently, and basically everyone who reviewed it thinks it’s even better than the first (which is probably why it was the first one to come to my attention despite being the second in the series.) Still on board. Book three? It looks like there’s some religion/sex tension, which can be disastrous if done wrong, but by then if I’ve read the first two I’ll either like the author’s style or I won’t, and I can decide then to go on or not. The final assessment: they can all stay, and now I’m interested enough to put them at the top of my list when I break my book buying ban in the spring.

#9 – ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King

11590My dedication to pruning my TBR even extends to Mr. King, who is simultaneously one of my favorite authors (his best books are easily a few of my lifetime favorites) and one of the least consistent authors I’ve ever read. When he’s good, he’s great, but when he’s bad, I hate it. (I’m looking at you, Lisey’s Story.) So while I will pick up any King novel I don’t already own at a book sale, no question, I will also DNF that sucker in a heartbeat if I’m not enjoying myself–it’s happened, more than once. I couldn’t get through It, which nearly everyone else loves! So the story behind putting this one on my list is that I did it after some of its character show up late in the Dark Tower series, and they’re pivotal, and I was curious. But now, given how long it’s been since I finished the series (that was my big 2017 series goal) and how disappointed I was with it in the end, my nostalgia for something I haven’t actually read is not good enough. Would I read this book on its own merits? Stephen King does vampires. Old-school, early-career horror. So, so many people claiming in their reviews that it’s their favorite King novel (or at least one of them.) I think this can stay. It won’t be high on my priority list any time soon (I’m currently reading a King story collection and have three more of his novels that I do own slated for challenges this year) but it doesn’t need to be cut. I’m quite likely never going to catch up entirely on King’s back catalog, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try.

#10 – Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour

#11 – We Are Okay, by Nina LaCour

#12 – Every Day, by David Levithan

Two bonus books, because I need to do these three together, since they all come from the same source: these are the two authors who wrote one of my favorite books of 2017, You Know Me Well. I’m still recommending it as queer fiction to this day–I was just talking recs with a friend this past weekend and I threw this one at her. And I was lamenting my lack of wlw reading, because there isn’t as much out there as I want there to be, but I haven’t even read some of the big titles of what there is, and LaCour is the author who comes up again and again. Seriously, I loved that book so much, so I went straight to Goodreads to look up the authors’ other work and throw a few on there. They all stay. Looking back at what I chose I think I’m more excited about the LaCour books than the Levithan one, but that still looks interesting for its unusual premise.


Once again, it was a bumper crop of books that did not get cut. I only pitched 2/12 this time (like last month, unlike me) but if I was always cutting more than half my list, then what was I thinking putting them on there in the first place? As always, if you’ve got an opinion to share or a disagreement to voice about any of these books, drop a note in the comments and say why you think I should change my mind!

This Week, I Read… (2019 #54)

Yes, I know, it’s 2020 now, but these are the last books I read in 2019 and I haven’t finished my first 2020 read yet! It’s only been two days and it’s a big fantasy novel! More on that next week.

So, let’s wrap up last year.

Spellbinder

#168 – Spellbinder, by Melanie Rawn

  • Read: 12/26/19 – 12/28/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (110/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 159. I’m bored.

The most fundamental problem is that none of the things I expect from a Melanie Rawn novel are present here. My teenage and college years were spent reading the Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, and rereading them quite frequently. I loved the first two books of the Exiles series, and like many fans, became somewhat resentful when it was made clear that Rawn was never going to go back and write the third book, giving us both the ending it deserved and the closure we needed. I wasn’t involved in the boycott of her later work directly, because I didn’t even know about the fandom drama until years later when I looked up “is the Exiles series ever getting finished” after I saw my two lonely books sitting together on the shelf one day. But I did not know about Spellbinder until several years after it was published, and I was annoyed enough that I didn’t give it a try until now, when I found it at a used book sale and thought, “Rawn may have disappointed me with Exiles, but her other work is so good. What if I’m missing out by not reading this?”

Well, now I know I wasn’t. Her big fantasy series were a tangle of romance, magic, dragons, and most of all, family. You could boil down the central themes of all eight of those books I loved across all three of those series to family bonds are one of the most important things in the world, no matter what that world happens to be. And that’s simply not present here. It’s a gaping hole in my expectations, and maybe I could forgive that, because that’s on me and not Rawn, at least not directly.

But I just can’t get invested in these snarky, glib characters. Everyone is snapping at each other all the time, be they friends or lovers or found family. And it does seem like “found family” is supposed to be a trope here–Holly has her fellow witches and some of them are honorary uncles and such–but those bonds aren’t forged strongly enough to believe in them. And all that fighting is just irritating, not cute, when I don’t believe these characters care about each other.

And all that fighting is the entirety of the plot so far. I gave up at 40% and I have only faint clues what the central conflict of the book is going to be. The prologue introduces the villain first–at least I’m assuming she’s the big bad of the book, but if she is I’m already disappointed because she’s a flimsy construction of three evil witch tropes in a trench coat–and then, a handful of short and confusing, disjointed scenes introduces Holly and her entire coven and presumably sets up the core conflict. In the prologue. But…it’s that a bad witch is bad and pissed off at the main cast for being good and trying to put a limit on her power? If that’s the point, why have I read 40% of the book and it’s almost entirely about the romantic subplot between Holly and Evan? And it’s not even a good romance because they flip-flop constantly between being sickeningly cute with each other and being slammed-doors, storming-out pissed at each other? None of it reads as believable, and it’s tiresome because it doesn’t feel like it contributes to the main plot. Whatever that is.

I can predict at this point that Holly and Evan are going to break up, because they’re already engaged at 40%, so what else can even happen to keep them apart so that the climax involves their satisfying reunion and declaration of love? And then while they’re estranged, I guess the evil witch is going to a) try to seduce Evan; b) put him in direct physical/magical danger; or c), both of the above. Again, so if that’s the point, why hasn’t the story done anything to show me the evil witch is at all dangerous (she’s kind of ridiculous) or to make me care about Evan (he’s mostly a jerk) or to prove that he and Holly actually care about each other (they’re usually snapping at each other, then having sex, then throwing some sort of cultural pissing contest about which one of them is more Irish)–why should I care?

The only reason I can tell this is a Melanie Rawn novel is because her name is on the cover. This could have come from any two-bit “hop on the urban fantasy train” author who produces utterly dismissable work today, and I wouldn’t know the difference, because nothing about what makes the other Rawn books great is here. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen an author change (abandon?) their own signature style so completely as this.

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#169 – Music of the Heart, by Katie Ashley

  • Read: 12/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (111/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At one point, in one of her many proud, take-no-crap moments, the heroine of this story says she needs a chiropractor for the emotional whiplash the hero has been inflicting on her.

I’m right there with you, sister, but for the entire book, not just his behavior. Every time you stood up for yourself against a douchebag or a jerkwad, I was cheering for you, but then you just keep giving your emotionally crippled hero chance after chance after chance when he treats you like garbage.

Now, when I grabbed this romance ages ago, either free or deeply discounted because the blurb sounded vaguely interesting, I had not fully realized our heroine was a Christian virgin whose three older brothers comprised a Christian rock band. I am not Christian and through repeated exposure generally find Christian romances to be bland or bad or even intolerable. So color me surprised that Abby ended up being my favorite character in the book (though that’s not actually saying much because of all the flaws this story had) and the underlying message, that of forgiveness, was clearly a Christian one but not via Bible-thumping or excessive preachiness. Which I appreciate. In reality, her Christian background strikes me more as a all-in-one reason for her to be the angelic virgin counterpoint to the bad-boy rock star, more than this actually constituting a “Christian” romance as they usually are.

Jake is a needy mess and the underlying message of forgiveness translates effectively to “Don’t give up on this jackass no matter how bad he treats you, because forgiveness is good and yeah sure stand up for yourself but only so far.” I would have left Jake and stayed gone long before the end of the book. Also, his final try at pushing her away was one of the most fake things I’ve ever read in my life–very very few people are that bad and say such awful things, especially when it’s a 180 from their previous behavior. But when she storms off because he’s a horrible person and it’s the last straw, she forgives him when he changes his mind and chases after her. Because of course she does, and then they can live happily ever after.

So there are aspects of this that I like–mostly Abby when she sticks up for herself, and to a lesser extent, how AJ, one of the other band members, becomes her friend after he realizes he’s got no shot with her because of Jake and actually is a pretty decent friend. But the things I didn’t like far outweigh that–how the message nearly exonerates Jake from all of his bad behavior, how everyone follows all their assigned tropes and gender roles to perfection without a single interesting deviation, how poorly edited it is (missing or misplaced punctuation abounds, and quite a few times the author uses common phrases incorrectly, and there are some obvious typos a spellcheck would not catch.) I don’t like how fast Jake and Abby go from disgust/hate/annoyance to love. I don’t like how small children ended up being used as props in one scene to make Jake sexier to Abby, because “aww, look at the man with the baby, my ovaries just exploded.” Not cool.

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#170 – Vivian’s List, by Haleigh Lovell

  • Read: 12/30/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (112/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

All sex and no plot. Very little conflict aside from the beginning, when the hero is trying to convince the heroine that her boyfriend is psychologically abusive. He is, but the hero spends literal pages talking down to the heroine about it like he’s lecturing her on the topic. I buy that he’s concerned and that it’s a tough issue for him because his mom was similarly abused by his dad, but it was like wading through the preachiest pamphlet ever: “Ten Signs Your Partner is an Abusive Jerk.”

Once that’s past, though, the pair falls into bed together on an accelerated schedule (he’s shipping back to Iraq in a week! Let’s shoehorn in some commentary on America’s perpetual state of war!) and it’s all sunshine and lollipops after that. The whole time I was like, “is the only conflict driving the rest of the story that this is supposed to be a fling and they’re clearly catching feelings?” Because that’s a good single source of conflict in a romance, but it’s awfully thin to base an entire book around without anything deeper to go with it.

I was still thinking that right up until the unexpected cliffhanger. Yeah, this is half a story, padded out to reasonable novel-length with truly excessive amounts of repetitive, cringey, cheesy sex scenes. If this is supposed to be a romance, it needs more story. If this is supposed to be straight-up erotica, it needs better sex. Splitting the difference to try to make this sail as an erotic romance leaves it stranded in the middle without the better aspects of either.

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#171 – When You Got a Good Thing, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 12/30/19 – 12/31/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (113/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is less of a romance than it is a story about personal growth and proving yourself to your family. This was the Kennedy Reynolds show, with everyone else–including her love interest Xander–getting very little development. Her sisters are all one-note supporting players (this one’s the angry one, this one’s more sympathetic, and so on) and the central conflict of the story is not “will the lovebirds get together,” it’s “can we save our house from the bank so our nearly-adopted sister doesn’t get kicked back into the system?”

Which is a fundamentally good story at its heart, don’t get me wrong. I’m still giving this three stars. But this is really more of a women’s-fiction-type tale, a story of a woman and her sisters and their family legacy, and there’s a flat, simple romance grafted on to it. Xander and Kennedy spend a fair bit of time shouting at each other about the ten years they missed in their second-chance romance, but not all that much time doing anything to convince the reader that they’re still in love. It’s chemistry, sure, you guys banged like bunnies as teenagers apparently, but is it love? Does it have time to develop into love around all these external obstacles? Because there are no internal conflicts worth mentioning. Neither of them really examines or questions if getting back together is a good idea for more than a few minutes, and they barely even acknowledge that they’re different people now than they were when she left (at least in the romance arc, Kennedy’s family arc is entirely about how she’s changed.)

So in the end, I did enjoy this story overall, but I feel like billing it as a romance is, to some degree, false advertising. The romance is less than half the plot and by far the weakest aspect of it.

New Year, New Draft of an Old Project

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Photo by Getúlio Moraes on Unsplash

That’s right, I said I was going to dig up an old project to rewrite and publish in 2020, and the one I’ve chosen is #rockstarnovel, my NaNoWriMo novel from 2016. Yeah, it’s been gathering dust for three years now.

Despite that, I’ve thought about it often. To this day, when I go running, if my brain gets blank my mind might jump to these characters, because I’ll imagine them covering whatever song is up on my playlist. Which one of them would suggest it? How would they arrange it? Would they play it straight or put some spin on it? Who would the lyrics mean the most to?

Music has always been a huge part of my life, and I went and made my first romantic hero in print a struggling singer-songwriter, so go figure the next big project I tackled afterward stepped me up to a full band.

I’m about a quarter of the way through rereading it and taking a fresh set of notes about what needs cutting and what needs fixing. Part of the problem was that I bit off more than I could chew with my concept–a double romance, both of a pair of twins finding love over the course of the same tour of their band. One of those plot lines turned out far superior to the other, and facing the rewrite the first time I tried to keep them both, shoring up the lesser one with more development. But it wasn’t working, and I knew it wasn’t working, so I set it aside to work on other things, and here we are years later.

Another part of the problem is that I had done about zero research into what being on tour was like; since then I’ve read quite a few rock-star novels, whether adult romance or YA, and taken notes on what made sense and what didn’t. (Obviously some are more realistic than others. Also, not all tours are created equal in the real world.) I think I can make this believable enough to read as realistic without slavishly including every single detail until the plot is totally lost in the shuffle. (I’m haven’t forgotten you, For The Record.)

So what am I doing differently this time around? I’m cutting that second, weaker romance entirely, which entails looking at each chapter from either of those characters’ POVs and deciding if I still need to show those events, and if so, which of the surviving POV characters get to “see” them. And if I am cutting the whole chapter, I have to make notes about what world- or character-building I did in it, so I know where to find it if it needs to get moved elsewhere when I start to rewrite.

This is going to be a tedious process, but a necessary one. A lot of writing advice would have an author “bang out” their reread as fast as possible, so as not to get bogged down in fixing each problem as it comes up, but to look at the whole. I’ve seen advice that says get the whole process done in as little as three to four days, but I don’t write full-time, so I’m aiming to have it done in two weeks. By the 15th, I want to have all my notes in order, an outline of events with the chapters I’m keeping slotted in and the holes marked where I have to write new ones, and a reasonable goal set, time-wise, for getting the next draft written (once I know how much new material I need.)

So expect me to check back in on this in two weeks!

End of the Month/Year Wrap-Up: December 2019!

 

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The breakdown for this month: I read nine books. (Or more, by now. I’m writing this pre-vacation, on the day I finished that ninth book.) I finished the first draft of #bridgesnovel, which I started last month during NaNoWriMo. I completely fell off my exercise plan due to getting a serious cold, and then the busyness of the holidays. Not the first time, won’t be the last. I had an excellent Christmas with one half of my family, and by now I’ve probably had an excellent second Christmas with the other half.

The breakdown for the year is more complicated.

I started off with big plans to rewrite, beta, then rewrite again and publish #spookyromancenovel. I made it halfway through those plans, but by the time the beta feedback trickled in, I was thoroughly burnt out on that project. It’s still all there waiting for me to get back to it–nothing is lost, nothing is ruined. But I set it aside in favor of other things, one of which became the NaNo novel this year.

I set out at the beginning of 2019 with a firm belief that I could stop my one year of non-publishing from becoming a two-year streak, but I failed in that. The base reason behind it though, is not only a valid but a great one–I got a new job. A better job. A job where not only do I make more money (which is good) but where I also feel valued and appreciated for my hard work, a feeling I rarely if ever had at the old job (which is awesome!) It has completely been worth the upheaval such a major life change caused in all other areas of my life–sleep, hobbies, writing, and so forth.

So I’m starting 2020 with big plans: for writing, for reading, for making art. I honestly think it’s going to be a great year.

New readers, thanks for joining me. Faithful readers, thanks for sticking with me another year. I hope all of you have a great year ahead of you as well, like I hope too. Happy New Year’s Eve!