End of the Month Wrap-Up: January 2019!

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Writing

I started this year off by finishing the re-read of the first draft of #spookyromancenovel, taking boatloads of notes about its issues, playing around with many of my own character development questionnaires, and more playing around with a map generator so I can visualize the as-yet unnamed fictional city where all this is going down.

Reading

Even though the month isn’t strictly over yet, I feel confident saying I won’t finish my current read by tomorrow, which puts me at a rather astonishing nineteen books read this month. Why so many, even for me? I was on vacation for New Year’s, with a lot of time to read. I came down with a fever as soon as we got home–guess what, more time to read. Add the general excitement I feel about starting new reading challenges, plus a new trick I’m employing to help me choose books without delay–more on that next week–and I’m just barreling through my collection, as well as getting back to the library again!

Exercise

I love winter for many reasons, but my lack of ability to run is definitely a downside. Too cold, too icy, too dangerous. I set myself the goal of walking at least three times a week instead, and doing yoga on the other days or any day I really, really couldn’t get outdoors.

I’m doing great on the walking, not so great on the yoga.

What’s helping most? The Virtual Mount TBR Challenge, actually. The one where, instead of reading My Own Damn Books, I use whatever lending resources I have available to me to knock books I don’t own off my TBR. Saturday mornings trips to the library have become a routine already, no matter the weather, as I return one or two books and pick up one or two more. I even have a list of the first forty-ish books on my master TBR list, and where I can get them: my local branch, county loan, state loan, or electronically through Hoopla or Overdrive.

And a round trip to the library is just shy of 2.5 miles. Take that, winter. I may not be able to run safely, but I will bundle myself to the eyebrows and slog through the snow to get books.

February Goals

Start the #spn rewrite, with decent character histories and a reasonable map in place. The map will probably never make it into the book itself, but I’ll be glad to have it for reference.

Read at least ten books (far fewer to account for the shorter month and the fact that I should be writing!) including the next books in my two big series-in-progress, Live and Let Die for James Bond, and Assassin’s Quest for Realms of the Elderlings.

YOGA! YOGA! I paid for the app subscription, so I ought to be using it!

Continue my weekly trips to the library.

Have all my blog posts up on time. (I came so close this month! I only skipped one!)

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Vocabulary From Books #5: The Bookmark Revelation

vocabulary bookmarks

Sometimes the simple, obvious solution is the hardest thing to think of.

I’ve torn sticky notes into strips to tab words I don’t know (I never bothered to buy actual sticky tabs) but they come loose easily, and eventually I ran out of notes anyway and never got more, since it wasn’t a good solution. I’ve read books with my vocabulary journal and my phone sitting in arm’s reach, so I can stop to look up words, but in books where that happens frequently, I find myself getting burned out on the process, all that stopping and starting. I’ve dog-eared pages with the intention of coming back and looking up a word, but since I don’t mark the word directly (I’m really hesitant to do that whenever I’m not sure I’m keeping the book) sometimes I end up reading the whole page over to find/remember the problem word, and that’s just slow.

I’m dedicated to expanding my vocabulary this way–I’ve been doing it for 2½ years–but it can be a trial sometimes, especially with certain authors.

When I started Misery, I was at my desk, which is not where I keep my stash of bookmarks. I did, however, have a small pile of index cards. I like my pretty bookmarks, of course, but I’ll use just about anything in a pinch.

When I ran into my first unknown word, everything fell into place.

I’ll admit that I expected to find more words in Misery I’d need to learn, given my past experience with Stephen King, but a week later Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters more than made up for any perceived lack of new vocabulary.

What were the actual words? Let’s find out together.

The door at the far end of the huge ward opened and in came Annie Wilkes–only she was dressed in a long aproned dress and there was a mobcap on her head; she was dressed as Misery Chastain in Misery’s Love.

mobcap: a large soft hat covering all of the hair and typically having a decorative frill, worn indoors by women in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

And he had returned to his calèche without so much as a response to Geoffrey’s question.

calèche: a light low-wheeled carriage with a removable folding hood.

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces.

cenotaph: a monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war.

Mother is having only a slightly better time of it than Mrs. Moseley who, having fallen victim to chronic aposiopesis in the morning, spent the bulk of the afternoon seated in silent defeat behind her desk, while her restless third graders improvised games of catch with a variety of show-and-tell items.

aposiopesis: the device of suddenly breaking off in speech.

Allow me, finally to offer up this arresting little trenchancy: given a few weeks, I, or either of you–most anyone on this isle for that matter–might learn how truly easy it is for one to create a sentence of length matching Nollop’s–perhaps one even shorter.

trenchancy: vigorousness or incisiveness in expression or style.

What a pharisaic, vigilante witch!

pharisaic: relating to or characteristic of the Pharisees or Pharisaism; self-righteous or hypocritical.


Those who look closely at my pictured bookmarks will notice several words missing from my post. I became frustrated with Ella Minnow Pea for that very reason: when I found an unfamiliar word, I had to either look it up right away or make my best guess as to whether it was an existing word I truly didn’t know, or an invention of the author’s. I dismissed most of the inventions I saw based on their obvious root meanings and context–if I could figure out what was meant by it, that was good enough for me. Apparently, though, several made it through my rough screening process, leaving me looking up definitions that don’t exist.

Usually this peril doesn’t exist–I’ve only discovered one other nonexistent word that way prior to Ella. So it’s not putting me off my vocabulary quest, but it was disheartening.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #4)

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#12 –  Beauty, by Caroline Lee

  • Read: 1/18/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (8/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Bland. Predictable. Repetitive.

I could only take listening to Arabella whine about how worthless she was because she wasn’t beautiful anymore so many times. Also her idea that she was “old” when she was barely past thirty–yep, you’re a crone, get in the grave already.

I know her attitudes are meant to be warped by her second husband and his impossible standards, I get it. But it’s tiresome to watch her vague attempts to unlearn those attitudes, and I’m not sure she actually succeeds all that well. It’s weird that the one thing I actually truly liked about this was the way the second-chance romance ending played out: you’re not the same person you were when I loved you then, but neither am I, and we fell in love again as who we are now. Honestly, I think that’s beautiful, and something the second-chance-romance sub-genre could take to heart. But as lovely as that sentiment is, I don’t feel like it’s attached to a story line that deserves it. There’s not much conflict aside from Arabella’s and Vincenzo’s prejudices about beauty and its relative worth; the external conflict amounts to some easily ignored nonsense about small-town propriety. It’s shallow, unsubtle, and ultimately a poor reimagination of Beauty and the Beast.

13 - jeweled fire

#13 – Jeweled Fire, by Sharon Shinn

  • Read: 1/19/19 – 1/20/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (9/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book told from multiple character POVs
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

When I pick up a Sharon Shinn book, I’m expecting a solid fantasy plot with a stellar romance subplot. It’s the formula, it’s why she’s been one of my favorite authors since I first picked up Archangel back in college.

This is 95% palace intrigue and 5% romance.

Now, the main plot is definitely solid. I was turning pages. I was fascinated by Corene’s personal growth and the friends she made–she’s come a long way from the spoiled and troubled brat she was as a child in Troubled Waters. But she doesn’t fall in love with Foley, and he doesn’t fall in love with her. They’ve already been in love, only they couldn’t admit it until it seemed like all was lost.

I wouldn’t even be so annoyed by that basic sketch of a romance, if it felt like a payoff of their development from the first two books, but it doesn’t. Foley comes across as authentic here when he insists he was never in love with Corene’s older sister, though it’s easy to think why she’d believe that, because she adores Josetta, so why shouldn’t everyone? But Foley never seemed to be in love with either of them before, and his love for Corene now seems out of left field.

At the same time, though, it’s clear she and Foley are going to end up together, which takes a lot of the punch out of the setup for putting Corene in a foreign land in the first place–the possibility of a marriage into another land’s ruling family. I’m not a fan of love triangles, so I’m glad that wasn’t played straight, but it would have been nice if I’d ever thought for a second that Corene might actually marry one of the candidates, for love or even smart politics. But I knew she wouldn’t.

So I liked the new setting, I liked the twisted, complicated intrigue, I liked the new characters. But I wanted a romance, and I don’t really feel like I got one.

14 - ella minnow pea

#14 – Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters, by Mark Dunn

  • Read: 1/20/19 – 1/22/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (10/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with no chapters, unusual chapter headings, or unconventionally numbered chapters
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

As a writer, I can appreciate at least a small measure of how difficult this book must have been to write. (And edit, proofread, etc.) I appreciate the craft that went into this.

As a reader, though, I found that the cuteness, cleverness, and contrivance of the story got in its own way at times. Near the beginning of the book, I had a hard time telling which extravagant words were actual terms I was unfamiliar with, and which were made up by the author. In the middle, that literary surplus gives way under the pressure of the limited alphabet, which results for a while in good readability. Near the end, though, the text becomes difficult in a different way, as words take on bizarre spellings to get around the various prohibitions.

Did the extra difficultly reinforce the point of the story? Well, yes, mostly. As a broad, far-reaching satire, this touches on censorship and free speech, governmental overreach, religion-as-rule, the corruption inherent in unrestricted power. Yet, it doesn’t have space to dive into any one of these issues deeply, and because there’s little sense of character (everyone’s letters and notes have basically the same style to them, whatever stage of deterioration the language might be at the time) it’s difficult to form an attachment to any of them, and I found watching this little fictional island nation dissolve to be an exercise in detachment. Yeah, sure, it’s all horrible in an academic sense, but when someone was actually shot, I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t moved. It was a brief stumbling block before turning the page to find a new item to add to the litany of stupid things happening.

I’m glad I read it–I did enjoy it at least that much. But even for satire, the silliness inherent in the premise and the tone made it difficult to take seriously.

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#15 – A Man of Character, by Margaret Locke

  • Read: 1/22/19 – 1/23/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (5/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I enjoyed the premise, though I do question the pacing. I realize a magical manuscript that makes a person’s characters come to life is a serious suspension of disbelief for a rational person to undertake, but Cat toys with the idea for the entire middle act of the book before finally realizing it’s true at the start of the third act. Lady, I’ve been on board with this since the blurb. It’s really happening, and you sure do take your sweet time figuring it out, leading to a lot of hemming and hawing that wasn’t pleasant to wade through.

While I don’t generally go for stories involving multiple (potential) love interests, because of the nature of this particular beast, it didn’t bother me so much. All three fictional men get the development they deserve (thankfully in Ricky’s case, it’s not much) and all three fit a clear pattern in Cat’s life, though I will admit I didn’t see the Dickens/Christmas Carol reference coming, and that was weird. Appropriate, but also somewhat jarring.

Where the story really (finally) took off for me was in Eliza’s romantic subplot, asking Cat to write her a Duke to sweep her away. I like that it’s mostly left to our imagination, what Cat wrote and how she managed to make time travel work for Eliza; I love the resolution, Eliza’s gift to Cat in the future, for its thoughtfulness and obvious testament to their friendship. (Even if I found their relationship overly cutesy at times.)

What disappointed me, though, was that with so much space given to developing the fictional men in Cat’s life, not much time was left for the “real” one, Ben. Who seems like a great guy on the surface, but has relatively limited opportunity to show himself off to the readers. His happy ending with Cat doesn’t feel entirely earned, on his part, at least. Certainly Cat deserves it! But I do wish I’d had the chance to root for Ben more before the end.

Writing Homework #18: Go Somewhere You’ve Never Been Before

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As a companion to my last assignment, I want you to go somewhere you’ve never been before and write about it.

This doesn’t have to be a beautiful Italian city on the sea, though if you have the opportunity, I’d certainly vote for that. It can be somewhere much more accessible. Do you have a usual coffee shop you go to? Yeah? Go to a different one next time. Sit down at a table in the corner. Observe the other customers. Notice what’s different about the menu, about the staff, about the lighting and the atmosphere. If you ordered your usual drink, does it taste noticeably different here, better or worse?

Not into coffee shops? Sure, I get you. How well do you know your local library? Or the branch one or two towns over? Or what about trying a different grocery store? How is it laid out differently? What did you have trouble finding? What type of music was playing in the background?

Have you been meaning to check out a new restaurant, or visit a different park? It’s all on the table for this, as long as you’ve never been there before. Go. Look. Pay attention. And then write it all down, while you’re there if that’s possible/polite, or as soon as possible afterward. Big impressions, small details. Smells and sounds, especially.

I’d advise going alone, if you can, so you can concentrate on your personal experience rather than a shared or social one, but that can be flexible too. If you take someone along, have them tell you what they observed. What parts of the place did you both notice, and were your reactions different? What did your companion see that you didn’t?

If you can’t tell from this, I’ve been struggling with setting, recently. On rereading my novel draft, some places in it are vivid and well-realized, while others–usually generic city stuff–are bland and uninspiring. For any given project, you won’t necessarily be able to physically go everywhere your characters do, especially if you have fantastical settings. But you can approximate a lot, and by widening your experience of the world we have, you can better formulate a world for your characters.

Happy living, everybody, and happy writing.


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

My 2018 Reading Stats: One Last Post About Last Year

Two of my acquaintances on Tumblr did posts like this (heretherebebooks and logarithmicpanda,) and I shamelessly stole the idea, tweaked it to suit my reading habits, and crunched the numbers.

Total Books Read: 182

Books by Women: 138 (75.8%)

Books by POC: 26 (14.2%)

LGBT+ Books: 18 (9.8%)

Romances: 73 (40.1%)

Rated Five Stars: 27 (14.8%)

Rated One Star: 52 (28.5%)

Did Not Finish: 28 (15.3%)

Conclusions:

  1. I was a harsher critic last year than in previous years. I didn’t do my full 2017 stats, but out of curiosity I checked them for Rated One Star and Did Not Finish: both were significantly lower (19.7% and 10%, respectively.)
  2. Plowing through so many of the romances I’ve collected boosted my Books by Women stat, for sure, but lowered my POC/LGBT+ reading. The bulk of my collection (and of the genre in general) is MF romance written by straight white women, and it shows in my numbers. My romance collection is still pretty large, but I should definitely make more of an effort to read diversely both inside and outside the genre.

I’ve added simple tick boxes for these categories to my 2019 master spreadsheet (yes, I’m that big of a book nerd) so compiling this year’s stats will be much easier when the time comes–I was paging through my read-in-2018 Goodreads shelf and counting each category on each page, which involved a lot of math.

 

 

This Week, I Read… (2019 #3)

7 - angelfall

#7 – Angelfall, by Susan Ee

  • Read: 1/10/19 – 1/12/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (5/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A debut novel
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This book left me with as many questions still hanging as the ones it answered, so I’m glad I already have the rest of the series.

It’s impressively paced, filled with tension and action both. The romance subplot I expect to find in most YA novels was subverted, morphed into an attraction that was as gripping and visceral as it was impossible to contemplate leading anywhere. The personal tension between Penryn and Raffe is not ignored, but it’s definitely not romanticized, either. Which I liked.

I also liked that the entire story is loaded with murkiness about who is friend and who is foe. Raffe should be the enemy, especially after Penryn discovers his true identity (though I thought it was obvious just from his name…) and the Resistance starts out being an enemy (sort of) and ends up being an ally (sort of.) The other angels are pretty clearly the enemy, but some of them are still willing to help (sort of.) I prefer moving through gray areas like that to reading about simple black-and-white divisions between opposing forces.

What I liked less is a pretty minor point: it got difficult, especially at the end, to track who was where at any given moment, especially in the action scenes. Penryn’s schizophrenic mother being constantly missing then reappearing was understandable, and I liked that Penryn felt both guilty and grimly fatalistic about her inability to keep her family together, because riding herd on her mother sounds exhausting. But sometimes in the action scenes, things just sort of paused while two characters were talking or fighting, and I kept thinking, “What is everyone else in the room doing right now? Are they still there?”

Overall, I enjoyed it, and it’s certainly an impressive debut novel. I have high hopes for the rest of the series answering the questions that this left me with.

8 - the sleeper and the spindle

#8 – The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

  • Read: 1/12/19 – 1/13/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (3/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book that makes you nostalgic
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

As a longtime fan of Gaiman’s ability to balance darkness with humor, this was perfect for me. A bold and interesting interweaving of two classic fairy tales into something new and strange and lovely. Riddell’s illustrations were beautiful, sumptuously detailed, and vaguely disturbing, matching the tone of the text and enriching it. (I may have spent almost as much time studying the illustrations as I did reading the narrative. If not, it was close.)

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#9 – Misery, by Stephen King

  • Read: 1/14/19 – 1/15/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (6/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: Read a book during the season it’s set in
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I remember, a long time ago, telling a friend who was also a Stephen King fan that I loved the movie Misery but hadn’t read the book. They immediately warned me the book was “much more hardcore.”

Uh, yeah, it was. So much so that I whizzed through this in two days because it was so hard to put down!

I’ve never tried to write a novel with a psychotic fan hovering over me, but it does come across as a great motivator. In the end, though, I like that Paul was writing for himself, and I loved that I could see, so clearly, how he was using the (ongoing) trauma of his experience to fuel the story he was writing, even if he said he was using the act of writing as an escape. I was properly horrified by Annie, but I was also strangely gleeful reading her, because she’s such a marvelous villain, with her odd mannerisms and hidden slyness.

It’s gruesome, terrifying, and pretty darn brilliant from start to finish.

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#10 – Betrayal, by Aleatha Romig

  • Read: 1/15/19 – 1/16/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (7/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with an item of clothing or accessory on the cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

As romances with cliffhangers go, that last chapter had me wanting to read the next book. A lot of work clearly went into filling the ending with unresolved tension that begged me to buy the second installment.

Too bad the rest of the book wasn’t nearly that good, so I was easily able to resist.

The plot was reasonably predictable. Alexandria/Alex/Charli’s identity crisis was layered on way too thick, especially because her “Charli” persona, who was supposed to be wild, was still pretty tame. Nox was as bland as a dominant alpha-male character can get. So I wasn’t that attached to the characters, either.

The sex scenes were meh at best.

What really bothered me, though, was the structure. Okay, so the present timeline and the flashback timeline are both moving forward as the book goes on, no problem, pretty standard. But when I read the flashback scene that covered the last morning of Alex’s vacation (and thus the last morning of her week with Nox) I expected the flashback timeline to end there, because that was the whole point of that arc of the story. Except it didn’t. There was another flashback chapter after that, talking about the day before their last day together. So, flashback within a flashback? Or just sloppy construction? In addition, after most of the book is exclusively from Alex’s first-person POV, near the very end, suddenly Nox is a POV character, for just long enough to explain how he and “Charli” are barreling toward their unplanned reunion. Since it’s such a short blip in an otherwise Alex-centered book, I feel like it would have been more useful to have him explain it to Alex in person (in her POV) rather than drag the reader through it firsthand. And if that wouldn’t work with the timeline established here, it could fit in the second book easily, because without his section, I think there would have actually been more suspense at the end.

11 - fire

#11 – Fire, by Kristen Cashore

  • Read: 1/16/19 – 1/17/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (4/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

The rough edges of style and narrative that I had issues with in Graceling have been entirely sanded off here, which I appreciate, because DAMN I LOVE THIS BOOK.

Why?

  • Sex isn’t reserved for anyone’s One True Love, and both the positive and negative aspects of this are depicted across the story’s major and minor romantic/sexual relationships. Which is not standard for YA at all.
  • Bisexual MC? It’s not stated outright, but it’s heavily implied, and I’m not going to be as harsh about the missing b-word with a book published ten years ago as I would be with something published today. Bisexual representation has been creeping forward slowly for a while now, but it’s only exploded (in my media sphere, at least) in the past few years.
  • The character who is literally so beautiful and appealing that she can influence minds directly ISN’T THE EVIL ONE. Fire struggles throughout the story with what her power means and the legacy her father left her, but not once is she (or her father, for that matter) simply depicted as evil.
  • Serious, in-universe discussions about menstruation (OMG Fire and Brigan were adorable there,) abortion (Mila admitting she would have done it if she had known it was an option and Fire not shaming her for it,) voluntary sterilization (Fire,) and general acknowledgment of the complexities of pregnancy and motherhood, including men’s responsibility for getting women that way and how women shouldn’t be the only ones concerned with birth control (Archer.)
  • Positive depictions of both single mother- and fatherhood. Seriously, I never see single fathers in stories unless they’re benignly neglectful of their giant brood of cared-for-by-servants children (I’m looking at you, Daughter of the Forest) or fetishized as perfect men in single-father-themed romance novels.
  • Realistically paced romantic attraction. Do I love Brigan more than Po from Graceling? I might. He’s really great, and all of those brief, out-wandering-at-night conversations are just awkward and sweet and lovely.

 

#spookyromancenovel update!

cathedral

It took a little longer than I meant it to, but the draft reread is done, and I have pages upon pages of notes about what works, what doesn’t, and that time I gave Shannon a magical umbrella that could hit like a sledgehammer then completely forgot it existed.

Chekhov’s Umbrella, anyone?

So I’ve got some world-building to flesh out, for sure. I’ve got some pretty hideous plot holes that need paving, especially in the latter half, which I was racing through for NaNoWriMo. But overall? I’m feeling pretty good about it. For something I threw together in just over two months with zero planning beforehand, it’s actually a decent first draft.

The big rewrite will be soon. My rough plan is use the rest of January for the planning stuff–world-building, ironing the kinks out of the time line, brainstorming fixes to the plot holes, beefing up my subplots. Then I’m hoping to get the second draft cranked out by the end of March, another two-month window. It seems to be the right length of time for me.

Will you be hearing much about it in the mean time? I’m not sure. Whenever I do a rewrite I end up coming up with new editing tricks, which usually turn into Editing Notes posts. So quite possibly. But I’m also two weeks into the new reading year, and I’m swimming in books, I love my reading challenges, so there’s still going to be tons of reading content, too.

My goal, much like back when I started with What We Need to Survive, is to have this released sometime by the end of the year. I was disappointed not to put anything out in 2018 after three straight years of a book a year, but I didn’t have anything worth publishing. The rock star novel I was so excited about is still on my hard drive, and I may go back to it some day, but it’s definitely not ready for anyone else to see, and that’s the lesson 2018 taught me–not every story is going to work out like you want it to.

#spookyromancenovel, on the other hand, feels like it’s going to be great. After some more work, of course!