On Reading Challenges

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After 1 3/4 years of my book choices being defined by reading challenges, I’m getting fatigued.

I don’t regret doing these challenges, and here’s why:

  1. They’re pushing me to read books outside my comfort zone.
  2. They’ve helped me find new authors to follow.
  3. The weekly book-review post series I created to wrangle the challenges has become the backbone of my blog.
  4. I think more critically about books (and my own writing) because of the reviewing process.

All of which are excellent things, of course.

But I’m tired. And despite participating in Mount TBR this year at the highest level, my unread pile is only barely shrinking–and I don’t get to borrow library books anymore, because they’re not mine, so they don’t count.

I miss the library!

With all that in mind, I’m already thinking about how I want to read next year (or late this year, if I finish Mount TBR with time to spare.)

  • I want to continue to focus on finishing unfinished series, as I’m doing for Beat the Backlist this year.
  • I want to read from more romance subgenres.
  • I want to continue to clear out my physical TBR, but with less pressure.
  • I want to choose one reading challenge to participate in, probably PopSugar again, and not to set myself an unrealistic total-books-read goal for the Goodreads challenge.

And I have a few specific goals in mind as well:

  1. Read the entirety of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. I read The Left Hand of Darkness years ago (still have it) and I picked up two of the lesser-known novels in my vacation book haul. Plus the boxed set of her selected stories and novellas has a few of its pieces as well. The rest shouldn’t be hard to find via Thriftbooks or the library.
  2. Reread Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. I’ve only read each of the three gargantuan novels once, and it’s going to be a significant time investment to read them again, but I’ve been feeling the itch. (I’ve read all the other works of his I own except Seveneves more than once.)
  3. Read more comics/graphic novels. My library has Overdrive, which has an excellent selection I can borrow–I’ve been wanting to read things like Saga and Lumberjanes and a handful of others I’ve seen recommended.

It may seem early for me to be thinking about next years reading when I still have three months left of 2017, but a) that’s apparently the way my brain works, and b) the end is in sight for two of my three current challenges. I’ve got three books left to read for PopSugar, nine for Beat the Backlist, and 36 for Mount TBR, which will mostly overlap with the other two.

I can finish them all, I know I can. But next year, I don’t want to be so exhausted by the goals I set myself.

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End of the Month Wrap-Up: September 2017!

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[@ the Portland Japanese Garden]

In September I hit the reset button on my stress levels with a kick-ass vacation to Oregon that involved a week of books, beaches, gardens, and the zoo. (Oregon Zoo is my favorite zoo ever, now that I’ve been there. If you’re anywhere nearby, go as soon as possible, and if you’re planning any trip to the Pacific Northwest, make it a priority. It’s fantastic.)

Complete Haul

My complete book haul from three shops: Powell’s Books in Portland, The Book Bin in Salem, and Bob’s Beach Books in Lincoln City. Each of these books was either used or a “new” remainder (and thus deeply discounted–the Le Guin box set was only $25!)

On the home front, I read ten books, didn’t set foot in the library once (I miss it!) and spent my writing time testing out different methods of outlining in preparation for choosing a new project for NaNoWriMo. So far, I’ve got one plot bunny laid out in a summary/zero draft form–it’s longer than a standard summary but it doesn’t have a scene breakdown like I would want to have for a full zero draft. (And it’s stuffed with worldbuilding notes.)

Over the vacation I tried to spend half an hour each morning putting pen to paper in an attempt at mind-mapping, with decent results. I’m finding it a great method for developing a new idea–brainstorming, essentially–but I don’t think my scribbled maps are going to cut it when it’s time to write; I see myself organizing these ideas into something more linear as an intermediate step. I suppose if I pick this bunny for NaNo, we’ll see what that step entails.

Coming up in October, I hope to expand at least one more plot bunny, though I haven’t chosen which one or what method; to participate in Inktober; to finish the PopSugar 2017 Reading Challenge, of which I only have a few tasks left to tackle; and to finally choose a project to take on for NaNo.

Also to put up all my blog posts on time. I’ve been lax about that, even aside from the vacation this month.

Did you have a productive September, readers? Do you have any interesting plans for October? Talk to me in the comments!

This Week, I Read… (2017 #36+37)

119 - Alias Grace

#119 – Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

I’m not even sure what it was I was enjoying so much about this book, because a lot of the time it was just Grace telling the story of her life, all the mundane details about clothes and laundry and what flowers grew in the garden included. By those lights, I probably should have gotten bored.

But interspersed throughout are sections of correspondence, or scenes from a third-person POV following Grace’s new doctor, detailing his motivations for studying her. The structure kept it from being dull.

And, of course, there’s Grace’s unreliability–this was a perfect book choice for this task. Even now, I still don’t know if she’s guilty of the crime she was convicted of…

120 - A Wind in the Door

#120 – A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle

The blend of the scientific and the absurdly fantastical that defines A Wrinkle in Time gets a bit muddied here–I felt like this story was less possible and more imaginary than its predecessor. With that in mind, the Murry family is still lovable and worth caring about–Meg with her charming flusteredness, Charles Wallace and his precocious intellect, and Mrs. Murry with her balance of warm motherhood and cool practicality.

And there’s more Calvin (a.k.a. my first book boyfriend) who’s still steadfast and brave. And obviously in love with Meg already, that revelation in the third book surprised me as a kid but now I totally see it…

121 - Magic Bites

#121 – Magic Bites, by Ilona Andrews

Earlier this year, I swept up books 2-4 of this series at a library sale for pennies, so when I found a used copy of Magic Bites at The Book Bin (Salem, OR) on my vacation last week, I grabbed it and started reading it the next day.

So, I haven’t read a lot of paranormal romance (I have a lot of it unread on my Kindle) but…shouldn’t there be some romance? Kate has a bad date and an awkward break-up with a minor character–if their ending even warrants that label when they were barely together in the first place. Meanwhile she’s not-quite flirting with the shapechangers’ head honcho (who I adore and find incredibly hilarious with his over-the-top mannerisms and oddly sly humor) but nothing comes of it but a trope-y “good luck” kiss he initiates before the big battle.

Now, I see that he’s going to be the love interest as the series goes on (at least, he’d better be, or what was this book for?) but I was really underwhelmed by how slow-burn we’re going, if that’s the plan.

As for the rest of the book, the story was interesting enough to keep me reading, but the worldbuilding was slipshod at best. Things were stated but never really explained (I’m particularly hoping I get the breakdown on the alternating tech and magic “waves”) and a lot of how the various supernatural creatures function went unsaid. Some of it, I think I picked up, but some of it still baffles me. Partway through, I actually wondered if somehow I’d gotten the titles wrong and I hadn’t bought the first book at all, but one of the later ones, because the narrative seemed to expect me to know an awful lot I didn’t know. (I hadn’t gotten it wrong, obviously, but it felt like it for a while.)

Now that I’ve thrown all the negative stuff out there…well, I still liked it. I still want to know where the series is going, and I look forward to maybe getting a better handle on the world in the next book. Hopefully.

122 - The Alchemist

#122 – The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

I am not pretentious enough for this shit.

The Alchemist is touted as a life-changing work, but I found it to be a half-assed self-help book masquerading as a fable.

Whatever message it purports to have is garbled, drawing from a whole mess of different philosophical schools and religious disciplines–I can’t even be sure if I’m supposed to believe in Free Will or not after reading this, because some elements support it while others don’t. And if it can’t even come down clearly on one side of the FW vs. Fate debate, I have no idea what I’m supposed to take away from this.

The writing style is ham-fisted, repeating “Personal Legend” a few times a page and telling us exactly what “the boy” thinks and says and realizes. Telling, telling, telling. (Also, why is he “the boy” when we get his name on the first page? Why does he have a name at all if the narrative never uses it again?)

I made myself finish this because if I was going to hate such a popular work, I had to be sure it didn’t get better.

It doesn’t.

123 - Rewritten

#123 – Rewritten, by Bronwyn Green

I received an ARC courtesy of the author in exchange for an honest review.

The major reason this didn’t get five stars was that, for erotic romance in general and especially compared to the earlier books in the series, this didn’t seem to have that much sex in it! Angus and Eliza had such chemistry from the start, and watching their romantic feelings develop so much was certainly a treat, but I expected a bit more time spent between the sheets.

That being said, I was in love with both Angus and Eliza, because I related so well to Angus’ inner demons about his writing, and Eliza’s sometimes-paralyzing anxiety. Yep, I got hit with the feels on both fronts, there. Plus all the geek references that made me smile, because yep, I got all of them.

A solid entry in a series I’ve enjoyed since it began–I’d recommend this one (and all the rest!) to any fan of erotic romance.


Okay, two weeks of book reviews, caught up! Next week I’ll wrap up September and share my vacation book haul!

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2017 #35)

116 - A Breath of Snow and Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

117 - The Martian Chronicles

#117 – The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

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

It hasn’t. I think I love it more.

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

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

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

118 - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Homework #12: Try a New Outlining Method

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

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

#1 – Standard (Research Paper) Outline

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

#2 – The Synopsis

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

#3 – The Snowflake Method

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

#4 – The Headlight/Flashlight Method

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

#5 – The Zero/Discovery Draft

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

#6 – Mind Maps

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

#7 – Note Cards/Sticky Notes

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

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


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

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

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

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

I have no idea what to write next.

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

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

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

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

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

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