Monday, October 13, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: You Win Some, You Lose Some

Brilliance from the Idea Salesman
Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?

Will the real Slim Shady please st--No, no wait that isn't where I meant to go next.

Okay, so now that I've gotten your attention and either made you snort-laugh at the idea of me rapping or alienated you with an outdated reference you didn't get, I have some news. A couple bits of it actually.

Do you want the good news first? Or the bad news?

Muse: You should always start with bad news. That way people have something to look forward to.

No one asked you, Muse.

Muse: Actually you just asked all of us.

Inner Editor: She's right, you know. On both counts. You did ask us. And beginning with the bad news also allows you to end on a positive note.

Both of you, sheesh. What did I do to deserve both of you butting into my blog post?

Muse: Well yo--

Yeah, yeah, I know, I asked. Anyway, fine, we'll do it your way and lead off with the buzz kill sucky news.

Renee is taking a break from blogging. Not a little one, like when she had the surgery over the summer. A long one, for like the rest of the freaking year. She's got a bunch of personal crap she's getting herself through and she doesn't have a lot of time and stuff. Plus, she's trying to get Guardian done on time and when push came to shove, she decided that had to come first.

It's all very logical and right. Writers write and not writing so she could spend time writing about writing was a crap idea. Fine. I get it.

It still sucks. I like blogging. Blogging is awesome and I don't want to wait three months for my next post.

Because I am going to have things to talk about. Can we move on to the good news now please?!?!?

Of course we can. This is my blog post. So here it is:

Renee has given me permission to try to sell a piece of her flash fiction!!!

Huzzah! This is it, folks. This is the one we've been waiting for. This is my big chance. I have been called up to The Show. Time for me to prove how awesome I can be at this gig.

She gave herself until the 15th to finish getting it all polished up and shiny and then it's all mine. And first thing Wednesday morning, it's going out the door. I already know where I'm sending it and what the submission guidelines are and everything, so we can hit the ground running.

I am ready, baby!

Now it's poor form to get too much into specifics about what you send where and how they responded, but I'll find a way to keep you all apprised of any big news. Keep an eye on Twitter, I suppose, since there won't be updates here for a while.

Maybe, since she's taking the blog away from us for a while, I can convince Renee to let us all get our own Twitter accounts. . .

Muse: No.

Inner Editor: Absolutely not.

Renee: I refuse to spend any more time than I already do talking to myself on the internet.

Sheesh, ladies, it was just an idea.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Writer Was Willing, but the Words Were Weak

Or, how many words starting with W can Renee cram into a cliché title?

There are these awful writing moments when I shy away from the keyboard. Everything will be rolling right along and then suddenly it'll all screech to a halt, my fingers refusing to type the word my brain says come next.

Because I have been taught, you see, to avoid these particular words at all costs. For they are the Plague-Bearers, the Harbingers of Doom, the Destroyers of Voice.

In reality, this halt is really more like a little skip of a dusty DVD. I pause, remind myself that all words are wonderful (and I can always fix them in revisions if they're not), and then I make myself keep going. I sometimes even defiantly pound out the letters of those scary words, just to stick it to the imaginary man glaring over my shoulder.

Just what are these horrible words that frighten me deep in the back of my writerly psyche?

Be verbs.

Such a simple, tiny word, be. It's cute and round and how could such a sweet little word be bad? I mean, sure, add an extra e to the end and then you've got bees, a terrifying swarm of flying stinging insects of death. But be? Who could be opposed to be?

I'll tell you who. People who don't understand passive voice.

Passive voice is killer of all writing, apparently, and if you use it, your novel is going to be less than worthless. It'll be boring and tired and awful and no one will ever want to read it. The only thing worse that slipping into passive voice is marinating your prose in adverbs.

It sounds like I'm being a little dramatic here, but seriously, people cling to the notion that you should avoid passive voice in your writing like it's a central tenet of their religion or the fight song of their favorite college football team. They get downright militant about the whole thing.

Me, I'm a little more flexible about these things. Can the use of passive voice make a sentence bulky and confusing when there's a much simpler and more direct way to phrase things? Sure. But so can a lot of other things.

Passive voice is, like just about any other tool in the writer's toolbox, something that can be used well or poorly, depending entirely on the skill of the writer. Passive voice can do things like help set a tone, mislead the reader, and shift the focus of a sentence. Or it can clutter everything up and make the whole damn thing impossible to read.

The thing you're looking at when you've got the latter is called an ID10T user error, to use one of Long-Suffering Husband's favorite techy phrases.

I think a lot of the reason people take such a hardline approach with passive voice is that they don't really understand it and we're hardwired to fear (and subsequently hate) that which we don't understand.

Which brings me back to the dreaded be verbs. Because even the people who teach this stuff don't always know what it means. You see, I beat my head against this particular bit of writing advice for years before really understanding it because way back in the day an English teacher told me that passive voice meant I'd used a be verb. I was tasked with memorizing a list of 23 be verbs (which to this day I can still recite*) and told to highlight and then eliminate every single one of the damn things.

SPOILER ALERT: Passive voice doesn't mean you used a be verb.

For those who don't know, passive voice is basically when the subject of the sentence isn't the one performing the verb. I could draw you pretty diagrams of various sentences to show you a visual representation of this type of construction. . .

Actually, no I couldn't. I haven't diagrammed a sentence in a very long time and I'm pretty sure I'd screw it up. But other people, people more interested in and/or who have more recently studied linguistics and such, could, in theory, draw you such diagrams.

Basically, in any given sentence, a thing happens. With active voice, the subject of the sentence does the thing. Janine killed Bob. With passive voice, the subject of the sentence has the thing done to them instead. Bob was killed.

There are a couple of tricks for recognizing passive voice. A popular one lately is this: can you add "by zombies" to the sentence and it still works? For example, if you look at the sentence Bob was killed, the zombie trick turns it into Bob was killed by zombies. That makes sense--and sounds like not a lot of fun for Bob, but he's dead either way so I imagine he's not very fussed about it--so that's passive voice.

This trick doesn't always work though, especially if you've already done it without realizing it. If I'd written the sentence Bob was killed by Janine and I just tried to tack on a "by zombies", it would end up Bob was killed by Janine by zombies and if I wasn't paying attention, I might think, "oh, that doesn't make sense, so my sentence must not be passive."

You can also try stripping your sentences down to the minimum and seeing if their meaning changes. Reduce the sentence to just the noun and the verb, without any embellishments or helpers or add-ons at all. Bob was killed becomes Bob killed.

Looks like Bob is a little confused. First he was dead and now he's a murder. Hey, Bob, at least you're not dead anymore. That's good news, right?

Oh, wait, Bob was dead and now he's not and he's killing people. Um. . . I think we might have just turned poor Bob into a zombie. . . Oops.

Moving on. This method isn't my favorite. While it's also potentially amusing, there are exceptions to the rule big enough to drive one of those extra wide house-moving trucks through. Plus, it can be annoying. I mean, the average sentence in fiction writing is 14-22 words. Reducing them all down to 2 or 3 words is tedious and just plain obnoxious. Plus you have to split up all your compound sentences in order for it to work. It just gets messy.

And another trick to recognizing passive voice, the one my poor old English teacher clung to as gospel, is to go hunting through your text for be verbs. This one is so popular because it's easy. Just do a global find or two (or 23) and presto, you've found all your passive sentences! Woohoo! In the Bob was killed example, a simple search for was will point right to it and let you know to rewrite your sentence.

But this one doesn't always work either. If I'd written Bob was hungry instead of Bob was killed, the be verb trick would yield a false positive. Bob was hungry isn't passive voice. But, in a particularly zealous fit of passive voice eradicating fervor, you might accidentally rewrite the sentence as something silly, like Bob hungered, and now we really have turned Bob into a zombie. . .

Yeah, zombies aren't the only ones who need brains. Apparently we writers have to have them on occasion as well.

The bottom line is that none of the "tricks" for identifying passive voice always work. Which is kind of good. Because passive voice serves its purpose and you wouldn't want to just stamp it out of existence everywhere. The zealots out there, as zealots are wont to do, have gotten so caught up in what they're looking for that they've forgotten why they're looking for it. The idea isn't the global eradication of passive voice just for the sake of some weird grammarian prejudice. What would that particular prejudice even be called? Voicism is already taken.

Instead, think of it this way: who wants to read about Bob anyway? He's just lying there being dead. His story is over. (Unless you zombified him, at which point maybe we do want to read about him after all.) Janine, the character who is going around killing the poor Bobs of the world, is the interesting one. She's the one with the agency, making the story happen. And that's the point. The main reason to make the sentence active instead of passive is to keep us focused on the characters who are actually doing things, rather than having things done to them.

*The list, in case you're curious, is this: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had, do, does, did, could, should, would, can, may, might, must, will, and shall. Don't look at me like that. I didn't make up the list. I just memorized it and applied it to my writing for several years until someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about corrected me.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Just a Taste... For Now

Wisdom of an Inner Editor
For a long time, Renee was staunchly anti-reread, meaning she refused to read anything we'd written previously until she was completely done with the draft. She claimed it made the writing process too difficult, that the urge to revise became too strong to ignore, and she feared I would take over the process and prevent her from moving forward.

I suspect this stance was the result of the previous Muse's influence. Not to speak ill of another abstract, but my former coworker had something of a flair for the melodramatic and she did not enjoy sharing Renee's limited attention.

Not that I was offended by this behavior. Because, of course, as an Inner Editor, I was able to view the situation objectively, and I don't take things personally anyway.

Thankfully, the current Muse has no such problem and actually enjoys working in a collaborative environment. As a result, I am no longer forced to spend several months a year on leave of absence to avoid the risk of being tied up and locked in a closet.

This Muse and I work together every day. First I sit down with Renee and go through the previous day's writings, smoothing out the really rough spots and cleaning up typos here and there. Then the Muse takes over and they spend a few minute planning out what comes next. And finally Renee sets her timer and writes as fast as she can, racing against the dawn.

I think this plan works very well. Ideally, I would enjoy more time with Renee each morning, as well as permission to do more than just a basic wipe down of the visible surfaces. Perhaps then we would come to the end of the writing process with a nice clean draft that requires only superficial polishing.

Manuscripts like that seem to be something like unicorns to me. I've never seen one, but I've heard tell.

But that fear of stalling out still lingers in the back of Renee's mind like the last remnants of the old Muse's (distinctly not-subtle) perfume, sticking to the cushions and sending up little puffs of panic at unexpected moments. And so for the time being, until we can get this place wholly aired out and leave everything smelling like confidence, I'll take what I can get.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Renee's Reading: The Witch with No Name, by Kim Harrision

Buckle up, boys and girls, I've got a doozy of a review for you today. I just had so many thoughts about this one that I couldn't contain them all.

And this is the short version.

The Witch with No Name, by Kim Harrison
Rachel Morgan's come a long way from the clutzy runner of Dead Witch Walking. She's faced vampires and werewolves, banshees, witches, and soul-eating demons. She's crossed worlds, channeled gods, and accepted her place as a day-walking demon. She's lost friends and lovers and family, and an old enemy has become something much more.

But power demands responsibility, and world-changers must always pay a price. That time is now.

To save Ivy's soul and the rest of the living vampires, to keep the demonic ever after and our own world from destruction, Rachel Morgan will risk everything.

Whenever I read the last book in a series, I can't help comparing it to the first book. How far have the characters come? Are the bad guys still bad? Are the good guys still good? And is the world a bigger place than it used to be? Smaller? Just the same as it ever was? Where is the moral center of the story? Has it shifted into a grey area, or are black and white still running the show?

The Hollows series was just change all over the place. I saw an interesting post on Ms. Harrison's blog where she talked about the thought process that went into designing the cover for this latest and final installment, and one of the things she mentioned was that Rachel's posture on this cover mirrors the cover of the first book. (For that post, click here.) But other than the way she's standing, pretty much everything about Rachel and her world has changed.

I mean, here are the two covers side by side:

In many ways, they're very similar. After all, both have Rachel standing there, hip cocked, with a magical weapon near at hand, facing down a semi-obscured background structure. But the original Rachel's magical weapon is a comical-looking pair of charmed handcuffs, her hair looks kinda like she dyed is with a crayon or something and it's flying all over the place, and the background structure is a creepy church that's mostly hidden by black shadows and fog. In contrast, the current Rachel is holding gold and white power like a sword that comes from her own hand, her appearance is decidedly more smooth and controlled, and the background image is a bridge covered in magic and white light. Plus, she's not alone.

Hello, Symbolism; look at you just all over everything. Seriously, I could write pages and pages just analyzing these covers. Heck, I could probably pages and pages just on the bridge alone, before I even got rolling on all the other stuff.

And the contrast is a very good representation of the progress the series has made. I remember reading the first book and really loving the way Rachel got all fired up and huffy because she wasn't being treated like the rock star she thought she was, and, with the typical arrogance of any reasonably talented young person, she went off on her own, bit off way the heck more than she could chew, and got her ass thoroughly handed to her. What a great starting point for a character!

Thirteen books later, I really feel like Harrison delivered on the potential of that opening book. There are a lot of parallels here, but we're dealing with a totally different Rachel Morgan these days. She still does ridiculous things sometimes, especially to protect those she loves, but she does them knowing and accepting the possible consequences. She's still demanding respect from the authority figures in her life, but she's doing it from a place of actual power now, rather than just a perceived one. And she's still working with a strange collection of grudging allies, but by this point she's the one drawing them in and leading, rather than keeping everyone at arm's length and trying to run off on her own. There has been so much great character growth here.

This series has done a great job of using every installment to build the characters up a little bit more, so that when you come to the finale, you really feel like they've been heading to this point all along. Yes, there were some characters that seemed to have come and gone without much impact, but even they served their purpose, opening up doors on their way in and out. When taken as a whole, there really is a very impressively built arc to this series.

Specific to this book itself, I really liked this story. There was a lot of the great action and humor and sass that have come to be staples of the series. I have been waiting for them to deal with the vampire issue for several books now and I figured Cormel had to be growing just as impatient. And I liked how the situation with Ivy specifically drove the bigger storyline of the showdown between the elves and the demons, grounding the whole adventure and keeping it from getting too steeped in end-of-the-world, for-the-fate-of-us-all grandiosity.

I've seen some complaints online about the continued presence and increasing importance of Nina. People really don't like her. She's not my particular cup of tea either, but I remind myself that Rachel can be an unreliable narrator at times and we've only seen Nina and Ivy's relationship through her eyes. Rachel doesn't like her, so of course she doesn't come across to the reader as likeable. But there were some very strong moments, both good and bad, between her and Ivy and I enjoyed seeing that.

There were some really high quality emotional moments for Rachel too, both with Ivy and Jenks, and with Al, and especially Trent. I didn't think I would, but I do like the way Rachel and Trent fit together, even if Rachel's constant inadequacy issues have started to wear a bit thin.

(Speaking of characters who've evolved over the course of the series. . . anyone remember how Al and Trent were the big monsters in book 1?)

There's a lot of action in this book, a lot of crazy people doing crazy things because they think it's the best way to get what they want, and somehow Rachel is the one who has to be the voice of reason and hold the whole thing together. Thirteen books ago I know I certainly wouldn't have trusted her with something like the fates of every species in this world and the Ever-After, but now it seems like she's the best possible choice.

A spectacular finale to a very enjoyable series. I loved the way Harrision wrote this book and this series and I'm very glad to have read along.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Work is Feeling Very Work-y Right Now

WARNING: I'm going to do a little whining. Because I'm feeling whiny. And I couldn't think of anything else to blog about.

As the abstracts have mentioned in their Monday updates, I've recently started over writing Guardian. I completely replotted the whole thing and (sadly) most of what I wrote before is gone. I'm starting over from scratch.

I should be bubbling over with excitement and flush with the fresh joy of beginning a new creation. That initial zing of energy that comes from starting something new should be bouncing me along better than an extra large many-shot coffee with tons of sugar.

It's not. I'm actually feeling generally. . . blah.

I don't have writer's block. At least, not in the traditional sense of the words. It's not that I can't think of anything to say. The writing is not hard for me right now. I'm right at the beginning of the story and I'm all plotted out and the scenes are blooming in my head and all is well with my fictional world.

But I'm finding it really hard to actually get there. My life has been crazy these last few months and, as I'm sure my infrequent tweets and blog posts have shown, I've been having trouble keeping myself above water. When I have time to write, I pretty much just want to put my head down on the keyboard and sleep instead. I'm physically and mentally and emotionally run down and I'm just so tired.

I'm not entirely sure what to do about all this except to just keep going, the same as I have to do with everything else in my life. If I was a writer on television, perhaps I'd disappear on a mysterious writing retreat, hole up in the mountains or on a tropical island or something, just me and my laptop, to recharge my introvert batteries and reconnect with my writerly self.

Alas, I am not a writer on television. I barely even play one on the internet these days. Here in reality, holidays come and go. Illnesses and injuries attack and a beaten back. The school year swings back into session. The seasons dance across the calendar, and time marches ever on. And intellectually I know that if I just stick to the plan and keep slogging along, things will level out and eventually I'll start to feel normal again.

Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Good things come to those who work. This too shall pass. Baby steps. Just keep swimming. [INSERT RANDOM SEMI-INSPIRATIONAL CLICHÉ HERE]

Which is not to say that I'm spinning my wheels and not getting anything done. I finish the first draft of "Fishwife" and, as I mentioned above, fully replotted Guardian after all. I've got another short story forming up in the background as well, so that should be ready to go as soon as Guardian is finished.

But while I don't have typical writer's block, but I am a writer blocked all the same. And it sucks. I feel cheated, knowing I should be riding my writing high and not being able to.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Bottom of the Tenth, Two Outs, Full Count

Brilliance from the Idea Salesman
Technically, it's not my turn to blog this week, but I missed my turn two weeks ago and the Muse is exhausted anyway, so she told me I could take her slot. The Muse is exhausted, by the way, because she and Renee just pulled together three weeks of plotting work in about three days.

Because we got off track again. We didn't account for how much time Renee was going to lose to planning, executing, and recovering from yet another family event. (These fleurking kids of hers just keep insisting on having birthdays. . . ) Last time this happened, the Inner Editor helped me talk Renee into hiring the Project Manager. Now that it's happened again, we thought maybe we should actually consult him.

Now Gantt charts and timelines and 32-week rotations are all well and good when it comes to planning for the next big home invasion--because the holidays will be here before you know it and so will the grandparents--but they don't really do much for fixing the immediate problem. Once we got the new plan worked out, we were still due to start writing the next draft of Guardian in less than a week and all we had to show for our plotting was a couple of character sketches and a stack of random brainstorming notes.

Could Renee have just said "bring it" and blindly flung herself full speed at a blank document? Sure. But I'd like to think we've all learned to be a little more circumspect by this point. Renee doesn't have time to be that kind of a panster anymore. We've committed to getting things worked out ahead of time from now on. So we decided we'd just have to take that one week and cram as much effort into it as possible.

I did some of my finest cheering. The Inner Editor wisely made herself scarce. And the Muse gritted her teeth, cracked her knuckles, stretched her neck, rolled her shoulders, and shouted, "Keep the coffee coming all night. No rest for the wicked!"

She really went all in.

Here's a picture of Renee hard at work:*

It's rally cap time!
I think we're going to start using that one as her profile icon whenever she's up against a deadline from now on.

The result: we are plotted, baby! Act summaries, scene lists, character sketches, settings, the whole shebang.

Technically, there are some minor characters we haven't quite nailed down yet and some of the settings are nebulous at best, but the Project Manager ran his numbers and gave us the green light. We are going ahead.

Not the prettiest victory, maybe. We pretty much stole our winning run after a fielding error rather than knocking a grand slam out of the park or something. But at the end of the day we're putting this one in the W column and that's all that counts.

*If you're not a baseball person, it's a thing to wear your cap inside out (which turns it into a rally cap) when your team is behind and you're superstitiously hoping your fashion choices will spur them to victory. The tradition was supposedly started by the NY Mets, most notably in game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Though Renee and I aren't sure how accurate that is, since the only baseball fans she knows also happen to be Mets fans. Wikipedia seems to agree with them though, so that's. . . not actually saying much at all.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Renee's Reading: The Winter Long, by Seanan McGuire

First up, a little housekeeping: You may or may not have noticed the change to title format up there. If you did, you've probably already guessed that I'm going to be doing these Friday posts differently from now on. I'm only going to be reviewing one book, and while it'll be something I've read recently, it won't necessarily be from last week.

I never intended to force myself into a pattern of reviewing every book I read every week. In fact, way back when I started doing this, I decided I was not going to do that, because I knew it wouldn't work. But, you know, compulsions are what they are and I ended up rolling right through that preemptive stop sign (surprise!) and somehow I ended up going there anyway.

And, as I told myself way back then, I've come to the point where I just can't keep that up anymore. I've realized that when I try to review every book I read in a week, the posts tend to get really, really, really long. They take too long to write, and I'm assuming they're probably obnoxious as hell to try to read. I don't have that kind of time and I doubt you do either.

So, one book review a week from here on out. And I thought I'd start off with the latest release by one of my absolute favorite authors. Because I'm the driver here and that means I get to control the radio station.

The Winter Long, by Seanan McGuire
Toby thought she understood her own past; she thought she knew the score.

She was wrong.

It's time to learn the truth.

Well, that's not much of a blurb to go on, is it? Though with that gorgeous cover, who needs a blurb? Holy fleurking schmidt, just shut up and TAKE MY MONEY!

When I first saw the cover, I guess I wasn't looking too deeply and I just thought Toby's shirt and some of the flowers were red. Then I saw someone commenting about "all that blood" and looked again and thought Weeeeeeell, that certainly changes things. Oh dear. Things are not going to go well for Toby in this one, are they?

As I sit here to write this review though, I think I understand why the blurb is so. . . vague. I can't come up with any way to sum up or hint at the events in this book without spoiling major things. Toby spends a lot of time getting whammied in this book and I would hate to ruin that for anyone.

That said, don't go into it expecting to read the whole thing with your jaw hanging open. There are some big moments, but I've mentioned before that McGuire has a great way of leaving bread crumbs for the reader who is paying attention. So not all of the big reveals felt like total shockers to me, though none of them were obvious to me either. I figured things out just far enough ahead of Toby to make myself feel clever without thinking she was missing the point. Very nicely done.

Plus, all my favorite things from these books were there. The magic. The humor. The action. The atmosphere. The Luidaeg. (I love the Luidaeg. I would wish for a whole series of books just about the Luidaeg, but I fear the intensity of such a thing would kill us all.)

And speaking of the Luidaeg, I think this might go down as one of my favorite exchanges ever:
Her lips quirked in a weirdly mischievous smile. "I mean, damn. Some people shouldn't be allowed to wear leather pants. He's one of them. He's a clear and present danger when he puts those things on. Or takes them off."

"And now you're creeping me out." I said. "It's a long drive to Pleasant Hill. Maybe you could save the creepy for the halfway point?"
Oh, and have I mentioned before how much I love Tybalt? Of course I do. He's wonderful. (His words, not mine. Though I don't disagree.) He such a perfect man. Possessive and protective and completely bad ass, without being a domineering alpha-hole in even the slightest way. He's sexy and charming and intelligent and I am utterly smitten.

*sighs* *daydreams about Tybalt* *loses track of time*

. . .

. . .

. . .

*smacks self* *surreptitiously wipes drool off the keyboard*

Where was I again? Oh, yes, The Winter Long and all its awesomeness. This is a great story with compelling characters, a rich magical world, and adventure that kept me flipping pages just as fast as my Kindle app would allow. It's a fantastic novel in a fantastic series, and I would happily give it ALL THE STARS and then some if I did the star-rating thing.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it? If not, why the heck not?!? Go read it. Go read them all, and everything else Seanan McGuire has ever written, up to and including any grocery lists she may have inadvertently discarded.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Worst Thing

I got an email last week from NaNoWriMo, reminding me that November is nearly upon us. I hope not to be officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year. My goal is to finish the zero draft of Guardian by the end of November and I'm aiming to be a good 60k into it by the time that month starts so I can take it easy around Thanksgiving. Of course, if I end up behind schedule. . .

Anyway, I got to thinking about NaNoWriMos past and, since I just finished up the final plotting stages of Guardian, I happened upon a relevant anecdote in my memory banks that I thought I'd share with you.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was at an evening write-in event. We were all clacking away furiously on our keyboards and over-caffeinating and advising one another to kill off troublesome characters--with fire!--and generally enjoying the NaNoWriMo atmosphere.

But the person sitting next to me, a fledgling Wrimo just entering her second week of chaos, was not doing any of those things. Her fingers gradually slowed to a halt. Her eyes narrowed as she read and reread the words on her screen. Eventually, she dropped her head and heaved a huge, sorrowful sigh.

It was a sigh that whisper-shouted of things like plot muddling and character flailing and utter demoralization for a newbie Wrimo. Having been around the block a few times by that point, I recognized the signs and, being generally nosy and interfering, sought to help.
Me: What's wrong?
Her: I. . .  I have no idea what happens next. Everything was fine and now there's just. . .  nothing. My characters don't want to do anything!
Me: What's the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen?
Her: *explains worst possible thing*
Me: Do that.
That was years ago, but I still stand firmly by this advice. I am by no means the first one to offer up this little pearl of wisdom. Heck, I wasn't even the only one to offer it up to someone at that particular write-in. When in doubt, make things worse. Torturing characters is pretty much universally acknowledged as one of a writer's key job responsibilities.

I was reminded of this while I was finishing up the character sheets for this next run of Guardian. My character sheets are fairly simple, just a page of notes that I fill in with as much or as little detail as I feel like, adapted from the existing template in Scrivener.

The very last things I think about when I'm working up a character are "what is the worst thing that could happen?" and "what is the best thing?" And, because they're fresh in my mind, those bits have a tendency to worm their way straight from the character sketch into the plotting notes.

(Yes, including the best things. Have you ever noticed how people are really bad at figuring out what's best for them? Typically when I give my characters the good, it's just a quicker route to the bad than they would otherwise have encountered.)

Characters only grow when they're challenged to do so. Making them face the worst thing that could ever possibly happen them is oftentimes just the thing to spur a floundering story into action. And I'm hoping that working out those things in advance can keep a story from floundering in the first place.

Well look at that, a piece of commonly offered writing advice that I actually agree with. You had to know it would be the bitter, mean one. ;-)

How do you feel about torturing characters? Is it enhanced characterization? Or cruel and unusual punishment?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Project Management Updates: Nothing to See Here

Reports from the Project Manager
As a project manager, my main job is to ensure we focus on the delivery of the selected project by the desired deadline. I don't care who had surgery, I don't care who had a birthday party, yada, yada, yada. Okay, so I am not a heartless, soulless bastard, but I do play one on the internet some times.

The reality is that we have had a lot going on in Renee world. Surgery, her daughter's birthday party, holidays, a vacation, the start of the school year, a cold for everyone in the house, etc, etc, etc. With all the comings and goings and such, we don't have a whole lot of measureable progress to show for ourselves over the last two and a half months. Yes, I know we finished that short story, but I already gave credit for that. This life is all about "What have you done for me lately?" and the answer there is "not much".

All that to say this: we're still plotting the rewrite of Guardian and will probably finish up in the next week or so. The interruptions of real life caused a really great conversation Renee and I had about realistic timeline planning and allocation of resources. We just built out a plan where she can truthfully devote 32 weeks per year to writing and the other 20 weeks are going to get taken up by all that other stuff she has going on.

As the project manager, this is a really good thing. As I build timelines and estimates, I need to know the availability of my resources. For this set of projects, Renee is the main resource and she is only available 32 weeks of the year. Now that we know this, we can create an achievable project plan and stick to it. So dear reader, I have nothing to show you this round, but I think we are putting this train back on the tracks and the next few posts will be exciting indeed!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: The Old Toys Are New Again

Writings of the Muse
There's a thing you can do with toys when children are young. If you box up a bunch of the ones that fall out of favor and hide them for a few months, you can bring them out later, when the current crop get boring, and suddenly all those old toys are new again. Renee used to do this quite regularly and was always amazed by how a toy her three-year-old hadn't been interested in playing with for months when it was just mixed into the toy box with all the other toys suddenly became the coolest toy on the planet after spending a few months in the closet.

As you all know, we recently took a break from Guardian while Renee recovered from surgery and wrote the zero draft of "Fishwife". (That went very well, by the way. We managed to complete an actual short story that stayed short. I don't think Renee has ever done that before.) In essence, we packed Guardian and all its associated toys up in a box and stuck them in the closet for a few months while we played with other things.

When we were considering replotting Guardian there was some debate about how to treat the existing text. Did we keep the work we'd already done and treat this as a major revision? Or did we set it all aside and start fresh? Many of the scenes we'd already written were quite good, but there was so much that just wasn't going to fit the story any longer. No one wanted to lose all our hard work, but would attempting to reshape it end up taking too much time?

What it ultimately came down to was really looking at what we wanted the story to be. At the end of the day, Renee was writing all those lovely words from the wrong place. The timeline was wonky, the focus was off, and in many cases the wrong characters were doing the talking. Even the background information--the character sheets and setting sketches and such--needed to be updated. To keep the existing draft and adapt it to the new plan would have taken a ton of time and energy.

So we gathered up all those broken scenes and filed them away for reference. Some bits and pieces may work in the new storyline with a little tweaking here and there, but most of them will have to go. We started with a brand new template and built a new set of character sheets and setting sketches. We've got a bunch of notes and we're putting together a new synopsis and scene list to work from.

I was worried that this approach wouldn't work, that it would seem like duplicated effort and the déjà vu would quickly turn to boredom. As a Muse, it's my job to find new ideas and make sure Renee has a steady stream of inspiration to keep her going. I stir up the plot soup and see what interesting flavor combinations I can put together. I don't typically serve the same meal twice, as it were.

But instead enough has changed that the effort doesn't feel duplicated at all. We've got a familiarity with these characters and places that makes working with them easy, while the situation they're in seems fresh and interesting. It's like starting all over again, unpacking that box of toys from the closet and finding they've become new and exciting once more.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-08-16 through 2014-08-22

I've noticed I usually have a kind of theme to my reading each week. I'll be tearing through a newly-discovered series or I'll be flooded with a bunch of new releases or something. This week my head couldn't seem to settle in any particular direction, I guess because I've got a lot going on and I didn't really have time for more than bits and snatches of reading time. So the collection of reviews this week is a little. . . eclectic.

Fireside Magazine, Spring 2012, Issue One, edited by Brian J. White
The debut issue of Fireside, a multigenre fiction and comics magazine.

This issue includes stories by Tobias Buckell ("Press Enter to Execute"), Ken Liu ("To The Moon"), Chuck Wendig ("Emerald Lakes"), and Christie Yant ("Temperance"), and a comic written by Adam P. Knave and D.J. Kirkbride, illustared by Michael Lee Harris, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic ("Snow Ninjas of the Himalayas").

I backed Fireside's kickstarter campaign a few months ago and one of my rewards was access to all the back issues. I downloaded them a while ago but never got around to doing anything with them. Then this week I was looking for something short and interesting without really knowing what I wanted--kind of like standing in front of the fridge looking for a snack when you aren't really in the mood for anything in particular--and I decided to give one of the magazines a go.

I started with Issue One because beginning at the beginning always seems like a good idea to me. I was very impressed. I liked every story in here, even the ones in genres and styles that don't typically interest me. There was a good mix of ideas and styles here, which made it perfect for that random munchies mood I was in.

I'll do a quick breakdown of each with a few thoughts, just to give you an idea:

"To the Moon" by Ken Liu: This was an interesting short story about a Chinese immigrant seeking asylum in the US and his lawyer, mixed together with a "story" about a father climbing a tree all the way to the moon. I really liked the way Liu twisted the two around each other, contrasting the fantastical elements of the moon story against the sharper edges of the reality and using them to give us a look at the truth underneath both.

"Emerald Lakes" by Chuck Wendig: I've been a follower of Chuck Wendig online for a while now, though I've never actually read any of his fiction. (I have them. They're on my TBR along with about 800 other things, but I haven't gotten to them yet. I don't actually know why.) Having not read the novels associated with the "Atlanta Burns" world, I can't really comment on how this short story fits in, but on its own it was very good. There's a very strong voice in this story and Wendig did a good job painting the feeling of Emerald Lakes in a very small space.

"Snow Ninjas of the Himalayas" by Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride, Michael Lee Harris, and Frank Cvetkovic: Graphic novels and comics and such are not really my thing. I have no problem with them, but it's not a medium I'm personally drawn to. I felt like this story was a little choppy and I didn't feel much attachment to the characters. I'm not sure if that's because of the story or my lack of familiarity with this kind of storytelling though.

"Temperance" by Christie Yant: It wasn't the worst bender of Anthony Cardno's life, but it was the first that he had ended in a cemetery, vomiting into an open grave. Best. Opening line. Ever. I really liked this story. A few hints of fantasy, a mysterious disappearing woman, and a little bit of time travel. It was intriguing but also very satisfying and I can't decide if I'm tempted to find out if Yant has written more in this world or if I want to let it rest in my brain as is.

"Press Enter to Execute" by Tobias S. Buckell: Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. I'm one of those people who finds stories about computers taking over the world way scarier than anything with a bloodsucking monster beast. I can tell myself the bloodsucking monster beast isn't real, or is at least just misunderstood. I'm never going to be able to look at my email the same way again.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that, all of it entertaining. Even the stuff that wasn't my particular cup of tea was still very high quality. This is a pretty good collection for the first issue and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the issues I've got stored away.

The Ripper Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow
Sorcery. Treason. Madness. And, of course, murder most foul. . .

Archibald Clare, mentath in the service of Britannia, is about his usual business--solving crimes and restoring public order--until a shattering accident places him in the care of Emma Bannon, sorceress Prime, who once served. . . and now simply remains at home, tending her solarium in reasonably quiet contentment. What Clare needs is time to recover, and not so incidentally, a measure of calm to repair his faculties of Logic and Reason. Without them, he is not his best. One could even say that without them, he is not even properly a mentath at all.

Unfortunately, calm and rest are not to be found. There is a killer hiding in the sorcerous steam-hells of Londinium, stalking the Eastron End and unseaming poor women of a certain reputation. A handful of frails murdered on cold autumn nights would make no difference. . . but the killings echo in the highest circles, and threaten to bring the entire edifice of Empire down in smoking ruins.

Once more Emma Bannon is pressed into service; once more Archibald Clare is determined to aid her. Yet secrets between these two old friends may give an ambitious sorcerer the means to bring down the Crown. And there is still no way to reliably find a hansom when one needs it most.
Britannia is threatened. Londinium quakes. Sorcery births an unholy monster.

The game is afoot. . . 

I love Lilith Saintcrow. You all know this. Or at least you do if you've paid even the slightest bit of attention to this blog. So it should come as no shock to learn that I've had the release date of this book marked on my calendar for months. (Amazon had a little bit of a hiccup delivering it, which they could not explain but I suspect has to do with the Amazon/Hachette dispute even though that's not supposed to have impacted ebook delivery, but I got my hands on it eventually.)

As expected, I really enjoyed this book. I love the way Saintcrow uses words. She weaves this language she's built to go along with her alternate reality into the narrative in such a way that it--not the characters or the action (though those are strong as well) but the language--pulls you right into the world. She practically makes the words themselves a character in their own right, which is lovely.

In addition to an absolutely dazzling command of the words, Emma and Clare are brilliant characters. This book was more focused on Emma (who I just cannot refer to in my head as "Bannon" no matter what the series is called), which balances nicely with The Red Plague Affair having fallen mostly in Clare's sphere. There's a lot in her personal past that becomes relevant here and I really enjoyed watching her work through that.

That's not to say that Clare was absent from the book by any means. In fact, the relationship between them was also front and center. There's a lot of grief and feelings and things they Don't Talk About between them and I think Saintcrow tuned the screws there beautifully. And the little glimpses into Clare as he's forced to face his own assumptions were fantastic.

I love that Emma and Clare are not romantically involved, by the way. It really allows the focus to be on their friendship and partnership without getting bogged down in a bunch of obligatory sexual tension.

This was a really dark story, with some truly terrifying and gruesome moments. Jack the Ripper didn't get his name for being neat and tidy with his victims, after all, and Saintcrow doesn't shy away from that. And as if a magically amped up brutal alternate reality serial killer wasn't enough, she also adds in some nice creepy monsters to paint scary pictures behind your eyelids at night.

Seriously, Thin Meg and her starvelings. . . ::shudder::

This was a fantastic novel and I'm sad to hear that there are no immediate plans for more Bannon and Clare novels. It finishes off the trilogy at a good closing point, so there's no worry about being left with an awful cliffhanger, but I would really love to follow these characters a little longer. If Saintcrow ever does have the opportunity to publish her Bannon and Clare go traveling books, I'll be first in line to tour the world with them.

Talk Sweetly to Me, by Courtney Milan
Nobody knows who Miss Rose Sweetly is, and she prefers it that way. She's a shy, mathematically-minded shopkeeper's daughter who dreams of the stars. Women like her only ever come to attention through scandal. She'll take obscurity, thank you very much.

All of England knows who Stephen Shaughnessy is. He's an infamous advice columnist and a known rake. When he moves into the house next door to Rose, she discovers that he's also wickedly funny, devilishly flirtatious, and heart-stoppingly handsome. But when he takes an interest in her mathematical work, she realizes that Mr. Shaughnessy isn't just a scandal waiting to happen. He's waiting to happen to her. . . and if she's not careful, she'll give in to certain ruination.

This was a short little story related to the Brothers Sinister series and it was a very charming read. Courtney Milan is one of my favorite historical romance novelists. Her books are always so entertaining, her characters are great, and her regency world is very well-researched. She's always got a clear idea of how she wants the series to flow and what themes she wants to use to tie things together, that comes through to the reader in the form of a very smooth reading experience.

That said, this story is a very loosely connected epilogue to the Brothers Sinister series. The male lead, Stephen Shaughnessy appears in the last book, The Suffragette Scandal, which was itself an extra book that popped up and tacked itself onto the end of the originally planned trilogy. This novella just didn't feel like an organic part of the story to me, particularly since we didn't get to know Stephen very well in his previous appearance anyway. Instead, I think of this story and The Suffragette Scandal more as a pair of connected spinoffs than as part of a series.

All of which doesn't really matter in terms of the story itself. That's just me being picky, I suppose. The story itself was lovely. Stephen was very charming and sweet and Rose was a great match for him with all her hidden strength. I liked watching her learn to trust him and watching him figure out what he needed. I would have liked to see a little more depth and character development for both of them and would not have minded if the story was a little longer to accommodate that. But that's the trouble with novellas, I suppose.

I felt Milan handled the potential interracial complications in their relationship well enough, though I would have liked maybe seeing them face one or two of those complications as a couple instead of just acknowledging what might happen. The one active scene confronting racism in the story felt more about developing Rose's personal strength than their strength together. By the end of the story, I was sure Rose and Stephen were very much in love with each other, but I'm not convinced they're really ready for what they'll have to deal with.

(Speaking of, I've often heard Courtney Milan's books described as "issue books", which I don't agree with. There are certainly big issues explored in them and Milan doesn't shy away from that. But describing something as an "issue book" gives me the impression that it's going to be more about the author using the characters to preach an agenda or something, and I don't get that feel from Milan's writing. Maybe that's naïve of me, but I don't pick up on that kind of heavy-handedness here.)

All in all, this was a nice little read with good characters and a pleasant romance which made for a fun way to relax while my kids were napping. Plus there were math jokes. As far as I'm concerned, romance is always better with a few math jokes.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What I Know

I want to break down my take on another piece of writing advice, because I've been hearing this one a lot lately and I don't necessarily agree with the explanations I've gotten. (I've noticed I end up disagreeing with the explanations a lot. I suspect this is a clue, but I'm ignoring it.)

The advice in question: write what you know.

I decided to talk about this one today because I recently heard someone criticize this particular piece of advice because, they claimed, that's how we keep ending up with a bajillion books about rich white men. I feel like this objection assumes a number of problematic things. Like, for just one example, that everyone writing books is a rich white man.

I've also heard proponents of write what you know arguing that a person who isn't a minority can't truly understand the experience of living a minority's life and thus cannot properly convey it. I feel like this argument is also problematic. I mean, I suspect J.R.R. Tolkein didn't grow up in a hobbit hole and probably never befriended a single elf in his whole life, I don't think James Patterson spent much of his time in the 90s as a black police officer in Washington DC, and I'm pretty sure Nicholas Sparks has never grown old and fallen victim to dementia.

My biggest problem with arguments like this isn't the logic though. My problem is that I think they're missing the point. When people tell you that you should write what you know, I don't think they're talking about what you know about your race, income level, sexual orientation, employment history, educational achievement, or anything like that. I don't think the goal is to encourage you to focus on anything that. . . faces out.

Write what you know, to me, is more about feelings than appearances. It's not about making your characters look like you. I'm a stay-at-home mom in suburban Chicago and the biggest challenges in my life right now are convincing my daughter to poop in the potty and making sure my husband's salary stretches from one payday to the next. I don't want to read a book about my life and I'm pretty sure no one else does either.

I write primarily urban fantasy. I don't know jack about life as a witch or a guardian angel or what it's like to grow up with a mermaid on my family tree. I'm none of those things and I'm not likely to bump into them on the sidewalk either. So should I just give up? Does "write what you know" mean I'll never be able to write those stories?

I certainly don't think so. I may not be a supernatural creature, but I know what's it's like to feel like circumstances beyond my control are threatening to take away my choices. I know what it's like to feel ostracized and ignored. I know what it's like to be afraid and alone and convinced that nothing is ever going to be okay again.

I also know what it's like to love so deeply it hurts. I know what it's like to laugh until I can't breathe. I've cried from sorrow, sure, but also from sheer joy. I've felt childlike wonder bubble up in my chest until I was sure I was going to explode.

I know what it's like to be scared. Excited. Embarrassed. Turned on. Turned off. I've had victories hold me up high and others that left me hollow. I know what it's like to feel like everything brought me to a specific moment in time. And I know what it's like to look at the world and not be able to make any of it make any sense at all.

I know those things. And not because I'm a middle class white woman. I know them because I'm alive and I'm paying attention and I'm human. And my characters know them because they are too. (Well, they're while not necessarily all human, because, again, urban fantasy, but they all at least possess a certain degree of humanity.) And my someday readers will know those things as well because they're also human.

I don't think write what you know is about the surface details. I think it's about finding the things under the surface that we have in common with each other and focusing on those things, using that common frame of reference as the filter through which we view the rest of the story. Writing, and reading, is often at its most powerful when it holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves in a new way.

So if we write what we know, if we focus on the things that make us who we are at the very bottom of our hearts and in the core of our souls and imbue our characters with the things we know and write from that place, that's how we build those mirrors and show our readers those reflections.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Project Management Updates: Green is a Much Prettier Color

Reports from the Project Manager
Hello Blog World--time for another update from the Project Manager and this time I have far better news to share. When last we spoke, I was new to the job and trying to clean up the mess Renee was calling Guardian. There were essentially two options:
  1. Change the physical laws of space and time to enable the project to get back on track, or
  2. Clear away the mess for a little while and let something else come in.
Renee and I came to the mutual decision that Option B was the better route to take. It was right around this time that Renee also needed to take time off for her surgery so we were on the fast track to more delays if we tried to stick with it. Thus Guardian went in a drawer and the blog went on hiatus while she recovered and we developed a new plan of attack. That new plan (which Renee discussed two weeks ago) involves practicing the process from start to finish in short bursts with a few short stories. Here is our first one.

Do you see all that green? I love green. Renee successfully converted one of her earlier flash fictions to a short story (working title is "Fishwife") and completed the zero draft. Also of note was that we successfully found a way to quantify her plotting activities so that I can have a meaningful report of progress during that phase of the writing process. We're now going to build on this short term success and reboot Guardian from the beginning. Wish us luck. . .

Friday, August 22, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-08-09 through 2014-08-15

Book reviews are back! Some of these aren't, strictly speaking, from last week. It was a busy week getting "Fishwife" wrapped up and so I didn't have much time for reading. Plus one of the books I did read was longer than my usual fare. But I had all those books I read on my hiatus that I never got time to review, so I tossed a few of them in here to fill things out. After all, a blog post just isn't a blog post of mine if it isn't way too long. ;-)

The Saint, by Tiffany Reisz
Before she became Manhattan's most famous dominatrix, Nora Sutherlin was merely a girl called Eleanor. . .

Rebellious, green-eyed Eleanor never met a rule she didn't want to break. She's sick of her mother's zealotry and the confines of Catholic school, and declares she'll never go to church again. But her first glimpse of beautiful, magnetic Father Marcus Stearns--Søren to her and only her--and his lust-worthy Italian motorcycle is an epiphany. Eleanor is consumed--yet even she knows that being in love with a priest can't be right.

But when one desperate mistake nearly costs Eleanor everything, it is Søren who steps in to save her. When she vows to repay him with complete obedience, a whole world opens before her as he reveals to her his deepest secrets that will change everything.

Danger can be managed--pain, welcomed. Everything is about to begin.

I had a mixed kind of anticipation for this book. I've read the first four books in Reisz's Original Sinners series, collectively known as the Red Years Quartet. I really enjoyed some of those and other not as much. I've also enjoyed quite a bit of Reisz's short fiction set in this world. Being a curious person, I couldn't help being intrigued by the idea of an entire novel devoted to Nora and Søren's backstory.

At the same time, we got a lot of that backstory in the first four novels, particularly in The Mistress. Was there really enough new information to make a full novel compelling? Or would it just be repetitive? Heck, some of the flashbacks within The Mistress were repetitive and that really bugged me. Would this just be more of the same on an even bigger scale?

I was impressed with Reisz's handling of this particular balancing act. There was a lot of repetition. Quite a few scenes which had been described over the course of the Red Years Quartet were included in this novel. They were important fleurking scenes, so it's not like she could skip them. But the greater degree of detail given here kept them interesting. Also, the spaces between those scenes were wonderful. Eleanor's adventures are just as compelling as Nora's were.

But, speaking of Nora, this book is structured around one of my least favorite tropes ever. "Hello, new character. Sit down by the fire and I shall tell you my tales of yesteryear. . . " (I had this issue with The Mistress as well.) Rather than being a true prequel that is the story of how Nora and Søren got together, the whole book is Nora telling the story of how she and Søren got together to someone else. It's one big novel-length flashback, and the periodic check-ins with the "present" kept kicking me out of the story. As I said, I found Eleanor very interesting and, even with all the hot sexytimes, I started to resent the scenes with Nora and Nico for interrupting her story.

Objectively, I will say that as the flashback angle goes, it was probably done well, but flashbacks bug me. So that's a personal preference, this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary, etc.

Overall, I liked this book and I am looking forward to the release of The King in November. I like Reisz's writing and I love Nora, so I'll make my peace with the flashbacks.

Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron
As the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, Julius survives by a simple code: stay quiet, don't cause trouble, and keep out of the way of bigger dragons. But this meek behavior doesn't cut it in a family of ambitious predators, and his mother, Bethesda the Heartstriker, has finally reached the end of her patience.

Now, sealed in human form and banished to the DFZ--a vertical metropolis built on the ruins of Old Detroit--Julius has one month to prove to his mother that he can be a ruthless dragon or lose his true shape forever. But in a city of modern mages and vengeful spirits where dragons are seen as monsters to be exterminated, he's going to need some serious help to survive this test.

He only hopes that humans are more trustworthy than dragons.

When I read Rachel Aaron's 2k to 10k last year, a part of my brain wondered just what this extremely fast writing meant for her as it related to the glacial pace of the traditional publishing world. Soon after this random question popped up in the back of my brain, Aaron answered it in a blog post when she announced her upcoming Heartstriker series.

". . . the main reason I decided to self publish was a purely Rachel problem. See, I write fast. Like, really fast. And the cold hard truth is that New York simply cannot buy my books as quickly as I can write them. Self publishing provided me with a ready solution to this conundrum. . . "

Aaron has also said she set out to produce a self-published book of such high quality that her regular readers would not be able to tell the difference between it and her traditionally published works, which seemed like an interesting experiment to me. People routinely talk about how self-published novels just can't compete with their traditionally published counterparts in terms of quality, which I quite simply just don't believe. There's a spectrum, just like with anything else. But even with the best self-published novels, there are subtle differences sometimes. Could a traditionally published author, with the right knowledge and resources, make a seamless jump from one outlet to the other?

Well, the short answer is yes. I can tell you that I, a reader of Aaron's traditionally published works, did not see any difference in the quality of Nice Dragons Finish Last compared to the Eli Monpress novels or the Paradox trilogy she recently published as Rachel Bach. Now I read ebooks exclusively and I understand this was published as digital only, so print readers would obviously have had a different experience. But as far as I'm concerned, this was just another great novel by a writer I love, no matter what company was or wasn't listed on the copyright page.

On to the actual book review! As is pretty much becoming expected for me when reading Aaron's work, I loved this book. Aaron always writes a great mix of action and humor and this book is no exception. Between Julius's hunt for the missing dragon and Marci's trying to hide from the goons sent to kidnap her, there's never a dull moment. Aaron's depiction of the DFZ and the social and political consequences of magic were also very intriguing and made a great backdrop for the story.

Also, while I've never been drawn to futures with flying cars, I would line up in a heartbeat for a car that drives itself. I will gladly welcome our robot overlords if it means I don't have to pay attention in traffic anymore.

Julius wasn't quite what I was expecting. He was so passive at the beginning of the story and I guess I've grown accustomed to Aaron's main characters being a little more. . . confident. Even though I know I probably shouldn't, it's hard sometimes to avoid comparing an author's characters to each other. I remember thinking at one point "Dragon or not, Devi would eat this guy for lunch and pick her teeth with his bones." Not that this is a bad thing. It was, in fact, the whole point. Julius is a character who still has to find his way and I enjoyed the way Aaron evolved his character over the course of this story.

I liked most of the other characters too. Bethesda annoyed me. I'm hoping that at some point later in the series Julius's Mommy Dearest is going to fade into irrelevance and that day will be a very good one. Justin didn't do much for me, but I adored Bob. I love a good probably-not-actually-going-to-turn-out-to-be-a-very-good-guy-but-not-actively-trying-to-kill-the-good-guys-right-now-so-let's-at-least-enjoy-his-humor-while-we-can character. Marci is, I think, going to be interesting to watch and her and Julius stumbling around each other while trying to find a good balance was entertaining.

Overall this was a fun intro to what I think will be a great new series. In addition to telling a great story, Aaron has built a very interesting world here and a couple of very interesting characters for us to explore it with in later books. And hopefully, with her being such a fast writer, those later books won't be too long in coming.

St. Raven, by Jo Beverley
A Lady with a Quest. . .

Cressida Mandeville agrees to Lord Crofton's vile proposal, but secretly she has other plans. She will trick the loathsome man, find her father's hidden wealth, and save her family from ruin. All goes well, until a daring highwayman stops their carriage, whirls Cressida up onto his dark horse, and demands a kiss. . .

A Duke with a Conscience. . .

Tristan Tregallows, Duke of St. Raven, doesn't plan to rescue a damsel in distress, but he can hardly leave an innocent in Crofton's power. One kiss confirms his prisoner's innocence, but instead of grateful, she is furious. When he discovers that Cressida is on a quest, one that will take her into the darkest parts of Regency society, St. Raven knows he must become her partner and protector. But he doesn't expect the dangers to his heart. . .

I've been working my way through Beverley's Company of Rogues series over the last few weeks and even though there aren't really any Rogues in this one, it's still set in that world and so I guess it sort of counts. A few of the Rogues get mentioned anyway, though now that I'm thinking about it I can't remember if any of them actually put in an appearance.

St. Raven was a solid read. A little bit of intrigue, lots of heat, decent characters, and a good depiction of an orgy of all things. You don't see the main characters attending orgies very often in regency romance, so it certainly gets points for originality there.

I was disappointed by how much angst and moping there was in the story, particularly the second half. I know class distinctions were a big deal in that time period, but I get bored when the potential for scandal becomes the only thing keeping the hero and heroine apart.

Overall I liked this book but I didn't love it. It started out pretty strong but sort of fizzled by the end. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, but I wouldn't recommend much more than that either.

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
Claire Randall is leading a double life. She has a husband in one century, and a lover in another. . .

In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon--when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach--an "outlander"--in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord. . . 1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire's destiny in soon inextricably intertwined with Clan MacKenzie and the forbidden Castle Leoch. She is catapulted without warning into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life. . . and shatter her heart. For here, James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire. . . and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

I've discovered in recent years that I have some really random gaps in my genre reading. I read a lot and I try to read widely, but I often find myself completely unaware of books it seems like everyone else in the world has read. Outlander was one of those. Until everyone started talking about the television show, I had never even heard of it.

Yay for the television show! Not because I've watched it or have any plans to do so. I don't have Starz (I don't even have regular cable, let alone premium channels) and I don't watch much television these days anyway. But it did point me in the direction of a new book and I totally loved it.

I also understand why people I've heard talk about it have had so much trouble classifying it. The scope of the story feels like fantasy, with this richly detailed world and lots of history and politics and adventure. But then there's the fact that it's so very focused on Claire and Jamie and their relationship. Decidedly romancey.

Too big and in many places bleak to be romance, too lovey dovey to be fantasy. I can understand how some folks had trouble with that. If you really don't like one or the other, it would probably be very difficult to get into this book.

Luckily for me, I like both fantasy and romance and have absolutely no problem with mixing the two of them together. :-)

It also probably worked so well for me because I liked Claire very much. She's practical in the face of a completely impractical situation. Sucked back in time, embroiled in politics and intrigue she doesn't really understand, fumbling through a relationship she didn't expect, she could have turned into a complete raving loon. Instead, she just grabs hold of the situation and builds a new life for herself. I'm not saying there weren't times when she fumbled it and really annoyed me, but for the most part, I adored her.

At the same time, I really just don't know what to make of Jamie. I liked him, but I didn't really understand him a good deal of the time. Perhaps because I don't know much about Scotland or its history or culture or politics. I have no real frame of reference for this character. And I understand the circumstances that push him and Claire together, but I'm not sure I quite buy them as a good couple yet. I'm going to have to see where the next book goes.

I also really liked the quandary the time travel aspect of the story presented. Claire's choices there are interesting to watch and I'm curious to see what impact her actions have on the future, assuming Gabaldon comes back to that. (And really, why write a time travel book if you're not going to come back to that?) The timelines have to potential to get really twisted here, which has me curious.

Overall this was a great read, though longer than I'm used to lately. It's certainly not a book you can knock back in an afternoon! But the adventure was enough to hook me and the characters and premise were strong enough that I'm definitely going to read the next book in the series.

I've read a lot of really good books lately, so I'm glad to be back to blogging so I can share them with you. Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Flash Fiction and Short Stories

If you've been following along on this blog for a while, you'll already know about the flash fiction I post here on the weekends. I don't get to it every week, and some weeks what I do get to is total crap, but I have built up a semi-decent collection over time.

I like writing the flash fiction pieces. They give me the opportunity change up the routine for the creative side of my brain and to actually finish something with some regularity, which can be desperately necessary when I'm in the middle of trying to force myself through the long hard slog of a novel.

Plus, since they're so short and the time commitment isn't huge, there's less risk involved in writing something unfamiliar. I try to write them outside my comfort zones, experimenting with different voices and POVs and genres, which quite often teaches me what I can and cannot (yet) do as a writer.

And every now and again I'll write something I think is really good, and then I get to show it off and preen a little. Preening is always nice.

I've also gotten much better at tightening my prose. When you're trying to tell a story in 500 words or 1000 words or even as few as 50 words, you learn to take a good hard look at which words and characters and plotlines you really need, and which ones have to get cut.

I've never been good at cutting. This post alone probably serves as a pretty good example of that. I think in big long complex thoughts and I write in bigger ones.

But there's no room for that kind of nonsense in flash fiction. Or, there is, but you have to really want it. You have to be willing to give up a lot of other things for those bits of snarky banter or angry diatribes or vivid descriptions. And learning to make those trades took me quite a while.

I'm still not fabulous at it. Sometimes the words will run off when I'm not paying attention and cutting a piece of flash fiction down to size will take me two or three or ten times as long as writing it in the first place. But I'm getting better at keeping under control while I write. And I'm getting faster at spotting the places where I wandered off when I do lose track.

That's a good general skill to have in the toolbox as a writer, but I've really gotten to get some practice at wielding it as I've been writing "Fishwife". Since I've struggled in the past with writing short stories, because they always blow up into long stories on me, I decided to treat "Fishwife" more like a way-too-long piece of flash fiction and less like a way-too-short novel.

I plotted out this short story to be about 7000 words. The scene list I originally made called for five scenes. Right off the bat, I knew I had to cut one, because it was really more about introducing a future character than about telling this individual story. If I was planning out a novel, maybe I wouldn't have been so strict and I would have kept it. But the flash fiction skillset demanded the unnecessary scene get pulled down off the corkboard and shoved in the "ideas for later" folder. Away it, and its associated hot selkie, went.

The flash fiction mindset has helped during the writing stage as well. For example, at one point I had two characters walking the crime scene and they rambled off down this bunny trail of discussing what kind of material could have been used to tie up the victim. Nope. Sorry, my flash fiction brain cut in. We don't need to know that. She was tied up. Rope, net, line, whatever it was, it doesn't matter. Cut it and move on.

Am I going to have to pare things down and cut things out when it comes time to edit the story? Sure. Have I already noticed spots where the transitions are a little too jumpy and the Inner Editor is going to have to work overtime to smooth them out? Yup. Does a part of me really want to bring back that other scene so the Muse can take that hot selkie out for a spin? Absolutely.

But by using the skills I've learned writing flash fiction for this blog over the last year, I'm much more likely to end up with a short story I might actually be able to do something with, instead of just getting bogged down in another false start. I knew this blog was going to be good for something!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: I've Heard It All Before

Brilliance of the Idea Salesman
So, we're writing a short story again, huh? And I'll be selling something shiny and fictional within the next few months, huh?

Yeah, I've heard that before.

As you know by now, Renee has started a new project. She's got this whole plan in place to write a bunch of short stories over the next year and so she started out plotting the first one. New Scrivener project, character and setting sketches, scene cards, color coding, the whole bit.

She's all giddy with excitement over this story and these characters and the way the magic works and how the character ended up investigating this murder and who her enemies are (sadly, Agent Vandekone doesn't seem to have much in the way of allies) and all that.

This pair of selkie guys who popped up in her imagination on her last plotting day, and she let the Muse run off in all kinds of less-than-appropriate directions with one of them before she realized introducing a hot new guy at the end of a short story would leave the whole thing feeling very unfinished.

The Inner Editor, like myself, is a little too eager to get her pens on something. Renee actually had to walk away from the computer the other day in order to stop her from highlighting the opening scene. She keeps muttering to herself about balancing action and introspection and visceral responses, which is fine if that's how she likes to fill her days, but if she pulls a stunt like that highlighting bit again, we're going to have to tie her up and lock her in a closet like some NaNoWriMo newbie.

And me? Well, I'm not falling for it.

No, I'm really not. I'm just sitting over here in my several-times-burned-and-now-I'm-definitely-fleurking-shy corner, not buying a word of it. Either this thing is going to fizzle out halfway through and she'll lose interest and give it up or it's going to keep getting bigger and more complicated and eventually we'll have another damn series of novels on our hands instead of one simple short story.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not moving in with the Critic or anything. I know Renee can pull this off, if she's disciplined enough. I just refuse to be Charlie Brown thinking Lucy is going to hold that football still for me again. Maybe if Renee can finish the zero draft and keep the Inner Editor's highlighters away from it long enough for the Muse to untangle herself from the text, I'll start to hope and research some sales avenues.

But for now, cautiously watchful is all I can promise.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-07-05 through 2014-08-08

Just dropping this post in here to get back into things and keep myself on schedule and all that. I read something like 25 books in month I was away and I don't actually have the time to write up (I also suspect none of you has the time to read) 25 books reviews. To be perfectly honest, things have been crazy around here this week and I don't actually have time to write any book reviews. I will probably go through them all and pick out a few of my favorites to blog at some later date, because there were a couple of really good books in there that I think you all should know about. But in the meantime, if you're interested in seeing what I read while I was recovering, you can head over to my Goodreads page and check it out.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Another Layer of Rust to Take Off

Writing is like any other profession. If you want to do it well, there are certain skills which you must learn and hone and master. And once you master them, you have to keep those skills polished. Otherwise they get rusty and dull and you forget just exactly how it's all supposed to work. You might remember more than you knew in the beginning, but you just won't be quite as sharp as you once were, and you'll have to work back up to that mastery level all over again.

(I will now stop beating up this particular metaphor and move on.)

I used to dream of someday being a writer, but then I didn't write for a long time because of reasons, and I forgot how. Years passed before I got serious about it again and I started studying and practicing. I think I got kinda good at it after a while back then. And then I stopped writing again, because of other reasons. And now here I sit, kicking myself and once more building all that muscle memory back up.

I spent a little over a year giving myself remedial discipline lessons, trying to remember how to find and commit to a regular writing schedule. Plus I had to brush up on my basics and get a general overview of the whole place, as the industry changed pretty dramatically in the few years I was gone. It was slow going, but the effort paid off. I finally got myself to a place where I really thought I might have finally scraped all the rust off my brain.

And then I realized the other day that I've somehow lost a critical skill. And I've got to get it back ASAP or I might as well pack up all my shiny new toys and go home. Because you can't really get anywhere in publishing without a finished manuscript.

I've tackled two major projects in the last two years. And with both of them, I've become convinced somewhere around the halfway mark that the story was fundamentally flawed and I either needed to stick the whole thing in a drawer and forget about it (sound Familiar?) or go back to the drawing board with it (as I'm doing with Guardian). I tried my hand at some short stories along the way too and never got very far with those either.

This is unacceptable to me. I refuse to become that writer, the one who never finishes anything and spends her days bemoaning the time she never has to devote to getting her writing career off the ground. I refuse.

I used to be able to finish things. Back before my. . . hiatus, I finished rough drafts for four different novels in three years. Sure, they were absolute crap that wasn't really good for much beyond showing me how much more I had to learn. But I finished them, dammit, and each one was better than the one before.

I must relearn how to finish the stories I start. It's important. I like writing, but I'm not doing it just for the sake of doing it. I want to make a career of this and there's nothing but frustration to be found in a trunk full of half-written novels. Or, put another way, see item #8.

So I'm putting myself through an intensive training program. I'm writing "Fishwife". After that, I'm going to finish Guardian. I want have both of those zero drafts done by the end of 2014 just to clear the current projects off the board.

And then I'm going to write another short story. And another one. And another. And another. I'm going to spend 2015 (or at least a big chunk of it) plotting and writing and revising short stories over and over again, until I can get myself all the way from start to finish on a project without getting stuck in this damn quicksand.

And then, once I'm back to being able to finish my shit, and assuming I haven't completely burned out my brain and killed all my abstracts with this torturous new creative exercise regimen, I'll write another novel.