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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: My Bad

Wisdom of an Inner Editor
NOTE FROM RENEE: We're baaaaaack! Long-Suffering Husband has finished nursing me back to health following my surgery (he makes a very high quality nurse, by the way) and it's time to resume regular writing and blogging schedules. I thought about doing some kind of welcome back post, but then I decided that this little paragraph about covered it. So instead I'm just going to let the Inner Editor dive right in with her latest update.

Distance offers a new perspective, both in the real world and here in the imaginary one. This is why writers are advised to put a finished draft aside for a while before revising it. Letting it sit allows the writer to view things objectively later.

This is not, however, the best advice to heed in the middle of a writing project. At least not so far as Renee is concerned. She does her best work when she keeps her head down and focuses on moving forward as fast as she can. Otherwise she gets distracted by. . .  well. . . me.

I can't help myself. I'm an Inner Editor. I edit. When Renee is writing along full steam ahead, it's fine, because there's always new text to look through. I make little notes for myself and move on with no one any the wiser.

But when things come to a standstill (like, for example, when Renee takes a month off to recover from major surgery) I end up with a lot of time on my hands. And when I have time on my hands, those little notes get bigger.

It's only a matter of time before Renee notices one or two of them.

The first half of Guardian is going to need major rewrites. It just is. The focus of the first 30000 words or so is on the wrong thing. And there's a major character who was introduced too early and so all of his scenes need to be restructured and moved around.

It will be a lot of work.

Little tweaks here and there are easy for Renee to ignore while writing the zero draft. Major shifts, though, have their own kind of gravity. They drag Renee's focus away from writing the next scene and it becomes impossible for her to build up forward momentum.

We've been at this long enough now to recognize when it's better for Renee to give in and fix the problems rather than trying to fight her way out. So Guardian is on hold until we replot it and get the first half rewritten.

While we're letting the potential changes simmer, we're going to bang out the zero draft of a short story we're currently calling "Fishwife". (Because when you can't come up with a good title, it's easier just to temporarily assign a bad one.) Agent Vandekone keeps poking the Muse, insisting there was more to that murdered mermaid flash fiction we wrote a few months ago.