Books read, August-September

Writing has left me with relatively little time for reading, the last couple of months, and it hasn’t been helped by the sheer size of some of the things I’ve been reading. But I’ve managed to finish a few:

The System of the World, Neal Stephenson. YOU GUYS YOU GUYS I’M DONE. It only took me about five and a half years. Not for this book alone; I apparently started Quicksilver in April 2013, finished it in February 2014, and completed The Confusion some time in mid-2015 (July, August, or September; I lumped all three months together in my post). I was bound and determined to finish this one before September, so I could tell myself it had only been less than three years in the making.

What I said about the previous two persists here: as a novel I don’t think it’s very good, because honestly half the time I had no idea where the story was going. But I enjoyed reading it, which is a different measuring stick entirely. In fact, I kept reading bits of it out to my husband and sister, because there were so many funny moments and hilarious lines. And only Neal Stephenson would make one of the two climactic sequences of the ending a frickin’ Trial of the Pyx.

An Illusion of Thieves, Cate Glass. Read for blurbing purposes. Epic fantasy in a world where magic is illegal, with a main character trying to keep herself and her brother alive and their magic hidden. There’s clearly more being set up here for the long term; the characters resolve the immediate problem, but there’s a bigger question of attempts to reform their society, which are going to take longer to deal with.

Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. Superhero urban fantasy, with Asian main characters, set in San Francisco. There’s a certain pleasure in reading something that takes place in a place you know; there’s also a lot of pleasure in Kuhn’s writing. The main character is actually the assistant to a superheroine, handling her marketing and PR and so forth, but she has a superpower of her own that she’s reluctant to use. I found the climactic plot developments the least satisfying part of it, but the relationships are the real driver here: not just of the romantic sort, but also familial and the friendship between Evie and her boss, which goes back to childhood and has fallen under increasingly untenable strain now that Annie Chang is Aveda Jupiter, Protector of San Francisco. If you can survive wanting to drop-kick Aveda through the back cover, those problems do eventually get addressed; I still want more out of that, but since the second book in the series focuses on Aveda, I suspect there’s more growth coming.

Important Beyond All This: 100 Poems by 100 People, ed. Larry Hammer. I’ve been following Larry’s weekly poetry posts on his blog, and enjoying his selections often enough that I picked up this collection. I didn’t like everything in it; in particular — and to my surprise — I found some of the longer narrative pieces especially hard to get through. They’re of course much shorter than novels, but the ways in which poetry can digress into description etc. meant I kept losing the thread of the story, and wound up feeling like “ugh, why are you using so many words.” But some of the other narrative poems worked fine for me, and I found a number of shorter works that were new to me and quite engaging.

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo. Picked this one up on the recommendation of Marissa Lingen, who said “I didn’t want to be the progressive white woman who was all ‘oh I don’t need to learn any of this stuff’ and definitely needed to learn this stuff.” Since that was a sentiment I could identify with, I read the book. And while I did know some of it, there were parts that were new — and I especially found it useful to see how Oluo uses the language of abusive relationships to talk about white supremacy and racial prejudice. I can think of ways to use that in explaining concepts like microagressions across to some people.

Sekrit Projekt R&R, Chapter 19

You guys . . . can I tell you a secret?

I really like this book.

Which, y’know, ought to be a “duh” kind of thing? Except that by the time I get three-quarters of the way in on most of my novels, I usually hit a point where I’m tired of them. Like I’ve been eating the same meal for three months straight, and no matter how fond of it I was to start, the taste has really palled. But I’ve been catching up on revisions (doing a first-pass polish on earlier chapters, because the back-and-forth nature of our collaboration means both Alyc and I wind up having things we want to tweak), and . . . when you get head-down in the nitty-gritty of a scene, working through the metaphysical math for an important plot event, or trying to figure out how to make a character imply X when they’ve only got like seven percent of the available information on X and additionally have to look like they’re trying not to imply anything, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Revising earlier chapters reminds me the bigger picture is there, and additionally that it contains a lot of awesome stuff. Over here it’s political shenanigans; over there it’s bitchy fencing practice; this corner has the caper and that one has the journey into spiritual woo. We’ve got something for everybody, including all the bits of me that like different things.

And so much of it isn’t standard-issue stuff. Like — let’s see if I can do this without spoilers — for that journey into spiritual woo, the characters have an argument over who ought to be the one to go. Everybody who speaks up has a good reason, because their various agendas are colliding, and the point of view we chose for that scene lets you watch a certain character manipulate the whole thing without telling you why they’re doing it. Which is good enough all on its own . . . but then we layer in our metaphysical worldbuilding, and the character backstory that gives the lies personal depth, and the overarching plot that means the reader should be very worried about what’s going to happen as a result of this, and you wind up with a scene that feels genuinely fresh. (Even to me, and I’ve read more of my own damn work than anybody. But then: this is a collaboration.)

So I’m three-quarters of the way in and when I look back over the road behind us, I still really like it. Partly because this being so large of a book means we’ve got so many different things going on, it’s hard to get bored — but partly because I think it’s damn good.

Which is a good feeling to have, going into the endgame. And I say “endgame” in the full awareness that the home stretch of this book is literally more than half the length of an entire Lady Trent memoir; we’ve got another month’s work ahead of us before we get there, and that’s at our rather high pace of drafting. But I’m in the sort of mood where 50K feels like I can snap my fingers and it’ll be done.

Word count: ~163,000*
Authorial sadism: Bitchy fencing practice means asking on Twitter for suggestions of how somebody can be a jerk with a rapier, and getting all too many good ideas. 😀
Authorial amusement: You’re going to have to explain that again, T—, this time in words of three syllables or fewer. And then convince R— to take some little baby steps along the road to altruism.
BLR quotient: Rhetoric of several different kinds, if I take that to encompass both social politics and intellectual labor. Don’t mind that splash of blood at the end; that’s just to set up the next chapter.

* Anybody who’s comparing numbers might notice this is a big jump from the last post. It isn’t all one chapter; in addition to writing 19, we also backed up to add a scene to Chapter 6, and I finally remembered to include the prologue we wrote a while ago in the wordcount total. Between that and revisions done to flesh out scenes we’d been short-changing in our quest to stay under 200K, there’s a lot of growth that isn’t part of the new chapter.

It Happened at the Ball!

My fellow Book View Cafe author Sherwood Smith has organized a new anthology:

cover art for IT HAPPENED AT THE BALL

The pleasure of your company is requested.

Graceful feet tracing courtly steps.
Eyes in jeweled masks meeting across a room of twirling dancers.
Gloved hands touching fleetingly–or gripping swords . . .

Anything can happen at a ball.

You are invited to enjoy stories of fancy and fantasy from thirteen authors, framed in the splendor and elegance of a ballroom. Be it at a house party for diplomats and thieves, or Almacks in a side-universe in which the Patronesses have magic, or a medieval festival just after the plague years . . .

Prepare to be swept into the enchantment of the dance!

Featuring stories from myself, Marissa Doyle, Sara Stamey, Charlotte Gumanaam, Irene Radford, Gillian Polack, Deborah J. Ross, Francesca Forrest, Lynne April Brown, P.G. Nagle, Brenda Clough, Layla Lawlor, and Sherwood Smith herself. My contribution is a reprint of “The Şiret Mask.” You can pick up the ebook now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, or Apple Books, or get it in trade paperback instead!

Sekrit Projekt R&R, Chapter 18

As I mentioned last week, we’ve slowed down a bit — partly for life reasons, partly because this turned out to be the World’s Longest Chapter despite us relocating one of its major scenes to the next one in line. But with this chapter we’re officially three-quarters of the way through the book, and although rationally I know that what remains is, y’know, a quarter of the book, it really does feel like we’re about a sneeze away from being done.

I did have to sacrifice a bit of structural prettiness recently. We’d originally aimed to have the book divide neatly into quarters, with certain beats being hit at the conclusion of each part, and the end of part three would have mirrored the end of part one in a kind of nifty way. But the actual rhythm of the story needs to take priority over structural prettiness, and so that moment’s been pushed back one chapter, unbalancing the quarters. I spent a couple of minutes side-eyeing the spreadsheet where we track our chapters, wondering if I could talk myself into believing it makes sense to turn Chapter 13 into some kind of “interlude” thing to rebalance the numbering; then we’d resolve a certain plotline at the end of what would become Chapter 15 (it’s currently 16) and put everything back on track to have things break into three- and six-chapter chunks. Except that if we did that we’d have to come up with an additional chapter to fill out the final quarter, so uhhh, no, that doesn’t make sense, and I need to just let go of the tidy structure I had in mind.

Apparently this is what happens to me when I actually outline a book: my OCD tendency starts to rear its head. 😛

Speaking of letting go of things . . . yeah, so, um. That 200K target? That’s not so much a thing anymore. As I put it to Alyc, what used to feel like the authorial equivalent of “I’m going to aim to eat a healthy diet” has recently turned into counting calories, in a way neither of us was happy with. I’ve found myself skimping on description or characters’ reactions to things because I’m trying to keep the chapters within a certain range, and that’s not good for the book. So even though there is some practical merit in staying below 200K — think of it like pricing something at $9.99, because it sounds like much less than $10 — there’s much more merit in giving our scenes the room they need to breathe, so the story winds up feeling rich instead of stripped to the bone.

I don’t think we’ll wind up ballooning absurdly past that goal. But then again, I also originally thought this book was going to be a hundred and fifty thousand words long, so what do I know?

Anyway. This chapter contains a scene that is, in a sense, where the whole idea for the book began, so it was very satisfying to get that down on the page. Caper as both apology and flirtation! It’s how these characters roll.

Word count: ~148,000
Authorial sadism: So there’s this divinatory card deck that plays a role in the story, and instead of engineering layouts to suit our needs, we’ve actually been laying out the cards and writing what we get. This time the deck got SUPER HELPFUL and answered R—‘s question so clearly it would have blown one part of our plot completely out of the water. Our solution to this problem was . . . interesting. And a little painful. >_>
Authorial amusement: The aforementioned caper/apology/flirtation. Not just because flirtation amuses us, but because on my list of narrative kinks is the moment where someone who expects to be hurt instead receives a touch of kindness.
BLR quotient: Another complicated chapter. Despite the flirtation, I think rhetoric wins out in the end; there’s a lot of investigation here, and pinpointing the problem if not yet the solution.

Sekrit Projekt R&R: Chapter 17

By the (constantly-revised) work schedule Alyc and I have laid out, we now only need to write one chapter a week to finish by our agreed-upon deadline.

I say “only” because that hasn’t really been our pace since about Chapter 5. Once we reached the tipping point that let us map out our plot in more solid detail much further ahead, we started going faster, plowing through about a chapter and a half or even two each week. But it isn’t a bad thing for us to slow down now; we need to backtrack revise a strand of the story to reflect the change we made partway through before we try to write the next stage of the new version, and Chapters 19 and 20 still have a bit of ??? to them, during which we need to make sure we braid our plot together in a tidy fashion. I like the thought of having the draft in a pretty solid state when it’s done, rather than leaving loose threads trailing out all over the place, so there will probably be a fair bit of revision during the next month.

But we’re close, man. So close! (Not really so close. Seven chapters away. But OMG it feels so close.)

We’re alo enjoying a bit of narrative breathing room. The stuff immediately after the halfway point was very tense and packed; now we’re stepping back to let the characters just . . . interact, y’know? Still in ways that further the plot — no scene here is allowed to get away with serving only one purpose — but there’s time for some more bonding before stuff starts blowing up again.

Word count: ~136,000
Authorial sadism: Well, we figured out a reason why nobody has found the thing hidden down in a certain place. And then we figured out a way to make that hint at a revelation that won’t actually be forthcoming until book three. And then there was that whole “I can make you want it” thing . . . (not sexual — creepy in an entirely different way).
Authorial amusement: What I dubbed The Magnificent Lie, as R— figures out a way to salvage her earlier mistakes by building a New! Improved! Edifice of Untruth. Also, S—‘s reaction to an idea R— had.
BLR quotient: Started off on love, detoured through rhetoric, wound up on blood. Very literally.

From Zero to DNF in 3.6 Seconds

There’s a book I was almost done with and about to put on my list of Books Read — until it managed to drive me off in no time flat. And I want to post about why.

Content warning for sexual assault, including upon dead bodies. Which right there is the tl;dr of why I stopped reading, but I want to unpack the situation a bit more.

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