Friday, October 31, 2008

NaNoWriMo. Sorta.

The writers among this blog's readership likely already know about NaNoWriMo. For the rest of you, that's National Novel Writing Month--a group exercise in madness, now in its tenth year, wherein people around the world try to draft novels of at least 50,000 words during the month of November.

I've been aware of NaNo for at least five years, but I haven't signed up for it before because technically you're supposed to start a new novel from scratch on November 1. I've never happened to finish a manuscript in September or October, hence no NaNo. I'm not the type to stop mid-draft on one book to work on another.

And I'm in mid-manuscript now--17,000 words into my rewrite of Invasion, a rewrite so radical I'm using maybe 10% of the scenes from the first draft, tops. So instead of using NaNo to write 50K words on a new story, I'm going to try to add that much to the WIP.

It's ambitious, and I may not get there. It also seems counterintuitive to everything I've learned of late about not pushing myself too hard or killing myself over artificial deadlines. And if I'm stressed beyond belief a week in, I can and will quit. I already know I can finish a manuscript; that won't change if NaNo turns out to be wrong for me.

But I want to try. I think I need to test myself a bit, get my competitive juices flowing. I want to see if I can find ways to write faster. Maybe close my browser window when I open Word, for starters. I can always make a note to go back later to check the OED to see if some word is an anachronism, or to look up the exact date of some event in my protagonist's backstory. Because, let's face it, I spend less time in the OED or on wikipedia than I do obsessively checking Gmail every time the new message indicator appears. And maybe I don't always have to wait till my daughter is asleep to write. Not that I want to give her less attention, but when she's playing happily and quietly or watching TV, why not write a few paragraphs? And why not use my lunch hour at work for something other than obsessively checking political blogs? (At least after Nov. 4!)

Above all, I want to plunge into the story and out of my own head games--the usual doubt demons I think most writers have to some degree or other. I want to write with passion. So on the stroke of midnight, I'm going to write a couple of pages before I go to bed. When I wake up, instead of spending an hour cycling through political blogs, I'll write some more. And we'll see how it goes from there...

Albion's Seed (or, I really haven't stopped reading books!)

I'd been hearing great things about Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (David Hackett Fischer, 1989) for ages, and over the past two weeks I finally got around to reading it. It's as good as advertised. Fischer compares the four major pre-Revolutionary migrations from Britain to America (East Anglian Puritans to New England, mostly south and southwest English royalists to tidewater Virginia, midland and Yorkshire Quakers to the mid-Atlantic, and "British Borderers" from Northern Ireland and along the English-Scottish border to the Appalachian backcountry) on various cultural markers.

It's a wonderful read, rich with anecdote, but what stands out, even before you get to the last section discussing how the four cultures influenced American history and culture post-1776, is the amazing continuities. For example, I am, by and large, a descendant of that fourth migration. I didn't grow up with any awareness of being part of an ethnic group or subculture, but the more I learn about Scots-Irish history and culture, the more I see how I'm a product of it. (To put it another way, you can take the girl out of the South, but you can't entirely take the South out of the girl.) Even my interest in military history and the fact I'm writing adventure stories now probably owes something to growing up in a subculture with a strong warrior ethic. It's strange to think that my personality and interests have roots going all the way back to the English-Scottish wars and border feuds of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but Fischer makes his case persuasive.

If you're at all interested in British or American history or culture, read this book.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Michael Kimmel, 2008) is a depressing book. Kimmel's theory is that our culture has added a new stage between adolescence and adulthood, especially for young men--"Guyland," roughly the ages between 16 and 26. And that stage is pretty messed up. While acknowledging that not every guy fits the mold and that most don't go to the worst extremes, Kimmel paints a depressing picture of binge drinking, hazing hell, misogynistic porn, dysfunctional relationships with women, and post-collegiate aimlessness.

Mostly this book made me feel glad I (and my male friends) are well past this stage, and that I spent my college years in a different subculture where my only interaction with Guyland guys was occasionally having to walk by the frat houses where the brothers sat on the porch and called out 1-10 ratings or speculated on your sexual orientation. And, it also made me apprehensive when I think of my daughter being a teenager in less than a decade.

But the funny thing is it also made me feel a bit sorry for the guys, insofar as we as a culture have let them down--it doesn't make me forgive the misogyny, not even a bitty bit, but I can relate to feeling like the American Dream is slipping away from your generation and to knowing you want more from life but being totally clueless and therefore aimless about how to get there.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

10 Things I Love and Hate About Books

Here's another exercise from the online writing class I'm taking this month. We were asked to list ten things that make us love or hate a book as a reader, with the idea that it'll help us focus our writing toward our passions. Which sounds silly--you'd think you'd automatically write what you love and avoid what you hate. But as I look at this list, I can see that a lot of the changes I'm making in my current rewrite are refocusing the story toward the things I love about it, but that I'd lost track of in the drive to finish my first draft and make my plot line up.

10 Things I Love:

1. Communities of characters: I like to read about friends, close-knit families, and lovers who have a strong friendship and the ability to work well together as well as passion. I love the friendships in Jennifer Crusie's romances, and what keeps drawing me back to books as different as the Anne of Green Gables series, the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, and the Aubrey/Maturin novels, to name a few, is the chance to revisit that community of characters and watch them work together.

2. A good long-running series: When I really love a set of characters and a world, one book isn't enough.

3. Good world-building--anything where the setting is a character in itself, whether it's a fantasy world or England in 1820 or one of Jennifer Crusie's towns.

4. Historical accuracy: I read historical fiction of any genre because I love history so much, and I want to feel like the author shares my passion and has chosen her setting because he or she loves that place and time. I'm looking for a sort of mental time travel.

5. Women who are tough in ways that make sense for their place, time, and circumstances.

6. Warriors, whether they're literal soldiers or people who believe in their cause strongly enough to take risks for it.

7. Honor: I love characters who have principles and the courage to stand by them.

8. Serious stories leavened by humor. Especially gallows humor. It's probably not a coincidence that I work at a hospital.

9. Smooth prose and a strong voice.

10. Intelligent characters: Brains are sexy.

10 Things I Hate:

1. Historical inaccuracy: Not every little detail has to be right, but if the author misses something I know to be easily researched or writes characters who feel like 2008 people in fancy dress, I can't enjoy the story because it's not giving me that mental time travel experience I long for. Other inaccuracies can bug me, too--I've read contemporary books with baseball player heroes that turned into wallbangers because the author clearly knew much less about baseball than I do, and I don't consider myself anything like a true expert. I'm just married to one. :-) But since most of what I read and all of what I write is set in the past, it's usually historical errors that ruin stories for me.

2. Alpha Heel heroes: I like strong men--see my love for warriors above--but I want them civilized and confident enough of their strength to treat others with respect.

3. Over-the-top villains: You know, the kind who's a traitor AND a bully AND a blackmailer AND a pedophile AND....

4. Villains who are too weak and/or too insane to be a real challenge for the hero.

5. Women who are spunky for the sake of spunkiness--if a woman is going to buck the values and rules of her time, I want it to be well-motivated.

6. Helpless damsels in distress.

7. Passive characters--people who just let life happen and don't fight for what they believe in or what they want.

8. Clunky writing

9. Gratuitous sad endings: I'm fine with a grand, Shakespearean tragedy, but I hate books where it seems like the whole point is to prove that people are weak and life is meaningless.

10. Being told that a character is smart, strong, or whatever but seeing no evidence of it in his/her actions.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Secret and Unlawful Killing

A Secret and Unlawful Killing (Cora Harrison, 2008) is the second in a series of mysteries set in 16th century Ireland and featuring Mara, a brehon (judge/magistrate) in the Gaelic legal tradition. For the most part it's a gentle, pleasant read, despite the necessary presence of several dead bodies and a certain sense of melancholy as Mara and others who've kept the old ways see the encroachment of English power and English culture even in their isolated corner of western Ireland.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Life As We Knew It

For some reason I've always had a soft spot for YA apocalyptic novels--the end of the world as viewed through the eyes of a teenager. Maybe it's because I was that age in the 80's, when at some points nuclear war seemed entirely possible, so I'd regularly imagine what it would be like to survive, which I figured I'd have a decent chance of doing, what with living in the country and far from any obvious target.

So I snapped up Life As We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer, 2006), which is the story of a 16-year-old Pennsylvania girl trying to survive the aftermath of a natural catastrophe along with her family. An asteroid strikes the moon, knocking it into a closer orbit and triggering tsunamis and greater seismic and volcanic activity. At first I wondered what I was doing reading a disaster novel in the middle of an actual crisis, but in the end it was kind of comforting. I may wonder what's going to happen to the economy, whether either of our jobs are vulnerable to state budget cuts, etc., but unlike Miranda I have light, heat, running water, and a house full of food, none of which is canned mixed vegetables.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Your Own Worst Enemy

Lately I've been reading and thinking a lot about living a more organized and purposeful life, and one of the books that crossed my path was Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement (Ken Christian, 2002). Without going into a lot of angsty detail, I'll just say that I've felt like an underachiever ever since I graduated from college, oh, 15 years ago now. Reading this book was reassuring, because it helped me see my struggles as A) not that uncommon for someone with my personality and talents, and b) possible to overcome.

Basically, I'd gotten into a pattern where after I graduated I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, or even how to know if I was doing it well, without the obvious measures you get in school (or that I might've gotten if I'd gone into a field with clear milestones, like academia or the military, where I could've pursued tenure or promotions the way I aimed to be valedictorian in high school or to graduate with honors from college). So I found jobs that paid the bills and told myself all kind of stories. I was "finding myself," and when I was 25 or 26, I felt like I had infinite time to weigh every possible option. Or I made a sort of virtue of staying out of the rat race, and once I got into my slacker pattern, I didn't try my best because it protected me from the possibility of failure.

In a way, this book was for people at the start of a journey I've already begun--finishing my first manuscript was a giant step away from my slacker past. Now that I'm on my fourth book, well, I still haven't reached the obvious success milestone of publication, but I've proven that I'm capable of working hard, using my talents, and finishing what I started. I needed the reminder that that's valuable in itself. Also, looking at my former self-defeating self helped me see how I got there, and how I might apply some of what I learned from finishing manuscripts to the rest of my life (and, for that matter, how I might take a more focused approach to my writing).

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus

Peter Gomes made an entertaining appearance on the Colbert Report a little while back, so I decided to check out his new book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (2008). I found it thought-provoking and challenging, though not new enough to be scandalous--most of what Gomes says would fit in at my church. But I like his approach, and I'll look for his other books.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Intermediate Fencing starts tomorrow...

I haven't blogged about fencing as much as I wanted to, but this weekend the online writers' class I'm taking gave us an exercise where we were asked to write about anything we were passionate about, as long as it wasn't politics or religion. Since that took my obsession with checking off the map, I wrote the following:

Sweat pours in a river down my spine. It’s at least 80 degrees in this hall, and I’m wearing sweatpants, a plastic chest protector and a long-sleeved jacket over my t-shirt, a masked helmet with a neck guard, and a thick glove on my right hand. My sword hand.

At any other time I hate to sweat. But this sweat comes in pursuit of a dream and a physical connection to the stories I love to tell.

I’m not a natural fencer. Even if I weren’t overweight, I wouldn’t be the ideal build for the sport, and my hand-eye coordination is average at best. I lose as many bouts as I win, and tonight I’ll go home with a cross-shaped array of bruises on my upper arm from my most ignominious defeat.

But nothing beats the rush of striding across the room, sword in hand, or of standing poised en garde at the beginning of a bout, or the thrill of scoring a touch against a more slender and athletic opponent.

And when I lift my blade in salute, I’m not just offering the traditional courtesy to my opponent and our coach. I’m saluting the little girl I was thirty years ago, who used to pose before her mother’s full-length mirror with her brother’s West Point saber in hand. I’m honoring the hero of my novel, the real man whose life I’m turning upside down for the sake of my alternative history—a man to the manner of the sword born, who learned all these feints, parries, and ripostes as a normal part of his education as an officer and a gentleman, who wielded his sword in battle. When I hold a sword, the barrier of two hundred years between us thins. I touch history and bring it into the present.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely, 2008) details common human foibles as seen through the lens of behavioral economics. It turns out we're not the rational actors classical economics as established by Adam Smith says we ought to be. We make poor decisions based on emotion, we procrastinate, we choose short-term comfort over long-term security, etc. We believe stereotypes--even about ourselves. One of the most disturbing studies Ariely cites, in my opinion, is the one where two groups of Asian-American women, college students, were each given a math test. Before the test, one group answered a questionnaire about their experiences as women, while the other answered one about their cultural background. A case of competing stereotypes, you see? Women are supposed to be bad at math, while Asians are supposed to be good at it. Sure enough, the women who had been reminded of their gender scored lower than the ones who'd been reminded of their ethnicity.

Definitely recommended for anyone who's interested in popular science or economics, and guaranteed to make you think more deeply about why you make the choices you do.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Peter Wicked

Peter Wicked (2008) is the third in Broos Campbell's Age of Sail series about Matty Graves, a young American naval officer--a series that deserves a much wider audience. I have to admit I find the books' plots a bit convoluted at times, possibly because I don't know that much about the history behind them (1800, the Caribbean, the US in an undeclared war with the French and only slightly more cordial with Britain). But the voice is wonderful and vivid, and the characters engaging. I'm looking forward to future installments, and watching Matty figure out how to deal with the dark family secrets that came out in the last two books.