Tuesday, December 8, 2015

10 Books That Stayed With Me

I've seen this meme passed around on Facebook, and while I hate propagating those things, I was intrigued by the question, so here goes. In no particular order and without thinking about it too much, here are ten books that "touched" me.

I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells

This is the only book that I've ever read in a single sitting. I finished it at four in the morning. "Single sitting" is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, because I tried a few times to put it down and go to bed, but I couldn't. This was before I had kids, obviously.

The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy

Hunt more or less invented the genre of techno-thriller. Clancy's later oeuvre tends to, ahem, disappear up its own ass, but this one is still highly readable. It features Jack Ryan when he was a lovable, well-meaning data-nerd who turned out to be the only person who could solve a submarine crisis. And the movie's pretty great too--Alec Baldwin is the best Jack Ryan, as far as I'm concerned.

The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

It's dense and can be a slog at times, but there is a tremendous amount of depth and richness that no other author has ever been able to duplicate. It's hailed more as inspiring than good by many, but the older I get--and the more I learn about Anglo-Saxon--the more I appreciate what Tolkein was trying to do and what he actually accomplished with his tome.

A Journey To The Center Of The Earth by Jules Verne

I still think about the story-telling lessons I learned from this book, and it's been over twenty years since I read it. I remember being floored by the ending and seeing for the first time how visceral descriptions could make a book tangible in a way that other story-telling media can't be. I really need to re-read this one.

Mistborn (The Final Empire) by Brandon Sanderson

This book introduced me to the world of modern epic fantasy, and I learned that there's more out there than sword-and-sorcery. I didn't find out about his expansive Cosmere until much later (indeed, Sanderson may not have matched the depth of Tolkein as a world-builder, but he's certainly exceeded the breadth), and I wasn't all that happy with the way this book ended, but it was wildly inventive and really changed the way I thought about fantasy.

Rosa Lee by Leon Dash

A gripping non-fiction portrait of an underclass family struggling to survive, this was one of my first glimpses at the realities of living in poverty. It's probably a bit dated by now, but it laid a foundation for a more mature understanding of the world that I was able to build on with recent books about poverty like Ta-Nahisi Coates's Between The World And Me or Linda Torado's Hand To Mouth. And, speaking of understanding the world...

Atheist Universe by David Mills

It's not something I talk about a lot anymore, but I went through a pretty spectacular crisis of faith in my twenties and spent roughly ten years trying to figure out what I actually believed. This book helped me pick up a lot of the pieces and reassemble them into a cohesive worldview. I still read a lot about religion (just finished Steven Prothero's Religious Literacy today, in fact) because you never really stop trying to understand. And my worldview has evolved quite a bit over the last five or so years, but this one was the big "okay, I get it now" book for me.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

At roughly one hundred pages, this is a small book that manages to feel huge by making humanity itself feel small. The last chapter left me breathless. And while the stakes are low-ish throughout, it does a great job of capturing that sense of awe and wonder that speculative fiction is good for.

A Storm Of Swords by George R.R. Martin

The third book in Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire series (the basis for HBO's Game Of Thrones), this is twelve-hundred pages of our heroes getting torn to shreds. It features four weddings--yes, including that wedding--all of which are horrible in some way or another. It pays off mysteries that were set up in the early chapters of the first book. The last twenty pages are simply jaw-dropping. It's an incredible and unforgiving book.

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

I generally eschew lit-fic, but this book is a perennial favorite. It's vulgar and shocking and completely unapologetic. It has one of the best pay-offs to a running joke that I've ever read and some delightful euphemisms for... well... all sorts of filthy stuff. For that matter, the first line is pretty great, too. And hey, they made a movie of it. Skip the movie.

Honorable Mentions

  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • Lafayette In The Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
  • The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan
  • Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith by Matthew Stover (seriously, it's epic--no, really)
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (which I hated but couldn't put down)
  • The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Journey by Aaron Becker
  • Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  • The Evolution Of God by Robert Wright
  • Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Halting State by Charles Stross
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Monday, December 7, 2015

Château Soleil Update 10: Constraints

Current word count: 101,325
Chapters done: 31/52
Projected length: 169,965 words

I've finally cross the 100,000 word point, which means this is officially the longest single project I've ever written. I've already blogged about process, but I wanted to talk about one aspect of my process that probably makes the least sense: artificial constraints.

They're awesome. And terrible. But mostly awesome. Here's why: blank pages are intimidating. When you can do absolutely everything, it's hard to do anything. When I'm handed an open-ended opportunity to write something, I tend to just spin my wheels. If I want to actually get something done, I constrain myself. By defining the borders of the story, I force myself to make decisions about what story I'm going to tell. This gets the creative juices flowing and helps me work things out.

I got a lot of practice at this during my Friday Flash Fiction years. And since I was writing very short stories, I could try some very bizarre and extreme constraints. Write a story as a single sentence. Write a story that is just a list of objects. Write a story as low-brow bathroom-humor poetry. Write a completely self-referential story. Or whatever struck my fancy. Half the fun was in trying to challenge myself and then finding ways to meet those challenges.

It wasn't easy to translate these same sensibilities to a longer-form work, but I found a system that worked for me. I didn't start writing this book until I had an outline finished with a high-level overview of every single chapter, including POV character, major plot points, and target word counts. This chapter will be between three and four thousand words and will be told exclusively by one pre-determined character. Since I write the chapters in sequence, I know what the tone of the previous chapter was and I know the overall shape of the story. Therefore I know what the tone of this one needs to be. Also, plot points A, B, and C need to happen. And it needs to be interesting. Then, writing becomes an exercise in meeting those constraints. It becomes a problem to solve, which is much easier to attack than "write a chapter in this epic saga you're staging" would be.

This does occasionally backfire. I've had projects stall out because I'd constrained myself into a corner. But so far this one hasn't run out of steam, and I'm in the part of the story where holy-cow-all-the-stuff-is-happening.

Next post should have me around the 2/3rds mark. Talk to you then.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Château Soleil Update 9: What Are You Listening To?

Current word count: 90,672
Chapters done: 28/52
Projected length: 168,391 words

Every writer is different, but I'm one of those that likes to have music playing while I write. And I get rather particular about what music plays. I have dozens and dozens of instrumental albums, and I've pulled out the best two-and-a-half thousand songs into a playlist that's nearly five-and-a-half days long. Even then, I have my favorite albums that I'll just fall back on instinctively. The last major writing project of mine I wrote almost entirely to the Tron: Legacy soundtrack.

I started out this book the same way, but I soon discovered that it wasn't setting the appropriate tone. Instead, I started listening to Trouble Will Find Me by The National. Curiously, this is not an instrumental album, but I don't find the words distracting. It's up-tempo but still very melancholy, which is a much more appropriate tone for the book I'm working on now. And I'm familiar enough with it that I can tune it out, but then when I do pay attention, I'm able to replenish the well a bit.

So now I'm looking for other albums that will do that, because I've listened to Trouble Will Find Me twenty times in the last three months and I don't want to over-rely on it. Contenders will need to be up-tempo but downbeat. Distinct but not distracting. Rich and ignorable. And creatively engaging at basically every moment. Not a tall order at all.

Here are a few I've tried, with mixed results: Radiohead's In RainbowsNow Now's Threads, deadmau5's Random Album Title, Seal II, Led Zepplin IV, and of course Dark Side Of The Moon. That latter, oddly enough, failed utterly because the album is way too dynamic. To work, an album needs to sit at more or less one volume, otherwise it's just too attention-grabby. (Still a great record, though.)

Nothing else is quite up there, but the hunt continues. The hunt, after all, is half of the fun. Right now I'm trying So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club. So far, it's got potential.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Château Soleil Update 8: Major Milestone 1

Better known as: Why I'm Not Doing NaNoWriMo This Year

Current word count: 79,560
Chapters done: 25/52
Projected length: 165,484 words

So I finally finished off Book 1. I've got the novel subdivided into three "books". The first is the longest--obviously, since I'm nearly halfway through my outline. But this gets me to the first major breakpoint in the narrative. If you compare the numbers here to those in the previous update, you'll see that I've added one chapter and close to ten thousand words. So, did I just write a ten-thousand word chapter?

No. But I did flesh out a lot of what I'd written before. I'd thought that, if I could get a good pace going, I could treat Book 2 as a NaNo project, so I rushed through some chapters to try and get to the end of this stretch of my outline so I could try and get the first fifty thousand words of Book 2 done in November. The result was... I don't want to say it was disastrous, but I was very much not pleased with what I'd written.

It's not about editing. It's that what I'd written was too thin. I had some chapters that were barely a thousand words long, which is entirely too short for this project. Trying to get through the material quickly, I'd deprived myself of the joy of finding the story. My outline has the major story beats, but not nearly enough detail to justify my anticipated word counts. A lot of the writing of a chapter is moving people around, delving into (read as: inventing) their backstories and motivations, and finding those little moments that make a sequence come together.

I use this to set up character elements that will ultimately come back in the end to give characters a satisfying arc in their quest. But since I find them in the moment, I can't just skip them--because later, I'll need to already know what they are. So instead of pressing forward, I went back and re-wrote a lot of what I'd written, more than doubling some of those chapters, and finding more of those little moments and character elements that make it feel more fleshy and real, and that set up things I can use in the later chapters.

Writing this way is slow. For me. I'll be lucky to get thirty-thousand words done this month. But they'll be thirty-thousand words that I won't have to go back and re-write. I'll end up with a more polished first draft and then I can really spend the next pass focusing on wordsmithing and continuity. It also means saying bye-bye NaNoWriMo. Maybe I'll do it next year, but I'm starting think that NaNo needs to stay behind me. I can keep the pace, but I've never written anything for NaNo that I felt like I could do something with later. And since I'm trying to write something I can sell, and I clearly don't need the added motivation to get it completed, I'm probably better off eschewing the event and committing myself to a slower pace that fits better with my process.

C'est la vie, n'est pas?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Château Soleil Update 7: Doing The Math

Current word count: 70,013
Chapters done: 24/52
Projected length: 151,695 words

Wrapping up the first half. I've got about two chapters left, but I've gone a little out of order, and you may notice how small the projected total has gotten. I'll have more to say about that in my next update. For now, I want to talk about math.

Don't run away screaming just yet.

This is important for my current project, because one of the major characters is a mathematician, and I just wrote a scene where she* has to save the day using geometry. She was using a metric that gave a rough figure for distance in order to triangulate in on a person (although within a three-dimensional structure, so... "quad-rangulate"?). I didn't want to diffuse the tension by getting bogged down by the actual numbers. On the other hand, I did want to treat the math seriously and treat the inexactness of her calculations as a serious liability in their search. So when numbers were called for, I used very round ones. And instead of focusing on the calculations, I instead focused on the shape of the data and how that translated into a visualizable geometric model, and how the holes in her data would hurt her model. 

Hopefully, this will be engaging to non-mathy reader but has enough candy for math people to appreciate it as well. It was definitely a different kind of challenge.

I studied math in college, and I'm seldom happy with the way it's treated in movies and books. In general, in pop culture, mathematicians demonstrate their mathy-ness by doing complicated calculations in their heads (see Samuel L. Jackson's character in Sphere). When math becomes important to the plot, it does so in magical ways, as in the movie Pi. Or it's treated as a hand-wavy plot advancer, as in Jurassic Park's myriad meaningless discussions of Chaos Theory. None of this is bad, per se, it just feels extra fictiony to me and tends to take me out of the story.

In real life, math involves a great deal of estimation. When exact calculations are needed, they would be done using a computer, but a mathematician would also have done a quick-and-dirty estimate in his or her head to make sure that the number the computer spits out makes sense. The other important thing a mathematician brings is an interpretation of what the numbers mean. If you want to see both of these done well: Tom Hanks does some math in Cast Away on the wall of his cave, figuring out the area that rescuers would have to search to find him. He uses judicious estimation to get to his numbers quickly, and then contextualizes them for the audience. The actual area as a number is meaningless. "Half the size of Texas" makes it more real.


*Yes, "she"

Friday, October 23, 2015

Château Soleil Update 6: Structural Weirdness

Current word count: 59,999
Chapters done: 18/52
Projected length: 173,331 words

So, I'm not technically at 60,000 words yet, but I am at the end of a chapter and how could I not make a post with my one-word-shy word count? I suppose I could go back and throw a "Damn" somewhere just to round it out, but that would feel fake.

Depending on how you look at it, I'm either coming up on the midpoint of Act II (which is coincidentally the midpoint of the entire novel) or I'm in the middle of Act III of the first half of the book. I'm using an unusual structure. By breaking out the first half into its own "book" with its own climax, I'm masking the fact that I'm using a three-act formula at all. Always a plus if you can use a formula without making it look like you're using a formula.

I don't know. Fly casual.*

I had two goals in messing with structure. That was one of them. The other was that it facilitates a device I'm using in the chapter epigraphs. There are three "books" within this book. Each is 'graphed by excerpts from a different piece of correspondence that is explained at the end of that "book". And yes, the first half of the book is the first "book", making it the longest by far. Which is an unconventional choice.

Which means none of this may survive editing.


*Okay, this reference is really nerdy, even for me, but kudos to you if it made you laugh.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Château Soleil Update 5

Current word count: 50,150
Chapters done: 15/52
Projected length: 173,853 words

So what's really funny is that this started out as a short story idea. I imagined a heist where the... um... heisters... pulled off a daring escape through the center of the sun, which allowed them to fake their own deaths. It was a cool idea, but it also felt like a wholly unsatisfying conclusion to a short story. On the other hand, it could be a very enticing beginning to a long one.

So I began to develop the idea a little. Passing through the sun would involve some kind of McGuffin to let a ship pass through matter. So they're passing harmlessly through the sun. What then is the unbelievable event that would set the plot in motion? They run into something, of course. What do they run into? How about a bigger ship? And then it captures them.

That's how the original idea came together and then radically changed scope. And, in fact, that is more or less my elevator pitch for it. For reference, my actual elevator pitch:

A band of thieves pulls off one last heist using stolen tech that allows them to pass through matter. They attempt a daring escape through the interior of the sun, only to be captured by the Château Soleil, a mammoth vessel that was already hiding there.

Fun stuff.

Racing towards "set piece #1." See you in 10K.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Château Soleil Update 4

Current word count: 40,275
Chapters done: 12/52
Projected length: 174,525

So, I'm not quite a fourth of the way through my outline. Put another way, I'm getting into Act II right now. My ridiculously ambitious goal is to have the next thirteen chapters finished this month. Probably not going to happen, but there's a nice little mini-climax that I'm working towards that should help keep my momentum going. And I'm getting into the territory where the chapters are a little shorter.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the characters are splitting up more, so there are fewer things to keep track of in a given chapter. Second, a lot of the backstory has come out now, so chapters are more oriented on plot than on world-building and character development. At 40,000 words, the characters are pretty well established and I'm trying to keep things moving forward. Third, one of the POV characters in this stretch just has shorter chapters. He's not especially thoughtful, he's isolated from the rest, and he tends to use small words and short sentences anyway, so a chapter for him will only be about 2/3 the length of the chapter for one of the other POVs. Finally, moving towards a climax (even a mini-one) means shorter chapters for pacing reasons.

Expect the projected length number at the top to continue falling for a bit, but I doubt it drops below 165K. This is still going to be a crazy-long book. For me, anyway.

See you in 10,000 words,

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Château Soleil Update 3

Current word count: 30,875
Chapters done: 9/52
Projected length: 178,389*

Another fortnight, another 10,000 words. I'm happy to be consistent, if not especially speedy. At that rate, it'll be about another six months to get finished, which is longer than I'd like but also very respectable. No red flags yet. I may hijack a portion of this for NaNoWriMo, but I worry that it'll be disruptive to my process.

How so? Well, I'll give a little insight into my process. I know this book will be 52 chapters because it's pretty rigidly outlined. Each chapter in my outline has a designated POV character and somewhere in the neighborhood of three bullet points, each representing a plot element that I need to make sure I hit. The rest, I'm making up as I go. Essentially, I'm treating each chapter as a short story.

This comes with a couple of caveats. One, I'm editing as I go. I want a chapter to feel finished when I put it down. I also like to edit a previous section as a way to build momentum before starting on a new section. This works pretty well for me, but it flies completely in the face of NaNoWriMo.

Now, don't get me wrong, these are pretty raw when I finally step away, but they're also completely cordoned off and have a finished internal arc. I'm not in any danger of, for instance, lifting a scene from one chapter to fill out another. This may or may not come back to bite me in the ass. We'll see. Probably in about forty thousand words (or two months!).

The other news is that I'm working out the kinks in an alpha-reading scheme. Which means I'll be wanting eyes on things soon. So, that's exciting!

Will write more, soon, probably.


*For the math-inclined, I arrived at this number by dividing my chapters-done ratio into my current word count. Makes as much sense as anything else.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Painting

So I've been teaching myself French. I'm still nowhere near fluent, but I'm picking things up. I use Duolingo and Coffee Break French, and I also wanted to try and find some French-language children's programming on Netflix.

Turns out pickin's are pretty slim on Netflix. But I did find one movie that was purported to be for children ages 11-12, and it was called The Painting. In English, anyway. In French it's Le Tableau. Well, the characters spoke too fast for me to keep up. As a language-learning tool, it was kind of a bust. I need something for younger children.

But as a film, I found it totally charming. It's colorful, imaginative, and delightfully strange. And I was impressed by how it refused to talk down to its audience. This was ostensibly for 11 to 12 year olds, but it had some (animated) nudity and didn't seem the least bit squeamish with sexuality. The main themes are class struggle, prejudice, and the search for God (the movie is unabashedly deist, if that sort of thing matters to you).

It's only 80 minutes long, so if you're looking for something different and aren't averse to subtitles, I heartily recommend it. It's not a perfect film, but it is a fairly unique one with a decidedly non-American sensibility to it. And very, very charming. Or, if you will, c'est très, très charmant.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Current Project Update 2

Current word count: 21,399
Chapters done: 6/52

Slow but tangible progress. Lost some momentum, but still, progress is progress, and I feel good about this story. It's got a good trajectory and it's rewarding to work on, if not exactly fun. I find myself thinking about it a lot, even when I'm not actively working on it. That's a good sign.

Still not ready for alpha readers yet, but I've sent the prologue to my writing group for feedback. This means that the title and synopsis are out there, so I'll share them here as well.

(Working) Title: Château Soleil
Genre: Near-future sci-fi jailbreak
Elevator pitch: A band of thieves pulls off one last heist using stolen tech that allows them to pass through matter. They attempt a daring escape through the interior of the sun, only to be captured by the Château Soleil, a mammoth vessel that was already hiding there.

Look for another post in a few weeks or when I'm in the 30,000s. Whichever comes second, I suppose.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Current Project

Life/work/family has kept me away from the blog for a while, but I wanted to give an update on the current project I'm working on. It's a science-fiction prison-break novel. I've got it completely outlined and have just started to do the actual prose-writing. Here are the numbers:

Current word count: 10,200
Chapters done: 3/52

If I keep up this pace, it should take me about five months to complete a first draft that will be in the neighborhood of 170K words. Although I anticipate chapters getting shorter as I go, especially around climactic moments, so 150K is probably more reasonable. It's going slower than I'd hoped, but the chapters I'm finishing are coming out much richer and denser than I'd anticipated, and I'm fine with this. I'd rather overwrite and cut than underwrite and balloon.

I'll post an update every few weeks here and more regularly on my twitter feed.


One last note: I'm not quite ready for alpha readers, but I will be soon. So, there's that.