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.