I tend to be the sort of writer who responds to the ubiquitous advice to “write what you know” with “yes, but”. Mostly because a lot of people use it a bit too literally, and I like writing science fiction and fantasy. But despite the caveats, it is good advice. I would find it difficult at best to write a story focusing on the specific and personal experience of being a parent, and setting it in a Colorado town all but identical to the one I live in now wouldn’t really help. But on the same token, I could write a story set in the strangest and most far flung world I can imagine, dealing with themes of trust and friendship, and I think it could be a really good story.
So maybe that’s why, when something happens and I find myself in a situation that is… less than ideal, I’ve comforted myself more than once with the thought that I can channel the experience into some future story. Bed bugs in a cheap hotel? I bet there’s some kind of pest on that distant, crumbling space station. Made a mistake at work and can’t stop beating myself up about it? Maybe if I can get a character to work through their own mistakes I can borrow some of the tricks that worked for them. If I do it right, it should all help my writing be that much better. And that means even the hard things in life just give me a bigger pool of experience to draw from.
Sometimes, it’s hard to rest. Perversely, this is most often the case when we need it most. It’s one thing to find yourself easily distracted and to have trouble focusing on the tasks at hand– but those breaks aren’t rest. Not really. It’s something entirely different to take a purposeful step back and say ‘now is not the time for work’.
There’s a reason one of the ten commandments is the one about keeping the sabbath.
So, here’s to rest. And taking the time to recover, to refocus, to accept our human weakness before getting back to it. Because sometimes that’s what we really need.
It’s an interesting exercise to take a character from the setting they originally existed in and to insert them into one that’s entirely new and different. By which I don’t mean just taking Aragorn, son of Arathorn and putting him on the bridge of the starship Enterprise (which… actually, no. That would be terrible. I think he’d fare better on Tatooine instead.) But rather, imagining what he would be like if the character that is Aragorn had always existed in some other world.
The move isn’t always smooth. In good writing as in real life, the setting informs the characters and makes them who they are. And moving a character that started their life as (more or less) a Redwall fan character, turning them human, and dropping them into a world that is not ruled by constant skirmishes between woodlander and vermin means that you have to find the core of their character and figure out a way to keep it intact while changing everything else.
Some characters come out on the other side better than others.
But if it does nothing else, it will absolutely force you to look at them from another angle. And maybe that’s enough to knock loose some of the tropes and cliches you’ve been relying on without thinking about them, and if it can do that, then maybe you’ll find out something new about them and, in the process, discover a way to make them an even better character. Either way, it has the potential to be a very enjoyable process.
When it comes to reading, I can count on one hand the books (fiction, specifically) that I’ve started and left unfinished. And one of those wasn’t so much abandoned intentionally as forgotten about when a new school semester started. There’s a part of me that is, admittedly, kinda proud of this. But that being said, I’ve been wondering lately if I might not be better served by being more willing to make the call that a book isn’t working for me and letting it go to the Did-Not-Finish pile.
Of course, a part of this is that I don’t generally start books I don’t have a good chance of liking. Fair enough– I don’t think there’s many people who would pick up a book to read with the assumption that they’ll hate it. And a large majority of my reading list is made up of books recommended to me by friends who generally have a good feeling for what I’ll like and what I probably won’t. Which, maybe, explains why the two books in recent memory that I was tempted to put down (but didn’t/haven’t) were both ones I picked up on the recommendation of strangers and stuck with on the Principle Of The Thing.
Or, in other words, because I was too stubborn to put them down and switch to something else.
And to some extent, I think that stubbornness serves me well. Sometimes a book takes a little while to get going, and then something click into place and you can’t put the darn thing down because you find that it’s the most engaging thing you’ve read in months. But sometimes it’s just not going to happen, no matter how much of the story you slog through. And that’s where I run into trouble, because I will force myself to finish a book for the sake of finishing it, when perhaps it would be wiser to put it down and, if I care enough, look up the ending on Wikipedia.
So, the next time I run into a book that I just don’t find myself enjoying, maybe I’ll try putting it down and accepting that it’s not for me.
It’s March! And here in Colorado, it’s apparently still winter, judging by the snow falling outside my window right now. Not that I’m complaining; I’ve been in dire need of real seasons for years and it’s so nice to see the world change around me as the days pass.
On the writing front, I’d like to point out that 11:45pm on February 28 is still, technically, February, and so that still counts as posting up a story– or part of one, more on that below– every month. Maybe I’m grasping at straws. But! It’s more writing than I posted up last year, and certainly it’s more regular than last year too. Correspond (I) is actually the story I was working on for January before running out of time, and I suppose it’s fair to say I ran out of time in February, too. And, technically, it’s not done. The first part is, and that’s what’s posted. The second (and… third?) parts will actually be going up in the next weeks. I could lie through my teeth and say that I planned to post it up that way from the start (I didn’t) because I thought it would be cool to build in a delay that interacts in an interesting way with the story itself (I do), but clearly that cat has escaped the bag. Plus, what I ended up with when I finished Part 1 doesn’t quiiiiite line up the way I’d hoped. That being said, I really like some of the ideas I was playing with and I enjoyed writing it. And, of course, I hope you enjoy reading it and the parts to come.
As for reading, I did a little less of it last month compared to January, but still managed to finish several books, including Brandon Sanderson’s The Lost Metal and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. For the former, it’s everything I’ve come to expect from a Sanderson conclusion (high stakes, wild adventure, poignant moments) mixed in with a huge dose of Cosmere lore. Which I’m actually a little divided about. On the one hand, it’s super interesting and I’ve read enough Sanderson to really enjoy the cameos and the throwbacks. On the other, I think it stole some thunder from Wax and Wayne and the gang. The characters, though, and their growth and their arcs were fantastic, probably his best so far.
And then Sea of Tranquility. Fairly short, very beautiful. Without giving things away, I’d say it reminds me a bit of Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel stories, just a smidge more dystopian in the overarching setting. But just a smidge, and not oppressively so. It can be a fairly quick read, but I took my time with it, and enjoyed it the better for it.
Anyway! Keep an eye out for further parts of Correspond, as well as more writing/reading/life related rambling. And enjoy the end of winter! It’s coming!
And, in honesty, there are plenty of situations in which I really don’t like it. Like when there’s no real need to talk, and we’re just trying to fill the silence. Or when it’s being used to avoid having a deeper conversation.
But sometimes, there’s a comfort in it. Because for all the claims that small talk is shallow and meaningless, it’s not always. Sometimes, talking with a stranger on the bus about the weather is just the kind of human connection that can turn your day around. It’s a glimpse into someone else’s life, someone else’s thoughts. It’s a window into another view of the world, and it’s so very interesting.
Or maybe that’s just my writer’s fascination with other people.
It’s been just over six months since moving to Colorado, and the mountains still take me by surprise. They’re beautiful. So beautiful. Right now it’s usually right around sunrise when I drive in to work in the morning, and with all the snow that has fallen this winter the taller peaks are all still white with snow, and they turn a brilliant pink when the early sunlight hits them. Some mornings there’s towering clouds just beyond them, either penned in or held at bay. On others they’re half hidden in mist.
I can’t quite see them from the house; we’re just low enough, just tucked enough into the hills to hide them. Until I make that first turn onto one of the bigger east-west roads. Then they’re there, huge and impressive, so stunning they take my breath away.
When I lived in Santa Barbara, I felt almost the same way about the ocean. There’s this one big hill in particular where the road runs up it long and steep and curving, and when you crest it the Pacific is suddenly there, immense and beautiful, the waves a slightly different shade of blue and green every single day.
But I think, if I had to choose, I love the mountains more.
News from the Writer’s Den
As I mentioned at the beginning of this month, life went unexpected right at the end of January and is only slowly returning to normal finding a rhythm again, which took just as much of a toll on my still shaky writing habit as you’d expect. That being said, the good news is that I’m gearing right back up again and should be posting up the (much longer!) story I’d meant for January by the end of this month as well as making more progress on Tanner and Miranda’s various adventures. Ambitious? Maybe. But also doable. Either way, I’ll see you all next week with another new blog.
While talking with a friend recently about writing, I realized that my characters haven’t been taking their stories into their own hands and running off with them as much as they have in the past. On the one hand, this does make it easier to get them to do things. On the other, some of my favorite scenes have been completely unplanned and entirely outside of what I would have written had I stuck with what I thought needed to happen, and in angstier moments, I catch myself wondering if I’m structuring my writing into predictable scenes and stilted conflict.
It’s not so bad as that, fortunately.
In fact, the more I’m thinking about it, it’s not so much that my characters aren’t flying off to do their own at all, and more that the whole story will twist on itself and zip off somewhere I didn’t expect. Is it still possible that my characters aren’t as fully rounded as I want them to be, and/or that I just don’t know them well enough to have my subconscious take the reins? Oh, absolutely. And that’s something I’ll have to work on, I have no doubt. But fortunately, I don’t think it’s evidence that I’ve regressed in my writing ability. Despite what I try to tell myself on a bad writing day.
I’m quite certain I’m not the only one feeling a bit astounded that we’ve already chewed our way through the first month of 2023. It’s been fairly productive out here in my corner of the universe, both on the reading/writing side of things and just for life in general, though I’ve a sneaking suspicion that February might take a hit on that front, despite my best intentions. We’ll see!
It’s kinda fudging it to say that I read four books in January– though only just. Because while I finished reading Brandon Sanderson’s new book Tress of the Emerald Sea today, I read most of it last month. So I’m going to say that counts. For those of you who haven’t read it yet, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it, from the vaguely fairy tale feel to the fantastic worldbuilding to the whimsical snarkiness throughout.
Other completed books were The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Stuart Turton), Harrow the Ninth, and Nona the Ninth (books two and three of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series). I already posted up a blog (rant) regarding my thoughts about The 7 1/2 Deaths, so I won’t rehash that here. As for Harrow and Nona, I’m thoroughly enjoying those and have joined the ranks of those waiting in eager anticipation for the upcoming release of book four. It’s probably the… weirdest series I’ve read in quite a while, and it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (bowl of soup?), but I’m well and truly hooked.
Writing, while going at a slower pace than reading, is still falling back into more of a rhythm than I’ve had in quite a while, which is really nice. So far it’s mostly been on smaller projects as I knock the rust off of the skills needed to actually structure a story, but writing is writing, and it’s happening more often. As evidenced in part by the short story that posted up yesterday! Ha!
Technically, The Path wasn’t the story I planned on posting up last month. But life went a little unexpected this last week, and the story I was diligently chipping away at… didn’t get finished. And was going well enough that it deserved far more than a rushed ending that couldn’t do it any kind of justice. So, the plan is to finish that and post it up for February. The plan is also to keep working at various Tanner and Miranda stories, but those will likely take longer to see on the blog.
Anyway! That’s it for updates from the last month. Check in next week for more rambling nonsense and writing related musings!
Or, for an alternate title, Why ‘The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ Annoyed Me.
First off, apologies to anyone who particularly enjoyed the aforementioned book. I don’t at all mean to offend, I’m glad you found it wonderful, and more power to you. I also don’t mean to argue that it’s a bad book, just that I didn’t like it as much as some others and ended up spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out why that was. (And for those of you who have not read it, be warned that there are spoilers to follow.)
Part of it is that I just didn’t like the narrator. Especially not at the beginning. For myself, there are a lot of mild annoyances and frustrations in a story that are easy to overlook if I enjoy the characters and the narrator. The flip side of that, though, is that I will struggle to enjoy a solid and interesting story if the characters annoy me or if I can’t relate to them. Having the narrator not know who he was definitely added to that as well; it is extraordinarily difficult to write a compelling character when they don’t know who they are. More so when who they are keeps changing.
And that, I think, leads into what annoyed me the most: there was nothing that I, as the reader, could latch onto as an accepted fact. The rules would change. I couldn’t trust what the characters saw or said, because the next go ’round would have me believe that the exact opposite was true. I realize this makes me sound petulant. Part of the whole appeal of a mystery story is the fact that everything isn’t what it seems, but this is where I keep getting stuck. Not only was nothing as it seemed, but I also didn’t have the information I needed to make educated guesses about what was going on. All while the Plague Doctor is lurking about here and there making ominous statements and being generally unhelpful.
It’s similar to the difference between the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and Sherlock Holmes stories. Both are mysteries, certainly, but with Wimsey the clues are all carefully laid out one by one and while there are absolutely false leads and dead ends, the information you as the reader receive is enough to bring you to an educated guess. With Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales, the clues are all there, but they are often such that no one but Holmes himself could suss them out. And it’s probably why, as a whole, I prefer Dorothy Sayers’ gentleman sleuth to the legendary Mr. Holmes.
But back to Evelyn Hardcastle.
By the time I got to the end of the book, I found a story that felt like I should have enjoyed more than I did. The twists were interesting. And the characters’ final choices were the sort of thing that seemed like they should have landed with more of an emotional punch. And here I think the fact that there wasn’t a clear path leading to what was actually going on did the book a disservice. It felt less like the clues had been there but so cleverly disguised that I couldn’t see them except in retrospect, and more like they had been hidden altogether while I was deliberately led in the wrong direction.
So, maybe I’m just mad about getting tricked. I told you I was feeling a little petulant.
But the more I think about it, that’s it: I have no problem getting to the end of a book and admitting that I in no way saw the ending coming. Heck, that’s half the fun. The other half is looking back and seeing all the things that now seem like bright red flags marking what was actually going on and getting to see everything with the benefit of hindsight because it opens up an entirely new dimension that you couldn’t have seen before.
It’s just that that’s not how I felt when I got to the end of Evelyn Hardcastle. It wasn’t that there had been clues all along the way that I just hadn’t noticed, hadn’t picked up on, it was that there was no way I could have come to the correct conclusion with the facts I was given. Or even gotten to the general vicinity of the correct conclusion.
But maybe that’s just me. What about you? If you’ve read it, did you enjoy it? Were there really a whole bunch of hints and clues that I missed because I was too busy being annoyed? Let me know in the comments!