First up: I was lucky enough to get an early look at Amy Butler Greenfield's beautiful new YA historical fantasy CHANTRESS, which features musical magic, terrifying mind-flaying ravens, science and a determined heroine making her own destiny. I interviewed Amy about the book here on the Enchanted Inkpot. CHANTRESS just released yesterday and Amy shared a lovely, inspiring post about her writing journey on her own blog. If you are struggling with a creative project, go read it. If you like YA fantasy, English history, music, hard choices, and complicated, slow-burn romances, go read CHANTRESS.
Second, I just finished reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, which is a YA novel set in 1986, about two teen misfits who meet on the schoolbus and fall in love. I loved this, and not just because it features the music of my teendom (The Smiths, The Cure, U2, New Order) and X-Men comics. It reminded me of a John Hughes movie (in a good way). Eleanor is a smart, prickly, poor, fat (or at least, big enough that she gets bullied for it), white girl dealing with a really rough family life. Park is a quiet, music & comic-loving, half-Korean boy trying to live up to the expectations of his macho dad. It's not a perfect book (in particular, I need to think some more about the portrayal of Park's family, though I am so happy to see a hot Asian boy as the romantic lead in a popular novel). But it was perfect for me, and it might be perfect for you too!
One of my favorite quotes: “Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”
Note: ELEANOR & PARK does feature some pretty mature content and language. And a lot of dark stuff mixed in with the romance and funny bits. And the ending may not work for everyone (it worked for me though). Actually, I really want to talk about the ending with someone else who has read it! I am very curious what other folks think of it.
I know what I think the three words are. But I don't want to spoil anything more here...
Also, I am super-excited by the looks of Rainbow Rowell's next book, coming later this year: FANGIRL. It's got cover art by the fantastic Noelle Stevenson, which brings me to...
My third recent reading recommendation! This one is easy to check out because it is free and online: Noelle Stevenson's webcomic Nimona. It's about heros and villains, science, best friends who are now enemies. The titular main character is teen shapeshifter Nimona, who wants to be the side-kick of supervillain Lord Ballister Blackheart, who was once lawful before having been betrayed by his former best friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, the golden boy of the kingdom.
It starts here.
Stevenson is also the artist behind the highly amusing Broship of the Ring.
There you are. Go forth and read!
Have you noticed how "more interesting" so often translates to "Aaaa! How did I ever think I could possibly be capable of THIS???"
But I wanted to learn something new. Like using double pointed needles. Like doing increases and decreases. I wanted to understand arcane invocations like "ssk" and "k2tog" and "pick up one stitch to close the gap."
It is possible I was slightly over-ambitious. But I fumbled through it, with a lot of help from YouTube and Ravelry. I got almost to the end -- I could see the lovely pattern emmerging, I could actually put the thing on my hand and see where the hole for my thumb was and everything. Unfortunately, I could also see all the mistakes. The places where I had created ladders. The uneven sizing. The fact that the glove was just TOO BIG.
I stared at that glove for a long time. I thought about how I was so close to finishing. I asked myself if I could live with those imperfections, knowing I could do better now that I had learned more.
I taught myself another new bit of knitting terminology:
FROGGING: When you undo a bunch of work (or an entire piece). Because you "rip it" and move on.
I started over. I adjusted the pattern to fit my smaller hand. I used what I had learned from the last time. And finally, I ended up with this:
Now I just need to knit the other one. Hopefully before fall!
Over the past few years I've been working on another project. A book. I have frogged it (in part or in full) a frightening number of times. Yesterday I finished my most recent revision, which involved a pretty significant rewrite of the first few chapters. Yet again.
But I don't regret it. Each time I learn something. Each time I get closer to the perfect ur-book in my mind.
And hopefully each time I move on to something more interesting!
(Like maybe this?)
Also, there are these:
Considering my last post here was about being frozen, it seems like an appropriate time to come back. Though thankfully I haven't actually been frozen all this time. I've been writing, moving forward bit by bit on my new project. And putting off writing here on my blog, thinking I should wait until I "have time" to do it properly. I should know better, by now. Because usually "the right time" ends up as "never."
So, I will plunge back in. My current writing project is a bit too close to my heart to talk about right now; instead I'll mention a few things I have loved in the past few weeks:
1) Getting to attend the Maine Reading Round Up last week, hanging out with hundreds of fabulous Maine librarians and writers. I was honored to be on a panel with Terry Farish, Maria Padian, and Sarah L Thomson, moderated by Megan Frazer Blakemore, talking about writing strong heroines. We had the audience shout out words they associated with the word "strength." Some of my favorites: "quiet", "tenacious", "can feel lonely", "authentic", and "hippo." :-)
2) As part of the Reading Round Up, having the chance to listen to Kate Messner's wonderful keynote speech. She talked about so many inspiring things, but my favorite part was when she talked about different kinds of fear: the fear that actually keeps you from danger, and the kind that tells you you are pushing yourself. And the notion that sometimes our fear of failure prevents us from doing the things we need to do most, to grow and learn. As she asked, "What would you do, if failure was impossible?"
3) Have you ever wanted to draw celtic knots? Here's a very cool little tutorial on a simple triskele.
4) I was floundering this week, trying to find the right book to read. I knew I wanted something very specific, but my brain proved exceedingly unhelpful in actually identifying what it that was. Magic? Twisty plot? Gardening? Comfort reading? Tears? But the nice thing about surrounding yourself with a lot of bookish people (virtually and in person) is that you are always well-supplied with recommendations. So I went through a number of my "must try that out some day because Person X adored it" books, found one at the library, and adored it. The book was Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay. It's middle grade contemporary, but it's one of those bewitching stories that captures a sort of real-life magic, in the lives of the complicated, colorful Casson family. And even though it touches on some serious issues, it's got this sort of... irrepressible charm and wonder that left me feeling just plain happy. The funny thing is, I know I picked it up at least once before, and only got a few pages in. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place for a book to find you!
5) And lastly, check out these gorgeous photos of the turquoise ice shards jutting out of Lake Baikul (the same lake from the photo in my last post on being Frozen). Our world is a pretty awesome place!
When I think about it too much, I freeze. I stare at the blank screen, thinking-thinking-thinking, convincing myself that I need to get it right, that there must be some way to find that perfect beginning that will make it all fall into place.
I need to remember that sometimes (a lot of times) I need to explore. I need those false starts to be able to recognize the true one. And I am not going to find it if I sit here, frozen.
So off I go.
That photo is Ice Rider by Matthieu Paley.
While I am off getting un-frozen, here are a few other things:
If you are plugged into the online writing community you have probably already seen author Jo Knowles marvelous and inspiring post on living life. But just in case you haven't I will point you to it again. Do try to watch the video she includes, which is an interview with Maurice Sendak. It is sad, but I found it uplifting as well.
Here's a thought-provoking article from the NY Times on the nature of story-telling and how it is changing with the rise of visual media.
And lastly, if you need soothing or cheering, there is a brand new litter of puppies on the Explore Service Puppy Cam. They are just starting to walk! Once they are older, they will be trained as service dogs to help disabled veterans.
Of course sometimes one has to be willing to fail and make mistakes, in order to learn and grow. So when I make goals, I do so knowing that in some cases I am going to fail -- especially if I push myself a little beyond my comfort zone
Here are my 2013 goals:
1) FINISH A NEW BOOK DRAFT. I just (re) started a new YA fantasy project, and am only a few thousand words into it. I've been taking a little "reading break," but come Jan 1st, I am sitting down and getting to work again!
2) CRAFT THE ONE RING. Well, not really. But this is my next knitting project. It's going to require a couple new techniques, so I think it will be a good next step.
3) GO TO PARIS. I've been once before, back in 2006, for a week. I've wanted to return ever since the day I left. But with so many other fantastic places to visit, it's been hard to justify returning. This year (hopefully in September) we will finally get the chance. It's possible we might split the trip with another destination, maybe Amsterdam, or somewhere else in France? Any suggestions? Ideally somewhere reachable by train.
4) READ THOSE BOOKS. The ones that I've had on my to-read list for ages, by authors I have never read but that so many of my friends sing the praises of. Specifically, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers, The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, and Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigred Undset. I may not actually end up finishing them, but I want to make a good faith effort to read each!
5) SHARE THE LOVE. Send email to the author of any book I read and really love (the ones I give five stars to on Goodreads) this year, telling them how much I enjoyed it. Also post a recommendation here!
6) PICK STRAWBERRIES. I am always sad when I miss the too-short local strawberry season, since they are one of my favorite fruits. So although this is a small thing, I am making it a goal this year: to get out there to one of the local upick places and fill up my freezer!
That's it! I might add a few more when I re-evaluate in July.
Anyone else setting goals? Do you find them motivational?
WALKING TO WORK
My original 2012 goals included "Bike to work at least 10 times." At the time, my dayjob office was five miles away from my house. I really don't have any excuse for not biking more often, except that mornings are my writing time, so I'd tend to justify driving as a way to have more writing time. BUT! Earlier this year I found out our office was moving at the end of September: right down the street, less than half a mile from my house. So since the move I've been walking to work every day, and also home at lunch several days a week, to walk the dog. It's only a small bit of exercise, but I love seeing more of my hometown, in all sorts of weather and season.
On a related note: since we were going to be moving to a new office, I requested that my desk be raised up (it's in a cubical, so it is adjustable) so that I can work standing up. This has been a great change! I spend 8 hours at my dayjob, and it's practically all on a computer (I develop mapping software), on top of the ~3 hours writing at home in the morning (more on weekends). That's a LOT of sitting, and given how unhealthy sitting seems to be, I really wanted to find a way to change it. I really love standing at work. I do have a bar stool (wooden, with a back) that I lean against probably about half the time. Very occasionally I will actually sit in it -- if I've just come back from a long lunchtime walk or once when I was sick and worn out. I didn't find any bad side-effects, though I do think I am a bit more antsy now at movies or other places where I can't move around or switch positions easily.
I've been wanting to spend more time being creative in non-writing ways, so I got out my sketchpad and pencils, and have done about 20 sketches since July or so. I encourage myself by using clippings from National Geographic magazine, stapling them into the book and then trying to sketch the people or animals in the photo. I've also done some sketches of Charlie (my dog) from life, which was fun and which I am glad to have. I really want to keep this up! I think it's a good way to slow down and really consider what the world looks like, and what defines a face or a posture -- very helpful to writing!
I started knitting this year! I have previously taught myself to crochet but knitting always seemed more complex and intimidating. And it was, at first (and continues to be, when I try some new technique!). But I've really enjoyed the satisfaction of watching my first scarf grow (and grow, and grow-- I made it a little too wide, I think!). I am looking forward to trying some new projects, and learning more. I also joined Ravelry, which is endlessly distracting... If you are a member too, feel free to find me there (devafagan).
I installed RescueTime about two months ago, and it's been fascinating to see how much time I spend on different activities. I'd really like to make a spreadsheet of the time I spend each week in Word, and the actual words I write, to see how it changes over time. My biggest distractions seem to be GoogleReader and Facebook (which is amusing since I don't actually post on FB all that much, but I like catching up on what everyone else is doing). My productivity is above the average user level, but there's definitely room for improvement!
Also in July, I made a pledge to stop reading online reviews, googling myself, checking my Goodreads and Amazon rankings, and looking at Bookscan numbers. I've tried this before, and always ended up giving in and looking at something. But this time I have managed to stay clean for almost 6 months now, and the longer it goes, the easier it is. And it is SO nice to not be obsessing over that stuff. There are some folks who can use that data productively, but I am not one of them. A bad review (or even a negative line in an average review) can drain my energy for days, and it's just not worth it. Of course this also means I don't see good stuff, but the positive reviews usually just flit out of my mind after a few minutes, while I can *still* quote the first horrible review of my debut novel almost word for word. I really hope I can keep this up!
~Six Favorite Experiences~
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL'S TOTEM
Bob and I went down to Boston to see this show (and to visit some of our Bosten-area friends!) this past summer, and had a fantastic time. I think I enjoyed the last Cirque show we saw (Ovo) a tiny bit better, but this was still amazing. Cirque du Soleil is one performing group I am totally willing to shell out the $$ to see live (much as I've enjoyed the videos). There's just such a magical energy from the live show!
HIKING BOURTON-ON-THE-HILL TO SEZINCOTE
Our entire trip to England was a highlight of 2012, but if I had to pick one single experience in the Cotswolds portion of the trip that I loved, it was this short hike through beautiful green meadows, with the adorable village of Bourton-on-the-Hill behind me. And then, emerging through the groves of trees, and finding this:
|From England 2012|
It was overwhelming to wander the enormous halls full of art and artifacts with such historic weight. One of the most incredible was the 13000 year old carved Swimming Reindeer. I am still not sure my brain can really process that.
What's better than seeing a favorite musical theater production (WICKED) live in London? Deciding on the spur of the moment to see a second show (LES MISERABLES) later that night! This gloriously indulgent day was a highlight of the London portion of our trip.
I could have wandered through the twisty, atmospheric, glittering, faintly ominous halls of the Stables Market for another day or two, I think. Though it would have been even better had I enough extra $$ to buy all the fabulous clothing/shoes/jewelry/food on sale!
We saw this Cape Breton fiddler two years ago, when she was 8 months pregnant and still had more energy than five of me, dancing around the stage, bow and fingers flying. So when I discovered she was coming to Maine again for another Christmas concert I bought tickets as soon as I could get to a computer. And it was so worth it. She's just... sparkling. She's one of those performers who gives you energy, so you leave her concert ready to take on the world.
Okay, there aren't six of these. I spent the bulk of this past year doing one thing: revising (and significantly re-writing) my current writing project. I've been in a period of transition with my writing for the past two years. I wrote and sold each of my first three books very quickly (in publishing terms). And all three of those books are fast-paced, humorous adventure stories. Which I love! I am so glad I got to write them, and that they've been able to go out into the world and find readers. But I realized that I wanted to push myself further, to write something that was more complex, a book that was more like my own "Ideal Book": featuring rich, complicated characters who have interesting and conflicted relationships, that makes me think feel strong emotions. I also really wanted to write a love story-- a slow-burn, against-the-odds love story like those I love best. So I started working on a new project, at the beginning of 2011. And I sent the most recent revision off to my agent just before Christmas. It hasn't sold (yet!). And I've definitely struggled with the frustration and fear of spending so long on a project without knowing whether it has a future beyond my laptop. But I firmly believe that it was the best thing for me to work on these past two years. I know I have learned things, and pushed myself, and that it is all part of me now, and will help me with the next book I write, whatever that is.
I just tallied my word counts for the year and discovered I wrote about 115K words this year, many more than I actually expected. About 60K of those were on three different potential new projects (and most of those are going to be trunked -- I tend to write about 20-30K of something to figure out the characters, then end up ditching that and restarting). The rest were words added during my rewrite/revision (to replace some significant cuts).
But that's how writing is. Sometimes, to get a book right, you have to be willing to cut. A lot. And start over. Maybe once, maybe twice. Maybe seven times. Whatever it takes to find the real story you really want to tell. It helped to read posts by other authors I respect talking about the long process of creating a book.
That said, I am definitely excited to start working on something new! But more on that in another post...
~Six Excellent Books~
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
YA historical fiction. The story of two girls who are part of the British war effort during World War II. A fantastic portrayal of friendship, sacrifice, and finding humanity in the midst of brutality. I can't say too much about the plot because it is twisty and layered and there are surprises and reversals. But it starts out with one of the girls writing her "confession" to her Nazi captors. There is a wealth of historical detail which might be overwhelming to some, but I loved it. If this book works for you, it will rip your heart out and then give it back to you, a little broken but a little brighter, too.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
YA fantasy. A brilliant and gorgeous fantasy setting, with some of the best world-building I've read lately. The title character has a marvelous voice, telling her own story with humor and prickly charm. Some of the blurbs about this book give away a certain plot element you might want to discover on your own, so read them with care. The short version: Seraphina is a musician in a kingdom of humans who have had a long and conflicted history with a race of dragons. The dragons are almost Vulcan-like, valuing logic and science. But the dragons can also take human form, and in that way experience the span of messy, dangerous, fascinating human emotions. This makes for a marvelously rich and nuanced political setup, which Seraphina needs to navigate from her unique position, to try to preserve peace between the races and keep safe those she loves.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Adult Science Fiction. A giant love letter to video games and 80s pop culture. As a child of the 80s, I loved it. Wade Watts has to live up to his alliterated superhero name and find an Easter Egg hidden in the most popular virtual reality game in the world, to claim the enormous monetary prize, which he desperately needs to improve his own wretched life (and to keep an evil corporation from taking over the game). Fast-paced and funny.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Nonfiction. Sooo dense, but worthwhile! It took me the better part of the year to get through this, but it was a fascinating exploration of happiness and finding satisfaction in your life. "Flow" is the author's term for the optimal experience of getting so absorbed in an activity that you lose your sense of time and gain a sense of being fully present and engaged in life in the moment. Some of the most interesting sections discuss how these "flow" activities are (surprisingly) not mindless entertainments, but active work: surgery, chess, mountain climbing, listening attentively to music, running, even daily chores.
Renegade Magic by Stephanie Burgis
MG historical fantasy. More of the delightful tale of Kat, a Regency-era girl with a large, lovably-flawed family and new-found magical powers. Full of humor and adventure, but also quite a lot of heart. I was especially impressed by how well this book worked as a sequel, reminding the reader what happened in the first book (Kat, Incorrigible).
American Primitive by Mary Oliver
Poetry. Simple, stunning, gorgeous. Most of these poems feature imagery from the natural world, but they also raise profound questions about humanity and how we live our lives.
I read many more books that I enjoyed this year, including a number of re-reads of old or recent favorites. I've avoided re-reading in the past, but decided this year that it would both be fun and also useful from a craft perspective to try to study how my favorite books do what they do. And I am glad I did!
My full 2012 reading list is here. I'm afraid there's not a lot of detail in my "reviews" but you can generally assume that if I finished it, I found something about it compelling!
Little Furnace by Jim Guthrie (Sword & Sworcery LP - The Ballad of the Space Babies)
My love for this song is mixed up with my love for the video game it is featured in (see more on that below). There's something sad and sweet that gets me every time.
3326 by Olafur Arnalds (Eulogy for Evolution)
A shortened version of this song was featured on So You Think You Can Dance this year, which is where I first heard (and loved) it. Stark and emotional, even harsh in places, but beautiful.
Invocatio by Irfan (Seraphim)
Short but hauntingly beautiful. I love many songs by this Bulgarian group, which reminds me a lot of another favorite band, Dead Can Dance, and it has become a staple of my writing soundtrack for the book I've been working on for the past two years.
Infinite Legends by Two Steps from Hell (Invincible)
Listening to this makes anything you are doing more heroic and epic. Even chopping carrots or doing the dishes. The entire album is worth a listen if you like this one.
Starlight by Muse (Black Holes and Revelations)
This just grabs my heart.
In the End by Snow Patrol (Fallen Empires)
I seem to have a thing for slightly melancholy yet fast-paced songs. The video is quite cool too!
~Six Other Entertainments~
THE LEGEND OF KORRA
This animated series is the follow-up to what I currently feel is THE best television series I have ever watched, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The new series has the same glorious animation and complex Asian-inspired world as the original, with the added interest of being several decades in the future and thus now featuring more advanced technologies. I love Korra herself: strong, loyal, impulsive, (over) confident and yet still struggling with some of her Avatar powers and responsibilities. And I am so thrilled to see a character like Lin Beifong: a tough, middle-aged, metalbending woman in a position of authority (Chief of Police). The pacing is a bit too quick for my tastes, and it seemed to me that everything was wrapped up too easily and abruptly in the end. But I blame that on the network, which only ordered the single season at first. (Which seems crazy to me, given how popular the first series was! I wonder if it was due to concerns that a girl MC could not carry the show?). Thankfully they have now ordered three more "Books" of the story, so I hope that the creators will be able to slow things down a bit.
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this animated film about the "bad guy" from a video game trying to become a hero for just a little while, but it definitely exceeded my expectations, especially in the variety of female characters and themes. This post on The Mary Sue pretty much says everything I would, but much more coherently, so I will point you there.
THE GOOD WIFE
A show about lawyers and corrupt politicians isn't normally the sort of thing that calls out at me, but after reading a number of positive comments from friends, I did finally check this out. And I am so glad I did! The acting is top-notch, and the character interactions and relationships subtle and complex. And it explores so many fascinating questions about gender issues and ethics, and presents a number of diverse characters (including my favorite, Archie Panjabi's Kalinda Sharma, a fearless, intensely private, somewhat misanthropic investigator who breaks my heart when she does show the cracks in her fierce shell). Also, it's got Alan Cumming, who I would watch reading a phone book. Even if he has an American accent here!
THE LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES
A re-telling of Pride and Prejudice developed by Hank Green and Bernie Su, in the form of a video blog by modern grad student Lizzie Bennet. There are currently 75 short (3-5 min) videos, with more on the way about twice a week, as well as tumblrs, tweets and videos by other characters. For anyone familiar with the source material, these are so much fun! I love seeing how the story has been adapted to the modern times, and the acting is quite amazing (especially Ashley Clements, Julia Cho, Laura Spencer, and Mary Kate Wiles who play the four main characters, Lizzie, Charlotte, Jane and Lydia). I am really looking forward to how some of the remaining pivotal plot points are interpreted in this modern setting!
There are so many more cool and fun board games available these days than I remember as a kid. I mean, I did love CLUE, and had fun playing Balderdash in college. But they are nothing like the cool (mostly German-made!) games I've discovered in the past few years. My parents and brother moved to Maine over the summer, and we've been getting together with them to play all sorts of new games: Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Agricola. We also just got Dominion and Risk, and are looking forward to trying those out.
SWORD & SWORCERY
Up until this year, I had not touched a video game in at least a decade, possibly two. As a kid I played ZORK on my grandpa's cassette loaded PC, Lode Runner on our AppleIIe, and occasionally a round of Street Fighter2 or Gauntlet. But then I got into LARPing and ended up focusing all my gaming energy into that. Then, this year, I read this post on the Mary Sue blog about a game called Sword & Sworcery. The suggestion of a faintly tragic storyline, the description of how atmospheric the game's art and music are, and the fact that the main character was a warrior woman known only as "The Scythian" all compelled me to check it out. Bob and I ended up playing the entire game together, alternating the role of mouse-clicker to send the Scythian exploring her lovely, magical world, fighting wolves and dark horrors, and learning more about her "woeful errand." And by the time we finished, I had somehow put a part of me into the game (I still am trying to figure out how that happened, since it is a quite simple game and you don't actually learn all that much about the characters). I was kind of useless for several days after finishing, poking around the internet for fan art and listening to certain songs over and over again. And there are even some elements of the game that have worked their way into my brainstorming for my next book project (more on that in a future post, perhaps).
The art is simple (the Scythian herself is a rather retro, pixelated little figure), but oddly compelling. Here's an example:
[Click to embiggen]
So that's it!
And if any of you have your own favorites to suggest I would love to hear your recommendations (especially for fantasy/sf/YA books and atmospheric writing music. Bonus points if it's world-music inspired like Dead Can Dance!). I have some gift cards for bookstores and iTunes ready to go!
We actually made this trip back in September, but I've only now (over my holiday break) found time to write up my notes into a real report. So, here it is!
I love reading exhaustively-detailed trip reports, so I am probably going to go overboard. I'll divide it into two posts, and include a list of resources at the end for anyone who might find them useful.
There's also a photo album on Picasa, here.
( Click for an abundance of detailCollapse )
I’m busy working on a brand new writing project at the moment, so almost all my words are going to that, but here are a few to spare:
Circus Galacticus is now (as of today!) available in paperback!
So if you wanted to buy a copy but were intimidated by the hardback price (or prefer the reading experience of a paperback) go check it out. It’s also still available as a hardback and eBook too.