Shelf Control: War and Peace

Yesterday was one of those horrible/ wonderful days in the life of a working writer. For the last week I had been struggling with organizing Part One of my project and plotting out Part Two, and after six days I felt like a mountaineer who had spent all that time climbing to the top of a ridge, only to look down and realize that I was actually on the top of Crapbucket Mountain, and the view was more crap, and I was really only a foot or so off the ground, and not a mile or more. But, for various reasons (most of which are unfit to print in a blog written for the sane and well-adjusted) I kept on going, and a series of revelations Monday and Tuesday helped put me back on track. Monday evening, I realized that I didn’t know the answer to the question “What happens if they fail?” Every author should be able to answer that, I think, and I think I’ve been guilty of not answering that in the past. Today looks to be a good day of inserting a few pages in Part One that answer that question, and moving on with Part Two. If you come back here Friday and my post is written backwards in crayon, that means I failed.

The other thing, perhaps the main thing I’m going to talk about today, is my reading. Bookshelf Fantasies hosts a weekly discussion called Shelf Control, and as someone who really only has shelf control because he travels with his family for the better part of the year, I highly recommend it. I’m kind of cheating, though. Instead of writing about a book I own, haven’t read, and want to read, I’m going to write about a book that I own, started reading, stopped reading, and now want to pick back up and finally finish. That book is War and Peace.

warandpeacemaudeThis is my second-and-a-half time attempting to read this. I’ve read much longer books before (Remembrance of Things Past, Joseph and His Brothers) and I’ve read nearly everything by Dostoevsky, so I’m determined to make it through this one. And it’s not a question of the writing being difficult of boring… I can’t speak for the Russian original or other translations but this is remarkably clear and concise writing. But, a few weeks after I started this, we moved to our winter digs in Florida, and I started writing a novel, and I got distracted by another book I’m reading, and I set this down somewhere in the middle of Part Five, in the ‘Peace’ section. (There are a couple. The book should probably be titled “War and Peace and War and then More Peace, but WAIT! There’s WAR!!!” but I can imagine that Tolstoy’s editor wouldn’t have liked it. Today, and every day til the end of the year, I’m picking it back up, finding out how everyone deals with the uneasy peace of failure and impending war and invasion, and getting this off my list.

If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend the book. Some parts are a little simplistic, some parts are predictable (and not just because we know who wins) but the characters are very accessible and it’s still fun, for some reason, to watch them do the worst possible thing they can do, and then deal with the repercussions they KNEW were probably going to happen anyway. Tolstoy also does a very good job of describing PTSD and battle shock, and if you’ve ever served in the military, or know someone who has, you’ll relate to what he says. It may be a famous classic work of literature, but it’s also famous and classic for a good reason.

That’s my post for today. It’s time to dive back in the trench and fire away at this thing until I either have good copy or I pass out from a tea overdose. I’ll be back Friday with a book review and more news from the front. Stay safe.

Bed Making and Other Composing Techniques

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I’m a writer, and I’m manic-depressive… but I repeat myself. I don’t think there’s a requirement for a writer to be bi-polar or clinically depressive or any other mental illness that requires us to spend a lot of time huddled in a blanket fort and threatening to Taser the face off anyone who bothers us (and in my case, that would be my face more than any other), but it does seem to go hand in hand. I think it’s because we as humans like to be entertained, and when you spend as much time alone as a depressive person does, whether by choice or because you can’t bear to move from your spot no matter how much you want to, you have to tell your own stories.

Sometimes, when I’m at the bottom of a supremely low period, like I was yesterday (and like I suspect I might still be) I wonder how I ever get anything done, but I still manage to push through, day after day, in my journal at least, if not in my manuscript and any current programming project. My journal might be nothing more than me complaining about how I not only suck, but my pages of complaints aren’t even written very well, but I still manage to get things down. I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write something every day, I wind up in an endless feedback loop. Being depressed about not writing for a day makes it harder to write the next day, and if I succumb and take two days off…

This post is about a few things, including my return to blogging, my announcement of a new book project, and my pledge to fill people in on it, along with blips and blurbs about what I read, what I hear, and what I do on those days I decide to leave Fort Blanketopolis, but it’s also about how I learned my Mom was right. If she’s reading this, this is where she says “Oh, that’s nice, he’s writing fiction again,” but I do mean it this time. My Mom, a German immigrant who was born a few years after the war and came to the US just in time to experience Patti Page once she knew enough English to sing along, is a lot of wonderful things. And I really hate to indulge in a stereotype, but one set of genes my Mom got were the ones that dictated order and routine. Apparently, she liked those genes so much she decided to keep them all to myself and decided not to pass them down, and I spent a good part of my childhood arguing about how my clothes didn’t need to be folded, my room was okay as long as nothing was crawling around, and as long as my books were in order, nothing else had to be. I couldn’t see the point of a lot of the things she had me do, since everything was just going to get messy and disordered again. For example, I *DID* think it was nice to crawl into a made bed at night, but was it really worth spending a few minutes doing that every morning, especially when those few minutes took away from the little bit of reading I got to do before the bus showed up? I didn’t think so.

Fast-forward to me now, after serving twenty years in the Navy (where everything had to be in its place, but for a good reason: if something wasn’t, it could fall and trip someone on a damage control party or a firefighting team, or float away during flooding, or hit someone in the head, or in some way cause all manner of horribleness to happen) and I’ll admit to liking things in something resembling order. And I do like having a wide uncluttered workspace, since I know how easily I can get distracted. (Plus, I have long arms, and they need room.)

But, since moving into our new place a month or so ago, I’ve discovered the joy of bed-making as therapy. Originally, I started doing it because we had very little in our room at first, and I liked the idea of seeing everything straight and simple and in place; I wanted to preserve the way it looked when we first moved in. But even now that we’ve settled and arranged all of our things, I still find myself pulling down the covers, pulling up the sheets, and making the bed look decent, and I can’t do much else now until that’s done. Even yesterday, when I had trouble doing anything except for staring at the ceiling and wishing my brain would shut up and let me read, I had to make the bed. And after I did that, I was able to sit down and at least write four or five pages on my projects. I’m next to positive that the three or four minutes of routine activity helped jostle my working brain loose from the crowd he’d been hanging out with (the “I suck everyone hates me” brain, and the “read another chapter/ blog post/ funny comment on Reddit” brain are two particular friends of his). And that part of my brain has been responsible for me having a 110-page Part One of a novel, and is pushing me forward on the rest of the book, too.

So, thanks Mom. You were wrong about a few things, like how you think lamb is disgusting and mayonnaise is delicious, but you were right about this.

The Weight of Words

Today’s the day that I like to talk about random subjects related to the world of reading, writing, critiquing, and maybe even occasionally mathing. (I’m sorry, but that should be a word.) And one thing that all of these things have in common is that they involve the use of characters, symbols, and words. While we might think of words as being ephemeral, they are in fact quite weighty.

Trust me, I just moved about fifty boxes of them.

As I sit here drinking a mug of tea, surrounded by boxes of my packed-up life, and get ready to hit the road again, I’m thinking about my life in words. Writing them, thinking in them, learning different ways to say them in many different tongues, and reading them. I wonder if I have too many of them. I wonder if I’ll ever read all the ones I want to read, and what will happen to the boxes of words I haven’t read after I die.

One thought keeps cropping up more and more, and it bothers me:  I’m less likely to take a chance on a new untried book as I get older.

This is alarming to me, since I’m a barely-published author who is trying to convince other people who haven’t heard of me to read my work. But how can I expect others to do the same when I have a phobia of not reading as many classics as I want to while I’m still on this planet? I’ve already read two books this year that I would rate as “abysmal,” and one of those was independently published. I have several long book projects to get through, too… War and Peace, The Expanse, The Wars of Light and Shadow…

I’m going to try to work more and more independent books into my reading, though, since I find the best way to confront a partially-rational phobia is to confront it head on. This worked for brussels sprouts, long distance hiking, and karaoke. (The latter caused everyone around me to develop a phobia, but that’s another story.) I’m especially looking for recommendations. If you have or know of a good indie book I need to read, tell me. But don’t just tell me “You HAVE to read this. Tell me why. Tell me what it’s like, and tell me what it did for you.

I’m still going to be selective… at about 60 books a year and probably more than halfway through my lifespan, I have to be… but I do want to widen my selection process. The good ones I’ll review here, and maybe ask others to review as well.

Time to leave. See you in Florida.

What I’m Reading: Shadows of War and Fingerposts

The title is a bit misleading. I haven’t read much this past week, after Tuesday. Wednesday morning, my fiancée and I went to Atlanta to spend two and a half days packing the rest of my things (books, bookshelves, bookshelf knick-knacks, writing paper for books, and a few t-shirts… also a bunch of heavy things I sit on whilst reading books) and then we turned around on Saturday and worked for two days in Augusta, including one incredibly busy  day of tearing down our family’s roasted nut booth and loading it into a cargo van. (If I haven’t mentioned yet how awesome my fiancée is, here’s a good place to rave about her. I might have been packing with her, but she kept me moving and led the operation, and especially kept me from wanting to reread Every Single Piece of Paper That Had Writing On It.) Plus, I had to complete an assignment for a creative writing course I’m taking through Coursera and Wesleyan University. Plus I’m trying to finish knitting a shawl in time for a wedding. Considering that it’s my wedding, and that I really don’t want my first act as a husband to be my confused explanations of why her wedding shawl still has needles hanging off of it, I’ve slipped that up in my priority list a little. But, I’m a reader and a writer, so unless I’m in the utter throes of depression, I’m going to read a little bit of something, no matter what.
12591698Tuesday morning, I got up early, flipped to I think the 65% mark of Caliban’s War, and decided to read a chapter or three with my mug of tea; always a good way to start any day. About three and a half hours later, I found myself outside on the lawnchair with the cat next to me (apparently, I had moved locations while reading, something I still only have fuzzy memories of) and looking at the extras at the end of the book. Suffice to say, I really enjoyed this one. Whether I liked it more than the first… I don’t know. The first half still felt like a retread, but the characters changed and progressed as the story went on, sometimes even in unexpected ways. Also, something bad I thought was going to happen, didn’t, and that was pleasantly surprising. I already have the third book in my library, but I’m going to have to wait until I get to that.

Rating: Also 4 stars. I’d probably rate it a quarter-star less than the first, but I don’t deal in fractions with my reviews. Also, I really like one of the new characters, an older woman, diplomat, who is very practical-minded and believes in looking out for her own in addition to saving the world. I hope she is in the future books in the series.

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Ah. I remember when this book came out, and I was reading Umberto Eco and other historical fantasy works, and put it on my list. Then, I promptly forgot it was on my list. When I found a copy at the campground’s free library (a place I’ve donated some eight books to myself… free libraries are one of the best concepts man has ever thought of, even if you consider the Internet Cat Video) I had to snag  it. Unfortunately, I started reading this Wednesday morning when I was on my way to Atlanta (no, I wasn’t driving; it may be a mostly straight drive to the city from here, and yes, it might have  crossed my mind) and since then, I’ve only gotten about five chapters in. What I read, though, is amazing. I’m not as familiar with the English Civil War and post-Civil War period as I am with the Wars of the Roses (I have a hunch that Richard III was framed by the Tudors and I require extensive proof before being convinced otherwise) but I know enough to pick up the strong sense of verisimilitude the author has worked into his book. Plus, the Venetian narrator is awesome and the foreshadowing (he’s writing this account years after the events) is painfully dramatic. I will hopefully have a full review next week.

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The other book I’m reading, I’m actually not reading. I found a 61-hour audiobook version of War and Peace on Audible, and I’m finally  getting to that book after years of rereading his novellas. Audiobooks and knitting, and traveling, were made to go together, and I dare anyone to say that listening to a book is inferior to reading. For one, I often find myself focusing more on the words and sentences when I’m listening to a book, since I can’t flick my eyes back up a paragraph if I let my attention wander. And for another, story time is awesome. Audiobooks are adult story time. There is no down side to that concept.

Coming soon:  posts for Wednesday and Friday, and maybe some more news on my writing. Stay sane-ish, everyone.

 

What I’m Reading: The Tortured Wraiths of Ganymede

Found on Imgur. If you know who created this, PLEASE LET ME KNOW, IT'S AMAZING!It’s been a long two weeks, but in addition to packing, working (including one road show in Alabama), and having Mr BiPolar show up unannounced a few days ago and raid my internal medicine cabinet for all of my Serotonin, I managed to plod ahead on my Midwest Gothic writing project. I also finished a book, abandoned one (probably for good, though I’m willing to listen to advice from people who’ve read it),  and started two more. I’ve been a busy little sushi roll.  But, today is Book Date Day, so here is my weekly list of what’s on my reading table. 

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First off, I finished one of the books I last blogged about and immediately charged into Book Two of The Expanse, Caliban’s War. Even with work this past weekend, I now find myself some 350 pages into it, and will probably be done soon. Current verdict:  Well, at first, I thought it was less “Vol. 2” and more “Ver. 2.0” but it’s since differentiated itself a little more. Plus, the characters I already knew are becoming a little deeper and the new characters fit in very nicely. I’ll have a full review soon. For now, based on the first book-and-a-half of this series, I’ll just say that if you haven’t read this yet, that’s a problem, and you should fix that.

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I’ve been doing a lot of writing and especially writing about my writing lately, as this book has completely taken over my Muse, and she will constantly chatter about nothing else. When I’m writing something, I’m always looking for parallels in my life or in other things I’ve read, and one of them jumped up and bit me while I was hanging out in a flea market this Saturday. Fortunately, I wasn’t actually dealing with a customer when it did; crazy vendors jumping up and down swatting at their thigh because an idea bit them in the bottom is a good way to lose sales.

I’ve already settled on an unreliable narrator, and I’ve been having a lot of fun trying to decide what “N” covers up or omits or implies or downright lies about. But there’s another level to the concept of the Unreliable Narrator, and that’s the one who doesn’t know he or she is unreliable. A lot of stories written from a child’s point of view (such as the creepy “Dress of White Silk,” found in this anthology by Richard Matheson, among other places) use this technique, and if it’s used well, it can have a profound effect on a reader, especially during a reread. And after I thought of that, my mind jumped over to Severian the Torturer, perhaps the king of unreliable narrators. He lives in The Book of the New Sun, a creepy, dramatic, surreal work of fantasy/ dying world science fiction, and between the stuff he omits, the stuff he lies about, and the stuff that he simply isn’t prepared to understand, a good careful reader can spend months or even years teasing apart the layers and treasures hidden within. I finally finished all four books last summer (it’s not a tetrology so much as it’s a book published in four short novel chunks) and nothing seems more enjoyable right now than reading it again, and seeing if I can add a little more color to my Midwest Gothic story. And if I can’t, well, it’s a great book anyway.

Mistwraith

So that brings me to The Curse of the Mistwraith. This book is one of the many proofs of my hypothesis that I should always try a book twice, a story I talked about two weeks ago. It’s been three days since I binge-read the last 300 pages, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. The first half (well, everything up to the chapter entitled “CONQUEST”) still felt overwritten, and even though I’d read a little more than 200 pages my first time through, it still felt like a slog in parts. Then I got to the  second half, and I realized that everything Ms Wurts was setting up in the first part needed to be there. In fact, it would have been really nice if there had been even more there. She has a great command of drama and tension, and uses the occasional “spoiler” as a way of making the reader even more concerned about whether what will happen at the end is what an unnamed narrator or untrustworthy character stated will happen. And that battle scene… well, not since Malazan have I had a flashback that intense. The Wikipedia page for the book says that she was inspired to write the book, or at least that battle, by the Battle of Culloden, and a desire to show pre-modern warfare without any of the heroic romantic trappings, and by the great Beard of Odin does she succeed.

Rating: Four Stars. I loved this book, but I’m also more than curious about where the series goes from here. There is a lot to process in the beginning, and a lot to put together in the end. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, you will be rewarded. Bonus: It’s nearly a stand-alone book, so if you don’t want to go on to the others, you don’t have to. I’m most definitely going to, though.

Next up:  I’m not sure. I’ll be reading The Book of the New Sun for a month, since my rereading habits have me just reading it at three chapters a day and taking notes. On my shelf I have Buddenbrooks, which will be my third Thomas Mann book (sixth if you count the four novels in Joseph and his Brothers) and an Enlightenment-era mystery that the free library had, An Instance of the Fingerpost. Plus, I have the next books in The Expanse and the Mistwraith series (properly, The Wars of Light and Shadow). And I have an audiobook of War and Peace, plus a lot of knitting to do while listening to the only major Tolstoy work I’ve not yet read. And, I’ve been craving novellas again, so I’ll have to work one or three in. Recommendations and/ or advice is more than more than welcome.

EDITED TO ADD:  I’m abandoning Of Human Bondage, unless someone can give me a damn good reason to proceed past the first half of the book. I consider Mr Maugham to be one of the masters of the English Short Story, and I think I would rather read the rest of the stories I haven’t gotten to. The first two hundred pages was gorgeous and reminded me a lot of my own childhood as a ‘too-clever boy’ who found himself surpassed by the boys who weren’t as smart but actually worked for what they learned, but from the hero’s trip to Heidelburg and thereafter, it descended into a fit of blahs. The writing itself is wonderful but the story is tedious.

Mostly Back

As the title says, I am. For those of you interested in my personal life, I’m nearly packed out of Atlanta and mostly moved in with my fiancée and her family, and posts will shift to a semi-regular status, starting with today’s upcoming review. For now, I’m going to make another cup of tea and see if I can make a large set of words sound like a good review, even though I have a few critical things to say about it.

Inspiration Tuesday

Today, I’m juggling writing a few pages at least, planning the core argument of my book, and packing up in Atlanta. So today’s quote is brutal.

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. – Dorothy Parker

I would add one of the Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition books… they’re great references, and that way, he or she might get an inkling of what lies ahead. Of course, they’ll probably pay as little attention to it as I did.

Tell Me Something Tuesday: Feeling Frustrated?

Today is Tuesday, the first day of the last month of the first quarter of the new year. I’m a quarter through a long chapter (I’m expecting it to be 40-ish pages… I might have to split it in two), and I’m about to go on the road to Atlanta for a couple of days. This means I lose my morning writing time, though I still have to get out five long pages or so… perhaps I can compose notes in the car, or take a long lunch.

Over on Rainy Day Ramblings, they’re hosting Tell Me Something Tuesday, where you answer their question of the week. This week’s question is a simple one:  Have you become frustrated with certain genres?

Yes, I have.

A year or so ago, I read an article that said that, on average, women were more impressed by men with well-kept beards than men without. It wasn’t much of a difference, but it was there. The corollary to their findings, though, was that as beards became more popular, they had less and less of an effect until finally, they would actually lower the average woman’s opinion of a man.

That’s how I feel about Grimdark Fantasy.

I remember exactly where I was (Learning Resource Center… shipboard public computer room and library… onboard USS Chancellorsville, 5 December 2005) when I read a certain scene in A Storm of Swords, the third “Game of Thrones” book. (Honestly, I think the HBO title works better for the series as a whole than “A Song of Ice and Fire.”) I remember being refreshed but mostly frightened when I realized that, unlike in a lot of fantasy novels, my favorite characters were no longer safe. I was used to them either surviving no matter what, or having a dramatic death at the end. But in these books… and in many others that I read after…  characters could die for stupid and pointless reasons. That made the book that much more realistic, and I began seeking out this kind of fiction.

It’s been ten years. How’bout we go back to fairy-tale and legend-inspired fantasy for a bit? Or magic realism? Or books where flawed characters still manage to do the right thing, despite temptations to do what comes naturally, instead of evil bastard characters who accidentally do something right?

Of course, I’ll still read this kind of fiction, if it’s good, and, well, part of the reason it’s so big is that people are buying it. But my advice to writers (including myself):  Grow a beard, metaphorically, and write something magical. Not dark and torturous with excessive realism and violence and pointless destruction.

Enough for this morning. Inspirational quotes and more agony over my book writing process to follow.

 

 

Thoughts on the Oscars

Mostly I write about writing books, or reading books, or reading books when I can’t seem to write anything because my Muse is being intransigent (which, curiously, is one of the same things she calls me). The only time I really talk about movies is when I talk about movies made from books, or vice-versa. But I had to share this:

I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. […] If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created. — Louis B. (“Metro-Goldwyn-“) Mayer

Here’s the source. Enjoy the film.

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Desk of the American Writer

writerdeskLaptop, index cards, legal pad, Parker fountain pen, Japanese teapot, USAnian cup from I think Target, Faberware kettle.

Not pictured: Procrastination, Mild blockage, Trepedation about screwing up the entire book BECAUSE THIS CHAPTER IS FAILING…

Ah well… Plunging back in.

EDIT: For some reason, the thumbnail of the picture I uploaded from my tablet was inverted, while the full version wasn’t. I’ve fixed that. Though since I sometimes  feel tossed and turned upside-down whilst writing, I thought about leaving it that way.

Also, blocked is too strong a word. I don’t think the chapter is failing, and I’m slowly moving forward. I’m told that’s good. The cat says it’s not, but that’s because I use my petting arm to write.

 

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