Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: Heaven's Needle by Liane Merciel

You know how I said The White-Luck Warrior became horror a few pages in?

The White-Luck Warrior would take one look at one page of Heaven's Needle and run away crying.

Which is why, despite it being marketed as high fantasy, Heaven's Needle is my review of choice for Hallow's Eve this year.

(That's a warning, by the way, that the following review will contain disturbing imagery and if you aren't up for that, especially if you're currently eating tasty food, feel free to visit a different webpage).


The prologue includes a nice grisly bit about people exploding, proving this is going to be far more twisted than previous The River King's Road if nothing else. Of course, we should expect more twistedness, given the Sun Knight Sir Kelland has been kidnapped and imprisoned by the sadomasochistic Thorns, whose magic depends on their worship of the goddess Kliasta through disfigurement and torture. His friend and would-be lover, Bitharn, is on her way to rescue him. But doing so involves deceiving and betraying their own order of paladins serving the sun goddess Celestia. She frees Malentir, a Thornlord imprisoned by the Celestians, in order to have a prisoner exchange.

Meanwhile, Kelland is discovering moral complexities of his own in conversation with the leader of the Thorns, called the Spider. Here the Thorns rise above standard villain fare by revealing discipline and philosophy. For one thing, these vicious clerics are truthbound, which the Spider explains is because "the truth hurts worse" than any lie. It's still interesting that the villains of the previous book are suddenly revealed as...not exactly trustworthy, but more complex than they were at first. The Spider is also deeply in love with her husband (and their relationship has definite consensual BDSM undertones, which is confusing to the chaste Sun Knight but not represented as a sign of their Evilness. Although, alas, I miss the days of R.A. Salvatore's sadistic sorceresses and their captive elves, it was refreshing to see BDSM as a humanizing element to an evil character, rather than Bad People Having Bad Sex). Speaking of confusing the chaste Sun Knight, the Spider further sends Kelland for a spin by teaching him of a Celestian heresy that allows sexual activity within a committed relationship. In short, only casual sex is bad for Celestians. Given Celestia is the moral arbiter of this story's universe, I feel like She's going both too far (celibacy, according to my Catholic upbringing, is the sacrifice of emotional as well as sensual intimacy) and not far enough (what's so wrong with casual sex?).

This is all extremely interesting to me, if the thick paragraph above hadn't tipped you off. Unfortunately, one of my pet peeves from The River Kings' Road carried over--the flashbacks. "Have you heard of this fortress?" Character A asks. Character B has heard of the fortress, and now we the readers will to, in the form of a 2-page flashback/lecture. Then Character B replies to A, "Yes, I've heard of it. <Pithy 1-sentence summary of the lecture that tells us all we really needed to know for the story to move forward.>"

Enjoying this series involves some level of acceptance of the fact that every chapter or so will contain a mini-short-story setting up background information that is perhaps 30-50% relevant. I get some fantasy fans really enjoy the worldbuilding. I usually do, too, but I like it to be subtler and more connected to the action of the story. Especially because there's enough to unpack in this story.

Our villain (or at least one of them), Corban, starts down the road to ruin by trying to democratize magic, which has previously been the realm solely of the gods. Unfortunately, he decides to democratize war magic, as that's where the greatest popular demand is. Even more unfortunately, this magic isn't actually free of the gods after all--it comes from Maol, god of Madness. This is why tracing your supply chain is important, everyone.

That said, the idea of god-free magic is very tantalizing to those of a more agnostic strain of thought, and I feel the theocracy of the Celestian Sun Knights goes unexamined. Especially as Bitharn goes to prove the Celestians are not flawless avatars of the good.

I said about the previous book that this world's Viking-analogues were very close to historic Vikings, but I was incorrect. They turn out to be more misogynistic (not hard, actually, as the Vikings allowed women to own property, divorce, and many other useful rights) and this paves the way for a new character, the gender-role-crossing Sword Maiden Asharre. Asharre is mourning the loss of her sister, a Celestian cleric, when she is given the job of playing bodyguard to two new clerics as they travel to their first assignment.

It doesn't go well.

Kliasta, the goddess of the Thornlords, has driven her followers to pluck out their eyes, disfigure themselves, and devise some really amazing torture devices. Thorns still flock to her in steady numbers. The followers of Baoz, god of war, are the topic of some really horrible visions inflicted on Asharre as she crossed a booby-trapped bridge. Boaz is still pretty popular among solider types, who come to him willingly. But Maol, bloody four-armed Maol, is so wrong that he doesn't have volunteer converts; instead His spirit just sort of comes where it will, inflicting body horror and insanity.

He's taken over the town where our baby clerics and babysitter Asharre are going preaching.

If the scene where a ferret claws out its own guts hasn't proved enough warning, I'll just lay down the line: do not eat, and be careful of drinking, anything at all after page 200. I giggled through MangaMinx's Amnesia playthroughs, and this book was too much for me (not literally too much, but...I'm pretty sure you understand what I mean. If this were a movie I'd be hiding behind the couch). Body horror transformations, torture porn, and scary creatures chasing the protagonists through the night abound. There's also helpings of sexual assault (consider yourselves trigger warned), no child immortality, and pleas from mercy coming from orifices that shouldn't even work as mouths.

To defeat this haunting/manifestation/curse, Kelland and Bitharn find themselves working alongside Kliastans, who are not only safer than the alternative but also more stylish. You know it's bad when I prefer the aesthetic of missing-eyeball body modifications, although for the record, Malentir's thorned bracelets? Stylish.

Aside from the Amnesia games, this book also reminded me of C.S. Friedman's Coldfire trilogy, if only for the surface similarity of sun clerics fighting the powers of darkness against a fantasy-horror background. Coldfire, though, had much more depth and the worldbuilding felt more rigorous--appropriately, as among its mash of genres there was a healthy dose of science fiction. Heaven's Needle seemed to miss the chance for deeper examinations of its premises in places like Celestian theocracy (also, Celestia appears to be the only benevolent deity in this universe). There was a nice bit of mindfuck, a twist I'm not even sure was played straight or not, when Asharre's horrific visions turn out to be helpful in defeating Maol, who uses terror to distract her from a path to salvation. Or maybe it was a double-blind taking advantage of reverse psychology. I'm not certain.

The Celestian plotline inflicts a specific cruelty masterfully in a way Coldfire also achieved and R. Scott Bakker's opus, though brilliant in other ways, hasn't managed: it holds out cosmic virtue alongside cosmic evil, revealing a right path that is neither good nor easy. Given Celestia exists, and Her precepts are good, and Her servants seek to ease suffering, and all this is self-evident, there's no excuse for Asharre, Bitharn, or Kelland to turn away from the frequently gruesome demands of their quest in Her service. In Bakker's universe you (especially as the reader, but as a character to) can toss up your hands at an especially grotesque im/moral scenario and live on in a selfish state of apathy. Perhaps some children have to be sacrificed so you can keep living, but oh well; the universe sucks and once you accept that, things make a sort of sense. Not so here. Serving Celestia may require you to let some children be sacrificed, and that makes it your duty to let them die, and this is a fact that coexists with the goodness of Celestia and, holy heck, my Catholic upbringing didn't prepare me for this (lies, it totally did and I'm drinking it up).

I was hoping for more tie in with The River Kings' Road, which I didn't feel had concluded the stories of all its characters, but Bitharn and Kelland are the only ones who carry over. I think the Thornlady in Road was acting as part of a long-term plot the Thorns had to capture a Sun Knight, all so they can secure Kelland and Bitharn's cooperation against Maol, but I'm not actually sure. Meanwhile,  Brys Tarnell isn't ever gonna get his redemptive arc, is he (which is fine, but then why all the backstory?). I'm not even certain if the series will continue or rest as a duology. If there is a third book coming, I hope it's a bit lighter in tone--maybe fluffy scenes of the Spider and her husband beating each other up and conquering the world. Yes, that would be a great deal cheerier.

Final judgement: I haven't read a really horrifying book in a long time, and it was oddly fun to give in to the occasional urge to whimper Liane Merciel, NO, have mercy!. It was also an interesting book to compare/contrast with The White-Luck Warrior, which I thought was scary at the time but is now regulated to merely grimdark swords and sorcery ("merely" meaning "on an unprecedentedly epic scale," but it didn't touch me in the deeply, emotionally violating sense Heaven's Needle did).

Read it if: you want to prove your toughness, enjoy some twisted dark gods, and, yes, see Kelland and Bitharn get their happy ending--whether or not you feel they deserve it after everything they allowed to happen in this book.

Do not read if: you dislike dead children, have extreme triggers for gore, and never want to picture intestines as a mode of locomotion. Oops, sorry, that mental image is here to stay. I don't see why I should suffer it alone.

Barnes and Noble

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Return from the 18th Century

It may say something about how much I've traveled this year that I have not purchased a single bottle of conditioner, instead relying on the cute little bottles they give you in hotel bathrooms. I'd have the same record for soap but this weekend at Colonial Williamsburg their scented and fun-shaped "soap balls" were too much fun to resist.

I got peppermint scented and "Castille," which is actually not the name of the scent (it's vaguely floral) but the Spanish town where that style of soapmaking was invented. The more you know.

My good friend Amanda, who came with me, got a much more involved souvenir: a new dress.
Plushcoat and I at Colonial Williamsburg this past weekend!!
(I took about 300 pics so its hard to choose what to post!)

Plushcoat and I at Colonial Williamsburg this past weekend!!
(I took about 300 pics so its hard to choose what to post!)
As well as hats for herself and the Plushie Redcoat she made (she's also the creator of my plushie Eighth Doctor--an all-around talented individual).

Speaking of which, yeah, little 'Who' (my mother's name for him--I'm not going to correct her that he's "The Doctor") was along too:

Considering we were bringing a fun-sized version of the enemy into Williamsburg, everyone was quite courteous to us. Specific shout-outs to that charmer Lafayette, Chelsea at the milliner's where we got Amanda's dress, and the hosts of the ball at the Governor's Palace Saturday evening. I may have butchered a Scottish Reel but they were nevertheless gracious. It's rare to have an audience-participation event handled with next to no stage fright on my part, but they managed it.

We stayed 2 nights at the Chiswell Bucktrout house, which we remembered by the name of a certain British actor (perhaps better known as Sherlock). Although not as cheap as a Motel 8, it was happily affordable, especially considering our package included not only historic housing but also complimentary breakfasts at the super swanky Regency Room up at the Williamsburg Inn. All in all, a pretty cool way to make the most of your visit to the 18th century. The gift card that came with also managed to cover dinner at the King's Arms tavern, which this impoverished recent graduate would not have managed otherwise. We got to sample syllabub for the first time (tangy, because of the lemon, and just enough white wine to give teetotalers a buzz although our server said they were allowed to serve it to children) and I got the first good peanut soup I've had since my trip to Ghana. I bought mixes for both at the general store. All in all, a good review for the King's Arms too, even if they didn't believe me when I said I was from Washington, D.C. (apparently nothing had been named for the General yet--I wonder if visitors from Washington State encounter the same paradox?), and when we agreed I was from Foggy Bottom, the mosquito-ridden shores of the Potomac, this was taken as the reasoning behind my slovenly state of dress.

Well, slovenly compared to Amanda's period-appropriate round gown, I suppose, but I leave you to judge for yourself:

Returning home, I've got an email from mom in the colony of Wisconsin (yes, I know Wis. was never a colony) that my contributor's copy of Outposts of Beyond has arrived safe and sound. It'll sadly be a bit until I can read it, but that doesn't mean you can't get your hands on Issue #2, which contains among other delights my fantasy short "Murderer, Confessor, Executioner." The story evolved as an experiment in creating nonhuman characters, specifically a character who is other than human not merely in physical appearance but in emotional life as well.

Speaking of fiction, there's a call for submissions out for the Mammoth Book of Science Fiction by Women. If you have written stories meeting both those parameters, I encourage you to go check it out!

 PostScript: Okay, so Lafayette may have been a charmer, but it can't be denied he had eyes in other places than just the colonial ladies. That man's crush on America (perhaps personified by Washington, but consider the fact he brought home barrels of soil from Bunker Hill to be buried under) is historically adorable.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: The White-Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker

The White-Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker

Fifty pages in, I realized I had come to approach this as a horror story rather than epic fantasy, as if I was reading Stephen King or the Lovecraft Unbound anthology.  I read horror in a much more defensive mode, trying not to get invested in any character's survival, and nodding my head whenever a particularly disturbing (I would say, dryly, "quite effective") scene occurred, making terror an aesthetic observation in hopes of keeping it from striking too deep. Also turning the lights up and drawing my blankets closer.


In the opening chapters, Bakker succeeds in making forests scary. Maybe if I'd seen the Blair Witch project or played that Slenderman game longer, this would not be news to me, but I grew up among friendly, sunlit trees. The same monumental gloom that pervades the Nonman fortress our intrepid heroes (or greed-driven antiheroes, either way) barely escaped in the last book lives on in the black forest of the Mop. Which is, by the way, overrun with Sranc. A Sranc is to a Nonman what Tolkein's Orcs were to the Elves, blasphemous parodies, except unfortunately for Bakker's characters the Nonmen are already twisted, creepy, and dangerous. The Sranc are even worse--bestial, violent, equal-opportunity rapists, and worst of all omnipresent in stunning profusion.

As if that weren't bad enough, it appears that the vision of Mimara's Judging Eye is in fact reliable. This disappoints me a little for reasons described in my review of the previous book, but also adds layers upon layers of metaphysical horror, as pretty much every character we know appears damned. Bakker's running a risk here of the reader giving up in sheer despair-induced apathy, but for now everything seems confused enough that there's still hope for some sort of emotionally satisfying conclusion for somebody, I suppose. But really there are a handful of characters who, if the series ends with them being dragged to hell, will have me perfectly satisfied if the No-God succeeds in shutting off this world from what has to be the vilest Heaven ever. Perhaps that's going to be the twist ending. If so, you heard it here first.

Speaking of which, I also placed a bet early in the book that Sorwheel was the White-Luck Warrior. This would provide purpose to his ambling subplot, and after all he is clearly subject to some interest from the goddess Yatwer. But was I right? If I was, I couldn't tell you, because of spoilers. Given the White-Luck Warrior appears to exist and move in time quite differently from ordinary people, his identity may be unprovable until the last pages anyway.

The White-Luck Warrior, whoever he is, is sent by the Gods against Anasurimbor Kellhus. Kellhus himself is after the Consult, servants of the No-God--so he is in fact doing something that would be helpful to the Gods, but the Gods themselves can't see this because they're blind to the machinations of the No-God. Thus the Gods have turned against Kellhus because he sees more than they can. Is this a metaphor for Kellhus and the Dunyain vs humankind in general? Quite probably.

Kellhus aside for the moment, if there was one Anasurimbor the White-Luck warrior were to succeed in killing, Kelmomas is very, very high on the list. He's a grating combination of whining five year old (Bakker depicts the whining so well I wonder if he has some of that in his life?) and sociopath about to stab you in the eyeball. I still can't figure out what the kid wants, since his beloved "Mommeeee" Esmenet is a mere mortal besides him, but he's not seeking world domination yet so in the scale of things, he just seems petty and bratty. Yes, it says something about this series that the "petty brat" commits murder via stabbing-in-the-eyeballs. I enjoyed the scene where big brother Inrilatas completely unnerved him, not because I like the grotesquely unhinged Inrilatas so much as I hate Kelmomas. But during a particularly tense scene, Esmenent and her companions spent all their time worrying about innocent little Kelli (to be fair, Esmenet is in fact a mere mortal compared to him and has no idea how bad he is) and completely forgot his much more interesting elder sister, Thelliopia. Thelli reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood in a darker universe, with a penchant for designing her own clothes (with Luna-esque love for creative and glittery things, and if I'm gravely misremembering Miss Lovegood, my apologies) and also seeing to the truth at the root of all things, because she's an Anasurimbor. She also may be located on the autistic spectrum, although with the Anasurimbor influence it's hard to tell, and the characters wouldn't have the language to identify that anyway. At the least she's much less grating and far more interesting than Kelmomas, plus happens to be one of the few female characters without a history of prostitution. Don't get me wrong, sex workers deserve stories, too. But when I start noticing and perhaps planning a drinking game around how every woman in a story is depicted, that may be a call for change.

Yes, we get some additional prostitute characters, in a way that actually makes sense given the narrative and allows some reflective pathos on Esmenet's part. In justice, we also have the Swayal Sisterhood, who are really really awesome--the sorcery in general in this story has some amazing visuals. Also, Bakker does a solid job illustrating the mostly-male Great Ordeal covering up the threatening realization that women can be powerful enough to work sorcery by hiding it under facade of horniness and dirty jokes. Because when a woman is powerful enough to threaten you, you pretend she's only a prostitute, and presumably this makes you feel better. The Great Ordeal finds itself so enmired in awfulness and Sranc that I can even pity them despite how much this worldbuilding enjoys its casual misogyny.

Our moral compass Achaimian may turn out not to be a moral compass at all--his willingly leading most of the Skin Eater mercenaries to their deaths in pursuit of his Dunyain conspiracy theory perhaps should have tipped me off--but he and Mimara especially start going off the rails while in a Nonman-induced drug haze. There's also the lovely snarl of whether Achaimian, in being against Kellhus, is unconsciously serving the interests of Kellhus' enemies the Consult and the No-God. Mimara even wonders if her Judging Eye is revealing his damnation because he's a sorcerer, or because he's helping bring about the Second Apocalypse. This is a motive/effect snarl I haven't seen in any other novel (leave your suggestions in the comments if you have) and it will keep me with this series even if the grimdark sometimes gets grating.

Although while we're talking about motives, and Mimara, and depictions of women, the scene where Mimara tries to refuse the drug out of her mother's instinct (because having a fetus growing in your automatically awakens maternal instinct, nevermind if your relationship with your own mother is strained because she sold you as a child into abuse so horrible and dehumanizing that you learned not to consider it abusive before you hit puberty)...I did a double-take strong enough to launch the book across the room. Really now?

It's perhaps a bit petty of me to harp on these casual slip-ups, but I guess reading almost 600 pages of such relenting grimdark (drawn on by delectable motive snarls and powerful imagery, my own drug of choice) will make you that much less charitable. It also became harder to deny that sometimes Bakker's gambles with prose get out of hand. I'm pretty certain in one instance things are described as at their "nadir" when they're actually at zenith (although his word choice in general is a masterpiece of the unexpected, so maybe I shouldn't assume). And then he writes of two characters releasing "black-haired grunting" and "high blonde cries," which if it was coming from a friend of mine would be a signal to gently stage an intervention. Perhaps with the help of the Eye of Argon.

The story ends with plenty of juicy cliffhangers, and I realize I have faith that this trilogy will be wrapped up in a more satisfying way than the first. If it takes a trilogy of trilogies to tell the tale of the Second Apocalypse, though, I'll be there the whole way, because reading these books is an experience like no other. Grunts with hair color aside, the epic scale and genuine creepiness become an addictive thrill. I'm always saddened to read the last few pages, while usually I love to gobble books as quickly as possible. Whether I'll be tagging the final book "apocalypses that weren't" hangs in the air. I could almost see Bakker writing an ending where the Consult wins--he's that brutal--and frankly I almost want to see it, because it would be just that awesome on an unparalleled scale. Also, the Gods are dicks and most of my favorite characters are damned anyway, so what do we have to lose?

Barnes and Noble

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Useful Things of the Week

I don't know if I'm actually going to make this a weekly post, but I suppose it depends on how much cool and useful stuff I find over the course of the week.

An excellent quote from Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's Airman's Odyssey comes to mind as I revise another article:  "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” 

Deleting excess words, trimming a piece down to its essentials, can be a very calming exercise. Although I naturally run long, that only makes me more appreciative of simplicity. A message is most effective when it's been pared down to nothing but its core meaning. 

A sort of jobs board for federal employees, consultants, and others affected by the US Government shutdown. It's struck DC hard (although we had a few good days for retail, as furloughed employees and stranded tourists hit the shops October 2 & 3rd. Even this past weekend at a farmer's market I saw a sign offering 20% discounts to anyone on furlough). Since my part-time work is in consulting, my job search has gotten even stickier than anticipated.

In the meantime, this website has been built by veteran-owned tech firm Blen and the 1776 platform using Drupal open-source software to host 'gig's (temp jobs) and available freelancers' information and resumes. Apparently the whole thing started as a Google Doc!

So if you or anyone you know is affected by the shutdown, consider uploading your resume and taking a look at the gigs.

Software & website:
I read onscreen a lot. You probably do, too. Beeline Reader's software claims to make reading onscreen faster by applying a color gradient to lines of text, allowing the eyes to follow along without skipping or backtracking. You can install the extension to use on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, and use it to read on websites, or you can copy & paste from a document or email to their online Pasteboard. I've read a few chapters of my latest PDF review copy on it, and I don't know if it's gone much faster but if nothing else the novelty of the shaded lines kept me entertained. And I don't remember even once rereading the same line, so it does work as advertised.

The Autocrit Wizard is not a substitute for a skillful human editor, nor indeed for your own wordcraft. However, it is an excellent way to get a quick overlook of some common mistakes in your manuscript. It catches commonly overused words (it, had, see, felt, was/were, that), cliches, use of initial pronouns ("He did..." "She did..."), and sentence length (*coughs, shuffles feet*). Sentence length actually includes a cool visual 'map' of the sentences compared to each other. Lots of long lines in a row signals a problem (*shuffles feet harder*). One thing it doesn't seem to do is catch grammar errors, which is a pity because Microsoft Word's grammar check remains unreliable. As does the grammar of pretty much every writer.

Getting on my soapbox here:

"This is how you write dialogue," she said. "Notice the comma goes on the inside of the quotation marks. Furthermore, the 's' in she is lowercase, because it comes after a comma and not a period." She sighed heavily. "This is a mistake everyone makes at first--it took me a full year of writing to figure it out. But the sooner you memorize this rule, the faster all subsequent revisions of your story will be."

(If it helps, take out the quotation marks. It becomes much clearer that This is how you write dialogue, she said is a full sentence.)

Now, even once we figure that out, there are lots of other problems awaiting us--I continue to use comma splices, in a manner I think is stylistic but quickly proves when another person reads it to be just confusing. And sometimes the only way to figure out how the grammar in your sentence should work (especially when you're doing something stylistically creative) is to have another human being read it. Autocrit will not do that for you. On the other hand, human beings may not be as quick to spot repeated words and almost certainly are not going to count the number of words in each sentence for you. The Wizard is a useful part of a toolkit. Even if you don't run your entire manuscript through it--and even if you stick with the freebie package of basic tools--analyzing a few thousand words of your text should be enough to draw some conclusions of your own.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Personal Organization with "The Ultimate List"

From GetYeDone to scribbles on post it notes, I think it's pretty clear that I love to-do lists. They give at least the illusion of control over a busy writer's life, allowing me to organize tasks verbally and spatially, and most of all there's something very satisfying about striking through my latest conquest.  Only recently, though, have I seriously considered the motivational effect a well-organized to do list can have, above and beyond the momentary glow of accomplishment (which GetYeDone's XP system is meant to magnify).

Some of my ideas have come from Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing ezine. Actually a newsletter, this monthly email hasn't exactly proven life-changing, but it's free, open-source, and offers some genuinely useful advice, especially for the personal organization side of things. Ingermanson is possibly even more devoted to lists than I am. One of his articles (that I managed to find shared online; although ezine recipients are encouraged to share credited articles, I'm afraid I deleted all the newsletters in my inbox in a fit of organizational madness) suggests the division of sublists into "Big Chunks" for particular categories of tasks. This is similar to GetYeDone's Odysseys umbrella lists.  Being able to distinguish connected tasks--adding logic to the overwhelming list--helps keep matters in perspective. Most importantly, though, is Ingermanson's philosophy of allocating blocks of time to work on each group of tasks. He allows himself to go over time-budget if he's on a roll, because it's worth it to get a task crossed off for good (a feeling I know--I stayed up writing by candlelight once rather than leaving a story to be finished another day). Yet also reminds us that "You will never get your life under control, if by 'control' you mean that all your lists are finished." An empty to do list can wait until you're dead.

And when you put it that way, gosh, it really can wait.

Although the individual tasks on any given to do list often can't wait. And that's why I find Ingermanson's time budgeting tactic so very useful. It gives a sense of immediacy--I am going to sit down for 90 minutes, and at the end of 90 minutes this will be accomplished!

Similarly, in another article Ingermanson suggests using a "Hate List." This is where you put the tasks you need to do but dislike (mine would probably include housecleaning, certain revisions, and school assignments).  Again, the principle is that once you dedicate a chunk of time to work on the items on the list, inertia will carry you along. You can do anything for a half-hour and after a half-hour, you might find you can keep going. And once it's done, it's done.

A combination of these principles, plus some secret sauce of my own, has produced what I affectionately call the Ultimate List. It isn't a list of things I hate necessarily (although tasks I dislike are included), but rather a back-to-the-wall, ultimate-priority list. The "just do it!" list. The "this is really happening" list. Looking at it feels a bit like going over that first drop on a roller coaster.

It's how I got through September.

Each item on the Ultimate List:
  • Must be specific ("write blog post about your to-do list," not "write a blog post")
  • Must be finite ("write a blog post about your to-do list," not "do blogging.")
  • Should be small (one blog post, one book review, one short story. For larger projects like my books I may block chapters together--so at the beginning of last month I had "Revise Starter Guide chapters 3 & 4," or "Revise the novel up to Chapter 5). 
  • Should be something I put off when not reminded & forced to do it. Pleasanter tasks like going to the grocery store, cooking dinner, or giving myself a relaxing long shower don't count. Nor does "finish reading R. Scott Bakker's The White-Luck Warrior." I would do those if not reminded. Admitting that I really do need to finish the laundry, though, is another issue. As is writing up a book review (some days I really enjoy writing book reviews, but on others I'm brain-dead. I need to remind myself to strike while the mental iron is sharp...or some other confused metaphor). 
  • The Ultimate list includes a due date where appropriate. Some dates are self-set, while some are deadlines for submissions, assignments for my writing course, or arranged by a contract. 
  • Strictly speaking, the tasks due for completion sooner go higher on the list, so if necessary and Zero Hour approacheth, I can drop all other tasks and just focus on that one. I do this for anthology deadlines and used to do it for final exams & research papers, back when I had those. I've even met anthology deadlines in between studying for finals. 
  • My other addition to the Ultimate List, and perhaps the most important: The "Why?" column. There must be a reason to complete this task. It helps prioritize and motivate, not to mention serving as an answer to the perennial "how did I get into this?" Right now I have a lot of "I made a personal promise" tasks, whether that promise is my Kickstarter fulfillment, receiving a free copy of an ebook in exchange for review, or a contract. I also have '"family/friends" (2 birthday gifts to wrap for two separate people), writing goals ("for the fans" should I need an outside motivator), and tasks that will provide me with income (the ever-persuasive $ sign).
  • There is a danger of adding too many tasks. The Ultimate List works best with 5-7 items. I once had 14 pending (too many book reviews) and that was excessive. I had to sit down and make several points of order more specific--One Hundred Days is not going to be mailed to an agent anytime soon, but I can finish addressing my inline comments for all chapters by the end of this month. Even if I'm nowhere near finished formatting The Starter Guide... for Smashwords upload, I am close enough to taste the completion of the second draft, so that's what I'm currently shooting for. 
  • The Ultimate List is for "Live" errands, tasks which I should be working on right now, not vague wishes for things I might do eventually. If my "Why" proves less persuasive and the due date isn't until October, I might push back an assignment in favor of a more urgent one. 
  • Also, when I've done all I can do on a project for the time being, it's done. A discussion with a classmate at the Writer's Center encouraged me to look into making an audiobook of Aqua Vitae. I've uploaded the relevant information into the Audiobook Creation Exchange, but I have no other pending tasks until someone auditions to produce it.  
  • Because a long list of strikethroughs can be less than motivating, I've created a new list every time I've finished at least half of the old list. I try to keep the total number of tasks less than a dozen, and make the goal of trying to finish at least 1 task a day. 
  • There's also a danger of complacency--especially when I also list tasks in my daily planner. I cross out all the planner items for my day and forget to look at the Ultimate List. The workaround is simple: I select tasks from the Ultimate List to write down in my planner. 
  • In addition, for general productivity I've discovered the magic of "Days off". I used to not allow myself any time off--when I wasn't at my internships, I was writing--but that wore me down fast. Now that I'm self-employed and my time is all my own, my rule is to work from 10am-6pm on weekdays, and from 10-noon some Saturdays. Past that, I'm "off". This doesn't mean I'm not allowed to work on List tasks, but doing tasks during my off time is a bonus. I won't feel bad if I don't do it, I'll feel rather good if I do. This does mean I need to be more serious about my on time, though. 
I've been using this method for around a month, and it has paid off. Especially, it's helped me to keep up with blogging (on this blog and on my internship and contract works) and book reviews. It's also helped me get through some revisions, chapter-by-chapter, and one short story has been completed, typed up, and submitted. I also kept on top of my Writer's Class assignments and some of my larger errands. The size of the task really does matter--smaller is better. For bigger tasks, the Ultimate List is handy as a source of reference, to remind me what I should be working on when I'm not sure what to do. It's less useful for when I feel like I don't want to do anything, but even there, it helps to have a menu of options so I can pick the least difficult.

I'm using my Ultimate List in tandem with GetYeDone. On GYD, I record some of my longer term goals, and once a week or so I log on and check off every one I've reached. I bask in the XP gains before returning to work. Not everything pending in my GetYeDone log is on my Ultimate List, and not everything on the Ultimate List translates into GetYeDone XP (errands, for example, don't really matter).

A last thought on awarding XP: after a personally trying phone call the other day, I hung up and thought to myself, I think I leveled up with that! If only there was some way to record...Oh. As I near level 10, I ponder what I should do to reward myself. Buying myself something nice is a questionable reward, given my current budget (I've also started keeping a cashflow record, and let me tell you, watching it go is making me much more careful with my cash!). And rewarding myself with time off may not be useful, either, given that would cut into the productive hours I've just learned to make better use of.

In any event, I have two more tasks in my planner for today and they're both on my Ultimate List. So I'd best get going with that!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: Finding Nina by Stephen Hazlett

Another win from the LibraryThing giveaway program, which I highly recommend if you ever find yourself short of books to review ; ) .

Finding Nina is the concluding volume to Stephen Hazlett's City Different trilogy ("The City Different," an in-story Jeopardy question informs me, is a nickname for Santa Fe). It's been described variously as a mystery, a thriller, and an "edgy romance". It's more a thriller than either of the others--a high-stakes, twisted story of  rivalry and obsession, as small-time criminal Sammy Garza and ex-cop Ray Sanchez, meeting in prison, discover they both know Nina Kelly. Beautiful, clever, but a bit lost, Nina's drifting through a crumbling marriage, just in time to find herself caught in this bizarre love triangle. There isn't really any mystery going on here--we as readers know who's behind everything, even if the characters don't--and while there may be some sick version of a love story here, it does not follow the conventions of a romance. Shakespearean comedy concluding with a marriage this one ain't.

This isn't a bad thing. This story isn't meant to be fluffy or even particularity happy. What it is supposed to do is provide suspense and thrills--the literary equivalent of a roller coaster ride. At times it achieves this, but at times less so.

The main problem with this story, and the reason it's taken me over a month to get around to finishing and reviewing it, is that for a thriller the pacing is very, very slow. It takes almost a hundred pages for the plot to really get going--at first it's just Garza and Sanchez doing a lot of macho posturing at each other, and Nina sort of drifting through with her failing marriage. On a sentence and paragraph level, there's a lot of showing where telling might be quicker and easier. There's such a thing as too much detail. And pleonasms about. There's a line about Nina eating by "spooning yogurt from a container into her mouth."

Dialogue is weakened when padded by "maybes" and reliance on adverbs and vagaries. There is also too much framing language--once a scene is established from Ray's POV, I don't need to be told "Ray was thinking." It made paragraphs unnecessarily long, especially considering this ebook is meant to read onscreen.

Here's an example paragraph to illustrate what I mean:
Ray was thinking that if it had been reported stolen, then Santa Fe police would have a record of it.
Harris could have checked for that, but he apparently hadn’t. Maybe he was slipping. But Ray didn’t say any of that, simply saying,"And?"

This could have be trimmed to:
If it had been reported stolen, the Santa Fe police would have a record. Apparently Harris hadn't checked for that, although he could have. He was slipping. But Ray let it go. "And?"

Small difference, maybe, but I think a noticeable one over the scale of an entire novel. 

Even once the plot gets going, we're slowly walked through the practical minutiae of a kidnapping. At this point, actually, I was interested. The fun of reading crime novels is getting into the head of a criminal and seeing how he does it. In this particular case, our boy Sammy and our girl Nina have a time of things negotiating everything from peeing while blindfolded (perhaps too much detail here) to squabbling over who gets to eat the Hungry Man and who gets the Lean Cuisine, a scene that was so unexpectedly amusing and cute that I forgave the scene of Sammy going grocery shopping. The banality is the point of it. Seeing these small details did help me understand, to some extent, how Garza and Nina got used to each other and how Garza, at least, comes to fall for her. All the same it seemed like one-sided affection to me, while Nina and Ray's relationship seemed built mostly of backstory from the previous 2 novels.

One last note on the level of detail--when you watch a criminal plot his crimes, complete with all the second-guessing, reconsidering, and questioning his sources of information, you become more sympathetic to him but also much less intimidated. When Garza describes his crimes in the first pages, I couldn't help thinking that ringing the doorbell to check that nobody's home before burglarizing the house seems rather 101 level criminology. Watching him debate whether he needs a taser for his kidnapping or just a stun gun, basing his information on TV shows, is like watching a kid playing dress-up. I found his awkwardness almost endearing and so the way he softened around Nina made sense--he didn't seem a bad guy at heart. Then he suddenly takes a turn for the truly dark at the end that surprised me. To be clear, I'm skeptical of any guy who tries to get into a woman's heart while keeping her prisoner, but I wasn't sure the story's logic agreed with me. Garza may well have been a nice guy who made mistakes.

Anyway, that sudden dark turn led to a twist ending which, depending on your feelings for the characters and your expectations, will be either poignant or make this a Shaggy Dog story. Which it is, is up to you, although I'm curious about the reactions of readers who have stuck with these characters for three books.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

WIP Name And Shame

A writer's blog is nothing if not a way to hold myself accountable. Here's the progress I've made on my main writing projects, as of October 1st, 2013.

Starter Guide for Professional Writers--I'm just past halfway through the second draft, which is already 20,000 words longer than the first. In hindsight the first draft was just a very detailed outline. I've fleshed it out with more examples, explanation, and a few new ideas or good old ideas that I'd forgotten to add the first time around. My brain's been jogged by doing further rounds of manuscript editing, including what I'm doing as Kickstarter perks, and a writing class I took this September at The Writer's Center in Bethesda. I had the chance to compare notes and chat with a lot of authors, as well as receiving advice--some of which I'd heard before, some of which I agreed with, and some of which I disagreed with. Any talk about promotion your book nowadays will include some truism about." In the old days the publisher would promote for you; now it's all on the writer."

To some extent, that's probably true, but insofar as it gives the impression the success of the book's marketing rests on the writer's shoulders, bollocks. The writer must write a book that is worth purchasing. And that's it. It is certainly helpful for the writer to do all they can to make people aware of this book they have written, but if marketing were really entirely on the author, we'd be seeing similar sales figures for hard-promoting self-published writers as we do for writers signed on with Penguin. And we don't. Large publishers have distributive capacities--catalogs, bookstore distribution, better access to review outlets--that authors on their own certainly don't have. And even some small presses help their authors promote by finding reviewers, booking outlets for blog tours, etc. Plus cover art. Never underestimate that.

All the same, I am dedicated an entire chapter to ideas on marketing your book, in part because some of them are really fun. A lot of the writing of the Starter Guide has been really fun. What concerns me isn't completing this second draft, or even the third (a readthrough for typos and fact-checking mostly) so much as...shudder...formatting. CreateSpace I understand well enough, and through them I can get into the Kindle store. But the rest of my ebook distribution will be done through Smashwords, and their formatting guide has some frightening directions for nonfiction books including chapter and chapter subsection headings, as well as lists and images, all of which the Starter Guide has. I shall persevere, but allow me a moment of trepidation.

One Hundred Days--Goodness, I finished the first draft of this almost four years ago (as a freshman, and I've now graduated!). Since then, I've typed up the original paper manuscript, sent it to 2 beta readers and received comments, and made my own red-pen edits. But only with this past summer do I really feel like I'm making progress. It turns out I have a number of scenes missing from the original, as well as several superfluous scenes, scenes which haven't done the job they were hired to do, and scenes which should actually be doing a different job in the first place. I may be--gasp!--adding a prologue, because one particular character deserves to be introduced earlier as his perspective could be invaluable.

On a line-by-line level, I've reached a breakthrough in part thanks to the class I took at the Writer's Center. The problem is, I write long sentences. I've always known this. I haven't always known quite how much of a problem it is. And even when I acknowledged that sometimes my sentences get long and unwieldy, I wasn't sure how to fix them. The secret is apparently catching my use of "and". Deleting "and" and making my conjunction into two separate, shorter sentences has already worked wonders. Also the omnipresant semicolon.

Lastly, I've been adding a lot of what I call "texture" edits--adding more concrete details, especially those which imply more than they say outright, my preferred technique for worldbuilding. Touring the museums and collections in DC has really helped me in this regard as I've fleshed out the art history of Xeocib.

By the way, if you're interested in One Hundred Days or The Starter Guide for Professional Writers, you can arrange to get email updates on their publication status by asking to hear "When Your Next Book Comes Out" through my Newsletter.

Across the Curse-Strewn World--I've now completed three out of the planned six stories in this series (as well as four out of five of the stories sharing background on the setting). Better still, I have solid plans for the last 3 stories. Partially this came about through outlining, and partially from brainstorming sessions to generate insights. There's something to be said from stepping into the shower with a resolution to surprise yourself. And you might give me that look, but I've heard Woodrow Wilson had the idea for the League of Nations in the shower. Or maybe it was Roosevelt and the UN. Google isn't helping me.

Well, at least I don't sing.

Also helpful, and infinitely less awkward to describe, are the weekly "writing dates" I've been setting up with my friend at the library every Tuesday night. Sitting down with a notebook and no distractions whatsoever--or at least a guaranteed feeling of being judged if I do pick a beckoning distraction off the shelves--has done wonders for my productivity. The latest story I've finished is a direct sequel to what is so far the only published story of this series, The Storms in Arisbat

It's called "For Lost Time" and includes a journey to the Kingdom of the Dead, a nation in exile, and an entertaining digression on who people do and do not dance with.

A Dark and Wonderful History--I thought I had only a couple stories left to write in this series (of which around half the finished stories are published). But as I looked over the loose ends and lacuna in my fictional history, I realized I need at least four more to cover specific topics, as well as introduce some more diversity to my cast of women. While I'm happy with the outlines I've prepared and have even made a few paragraphs' progress in the stories themselves, I feel like I'm encountering what a friend calls "Xeno's Paragraph": I'm halfway done, and then halfway done again, without ever being completely done. Telling myself it's like a novel with just four chapters left to finish doesn't help, either. A short story is more complex than any chapter in a book. I have casts of characters to introduce, personal and worldwide history to interweave, and alongside it all, myth arcs to unify and bring to a satisfying conclusion.

Some stories in this series:
"The Gallows Wife," originally printed in Semaphore magazine but currently available as part of the Shadows Within Shadows anthology.
"The Loving and Keeping of Wolves" in WolfSongs 2
"The Godslayer's Wife" at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
"Silver Chests and Plain Sight," recently reprinted at Voluted Tales.
"Invitation of the Queen," at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Heart's Kindred--This is a pet project of mine that gives me no trouble. And in return, I give it very little attention (I'm not ready to keep actual pets or children for a good while yet). I have one short story to complete, but more importantly 2 novellas featuring the characters to frame the climax. I have some idea what will happen in each, but haven't yet reached the outlining stage so much as the This'd be a cool thing to fit in stage. Characters are still introducing themselves, and weapons are still being designed. As I said, it's a pet project, meant to be fun. I do have another three short stories in the series completed and currently being shopped around.

So far the stories that are published are sort of odd ones out, being told from the POV of characters besides the series protagonists. They are:
"Every Mother's Child," in Fantastique Unfettered Issue #2
"An Honorable Aunt" in Silver Blade Issue #18

Other short stories:
September was an excellent month for me. I'm especially happy with A Marriage, Pure and Good's debut with Scigentasy, which was just the perfect fit. That story journeyed far to find a home, and I think I've changed as a writer since I first drafted it, but the reader reaction has been wonderful.  Equations in the Mirror has also appeared at Perihelion, making this a month for science fiction stories. All my novels and series are fantasy, but as I think on it my "unaffiliated stories" are largely science fiction. I have one story about a man who owns a planet, which has reached the "surprising myself" stage of outlining. Also a sequel to the story I wrote in a fit of madness at Mole National Park, a science fantasy piece involving art collectors, interuniversal war, and perhaps a stealth reference or two to The King in Yellow.  Speaking of wars, I also have a story about time travelling soldiers which deserves my attention but also a lot more focus than I can give any one thing at this point.

Lastly, as I look over my publications list I've found a few more dead links as stories go out of print. I'll be looking up reprint markets over the autumn so that the poor dears can see the light of day again. If you'd like to point out a dead link and/or request that I move faster on a particular reprint, your messages are more than welcome.

Other novels:
Although I'm not quite mad enough to write multiple novels at the same time (ahem), I am doing some heavy outlining of a few future pieces, including writing "quips" or excerpts. Once I've generated enough quips, I sort them roughly in order and then write enough to piece them together. Sooner or later, a novel appears. For a time I thought I was through with this quippy method of writing and should stick with writing a piece straight through (I've done this with two novels; incidentally both had strong romantic subplots, but in any event they were "fun" novels rather than ones I had ambitions for on the scale of One Hundred Days). Yet the quips are proving rather handy; I've even started with them for some short stories.

I have two extremely ambitious sci-fi/space fantasy novels in the works right now (including one featuring the protagonists of the Mole Park story), as well as a shorter novel/novella in the setting of Heart's Kindred and a dark fantasy novel in the setting of the A Dark and Wonderful History. The novella is very close to done, but I haven't had time to sit down and really finish it for a while. I have my eyes on a few small speculative fiction presses, though, where I'd be privileged to see it, so I might sweep off the dust once I'm finished with The Starter Guide.