NaNoWriMo: made it!

NaNWriMo 2015 Winner BannerAnd lo, 50,000 words hath come from my fingers into the keyboard. I reached the goal and validated on November 29, but I squeezed in a little more writing and ended the month with a final word count of 51,007. This doesn’t mean I’m done writing this first draft, alas. I’m guessing I’m about two-thirds of the way through my story, suggesting that the final word count will be closer to 75,000 words. I have written a little bit on the draft each day in December, although my daily word counts have been closer to 20 than to 1,667. (Hey, that’s still progress!)

It was an educational experience, as you might expect. I had thought that I would manage to do the most writing first thing in the morning. Maybe I should have done so, but I ended up writing in the last couple of hours that I was awake each day. I think that was probably because I told myself I could always stay up just a little longer to get a few last words in. I’m just not good at making myself write anything if I know I’m going to have to get up in a few minutes and do something else like go to work.

Planning the whole thing out ahead of time saved me. By getting myself and the story organized to the point that I had a scene list, I basically made myself a novel’s worth of writing prompts. If the story wasn’t flowing on its own—and most of the time it wasn’t—I’d go to the scene list, choose one, and just write words on it until nothing more came out. As I worked my way through the scene list, the story began to wander away from the plan. Generally, this wasn’t a problem. If I was desperate for words, I just wrote on a scene even if it no longer fit the story as a whole, knowing that I could throw it out later. And I added several scenes that I’d never thought of when all this began. It’ll be interesting to pull this all together at some point and see where the story wants to go now.

Next time—if there’s a next time, which I’m not promising—I will make a list ahead of time of all the meals I can make without much effort or attention. Why waste precious time trying to remember which cookbooks those recipes are in? I suppose if I were truly dedicated, I’d spend part of October making up meals ahead of time and freezing them, but I don’t think I have enough room in my freezer. Speaking of meals, how does anyone do NaNoWriMo and deal with Thanksgiving? I got around it by spending the day quietly at home, but if I’d had to travel anywhere for the weekend, I’m not sure I would have ever been able to make the writing up in time.

It’s been almost a week, and I’m still having trouble believing that A) it’s over and B) I managed to do it. Now that it’s over with, I’m delighted that I did it. It does feel good to be 51,007 words closer to getting this book out of my head. Now to get that draft done before revision starts in January!

 

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NaNoWriMo: the first week

In a surprise move (well, it surprised me), I’m participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. That’s on the short end of novels, but let me assure you that’s still a lot of words when you’re trying to come up with them in a mere 30 days. The saving grace is that you’re not expected to write a good novel in one month. It’s mainly just to get a first draft out of your head and onto paper/into your computer.

NaNoWriMo 2015 participant banner

And why am I putting myself through this? Because there’s a Sailor Moon fanfic that has been bouncing around in my head for over two years now. I’ve played with it, plotted it, planned it…but have never gotten around to writing it. See, I’m one of those people who works best to a deadline. NaNoWriMo has provided me with that deadline.

Things I have learned in the first week:

  • I thought getting ahead on my word count would take some pressure off. Nope. I just obsess over maintaining my lead instead.
  • Having “writing buddies,” as they’re called, helps. The same competitive streak that nudges me into entering things in the state fair also pushes me to keep my word count up around everyone else’s. Plus, it’s nice to be able to occasionally rant to someone who’s going through the same hell you are.
  • It’s fun not only to not pay attention to all the rules of good writing, but to be able to deliberately break them as needed. You know how you’re supposed to eliminate as many adverbs as possible? Forget that. Adverbs are words, you need words: put as many adverbs in as you can stand. I’m also indulging in giant expository lumps as well as a lot of “As you know, Bob…”-style dialogue. Whee!
  • I’m going to develop a taste for Baroque music at this rate. Everything else I’ve tried has proven to be way too distracting, but dead silence is distracting in its own way.
  • I was five days in before I remembered that I’ve had good results in the past by using the Pomodoro Technique for staying focused. It’s working for me for this as well. That’s probably because it creates micro-deadlines. Me and deadlines: we’re an item. ❤
  • Anyone who does this by jumping in with nothing more than a story idea has my profoundest admiration. The first week alone has confirmed my suspicions that if I don’t map this sort of thing out ahead of time, I’m doomed.
  • This is cutting into my knitting time. I miss knitting. 😦
  • This has also eliminated my TV-watching time, and it took me the better part of the week to notice. This undoubtedly says something about the importance of TV in my life.
  • I won’t be reading fiction until December 1. I can’t afford to get lost in someone else’s fantasy world when I’m trying to put mine together. Luckily I have plenty of nonfiction on my to-be-read list.

And…back to the ever-growing draft. Still another 1,200 words or so before I sleep!

One book, different cultures

I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Until recently, I was only familiar with the U.S./Canadian edition. But in updating my entry for it on LibraryThing, I happened to see the cover of the German edition. Yes, these really are the same book.

English and German covers of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

The covers in question. Unanswered mysteries include why is “Japanese” capitalized on the U.S./Canadian cover when nothing else is, and why does the German edition have an English title?

The North American cover emphasizes the book’s gentler, more “woo” features. The soft colors in an abstract, watercolor-like design say you’ll be reading a book with more of a psychological, even spiritual, focus. The words are in black and red, but the all-lower-case serif font softens the impact. This is a cover that goes with Kondo’s advice to to thank your possessions for the service they’ve done you, to greet your house when you come home, to give your handbags and socks a rest. What it doesn’t prepare you for is the author’s uncompromising attitude towards clearing stuff out of your house. That’s not a secret: every book review focuses on it. But those first readers might have been a bit surprised to run into it.

In contrast, whoever designed the German cover focused on that aspect of Kondo’s book. Presumably this is what the German publisher figured would attract potential readers. Black, red, and pure white dominate, with just a touch of green from the only organic element: the little plant at the center. The sans-serif font is all-caps: you will declutter your house! There’s no misty watercolor effect here, just clean, straight lines and defined curves. How well did Kondo’s assertion that “your possessions want to help you” go over with her German audience?

Whether or not you can judge a book by its cover, it seems you can guess what its readers like. Or at least what its publisher thinks they do.

Judging a cover by its book

Earlier this year, I started reading Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. Each book is narrated by one of three sisters. I enjoyed The Mark of the Tala and The Tears of the Rose, and I finally have time to read The Talon of the Hawk, told by oldest sister Ursula. Seen through the eyes of her sisters, Princess Ursula has become my favorite character, so I’ve been looking forward to reading “her” book. Ursula is 30 years old, and in addition to being a mature adult, she’s not model-pretty either:

  • “I suppose I’m lucky not to be the oldest and least beautiful. Ursula, however, is our father’s heir and couldn’t care a whit for things such as prettiness.” (Andi, The Mark of the Tala, p.1)
  • “Ursula looked fine, too—make no mistake. Her ladies wouldn’t allow otherwise. She cleaned up well when she went to the trouble. But Ursula’s beauty is in the clear, firm lines of her jaw, the sharp eyes that miss nothing, her incisive intelligence.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.3)
  • “The eldest and heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, she looked more gaunt than ever. In the past, some might have called her passably attractive, in her hard-edged way, but not at this moment.” (Amelia, The Tears of the Rose, p.2)

Until I’ve read the book, I won’t know how Ursula describes herself, but according to the plot summary, Ursula is “a girl grudgingly honed to leadership, not beauty, to bear the sword and honor of the king.” After two books and that plot summary, I picture Ursula as a woman in her early thirties, thin but muscular, fairly ordinary overall in attractiveness, with a few strong features such as her eyes and her jawline, and who’s not inclined to fuss over her appearance unless her ladies (or her father) demand it.

Then I saw the cover:

Book cover: The Talon of the Hawk

I’m annoyed at myself for not hating it. If I’d seen this before reading the first two novels, I’d be interested in at least reading the plot summary to this one, which is what cover art is for. My reaction is exactly why publishers design covers like this. But this Ursula doesn’t look like someone who appears at formal court functions wearing her sword over her dress so that her men will see her as a soldier before they see her as a woman.

Now when the protagonist really is beautiful, I have no arguments with a cover that reflects that. Consider Ursula’s sister Amelia:

“The youngest, breathtakingly beautiful. They called her Glorianna’s avatar when she was born and started composing sonnets to her by the time she turned twelve. Hair the color of sunrise, eyes like twilight, skin like moonbeams.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.2)

And here’s what the publisher came up with:

Book cover: The Tears of the Rose

In The Tears of the Rose, Amelia is 20 years old. Her youth (really, her immaturity) and beauty are an important part of her story, and the cover art for The Tears of the Rose works well with that. But the cover art on The Talon of the Hawk makes it so that Amelia and Ursula look equally gorgeous and close in age, not ten years apart.

This is giving me cognitive dissonance. It’s like the author is saying Here’s my story about a woman who’s a competent, average-looking adult while the cover is saying Buy this book about a young, beautiful, sexy warrior princess. I’m not great at visualizing, and now when I read the book, no matter how many times Kennedy describes Ursula as average-looking and probably wearing something practical for battle, the image of a pretty woman in a studded tube top is what’s going to pop into my head. Come on, even Amelia’s gown has spaghetti straps!

This is a fairly dismal trend in publishing. Jane Ellsworth’s major problem in Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is that although she’s intelligent and magically gifted, she’s considered too plain to attract a husband. The cover depicts an ethereal young woman who would probably have no trouble getting married in Kowal’s alternative England. The original American cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, a book about an African-American girl, featured a photo of a white girl. (After protest, the cover was changed.) But it’s demoralizing to realize that fantasy fiction about women older than 25 is deemed unlikely to sell unless it’s disguised. Being well over 25 myself, I’ve been looking for books with older heroines. Perhaps I could find them in general fiction or women’s fiction, but my favorite genre is fantasy. I had been thinking that maybe they just didn’t exist. Now I’m wondering if those books are out there—good!—but hidden behind deceptive covers. And how will I find them if that’s the case?

The nonlinear reader

We generally consider reading books to be a linear activity: begin at the beginning and read one chapter after another until you reach the end. Me, I’m more of a nonlinear reader. It took a while for me to notice this about myself because I don’t go to the extreme of turning every book I read into a Choose Your Own Adventure book (turn to page 40! now turn to page 27! now go to page 189!), but maintain a general forward momentum and the illusion of linearity while in reality my reading goes off on all sorts of tangents.

Early on in my reading life, I was seduced by peeking. I’d start off reading a book the normal way and make it through a few chapters. But if I reached the end of a chapter a few minutes before I needed to do something else, I was stuck. I didn’t want to stop reading but I also didn’t want to stop partway through the next chapter. So I’d jump ahead a bit randomly and read a scene. Not too close to the end, but further ahead. And the next time I did it, I could be in a completely different part of the book. After a while, I’d have an assortment of unconnected scenes floating around in my head: nonlinear reading that gave me the impression of a book, but not the story as the author intended it. But not being completely nonlinear, I’d also continue to read the book front to back as I had time, slotting each disjointed scene into its proper place in my memory as I came to it.

17208721416_9bd13ab869_nOnce, just to see how nonlinear I’d gotten, I put a rubber band on the unread pages of a novel. This drove home the point of how often I peeked because I was wrenched back into awareness every time I tried to skip ahead and couldn’t. (Also, having to slip each fresh page out from under a rubber band is a really annoying way to read a book. I finally freed up a chapter at a time for reading comfort.) What hit the hardest, though, was feeling blindsided when a major character was killed. Apparently I’d been getting more warning from my peeks than I’d realized, and in other books, I’d braced myself emotionally for plot turns like this. With that book, I’d had no warning and I was probably as shocked as the author hoped I’d be.

Enter e-readers, and suddenly nonlinear reading got a lot harder, for the same reason I don’t like using e-book editions of reference books: it’s blasted difficult to skip around with an e-reader. You have to get out of the text, pull up whatever feature lets you move to another section, and decide how far to move. It’s a far more calculated set of actions than just letting a chunk of paper pages slip by and reading wherever you’ve cracked the book open again. Indeed it’s enough of an effort that basically, I don’t bother.

So for the past four years (wow, I’ve been reading e-books that long?), I’ve been reading novels the way authors have expected me to. I don’t need to skip ahead to figure out obvious plot twists, but now the clever, devious ones really do come as a surprise and without the annoyance of having to wrestle a rubber band. This hasn’t broken me of the peeking habit. I’m reading a print book right now, and this afternoon I finished a chapter four blocks from my bus stop and peeked for the next two blocks. But most novels I read now are e-books, and I think overall, the linearity has been a good thing. Even if it’s conventional. And hard on the nerves when favorite characters are in danger. 😉

So am I the only nonlinear reader out there? And if you read e-books, have they changed how you read books in any noticeable way?

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photo credit: Bookmark via photopin (license)

Reading, 2014

I read 106 books last year. There’s not much new to say by way of an introduction: I continue to read fantasy, writing, and astrology books with other genres sprinkled in as they catch my eye. I read several books on Lenormand this year although I found the system of divination more memorable than any of the books I read about it. Still, this new interest motivated me to read a book in Spanish about it while I waited for books to come out in English. Okay, it was a thin book, but I made it through and was pleasantly surprised at how much Spanish I’ve retained

Now that I’ve started counting how many male and female authors I’ve read, I’m keeping it up:

Chart comparing numbers of male and female authors read.Again, more women than men. Really, I’m not even trying. That the total is 106 is coincidence, since I didn’t count anthologies and some books I read had two authors.

And with that, the list:

  • The Rise of Renegade X by Chelsea M. Campbell (9/10; finished 3/23/2014): I expected a hokey story. Really, a world in which superheroes and supervillains are not only born, but are conveniently marked with either an H or a V on their thumbs? And then the story turned out to have depth and nuance and surprises, and all those sorts of things. Sixteen-year-old Damien Locke, would-be supervillain, learns his father was a superhero when an X appears on his thumb instead of the hoped-for V. Worse, Dad wants to persuade him to become a superhero, and has Damien move in with his superhero family. An excellent YA book with an excellent sequel: The Trials of Renegade X.
  • When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber (9/10; finished 4/8/2014): I’ve read books that look at mythology as literature, as archetypal psychology, and as remnants of religious practices. This is the first one I’ve read that uses cognitive science to analyze it. The authors argue that many myths describe real events as filtered through the limits of human memory and understanding. It was a fascinating perspective to consider, and well-explained.
  • The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (9/10; finished 5/8/2014): I have no idea why I decided to read this. It’s a police procedural set during the end of the world, and normally I don’t enjoy either police procedural or apocalyptic novels. This one was worth the effort. The author does a great job of depicting a man who clings to duty as a way to keep himself together both in the present disaster (an asteroid is due to hit the Earth in less than a year and wipe out most life), and the past traumas in his life. Watch the world continue to fall apart in Countdown City and World of Trouble.
  • Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (10/10; finished 7/14/2014): One criticism leveled against the fantasy genre is that it keeps telling stories about white people set in a pseudo-medieval Europe. So points to Kate Elliott for creating an alternative nineteenth-century England in which immigrants from Mali settled centuries earlier, leading to a culture that is a fusion of Celtic and Malian, with dashes of Roman. The narrator herself is Phoenician, although she’d never use that term herself. Plus humans aren’t the only sentient species on the planet, and like the title says, there’s magic. There’s an exciting plot to go along with the intriguing world-building. And the story gets that extra thumbs-up from me because even after Cat falls in love with the annoying-but-endearing man who throws her life into chaos, her loyalty to her cousin and best friend Bee remains paramount. The book is followed by Cold Fire and Cold Steel, which, alas, I didn’t love as much. But have I mentioned the great world-building in this one?
  • Eleanor by Jason Gurley (9/10; finished 8/12/2014): A fine novel that eventually turns into a fantasy novel, but I would have enjoyed it even without magic. A child’s death slowly destroys her family, the culmination of rot that started a generation earlier. I could wish the ending was a little tighter, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me.
  • Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy (8/10; finished 8/13/2014): An unfortunate title. I realize all Dummies books follow this pattern, but it can be read as Writing Fiction for Dummies to Read, which is probably not what was intended. Anyway, this is a how-to-write book in which the authors aren’t afraid to say that their method may not work for everyone. It may be unique in that respect, and it was great to read something that wasn’t proselytizing at me. Indeed, the authors are willing to try to help both plotters and pantsers: you work your way through the chapters in one direction for pre-planning your novel and in reverse order if you prefer to write it all down first and shape it later.
  • Write Your Novel from the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell (9/10; finished 11/21/2014): This is short enough that it’s more of a fat pamphlet than a book. But it gave me a definition of a story’s midpoint that finally clicked with me: “Oh, that’s what it does!”
  • Antigoddess by Kendare Blake (8/10; finished 12/1/2014): Despite my love of Greek mythology, I don’t read all that many books that make use of it. I decided to read Antigoddess because with Athena as one of the protagonists, I figured Blake would avoid a lazy gods = villains, mortals = heroes equation, and she has. The gods are dying, slowly, in ways related to their powers. Athena and Hermes learn that Cassandra, reincarnated as a teenage girl in New York, may be the key to saving their lives, but Cassandra doesn’t remember them or her past life. Given how the sequel Mortal Gods ended, there better be a third book forthcoming.
  • The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality by Julie Sondra Decker (9/10; finished 12/21/2014): It’s pretty much what the title promises: an introduction to asexuality, a sexual orientation that’s only now starting to be generally known. Because the author figures that not all readers will read the entire book, she includes the key bits in every chapter, so it gets a bit repetitive at times. But it’s in plain English, easy to understand, and interesting, so I can forgive a little repetition.