Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Amazon has acquired Goodreads. Here’s what I think about that.

Yet another month has come and gone, and yet another pile of books has been added to my “read” shelf. I picked up the pace after February’s lull in reading. Right now, though, there’s a bigger fish to fry – I want to talk about the fact that Amazon has purchased Goodreads.

At this point, I have no idea what to think beyond my general knee-jerk reaction of Amazon = evil. A large part of the appeal of Goodreads was its independence; this acquisition just gives Amazon even more power in an industry where it’s already the 800-pound gorilla. If it turns out that the book reviews I stored on Goodreads will be made available on Amazon’s pages, I’ll pull them. However, I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I like distributing my reviews through multiple channels.

Ideally, I want Amazon to keep a loose grip on the site and leave the current user experience unchanged. I still want to be able to add books to my “to read” shelf, keep track of my current reading progress, and shelve books as I finish them. I use the group and book club features sporadically at best, and although I send messages to other users, I do so rarely. In other words, Goodreads’ social networking features aren’t as big a draw for me as its shelving and library features.

This leads me to another issue: discoverability. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how books have a “discoverability” problem, and how it’s hard for publishers and retailers to connect readers to books they don’t know about yet, but may love if they’re given the right push. Goodreads’ recommendations engine is thus an alluring addition to Amazon’s algorithms, because theoretically it will increase the conversion rate of book recommendations to sales.

I say “theoretically” because I don’t bother with Goodreads’ engine at all. Why should I when I’m inundated by book titles from so many other sources? I get recommendations from friends. I subscribe to a ton of RSS feeds and podcasts, and a few fiction magazines. Whenever a book is mentioned in one of those venues that sounds even vaguely interesting, I add it to my “to-read” shelf.

Currently, that shelf is hovering around 250 books – and that’s not counting all of the other titles I come across but ultimately ignore. I have absolutely no problem when it comes to finding new books to read. (And since the Hugo nominations were announced today, that’s yet another source of really good algorithm-free recommendations to pay attention to.)

Speaking of RSS feeds, the thing that pains me the most about Amazon’s purchase is that it comes so soon after the announcement of Google Reader’s impending shutdown. Goodreads and Reader together were a dynamite combo – both were free, were easy to use, and helped me keep track of interesting things. When Google announced that Reader was closing shop, I scrambled to find a replacement. The idea of trying to find yet another alternative to a perfectly good web service just two weeks later fills me with dread and fatigue. If it were any other month, I’d (probably) delete my account as a form of protest, but this time I’m too goddamn tired, and there doesn’t appear to be a good replacement waiting in the wings. I’m just going to wait and hope that Amazon doesn’t fuck things up.

So what about you? Are you cautiously optimistic? Are you filled with horror? I’d like to hear what you think in the comments.

The Hugo Nominee Ballot, Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the Hugo nominees in various categories of fiction. Last time I discussed the short story, novelette, and John W. Campbell shortlists. Today, I’ll discuss the novella and novel shortlists.

Best Novella

My choices: Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente and The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

The Best Novella shortlist was easily the hardest one to vote for on the entire ballot, as both of the novellas listed above were extraordinary.

Silently and Very Fast is the story of Elefsis, an artificial intelligence that has interacted with the bodies and minds of one family over generations – they inherit it and merge with it in dreams. But it’s also about much more than that. It’s about the freedom that dreams afford us to imagine the beautiful and fantastical. It’s about the layers of resentment that build up when families have predicated their identities so thoroughly on one thing that to try to live a life outside of that thing is nearly impossible. It’s about the fear we have for the machines that will eventually replace us. It’s about fairy tales. Above all, though, it’s about Elefsis’ bone-deep need to be recognized as a being with needs and wants as complex as any human’s.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist is about Kit Meinem, an engineer from the capital coming to a small riverside town to build a bridge. This is not just any river, though – the current is made not of water, but of a roiling, caustic mist with no riverbed beneath it. Giant creatures writhe in its depths and the only method of crossing it is by ferry. However, the ferry is sporadic at best, as the ferrymen and women can sense the river’s moods and cross only when they feel it is safe to do so. The bridge could transform the sleepy little town into a vital trading centre, but it would also mean the loss of the ferrypeople’s livelihoods. Of course, the bridge is not just a symbol for the town, but for the engineer himself, a distant man who slowly but surely – and to his own surprise – becomes an integral part of the community.

Both novellas display assured pacing and characterization. I especially appreciated the “rightness” of the ending for Bridged the Mist, and was happy that Kij Johnson didn’t break the ruminative, contemplative tone of her story by inserting needless  drama into it. However, I ended up making Silently and Very Fast my first choice in this category because its ambitions were so outsized, and it was working on a much broader canvas.

The others: (in no particular order)

  • Kiss Me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal -This was a fun police procedural set in the future, where cops solve cases with the assistance of AIs that they interact with through VR glasses. Metta, the Portland police department’s AI, has been stolen, and it’s up to detective Scott Huang, working in tandem with a backup of Metta, to understand the case. It’s an interesting concept with a great workaround for mashing up Hollywood glamour with sci-fi tropes – Metta’s avatar when she works with Detective Huang spouts Mae West quotes – but ultimately, the central mystery left too many questions unanswered for me to enjoy it.
  • Countdown by Mira Grant – This novella is a prequel to Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, and explains the genesis of the trilogy’s zombie plague. However, the novella itself was plagued by flat, dead writing. I felt no spark when I read this – the text felt like a lifeless series of “this happened, and then that happened” occurrences. It brought to mind all of the other zombie/plague stories I’ve read – The Stand, World War Z, etc – and suffered immeasurably by comparison.
  • The Ice Owl by Carolyn Ives Gilman – This was a science fiction story with faster-than-light travel and hypersleep that also incorporated elements of the Holocaust into the plot. Its biggest flaw was the relationship between the main character, Thorn, and her mother, Maya. In the end, Thorn decided to run away from her mother, because she was sick of Maya’s bohemian, peripatetic ways – Maya’s carelessness resulted in the death of the title animal, the last of its species, which was given as a gift to Thorn by a friend. However, when Thorn arrived at her destination after years of hypersleep, her first independent taste of hostility had her running back into her mother’s conveniently nearby arms. The characters were unvinvolving, the references to the Holocaust were ham-fisted, and the setting was unmemorable. This was easily the weakest nominee on the novella shortlist.
  • The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu – What if time travel actually worked, but time travellers could revisit the same time and place only once? The Man Who Ended History is the story of how one man’s idealistic use of time travel – to unearth the truth surrounding Unit 731 – ended up causing an international diplomatic crisis. Most intriguing was the formatting of the story as the transcript of a real documentary, complete with descriptions of camera movements. I appreciated Liu’s skill in telling this story, but it was depressing, to say the least.

Best Novel

My choice: None.

This may sound harsh, but it really isn’t. On the ballot, you can list your votes in order of rank. you can state that none of the nominees deserve to win, or – as I did – you can abstain from voting altogether. I abstained because I didn’t feel informed enough to make a choice. Here’s what happened with each of the nominees:

  • A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin – I didn’t read this book. I haven’t read a single book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and I didn’t want (or have the time) to read the 4 gargantuan novels that preceded it in order to determine ADwD‘s own merits. My guess is that this one will win the Hugo anyway – HBO has allowed Martin’s books to reach critical mass with the public, and the fact that the TV show is now so popular/recognizable will definitely affect its vote count. Think, for example, of the 2001 Hugo award given to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – you can bet that it won not because of a large slate of informed fantasy afficionadoes, but because it had a huge fan base. In a nice bit of irony, Harry Potter won out over A Storm of Swords, another book in Martin’s series.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey – I reviewed this one previously. It was a fun story, and I am definitely considering reading the sequels, one of which is already out. But as I said in my review, I don’t think that this book was groundbreaking or ambitious enough for it to be considered award-worthy.
  • Deadline by Mira Grant – I didn’t read this one either. In general, I decided I didn’t want to bother with catching up to the latest books in series that I wasn’t familiar with. Anyways, if the calibre of writing in Deadline matched that found in Countdown – mentioned above – I’m probably better off for skipping it.
  • Among Others by Jo Walton – I just posted my review for this one a few days ago. I appreciated the depth of effort that went into making Mor a living, breathing person, but the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. Also, as I mentioned in my review, I’m worried that the book’s built-in references to and praise for various genre books from the late 1970s was a calculated attempt to win voters/judges over.
  • Embassytown by China Mieville – Alas, we come to the odd book of the bunch – the one I started to read, but could not finish. I am aware of Mieville’s critical reputation, and I am aware that he’s a very acquired taste. However, I just could not get through this book. I bailed about 10% of the way in. The book’s world-building was thorough, but too immersive in the sense that Mieville just expected you to accept the realities of his world without any context. Does this speak to an intellectual laziness on my part? Perhaps. But at the very least, I’d like to understand what I’m reading.

What does this mean in the long run?

This was the first time I’ve ever voted on the Hugo ballot. Overall, I was very pleased with the experience, as I got to read the work of a number of writers that were previously unknown to me, like Karen Lord’s wondrous Redemption in Indigo. It cost only $50 to get the support membership package, which meant that I got the entire collection of fiction on the ballot – all of the Short Story, Novelette, Novella, Novel, and John W. Campbell Award nominees – for a ludicrously good price. And it was all in electronic format, meaning I could upload the whole thing to my Kobo! Pure bliss.

Paying the membership fee also means I can nominate good works for next year’s ballot. Given the choice, I would gladly do this all over again in 2013.

On a related note, the World Fantasy Convention just released their shortlist for this year’s World Fantasy Awards. This is a set of juried prizes, but it’s pleasant to see some overlap between the WFA and Hugo ballots.

Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons

Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print (hardcover)

I’ve decided to ditch the “Reading challenge” portion of my book review titles. This was the 12th book that I read this year, and dear Lord, was it a doozy.

About the book: It is 1847. The two boats from the Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage – the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror – have been locked within the pack ice of the Arctic for well over a year. However, the steady depletion of coal, food, and supplies is not the only hardship that both crews have to face, for the arrival of a mute Inuit woman has coincided with the predations of a terrible supernatural creature with a craving for human flesh. Now Captain Frances Crozier, the highest-ranking officer still alive on this cursed expedition, has to determine how reach safety while evading both the monster stalking them and the mutinous thoughts growing within his crew.

What I liked: The opening of the book was planned out with care, as Simmons switched between different characters and different points of view. He painstakingly set up the environment and stakes of the story – the ships being frozen on the ice, the crew having the startlingly incompetent Sir John Franklin as commander, and there being barely enough coal to keep warm. I could sense that Simmons was building a strong house, and that he was laying down the planks and foundation with precision. Every chapter, every new development, every switch from one character to another, screamed one word: Deliberation.

In particular, I liked the slow buildup and unfurling of two crucial scenes: The disastrous Grand Carnivale out on the ice, and Crozier’s agony soon afterwards as he gave up drinking cold turkey and went through an agonizing detoxification process, complete with hallucinations and delirium tremens.

Astute readers will note that the Grand Carnivale sequence is an extended reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I am not so astute, as I haven’t read Poe, but I do read Wikipedia, so I understood the basics of the reference. It impresses and pleases me when an author pays such attention to pacing, structure, and literary allusions. It tells me that the author cares. It also tells me that they take their readers seriously, and expect the same level of care and attention in return.

What I disliked: Despite the respect I felt Simmons was paying his readers, this book was far too long. Reading it was a protracted affair, full of doubt – rather like the Franklin Expedition described within. I don’t know if the book’s length was deliberate in order to exhaust readers, but I suspect that Simmons would not find such a meta-effect unwelcome. However, I also felt a perverse sense of pride as I complained about The Terror book to my friends and coworkers – it felt oddly satisfying to heft this brick up into the air and declare that it was too long to be enjoyable. Ultimately, I finished it by giving myself a goal of reading at least 50 pages during every commute to and from work, effectively making it feel like a school assignment. I’m unsure why it was so difficult to read The Terror, as I read Justin Cronin’s The Passage (which was approximately the same length) last summer and finished it in less than a week.

Another problem was the lack of both a glossary and a character list in the book. There were over 100 men on both ships and the majority of them were referred to by name throughout the text; it would have been invaluable to have a list of all of the crew members, and a glossary explaining all of the naval terms, in order to help me understand who they were and what they were doing. In particular, one early conversation between the various officers of both ships included two participants who were both named John, and the only way to distinguish between the two was that one was referred to as “Sir John” and the other “Captain Sir John.” Trying to keep all of the names straight in this and other instances made me dizzy.

Finally, the closing chapters of the book were a dramatic, abrupt shift. After hundreds of pages of slogging through ice, starvation, scurvy, mutiny, and cannibalism, we move instead into a discourse on Inuit mythology and the origins of the snow-monster. I understand why this was included – you can’t just introduce a crazy man-eating monster in the Arctic larger and more cunning than a polar bear and not expect people to wonder where it came from – but the move away from the Franklin Expedition crew members came out of left field. It also disturbed me that in all of the pages devoted to the viewpoints of the crew members there was no chapter similarly devoted to Lady Silence’s viewpoint. She is an important character, and vital to the survival of Crozier, yet we never experience her thoughts.

The verdict: Simmons has skill – the effort which he takes to establish location and weave together the various viewpoints of the story are obvious – but The Terror was such a slog that my appreciation of it is muted. I spent so much time reading it that to give up on it would have felt like a waste, and would have seriously set back my book review efforts here. This is the first book I read in 2012 that left me sitting on the fence.

Next up: The Steel Seraglio, by Mike Carey, Louise Carey, and Linda Carey.

2012 Reading challenge, book 11: Mort

Title: Mort (Discworld Book #4)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of the grand old ladies of fantasy fiction at this point. Pratchett’s prolific output and consistent hilarity have earned him scads of readers. However, until this year, I had never read any Discworld books, and the only book of his I had read was Good Omens, which was co-written with Neil Gaiman. I decided to read this book first out of the entire series based on the Gateway to Geekery recommendation made by The AV Club, one of my favourite culture/media sites.

About the book: Death, the Reaper of Souls, needs an apprentice and decides on Mort, a gangly, naive teenager from the hinterlands of the Disc. Wearying of living without truly understanding life, Death goes on an extended holiday and leaves Mort in charge. Mort, of course, has had only the most rudimentary of training, and unleashes a potentially catastrophic chain of events when he decides to thwart fate and prevent the assassination of a comely princess. As is so often the case with Pratchett, hilarity ensues…

What I liked: Pratchett’s known for his humour, and this book did not disappoint. It introduced me to Discworld with little discomfort, and I felt comfortable amidst the snarky footnotes, anthropomorphic personifications, and judicious small caps. The writing flowed easily, and although the lack of chapter breaks was jarring, I adjusted to it quickly. Also, Death is a wonderful character – it’s amazing how he’s imbued with so much personality despite his nature as a cold, implacable reality that we all must face. The asides and worldbuilding interspersed throughout the novel were deftly done, and certain scenes, like Mort’s solo attempt to fulfill Death’s duties with an understanding witch, were surprisingly poignant.

What I disliked: The lead-up to the ending of the book was rushed and didn’t match the tone of the text that preceded it. Throughout the book, Pratchett clearly explained how Mort’s actions violated the natural order, but the sword-and-scythe fight seemed like a really tacked-on way to resolve this dispute. No other sequence in the book has a similar level of physical action in it, and it seemed out of character for both Death and Mort to take part. In addition, the final revelation that Mort and Ysabell got hitched – and got a new duchy in Sto Helit in the bargain – seemed awfully neat and tidy.

The verdict: Mort was fun, and I look forward to reading other books in the Discworld series to get a sense of how the various puzzle pieces fit together. My fiancé is a big fan of the Night Watch books, and has at least a few ready to borrow. However, I am worried that the other books in the series will have the same ending/denouement problems that this one did. I remain cautiously optimistic about the series so far.

Up next: The Terror, by Dan Simmons

2012 Reading challenge, book 8: Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Title: Beginnings, Middles and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing Series)
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

I first learned about Beginnings, Middles and Ends from from the same place where I get a lot of my writing advice: Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast. Considering the subject matter and the useful way this book structures its advice, I’m surprised it’s not recommended more by other writers. It fits nicely with the other books about the craft of writing that I’ve read this year – On Writing and Bird by Bird – although I’m sure more will be added to the pile as 2012 progresses.

Overview: Author Nancy Kress identifies three types of writers and their respective weaknesses: Those who have trouble writing beginnings, those who have trouble writing middles, and those who have trouble writing endings. The book is broken up into three  sections and analyzes the types of problems each writer faces during the process of crafting a story.

What I liked: I recognized myself throughout the book. In each section, when Kress described a problem that writers encounter in the process of working on a story, I thought “that’s me!” to myself over and over again .For each problem she provides a hypothetical plot that exemplifies it and suggests several solutions. She never categorically states that a solution “must” or “will” work – just that it has proven useful to others. In addition, she provides examples of existing published stories that have already overcome the same structural problems. On top of this, the book extensively discusses the different problems that short stories face in comparison to novels, and vice versa. I found her acknowledgement of the structural problems inherent to each format to be reassuring.

What I disliked: Almost nothing. I originally gave this book 4 stars out of 5, but I bumped it up to 5 when I realized that I couldn’t name any major problems with it. If anything, it’s overwhelming in its bounty of good writing advice. There’s only one thing I’d change about the book, and that’s a small passage at the end that contains an interview with the author. In the interview, Kress states that the best piece of writing advice she’d ever received was from Gene Wolfe, who told her to “have two different things go on a story and then at the end have the two things impact each other.” Since the book doesn’t go much into the intricacies of subplots, I think it would have been helpful to include this tidbit in the body of the book rather than in an extra at the end, but this is a small quibble at best.

The verdict: If you have the chance to buy Beginnings, Middles and Ends, take advantage of it. The book contains lots of solid, useful advice, dispensed in a clear, engaging manner; Nancy Kress is full of empathy for her readers, and it shows. The structure of the book is natural and intuitive, and the recommendations within it are exhaustive. This book is a keeper – I can certainly see myself referring to it as I progress with my own narrative writing.

Next up: On a Cold Road by Dave Bidini

When a book grows up with you

Happy holidays to all! As you unwrap your presents and spend time with your family, I hope that today’s pleasure has been heightened by the gift of a book. Here’s a story of how a book I received for Christmas had a profound effect on me.

Note: This post was originally published as a guest blog post on October 17th, 2011, for Linda Poitevin’s blog in the wake of her recent book release. It has been reposted here with her permission.

With the recent launch of Linda’s book (Congrats!), I thought it would be helpful to look back on a favourite book of mine. It’s one that took me a long time to get through, especially when I first read it as a child. It’s a book that’s bounded over the walls of “bestseller” territory to become firmly ensconced in school curricula. And, of all things, it’s a book about rabbits.

It’s Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Simply put, Watership Down has helped frame my life. I first got it as a Christmas gift when I was about 10 years old. Over the next 2 years, I tried to read the book multiple times, but stalled before the Sandleford rabbits reached Cowslip’s warren. When I finally managed to gather enough steam to plunge through the rest of the book when I was 12, I was amply rewarded:  Catastrophes, death, cunning escapes, and a poignant ending – everything was exciting!

However, a funny thing happened as I got older and read the book over and over again: It turned out to be much richer than I originally thought. I now firmly believe that it is a masterpiece, and here are some of the reasons why:

Depth of characterization­

Watership Down features a cast easily stretching into the dozens. While some of the characters have little to distinguish themselves beyond a name, the care with which so many are drawn is astounding. Off the top of my head, here are 10 characters in the book who are truly distinct from each other, with a unique voice and outlook on life:

  1. Hazel – Essentially, the every-rabbit who is sensible, loyal, and caring. He ultimately becomes the leader of his warren because he shows bravery, foresight, and consensus-building skills.
  2. Fiver – A rabbit with extra-sensory abilities. His otherworldly talents are disdained by the group at first, but they become increasingly essential to the Watership warren’s survival.
  3. Bigwig – The leader of Watership’s Owsla. Muscular and brave, he eventually learns the value of humility, delegation, and subterfuge.
  4. Blackberry – The thinker. His clever tricks save lives and confound Watership’s enemies.
  5. Dandelion – Watership’s fastest rabbit. He also acts as the warren’s storyteller, and it is these stories that provide the reader with glimpses into the mythology of rabbits.
  6. Holly – The author conveniently sums him up like so: “Sound, unassuming, conscientious, a bit lacking in the rabbit sense of mischief, he was something of the born second-in-command.”
  7. Bluebell – Holly’s companion and the only other known survivor of the Sandleford massacre. He uses humour as a coping mechanism.
  8. General Woundwort – The novel’s antagonist. A rabbit of truly astonishing size with the ruthlessness, political ambition, and fighting skills to match.
  9. Hyzenthlay – A resilient doe in Efrafa. She befriends both Holly and Bigwig during their time spent in Efrafa, and recruits other does to participate in Bigwig’s escape plan.
  10. Nethilta – One of Hyzenthlay’s recruits, who flaunts her status as a rebel before she is detained and tortured for information by Efrafa’s officers.

Of course, what’s interesting is seeing how these characters interact, and what’s really interesting is seeing how they take advantage of power politics.

A fleshed-out and evocative alien culture

By “alien” I mean “foreign” rather than “extra-terrestrial.” In the novel, the rabbits have their own language, political structure, and spiritual beliefs. They also have an elaborate mythology passed down over the generations that helps them understand their world and their relationships to other animals, both predator and prey alike.

Dandelion’s stories provide the clearest window into this, as they explain the antics of El-Ahrairah (the rabbits’ culture-hero) and act as an inspiration for various schemes that Hazel’s group uses throughout the novel.

A reinvention of deeply-embedded cultural tropes

Here’s an extremely rough summary of the novel’s plot:

Hazel and his male comrades start a new warren at Watership Down and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find does to reproduce with. They send emissaries to Efrafa , a neighbouring warren, and are rebuffed after they ask Efrafa’s council for does to take back home. They then send Bigwig to infiltrate Efrafa and escape with as many does as possible. After the escape, Efrafan officers, including the fearsome General Woundwort, attempt to invade Watership Down and are nearly successful before they are ultimately defeated.

Now, here’s an extremely rough summary of The Rape of the Sabine Women, the story of Rome’s founding population:

Romulus and his male comrades found the city of Rome and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find women to marry and start families with. They attempt to negotiate with the Sabines (a neighbouring tribe) for women to marry, but are rebuffed. They then create a fake religious festival and invite neighbouring tribes to attend, during which the Roman men abduct the Sabine women after receiving a signal to do so from Romulus. After the abduction, the Sabine men, including their king Titus Tatius, attempt to invade Rome and manage to capture Rome’s citadel before they are ultimately defeated.

I don’t know about you, but any author who can take a story about the founding of Rome, replace the main characters with rabbits, and turn it into a bestseller is a genius in my book.

Stopping to smell the flowers

Adams takes the time to explore the world beyond the concerns of the warren and goes into detail about the down itself. These passages don’t push the plot forward, but serve as a chance for Adams to walk around and get some pretty prose out of his system. Here’s an example:

We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable, flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech-woods at night.

– Chapter 22, The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah

So what does all this mean?

There are many more things I could elaborate on – political allegories, morals about the environment, gender roles in the rabbit world – but these themes have probably been trampled to death in various classrooms. All I want to do is talk about why I think this novel has good bones.

So what does all this mean? It means that the best stories often have a lot going on underneath the surface, and grow in meaning as the reader grows in maturity. It also means that a novel meant for children (Oh look, it’s about bunnies!) can be a lot deeper than we give it credit for.

NaNoWriMo, Days 12 and 13

I’ve hit the dreaded “Week 2 Wall” in NaNoWriMo.

Last weekend I wrote over 8,000 words – 3,000 of backstory and notes, 5,000 of plot – because I knew that the following Monday, I wouldn’t have the time to put anything down because of a WCDR Board meeting. However, the loss of momentum was deadly. Between Monday and Friday, I wrote only 3,700 words, less than half of what I should have been aiming for. Then, on Thursday, a certain special sweetheart and I went out for a birthday dinner. So yes, my week has not been distraction-free, and I have broken the first rule of NaNoWriMo: get’cher bum in the chair!

To atone, I’ve been listening to copious amounts of I Should Be Writing and Writing Excuses. The latter podcast has been particularly enlightening, especially the episode called “Hollywood Formula.” I’m not writing a piece of experimental, literary, Giller-worthy fiction here, so  hearing about some “tried and true” methods behind story structure and characterization has been invaluable.

Yesterday and today have been spent in catch-up mode. Or rather, today has been. Yesterday was the WCDR’s monthly breakfast, which always makes me tired once I come home, necessitating a nap. After that, I got caught up in playing Portal 2 (selfish! I know!). Today has involved a tremendous goal for myself: 5,500 words in one day. So far I’ve gotten past the 3,000-word mark, but it’s been tough.

However, it would have been much tougher without the purchase and installation of Scrivener. I am in love, love, love, with the corkboard and outlining features, as well as the character sheets and drag-and-drop method of organization. I haven’t used the camera/snapshot feature, and I don’t intend to, but I can see what a valuable tool it would be for the revision process. It has made my “wattle-and-daub” non-linear writing process much more manageable. I’m delighted that the Windows version finally came out this week. I was considering purchasing a copy of WriteWayPro instead, but the trial version didn’t impress me. The software was ugly, and the tutorial method was a help file that contained huge chunks of text worthy of a “tl; dr” response.

In addition to the WCDR and the sweetheart business, this week also contained another noNaNo focus, but one that is sufficiently writerly that I think it deserves to get off scot-free: I got a phone call confirming the date of my library lunch with Margaret Atwood. Now it appears that I have a new project in addition to NaNo: catching up on all of her books!

NaNoWriMo, Days 5 and 6

I have to admit at this point that I’m beginning to flag a bit. I’ve made a good amount of progress so far – over 12,000 words in total – but both yesterday and today were days where I had to struggle to think of what to put down next.

This does not mean I didn’t get a lot of writing done. I got a ton of writing done – over 8,000 words, in fact. However, at least 3,000 of those words don’t count towards the 50k mark because they’re part of the backstory that I realized I needed to create for myself. I am proud to say that I’ve got a majority of my novel’s plotting out of the way.

However, I’m chagrined to say that even though I’ve now set up an “official” plotline for myself, it feels that the characters and circumstances aren’t conforming to it as easily as I thought. Things just don’t seem to make as much sense in the world of the story if they adhere to the plot I’ve ginned up, so I’m still playing things fast and loose.

On top of that, I wrote a guest blog post for someone else and sent it off, and here I am writing again. I guess it’s true that the more you write, the easier it is for the dam inside you to burst.

One last note: A few nights ago I tinkered with saying my story out loud, recording the spontaneous dialogue that resulted, and then transcribing the recording. It was an interesting experiment,  but one that I’m unsure of repeating. I got some great dialogue at first, but once it ran out I stopped the recording due to dead air. Once I transcribed the result I still wasn’t sure where to continue, but in the midst of typing I came up with an excellent incident to illustrate the main characters’ abilities, advance the plot, and highlight the incipient insanity of one of the story’s antagonists. I still consider that my best piece of NaNo writing so far. So yes. while the method had good results, it requires real improvisation and momentum.

NaNoWriMo, Day 3

Ok, I have to admit it: I’ve fallen for NaNoWriMo, and I’ve fallen hard.

When I first heard of it a few years ago, I thought it would be a neat thing to try, but that it wasn’t the right thing for me to do. Then, when I decided to go for it a few weeks ago, I thought that I would approach it in a very detached manner – write the words, count them up, and bam. A good day’s work of writing done, I would then sleep like a baby.

However, now that I’ve actually got an account on the main NaNoWriMo site, I have to marvel at what a smooth ship these people run. Municipal Liaisons. An extremely active community. Corporate sponsorship, complete with discounts. And so many people! I’ve gone whole hog and agreed to attend the Toronto-area brunch they’re having in a few days, got myself a NaNo mentor, and am even in the process of arranging write-ins with other NaNoers who live near me.

This sort of rush is how I feel about the WCDR too, now that I think about it. Finding people with the same goals and trying to synchronize your activities with theirs is incredibly gratifying.

So, now that I’ve got the love-in out of the way, what do I think about the novel itself that I’m writing?

My method of approaching the process has been a bit surprising to me. I haven’t approached the plot linearly at all. When I started writing on November 1st, I had a very vivid image of a man looking over a wall to see two people coming towards his fort in the distance. I then cut back and forth between the people at the fort and the stragglers heading towards them, and ended with the two parties meeting in the middle of the field.

When I first wrote this scene, I thought the ending would provide enough juice that it would be a great “hook” at the beginning of the story from which I could hang subsequent sections of the story.

However, yesterday, I realized that this meeting didn’t have enough weight behind it, and that it isn’t meant to start the novel at all. It really needs to be the first conflict point about 25% of the way in. So now I’m trying to work myself up to that point.

I’ve been taking a fairly wattle-and-daub approach with this. I’m not writing the book in a linear fashion. I have an idea of how I want A, B, C, and D to connect, but I’ve been hop-scotching over the various parts of the novel, hoping to fill in the holes later. Also, instead of writing one looong word file, I’ve decided to save a different word file for each scene or each day of writing. I figure that if I use this method of saving my work, it will be easier to rearrange scenes for impact later on.

I’m also trying hard not to edit my work, but sometimes it’s hard to resist. I do go back and change certain words to avoid repetition, but I’m quite proud to say that I haven’t touched what I wrote on the 1st or the 2nd. Maybe over the weekend I’ll put the jigsaw pieces together.

NaNoWriMo, Day 1

Well, the first day of NaNoWriMo ended much differently than I thought it would.

For the past few weeks I was mulling around one idea in my head, thinking over how I would structure the story and how to introduce the main character and her circumstances. However, the story I was planning was just a bit too autobiographical to be interesting, and the main character was just going to be a thinly-disguised version of myself.

I sat for a good 10 minutes or so, trying to think of how to write about myself in a fictional manner without turning myself into a Mary Sue character. It didn’t work.

So I went back to the drawing board and thought about a story idea I’d had, but abandoned about a year and a half ago. And then all of a sudden, words came out. To be precise, 1644 words came out – very close to the average number of words you should be putting out each day to meet the 50k mark by the end of the month, and more than the goal of 1500 words that I had set for myself today. My plan over the month is to write 1500 words per day on the weekdays and 2000/day on the weekends, with an extra final push at the end of the month.

There were place names. There were multiple characters. There was a semi-dystopian military setting. I began to conceive of a backstory involving power struggles and wars and secret government experiments.

In short, right now it sounds like the most hackneyed thing alive, as God knows there’s enough dystopian fiction out there. But it was fun! Thinking of names for my characters was a good mental exercise. Most importantly, it got the words going, which is the big goal of NaNoWriMo.

So, I’ll consider this an important lesson I’ve learned: an unplanned but exciting story concept is better than a planned-out, boring, vaguely autobiographical one.