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Best Worst Writing Retreat Ever!

Last week I didn’t write any blog posts, on purpose! You see every once in a while my Mom and I pack all our writing supplies and head off to a cabin Casino in the woods and write for a few days. It’s cool because the rooms are dirt cheap mid-week in the dead of winter, there’s free soda all the time, there are shiny things to distract us when we’ve been sitting at our computers for too many hours, I have a pool to jump into when I’m fed up with everything, we don’t have to argue about eating because there’s a buffet or three, and generally all kinds of good things.

This time we headed up to Black Bear, which is a beautiful building with really decent food located in one of my favorite places on earth (Lake Superior, specifically about 25 minutes outside Duluth, MN). If the people there had been a little more welcoming I would have been in hog heaven, but they were all a bit… unfriendly and it was an issue.

I can’t write in places where I feel unwelcome. It’s why I stick to coffee shops and libraries and my apartment for writing times. I pay to be in those places, whether through rent or taxes or by buying overpriced tea, so I have every right to be there. On the other hand, I can’t write at my parents’ house or Maddy’s family farm because I am a guest there, no matter that I’m family. The Erins that  are guests in other people’s homes are not the Erins who do the writing. Maybe they will be someday, but the Erins who write are still pretty sensitive artistic types and fear rejection from friends and family. That feeling of unwelcome made me less-than-disposed to write on my writing retreat, so I did what any good writer would: I started reading.

I read my own novel-in-progress, Steamstress, which was sometimes awful, sometimes good and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Then the next day I went for breakfast with the plan of reading Tim Buckley’s Great Games Bowl novella* after which I was exiled from the room by housekeeping so I wandered the resort, looking unsuccessfully for a place to work. In the end I wound up in the lobby, reading the Steampunk! anthlogy on my Kindle and pretending it was work (I’m writing steampunk, it kind of was) then I was sucked into it and then the third Soul Screamers* book came in at the library (oh Kindle library lending, how I do love thee, how I do love thy ability to deliver books to my Kindle anywhere) and then… I read the next three books in the series, plus the two novellas. Then my Kindle died, just as I was tweeting the completion of my sixth book of the day. I got a bit done the next day, but obviously not the glorious burst through the finish line bout of writing I’d been expecting on the outset.

So, was it a waste? Should I have stayed home?

No. Because as I was falling into bed last night I was thinking about the things that bugged me in the protagonists of the last two YA series I’ve inhaled (Soul Screamers and Jessica), namely that they proved competent time and again, but would revert to hiding behind their boyfriends until it became necessary to be competent again. That’s overstating it a bit for Soul Screamers, Jessica hangs a lantern on the problem and both resolve it in a way that I find acceptable, but I realized I’d done the same thing in my book, unintentionally. That’s not the story I want to tell and that sure as hell is not my grumpy protagonist (I love my grumpy protagonist).

In the midst of this epiphany/breakdown last night I realized (and affirmed said realization as not crazy with two sources) that I would have to excise large tracts of delightful gooey romance from the book. It not only allowed Grumpy Protagonist to learn things without earning that knowledge, because the Honorable Love Interest would tell her, but also was way too easy on the Honorable Love Interest. Things happened more or less according to his plan and as we all know, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, especially when the enemy is Grumpy Protagonist (also, I, as a writer, am morally obligated to make things as hard as possible for my favorite character, especially when he’s the Honorable Love Interest, those are my achilles heel) . So, that’s a lot of editing to do and some major changes to make, including new characters to add (Grumpy Protagonist gets a BFF whether she wants it or not! BFF is awesome and comes with Polar Bears!) all of which will make the novel much stronger because I no longer have an improbable romance dragging down my character progress.

It’s a major improvement to the novel, and I would never have spotted it if I hadn’t spent my writing retreat reading.

*This is the third comic I’ve seen branch into prose fiction in the last few years and I must say that it holds its own against the Fables and Girl Genius novels.

**Loved the series, entertaining as hell, fun, really great take on the paranormal YA thing. I was describing it to a 15-year-old boy and he wanted to try them out. I think the covers might scare him, but I may find a copy of the first book, “give” it to his sister and tell him to check it out.

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Adrenaline-Fueled Super Powers

I may have mentioned once or twice that I read pretty fast. This is true, partially because I genuinely read pretty fast and partially because I read obsessively. I don’t stop, I forget to eat, every part of me that is not reading pretty much shuts down. I try to savor books, to appreciate the finer details on the first read, but I can’t. I cannot stop myself and the out-of-control train that is my brain when I’m reading a book. It only stops when it runs out of track, either because I have to interact with the world or I run out of book. You can see the obsessive nature in my audiobook listening, that’s a regulated speed, but I still get through books much faster than the average person or even the average reader. I can’t help myself.

And then there’s books I’m excited about.

There’s a handfull of them, past and present: Wheel of Time, obviously, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, any Brandon Sanderson book, Seanan McGuire books. Those books are the ones where I obsess, count down to the release date and clear my schedule in order to read all the more speedily. Something more happens to me when I read them. I get this rush from finally having the book in my hands and then…. the book’s over. In far less time than should have been possible. I don’t know how it happens, maybe I was bitten by an irradiated book at one of the Harry Potter release parties.

Today my powers kicked in good and strong. Why?

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise Part 1 (Avatar: The Last Airbender Book Four) came out today (in comic book stores, it’ll hit bookstores February 7). I’m hearing about sell outs all over. Which means that hardly any of my friends have read it while I read it twice before 1pm. And that sucks.

It sucks because the book continues Aang’s story after the end of the TV series and it’s perfect and wonderful and everything I could possibly hope it could be (except long enough).

Since no one seems to have read a copy of this except me, I’m gonna say what I can without going  into spoilers. I believed every word coming out of the characters’ mouths. They sounded actually, perfectly right. The new characters, jokes, and  antagonists feel like a logical extension of the world as we know it. The art (as you’d expect from Gurihiru) is gorgeous and translates the characters from animation to comics wonderfully. Appa and Momo appear and are important. We get the rest of that Zuko “Where is my mother?” scene.

The book was good. Very good. So good that I’m ready to call it best comic book adaptation of a TV show, ever. Better than the Buffy, Firefly, or Dr. Horrible comics (which are some damn good comics). Miles better than the Heroes comics. Better even than the All Robins issue of the Batman: The Brave and the Bold comic (an issue that was in last year’s top 10). The Promise Vol. 1 was everything I loved about Avatar: The Last Airbender brought to life by people who seem to love it as much as I do. They expanded and grew the world in a way that made sense and kept me turning pages with that freakish speed I only experience on the rare occasions when anticipation meets quality.

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A Tale of Two Series

I haven’t written about what an amazing experience it was to be a supporting member of Renovation last year, to vote in my first Hugos and to get a chance to experience my first Hugo voter’s packet. Honestly, I’m still reading through it, but I made it though enough of four of the novels to be sure about my decision. Which then lost, as did my second choice. Looking back, though, I wish I could have told past!me that I want people to read our second choice book more than I do our first.

Let’s rewind the clock back six months, to late July when I was pondering my choices for the Best Novel Hugo. This one means the most to me and I had narrowed my final choice down to two exceptional novels: Feed by Mira Grant (Bloggers fight corruption, disease, and zombies in pursuit of the truth) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemesin (A princess from the far flung edges of an empire is suddenly in the running for empress, with all the God-controlling powers that come with it). I absolutely loved both of these books, I was lucky enough to get my hands on copies on the sequels of both, both of which were actually better than the first entries in the series. I thought all of the books were innovative and welcome additions to the genre, but I could only give my first place vote* to one book and in the end my vote went to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

I loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms because it read to me like fanfiction. I mean that not in derision, but because it took attitudes I kinda hate in the fanfic context, like “Oh everyone totally sleeps with everyone else all the time and we’re all okay with that,” gave them an in-world reason for working, and made me enjoy the hell out of it. On top of that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is diverse and well written without trying too hard. I love it, but a big part of that love, for me, comes from a place of being in Fandom and I talk to people about books who, well, aren’t. This is a specifically me thing, but it means that I won’t be hounding people to read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms unless I think they fit in that narrow Fandom slice of my life.

And then there’s Feed. What can I say about Feed?

Feed is flawless.
I hear Feed’s virology is insured for $10,000
I hear Feed does car commercials… in Alaska.
Feed’s favorite move is Dawn of the Dead.
One time Feed met Publisher’s Weekly on a plane…
–and it told Feed it was “gripping, thrilling and brutal.”
One time Feed punched me in the heartstrings with a rusty hacksaw. It was awesome.

Yeah, I liked Feed. A lot. So why didn’t I vote for it back then? Well I had some reserations about the writing during my first read. I thought it came off as preachy. However, I have since discovered that preachiness comes partially from the narrator, not from the author or the world. It’s an important distinction, because Georgia, the main character, is a little preachy about the importance of honest journalism and I love that about her character. If it was bias on the authorial level other narrators would participate in that preachiness, but they don’t. It’s something you don’t notice at first because Georgia narrates the bulk of Feed with only short interludes from others. The other reason took some research to track down. Reading backstory on Feed (because I am a nerd, I love to read author blogs,and Seanan McGuire’s** blog is really good) I found out she started working on it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That makes a world of difference, because the blog was the be all and end all of communicating with the world back then. Nowadays I get 75 hits on my blog on the best days and over 1,000 people see every one of my tweets. Technology outstripped the publishing process and that’s okay. Resolving those two things really killed off my reservations about Feed, leaving behind only a desire to make everyone I know read it.

In my second impassioned plea in as many days, I now ask you all to please go read Feed and then come back here and squee about it with me. I need to squee about Feed like I get to do about comic books or Doctor Who or Sherlock or musicals or the million other things I squee about on a regular basis.

*Hugo voting is a little confusing, but here’s basically how it works. You rank the nominated books in your order of preference, then the votes are counted. If no work has a clear majority the book with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and its votes are redistributed to the next eligible book on the voter’s ballot. This continues until one book has a majority. It’s cool because your second and third and fourth choice matters. You want to have read as much of the material as possible, so you can make an informed choice.

**Mira Grant is a pen name for Seanan McGuire, who writes other, excellent, books under her own name. I like pen names, especially how they’re used by genre authors skipping around genres. I will probably tell you about the Seanan/Mira thing if you get me talking about Feed. No Twitter Nat teases me about it.

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Willful Suspension of Disbelief Only Goes So Far

Warning: Contains Feminism.

Second Warning: I am not an accomplished feminist scholar, a fault I lay at the highly successful feet of the women who have gone before me.  I don’t always recognize when I’m being marginalized, because it is a bit of a foreign concept to me.

So… I finished A Game of Thrones. It took me three tries over about nine months, but I bested the beast. As expected, I was not overly fond of it. I’m currently reading the second book and I’ll read the rest of the series, because I am invested in a few of the characters, not all of them, but a few.

I was surprised when I didn’t really struggle with the content of the books, but rather a lack of desire to keep reading.  It killed my second attempt at Game of Thrones when I left the book at my parents’ house right around the halfway point and never bestirred myself to go get it so I could finish. My parents live 10 minutes away and I’m over there a few times a week, all of which is to say it wasn’t lack of opportunity, it was lack of desire. A Game of Thrones is at least the fourth book I’ve put down for such an extended period in recent months and that is so unusual for me that I’ve mulled it over for a few days trying to puzzle out why it happened.

Today, however, I had a breakthrough. I was in the shower (a magical place for thinking) and I decided to take the Bechdel Test to a few books that were on my mind. This led to me doing something you’re not supposed to do with the Bechdel Test: use it to classify the overall feminism of a work.   Some books, including A Game of Thrones passed with flying colors, others, including what I’ve read of A Clash of Kings (the second book in the series), made me rack my brain to come up with an example.  When it comes down to passing the test versus passing it well most of the books I’d struggled to finish fell in the latter category. After a lot of thinking and trying on different definitions I have an explanation for what they share and why it is so frustrating.

I like to call this the isolated female protagonist or the isolated female.  Look at your shelf of fantasy novels and think about how many of the female protagonists in those novels interact with other women of their own free will. I’m not suggesting that the female protagonist needs to be sent to the kitchens or anything, just that they have a frustrating tendency to be set apart from other women in a way male protagonists are not set apart from other men. Sometimes this is because comparatively normal women don’t exist or aren’t present in the books, but more often the female protagonists tend to  throw off traditional roles in a way that isolates them.

The worst part is that I completely understand one part of why the isolated female happens, especially in a work trying for historical accuracy. Men hit harder than women, so the big army you’ll use to fight the epic battle is going to be made of men and your research is going to focus on depicting those men. If you’re good you’ll research not just the stuff your heroes are doing but how the cavalry, infantry and archers work, maybe even delve into what kind of men they might be when they aren’t fighting.  This in turn leaves you with little to no time to even think about the half of the population not in your big army, so you ignore them, not out of spite, but because they aren’t as necessary to your writing as a whole.  This means that when you write one of your female characters in a down moment you can either surround her with well-researched men or poorly researched women. It’s hard to fault the choice there.

The whole situation, both the isolated females and the lack of common women in proportion to common men is so jarring for me, personally. I know exactly what I would be doing in any other historical era.  If you doubt me on this, try to find a museum without a single spindle. The idea that I and my skills wouldn’t have a useful place in a fantasy world is is a major turn off for me.  It’s not really something I think about consciously, but I react positively when books show all kinds of women making things or doing things, that includes having laundresses and cooks, nurses and seamstresses.  It’s a fault in a lot of books, including some by authors I love (cough Mistborn cough).

I have more thoughts on this, I’ve got examples that I’d pull out if I didn’t have work in the morning, hell, I’ve got half a mind to coalesce, gather references and look into publishing, but I mostly wanted to start a conversation so have at it! I’ll see you all on the other side of MiniCon!

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Quick Book Reviews

Howdy all!

So this thing happened where I was on writing retreat and then I suddenly had to drive to New York and then it was Christmas.  I’m gonna try to catch you up on what I’ve been doing (hint: not writing! Bad aspiring author!) starting with the books I’ve read.  I also posted these reviews to my Goodreads profile, so sorry to those of you who are seeing them twice!

Crogan’s Vengeance

by Chris Schweizer

I read this book quite a while ago, but never added it to Goodreads, so I did a quick review from memory when I reviewed the second book in the series.

The only thing I liked more than Crogan’s Vengence is the concept of the series: a man with a very extensive family tree telling the stories of his adventurous family to his kids. There’s a definite “moral” or “lesson” in this book, and I’d assume it follows in the later volumes of the series (note from the future: it does), but it was handled well without being too heavy-handed.

Crogan’s Vengence specifically concerns one of the earliest members of the Crogan family, the pirate Catfoot Crogan, who never wanted to be a pirate in the first place, as he sails the Spanish Main. I would have aimed this series at middle grade due to the ages of the modern-day Crogan kids, but looking at a couple reviews to refresh my memory it seems the recommendations skew a bit older. Definitely recommended!

Crogan’s March

by Chris Schweizer

I loved this volume of the Crogan Adventures! While Crogan’s Vengeance didn’t teach me much, since I have a pretty good working knowledge of pirates and no memory about the moral of the story, Crogan’s March, focusing on a member of the French Foreign Legion brought a new location into my head along with a thoughtful discussion about our perceptions about other people and how our actions affect them. Schweizer absolutely upped the ante in this book and I cannot wait for the next volume (American Revolution)!

The Civil War: A Narrative Volume 1, Fort Sumpter to Perryville

by Shelby Foote

I’d previously stayed away from this series because of a bias in the “lost cause” direction. That is definitely present, but it’s not as bad as I would have thought and in a series focused on the tides of battle an early volume would necessarily have to paint the South in a better light, because of the successes during that period. I’m reserving judgment on the question as a whole until I’ve read further volumes.

Apart from the bias issue, I generally enjoyed the book. The narrative format worked very well and I enjoyed all the little vignettes, especially those about Grant and Sherman.

I was listening to the audio edition and it had all the rumored lack of audio quality. However, the auio weirdness didn’t really effect my enjoyment of the book.

A quick break to note that I got a Kindle for Christmas! So I read these last two books on my new Kindle! Woohoo!

Stupid American History

by I don’t care enough to check

Yes, very stupid. Potentially or blatantly incorrect in several places, but it was free and I had a new Kindle to play with.

This was free for Kindle when I bought it, but it’s not free anymore and I do not recommend it.

 

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

by Charles Yu

I read this book because it was the pick for Sword and Laser, I’m excited that I finally got to participate in real-ish time!

The best thing about this book was reading a Science Fiction novel on my new Kindle. That is to say that this book with it’s whole “here is the minutiae of my life in a science fiction universe, focusing on a history of my dysfunctional family” thing is not my cup of tea. Granted, I haven’t read a “not my cup of tea” book in a while, so the experience was novel. However, I never cared at all about the protagonist or his family and I spent the bulk of the book wishing something would happen, because on the rare occasions that something did happen I actually enjoyed the book. The other enjoyable part of this book was all of the characters that didn’t actually exist, because they were fantastic.

While I wouldn’t recommend How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I also wouldn’t tell anyone to stay away.

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Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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To begin, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is wonderfully clever.  Seth Grahame-Smith takes an idea that would be a great 5-minute SNL skit and manages to have it carry a 300+ page book.  He weaves the Zombies into the existing work organically, placing the action where it heightens rather than impedes the plot.  Grahame-Smith works in a complete world, the zombies don’t just appear every dozen pages and wreak havoc, they are very much on the characters’ minds.  In fact, I found that I had no problems with the additions to Austen’s text in the form of Zombies, Ninjas, and Martial Arts; they work, and that is a compliment to Grahame-Smith’s very inventive mind.  Beyond simply functioning, the Zombie/Ninja stuff is hysterical.

“To walk three miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! With the unmentionable menace dragging poor souls off the road and to their doom day and night? What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum….I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”

“Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.”

This was the first passage that made me actually laugh out loud, and considering that instead of a walk through the countryside Elizabeth’s exercise was a desperate fight against three Zombies, it actually improves on the original.  Grahame-Smith manages to give many of the iconic moments in Pride and Prejudice his own twist, and I never disliked those changes.

If all Seth Grahame-Smith had done to Pride and Prejudice was add Zombies, even preserving the passages he edited to better fit the undead, this would be an unequivocally enthusiastic review.  However, he falls down in two major areas that give me pause in recommending it, especially to other Austen fans.  First, he could have used a better editor, in terms of consistency, the abridgment, and the text making sense.  Second, he adds passages that push things to the point of caricature, demolishing depth and historical accuracy along the way.  I’m saving most of my full blown ire on this subject for a separate post, for people who think they can handle me in full on I-once-aspired-to-be-the-world’s-foremost-authority-on-Jane-Austen mode.

Grahame-Smith really needs a better editor.  His spelling of Bennet, the surname of 7 main characters, fluctuates throughout the novel.  This something a word processor can fix; there’s simply no excuse for it.  He also, consistantly refers to the militia quartered at Meryton as the “shire Milita.”  In Austen’s text they are the “—-shire Militia”, a proper noun with the full name of the county ommitted.  By deleting the “—-” Grahame-Smith indicates that they are either the militia for the county, the archaic (even in the 19th century) term would be shire, or that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing by either improperly capatalizing a proper noun or ignoring the reasons for the “—-” altogether.  A better editor would have, hopefully, improved Grahame-Smith’s abysmal abridgment as well.  He cuts scenes so that, from my (Comprehensive Pride and Prejudice Awareness of 50.25) perspective, they cease to make sense.  Deleting lines for no reason other than to make scenes shorter, on at least a few occasions sacrificing Austen’s subtle humor for space to fit in his own.  Furthermore, there are actual logical errors in his alterations, places where he has characters talk about other characters pages before discovering their identities.  I’m not talking a “we haven’t been introduced” thing, this is a “whoah! I never would have guessed that these people are actually —” thing.  Suffice it to say that his abridgments bothered me, both as an Austenite and because some of them made no sense.  Simply put, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies gives Twilight a run for it’s money when it comes to bad editing. (grammatical errors intended)

Jane Austen write light satire; her characters have flaws that critique certain elements of Regency life, but her commentary isn’t blatant, at least not until Seth Grahame-Smith gets his hands on it.  I understand that Grahame-Smith’s work is satirizing Austen, I do, but I really dislike how he goes about it.  He pushes several of the characters, including Darcy to the point where they lose their depth and become caricature.  It’s painful for me to watch these characters that I know so well get regulated to two dimensions and it’s untrue to the spirit of the book.  I could maybe handle some of the satire if it wasn’t so entirely modern in character.  I’m weird and I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in lieu of a book I’m still reading: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, a history book dedicated to bettering the 21st century reader’s understanding of 19th century literature, and I’m not learning a whole lot of new information from it either.  I know my shit when it comes to Austen, so when people like Darcy spout things like

“Miss Bingley, the groans of a hundred unmentionables would be more pleasing to my ears then one more word from your mouth…”

it actually causes me pain. 1) Darcy is, according to Austen, polite to those select few he deems his peers, which definitely includes Miss Bingley. 2) At this time period, even given certain changes for an infestation of zombies, class is still important enough to prevent Darcy and Bingley from marrying the Bennet sister of their choice so it would be unthinkable for Darcy to be so rude to his friend, peer, and hostess.  The caricaturization and historical inaccuracy persist throughout the book and while they are nitpicky details, they contribute to ruin the otherwise enjoyable experience.

In the end, do I recommend Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  To anyone from the Austen-hater to the casual Austen fan, yes.  It is a clever, funny, entertaining take on the classic novel.  However, if you really love Pride and Prejudice, if you’ve watched the BBC/A&E Miniseries multiple times, if you’ve read all of Austen’s other novels, then you might want to take a pass on this one, maybe take it out from the library.  I’m not saying that no Pride and Prejudice fan could enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I enjoyed it quite a bit, actually.  I’m just cautioning people before they invest time and money into something they might not enjoy.

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