Andy Weir and Neil Stephenson in Conversation

There was a book signing and Q&A event for Andy Weir’s new book Artemis at a local book store, and I got to go! The talk was great, and it was fun visiting Third Place Books again. Totally worth going outside for, even for me.

Andy’s writing approach is really interesting. He said that he builds locations before plots or characters. That’s not exactly recommended practice, in fact it’s one of the commonly diagnosed causes for writer’s block, but clearly it works for him. He said that after he built the world for Artemis he actually went through several different plot ideas before he settled on one that he liked. The main character’s name in this one is Jasmine, so obviously that shows good judgement on his part; not that any further proof of his genius was really needed after the success of The Martian. The movie was even pretty great, although it was funny to hear him grumble about some scientific inaccuracy in the changed ending. Apparently, he had considered going that way when he was writing the book, but the math didn’t actually hold up. It’s accepted practice to fudge scientific details or do some hand-waving about future tech when writing Sci-fi, but it seems that’s not Andy’s style. The amount of research he’s done is truly impressive, and it’s clear that his writing grows around his real world interests.

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I was feeling a little off, so I bundled up in basically everything I own before going outside. I think I could rock a Tardis in this outfit. Please feel free to mock my dorky excited face.
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I opted for a plain signature, because I’m just low maintenance like that, but this is the heartwarming personalized note my husband requested for his copy. Andy seemed to find it amusing.
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We had to walk through a foil airlock to get to the talk. It was quite a wild ride.

One of the highlights of the night: In response to an inevitable question from the audience, Neil Stephenson declared that, in his opinion, Andy Weir would be a Hufflepuff.

Writing Tag: 3 Favorite Book Memories

This one’s been going around, but I found it through Jenna Moreci’s vlog. It’s pretty cute, and you should check out her video. The idea is to share your three favorite book-related memories.

First memory: My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was a little kid, and it’s still one of my absolute favorite books. At this point my actual memory of the experience is pretty hazy, but it definitely left an impression. I believe this is the exact copy he read to me, and it has been extremely well read and loved since then. I couldn’t find it on my shelves earlier because the spine is so damaged at this point that it’s unreadable. Still, the story is all there.

Second memory: As a kid I used to love to tuck myself into little hiding places to read. I had several of these spots over the years, but my favorite memory is of the time I got grounded and my mom took away all my books. Or rather, she tried to take all my books and failed. My weird behavior had paid off, and I still had The Swiss Family Robinson hidden in a linen cupboard, along with a little book-light. I could curl myself in underneath the bottom shelf and pull the door closed and read in the dark. It was awesome. I don’t even remember it being uncomfortable, although it must have been. Totally worth it, though. There was another spot underneath my grandparents’ kitchen bench where I read Julie of the Wolves and kept a stash of lemon drops. Books where people ended up surviving alone in the wild were totally my jam at the time, like My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Hatchet.

Third Memory: It was really hard to pick just a few once I started, but I’m gonna go with A Brother’s Price for this last one. I’ll link my review, but it’s a great little romance/adventure set in a steampunk wild-west kind of setting. I don’t remember how I originally stumbled across it, but I’m constantly buying new copies because I give them away so much. It was basically the first really good polyamorous love story I found, and that just warmed the crap out of my heart. The main character, Jerin, is so likable and sweet, and all the gender roles get turned on their heads in satisfying and creative ways. I felt represented, albeit in super cheesy romance novel fashion, but that’s what made it so cool. Inclusive books that still fit into a wider genre and aren’t all about being queer or poly or whatever else can make a big difference in a little package.

Finding A Brother’s Price also made it easier to start my own book. It was different and fun and it was a satisfying stand-alone novel. Before that, I had mostly only read trilogies or longer, and as much as I do love a good fantasy series, the idea of starting out by writing one was daunting. So, after I read A Brother’s Price, this weird quirky little book that I totally loved, I felt more like maybe I could do my own thing, in my own way, and it could turn out okay.

P.S. I am too awkward to tag anyone specific, but if this seems fun then you should do it!

 

“The Girl Who Dared to Think”

I finished The Girl Who Dared to Think by Bella Forrest in one night. I didn’t plan to, but after a bit of a slow start it reeled me in. I was a little disappointed when I finished it and, unsurprisingly, it ended with a cliffhanger that leads into the second book in the series. That’s fine, and I’ll pick up the next one. I just really wanted a resolution when I hit that point sometime around dawn. 

Our protagonist, Squire Liana Castell, lives in a massive, glass-enclosed bunker called the Tower. Everyone in the Tower has a number on their wristband and a monitoring device in their head that checks for dissident thought-patterns and feelings. The number is a rating of their supposed loyalty to the Tower, with the highest score being a perfect ten. Her initial problems stem from the fact that she can’t keep her number high enough and she can’t seem to stop asking the wrong kinds of questions.

I was a little lukewarm about Liana at first, and very lukewarm about the apparent budding insta-romance between her and mysterious hot guy, but the setting and warped social structure were interesting enough to keep me going. I got to like Liana more as the story went on. She’s engagingly competent and not prone to convenient stumbles in the middle of the action so dudes can rescue her. Most of her decisions and reactions seemed internally consistent and logical from her point of view, which avoids a major pet peeve of mine.

The romance wasn’t as abrupt as it first appeared; the author seemed to rein it in after the first thrilling glances. I like that Liana has fairly balanced relationships with her friends, and that they don’t suddenly drop off her radar when a guy catches her eye. The story is refreshingly free of love triangles, as well.

The cast is pretty well gender balanced, although it would seem that LGBT people either don’t exist in the Tower or they’ve been forced into hiding/conformity, which I grant would fit with the general dystopian vibe. The cast also seemed pretty white to me. Again, that and other omissions could probably be attributed to the fact that they basically live in an unescapable totalitarian fishbowl, but it isn’t mentioned. I kinda hope that’s addressed in the next book, as Liana learns more about her world. The main diversity comes from the different social classes and communities, all of which are focused on a particular type of service to the maintenance of the Tower. The different vocations have their own micro-cultures, languages, and beliefs.

It was a pretty fast-paced read. I had some trouble picturing the architecture inside the Tower and the technology Liana uses to get around, but that could just be me. She seemed to put a reasonable amount of time into painting the picture, but it didn’t come together in my head, so I sometimes had to slow down to figure out exactly what was going on. (Also, this is just an editing nitpick, but there’s a chapter where she uses the word “statuesque” like four times in a row to describe the same woman and then once for her daughter. That is too many times unless they were literally made of marble and wearing drapey gowns.)

One interesting thing I learned after finishing this book is that it’s supposed to be set in the same world as The Gender Game, also by Bella Forrest. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that one from the description and title, but now I may give it a try when I’m done with these. Maybe.

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Moody tower window photo.

“Deerskin”

I just finished reading Deerskin by Robin McKinley. It was intense and beautiful. I didn’t want to put it down, mostly because I didn’t want to leave Lissar where she was. I felt like I needed to see her through to the end. She’s an excellent character, and I found that I cared very much about her very quickly.

The writing feels kind of fairytale in style. It tends toward some truly impressive run-on sentences, but the language also had an interesting flow to it that I really liked once I got into it. Even though it’s a bit wordy, the descriptions of her surroundings, sensations, and internal experience are extremely vivid and gripping.

Princess Lissar is accompanied throughout her journey by her loyal fleethound, Ash. I loved how relatable her relationship with Ash felt. The canines in this fantasy world might be almost supernaturally beautiful and graceful and clever, but they’re also just dogs, with all the weird little behaviors and quirks that people love them for. The story centers a great deal on her bond with Ash and the way they care for and rescue each other.

The rest of this post warrants a trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, so please be warned.

Deerskin deals with sexual trauma and Lissar’s struggle to survive and recover. I didn’t find that it in any way sensualized the abuse, which can be a big problem in some fiction. It does, however, go very deep into her senses, her emotions, and the resulting flashbacks and disassociation. I haven’t experienced PTSD, but it was in line with what I’ve been told it can be like. I was impressed by that, since I haven’t seen many realistic depictions of trauma in fantasy, but it might also be very painful for some people to read.

The story is based on Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault. I actually think that as a kid I had an illustrated book of the fairytale version, which is slightly terrifying to me in retrospect. Most fairytales were originally much darker than their modern kid-friendly versions, but this one is probably not as familiar to a general audience. Not so shocking that a story about a father trying to marry his own daughter didn’t catch on quite as easily as some of the others, where at least the creepiest parts were easier to pare off while leaving the stories intact. The original telling, of course, doesn’t focus on the terrible reality of incest so much as on the virtuousness of the princess in being willing to suffer ugliness and hard labor to escape her father’s immorality.

This story, on the other hand, is about Princess Lissar and no one else. It’s about her experiences, her rediscovery of herself, and her anchoring connection with the faithful dog who sticks by her through it all.

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Dead roses feel quite appropriate for such a disturbing fairytale.

“5,000 Words Per Hour”

I have not kept up with my goal of reading and reviewing one book on writing per month, but I’m catching up now. Last month I actually got through a couple of writing books. I read 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox and The Life-long Writing Habit, also by Chris Fox. I think that, of the two, I definitely got more out of the former, although I enjoyed them both.

5,000 Words Per Hour is a super handy book. I was a bit surprised. The title makes it sound kind of gimmicky, but I’ve been watching Chris’s videos on Youtube and it’s clear to me that his method works really well for him. (Astoundingly well, even.) He literally writes entire novels in a month or two each, back to back. Of course, that alone doesn’t mean his method will work for anyone else. Some people have the right combination of skills, practice, and good habits to be super productive, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to help others achieve similar results. Plus, a whole book that just says “Do this thing every day like it’s the only thing in the world that matters” isn’t likely to be very popular, or helpful for most people.

The nice thing about this book is that it is very simple and direct. He asserts that if you actually do the exercises he lays out, you should see dramatic and measurable improvement. He also says they’re simple, and he isn’t lying. The whole thing is easy to follow, makes a lot of sense, and most of it doesn’t take much time to try out. He jumps quickly into actionable suggestions, why he thinks they work well, and provides examples from his own experience.

Daily writing sprints are central to his approach. Writing sprints are exactly what they sound like: Short bursts of concentrated writing. The main thing, and the part that I personally struggle with, is not going back to edit during the sprint. I hate this, but it’s definitely sound advice if your goal is to improve your writing speed, so I’m working on it. Getting words onto the page, even if they’re a mess, is vital. Editing can always happen later, but you can’t edit what you haven’t written.

Another important component is tracking WPH, or words per hour, so you can see your improvement over time. Tracking numbers doesn’t exactly get me excited, but I’m taking this on because I know that a lot of the time when I get discouraged it’s because I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.

Because longer writing sprints require practice and stamina, he suggests starting with five minute sprints (easy and manageable, right?) and then multiplying your word count by 12 to get a WPH number you can track as you go along.

My favorite take-away from this book is the idea of making a tortoise enclosure for yourself. I liked this concept so much that I made a goofy drawing to go with it, because it is both sensible and charming. Apparently, he got the idea from a video of John Cleese talking about creativity. The tortoise enclosure is a safe space for your imagination that makes it easier to get right into flow state and stay there the whole time you’re working. The boundaries for your enclosure are (loosely): Time, Space, and Privacy. He also suggests making a list of all the potential distractions that you frequently encounter and then making plans to eliminate or temporarily block each one before starting.

This last is probably very sound advice, because according to some science stuff that I read a while ago and can’t find now, each distraction sets you back significantly in terms of focus, no matter how briefly it holds your attention.

I’d recommend 5,000 Words Per Hour to pretty much anyone who wants to write more and write faster. It’s a quick read, so not a huge time investment. I listened to it on Audible, but it’s available in ebook and physical form as well. There’s a content warning after the picture, just in case anyone needs it.

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It’s Inktober, and tortoises are funny, so here you go.

CW: The author references his own weight loss and dieting behavior multiple times, and there’s some mildly food-shamey content that could bother some people.

I believe there was also a brief mention of depression and thoughts of self harm in his past.

My Less Than Epic Entry Into Writing

Writing wasn’t my dream career. I didn’t start as a kid like a lot of authors, and I don’t have any cute snippets of childhood fiction to share, sadly.

I started writing in 2011, when I was 22. At first I just did some journaling to cope with my depression. I’ve always loved to read fantasy, and an idea for a fantasy story had been rattling around in the back of my head for a while. I think the stream-of-consciousness journaling that I was already doing helped loosen me up enough that I just started writing it down.

I pounded out a few chapters, then slowed to a crawl as I ran out of the bits I had already figured out, struggled through a few more, and then stopped. I knew I didn’t have the skill to write that story the way I wanted to, so I quit. But then, I did something totally normal and healthy that was nonetheless a big deal for me. I decided to get better at writing so I could come back to that story and tell it really well. I started writing little short stories when I had ideas, just ’cause, and that was fun. They weren’t great, but I could finish them in a few sittings, and finishing anything felt really good.

I switched to a second novel project for Nanowrimo in 2012, and figured I could just do it all in one go because it was supposed to be a shorter and less complex story. I was very wrong, and I didn’t win. I hadn’t plotted either of those attempts, and even though that story was simpler in concept, I had allowed it to ramble again and gotten totally lost. I kept working at it, but I was pretty frustrated, and effective practice was still totally foreign to me. I was just flailing around and trying to make this huge thing without a plan.

Looking back at it now, I see that the drafts for those two stories actually add up to a pretty impressive amount of output for a beginner. I wasn’t tracking my progress very well at the time, and I counted all discarded work as basically wasted time and effort even though I was actually learning from it.

The idea for Somnolence came to me in a dream. I hate myself a teensy bit just for writing that ridiculously pretentious sentence, but it’s basically true. In 2013, I had a dream that was just the climax battle of a fantasy story. It felt super epic and compelling, and when I woke up I wrote it all down in my journal and started making up more backstory for it. I really liked it, and it had the potential to draw from a lot of the emotional crap I was going through at the time. In a spectacular act of self-sabotage, I switched projects again. I kept feeling like I needed a clean slate because the other projects had gotten so messy. In reality, I needed to learn to plot properly, but that didn’t really occur to me till I had written about half of Somnolence.

I slogged on, working mostly when I felt inspired and wasn’t too depressed to move my fingers on the keyboard, and it took for-fucking-ever to finish the first draft. I declared it finished, just barely, on New Year’s Eve right before I moved from California to Seattle in 2016. That really was a huge milestone, although it immediately paled in the face of what I wanted to do next. I wanted to edit it properly and actually publish it, and I had no idea how to make that happen. Fortunately, by then I was just barely starting to grasp the practice thing and I’ve always been really stubborn. I’ve been researching, reading, joining writing groups, watching youtube videos, blogging, and practicing writing craft.

I don’t know what it is about writing that drives me to improve. I find it satisfying in a way that I don’t really understand. I love to draw, but I never felt the need to practice enough to polish my skills or make a career out of it. I’m usually pleased with what I can produce, but I’m perfectly content to do it as a hobby. Writing comes less easily to me. I’m often not at all pleased with my initial results, but it’s still where my energy goes, and I’m happy with the progress that I do make. Working toward the goal of being a published author has helped me change my life in a whole bunch of positive ways and improved my self-esteem. It wasn’t my dream growing up, but it is now.

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Me at my favorite hiking spot, just after pulling an all-nighter to finish that first draft.

My Week

I touched a really big spider by accident while walking up some stairs. I’m not super arachnaphobic. (I’m actually friends with a very polite tarantula named Twilight Sparkle.) Surprise spider contact still makes me all shuddery, though. The spider seemed equally shocked, which was fair. He was quite decent about it all, and didn’t bite me.

My new acquaintance.

We finally got air conditioning since Seattle has apparently been relocated to the surface of the sun. The air quality has been terrible, too, because everything is on fire. So, we had the choice of roasting in a stuffy apartment or breathing smoke and roasting slightly less. We kept expecting the heat to break, but we broke first.

Our creative solution to the strange window design in our apartment building. Plus, a peek at my cute snek suit.

With regards to writing, and everything else since it all affects my ability to write, I’m working really hard right now on knowing my limits and planning my energy use so that I don’t break down halfway through a day, but it’s not easy for me. I’ve spent way too long trying and failing and being pissed at myself to be able to turn around now and objectively evaluate my capacity for work in a given day. I’ve tried in the past, but feeling guilty about not doing more has always pushed me to schedule way too much, which is overwhelming and makes it harder to get anything done at all, much less all of it. Very few things on my list ever feel not-urgent. I always feel like that there’s something more I *should* be doing. This makes me sound like an overachiever, but I run out of go really damn fast most days. I’m a little scared to be honest about that with myself, because if I’m not just lazy then I might be kinda sick. I handle stress by being mean to my body, which isn’t so great. I’m tired all the frickin’ time, no matter how many stimulants I pour into me, and I can sleep for eleven or twelve hours and wake up exhausted. It’s hard to get to sleep in the first place because of the aforementioned guilt and constant feeling that I’m shirking something. Oh, and I actually feel OK at night. I’m tired all day, and then my mind clears up for a while every night and I feel better and more alert and I want to do all the things. It’s basically an absurd cycle, and I am literally sick of it.

So, in the interest of not making it worse, I’m gonna go to bed now and post this in the morning. Well, later in the morning than it is now.

Ps. I started reading A Throne of Glass. So far it’s fairly engaging.