First up in my reading of the Hugo shortlist is Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. It’s been on my to-read list for ages, and as the only straight-up fantasy on the best novel shortlist, I thought I’d start with something I’m most likely to enjoy. Also, my library had it available.
And enjoy it I did. It’s a very charming, intimate and political story, full of intricate details of society, politics and etiquette and bound very closely around the journey undertaken by the main character. That character – Maia – was the neglected, exiled and disregarded fourth son of a strict monarch, until an airship disaster leaves him the only surviving son and therefore Emperor. From here, the book covers the first fraught months of his reign, as Maia attempts to take on a role he has never been prepared for amidst the machinations of the court.
A highlight, for me, was the social worldbuilding, and the delightful use of language it prompted. The careful use of levels of formality in interaction – and the dance of pronouns – was particularly delicious, and given an extra layer of poignancy through Maia’s previous extreme isolation; as he negotiates society, so he introduces it to us. However, politically, I was a little underwhelmed by proceedings. Things work a little too smoothly for Maia, and a combination of his good intentions shining through, and the fortuitously correct selection of trustworthy assistants, means things never get as twisty, backstabby or ambiguous as I really like in my political fantasy.
But all of that is trumped by Maia’s emotional journey and how strongly connected to him we become through the course of the novel. He is both sincerely earnest, and gently self-mocking, and the combination is so terribly endearing that despite my political druthers, I found myself consistently hoping that everything would turn out well for him, and being delighted when it did. And so the almost fairytale realisation of it all – that the good end well because their goodness prompts and draws goodness in others – somehow works to make the book overall very satisfying.
I gave this four stars on GoodReads (because I enjoyed it a great deal, but didn’t love it outrageously) and I think it’s an extremely well crafted novel with interesting, true things to say about being human.
For the first time ever, I’ve bought myself the right to vote in the Hugos. There have been a variety of reasons why I haven’t previously. For most of my life, lack of money was chief, but also the fact that I generally don’t like sci-fi even slightly, and the Hugos are a very, very sci-fi set of awards. I also don’t much like short fiction – however excellent the story, I always get to the end of it dissatisfied that that’s all there is; I’m a sprawling-novels sort of girl.
But I have enjoyed looking at the Hugo shortlists in previous years to see what interesting things might have slipped under my radar that were making other fans excited, and it makes me sad this year that I cannot trust that the nominations were made in excitement. Also, given the broad, sweeping statements various Puppy-types have been making about what readers of speculative fiction do, don’t, should or shouldn’t want in their fiction (statements completely opposite to what I like in my speculative fiction) and given that I can afford a supporting membership at present, I figured it was time to stand up and be counted.
So here I am, an eligible Hugo voter. Now I have to figure out what to do with this vote.
I must say, it’s very tempting to just read everything not on a Puppy-plate, and draw a No-Award line under that. I don’t like what the slates have done, and I dislike the rhetoric many of the supporters have used loudly, often, and without censure – indeed often with explicit support – from the slatemakers.
But my point here is about what I – a reader and fan of speculative fiction – do and don’t want in my speculative fiction. So to make that point abundantly clear, I’m going to try and read the entire Hugo shortlist. I am going to read, and I am going to blog about it – not necessarily to influence anyone else but to make my thoughts, feelings and reasons explicit and transparent.
- I will not be spending money on this. My policy – for reasons of thrift, bookshelf space and self-respect – is that I only buy books that I know I enjoy (i.e. have already read) or that I have a significant belief that I will enjoy (i.e. from a known author, or just looks so damn amazing the dollars won’t stay in my pocket). None of the material on the shortlist fits that criteria (yet) so I will only be able to read material that is in the voting packet, available from my library, or that I can otherwise lay hands on (e.g. loans from friends). When there is a piece that I cannot get hold of in any way, I will make do with evaluating it from available material, and this will most likely mean it doesn’t make it onto my ballot. Them’s the breaks.
- I will be reading the way I usually do. Those who follow my reading habits (on GoodReads) are probably aware that I am pretty demanding, and have little compunction about putting down a book that is annoying, boring or elsewise aggravating me. Hugo nominations get no greater leniency. If I wouldn’t read a book ordinarily, there are lots and lots of books that I did read and enjoy that I think are more worthy of the award than it is. When I blog about a story I put down, I will be discussing where and why.
- The one rule of my regular reading habits that I will be bending is the one where I currently don’t even bother picking up a book unless it mentions a female character by name in the jacket copy. For this once, a Hugo nomination enables a bypass. But I have a reason for that rule, and books that don’t meet it are going to be starting with a handicap.
- Relatedly: I’m a reader reading. I get to have my own opinion on the things I read. (You get to have your own opinion on the things you read.)
- At the end of the day, I might find there are things on the Puppy-plates that I enjoyed. I will still be measuring whether those things are better than – or at least comparable to – everything I read last year that didn’t make it into the nominations before I consider where to place them on my ballot. Considering some of the amazing things that came out last year, this is going to be a tough one, but that is just what the slates have bought for these stories by raising questions as to the authenticity of their nomination.
In summary: not great, but it’s not (quite) my fault.
I had great intentions. I had an amazing week planner with two morning and two afternoon work sessions and plenty of breaks (plottable with post-it notes for the week ahead so I could customise my week depending on circumstances). Despite my husband being bed-ridden post ankle-reconstruction, I managed about half a week of solid, hitting-the-goals work. (It was great: I was getting a scene revised per session, which basically meant I only needed two sessions scheduled a day to hit par and any more was gravy.) I had the week of dinners all planned out in advance, and as a bonus, Mr Dee was finally getting to watch all that television I hadn’t been interested in because ugh middle-aged white guys (like Breaking Bad).
And then, turns out I got pregnant.
I found many things in this to be uncomfortable about, but I was trying to be even-minded in crafting my thoughts about it. After all, this crew has as much right as anyone to write, read and tell people about whatever things they find most delightful in the genre. Now personally – to borrow Brad Torgersen’s lengthy breakfast cereal analogy, from what appears to be a statement of intent about the Sad Puppies list – towards the end of the ’90s and into the ’00s, I was picking up book after book and going, “Ugh, not fucking Nutty Nuggets again. Don’t we have any variants on this recipe?” So to be honest, I am delighted with the wide range of strings fantasy fiction has been adding to its bow in the last fifteen years. More, more, more, I say (with gleeful disregard for the length of my to-read list). But I appreciate how Mr Torgersen might be sad about what he clearly perceives to be a lack of Nutty Nuggets. (I say perceives because, from where I’m sitting, there are still heaps of books of that ilk. I know because I’m picking them up in the bookstore – or getting them out from the library – not finding anything interesting about them, and putting them back.)
- Separate recycling and compost from landfill rubbish.
- It’s pronounced skellington.
- Your mum’s pronounced skellington.
- No cats on the kitchen bench or dining room table.
- Last one to bed closes windows and doors and switches off lights.
- Reach into the back of the fridge at your own risk.
- Cats are not allowed to climb the curtains or flyscreens.
- Use the right glass for the beer; we have five different types of beer glasses for a reason.
- If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.
- No clawing Mummy’s face.
- The only people who call the landline are telemarketers and mothers.
- No chewing Daddy’s legal papers.
- You can get away with anything if you’re cute.
I am three weeks away from my last day of work.
I am extremely grateful for the congruence of privileges that means I’m able to do this while we still meet our financial commitments and maintain our standard of living. (Would we be able to afford bigger and better stuff if I kept working? Yes. Is bigger and better stuff more important than doing something I desperately want to do, and also having the time to identify music and museums and things that will make our lives richer and interesting? Hell no.)
So that was making the decision. Next challenge: living la vida non-full-time-paid-working. Continue Reading →
As usual, Goodreads did its “Here’s what you read in 2014!” email and I went, “Not done yet!” and read another couple of books. But now 2014 is definitely, really, seriously done with (and an interesting year it was too – I’ll reflect on writing in 2014 in another post, I think) and here’s some things I really enjoyed reading this year:
- Queen’s Thief series: book 3, King of Attolia – I love this series and its easy writing and serrated characters and storylines. Love it so much that I’m doling the books out to myself like rare and prized treats.
- Dagger and the Coin: book 3, The Tyrant’s Law – What everyone who likes Game of Thrones should be reading, because it’s amazing fantasy, and actually businesslike about delivering the story.
- The Raven Cycle: books 2 and 3, Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue – I don’t read these books, I wallow in them wreathed all over with outrageous delight.
- The Craft Sequence: book 2, Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone is a genius and I love his brain and all the post-industrial magic-based philosophically bent fantasy it produces.
- The Wave Trilogy: book 2, Warring States – This alterni-history fantasy series continues to be sharp and full of the unexpected and very rich in interesting ideas.
Firsts or lone books
- The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine retells the Twelve Dancing Princesses as flappers in jazz-age New York and I fall over in delight at the wonderful ladies and their sparse but beautifully depicted relationships. The needlepoint of this book sews itself into your skin.
- Vicious – Sociopaths and superheroes; all the ways in which being human is hard and being super human is too hard.
- The Dreamhunter Duet – A lavish and mysterious fantasy of a turn-of-the-century alterni-colony, where dreams can be harvested, if you can ignore some dark secrets. A beautiful look at consumerism, privilege, the opiates of the masses.
- London Falling – It’s the Bill with vicious hooks and magic. It is serious copper business. It is really quite great, if you’re up for a bit of grit.
So, NaNoWriMo is done. And – surprising myself tremendously – I won, and won doubly over. I had planned to write a complete rubbish-summary-half-assed draft of a novel – and not only did I hit the 50k words (on about day 20, good lord!) I completed the draft (at a slightly meatier 68k words) with a couple of days to spare.
I’m basically flabberghasted. I didn’t even know I had this in me.
Looking at it as I was going, and in the immediate aftermath, my conclusion is that my chief weapons were
fear and surprise over-the-top planning, and permission to suck.
Continue Reading →
Finishing a first draft means:
- Being able to help more around the house. (“Hey, I could cook one or two nights this week.”)
- Catching up on media. (“Hey, we should watch the latest season of Game of Thrones.”)
- Reading over lunch instead of writing.
- Socialising again. (“Brunch, or are you still writing all the time?”)
- Epic Neverwinter sessions. (Except I still haven’t managed to score a party who can defeat Valindra, or had a queue pop for Castle Never.)
- Playing enough to get somewhere in Sunless Sea! (Killed by the largest crab you ever saw. Again.)
- Getting to tick off huge to-do items in HabitRPG and get metric fucktons of experience (w00t!)
- Starting to write the next thing…
And the next thing is NaNoWriMo. (Doing it too? Here I am!)
I’m looking forward to this. One of the biggest kicks I got out of Camp NaNo – which started me off on the four-month productivity bender that finished the draft for me – is: permission to not be perfect. Which is a big thing, and such an enabler (I’ll talk more about this soon) but it does mean that I get to the end of a draft and know that so much of it now needs major rewriting. I’m super happy with the shape of the ending, now I just have to realign the rest of the book to meet that ending. Which is all great, but the fly in the ointment is how long it took me to get the first half. It’s aggravating to have spent so long on material that’s going to need major revision.
It seems to me that the best way around this is to stop taking so long with the first draft. If I can’t really know what shape the story should be until I know how it ends in detail (which seems to be how I roll; it’s been the case for both novels I’ve worked on) then either I need to write ending-first (which has worked for short material, but I don’t think I could do for longer pieces: the ending would lack the necessary complexity) OR I write the first draft even rougher and quicker.
I’m trying the latter for NaNo. I’m not aiming for the first 50k of a novel in relatively coherent prose. I am aiming for a 50k epic-rough quasi-summary draft of the entire novel. I’m anticipating chapters that are a patchy collage of prose and summary and notes to self. I’m anticipating covering a chapter a day in this method. And most of all, I’m anticipating needing to do a fuckton of work once I come back to write it properly – but since I know there’s a fuckton of work needing to be done on the first-draft that took me two years to write, that’s no big deal.
P.S. To add another spanner to my bouquet, I received some really thoughtful feedback on Boralos from a marvellous agent – confirming for me how much I’d love to work with her in the future. As always, new input makes my brain spin on old projects (it’s true: the further you get from a project in time, the more leverage you have to tear it apart and put it back together) but obviously any serious consideration of what to rework next will have to wait until after November.
The splendid Susan Dennard has been hosting a critique partner match-up, which I’ve been calling “writer partner speed dating” when I describe it to my husband (who assures me he’s fully supportive of me dating on the internet…). While I love and would be lost in the wilderness without the Firm (my critique group) I have also been keen to find someone with whom I can have a less structured and more organic and sprawling partnership of creativity with. (And it also helps to have a variety of resources; for instance, in my next project I have a big twist at the end of act 1, and I’ve been brainstorming how to make that work technically and logistically with my husband, so he is now spoiled a million for that twist. I need other readers to let me know how my delivery works.) So I’ve leapt on in to the fray. (And if this sounds good, you should too.)
It’s been a great experience. I’ve touched base with half a dozen other writers who write various kinds of fantasy at various stages in their writing journey, and looked at their opening chapters. Novel opens are possibly one of the most intensive parts of writing – there’s so much you have to think about and get moving, and you can’t rely on the momentum you’ve created because you’re only just starting! So it’s an excellent piece of writing to really dig into. Even when I’m reading a whole story for someone, I’ll tend to leave most comments in the first 10%.
What I hadn’t expected was how much I was going to get from engaging critically with the openings of half a dozen novels in development. Oh, hey, it’s absolutely invigorating and inspiring to get comments and responses back from my prospective critique-partners as well, but I’m also getting a heap of push just from reading. Well, not just from reading: from reading, thinking why isn’t this working for me? and then what’s a fix for that? and then, finally, is this something I should be doing / doing better in my own work?
The answer is almost always: YES YES YES.
Because why wouldn’t you? Stronger sense of who the main character is and what he really, really wants? Yes, sign me up! Rich but tight delivery of world immersion through stripping back to a few strong, evocative details? Sounds ace! Piling more than one layer of awesome into every scene if it can be arranged? I can think of no reason not to! Thinking hard about what I really need to include right now? Can only make things better!
In short: don’t underestimate how much value you get for your writing from thinking critically about other people’s writing. (And maybe hop over to Sooz’s forums and find yourself a CP!)