On Writing, National Novel Writing Month, and Omega 84

galaxy

Remember when I said I would try to write every day for three weeks? Well, in a stunning turn of events (not), I failed. But much like my workout challenge, it wasn’t a complete failure. Out of twenty-six days, I wrote for sixteen days and missed ten. This includes creative writing and blog writing. Of those sixteen writing days, I wrote over 750 words on eight of them.

This is by no means my best record. But compared to the amount of creative writing I was doing a month ago, it’s a huge increase, and one that I’m proud of.

Let me tell you a story. In one of my classes, we were put into groups and given an assignment to create a fake publishing house. We also had to write fake query letters to the fake publishing houses. I didn’t think much of my query letters; none of my existing projects fit with any of the publishing houses in the class, so I made up some new ones. One of these stories I named Omega 84.

The fake publishing house I queried, Astral Waters Press, “publishes” science fiction novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Coming up with a fake story idea to fit those requirements seemed easy enough, I thought. So I wrote a query letter for a fake story called Omega 84. I won’t divulge too many details—suffice to say it features a gay woman who travels across space a few centuries in the future—but after I wrote the query letter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In bed that night, I lobbed questions at my fiancé: What do you think of this? How could this be believable? What should I name the home planet for my character? He didn’t have many suggestions, but he provided support…and then a reminder that he wakes up at six in the morning for work. I stopped asking questions after that.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Omega 84. Pieces started coming together. A narrative arc formed. My character’s motivations became clear and before I fully realized what was happening, I had my first book idea in two years.

I decided (foolishly) to write it for NaNo. So far, I have about eight thousand words, an outline through chapter five of the book, and a rough idea of what happens after that. School caught up with me again and I didn’t write as much as I wanted to, but it’s a start—if a difficult one. Fantasy is my comfort zone: with few exceptions, it’s what I read and write. But science fiction isn’t a far cry from fantasy. (They’re shelved next to each other in bookstores and libraries for good reason!) And I’m not afraid to tackle this unfamiliar genre.

That said, I’ll need some help. I’ve chosen my books through the end of the year but I’ll need some new reads, including some science fiction books, for 2017. Have any suggestions? Drop a comment or tweet me @fictionlass (see the sidebar). And if you’re interested in following my progress with Omega 84, you can search this blog for the tag “Omega 84” or Twitter for the hashtag #Omega84. I fully intend to finish a complete draft of this book and then try to edit it. If I haven’t posted about it in a while, feel free to bug me. I look forward to hearing from you!

Book Review: “Range of Ghosts”

range-of-ghosts-largeI finally did it. After a month of off-again, on-again reading, I finished Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. I should have done it a lot sooner, but school kept demanding my attention (and I didn’t manage my time well…) and now we’re here. As those of you who read my previous blog post on Range of Ghosts know, I was not a good reader for this book. There were things I missed or didn’t understand because I was so scatterbrained. But I’ll do my best to give you a good blog post on this book.

The Range of Ghosts is one of the few fantasy books I’ve read that celebrates diversity. Each character is described as belonging to a different people, a different country. What’s even cooler is that the world of Range of Ghosts—at least the world depicted in the novel—is based off the central Asian steppe, and the characters reflect that. I can’t remember a single light-skinned person in the book. Just like the multitudinous peoples of Asia, the peoples of Range of Ghosts are multifaceted and varied. And the characters are completely believable, too. Their motivations and voices are distinct and realistic. Elizabeth Bear did a wonderful job portraying diverse cultures.

Another cool, diverse thing about Range of Ghosts is the gender makeup of the named characters. The two main POV characters are Samarkar, a once-princess who chose to become infertile for the chance to have great magic power, and Temur, a forgotten son of a conqueror and warrior. That’s an even split. But the rest of the characters that join on their journey are three women and one man (not all at the same time). It’s so rare for women to be equally represented in fantasy—and rarer still for them to be more populous than their male counterparts.

The ending, by the way, was amazing. Samarkar swims across a sea. Another character becomes possessed. Little things Bear had been hinting at throughout the novel converge in a stupefying final scene. I definitely want more (and thankfully, there is more, in the form of two books to round out the trilogy). And now that I’ve exposed myself to one of Bear’s series, I’ll be more willing to read her other works—of which there are many.

I could continue, but really, this Tor.com blog post discusses Range of Ghosts better than I ever could. I give this novel a 4/5, and will definitely reread it in the future.

Halfway through “Range of Ghosts”

I’ve looked forward to reading a book by Elizabeth Bear for years. Ever since I first found All the Windwracked Stars in Powell’s five years ago, she’s been on my “to-read” list. Her bibliography contains over thirty novels and novellas and well over fifty short stories. I’m surprised it took me so long to find her; you’d think that a lifelong fantasy reader would have stumbled upon one of her works much earlier than I did.

The ebook version of Range of Ghosts happened to be on sale a year or two ago, so I purchased it and jumped into the prologue. But something inevitably wrested my attention away from it, so it went unread for many months. I tried reading the prologue again but couldn’t get into it for one reason or another. Then the book sat in my library…again. Finally, when I finished A Darker Shade of Magic, I decided it shouldn’t wait any longer. I should try again with Range of Ghosts and power through it. Ignore the distractions! Read at every idle moment! Be the good student you are and finish what you started!

But…guys. I couldn’t do it. I’ve been trying to read this book for weeks and I just…can’t. I’m sure grad school has something to do with it—last weekend, I spent close to ten hours writing a paper and what free time I had was spent doing other homework or being a couch potato—but that’s not a good excuse, is it? I finished The Emperor’s Blades even though I struggled through the first half, right? I could certainly finish this one…

Well, I’m not sure if I’ll finish it, to be honest. My habit of reading a few pages here and there didn’t do me any favors. There’s so much going on in Range of Ghosts, so many unusual names for characters and cities, that I haven’t been able to understand the world as much as I need to. Range of Ghosts deserves better from me. I hardly ever want to give up on a book, and Range of Ghosts certainly doesn’t deserve it. There’s a lot of cool stuff here, like different suns for different kingdoms (it doesn’t make sense to me, but I hope someone in the book explains it), a huge host of diverse and non-white characters, which the fantasy genre desperately needs, and a great magic system. If I hunker down and dedicate a solid hour or two a day to reading this book, I could probably grow to love it.

I need to persevere. Without dedication and perseverance, a writer is nothing.

I’ll keep you guys in the loop with my progress on Range of Ghosts. And hopefully I’ll have a fully-formed book review for you soon. In the meantime, keep on writing & reading!

Read Your Way to Better Writing

booksUnlike the vast majority of colleges (especially on the west coast), my alma mater offered two English degrees: Literature and Creative Writing. As part of the creative writing degree requirements, we had to take a certain number of writing courses in different genres—I studied the fiction and creative nonfiction tracks—and a variety of literature courses. Now, when I was a freshman, I didn’t understand why lit courses would be required for a creative writing degree. I wanted to write for the rest of my life, not read centuries-old manuscripts and analyze the author’s use of motif.

I’m probably not the only student who shunned the lit requirements at my school. I could do the work, but it wasn’t as interesting to me as writing my own stories or reading more modern fiction. No part of me wanted to read the works of nineteenth-century American authors, but I had to do it.

I don’t remember the specific moment when I realized why my professors required writing majors to take lit courses. I mean, I’d always had some vague understanding of the motivation behind it. Reading the stuff that came before you can make your writing better. But I hadn’t really internalized that. It wasn’t until I had taken a few writing courses that I truly realized the necessity of reading as a writer. The readings in my creative writing courses and the texts I read in literature courses allowed me to make informed decisions about my own writing: how to develop believable characters, for instance, and how to make characters interact with the setting of the story. Reading truly improves my craft—even reading stories I don’t like. (Especially the stories I don’t like.)

I know there are a number of non-reading writers out there, or writers who stick to reading works in a specific genre (typically the genre they intend to write). I’ve always been a fantasy writer and reader, and I probably always will be. But please know that there is so much to learn from reading other genres or other styles you’re not familiar with. Most of the books I’ve read recently have been in the high/epic fantasy realm, because that’s what I enjoy writing, and it seems perfectly natural to me to read only those books. But I’ve also read a number of more “literary” novels, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Tatjana Soli’s The Forgetting Tree, and those books have helped me hone my craft in ways the high fantasy books had allow me to neglect.

Reading as a writer helps in so many ways. It lets you know which stories have already been written, which characters and worlds have been explored. It provides insight on how to manage world building and character interactions and dialogue. It gives you a model for your story’s narrative arc. And, perhaps most important to writers who intend to sell their work, it allows you to draw comparisons between established novels and your own.

I refuse to accept the myth that reading books is a dying pastime. As long as there are writers, there will be readers.

 

Reading at the Gym

I was never a big fan of working out. Some months would go by without me exercising at all, other than walking to class or to the store. But this past summer was different. In addition to walking the trails around my new apartment, I started going to the on-location gym thanks to the help of a good friend. She’s been going to the gym on a regular basis for years, and since she was staying with me for a few weeks on a semi-vacation, I decided to use her as motivation and join her on the elliptical. The first couple of days were difficult for me, partly because I was pushing my muscles pretty hard, and partly because I was bored. Really, really bored. My friend turned on the TV for me but the best thing on was Numb3rs. Instead of watching TV, she read.

Yep. She read a book. While she worked out.

If you want to get technical about it, it was an e-book. She had her phone perched on the display of the elliptical, and despite reading it, she was working up quite a sweat. I later asked her how she could read while she was working out; wouldn’t it be distracting?

For her, it was quite the opposite. “Running is too boring,” she said. “Outside or on the treadmill—doesn’t matter. My mind wanders and I always think, ‘is it over yet? Am I done?’ But reading on the elliptical is surprisingly easy. It keeps me focused.” My friend averaged forty-five minutes on the elliptical that week, at varying intensities. And she read the entire time.

Weird though it seemed, I decided to try it. The next day, I took my phone with me, opened up an e-book, and read. And, truthfully, it did help.

I’ve seen some bloggers complain about people reading while they work out. If you can read and do X type of exercise, then you’re not doing it hard enough. That may be true for someone who’s reading a physical book in their hands. But reading an e-book on your phone while you’re on the elliptical is, actually, easy—not to mention unobtrusive and, to some extent, discreet.

Since I finished college, I’ve had trouble sitting down with the intent of reading a book for an hour or two. I used to read all the time. One summer, I read all three Mistborn books in one weekend. My family didn’t see me unless I came out of my room for food. Two years ago, I read the first two Stormlight Archives book in a couple weeks, but that was last time I can remember marathoning a book like that. Marathons aside, this summer was particularly devoid of books. I only read four or five (Elantris, a re-read, Kindred, The Forgetting Tree, The Emperor’s Blades, half of Aeronaut’s Windlass, and possibly another one). That’s nothing!

If nothing else, reading while on the elliptical might jump-start my reading habit again—and in turn, my writing habit. At least it’ll get me to work out.