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The Many Faces of Animal Stories

Mostly by happenstance, in the last month I’ve encountered a number of different stories that featured animal protagonists. In fairly short order, as part of my preparation for 2016 Hugo nominations at the end of March, I read Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard and Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, both highly-regarded tales published in 2015; About a month ago, Husband and I went to see Disney’s Zootopia, because we try to take in movies that sound vaguely interesting and get good agglomerated reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Finally, I picked up Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song on a whim, because I’m a cat person and because this book has the rare feature of being one of his novels that I hadn’t read before.

I liked parts of all of these stories; I enjoyed Barsk and Zootopia wholeheartedly, for reasons that probably have as much to do with the kinds of stories I like as the characteristics of the individual works. And putting them all together side-by-side got me thinking about the different ways that storytellers use animals to tell human stories, and consider how those different rationales are also present in genre fiction.

Basically, it seems to me that anthropomorphized animal tales fall into three main categories: allegory , anthropology, and alien familiar. Before I expand on those concepts, let me clarify my analysis with one definition, one parameter, and one caveat:

  • The Definition: Anthropomorphism is the practice of assigning human traits to non-human beings, whether that takes the form of insisting your computer has a grudge against you, believing the ocean is really a short-tempered Greek god named Poseidon, or creating a comic book series about adolescent red-eared sliders who eat pizza and practice martial arts.
  • The Parameter: In this analysis, I’m focusing (for the most part) on stories that have no significant human characters. While there are plenty of examples of stories that include both people and anthropomorphized animals (on a scale from CS Lewis’s Narnia books to Disney’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey), I think animal-only stories have some unique elements that don’t come out when a story also counts humans among its protagonists.
  • The Caveat: Like all typologies, this one will have gray areas around the edges, and a particular story could incorporate themes from more than one of my categories. I’ll demonstrate that by drawing on a fairly multi-faceted animals-only film, Disney’s The Lion King.

Allegory

This category, perhaps best-exemplified by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, uses animal protagonists to explore topics and tales that might be seen as too controversial if they were dealt with using humans. We see this to some extent in The Lion King, which shows its protagonist’s dead father on screen: it’s unlikely this would have been tolerated in a children’s movie if Simba had been a human boy prince and Mufasa a human man king. Particular animal species are also often used to symbolize particular aspects of human society. In Maus, Art Spiegelman presents readers with a graphic novel dramatizing his father’s tales of surviving the Holocaust; by choosing mice to represent the Jews and cats to represent the Germans, he can tap into his audience’s associations with those species, while also showing more explicit violence in his pages than he could probably have gotten away with if he’d been drawing human figures. I’d argue that Zootopia also falls into this category; while it’s both a fun buddy cop movie and a message piece about not being afraid to follow your dreams, it’s also a story about prejudice, stereotyping and microaggressions, and given the widespread pushback that still exists around perceived attempts to politicize children’s media (I wrote about this at length early last year in the context of the 2015 Annie remake), I don’t know that such a movie could have been made without the animal “filter.”

Anthropology

These stories are the ones where authors try their best to envision what “realistic” animal societies might look like. There are hints of this in The Lion King, like the moment when the young Simba and Nala get bathed by their mothers as they talk about sneaking out to the Elephants’ Graveyard (we’ll just ignore the fact that all the prey creatures are bowing down to the apex predators, or that Simba and Nala would probably be half-siblings). While they may appear to be less removed from reality than the other categories, in their own way “animal anthropology” tales are as fantastical as the others. After all, no matter how much I love Richard Adams’ Watership Down, there is no evidence that rabbits have their own language or a heroic trickster god. Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song falls very consciously in this mold, as he gives his feline heroes their own language and a trio of gods who (unsurprisingly for those who’ve read Williams’ other books) end up playing a rather more active role in the plot than might be expected at the beginning. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any film examples of straight-up “animal anthropology” that try to craft an anthropomorphized culture onto what’s known about animal behavior — this might be for the same reason that Foz Meadows suggests in her analysis of why there haven’t been many great fantasy movies until recently, that the things that make these stories work are more difficult to transfer from page to screen.

Alien Familiar

This category might be the one most people think of when they consider the subject of “talking animal stories”; animals in human clothes, living basically-human lives that are only slightly altered to accommodate differences in anatomy or physiology. The Lion King skirts the edge of this one, with its hula-dancing meerkat, but other examples range from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to Brian Jacques’ Redwall. It seems like these stories, more than any other, tend to be aimed toward children (think Arthur the Aardvark, Daniel Tiger or The Berenstain Bears), maybe because stories that might be seen as “too ordinary” acquire enough magic to be interesting if they’re told about animals instead of “real children.” That said, the two stories I read as part of my Hugo-nominee canvassing in the last few weeks, Schoen’s Barsk and Polansky’s Builders, both fall solidly into this category, and neither one is by any stretch of the imagination intended for children.

Barsk takes as its opening premise a galaxy with multiple sentient species, where the “furred” races have deep-seated prejudices against the mostly-hairless “Fant” (elephants) and exile them to a single planet where their continued existence is permitted only because they hold the secret to manufacturing a drug much-desired by the other races. The Builders is the tale of a squad of broken war veterans from half a dozen different species, reuniting for one last try at setting things right: one part Firefly, one part Crown for Cold Silver, no guarantees of a happy ending. Both books feel more like “traditional” genre fiction, where the protagonists might just as well be aliens as animals, and the point is for readers to enjoy the process of dawning recognition and familiarity as much as they do the more straightforward plot aspects of the story.

As a self-identified “animal nut,” I grew up reading stories of all three of these types, and I still have examples of all of them on my shelves. And while I haven’t written anything with anthropomorphized animal protagonists since my first attempt at a novel — a ten-year-old’s homage to Black Beauty — animals continue to play important roles in most of the stories I tell. And stepping back to look over the categories I’ve drawn up, I suspect that people like encountering animals in their fiction for some of the same reasons people like reading genre fiction; an animal’s experiences, like those of a fantasy-world protagonist, are familiar enough to be relatable and strange enough to be escapist. Maybe I’ll have to try my hand at writing an animal protagonist in my next creative piece.

Diversiverse Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

I chose this book to read for Aarti‘s 2015 #Diversiverse Challenge, but it’s one that’s been on my radar for a while. I’d heard Somali-American author Sofia Samatar compared to Ursula LeGuin; I’d heard the book described as one that is, above all else, a love letter to the power of books and reading. These were the things that drew me to request it from my local library, but when I picked it up, I wasn’t without reservations. Most of the reviewers I’d seen mentioned first encountering Samatar through her poetry; a few of them drew comparisons with Gene Wolfe. Both of these elements made me worry that her novel would be too dense and fanciful for my taste. But when I cracked the book open, the first paragraph was enough to tell me that the LeGuin comparison was accurate.

Because I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents, I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea. Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart: it is the light the local people call “the breath of angels” and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs. Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossoms. But of all this I knew nothing. I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.

The amount of world-building that’s evident from this one paragraph almost literally took my breath away. I know from the author bio that Samatar wrote the book while teaching English in South Sudan, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know enough about East African cultures to recognize whether any of the cultures in the novel are influenced by them (in the way, for example, that most traditional fantasy is heavily influenced by medieval Europe). There are things that “felt” African to me, like the fact that the protagonist’s father has two wives, but there are also vast swaths of the culture that I was pretty sure are at least halfway invented. Mythical figures like the Ghost with No Liver are thrown in casually, mentioned once and then never again. The fact that each member of a wealthy family has an external soul — a jut, a small statue unique to that individual — is explained on Page 5 and then forgotten for a hundred pages, until it suddenly becomes a very important marker of the difference between the haves and have-nots. From a craft perspective, the richness of the setting was far and away the thing that impressed me most.

The other thing that’s probably evident from that sample paragraph is the care with which Samatar crafts her prose. If I hadn’t known she was a poet before I began, I would have guessed before I got very far into the novel. Not only is the narrator’s first-person text beautifully composed, but there are other types of prose embedded within the book: folk tales, prayers, songs, and snippets of other voices. Not since Watership Down have I read a book that includes aspects of its world’s mythology that are both long enough to disrupt the story and not disruptive at all.

Of course, I think this is in large part because A Stranger in Olondria is not a plot-driven book. In a single sentence, the plot goes more or less like this. Jevick is a young pepper merchant, on his way to the big city for the first time, when he meets a girl with a terminal illness and enchants her with a demonstration of his literacy (uncommon in both their cultures); shortly after he gets to the city, he begins to be haunted by her ghost, begging him to write her story down, which he eventually does. There are, of course, complications having to do with what needs to be done for her to find peace, and what it means to be someone who sees ghosts, and along the way Jevick meets a number of interesting people on their own journeys — but really, this book is only half about its central plot.

The back cover blurb puts it this way: “As civil war looms, Jevick must face his ghost and learn her story: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.” I would focus on something slightly different — this is the first book I have seen that tells the classic genre story of the farm boy seeking adventure while actually taking the time to demonstrate the learning curve that goes along with that. Jevick learns the Olondrian language from a tutor on his father’s estate: that doesn’t mean he can speak fluently when he gets to the city. His home language doesn’t have a written form. His worldview and experiences aren’t mirrored in any way by those of the larger world he falls into, and that’s disorienting — and Samatar takes the time to show us that.

Honestly, I think I might enjoy this book more on a second reading. On my first readthrough, I kept almost putting it down, feeling as though the plot were moving too slowly, but then I would hit something that’d draw me back in, like a short story embedded in the larger text that covers the backstory of one of Jevick’s friends, or a song about a girl who’s tricked into marrying a demon and then escapes to go back to her family. This book is dense and layered and not the sort of thing that’s meant to be read quickly (which, honestly, was probably my other problem: I fully confess that I’m a skimmer on first reads). It’s not always immediately clear who’s narrating; the order of events is sometimes not what you’re expecting. Reading it, I felt a bit like I have on the occasions when Husband has tried to get me to watch anime with him, like I’m having to twist my brain around to a new way of looking at the world.

This isn’t a book for everyone. The negative reviews I found on Goodreads tended to be from people complaining that nothing happened (mostly true, in comparison with more traditional fantasy novels) or that the protagonist was flat and uninteresting (again, I’d probably say guilty as charged); I think that, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, it is much more “literary” than it is “fantasy,” even if it takes place in a world that doesn’t exist. But I’m glad I read it, and I will be recommending it to my more poetic and anthropologically-inclined friends.

Elaborating on a Promise: A Tale of Series Fiction and Two Jo(e)s

In the last two months (since early August), I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the first books in two very different trilogies. In both cases, I read the first book in 1 or 2 days, choosing it over socializing and newsfeed-reading and the other things that tend to occupy my non-writing hours. It’s been quite a while (a few months at least) since I’ve had that kind of reaction to a book, so when it happened for the first time, I went out the next day and ordered Books 2 and 3 in that series, happy to know that I would be able to pick them up and devour them at my leisure. With the second series, though, I was more cautious; instead of running to the bookstore, I requested the sequel from the library. As it happened, I liked that book enough that I will probably add it to my permanent collection alongside its predecessor… but I had learned my lesson the first time around. Just because a first book catches your fancy doesn’t mean that the rest of the series will do so.

I’ve blogged here before about the relative joys and tribulations of standalone books and series, but my experience with these two trilogies prompted me to revisit the issue from a slightly different angle. The series I set down unfinished was Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy; the one I would endorse in its (admittedly as-yet unfinished) entirety is Jo Walton‘s Thessaly books. Both series are well-written; Goodreads confirms that both have lots of devoted fans. The two series also do some similar things from a craft perspective. Both present a word that is a mix of history and fantasy; both have multiple viewpoint characters; and perhaps most notably, neither author is afraid to make their second (or third) book very different from the first, and trust the readers to decide whether they want to continue along on the ride. Mild-to-moderate spoilers for both series follow.

The Shattered Sea books focus on a culture that bears a more-than-superficial resemblance to (mainstream cultural understandings of) the Vikings; a world where manhood is marked by one’s ability to go raiding, and wealth comes from what you can take when you burn a village. There are a handful of different nations (most notably Vanstermen and Gettlanders) whose cultures seem remarkably similar, and a few others that are more distinctive. Abercrombie also includes some interesting worldbuilding details which I think are invented; while the peoples of the Shattered Sea have distinct roles for men and women, those tasks apportioned to women include most financial and religious duties, and the pantheon includes some interesting reversals from the most traditional stereotypes (Father Peace and Mother War, for starters). In the first book, Half a King, our hero is Yarvi, the younger son of the King of Gettland, who’s been given to the priesthood (in a role relatively rare for a man) because his disabled hand makes him unable to hold a shield and thus unable to fight. In the first chapter of the book, he learns that his father and elder brother have died, and thus he is now King of Gettland; within the first 50 pages, he’s betrayed by his uncle, left for dead, and sold into slavery. The rest of the book is Yarvi’s struggle to set this situation right, and I loved it: he surrounds himself with memorable characters whose exploits I really cared about, a band of unlikely heroes making their way through the wilderness, and their adventures kept me turning pages right up until the end. I liked that Yarvi wasn’t the traditional hero; I liked that his disability was neither his only character trait nor something to be ignored when it became inconvenient, or cured by book’s end; and I liked the plot he found himself in, with a combination of action and character development.

The second book in this series, Half the World, is the tale of a ship making its way from Gettland to the other side of the known world to attempt an alliance with a far-off ruler. The journey has some of the same elements I loved from the first book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much — in large part, I think, because Yarvi is no longer the viewpoint character. Abercrombie trades him in for two new viewpoints, a man and a woman, and while they both had some interesting elements I didn’t feel that either was as distinctive (plus, there’s an awkward YA-style romance between them, with lots of miscommunication before the inevitable getting together). I made it through the book hopeful that the third, Half a War, would feature more screen time for Yarvi; instead, Abercrombie changes viewpoints yet again, bringing in three new protagonists, and sending heroes new and old off to battle. Given the title of the book, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there was more fighting and less opportunity for character interplay (never my favorite combination), but given how much I’d liked the first book, I kept holding out hope that this one would turn into something closer to what I’d loved in the first book. It didn’t, and I set it down halfway through.

In most ways, Jo Walton’s Thessaly series is as different from The Shattered Sea as it is possible for two books to be while remaining in the same genre (maybe unsurprising given how different Walton’s books and series are from one another). The premise of the first book, The Just City, is that the Greek gods Apollo and Athene have took it upon themselves to test out the model of a city laid out in Plato’s Republic. To do this, they transport a number of Platonic scholars from various points in human history to a remote Greek island in pre-history, and present them with a cadre of “blank slate” pupils — more-or-less contemporary slave children taken from throughout the Mediterranean. The goal is that the children will be raised in line with the Platonic ideals outlined in The Republic; the viewpoint characters include one teacher, one human student, and Apollo, who has elected to take on human form to participate in the experiment directly. Sokrates gets involved; there are robots; and as you might guess, things get complicated quickly. This book is unlike most other things I’ve read, and I loved it; it speaks to the worldbuilder in me, as the protagonists are forced to confront the problems with implementing an untested philosophical system with real people, and to the sociologist who loves stories of utopia and dystopia. I don’t usually like stories focused heavily around ideas, but this book was an exception.

The second Thessaly book, The Philosopher Kings, pushes the plot ahead twenty years: the children from the first book are adults, having children of their own, and the community has spread out beyond a single city and even beyond the small island where Athene originally placed them. Two of the narrators are the same, while a third disappears from the story in the first chapter. Philosopher Kings delves more deeply into theology (specifically issues of incarnation and the rights and obligations of demigods) and the effects of historical meddling, but it remains at its root a book about ideas, with the characters serving mainly as mechanisms to kick those ideas around. It’s not the sort of book I would ordinarily jump at, but I’ve been recommending it to all my fellow “book nerds,” and I expect I will be snapping up the third in the trilogy when it appears sometime next year. Which raises the question — why did I like one series so much and not the other?

I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think it’s specifically because of the changes the authors make between books. Other series, like Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, set their first narrator aside when the first book is done and I go on to enjoy the later books even more; George RR Martin has introduced new settings and characters galore in his later Song of Ice and Fire books and I’ve enjoyed most of them very much. And it’s not as though one series stays truer to its central themes than the other; Shattered Sea has Viking-esque warfare and cultural values throughout, while Thessaly is first and foremost an exploration of what happens when a set of philosophical ideals are implemented in the real world. The difference, I think, is that what I liked in Half a King was something other than Abercrombie’s central theme. I wanted to see more of Yarvi’s story from the inside, not just hear about how he was a great diplomat and priest from the eyes of other characters; Abercrombie wanted to let the world grow bigger, and I wasn’t interested in following along. By contrast, although Walton moved outside the Just City in her second novel, the things I liked about the first one were still central to the story she was telling.

The exercise of comparing the two series has been interesting, particularly since I’ve set myself to writing a set of linked series that will put my protagonist in drastically different circumstances. It’s useful to remember that while contemporary authors are more encouraged than their predecessors to stretch themselves, and new authors in particular are warned to avoid focusing too much on one type of project, every change you make in a sequel will alienate some of your readers. People fall in love with a book for lots of reasons, and not all of those will come with you when you move on in the world.

On the up side, I suppose that even a reader who doesn’t like where a series ended up can still be in love with the first book. I won’t be keeping Half the World or Half a War, but Half a King has earned its place on my bookshelf; and I’ll be ordering Philosopher Kings from my local bookstore at the next opportunity.

If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: The Creative Process

A few months ago, Husband came home from work with a book in hand: “I saw this at the store and thought of you.” The book was Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey; it’s basically the distillation of as many different sources as Currey could find, laying out the creative process for “novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… who describe how they… get done the work they love to do.”

I suspect that I’m not the only creative type who enjoys hearing about how other people get their creativity flowing, so I was intrigued by this book, but also intimidated. I’m still a little new to this full-time creative life, after all, and also acknowledge my own tendencies to compare myself to others — so when I hear that Stephen King writes 2000 words every day and says that “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season” (from his book On Writing), I get anxious. The first draft of my current project took almost two years; the second draft is shaping up to encompass another year and a half, if I’m lucky. Hearing about wildly productive and successful authors like King (whose books I faithfully read and generally love) makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong.

Turns out what I may have needed is some perspective.

It took me a while to read Currey’s book, over the course of many, many 5-minutes-before-bed stints. There were moments in my perusal when I felt my old comparison anxiety popping back up, like when I read about how Faulkner “often [completed] three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount” — but for every section about wildly prolific authors, there was a passage like the one about John Updike, who said that “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” Joyce Carol Oates said that “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Ayn Rand got through writer’s block (which she called “the squirms”) by playing solitaire without getting up from her desk; Goethe waited for inspiration, saying that “It is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”

One thing the book makes abundantly clear is that no two creatives have exactly the same process, and that there’s no “right” way to make art. I found it useful to keep this fact in mind last week, when I was trying to decide whether to go back over a chapter that I knew needed more work or to press on to the next one. As someone whose Lawful Good alignment runs deep, I spent a day or two obsessing over which was the “right” way to do it, before finally making my peace with the fact that there was, in fact, no rule to follow here. In the end, I decided to spend a day laying the groundwork for the new chapter and then as long as it took (as it turned out, about 1 week’s/20 hours’ work) to go over the old one and set it right before I lost track of the threads of plot and character motivation that’d come together at the end of a difficult pass through. It involved three days of really frustrating work on the rougher parts before I got to the “easy bit,” but I was left feeling that the chapter was better and also pleased with myself for managing to get it done in a single fairly condensed time frame. And as Husband keeps reminding me, in the end, I’m not Stephen King or William Faulkner, and my book will take as long as it takes.

In the spirit of writerly disclosures, here are a few things that seem to be part of my “best practices,” as they’ve emerged over almost a year of full-time writing:

  • My best work tends to happen in the morning and early afternoon, between about 10 AM-2 PM (a little earlier if the cat cooperates by settling down and not making a pest of himself)
  • I can usually work between 2.5-3 hours at a stretch; if I’m writing new material and the words are coming easily, I may do two sessions of that length in a day with lunch in between.
  • I’m best off working on my manuscript every day, even if just for a half hour, to keep it fresh at the top of my mind
  • To avoid the temptations of social media while I’m working, the deal I make with myself is that I won’t check Facebook or Twitter until I’ve met my minimum writing goals for the day (typically 1500 words and/or about 400 words an hour)
  • I keep track of both words written and hours worked for the week; this allows me to avoid feeling bad about myself in a week that has more planning and less prose production, and also gives me the satisfying feeling of watching the words and the hours pile up.
  • If I’m feeling blocked, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t thought through some element of the plot or character motivation clearly enough. Going for a walk, and/or sitting down with a notebook (away from the temptations of social media) are my best ways of solving that problem

There are still days when I want to throw the whole thing out the window; but for the most part, I continue to feel deeply fortunate that I get to live this life. And I found this book a useful reality check that whatever works for you, however long it takes you to produce your masterpieces, as long as you’re working and someday your work makes it out into the world, what you’re doing is the right way.

History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

Going to the Stacks: A Plug for Old-Fashioned Research Tools

You may have noticed that my presence on this blog has declined in the last month or so; this has been for a couple of reasons, some of which I’ve already discussed here, but one of the good ones that I haven’t crowed about much is that I’m actually starting to make progress on the book at faster-than-a-snail’s-pace (probably to do with having more focused writing time now that my teaching responsibilities are over for a while). In the last few weeks, my writing has been getting between 2 and 4 hours almost every day. Of course, not all of that time is spent putting words on paper; as I’m sure the other writers out there know, no matter how much research you think you’ve done ahead of time, you’ll inevitably find something that needs to be looked up in-the-moment.

I don’t always drop everything to go research; after a long process of trial and error, I’ve learned better than to dive blindly into the Internet and expect to come up for air before I’ve lost the thread of what I was doing. But sometimes, the question is one that’s actually intrinsic to the scene I’m writing. How might this animal behave under these circumstances? What could you do for a person with these injuries if you didn’t have professional help available? What weapons would these people  most likely be carrying?

For an immediate question like that, I find it works much better for me to go to a physical book to find an answer. The distraction potential is far less (there’s no link to Facebook on my bookshelf, for instance, unless my phone happens to be sitting there); I tend to be more familiar with the layout of the source I’m tapping, letting me quickly find the section I’m looking for; and since I’ve evaluated it before adding it to my library I can be more sure of its accuracy.

Of course, I can never be completely sure what I might need to look up on any given day, but here are a few categories of topic that I’ve found myself accumulating books on, that might be worthy additions to other aspiring fantasists’ reference libraries (you’ll find a partial list of titles at the end of the post):

  • Books with photos and drawings of clothing and weapons. This one was particularly important to me after I resolved that the world of my novels would not have a straightforward “faux-European” flavor. I wanted the cultures to feel more original, and so I wanted to make sure I exposed myself to the way things were done in other places besides medieval Europe. So far, I’ve collected three different books on costuming and body adornment, and two different books on weapons; when I bring a new character onto the page, I can sit down and consider the culture they’re coming out of (are they a pastoralist? a city-dweller? someone from a hot climate? a wet climate?), and quickly look at illustrations from a number of real-world cultures with similar elements.
  • Skill-based books. I have a few small clusters of “skill books” (some on falconry; some on sailing; one written for linguists on how to document an unknown language); more recently, I’ve been gathering books on survival in the wilderness. Because I’ve often got characters roaming through uncharted territory in my books, and it’s useful to have a quick guide to things like how to gut a carcass, sharpen knives, start a fire and transport an injured person — as well as stuff like basic nutrition for people living in a non-industrialized setting.
  • Natural history books. If animals play a major part in your story, it’s probably useful for you to have a few books about those animals (I suspect GRRM might have a wolf text or two in his writing room). Raptors have a pretty substantial role in the story I’m telling, so I have books that discuss their anatomy, behavior, and training, as well as a few big coffee table books just for the pictures.
  • Cultural overview books. These, of course, take all sorts of forms. I’ve got an ever-growing collection of compilations of mythology from around the world; I have a book whose authors went around the world taking photos of families with all their worldly possessions piled up in front of their house, and a whole series of coffee table books offering sweeping historical overviews of different parts of the world, plus the obligatory medieval Europe series and about three years of National Geographic back-issues that I can flip through when I’m feeling stuck for imagery. None of it stands on its own as a world-building tool; all of it informs my thinking.

And that’s just the stuff I’ve accumulated so far.

I know that my library will grow and change as my writing career does, but I don’t think I will ever move to an all-digital research approach. The experience of pulling a familiar book from the shelf and cracking it open to the old familiar pictures is just too powerful for me to let it go.

Reference Books I’ve Found Useful:

For weapons, armor, and general attire (all basically coffee table books):

  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Knives, Daggers & Bayonets (Dr. Tobias Capwell)
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Swords and Sabres (Harvey J.S. Withers)
  • The Illustrated History of Weaponry: From Flint Axes to Automatic Weapons (Chuck Wills)
  • Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (R.G. Grant — lots of pictures of weapons and armor from the earliest records to the present day)
  • Costume Worldwide: A Historical Sourcebook (Melissa Leventon, ed — unlike the others, this one draws on paintings as its source material, so may not be quite as accurate, but it’s a good place to start and the broadest book I’ve been able to find so far)

For wilderness/survival skills:

  • SAS Survival Guide (John “Lofty” Wiseman — written by a veteran of the British special forces. Includes everything from how to test the edibility of plants and make your own bow to surviving a shipwreck)
  • Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook (David Werner, Carol Thuman & Jane Maxwell — mainly focuses on disease prevention and treatment in low-technology settings, but there’s some useful first aid and preventative medicine here too)

For raptor natural history info and photos, and falconry basics

  • Understanding the Bird of Prey (Nick Fox — the bible of falconry management, as far as I can tell; out of print and quite expensive to get a copy of, but I’ve found it worth the hefty pricetag. Includes anatomy and physiology, behavior, training, breeding and most anything else you can think of).
  • Falcons of North America (Kate Davis — a natural history text focused on wild birds, with great pictures)
  • A Falconry Manual (Frank L. Beebe — decent photos and brief overviews of the species used for falconry in North America, as well as the basics of training, housing, etc.)

For cultural stuff:

  • Life in a Medieval Castle (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval City (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval Village (Frances & Joseph Gies — if you’re looking to draw on the medieval-Europe model, these three books cover it pretty comprehensively, and also get a thumbs-up from a real-life medieval historian in my social circle as adequately accurate in their summaries)
  • Favorite Folktales from Around the World (Jane Yolen, ed — this book joined my library when I had to write my story’s first folk tale earlier this year; good representation from around the world and a good overview of the most common types of stories.
  • Material World: A Global Family Portrait (Peter Menzel & Charles C. Mann — the coffee table book illustrating the experiences of different families from around the world; a good reminder that even in the same time frame [mid-90s, in this case] people in different places live dramatically differently)

In-Jokes and Crossovers In Fiction: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

Quick poll, dear readers: what’s your opinion of crossovers?

I ask because I’m still working my way through the Outlander series (only the most recent one left to race through, and then I’ll have to wait like everybody else for Gabaldon to write the last book), and the book I read most recently didn’t draw me in as deeply as its predecessors. After some reflection, I’ve concluded that the main reason for this is because, unlike the other books, this one felt as though it expected readers to be fluent in a whole different set of characters.

Essentially, the Outlander universe consists of two related series. The Outlander books, the first of which I reviewed here, center on Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their family’s adventures in the 18th and 20th centuries. A comparatively minor character from this series, Lord John Grey, is also the hero of his own set of books, described in the reviews I’ve read as crime/mystery novels. Since I’m not a mystery fan, I’ve not made an effort to hunt those books down, and through the first six books of the Outlander series (of which Lord John appears in five), I didn’t feel their absence. But when I encountered Lord John’s first viewpoint section in Book 7, An Echo in the Bone, I suddenly felt out of the loop. There were winking references to events I didn’t remember; Lord John had conversations with people I was clearly meant to recognize; again and again, I noticed things going over my head. And it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Of course, Gabaldon is hardly the only author to craft a set of interlaced stories. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, there are several places where the readers are presented with Mysterious Characters who feel like they ought to be significant. These characters, Sanderson’s committed fan community will gladly explain, have detailed backstories which fit them into the larger cosmology that links Sanderson’s otherwise-unconnected series, but within the pages of Mistborn, their identities are left unexplained. And there are others, large and small. George RR Martin threads moments from his Dunk and Egg stories into the background of the Song of Ice and Fire novels; Robin Hobb has a number of ostensibly unrelated series that take place in different corners of the same world. During the four years Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were airing simultaneously, the two shows had so many instances of interlaced plot that there are whole episode guides devoted to iterating proper viewing order.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Easter eggs as much as the next person. My favorite show as a pre-teen, Space Cases (may it rest in peace), reliably included in-jokes for its especially-nerdy viewers, including everything from throwaway lines about “Minbar chess,” or a character’s declaring that the best response to encountering new life is “Fascinating” to directions like this:

Okay, now, Alpha Epsilon is to port, and Centauri is to starboard… triangulating to the Narn homeworld…

If you’re coming from the Delta Quadrant, turn left at the Bajoran wormhole, then take the Vogon Hyperspace Bypass to Exit 42.

These references  are fun for those who catch them, but to those who don’t, they slide right past without feeling like they should be important. This is the level of cross-reference I strive for in my own writing: if I’m writing a short story that draws on the world of my novel, I might put in a throwaway line or two aimed at my “constant readers,” but I’d also want the story to stand on its own legs, without leaving casual readers standing on the outside.

I certainly get the appeal of crossovers, both as an author and an insider fan. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series includes everything from throwaway lines about King’s made-up Maine cities to the reappearance of characters from earlier books; as a longtime and committed King fan, I found it a lot of fun. I regularly and enthusiastically recommend this series, and I’d still say it has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen – but I do admit that its target audience is King fans. Readers who don’t know the rest of his canon could still enjoy the books, but I suspect they’d be just as jarred by the in-jokes and sly cross-references in Roland of Gilead’s story as I was with the ones in An Echo in the Bone. If you haven’t read The Stand, It, ‘Salem’s Lot and a handful of others, you could read all 7 books of the Dark Tower series and still feel like you’d missed something.

And maybe that’s the crux of the problem for me, why it gets under my skin: because in all the crossovers I’ve mentioned here, the (ostensibly self-contained) series making the references is a commitment on its own. Three books, or four, or six, or nine; maybe 100 or 150 hours of TV. As a longtime fantasy reader, I’m very comfortable with long series, and very conscientious about starting from the beginning and making sure I read things in order. But if I’ve done my due diligence and started from Book 1, when I come to a scene or a plot revelation that’s clearly written to make the audience gasp, I want to know what I’m gasping about. In the same way that I try to build each book in a series with a self-contained story so that readers don’t feel like they’re being bribed to buy the next book, I feel that if a reader’s followed a series from the beginning, they shouldn’t trip up halfway through with the feeling that they should’ve bought all the author’s other books, too.

I’d be curious to hear other authors’ and readers’ opinions on this: how do you feel about encountering material in a story that you know isn’t there for your benefit? If you’ve got a large world with many stories in it, how do you maintain and manage the boundaries between them?

Wearing Books Like Hats: On Reading as a Writer

In my continual quest to find new writing companions, I had a coffee date with a new writer last week, another Bay Area part-timer who’s trying to push out a draft of her first book. When she sketched the plot for me — a YA dystopia — my first question was “oh, so how many of the current crop have you read?” As a long-time dystopia fan, I’m used to my favorite subgenre being a few books stuffed in among the SF/F mainstream, and it still doesn’t make intuitive sense to me that The Hunger Games has thrown open the doors for a genre that now has its own section in the Young Adult shelves and what seems like a new movie released every other week. So I was expecting her to mention Divergent, maybe Matched or Uglies or Legend or The Maze Runner (I’ve read at least the first book in the first four series).

Instead, she just tilted her head and gave me a funny look. “I haven’t read any of them. Why?”

I know this new acquaintance isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve met other writers who don’t read at all in their genre, or who stay away from fiction altogether when they’re writing. I’ve heard the excuses, too, that it’ll pollute your vision or depress you or even that you’re opening yourself up to inadvertent plagiarism. But my own experience has put me firmly in the camp of those like Stephen King, who say that writers have to be readers first.

Speaking just for myself, the other way doesn’t make much sense: I definitely took my first step toward a writing life when I found a story I loved. The first book I can remember reading over and over again was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty: I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my first attempt at a novel, the year I turned eleven, was a first-person memoir from the point of view of a horse.

In my experience, that’s the hazard of turning from reading to writing once you’ve fallen in love with a single story. My second try at a novel-length work, started and abandoned in middle school, told the tale of a group of kids from half a dozen different planets who crewed a spaceship. I thought a lot about my characters, and in a move that should’ve given me the hint that sociology was in my future, I spent an enormous amount of time developing my various alien races’ cultures (though I can’t make any claims to high originality: I’m pretty sure there was a cat person and a fish person). But when it came to the details a little further from my geeky worldbuilding heart, like the mechanics of the ship, I borrowed very heavily from the sci-fi story I was most familiar with at the time: Bill Mumy & Peter David’s Space Cases (may it rest in peace).

The same thing happened to me as a college freshman, when I set out to write my very own dystopian novel. I had fairly well-rounded characters and a carefully worked out setting, but when I read the manuscript over now, I can’t see anything but echoes of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Teens being assigned to their jobs by a central council; children being raised in non-biological families so that no one has to actually discuss the messiness of hormonal reproduction (said hormones being conveniently repressed by a chemical); no music, art or poetry. You get the idea.

My current writing project isn’t dystopian, but it is a fictionalized memoir, and a big fat fantasy series, and a story set in a distinctly non-Tolkien world that nonetheless has magic and non-human sentient beings and swordfights. And as I work on it, I’ve increasingly come to believe that reading other books with those qualities — or some of them, or none of them — is an essential part of helping me to make my book better.

In PhD programs, one of the rites of passage that doesn’t get as much press as the thesis defense (with or without snakes) is sitting for qualifying exams. When I was in the Berkeley sociology department, that process typically involved choosing two substantive fields (like sociology of education, sociology of race, sociology of culture) and then sitting down for 6 months to make yourself an expert in those fields, along with the field of sociological theory. Once you felt like you’d reached expert level, you were locked in a room with four faculty members for two hours and forced to answer questions to demonstrate your expertise. The main goal of this exercise was to train you to teach, but it was also framed as being key to your development as an independent scholar. The thinking went that if you didn’t know where your own research fits into the field, you were working with one hand tied behind your back.

Obviously, writing fiction is different than writing sociology (one of the main reasons I’ve opted to do more of the former and less of the latter), but I think the principle stands: even if writing “marketable” fiction is the last thing from your mind, reading other things like the story you’re writing will help you write better. Now that I’ve read bits of a dozen different high fantasy series, when I hit a roadblock in my plotting or worldbuilding I’m less likely to catch myself defaulting to “what would Tolkien do?” And no matter what your final goal is for your work, it’s still useful to know if there are books out there in the world that do what you do. Other people will assume you’ve read them, and if your new idea for a YA dystopia randomly happens to look an awful lot like The Hunger Games, you’ll want to know it sooner rather than later.

There are immediate practical benefits, too. When I finish a book and want to rave about its amazingness (or terribleness), I’m more inclined than I used to be to sit down and figure out why it worked for me, or didn’t. In my reading, I’ve seen dozens of different ways to write action scenes; I’ve learned some of the common pitfalls for dialogue (hint: in most cases, your characters’ spoken words should probably sound different than the narrator’s); I’ve started to get a sense for when a twist is too obvious. Most times, when I’m reading, I’m learning and having fun all at once.

I didn’t tell my new acquaintance that she ought to drop everything and go to the library, but if I end up meeting up with her again, I may do just that. Because when you want to claim membership in a club, whether it’s sociology or authorhood, it seems to me it’ll give you a leg up if you know the senior members’ names.

Or, to put it another way, here’s some advice from one of the greatest members of the Genre Writers’ Club:

“You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” — Ray Bradbury

Sources I’ve used to find Things to Read:

Writing Takes Time: On Vanquishing the Demon of “Productivity”

…the fact remains that writing takes time. To write takes dreaming and remembering and thinking and imagining — and very often what feels like wasting time. It takes silence and solitude. It takes being okay with making a huge mess and not knowing what you’re doing. Then it takes rewriting and struggling to find your story and the truth of the story, and then the meaning of the story. It takes being comfortable with your own doubts and fears and questions. And there’s just no fast and easy way around it. — from Meditation #12 of Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement

In the last few weeks, my writing has not been going well.

Part of this is due to what sociologists would call “environmental factors.” Husband and I are always hit hard by the December holidays (which for us encompass 2 different religiousish traditions, 3 different nuclear family branches, travel and/or out-of-town guests [this year featured both!], at least 3 or 4 additional non-familial celebrations and our anniversary). This year, both of us caught the Cold of the Century in the last two weeks of 2014, and I started a new part-time teaching gig at a new institution the first full week of 2015 after not having taught at all for seven months. So there’s been all of that conspiring together to complicate my ability to sit in an upright position in front of my computer for long enough to get into a state of flow. But that’s not all that’s been stymieing me.

When people ask what stage I’m at with my book, I tend to say I’m working on a second draft, which is true insofar as I have a prior version of this story that’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. But when I sat down to my new draft in June of last year, one of the things I knew was that huge swaths of my plot were going to have to be ripped up and completely rewritten. I knew there was a lot of stuff that didn’t work, motivations that were hazy, scenes that didn’t fit with the overall backbone of the tale I was trying to tell; at that point, I couldn’t even have told you what the central theme of the book was. So in a lot of ways, what I’m working on still has many elements of a first draft; I’m taking the key points of my story, the stuff I know I want to keep, and trying to make them fit together in a more coherent way. Meanwhile, a lot of the rest is being completely thrown out and rewritten — and this section of the novel, the piece of the plot arc I’ve been working on since late September, is particularly full of dross that needs to be winnowed away.

What that means, in practice, is that I spend a lot of my writing time these days asking questions like this: “Where should I start this chapter?” “Why is this character doing this?” “How can I keep this plot revelation and kill the scene it’s a part of?” And more often than not, I don’t get an answer right away. Sometimes, I can go days pounding my head against the keyboard or throwing words down in what I know is the wrong direction before I figure out where the story’s supposed to go.

In my schedule, Mondays are blocked off as “writing days”: I make no appointments, undertake no major home improvement projects, and don’t allow anything on my social calendar until dinnertime. And so, in my results-oriented head, I tend to think a “successful Monday” is a day when I’ve sat at my computer for at least 4 hours (with 6 being preferable) and/or pushed out at least 2000 words. Made the best use of my time, starting first thing in the morning when I’m freshest.

This week didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t sleep well Sunday night; then, because of various unavoidable teaching- and life-related commitments, I didn’t get started with “Writing Monday” until after lunch. And when I finally sat down, staring at the opening lines of a chapter I’ve been hammering away at for two weeks now, nothing happened. In 3 hours, I managed to tug about 600 words from my subconscious, and even as I wrote them, I was pretty sure most of them would be going right back to the scrap pile. By the end of it, I was frustrated, disheartened and feeling like a fraud. This is a state I’ve been in quite a bit in the last few weeks. One of my personal artistic demons is the need to feel “productive,” and if my word count’s going up, I can point to that and say that I’m doing something. If it’s not, I can quickly get to feeling like I’m wasting my time, at which point I turn into the Bad Writing Day monster and stalk around the house terrorizing Husband and the cat.

But today was different. Because as I was about to go off on my usual “this-is-all-garbage” rant, I remembered the writing meditation I’d read this morning, reproduced in part at the top of this post.

I picked up Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously on a whim in a bookstore a few days into the new year, and immediately decided it was coming home with me. It includes 365 one- to two-page reflections on the writing process, and unlike most writing books I’ve seen, it’s not meant to teach you how to write better: it’s focused entirely on encouragement, and I was sold when I saw that Day 1’s meditation ended with this quote:

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. — John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, dear readers. The guy whose books are almost-universally regarded as triumphs of literature. He didn’t know how to start his writing sessions, either.

I’m coming to realize that in my writing life, tiny revelations like that are often exactly the kind of reality check I need (I follow many of my favorite authors on Twitter for the same reason). We all need a reminder from time to time that we’re not alone — and for writers, that includes the reminder that on days when the words won’t come, it might not have anything to do with your talent or your legitimacy. It might just mean that your plot’s not done stewing yet.

So yeah, I only wrote 500 words this Monday, and I’m probably going to trash most of them the next time I sit down. But I also figured out what’s wrong with the beginning of this scene, and I know what needs to happen to fix it. I don’t know how to make it happen yet, but I’m confident that’ll come. It might be on a walk, or in the shower, or a Facebook-free pen and paper brainstorming session. Or maybe I’ll just sit down at my computer and make a mess and see what comes out of it — because, as I was reminded today, writing isn’t all about putting words on the page. Sometimes, you just have to give it time.

My 2015 Reading Challenge

As someone with a lot of time to read, I tend to start the new year with a vague theme in mind to focus my reading for the next 12 months. For 2014, my goal was to broaden my reading in genre fiction, and I don’t think I did too badly. I made the virtual acquaintance of Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, Fritz Leiber, Nalo Hopkinson and Anne McCaffrey; I read Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and tried my hand at Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. And on my shelf, waiting to be scooped up, are Zelazny and Gene Wolfe and Raymond E. Feist; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Mists of Avalon. I promise I’ll get to them all, sooner or later, just like I’m fully intending to spend a year reading “the classics,” another reading popular books from outside my own genre (romances and westerns and mysteries, anyone?), and two more reading only books translated from other languages and those written only by authors of color.

In short, I like having reading goals. Even if I know I’ll inevitably end up reading a lot of stuff that isn’t on That Year’s List; having a goal gives me somewhere to set my gaze when I walk into the library, instead of frolicking through the shelves like a butterfly (which doesn’t mean I never do that). So this year, with all the above vaguely-defined goals in mind, I have decided I’m going to focus myself with the 50 entries of the PopSugar Reading Challenge. I chose this one not because of any particular loyalty to the site but because I thought the list looked interesting and fun, like a literary scavenger hunt. A sampling of the things it’s asking for would include a book more than 100 years old, a book set during Christmastime, a book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit, and a book your mom likes.

I expect I’ll be attempting to cram some of my other specifications into this challenge as well, particularly the goal of reading more diversely: as Aarti at Booklust points out every year during the runup to her Diversiverse challenge, authors from all backgrounds write all kinds of books. And I’ll even declare that I will post reviews for the 50 different books I read for the challenge here, so stay tuned.

What about you, Loyal Readers? Are you doing a reading challenge this year? What’s on your list?