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first of the year

Yesterday Alec and I sold our short story, “Calm,” to Analog.

I am always relieved when I make my first sale of the year, even though I know that the turning of the year is entirely arbitrary. Still, just as my grade school friends and I would greet each other melodramatically in January (“I haven’t seen you all year!”), I have a bit of “I haven’t sold a story all year!” until I do. So now I have! Onwards.

(Also Alec and I have such fun writing these things together that it’s always nice when someone else enjoys them too.)

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Books read, early January

Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. This was a very hard book to read, just on an emotional level. But it was immensely well-done, and I recommend it highly if you can find the time and energy. The introduction is a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of works of history, talking clearly about the linguistic efforts required but also–more importantly–spending more time on what other people in her field are doing well than on how Someone On the Internet Journal Of My Profession Is Wrong. So I now have a fairly extensive bibliography about this general cheerful subject. Heads up to those whose interests are a subset of the title: Applebaum’s main focus is in East Germany, Hungary, and Poland, although she does discuss the rest of the region, so if you’re really looking for something that will go into deep analysis on Albania or Yugoslavia, this is not the book. But it has all sorts of references for what would be the book.

Andrea Barrett, Archangel. Either a mosaic novel or a series of related short stories, about scientists/naturalists/inventors in late 19th/early 20th century America. Quite beautifully done, left me wanting more–a lot more. Sadly I think I have read everything she’s done that might be in this vein, so I will have to wait impatiently for whatever is next.

Peter Dickinson, Earth and Air. Dickinson and his wife Robin McKinley had put out two previous collections for Water and Fire, but apparently McKinley’s stories for this one kept growing into novels. I’m glad Dickinson just went ahead and published his–I liked the owl story particularly–but the introduction, when he was saying that he did not plan to stick around into his 90s, was a little alarming, and I’m afraid that’s the bit that stuck with me most. (“Plan” and “expect” are not the same verb.)

Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf. A mystery set in Saudi Arabia, in which a traditional religious young man ends up having to learn to work with a woman who is nowhere near as traditional, in order to solve a murder. It took me a bit to get into it, but I’m glad I did; I’ll want the others in the series.

James Gleick, Isaac Newton. A short bio that ranges into the bits of things we do know about Newton and the things we don’t, with side trips to explain the rest of his mental world as necessary. I think mostly of interest if you don’t have any idea about Isaac Newton and would like to–there were some tidbits that were new to me, but for the most part it was well-written review.

Tove Jansson, Moominsummer Madness. I do like Little My. And living in the theater during the flood! I’m almost sure this is a reread, but I don’t have any record of it. (I didn’t keep records of what I read when I was in the single digits.) I missed Thingummy and Bob in this one, but there are other Moomin books for other times.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, The Story of Spanish. Oh, these are so lovely. I could read them for as many languages as they were willing to write them. Not really speaking Spanish was no detriment to my enjoying the way they traced etymologies and grammatical developments. Nadeau and Barlow are Canadian, Quebecois, which gives them a very decentralized and democratic view of languages. While they cover “pure Castilian” as a cultural phenomenon, they are in no way likely to get sucked into thinking of it as “the one real true Spanish that should always be spoken,” and they go into interesting “here’s how they do it differently in this area and here’s why” tangents. Hurrah language.

Sarah Rees Brennan, Untold. Very much a sequel, so start with the first one in the series if you’re interested. Town of nasty (and some not so nasty) wizards, family dynamics, Veronica Mars inspiration, annnnnnngst. Just exactly the sort of thing you’d want when you want that sort of thing.

Dodie Smith, The New Moon with the Old and The Town in Bloom. Just lovely. The former is about a family that must learn to make do under straitened circumstances, and the things that they find to do with themselves are positive without necessarily being at all sex/gender traditional, which, given 1960s setting, is really refreshing. The latter is about some old friends who were involved with the theater, looking back at horrible and wonderful things that happened and how it’s all unfolded since, and it’s got some lovely same-sex living arrangements (not sexual arrangements, but dormitory style living for adults) pre-WWII that…you just don’t find that sort of thing in novels mostly. Dodie Smith is fun and interesting and–I don’t even want to say “subversive,” because she just comes out and says, “No, not that way, that way is dumb.” I am going to reread The One Hundred and One Dalmatians just to see what’s in it that I missed as a child.

Anne Ursu, The Real Boy. The word “autism” appears nowhere in this book, and yet it is a very strong portrait of a young autistic hero in his own cultural context. There is a swerve in the middle where I am afraid she is going to do something problematic, and then she doesn’t, and HURRAH. Anyway: herbs, magic, autistic boy figures stuff out and saves the day without doing an interpretive dance about autism and neurodiversity. There is teamwork between friends with different brain types. I liked this. Hurrah this.

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State of the Mris report

So I realized that I had not put this clearly anywhere: the vertigo has been quite bad since Christmas. I had hoped that it would get a bit better when I recovered from my cold, but it has not. I am going to the neurologist soon, and when I do, the likeliest outcome is the same meds I’ve been on before, which are fairly effective but which (among other side effects) make writing somewhat harder. (Still possible! But somewhat harder.)

In the meantime I cannot drive, which complicates alllllll sorts of things around here.

So. Combination of these factors means that I am trying to get a whole book’s worth of revisions done before I go on the meds. Brain is not cooperating–the good kind of not-cooperating, the kind that is generating lots of new material for other projects. Still. Focus required. Revisions required.

And the upshot of that is that you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t see me on social media for the next week and a half, two weeks or so. I will probably be ignoring Facebook and Twitter completely and checking in with lj less frequently (once or twice a day rather than having the window open and refreshing when I feel like it). I will still do my midmonth book post so that I don’t fall behind (yes, I recognize that that only matters in my own mind), and I’ll be checking my email, because, well, email. If you’re someone who has long-duration correspondence with me just for fun, though, rather than topical timely communications, don’t be surprised if my long-duration correspondence pieces don’t arrive very much before the end of the month.

Determination, go.

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Writing hacks: what you don’t get for free

Lots of my friends talk about skills that each writer gets “for free”–things they’re naturally good at. Well, what I am not naturally good at is describing setting. For quite some time, everything I wrote at any longish length had among its first critiques “needs more setting,” “describe more setting!,” etc. Well, if every time you make stew, everybody says, “needs more salt,” at some point you really have to think of adding salt to your stew earlier in the process.

(Exception is if you disagree and think salt would make it worse. But just as food is cooked to be eaten, stories are written to be read, so–you at least think about the salt.)

Problem: there is not a shaker labeled “setting descriptors” sitting by my desk. The first thing I tried, a couple of books ago, was to set things in a location that was very vivid for me. This did not work at all–I still heard the same crits and still had to go back and fix setting stuff in revisions. The second thing is how most advice gets ladled out in fiction writing: the “just do it” method. Just–be better at this! (Seriously, this is how writers give advice 90% of the time. “Do this! Make it come out this way! Do not make it come out this other way!” Most common version: “Just put your butt in the chair and write!” Timprov has often commented that if standard writing advice was applied to running, no one would ever have developed Couch-to-5K, they’d just stand over the couch shouting, “Run a marathon! Run a marathon now! Just put your shoes on and run a marathon!”) And that worked…about as well as you’d expect, which is to say not at all.

So with The Spy from Atlantis I tried an actual plan. You will be amazed to hear that this worked better. Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like. (And smell like and those other setting things. But I have noticed that if I put in what things smell like, people gloss over it and still tell me I need more setting, rather than extrapolating all the important stuff from scent like sensible people.)

Bottom line: this worked. Nobody started raving about my lush setting descriptions and how they were the most amazing setting that ever had set. This was not the goal. The goal was to get the setting stuff to the point where it would get other people where they needed to be with the story. I will probably never be a setting-focused writer (sorry, Kev), but actively putting off settingy people is also not my goal. So: putting the thing I’m working on first, before the stuff that’s more natural. That actually worked. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes more ingrained that way or whether I always find that I need to sit down and Do Setting Stuff Dammit.

I don’t know if this would work for other areas of weakness, but it’s worth thinking about. More to the point, I like it when other people talk about improving their writing in specific concrete terms, because overcoming the “just–do that thing! do it well!” culture is important. So I thought I’d share it with you.

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(and other stories)

Tired Tapir Press has now put out an ebook of my short stories for children: Dragon Brother. Most of the stories in it have been published in various children’s magazines in the genre. There are a dozen ten stories in it. (That’s what I get for trying to go from memory late in the evening.) My adult stories are coming soon from Tired Tapir, but there are more of them, so they will take a bit longer.

I have lots of stories, so we decided to go with the collection model rather than the individual story model. I have no idea what people will think of it, but honestly, short stories do not get you fame and fortune regardless of which model you’re using, so–stories, I have ’em, you can have ’em too.

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Sick reading

I have been shuffling and snozzling around the house this week with the cold my sister-in-law’s family had at Christmas, and I’m also at a point of increasing vertigo, with which the head congestion is not helping in the least. So naturally it seemed like the perfect time to talk about what I want to read when I’m different kinds of sick.

With a cold like this, when my head feels thick and stupid, I do not want a big chewy piece of nonfiction–in fact, I set aside the one I was reading when I came down with it and will go back to it later, because if there is ever a time for not trying to keep track of the Soviet takeover of various Polish community groups, it’s when you’re blowing your nose every five seconds. In contrast, when the vertigo is moderately bad, there is nothing for it like trying to keep track of things like that. Thick chewy nonfiction (that will last and not make me get up to get more) is just the thing for that kind of sick.

Moderately high fever sick calls for very vivid books. I read Sean Stewart’s Galveston with a moderately high fever, and honestly I recommend this course of action. It was quite good that way. (I checked later. It’s also good healthy.)

When the vertigo is catastrophically bad–when my work-arounds are not enough to work and I can’t do anythingreally–the right kind of books are rereads, because Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and Mervyn Bunter hold still when the world will not.

But this kind of miserable dragging-on cold, with some vertigo, the best thing for this kind of sick is books by authors whose other works I have enjoyed, and not highly complicated ones, either. Much though I was enchanted by Aurorarama, I am leaving Luminous Chaos for when I feel better and will apprehend it properly. One of you lovely people sent me some Dodie Smith novels, and they have been just perfect. Mystery series would do beautifully, which reminds me of an email I should send, but things for which I have to go to the library are not really useful at the moment. So: rereads and known authors, not too horribly complicated but enough to be engaging. That’s where I am now.

What do you want to read when you’re sick?

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Books read, late December.

Barth Anderson, The Book of Seven Hands. Kindle. Honestly I would not have read this if I didn’t know Barth, because we got to talking somewhere on social media about this era of Spain, and he said he had a novella out set then and there, and I said hurrah and plunked it down on my list. If had heard about it from a different angle, it would almost certainly have been as a side project from the Mongoliad, which larger project I find completely off-putting, so I would have missed this. But honestly it did not seem that you needed to keep up with the Mongoliad stuff in any way to get what was going on in this Renaissance Spanish thriller. So I’m glad we had that conversation, because otherwise I would have missed this, and I don’t get enough Renaissance Spanish thrillers to miss any.

Madeline Ashby, vN. The first of my Christmas books to make me go put the author’s next work on my list. It was in some ways a classic piece of robot SF, engaging with previous works in that sub-genre, while retaining a distinctly modern sensibility/jumping-off point. Do want.

Jo Baker, Longbourn. This is the belowstairs version of Pride and Prejudice. Unlike many “other side of famous book” books, this one had what I felt was a plot and characters that would stand alone without the “literary classic” connection–although to the best of my knowledge Baker did not anywhere contradict P&P. I found the prose quite readable and the servants’ stories interesting and endowed with a sense of proportion/perspective. I definitely recommend this, and not just for Jane Austen fans. (Although if “servant novel early 19th century England” makes you go “ew,” probably not for you.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Lost Continent. Kindle. I had grabbed this while working on Atlantis fiction, and…this is not that. This is “Europe has fallen into barbarism” future SF. Fine, readable, not amazing. No more sexist than most other things its age, and one of the notable points was that while Europe had sunk into barbarism, Africa and China were perfectly well civilized for our American heroes to deal with. For 1916 that’s not too shabby.

Rae Carson, The King’s Guard. Kindle. Hector! And backstory for Rae’s trilogy, but backstory that’s interesting and plotty enough by itself to be worthwhile. I would say that you could start with this one and not have the series spoiled for you, maybe get a taste of what the worldbuilding is like and how readable the prose is. On the other hand, if you’ve already enjoyed the trilogy and are impatient waiting for Rae’s new whatever-it-will-be, here you are, methadone.

Greer Gilman, Cry Murder! in a Small Voice. Kindle. Entirely diverting murder mystery both set among and steeped in Elizabethan dramatists. Probably a little opaque if you don’t have some kind of grounding in that group, but for those who do it typified a favorite concept of mine: that fun and smart are not at all opposites in fiction.

Jessica Day George, Wednesdays in the Tower. Whimsical and gryphon-endowed sequel to Tuesdays at the Castle. Not quite as suspenseful but still fun, with the magically shapeshifting castle.

Nicola Griffith, Hild. I wanted to love this book! I did love this book! Hooray! It’s the beginning of the story of St. Hilda of Whitby, a 7th century saint. There is a glossary in the back, I realized only after I’d used Viking-era Scandinavian cultural/linguistic knowledge to decode several things. But it’s very sensible and full of beautiful things and the experience of reading it is lovely and MY BUTTONS THEY ARE PUSHED. But I really think it is a quite excellent book in addition to pushing my buttons. Hild’s observations, Hild’s attempts to be a seer–they are so well-observed. I will be clamoring for more until we get it.

Peter Hoeg, The Elephant Keeper’s Children. I loved the experience of reading this book. It was one of those books where I just wanted to sink into it and keep reading indefinitely. I spent the first rather large chunk with no idea where it was going, because it was as though Hilary McKay and Daniel Pinkwater got together and adopted a Danish baby. But I didn’t mind not knowing where it was going, because it was such fun getting there. The only caveat I would have is that there are no actual elephants in this book. The elephants are a metaphor. This is one of the hazards of reading literary fiction, is a book like this with no elephants. But if you are not attached to elephants, the wacky children of Danish clergy are quite the thing.

T. H. Huxley, The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science. Kindle. Part of my “get this voice down for later use” reading project in odd moments. I think the thing that’s most illuminating about this essay (yeah, I know, sorry) is what exactly he felt had to be defended, at that point in history and culture.

Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll. Reread. I do love Thingumy and Bob. I often forget how I love Thingumy and Bob, because I love so many Moominy things. But they remind me of my grandfather.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice. So. It turns out I am no more capable of treating the feminine as a generic unmarked state than I am the masculine–gendered pronouns are gendered, news at 11. However, the thing I really liked was that Leckie got how people screw up languages they don’t speak natively exactly right. Most SF attempts at that have been just wretched, completely inverting the logical structure of what people do and do not remember. (Short version: you remember hello and thank you and one two three. You do not necessarily remember every piece of technical vocabulary outside your own technical field. And you do not necessarily remember when cases or genders are marked in the new language and not in your native one. English speakers are far more likely to call the cake by the wrong gender in French than to forget how to say please for it.) I also liked the structure of the ancillaries, the way the concept was developed. Would definitely read more.

Franny Moyle, Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. I was searching for something else with “scandal” in the title, and the library’s oh-so-helpful search engine gave me this. I still hate the way the search engine parses things, but this was an interesting read: Constance was a writer and an interesting person in her own right. There were several places where I thought the biographer let partisanship run ahead of facts, but this seems to be a common problem with biographies, and I doubt you’ll find a better biography of Constance Wilde somewhere else.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. My coping mechanisms, I show you them. (No, I don’t have cancer. Some people I care about have cancer. Answer #1: make them cookies. Answer #2: LIBRARY.) Of course a history of an entire human disease of this type would have to leave things out or be unreadably long, but this has lots of interesting tidbits in it. If you are the sort of person who finds interesting tidbits comforting in the face of a big awful disease (even a very small and quite treatable version of that big awful disease), then this might be worth a run to your library too.

Gary Paul Nabhan, Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity. Aughhhh, flawed flawed so very flawed. Like most people writing pop-evolution books, Nabhan way overgeneralizes. He leaps to conclusions about things that could easily be tested. He has very weird blind spots and assumptions–for example, he manages to write about consumption of chiles/capsaicin-bearing foods without ever considering any form of masochism. I wouldn’t think anyone would suggest that he would need to get into the intricacies of sexual subcultures to notice that people react differently to “ow, that hurts” in a culinary context. The experience he describes of having a former girlfriend react with overwhelming pain to a meal he did not even find notably spicy is a relevant one–but so is the person who is sweating, turning red, and showing every sign of pain–and reaching for another bowl of the chili. He also fetishizes “our ancestors”: our ancestors’ ways of eating were shaped not only by what was best for their bodies but by what was available, what was fashionable, what was traditional, what was just darn tasty–just like ours are. (And they varied, and finding the Hesiodic Golden Age of Food for even one ethnic group is not possible, much less for the varieties of ethnic group that comprise most people’s ethnic heritage these days.) Nabhan had a good point about individual and group predispositions for how to process different foods or even macronutrient balances varying extremely, and that it’s useful to look into that, but he then wandered off into the weeds. Too bad.

Evelyn Sharp, The Other Side of the Sun: Fairy Stories. Kindle. Sharp was a late Victorian/Edwardian suffragist and pacifist who also wrote for children. The stories are of a particular Victorian mode, with character names like Princess Daffodillia, but once you’re all right with that, they are somewhat above average for the genre. I wonder if they’re not better known because she didn’t do a clear novel to latch onto or because of her other work or for other reasons entirely. Anyway, they’re free on Gutenberg if you’re interested in Princess Daffodillia’s cohorts.

Dodie Smith, It Ends With Revelations. It didn’t really; most of the revelations came in the middle. There were several striking things about this book, which was both written and set in 1967. The attitudes towards sexuality were remarkably broad-minded and kind. Kindness was actually a striking feature–almost all the characters who actually appeared (rather than lurking offstage) were people of goodwill, most of whom cared about each other. And there was still a plot and conflict and like that. I don’t think I’d like this sort of thing to comprise most of my reading material, but it was really lovely for a change.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Air War. This is another chunk of story in this universe. There were some new characters as well as continuation of old, there was lots of return to Collegium, there was stuff. I continue to enjoy, but for the love of Pete do not start here.

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. This is a narrower work than I thought, covering only the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Apparently at that point Thompson felt that the working class had been made. Anyway, it got shelved between a book on gin and a book on cant, and did remarkably little with either, so: a piece of the whole, an interesting piece of the whole. I think one of the things that infuriated me was the rich using the Napoleonic Wars to convince the less-rich to sell off village commons For Fortification Against Boney. Arrrrgh.

Jules Verne, The Blockade Runners. Kindle. Straightforward American Civil War adventure romance. Not particularly worth seeking out.

Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire. This is a sequel to Code Name Verity, but it stood alone (albeit with spoilers for the events of the first book). There’s an entirely new main character, and…okay, look, it’s about a German concentration camp. It’s wrenching and vivid and horrible and so very good. Recommended, but brace yourself first.

P. G. Wodehouse, Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories and The Pothunters. Kindle. The former is a highly mixed bag of different kinds of stories and the latter a school story. Either will do if you are in the doctor’s office waiting room or the line at the post office; neither is particularly noteworthy.