Books I Tried to Read This Year

A couple years ago I started giving myself permission to not finish a book if I didn’t love it. The result has been that I rarely finish books anymore. This year I gave myself a Goodreads challenge of finishing 12 books. With 39 days left in the year, I have finished 3. So I’ve decided to take a look at the list of the books I didn’t finish and why. I think this is a useful exercise as a writer, to consider what might cause a reader to stop reading your book. You can’t please everyone, and obviously some of these books have been very successful, but as I revise my own novel the reasons why someone might stop reading are things to keep in mind. I should also add that each of these books had good qualities, they just weren’t enough to get me to finish the book.

The Martian by Andy Weir – I made it about half way through and then couldn’t take it any more. It is extremely difficult to build tension when these are journal entries so you know he survived the latest catastrophe that is about to happen. And there are too many “Oh no, there’s a weird noise!” entry breaks. I liked the narrator and wanted to see him live through each problem, but it was really obvious that he did. In addition to the lack of tension, there are only so many catastrophes that can happen before they start to feel repetitive. Things kept exploding or tearing or breaking down and it is hard to believe this botanist really has all of the necessary skills to solve the science of every problem. This would have worked much better as a short story or novella. Maybe I’ll watch the movie.

Diplomacy of Wolves by Holly Lisle – This is another one I read half of and then put it down. I actually read the series in middle school and loved it. Rereading it as an adult, there is a constant threat of rape that is unappealing and there had been two on-screen rapes by the time I gave up, one of them necessary for plot reasons, the other not at all. It could have been a mugging. It could have been any kind of crime you might expect to encounter in an alley. But instead it was an extremely graphic rape. For no reason. Add to that the fact that every single man is secretly in love with the heroine. Literally dudes keep revealing their secret passion left and right. It seemed like maybe it was her karnee/werewolf magic that was attracting these men to her and thus there was a pseudo plot reason, but mostly it felt unnecessary and annoying. I was reading this during my commute and one day decided to read something else.

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas – I knew this book and I were off to a bad start when the first scene ended with the line “There’s something so sad about broken concrete” and in the margins I wrote “No there isn’t”. First of all, the book starts too soon and too slow and is trying too hard to be literary. Maybe there are reasons revealed later why the beginning scenes matter, but they were so dull. In particular, there is an astronomical amount of step by step narration of really tedious things in the first two chapters. Second, I did not understand why the heroine found the troposphere so addicting. Sure, getting there the first time made sense, she was on a journey of academic discovery. But the place was actually kind of boring so why was she so desperate to go back a second time? And third, why do these characters never go to the police? There is a missing person. There are people stalking the heroine and claiming to be from the CIA, which doesn’t have jurisdiction to arrest British citizens. Why aren’t they going to the police??? Fourth, the book seems like it is trying really, really hard to be clever, to be a puzzle and it isn’t. I did get an inkling of a “big reveal” that if it proved to be correct would be really lame, but that’s it. Yet again about half way through I got so annoyed I stopped reading. Maybe I’ll give it another try some day. I did kind of like the heroine.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas – How in the hell is an eighteen year old the greatest assassin in the kingdom?!? I finished the first chapter, started the second, and gave up. I had no sense of personality for the heroine other than that she was feisty in a very generic way, the framing device seemed contrived, and I found the backstory implausible. Maybe it’s all explained later on, maybe it gets better, but I found myself not asking how or why when I should have been. All I could think was “this is so stupid.”

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner – There was a guy who may have been a villain and was very mustache twirly and it seemed like he was supposed to be scandalous but he was just dull, and there was a heroine who at the end of the first chapter I knew nothing about beyond she comes from a Complicated Family (TM). I had no sense of her personality, had no reason to care about her. Very easy to put down.

Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith – Crown Duel is one of my all-time favorite novels, so I was excited to read this novel set in the same world. But it was dry. And slow. There was a *long* build up of will this character who according to the back of the book is a scribe get to become a scribe? And what will her assignment be even though we know what it is from the back of the book? And how will the generic high school politics among this group of type A students resolve? Oh and by the way there is this horrible noblewoman who we briefly see and she might have been an interesting villain but then she disappears for a long time. After a few chapters I gave up, never actually encountering what had been described on the back of the book but sounded really cool.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab –  Recommended to me by multiple people so I thought I’d give it a try. Nope. Great big nope. Again, I didn’t have any reason to care about the hero. There was a bucketload of really obvious foreshadowing. There was a long info dump, most of which could have been saved for later. The concept of parallel Londons was cool, but not enough to keep me reading.

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg – The book concept sounds so interesting – a magic system based on manipulating materials, and you are bound for life to a single material. The book is inspired by Howl’s Moving Castle, a book I loved, which is another plus. But then I tried to read it. In the first two chapters the heroine is immature and completely lacking in agency, nothing is explained, the plot is predictable, and it reads more like a rapid succession of events than an actual narrative.

I think the two big lessons from all of these books are: 1) Hooking the reader with the protagonist (or point of view character) is more important than hooking them with cool world building. Maybe it’s the voice, maybe its the stakes, but they have to feel like a real person and the reader has to have a reason to want to see what happens next to this person. The world building can be explained later. 2) Conflict for the sake of conflict is annoying, tedious, and potentially off-putting if the conflict is something like rape. It has to all mean something, it has to move the plot forward.

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Moving On

Sadly, I did not get into Pitch Wars. Didn’t even get any requests for the full manuscript. But that’s okay! The lack of any requests gave me plenty of time to mentally prepare for the announcement of the winners. And I always knew that with over 1500 entries, even if a mentor liked my query and sample chapter the chances of me being chosen were slim.

On the bright side, I still have a critique of my full manuscript coming up with BSpec! I’m nervcited. These folks have been reading bits and pieces of Skadi for six years now. I’m itching to know what they think of the full, if the planned surprises surprised them, if the antiheroism of the characters is … tolerable? relatable? sympathetic?

Plus, participating in Pitch Wars has introduced me to a number of other contests that I might apply to depending on how long it takes me to revise based on the critique feedback. So I am not feeling defeated, merely inspired to whip Skadi into shape and put it out there again.

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Pitch Wars #PimpMyBio

Hi, I’m Emily Strong! I grew up in western New York but relocated to the Boston area about ten years ago, where I live in a Star-Wars-LEGO-filled apartment with my partner and two cats.

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As a western NY transplant, I have strong opinions on Buffalo wings.

I was a theater kid and went to the Rochester School of the Arts as a drama major for three years (eventually transferred out because I discovered writing and their creative writing program wasn’t a good fit). I still love musical theater (and musical movies, TV episodes, etc) and am currently obsessed with Hamilton.

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I am a fan of a lot of a lot of popular sci-fi and fantasy book, TV, and film series, many of which you can probably guess from my choice of pictures and gifs. My favorite doctor is the 9th and my favorite companion is Donna.

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I am bisexual and write stories in which being queer is normal. Not all of them have queer characters as the protagonists, but queer folks are always heavily represented in the main cast and never receive the Dumbledore treatment.

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I write heroines who are smart and capable and can rescue themselves.

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I write strong female friendships and make sure to have scenes that pass the Bechdel-Wallace test.

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I have PTSD and the dearth of realistic portrayals of reactions to trauma in spec fic has always bothered me. So when traumatic things happen, my characters have realistic, long-term reactions.

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I love antiheroes and morally grey characters.

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My target audience is my friends and I when we were in late high school and college still voraciously reading Tamora Pierce and Sherwood Smith and other YA authors because adult speculative fiction didn’t speak to our lives.

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(Also, Tamora Pierce is my idol)

I am in an awesome writing group called B-Spec (which Gillian Daniels is also in!). We do everything from critiques and a book club to meeting at Panera once a week to write in the midst of chaos. Probably half of my first draft was written in that Panera.

Speaking of which, my novel is a secondary world fantasy. It explores the question of what if the chosen one found out she was pregnant and decided to walk away from her destiny to save her unborn child. The novel focuses on her daughter, Skadi, struggling with the consequences of that choice, and on Skadi’s school rival Muri who believes he is working to end the resulting war but the group he works for is not what they seem. Some hopefully interesting details about my book you won’t get from just the query letter and first chapter:

  • This is an upper YA novel about older teens trying to cope with adult problems, with everything that entails. And they also have teenage problems like figuring out what they want to do with their lives when they are done with school or missing curfews or not being able to find a place to make out in private.
  • The technology level is circa 1700 (think early Scientific Revolution) except where necessity and the existence of magic has accelerated things.
  • This is a dual-lineal society created by a mother goddess. It is not a patriarchal society. Cooking and raising children is shared work. No one ever says “but you’re a girl” or questions women in leadership. There is no rape or sexual violence. Consider it the antithesis of Game of Thrones in this regard.
  • Skadi assists a famous inventor with her research after school and Muri is a street artist.
  • I don’t have an “X meets Y” for the book but the tl;dr is feminist Mallorean starring young Bones and Snape.

Why you should pick me:

  • I enjoy the world and characters that I have created but this is not my “baby.” I want this to be the best book it possibly can be, and a big part of making it better is incorporating feedback.
  • I am very used to receiving constructive criticism on my work in general, and this book in particular. Portions of it have been workshopped through three different writing groups over the years.
  • All that being said, a big part of receiving constructive criticism is knowing what cannot be changed. I know what is essential to the story, and when something isn’t working I am glad to explain why it is important and discuss better ways to approach it.
  • If we ever Skype you will get to meet my cats.

In closing, thanks Lana Pattinson for hosting #PimpMyBio! I somehow managed to do a gif-based post without using any Firefly gifs, so I leave you with this:

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ReaderCon 27 Reflections

I’ve been going to ReaderCon for several years now, and this year I decided to Change Things Up.

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At ReaderCons past I mostly went to panels, and spent oodles in the book room, and hadn’t really taken advantage of the many other offerings. So this year I decided to add in some readings and other things (and went to a wedding on Saturday so I missed a number of the panels I would have been interested in). As a result I was a lot more selective in which ones I attended which (mostly) paid off. I certainly missed a lot of the problems other people experienced, though the lack of diversity was very noticeable on panels not explicitly about diversity.

Panels:

  • Cowboys of Space: Examined our fascination with cowboys and the idea of them as the American mythology. There was a fascinating discussion on how people of color (particularly former slaves during Reconstruction) sought a more egalitarian society in the old west, which has been eliminated from the mythos that is based primarily on movies.
  • There’s a Queer Person at the End of This Book!: Talked about why coming out stories still matter, but it would be so nice to have stories about what comes after (or even that reflect the way people who pass as straight have to come out over and over and over again). Also, in a lot of speculative fiction the romance is a subplot or backstory, so why are they always straight romances? Where are the backstories of gay or poly romances? Why not have more characters be asexual or aromantic when romance is not the point of the book? And most importantly, when there are gay couples WHY AREN’T THEY OPENLY AFFECTIONATE THE WAY THE STRAIGHT COUPLES ARE IN THE SAME BOOK?
  • Challenging the Coercive Muse: The greatest take away from this is that the best way to get past writers block, meet deadlines, etc, is to just write every day. Aside from the fact that no first draft is perfect anyway so might as well write crap and edit it later, pushing through instead of waiting for the muse to strike will give you the experience to know that you can write whenever you need to, you don’t need the lightning.
  • Sensuality and Exploitation: Two of the authors on the panel write erotica and offered great insights on the subject. One of the things that makes writing sex scenes so difficult while we can easily get away with violence is that people’s reactions to sex scenes are deeply personal. One person’s sexy is another person’s disturbing.
  • A Dark and Golden Age: Everything we know about the “dark ages” is wrong. There was one panelist who, uh, shall we say didn’t quite get the point of the panel and Catherine Valente put on her historian hat and shut him down and then called on Ada Palmer in the audience to chime in about what we know from manuscripts from the period.

I also went to readings by James Patrick Kelly, Catherine Valente, and Gillian Daniels (yay BSpec!), and attended the Meet the Pros(e) Party and 80s dance, A Most Readerconnish Miscellany, and the Shirley Jackson Awards. I’ve never gone to the Readerconnish Miscellany before and it was a nice change in pace to see the authors being silly instead of just talking shop. The best bit was when they set the lyrics from one song to the tune of another. “Hello” to the tune of “Sweet Transvestite” was actually an improvement on the song, and Heath Miller had impressive pipes on “Shake it Off” to “Do You Hear the People Sing!”

This was also my first time staying at the con, which meant it was my first time hanging out in the hotel pub and going to parties because I didn’t need to drive home. So I got to meet authors and publishing people, but was mostly an awkward wallflower while my friends who know them from cons past made conversation.

Except for when people asked me to talk about my novel. From those conversations I discovered my elevator pitch is terrible. I could see their eyes glazing over as I talked. So… gotta work on that especially since I need to start my query letter for Pitch Wars.

 

Psalm of the Formicidites of the Gliese 221 System

Mother of us, queen of us, we live to serve you
Your mission is clear: more room to breed
So we travel far and wide searching for indeed
Each day hundreds of eggs are laid, while we the few
Who have survived in the emptiness of space renew
Our faith that one day we shall have home and feed
Sufficient for our numbers to survive, a need
So great we continue until we no longer can go, no longer can do

The universe is vast
Surely there must be a planet, a solar system
That can contain our numbers
So we travel as long as our ships will last
Some say that in all this we are the victim
These heretics, we eat them in their slumbers

Pitch Wars or Bust

A few of the folks in my writing group entered Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars last year and said it was a great experience, so I have decided to apply. Which means my manuscript Skadi needs to be submission-ready in 2 months. I can do this. I have been dawdling and dragging things out, but the time has come to do the last pass at revision.

BSpec is critiquing chapters 4-13 in two days, and hopefully the feedback from that will be that they are ready for me to submit the full novel for critique. If not, I may have to go rogue and find a few beta readers (which I may do in addition anyway) so that I can get feedback on the full book before the August 4th deadline.

I have been working on Skadi for six years now. It is officially time to get it out there. I love this novel so much and I want others to love it as much as I do, which is impossible until they can read it.

I hate being an astronaut

I could be fat. I could eat whatever I want, as I smile at my kids and my husband over some cheesy ABC Family special. I could never have to go running again. I hate running. Really, I hate exercise. But I do it because I have to. I could not do it, and I could eat pizza, oh how I miss pizza, and cookies and Buffalo wings. Have you ever had a really good Buffalo wing? It’s buttery and hot and there’s sauce everywhere and it is just the most delightful experience. I haven’t had a Buffalo wing in seven years. Gotta stay in shape and keep that bloodwork healthy. So I can’t get wonderfully fat.
We put off having kids. Then we got divorced as the reality of five years apart sank in. I could still be married, with four kids, driving an SUV for all the sports equipment, and camping in national parks and living a joyful life.
I gave up everything to be here.
I stare out at the black. I don’t want it. I want the family and the SUV and the Buffalo wings.
I hate the other people on the station. They’re all air force pilots and PhDs and people who have dedicated their lives to this. I dedicated my life to this. I jumped through the hoops. I so wanted to go to Mars. To collect samples. To run experiments.
To learn about the universe.
And I lost sight of the meaning of life. Joy.
There is no joy here. Only the black.