I wanted to make a post celebrating Mary Robinette’s Glamourist Histories because it is one of the few more-than-three-book series that I’ve read to the end. Actually, all of those series ended last year, so I was going to do tributes to all of them. I still may, but I wanted to start with Mary Robinette because this is her birthday.
So, in honor of Mary Robinette’s birthday, I present a short post about the book.. and some fan art.
The Glamourist Histories take place in an Austen-inspired world where it’s possible to weave illusions out of the ether. The protagonist, Jane (as a nod to Austen), is quite a skilled glamourist, but women’s dabbling in glamour is considered frivolous. Jane is set up in a similar position to the protagonist of Pride & Prejudice — and sure enough an arrogant nobleman shows up. He is one of the most talented glamourists in England, and while he is initially grumpy toward Jane, they eventually follow the P&P path, fall in love, and get married.
One thing that’s true of all the series that I have continued to the end is that the books often improve over the course of the series. Sometimes the first book is still the strongest, but the second book probably isn’t weak, and the third book might be even better than the first. (For me, the real dealbreaker with a series is if the books go constantly downhill, no matter how high the starting point.)
One of the things I like best about the Glamourist Histories in particular is how much the setting, characters, and voice developed over the course of the series. For me, book one was fun, but so heavily like Austen that she seemed to loom over the story. Book two was a radical departure, taking these Austen-like characters and Austen-like setting and shaping them into new things. It’s not that the series loses the sense of or tribute to Austen. It just gains its own charm.
Over the series of the novels, the theme of pride and prejudice continues to be explored. Jane must face a series of prejudices (beginning with prejudice against the Irish, which seems quaint to us now, but.) until, in the final book, she end up at an Antigua plantation owned by her husband’s family. (Spoilers on the treatment of race in rot13: Fur’f abg n juvgr fnivbe. Fur’f n juvgr nffvfgnag, naq n juvgr trnef-ternfre, ohg fur’f abg gur juvgr ynql jub pnzr va gb fnir gur urycyrff fynirf.) In real life, I respect Mary Robinette for her dedication to making our own world better; Jane, too, is learning about her world so that she can dismantle her prejudices and help people where she can.
In a way, the progression of the books can be read as a criticism of Austen–after all, Austen’s heroines are firmly rooted where they are, when they are–and especially in what class they are. I see criticisms of Austen from time to time essentially asking why the ladies from P&P etc. don’t go work in a hat shop or as ladies’ maids because clearly their concerns are frivolous. (I don’t have the feeling that men’s narratives of wanting to succeed are treated the same way, but maybe I’m wrong.) I don’t read the series that way, however. I think this is one of the ways where Mary Robinette is adding her own perspective to Austen’s, thus making it her own. Austen was writing social commentary on her time, within her time, and within those constraints–both physical and ideological. Mary Robinette’s character Jane gains exceptional freedom to travel and move between social circles which would almost certainly not have been available to Austen’s heroines.
The social commentary in the books is also modern. It should be. The books are modern. Mary Robinette is writing social commentary on our time, set in Austen’s.
I’ve looked forward to getting a new Glamourist History on my kindle every year for a while now, and I’ll be sorry to let them go, although there’s a stipulation at the end of the last book suggesting there might be further adventures from Jane in the future. I hope there are.
I’ll close with one my favorite memories relating to the series: When the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey, was nominated for the Nebula Award, Mary Robinette attended the ceremony in a beautiful, handmade regency gown with period undergarments. How cool is that?
Now, some fan art: Jane Austen enjoys reading Of Noble Family.
(I’m learning what I can do with Paper with my new stylus, so that’s why there are like 8 different techniques in there. Her face is based on the famous portrait. The tea pot and tea cup are shaped like things I found when I google image searched “regency tea pot/cup” and the regency wallpaper was inspired by a similar search.
Not pictured: Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen’s Book Club, waiting by her bedside for a cozy reread.)
This list is not comprehensive. It’s just a dash of things I liked.
This year, there were a number of novels that I found interesting, but also think I was an audience mismatch for. The books carry significant emotional weight through passions that I’ve never been particularly interested in: Silvia Moreno Garcia (vintage vinyl), Elizabeth Bear (westerns), Ken Liu (military strategy), Cat Valente (Hollywood glamour).I still enjoyed the books, though I think some of them faired better in the face of my ignorance than others. But they’re all interesting and I think the right audience will find them particularly compelling.
The Fifth Season* by N. K. Jemisin – I think this is one of my new favorite books. It takes place in the same world as last year’s short story, “Stone Hunger,” a really compelling setting where frequent apocalyptic events have forced humans to operate in a perpetual wary state, with stores of grain and preparations for martial law always at the ready. Among the population, there are magic-workers who can manipulate stone. They are blamed for the apocalypses and persecuted. One thing I really love about this story is the detailed layers of dead civilizations, where some were developed and technological and have left such ruins, while later ones operate on wildly different aesthetics and technological capabilies. The story is divided in three broad timelines/perspectives–one a young girl being enslaved to the empire because of her magic ability, one a magic worker laboring in service of the empire, and one a magic worker fleeing an apocalypse that has ruined her home town. The threads are brought together beautifully and intelligently in a way that makes it clear that each prior move has been deliberate. The book reminds me a bit of some Octavia Butler, like Parable of the Sower, which looks with an unsentimental eye at how humans react to instability and apocalypse. It also reminds me of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet which also has beings that manipulate the elements and resonances in terms of tone and plot development (it’s a sad series, but I recommend it). I see Nora as one of the most important novelists working in contemporary sf/f.
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard – In this setting, gods and magical beings inhabit the world. Around World War I, a magical disaster caused an apocalypse. The city of Paris has been mostly destroyed, overrun by gangs, and under the control of houses run by fallen angels. This is a very delicate novel with lots of intricate descriptions and observation. The world building is an unusual combination of fantasy and historical strains. (I admit the angel houses feel pretty similar to vampire houses, which some readers may not prefer.) It feels to me, in a way, like a very pretty snow globe, a sort of small scene of enclosed beauty. Along with those things, though, it felt like the thematic resonance of the story wasn’t too deep or broad; there was sort of a skimming feeling for me, particularly in regard to the characters. I never wholly felt emotionally immersed by them. I wonder now how the book would fare written if the main voice was from a different character, or if another perspective character had been added.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant* by Seth Dickinson – The daughter of a colonized people joins the empire’s ruling ranks in order to destroy it from within and avenge her people. In pursuit of the power she needs to do so, she must participate in the oppression of other peoples and do things that radically violate her conscience. Additionally, the empire, while in favor of some things our culture considers progressive like gender equality, is perniciously homophobic, killing or maiming those discovered participating in homosexual behavior. The main character, being a lesbian, must constantly work to conceal herself. This is an epic fantasy, largely concerned with politics and war, but anchored in the perspective of a single, dogged character. Baru Cormorant isn’t particularly likeable, but her ambition and determination carry the story. At times, the story did lag for me, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the long time cuts. I was also personally more interested in the empire and its strange world building than I was in the politics of the nation where she ends up, which looked more like things I’d seen before. This is a smart book. (Side note: I referenced Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet in conjunction with N. K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season (my favorite novel this year). Dickinson’s Cormorant doesn’t particularly resonate with the Jemisin directly, but it does resonate with the Long Price Quartet. Maybe I should interview Abraham and/or write about those books sometime soon. I think Baru Cormorant also resonates with Hurley’s God’s War.)
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Meche returns from Oslo to her hometown, Mexico City, for her father’s funeral. While there, she confronts memories of her teenage dabbling with magic which led to her hurting a friend she loved which set them both on lonely paths. Meche is obsessed with vintage vinyl. I was oblivious to the meaning of most of the music referents–which are the conduit for her magic, and the underpinning of her relationship with her father. However, I thought the book bore up well even robbed of those tools. The characterization is detailed over slow, meticulous scenes. Many of the turns were unexpected. Where I broke with the book is that I found Meche an extremely unpleasant character. I think the reader was supposed to see her that way, but perhaps I felt more strongly than I was expected to. Spoilers in rot 13: V sbhaq gur jnl gur bgure punenpgref sbetnir ure gb or ovmneer. Gur obbx frrzf gb or qenjvat gbjneq n gehr ybir pbapyhfvba, ohg V jnf zbfgyl yvxr “ab, guvf vf n onq vqrn, V pnaabg ebbg sbe guvf ng nyy.” Znlor gur obbx vf n pevgvpvfz bs gur vqrn bs sngrq ybir, naq n qrfpevcgvba bs ubj nohfvir crbcyr qenj crbcyr gb gurz? Vs vg jnf, V qvqa’g trg bireg fvtanyf sebz gur grkg gung guvf jnf gur vagragvba. Znlor V jnf ernqvat vg guebhtu na vanccebcevngr traer yraf. Anyway, the novel is interesting.
Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman – A xenoethnologist travels on an expedition to explore a planet that’s at a locus of unstable space where gravity doesn’t work as it should. They discover a lost diasporic group of humans underground, forcing the main character into an unexpected, unprepared-for first contact situation. (A second main character is making a study of consciousness and has some really interesting passages.) This was really interesting in a good traditional science fiction space opera way, lots of shifting from interesting idea to interesting idea. Carolyn’s prose keeps the story moving while knowing when to dwell on a pretty image (such as a disturbing, distorted forest of reflections and knife-like crystal leaves). It’s an effortless read because of Carolyn’s skill. The story lagged a bit for me in places, but overall, I was really into its ideas and explorations. I even wish Carolyn had gone further into the physics which is rare for me. Stipulation: a Muslim-inspired culture is abstracted into a symbol for patriarchy.*
Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal – Mary Robinette’s series the Glamourist Histories takes place in a Jane Austen-inspired world. The heroine, herself name Jane, can work magic by weaving folds in the ether. Her husband, Vince, who once filled the prideful (of pride and prejudice) role, is a magic-worker by profession. Of Noble Family is the fifth book in the series and, I am disappointed to discover, the last planned for now (although the ending is left open to possible future volumes). It takes place on an Antigua plantation. The book and series are worth more unpacking than a thumbnail review. I wouldn’t recommend that readers jump into book 5, but I wanted to mark it as one of the books I most enjoyed reading this year, and also to recognize the series as a whole. If the pitch sounds interesting to you, go start with the first, Shades of Milk and Honey. (Though I will note that this is the rare series that I think improves over the course of the first few books.)
King of Shards by Matthew Kressel – Daniel is one of the Lamed Vav, the righteous people who uphold the world in some mystical versions of Judaism. No one –including the pillars themselves — know who the lamed vav are, until a demon finds a list and begins killing them one by one in order to destroy the earth. Before she can kill Daniel, he’s rescued by an opposing demon, who kidnaps him down into the lower worlds — broken shards from God’s previous creations where there are different physical laws. Daniel himself was a tepid character for me (not in a terrible way, just in a transparent-lens way), but many of the other characters are dramatically interesting. My favorite thing about the book though was the world-building of the shards–Matt does these really interesting, creepy city and landscape things, with unusual imagery that sticks in the mind. There were a couple of typical fantasy tropes which appeared which I wasn’t interested in (I’ve decided I’m sick of harem slavery as a threat), and I also hope that (spoilers in rot13) gur perngbe tbqqrff, jub jnf gur zbfg vagrerfgvat punenpgre, jvyy or oebhtug onpx gb yvsr va gur arkg be yngre obbxf. The book is obviously of interest in the conversation about Jewish science fiction and fantasy, but it’s also a rewarding read with beautiful settings.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik – Our main character has grown up in a small village that exists in the shadow of, and under the protection of, the wizard’s tower. Every ten years, the wizard selects a girl to be his servant. This year, he picks our main character. She doesn’t know what to expect from him, but becomes his apprentice. (Later, she also becomes his lover, which was a little bit sketchy for me, but possibly only because I was reading the book as young adult.) It’s a fun, brightly written book, that is crafted with extreme skill within the territory it stakes out. The structure is well-done; the plotting is well-done; everything’s good. For me, it didn’t reach beyond that to something exciting, which is what I need for a book to be one of my favorites–but good, smart fun is good, smart fun, and I admire the execution. A good, appealing read. (Also, I think it did reach beyond that to something exciting for many readers.)
Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo – Cat Rambo has written about Tabat in numerous short stories. In the beautiful city of Tabat, sentients from non-human races are property, routinely lobotomized and treated as slaves. Beasts of Tabat is told via dual POV: Teo, a child and a non-human shapeshifter finding his way through the city while destitute, and Bella, a famous and wealthy gladiator who fights on behalf of winter every year in their annual games to see if spring can come early (under her tenure, it never has). One of the great virtues of this book is the detail in which Cat has laid out her city. Teo admires it, but Bella is in love with it, and that love is infectious. The city itself is interesting, and I find the plot about rights for non-humans compelling; it’s the sort of thing I’m natively interested in. Many of the interludes are really interesting: I love one where Teo stays with a photographer, and I also love Bella’s politically radical cousin a lot. At a few points, the book did lag a little for me. The ending is disappointing because it’s so abruptly cliffhangery, but it is an effective teaser. (After my mother read it, she wrote me to lament that she’d have to wait for the next installment to find out what happened.)
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear – In a steampunk wild west, soiled doves (with the help of a marshal and his backup) fend off an evil sadist who wants to take over the city. I think people frustrated with the portrayal of race (and gender) in typical westerns will like this. I’ve never had a particular interest in westerns which makes me suspect I’m not the ideal reader for the book and that readers who are will like this even more than I did. I enjoyed reading the book: great voice, interesting historical stuff, and characters developed in interesting ways–I just wasn’t personally interested in the plot.
Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. A depressing (well it IS Paolo) story of water rights in the west where California and Las Vegas monopolize the water supply, destroying cities like Phoenix. The prose is sharp with perfect diction, and the ideas are compelling. I had trouble with immersion and emotionally relating to the characters–I had the same problem with Windup Girl. Paolo’s young adult novels feel much more vivid for me for some reason. I don’t think I’m the right audience for this book (though I’m sure I will get interesting things from it), so I set it aside.
Grace of Kings by Ken Liu – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. Another book that I don’t think I was the right audience for. This book tells a broad scale, epic story of political machinations and war. The setting is derived from Chinese history instead of western European. Some of the descriptions are strikingly gorgeous as one would expect from Ken. His description of the emperor’s pagoda, for instance, is an image that hangs in my mind. The story involves a lot of points of view, and with the volume, I started to get confused. That, combined with my relative lack of interest in military strategy, make me a poor reader for this novel. Readers who like to sink their teeth into those things should definitely pick this up.
Radiance by Cat Valente – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. (Side note: great cover.) Presumably based on a Clarkesworld short story, “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew.” This is the one I really wish I’d finished. I didn’t put it aside on purpose: it was the last book I picked up, and I just ran out of A) time, and B) brainpower for dealing with novels. This novel takes place in an old-fashioned science fictional solar system where there are flowers on Pluto and oceans on Venus. A new Hollywood on the moon makes silent movies with title cards and raccoon-eyed makeup. The language is dense, disjunctive, and often gorgeous–I’m not sure it always works in service of the story, but I think I’d have to finish the book to fully make up my mind on how it functions in context. I do think the book would be enhanced by an interest in old Hollywood which I don’t particularly have. The novel is definitely unusual and ambitious.
*Because I’m sure someone will ask–and because there seems to be this persistent strain of thought from anti-feminists that feminists are a-ok with patriarchy in Islam–my objection to this is not to acknowledging patriarchal oppression in some Islamic cultures. It is that patriarchy includes more than Islam, and Islam includes more than patriarchy. Using one as a symbol to point to the whole of the other results in simplification, rather than deepening understanding. The history of equating these things amplifies the effect that gestures in this direction will have, thus making it even trickier to navigate in fiction.
Footnote one: Occasionally, I get confused about what year something comes out in, and end up reading something from the previous year for consideration. This year, it was Lock In by John Scalzi. This fun murder mystery about robots and revolutionary politics was really cool, and possibly my favorite of Scalzi’s book so far (I’d need to reread a coupe of the earlier ones). I like murder mysteries, but am usually dissatisfied by the way they are rendered in science fiction and fantasy. So that’s a double bonus for me. So, yeah — yay for Lock In, courtesy of 2014.
Footnote two: Spoilers involving the discussion that’s happened around The Fifth Season and The Traitor Baru Cormorant in rot13, particularly for people who are sensitive around queer issues: V haqrefgnaq gung crbcyr ner fvpx bs gentvp dhrrearff, naq obgu gurfr obbxf srngher vg, rfcrpvnyyl Pbezbenag. Vs crbcyr qba’g jnag gb cerff ba gung oehvfr (nf Nzny fnvq vg) naq jbhyq cersre gb nibvq gur obbxf sbe gung ernfba, gung znxrf gbgny frafr gb zr. Ubjrire, V qba’g guvax gung gentvp dhrrearff fubhyq or bss gur gnoyr nf n qrivpr. V whfg guvax gung, yvxr encr, vg fubhyq or eraqrerq qryvorengryl (nf bccbfrq gb whfg vapyhqrq sbe ynmvarff), gubhtugshyyl (jvgu erfrnepu naq pbagrzcyngvba), naq jryy (orpnhfr qryvpngr guvatf arrq gb or qbar jryy). V gubhtug gur obbxf cnffrq gubfr zrgevpf.
(I was reading this year for the Norton Award. For those who don’t know, the Norton Award is given annually by SFWA (alongside the Nebulas, although it is technically not a Nebula award) to a young adult or middle grade novel that has science fiction or fantasy themes. This year, I read about seventy-five young adult and middle grade novels that met the criteria. Some I solicited and some I bought, but most were review copies or ARCs sent by publishers for the jury to consider.)
As always, I didn’t have a chance to read everything I wanted to (although I got a lot closer with this category than I have in previous years). And because of the way I organized my reading, there are some books around the house which are by friends and by people whose writing I’ve enjoyed in the past, which I still haven’t read. Also, as always, there are more wonderful things than I can possibly do justice when writing a single post.
Take My Breath Away
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (young adult) – After seeing his good friend Rosza kidnapped by a mysterious man, Finn is viewed with suspicion by his small rural town which thinks he’s lying about what happened. I can’t do justice to the plots and characters in this book with a short review; they are so intelligent and unusual. Brushing in a few points: Finn’s girlfriend is an exceptional character. I was impressed by the sustained emotional strength of Rosza’s perspective during the chapters in which she is imprisoned, and doubly impressed by the way Ruby writes about sexual abuse and trauma in a pragmatic, realistic, non-romanticized or -eroticized way. (It strikes me that people who liked that about Jessica Jones will likely find interesting parallels here.) Finn himself is an excellent, unusual character, with a very different voice than Rosza’s. Finn is also rendered with an intelligent eye toward avoiding stereotypes of men–for instance, he seeks creative solutions instead of using violence as a first resort. My favorite piece was how deep his friendship was with Rosza, even though it wasn’t romantic. I could write at length about that if I were inclined and willing to include spoilers. Anyway, this is a smart book with absolutely beautiful prose, intelligent storytelling, strong imagery, unusual characters, and an unpredictable, thoughtful plot. It’s not structured perfectly, but it’s excellence on other points drowns that minor objection.
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (young adult) – This story is told from the alternating perspectives of two young women, one a prisoner and the other a ballerina. Their lives are tied together by a third young woman–Ori, also called the “bloody ballerina.” Once, Ori and the ballerina main character were friends, but after Ori was convicted for murder, she was plucked from her dancer’s life and put into the prisoner’s cell. Both perspective characters love Ori, but the way they treat people is very different. This ghost story works because of the close, detailed characterization of the two point of view characters. Their similar traits and similar drives are initially masked by differences in their accents and attitudes, but slowly revealed as the tension rises. The two unreliable narrators do their best to obfuscate, forcing the reader to almost fight against them as they read, trying to get a clearer picture of events. Ori is never seen in herself, always pinging back and forth between the idealization of first one main character and then the other, a sort of pixie dream girl concocted by their mutual imaginations. The whole book is a game of secrets–characters lying to themselves, others, history–disposable lies, treasured lies–events that are hidden, or misportrayed, or misunderstood. My mental image of the book is of looking at a beautiful nighttime scene through misted glass, watching as it slowly, mostly clears. The prose is gorgeous. The audio recording is excellent, too.
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (young adult) – This was a fragile, dreamlike sort of novel that I have trouble keeping altogether in my head–pieces of it seem to slip away, and other pieces are vivid images, disjointed. That’s pretty apropos given the subject of the book, which is about a fairy changeling inhabiting the body of a constructed doll which has been set in the place of a kidnapped girl. At first, she does not know who or what she is, and the book follows her confused emergence from what she thinks is a “fever.” It soon becomes apparent that her confusion is more than a mild physical ailment, but a magical problem–her first clue is an eerie scene where porcelain dolls try to attack her. The Victorian mood and setting details enhance the story, evoking older children’s stories where adults and children are in different spheres. Despite that barrier, the relationships between the family members were a great element of the book: the doggedly loving (if necessarily clueless) parents, often a rarity in YA, and the strong relationship between sisters. The novel’s mood and characterization are excellent, and the language remarkably lovely.
Wonders of the Invisible World by Chris Barzak (young adult) – When Aidan’s childhood best friend returns to town, Aidan doesn’t recognize him. Then, he does. As a sort of forgetting spell tatters, he learns about pieces of his life he’s forgotten, magic he can do and has seen done, his family history, and secret worlds. The characterization is slow and detailed, drawing each character in a carefully observed way. Language is honed to convey characters’ moods and thoughts through their descriptions, speech, and word choice, giving the book a subtle and layered texture. For me, the book was too bulky in sections, and I think a trimmer version could have retained the intricate characters while eliminating some repetition.
Fallout: Lois Lane by Gwenda Bond (young adult) – I rarely read tie-in novels as an adult, but this is an example of how good the genre can be. In Fallout, Lois Lane–a high school student reporter with a record for being resistant to authority–stakes out her own identity as a character. She’s driven and smart as she sets her sights on injustices and pursues them with vigor, regardless of physical danger. The little descriptions of the classrooms, clothing, and high school life place the reader strongly, and the technology in particular gives the old comic book world a new gloss. Writing that’s good, intelligent fun sometimes gets short shrift–and this is a great example of good, intelligent fun.
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (young adult) – This strongly voiced historical novel tells the story of a young woman who can magically sense gold the way a dowser can magically sense water. Her parents know the talent is dangerous, but they haven’t disguised her abilities as well as they think they have–one day when the main character comes home, she finds her parents murdered. After their deaths, she’s pursued by their killer, who intends to use her talent for his own purposes. Dressing as a man to avoid capture, she travels west by covered wagon to join the gold rush. The characterization is good here, as are the main character’s voice, and the historical language and descriptions. The plot is tense, often on a razor’s edge as anyone who’s ever played Oregon Trail knows–anyone could die, anytime, of so, so many things. It felt a bit overwritten to me; I would have appreciated it more in a somewhat sleeker version. Also, for readers who are interested in such things, the speculative element is very light; the historical content is more dominant than the fantasy.
Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish by Barry Deutsch (middle grade) – I’ll stipulate here that Barry is a very good friend of mine so I’m not objective here at all. That said, I really adore the Hereville series which is about the magical adventures of Mirka, an eleven-year-old Hassidic Jewish girl who wants to wield swords and find monsters. Magic isn’t all the glamor and fun that adventurous Mirka wants it to be; instead, she finds herself in irritating tangles that magic only makes messier. In How Mirka Caught a Fish, she and her five year old sister, Layele, encounter a fish who has both the capacity to grant wishes–and a thirty-year grudge against their family. The book is warm and humorous, and this entry in the series has particular emotional depth as a marker on Mirka’s path to adulthood.
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Gaudin (young adult) – Yael wants to kill Hitler. And yes, it is a good novel anyway. This novel presents an alternate timeline where Hitler won the war. Instead of extrapolating into the present day, Graudin chooses instead to write about the European resistance movement that would have followed Hitler’s rise to power. The book avoids the weird moralizing of most alternate universe and time travel Hitler-killer stories by being set where and when it is. Yael is a Holocaust victim seeking revenge in her immediate life; she isn’t relating to Hitler as an abstract symbol of evil. In the camps, Yael was subject to Nazi experiments which made her a shape-shifter–and the perfect person to assassinate Hitler. For various plot reasons (the novel’s action often stretches the probable, but not in a way that seems inconsistent with genre norms), in order to get close to Hitler she has to disguise herself as a motorcycle rider and win an important national race. Yael’s active, competent, stoic character provides a compelling point of view that keeps the discussion of motorcycle mechanics interesting. One of the most palpable joys of this novel is the sensory and setting descriptions of the cyclists’ journey across the continent. Wolf by Wolf is a great blend of fun and smart.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (middle grade) – The darned thing about graphic novels if you make them is that they take so long to draw. The nice thing about graphic novels if you read them is they take such a light, enjoyable time to peruse. (And are often rewarding on reread.) Nimona has an art style that looks effortless, but no doubt requires hours of intense labor–which I can breeze through in minutes. Nimona, a teenage girl, wants to be evil. Specifically, she wants to be a villain’s sidekick. She doesn’t have the same ethical barriers that he does, though, and he has to train her how to be a moral villain. There’s a strong backbone of story, and the characters are evocative and easy to empathize with. I got a bit teary eyed at the end. In addition to the emotional substance, there are also a lot of sly snickers, like scenes with Nimona and the villain watching a movie together.
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon (middle grade) – This middle grade book is sprinkled with illustrations by the excellent, quirky, and hilarious artist/author. As a great fan of Ursula Vernon’s, I expect they are wonderful. However, I read a version without them, so my experience of the book was incomplete. As I read Castle Hangnail, I couldn’t help picturing an animated version. Perhaps Pixar? Oh, better yet, stop animation like Wallace and Grommit. The novel tells the story of a young girl who has come to take possession of Castle Hangnail, a villainous lair which is on the verge of being shut down if it cannot find a resident evil person to master it. She volunteers, but the staff suspect of her not really being a witch, which she isn’t. Her struggles to conceal her lack of a magical nature, while simultaneously performing feats of “magic,” ensue. The characters are distinct, colorful, and loveable. The humor is downright silly, but also sometimes sly, giving the narrative a hint of Roald Dahl edge. This book didn’t quite make it to “transcendent” for me, but it was pretty darn great.
Nomad by William Alexander (middle grade) – Sequel to Ambassador which I reviewed in last year’s list. It’s still “a contemporary and fanciful science fiction novel about a young American boy with Mexican parents who is chosen by a strange alien creature to become the ambassador for the earth”–only this time, instead of fumbling to learn what’s going on, he’s out in space negotiating with aliens. It’s still whimsical and fun, and still has a smart, caring main character who often solves problems with logic and empathy.
An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet (young adult) – Our main character, a young woman, lives in a town recently exhausted by war. Even her brother-in-law was claimed as a soldier, leaving her very pregnant sister alone, and making it difficult for them to manage the farm. Their troubles worsen when the main character discovers a “twisted” creature from some kind of fae-like dimension beyond ours. Where the two worlds touch, they spread contamination and destruction. The main character’s dogged attempts to save her farm in the face of supernatural dangers are interesting, but I was most interested in her relationship with her sister. I found the climax a little strained, and started to lose interest in the adventure plotline, but that’s common for me. Interesting world-building detail tucked in the background: it seems to be a post-apocalyptic setting.
Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly (young adult) – Tina brings her charming brand of humor to young adult novels with this story of a witch’s unwilling apprentice who has to balance life in servitude to an evil witch with A) her conscience, and B) high school. The main character and the voice are charming, and I enjoyed many of the background details about the world. It was a fun reading experience, but looking at it with a more critical eye, there were a number of gags I’d seen before, and the book invoked some stereotypes about high school. So, I have some complaints, but it was good fun.
Death Marked by Leah Cypess (young adult) – I really like Leah’s YA. I think I’ve had one of her books on my list almost every year. (I wrote about the first book in this series last year.) The sequel is about a young woman who is at the center of an anti-imperial resistance movement. (Now I’m starting to sound like Star Wars. Sorry.) Anyway, she’s a sorceress who has been trained in elaborate spellcasting techniques, but has no power of her own–only she can fight the empire with magic. In the previous book, she was learning about her place in the world while she lived among the assassins who, like her, opposed the empire. In this book, she has infiltrated the empire as one of its top students in magic. As she meets the people her revolution wants her to kill, she has to grapple with her conscience, knowing neither choice is clean. I think I liked this one better than the first which is rare for me. The scenes where the main character is learning magic are particularly interesting; I’m a sucker for those kinds of scenes in lots of books. Leah does secondary world, epic fantasy really well.
The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst (middle grade) – Sarah Beth Durst is a delightful writer who tackles different subjects and moods in almost every book. In The Girl Who Could Not Dream, she’s writing humorous urban fantasy for a middle grade audience. The main character can’t dream herself, but she comes from a family of people who collect, distill and sell dreams. Because she can’t dream, she has a special power: She can bring pieces of other people’s dreams to life. Sometimes that’s okay, such as when she brought forth her quirky and useful pet Monster. Other times… The story begins when someone wants to use her as a weapon, to bring those “other times” through into the world. A great, fun, funny adventure read, which I definitely recommend for bringing to kids who like magic and reading and silliness. I suspect it would overlap well with Harry Potter.
Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley (young adult) – A dying teenage girl has a rare, undiagnosable disease, which is causing her to drown in the air. She’s in love with a boy, but they both know it’s doomed, the moreso as her symptoms get worse. She’s dreaming of sky cities, and coughing up feathers, and hearing birds talk to her. He finds a description of mythological sky cities populated by bird people. Though they dismiss the possibility, when the main character dies, she finds herself alive again among the city bird people, breathing freely for the first time in her life. The language is clever, with Headley’s skill at choosing the right words to be razors while others are sly and clever. The imagery is beautiful. The main character is melodramatic as hell, but has a right to be as a teenager with a fatal illness. She seemed very true to the kind of artsy, emotional teenagers I knew, although thankfully we weren’t tested by such extremity. I found myself much less interested when she went into the sky. I don’t know if that’s because the language changed (it wasn’t as sly or referential since her experiences were no longer earthbound), because I’m sometimes adventure-averse (I generally find characters more interesting), or because the two pieces just didn’t fit together (I may have impressed on the first part and not been ready to leave). The book didn’t work for me as a whole, but it was interesting.
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kohrner-Stace (young adult) – This was among the first young adult novels I read this year,so I don’t remember it very sharply. I remember liking the main character, and also the world. The story moves through two major parts–one is a post-apocalyptic landscape in which the main character is a ghost catcher. (She has some really cool interactions with ghosts.) In the other, she enters the afterlife. The first sections were much more interesting to me; I was compelled by the mix of magic and post-apocalyptic signs. The ghost realm was nicely enough done, but seemed less unusual, and I found it a disappointment after the first, vivid setting.
Razorhurst by Justine Larbelestier (young adult) – The novel follows impoverished teens through a violent neighborhood in 1930s Australia. Great historical stuff, neat language, some really nice character moments. Moved a bit slowly for me, and I wasn’t interested in the main plot. I was much more interested in the speculative element which I hope is featured more strongly in the next book.
I didn’t publish much in 2015. People who know me well will know that I’ve been dealing with health issues (and related writers block) for a few years now. I hope last year was the nadir, as far as publishing goes–I already have three stories scheduled for 2016 so I can hope the trend continues! But on to 2015:
Have you ever wondered who would win in Jews versus Aliens? I haven’t, actually, but apparently Lavie Tidhar and Rebecca Levene did. The resulting book is a charity anthology, supporting caretakers and children who have been sexually abused. My entry, “The Reluctant Jew,” is about a starship engineer who is drafted against his will to explain Judaism to many-tentacled aliens who prefer to eat the yamulkes.
I’m exceedingly proud of my other short story, “Tea Time,” which came out in Lightspeed in December. I wrote a bit about it on my blog: It’s an R-rated Alice in Wonderland riff about the Mad Hatter’s love affair with the March Hare.
Begin at the beginning:
His many hats. Felt derbies in charcoal and camel and black. Sporting caps and straw boaters. Gibuses covered in corded silk for nights at the theatre. Domed bowlers with dashingly narrow brims. The ratty purple silk top hat, banded with russet brocade, that he keeps by his bedside.
The march hare, each foreleg as strong as an ox’s, bucking and hopping and twitching his whiskers. Here, there, somewhere else, leading his hatter a merry dance between tables. Rogering by the mahogany slipper chair. Knocking by the marble bust of the Queen of Hearts. Upending rose-patterned porcelain so that it smashes on the grass, white and pink fragments scattering like brittle leaves.
Fur, soft and lush. Warmth like spring. That prey-quick heartbeat, thump-thump, thump-thump.
I started writing something absurd because I love absurdity, but it became a meditation on time and love. I hope people enjoy reading it; I enjoyed writing it.
A few weeks ago, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to hand people some casual interview questions and see what they had to say. This is the fourth interview I’m putting on the blog.
I met Tina Connolly in 2006 when she went to the Clarion West Writers Workshop where I’d gone the year before. Weirdly, I can’t tell you a single thing about the first time I met her 10(I wonder if she remembers? Tina, perhaps you’ll enlighten me later), but I’m sure I instantly liked her–she’s warm, smart, and a great storyteller, in person and on paper.
I published Tina several times during my run as editor at PodCastle. I’m not sure what my favorite piece was, but here’s one that’s fun — “The Goats Are Going Places.” She’s also a smart, funny narrator who read a lot of stories for us. As a narrator, she eventually started her own podcast, Toasted Cake (unfortunatey now retired), which used to run flash fiction reprints. Here she is reading one of my stories, “Again and Again and Again,” on Toasted Cake.
Tina doesn’t always write humor–her Ironskin trilogy, for instance, is a mix of steampunk, Jane Eyre, and malevolent fairies (check it out if that sounds interesting to you)–but, for me at least, her fiction always has a core of warmth like the one she radiates in person.
Tina also recently took a turn into writing young adult novels, starting with the recently published Seriously Wicked.
I love the humor in your writing. You have a natural, quirky voice when you write humor that doesn’t seem cliche or affected. How did you come into writing humor, and how do you approach it?
Thanks, Rachel! I love writing humor. This kind of goes with your next question, but I’m sure I started writing humor from the same reason that I loved performing. I used to say that my favorite role was the be the comedic lead in a drama. Because you get so much juicy stuff to do, and because the audience is so glad to see you. I loved being comic relief.
And I suppose also that this is my favorite kind of story—where comedy and drama are blended. Even my darker stories tend to have funny bits sneak in, and my funny stories are generally grounded by more serious themes.
On a micro level, I’m not sure if I have any advice on how I approach humor – I have a tendency to go for the joke and I indulge that. (And then, sadly, sometimes you do have to cut jokes that are dragging down the pacing.) On a macro level, I used to do a lot of farces, and I found that the sort of fast-paced plot of Seriously Wicked worked on an intuitive level for me. First you get all the plates spinning, and then you run back and forth opening and slamming the doors….eventually someone gets a pie in the face.
I know you’ve spent time on the stage. When I’m writing, I find that the comedic timing I learned from playing comedic roles helps with figuring out how to write and land humor. Do you draw on those skills?
YES. Timing is very important to me. I often write by rhythm – like, I’m not sure what is going to go in the second half of this witty banter but it needs to have a specific number of beats. My first drafts are littered with “X”s as placeholders.
In general, my time in theatre has been helpful – when I started writing I had no clue about plot, but I spent a lot of time thinking about characters – what they would and wouldn’t do. One thing that was challenging for me at the beginning is that I would leave too much unsaid, because it was always clear to me what complex things the characters were thinking! And then I slowly figured out how to get more of that out of my head and on the page.
Lately I’ve been doing playwriting and thinking about this stuff all over again. For example, there’s a good reason you’re told not to do a ‘as you know Bob” infodump in prose. And you think, sure, that’s good advice, but if you’re a beginning writer you might not understand why. But boy, when you see it on stage – one character monologuing with no purpose behind it except to infodump – you can feel the energy drop like a rock. Dialogue must be persuasive.
You recently began publishing young adult fiction as well as books for us grown-ups. What are you finding inspiring and wonderful about YA?
Even with my adult fiction, I tend to write about younger characters just starting to figure things out. I think the thing that’s wonderful about the young adult / early adulthood time period is that there’s so much you do need to figure out, and it makes for many dramatic life choices and learning arcs.
Face painting. You do it. Tell me an awesome story about face painting.
I took my face paints to Clarion West in 2006, and again to Kij Johnson’s novel workshop at KU in 2012. Great fun. Vernor Vinge was our teacher that week at CW and he let me paint a goldfish on his cheek (something about the singularity…) And Kij picked a praying mantis, and Vylar Kaftan picked a Cthulhu. It wasn’t a very good Cthulhu, but I’ve been practicing. The next one will be better.
Lovecraft, Marie Antoinette, and President Obama are all clamoring for face paint at your booth at the fair. You’ve asked them what they want, but they trust your artistic instincts. So, what are you going to paint?
Lovecraft obviously gets the improved Cthulhu. Antoinette… well, I do have a cute cupcake arm. But I think she would be happiest with the delicate swirlies around the eye, with the sparkles. Obama – well, I have to take into account the fact that I would be simultaneously super nervous and really really wanting to do a good job, so it would not be a good time to attempt something new and ridiculous. I’ve got a nice standby of an American flag with fireworks arm painting (July 4th is a popular time to hire a face painter) so I’d probably suggest that. I think his media relations people would approve that one, too.
The projects question. What are you working on, and what’s coming out?
I just turned in Seriously #2 (which is titled Seriously Shifted, and involves a whole quartet of wicked witches), and that’s due out November 2016 from Tor Teen. I’m just starting in on Seriously #3, which will be out November 2017. In the meantime, I also have my debut collection (On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories) coming from Fairwood Press in August 2016 – there’ll be a release party at WorldCon in Kansas City!
A few weeks ago, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to hand people some casual interview questions and see what they had to say. This is interview #3.
Thanks to Megan O’Keefe for playing! I don’t know Megan very well, except by coincidence it turns out that I’ve been buying her etsy soaps and perfumes for a while. (I like them!) Megan is a Writers of the Future winner.
Her first novel comes out today from Angry Robot Books, Steal the Sky.
You’re a professional soap maker. I’ve actually bought a lot of your soap. I was buying your soap before I knew you were you. Can you talk a little bit about how you make soap and how you got into it?
That’s so awesome! I didn’t know you were buying from me before we met. Lately I’ve discovered that there’s a surprisingly large overlap between people who are my soap customers and people who love fantasy and science fiction. It’s definitely been a pleasant surprise.
I make soap using the cold process method of soapmaking. This is one of the oldest methods, the origins of which were people using ash from their fires to clean greasy pots, as they found it worked better than plain scouring because there were traces of sodium hydroxide (that’s lye) in the ash created by burning wood. The lye would react with the grease in the pots to create a very basic soap. My method has evolved some since then.
My standard formula is one I developed over the years to suit most skin types, but is skewed toward those with dry skin. Each oil you add to a soap mix brings its own properties, and mine began with the three “pillar” oils of soapmaking: olive, coconut, and palm. Olive oil brings moisture to soap, palm oil brings stability to the lather (often called “creaminess”) and coconut oil brings big, fluffy lather. Despite popular belief, coconut oil when turned into soap is actually extra cleansing – it can dry you out if not balanced with other oils. I then add safflower for silkiness/glide, and castor oil for another bubble boost. The resulting bar is capable of producing lots of fluffy lather while not drying out your skin.
Random cool fact about coconut oil: a 100% coconut oil soap is the only kind that is capable of lathering in salt water.
2. How do you go about developing new perfumes? In particular, I’m interested about the inspiration–does instinct tell you what scents might mix? Experimentation? Etc.?
I have an arsenal of accords I’ve created over the years – blends of scents that achieve a single note fragrance, such as red rose or fern. When I have an idea for a new scent I review these and start making notes on which ones I suspect will blend well together to achieve the scent I want, then I start testing.
For example, when I was creating my scent The Librarian, I knew I wanted something warm and spicy, reminiscent of books, and with a hint of banana as an ode to Terry Pratchett. I had to blend up the banana accord from scratch, but I started out with my bourbon vanilla, white oak, and chai spice accords. Once the fragrance has the basic feel I’m going for, I start refining by tweaking percentages and adding small amounts of other accords just to see what happens. Then I move on to longevity testing to see how long the scent can “stand” on skin, and from there I move on to testing it in soap. It’s an involved process, but I find it fun and relaxing.
3. Your new book, Steal the Sky, comes out in 2016. As an epic fantasy, it’s coming onto the scene at a time where G. R. R. Martin’s Grimdark is ruling TV, while simultaneously The Goblin Emperor’s lighter approach earned it places on the major award ballots. Where is your book coming into that conversation?
Steal the Sky is sliding into the middle of that conversation with a wink and a nudge. The Scorched Continent is a desperate place, full of people struggling to earn their daily bread and water, and also home to a variety of human rights abuses. It’s not an easy place to live, but there are some elements of hope that remain.
In his past, my protagonist, the conman Detan Honding, hasn’t exactly been give the short end of the stick – he’s been hit with it. Repeatedly. When we meet him, there’s a hint of this troubled past, but he is blithely wise-cracking and generally willing to stir up mischief just for the sake of mischief. It feels light. It feels fun. But you’re tightly in Detan’s point of view – and there’s a reason he’s quick with a quip, and it’s nothing to do with jolliness.
I’ve always felt that humor and darkness are inextricably intertwined. There’s silliness, of course, but the stuff that really gets you – that makes you choke out laughing despite yourself – that’s the stuff that cuts. The stuff that reveals some darker nature and points out the absurdity of it. It says that – yeah, we’re human. We’ve moved beyond our baser natures, built civilizations, and transcended the primordial mud. But we’re still animals. Can’t help ourselves. And confronting this intrinsic fault with a laugh is an excellent way to cope. Some of the darkest scenes I’ve ever read have been in Terry Pratchett novels.
So, sure, from the start the surface of Steal the Sky is a fun adventure. Detan jokes his way through his troubles and Tibs plays the straight man, a ready contrast to Detan’s ridiculousness. But Detan’s laughing because he has to. Because as soon as he stops laughing, something’s going to break within him, perhaps irreversibly, and it won’t be pretty for anyone involved.
4. You have some writing advice articles on worldbuilding on your blog. Can you recommend some novels that you think do worldbuilding really right?
This is probably cheating, but I have to recommend The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. The world – Wu – is huge and fully realized. Erikson is a professional archaeologist, and his attention to detail is eloquently demonstrated in the cultures he creates. Not only does he avoid the trap of mono-cultures, he has also built in somewhere around 300k years of history to his world, and the cultures that exist in the “modern” time period of Malazan feel like they have naturally grown out of that rich past. It’s an unforgiving read, however. Erikson dumps you straight into his world and right behind the eyes of the characters, not bothering to have them explain things that they would naturally know the answers to. I’ve heard that some people have a rough time getting started with Malazan, but if you can make it through that tricky first book, then you’re in for a treat.
That said, the world of Wu was originally created as a setting for a role-playing game, and at times that does shine through. For a truly unique take on worldbuilding, look to N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology. The culture’s aesthetics are inspired by ancient Egypt, but the magic and political systems are wholly their own. There’s no hint of the Aristotelian elements here. The magic is loosely based on Egyptian medicine with a dash of Freudian dream theory, and the city’s rule is focused on the preservation of peace. Jemisin deepens her world by layering in stories of its past rulers.
5. Obviously, your novel is due out soon. Do you have any other writing news you’d like to share, or opportunities for us to see more of you and your work?
In the Scorched Continent Series, book two is well on its way to being complete and book three has a hearty outline, ready for drafting. I do have another novel project in the works, but that one’s a secret for the time being. In the meantime, you can find a handful of my stories for free around the web. My Writers of the Future winning story, Another Range of Mountains, is free to read on Wattpad. And my short story, Of Blood and Brine, which has been featured on SFWA’s Nebula reading list, can be read for free over at Shimmer or listened to at Podcastle. I also have a fun, tongue-in-cheek piece of Christmas flash fiction that just went up on the Barnes & Noble blog.
It is never polite to go out-of doors without a hat. One’s hat should remain on one’s head no matter the extremity. Even if the rest of one’s clothing should happen to be removed by some improbable whim of the weather, such as a particularly dexterous gale with a penchant for buttons, one must be sure to hold one’s hat fixedly on one’s head.
The hatter is a poor man. He has no hats of his own. Those he keeps on his head or in his house are merely inventory, soon to be shuffled away when a purchaser is found.
“Tea Time” is a retelling of sorts, about the Hatter and the Hare from Alice in Wonderland, and their endless tea time. Alice in Wonderland is one of those stories that always gets in my head and stays there. My parents are fans. I have an annotated copy from just after my father was born, filled with pencil notes, which my parents gave me while I was writing this story. When he was in college, my father colored a black light poster of Alice on the chess grounds, which still hangs in their kitchen.
As a child, I watched many televised Alice retellings. I’ve always been fond of retellings because of the way different people — and different actors — choose to reinterpret a text; there’s so much living, interesting variance. I had Alice Blue Dress, Alice Disney, Alice Orange Dress (it was a bit of a revelation to realize she didn’t have to be in blue!). Carol Channing was in one of them as the White Queen. My favorite these days as an adult is a Broadway production from 1983 featuring Nathan Lane as a rat who is almost drowned by Alice’s tears. It’s a somber, adult version of the tale, which begins with Alice smoking as she stares into her dressing room mirror, somber if not dead-eyed.
Alice is a story that translates well from young to old, innocent to mature. Unlike The Wizard of Oz (which I also like quite a bit) in which Dorothy is repeatedly described in blushing, innocent, girlish terms, Alice is unsentimentally portrayed. She’s an interesting but flawed heroine, not sugar and spice. I have a particular love for child characters who are written as sharp and strange, the way real children are, rather than the rosy cherubs we adults want them to be.
Rereading Alice in Wonderland as an adult also shows how sharp and intelligent the prose is! There’s a reason the story works on a lot of levels, and that’s because it was written that way. There’s the adventure, but there’s also strange meditations on the nature of reality and growing up, and it hasn’t lost any of its edge since it was written.
“Tea Time” isn’t about Alice — she shows up a couple times in the background as an annoyance to the Hatter and Hare. Instead, it’s about the two of them, and how characters might navigate a surreal, inconsistent world. I started writing something absurd because I love absurdity, but it eventually tracked into a meditation about love and time.
Q: Why is a raven like a writing desk?
A: Because they both have quills.
Q: Why is a vain woman like a hatter?
A: Because they both love their hare.
Q: Why is tea time like eternity?
A: One begins with tea and the other ends with it.
You can read the story for free online, or listen to the podcast narrated by Stefan Rudnicki (available on the same page).
CW: Rated R, lots of Victorian slang about sex.
To support SFWA this year, I auctioned off a writing advice article on the topic of the bidder’s choice.
The winner was Mark Tompkins whose debut novel, The Last Days of Magic, is coming out from Viking in March. Unsurprisingly, Mark has a lot of questions about novels and the business of novelling. Since I’m primarily a short story writer, I can’t answer from experience. So, instead, I gathered short responses from some excellent novelists who can answer from experience. My plan was to read all the answers from the writers I contacted and then add a few words of summation, but really, I think the answers are excellent and stand on their own.
Thanks to Mark for supporting SFWA!
There is a saying in writer workshops the world over. You never learn how to write a novel; you only learn how to write this novel. There is an element of truth to this.
Here are two things to keep in mind:
1. Try not to repeat yourself: Don’t make the new characters just like the old, don’t use the same plots twists, do give us new settings and MacGuffins. Let your readers know you’re not a one-trick pony.
2. Try to repeat yourself: Do try and keep the things that worked. What were the things you did that made your characters interesting/sympathetic/flawed? What were your ways of describing setting and place that allowed your readers to be there? How did you get your protagonist(s) committed and out of the beginning and into the middle of your novel.
You will have themes that are conscious and thematic material that is unconscious. Don’t let it drift into propaganda or polemic. Be aware, though, that the things you really care about will emerge/inform/surface in the story. Sometimes you will see this and sometimes you won’t. It’s probably better if you didn’t see them coming.
No matter how your first book did, this is a new thing. Make it count. Take joy in the process.
And most of all, make it something you want to read.
That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. I think there’s two ways to answer it — philosophical, and practical. The practical is the easy part: open new word file, start writing, same as when you start any new project. You kinda have to do it because a) your book may not sell, b) if it sells (or has sold already) it will need an editor’s notes and those will probably take weeks or months to come, c) if you’ve turned in the final, after-revisions version it’ll be a year or two AT LEAST before the book actually comes out, and d) if the book is successful, your publisher will immediately be after you for your next book, so it’s a good idea to actually *have* one.
The philosophical part matters too, though. Emotionally and psychologically speaking, finishing a novel is (I imagine) equivalent to having a baby: in the immediate and painful aftermath, the last thing you want to think about is doing it again. But as I said, practically speaking you need to do it, so you have to get over the “no mas” reaction. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble doing this; I’ve almost always got another project on the back burner of my mind, and finishing one gets me excited to start the next. But I know that for some people it takes more work to drag your mind back into the wordcount mines. It *is* a good idea to take a brief (put a time limit on it) breather to recover. Write a short story as a palate-cleanser. Go on a vacation, hug your family, etc. Seek inspiration in these things, to remind yourself of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. Then… butt in chair.
As with so many things in writing, there’s no single answer that works for everyone. What I say here is based on my own experience and the experiences of other writers I’ve talked to, but I don’t claim the generalizations here to be universal.
Ideally, when you sold your series, you also pitched an outline for the series along with the manuscript for the first book. You shouldn’t feel that you have to stick to the outline, of course, since no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, but at least you have some landmarks to strive toward. This is both a plus and a minus, as I’ll explain.
The biggest difference in writing the second book in a series compared to the first one is probably one of timing. You likely spent years polishing your first book, and you had the luxury of rounds of beta readers and multiple drafts. With the second book, you’re writing to a deadline, and missing the deadline will have cascading effects on the publisher’s publicity plans and hurt your sales. You have to be prepared to work much harder and faster on the second book than your first one, and you may need to limit the number of drafts you can do.
Somewhat surprisingly, the first book you wrote may turn out to be your biggest obstacle. The worldbuilding you did and the plot of that book will constrain your choices in the sequel. This is why it’s critical to take good notes as you write book one, tracking time lines, locations, character traits, details about the world — by the time you write the sequel, the first book will no longer be fresh in your head. Good notes will save you a lot of time and frustration and
prevent you from violating your own rules.
It’s also really important to maintain a sense of excitement as you work on the sequel. The fact that you’re not creating a world from scratch can drain some of your creative energy, and if you’re not excited by what you’re writing, the reader won’t, either. This is why it’s helpful to plot book two so that it upends the world of book one in some way — welcome the chance to be surprised by your own
Above all, have fun!
Helene Wecker, author of The Golem and the Jinni:
First, celebrate. Turning in your novel is a huge hairy deal. Go out for a fancy dinner with a significant other or something. Give yourself permission to relax for a few days. You’ve probably been holed up for a while, so go talk to some humans. Send a few emails to friends, accept an invitation to coffee. Go for a walk outside.
Ok, now back to work. It’s a good idea to focus on marketing during the pre-pub months, and to that end you’ll want to prep a master Q&A about the book. My publisher sent me one with about a dozen questions (“How did the idea come to you?” “Who were your favorite characters to write?” “Describe your research process,” etc). It took forever to fill out, but it meant I didn’t have to think on the fly during interviews or readings. If your publisher doesn’t do it for you, make one yourself, with what you’d guess are the most likely questions that a reader or interviewer would ask. It might feel tedious, but you won’t regret it.
I’ve been trying to set up a new series to draw attention to cool Patreons, sort of like John Scalzi’s The Big Idea or Mary Robinette’s My Favorite Bit, but more haphazard. A couple of weeks ago, I accidentally linked to Carmen Maria Machado’s Patreon in advance of when I had everything ready. So–oops.
If you don’t know what Patreon is, it’s a website that matches creators with patrons who help directly support their art. Some patreons are set up by project–for instance, my friend Barry Deutsch receives payments whenever he finishes a new political cartoon. Carmen’s is set-up on a monthly schedule. It’s a cool way for fans to make sure their favorite creators can keep making art.
Carmen is one of my favorite new writers. She crafts beautiful, accomplished mergings of literary and horror fiction. She describes her own writing as “about sex, sexual agency, sexual violence, sexual oppression, desire, queerness, the female experience, illness & death, pop culture, hypochondria, the uncanny, the human body & its fragility, storytelling, myths, and fear.” I think she’s a strikingly original, inspiring talent. Last year’s Nebula-nominated novelette, “The Husband Stitch,” mingles immersive, psychological surrealism with campfire horror stories.
Carmen also agreed to do a short interview with me, which is below. Whether or not you decide to toss a few dollars her way, you should definitely check out her beautiful stories.
I really love your writing. One of the things I find most beautiful about it is the way it seems to wing free from traditional structures, and yet come together in this lovely, unexpected way that still feels satisfying and impactful. How do you approach structure as you write?
Every project is different. Sometimes I start off with a form in mind. Stories of mine like “Inventory,” “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU,” “We Were Never Alone in Space,” and “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead” were all born with their shapes intact. I wanted to write projects with certain kinds of forms or formal constraints, and that’s what I did.
But in “The Husband Stitch,” for example, the formal elements of the story didn’t come until later drafts. “The Husband Stitch” was initially just the main narrative—the woman living her life with her husband—and the parts where I tap into other urban legends only came later because I wasn’t satisfied with what I had. I also have another recent story (I don’t want to give many details; it’s on submission now) where I started off thinking about formal constraint and tried a few different ones, but the story really resisted, and so I backed off and wrote it without one.
Insofar as a story is alive, or at the very least a discrete thing with its own Platonic self, I think the story either absorbs artificial forms or rejects them. I just try to figure out what the story needs.
Horror. A lot of us grew up on, and recapitulate, fairy tales — me, Kat Howard, etc. Another thing I’m excited about in regard to “The Husband Stitch” is that you play with more unusual, but still culturally significant, narratives. Ghost stories, urban legends. Sofia Samatar and Genevieve Valentine have done a little of that as well, and I’m very intrigued by how it plays out. What about those narratives calls to you?
I once read this really great essay by the writer Hubert Dade where he talks about being compelled to write horror because life is horror—because we live in a world where people go to schools and shoot children and people kidnap and rape and murder and that he himself has his own fears about his life and what he has and what could be taken away from him. I always assign it to my students when I’m teaching horror because I think it directly addresses a common problem students and other early-in-their-art writers sometimes have, where they’re intrigued by the trappings of horror but are less interested in what makes something actually horrifying. (Lovecraft also addressed this in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” where he separates “fear-literature,” which touches on cosmic dread, from “a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”) They have their characters run from monsters or get cut up all bloody-like or experience ghosts, but there’s no weight behind it, just splatter and gore and roaring.
I think that good horror always has a metaphorical component of some kind, where the story is touching on real human fear. What does it feel like to not be believed? What does it feel like to be up against something you can’t control or conquer? And so on. You can build any kind of narrative/world/trope over top of questions like that, and the story can be horror. (And it can be other genres, too. These are really basic human questions.)
This is a very long way of saying that horror calls to me because I am at times overwhelmed by life’s many terrors—death, illness, gendered violence, loneliness, well-intentioned evil, wasted time, the power of societal pressures and expectations, and so on—and I find the exploration of that (both in my reading and writing) to be a satisfying way to deal with those emotions.
The Iowa question. [Note: Carmen Maria Machado and I are both graduates of the Iowa Writers Workshop.] Tell us a thing or two you learned that the rest of us should know.
I don’t think I learned any kind of magic advice at Iowa that no one else has heard of, but there was one thing I saw modeled again and again that I really respected: honoring the project, and the writer’s intentions. A good teacher—and a good workshop in general—will be helping the writer make their story the best version of itself, rather than something they themselves would write. This isn’t always simple—sometimes the writer’s intentions are not exactly clear—but trying to get a story to switch genres or attacking it on the grounds of what it’s doing compared to your own fiction’s standards, as opposed to its own standards, is useless to everyone involved. This applies in any direction, whether it’s criticizing a story for not being “genre enough” (or genre at all), or criticizing it because it contains spaceships or aliens or monsters or fairies. These elements in and of themselves mean nothing; what is the author trying to do, and is their story doing that?
This sort of loops back to the idea of the story’s Platonic self. Lorrie Moore’s “Terrific Mother” (humorous realism) and Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” (liminal & metafictional fantasy) and Alice Sola Kim’s “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” (science fiction) are all perfect stories that are doing, in my opinion, exactly what they set out to do. Suggesting that they switch genres simply because you dislike or don’t understand one of those genres is ludicrous. I’ve seen this in workshops and writing groups and elsewhere and it’s always very disturbing to me. You might as well criticize a house for not being an apartment complex. Rather: is the house doing a good job of satisfying its own purpose, and if not, what can be done to make it better?
So, yeah. Ask yourself what the writer is trying to do. Respect the project.
What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received?
“Write what you know.” It’s not that it’s the worst, precisely, just that despite its good intentions (helping young writers ground their narratives in experiences with which they’re emotionally familiar) it’s just very limiting. I think a better version would be “Start with what you know, or what interests you, and move outwards from there. Don’t be afraid.”
You get to walk into any horror story or urban legend in any role you want. Who would you be?
Okay, I have thought about this question for, like, half an hour (seriously—I went and made myself a fresh pot of coffee and everything) and I think the answer is “none” because urban legends and horror stories never exactly turn out happy, well-adjusted, alive people at their ends. But I guess life doesn’t, either? I’ll stick to this role—my own—where I’m reasonably sure that supernatural things don’t actually exist, bring down the number of bad and sad things that can happen to me from “infinity” to “slightly less than infinity.”
Tell me about your Patreon and its goals. What projects are you working on that it will help fund?
Right now, I balance my teaching income (which, as an adjunct, is quite low) with freelancing. The freelancing is great and flexible, but time-consuming. My goal with my Patreon is to be able to replace freelancing projects to free up time for my fiction (which, at the moment, includes a few short stories and a novel project). At just over $100/month, I was recently able to drop a monthly assignment that’d been taking up about 10 hours/month. Any new contributions will build toward a second foregone assignment. And if you’re considering contributing: thank you so much! You can email me with any questions about my Patreon or other means of support at carmen dot machado at gmail dot com.
A few weeks ago, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to hand people some casual interview questions and see what they had to say. Sylvia Spruck Wrigley kindly responded to the query I circulated to some writers asking if they wanted to play along. She’s a writer currently spending a lot of her time in Wales, and was nominated for the short story Nebula award (along with me) in 2013.
By happy and unplanned coincidence, her new novella, Domnall and the Borrowed Child just came out through Tor’s new novella line. It’s her longest piece of published work to date.
Thanks again, Sylvia, for the interview!
1. The first thing that appears on your website is a quote from The Catcher in the Rye, ending with “I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Why that quote?
Self-promotion is hard. There’s this whole thing about even having a home page, that I have to tell the world about myself and hope that they care. I struggled with what to say, because I have this super confusing background and if I start, then it’s going to go on a bit. I can’t even say “I’m from [country]” or something simple like that. To be honest, I wrote a lot of long intros and then I just couldn’t face it. I remembered the start of The Catcher in the Rye; I’ve always loved Holden Caulfield’s voice. And he just really encapsulated how I felt about how to tackle this problem. I figure JD Salinger probably had the same problem, how to start this novel. So I decided to steal that introduction for my own page.
In the meantime, I’ve ended up putting a three-sentence bio on the website after all which does manage to give a brief version of where I am from…so I guess it’s rather silly now. A legacy quote.
2. Even today when being online makes exchange a lot easier, a lot of excellent British writers are unknown in America. Have you found it difficult to pass that cultural border?
Well, for writers starting out, I think a real issue is that writers who are not in the US miss out on a lot of events. The amount of education and business that happens at cons, or through introductions that happened at a con, is really a bit frightening. I don’t think you have to show up to break through but my own experience is that it does make things a lot easier, especially when it comes to making connections and finding out about invite-only anthologies. And you get this great support network of other writers — I always feel super motivated after attending a con. I know a few people who attend a couple of cons a year and then work off that energy.
This is why I feel really strongly that Worldcon should be held outside of the US every three years. Honestly, I think for something with “World” in the name, it’s not unreasonable to ask that the US limit itself to hosting 66% of the cons. I know not everyone can attend if it is held abroad. But when you compare that to the number of interesting authors who have *never* attended because it quite frankly is never local to them, it doesn’t seem that much to ask that the hosting locations are spread out a bit more.
As of right now, 7 of the 74 WorldCons have been held outside North America. So I’m really excited about Helsinki and hopeful for Dublin the year after that.
3. Your recent Nebula Award-nominated story “Alive, Alive Oh” is about home and displacement, a theme I also saw in Matthew Kressel’s nominated story from the same year, “The Sounds of Old Earth.” What about those themes appeals to you? Do you think they have particular traction at this moment in western culture?
I believe there’s a lot more movement between countries (and cultures) than there was even 50 years ago. And really, it comes down to a lot more travel and emigration in the West than there was. It’s not so rare any more to know someone who ended up moving to South America or Thailand or India. When I was a kid, it was this huge big thing that I went to school in two countries. Immigration involved people moving to the US, middle-class white Americans didn’t leave, or at least not more than a summer. As a result, home, displacement and belonging have become important themes that people are exploring. My son holds German and American passports but has never lived in either country, has never had that sense of belonging to a place (or even of a place belonging to him). I think when I was a kid in a similar situation, everyone in both countries was kind of amazed by it. Now, it’s not such a big deal.
4. What is the most irritating mistake about Wales and/or the Welsh that you see in American media?
Confusing Wales with England. I know that sounds silly but I get it all the time. Seriously, like I’ll say “I live in Wales,” and people will ask me what it’s like living in England, and whether I like it there. There’s this total disconnect.
I do like England, as it happens, but Wales is very different. Not just the accent, in attitude and economics and a million small things. There’s a lot that I love, like Welsh women are much more likely to say “You are being an idiot” to a man who is being an idiot than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. There doesn’t seem to be this deep-rooted belief that women have to be nicer than men when it comes to idiots.
5. What work of yours should readers be looking for, and what do you have coming up?
My most recent publication is a reprint, Space Travel Loses Its Allure When You’ve Lost Your Moon Cup in the current issue of Flash Fiction Online. I love this story because menstruation in space is just really not a well-covered subject in science fiction. But this publication of it is super special because includes a rap song, which I commissioned off of Fiverr late one night after too much wine. Rsonic had an ad on Fiverr, saying he’d write a rap song about any subject. The guy was this black, good-looking American Marine combat veteran and I thought he was going to tell me to go to hell when I showed him the story. He totally rose to the challenge and wrote a rap song without flinching. Best five dollars I’ve ever spent.
I’m also super excited about what’s coming up. Domnall and the Borrowed Child is a traditional fairy tale based in Scotland coming out on the 10th of November as a part of Tor.com’s new novella imprint. This is my first longer publication and it’s part of a story I’ve been working on for ten years. The audio version is amazing – Tor have chosen a narrator with a great mid-atlantic accent. He grew up in Ireland and England but spent his adult life in the US, so I spent my first listen wondering where’s he from? before finally realising that he probably sounds a lot like me. He calls it hybrid, which sounds a lot nicer than “all over the place”.