What I’m Reading Now

I devoured–which is a hippo pun, although you wouldn’t think it was–Sarah Gailey’s book River of Teeth in about a day and a half.  You would, too, if you don’t mind having rivers and bayous becoming even more nightmare-fodder than they already are.

What’s this book about?  Well, it’s about hippos.  And cowboys (or “hoppers”) who ride hippos.  And muuuuurder.  What can I say?  I’m a sucker for a great concept, especially one where the introduction promises me a fair array of hats.

The hats, as with the rest of the setting and tech in the novel, were indeed meticulously done.  (Personally, I loved the scene where Hero catches a hat from a ranger on a tower and then lazily throws it back like a discus–more about Hero anon.)  The book is essentially a heist story, full of boiling intrigue and dangerous riverboat casinos–like Maverick with more knife fights and hippo-caused dismemberments.

Nevertheless, as difficult as it is to compete with hippos and hats, for me what really stood out was the characterization.  Like all great heist stories, the novella assembles a crew of rogues, and none of these rogues are the ones you’re expecting.  There’s the revenge-obsessed ex-rancher Houndstooth, who turns out to have a soft heart.  There’s Hero, the nonbinary poisons and explosives expert who finds themself in love.  There’s the (seven months pregnant) master assassin Adelia.  It’s difficult to pick a favorite among the talented, morally ambiguous group.

But I generally pick my favorite characters based on who I’d go to dinner with, so I have to plump for Archie, the con artist and self-described “fat Frenchwoman with an albino ‘ippo”.  I wouldn’t turn my back on her, and I would probably end up robbed blind, but I think I would enjoy the experience.

Gailey’s writing is wonderfully pulpy, lush and brutal, echoing for me both the tone of classic westerns and detective noir.  The introduction (“worth it for the hats alone”) and the appendix (“Lincoln promised to solve the hippo problem, but some things came up”) are as much fun as the text.

If there’s one thing to complain about, for me, it’s the ending, which felt a bit rushed, almost as though the book had ended during a midpoint climax or had been sliced in two.  While I know there’s a sequel novella out, I think I would have preferred to be able to read the whole story in one volume.  However, there’s a lot of interesting things being tried at the moment with story and publication structure–Annihilation, for example, and the other books in its trilogy–so I suspect that Gailey and her publishers know exactly what they’re doing.

In short: do you like westerns, hippos, explosions, having your expectations subverted, and muuuuuuurder?  Do you have four bucks, a Kindle, and room in your “I fell in the river” nightmares for more creative types of death?  Pick up a copy of River of Teeth, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Going To Another Place

I read a blog post the other day suggesting that Back In The Day, people mainly read fantasy to get a certain feeling that wasn’t super common.  I.e., you had to go looking to be able to find wizards, dragons, cloaks, chainmail and whatnot–whereas you can get a lot more of them in mainstream pop culture nowadays.  I have to agree.  This explains why, for example, I picked up a fantasy book from the late 80s a while back and realized it had footnotes about everything from how the days of the week were named to the system that its land used to determine water barrel prices.  (You’d think this would mean that water barrel prices would be important to the plot, wouldn’t you?  You would be wrong.)

I think an immersive setting is important, though–as long as it’s not intrusive.

No Footnotes!

One of the things I enjoy the most about reading is the ability to leave where I am, and go to another place–be that Botswana, or 1930s Yorkshire, or Regency England, or Pern, or Earthsea.  Some places I go to when I am wanting to be somewhere comforting and reassuring (Botswana and Yorkshire).  Some places I go because I need to think about what it would be like to live there (the Republic of Gilead).  And some places I go just because I like the people there.   I write because I like the characters, and they show me around the setting.  I think setting, plot, and character all need to be in balance, but I will forgive a lot for a good setting.

Of course, I’ll forgive everything for the sake of a good character, but that is another blog.

What do you think?  Do you experience setting as a form of immersive escapism, as unimportant backdrop, or something in between?

Music Monday: Playlists for Villains

My characters often get their own playlists, but in the last book I wrote the villain was a very specific personality, and he inspired a beautiful thing: a big sprawling Pinterest board full of photos and music videos that became a Spotify list.  Here’s some things I’ve found that help with figuring out songs for the list (and the character’s personality):

  1. A sense of aesthetic.  This is the main thing.  What feel do you associate with the character?  Melancholy? Epic-ness?  Sass?  Choose songs that reflect that.
  2. A sense of story.  Does this character triumph?  What type of dark night of the soul do they suffer–are they betrayed, hopeless, lonely?  There’s a sad song for every occasion.
  3. Without lyrics that you *have* to pay attention to/sing.  This is a practical one.  Some writers can’t write to music that has any lyrics at all.  I like songs with lyrics, but with a prominent beat or bass line, because it can fade into the background of my subconscious and inspire me to type faster.
  4. That you associate with the book.  Some characters of mine show up with a song that I feel perfectly expresses them.  Other times it takes a while, after I’ve met them, to figure out who they are.  Then, as I write the book, eventually the whole book gets songs or albums associated with it.  This is useful in a behaviorist kind of way, because listening to the album triggers the “it’s time to write now” part of my brain.

Curious about what showed up on my villain’s playlist?  You can listen on Spotify here.

Do you listen to music while you write?

The 30k Cliff

When I wrote my first novel I was 12 years old, and my goal was pretty much to type until I had 100 pages of words.  “There,” I thought to myself, “I did it! Novels are 100 pages long, I just wrote one!”

(Even at 12, though, I recognized that 100 pages of “they leave home, they wander for a while with the guy who can talk to birds, and then they come home again” was not actually a plot.  More like typing practice.)

I wrote a lot through high school, heady days of popping open a laptop and getting 5k-6k words per night.  I was still, you see, in the situation where I didn’t really care whether the words were a plot, I just liked putting them together.

Then came the intention of Getting Serious About This Stuff.  I began selling short stories.  I wrote a Real Novel.

Yes, well, that one is currently trunked, but like all first Real Novels it taught me a lot.  For example, that when you get to 30k words in the first draft, you will panic and think that the book sucks.  (And the idea sucks, and the execution.  You suck as well.)  I thought this on the first Real Novel (which really did have problems).  I thought this on the next couple of books, too, though.  It’s something about that particular spot in the narrative.  I think it has something to do with both the way stories are structured (that’s about the time in the story when stuff should be getting serious), but also with the way that ideas are born.  You can run on spit and inspiration for 30k words.  After that, you’d best have written a roadmap down for yourself.

It’s important that you know the 30k Cliff is coming, if you are a writer.  Real life interferes with writing all the time.  It’s better not to compound the weekend when the kids get the flu, or there is a mysterious leak dripping, or you’ve been slammed at work, or it’s too dang hot, with the looming feeling like you’re not a real writer and you should stop wasting everyone’s time–just because you’re at 30k and it’s haaaard.

Sit down, plot out the next scene, and just keep going.  Maybe the book does have problems.  But you won’t know if you don’t finish it.

Music Monday: Astoria by Marianas Trench

Welcome to Music Monday, where I tell you about music I love and how it relates to storytelling, or maybe just spam you with music videos.  And fair warning, I don’t care if an album is old–in this case, two years old.

Here, from the Marianas Trench album Astoria:


Astoria is a concept album, and I love a good concept album.  Josh Ramsay (the cutie with the blue hair and the Tolkien rune tattoo) was going through a difficult time, which he decided to process through the album–but he knew he needed to include something to make himself feel better.  What he hit on was the 1980s, which is the era that he (and I) were kids.  The video above is loosely based on the so-bad-it’s-good movie The Warriors, for example.

So in Astoria you get a really interesting mix of dark, heavy lyrics paired with pop-heavy, dancy tunes.  I found it by accident when writing the novel that’s currently out on sub, and I stumbled across one of the more serious songs, One Love:


As I see it the album Astoria is the story of grieving a relationship.  It starts with denial and moves through the stages of grief until you get to acceptance and moving on at the end.

I picked out specific songs, though, as I was working on my novel.  My couple gets their happily ever after, even though their relationship gets strained almost to the breaking point.  For that the anguished hope of several of the tracks (One Love, Wildfire, While We’re Young) put me in the perfect headspace as I wrote.

Plus, it’s just fun to sing along.

What’s are you all singing along to these days?

Four Ways to More Writing Willpower

How was your holiday?  Mine was spent with my family and my sister’s family.  Behind her house is a lovely trail, shadowed by trees and full of birds and bunnies and frogs and so on, and I was reminded of one of the best tools for writing: walking.

Writers tend to be people who mostly live in our heads.  Don’t get me wrong, I like my head.  It’s well-furnished.  But the downside of spending a lot of time inside your own skull is that you forget to inhabit your body, and that cuts you off from a lot of experience that (practically speaking) can enrich your writing and (spiritually speaking) your life.

Walking is a good way out of the rumination loop, and also has a way of untangling mental knots and reconnecting with your senses.  At least once per week I get stuck writing–I start a scene in the wrong place, or include the wrong characters, or something else that is obvious in retrospect.  But I usually bash myself against the problem for a while before I realize that there’s something wrong.  When I finally catch on to what’s happening, I know I need to step away from the computer and do a few laps around my neighborhood.  Often the movement enables me to solve the problem before I’m even back to the house.

How can writers go about beginning a walking practice?  Katy Bowman is one of my favorite movement teachers and she has a lot of resources on her website.  But here is my advice, speaking as someone who isn’t at ALL a fitness person:

  1. Make it simple enough and quick enough that you won’t put off doing it.  I know that if I have to stop writing, go put on exercise clothes, and dedicate forty minutes to my movement, then I simply will not move around.  I will instead wander to the kitchen and get a snack, which is not nearly as good for my writing productivity as a ten or fifteen minute walk.  Walking around your neighborhood counts.  Walking around your house counts.  Walking on the treadmill for a little while counts.  Just move.
  2. Other movement can work if walking isn’t possible.  This winter, the town where I live got massive and unusual amounts of snow.  I had to schedule in a couple of hours every day of shoveling the stuff, making sure our roof wouldn’t collapse, and chopping firewood.  We chop wood with an eight-pound maul.  There’s a rhythm to chopping wood and a satisfying amount of exertion that will clear your head just as well as a walk (which wasn’t happening, since the snow was up to my hips and I don’t have snowshoes).
  3. Make it easy enough that it won’t utterly deplete your willpower.  This falls under the floss one tooth school of habit management.  You begin each day with a finite amount of willpower, and sometimes the ability to focus and keep writing takes ALL of it.  If your movement strategy requires you to exert willpower too, you’ll wind up shorting either the writing or the walking.  Ideally, your movement strategy will increase your willpower, not decrease it. I like walking around my neighborhood because the route is short and familiar enough that I don’t have to think about it.  It’s automatic, and I can just think about my writing problem while my body drums up a little serotonin.
  4. Make it an automatic yes.  I’m the kind of person who generally treats things as an automatic no as a default setting.  This works out okay as long as my no is only to clear the way for me to say yes to the things that make my life better.  Walking is one thing that makes my life better, so I have set it to be an automatic yes.  If someone says “wanna go for a walk?” I say yes unless there’s a compelling reason to say no (dinner’s on the stove, for example).  Incidentally, this strategy works with anything that you know adds value to your life, but that tends to get crowded out.

What sorts of things do you like to do to support yourself physically so that you can continue to create great writing?

Good Couples, Bad Movies

Note: this is my new writing blog.  I find posts talking about “reasons why I have writing blog” to be super boring, so I’m just diving right in with something interesting.  Thanks for understanding.  I’ll write you a boring post about why I should have a blog, though, if you really want me to.)

Approximately six million years behind the rest of the world, I recently discovered the first volume of the graphic novel Saga.  (Note for my readers with tender ears/eyes: this is a grownup comic and rated very-R.  Be warned and don’t buy it for your 10-year-old nephew.)  I started reading it, even though I don’t often do graphic novels, because I liked the gorgeous cover–that horned dad and be-winged mom, breastfeeding a baby while holding a raygun, appealed to my sense of storytelling.  It turned out to be as great as I’d hoped.  I’m a sucker for a well-written couple, not to mention ghost babysitters and rocketships that grow on trees.

I was also recently reminded of the movie Krull, and I got to thinking about why I like the movies so much but I also put it in the category of Bad Movies.  I love it, but I love it in the same way that I still secretly love Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere album: because I liked it when I was 12, before I had been part of an actual couple.

In Krull we have to believe that the prince and princess love each other.  We believe it because they tell us they do–they have to, because in the grand tradition of fantasy princesses everywhere, the one in Krull is kidnapped about two minutes into the movie, from her wedding, no less.  The prince then takes his Deadly Fidget Spinner and goes looking for her, accompanied by a shapeshifter, a cyclops, and Young Liam Neesen the Bandit.  We see all of the manly men interacting with each other as they go about the quest/fight giant spiders/nearly get possessed by big eel creatures/get squished by rocks.  But pretty much all we see the princess do is say, “No! I won’t marry you, space villain!”  It’s hard to show a relationship when you’ve only got one half of the couple’s point of view to work with.

In Saga, the couple is already together at the beginning of the story.  You know they love each other because they almost immediately risk their lives to save each other and their newborn baby.  There’s a little bit of exposition, but most of the subtext lies in the superb drawing of the main characters’ expressions, and in their actions.

Now, movies and graphic novels are not novels–they are both a lot more visual, for one thing, and can tell a story with no words at all–but I think both of them can inform how novels are put together.

What do you guys think?  What makes a good couple in a story?