by Arun on December 26, 2013
I haven’t been regular with updating the blog this year, but a lot happened. What can I say? Where to start? I’m not normally candid on the internet with what’s going on in my life but I’ll summarize the major highlights of 2013 for posterity.
Following Viable Paradise in 2012, I began to take writing more seriously. I made plans to finish stories, an send them out regularly for publication. Not rocket science, I know, but several factors made this goal difficult to sustain throughout 2013. The main factor was finishing off all of my professional exams in 2013, which I’m glad I did. Being on the other side of those exams means that I no longer have to worry about making a significant time commitment to school ever again.
In the three months since finishing those exams, however, I was able to make up for lost time in a good way. From the latter half of September 2013 till now, I accomplished the following:
1. Of The Dying Light (out on submission)
2. Miles to Go Before I Sleep (out on submission)
3. The Bookseller (editing, before sending back on submission)
2 rejections in the past three months, which means I can be doing better in sending more stories out on rounds. Currently, I’m aiming to send out at least one story per month, so in 2014 this number should go up significantly.
I’ve got a spreadsheet that tracks my word-count on a daily basis. I’ve been running this iteration since mid September 2013, with the following summary statistics:
# of Days Since I Started Tracking: 102
# of Days Written: 64
% of Days Written: 63%
Max. Words in A Single Day: 3,462 (9th November aka. The Magic Moment of NanoWriMo)
Total Words Written: 42,695
Novel Wordcount: 28,910
Short Stories Wordcount: 13,785
Average per Day Wordcount: 412
Based on the above, I will make the following refinements for 2014:
- Bring up the % of Days Written wordcount to between 80-90%. This is doable, based on the time freed up from finishing school.
- Consistently keep working on two projects at the same time. What I found this year was that my average wordcount was higher when I worked on a short story project and the novel project simultaneously. Novel writing takes a longer time because there is no set deadline, whereas for short stories I have a deadline in mind (anthologies, contests, etc.).
I participated in NanoWriMo for the first time, coming out with 25,000 words on my novel by the end of November. The novel isn’t complete but I’ve been regularly making progress, and hope to be done by January or mid-February. As this is my first novel, I just want to get to the end and worry about the revision process later. The novel is for middle grade readers, and is based on an idea that has been developing for quite some time. Look forward to more news about that as I get closer to completing it.
-Ideally I’d like to focus on short stories in 2014, and increase my output significantly. This should be doable now since I don’t have any more exams to look forward to.
- I’d also like to put a bow on the first draft of the novel , and complete a second draft once I know what needs to be fixed.
According to my reading log spreadsheet, I read 40-some books in 2013. I promised myself post Viable Paradise that I would try to read outside of my comfort zone. I wasn’t particularly successful at it this year, but still ending up with some great reading. Here are some of the highlights:
Short Story Collections:
Shoggoths in Bloom by: Elizabeth Bear. This collection has quite few exceptional short stories. I recommend them to you for their beauty of language, scope of ideas, and unique characters. My favourites included: Tideline, Orm the Beautiful, The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe, and The Death of Terrestrial Radio
The experience of reading Jonathan Carroll cannot be adequately described. You never know what is possible in a Jonathan Carroll story, what the rules are, where you will end up. This may sound like a cop-out, but Carroll is the type of writer who breaks down genre boundaries of all sorts and writes in one all his own. He’s been called a magic realist and a fantasy writer, but the final determination is inconclusive, and you end up just calling them Jonathan Carroll stories. There is beauty and truth in a few of these stories, and I recommend them to you if you like the stories of Neil Gaiman or Jeffrey Ford. My favourites from the collection included: The Fall Collection, Friend’s Best Man, Florian, and The Sadness of Detail.
I only read Joe Hill’s astounding Locke and Key series this year, and I highly highly recommend it to you all. I started the year off reading Hill’s acclaimed collection 20th Century Ghosts, and then his novel NOS4A2. Locke and Key magnifies and echoes a lot of the horror themes in his other works. At its heart though its basically the story of the Locke family who move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts and Keyhouse mansion, the family’s ancestral home. Once they get there though they begin to uncover the secrets and horrors that the Locke family patriarch set in motion many years ago. It’s epic in scope and personal in its intimate focus on the main characters. Gabriel Rodriguez’s art is a joy to behold, and there were a few moments where I couldn’t help but smile at the beautiful reveals.
Habits and Failures (Non-Fiction):
So, I read two books that changed the way I think about forming habits and approaching failures. The first book was The Power of Habit by: Charles Duhigg and the second one was How to Fail at Everything by: Scott Adams. Duhigg’s book breaks down how habits are formed, including how bad habits can be broken and new habits can be formed.
The biggest take-away from this book was that willpower is a limited resource, and the more we rely on willpower to enforce or form new habits, the more likely we are to fail. This has rewired my approach to forming new habits, in the sense that I’m willing to accept that forming a new habit does not happen overnight, and that I’m more likely to have success at changing one habit at a time rather than trying to attack two or three habits at a time.
Secondly, Duhigg also talks about keystone habits, which are overarching habits that make it easier to form other habits. These can be things like exercise, good diet habits, and sleeping well.
I know anecdotal evidence is not proof of scientific validity, but I’ve been successfully maintaining a regular writing routine based on the changes I’ve made since reading this book. For example, I try to aim for a low threshold of 250 words a day, which I can hit without too much effort and without exerting too much willpower. Upon reflection, it feels like Duhigg’s arguments are ideas that I’ve inherently known or felt to some extent but having them explicitly stated and broken into parse-able bits has helped solidify my understanding.
How to Fail at Everything is a short book by the creator of Dilbert. I picked it up after reading an essay on Boing Boing, and I was curious to read about Adams’ take on failures. The book is a good blend of Adams’ reflection on personal failures and ideas that did not have Dilbert’s exponential success. Did you know that he made and marketed the Dilberito: a lunch burrito with vitamin supplements? Or that he managed two restaurants, both of which failed? Reading about Adams candidly discussing very big failures resonated with me as a writer/creative type who faces a high rate of failure. But even more than that, Adams’ optimism and curiosity to forge ahead, even after failure is reaffirming, and a good reminder that success could be the very next thing you will work on. In addition to approaching failures, Adams discusses systems approach vs. goals approach and their resultant impact on success.
According to him, “systems are for winners and goals are for losers.” As with any broadly applicable aphorism, it should be taken with a grain of salt, but the principle is that systems will move you from a place of low odds to a place of high odds where success is probable. Goals, on the other hand, make you feel terrible when you don’t meet them. The main example he offers is dieting. A goal for dieting would involve losing 10 pounds, whereas a system would involve educating yourself on factors such as the relative glycemic index of different foods and using that knowledge rather than willpower to develop a system for healthy eating. I think in most cases, a systems and goals based approach is needed. Goals are helpful for short term targets and systems are helpful for long term targets, especially for ventures like writing. In summary, it’s an interesting little book filled with many interesting thought experiments like those above.
I read 17 novels this year, mostly still in SF and fantasy. Here are a few highlights:
Childhood and Art:
I read three novels separately over the course of the year that all deal with the themes of childhood and art in their own way. All of them were true in their own ways to the subject matter:
Gaiman has said that this was a very intimate novel for him, and my first reading I could feel that he’s mined parts of his childhood to build the melancholy and nostalgia of a time that none of us can ever truly return to. It’s a deceptively small book, but it contains multitudes. I’ve marked some of the passages in this book, and I still find myself thinking about them now, months after I finished. Gaiman has buried insights about story and art in what feels like a straightforward surface/frame tale that the nameless narrator relates to the reader. This is on my re-read list for 2014.
I loved Bushman Lives for two different reasons. First, because it is a Daniel Pinkwater book, it earns its own brand of respect and admiration. Pinkwater was one of the formative authors of my childhood reading and that he has continued to write such unique and well realized books is one of the best parts of my reading life.
Bushman Lives is one of my recent Pinkwater favorites, it is loosely linked to the trilogy comprised of The Neddiad/The Ygyssey/Adventures of A Cat Whiskered Girl as well as Pinkwater’s second novel Lizard Music.
Here again, we read about 1950’s Chicago, a period from the author’s childhood, and about Harold Knishke and Geets Hildebrand, the novel’s two protagonists growing up at this time. Woven through the novel is the story of Bushman, the gorilla at Chicago Zoo, the story of Harold’s artistic awakening and his meditations on the meaning of art.
The second reason I love this book is that only Pinkwater could have written this. To weave together so many disparate threads, another author could have written a trilogy or a novel twice as long or a memoir or an essay. The novel is nimble enough to balance all of these threads within the length of a standard YA novel. Cory Doctorow writes a warm appreciation of the book on Boing Boing that summarizes it better than I can.
“If you love books enough, books will love you back.”
This book won the 2012 Hugo award for Novel, but I picked it up based on the strong recommendations of friends. Among Others uses the epistolary format to get us into the head of the novel’s teenage protagonist and unlike the other two books mentioned above, this format brings the reader very intimately to Mori’s point of view. I could identify with Mori’s love of reading and finding your community because I was that person at one point. I still am that person. I came over from India at a very young age, and my point of identification from that age has always been books. Without stories to learn from and to guide me, and without a like minded group of friends I would be a very different person today. There were a few passages in this book that read very true to me, in that way when the author and the reader have met and understood each other on a common ground. To any reader of who found their tribe in SF and fantasy, I highly recommend this book to you.
A Look into the Past:
I read two books that looked at the past in different ways:
This book was a non-fiction memoir but it speaks about the past and brings it to life in the ways fiction is able to do. The author inherits a collection of netsuke from his uncle in Japan, and he uses these objects as a starting point to delve into his family’s history. What’s unique about his approach to the history of this time is that he frames the telling of the family story around the history of the netsuke themselves and I was completely immersed in the lives of these objects and the fraught history of the family that owned them from Russia and Austria to Japan and England.
This was by far the most gorgeous novel I read in 2013. Lucia Graves translated the novel from Zafon’s Spanish version, and retained a poetic tone that evoked the gloomy and otherwordly feel of Barcelona in the 40’s and 50’s. This is not a fantasy, but there is magic in this story. The magic of the past, how the past changes and distorts memories, and the magic of books and their ability to forever change the reader. And the structure of the story itself deserves praise. It reads like a story in the tradition of nested stories like the Arabian Nights. The story is labyrinthine and doubles back on itself more than once, but I was utterly hooked on the central mystery of the story from the start.
Young Adult Novels:
I dipped my feet into the YA genre this year with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. Honestly, the hype surrounding these books and with the movie was all lost on me. I did enjoy the books though, which were well written, paced like thrillers, and featured compelling protagonists. I don’t know why I haven’t read so much YA in the past, but I do want to expand my reading in this genre. Recommendations are welcome!
Like I said, I was trying to read outside of my comfort zone this year. Broadly speaking, this included reading anything not overtly SF or fantasy. The couple of detours that I took this year included Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds: a multi-generational family story set in Australia. It has an epic feel to it and McCullough’s world building is what made the period come to life.
I also read Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Flynn’s later novel Gone Girl was well received in the news, but Sharp Objects was her first novel. We follow a crime reporter back to her hometown in Missouri as she covers a set of murders. The language is sparse and Chandler-esque and the protagonist is a classic unreliable narrator. I thought the story and characters were okay, but the masterful plotting and tight writing definitely means I’ll be returning to this genre in the future.
Goals for 2014:
- I designed a reading plan for 2014, which should get me to read outside of my comfort zone, while keeping current with new authors/books being published in this year. To give you an idea of what this looks like, I’ll basically be reading three books at the same time: one current novel/short story collection, one classic novel (from the whole western canon/SF canon), and one non-fiction book.
- Writing wise I want to meet at least 100,000 words in 2014, and finish at least one short story a month. This works out to an average of 300 words or so every day, which I’m confident to meet.
- I’m going to keep more current with blogging now that I have a bit more free time, and aim for a post a week, which should be manageable.
It’s been a tumultuous year with its share of dark days and successes. I wanted to give thanks in public to a few groups of family and friends who made this year truly wonderful.
I want to say thanks to my family. Without their support, I couldn’t have accomplished any of my professional or personal successes this year.
I want to say thanks to my friends, who have been generous with their time and support; friends from school, from VP, from work, from everywhere. I love that the internet has made it easy for all of us to stay in touch, to find each other. Thank you.
Well, that got rather longer than I was expecting, but it sums up just about everything I wanted to blog about here. I look forward to everything that 2014 will bring, and I wish you all peace and love. See you in the new year!
-Arun 26th December 2013