Rachel

Adorableness quotient is on the rise

It’s not like the b/t boy is the cutest … although at the moment he’s my favorite … it’s just that I managed to get several quite good pictures of him this past weekend, so I thought I’d focus on him in one post. If I manage to get several good pictures of each puppy over the next week, that’d be nice, but (a) the camera in my new phone is inferior to the camera in my old phone; and (b) puppies are wiggly little monsters and produce a whole lot of blurry pictures for every good one.

Anyway: the b/t boy:

I know, very dark, but still, I think this is a cute picture. It shows how domed the skull looks at three weeks compared to later!
Sleepy puppy
All together now: Awwwwww!

Sometimes a puppy suggests a puppy name to my subconscious. Usually this occurs when they’re about five weeks old and scampering around. This time, I started calling this puppy “Gremlin” a week ago. I’m definitely not keeping him — I do not want a boy from this litter — but he seems to stand out for me. He’s the only one who’s got a puppy name at this point.

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Interesting variety of covers

I saw this series of book covers at Sarah Higbee’s blog. These are different editions of a book by Clare Fuller called Our Endless Numbered Days. Take a look at these covers and guess what sort of story this might be:

An American edition
Anansi International
The Czech edition
The Italian edition
Penguin

Sarah is offended by these covers because they don’t, to her, suggest the darkness of the story. Kidnapping, says Sarah, and coercion, and mental, physical and sexual abuse. A child “having to cope with losing everyone she knows and loves, other than her father. And spend large tracts of time foraging just to survive in freezing conditions with an increasingly delusional man.”

That does sound pretty dark.

Let me comment in order.

The first cover doesn’t suggest anything like that. The shadowy dot figure could imply horror. Does it? It makes me think of the shadow of the past or something like that. I wouldn’t have thought the story was particularly grim.

The second does look grim, or potentially grim, to me. The figure trudging through the snow looks beaten down — depressed. I have no idea what genre that looks like to me. The title does scream Literary, though. I would not pick this book up and look at the back cover. Nothing about this cover appeals to me at all.

The Czech cover is entirely boring and doesn’t suggest anything. This may be in the Top Ten All Time Most Boring Covers, Any Genre.

The Italian cover, with the girl running in the snow, looks like a murder mystery. Or even more like suspense. The girl looks like Red Riding Hood and I expect her to meet a wolf. I would open the book thinking that she was probably killed in the first chapter. Or more likely, she disappeared, and the story is about looking for her. Probably a tragic ending. It doesn’t look light-hearted to me at all. Maybe that’s because I read Sarah’s post.

That last cover does, to me, suggest dark literary. I think that one is fine. It suggests isolation, probably mental or emotional isolation as well as physical isolation. It looks claustrophobic. I think someone is trapped somehow and probably the story involves an emotional breakdown. I would never even look at the back cover description.

It’s interesting how very, very different these covers are. Would you find any of them appealing? Do any of them look to you like they imply a grim literary story such as Sarah describes?

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Progress report, plus puppies slow everything down

Finished! Maybe.

I think I might be finished revising No Foreign Sky. Not completely sure. This is the stage where it’s actually quite difficult to be sure. Stuff got cut. Stuff got added (not as much stuff). A lot of items in my bulleted “things to do” list have been crossed off. A smaller bulleted list got created and items in that have also been crossed off.

I think I will set this manuscript aside for today and tomorrow, look it over, maybe do a little detail work on Sunday, and send it back (again) to my agent on Monday. Having said that, I hope I don’t realize on Sunday that I missed something big I meant to change or add or delete or whatever.

I’ll be glad to put a period on this manuscript, again, for a while. It’s the sort of manuscript I can fiddle with endlessly. I want to send it off and put it out of my mind and work on something else. Of course I’m not sure exactly what I should work on next.

a) Write another Black Dog novella. Or two. Or three. Do you realize there are only four and a half months before Halloween? I need to write the other novellas for the upcoming collection in time for some of you to read them and comment. Luckily, as I mentioned early this year, I have about, what, seven decent ideas for stories. None of those have helpfully suggested full scenes, but I haven’t been thinking about them either. If I start to write one of them, it should hopefully unfold pretty easily.

b) Write another scene or two for TASMAKAT.

c) Finish KERAUNANI.

d) Finish the SF novel that is still sitting here at 80,000 words.

Well, I will take the rest of the day off, probably. Maybe read something off my TBR pile.

Meanwhile:

Grandmother Kimmie with three-week-old puppies

Morgan never goes in with her puppies unless I tell her to. She is not a fond mother. This is probably partly because she developed a rash on her underside. I started trimming all the puppies’ claws every three days and rinsing Morgan’s tummy after she nurses, and the rash has mostly cleared up and she no longer objects to nursing, but still — not fond. I get up in the middle of the night and tell her to go nurse her puppies and supervise to make sure she stays with them long enough for them to get full.

Meanwhile, Kimmie has been begging to go see the puppies since they were born. She’s actually seen them briefly several times — I trust her completely to be gentle and maternal — but this is the first time she had a change to settle down with them. Which she did at once. If she could nurse them, I’d let Morgan retire from motherhood.

The b/t boy is no longer a concern. (Knock on wood.) He’s gaining properly now without any support and is no longer the smallest puppy (quite). He has surpassed the tricolor boy (barely). The tri boy was one of the biggest and is now the smallest. I’m giving him eight to ten cc’s of formula, very slowly and carefully, by syringe, about three times a day. That helps him nurse vigorously and gain. This is a lot like Leda and her sister, his full aunts; they had very much the same kind of minor problem. I fully expect that, like them, he will be perfectly fine as soon as he starts eating real food. I suggest food to the puppies every day, but so far they are unimpressed.

Puppies develop A LOT every week from this point on. They are all up on their feet — in another week, they’ll be sorta kinda steady. They are all playing a little — in another week, they’ll be playing a lot. They are all licking formula off my fingertip — in another week, I HOPE they will all be willing to eat very small, very mushy bits of kibble.

They are also just about cute enough to be distracting. In two weeks, they will be ULTIMATELY cute.

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Novels about interplanetary trade

At tor.com, this post by James Davis Nicholl: Risky Business: Five Books About Interplanetary Trade

The book I instantly thought of is on this list: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon. That’s part of the Ky Vatta series, which is quite good space opera.

So is Merchanter’s Luck by CJC. That’s a story I like quite a bit, even though the whole plot turns on emotional angst. CJ Cherryh can make that work for me, unlike practically any other author on the planet.

I’ve got two obvious contenders for a list like this:

1) Quarter Share and associated titles by Nathan Lowell. These are self-published and there are a few rough edges which Lowell sanded off in other titles he wrote later. On the other hand, I like this series quite a bit and have read it several times. And it’s most definitely ALL ABOUT interplanetary trade.

2) Balance of Trade and the other Liaden novels by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Some focus more on trade than others, but that’s an important element in this series.

I’ll bet there are plenty of others. Mostly they probably feature peaceful traders who Get Into Dire Trouble, but there’s something to be said for stories like Lowell’s, where as a rule Dire Trouble does not happen and trade is actually front and center for the entire story.

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Oh, yeah, characters

A post at Book View Cafe: Oh, yeah, characters.

A while back I talked a bit about my writing process. I left out how I create characters. Sure enough, one of my two readers asked me about it. So, I hemmed and hawed. Turned on them ferociously. Whistled and tried to walk nonchalantly out of the room. All because I’m not sure how I do it. …

The character might have to be articulate to explain the plot, athletic to run around while chased by evil, able to hack a computer with dark net technology, woo the romantic interest and be rooted for during necessary sunset sailing at the end of the story. Okay. That might define a role. It does not define a character. But it does suggest the shape of a character.

The author of this post, Steven Popkes, then provides a post that … I suspect … just guessing here, but he says he’s not sure how he does it and then he provides a really objective list of things the character has to be able to do and a list of questions about what kind of person would be able to do those things and would go into that career and on and on, and I have to say, I suspect that is not actually how he builds a character.

Then, we start to drill down: what did he do his thesis on? Where did he go to graduate school? Undergrad? Did he have loans to work off or did he have scholarships? You have to want to be an astrophysicist. … What drew our scientist to astrophysics and then to SETI? More interestingly, what choices were made to scale down the character’s ambition?—looking for aliens is a big, impossible ambition. What did our scientist decide to do that was possible and in the direction of that big, impossible goal? Oxygen detection on exoplanets? Radio analysis of signals?

You see? I think if you start off by saying, “I don’t know how I develop characters, I just do it,” then the above paragraph of questions with associated answers is probably not in your head at any point. Or not unless a reader asks you how you develop your characters and you have to come up with an answer.

I think that what’s really happening is, the characters steps onto the page as a gestalt. The author knows who that character is as a person and how that character views the world, and reacts to events, and positions himself in the world, without ever having to drill down like that. Objective background for the character is then filled in almost absent-mindedly, as the author happens to need it, while big things — what the character is like, who he is as a person, really big elements of his backstory — that stuff is already there.

When someone says, “I don’t really know how I come up with characters,” I think it sort of has to be something like that.

But what I really mean is, I think that’s pretty much how it works for me. If somebody asked me about this during a panel or workshop, I think my answer would have to be something like that. Maybe for Popkes, it’s quite different! I think one of the interesting things about posts like this is how they can spark a discussion that makes it clear that no, actually, a lot of authors do things VERY DIFFERENTLY. Maybe Popkes really is saying “I don’t know how I do it, but I totally outline a detailed backstory for my characters,” even though I can’t imagine how that would actually feel or how it would work.

Those of you who write, do you have a process by which you develop characters? Or do they step on stage as real people, already pretty much complete without a deliberate process? Or something in between that I’m failing to imagine?

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Narrowing down the TBR pile

I thought this Twitter thread from @Sandstone was worth sharing: So, a thread on reading, not reading, and TBR overwhelm, along with a method of narrowing things down that’s worked for me

I’ll sum this up:

Divide your TBR pile into two halves: the half that feels more appealing and the half that feels less appealing.

Divide the top half into two quarters.

Repeat, repeat, until you have a small and manageable set of books that are most appealing to you at the moment.

There’s more to it than that! But that’s the fundamental process.

Anyway, I truly sympathize with this problem of a giant TBR pile but no desire to actually read anything on it; and the associated problem of not being able to get into a new-to-me book for reasons that have little to do with the book’s quality and a lot more to do with my current mood and ability (or maybe desire) to focus attentively on a new-to-me world.

Click through and read the whole thing if you’ve had a problem getting into anything on your TBR pile. Maybe you’ll see some suggestions that might help.

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You don’t have to explain every element of the worldbuilding

Here at Book Riot, this post: BOOKS DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES TO YOU

I was curious, and ready to be snarky, but actually I agree completely with the point the author of this post is making:

The Chosen and the Beautiful is [a retelling of The Great Gatsby] set in our world, but with the addition of magic (and demons). The magical elements are woven through the story, but they’re not the focus. It’s much more about the characters and plot of the original story with a new perspective. One of the things I enjoyed about the story was the mysterious fantastical elements. … I take issue with readers saying that not explaining the magic system in a book like this is a flaw or weakness of the storytelling. … Magical realist and fabulist stories do this particularly well: the fantastical elements are used to establish mood or to have metaphorical resonance. 

As I said, I agree.

One interesting tidbit I’ve gleaned over time from reading reviews is that some readers do want everything explained, with the rules of magic laid out and an appendix describing the history of the world. In other words, they literally do want infodumping, where the author pauses to explain things and then goes on with the plot.

This is fine, I guess, although I don’t really understand it. But the place it’s least fine is in magic, because there are fundamentally two kinds of magic:

a) Scientific magic, with rules that are clearly defined, and

b) Fairy-tale magic, with rules that are sometimes understood, but definitely not defined.

That is, in Patricia McKillip’s Song for the Basilisk, everyone knows that if you go to the magical land to get, for example, a dragon-bone pipe, then the rules are very different. Time and space are strange, and the people you meet may not be what they seem, and so on.

We all know that in fairy tales, if an animal stops you in the woods and asks for help, you should probably help it. But we also know this could be dangerous. We don’t need these rules spelled out; reading fairy tales as children makes these sorts of rules clear.

Also, the author of the Book Riot post is right again: unexplained magical elements that intrude into the “real world” are intrinsic to magical realism, and those elements give magical realism a lot of its charm.

This post tackles this subject from a couple different directions. It’s worth a look if you’ve got a minute.

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Progress Report

Okay, so, on Saturday, I thought, “You know, I bet I can finish this revision of No Foreign Sky today!”

Honestly, I don’t know why I ever have thoughts like that. I should know better. Even the back of my brain, optimist as it apparently is, ought to know better.

Maybe by this time next week. I’m tempted to say “Definitely,” but let’s not have another iteration of over-optimism. I have three basic elements I’m focusing on. They are the hardest three elements, which is why I left them for last. Not intrinsically hard, but picky and detailed. I guess the good news, such as it is, is that I’ll mostly be skimming across half the chapters and making minimal changes to the other half. It’s just that minimal changes still take maximum minutes, or so it sometimes seems.

Meanwhile:

I can’t resist a puppy lying on … hmm … her back. That’s one of the tricolor girls. You see how very, very heavily all three tricolors are marked. The one on her back has a big white bar across her hips. That’s how I tell her apart.

She was one of the two smallest puppies at birth — six ounces. She’s now the second biggest puppy. About twenty-six ounces. So she’s gone up about twenty ounces in nineteen days: wow. Well, the girls have been no trouble at all.

The b/t boy is now gaining just fine on his own with no help from me. I don’t think he’s going to be a problem again (knocking on wood!). The tri boy is still a bit of a problem, but not much. I gave him twelve cc’s of formula last night, all at one time, to kick him along a bit. If he were an orphan, he’d be getting about 120 cc’s of formula per day, or more, so you see that this wasn’t a lot. He then gained properly overnight and this morning, so we’ll see how he does for the rest of the day. I’m going to try him on just a bit of formula off my fingertip tonight as a precursor to trying him on formula-soaked puppy kibble in a few days.

Meanwhile! They are all actually developing really fast. All but the ruby girl wobbled up to their feet around two weeks — very early for Cavalier puppies. She is up now too, she is just really fat and it slowed her down. They are all showing a little bit of play behavior now, mouthing each other and my finger with their tiny toothless mouths. They stay awake for a full minute or so after nursing, playing a little and wobbling around, and then collapse and sleep till time to nurse. Impossible to see anything about their individual personalities yet, but you sure see species-specific play behavior. They grab each other’s ears and do that sideways jerk that will someday kill a rabbit if they catch one.

Morgan would like to be done with nursing. She would absolutely wean them today if she could. But, of course, I can’t let her, not quite yet. I did trim their invisible but sharp claws — you have to do it by feel because heaven knows you can’t see a thing; the claws are so very tiny. But they were scratching her up, I’m pretty sure that’s why she’s decided she doesn’t want to nurse them even though they don’t yet have teeth. She’s also nursing sitting up so that they mostly have to keep their feet on the bedding. Well, it won’t be long, and she do the fun part of being a mother — playing with them. She nudges them now, but of course they just fall over.

Just about two weeks till we hit Ultimate Cuteness. IMO, Ultimate Cavalier Puppy Cuteness hits at five weeks and lasts till around ten weeks.

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Influences: Narnia

Here’s an interesting post at tor.com: The Story King: How The Chronicles of Narnia Shapes the Worlds We Create

Some of the things I loved about Narnia that I wanted in my books:

I love that Lewis’s kids are largely committed to each other, no matter what happens. Your brother might betray you, but he’s still your brother. Your cousin might be a pill, but you’re not going to abandon him on some desert island. I was tired of reading books where the conflicts centered on kids who aren’t allowed to get along. I wanted to read (and write) kids who loved each other, who had friendships you would cheer for and maybe wish you had something a little more like it. There aren’t angst-ridden teens making dour faces at each other in my books. They love each other. Yes, there are occasional misunderstandings, hard conversations, disagreements about what’s to be done…but at the end of the day they have each other’s back.

This post is by Matt Mikalatos, who, when he began a YA series, found that Narnia was on his mind when it came to shaping the story he wanted to tell.

Certainly the above paragraph about friendship makes me a lot more inclined to check out Mikalatos’ series!

Click through and read the whole post if you’ve got a minute. It’s an interesting look at one author’s perception of how a particular work influenced the deeper themes that became important in his own writing later.

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Recent Reading: Wrapt in Crystal by Sharon Shinn

Okay, so, as you probably know, I’ve been a fan of Sharon Shinn’s books for a long time. Wrapt in Crystal is the last of her new-to-me books. I only realized it existed when I wrote this post a year or two ago and therefore looked up her complete oeuvre. Of course I picked up a copy at once, but I only just read it last week. I haven’t been reading a lot of new-to-me fiction lately, but this past week or ten days I’ve finally made some (minimal) progress in reading paper books off my TBR pile. Wow, do I ever prefer to read on my phone or Kindle. Nevertheless, I do have a lot of books on the physical TBR pile and I would like to see that number decline this year, and since I’m (almost) guaranteed to like anything by Sharon Shinn, I brought Wrapt in Crystal upstairs and finally read it.

Well, let me say, this story was a surprise in several ways.

You may have noticed that there’s a smallish number of authors with such a broad writing range that you can hardly believe they wrote [this book] as well as [that book]. Like, if you read Hunting Party by Elizabeth Moon – really good space opera novel, you should certainly read it – and then you read The Speed of Darkabsolutely stunning near-future SF novel that you MUST READ, GO GET IT NOW – then it’s just astonishing that Moon wrote them both. Or if you read the Newsflesh series by Myra Grant and then the InCryptid series by Seanan McGuire, it’s really hard to believe they’re actually by the same person.

I already knew Sharon Shinn has a broad range. But I would never have guessed she wrote Wrapt in Crystal if her name wasn’t on the cover. This is true even though certain elements do echo broad tendencies often seen in her other work.

What makes this novel different:

a) It’s not a romance novel. There is a romance, but it’s sort of … not unimportant, that’s not the right term … it’s sort of tucked behind everything else. If someone asked you for recommendations for fantasy romances, then a lot of Shinn’s novels would probably leap to mind, but you wouldn’t think of this novel. This is maybe the second book of Shinn’s where the romance is tucked completely back behind the main story.

b) It’s an SF murder mystery. It is very specifically a murder mystery. It follows mystery beats, not romance beats. It is also, by the way, a successful mystery in the sense that I had no idea who the murderer was until the protagonist figured it out.

The one way in which this story falls down as a murder mystery is that the reader doesn’t meet the murderer until right at the end, which is unusual in a mystery. The murderer does tie back to a character we meet earlier, but that isn’t as common a way of handling a mystery. For some time, after figuring out an important plot point, I was a bit concerned that a certain person might be the murderer because we met this person early and I could see that the story might move in that direction, but I didn’t want it to. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a deliberate red herring or not, but anyway, it wasn’t the kind of thing I thought Shinn would do, so I wasn’t very concerned. Except this story is rather different from her usual books, so … anyway, the story didn’t go that way and I’m glad.

b’) Update: It’s an SF Western! I pointed this post out to Sharon, who told me a little about what was in her mind when she wrote Wrapt in Crystal. Sharon said:

I consider Wrapt in Crystal a Western, and conceived of it a million years ago when I was reading a lot in the genre and seriously thought about writing a companion book that WAS a Western. So, you know…Drake is the hired gunslinger who is hired by the local townspeople to come clean out the band of rustlers, and he manages to achieve an uneasy alliance with the local sheriff. He gets semi-involved with the madam at the local brothel (Jovieve) and the independent cowgirl (Lise) but falls in love with the rancher’s reserved daughter (Laura). After a shootout at the end, he rides off into the sunset. But the rancher’s daughter comes to find him and he abandons his wandering ways

So that’s very interesting! I didn’t see the Western influence myself, but I can see it now that it’s been outlined so clearly.

c) It’s slow-paced. Without pausing to re-read everything else of Shinn’s and double-check this perception, Wrapt in Crystal seems very slow-paced in comparison to most of her other novels. This is true even though I would say that many of her other novels unfold at a leisurely pace. This one is slower.

d) It’s far, far more overtly philosophical. The world features one religion divided into two sects that seem very different on the surface, and we have a lot of conversations and discussions about religion as the story unfolds. This is the heart of the novel. Everything else is secondary. The romantic elements grow out of this religious element. So does the plot. So does the protagonist’s character arc, as he moves from being closed-off and cold to being much more emotionally open.

I really like how Shinn handled this central worldbuilding element. In fact, the way she handles this is one of the few obvious similarities between this book and some of her others. For example, in Heart of Gold, two very different societies are presented to the reader, each with very different gender values, but both societies are presented as good, or at least worthy – neither is presented as intrinsically morally inferior. Basically all the characters, of both societies, are trying to do good things even though they may be in conflict.

Wrapt in Crystal presents these two religious sects the same way, only even more so – both sects are good and worthy; they are not opposed to one another; each considers the other fundamentally a force for good in the world; the leaders of the two sects probably aren’t friends, but they are allies. If you want to read a story about religious fanatics preaching hatred against an opposed sect, this is not that story at all. Since I absolutely do not want to read a story about religious fanatics preaching hatred etc, this was excellent.

There are, as we all know, a handful of SF/Fantasy novels that present fictional religions in a way that feels real. Just a handful. Well, this is another in that small number. Religion is important in a lot of Shinn’s novels, but I think this is my favorite presentation of religion that she’s ever given us, and the one that feels most like a real religion.

Other comments:

Whatever else it may be, this story is also a novel about grief and recovery. I don’t want to end without providing what may be my favorite quote from the novel:

“You think that pain is a vacuum,” he said, taking her arm and making her face him again. “You think it sucks you dry and leaves you hollow and empty. You think it will take so much more time, so much more effort, to fill up that empty place again. You don’t think you can do it. But I tell you, pain is a vise. It clamps down on you. Everything you once were, everything you once had, is still inside you, small and squeezed and crushed flat. If you can break that vise, if you can move and stretch and open up again, all those things inside you will expand, will come back to life. You will feel everything again, once you give yourself room to feel.”

He is speaking to her, of course, but this is so clearly a moment when the protagonist is also speaking to himself. Except he’s been opening up again all through this novel, and she hasn’t yet moved toward that kind of recovery herself – or not very far – not enough to recognize it in herself.

Overall, Wrapt in Crystal isn’t going to be a comfort novel for me the way Shinn’s Elemental Blessings books are. I’m not sure how often I’ll re-read it. I wouldn’t reach for it if I had the flu, for example. But I admire this one more. It’s a more complex, less sweet, less easy story. I liked it a lot and I hereby recommend you all pick it up and give it a try if you’ve never happened to read it before.

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