Friday, August 16, 2019

August 1-7 // The Week I Read Seven Books and Didn't Die

Back in 2016, I remember pushing myself to read as much as I possibly could. I read 175 books and ended up burning myself out before the year was even over, to the extent that I’ve had trouble regaining that reading speed. When Abby and I decided to have our own private readathon at the beginning of the month, my first instinct was to pick three books that would fit all seven challenges so I wouldn’t have to push myself too hard or risk failing. I didn’t want to be reminded of how much my reading speed still suffers. But I ended up deciding, mainly because I’ve been feeling the press of my overwhelming TBR, to aim for seven and forgive myself if I fell short.

The challenges were as follows:

1. Read a book with purple on the cover.
2. Read a book in the same spot the entire time.
3. Read a book you meant to read last year.
4. Read an author’s first book.
5. Read a book with a non-human main character.
6. Pick a book that has five or more words in the title.
7. Read and watch a book to movie adaptation.

At the beginning, I had grandiose dreams of finishing exactly one book per day. Simultaneously, I also figured I would be less likely to get bogged down if I had multiple books going at once, this all while working full time. Those two visions didn’t coexist well. Had I had the whole week off, I could have sped through the reading material more quickly, but that would have made the challenge less…challengy. It did begin on my two days off, where the only break from reading was hanging out with a friend for seven hours, as you do. After that, I used the time in the morning I typically devote to writing. I had a couple hours every evening as well, although it’s a little distracting trying to read when your kitten keeps biting your book (or you), so I spent a good deal of time outside, where her teeth and claws couldn’t find me.

Here’s a quick review of each book I read (in the order I finished them), along with their corresponding challenges.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman—Read and watch a book to movie adaptation.

The Golden Compass had potential, and I liked the steampunk elements and the action, but there is something a little nauseating about setting out to teach children that evil might actually be good. I know that Pullman wrote Compass as a response to the Chronicles of Narnia, and I envision some future writer penning a series in response to His Dark Materials, followed by another response from a different writer, and on and on, for the rest of publishing history.

Room, by Emma Donoghue—Read a book you meant to read last year.

This was a hard read, one I wanted to pick up but found myself actively avoiding. The fact that it’s narrated by a five-year-old is meant to shield you from the horrors of what is actually happening, but speaking as someone who was once five, I think it makes it more painful. You have to lean into the nuance; you have to pay more attention to see past what he’s saying. You have the option to look away, but he’s so guileless, you don’t know to in time.

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green—Read a book in the same spot the entire time.

I was slower to attempt this one, since I’d read some negative reviews, and I’m not a super committed John Green fan in the first place. But Abby read it and recommended it, so I decided to give it a go. It was well-written, and it was a quick read. The plot fell a little flat for me, but the mental work was worth it. I think this would be an eye-opening read for people who want to understand OCD and anxiety.

Jack the Ripper and the Case for the Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect, by Robert House—Pick a book that has five or more words in the title.

This is another book I was hesitant to read, and it was a last-minute choice for my reading challenges (I’m going to just refer to it as Jack the Ripper for brevity). I’d already read another, more comprehensive book on Jack the Ripper, covering all the murders and several suspects. I bought this book before I determined that Aaron Kozminksi, the suspect this work puts forth, could not possibly be guilty, so I wasn’t sure I would learn anything. But the tone of Jack the Ripper is pretty calm. The author is not trying to force you to believe anything; he is merely presenting the facts as he sees them.

He included details that had been swept aside or simply excluded in the book I’d previously read. The problem with reading anything by Ripperologists is that there are so many emotions involved. Everyone has their own hill they are perfectly willing to die on, and that means they are willing, even if they don’t believe they are, to twist and present evidence to support their personal beliefs and disbeliefs.

Before reading Jack the Ripper, George Chapman was my strongest (though still only circumstantially-likely suspect), but after reading it, I realize that there is more evidence supporting Kozminski’s guilt than I had previously thought, and somehow arriving at that conclusion was perfectly satisfactory for me, even though I left with no real answers and no final resolution. 

(Quick content warning: If you’re squeamish, it does included a horrific crime scene photo and a disturbing post-autopsy photo. But like, you’re reading about the world’s most famous serial killer. What did you expect?)

Borne, by Jeff Vandermeer—Read a book with a non-human main character.

If you read and loved The Southern Reach trilogy, also by Jeff Vandermeer, then this book will be right up your alley. It’s weird and trippy, and the writing style is amazing. There’s an enormous flying bear, too, if you’re still on the fence about it.

The Truth About Keeping Secrets, by Savannah Brown—Read an author’s first book.

So I got into Savannah Brown when I watched her slam poem, Skinny Girls Bleed Flowers, on Youtube, but I didn’t keep up with her as faithfully after that. When Victoria @ The Endless Oceans of My Mind visited, she told me about it, and I didn’t even finish listening to her tell me what it was about before I bought it. It has some of the weaknesses of first novels, but the writing—I mean, that’s some really good writing.

A Room Away From the Wolves, by Nova Ren Suma—Read a book with purple on the cover.

Not going to lie, I’m always nervous starting a Nova Ren Suma book, not because I don’t know if I’m going to like it, but because I know it’s going to be good and disturbing and it will be a while before her next one comes out. This one had a similar feel to Imaginary Girls, with a somewhat ambiguous ending where you kind of think you know what’s happened, but also you have to sit there for a few minutes trying to figure out what Suma just did to your brain. You should definitely read it.

So how do I feel after the readathon?

There’s the fact that I may or may not have drunk more coffee than was good for me. And maybe I slept less than was good for me, too, but be that as it may. I wouldn’t do this every week, or every other week. But I didn’t burn out or lose interest in reading. I’m still maintaining a faster reading pace than I had pre-readathon, and I would say that I feel the lightened load of my TBR, but actually, almost as soon as the readathon finished, I’d already added seven more books to the list.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

2018 Reading // Wait, It's Already 2019?

I know it’s a little late for a 2018 reading recap, but I am moving at my own pace, so fight me. Last year, I didn’t read as many books as I had planned. In fact, I ended up changing my Goodreads challenge from one hundred books to eighty. I spent the majority of 2018 (and 2017, but I digress) in a reading and writing slump, and it wasn’t until around September that I felt like I was picking up speed on either front. After work, sometimes the easiest thing was just to climb into bed and let myself get thoroughly distracted by Youtube. 

But I did end up reading a lot of books that were new to me, and I branched out from my typical genres. I read more adult books, especially thrillers, and I even developed the taste for nonfiction.

As far as I can break down the numbers in my current coffee-induced trance, I’m pretty sure I read:

Forty-eight books on Kindle

Twelve books on audio (although five of those were rereads of the same book, Wolf in White Van, which requires a post of its own)

Twenty physical books

Those numbers are a little weird for me. For one, I never used to listen to books on audio. I’m still picky about narrators, but I’m becoming more comfortable with that platform. I did have to switch my A
udible subscription to once every other month, though, because I have a backlog of over thirty audiobooks. (They were on sale, okay.) 

Since I’ve always been a physical book person, why did I read more on Kindle last year? Primarily for convenience. It’s a lot easier to travel with your phone or your Kindle if you’re the kind of person who a) worries about damaging your physical copies, and b) would prefer to carry multiple books at once. There’s also the small matter that I don’t like reading books in public. I’m still too nervous about being judged on what I’m reading, even though that’s not really something I should worry about, and there’s also the fact that people often take what you’re reading as a conversation starter when you just want to be left alone.

There’s no way to talk about every single book I read last year—the post would be too long. But I want to highlight a few of the ones that stood out for various reasons.

The Man From the Train, by Bill James, was my first serial killer book in a while, and probably you are going to call the police on me for saying this, but it was so good. The research was thorough and impressive, and the psychology was fascinating. In fact, I liked it so much I decided to read another of James’ books, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, which I ended up finding pretty disappointing. As far as the material goes, a lot of it was interesting, from the cases he covered to his ideas for reforming the prison system. But I couldn’t help but notice how, when critiquing popular crime books, he always comes down harder on female authors, even going so far as to call one a bimbo. Most of his criticisms weren’t actually helpful for determining whether or not I would want to read those books. Stuff like that leaves me a little sick to my stomach, not because I don’t think he’s allowed to have an opinion, but because I have encountered too many men like that who take it even further.

Moving on to happier things, A Thousand Perfect Notes was my first chance to read a full novel by Cait @ PaperFury, and I loved it. She did an excellent job handling the sensitive topic of abuse while balancing out her story with moments of light and beauty. Right now, I'm halfway through her second book, The Boy Who Steals Houses, which is phenomenal as well. Her blog posts are generally humorous and easy going, and you can see that same stamp in her novels as well, but they are also darker and deeper and so much more emotional. Just yeah, go read them. Please. 

Of course we can’t forget about Obsidio, the conclusion to the Illuminae Files, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. It, too, was amazing. I mean, I’m not going to lie, there were several plot devices they used in the other two books which robbed some of the suspense, but I give Kaufman and Kristoff a pass because their writing was stellar, as always. I don’t know what it is about that duo, but they’ve got it going on. Obsidio was full of snark and humor and heartbreak, and I enjoyed reading the physical copy as well as the audio version.

Usually I set my own pace in reading. I make my TBR based on the books that look good to me. If someone recommends a book, I put it on the list and then, usually, it gets buried by other books I would prefer. But last year I started prioritizing recommendations, and I discovered a whole new side to reading. It’s been a great way to broaden my horizons, and even though some of these books were not ones I would ordinarily pick up, it gave me a chance to appreciate stories outside my comfort zone. That’s how I ended up reading Twilight Eyes, by Dean Koontz, and Floating Dragon, by Peter Straub, two of my coworker’s favorite books. They weren’t something I would ordinarily pick up in a bookstore, but they were still enjoyable, and it was fun trying something new.

I also read the Southern Reach trilogy after Maggie Stiefvater recommended it on Twitter, which turned out to be really good timing, considering the movie came out as I was reading book two. (If you’re wondering how they compare, the movie was okay, but the books were better—weirder and more cerebral.) I’m in the middle of rereading the trilogy, because they feel like the sort of stories you need to reread to fully process. Also, the writing style is weird and intricate and amazing.

As far as everything else I read in 2018, you can find the full list here.

What were some books that stood out to you last year? Have you ever had a favorite book ruined by the author? What are some books you hoped to read last year, but didn't? 

Friday, June 21, 2019

On NaNoWriMo And Being A Real Writer

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about NaNoWriMo and how much I love it and how sometimes it can be a bad thing. There are several thoughts running concurrently in my head, so it’s hard to tell which one is the primary narrative—the more accurate version of the truth, if you will. That’s the thing about telling the truth. Two separate, conflicting accounts can tell the story from divergent angles without compromising accuracy. I remember reading about this teacher who held up a book for the class and asked them what color it was. On their side it was one color, on his side, another. That stuck with me.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how there are too many writers, too many people trying to get published. I could joke about how I feel personally affronted by this, but I do get discouraged when I consider the thousands of people I’m competing against for an agent’s attention. I used to think that because I understood grammar and punctuation, I would be an immediate shoe-in; I would float above the detritus, a diamond in the rough. My book would be snatched up; within months there would be promises of riches, the light of future book deals so bright the sun itself would look dim. [Insert more nauseating poetry here.] Realizing the path to publication was not that straightforward was no easy feat.

I didn’t just learn this in myself, in my failed attempts to get published, while people talked over me to my parents asking if I had a backup plan for when writing failed. I saw it in my friends, the ones whose novels I had critiqued and loved, who didn’t get picked up by agents for any number of reasons unknown to me. In the fray, it seems that horrible books get published while good ones languish; I try hard not to be pessimistic; I try hard not to begrudge anyone their joy.

I have read literary agents’ complaints in reference to NaNoWriMo. They are swamped, they say. When November ends, hundreds of writers query them with unedited manuscripts, a veritable deluge. I have been told, don’t query during December, you are more likely to be rejected. It is sad that there is a month devoted to ignorant hope.

One day, months ago, my sister and I were talking about how, when people produce an art form, the kind that is meant to be experienced by others, they can think that means they have the right to be published or signed to an album or displayed in a gallery. It’s difficult for writers to understand and accept the simple truth that just because you wrote a book, doesn’t mean you ought to be published. It’s hard to do that kind of work, with little-to-no promise of greater success, harder still to accept that completing the work doesn’t come with some greater, automatic and far-reaching reward.

I’ve seen the argument, particularly from literary agents, that NaNoWriMo is not some shining star. It encourages wannabe writers; it says, “You, too, can write a book. We’re all writers here.” The truth is that there is a difference between writing a book and writing a good book, and it’s often the case that those who have written bad books are also blind to this fact. NaNoWriMo gives free license to droves of writers who will never make it; who could not possibly all make it; there are too many, and not everyone has the natural talent, or the skill to learn—there is no use lying about it and saying it is otherwise. Maybe I am one of that number. Consider the times I have sung the praises of NaNoWriMo. Real writers should be able to write outside of November, I have heard.

For a long time I held it as a firm belief that NaNoWriMo is what jumpstarted and sustained my book-finishing abilities. I had never completed a full book before: that statement is true, depending on how you look at it. Before November 2013, my drafts were truncated and juvenile—one barely surpassed 40,000 words. They failed to finish a complete the thought. Both ended, not when I had reached any sort of natural conclusion, but simply when I had run out of words and didn’t know where else to go with the story. They lapsed into cliffhangers and were never polished to a high shine.

November 2013 was a reset button. It taught me a lesson I so desperately needed—you are not required to edit as you go along, and your draft can be as messy as you need. I learned about momentum, and how you can change the plot and the characters and the setting mid draft, if you so choose, because you are going to edit later anyway.

For the first time I managed to edit a manuscript and query agents. I got two requests for a full, one for a partial, none of which is saying a lot, and they all ended in rejection, but it was a taste of what could happen. I was only eighteen, and already I felt my face pointed in the right direction, NaNoWriMo at my side, a guiding hand on my shoulder.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling I had when I sat down to query, after years and years of wishing, how I sensed the enormity of my dreams. Before then, being published had been a nebulous concept with no real anchor to reality, something that I had hoped and prayed would eventually (somehow, who knows how) happen. The whole experience, start to finish, also switched my perspective from viewing publishing as something that would be handed to me to something that I would have to fight for, in the face of rejection, with no real promise of success.

When you consider the number of abortive drafts I have stashed away, it’s safe to say that for the longest time, I never got anywhere with my writing. I would start an idea and usually get a page or so in, sometimes closer to thirty, twice to eighty, all of this handwritten. For one story in particular, I stacked my blank notebooks, one hundred pages each, and dreamed of filling five. I had large handwriting.

I have a box in storage at my parents’ house, a relic of my pre-computer years, crammed with writing—loose paper, notebooks, folders, detritus from a mind I no longer recognize as having been mine. I remember so little of my writing in those days, so little of the act itself. The box was big enough to hold at least one of me, at my present size, so heavy I couldn’t lift it. Long before I moved out, it had begun to break under the weight of its contents. How that box even came into my possession is a question I can no longer answer; it was a fixed point in my childhood, a towering Ozymandius. Once I hid it in my closet.

November 2013, and the subsequent Novembers, were new awakenings, fixed points around which my life revolved. There is no way of knowing, but most times I suspect my writing would not be how it is today had it not thrived around that structure. I no longer need it as my own personal crutch; this month I finished a draft independent of November; I am free. But I am still caught in the question, that was the true question—NaNoWriMo the distraction, the red herring, the straw man. Good writers can thrive in November; they can thrive anywhere; they are dandelions growing upwards through concrete. But what of me?

Who is to say I am separate from the populace at large, the writers who will never make it, for lack of talent, or lack of research, or lack of luck? I have spent so long trying to learn humility as a writer; I get up and I fight pride and I go to bed. To be one of those people (poor her, she wanted it so bad, but she was never published—she was never good enough, who can bear to tell her?) is a rancid thought. I exist to write; I know that now. I will write whether I am printed or not.

What about me? I love NaNoWriMo; I expect I always will. My relationship with it has been a constantly shifting entity. First I learned confidence, then I pushed myself too hard and for the wrong reasons. And then last year, finally, I felt like I returned to the true meaning of Christmas NaNoWriMo. But always writing has been a form of self expression for me, a way to process and synthesize my experiences into something better. Without steady writing, in one form or another, there is a solid chance I would go insane. So far, NaNoWriMo has been my preferred tool for finishing drafts, the timeline and the sense of community vital to my experience.

If you’re only writing to make money, readers can tell—publishers can tell. You have to be comfortable with writing for yourself, first and foremost, and if you’re not there yet, that’s okay. Take your time. Write during NaNoWriMo, or write when it’s most comfortable for you. Publishing is not some great reward, the final stop at the end of a long and arduous journey. It is not even a measure of success or failure. It is a happy byproduct of writing. Even if your books never make it to shelves, you are a still a writer, and what you are doing is still valuable. In your rush to put words on paper, for your own sake, don’t forget that.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Why I Don't Want to Self-Publish // Part Two

When I wrote Part One of why I don’t want to self-publish, I hadn’t planned for it to be a two-part post, but I ended up with more material than I could cover in one. I also hadn’t been planning to take another hiatus, and I’m sorry if you’ve been waiting forever to read part two. Thank you for being patient!

First, let me just remind you that the reasons why I don’t want to self-publish can be useful information, but only if you also realize that not all self-publishing platforms are created equal, and that it’s okay to disagree with me. One day I might change my mind and decide to self publish. You never know. So these are just my observations from where I stand.

Someone with no knowledge of self-publishing will likely assume that there’s only one method, or that all platforms are the same. I know I did. In my last post I focused mainly on the logistics of self-publishing—namely, the money—and the dangers of rushing a book that isn’t ready. But now I want to talk about the different options available.

For starters, there are services that offer you varying levels of control, where ultimately the ball is in your court. Case in point: with CreateSpace you can pay for editing services, cover design, and promotion, if that’s what you want. Those resources are optional—you tailor your package. Same with KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). You create the product. You control the pricing. For the most part, you have final say. Probably these platforms will offer you the quintessential self-publishing experience. There are downsides, though. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard authors lamenting Amazon’s various hiccups, from failing to track sales to messing up formatting (please don’t ban me, Amazon). There are algorithms on Amazon designed to keep you from publishing plagiarized material, but I have seen a couple cases where they have gone haywire and wreaked havoc on an author’s career. That alone is probably what stresses me out the most.

Now, if you have your heart set on a more high quality book, say a hardcover with a snazzy dust jacket, you have options like LuLu. With those, you are creating and buying a product, which you will then have to sell on platforms like Amazon, but these services will not always be print on demand, which means you will have to purchase back stock and store it yourself. Don’t forget that means you need to incorporate shipping into the price of your book.

All that being said, I have never self-published. My research has led me to decide that, at least for now, I don’t want to take this route. But we’re talking about your career too, so I encourage you to do your own research and make your own decision.

Before I launch into the evils of vanity publishing houses, another method of self-publishing, let me give some context, for those of you who don’t know a whole lot about the industry. There are five major publishing houses: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Livre, in no particular order. (I remember when there were six, before Penguin and Random House merged.) These houses are commonly referred to as the Big Five. (Is it just me, or does this sound like the prologue of a fantasy novel where the major publishing houses are embroiled in a centuries old war? Nope, just me? Okay.)

The Big Five have imprints—they’re all part of the same entity, these imprints, but they specialize in publishing certain genres. I imagine you could compare this set up to a Portuguese man o’ war, only less dangerous. For instance, Tor is a science fiction/fantasy imprint. Greenwillow publishes middle grade novels, and has a higher number of teenage authors, at least from what I’ve seen, so they were my dream imprint when I was sixteen and angsty. Katherine Teigen is the imprint that published Divergent. Alfred A. Knopf published Eragon. If you’re curious about the imprint for a specific book, look at the copyright page. Usually there will be a line near the bottom that tells you the imprint and the publishing house.

But then you have small publishing houses—also referred to as small presses or independent (indie) presses. These are not affiliated with the Big Five. These are houses like Algonquin, which published Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us. Cash flow defines the separation between the Big Five and small presses.

Both big houses and small presses pay you an advance for your novel, varying in size from four digits (say, if you’re a new romance or ya author) to seven digits (if you’re established and wildly popular, like Marie Lu or Steven King). Then, the houses give you a percentage of the royalties (money made off book sales) based on what your contract specifies, once your advance pays out. But that’s a completely different conversation. However, I would caution you about trying to navigate small presses on your own.

So then you have vanity houses. Vanity houses masquerade as indie presses, and this is your big fat warning not to publish through them. From the outside, they can seem legitimate, especially if you don’t know a whole lot about the biz. (Which is another reason why having an agent is so important—they know the difference and can help you avoid a multitude of pitfalls.)

Usually they will claim to be selective about which submissions they choose. They might offer cover designers and affiliated editing services, and you will have to pay for these. Likely you will be required to cover the cost of printing your book, although models do vary, and while they may offer you promotion services, don’t expect them to make good on their word. They will rarely pay you an advance, although you might have to sign a contract, and since you probably don’t have legal expertise in this field, you might end up signing something nasty and career damaging. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, I would recommend you educate yourself on your rights.

Go online. Google vanity publishing houses. Find ones that have gone under—they are numerous, and if you dig, you are going to find a pattern. It’s not uncommon for a con artist to start a vanity house, bilk desperate customers out of their money, go bankrupt, and move to another state where they start a vanity house under a different name. Look up testimonials of writers who have published through these venues. It’s not uncommon to hear of royalty checks bouncing, or not being sent at all, even though copies of the book continue to sell. To be fair, sometimes small presses (*cough* Dorchester *cough*) will pull this trick, but with less frequency.

“If they’re so awful, Liz, why do they still exist? Surely you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’ll admit, there are probably some vanity houses out there that will do right by you. In all my research, I have yet to find one. This is what happens: say you’ve tried the agent route with no success, or you’re too apprehensive about the idea of the Rejection Onslaught to even query agents, so you decide to submit directly to publishing houses. Only most reputable publishing houses won’t accept unsolicited submissions. Some of the smaller ones will, true, but you’re not likely to get as good an advance as an un-agented writer.

Then you hear about vanity houses, and maybe they look like a great deal, and maybe you submit to one, and they offer you a publishing contract. All your dreams are about to come true, right? No. It’s not an honor. It’s a scam, and you’re the dupe. Let me be very blunt with you. Vanity publishers exist to make money off your desperation. Look, I understand what it’s like to want so badly to be published that you feel sick. Believe me, I’ve been there. Numerous times. It can drive you so crazy you let yourself get sucked into a bad deal like Full Fathom Five, because you just have to, have to, have to get published RIGHT NOW.

You’ve been rejected so much, and then you apply to this vanity house, with its official looking website and its submission guidelines, and of course you get accepted, because of course they aren’t going to turn away willing money, but you think you’ve finally made it past the gatekeepers and proved yourself.

I don’t recommend self publishing. I don’t. But if you are going to self-publish, I beg you: do not get tangled up with a vanity publishing house. There may be issues with other platforms, and you might have a harder time making money than you’d like, but all those hassles pale in comparison.

Be careful when you’re self-publishing. With a reputable literary agent, at least you have someone in your corner. When you’re going solo, you are your own body guard. Suddenly you are required to be extensively knowledgable in multiple fields—you are the one who needs to be able to spot the difference between a good deal and a scam. There are so many people out there who do not care about your dreams, even if they pretend that they do. They recognize your desperation and see it as a way to make money at your expense, regardless of your suffering. You deserve better than that.

But if, after reading these post, you decide to go ahead and self publish anyway, I wish you the absolute best of luck.