The Next Big Thing: Title Fail Edition

I’m sure you’ve seen this meme by now, but in case not the “Next Big Thing” is a list of questions about a current WIP. I was tagged by Annie Neugebauer, who has an awesome-sounding literary post-apocalyptic horror novel in the works. Definitely check that out if you haven’t already!

Also keep an eye out for Wistfully Linda’s Next Big Thing post coming soon. While waiting, you can always check out her informative and thought-provoking posts on Asian-American Fantasy (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

Without further ado, here are the questions:

What is the working title of your book?

Ah. Ugh. Titles. I am…very bad with titles. Very very bad. The act of finding a title is longer and harder, for me, than writing the book or story itself. And in fact the only time I’ve had a title I really liked the story itself actually paled in comparison, so…

Seriously, though, this book has its own folder on my computer, wittily named “Untitled Fantasy.” It sits right above another folder called “Untitled Post-Apocalyptic.” Because titles are the worst.

Where did the idea come from for this book?

The idea for this book actually came from another book I’d written a long time ago, which was rife with some awful cliches and terrible plot holes and boring worldbuilding. But the idea (a group of people form a cautious, troubled union in order to overthrow an oppressive regime) and some of the characters wouldn’t go away.

What genre does your book fall under?

The book — or books, rather, since it’s either a duology or a trilogy — is a non-traditional epic fantasy (though I am not completely pleased with that classification). The setting is more American Southwest than medieval Europe, and the plot is more sociopolitical than a MacGuffin-finding quest.

How long did it take to write the first draft?

It took about three months of actual writing, from first sentence to last. But there was some brainstorming before that, and as I mentioned above the whole thing is a redo of something I’d been working on off and on for years. So, I don’t know, is “forever” a viable answer?

What actors would you use for a movie rendition of your book?

I…wouldn’t? I write books, not movies, and I am always very cautious about movie adaptations of books I’ve loved (The Golden Compass, anyone?). I’m honestly not sure I would even want to see a movie made from my book, because I feel like it would do weird things to my heart and my head. However, I would buy the movie soundtrack if it was any good. And if I could pick, I’d probably choose James Newton Howard to compose the score, because he basically already wrote the soundtrack to this novel, here and here, for example.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Decades after the Gildor armies defeated Evarra’s people and stole their cities, she decides to ally herself with former enemies in order to overthrow the empire.

Will it be self published or represented by an agency?

If all goes according to plan, I’ll be seeking representation sometime in 2013.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I mentioned above, it’s an old idea in new clothes, so the inspiration is a little hard to parse. A trip to New Mexico provided no small amount of inspiration for the setting, which is no real surprise. But it’s hard to go to New Mexico and not also start thinking about the effects of colonization, because they’re all still there, glaring the casual visitor in the face. It’s not like that on the east coast, even here in a state named for the original inhabitants.

Anyway, it got me thinking, which inevitably leads to writing. Also, I read a lot of awesome, unique, thought-provoking, beautiful, mind-blowing books and short stories this year, and really expanded my mental map of what books, and especially genre books, are capable of. I wanted to write something that pushed me into a new realm of storytelling — bigger, bolder, and therefore scarier (to me, as the writer). And to some extent it must have succeeded: I intentionally went for a story that didn’t have any easy answers, then got flustered partway through by the fact that there were no easy answers.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The book is a lot like Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Isles of the Forsaken, and Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy. All of these are epic-ish fantasies with themes of revolution and social upheaval/culture clash, and also take place outside the usual medieval Europe milieu. The Half-Made World in particular is very similar, as it’s also inspired by the American West.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There are four main characters: the daughter of an exiled queen, an awkward ex-prisoner, a young mother who wants to be a mage, and a quiet student-turned-propagandist. I fell in love with all of them while writing, but I didn’t let that stop me from putting them all through hell.

Which does mean it’s pretty dark. I always tend to write dark stories, not usually intentionally, but this one veered darker than I expected. What can I say? I do like reading horror, and maybe a bit of that crept into some of the scenes just before the climax…

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Here We Go Again: Literary v. Genre

Oh goody, it’s a new essay from The New Yorker about the difference between genre and literary fiction! Good thing too, because it had been so long since I was last reminded of the distinction — I might have forgotten I was writing inferior stuff, so thanks, Arthur Krystal. I really needed that.

The essay is mostly what you’d expect (1984 isn’t science fiction, right?), and the logic doesn’t line up beginning to end. But there are some cringe-inducing moments.

What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us.

Which is worse, Lifetime platitudes or over-wrought metaphors? You decide!

It gets even funnier when he goes on and tries to suggest some kind of universal thawing that occurs when people read the literary giants.

One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals.

Joseph Conrad — whom I’ve never read — is a problematic example given the racist overtones of Heart of Darkness. I’ve only read one of Henry James’s stories and it was a long time ago, but I wasn’t impressed. But James Joyce — of course he’d be mentioned in such an article. He is the God of the modernists, God of the academic literary world, God of The New Yorker and the rest of literature’s supposed “last stand” against the onslaught of the masses. (This sounds ridiculous, but I did once hear the staff of an academic lit mag describe themselves in similar terms, so…) But so what? I’m glad, I guess, that James Joyce can thaw the icy seas of Krystal’s heart. But I absolutely can’t stand it when people suggest I have to like James Joyce too, or else I’m uncultured, uneducated, a “mere” genre reader.

James Joyce is at least half the reason I didn’t go for my MFA, albeit indirectly. By senior year of college I was tired of reading quiet epiphany stories revolving around failed middle class marriages coming apart at the seams while the characters ran off to have messy affairs and sneak the occasional hit of their teenage child’s pot supply. And the quiet epiphany story that currently has such a strong love for the failed middle class marriage coinciding with the mid-life crisis — that “trite-and-true” story began with James Joyce’s “The Dead.” And it just keeps going.

But that’s fine. I just decided to step off that train (and like I said, it wasn’t the whole reason I didn’t go). Krystal can read and enjoy all the Joyce he wants. He can continue to like Joyce and his cohorts more than those commercial novels. Whatever floats his boat.

What I hate is when someone decides it’s time to step out and declare that their tastes and perspective are more important than mine — or yours. I don’t presume to think that everyone who reads Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales is going to experience a total shift in the way they think of gender roles and the importance of subtext in the stories we tell. Not everyone will be dazzled by the poetic language or floored by the depth of the world she creates (one that is, if you ask me, “complicated by surface and subterranean feelings”). And that’s fine. That’s why we keep writing and reading new books, and why we need so many different ones — they’re not going to read the same way to all people.

Here’s a fact: the literary canon has been in the hands of white middle to upper class men for centuries. Not everyone who reads books is a white middle/upper class man. Not all white middle/upper class men are the same anyway. Ergo, there is no such thing as universality. Some people would like to believe there is, that there’s some kind of literary quality not influenced by personal tastes, experiences, history, and tradition. But that’s not how the world works. The only thing that’s universal is story itself: the telling of tales to reveal truths and bring us together.

Why isn’t that enough?

Music for Halloween

Music has always been an integral part of my life. I majored in music in college (consider that a warning for any extreme musical nerdiness in this post or others), and though my parents swear they don’t know where my “musical talent” comes from, anyone who visits their house is sure to see the massive CD collection featured prominently in the living room. They have a little bit of everything, from soundtracks to Zydeco and Motown to Folk Revival. So, thanks to Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, I knew right where to go for my Halloween music fix.

But many of the songs on that CD are the songs that end up on every playlist dedicated to Halloween music, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard them before. So I thought I’d highlight some other pieces from the “Classical” canon that don’t get nearly the attention of Night on Bald Mountain or In the Hall of the Mountain King.

So, without further ado, here’s a collection of spooky, dark, eerie music perfect for those dark, moonlit nights when the ghouls are on the move…

Danse Macabre, Op. 40 in G minor — Camille Saint-Saëns

Okay, I’ve cheated, as this one appears on almost all the Halloween playlists. But Saint-Saëns was directly inspired by a poem when he composed this piece, so how could I not include it? The poem, originally in French, describes a “Dance of Death,” — or, in French, a danse macabre.

“Zig, zig, zig,
Death in cadence,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.
The winter wind blows,
and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.”

(Full text available here.)

But the cool doesn’t stop there. The violin you hear in the opening is incorrectly tuned in order to create an interval (basically, two notes playing together, sort of like a partial chord) commonly known as the Devil’s Tritone. This interval is particularly dissonant and was, until the 19th Century, not commonly used in any musical works of any kind. (Also fun: the two notes of the tritone are three whole steps apart, thus the tri- part of tritone, which also fits into the devil thing. Isn’t music theory cool?)

In addition to the violin solo, which is a clear reference to the text, Saint-Saëns uses a xylophone to evoke the clatter of bones that’s referenced later in the poem, and at the end has the oboe stand in as a rooster crowing. Here and there throughout the piece I hear rising and falling passages suggestive of the moans in the trees, and I love the frenetic, darkly humorous energy to this piece.

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 Mvt. 5: Dreams of the Witch’s Sabbath — Hector Berlioz

The subtitle for this symphony is “An Episode in the Life of the Artist.” The entire symphony is programmatic (meaning it has a theme or meaning, as opposed to absolute music which stands alone without any outside meaning or representation attached). In the first movement, the artist (Berlioz, one presumes) falls in love and becomes sort of obsessed. In the second he attends a ball and has a grand time, except that whenever he sees his beloved he’s thrown into a tumult of emotion. In the third, he convinces himself that she has betrayed him. Heartbroken, he takes opium for the fourth movement (obviously what we all do in such cases), and dreams that he’s being marched to the hangman’s scaffold while his beloved looks on mockingly. At the end of the fourth movement, he dies…and in the fifth he wakes up in Hell, watching as witches dance around him, including — of course — his beloved, transformed into a hideous creature represented by the awful, strained carousing of the Eb clarinet.

During this movement, the heavy, pounding “Dies Irae” (a medieval melody often quoted in later works; its name is Latin for “The Day of Wrath”) is juxtaposed with a darkly jaunty dance tune, itself a variation on the theme of the beloved throughout the entire symphony — and running throughout and behind all this is the chiming of bells, sounding Berlioz’s doomsday. The result is gloriously evil, and I can’t help being glad Berlioz “the artist” took opium and had this nightmare.

(More info about the symphony here, if you’re interested.)

Totentanz, S. 126 — Franz Liszt

This piece (which also translates into English as “Dance of Death”) begins with a theme, based on the same Dies Irae used by Berlioz, which then runs through several variations. Sometimes the Dies Irae is a pounding, demonic base line, other times a wandering piano cadenza in a high register. Sometimes it’s even light and happy sounding — but in the end it comes back to a dark, menacing rendition similar to that of the beginning.

According to Wikipedia, Liszt was obsessed with death. I don’t remember learning that in my music history class, but it may well be true (don’t have my textbooks with me, otherwise I’d check!). But I do remember one interesting tidbit: Franz Liszt wasn’t just famous, he was idolized like a modern rock star — complete with women fainting in his presence. I mean, Beatlemania? Liszt totally got there first: 1841 was the year of Lisztomania.

The Banshee — Henry Cowell

This is rather more avant garde than the previous two — but it’s not meaningless like a lot of avant garde stuff. Cowell was a Twentieth Century composer credited with creating several common modern music techniques, including the tone cluster (not a chord but a jumble of notes similar to what happens when a toddler starts banging their fist against a keyboard). He also pioneered the use of the “string piano,” whereby the pianist opens the piano and reaches in to strike, strum, or stroke the strings inside (source).

That’s what makes the awful, creepy, haunting wail of the banshee in this particular piece. So yes, every sound you hear in this track was created by one pianist at one piano. Personally I think this is awesome, but I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who agrees with me.

Fog Tropes – Ingram Marshall

Ingram Marshall is a contemporary composer whose works often incorporate both live and synthesized instruments — evidently, this is called electroacoustic music. He is influenced by the minimalist movement, which is just what it sounds like — an artistic movement focusing on simplicity and repetition rather than complex counterpoint and harmonies. (One minimalist piece is basically just a C chord for ten minutes. It’s kind of strange.)

This piece is unsettling because it seems to lack a tone center and any sort of rhythm. It works a lot like a soupy fog, with brass instruments coming in here and there, sounding almost random above a thick, heavy droning bass line. There’s also a creepy, repeating line that sounds like an eerie, high-pitched voice — a ghost calling out from the depths of the fog, perhaps? A siren calling sailors to their deaths? Either way, don’t listen to this alone in the dark, unless you want to be disturbed.

Do you use music when writing? I do, of course; the right music can help me stay focused on what I’m trying to achieve with any particular scene or even a novel as a whole. I love that different art forms connect and relate to each other so powerfully — that no matter the medium, an artist is an artist. We can overcome or face or even just accept the horror of death by writing a poem or taking a picture or composing a few ominous lines of music; and somehow, even though the results are so different, they’re also somehow very much the same.

But that could (maybe will) be an entirely different post. Do you use music to evoke feelings or seasons? Got any favorites? And if you listened to any of the playlist, what did you think?

I Don’t Need to Know the Color of Your Heroine’s Underwear: A Rant

Recently I picked up and attempted to read a literary horror novel called The Reapers are the Angelswritten by Alden Bell. The title is swoonworthy; so is the opening: “God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” I mean, based on those two things alone (and the zombies, can’t forget those) I didn’t think I would have to put much effort into enjoying this one.

And the beginning of the book is pretty good. Early on, Temple evinces her toughness by dispatching three zombies at once in a dark basement with only one long knife — a scene that, although a tad disappointing in its relentless look-how-tough-this-girl-is! vibewas no real struggle to get through. (Some people like the superhuman character. Usually I find these characters offputting and distant, their badassery so extreme they seem alien.) Not long after dispatching the zombies she runs into some people, a group of men, and it takes about two seconds for one of the guys to start creeping on her.

This was probably when the disappointment started to appear. At this point, clearly there was going to be rape (or attempted rape). My disappointment had a couple of levels to it, ranging from “Good lord another story about the rapeability of women” to “seriously, this is the most creative thing you could come up with?” Maybe I just haven’t yet recovered from George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows or Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the recent furor over the updated Tomb Raider game — but it does seem to me that the world has a lot of stories about tough ladies coming under the threat of rape. And I’m at the point now where I’m ready to read slightly more positive images of women characters, without this constant reminder: “You are a woman, therefore you can be raped!” I mean, women have other stories too, guys. There are even ways to create deep, interesting female characters without resorting to backstories of sexual abuse or rape. This shit happens enough in real life; wouldn’t it be nice if our literature didn’t completely normalize the behavior?

Still, I realize that rape does happen and is an important subject to address in fiction, so although disappointing this isn’t a deal-breaker. I still fully intended to give the book a fair chance, until the character-looks-in-a-mirror scene came along and ruined everything:

Blond hair, lean face with long eyelashes framing two bright blue eyes. She could be pretty. She tries to look more like a girl, holding herself in the way she’s seen girls do, pouting out her lips and lowering her chin and raising her eyebrows. Her little breasts aren’t much of anything, and her bottom is flat — but she has seen glamorous women in magazines with bodies like hers, so she supposes it’s all right.

She dresses again with the new underpants Ruby got for her. They are cotton with roses all over them. Ruby also got her a brassiere, but she doesn’t put that on.

Okay. First, let’s keep in mind that this is how fifteen-year-old Temple is seeing herself in the mirror — it’s third person, but everything up to now has hewed closely to Temple’s perspective. This is her seeing herself in a weird sexualized way, and it also happens to be the first description of her appearance for the reader as well. First we see her kick ass, then we get to know her breast size. Okay.

Second, Temple has just arrived at a “fortress” full of strangers, one of whom is a creeper. Her response to the gross, possessive way the man behaved toward her is to go look in a mirror and wonder if her breasts are large enough. Color me disturbed.

And what is this “tries to look more like a girl” nonsense? She’s already blond, already has really long eyelashes, already has bright blue eyes. She already looks like glamorous girls she’s seen in old magazines. The only thing I get from this description is that she is emphatically a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with the body of a skinny model. I’m also left wondering how, exactly, do girls hold themselves? And — the pièce de résistance — why the hell does she want or feel a need to pout? (Like a magazine model I hope, not because the author thinks all girls pout, right?) Unless it’s to emphasize her femininity, lest we think someone would soon attempt to rape an unfeminine woman, or lest we think she didn’t somehow bring it on herself? At the very least, am I the only one who thinks it’s really gross/creepy/disturbing to build up a character’s sexuality shortly before the rape scene we all know is coming? Especially a character who is only fifteen?

And then we get to see what her underwear looks like, because that’s normal. And guys in books constantly note the color and pattern of their boxers, right? Just like they flex in the mirror all the time. And speaking of underwear, of course she doesn’t wear a bra. After all the rest of that passage, it’s hard not to be suspicious of that little detail.

Anyway, naturally Temple must continue to prove her (sexy) toughness, so she goes to hang out with the tough guys (again, almost implying she brings this on herself, in a way). She gambles with them and wins with brassy aplomb (“Any moron can turn a card.”). She’s so Tough with a capital T that one of the guys tells her he thinks she might be “more dangerous than what’s out there,” i.e., the zombies. (I’m still mystified by that exchange, actually.)

In the very next scene she fends off her attacker, him drunk and her reeling from the influence of an Ambien. She wins — she, a fifteen-year-old, against a grown man with a knife. Have your cake (sexy!) and eat it too (she wins!), I guess. It didn’t matter for me by then — I read a little farther but only through sheer dogged unwillingness to let go of my high hopes for this book. In truth I was already lost, back at the mirror scene, when I was thrust out of the story and into a slow-simmering boil of anger.

The rest of the book might be awesome. I’m not going to read it — Bell lost me as a reader, maybe permanently. There are plenty of books out there I can read without getting ranty, so why try reading through my anger and disappointment? Frankly this year has seen enough crap hurled toward women, thanks, and I think I’ll turn my attention elsewhere.

But I had to write this critical, snarky post. I actually never thought I’d write a negative review here — some kind of uneasiness about writing negatively as someone who isn’t really anyone in the literary world. But even as recently as a year ago I might not have noticed that anything was amiss in the mirror scene. I might not have thought how strange it was to note the color and pattern of her underwear. I might not have gotten angry at all — and that’s ultimately why I wrote this. The male gaze, rape culture, and the fallacy of these rape-revenge fantasies are so integrated in mainstream culture that it’s hard to notice them for what they are. I missed out on the feminist theory courses in college; it wasn’t until I dove into the internet and the blogosphere that I began to understand how pronounced and insidious these issues were. I read what other people said they saw in a work of fiction, and now I’ve learned to see it myself. And I can’t un-see it.

Those blog posts helped me to see things that were wrong with my own fiction, bits and pieces of internalized misogyny and the male gaze and rape culture. That’s probably the real reason this pissed me off so much — it was too familiar, too close to what I’d thought was okay as recently as a year ago. It’s not okay to build up the sexuality of a character before someone tries to rape them. It’s weird and wrong, and sends weird and wrong messages. Sex is sex, but rape is not sex. It’s violence. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too.

Dark, Literary Genre Fiction: A Few Recommendations

You know what’s harder than starting a blog? Finding the gumption to come back to it after unintentionally abandoning it for five months.

Still, it’s been bugging me for a while now that I haven’t gushed about the following books, because they’re all wonderful and it seems a disservice to the authors to keep that wonderfulness to myself. So without further ado:

The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne M. Valente
I read a lot of speculative fiction, but it had been a long, long time since I read something that transported me away to strange and awesome wonders like these. Even now I have a hard time explaining how it felt to read these books — “like magic” seems too trite, but it’s also true. Grimm’s Fairy tales (the weird, dark ones) meet The Thousand and One Nights and run into feminism on the way to some of the most bizarre and interesting settings I have ever encountered. The characters are complex, the prose is stunning, and the worldbuilding is endlessly deep — it seems like there must be hundreds of other stories we don’t get to hear that do exist somehow, as if this is just the tip of a massive, magical iceberg.

I’m dissolving into mindless gushing here, perhaps, but seriously, look into this book if you like folklore, fairy tales, weird fantasy, literary fantasy, or mind-blowing fiction in general.

In the Woods by Tana French
In the Woods is more literary than many literary novels, and flies with the pace of a thriller, even (or perhaps especially) when detailing the ever-evolving relationship between Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox. Major and minor characters alike shine with little telling details that make them seem real — thus making their troubles seem real too. I don’t read many mysteries at all, but this one sucked me in from the start. By the end, well, let’s just say I read the last 200 pages all in one day.

Highly recommended if you like literary fiction, mysteries, psychological thrillers, and other dark, thought-provoking stuff.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
This is the second book I’ve read that I would call truly frightening (the first being The Shining, a far more terrifying novel that kept me up at night the second time I read it). It’s a psychological drama with a haunted house twist — and what a house. It’s not that there’s a ghost wandering the halls; no, it’s that the halls themselves are malevolent and dark. The halls themselves speak and groan and try to reach Eleanor, the main character. And Eleanor is not a reliable narrator. She lies often, even to herself, to cover up the truths she can’t face. She lies so often and we are so trapped in her psyche that it’s hard to keep track of what’s really happening, what might really be motivating her fellow housemates. And that warped reality is as terrifying in its own way as the many bumps in the night.

Read it if you like literary horror and haunted houses in particular. Also read The Shining if you haven’t already — just not alone, not at night, and definitely not in a spooky old building.

Horns by Joe Hill
I had previously read Heart-Shaped Box, which I enjoyed but didn’t love, so I was surprised by how drawn into Horns I was — so drawn in that, again, I spent much of a recent Saturday reading the last 180 pages. Inevitably, I found myself comparing it to a Stephen King novel:* Everyman finds himself on the receiving end of a terrible Evil that he must fight off but not without getting nice and bloody first. (Yeah, it’s kind of gory.) But Horns is also delightfully different — more tightly-plotted than a King novel, with fewer voices (only two narrating characters) and more deeply personal stakes. Ig is a great main character, not without flaws but not so flawed you can’t root for him the whole way, and the villain is compelling and disgusting and everything you want a villain to be. The book is almost a character portrait of these two, and also twists around our usual cultural view of good and evil. Is the devil really such a bad guy?

Recommended if you like horror, psychological suspense, and Stephen King novels.

*This is inevitable because Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

So there you have it: Four dark but wonderful reads. I didn’t actually set out to make a list of really dark literary genre fiction to recommend — these were just the books that came to mind as being fantastic recent reads. I almost feel I need to add a caveat or explanation: I’m a nice person, I’m a happy person, I read John Greene and Jenny Lawson and, uh, Charles Dickens. But I did listen to the Shutter Island soundtrack while reading The Haunting of Hill House, just to make sure I’d be terrified, so maybe, just maybe, there is something a little wrong with me…

Ten Long Years and I’m Still Messing Up

I realized this week that I’ve been writing for ten years. Ten years! I’m young enough that that’s a significant portion of my life. I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, when I started writing my first novel. My parents had just gotten a new computer so they passed the old one on to me, ostensibly so I could do my homework more easily; but I had just discovered Lord of the Rings and the fantasy genre as a whole, and one day I opened MS Word and wrote a sentence that had popped into my head apropos of nothing. I don’t remember the sentence, but I do remember the thrill of it, and the whole blank page ahead of me.

And that was it, I guess. I fell hard with the writing bug, hard enough that I finished that novel and started on another. Maybe it helped that it had never occurred to me, at age fourteen, that I might not be able to write a novel. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

I still don’t think my parents have grasped the fact that that computer changed my life. Plus one for technology, I guess. Sometimes I think it’s unromantic, as if writing my first novel longhand on six different notepads with a set of special novel-writing gel pens would have been more appropriate or romantic, but that’s not how it happened. I became a writer because my parents gave me a computer, a clunky, beastly Gateway running Windows 95. A lot of programs crapped out on me over the years, but MS Word was not one of them.

It might also be worth noting that this was 2002, a mere few months after the 9/11 attacks, a full year before the Iraq War began: In other words, a time in which no one knew what the hell was going on. I was fourteen, naive and confused, trying to make sense of a world that was changing before I even had a chance to understand it. A lot of teenagers have to grapple with their understanding of the world, and I did so be writing. I learned who I was through my writing; I learned what I thought about things through my writing; I learned who I wanted to be through my writing.

Ten years later I have more skill and less confidence; I mess up less egregiously but I feel it more. And, somehow, I’m still trying to figure out the world and myself by writing.

Also this week, I decided to accept that the novel I’m currently working on has problems I can’t just push through. Not that the story isn’t salvageable, because I do think it is and I would still like to write it, but maybe all along I’ve been writing the wrong story. I have zero angst over the thought of rewriting — I happen to think rewriting is one of the more exquisite pleasures of the writing process. But still, to not even be able to finish the draft? I always finish my drafts. I’m a compulsive draft-finisher, charging to the end and leaving a path of gaping plot holes and inconsistencies in my wake. That’s just what I do.

Which is why I’m not doing it this time. Sometimes change is good. This time I’m taking a break. Time to reassess, make sense of all of this again. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the entire rest of my life appears to be in flux too. When it rains, it pours…)

They say (I’m not even sure who “they” are) that mastery over a skill only comes after a person devotes at least 10,000 hours to honing that skill. I used to be discouraged by that oft-repeated statistic, but not anymore. It’s more encouraging than anything else. You wrote the wrong story? That’s just a blip, it still counts toward your 10,000 hours. You still put in your time. You still have the characters; you can find the right story and tell it. And maybe you’ll master it this time — or the next, or the one after that.

Book Review: The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet

I’m going to start by hazarding a guess that you’ve never heard of Caitlin Sweet, though this is her third novel. I stumbled on her work mostly by accident myself, and even I had no idea — literally none — that she’d just published another book this past fall until I stumbled on the news by accident again.

Sweet writes literary fantasy. Her first two novels, A Telling of Stars and The Silences of Home, are related stories occurring in the same world, though generations apart in time. The first is a personal saga more than an epic one, as a young woman embarks on a journey of revenge that she thinks will be heroic; the second is grander, and is greatly interested in the differences between what really happened and what we all collectively remember (or decide) happened.

But The Pattern Scars is very different from both. Nola is born into terrible poverty, but when her mother discovers she has Othersight — the ability to see the Pattern to come — she sells her to a brothel for a few coins. In Sarsenay, brothels serve two purposes: the usual one and the Otherseeing one, where customers come and pay the seer to tell them a prophecy. Nola is apprenticed to the current seer, Yigranzi, who teaches her about Otherseeing — but not at a pace Nola appreciates.

This greed for knowledge is her downfall, and leads her to trust the promises of a man named Orlo. He is a powerful Otherseer from the castle, aid to the king himself, and he takes Nola from the brothel with promises that she’ll soon become a castle seer herself.

Instead, he traps her in a web of lies and dark deeds that give the novel a horror aesthetic. The plot twists like a nightmare, one with a lot of blood and a lot of darkness. There is so much blood and so much dark subject matter that the book might have been a depressing, dreary, melodramatic mess, except that Sweet handles the story so well. Nola could have become a passive, dull victim of a helpless situation, but she doesn’t — because she never quite gives up, because she has just enough autonomy to keep a few secrets of her own, and because she is no innocent herself.

Sweet strikes a perfect balance with the prose, just enough lyricism and vibrant sensory detail to set the chilling tone, but not enough fancy wordwork to take the reader out of the story. (Though, to be fair, I may have a higher limit for fancy wordwork than others.) The novel is light on worldbuilding because worldbuilding isn’t the point: Character is. Nola tells the story in first person, so we only see those parts of the world that Nola has access to, and her world is very limited. This self-contained setting helps to create the nightmare but it may also be the novel’s weakness, in that some characters come and go without seeming to have lives beyond their interactions with Nola. In the end I think it works, though I am still left with some lingering questions about what some of the secondary characters did when they weren’t anywhere near her.

Final recommendation: A good book for readers who like a dark (as in really dark) character-driven fantasy with more than a dash of horror thrown in. And if the words “literary” and “fantasy” used in conjunction make you as excited as they make me, check out all of Caitlin Sweet’s novels. All are well-reviewed and undersold, and that’s a pity. Here’s hoping The Pattern Scars brings her the recognition she deserves.