WoGF Book Review: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

This is my fifth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy KressI’ve always been intrigued by stories about sleep, or not sleeping, probably because I tend to need so much of it.  From my perspective, being able to function on less than 8 hours of sleep seems like a superpower some days.  The things I could do with all that extra time…

Somehow, those stories all seem to be about how there’s always a cost.  The technology goes wrong.  The super-soldiers who can never sleep again are driven insane.  Beggars in Spain is the first story I can remember about it not only working, but turning out better than anyone dreamed.  The Sleepless are so much better than the rest of humanity as to be like a separate species.  Which, of course, is the problem.  The rest of humanity, the Sleepers, don’t deal well with being inferior.

I love the way the conflict begins so intimately, with two sisters: Leisha, Sleepless, and Alice, Sleeper.  Their mother wanted an ordinary daughter; their father wanted an extraordinary one.  The conflict that grows between the sisters mirrors society at large, and as Leisha grows into her role as a lawyer we see all the little injustices: her teenage friend barred from competing in the Olympics, her own college dorm room trashed.  The escalation: Sleeper parents abusing the Sleepless children they had thought they wanted, but found they didn’t understand; a Sleepless friend killed in prison; boycotts against Sleepless-made products and services; the Sleepless withdrawing into Sanctuary, and finally leaving the planet.

All the well thought-out ramifications were fascinating to me, and somehow logically leading to a future dystopian America where 80% of the population lives on the dole and does nothing, the other 20% do all the work and keep the economy going, and their taxes pay for everything.  It takes care of the hatred from the normals, sure, but I must have a bit of Sleepless in me, because I can’t imagine being content to just not do anything.  It feels so un-American—after all, don’t we pride ourselves on being a self-made people, where anyone can bring themselves up out of poverty if they just work hard?  But that’s me looking back at our roots through rose-colored glasses.  When I manage to set those aside, this dystopia is disturbingly like looking through a window to our future.  We’ve become a culture that worships Free Stuff.  If we somehow found a way to wrest the money from the richest 1% to keep the rest in Big Macs and iPads, 80% of the country probably would applaud the system and never go to work again.

I don’t know, maybe that’s too cynical of me.  But then again, what is science fiction for but to take all the little flaws of our now, and follow them to the bitter end, revealing perhaps a worst possible future if we continue down the path we’ve started.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Sleepless value individual effort and achievement above all else.  It’s a value I can understand, even mostly agree with, but in the end the characters most dedicated to that belief end up committing the most horrifying acts.  It’s the above all else that makes the difference.  I think the moral must be that any one value cannot stand as the sole pillar of civilization—the same way that any viewpoint, isolated and left unopposed as in Sanctuary, will only become more extreme.

Highly recommended, thought-provoking book.

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Motivation and Writing Every Day

Motivation’s a tricky thing.  Sometimes, it seems like staying motivated is the hardest part of writing.  Like when I’m stuck in a scene and three days into a migraine, or when my favorite author’s latest book just came out and it’s so much more interesting than what I’m writing.

I’ve tried various schemes to keep myself going.  For a while, setting a daily word count goal and reporting in every week to an online crit group worked.  I drafted The Null Prophet in twelve weeks that way, and it was great.  But straight word count goals don’t work for editing.  And what about the time spent plotting and researching for the next book?

I had a rockier time drafting Unborn, and I found I just couldn’t make the same word counts as before.  Instead of changing my goal, I kept beating myself up about it.  By the time I did change my goal, failing had become a habit.  All of these tricks are just mental games we play with ourselves, and this one had lost its power for me.

Editing Schedule

My failed editing schedule

After wallowing along for a while, I finally decided I needed a new trick last fall.  I Should Be Writing is a pretty good source for these, so I tried Mur’s “don’t break the chain” trick.  I printed a couple months’ worth of blank calendars, and I put a big green X through every day that I wrote.  No word counts, just a yes or a no.  And below the X, I kept a running count of how many days in a row I had written.  It worked for a little while, but every time I took a day off for a migraine or for my writing group, the chain would break, and it’s a little depressing when it never rises above 13.

In the new year, I tried giving myself a deadline.  Finish the revision by the end of March.  I made out a schedule and hung it on my whiteboard, but after an initial rush, I stalled out and fell behind.  March ended, with weeks still to go on my revision.

Turns out, these tricks only work if I never fail.

Well, I think I might have found one that works.  A couple ideas got mashed together in my brain, and instead of taking someone else’s trick whole, I custom tailored it to me.  Idea #1: Chuck Wendig wrote two posts on a writing plan and an editing plan, the basic idea of which is that you can set a very reasonable daily goal for each of these tasks (Chuck uses 350 words for writing and 5 pages for editing).  Idea #2: Mur Lafferty started talking about her friend Tony’s Magic Spreadsheet on I Should Be Writing, which combines a daily writing goal of 250 words with a weighted point system that rewards you for keeping up a long writing streak.

My Custom Magic Spreadsheet

My Custom Magic Spreadsheet

I mixed these two together to make my own version of the Magic Spreadsheet.  I have two goals: 250 words written or 1000 words edited (I write in Scrivener, so there are no page breaks).  When I feed in my numbers for the day, my spreadsheet calculates my combined progress, so if I only edited 500 words but I wrote 140, it says I met my goal and gives me my points for the day.  First day, one point.  Today, 42 points.  If I double my goal, I get double the points.  That’s my motivation to keep writing once I’ve hit 250, and I know it works, because several times I hit 350 or 400 words, and thought “Wow, I’ll get another 13 points if I just write a little bit more.”  And then it turns out I hit 700, and I’m so close to another 13 points, or 15, or 22…

The last feature of my spreadsheet may be the most important.  If I skip a day, I get no points and the streak starts over.  But if I write a little and don’t hit my goal, I don’t get any points, but the streak doesn’t change.  If I come home exhausted from my writing group and eke out a single sentence, I get to keep the streak alive.  I’ve had three days like that so far, and it’s probably the reason the spreadsheet is still working.  And just as soon as I get a handle on how quickly the points add up, I’ll start bribing myself with prizes when I hit the big targets.

Yes, I designed the spreadsheet to give me as many points as possible.  But it’s not cheating when I’m only playing against myself.  The points are just a sideline, anyway—the writing is the objective.  And right now, I’m at 18,594 words written and 13,804 edited.  Not bad for a silly mind game.

WoGF Book Review: Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts

This is my fourth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End, just squeaking in at the end of April.

I’m not a big reader of short fiction—I guess my sense of appreciation isn’t calibrated for the usual hit rate of a good anthology—but this collection by Tansy Rayner Roberts was wonderful.

Love and Romanpunk begins with “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary,” in which, Julia says, “I have arranged the secrets of my family in alphabetical order, beast by beast.”  These family tales, told in Julia’s wonderfully dry voice, weave together into a fantastical and very unexpected version of Roman history where the monsters not only plagued Julia’s family, they were her family.

The second story, “Lamia Victoriana,” was probably my least favorite of the collection, though still quite good.  I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I was better versed in the classics.  The story is narrated by Fanny Wollstonecraft, as she and her sister Mary run away with an unnamed poet and his sister.  They are, of course, the titular lamia, seductive vampires in the old Victorian sense, and a lovely, spine-chilling change from the modern kind.  There’s an unexpected tie to Rome at the end, which I didn’t entirely understand at the time, but which sets things up nicely for the last two stories.

“The Patrician” was my favorite.  Set in modern-day Nova Ostia, a fictional replica Roman city in Australia, made with real stone from Ostia and Herculaneum.  That part’s important, because the stone attracts the beasts of Rome, giving the residents more than their fair share of monsters.  Sixteen-year-old Clea meets a stranger shortly before the Temple of Vesta burns down, killing two.  It was the stranger, of course, a man named Julius, and the dead women lamia.  He is the last of the Julias, and his task is to rid the world of the beasts of Rome.  He saves her brother from a third lamia, and disappears.  He reappears periodically throughout Julia’s life, killing monsters, and gradually revealing the story of his life, and becoming a part of hers.  I will admit, the ending tugged at my heartstrings more than a little.

The final story, “Last of the Romanpunks,” picks up with Clea’s grandson Sebastian, in an Ancient-Roman-themed bar on an airship–incidentally, owned by his ex-girlfriend, who is intent on bringing back the lamias Julius wiped out, and becoming one herself.  Fortunately, Seb learned a few things from his grandma, and the Julias never truly die.

Each story could stand on its own, but I loved the way they all connected, making a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  I may not know a lot of Roman history, but I could feel the author’s love of the subject in every line.  The monsters and monster-hunters may have been larger than life, but the ordinary people on the sidelines, Clea in particular, felt very real.  Love and Romanpunk is smart, witty, surprising, and very much worth a read.

Staying Healthy as a Writer

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

One of the unavoidable hazards of writing is that it’s almost always a sedentary activity.  There are exceptions—Kevin J Anderson dictates his first drafts while hiking—but that kind of process doesn’t work for everybody, and all drafts eventually need to be read and edited.

I get a double dose.  My day job has me sitting in front of a computer for nine hours a day, and then I spend another hour in the car.  I’m a very visual person, so when my writing time comes around, I have to sit down again, and I spent most of my leisure time curled up with a book.  It worked for a while, but lately bad habits have been catching up with me.  For the last year or so, I’ve been in pretty much constant pain.  Back pain, neck pain, and I’m not even going to get into the chronic headaches and allergies.

This post is not about complaining.  Think of it as a public service announcement.  This kind of stuff is all too common, and you don’t want it to happen to you.

I guess the first thing you should know is that I’ve never been an active person.  I hear about people feeling energized when they’re done exercising, but it’s never happened to me.  I mostly just feel sore and tired, and if we’re talking aerobic exercise, sweaty and gross on top of it.  I’ve never had a weight problem, so I always regarded exercise as an unpleasant waste of time.  I mean, I knew it was good for me, but I never saw the benefits, and I never had enough time for things I wanted to do, much less something I disliked.

Bad idea, in case you were in doubt.

It’s been an excruciatingly slow process, identifying the problem and deciding that no, it’s not getting better on its own, and then figuring out what to do about it.  The pain started in my neck, so my first move was to change pillows, and then change again.  I may have to try a third pillow if this latest one doesn’t do the trick.  I’ve slowly become more aware of the strain placed on my body when I contort it into my habitual fetalesque sleeping position, and I’m trying to train myself into a more neutral posture.

The backaches snuck up on me.  The first acute pain happened about a year ago, bad enough to send me to the wellness center at work. They gave me an icepack and a prescription for muscle relaxant, and in a few days it was back to normal.  I figured I’d pulled it somehow, and went back to worrying about my tension headaches.  It wasn’t until last fall that the back pain became strong enough and constant enough to catch my attention again.

I got an ergonomic evaluation of my workstation.  I tried lumbar support pillows.  I finally started seeing a chiropractor, which at first made things worse, and then a little better.  But I didn’t see any real hope until I found the discipline to start doing yoga every morning.  I changed up my entire schedule in order to form the habit, but yoga’s a great gateway into exercise: low impact, minimal sweat, and I can do it on a mat in my living room where nobody can see me.

It’s slow going.  I’m definitely improving, but six weeks in, my back still hurts almost constantly.  The difference is, it’s dialed back from Something Is Really Wrong to Wow I Haven’t Used These Muscles in Forever.  And as I keep using them, I have faith that the pain will become less and less.

So, the point of all this is, take care of your body.  For years, I coveted that half hour a day as time to write or relax, but when you’re not healthy, it gets damn hard to do either.  When the body gets sluggish, so does the mind.  There’ve been a lot of days this past year when I didn’t write at all.  Now, slowly, that’s starting to improve as well, and I’m happy to say that I’m on an 18-day writing streak (and counting!).

Sometimes, giving up a little writing time really can help you write better.

WoGF Book Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

This is my third book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at World Without End.

Ironskin by Tina ConnollyWhen the 2012 Nebula Award nominees were announced, I was pleased to find I had read (and enjoyed) four out of six in the Best Novel category.  The fifth has been on my reading list for a while.  The sixth, the only one I’d never heard of, was Ironskin by Tina Connolly.

I picked it up so quickly in part because of some idiot comments floating around the web about the genre becoming too girly, and it made me happy that books like this are starting to get serious recognition.  Once I read the description, I was curious about what made this book so special that both it and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass were included on the shortlist (both being alternate histories in the regency era).

Ironskin is a retelling of Jane Eyre with fey.  Unlike Glamour in Glass, where society is practically unchanged by the addition of magic, Connolly’s world is dramatically different.  Society had become dependent on fey technology, powering everything from lights to motor cars with magical “bluepacks”—until the Great War.  The story starts five years after the war’s end.  The fey are gone, but the country is left devastated, and scrambling to make do with coal and steam.  A generation of young men is slaughtered, and many unlucky survivors are left with fey curses that can only be suppressed by covering the scars with iron.  Jane Eliot is one such ironskin, hiding her deformed face with an iron half-mask.

I thought the language was lovely, and really captured the feeling of Jane Eyre.  The societal consequences were well-thought out, and I loved the references to slightly altered titles and quotes from plays by “Shakspyr.”  The fey were very traditional and satisfyingly malevolent in contrast with the recent abundance of urban fantasy reinterpretations.

Jane’s interactions with the fey-touched child, Dorie, actually bothered me quite a lot through the first half of the book, but I think they were meant to.  It was heartbreaking to watch all the life and spirit drain out of the girl as Jane and her father insisted she deny her fey gifts in favor of acting “human.”  There were strong reasons for her doing so, but rather lightly touched upon, and I can’t help but wish that I could have been made to really believe in those reasons along with Jane.

The other aspect of the story that bothered me was the easy resolution of Jane’s dislike of her scarred face by giving her a new, perfect fey face.  It feels like a cop-out.  I was disappointed in Jane for forcing Edward to make her a new face, and while I loved the horrifying way in which that backfired on her, I hate that she got to be magically beautiful anyway.  It sends a conflicting message.  On one hand, it tries to convince you that fey beauty is deadly and Jane’s scars mark her bravery, but the other hand snatches it all away in the ending with the impression that it can’t be a happy ending if she’s still ugly.  Needless to say, that left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you can overlook that distasteful theme, however, I found Ironskin to be very engaging overall, and the faery queen beats the insane wife in the attic, hands down.  Worth a read for fans of the classic.