I had so many blog posts planned prior to the holidays, but in retrospect, I don't know how I thought I would have the time to write them. December just gets busy, but at least it's busy seeing people we love. This year my husband and I did what I like to call the "I-95" Christmas, which is a trek up to DC/MD, then CT, and back to DC/MD for a few days before returning home to NC again. Basically, we drove a total of 20+ hours on I-95, which is the major highway of the East Coast, running all the way from New England to Florida. It's about as exciting as you're probably imagining (in other words, not at all). But it's the only way to see all the family.
On top of that, we take the dog and cats with us, so it feels a bit like a traveling circus. One of these days, we're going to make enough money to hire a good pet-sitter, but as of now we tend to exchange pet-sitting favors with friends. That system works well until everyone leaves for the holidays...then it's a mad circular dash of "Can you watch my cat?"
Anyway, despite all the driving and celebrations with family and pets, I did manage to finish the book I was reading - Ringworld by Larry Niven. This is a classic science fiction story that I've seen floating around my parents' house since I was a little girl (for other recent reviews of classic sci-fiction novels, you should definitely check out the blog, Thank the Maker). I think my Dad periodically re-read Ringworld over the years, so I was familiar with the book's cover, but not the story itself. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I borrowed it from him over Thanksgiving.
Essentially, Ringworld is a story about a mixed group of humans and aliens that explore a strange artifact in space - the Ringworld - an enormous ring structure that circles a distant star at the scale of a planet's orbit. The interior of the ring that faces the sun contains an earth-like surface, but of much larger area. The main protagonist, the earthling Louis Wu, has a lot to say about just how hard it is to conceptualize the Ringworld's scale. When you're standing on it, there's no horizon since the ground essentially curves "up," resulting in the illusion that you are standing beneath an inconceivably large arch.
While exploring this strange artifact, the heroes end up crash-landing on the surface and then spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to leave again. What they find is a decayed civilization of strangely human people. Most of the story is trying to understand the mystery of who made the Ringworld, how it fell, and why.
This was one of those books I nearly gave up on several times, because I found the two human characters fairly annoying and undeveloped, but then each chapter would lure me in again with an interesting idea. Prismatic sunflowers. Floating castles. Artificial mountains. And I'm a total sucker for a story about ancient advanced civilizations. I also really enjoyed the two alien characters, Speaker to Animals and Nessus, because Niven did a great job of fleshing out their biology and inserting them into the context of a millennia-long galactic history. The world-building was pretty interesting, I guess is how I would sum up this book.
But although I enjoyed the broad scale of the story, I really struggled with how women were treated and described, which I think is just an unfortunate consequence of when the book was written (late sixties, published in 1970). There were only two women in the story and one of them is chosen to join the adventure because she's "lucky." That's literally her only quality - she's inhumanly lucky (although there's continuous debate about it). It's such a passive character trait, and it would manifest as her doing something stupid or ditzy, yet surviving anyhow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Then the remaining female character is quite literally a whore, and that's it. She has no other defining features or qualities.
So in the cast of Ringworld, you have a self-important man, two somewhat interesting aliens (one a dangerous tiger-like creature, and the other a cowardly, yet insane tripod "puppeteer"), a lucky ditz, and a bald whore. It's a good thing Niven's world-building is so strong, because he doesn't have much of a sense for character, which I think is a criticism you can apply to a lot of classic science fiction. It's definitely one of the main reasons I've often struggled to enjoy it.
Over the break, I found the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, at my parents' place and I very nearly picked it up, because after finishing the first book, I did sort of want to know more about who made the Ringworld. But I need characters I can "inhabit" to enjoy a story, and mysteries alone will only occupy my interest for so long (that's my main issue with the Harry Potter books). So I left the sequel on the shelf, though who knows, maybe I'll read it in the future.
In summary, Ringworld was good, but not great. I think it's worth reading if you're interested in science fiction as a genre and in its history, or if you want to try some "hard" science fiction that doesn't completely ignore characters, but be warned, they're nothing special.
Have you been reading any classic science fiction lately? I'd love to hear about it in the comments :)
Sorry, I know this is a super hypocritical post to write directly after I just blogged about practicing yoga during the holidays in order to stay healthy - BUT, I feel compelled to share the greatest party hack ever, because it's so easy and it was such a hit. It's not healthy, but trust me, it's a winner and you should try it.
I like to have friends over on occasion, and I like to feed them. My husband is all about the post-dinner party, because he doesn't like to figure out food, but I hate it when someone invites you over to their house and doesn't even provide so much as a bag of pretzels. I get hangry. I don't have fun. Sorry, but I think if you're going to invite people over to your house, you should do the decent thing and provide some food. It doesn't have to be a lot! But it does have to be something. A bowl of store-bought hummus goes a long way.
Over the years, I've tried all sorts of party foods. The aforementioned hummus is a staple. My friends always enjoy a baked brie (and it's so easy). This past Halloween I made chilli and served Frito Chili Pie, which was a big hit, but not exactly effortless.
And that's the goal - hosting a party should at least appear effortless, otherwise you risk making your guests feel uncomfortable when they see how much work you've put into the event. The logistics of the party should fade into the background everyone can focus on just having a good time.
Thus I present to you....
...the humble popcorn tin. Turns out, it is the ideal party food. Inexpensive, volumous, and awesome. I don't know if they have these things all over the world, but they're fairly ubiquitous here in the United States, especially around Christmas for some reason. So my American friends know exactly what I'm talking about, but for those of you who don't, this is what lays inside:
The three flavors are virtually always the same: caramel, cheese, and butter. The combination is addictive. Everyone dives into the sweet caramel corn first, then balances it with the almost sour flavor of that atomic orange cheddar cheese. And then when you needed to cleanse the palate, you might eat a handful of the "butter" flavor, which had almost no flavor at all. Eat and repeat.
My grandmother used to get these tins from the dollar store and give them to us for Christmas. I don't know if my parents were that happy about it, but my brother and I always liked it. During the post-Christmas break, the two of us would watch our limited VHS collection on repeat as we worked our way through the caramel and cheese flavors.
I don't think I've had a popcorn tin in over ten years, but yesterday I saw one while I was at CVS picking up some wrapping paper. Since we were having friends over that night, I figured I'd just get it and leave it out in case anyone was interested.
Best five bucks I've ever spent. They INHALED this popcorn. And everyone had happy memories of popcorn tins over the holidays, which spurred conversations, and yada yada yada, we all had a good time. I can't think of a more effortless and frankly delicious party food than the humble popcorn tin. I had no idea it would go over so well.
Anyway, just a thought for a casual get together or even a campy holiday cocktail party. Flavored popcorn. Easy and awesome. Try it out.
If you're interested, they have quite a range of popcorn tin options on Amazon, from the gourmet stuff to the more humble Coca-Cola branded cans, but honestly, you can usually find them for way cheaper at the drug store. I don't think I would spend more than five bucks on this stuff, to be honest, but if you don't have them in your area, they might be a fun gift for the family or to serve on Christmas Eve.
Look, I know I'm not very good at yoga.
If you've ever been to a yoga class, I'm that girl in the room. The one that can't do the splits, sit cross-legged without a block, or generaly mimic the teacher in any way because I'm overall so god-damned tight.
But I'm ok with that. Because it's not about looking cool, it's about feeling better and slowly improving my strength and flexibility.
When I do a little bit of yoga every day, my entire body feels good. My back issues go away. My stomach muscles are noticeably stronger. And I feel like Catwoman, which is a good thing.
So to keep up this good yoga habit through the holidays, I bought myself an early Christmas present - a travel yoga mat, specifically this one from Jade Yoga.
Like a lot of people, travel has always disrupted my healthy habits. I went up to D.C. several times this past summer and fall, and it was such pain to drag my thick yoga mat along, that I just didn't bother. But then when I'd get back to North Carolina, it would take me a little while to get into yoga again. I think it's way harder to start or re-start healthy habits, than it is to maintain them. Ergo, I should do yoga even when I'm away from home.
This Christmas we're visiting my husband's family up in New England, where I'm sure we'll be enjoying plenty of holiday cookies and candy cane drinks. We're usually pretty good about taking long walks with the dogs, but I want to keep up with the yoga as well.
So I did some research and survey said: Jade Voyager Yoga mat.
Every now and then I'll make a purchase that turns out to be the best thing ever, and I think this mat is one of those things.
It's super thin. Look how easily it fits into the front pocket of my suitcase.
It's also full-sized and super gripy - which I prefer in a yoga mat. I hate slip-sliding around.
My regular yoga mat has gotten kind of old and worn down (I think I bought it in 2003, so I may have gotten my money's worth). It's just a tad too slippery for me to feel completely comfortable sometimes. The Jade Voyager travel mat is a little too thin and unpadded for daily use, but when I decide my old yoga mat has finally given up the ghost, I might upgrade to this Jade Harmony mat, which is thicker, and definitely a little pricey, but not if you think of it in terms of price per use (i.e., for daily yoga practice, it might be worth it to splurge on a higher quality mat).
It looks nice and padded, but still extra-grippy, so you can really push down and away from the mat to get that nice downward-facing dog stretch in your lower back.
Anyway, yoga is just one of the ways I'm planning on staying healthy this Christmas and into the New Years. I refuse to feel bad about enjoying some holiday treats with my family. Yoga is a more positive and sustainable activity I can incorporate into my life to help me feel good.
How about you? Any healthy living goals for the holidays you'd like to share?
Last night a pack of coyotes woke me. In the confusion of sleep, I thought there were children outside, in the dark, howling. It was strange because the coyotes tend to yip more than howl, but I guess that's just what they felt like doing last night.
They were gone in less than a minute, or at least gone quiet. It took another hour or two for my dog and I to get back to sleep, though. The coyotes had switched on my brain and I couldn't turn it back off again, even after the woods had been silent for a while. I thought about the books I'm preparing. A question I needed to ask my mother. On it went, doing the mind's thing.
And if I'm awake, then my dog is awake. She thinks I'll get up and take her outside so we can pack walk together. Because if the coyotes get to, why can't we? She's not afraid of them, exactly. I'd call it more of a respectful interest.
My husband and the cats slept through the entire thing. He snored. They sighed (they really do). And I thought about chapters in my book. A dream that disturbed me. The blog post I'd write the next morning. And then it was morning.
So yesterday's post was a bit of a downer, and I kind of regretted writing it as soon as I hit publish. Not because what I said wasn't true, just because I don't really like complaining. I don't like it when other people do it, and I really don't like it when I do it myself. There's a time and a place for a rant, but in general I think it's a bad habit.
After I published that post, I noticed that I was feeling pretty hungry and that low blood sugar may have had more to do with my mood than anything else. Then I kid you not - 15 minutes later, the UPS truck showed up and delivered a box of cookies to me, baked by one of my best and oldest friends in the world. And these weren't just any cookies. These were the cookies I've literally been fantasizing about for the past month (chocolate chip cookies with almost no chocolate chips). I actually think my friend is a little psychic (seriously), and she sensed how badly I wanted exactly this kind of cookie, but was too lazy to bake for myself. And without any prompting, she made and sent a beautiful box of them to me. Isn't that kind of amazing?
Anyway, I think it's ironic, in the best sort of way, that in a blog post in which I was complaining about the way I feel divided between my interpersonal and creative needs, I then received one of the sweetest gifts from a friend I've worked hard to stay in touch with for the last fifteen years. Maybe it's a message from the universe...
My husband just got back from a 3 week work trip and I'm really happy to have him home again. I struggle a lot with a combination of loneliness and the extra-weight of chores and responsibilities that comes whenever he's out of town for long periods of time. Honestly, I get resentful that he's able to take these little sebaticals to focus soley on his career, while I get stuck with the boring life stuff on top of working hard to earn money (but not necessarily in the long-term career that I want). I wish I didn't feel that way, but I always do whenever he's gone for longer than a week.
Sometimes I wonder how military spouses are able to handle year-long deployments without completely breaking down. I went to school with someone who ended up marrying a fighter pilot, and they've lived in some of the most beautiful places in the world (Italy! Key West!) - but there's a cost. Her husband often isn't around for months at a time. I can only imagine how hard that is for both of them.
Anyway, being apart (even if it doesn't remotely compare to deployment) is something that my husband and I are always working on. He admitted I get stuck with more of the household responsibilities even when he's around, and has promised to step it up and take on more tasks so I can also focus more on developing my own career. Like writing some more, that would be nice.
Unfortunately, I still haven't gotten back into the swing of things after calling it quits midway through NaNoWriMo. I don't even know whether to be annoyed or understanding with myself. It's just that I can't seem to maintain the thread of the story. Every time I get in the "zone" and feel like I know exactly how the characters would respond to a given situation, something gets in the way for a week or more, and by then I've forgotten what it is I wanted to do.
Honestly, I've been really busy for a while, and things just get extra difficult when my husband is gone. It makes you wonder how single parents ever manage to write a book in their spare time. It's like, what spare time? And I don't even have kids! I just have a dog who needs long walks and two cats who crave attention. I try to keep the house pretty clean, but nothing crazy. And I've almost given up on cooking. So what's eating up all my time? Maybe I'm just lazy.
Or maybe I value my relationships more than an aspiring writer can or should. When you hear about the lives of famous writers or artists, there's this reoccuring theme of how generally awful they were to their families. Negligent, is maybe the better word. If you want to be a succesful artist, I think the sad truth is you can't prioritize the needs of your friends or family above your own creative goals. And that sucks. I'm not like that. I do care.
With the holidays and the cold weather, we haven't seen our Chapel Hill friends in a few weeks. So on Saturday, my husband and I made the trek into town and met up with our group for drinks. We had a really good time. It was just one of those perfect evenings at the local dive bar. I don't socialize a lot (I'm fairly introverted), but I do need some, and clearly I'm just not willing to chuck time with my husband and my friends so I can finish my book. I wish I could make two copies of myself so I could have one side of me that focuses solely on my creative needs, and the other side that maintains the relationships I have. Because I really do value both.
Do you have this problem? How do you get your work done, love your friends and family, AND write a book? Is it really possible?
So, I finished The Shell Collector yesterday, which is a book of short stories by Anthony Doerr (who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel, All the Light We Cannot See), and honestly I was a little underwhelmed. That's unfortunate, because The Shell Collector happens to be one of my mother's favorite books, and she's been trying to get me to read it for years. (I'm always about three to five years behind on any book recommendation, though I eventually get to them). The fact that I didn't like a book that my mother probably ranks in her top ten just further supports my theory that reading is a lonely thing, and you should never expect to bond with anyone over your favorite books. What's sublime to one reader is tedious for the next.
Personally, I just don't care for hyper-descriptive prose, which Anthony Doerr is admittedly very good at. I can see the talent, but it's not my cup of tea. I found the descriptions of every little thing distracting from the story, but maybe that was intentional, because except for "The Hunter's Wife" and "Mkondo", I didn't think any of the stories were very interesting. They felt repetative, particularly in terms of plot and character.
Mabye Doerr wanted to focus more on the prose style, which was lovely at a microscale, but also overwhelming at the macro-level. I can only imagine how many hours he spent getting each word just right, but it was too much for me. I guess I'm more of literary minimalist. I find that a single beautiful line in an otherwise functional paragraph has more impact than pages and pages of pretty words strung endlessly together. The only other book I've read by Doerr is Four Seasons in Rome, which again was beautifully written, but I was pulling my hair out by the end, wondering how anyone could make Rome sound so boring. Something has to happen for it to be a story, and it has to be believable .
For this reason, of all the stories in The Shell Collector, I disliked "The Caretaker" the most because it was utterly ridiculous. It's not possible to live in the woods for months eating beries and seaweed. You will starve to death, or more likely, give up and find someone who will give you food. Krakauer did a pretty good job of explaining the research on that in his excellent book, Into the Wild. So I think it's misguided to tell stories in the style of realism about people who hide in the woods and neither freeze nor starve. Sorry, it's just not happening. Please find some other way for your character to "grow."
Anyway, despite these criticisms, there's no arguing that Doerr's a great writer. He's just not the writer for me.
The Shell Collector, however, is just the latest book of short stories I've been reading. I don't know if it's because of my job, but I've been finding it harder to focus for long periods of time when I read. If I had any major complaint about making a living as an editor, it's that it has made reading into a job rather than a pleasure, and that feeling spills over into my down time.
So for the last few months, I've mostly been reading short stories, because they're fairly quick and I can switch around between different collections. It's just one way that I've been unconsciously dealing with my shorter reading attention span, which I think is understandable given that I spend hours every day reading very critically for other people. I only ever list the books I've completely finished in my reading list, so you don't see all the Cheever, Breece D'J Pankcake, and Phil Klay stories I've been reading at the same time, but anyway, that's been my reading pattern for the last few months.
Last night, I felt a little tired of short stories and annoyed at my inability to settle down into a novel, so I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness, but I couldn't get into it. Then I found a paperback copy of Ringworld that I borrowed from my Dad's library collection over Thanksgiving, and fortunately that one has sucked me in. Thank god, because I needed to shake up this pattern, especially after the disappointment of The Shell Collector.
What are you reading these days?
I once heard a journalist say on the Longform podcast that good writers come from reading a certain number of words as a child. He didn't specify the number of words. All he meant was that if you read enough, particularly when the mind is still young and plastic, you almost can't help but be able to write to some extent. We learn from example. When you read, you're unconsciously internalizing patterns of words. And then when you write, you reproduce those patterns. I suspect this trend continues well into adulthood.
Which is why I believe you are what you read.
This is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of modern YA fiction, because I think the prose tends to be low quality, and I don't think it's good for young people (or adults) to internalize bad writing.
But if you are what you read, that has even bigger implications for people who aspire to be writers. Think about what kind of book you want to write. Now think of the books you're actually reading. Are they similar? Are you consuming a prose style that you would like to produce yourself? Or are they misaligned? Maybe you're reading books that you would never want to write.
I've often talked about my love of simple stories. It's just a personal preference. For instance, I enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia a lot more than the Lord of the Rings, because I happen to enjoy clean prose and simple storylines more than the wordiness of epic fantasy. I like a character who has so little room or time to develop in the book that when they do change it has all the more impact on you. When Eustace Scrubb attacks the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it actually means something, because there's so little time to dither about who he really is as a character. Or when Puddleglum in The Silver Chair stomps out the witche's magic fire, it stands out as this incredibly brave moment he has in the book. It's so simple, but it means so much more on the scale of a 30,000 word story than if the book had rambled on for another 100,000.
Yet when I sit down to write, I often catch myself producing these long descriptions filled with endless adjectives, or plotlines that go on and on. My writing has always veered towards purple prose - possibly due to some bad habits I was taught in elementary school, possibly because I'm a very visually oriented person. But I find reading those kinds of stories incredible tedious. I hate hyper description.
So what I am I reading right now? The short stories of The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr, which I would describe as highly descriptive writing done well. It's what a purple prose writer aspires to be. But even if it's well written, it's still not the style of writing that I wish I could produce myself. I naturally lean towards it, but I don't enjoy it. That's kind of messed up if you think about it.
Realizing this, I set The Shell Collector aside last night and found my old copy of The Horse and his Boy, one of my all time favorites in the Chronicles of Narnia, because I know that's the kind of story I would like to write myself. It's not middle grade writing exactly. I think almost anyone, of any age, could enjoy the story of Shasta and Bree running away to Narnia. It's just simple, and I like that. So I'm reading it again, for probably the tenth time, in hopes that it will help me to learn a different writing style from my natural tendency, particulalry for the science fantasy novel I've plotting in my head for several years now.
A few months ago I realized I wanted to write that story as if it were a cousin of the Chronicles of Narnia. Instead of attempting to write it as an epic, as I had been doing, I want to cull the story down to its most fundamental form. And to do that, I think I need to keep reading the kinds of books I want this novel to be. Honestly, it's even kind of fun to read a book with the aim of studying its method. I know what happens in The Horse and his Boy, so I can concentrate on the mechanics of the writing and hopefully learn from Lewis. Mostly this involves studying the length of descriptions, what kinds of words are used, how scenes transition, and the role of dialogue and even illustrations in the story. (I would love to have illustrations in my book.)
Have you tried this? Or have you ever noticed you're picking up bad writing habits from books you're reading? I saw this over the summer when I was writing part 1 of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House, which was meant to be a fun little romp of story. At the time, I was reading Nick Hornby's Funny Girl, and decided it was teaching me this terrible habit of attempting to write comedic timing, so I had to put it down - and honestly, I think Sparrow House improved because of it.
Or sometimes if I'm spending too much time reading internet drivel, I notice my own writing starts to sound the same. This is something I want to avoid at all costs, which is one of the reasons why I resisted hooking up the internet to our house for so long. Ultimately, I caved when I started working from home, and now I'm struggling again with reading way too much of the unedited, unfiltered nonsense that is so typical of writing on the internet.
So let's read what we want to write instead. That's my new goal for the new year. Just read good books that I would be proud to write myself.
With that said, does anyone have a suggestion for a new book I should read if I'm interested in writing a more simple (i.e., not epic) science fiction/fantasy novel? I would love to hear your ideas.
Sorry for the lack of updates over the last week or so. I've been editing almost non-stop (I basically took an afternoon off to eat turkey, and then it was back to work). But you know what? That hard work pays off. The graph kind of says it all.
Because this month was the first month since I started working at my editing business full-time that I made virtually the same amount of money as I did at my old job. I think that deserves a moment of recognition!
It was scary leaving my old job. I really worried about whether I'd ever make decent money again. I figured I'd give myself a year or so to get back to my previous income level, but part of me didn't think even that would be possible.
The fact that it only took 5 months is kind of shocking. I wasn't making crazy money at my old job, but at least I'm not making less these days. I'm really proud of that. I've worked so hard to build a strong client base and it seems to be working. I'm getting a lot of repeat business. I have a part time university appointment as the personal editor for a professor. And I'm still thinking of new ways to expand the business.
For example, I've been thinking about offering seminars to graduate students in my area, because I see these kids making the same mistakes over and over again in their manuscripts. I know I could teach them how to write better scientific papers. I know the tricks. It's not hard, but someone has to teach you these things, and a lot of professors just don't have the time. I've also been thinking about writing a little book on the topic. Like Strunk & White, but specifically for scientists. I'm sure a book like that exists, but I'd want to write one that's more accessible for ESL scientists.
Anyway, just wanted to share my good news. I do my bookkeeping on the first day of every month, so it was kind of a pleasant surprise today to see how well I had done!