In 2014, I set a goal of 50 books for the year, and managed 34. When discussing our reading goals for the following year, I set it at 100, because I am clearly insane. I trailed behind pace for most of the year, but with a massive push to the end and helped by a bunch of middle grade and the fact that paperbacks of collected comics are 1) listed as books on Goodreads and 2) available at my library, I hit the goal.
So am I gonna do it again next year? Hell no. I’m setting a more reasonable goal of 60 for 2016. A pace of a book every 3-4 days is certainly doable… if you’re reading consistently all year. But I tend to go in fits and spurts and books that required close reading (like Perdido Street Station), that were a slog to get through (like Strangers on a Train), or were simply longer than I anticipated (like Winter) further threw me off. And I wasn’t just reading short books, I was eschewing several long books that I wanted to read but knew I couldn’t fit into my schedule. (Someday, Seveneves.) Plus, while it’s certainly possible for me to read most books in a single sitting these days, the practical effect of staying up well past midnight for several nights running is not pretty, especially when one’s first alarm goes off at 5am. The balls-out pace was certainly fun just to say that I did it, and even factoring in all the short books I still read significantly more words and pages than I had done for a long time, but I don’t see a need for a repeat performance.
Now, out of curiosity, I decided to break down the demographics of the stuff I read this year. I’ve professed in the past my support of the We Need Diverse Books movement, so I figured I’d take a look and see how my actual reading shapes up.
Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty.
The 100 books I read came from 55 writers (and 11 comic artists). When I went through the demographic groups, here’s what I found:
Women: 30 writers, 5 artists
Gender non-binary: 1 writer
People of color: 5 writers, 6 artists
Women of color: 4 writers, 2 artists
LGBT+: 7 writers
LGBT people of color: 1 (Hi, Malinda Lo!)
Disabled: Big fat 0
Repeat authors: 7 women, 8 men
Repeat LGBT+ authors: 1
Repeat authors of color: 0
(I should slap a big fat disclaimer that I gathered most of the demographic data from quick scans of Wikipedia pages and Twitter and Goodreads bios, so it’s entirely possible that I’ve miscategorized people who, say, are light-skinned but don’t identify as white, or who don’t have their sexual/gender identities thusly listed. Hell, my 1 repeat queer author, Victoria Schwab, is someone I only know of as bisexual because I follow her on Twitter. So it’s possible that my numbers might not be quite as dire as I think. But they’re still pretty bad.)
I’m clearly doing okay with female authors, which doesn’t surprise me much given my preference for YA, fantasy, and female-driven comic properties like Ms. Marvel and Lumberjanes. But on other fronts? I’ve been talking the talk, but clearly not walking the walk.
So whether I end up reading 60 books, many fewer, or many more, I’m making the commitment that at least half of the books I read will be from authors in these underrepresented categories. It’s not like I don’t have tons of them on my TBR list, especially since I started seeking out recommendations for them, so now I just need to actually make a point of reading them. This doesn’t mean that I’m rejecting authors from majority groups, more that I need to consciously seek a balance, paying attention to the voices that I’m absorbing and amplifying. Awareness of the issue is good. Doing something about it is better.
I think I’m starting to sniff around my concept for this year’s NaNoWriMo. It started with the kind of question you ask yourself after reading the same trope for the fourth time in a row, then became something I thought I might be able to explore. Once it started looking like it would be A Thing, I opened up a document to start tracking my thoughts.
This document isn’t in with my manuscript drafts. It’s not with my character worksheets, my outlines, or my random research snippets. It’s in my queries.
It sounds kind of crazy, right? The query (or blurb/back cover copy if you’re self-publishing or already agented) is something you’re not worrying about until you’ve gone through several rounds of drafts and revisions. Certainly, it is the highest of high crimes to send out a query for something that’s not fully complete and polished; sending out one for something that hasn’t even been started would probably have an agent checking to see if she’s developed the power to light you on fire with her mind.
We’re not talking about sending the query, though. Just writing it. And it’s something I’ve found to be tremendously helpful. Really, it’s just another approach to outlining, and one that’s quite appealing to me as an inveterate pantser.
I first started doing this a couple of years ago, when I had finished as much plotting and planning as I could stand with a few days to go before the November 1st starting bell. By that time, I had just recently completed my dive through the glory and majesty that is Query Shark, so I naturally started applying those lessons toward my own story and took a crack at it. That first draft had too much introductory cruft and the villain’s plan at that point was something something fate of the world, but it wasn’t that far from what I sent out to agents a year later (after revising to reflect the finished product, of course). Not only that, but it actually provided me with some rather illuminating details; the heroine’s relationship with gaming turned out to be a huge and integral part of her character, and it came from a quip about being “a first-person shooter kind of girl” that I found amusing.
So, what does this have to do with outlining? After all, a query absolutely should not tell you the entire story, just enough to tease and get someone wanting to read the whole thing. It does this by establishing three things:
Hero – Problem – Stakes
Essentially, we’re told who the main character is, what choice or dilemma they face, and what they risk to lose by failing or choosing a certain way. I’m basically just regurgitating Her Sharkness here (seriously, if you haven’t read the Query Shark archives, DO IT NOW), but I’ve heard again and again from multiple agents, editors, and other publishing types that these are the key elements of a good query.
I help people polish up their queries through various communities and forums, and one reason that a lot of people struggle to get these three elements into the query is that they’re not in the book. Their main character isn’t well-defined. They don’t have a clear goal or desire. There’s nothing important standing in their way. There’s nothing really on the line to give us reason to fear their failure. But authors frequently don’t recognize these problems in the manuscript until they try to articulate them in the query.
Pictured: Something I’ve actually done in outlining.
Figuring out these essential elements at the start helps ensure that they’re clearly defined and baked into the whole manuscript, so you’re not trying to clean it all up later. You’re not committed to what you decide at the outset, and you get to leave yourself a great deal of wiggle room for how it will all play out (which is what I love as someone whose outlines tend to be on the Underpants Gnomes side of the spectrum), but you have some guideposts to keep yourself on track.
Trying to answer these questions early on lets you know where your concept is weakest while you’re still planning, so you can focus your research and development more efficiently. For instance, in the one I’m working on now, I know that I’m pretty solid on the hook and the hero, but less clear on motivations, goals, and setting. So as I gear up in the next couple of months to flesh things out, that’s where I know to concentrate. Plus, I generally find it’s easier to toss something into the query that sounds cool and try to work it into, rather than trying to come up with an elegant, concise, and pithy way to describe a finished work. It’s basically like giving yourself a writing prompt.
Maybe I’m just that weird kid who actually likes writing queries. But this isn’t some magic ability that comes out of nowhere. It’s a skill you can acquire and hone. And if you’re like me, trying it at a different point in your writing process could make a big difference.
Well, here we are. I’ve just sent off the last query letter for Ignition.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean I’m withdrawing the project, or that I’m scraping the bottom of the vodka bottle. (That might not be the right idiom.) The order of my list was more about when I found an agent than how much I want to work with them, and I am still hopeful that one of the responses I haven’t gotten yet will be an enthusiastic “Yes!”
But, you know, I’m a realist. I’ve been patiently putting this thing through its paces–querying, pitching, and entering contests–for over a year now. I’ve gotten enough interest along the way to assure me that what I’ve got to offer isn’t a hot mess, but I’m starting to realize that it is a bit of an odd duck. Not quite YA, not quite NA. Certainly not played straight, but not quite a satire. Part of the appeal for me is seeing how the science-minded main character reacts to a somewhat standard fantasy plot, but that still leaves me pitching a somewhat standard fantasy plot. Perhaps it’s just a crowded market, or perhaps it’s that something slightly weird and hard to classify is an easier sell from an established author than a debut, but it’s becoming pretty clear that it might not be the right time for this one, and there’s no further effort I can put forth that will make it the right time.
I’d love to be proven wrong, to hear from just the right agent that they know just the right editor to make this thing happen. I still love this book and am tremendously proud of it, and I still haven’t found a character quite like Lacey, with her complex relationship with femininity and her cheerful vulgarity, on the market. More than anything, I believe in this book.
But time, energy, and brainspace are all limited resources, and I need to make sure I’m using them most productively. The thing you’re supposed to do while waiting on the interminable publishing cycles is to write the next book, but I’ve been stalled out in that. I’ve always struggled to keep multiple active books in my head, and it’s clear that I need to kick this one out to make my way forward. I’m starting to sniff out a new story that’s more high-concept, with unique selling points that are easier to describe, and I need to give it room to breathe.
And hey, if all goes well with a new one and it hooks me an agent who asks what else I’ve got, I’ll have a pleasant surprise for them.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Jurassic World.)
For a cynical bitch, I am quite a sentimental sot.
These are the shoes I wore for my wedding. I don’t normally wear heels, but the height was necessary to avoid expensive alterations of the dress. They’ve lived in the closet since then, but for our fifth anniversary bash in Las Vegas, I thought it might be nice to break them out.
Our plan was to walk from our room at the Bellagio to the Mirage for dinner, then to the High Roller at the Linq and back to the hotel for our Cirque du Soleil tickets. It’s a distance of about two miles all told. No big deal, right?
I collapsed into our table at Carnegie Deli in excruciating pain. We ended up taking a cab to the Ferris wheel, and would have done again to get back to the Bellagio except by the time we got back to the Strip to hail a cab we realized we were right there, so I tottered painfully across the pedestrian bridges until we reached the sanctuary of the hotel. Yes, I was that girl walking through the casino with high heels in hand, except I was doing it at 9pm, because that’s how long I lasted. The lovely blister I earned for my troubles covered most of the ball of my right foot.
So going into Jurassic World, I could kind of get why everyone was making such a big deal about the fact that Bryce Dallas Howard’s theme park executive Claire Dearing spends the entire movie in a grossly impractical pair of stilettos. Many have bemoaned the fact that she doesn’t ditch the shoes when danger arises. (Because running through a jungle barefoot is safer, apparently?) It’s just unrealistic for an operations manager to be wearing those sorts of shoes at all, let alone doing what she does in them, right?
Well, tell that to the actress who did it all for real, across multiple takes. The damn shoes are pretty much the only thing in the movie that isn’t CGI. Far from judging her, I was in awe of someone who could dominate Isla Nublar in shoes I couldn’t even walk normally in. I can attest to the sheer physical intensity of what she’s doing and can say unequivocally that she is by far the toughest person there.
What everyone, both the critics and her fellow characters, seems to be missing is that Claire doesn’t need to take off the shoes. Everyone assumes that the shoes will be a liability, just like everyone assumes that she doesn’t know how to run her park or that she’ll eventually come around to wanting motherhood. But the glorious thing about the movie is that everyone is completely wrong on all of those counts, and the frustrating thing about the movie is that this is never quite acknowledged within the text. It seems like Claire’s arc is less about her own growth than about forcing those who’ve belittled her to take her seriously, but it doesn’t actually pay off. I mean, Owen (Chris Pratt) reacts to her competently and efficiently saving his life by kissing her, rather than, say, thanking her. (In a testament to the generally solid acting on display, Owen does seem to treat Claire a bit more as an equal after that point, a performance choice too understated to come across in a movie that is Sharknado levels of unsubtle.) His gobsmacked expression as she lures a T. Rex into battle–thereby decisively accomplishing what he could barely convince his raptors to do–is satisfying, but that character development really needed a better coda than his lame line at the end.
One of my favorite moments is when Owen stops and reaches back for Claire to help her down some steps, since going down stairs is one of the most difficult parts of walking in heels, and she bolts right past him without hesitation. His action shows that his heart is in the right place, but hers shows just how thoroughly he’s underestimated her. From the second she steps on screen, Claire is fighting dinosaurs while effortlessly rocking a pair of heels. It really shouldn’t be surprising that she’s just as comfortable when the dinosaurs of gender politics get swapped for the scales-and-teeth kind.
Rainy Day Books, a local indie bookstore (whom you might have heard about when they got plugged by Stephen Colbert) puts on phenomenal author events. Seriously, I’ve been to more talks and signings since moving to Kansas City than I did the whole time I was living in Los Angeles. On Friday night, they hosted Chuck Palahniuk (he of Fight Club fame) at the Uptown.
When we picked up our tickets, we were given our goodie bags: they had the promised copies of Fight Club 2 Issue #1 and Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread, conveniently pre-autographed. But there was also a pair of glow sticks and a strange white package…
This turned out to be a beach ball, which we were instructed to inflate, insert the glow sticks into, and inscribe with our names. And that’s when I knew we were in for a good time.
It was, put simply, one of the most delightfully insane nights it has ever been my pleasure to experience. The glowing beach balls were a scheme where the auditorium was turned into a giant colorful bingo cage, and certain people whose balls made it up to the front were given handsome prizes. (I would have done unspeakable things for the leather-bound signed first edition of Fight Club. Like, I wouldn’t have been able to quite meet your eyes afterward, but it would totally have been worth it.) Bags of candy were hucked into the audience–not individual pieces, but the entire bags. An ambulance arrived for someone who passed out during the reading of “Guts”. He brought gifts for random people’s pets. We sang along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”. At the end of the night, dozens and dozens of dismembered hands–grisly foam props, realistically detailed and each one autographed–were thrown to the rapturous crowd.
Now make no mistake, the night also had the trappings you expect of an author event. “Guts” was flanked by “The Facts of Life” and “Zombies”, and the audience was by turns rolling with laughter and struck dumb with horror. He took questions from the audience and delivered thoughtful answers about following your passions, forcing a visceral connection with the story, and being honest with your work. And he gamely attempted to get through the massive line of people wanting to take pictures with him pre-show. (Pictures in which each fan had to wear bunny ears, because reasons.)
But it definitely made me rethink what these sorts of promotional events can be. Granted, it certainly helps to have a massive backlist, loads of critical acclaim, and a sizable crowd of enthusiastic and devoted fans. And I wouldn’t want to steal ideas wholesale, especially given that the atmosphere of anarchy and a hint of violence (my neighbor took a bag of Hershey Nuggets to the shoulder) seems to be rather uniquely suited to Palahniuk. But still, I think there are general takeaways that can be applied. Rather than doing one topic at a time, the night bounced rapidly around between Q&A, neon beach ball raves, readings, and high fructose projectiles; breaking things up kept the energy high and the audience engaged. Everyone walked away with something extra, even if it was just a bit of candy or a beach ball with someone else’s name on it. And best of all, there was the sense that he was there to do something special for his fans, beyond just gracing us with his presence.
“Author event” is a kind of generic term, but this really felt like an Event. It was something riotous and unique and far more memorable than all the other polite, congenial interviews and autograph sessions. It’s the sort of thing I think more authors should aspire to.