Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2013

This year I didn't read nearly so many books as usual - too busy struggling with my draft of The Labyrinth of Flame! - and when I did take time away from the computer, I did a lot of re-reading of old favorites.  (Nothing like sinking into the familiar world of a well-loved book to reduce stress.)  Even so, I still found some new books to love.  Here are my favorite reads of 2013, in no particular order (though I have separated out adult novels from YA).

Favorite adult reads:

Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

The first novel in Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy, Range of Ghosts, was one of my favorite fantasy reads last year, and this sequel didn't disappoint.  Worldbuilding, characters, and plot are all complex and wonderful.  Can't wait to read the final novel in the trilogy, Steles of the Sky.

Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

I was so delighted when this one won the World Fantasy award.  A terrific mix of cyberpunk and urban fantasy set in the middle east and populated by a diverse range of characters; I loved every minute of it.  I particularly appreciated that the religious beliefs of the more devout characters were not condescended to or denigrated by the story, even when the protagonist held a different opinion.

Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

Powerful conclusion to one hell of a trilogy. Endings are hard, but Lawrence pulls his off with style - I came away feeling deeply satisfied, not just by this book, but with the trilogy as a whole. Like him or hate him, Jorg Ancrath is a character you'll never forget, and Lawrence succeeds in making the events of the story just as memorable and involving as his protagonist. Basically, if you've any taste for the darker side of fantasy, this is a series you don't want to miss.

Master of Whitestorm, by Janny Wurts

Excellent standalone fantasy adventure. I'm a sucker for prickly, difficult characters who wall themselves up in all kinds of emotional armor, and protagonist Korendir is a perfect example of the type. Plus, as a climber myself, how could I resist a book that mixes mountaineering and magic? Wurts writes some great heart-pounding scenes involving ice climbing and high alpine travel, not to mention some badass magical monsters. The book is a great read, and one I'd heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys adventure fantasy (especially if you liked the mountaineering bits in my own novels!).

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Deserves every bit of the raves it's been getting. Terrific, thought-provoking SF that explores questions of identity (both personal and cultural) and plays with gender assumptions in a very interesting way, all while telling a compelling story. (Gosh, I would love to see a comparison of Leckie's take on identity via the multipart awareness of her ship-AIs and their once-human ancillaries, and C.J. Cherryh's take with the tape-programmed azi in Cyteen.) 

The Thousand Names, by Django Wexler

Best military fantasy I've read in ages. The characters are engaging, their predicaments interesting, and the detailed realism of Wexler's portrayal of soldiers on campaign is spiced with a wry humor that keeps the story from ever bogging down. If you've any taste for epic fantasy - even if you're not sure that war stories are your thing - I recommend you give the book a try.

Cold Steel, by Kate Elliott

Great conclusion to Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy. Even while working through the filter of protagonist Cat's 1st-person narration, Elliott does a wonderful job providing satisfying closure to the fates of a large cast of characters. One of the things I like best about the series (besides the distinctive, memorable characters) is the way the story focuses on serious attempts to bring about social change, rather than (as is more typical in fantasy) struggling to maintain the status quo.

The Prince of Lies, by Anne Lyle

A rousing conclusion to Lyle's thoroughly enjoyable Night's Masque trilogy. Lyle ties up all the main threads nicely, but leaves enough about the characters' futures open that I can't help but hope she returns to write more one day. If you're looking for an alternate history with plenty of action combined with a vividly described setting and interesting characters, I definitely recommend giving the series a go.

The Curse of the Mistwraith, by Janny Wurts

First in Wurts's epic Wars of Light and Shadow series.  Complex, immersive, and I hear the series only gets deeper and more layered as it goes on.  This may sound strange, but I actually liked the first novel so much I forbade myself to keep going with the series until I finish writing The Labyrinth of Flame.  Not out of any similarities, but because I was afraid I'd get sucked into the (very long) series and spend all my scant free time reading and not writing!  Plus, with a nicely complex series like this, I want to have the brainpower available to really think over the books after I finish them - something I can't do when my mind's mostly absorbed in my own book.

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

An engaging debut featuring a clever female protagonist and a take on magic and gods that I don't think I've ever seen before.

Honorable mentions:
The Republic of Thieves (Scott Lynch)
Firebrand (Gillian Philip)
Rosemary and Rue (Seanan McGuire)
Thieves Quarry (D.B. Jackson)
NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)
Tymon's Flight (Mary Victoria)

Favorite YA reads:

Obsidian Mirror, by Catherine Fisher

Beautifully written, highly imaginative, with sharply drawn characters and a twisty plot - this book was my favorite YA read of the year. I don't think I've ever felt jealous of an author before, but damn, I feel jealous now - if I ever wrote YA, this is exactly the sort of novel I'd want to write. Not in terms of details of story, but of brilliance of execution. I love the way Fisher creates and maintains a sense of mystery, not just with the events of the story, but with the characters. Fisher gives you enough insight into their thoughts and emotions to make them feel like very real, flawed people, yet leaves enough unspoken that each character becomes a puzzle box, waiting for the reader to unlock the truths behind their motivations and reactions as the story unfolds. (I can see how some people might find this distancing, but me? I love books that challenge the reader a little, make you look between the lines of what's said on the page to uncover the real truth of what's happening.)

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black

One word: AWESOME. You'd think with all the zillions of vampire novels on the shelves that the trope is totally played out, but you'd be wrong. It's not that Black's vampires are totally unique - though they are a nice return to the days when vampires were truly monsters - it's that her characters are drawn with consummate skill, her world is both interesting and extrapolates the use of social media in a frighteningly believable way, and the story is tense, creepy, at times horrific, and always wholly engaging.

The Raven Boys/The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater

Stiefvater's standalone novel The Scorpio Races was one of my favorite YA reads last year, but I love this new series even more.  The fraught, complicated friendships between the characters are beautifully drawn and feel very real.  I also love that in The Dream Thieves she takes a character who was not all that likeable in The Raven Boys, and reveals the fears and secrets beneath his prickly, bitter exterior.  Can't wait for the next book.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Some books catch you right away, others sneak up and ambush you. For me, this was one of the latter. Although I enjoyed the narrator's vivid voice in the opening chapters, I wasn't entirely engaged by the actual story being told...until I realized the clever tricks Wein was playing with the narrative and the depth that lay underneath. This was a bit of a slowly building revelation, but there was one scene (which I don't want to spoil) in which it all came together for me in one glorious burst, and I just about shouted out loud. (Think I actually said, "HA!") From then on I was totally, utterly hooked. (This type of cleverness on the part of the narrative reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett; my all-time favorite author, so that's high praise!) The emotional impact of the story increases steadily as the book goes on, and I confess I had a few teary-eyed moments toward the end.

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Sweet and heartfelt and affecting; Rowell has a lovely touch with characters. Both Eleanor and Park felt like very real teenagers to me, prickly and awkward and unsure, intense in their passions, desperately trying to navigate not only their budding relationship with each other but their changing relationships with their family members (which in Eleanor's case are heartbreaking). I'm usually pretty picky about novels with a strong focus on romance, but this one worked for me, hands down.  (Perhaps because my very first teenage crush was on a boy who rode my bus and read SFF, albeit novels and not comics as Park does.)  

The Naming, by Alison Croggon

Beautifully written traditional epic fantasy. The publisher seems to market the series as YA but I think it should appeal equally well to adult readers who enjoy the classic epic fantasy tropes. Yes, you have a young orphan protagonist learning to wield a magical gift, and she's prophesied to play a vital role in a struggle against dark forces...perhaps this all sounds very familiar. But for me the power of a tale is in the telling, and Croggon's lyrical prose and well-realized world made The Naming a thoroughly enjoyable variation of the classic coming-of-age saga. 

Planesrunner, by Ian McDonald

Oh, this one was so much fun. Inventive, richly detailed, and populated by some really memorable (and wonderfully diverse!) characters - I've already bought the sequel and am looking forward to continuing the adventure.

Honorable mentions:
Untold (Sarah Rees Brennan)
Larklight (Philip Reeve)
The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Happy Holidays (and a revision update)

Happy Holidays to all! No white Christmas for us in Boulder this year - it's 50 degrees and last week's snow is long gone - but we've still been having a lovely (if busy!) time with family.  Plus, every night after everyone else goes to bed, I get to settle down with my Labyrinth of Flame draft and enjoy some quality revision time.  (I say "enjoy" without any sarcasm whatsoever.  I love the part where I take a raw mess of a scene and shape it into something that's actually good.  I am having so much fun with the book right now.)

More for myself than anyone else, I thought it'd be interesting to keep track of the revision process.  As of today (12/27) I have the first three chapters (about 56 manuscript pages) of The Labyrinth of Flame revised, and I'm working on a synopsis of the book for my agent's use.  (I haaaaaaaate writing synopses.  I confess I asked my agent, "Can't I just finish revising the entire book instead so you can submit the whole thing instead of a proposal package?"  Agent: "No.")  Looking forward to finishing the synopsis so I can get back to the fun writing.

I also took a quick break from revising to participate in a Mind Meld over at SF Signal talking about our favorite dragons in fantasy.  Check it out to find out what dragon books have influenced me as a fantasy reader (and why I think dragons have such enduring appeal in the genre).

Next week I plan on doing a year end wrap-up post that'll cover my favorite books read in 2013.  As an author I get a huge warm fuzzy every time I see a book of mine show up on that type of list.  I've been delighted and honored to see Whitefire Crossing and Tainted City get a few mentions this year:

Looking forward to sharing my own favorite reads of the year with you all!  In the meantime, back to that pesky synopsis...


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In defense of the hobbyist author

So Chuck Wendig wrote a post recently on Writing vs. Publishing (Or: "No More Half-Measures, Walter").  Chuck's a clever, articulate guy, and I agree with much of the post, which discusses the difference between writing for fun and writing for publication.  But one thing he says makes me uncomfortable, and it's a thing I've seen many of my fellow authors say: professional writing is not a hobby.

I understand the sentiment behind it.  They're saying, hey, if you're putting your work out in the world with the expectation that people are going to pay for it, then by God, you'd better take the quality of that work seriously.  Don't just shove it out there, do your best to make it the absolute best it can be.  I agree 100% with that idea.  But you know what?

I am a traditionally published, agented, "professional" author (as in, I get paid for what I write), and yet I firmly consider writing my hobby.  I have zero intent of trying to turn it into a career.  Engineering is my career.  This is my passion.  I consider the money I earn as "bonus money" - great if I get it, oh well if I don't.

I know I'm lucky to be in a position where I can afford to think that way.  I know many other authors aren't.  I know still more are hugely excited to make writing their career - they dream of the day when writing can be their sole source of income.  But to anyone out there who reads all these blog posts about how you've got to treat writing as a business and get serious about your career, and has a gut response of but I don't WANT to make writing my career!... I want you to know that doesn't mean authorhood isn't for you.  You can be an author who is serious about producing quality work while still writing for fun.

Honestly, hobbyist authordom provides a lot of psychological advantages.  Publishing is a crazy stressful industry, especially because so many of the ingredients of commercial success are out of an author's control.  But as a hobbyist, I don't have to obsess over my sales rankings.  I can shrug when my publisher is months late in paying me.  I only do marketing and promotional activities I find fun.  I can cheer for author-friends who receive awards and make top-10 lists without the least shred of envy.  I can write what I like without worrying over marketability.  The best advantage of all is that when I'm faced with a publishing decision where my head and my heart are in conflict, I have the freedom to go with my heart.

Freedom doesn't come without cost.  I may not reach as many readers as my more driven peers, or publish as many books.  But that's a trade-off I'm willing to make.  One of my favorite t-shirts has a picture of two climbers carrying skis up a mountain, with the caption, "Let Someone Else Climb the Corporate Ladder."  That's my motto, all the way.  I treasure the freedom to make joy in writing (and in life overall) my highest priority.  It doesn't mean I ever compromise on the quality of my work; or that I think creators shouldn't be compensated for their efforts.  It just means I make decisions with a different focus than a "career" author.

So to my peers who consider authorhood their career: I salute you! Takes a lot of tenacity and guts.  Just remember that authors who choose differently aren't necessarily doing it wrong.  And to writers who want to share their stories with others but recoil from the thought of becoming entrepreneurs: that's okay.  There's room for you in publishing, too.

Monday, December 2, 2013

First draft of The Labyrinth of Flame is finished!

Hope those of you in the US had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday (and those of you elsewhere had a lovely weekend too).  I sure did: partially because we just enjoyed an awesome few days in Utah's canyon country, but mostly because late one night in our Moab hotel room while my husband and son snored, I wrote the final scene of the first draft of The Labyrinth of Flame.  This after writing 56,345 words during November: hooray for NaNoWriMo, and all the encouragement and support I've gotten from fellow writers in the trenches!  I am so thrilled to have a complete draft of the book, I can't even tell you.  

Lest any readers get too eager, I must point out that this is a rough draft.  Very, very rough.  Way more rough than my first draft of The Tainted City was when I finished that one.  For The Tainted City, I worked in kind of a spiraling process, revising old chapters at the same time I was writing new ones.  I tried this initially with Labyrinth, but it didn't work; I kept getting sucked into the revision trap.  So instead, I went back to the method I used for The Whitefire Crossing: get the story down, worry about making it pretty later.  That worked, but oh man, the draft is very definitely not pretty.  It's a sprawling mess of a document, full of bracketed notes to myself and backtracking and horrible prose and basically I would never, EVER show it to anyone else, not even my closest friend.

But!  For all those caveats, the arc of the story is now solidly in place.  No more mistiness and uncertainty: I know the full sequence of events, and all the character motivations behind them.

The breathtaking span of Landscape Arch, revealed in the fog.
And now at last I get to do my favorite part of writing: revising.  I love taking the bare-bones idea of a scene, paring away all the mess of the first draft, and fleshing it out into something rich and tense and real.  They say the devil's in the details, but for me, that's where joy lies as well.

Canyon sandstone: from a distance, it looks smooth, but get close, and you see all kinds of fascinating, intricate details
I don't know how long this revision will take me; my best guess right now is 5-6 months.  I also don't know yet what'll happen when the book is finished for real: will it go through traditional publication, or will I release it myself?  Some parts of the future are still hidden in the fog.  But I promise the moment I have news about the book's release, I'll post it.  In the meantime, I'm rolling up my sleeves and launching gleefully into revision.