To Be Reads For Realz

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I have a book problem.

There are worse problems to have, but at least this is a problem that, in theory, I can painlessly do something about.

I participate in the yearly GoodReads challenge to read X number of books in a year. I generally hit my quota, normally somewhere in the range of 50 books, and while I no longer rate books (usually) I do use the site as a running tally of the stuff I’ve read and the stuff I want to read.

Yet despite hitting the 50-books-read benchmark for another for the year already, I’m not exactly putting a dent in the To Be Read pile. The other day I glanced over at my shelf, did a rough count, and realized there were 50 books sitting there, never mind the currently uncounted number of e-books I have picked up for both Kindle and Kobo. And hello local library, the best library of my life, your aren’t helping by helping either.

So: I’m declaring 2017 is the year I crush my To Be Read pile. At least the physical one, hopefully part of the e-pile, too.

Why do this challenge?

Because I am not a Dragon sitting on a treasure horde. I mean, I am, sure, but I want to be able to pick up a book that just came out or one I’ve just heard about and read it immediately without guilt. No more surveying my Shelf of Wonders wondering when I might actually get to crack that spine. For some of these books, it’s been years since I bought them, some I moved cross country and a few of ’em I am not even excited about anymore. Despite paring down before the move, I’m more or less back where I started – at the bottom of Book Mountain right before the inevitable avalanche.

It ain’t pretty. I need a steel shelf to hold them all.

Now, the rules:

  • I’m not sticking with books I’m not enjoying. Forget sunk costs. If I don’t like it by page 50 or so, boom, done. It will go in a box and I will pass it on to someone else.
  • I cannot borrow a book from the library (our beautiful, six-story library with all the things) unless I’ve read 10 books. But will try not to.
  • I cannot buy a book (except for pre-orders I have already made) unless I’ve read 15. But will try not to.
  • If I need a book for research, I will borrow, study and return it. Pinky swear.

That’s it. Keep reading, keep updating GoodReads, and keep my nose out of a book store unless I’m in there not buying books.

Which is okay, as I have a lot of great books ahead of me. ♥

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Well, shit.

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Tina cannot believe this bullshit, and neither can I.

Been a long few months since my last blog (confession?) but I can assure you that I’m not dead. Not dead, but not in a happy place. Tina Belcher’s face above says it all.  (Although technically my website redirect was offline for at least several weeks so, now that that’s fixed, the website isn’t dead either. Anymore.)

This summer wasn’t an easy one, and my sense of dread got worse as it went. I pushed through writing, kept showing up to the page, and hit a nice production milestone for the year early, some 125,000 words. The bulk of that was on the new novel but it was getting away from me in much the same way that earlier attempts at this novel got away from me. I was still hopeful about the novel on submissions, mind you, but otherwise wasn’t submitting. Felt a little like wheel-spinning. I had been feeling the lack of a regular, hard-core critique group keenly for the last two years, and then a lead from the spring landed me the opportunity to join one this fall. With the Surrey International Writers Conference right on its heels, I figured I’d be back on track – refreshed, refocused and ready.

It didn’t. SWIC kicked my ass despite great feedback on my Blue Pencil sessions and a Full Request for the novel. Should have been flying high, but wasn’t. I was frustrated, flailing. The new critique group was terrific, exactly what I needed, but everything else wasn’t. It felt like everything was yelling at me and I couldn’t hear my own voice anymore.

So, I stayed away from social media, because it was starting to hurt. Stopped listening to podcasts whenever I was walking and just walked. Starting work on a personal Kanban board to keep track of all the projects I had let languish. I tried to find some focus while I left the novel to sit.

And then that election. That election. That election that will in our lifetimes only ever need be referred to as that election. Astounding, disappointing, devastating … and yet was it really that surprising? Was it really that much of a shock that people would so crudely vote against their interests, against the evidence, against their fellow human being, given what we all watched, what we all laughed at, and what we all believed was too ridiculous to be true?

If a man says he’s going to do horrendous, stupid, evil things, don’t laugh – believe him.

So I’ve been gutted, like everyone else. I’m not even American, and like most of my Canadian brothers and sisters, I am shocked and horrified. Hate speech and hate crimes have of course erupted, not just in the US but up in Canada, too. (There are some saying that up here it is just shits screwing around for attention, but fuck them for wanting to make people afraid for their own amusement. That’s only a slim degree of difference from the real thing.)

I have watched my American friends mobilize despite their grief and shock. I wish them courage and success in these hard years ahead. (Not interesting – don’t call the next four years interesting, don’t you dare.) To my Canadian friends all I can say is don’t get complacent.

They thought it couldn’t happen there, and it did.

We’re not that different.

We have the Charter of Rights and a progressive history, but look at what’s stirring up in some parts of the Conservative Party on our side of the border. Be prepared to say, “No, that is not Canadian. That is not how we do it here.” Be prepared to speak up, be prepared to vote. We have seen what complacency has done in the UK and the US and cannot permit the same mistake here.

In the interim, I can watch, I can witness.

I can speak up, I can support.

And I can make art*, for as long as I’m not dead.

(*Someone else can tell me whether it’s good or not.)

 

Say Yes To The Owl

At least once a year I have to go backpack shopping and it’s a bit fraught. Concerns like size, cost, shape, how much it can hold, how it hangs on the shoulder, and of course esthetics all swim around in my head and make something that should be fun not very.

A bag is so personal, too. It’s something I carry with me every day. It’s gotta last, it’s gotta hold books, maybe even a computer, all without killing my spine. My spine has opinions that if I fail to plan for means my spine will wreak its terrible vengeance on me for weeks following. Oh yes, I pay attention to Mr. Spine these days, which is why I’ve been backpacking for several years now. 

My old backpack was technically fine. It wasn’t falling apart, but it was designed for someone a foot taller then me and twice as strong. It’s large enough to heft a hard-core computer around but also had a bunch of front pockets that stick out like turtles on top of ever larger turtles. What ended up happening was that the bag became lopsided, with all my small things front-loaded and literally pulling me backwards with every step. Plus, the bigger the bag, the more I’ll stuff inside. Like a goldfish expanding to the size of the tank. But, with my junk.

Mr. Spine assured me that this was not tenable in the long run. Something smaller, it asked with a warning twinge between my shoulder blades, that fits close to the back. Please and thank you.

So a-shopping I did go. How hard is it to find a cute, not too big, well-made utilitarian backpack? SUPER HARD. Store after store. Option after option. Too military, too frou-frou. Too big, too small. Too friggin’ expensive, but that’s what I get for trying to shop in downtown Vancouver.

I had just about given up. With my old lumpy, too-big backpack dragging on my shoulders, I headed home. On my way, I passed one of those discount tourist luggage and bag shops that are everywhere here, windows plastered with sale signs. 

Went in, wandered around. Past the Canadian tchotchkes, the flags and moose and maple syrup, it was all standard issue square backpacks. No laptop pockets, no multiple storage options, nothing that really stood out as something that checked all the boxes.

And then I saw it, up on the top hook well out of reach.

A cutie owl backpack.

I stared at it, drawn to its adorable gravity. I couldn’t. I would be taking this backpack everywhere. The office I work at, nerdy it might be, is still the most grownup office I’ve worked at. These were cute owls with big eyes and bright patterns, all in different pastel colors. It’s not professional, it’s the wrong shape, the straps aren’t that great. I can’t!

But it’s … so cute!

With a firm mental no, I stalked around the store some more. If that backpack could theoretically work, maybe there was another backpack that would. Something professional. Whatever that meant. Of course, every other backpack looked even crummier than it did the first time by comparison. I looked at brown ones, blue ones. Ones with no pattern, ones with wishbone, or faux leather detail.

Every time I looked up, I saw the owl backpack high on its hook looking so perfect.

Stop it, Stephanie, I almost said out loud. It’s not professional.

The owl backpack just hung from its hook. Perfection. Hoo. Hoo.

I bought it. I’m pretty sure I was blushing. I made jokes with the woman behind the counter about how silly it was, the bag, but how I really loved it anyways. I excused the purchase by saying I would use it just for non-work days. How that would really work is not seriously thought out because transferring all my crap between bags would be nothing but impractical shenanigans from beginning to end.

Walked home with the biggest smile. I loved that owl backpack. Didn’t hurt that I’ve always loved owls, or that in my home town the local chapter of NaNoWriMo chose the owl as its mascot, or that when I went away to Viable Paradise, one of my best buds in my writing group crocheted the cutest little owl to take with me.

Before I even got home, I decided it would be my regular, everyday backpack, because I loved those damn cute owls. And I was prepared for snarky remarks, laughter, or even faint frowns of disapproval. I was ready, man! Hit me! 

What did I get?

Nothing but complements. And often, complements from delighted strangers, compliments that I don’t think even they themselves would ordinarily make, sounding so surprised in shared, secret delight. For a nerdish minute, we’re both smiling, and I say thank you. 

So. What do you talk yourself out of that would bring you joy?

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Owl Backpack: taken at the VanDusen Garden while reading Letters to Tiptree. ♥

Go do it.

(I write this on the cusp of having to replace the Owl Backpack, as I’ve had to repair the straps and as the bottom starts to wear away to nothing. It breaks my heart! Next bag is going to be a Bag of Holding, which will still be nerdy, if a little more subtle. I did, however, see a scarf the other day in a shop that has the exact same artwork as the backpack … so … we’ll see.)

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How I Love Thee, Neo2.

Let me count the ways. ♥

But first, a side trip.

News (at long last!) of Scrivener for iOS in beta was greeted with enthusiastic joy for Mac-based devotees. And it is great — hands down, Scrivener is one of the few writing tools that really does it all. Does so much, even, that maybe you get the feeling that you’re not using the program to its full advantage. Nevertheless, in the nearly ten years since since its release, Scrivener become the tool that you either swore by or never understood all the hoopla. Some writers like the linearity of Word but for many Scrivener’s ability to break down a large document into smaller chunks, store related files and the cork board features are among the many reasons why people love this little program. (My first Macbook was bought basically for Scrivener and I’ve been using it ever since.)

When the iPad came along, Scrivener users were stoked about the possibilities. A mobile writing solution that could sync with a service like DropBox? Write wherever, whenever, with all your files handy? Developing that kind of an app is no small task, but it looks like we’re closer than ever. Scrivener for iOS looks like it might drop this year.

But it might be too late for me.

I know! I can’t believe it either! Scrivener for iPad was going to change everything and then, as the years went on and app ended up getting delayed a few times, I figured that when it finally arrived I could rationalize an iPad upgrade. That said, while the latest iteration, the iPad Pro is a beautiful monster of a machine, it’s out of my price range. (Though Scrivener for iOS is supposed to run on any mobile Apple device running iOS 9 or above, which my creaky iPad 3 can more or less handle.)

Great news, but … still too late for me. I haven’t abandoned Scrivener, but there is a new love in my life, the AlphaSmart Neo 2.

One of the issues I’ve had since my first iPad has been that writing on it was always a better idea in my head then it was in practice. My experiences writing on an iPad experiences were always frustrating ones. Handwriting was awkward, imprecise, slow. Keyboards were too cramped and had key symbols hidden behind unfamiliar hotkeys. It was a barrier to entry when I sat down to write, and worse, these barriers made it even easier to, in a moment of frustration, pop over to check Twitter, Facebook or Email and start running out the clock on socializing or outright time wasters. While the Pro appears to ameliorate some of the technical issues, we’re back to that sticky price point problem. And the temptation to multitask or just outright distract myself? Unimpeded. Possibly even improved upon by having a better processor built into the iPad Pro.

On the AlphaSmart? No program switching, no distractions because all you can do is type. It’s lighter than my iPad 3 by a wide margin, has a near-endless battery life and a full keyboard, one with deeply satisfying, chunky keys.

I can edit if I want to, and sure, I catch the odd typo, but there are no little red squiggly lines nagging at you. You don’t end up staring fixedly at the last page of text your wrote, wondering, grumbling, because it’s already scrolled up and away. Editing happens later because it can’t happen now.

It means that all you can do, six lines at a time, is write.

When it’s time to get my words into Scrivener, the USB printer cable plugs into my iMac and the words spit out like magic, like someone else wrote them. When I see them now on the screen they are different enough to feel fresh and be malleable in ways that a draft of anything written directly on a computer does now.

And my output? Holy hell, it’s leveled up and leveled up hard. I routinely get 500 words within fifteen minutes. Are they perfect words? No, but they are decent draft quality. Something I can work with.

My only complaint, and it’s very minor, is the display screen. I wish it was angled a little bit more. Sometimes there can be a weird back-glare effect, and in dimmer light the screen can wash out a bit, but that’s easily fixed by moving around or getting the light in the right position.

This is by far the most pleasurable device to write on than I have ever had. It is the unitasker I need, with the speed of a typewriter and without the time required to manually retype it. I’ve known about the AlphaSmart for years, but it was never really a thing in Canada and I thought, do I really need another device?

I did, and I do. Thank you to K. Tempest Bradford and her podcast, The Write Gear, for the push. (I may even buy a backup AlphaSmart.)

I’ve often wondered if, had I been born in the 50s or 60s or 70s, where there was just a typewriter, just paper and pen, if I would not have been more productive and focused than a child raised on the computer – which from a very early age was tool and game and telephone all at once in the best and worse ways.

With the AlphaSmart, I get to find out.

Not Dead! Just Resting . . .

I have been meaning to post for weeks now, and thought I had posted more than just my favorite books of 2015 post back at the beginning of the year.

So as we near the end of the first quarter, where am I at? What have I been up to?

Well, first thing — I finished the draft of a new novel. A novel I really like, one that’s in a contemporary setting with a dash of speculative and a full side of snark. It’s chilling out for a couple months so I can come to it with fresh eyes before I start hunting for betas. Immediately following the completion of the draft came the expected post-novel exhaustion and general out-of-sorts-ness. At least I know to expect it now.

After, I dived into an old novel that I had rewritten and set aside several years ago. In reading, I figured out why I left it in the drawer so long; it’s non-sensical. Utterly. Back when I wrote it, I was rewriting a prior, failed version of the same story and at the time I was sure I was improving it. Taking my medicine, I read the whole thing, took notes and could really see why it failed. Sobering, yes, but useful, and a lesson I plan to put towards the next novel.

If I thought I was tired after finishing the draft, I was bone-tired after reading through the trunk novel and had some thinking to do. Struggled with deciding what to do next, what to focus on – what ideas, what forms, what style. Too many choices, not enough time to do them all. Paralysis. Squeeze a trip to the home province on the same weekend that Daylight Savings lurches forward, and I’m just about to Sleeping Beauty all over this place.

So, a bit drained, a but uncertain on how to proceed, and humble, knowing how much farther I still have to go. But I have come to a place where I can safely have a chat with myself and maybe, this time, have it stick. These aren’t angry voices. Picture them as two old friends who don’t have to bullshit each other, sitting on a dock with a beer in hand watching the sun go down.

“So, about those dreams.”

“You wanna make fun of ’em? Got enough people already that do that for me.”

“Nah, man. That wouldn’t be cool. I do, however, want you to think about ’em.”

“That’s all I ever do.”

We sip our beers a moment as a loon cuts a white line across black waters and cries out to its mate somewhere in the growing dark.

“Thinking isn’t doing, but you know that already. What I mean is, you can’t make all of them happen right now. You can’t do all the things, as the kids say. You have to choose.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“Think you’ve been afraid. Think  you’re worried about closing a door too early, and regretting it later, but if you don’t pick a door you never leave the room.”

We say nothing a while. I watch the loon.

“Besides, doors close but they don’t lock. So, what it is you reach for? What’s your comfort? What’s your joy?”

I think, but not for long, and finally smile. “That’s easy.”

“Say it, then.”

“Novels.”

“So?”

A cry answers from across the water. The loon rises up, seeking its mate.

“Yeah,” I say, finally easing into the Muskoka chair. “Novels.”

“Alrighty.”

 

 

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My Favorite Reads in 2015

It’s that time of year again! So grab a cup of tea, your favorite cushion, and LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THESE BOOKS! *

* Books included are ones that either made me cry great buckets or knocked my socks off and then ran away with them to Vegas.

Because seriously, I read some great books this year. What should we start with first, the crying books? Are these crying books? One word for you: YES.

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Ozeki

Buckets, people. So many buckets. By far this was the best single-volume book I read this year. It is spectacular and intimate and SFnal in its own way. I dare you to read it and not fall in love.

WHO FEARS DEATH by Nnedi Okorafor

Will you cry?  Oh, yes. But you will be transported and you will celebrate victory even at great cost. This is some epic, immersive SF. I wish I’d read it sooner. I’m also off to chase down a copy of Okorafor’s LAGOON next.

UPROOTED by Naomi Novik

I have enjoyed the first couple of her Temeraire series but folks, this book, THIS BOOK. Oh my god, I cried, I cheered, I lived and breathed this book and I will flail my arms at you about it and press a copy into your hands.

THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY

This series by Jeff VanderMeer, which I read in one go once I got my hands on these gorgeous editions, colonized my brain completely which is perfectly fitting. I couldn’t stop thinking about it while I read the trilogy; I still haven’t gotten it out of my system after putting it on the shelf. (Hell, you can pick up the first book right after finishing the third if you don’t want to, or can’t, leave.)

SIGNAL TO NOISE by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

Runner up to the crying books! This is one hell of a first novel debut from mythic short story writer and editor Moreno-Garcia. I respond the most to books with intense, personal voice, and SIGNAL TO NOISE delivers a fully-realized, low-magic, high-personal stakes novel.

BAD FEMINIST by Roxanne Gay

Hilarious collection of essays, the kind that make you want to fist-pump the air while you’re reading. So good. And if you want to get some Gay in bite-sized chunks of awesome, I highly recommend her Twitter feed, which besides being funny AF is also a fine guide on the art of troll-busting.

SYLLABUS by Lynda Barry

This book came to my attention via a Brain Pickings article, and all I can say is that this felt like a gift from the universe. Barry’s work has obsessed me since I got my hands on this volume and has reconnected me to that fledgling, dusty artist I pushed to the back of the closet a long time ago. If you have ever picked up a pencil to do something other than write with it, please read this book.

OTHER BOOKS

A close runner-up to the best-of books for the year is the Lizzie Borden Chronicles duology by Cherie Priest, MAPLECROFT and CHAPELWOOD respectively. It hit the same Weird buttons that the Southern Reach trilogy hit for me. I loved them to pieces and hope more are coming. I am two thirds of the way through Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series with RAPTURE on tap for this year. Phenomenal world building and a ball-busting protagonist that’s so much fun to follow. Speaking of world building, there was Fran Wilde’s debut UPDRAFT, too. My favorite SFnal essay collection was INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC by CAT VALENTE, (Her latest adult novel, RADIANCE, came out last fall and is so far delightful.) The MAMMOTH BOOK OF SF BY WOMEN was a solid anthology and speaking of short fiction, I really connected to the slim volume of stories titled JAGANNATH by Karen Tidbeck. I owe my writer buddy Andy thanks for giving me a copy.

I did mightily enjoy THE JUST CITY by Jo Walton, but found its sequel, THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS, didn’t strike the same cord and affected my enjoyment of the whole. I wish it was whole, a single book, the more I think about it. I also wish there was another book between them. Still, a very interesting thought experiment. Worth checking out.

Swinging over to non-fiction again, THE NOW HABIT by Neil Fiore and MAKE IT MIGHTY UGLY by Kim Piper Werker (which I am technically still reading) are both very different books but under the hood both deal with the same thing. There are people in my life that I would happily push copies of these books into their hands if I didn’t think I’d get the stink-eye for trying. Related to these two reads, I’m also committing to a second round of guided Morning Pages, care of Julia Cameron’s WALKING IN THIS WORLD. Yes, there is woo-woo, yes, Cameron seems oblivious to the gifts afforded to her because of her class and money, but the process works. Serendipity is a thing. In fact, as I settled in to it last night, the first chapter is all about beginning, about starting, about not thinking about the end product until the end product is actually at hand and giving yourself over to the process day in and day out.

Bottom line: if you want to make something, do it. And that’s going to be my theme for 2016. Make stuff. Send it out. Do it again.

And when I’m not making stuff, you’d better believe I’ll be reading.

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