2012 In Review: The Books I’ve Read

Near the start of the year in 2012, I set about some goals for myself.

Now that we’ve put 2012 to bed, it’s time for me to look back at what I accomplished and what I failed to accomplish, and also to look forward and plan for the next year.

To kick off my 2012 retrospective, I wanted to take a look at the books I’ve read.

Reading a certain number of books was a popular goal that many people set for themselves in 2012.  I wanted to do the same: the first year in which I would set such a goal for myself.  But there was a problem.  The unit of “a book” is not universal.  I can put two books side-by-side and they will not have the same salient features that determine how long it might take me to read.  A book might be anywhere for 75,000 words (or even fewer) to 400,000 words long.  The word itself, really, is the more salient measure (and considered en masse, is a more consistent unit of measurement).  So instead of looking to read a certain number of books, I set out to read a certain wordcount worth of books.

The goal I set for myself?  550,000 words worth in 2012 – or about 5 books at an arbitrarily-picked 110,000-word average length.

How did I do?

I blew that goal out of the water, by my own reckoning.

In 2012, I read approximately 977,000 words, give or take.  I read five whole books and parts of three others.  Here’s the run-down:

I read the entire “Hunger Games” trilogy this year, starting with The Hunger Games at the beginning of the year, then later catching up with Catching Fire and finally Mockingjay as my last book of the year.  Those three books accounted for over 300,000 words.  I read the last two-thirds of The Children of Amarid, which I had started in 2011, and I read about 12% from the middle of A Clash of Kings.  (The latter has been difficult for me to get through, and I’m still not done.)  I also read the debut novels of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss – Elantris and The Name of the Wind, respectively.  Both of those left me with quite a lot of something or other to chew on and think about with respect to my own writing.  Finally, I read almost half of the first Steampunk anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.  (I couldn’t read the whole thing because I ran out of “renewals” at the library; I’ll be checking it back out sometime to read a few of the other stories in that volume.)

You want a gut-level insta-reaction or review of each of the above titles?  No detailed reviews, here, but some thoughts:

“The Hunger Games”: I’m probably the last person to read it (because time, she has not been my friend), but I really enjoyed these books, and would recommend them.  On the other hand, you probably already know whether you want to read “The Hunger Games” trilogy and in fact have probably already read them if you’re going to.  Be that as it may: very good books with very few caveats.

The Children of Amarid: was entertaining but not particularly ground-breaking or original.  It was a debut novel, so that says something: it was good enough to get someone (in this case David B. Coe) the attention they needed to get published in the first place.  But on a purely critical level, I found it mostly predictable.  (For example, there were red herrings thrown in to try to hide the villain of the story, but I found it easy to figure out the difference between a red herring and a real villain.)  On the fourth or fifth hand, I felt bad about not liking the book more, because I personally like the author himself (whom I have met). 

A Clash of Kings: I think I’ve discussed my general reaction to Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” before, but if not, I’ll not belabor the point here.  Again, this is a super-popular mega-epic where most of you know whether you like it or not already, so my opinion won’t change things much.

Steampunk: My reactions to the stories I read was highly variable, ranging from “WTF was that?” to “That’s pretty good… but…”  Overall, the stories I did read (from roughly the first half of the book) were not as good as I wanted them to be.  The non-fiction essays were more interesting.  But there was a lot of really great imagery in those stories.

Elantris: was good and yet… disappointing.  This was the first pure Brandon Sanderson book I’ve read, after having read two books co-authored by Sanderson and the late Robert Jordan (The Gathering Storm and The Towers of Midnight, of the “Wheel of Time” saga).  Those two books were fantastic (IMO) and really breathed new life into a series I loved but which had, let’s be honest, grown a little long in the tooth.  Given how strong those books were, I had pretty high expectations for my first all-Brandon book… not sky-high, as I knew this was his first published book, but still pretty high.  And it was pretty good.  But it didn’t rise to the level of my expectations.  And there were noticeable, problematic flaws with the book.  I think I could go on about my thoughts on this book and so… assuming there’s time I intend to dive a little deeper into this one in a future “Interrogating the Text” post.

The Name of the Wind: Mostly lived up to its hype.  It was an enjoyable read that felt fast and well-paced despite it’s potentially intimidating length.  (I say “potentially” because, to a reader like me, a book this long isn’t intimidating at all… it’s practically par-for-the-course.  But I realize that to many readers, it’s very long.)  Most interesting to me was the way in which this book tackled some of its key themes, a few of which are themes that have been tumbling around in my head for a long time, and are similar to things I wan to write about in my own fiction.  Apparently Patrick Rothfuss got there first, and he did it very well.  There’s enough in that book that I think it’s also worth a future “Interrogating the Text” post.

So that’s it: what I read and the short version of what I thought about it in 2012.

What did you read in 2012?  Any surprises, stand-outs, or disappointments?  Did you take any writing lessons from the books you read?  Please share (or share a link back to a post on your own blogs where you discuss those things, if you’d like).

Gender Gap

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about perceptions that there was a demographic shift occurring in the readership of speculative fiction: a substantial tilt toward girls and away from boys, such that perhaps a genre that was once perhaps dominated largely by male readers is now substantially dominated by female readers. 

The question of gender – of readers, of authors, and of characters – has been on my mind a lot lately thanks to a series of blogs and articles I’ve seen that address the topic.

First, there was an article on the Powell’s blog by author Jennifer Dubois in which she opines about the difficulty in our society of female protagonists and narrators in fiction – and the ethical need, in her opinions, for more such characters.  The article is called “Writing Across Gender” but it isn’t really about writing characters of the opposite gender, really, as it is about writing female characters.  It was an interesting place to get my recent thoughts on the subject jump-started.

The question was inherently interesting to me, naturally, because the primary protagonist of my current novel project WIP is a female character.  I had a lot of trepidation when I began this project, I must admit.  Jennifer Dubois thinks that because:

…First, the notion that women are essentially strangers, their consciousnesses wholly foreign; and second, that this foreignness, in addition to being unassailable, is also pretty limited and boring.

But honestly, I don’t think that’s terribly accurate, or true. Continue reading

Holiday Fun: The Gingerbread House Cometh

These are fun: a series of Gingerbread creations in the shape of icons from Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction.

My favorites (with added points for technical accomplishments): the Gingerbread Burrow and Gingerbread Hogwarts, but they’re all quite fabulous.

Not Your Father’s Steampunk: Reviewing “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities”

I didn’t set out to become an expert in Steampunk – and in that regard I suppose I’m not in any real danger of becoming one – nor did I have an specific desire to write Steampunk, per se.  It was just another reflection in the funhouse mirror that is the greater Speculative Fiction genre umbrella: a little bit sci-fi, an little bit fantasy, and a little bit something different.  I liked it, the same way I liked Fantasy and Sci-fi.  Heck… I liked it before I knew what to call it.  (The word “steampunk” dates back to the late 80s, but the genre didn’t seem to enter the popular consciousness until the late 90s and 2000s.  When I first discovered steampunk I had no word for it, and thought of it as “retro-futurism” and except for the fact that there’s now a significant fantasy cross-over segment of steampunk, I still think of it that way.)  But my first love was the classic Epic and High Fantasy.

But then I started this blog.  In the years before I started blogging Steampunk as a community – one part cosplay and one part literary movement – started gaining… um… steam.  So by this time I was aware both of the genre and its attendant aesthetic and of the now-accepted term itself.

The first time I mentioned Steampunk on this blog was in response to a Flash Fiction challenge that I completed as a Friday Flash.  This particular challenge asked us to use the word “zeppelin” somewhere in the story.  So, naturally, steampunk.  And this was the result.  After that, I discussed Steampunk once or twice with other bloggers in comments on their posts, throwing in my own two cents on the ins and outs of the genre.  Somehow, as a result of all that, I ended up writing one of my most popular posts on this blog: “A Steampunk Society“, which still gets hits today from people who apparently want to understand what values and mores would be present in a steampunk-inspired, pseudo-early industrial society.  I guess there was a small hole in the internet concerning that particular sub-topic of the genre, because writing that piece made me into something of a second- or third-string “expert” on the Steampunk genre.  And I’ve enjoyed digging deeper into the genre.  I’ve promised myself someday to return to that article and rewrite it with a more scholarly and exegetical focus.  I believe the popularity of that post lead indirectly to my first professional publication, here.  And those two things together likely combined to lead to this post.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

The Curious Cover of The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

All of this was a long way of saying I was somehow identified as a member of the Steampunk literary fan community – possibly even someone of some influence, although I might have a hard time believing that – and that as someone of this type I might be interested in reviewing Ann and Jeff VanderMeer‘s latest steampunk-themed anthology, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

Well… indeed I was interested in reviewing it – so when I was contacted to ask if I was, I responded in the affirmative.  A few days later, a shiny new review copy of the Cabinet arrived on my doorstop.  So now, allow me to introduce you, if you have not already made the acquaintance, to The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

What is the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities?

A fine question, my dear friend.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is, quite naturally, a curious specimen.  It’s an anthology, sure – but it’s unlike pretty much any anthology you’re likely to have picked up.  A typical short story anthology has a theme and a bunch of stories from different authors that fit that theme.  But that’s not exactly what you’ll find in the Cabinet of Curiosities. Continue reading

Books of a Certain Length

Author’s Note: This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  Thinking about yesterday’s post about the rise of YA fiction as a force majeure in the SF&F publishing world, it wasn’t far for me to start thinking about book length.  Also, to be entirely honest, Dear Wife suggested both topics.  I’ll also note: this is a very meaty (i.e. wordy) and at times contentious topic.  For that reason, I am going to do something I rarely ever do on my blog: I’m implementing sectional subtitles.  Why?  Because this turned out to be a real, long, in-depth, even semi-scholarly article on the topic of wordcount length, with quite a bit of data and market analysis.  Your conclusions will be your own, but I’ve tried to synthesize a lot of information for this article.  I considered splitting the article into several posts, as I often do when a single post grows this long, but I felt that it would weaken the analysis to have the disparate elements separated onto different pages.  So, instead: one long post with sectional subtitles.  Finally, you’ll find I prefer the compound word “wordcount” as opposed to splitting the word into two: “word count”, which is the more common usage.  The reason for this is that when I refer to “wordcount” I’m referring to a single, distinct idea: that is, the total number of words in a manuscript.  Splitting the word into two diffuses this unified notion. 

~

Books of a Certain Length

If you look around on the internet, it won’t be hard to come up with some solid advice for how long your book should be – depending on which genre and market you are writing for.  I encountered advice on the issue in this post on the Magical Words blog – where you’ll find me entering the fray in the comments.  There’s also this post on The Swivet.  I won’t quote all the genre length guidelines these two posts suggest (which are mostly in accord).  But if you’re either a fan of meaty Epic Fantasies or books like the Harry Potter series, and write in anything approaching a similar vein and genre, you might find some of these guidelines a trifle… strange.  Epic Fantasy is given a high-end wordcount length suggestion of around 120,000 words.  For YA it is suggested you stay under 80,000 words with some flexibility up to 100,000 in special circumstances.

For those of you unfamiliar with relative wordcount lengths, you may consider that and say to yourself: “Okay, so, what’s the big deal?”

The Challenge of a Verbose Writer

Let me first start by offering this full disclosure: my writing style tends toward the robustly wordful.  For example, I’ve participated in several “Flash Fiction” challenges during the history of this blog (with most results posted  here) with the goal of turning out a super-short story under 1,000 words in length.  I rarely reached that goal.  My first attempt at a novel, “Project SOA”, had reached the two-thirds complete mark at approximately 140,000 words before I abandoned that version of the story.  I’m planning on my current novel project, “The Book of M”, to be about 125,000 words… but I fully expect it to be closer to 175,000 (based on my experience of planned length versus actual final length for other, shorter works).

Of course, I’m no professional, as yet. Continue reading

The YA Revolution

Some ten years ago, as a young man still in college, I could proudly claim that I hadn’t read any children’s books since I was, in fact, still a child – largely excepting my personal pet favorite, “The Chronicles of Prydain”.  I was an adult, and throughout my teen years and into my early twenties I was reading adult fiction. 

But by that point in time, a publishing phenomenon had begun.  The Harry Potter books were taking the reading world by storm, and a new movie adaptation of the first book in the series was soon due.  I hemmed and hawed and pooh-poohed.  I didn’t read children’s books.  I was an adult.  Other adults might read children’s books, but they were quite beneath me.  Such is the folly of a young man straining to be something more than he yet was.  (And, I suppose, still yet is.)

And then I saw the movie.  And I relented, and I read all the books then extent.  And they were fabulous, and I looked back at my amateurish self and cursed him for not relenting sooner, for what sort of childish sop is so elitist and snobbish that they look down their noses at good books just because of how they are marketed?

Since then, the craze has continued, and it has boiled over.  I’m not talking about the Harry Potter craze.  I’m talking about the YA craze. Continue reading

Finding What to Read (Part 2)

Last time I talked about my “To Read” list, but I didn’t get to the gist of what I wanted to talk about, which is: How do you decide what goes on your reading list?  How do you find books you want to read?  How do you learn about new authors?

For myself, the books on my list have ended up there through any number of circuitous paths.  The George R. R. Martin books, for instance, I’d been hearing good things about for years before I finally bought a copy of the first four at a used book store.  I think I first heard about them on a forum I used to frequent at an RPG community site, where those books came up often in favorites lists.  Brandon Sanderson, meanwhile, I became aware of when he was chosen to finish “The Wheel of Time” after Robert Jordan’s untimely passing.  (Jordan’s books, on the other hand, entered my consciousness mainly because my parents bought them when I was younger). 

Most of the books on my list, however, came to this list over the last couple years, and especially after I started this blog.  I started collecting links to the websites and blogs of different authors.  Continue reading

Finding What to Read (Part 1)…

Being Part the First:

In Which I Declare My Official “To Read” List

During the past three years of grad school, I did very little writing and very little reading.  I finished one novelette-length short story.  I read two novels (both “Wheel of Time” books, and actually only half of the second), half of another novel and a few small volumes of short stories.

Since graduating a few months ago, I’ve upped the amps on my writing.  But my reading is still continuing at roughly the same pace.  Largely, I’d felt so deprived of writing while I worked on grad school that I wanted to focus my free time on writing, at least until I was in the thick of my novel and making solid progress (i.e. at least until I had actual draft wordcount on the novel, and not just background stuff).  But my slow reading these past few years hasn’t stopped a tsunami of excellent fiction from exploding into my consciousness.  It’s for that reason that my “To Read” list has grown into something of an unmanageable behemoth, and an unstoppable juggernaut.  To make anything like a dent in that list I’d have to take a few months off from work and dedicate a lot of time exclusively to reading.  Which… ain’t gonna happen.

At some point, I’m going to pivot some of my time to reading a little more again.  Because it’s not like other writers are going to stop writing awesome books just because I haven’t had time to read them.  And if I don’t read those awesome books, I might die unfulfilled.

Right now, my “To Read” list is broken into four parts, and looks like this:

I. Books I Own

A Clash of Kings* by George R. R. Martin

Mistborn: The Final Empire¹ by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings¹ (signed) by Brandon Sanderson

The Children of Amarid¹ (signed) by David B. Coe

The Name of the Wind¹ by Patrick Rothfuss

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans with introduction by R. A. Salvatore

The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card and the Editors of Writer’s Digest with introduction by Terry Brooks (this is a combo volume of Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Writer’s Digest’s The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference) Continue reading

Prescriptive and Descriptive Genres

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions on genre, recently.  As I thought about the many genres and subgenres of speculative fiction – and indeed even outside speculative fiction – I realized that what defines one genre from another is not always consistent.  Some genres have more rules than others, or more specific rules, or rules about different things.  To put it in a simple dichotomy, some genres are more descriptive and some are more prescriptive.

What do I mean by that?  A descriptive genre merely describes what a genre or body of literature looks like.  A prescriptive genre is very codified, and if you fail to abide by that code, you can’t really be said to be writing in that genre.  As I thought about the subject deeper, I concluded that the difference lies in a specific subset of rules: those rules governing the form and structure of a genre.

Descriptive genres are less specific about rules governing form or structure.  They are less formulaic by default.  Instead, the rules governing a descriptive genre are rules of elements.  If certain elements are present in a work of literature, it can be said to belong to the associated genre.  If those elements are absent, it may not be a work of that genre.  These elements may be aspects of setting, character, plot, style and technique and so on.  Fantasy, in the general, categorical sense, is a fairly descriptive genre.  Does the story include elements of magic, mysticism, mythology, the supernatural, or the numinous?  If your work includes these elements of non-real, non-mundane, then it is a work of Fantasy.  Mainstream or Literary fiction is similarly fairly descriptive.  Does the novel employe so-called “literary” techniques (and usually, but not always, does it eschew the non-real elements for a mundane and frequently contemporary setting)?  Then it is a literary novel. 

But many genres are more restrictive and confining than that.  Continue reading

Boys vs. Girls: The Audience of Speculative Fiction

So, earlier this week, I wrapped the first draft of “Story of G”, and I put out a call hoping for some beta readers to provide some feedback.

I was extremely gratified by the response.  Besides my Dear Wife, I’ve got three others currently reading, and anticipate another one or two readers after that.  That’s a much better feedback response than I got with “PFTETD” last year.  Then, besides my Wife, I had a grand total of 2 readers before I went to final edits before submitting the piece.  But I noticed something curious this time around: all my latest beta readers are ladies.

That observation reminded me of this post by author Blake Charlton from last year.  In it, he asks whether the market for speculative fiction books has shifted to cater overwhelmingly, perhaps exclusively, to girls over boys.  I had wanted to blog about that, when I read it, but I guess I never quite felt up to the challenge.  It is a charged and sensitive topic.  In noticing now, however, a shift in my beta readers from all-boys to all-girls a year later, I feel compelled to consider the issue a little more.  I’m delving into some politically choppy waters here, and I know going in that I won’t arrive at any firm conclusions, but I’m very interested to explore issues like this. 

As a writer, I write first out of my own interest and love of speculative fiction – that is to say, I write to entertain myself.  But secondly, I write to be read by others.  Whether those others who read my work will be predominately female, male, or some more equitable mix of the genders will potentially matter to me, especially if the demands and tastes of the one gender group turn out to be very different from those of the other, in which case the question of how best to meet those different demands and tastes in my work becomes quite pertinent.

To dispense with the obvious: I am a boy.  Well, a boy of the somewhat grown-upish variety, but a boy nonetheless.  And I read (and write) speculative fiction – particularly of the Fantasy variety (though “Story of G” is not strictly Fantasy). Continue reading