Sailing with the Liveship Traders

I have more books to discuss! Earlier this year, I read the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. After a little break (now that I’m aware of the dangers of binge reading and know it’s wise to put some space between books if I don’t want to burn out on a series), I dove into the Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with Ship of Magic), and I loved it even more. Part of that may be that I’m fascinated with sailing ships and love reading about seaside cultures, but I also loved the scope of the series and the varying viewpoints.

This series is about a community built around a group of seagoing traders who sail on magical ships. The ships are built from enchanted wood that’s particularly sturdy. It also absorbs memories from the people on board, and after a few generations of a family working on the ship, with family members dying on board and having their blood absorbed, the ship “quickens” and becomes sentient. The figurehead becomes a living being who can talk and move, and the ship can just about sail itself. But there are costs, as a family goes into deep debt to get such a ship, and it can take generations to pay off that debt. A bad year can get a family in trouble so that they risk losing everything.

At the beginning of the series, things start to go horribly wrong. There are newcomers granted land by a distant ruler who come in and want to make changes. A young woman who believed she would inherit her family’s ship when her father died is shocked to learn that her parents decided to give it to her sister, to be captained by her outsider husband, with his young son (who’d rather be a priest) as the family member who needs to be on board to interact with the ship. The new captain, worried about the family’s debts, thinks that transporting slaves is the only way to make money quickly enough. Meanwhile, there’s a pirate captain who hates slavery and believes that if he could just capture himself a liveship, he could take out the slavers and make himself king of a pirate kingdom. And there’s a group of sea serpents with a vague sense that there’s something they need to find that would explain who they are and what they’re supposed to be. All of these story threads, and a few more, gradually weave together.

I would say that this isn’t the best series to read when you’re stressed because it’s very intense. Bad things happen to characters you like. People make bad decisions, and there are terrible consequences. But it’s incredibly satisfying seeing how it all plays out, so it rewards patience. The characters are really complex. There are few who are totally good or purely evil. The good people make mistakes and the bad people do some good things. There’s a character I hated in the first book who goes through some difficult things that result in a remarkable amount of growth, so by the end I’m cheering for her. There’s a character I go back and forth on — he seems terrible at first and is an antagonist, but then in the middle of doing some awful things he ends up making things much better for a lot of people, including a character who really needs to be helped. He does a lot of good while also being vain and a bit of a megalomaniac, but then he does something I can’t forgive (and I’m not asked to), even as I learn some of what made him the way he is and why he’s been doing these things. Depending on whose viewpoint I’m in and where we are in the story, I sometimes want him to be defeated, sometimes want him to prevail.

The multiple plot threads that seem disconnected that all come together is one of my bits of reading catnip, and what I loved here is that the way things fit together is set up well enough that I had the satisfaction of figuring out what was going on just before it was spelled out in the text — not so far ahead that it felt predictable, but giving me just enough time to get excited about what I’d figured out for myself before it was confirmed. There were a lot of “Oh!” moments in the last half of the last book.

Recommended for those who like a deep dive into a fantasy world and enjoy complex characterization and storytelling, but probably not the best thing to read if you’re under a lot of pressure and have a lot going on in your life (unless reading about people who have worse problems than you do relaxes you or is cathartic). This isn’t a cozy read by any means, but it’s definitely worth the torment.


Are Romantic Comedies Back?

If you’ve read my books, you might guess that I’m a fan of romantic comedy. A good chunk of Kiss and Spell (book 7 in the Enchanted, Inc. series) was designed as a spoof of romantic comedy movie tropes. And if you’ve followed my blogging over the years, you may have seen a rant or two about romantic comedy movies or lack thereof recently.

Well, apparently there’s been a resurgence. At least, Crazy Rich Asians has ruled the box office for a few weeks, and it seems that Netflix has been making some romantic comedies that are proving popular. Because in journalism, a couple of things mean it’s A Trend, there are now articles like this one about how romantic comedies are back.

I’m not quite willing to hold out hope for that, but this article does at least seem to get what the problems are. That is, they agree with my contention that the main problem with all those relatively recent movies that flopped and seemingly killed the genre was that the people making those movies had no respect for the genre or the audience. They seemed to think they could just slap something together, cast attractive people, have a good romantic montage to a pop song, and those silly idiots would eat it up. Or, as one of the people interviewed in the article put it:

They followed the formula of a rom-com on a surface level — aspirational jobs, fancy clothes, beautiful people — but they were made with a palpable contempt for both their characters and the people who enjoy watching romantic comedies. These movies didn’t care about their characters or why they should fall in love; they were just putting them through the motions. And watching them didn’t feel escapist and joyous and fun. It felt gross and slimy.

Yep, that’s exactly how I felt.

Then there was the problem that so often happens with things women enjoy. They had to try to make it something men would like, and then we got all the gross-out movies. I’m sorry, but I don’t really want bathroom humor and lots of vomiting in my romantic comedies, and the fratboy manchild is not my romantic ideal.

I’ve been sort of getting my fix via Hallmark Christmas movies, which didn’t quite scratch the itch, but at least the characters tended to act like adults and there were some lovely moments. I’ve found a few things on Amazon Prime that work. But I really miss going to the theater and spending an afternoon laughing and crying while I watch people fall in love against a pretty background.

And if they’re looking for something that would make a nice romantic comedy movie with all the tropes but with some twists, the Enchanted, Inc. series isn’t under option at the moment. It was optioned by a major studio and a script was even written, but they then let the option lapse. Maybe the time is right again.


Making Good Choices

Something I’ve been struggling with lately is finding the right balance for creating tension by making things difficult for my characters.

It may have something to do with other stress I have going on in my life and in the world, but I’ve lately had real difficulty reading books in which characters make poor choices. I’ve been reading a series that I enjoy, but it’s sometimes difficult to get through because the characters just keep making bad choices that get them into more trouble. I spend a lot of the time I’m reading going “No! Don’t trust him!” or “Arrghh! You know better than to do that!” I sometimes even have to put the book down and walk away for a little while (which, I suppose, is a good sign that I’m emotionally invested).

I seem to have overcorrected in my own writing. The feedback I got from my agent on a book I’ve been working on is that there’s no tension because the characters never fail. If they come up with a theory, it’s proven correct. If they try something, it works. Looking back at it, I can see that, and I can tell I was writing most of it during the spring when I was going through all that medical stress. Maybe trying to write a book during all that was a bad idea. Or maybe I should give up on traditional publication with this story and publish it as something to read when you can’t deal with stress. A publisher wouldn’t be interested as-is, but there might be enough readers who just want a fun read to relax with.

What I need to find is a happy medium, where the heroes can make good choices that don’t make me groan out loud but still be wrong and still fail. That means the villains need to be smarter and more active or the heroes can be missing key bits of information. That’s still a bit stressful to me because institutional injustice, where the bad guys have all the power, is one of those things I find it hard to read/watch. But I’d rather have my characters up against someone who has too much power and that causes their efforts to fail than have my characters make dumb choices. If they trust the wrong person, it should be someone even the reader thinks they should have trusted. I don’t want readers going “No! Don’t do that, you idiot! Can’t you see he’s up to no good?”

I’m in a better place emotionally and medically right now, so maybe a lot of the problem will be taken care of going forward. I’ll just need to take a step back before I can work on fixing that book. And in the meantime, I can work on something else.


Jealousy Isn’t Romantic

I don’t normally veer into controversial or political territory, but I have something I need to get off my chest.

I think maybe authors, particularly those writing for young people, should call a moratorium on the “jealousy is romantic because it means he cares” trope. Most of the school shooting incidents have been triggered in some way by romantic jealousy — the guy gets so outraged that he comes to school with a gun because either the girl doesn’t want to date him and is with someone else or the girl broke up with him and is with someone else. And yet, this attitude, short of the actual shooting, is shown to be the sign of great passion and romance in way too many books. It’s especially twisted when the jealous, possessive guy is triangled with the supportive friend, whose relationship with the heroine is seen as safe but passionless.

It really struck me in a book I was reading just before vacation. The heroine was already in a relationship with Guy 1, and he was irking me because his point of view chapters came across as very controlling and possessive to me. He thought of the heroine less by name and more by “my girl.” They worked in the same field and had equivalent skill and training, and she had abilities beyond his, but he still tried to keep her out of action and hated when she was doing her job because he wanted to “protect” her. Guy 1 even got the heroine pulled off a mission, in spite of the fact that she was most qualified for it, and lied to her about it because he wanted to keep her out of danger. I was very much in “oh, honey, you do not want to tie yourself to this one” mode.

Then the heroine has to work with Guy 2, going through all kinds of adventures and dangers with him. He respects her abilities and trusts her to be able to handle the situations they’re in. They put themselves on the line to help and protect each other, but in a way that’s more about being comrades and not about “you’re my girl, so I must protect your delicate, fragile self.” I was thinking that the author was going to pull a bait and switch on us, setting up Guy 1, then introducing Guy 2 as a contrast.

What really made me think we were meant to switch loyalties to Guy 2 was when Heroine and Guy 2 had been in terrible danger and were hiding out, then Guy 1 found them, and his first instinct was to reach for his weapon in a jealous rage because “his” girl was with this other guy. Never mind that he knew they’d been on the run together and he’d been looking for them to get them to safety. He doesn’t actually act on the rage, but he does go into a massive snit until the heroine has a chance to explain the situation to him. Guy 1 was dead to me at this point and I was sure that she’d end up with Guy 2.

Nope. Guy 2 was just a good friend and Guy 1, the one with all the jealous rages, possessiveness, lies, and control, was her true love. And I nearly threw the book across the room.

This pattern shows up time and time again in young adult fiction, and it’s a terrible model to present for romance. It’s not even about the “bad boy” vs. the “nice guy.” In this case, both of the guys would have probably been considered on the “nice” side. Neither was dark and dangerous. Both were sort of boy-next-door types. But the relationship that struck me as reasonably healthy was rejected in favor of the relationship that was a gun away from a school shooting.

Of course, fans are going to fan, and no matter what the author does there will be a big Team Jerk faction, but the author doesn’t have to stack the deck. Why can’t heroines swoon over guys who trust and respect them and be turned off by jealousy and control? Why show a relationship based on mutual respect and trust as being only worthy of friendship, not romance? If you can’t make a healthy relationship romantic and exciting, you need to work on your writing skills. The jealousy is just a crutch for a way to convey passion and deep feeling. It’s a shortcut, an easy out.

If you moved your romantic hero into a present-day high school and the counselors would red-flag his behavior as a potential shooter, the guy who’d snap if the girl he liked dated someone else, you’ve got a problem, and maybe you shouldn’t be presenting this to impressionable young people as something positive.


Vacation Reading

While I was on vacation, I managed to get through some of my e-reader backlog, finishing one book I’ve been reading on airplanes for a while (it’s a collection of short stories, so it’s not as though I’ve been stopping a novel mid-way and forgetting about it until the next flight) and reading three others. One of them was a bit of a disappointment (and based on the reviews of the sequel, I won’t be bothering with it unless I can get it from the library), the other was so-so, but one I can actually recommend — Matchmaking for Beginners, by Maddie Dawson.

I know “chick lit” is kind of a naughty term in publishing now and no one wants to be associated with it, but I think this really does fit the pattern of the British kind of chick lit — after her life gets upended, the heroine finds new hope in a new place among a quirky cast of characters. Only this is set in the US and she finds her new life in Brooklyn, as opposed to the British books where the heroine ends up in a village. But, really, this probably would best be described as magical realism chick lit.

An elderly woman has become quite the matchmaker because she has the ability to actually see love, as though it’s a physical force. Not only can she tell which people are made for each other (or not), but she can see the things people need. Now she’s ill and dying but still has some projects left unfinished. Then she meets her great-nephew’s fiancee and can tell that this young woman is like her — and not meant for the great-nephew.

When her relationship falls apart rather spectacularly, this young woman first tries to move on in a very conventional, safe way, until she finds out that her ex’s great aunt left her a Brooklyn brownstone containing a number of people who need her to use her gifts.

This was a really sweet, fun romantic comedy full of endearing characters. It’s a very cozy book, just right for a vacation read. I know this kind of book often gets sneered at for being “fluff,” but I always find it inspiring, making me think about choices I’ve made in my life and what I could do to make my life more fulfilling while bringing joy to others. After reading it, I found myself wanting to be nicer to people and really pay attention to the people I encountered.

I think people who like my Enchanted, Inc. books would like this. It’s not outright fantasy with wizards and such, but there is a touch of magic along with the slow-burn romance and fun secondary characters.

Back from Vacation

Back from vacation! I spent a few days in Chicago, and it was a wonderful trip full of pleasant surprises. It was already a treat to begin with because my airfare was free, thanks to a bump I took on a flight last fall, and then I got a great hotel rate through a Hilton sale, with an even better rate from pre-paying for the room. When I arrived at the hotel, the desk clerk called to see if my room was ready, but the number she mentioned was different than the one I’d been given on the online check-in. The clerk looked at her computer and said, “Oh, that’s because we’re upgrading you to a suite.” So, for my great, cheap (relatively) pre-paid rate, I got a suite that was bigger than my first apartment. It had a kitchenette with a full-size refrigerator and microwave (and dishes!), a full-sized living room, and a bedroom that was the size of a normal hotel room. My mom worried that it was so nice I wouldn’t want to leave the room, but I found that it made it feel more like a home and less like a hotel room, so I didn’t have that “I want to cocoon in the hotel room” response. I did spend time relaxing, but I also got out a lot.

While I was waiting for my room to be ready, I walked along the river and had lunch at a riverside cafe, then went to the Sephora on Michigan Ave. and picked up some stuff for a spa night. Then I felt I deserved some hotel time once I got in. The hotel’s heated indoor pool was actually nice and warm, and they had a sauna. There was also a lovely terrace where I sat and read until it got dark.

Thursday was my tall ship day. There’s a tall ship that does cruises on Lake Michigan, and sailing on a tall ship was an item on my bucket list. I got there early, as they were still getting ready, and they asked me to give them about five minutes until they got the ticket office open. I wandered a bit, took some photos for some tourists (I guess I’m still the designated tourist photographer), then came back. They still weren’t ready. When I finally got to buy my ticket, they gave me a discount for being so patient and so eager. The cruise was amazing. They let some of the passengers help raise the sails, so I got to experience that, and once we were under full sail with the engine off, it was so peaceful as we flew across the water. I don’t yet have a sailing ship scene planned for a book, but I think it may happen someday.

I had lunch by the lake, then I met up with a friend and got to tour the American Library Association offices (it’s a tourist attraction for novelists) and spent the rest of the day hanging out with friends and having dinner at a lovely little neighborhood place they know.

Thursday was Art Institute day. I spent most of the day in the museum, just absorbing images and getting inspiration. Then I figured I deserved a rest and spent the afternoon relaxing and reading before I went out to get some pizza for dinner. I had to wait on the pizza, so I wandered the neighborhood and found the fire station they used for the bar in the TV series Early Edition. That night was spa night, using the stuff I’d bought earlier.

All in all, a good vacation. I did two major touristy things, spent time on and by the water, did some exploring, hung out with friends, relaxed a bit, and read three books. I didn’t even come back utterly exhausted. It helped that I came home Saturday and was able to have a normal Sunday relaxing at home, which helped me feel like I was back on schedule. Now I’m ready to dive back into work.

Vacation Time!

I’ve got the copyeditor lined up for October, so it looks like Enchanted, Inc. book 9 will be coming toward the end of the year, depending on how the cover artist’s schedule is looking.

That also gives me some breathing room because I don’t think I have a month worth of rewriting/revision to do, and that means I’m giving myself this whole week off. I’m doing some research and thinking about other projects, but I’m not trying to do actual writing amid all my trip preparation.

And the vacation countdown has begun. Laundry is finishing, and then I have to decide what to bring. The forecast temperatures look cool to me, but I’ve noticed that temperatures tend to feel cooler here. I don’t know if it’s quite as bad in Chicago as it is in New York, but a 79-degree day in New York feels about like a 95-degree day here. I think I’m going to go with lightweight long sleeves, with a sweater for mornings and evenings. It looks like one day will be rainy, so that will be my museum day, and then it will be lovely for watching it rain in the city while I sit in my room and read.

So, off to pack, and then see you next week!

Pre-Vacation Flurry

I’m going on vacation later this week, and the goal is to do nothing work-related (well, aside from the fact that experiences are always fodder for story ideas, and I’ll be doing a lot of reading, which kind of counts as work). For someone with an extremely flexible schedule, I’m terrible about taking vacations. I think I’ve taken maybe five trips that weren’t work-related in some way in the past fifteen years, and several of those were to events, so I was on someone else’s schedule. I’ve taken two pure vacation trips. I’ve tried doing “staycations” a few times, but I always seem to fall into my regular routine instead of really acting like I’m on vacation.

But on this trip, I have ideas of things I want to do, but no set schedule other than my flights. There’s enough to do to keep me busy, but I’m also planning some time to hang out in my hotel and read. I have a massive e-book backlog that I want to make a dent in. Between waiting in the airport, flights, and relaxing time at the hotel, I might get somewhere.

First, though, there’s the pre-trip preparation. I’m kind of obsessive about this, but I find that part oddly fun. I make a big checklist of everything that needs to get done and schedule times to do it. The goal is to be completely done with preparation early on the evening before the trip so I can start relaxing then and get to bed early, and then that morning I can just get up, have breakfast, get dressed, throw the last few things into my bag and go, with no stress, rush, or panic. I also like to have the house clean so coming home isn’t a big stress.

I’m more or less on schedule for this week, but the next couple of days are going to be a flurry of laundry, packing, doublechecking schedules, etc. The vacation begins tomorrow evening when (I hope!) everything will be done and I can sit back and relax.


Forgotten Fantasy

I’ve seen a few articles lately about major fantasy works published in the 1980s, the works everyone should have read, or the wave of what one writer referred to as “extruded Tolkien byproduct” fantasy that came out in the 70s and 80s. But what’s weird is that although I was a fantasy reader in the 80s, I hadn’t read most of the works referred to.

Which got me wondering what, exactly, I did read. I know that before I finished high school in the mid-80s I knew I wanted to be a fantasy novelist. I was already scribbling bits of stories in spiral notebooks. I knew all the tropes. But how did I manage to get to that point without having read a lot of the books that supposedly all fantasy nerds were reading at that time?

I was a big fairy tale fan as a child, with books of the tales, as well as the books/record albums of the Disney movies. I went through a “witch” phase in second and third grade, when Bewitched reruns were the big thing among the girls at school, but most of the books I read then wouldn’t really fit with the kind of fantasy I later to write (though they were closer to what I have ended up writing). I read The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis during my “horse” phase, but I don’t think it registered to me as fantasy, in spite of the talking horses, perhaps because I didn’t know it was part of a series. And, I guess, when you’ve read plenty of horse books that are actually narrated by horses, the talking horse thing doesn’t seem quite that fantastical. I read a lot of the Oz books, as well.

Probably my first experience with fantasy as fantasy would be The Hobbit, which I read in fourth grade. In sixth grade, I got into the Narnia books as fantasy, and then read The Lord of the Rings. Soon afterward, I read all of the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books.

I know I read the Katherine Kurtz Deryni books starting sometime in maybe my junior year of high school, and they were a huge influence on me wanting to write fantasy. I must have read The Sword of Shannara somewhere around this time because I know I was excited to find The Elfstones of Shannara in a used bookstore my senior year of high school. I had all the Alan Dean Foster Spellsinger series. I recall trying to read the first Thomas Covenant book and being repulsed, but I did read Donaldson’s Mirror books. I read Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, but that read more like historical fiction than like genre fantasy.

Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure what I was reading that made me aware of the tropes and wanting to write fantasy. At the time, there was no library in our town, so we had to get memberships in the library in a nearby small town, and I don’t think we found that option until maybe my sophomore year. Their fantasy offerings were rather limited, though I know that’s where I found the first Deryni book, The Sword of Shannara, and the Thomas Covenant book I tried. The only bookstore in the area with new books was the mall bookstore, which had maybe one shelf of fantasy, but there was a big used bookstore, and I remember spending a lot of time scouring the fantasy section (though, oddly, my current shelves don’t seem to reflect that, but I don’t get rid of a lot of fantasy books).

A lot of the stuff from that era I ended up reading in the 90s or later, like the Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series or the Eddings books.

I read pretty widely, so it wasn’t all fantasy. I also read a lot of mysteries, World War II thrillers, spy novels, and historical novels. Maybe I was captivated enough by the fantasy I did read to want to do that. Maybe some of what I read was obscure enough that it doesn’t show up on those lists. I have learned that some of the books from those “of course everyone has read these” lists don’t always hold up well. If they were among the first fantasy you read, back in the 80s, I’m sure they were captivating. If you read them for the first time more recently, after having read (and written) a lot more, they come across as kind of trite.

Maybe there were things I read that I don’t remember now but that planted some kind of seed in my imagination.

writing life

Finding the Joy

Oops, I wrote this blog post yesterday, but it seems I never actually got around to posting it. So, time to update it for today.

I finished my draft Tuesday! I had kind of planned to take a break from writing and do other stuff, but two hours later, I was working on something else, a project that’s gnawing at my brain. It’s still not ready for prime time, but I enjoy doing development work on it.

And then that night, yet another fiction universe that’s been in my head for a while popped up to make itself known. The whole opening scene came to me.

While it’s a little irritating because of the distraction, it’s also rather reassuring. I’ve been slogging through the last couple of projects, but being inspired by something may mean it’s the projects, not me. Writing something different may remind me that I started doing this because it was fun. I actually started thinking about whether I maybe needed to look into actual jobs, if I was slogging through writing the way I used to slog through my old career. But then I realized that there’s not much out there that I’d care to do that I’m qualified for, and I love the life I have too much. So what I need to do is find projects that feel like playing and find the joy again.

I still have to finish one of these projects and do a final draft. The other may get backburnered for a while because I need to love it again, and right now, I don’t. I’m going to work on things that feel like fun and maybe see if I can get excited again.