Saturday, December 18, 2021

My Favorite Books of 2021

Stephen King said, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." In my endeavor to improve my writing, I wanted to read a lot in 2021 (plus, reading is just fun!). I'm happy to say, I surpassed my goal of reading 70 books this year. Because I read so many books, quite a few stood out for me. I can't sing the praises of every book I read, but I can point out a few.

1. Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark - In this novella, Clark portrays the KKK as literal monsters who are hellbent on destroying the world. The heroes of this novella fight the KKK with love, weapons, and the ring shout, a religious experience derived from African dance.

2. Educated by Tara Westover - This is the story of a woman who grew up in a survivalist family in Idaho and who didn't experience formal education until college. Her childhood was anything but ordinary, and the way she pursued education in every sense of the word makes for a read you can't put down.

3. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones - The horror in this novel builds slowly and quietly until it leaps out at you like the ultimate jump scare in your favorite scary movie. And you'll never look at elk the same again.

4. Beach Read by Emily Henry - This romance novel features the "enemies to lovers" trope. A romance writer and a literary writer meet up years after they were rivals in college and, in an attempt to overcome their writers' block, decide to write in one another's genre. This novel is perfect for readers of romance, and as a writer, I found it absolutely delightful and full of truth about the craft and the way people regard genres other than their own.

5. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman - Time is our most precious commodity. We only have so much of it (only four thousand weeks, if we live an average lifetime). How are we going to spend our time? This is a book on productivity, but not in the way you think. It's not about cramming something into every second of every day, but rather, it leads you to think about the best ways to spend your time. What matters most to you? How are you going to use your precious four thousand weeks? There's no pressure to do more, but to use your time well.

6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - This is not a new book, but I hadn't read it until this year. Up front you know terrible things are going to happen to the characters. I mean, Death is one of the narrators! But that doesn't matter because Liesel is so compelling, and the people in her life are so compelling, that you must absolutely know more about them. Keep your box of tissues handy.

7. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler - This is another on my list that isn't new, but again, I hadn't read it before. This is a classic science fiction book about an African-American woman who travels back in time to when her white, slave-owning ancestor needs saving. Talk about a complicated relationship and family dynamics. This is an excellent time travel story that portrays the life of slaves in America in the 1800s, and the way we all carry the legacy of slavery and cruelty with us.

8. Hail Mary by Andy Weir - I hesitated about picking up this book because I was expecting another The Martian. But while the main character, Ryland, has witty interior thoughts and dialogue and it seems that he'll be alone throughout most of the book--much like the set up for The Martian--things take a turn early on. I don't want to spoil it, but this book gripped me and ended up making me cry.

9. The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson - Here's the final not-new book on my list. I really enjoyed the show Longmire and had considered picking up the first book about Walt Longmire for a while. It's sort of a murder mystery, sort of a police procedural, sort of a western. Walt is an educated, thoughtful sheriff in Wyoming. He's a complicated guy. And Johnson does a great job of portraying Wyoming to the point where the landscape becomes a character and a complication for the story.

10. Her Honor: My Life on the Bench... What Works, What's Broken, and How to Change It by LaDoris Hazzard Cordell - Judge Cordell was the first African-American woman on the Superior Court in northern California. She served on a variety of cases, from small claims court to mental health cases, divorces to custody cases, juvenile court to murder trials. She saw it all and has great insight into how to make the justice system better. This book was eye opening in how the legal system works and what it's like being a judge.

This list represents a variety of books, from fiction to non-fiction, romance to horror, science fiction to mysteries. I enjoy reading across all genres because there's entertainment in them all, and something to learn from them all. Please share what your favorite books of the year were!

Monday, November 22, 2021

Filling the Well During Pandemics

 There's a term I learned at the Odyssey Writing Workshop years ago--filling the well. It means, essentially, that you fill your life with experience, ideas, moments, and anything that will go on to serve as story fodder. In the past I've used, as inspiration: things my son has said, new places I've visited (like a Yucatan cenote), current events, strong emotions that stuck with me. Now, this isn't to say you should do things for the sake of writing stories. But anything can become an idea, which can become a story.

Devil's Punchbowl on Oregon Coast
What happens during a pandemic, though? For the better part of a year and a half, I found my world vastly constricted. I worked, I went home, I hurried through my shopping. I no longer lingered in coffee shops, writing new words or overhearing interesting conversations. I no longer ventured out to new places. I no longer met up with friends. I continued to dip into the well, but I wasn't putting much back into it.

One of my goals for this year was to write twelve short stories. I've written nine, and this month I tried writing the tenth. I came at it one way, then another, moving from a humorous satire to something much darker. Neither worked. I finish much of what I write, but not everything. I coax my stories along, but sometimes it feels more like I'm beating my head against the wall, and when I reach that point, as I did with this story, I reluctantly stop. I have to admit to myself that I might not reach that desired number twelve. I have to remind myself that, while I've done some traveling and returned to the dojo this year, I have not yet returned to normal, and I'm trying to draw on a well that is still running low.

What I'm going to do instead is finish up George Saunder's A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, in which he shares some of what he teaches his students about the greats in Russian literature. I am listening to it as an audiobook, which I'm really enjoying. Different narrators read the stories, and Saunders himself, with a wry bit of humor from time to time, reads his lessons. I find listening to the stories and to Saunders seems to let the lessons and the words themselves seep in better. Already I'm looking at my own fiction a little differently, and I'm looking at what I read a little differently.

This week I wrote in a coffeeshop for the first time in nearly two years. It was absolute bliss, even if I set aside what I wrote because it wasn't working. I'm going to do that again, toy around with some ideas, absorb the conversations I overhear, and people watch. I'm going to fill the well a little more, and then try again. It's all any of us can do.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

A Year of Meditating

 In November 2020, I took up meditation.

I wrote about it before, shortly after I started. I had a strange reaction to meditation initially. As I wrote back then, I felt a lot of rage and was much more quick to anger than usual. I thought I was doing something wrong. But as it turns out, when you turn attention upon yourself, your mind, and your thoughts, of course that's very uncomfortable.

At this point, I've meditated nearly every day for about a year. I've listened to lectures on meditation. I've done my own mini retreat at home. And I've learned a few things.

First, once I got past the initial extreme discomfort of meditating, which led to so much anger, I found myself getting better at recognizing thoughts and emotions as they popped up, which meant they had less power over me. I became less reactive, which was most noticeable on social media. It's been pretty great, to be honest.

Second, I became a little less wrapped up in myself and felt more compassion for people around me. I was kinder. I had less of a tendency to judge other people and was more forgiving. I've been more generous with my money and my time. That, too, has been pretty great.

Third, I've been more grateful overall and have spent more time noticing the everyday things that make me happy and bring me joy. It's usually something as simple as sitting on my couch with my family with the fireplace on in the winter, or having an uninterrupted stretch of time to read a good book, or watching the gold and red leaves dance on the wind during autumn like fairies. This has also been great!

Fourth, my attention span has improved. Oh, I still get distracted, and I think ultimately I need to cut social media completely out of my life to really see significant improvement, but meditation has helped me focus better.

While I've meditated for a year at this point, I feel like I'm still just scratching the surface. It's certainly a lifelong endeavor, and it's hard to remember to meditate during super stressful situations or throughout the course of a busy day. But I'm gradually getting there. I would like to go on a short retreat one of these days (with other people around, OMG!), or even do another mini retreat on my own.

Some resources I've found helpful:

Waking up with Sam Harris--This is the app I use daily. There's an introductory series as well as other special series, plus a daily meditation. There are guests, a Q&A with Sam, and other tidbits of wisdom.

Ten Percent Happier Podcast with Dan Harris--No relation to Sam Harris. There are lots of great guests, meditations, and other resources here.

Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation--Lots of great resources here, including How To's, apps, trainings, and more.

Monday, October 11, 2021

2021 Reading Challenge and Bullet Journal

Stephen King has a lot of great advice for writers. One of his pearls of wisdom is, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." So for this year, I wanted to read more books. Initially I thought I would set 52 as a goal for myself, so that's what I wrote in my bullet journal. But when I went to Goodreads to set my challenge, that wild, impulsive part of me entered the number 70 as a goal for the year.

I hadn't read as much as usual the past few years. Well, maybe I read a lot last year, but I wasn't keeping track. Hell, I was barely functioning. It was 2020. 'Nuff said. But before that, I hadn't read as much fiction as usual. So I wanted to push myself to read more (and consequently, get off social media more often).

Now, bullet journals were new to me last year. I considered starting one a few years ago, but when I looked at what they entailed, my brain started spinning, and I plugged my ears with my fingers and started saying, "Lalalalala, I can't heeeaaarrrr you!" I would just keep track of things on my phone, thank you very much.

But that phone calendar deletes stuff after a while. So I look back, trying to figure out when I did something, and... it's not there. But bullet journals are forever. Unless the house burns down. Ahem, pardon my anxiety talking. See above reference to the year 2020.

Some friends showed me that bullet journals could, indeed, be helpful for tracking things, and that they needn't be overwhelming, or done a certain way. They could literally track anything. Anything! So I went hog wild and made graphs for running (I just like graphs, okay?) and little squares to track my writing, and to track practicing kendo, and for meditation when I took that up last year (again, 2020, amiright?).

For this year, then, I made a pretty two page spread and drew in my own shelves, and 52 books with blank spines. It looked like a lot! I started questioning my impulsive decision to publicly announce my intention to read 70 books on Goodreads. But then I started filling in those spines. Each time, I had this little visceral reaction of satisfaction and enjoyment, much like collecting stickers from the teacher when I was in elementary school. This reinforced my desire to read, which reinforced my desire to not check social media quite so often.

I eventually ran out of space in my 2021 bullet journal because I messed up some pages and overestimated what I would need for some. That in itself is an accomplishment, the not freaking out about the journal not being perfect and exactly "as it should be." It's messy in some parts, pretty in others, and simply functional in still others. But the two page spread where I tracked books is among my favorite out of the entire journal. My filling in 52 spines coincided with my running out of room in this journal, which felt quite satisfying. And now I've started a new journal and a new two page spread for tracking books I've read.

Since I've already blown my original 52 book goal out of the water, I think I might possibly end up reaching that 70 book goal. I have to admit, some books have been consumed while doing errands, driving, etc on, which, by the way, is a way to buy audiobooks while supporting local independent bookstores instead of that giant company with the passive aggressive smile on its boxes. I've also picked up some novellas along the way. But, to counterbalance the novellas, I've also read some doorstoppers, so it all comes out even in the end.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Analysis of Causal Chain

 One of the weaknesses in my writing is the lack of a causal chain. There aren't all that many resources out there on causal chain, but it ties in strongly to plot, character, and beats. Since it's one of my weaknesses, I might not do such a great job describing what it is, but here goes.

Character action should unfold organically, with one decision leading to a consequence that prompts another decision, leading to another consequence, and so on and so forth, ideally squeezing the protagonist into a corner and leading to character growth. Patricia Wrede describes it as dominoes falling. In other words, the story should unfold as if there's no other way it could possibly happen. Sounds easy, right? *cue hysterical laughter*

My stories suffer from an acute lack of causal chain. Sometimes I think things are happening organically, but readers will tell me the plot seems manipulated. So I decided to delve a little more deeply into a novella I've enjoyed before, namely All Systems Red by Martha Wells. I remembered it being fast-paced, with a likable protagonist. A novella offers more opportunity to study causal chain than a short story would, but it's not a massive undertaking like breaking down a novel might be. Spoilers are about to happen, so if you haven't read the novella but plan to, go do so! I'll wait.

The interesting thing about All Systems Red is that the first domino is set up in Murderbot's backstory, before the events of this novella even begin. Murderbot has hacked their governor module, allowing them to make their own decisions, rather than having to do whatever their human crew tells them. And because Murderbot has hacked their module, they've downloaded and watched a gazillion hours worth of shows, picking up on all sorts of interesting ideas and learning more about human interactions. Murderbot also can't let anyone know they've hacked their module, otherwise they will most likely have that module yanked out and a functioning one put in. That little bit of backstory gets a lot of the plot going right off the bat. There's more backstory related to why Murderbot hacked their governor module, but the reader doesn't need to know this at the beginning of the story.

The story opens with Murderbot wanting to go back to the solitude of the habitat to watch shows, but they're out on an expedition with some crew members, providing help and protection as needed. The two crew members are in a crater when there's an explosion as a giant, heretofore unknown hostile beast leaps out of the ground. In the opening scene of the story, I counted five chains (not including the one that comes in the backstory, namely, the hacked governor module). Those chains are:

-Because there's an explosion in the crater where Dr. Bharadwaj and Dr. Volescu are working, Murderbot jumps in to help (immediate consequence where Murderbot puts their own self in danger).

-Because Murderbot jumps into a hostile beast's mouth to pull out Dr. Bharadwaj and shoot the creature, they lose part of their armor and a good chunk of their arm (immediate consequence leading to complications later in this scene, AND sets up consequences later when Murderbot has to wear regular clothes instead of armor, making them vulnerable both physically and emotionally during a conversation with the crew).

-Because Dr. Volescu is in shock and won't move, and because Murderbot is carrying an injured Dr. Bharadwaj, they remove their face shield to show their human face and talk to Dr. Volescu like they've seen in their shows, getting him to climb out of the crater to safety; a SecUnit with a functioning governor module would not normally do this (ongoing consequences; the crew sees Murderbot's face and realizes they are very much human-like, if not 100% organic, which leads to the crew trying to talk to Murderbot about their feelings... awkward!).

-Because Murderbot can't put Dr. Bharadwaj down due to injuries, they're invited into the ship cabin, which is normally for humans only, creating a lot of feelings of awkwardness for Murderbot who normally likes to remain unnoticed (immediate consequences, forcing Murderbot into a space they hadn't been in before, and forcing them to remain close to the crew).

-Because Murderbot doesn't have a functioning governor module, when Dr. Ratthi says he'll go out and grab the equipment left behind, they shout, "No!" although at the same time as the humans, so this isn't quite noticed by the crew, and they all take off just before a hostile bursts out of the ground for the ship (this isn't such a strong chain because there aren't any significant consequences since the crew doesn't really notice this unusual behavior, but it keeps Murderbot on edge; so maybe this isn't a chain after all, or maybe it's a beat that could have been strengthened by having a crew member actually notice this.)

In the second scene of the first chapter, there are only three chains. The second scene has less action and is more about Murderbot making repairs to their body and the crew starting to figure out what happened. Subsequent chapters and scenes have fewer chains, too, until the middle of the novella, and then later during the climax, where the tension rises and the stakes rise.

So, in moments of greater tension, there are more chains. And, a lot of the actions taken by Murderbot in this first scene lead to consequences throughout the novella in addition to having more immediate consequences. Murderbot's actions have consequences for both external and internal conflict. For instance, because Murderbot removed their face shield and talked Dr. Volescu out of the crater, the crew hones in on that when they watch video of the incident later, remarking how unusual it is. And, they've never seen Murderbot's face before. It's a real moment of vulnerability for Murderbot, and it leads to a lot of awkward discussions with the crew as they try to get to know their SecUnit better, which is the last thing Murderbot wants.

In moments with fewer chains, the story delves more into world building, moments of characterization, or exposition. Murderbot still makes choices in those instances, some of which lead to deepening relationships with the crew members, some which lead to how they plan to stay alive, giving the story the feeling that things are moving along even though there isn't much action.

I think it's much easier to set up a strong causal chain before writing the story, but analysis afterwards can certainly point out weak areas. I think it's also easy to fool one's self into thinking there's a causal chain when there isn't. Actions like those outlined above should have lingering consequences to make for stronger chains (and a stronger narrative). And, they should make things worse for the protagonist, like making a Murderbot feel uneasy about talking about their feelings.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The One Year Anniversary None of Us Wanted

Getting outdoors kept me sane
 It's been roughly one year since things began shutting down in the United States due to Covid. March 13th was the last day my son went to in person school, and he has yet to return, although he begins hybrid school at the beginning of April. I cancelled my family's trip to Hawaii which, had we followed through with, would have been cut short by several days as the islands started booting people out. Instead, I worked, and I tried to navigate ever changing information about the virus and how to prevent catching it and spreading it. My patients began cancelling, saying they wanted to minimize exposure to people. I wondered how long the world would be like this, how long we would remain isolated. That was one of the worst aspects, not knowing when it would end. It's the ending that makes it easier to endure unpleasant, painful things.

The apocalypse is pretty
I took up cross stitching to pass the time. I re-read my favorite series because it had been a while, and the books always bring me comfort (the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold). I watched the Marvel movies in chronological order. I watched the Star Wars movies in an alternate order, starting with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, then watching the prequels as if they were a flashback, then resuming them in order. Rogue One was somewhere in there, although I forget where. I tried watching Tiger King and couldn't get into it at all; everybody seemed so sad and desperate, and I couldn't get past their pain. I watched as police officers kneeled on George Floyd long enough to kill him, breaking my heart and the hearts of so many others. I watched people I had known all my life fall victim to conspiracy theories. I watched people shrug off Covid deaths because they happened (mostly) to older people and those with medical conditions making them more vulnerable. I watched as fires ate across the western U.S. and came as close as seven miles of my home, prompting me to pack bags with essentials just in case we had to leave. I watched in amazement as scientists worked tirelessly to come up with vaccines for Covid in record breaking time. I watched an election, and I watched people rage against the results, culminating in the embarrassing spectacle at the Capitol in early January.

At this point, I've received both of my vaccinations. Most of my immediate family has been vaccinated, as have many of my elderly patients. Businesses are starting to open up, although I remain somewhat leery about jumping in. I got to know my neighbors much, much better because there was nowhere to go for the longest time. We just sort of started getting together outdoors, keeping our distance, masking up. We shared food, tea, cleaning supplies. Our kids kept their distance outdoors and rode their bikes and scooters, drew with chalk, kicked balls. Getting to know them has been one of the bright spots in this pandemic, as has the new meditation practice I began in November.

Thank goodness for pets during lockdown
Things will never get back to pre-pandemic normal, but people will soon be able to gather again. Concerts and sporting events will return. Movie theaters will someday be packed with people for opening night of a new blockbuster movie. Airports will be busy, flights will be packed. Masks will eventually go away, although since I was not sick at all last year (for the first time in a long time), I probably will not give up mask wearing completely. I like not being sick. And as the Dread Pirate Roberts said, "It's just that masks are terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future."

What I'm looking forward to most is returning to the dojo to practice kendo with my friends, going to a concert, going to a basketball game or a football game, traveling on a plane with a nice alcoholic beverage as I begin my vacation, running a race with a bunch of other runners and people cheering us on. There is still no definite end to this ordeal, no specific date when we can declare victory, but there is the sense that it will end, which is a far better place to be than we were a year ago.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

February 2021 Reading Challenge

February is a short month, but I still managed to read a few books in honor of Black History Month. One of those books was as long as the month is short--A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. In it, President Obama details some of the time in his youth and leading up to his run for President, and he covers part of his presidency. It's a fascinating look into one of the most powerful positions in the world, and a fascinating look into the mind of one of the most brilliant people to hold the position. At times it can be tedious, and I think anyone interested in delving deeply into politics will enjoy every sentence, but on the whole it's a good read.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya is a memoir of a woman who fled Rwanda with her older sister when she was six years old. For the next six years they moved from one refugee camp to another, lived for a while with her sister's husband's family, until they finally found themselves in the U.S. with a foster family. This is beautifully written, and the prose is absolutely magical, and so it makes the horrific parts all that much worse. This one really stayed with me, and I continue to think about Clemantine often.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is a YA fantasy novel about ostracized young women who bleed gold, have superhuman strength and speed, and are trained to fight against Deathshrieks. This novel was just plain fun, and I can't wait for the second in the series.

I rounded out the month with The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin. Holy wow, can that woman write. I found the novel a little dense at first, but once I got the hang of the world and the religion, I tore through the story. This one had been sitting in my TBR pile for a while, in part because I wasn't sure I was in the mood to read something about sleep and dreaming. But oh, this is so much more than that. Jemisin never pulls any punches in her stories, which is what makes me read them with one hand over my eyes, peeking through my fingers, hoping against hope that her poor characters will make it through unscathed. Reader, they never do.