Reading

First Impressions Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I never thought there would come a day when I wouldn’t make time for reading. It seemed like it would always be part of my daily maintenance, like showering, eating meals, or snacking on gummy vitamins because they’re delicious and good for you and there’s no such thing as too many… right? RIGHT?

The thing is, once you have a baby you sort of forget to do all of those things. Your attention funnels into keeping this one, demanding little blob alive, and everything else blurs away.

I have had to claw my way back to reading (and showering, and eating, etc.) over the past couple of years, which renders this type of me-time even more valuable. It also makes it more difficult to decide what to read because I want it to count. I want it to be something that is equal parts thought-provoking, escapist, funny, romantic, exciting, and lovely.

I realize I’m asking a lot.

Oh, and it needs to prove it will be all of these things within the first chapter. When you’re short on time, you can’t wait around for a book to “get good.”

And I’m not the only one who needs to be wowed quickly — agents and editors rarely read beyond the first page of a manuscript if it’s not immediately snagging them in some way.

With that in mind, I present my First Impressions series: book reviews based on that pivotal first chapter — what it does well, what might be slowing it down, and whether it does enough to keep this busy mom reading into chapter two.

The first installment will be N.K. Jemison’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, an epic fantasy novel that, as an NPR article promised me, contains one of the best romances in modern literature.

The book starts:

“I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore. I must try to remember.”

These lines set the scene for the type of narration we’re going to see throughout the book; a character looking back and narrating her life after a series of monumental events. I don’t typically mind this style, but it bothered me that it kept inserting itself into the narrative.

On page two, she writes, “But I forget myself. Who was I, again? Ah, yes.”

It takes me out of the story and makes me wonder where in time this person is. And who this person is. We still haven’t learned her name (Yeine) at this point.

Yeine proceeds to explain her background and engage in a lot of world-building through our good old friend “telling rather than showing.” There are people who love this sort of thing. Give them all the details up front about the kingdoms and the maneuvering lords and ladies, and they’re set. I prefer a scene, particularly one that displays what the main character wants, and what’s keeping her from getting it. Stakes are so important, and they need to be clear up front.

The scene we’re eventually ushered into is the declaration by Yeine’s grandfather, high lord of Arameri, that she will battle her cousins — to the death — for the title of heir. To be fair, these are very high stakes. Still, I don’t get the sense I know anything about what Yeine really wants or cares about, apart from not dying. Is there something else she wanted to do with her life, is there someone at home she loved and now may never see again?

We get lots of background about her mother, who is now dead and who fled this kingdom to be with a man she loved (Yeine’s father). And this, to me, is the most interesting aspect of chapter one:

“My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.”

This is a gorgeous paragraph. There is so much history and emotion packed into these few sentences, and it shows off Jemisin’s skill as a writer. These little moments pop up every so often in the course of the first chapter and they do the story many favors.

But I’m still left feeling at the end of chapter one that I don’t really know Yeine, and by know, I simply mean grasping what motivates her. She’s a bit of a mystery, and I do want to know more, but also… I’m starting to struggle to care about her.

My conclusion? I did read beyond chapter one. But not beyond chapter three. The pace picks up and an exciting event transpires (Yeine must run for her life from a god/monster/unclear). But I still don’t get a sense of Yeine’s personality. Perhaps she’s meant to be an everywoman character. Perhaps I’m missing some truly stunning character development by not continuing. But like I said above, that time investment is a gamble I don’t wish to make anymore.

I get the sense that someday I might like to return to this series and give it another shot, maybe when Project Toddler is grown enough to stay out of my hair on the weekends, or at least when she’s old enough to wipe her own tush. I think I’d probably like Yeine a lot once she fights for herself and for any new friends she’ll make in her new home, or once she gets sassy towards grandpa. And the promise of a good love story is always the right hook for me.

For now, THTK stays on the shelf, but if any readers can convince me I simply must pick it back up, I’m open to revisiting it sooner rather than later.

writing

Writing By Hand in Wisconsin

Last week slipped away from me in a frustrating fashion. There were so many great presentations from the Women in Publishing Summit that I wanted to blog about, but then I found myself approaching the weekend and needing to prepare for my ladies’ retreat to The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Wisconsin. I say that in the most loving way possible because it was beautiful and quiet and open and just what I needed.

I mean, LOOK at this little farmhouse.

And the view:

And this DESK:

Everything about it screamed sit down and write. (It helps my productivity if a setting bosses me around a bit.) And that little ladder on the right? It leads to a tiny nook that satisfies my inner 8-year-old.

I didn’t grow up with a treehouse, so this seems as close as I’m likely to get to the magic of private, aerial spaces. Also, it was pretty hard to haul my thirty-year-old carcass up there, so I see now why you sort of age out of this particular magic.

This lovely rental home is just outside of New Glarus, Wisconsin, which is a surprisingly adorable town with Swiss charm, a top-notch brewery, and all the requisite cheese curds for a proper visit to America’s Dairyland.

Living in Chicago, I’m accustomed to the ordered houses and apartment buildings pressed close together like boxes on a pantry shelf. My eyes expect to see bodies moving up and down the street regardless of what time I look out the window. So there was something refreshing, then alarming, then almost thrilling about turning around in a complete circle and seeing no one — just flat, white fields broken up by plumes of dried grasses and wispy winter trees. Rather than looking or feeling dead, it seemed calm, waiting, knowing even better than us that spring always cycles back again.

It was the perfect place to pause, take a breath, and write a bit. My job and my daughter demand so many pieces of me, and the writer piece falls behind the shelf too often. But for one weekend, it took priority.

I didn’t feel like taking my laptop, which is my standard writing implement, so I dug an old notebook out of my closet and toted that instead. I often forget how tricky hand writing can be; it takes longer (for me), and you’re left with a bit of a mess on the page.

Lines are scratched out, carets stick my afterthoughts in, and question marks litter my areas of doubt.

But at the end of an hour, when I had perhaps written one decent sentence, quilted together from the salvaged remnants of the cuts, I thought about what that would look like on my computer.

It would have been a line and a half, and I would have released the long-suffering sigh of someone doomed to always see time move faster than progress.

Yet there’s something about getting to view every curvy line signifying a nope, and each convoluted arrow leading to a wait, this! It shows me the very real work I’ve done. The silent task of sliding the puzzle pieces to the front of my mind and snapping them into their ideal fit. The unseen effort of self-editing, finding the balance between word vomit and refinement.

It’s a mess, but so is the inside of my head.

Sometimes a physical representation of a mental struggle is all you need to feel validated.

So thank you, New Glarus, for the mac ‘n’ cheese pizza, the cracked pepper cheese curds, and the space to think on the page.

writing

Picking Your Publishing Route

One of today’s presentations from the Women in Publishing Summit featured a panel of women who run their own publishing businesses, be it a traditional press, hybrid press, or a self-publishing service.

These ladies all emphasized how important it is to figure out which type of publishing route is best for you as a writer, and how that decision has a lot to do with your intended audience.

If you’re looking to write something with mass market appeal and sell a million copies, then traditional publishing is probably already on your radar, and for good reason. The Big 5, or even smaller, independent presses have the resources to develop and market your book to mass audiences. The drawback is that you lose some creative authority in the process, and it often takes over a year from the time a book deal is made to the time it stands upon a bookstore shelf.

Self-publishing can look like a lot of different things, but it generally involves a massive DIY project on your part. Many companies exist to help with the steps though – editing, cover design, marketing, etc. It all comes down to how much you’re willing to do yourself. The benefit is that, upfront costs aside, this route has the highest royalty payout.

Hybrid publishing is exactly what it sounds like: a mix of aspects from traditional and self-publishing. You may be expected to provide upfront funding for things like editing or cover design, but you have access to the publisher’s platform, providing you with support and extra perks, which may or may not include a distribution agreement.

If your book is niche, like a Polish cookbook or a guide to knitting clothes for cats, it will likely only appeal to a small demographic, and you’re better off seeking a small press or a hybrid publisher. These businesses will guide you through every step of the process, but you will maintain more creative control, which is important when the subject is so specific. You are likely an expert on your topic, and you should be as involved as possible in the development process.

Another factor is how willing and able you are to build your own platform. These days, all publishers want you to do some of your own marketing, whether that’s blogging, tweeting, attending conferences, or hand-selling your own book at events. If you’re unprepared for this, a hybrid publisher may recommend you self-publish and build your platform before you attempt hybrid publishing. Since they’re making an investment in you (albeit not as large an investment as a traditional publisher), they need to know you’re savvy enough to sell your own books.

When going the hybrid or self-publishing route, beware of scams or shady practices. Always do your research before submitting to a publisher to make sure they seem legit. Some red flags include an urgent request for you to sign a contract right away, or a one-size-fits-all model. A publisher should always be willing to create a plan tailored to your specific needs.

The presentation ended with each panelist providing her top few tips for writers looking to explore their publishing options, and I’ve outlined them below.

Gail Woodward of Dudley Court Press:

1. Be clear about why you are writing your book (i.e. define your purpose).

2. Be clear about who you are writing for.

3. Be clear about whether amateur or professional publishing is right for you.

4. Start marketing now and keep marketing as long as you want to sell your book.

Elizabeth Turnbull of Light Messages Publishing:

1. It’s never too early to start building your platform.

2. Craft a good pitch for your book.

3. Do your research to determine whether the presses you’re submitting to are a good fit for you and your work.

Teri Rider of Top Reads:

Have a great cover that fits your market and genre. You want it to look like it could sit on a shelf with other books in your genre. To this end: hire a book designer, not just a regular graphic designer. A book designer knows exactly how every cover and flap should be laid out.

Kate Stead of Old Mate Media:

Decide if you want to make a money investment or a time investment. Hybrid publishing will require more of a money commitment, while self-publishing will require a large investment of your own time.

Annalisa Parent of Date with a Muse:

You’re not alone in this. There are a ton of people who help writers through every step of the process. Reach out for the help you need.

writing

Write What Scares You

Today kicked off the 2019 Women in Publishing Summit, an online conference catering to the ladies who write, edit, design, market, and do anything else in the service of creating books and getting them into the hands of readers.

The presentation I focused on today was Joan Dempsey’s “The Value of Highly Contentious Topics in Fiction.” It drew my interest because most of what I write centers around those hot-button issues that tend to draw debate and ire.

Dempsey’s advice was this: write what scares you. Don’t be afraid of your readers’ response to you exploring contentious issues.

“[Stephen King] gets hate mail,” Dempsey says. “He gets people writing to him and berating him for being racist or sexist or homophobic… because he writes characters who embody those traits. He does it so well that people believe Stephen King is those things, when what he has done is embody those characters so fully and so fearlessly.”

I’ve been plagued by concerns about misrepresenting people of color or people with a different sexual orientation or gender identity. I don’t want to be another straight, white person who thinks she knows what these different walks of life entail.

But I always come back to the fact that we have to try. Because if we don’t, then we’re implying we’re not even interested in having the conversation. We’re so afraid of getting it wrong, that we neglect representation.

So, let’s write on, sometimes getting it right, other times getting it wrong, either way getting some hate mail (or hate tweets). Let’s be humble enough to know we barely know anything, and cocky enough to say we’re going to try anyway.