Back in the U.S.

After over two years in Taiwan I’m finally back in the United States. I’ll be here for all of June and July, catching up with family and friends. Hopefully I’ll manage to sneak in a little writing as well.

The Northland Chronicles 3: Desolation’s Wake is currently with proofreaders. As always, mailing list members will see the cover art and learn the release date first. I welcome you to sign up here.

An early fall release seems likely.

John Osborne draws near.

Books to Help You Write

Word on the street is that great authors possess an innate quality that separates them from us lesser, barely literate souls. Supposedly these superior writers emerge from the womb with a silver pen and begin composing Shakespearean sonnets while still attached to the umbilical cord.

That’s the myth. Here’s the truth:

Great writers are not born. They’re made.

Sure, writers spend much of their time alone in dingy rooms, clacking at fingertip-sized plastic squares. But a writer who hasn’t borrowed and learned from others is a writer with nothing to write.

Writers are inspired by the books they read and the people they talk to. Even the author of Beowulf talked to his toothless uncle about the finer points of alliterative verse.

Some writers take courses about writing. Others read books about writing.

Countless books have paved my journey as a writer. Below are a few of my favorites. I’ll update this list as I discover more.

The Must-Reads

Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint

Orson Scott Card

This is the first book about writing that I read. It’s also the best.

Before reading this book I had only a vague understanding of viewpoint in fiction writing. I recognized that authors often wrote chapters or entire books that focused on a single character, but failed to grasp the underlying mechanics.

This book taught me how viewpoint works. This lesson alone undoubtedly saved me much frustration in my writing career. The tips about characters and the fun and friendly writing style are like the icing on Ender’s birthday cake … not that Mr. Card ever rewarded Ender with a birthday cake.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy

David Gerrold

Whereas Mr. Card’s book is invaluable for writers of every genre, this one focuses on helping sci-fi and fantasy writers.

This book broaches numerous topics — everything from world building, to making a living as a writer, to the benefits of writing in E-Prime.

This book also introduced me to the idea that a writer’s first million words are for practice. While I don’t strictly believe this idea, it impressed upon me the importance of perseverance in forging a career as a writer.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

John Gardner

In the opening pages of this book, Gardner makes it clear that he has impeccable literary taste. He goes out of his way to rag on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I nearly put this book down for that tirade alone.

I’m glad I kept reading. Because if you look beyond Gardner’s opinions, you will find a hearty serving of helpful advice.

Gardner discusses everything from sentence structure to plot. His explanation of the “fictional dream” and his advice for crafting effective sentences are especially valuable.

The book focuses on literary fiction, but writers of all genres will find value in it. Check it out!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King

This book was published in 2000. Adverb use plummeted in the ensuing years and never recovered. Such is the power of Mr. King’s advice.

The book isn’t strictly about how to write. Mr. King uses about half of it to tell us his life story. Though I’m hardly a die-hard Stephen King fan, the autobiographical sections kept me turning the pages.

Some of the content is controversial within writers’ circles. That’s to be expected of a book this popular. I suggest you borrow a copy from your library, pore through it, and form your own conclusions about what the king of horror has to say.

The Next Tier

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story

Ursula K. Le Guin

Because I immensely enjoyed both the Earthsea trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness, I had high expectations for this book. While I did glean a few useful tips from it, I found it generally disappointing.

It was very short, for one, with lots of white space bolstering its page count. Also, much of the advice is better tailored to writing groups than individuals.

That said, her recommendation to think twice before using adverbs like somehow and suddenly has stuck with me. Her advice in this regard is more nuanced than Stephen King’s.

Ms. Le Guin is the rare SFF author whose best works fuse exemplary ideas with powerful prose. She is a master of her craft. Maybe you’ll find more value in her advice than I did.

Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing

Libbie Hawker

Ms. Hawker’s brief guide to outlining, released in 2015, comes highly recommended. The reason it’s in this tier and not in the “must reads” is because of its brevity and limited scope.

Libbie begins by telling us why we should outline. She then guides us through her process, demonstrating how to build a novel around what she calls a “story core.” If you’ve considered outlining your stories but are unsure where to start, this is the book for you.

Again, this is short. You could read it in an hour and then put it away forever. You’d probably be better served by referring back to it multiple times.

The Problem of Reading in Translation

Finally I finished War and Peace.

I thought Tolstoy’s epic might take me a few weeks to read. Maybe a month at worst. In the end my struggle endured for many moons.

Though I read the book regularly, I found it difficult to gain momentum. I would sneak in 5 pages here or push through 10 pages there. At no point was I compelled to stay up all night and discover what happens next. I even found myself diving into other novels because Tolstoy couldn’t command my interest.

With many other books I wouldn’t find this unusual, but Tolstoy’s epic is in a class of its own. It’s heralded as one of the greatest novels ever. It should hold its weight even after all these years.

Needless to say I was disappointed.

Lost in Translation

War and Peace is a Russian novel with snippets of French. Because I don’t speak the language of Putin (nyet!), I read one of the many English translations. And therein lies a complication.

Was Tolstoy’s writing the source of my disappointment, or was I merely reading a flat translation?

Without reading another translation (or brushing up on my Russian), I can’t answer this question.

Literary translation is tricky. Not only must the translator communicate the story, he or she must also capture the author’s style and render it into another language. This task only becomes more difficult as the gap between the original and target languages widens. A simple verb in one language may not have a direct parallel in another. An everyday object in one culture will be foreign to readers on another continent.

Translators have to navigate all these issues. And they have to do so while ensuring that the prose still flows.

The Many Voices of War

There are at least 10 different English translations of War and Peace. I researched these various editions and chose the most widespread one, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude in 1923. It’s generally regarded as the best of the pre-World War II translations.

Having now finished the book, I wonder if I selected the right one.

Should I have read a more vivid modern translation, such as Anthony Briggs’ 2005 edition? There is also the Ann Dunnigan translation, which critics claim best maintains the nuances of Tolstoy’s language. Pevear & Volokhonsky’s recent translation also looks appealing.

Would I have found one of these editions more enjoyable? Without rereading the 1200+ pages of Tolstoy’s classic in a different translator’s voice I have no way of finding out. I can only peruse forum threads on the subject and imagine what might have been.

Seven Secrets to Reading More Books

Pile of books

I should read more.

No matter how much or how little we read, it never feels like enough.

Maybe you enjoyed reading in high school but can no longer find the time. Or maybe you read 50 books a year but want to read even more.

The seven tips below will help you do just that.

1. Make time to read

These days we have Netflix, smartphones, Youtube, and the NBA playoffs competing for our relaxation time. Squeezing in a few books can be difficult, but it’s not impossible.

If you scan your schedule, you should be able to find a few chunks of time that could be conducive to reading. For example, when I was taking Chinese classes I rode the bus to class and back. When I didn’t have a quiz or test to study for I would read.

The bus ride was about 20 minutes each way. That’s 40 minutes of reading time. Even a slow reader like me can turn a lot of pages in 40 minutes.

Maybe you can read during lunch. Maybe before bed. Maybe right after you wake up. Carve little reading blocks into your schedule and stick to them.

2. Read even when you don’t want to

Reading is like pumping a well. Sometimes you need to crank that handle for a while before water gushes out.

Even a nail-biter of a book can take a long time to gain steam when compared to movies and television. If you want to read more, you’ll have to accept that sometimes you need to spend a few hours with a book before it draws you in and refuses to let go.

On the other hand, if you find you’re always forcing yourself to read, perhaps you need to …

3. Read books you love

Seriously. Life is short. You might die tomorrow. Do you want to spend your last day on earth reading space opera drivel by L. Ron Hubbard when there are so many better choices available?

Don’t hesitate to abandon a book you aren’t enjoying, especially if you’re still struggling to form a reading habit.

Good books beget avid readers. Bad books cause people’s eyes to fall out. (Good thing we have audiobooks!)

4. Find your niche

Do you like science fiction? Fantasy? Romance? Thrillers? Mysteries?

Without experimenting it can be hard to know. I used to think myself an avid sci-fi and fantasy fan, but over the last few years I’ve realized that well-written mysteries also captivate me.

Once you find a few authors you like, it becomes easier to find more books you’ll like. You’ll narrow down your tastes and won’t waste time reading books you don’t enjoy.

5. Read what you want to read, not what you should read

There’s no greater buzzkill than doing what you should do instead of what you want to do.

Your friend tells you that you really should read War and Peace, because it’s the most epicly long epic novel of all time, but you’d rather read L. Ron Hubbard? Great!

People have been telling you for years about what a wonderful book 1984 is, but you’d prefer to read Fifty Shades of Grey? No problem!

Writing that last sentence may have caused vomit to spontaneously materialize on my keyboard. Excuse me for a moment while I clean it up.

Anyway, the point is that it doesn’t matter what I think you should read, what your mom thinks you should read, or what Oprah thinks you should read. You should read what you want to read. And maybe later, once you’ve gotten a few books under your belt, you’ll be ready to indulge in these literary classics that your friends and enemies have been foisting on you for years.

6. Always have the next book ready

Want to know the secret to reading less?

Read one book. Then wait weeks, months, or years before picking up another.

There is no better way to read fewer books, short of never starting any books at all.

I usually have the next book locked and loaded. If I haven’t decided which book I’ll read next, I keep a few options on the carousel so that I can choose one and start flipping the pages.

When I finish one book, I’m either so excited about reading that I want to start a new book the very same day, or I’m so fed up with having wasted my time on a terrible book that I want to find a better one ASAP.

By always having a book waiting in the firing chamber, I’m prepared for both contingencies.

7. Use technology to your advantage

Technology destroyeth attention spans. I know. You know. Your Facebook friends know.

But what technology destroyeth it can also saveth. (Although mayhaps ye old English is beyond saving.)

*ahem*

This is 2015. The future is now!

Next year will be 2016. But … the future is still now!

I have two (futuristic!) tech tips for you.

Sign up for a Goodreads account (and use it!)

Reading is social. Believe it or not your friends read. Sign up for Goodreads and you will discover this for yourself.

And if your friends don’t read, you can make friends that do.

Goodreads will help you track your reading progress. Its book recommendations aren’t half bad either. Check it out.

Consider getting your grubby paws on e-book reader

I know some people appreciate the feel of dead trees in their hands. And even though I’m a card-carrying member of the e-reader revolution, I too occasionally enjoy paging through a real book.

On the other hand, real books are inconvenient. If there’s a particular book you want to read, you have to track it down. That means either driving to a bookstore or library, or ordering it online waiting for it to be shipped down a certain river that’s shorter than the Nile but longer than the Yangtze.

With an e-book reader you have instant access to hundreds of thousands of books. Anytime. Anywhere.

Better yet, the latest readers have immaculate, high-resolution screens. The words on my Kobo are every bit as clear as those in a real book. And because it uses e-ink it’s not hard on the eyes like an ordinary smartphone or tablet.

I love my Kobo. Many others will wax poetic about a certain Amazonian product instead. Whichever reader you choose, a limitless realm of digital books awaits.

Header photo by Callum Scott

The Next Book

No cover. No blurb. No release date.

Only a title:

Desolation’s Wake

More details forthcoming.

Ant Eggs and Tadpoles (The Many Tastes of Thailand)

In last week’s post I promised photos highlighting oft-overlooked Thai dishes.

As you might’ve guessed from the title, this is that post.

Below are 16 photos. I sorted them roughly from most ordinary to most unusual.

These photos may make you queasy. I won’t hold it against you very much if you choose to close your browser window before reaching the bottom.

You’ve been warned.

Continue reading

Photos from Thailand

thai4

Northwest Thailand

Has it really been a over a week since I returned from Thailand?

It’s great when a country exceeds your expectations. Thailand certainly turned out to be a much different place than I’d expected.

I felt exceedingly safe throughout the trip. Bangkok was far cleaner and more modern than I’d anticipated. Chiang Mai was a nice quiet place to spend a few days.

Thailand has it’s quirks of course. But what country doesn’t?

Needless to say, I can see myself paying Thailand another visit.

Below are a few choice photos from my journey. Continue reading