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Marissa Lingen

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In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan [Apr. 5th, 2016|07:06 am]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by the author. Full disclosure: she is also a personal friend.

I don’t see any reason that you wouldn’t want to go back and read all the books in this series. A Natural History of Dragons is the first one, and it’s a good one, so: you can start there! It’s fine! But while I am usually a fan of reading things in their proper order, now that I’m an adult and live in a state with good libraries and mostly can, and while there are elements from this book that carry over from the previous ones, I think that actually it would be a perfectly reasonable book to read if you don’t have the others to hand to start with.

So. In case you weren’t with us for the previous three books: this is a quasi-Victorian lady who is a dragon naturalist, traveling the world having adventures and making thrilling discoveries about Dragons: How Do They (And Their Biology) Work. There are also discoveries about related species, about archaeology, about various cultures of her world, unwanted forays into human politics that Isabella (Lady Trent) finds annoying…but mostly there is dragon naturalism. Lots and lots of dragon naturalism.

(I was going to say that this is not to be confused with dragon naturism but I don’t recall a single one of the dragons wearing pants, so you know what? Knock yourself out, dragon naturism too.)

This one is a desert setting, with Isabella teaming up with locals to figure out dragon breeding in captivity if in fact it can be figured out at all. Gossip from at home and abroad plagues her and must be…dealt with. She is set upon by foreign spies and difficulties with logistics. Will she prevail? Well. Sorta. That’s the book, right there. There’s one more left to go, and I think there was snow foreshadowing for it in this one. At least I hope so….

Please consider using our link to buy In the Labyrinth of Drakes from Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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The Nameless City, by Faith Erin Hicks [Apr. 4th, 2016|05:55 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is a graphic novel that I think should be reasonably entertaining for anyone who likes its type of story from age about 7 or 8 up. It has fighter training and moments of violence, but not more than you would see on, say, Avatar: The Last Airbender–it’s not a graphic graphic novel, if that makes any sense. Nobody is having smoochy time. The main characters are kids, but their concerns aren’t trivial or mired in the kind of jokes that a friend of mine used to call “sixth grade fart poop penis jokes,” where the entire punchline is that body parts and functions exist. So basically I don’t see an upper age limit on the appeal to this book.

Older readers will spot that the multicultural city of the title is drawing many of its visual elements from East Asian cultures, but I don’t think that the mishmash should be any kind of detriment to enjoyment–rather the opposite. The two young main characters, Kai and Rat, are from different cultures within the city, very different backgrounds and lives, and while the arc of their friendship won’t be a new one to anyone much over 7, it’s a classic for a reason. They have things to learn from each other and things to share as equals.

And contrary to my initial fears from the first few pages, there are not interminable training sequences–just enough to whet the appetites of fantasy fans who like that sort of thing. Whew.

This is the first in a series, but it’s also a self-contained story, so people like myself who prefer an actual ending will not be frustrated by a complete “to be continued…” cliffhanger. Cheerfully recommended; good fun.

Please consider using our link to buy The Nameless City from Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, late March [Apr. 2nd, 2016|06:33 am]
Marissa Lingen

Albert Goldbarth, Arts and Sciences. Reread. My standards for how a poet engages with the sciences are much higher than they were in my early twenties, and I just consistently am not finding that Goldbarth has much to say to me just because he has some things to say about science. Which is a shame.

Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart. Reread. This was another not entirely successful reread of something I read in my early twenties. Not only the forms of these poems but also their content are highly formalized, and knowing a bit more about Madeleine L’Engle’s life from outside sources made me wince in several spots. Still a better idea than reading news articles about Donald Trump over breakfast, though.

James Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532-1560: A Colonial Society. This goes through chapter by chapter discussing the different types of person in the colonial Spanish part of Peruvian society in this period (as opposed to the colonized indigenous part–though indigenous persons were discussed inasmuch as they engaged with the colonizers’ society/culture). Notaries, shoemakers, etc.: what part of Spain were they from, what was their role, did they stick around long-term, etc. Very useful sourcebook if you’re interested in the period, probably not very good as an overview or first source on it.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal to Noise. I wanted to like this more than I did: an old record player and teenagers making mixtape-style magic. But in the end I felt like the parallel timelines didn’t line up very well, their relative weighting and pacing didn’t work very well for me. Still an author I will continue to read, because it was not a catastrophic failure.

Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. This was her first collection, and I’m glad I read Vampires in the Lemon Groves first instead, because she’s gotten better. Also this contains several pieces that are either related to Swamplandia! or dry runs for it, and I felt that Swamplandia! did what it needed to do as a self-contained thing, and these pieces didn’t really improve anything. However, there were several of the unrelated pieces–the one with the minotaur, the title piece–that delighted me, and I don’t necessarily assume that’ll happen at all in a short story collection, so me, I’m sticking with this Karen Russell idea.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories. A four-part reflection of love and family and war and being broken and monstrous. I loved this. I liked it so much better than A Stranger in Olondria, which I also liked. I liked how the pieces doubled back on themselves and reflected the earlier parts differently. I liked how the characters were sometimes prickly and difficult. It was just what I wanted when I picked it up.

Thomas Siddell, Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 4: Materia. I don’t read this comic online because it doesn’t move fast enough for me to read one page every few days, so instead I read the collected volumes. Which, in this case, still did not move fast enough. I’m interested in what it’s doing overall, but the demands of art are hard, I guess, and we’re not giving up on those grounds.

Dana Simpson, Unicorns Vs. Goblins. Phoebe and Marigold go to music camp, among other things. That part I enjoyed; the goblin plot I felt was very brief, abrupt, under-handled, disappointing. I’m past expecting this to be “the new Calvin & Hobbes” and am letting it be its own thing; now I’m just wishing this volume was as good as Unicorn on a Roll.

Joyce Sutphen, Coming Back to the Body. Reread. Joyce was my intro creative writing prof in 1997, so returning to these poems is fascinating–many of them are strongly autobiographical, and I can still hear Joyce’s breathless voice reading them. They’re not my usual style of poetry, but I can see why she has met with the success she has (poet laureate of the state etc.).

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Psychological expressionism [Mar. 31st, 2016|06:46 pm]
Marissa Lingen

I think–and this is by no means a new thought that I’ve had–that it’s better not to slam books for something they were never trying to do in the first place. If something is not a genre romance, the author never promised that the book would definitely have a love story and a happily-ever-after, so saying that the author screwed up because it lacks those things would be unfair; similarly, you don’t have a bad author for not providing a solution to a crime at the end, what you have is not a genre mystery. It’s fine to then go on and say, “I prefer romance,” or, “I prefer mystery,” or, “Even outside those genres, I prefer those elements in my non-genre fiction.” But there seems to me to be a useful distinction between what you want and what the author was aiming for.

I was thinking of this with a book I was reading, because the way the cast of characters was drawn differed from a psychologically realistic portrait in ways that seemed clearly deliberate. Only the protagonist got to be a fully realized individual with motivations and desires of their own. All the other characters were specifically arrayed against them, not just in the ways that people sometimes do oppose one, but in universally loathsome ways. In ways that entirely precluded being a fully realized individual with motivations and desires outside the protagonist. And this was done so completely that it seemed impossible to me that it could be an accident. Everything about these characters was calculatedly loathsome–no one ever just happened to like a food or a mode of dress that might be perceived as neutral or even liked by some readers or not by others. Everything was at a fever pitch of hatefulness, all aimed at the protagonist.

It struck me that rather than considering this failed psychological realism, a better term for it might be psychological expressionism. That, like in a Munch or Kandinsky painting, the supporting characters were all there not to be realistically drawn but to evoke a feeling in and about the protagonist–in this case the feeling of being all alone and persecuted. I’ve seen others that are about feeling overwhelmed, which are less disturbing than the persecution complex book I was reading and eventually set down and did not finish. You can dislike this mode of characterization just as you are not required to like a particular style of painting. But I think it’s useful to dislike it as itself rather than as something else.

One of the weaknesses of psychological expressionism in literature, of course, is that when it’s not a clear-cut case, it can blur into theory of mind problems in the author–just as half-assed Expressionism can blur into attempts at realism wherein the painter really just can’t do faces very well. But I don’t think that invalidates it as a deliberate artistic choice. And once people are making it as a deliberate artistic choice, I want the vocabulary to talk about it. So here we are.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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revision and sunk cost fallacies [Mar. 28th, 2016|12:42 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Last week I sent my agent a revision of a book of mine, and I’m really happy with it. I think it’s a good revision that did a lot of exciting things to this book that made its core more itself rather than radically altering it. I think one of the hardest things for new writers is that revision gets really, really hard to tell from sunk cost fallacies. And the advice you get depends on the direction of characteristic error the person giving the advice tends to have.

On the one side, you have the infinite comma fiddling. Sometimes a draft really does need to be put to bed. There is a virtue in doneness, good enough is better than never seeing the light of day, and all that jazz. Will you learn more from changing the adjective on page forty-seven or from writing an entirely new story? And will you improve your odds of getting it out there in front of an audience from changing that adjective or from having two manuscripts that might appeal to people from slightly different angles?

On the other: there are many editorial passes involved in an unpublished manuscript. No, many. No: many. And usually there should be. Usually for a novelist who has not published a novel before there is a darn good reason for each editorial pass. Unwillingness to do the work to get the manuscript into shape means standing in your own way. And there will always be a newer, brighter, shinier idea, and nobody actually cares how shiny your ideas are, because authors don’t write ideas, they write books.

My first thought on how to sort whether a revision was a good revision or a bad revision was whether you had a good reason for doing it. But I’m not sure that’s a good way to figure it out, because some of the good reasons involve waving your hands excitedly and making swoopy noises, and some of the bad reasons can sound very erudite. (But that’s not a clear indication, because you can fool yourself with swoopy noises and make total sense with erudition, too.) I think that assuming that most books need at least one or two revision passes is a good start, and if you don’t need those you’re a rarity and an outlier.

And…I think if you find that you’re doing large numbers of big revisions, over and over again on the same book, my best rule of thumb is if you have a smart reader who has read this specific book, can you describe what you’re doing and why? And does that smart reader say, “Oh yeah, that sounds much better?” Or do they at least say, “Okay, well, that makes some sense?” Obviously you don’t want one smart reader to be in sole control of your fate. But if you’ve done a couple of revisions and you decide you need to do one more–but you can’t really describe it so that a smart reader who has read your book and generally liked it things that you are improving things or at least prooooobably not making them worse–that’s a pretty big danger sign, and worth at least thinking about.

Literally everyone I talked to about this revision said, “Oh yeah! That sounds much better!” So either I’m on a really solid good track…or I’m getting really good at describing revisions now….

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Okay, let’s talk about great. Really. [Mar. 24th, 2016|06:42 am]
Marissa Lingen

I put this on more ephemeral social media yesterday, but not everybody reads me there, and things are easy to miss. So.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan always reminds me of the Langston Hughes poem https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_America_be_America_Again. Somehow I don’t think that Hughes and Trump see eye to eye on this matter, but I keep getting Hughes in my head instead of Trump: “the land that never has been yet–and yet must be–”

And it got me thinking about how I keep saying positive, positive, positive. So okay. Time for a positive. It’s looking alarmingly like the Republican National Convention is either going to wind up with Trump as a nominee or a massive fight to keep him out, and the fallout around the whole thing is deeply alarming. And I think we’re all going to want something positive to talk about around then.

Something like the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.

So at the beginning of July, I’m going to post a reminder that this is coming up. For those of you who are slower readers or have library systems with big backlogs, you can start now if you like. For me, I’ll pick up the book after Readercon. But the RNC is July 18-21, and I intend to spend at least some of the time during those days talking in various online forums about the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Anyone who wants to is welcome to join me, and spend some attention looking at a great American poet who had serious ideas about making America great again. For everybody.

(When I say “anyone”–you don’t have to be American to do this. Everyone’s politics and everyone’s art affects everyone else, and it’s not like the rest of you have been able to dodge Trump. At least we can share Langston Hughes with you too.)

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, early March [Mar. 18th, 2016|06:31 am]
Marissa Lingen

Renee Ahdieh, The Wrath and the Dawn. A vivid and intense 1001 Nights retelling, very distinct from E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights despite both featuring a strong romance and a strong female platonic relationship. The root story is not one that snagged me for possible retelling as a love story, so I’m fascinated to watch very different people make it work, and I’ll be even more interested to see what Ahdieh does branching out into more of her own stories with the sequel.

Thornton Burgess, The Adventures of Old Man Coyote. We all have gaps in how we read the children’s classics as kids, and Burgess was one of mine–when talking to a friend about his childhood reading and Little, Big, it became clear to me that I’d read a character in the latter as a type when he was far more particular than that. Burgess is very much of a different era of children’s literature–gender issues so marked that there was only one (grandmother) female character in the entire animal village, didacticism not only marked but set aside in little poems–and yet it was a breezy little read, and I could see why decades of kids learning to read were proud of getting through the different animals’ adventures.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern. Strange combination of highly personal and highly intellectualized/meta poems in a very small volume. While I could see that what he was doing was very good, none of it touched me very particularly, in the strange way that poems either do or do not. However, it was a thing that I read over breakfast instead of articles about Donald Trump, and this is a life choice I cannot help but recommend.

Neil Kent, The Triumph of Light and Nature: Nordic Art, 1740-1940. Lots of pictures, some of them unfamiliar and interesting. I am still puzzling over Willumsen’s Jotunheim. Particularly the decapitation. I was interested in this before planning my trip to Sweden and Finland, but I made it a priority to read in case there was anything I’d want to make a point of seeing.

Hilary McKay, Binny in Secret. This is one of the good McKays, by which I mean that it made me giggle out loud in several spots and it also tackled genuinely dark and difficult topics. And yet it wasn’t one of the best McKays, by which I mean that I don’t think it really held together in the end. The dark and difficult topics were brought up with a “lady or the tiger” sort of ending: unresolved, left to the reader, in a way that I found to be a copout, and also one of the middling-difficult topics (the relationship between the two girls) was really glossed over in a way that was far less sensitive than I usually expect of McKay. Also the characters were more remembered from Binny for Short than completely drawn in. So: I’m glad I read it, I will want my own copy (this was the library’s), but it’s not going to be one of my top recommendations. More on a par with Indigo’s Star than the really good ones.

Jonathan Spence, Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man. A fascinating look at an essayist at the end of an era, his family and how he portrayed them. Spence is really good at this kind of microhistory, the sort of stuff for China that Steven Ozment does for Germany. Always a pleasure.

Brian Staveley, The Last Mortal Bond. Discussed elsewhere.

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree. Oh, I loved this. Loved. It’s a novel about Jonathan Edwards–you know, the preacher of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” that Jonathan Edwards–and his household and neighbors and their world. And Stinson really digs into the fundamental weirdness of colonial Massachusetts, religiously and interpersonally, and yet sticks with their fundamental humanity, in ways that are so compelling. It’s rare and wonderful to get a great historical novel that isn’t focused on either war or a single arc of romance, that gets all the gritty details of householding right and puts them in the context of different characters’ concerns with their larger universes. Preaching from insects, different slaves’ perspective on joining their owners’ church, nephews finding their way in the world their uncle shapes with his preaching but does not control…oh, so many good bits.

Wislawa Szymborska, View With a Grain of Sand. Reread. Perhaps it’s an aspect of reading in translation, but while nothing shot lightning through me, nothing made me go leaping through the house looking for my phone or my computer to write to someone about a particular line, a particular poem, the entire experience of this was satisfying, like being in very good and thoughtful hands, like a satisfying conversation.

Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Fascinating study of how people interact with the ideas of magic and evil and money when the money/wage component is comparatively new to how they deal with work. Lots of really interesting anecdote, lots of really dense and chewy analysis. Good fodder for fantasy writers, probably worthwhile for others as well.

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Apex Book of World SF Volume 3. Like Volume 2, this was an extremely varied collection in tone, subject, author origin, and more; I expect that Tidhar had to work quite hard to get such a variety of stories. The ones that stood out for me in the most positive ways were Xia Jia’s “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” Fadzlishah Johanabas’s “Act of Faith,” and Amal El-Mohtar’s “To Follow the Waves.”

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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The Last Mortal Bond, by Brian Staveley [Mar. 18th, 2016|06:26 am]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

If you’re one of the people who still can’t believe that George R. R. Martin had [horrible result] happen to [character], good news! The last book of Brian Staveley’s trilogy is out. If you’re one of the people who got tired of that and wandered off to look at a stand of birch trees, also good news. The world still has birch trees in it.

By the beginning of this book, everything has gone seriously to hell in a handbasket, and continues to do so. The difficulty of having the central problem of the series be “how do we keep everyone in the world from becoming loveless monsters” is that you have to show people not currently all being loveless monsters, or else the basic response is, “eh.”

I really wanted to like this. I really, really did. After this many pages, I was invested. And Staveley does have some cameos of minor characters who care about each other–and he does have, eventually, some major characters realize that life is not all suffering. Five hundred pages into the third book. But for whom is the boilerplate at the end of this review? Who might enjoy this, who might want to read it? People who don’t mind wallowing in the darkedy darkedy dark of the grimdark even when the premise is supposed to be undercutting it and specifically on the side of choosing caring. Because this is a lot of wallowing. This is a lot of muddle and muck–a lot of instances of things going wrong in eye-rollingly predictable fashion–“don’t let thing go wrong, A!” says B, so of course A screws up in exactly that manner–before the end finally comes.

I think the thing that tipped me over the line into NO NOT REALLY, NO: was the disabilityfail. The major, utter, total disabilityfail. Here is your rule of thumb: if your character’s disability literally goes away when it is most convenient for it to go away. If you have your character discussing how this happens. I will not care that you have come up with a magical reason for why this happens. I will start spelling magical with extra a’s at that point: your magical reason is now a maaaaaagical reason.

Because here’s the thing: I always want my disability to go away. It would always be most convenient. I do not need barbarian warriors to be slashing at my head. The day I missed the wedding of one of my best friends in the world was enough. Or the day other people in my house got sick and no one was well enough to get groceries and we had to call for outside help. Or…oh, pick a random Tuesday. Tuesday is a good enough reason to Rully Rully Want to not be disabled. And pretty much every disabled person I know feels this way. (Now, you may have labeled some differences as disabilities that the person who has them does not label that way. That’s a separate conversation. But if the person who has it calls it a disability? They pretty much want it gone.) So the Convenient To The Plot Appearing And Disappearing Disability: don’t do that. Don’t ever, ever do that.

But if you’ve stuck with the previous two volumes and want to see how it all turns out….

Please consider using our link to buy The Last Mortal Bond from Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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To illustrate my last remark YET AGAIN [Mar. 10th, 2016|02:43 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Last night I didn’t read Anna Karenina. I didn’t watch Simon & Simon or consume walnuts or gluten or alcohol. I didn’t play Moonlight Sonata on the harmonium. I didn’t buy a hamster.

All the things you don’t do are pretty boring to write about.

For one of my friends, though, not consuming alcohol was a little more interesting, because she was recently actively staying sober as a choice that she needed to make for her health. Not like me–I’m at a point with my vertigo and my vertigo meds where I can have a bottle of cider or a glass of wine and enjoy the pleasant taste, and some days I do, and most days I don’t. When I do, the taste can be interesting to comment on; when I don’t, the lack is completely boring.

Earlier this week, people in my Twitter feed were talking about the perception that all writers are heavy drinkers. And honestly some of the reason for this is that a bunch of writers really are heavy drinkers. And some of the reason for it is that conventions bring out the heavy drinker in some people who are otherwise pretty moderate. But some of the reason for it is that those of us who are, like me, light drinkers, and those who are non-drinkers, don’t talk about it in those terms; it’s just not an interesting thing to discuss. At best, boring. At worst, it sounds defensive or false. “There I was, playing the harmonium and TOTALLY NOT DRINKING HEAVILY WHY WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT, GOD, EVELYN.” Or, “There I was, buying a hamster and NOT drinking heavily NOT LIKE SOME PEOPLE, KYLE.”

So it’s a good thing to keep in mind: like many topics, you’re not going to hear most of what other people do, and that occasionally means you hear from people like my friend who say, hey, this is how many days (or in the case of other friends, years) I’ve been sober. But for most cases it means you hear, hey, I’m having this drink, and it tastes like this. Or, I’m having this many drinks, wooo! (If you’re thinking that I find “it tastes like this” more interesting than “wooo!”, yeah, guilty. But people get to have their “wooo!”)

If you’re trying to work in this field and do convention culture and you’re someone who is concerned about heavy drinking in writer culture, though, for personal reasons–maybe you’re someone like my friend who needs to stay sober for your own health. Maybe you’re shy and not very comfortable drinking in professional circumstances. Maybe you just don’t like loud bars. A million reasons. I think it’s probably a good idea to think of what positive things you’re doing for convention/colleague bonding instead. So that you have something to talk about and focus on–“hey, I am doing fancy brunch with people!” or “I am doing tea tasting!” or whatever else you are doing. Rather than, “I am not drinking!” Karaoke. Trying to find someone who knows about fight scenes and is willing to nerd out about yours until you can fix it. An outing to the best restaurant you could find in walking distance–they have [specialty of the house here] and you heard it’s amazing.

You’ll end up with some of the heavy drinkers with you, because they like [specialty of the house here], too, and karaoke and tea and brunch and fight scenes, too. And also some of the moderate drinkers and the light drinkers and the non-drinkers. And hey, isn’t that what you wanted? Because the stuff you’re not doing…is kind of boring. And not your focus anyway. So better to accentuate the positive, see how that works. And if it doesn’t, try a different positive, because messing with Mr. In-Between is pretty much never the answer.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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revision: three ways to level up [Mar. 7th, 2016|07:50 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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  1. There’s stuff you don’t have to revise any more when you get past a certain point, because you never mess it up in the first place. That’s convenient if you can get it. Do as many of those as possible. But don’t expect them; they come where they come, and yelling at yourself for not having more of them is counterproductive. Your favorite writer in the world wrote something completely idiotic in the first draft of your favorite book. Really. I promise they did. Ideally they revised it out.

  2. There’s stuff that would have looked impossible when you were newer at this. When someone says, “I’d like you to do more of x, more of y, and more of z, and can you do it in 10% fewer words? Thanks.” Sometimes you look at that and think, “Well, sure, yeah. I see how to do that. That’s only work, no problem.” And you know for a fact that when you were newer at this, less practiced, you would have cried. You would have thought this was ridiculous. Smooth out the pacing, what does that even mean? Does this editor, agent, or critique buddy hate you? I bet they hate you. They just say these things because they hate you. Whereas a few years and a bit of practice and the very same critique suggestion is reasonable. It’s like yoga, when they tell you to breathe into various body parts that are not your nose, sinuses, or lungs, and at first you balk and think, “Ludicrousness right here, what do you mean, breathe into my tailbone, you breathe into your tailbone, lady,” and then after a bit more you’re like, “Oh, breathe into my tailbone.”

  3. And then there’s the stuff that you know better than to attempt. Because you have the experience to know that it’s a bad idea. It looks very much like the stuff in #2, only, y’know, bad. Do more of x, y, and z, in 10% fewer words? You breathe into your tailbone, lady, that is bad for my story and I’m not doing it. Not even belligerently. Just: time for the nope, the calm and rational no thank you, nope. Knowing which reaction goes where and how to implement them: that’s the important part of leveling up.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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