An End to My Book Diet

Between last September and December, I went on a book diet. Anything I’d preordered before then was still fair game, but other than that, I tried not to buy any books. No popping in to my local shop for that new thing I’d just heard about. No long, slow used bookstore hauls. It’s been a pretty dramatic change in my behavior.

I did end up getting one small-press novella (that has since sold out) and a cheap used copy of something from of an author I’m collecting. But overall, I stuck with it surprisingly well.

The idea behind the book diet was to give myself time to work through my existing to-read list, but once I stopped buying books, I realized I was grabbing more random picks than usual from the library. So while I did get around to some of my backlog,  I also learned that I seem to have some need for novelty when it comes to book selections.

A visit to the library is easier on my poor, straining shelf space than hitting up the bookstore, so from that perspective, the book diet was a success. But I still need to work on prioritizing some of the books I already have over the ones that I don’t.

 

Some Spoiler-Filled Thoughts on The Last Jedi

I saw The Last Jedi three times in the first twenty-four hours, and I have some pretty firm opinions about it.

Going to the main series movies three times right away is a tradition my husband and I started back with Attack of the Clones, which was the first Star Wars movie that came out after we met. I’m not sure if we’ll continue it past Episode Nine, but it’s been fun to take a whole day now and then to totally immerse myself in a galaxy far, far away.

My spoiler-heavy take is below.

Rey and Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Stay Focused During a Rough Patch

I like my routines, and being tossed out of them usually has me dreading those first few laggy days of getting back on track. This is an issue that’s come up again and again in my life, so a few years ago, I wrote out a list of the things that help me stay focused when I don’t get as much writing time as I’d like.

There’s been a lot going on for me lately, so it’s been helpful for me to look back over these ideas. Hopefully you’ll find a few of them useful, too.

1. Back up your writing.

It’s something we should already be doing regularly, but an unexpected event is a good reminder to back up your work. Knowing that you’ve got a copy of your book tucked away in case the worst happens can put your mind at ease while you’re out of commission. Backups are also helpful if you go on a regrettable editing spree while under the influence of cold medication.

2. Read selectively.

I usually read a wide variety of stuff, but when I can’t put in my usual writing time, I turn to books that keep me connected with the style of story that I’m working on. Right now that means space operas, especially those that have female heroines or include family drama. I spent some time last month with Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home and Beyond the Empire, by K.B. Wagers, and I’m planning a reread of the first two Vorkosigan Saga books during my holiday travel. Sticking close to the genre I’m working in keeps my head in the right place to go back to my own cast of characters.

3. Think in stories.

Under normal circumstances this advice would be like reminding myself to breathe, but like a lot of habits, it tends to fall by the wayside when I’m distracted by the nonfiction side of life. My favorite quick little game is to make up factoids about the people and places around me. Thinking out a scene as I go to bed helps too, but I avoid using my regular characters when I’m doing that. The point is to keep my story muscles in shape; coming up with stuff for the book when I can’t really work on it is an exercise in frustration.

4. Write everything down.

This is another one of those “yeah, of course” habits that I let slide too often while I’m not in working mode. I try to keep a pen and paper on hand, but I tend to come out of trips or other down time with a lot of new entries in the notes app on my phone. If a relative uses an interesting turn of phrase, write it down. If the NyQuil gives you dreams full of great, bizzaro images, write those down too. My recent diary entries include family stories and snippets of things I heard on the radio during a few long drives.

These ideas have a lot in common with my regular way of working, but when times are hectic it’s important to remind myself to do the things that come more naturally during day-to-day life. If I let myself zone out for too long, I’m in for days of disappointing output once things get back to normal. And just knowing that I’m taking a few steps to keep my writing practice in shape makes me feel better about sitting back down at the keyboard later on.

If you’ve got any slump-busting tips of your own, please share them in the comments. I could always use the help!

My 2018 Planner Pick

After looking at a lot of different options, I decided to go with the Goal Digger planner from MiGoals in 2018.

It’s an A5 notebook with 100gsm paper and a weekly two-page layout, and the week view doesn’t have any preset time blocks for me to ignore. There are also dedicated planning pages for both monthly goals and longer term projects. The planner includes some nice extras, like two bookmark ribbons and a section for notes in the back.

I love the weekly layout, which fits the calendar blocks on one page and packs a lot of great features into the other. There’s space for weekly goals, a habit tracker, a to-do list, notes, a gratitude log, and a list of the week’s accomplishments. The calendar page is half lined and half blank, giving some visual separation between your schedule and whatever tasks or time-dependent info you want to write down on that day. The design is structured but also flexible, and I can’t wait to start using it.

There are a few parts of the planner I’m less thrilled about though. The monthly calendar has oversized, highlighted blocks on Saturday and Sunday, but my weekends aren’t any busier than the other five days. So for me, that calendar design is both weird-looking and pointless. I could do without the vague motivational quotes, and I wish the note area at the end used a dot grid instead of a mix of lined and unlined pages. There’s also a monthly budget form I’m not going to use. Those are mostly minor things though, especially when compared with everything this planner gets right.

For more info, I’d suggest visiting the Goal Digger Kickstarter campaign. It’s over, but I think it includes better photos and a more thorough overview than the MiGoals website does. If you’d like to buy your own copy, you can get one here.

The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books that I thought I knew all about long before I read it. (I was totally wrong.) Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s been adapted enough times that you might be familiar with the basics of the story.

The hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, travels to a small, isolated European country because he’s curious about its connection to an old family scandal. He meets the new king, who’s a distant cousin, and the two are nearly identical. When the king gets poisoned the night before the coronation, Rudolf takes his place to keep the throne from going to a popular rival. And then there are hijinks.

The Prisoner of Zenda, illustration by Charles Dana Gibson“God save the King!”

Old Sapt’s mouth wrinkled into a smile.

“God save ’em both!” he whispered.

It’s got everything I look for in an adventure novel: sword fights, romance, double-crosses, a scene-stealing villain, snappy dialogue, and more sword fights. There’s some depth to it too, though. Rudolf faces down most of the temptations of ruling a nation, but another character is forced to remind him that he isn’t the only one with a duty to fulfill. And while he overcomes a lot of obstacles by being brave, smart, or good at stabbing things, the bad guys still might have won if they hadn’t completely misjudged Rudolf’s motives.

Since Rudolf is a first-person protagonist, we get this great balance of bravado and vulnerability from him. He’s risking a lot for a man he just met, and some of the king’s critics have valid concerns about his rule. But Rudolf begins the book by telling his sister in law that “to a man of spirit… opportunities are duties.” He’s the only person with a chance at making things right, and if he fails, the princess he’s fallen for will be forced to marry a traitor.

I can’t say a thing about the ending without spoiling it, although to me it felt like things wrapped up in the only way they could.

zenda cover

I have a beautiful old copy with illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, but you can get The Prisoner of Zenda for free in various ebook formats.

The sequel is a little trickier, but I’m totally in love with that one too. I’ll explain why once I’ve had a chance to read it again.

Five Reading Tips for Writers

In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between my reading habit and my writing. Here are some tips for others who may be interested in doing the same thing.

1. Review The Books You Read

I review at least half of what I read, preferably right after finishing the book. Going over my reactions (and poking at the reasons for them) has been a big help when thinking about my own work, especially in terms of characterization and structure. I know a lot of folks love Goodreads for this, but I often feel more comfortable being candid with my journal.

2. Copy Out Passages That You Love

If a short passage from a book really hooks me, I write it into a small notebook along with the title, author, and a page reference in case I want to find it again. I tend to pick vivid descriptions, snappy dialogue, and bits of exposition that reveal character traits in a compelling way. Flipping through those writing samples always perks me up when I’m feeling uninspired.

3. Keep Track of Good Words

I often use index cards or receipts as bookmarks because they double as scratch paper to write down any great words I come across while reading. (There’s a highlight feature on my Kindle that’s also perfect for this.) When I finish the book, I copy the particularly evocative or useful words into my journal.

4. Vary Your Reading

Since I’m writing a sci-fi novel right now I read plenty of genre stories, but I also like a wide variety of other books. Histories and biographies can be especially great for generating ideas. Reading outside my usual range helps me learn about style and structure, and it’s also lead to some new-to-me author obsessions.

5. Read Out Loud

I often read my own work aloud when I’m struggling with a scene, but it’s also a useful thing to do with other books. Reading the occasional passage out loud forces me to slow down and pay closer attention to the flow of the language. It also shifts my focus from the events of a story to the way they’re being expressed, which can change my whole perspective.

If you’ve got any reading tips that can help the writing process, please share them in the comments! I’m always looking for new things to try.

Planner Contenders for 2018

After my list of must-haves helped me narrow down my choices for a goal-based planner for next year, it was time to really dig into the different systems I’ve been looking at.

The Commit30 Day Planner has a weekly spread that includes space for notes and a to-do list, and I like that the time labels are unobtrusive enough to easily ignore. Unfortunately its goal-planning features are a little lacking; they’re based around a pair of monthly planning pages that give you a habit tracker and a few weird circles to write some goals into. I was hoping for more guidance than that.

I also took a look at the Momentum Planner from Productive Flourishing. It’s a set of printables rather than an A5 planner, which makes it a bit of a wildcard for me. I liked the way that the weekly page separates scheduled events and project chunks, but all of the sections wouldn’t be applicable to me and I can’t get past wanting a bound notebook. I could see myself trying some of their free printables for big-picture planning though.

One of the best options I found is the Passion Planner. It has lots of room for project lists and to-dos, and it encourages you to write down your main focus for each month, week, and day. The daily planning spaces have an extremely noticeable timeline though. It runs from 6 am to 10:30 pm with a line at each half hour, which means you’d need small, precise handwriting to use it as intended. Between that timeline and the high-contrast of the rest of the layout, the Passion Planner’s pages feel hectic and cramped. As much as I like its goal-based features, I’d probably only go with this one if I was willing to use their larger version.

I did check out one other planner, and it seems like the best fit for me. More on that in the next week or so.