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.

What I Want In a Planner

Before I look at some specific options for my 2018 planner, I decided to make a list of the features I’m looking for. I’ve got four big priorities to make sure a planner stays useful longer than the average New Year’s resolution.

  • A5 size
    Planners need to be easy to carry around. An A5 style is big enough to fit plenty of info, but it’s also small enough to cram into most of my bags.
  • goal-setting features
    It’s easier to keep daily activities matched up with longer-term goals when I’m using the same notebook for both. Many goal-based planners also remind you to review your progress regularly.
  • 2 pages per week
    I want to spend my week mostly focusing on 2 pages. I’ve found that a weekly calendar with an extra spread of planning pages leaves some tasks lost in the shuffle.
  • thick, good-quality paper
    My favorite rollerball pens have dark, heavy ink, so good paper is a must. Unless a planner’s specs brag on their paper quality, I’m not interested.

There are a few other things that aren’t deal-breakers, but they’d be nice to have.

  • no time labels
    Breaking down my day into preset units of time is intrusive and unhelpful. Just give me space for each day and let me decide how best to use it.
  • two ribbon bookmarks
    This is such a simple thing that it’s hard to see why more brands don’t do it. It’s so convenient to be able to easily mark two different places in any notebook or planner.
  • a simple layout and style
    I want a planner that gives me structure without feeling cluttered. It also shouldn’t be overly stylized. A clean design feels more focused, and it’s less likely to clash with all the stickers I’m gonna cover this thing in.
  • some note pages
    I’d love a small section in the back to keep notes in, preferably with a dot or grid layout.

I’ve experimented with bullet journals in the past, and I use some elements of that system for my writing notebooks. But for my main planner, it’s best to trade the flexibility of a blank notebook for something that’s already set up. I like to have visual representations of my weeks and months, and DIY-ing that kind of thing feels like a time sink.

Next week I’ll start going over some of the planners I’ve found.

Adventures in Writing Workshops

My library occasionally hosts writing workshops, and I try to go to the fiction-related ones when I can. Most presenters talk about their own writing process a little, and that’s always fascinating.

Getting someone else’s perspective on any writing-related topic is usually helpful; just the process of hearing things explained in a different way can spark new ideas. It’s also encouraging to be in a room full of people who are all working towards similar goals. I spend a lot of time alone, lost in my own head, so it’s nice to get that occasional reminder that there’s a larger community out there.

Picking a Planner for 2018

I live and die by my Google Calendar, but no matter how convenient that is for managing events and appointments, I’ve always preferred pen and paper for dealing with the rest of my life.

Last year I used a Volt Planner from Ink + Volt, but despite their slick new redesign, I’m looking for something different for 2018. The Volt Planner devotes four pages to each week, which left me with a lot of wasted space. Putting my weekly goals on a different page than my day-to-day activities also kept them out of sight and out of mind, which defeats the purpose of a goal-based planner. (Yes, I’m apparently unable to focus on two sets of pages every day. After trying for a solid year, I’m ready to admit it.)

2017 Volt Planner with part of my weekly schedule filled in
my Volt Planner from 2017

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about what type of planner I’m looking for, and I’ll share some of the options I’ve found. And hey, those Volt planners are sturdy and have great, thick paper, so if you’re more consistently capable of turning pages back and forth than I am, check ’em out.

Book Diet – 2017

I’ve always been that reader who can’t pass a used bookstore without going in, and I’ve had to set a firm one-bag limit during my county’s yearly library sale. But when I reorganized a few shelves late last August, I finally realized just how many unread novels I had lying around.

Some of them I recognized right away. There was a short stack of vintage fantasy I picked up at the thrift store down the street and a couple of larger piles of adventure hardbacks from estate sales. I found a book that I borrowed a few months before, two dirt-cheap ebay purchases, and a handful of wild looking picks from this $1 book warehouse in the area.

But there were other books that I’d completely forgotten about. Why did I have two copies of Joseph Conrad’s Victory? And why had I ever thought I’d read those sleazy-looking spy novels? Yes, the lead character is apparently a “Killmaster,” which is hilarious, but skimming the first few pages makes it obvious that those books are never going to be my thing.

It was definitely time for another book diet. I stopped buying books in September, and the plan is to keep that up through December. In the meantime, I’m working on my to-read piles and grabbing new releases from the library. I didn’t cancel anything I cared enough about to preorder, and I might bend the rules if I hear about some really limited edition that’s sure to sell out before the new year. But other than that, I’m not buying books.

Thanks to some strange law of the universe that makes every one of my library holds come in at once, I haven’t gotten through as much of my book stash as I planned to. But now that I know exactly how many unread books I have lying around, it should be easier to resist some of my more questionable book-buying impulses. Maybe next year I’ll just skip the library sale.