5 good books Syp’s read lately

Looking for a few good book recommendations to help out with The Long Wait of ’20? Here are five I’ve really enjoyed over the past few months.

We’ll start with Band of Brothers, which I picked up on Audible as my last title before I turned off my subscription. I’ve seen the miniseries several times but never read the book, and as it turns out, audiobooks are an amazing format for historical accounts. It’s a great, fast-moving narrative with a lot of quotes from the soldiers who were there and all of the hard and bizarre things they went through as they fought across Europe in the last year of WWII.

I’ve also been making a concerted effort to chew through the list of Kindle books that I bought or got on sale but threw on a (virtual) pile and never touched. I’m doing a thing where I’m reading the first three chapters to see if it’s hooked me, and if it does, great; if it doesn’t, I’m on to the next one. A Closed and Common Orbit surprised me because I wasn’t really expecting to be that engrossed by this side-sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Instead of focusing on that crew and ship, it follows a newly born artificial intelligence and her quest to find herself as well as the backstory of her mentor/protector. Really good stuff.

Our adult Sunday School class just finished up with JI Packer’s Knowing God. It’s a weighty work, but I mean that in the best of ways. Instead of froo-froo theology, this is a deep examination into the character of God as revealed through holy scripture. My favorite chapter talked about the “good” kind of jealousy and how God is jealous for us as a husband is for his wife.

Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark trilogy is perhaps one of the more underrated grimdark weird fantasy series on the market. It’s truly excellent, with a much different kind of fantasy world and one big hulking guy who is on a long, twisty path to redemption. This final book, Crowfall, does a great job wrapping up a lot of the threads from the first two books while arriving at a rather uplifting ending.

I guess it’s the month for crow titles, because The Merciful Crow took me on a whirlwind adventure from start to finish. I love it when a book makes me want to turn the page to find out what happens next, such as in this tale of a caste-based society where the bottom rung — the Crows — are the only ones immune to a plague sweeping the land. The lead character finds herself growing into the role of a chief before her time, all while protecting a snobby prince and his bodyguard from an attempted coup.

6 good books I’ve read lately

I haven’t done a post on my reading, mostly because my reading this year has taken a huge hit due to exam preparations (that I am thankfully past now). But as of late, I’ve had a big spike in actual reading, which is augmented by audiobooks that I usually devour in the car or while making dinner.

So here’s a list of some of the books that I genuinely enjoyed and would recommend:

(1) Nevermoor and Wundersmith

This is a delightful new fantasy YA series that gets compared, as all YA fantasy does these days, to Harry Potter. But it’s really its own unique beast with a lot of imagination and great world-building. It’s about a cursed girl named Morrigan Crow who lives in a fantasy world but is then transported to a different — and more secret — part of the world to be tested and trained in the Wundrous Society, a collection of specially skilled and talented people. It’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s good enough that I started reading it to my kids at night.

(2) The Hod King

The third book of Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series continued to take the tale of Thomas Senlin — once a mild-mannered school teacher, now a pirate/rebel/criminal — in new and interesting directions. This isn’t a series that stays still but rather takes the reader on a journey that can’t properly be predicted. It’s definitely one of the best fantasy series written in the last five years.

(3) Darker Shade of Magic series

I only recently got into these books after many recommendations (to which I’d pass because I didn’t like the book art). Should’ve read them sooner, because they’re a lot of fun and very imaginative. It tells a story of four worlds — four Londons — that only select few magicians can cross between. Each of the Londons has its own strengths and weaknesses, from the magic-infused Red London to the faltering White London to our magic-less Grey London to the dying Black London. The series also has the best and most cheeky pirate/thief ever, the self-promoting Delilah Bard, and I’d recommend reading it just for her.

(4) Sleep Over

This looks like an easy book to skip — it has an abysmal cover and little promotion — but it’s actually a really gripping post-apocalyptic saga that uses various perspectives and stories to tell about a world that one day woke up… and couldn’t sleep again. What would happen if no one could ever fall asleep? It’s an interesting question that’s teased from multiple angles.

(5) Pilot X

Now THIS one was odd… but kind of endearing, too. It’s a weird sci-fi tale about an alien time traveler who, over the course of his bizarre career, ends up fighting a Dimensional War between the three dominant civilizations of the universe. It doesn’t always make sense or is as fleshed out as it could be, but at no point was it dull or lost my interest.

(6) The Last Dance

I can’t remember the last time I kept toting my Kindle around with me to devour more of a book in any spare minute I had, but The Last Dance ended up gripping me in such a way. It’s a very well-written semi-hard scifi mystery told about a disgraced captain who is being investigated while en route to Mars. Through extended testimonies from the crew, the backstory of the captain and the ship are unfolded and, ultimately, connected. Really amazing work that takes a rather unlikable character and gradually helps you understand his motivations and root for him.

5 favorite novels I read (and listened to) in 2018

As with a lot of entertainment this past year, my hectic life kept free time down — and reading with it. I’m finding that I actually get more reading done if I tote around my Kindle with me everywhere, but by and large, I didn’t have as much time to chew through novels this year.

That said, I read probably around 20 of them, and I wanted to at least share with you my favorite from that batch, plus a couple of audiobook mentions! Here goes.

#1: The Stars Were Right by Alexander

While I got bogged down in the second book, I rather enjoyed the first one right out of the gate. It’s set in a sort-of industrial, frontier fantasy world where a guy is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and has to go on the run while uncovering a wide conspiracy. Just really impressed with all of the races and world building, and the main characters were pretty likable as well.

#2: Grey Sister by Lawrence

Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor series takes the assassins-in-training fantasy trope and at least gives it a fresh coat of paint and some fun developments. Probably my favorite part is that the setting is on an alien world where old human technology and this new medieval society mix. I also liked the Nevernight books and Foundryside, although I am really tiring of the whole assassin/thief angle that many fantasy novels pursue.

#3: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by James

I think I liked the concept of this YA novel a lot better than the actual execution. Lots of great ideas here, with a teenage girl who’s living by herself on a colonization ship after an accident, a second colony ship that makes contact, and some dark history from the past. As I said, lots of great ideas, but the novel lurches from scene to scene and doesn’t handle its protagonist very well.

#4: Them Bones by Waldrop

I’ve read a lot of time travel books, but nothing quite like this one. A trio of tales bound together — somehow — tell of a man who is thrown into the far past as he tries to avoid a nuclear holocaust, a platoon of soldiers from the future who clash with natives in the past, and an archaeological dig from the 1930s that uncovers several confusing finds. While kind of depressing in the end, it was still a really gripping read start to finish.

#5: The Ark by Tomlinson

A free book with a generic title and cover art belied an actually awesome scifi tale within. The Ark takes place on a generation ship that’s fleeing a now-destroyed earth in the hopes of establishing a colony on a new planet. 230 years into the voyage, there’s a locked-door whodunit and a security chief who won’t give up until he figures out what’s going on. The sequels take place on the colony itself, which is kind of a shame because the ship itself made for such a great and unique scifi setting.

And for audiobooks, I mostly purchased ones from novels that I had already bought on Amazon (since you can get the audiobooks for much cheaper that way). I finished up the excellently narrated Harry Potter series, went through the entirety of the Greatcoats (just as awesome in audio form), and spend many short drives going through Peter Clines’ 14.

Bonus list: Your picks

I once again polled Twitter for favorite novels this year, and here are some of the ones you said:

  • Sturbborn: Collapsing Empire
  • Woolydub: The Name of the Wind, Fire and Blood
  • Jazz: Children of Blood and Bone
  • Katriana: Before the Storm
  • Andy Starr: Red Rising
  • Stephen Sattler: Shadow and Claw
  • Mike: TheWay of Kings
  • Kherova: Pilot X
  • DDOCentral: Doorways to the Unseen
  • David: The Three-Body Problem
  • Jason: Ethan of Athos, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
  • Magnet Head: Once and Future King

Novel: The end. Also, the beginning.

There came a point in my novel writing last week when not only I knew that I was getting near the end of the book, but it clicked in my head how everything was going to wrap up. Once that happened, I was full steam ahead, surpassing my daily quota of 1,000 words for much more. I wanted to see it done. I wanted to cross that finish line with my arms held high in triumph. Maybe that’s what happens in a marathon when you see the end come in sight — you get that extra burst of speed and power.

Last Wednesday night, my wife shooed me out the door for some peace and quiet to do it justice. So I got dinner, drove to a quiet place near some trees, rolled down the windows, and just wrote. After two hours, I got to write those magical words — “The End” — and took the above picture to mark the occasion.

I won’t lie. I really thought I’d have more of a strong emotional reaction, but instead there was just… deep satisfaction. I wasn’t writing this to get it over and done with, I was writing it because I had a story to tell and it was FUN to write it. Every day over four months (only missing two days in the process), I came to that screen and wondered what would happen next. Sometimes I knew. Sometimes I thought I knew, but the characters went a different way. Sometimes it was silly or sad or clever or dumb. In a way, it was like I was slowly reading this book as I was also writing it.

Compared to my previous novellas, this novel feels more mature. Not in its subject matter, but in the style of its writing. It’s just more complete, more competent, and more something that I would actually like to read if someone else wrote it. I recently went back to re-read one of my NaNoWriMo novellas, and I couldn’t get past the first chapter, it was such a mess.

So what’s this book? What am I ready to share about it?

I wanted to stay quiet about the specifics while I wrote it because I didn’t want any feedback or comments. It was mine and it was fragile and in development. But now I think I can open up to share this much.

The novel is called The Wonderlust Journal, and it takes place in a fantasy world where the land has started to knit itself back together after a previous apocalypse of some sort. The title refers to a widespread quarterly newspaper that serves to connect the people of this world and their stories together. It’s now the most popular publication in the world, and the lead character is a low-level roving reporter who is secretly hunting down a big story in order to make a name for himself (among other things). He’s a bit of a dork but he’s clever and determined, and that makes for a good mix.

There’s very, very little fighting in it. No assassins. One dead dragon. A most unusual marriage. What ended up surprising me is how… normal this fantasy world ended up being. “Normal” in the sense that it wasn’t as high fantasy as I had originally intended, nor as gritty and grimdark as the genre is going these days. It’s got likable people, some weird twists, a rivalry, and a coming-of-age tale of sorts. No matter what, I tried to put at least one new and interesting development or insight into each chapter to keep the filler down.

Since announcing the end of this first draft, I’ve had some people on Twitter and Facebook ask me what I’m doing next. Originally I wrote this to see what it would be. I had no idea if it would just be for me or if I’d try to get it out there. Now that it’s done, I think it might be good enough to share with a wider audience.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done, so my immediate plan was to take a week off from working on this, and then to start the second draft. I really need to go back through this whole book and smooth it out, improve the language and flow, add more dialogue, and most importantly, retcon some characters and other things so that they’d match what I ended up writing. I have about four main characters and I need to work on bringing out each of their personality traits and unique characteristics more.

My goal now is to revise one chapter a day for 35 days (since there are 35 chapters).

Then? I’m going to try to find beta readers. I don’t know what the process is there, but I need some eyes on this to give me feedback, find obvious flaws, and to let me know what they think without trying to butter me up. Once I get that feedback, I’ll go back for a third draft.

That will probably take me to the end of summer or beyond. It’s not a quick thing. If I get it really polished and decent and people tell me if it’s good enough to print, then I’ll start looking for an agent or into self-publishing options. This is all very new to me, obviously, and I want to do it right.

After that… another book. I have a sequel to The Wonderlust Journal in mind, but there’s also a different idea that I’d like to hack out one of these days, so I’m deliberating between those.

Anyway, thank you to everyone for encouragement for a project that you can neither see nor read right now. Worst comes to worst, I’ll just post this sucker somewhere if nobody wants to publish it, and anyone who’s interested can read it.

Novel: But is it GOOD?

The day that I write this, I have crossed the 75,000 word mark on my fantasy novel. I’ve been writing it since early March, springing out of an idea that became the first couple of chapters that became part of my daily routine. Rain or shine, cruddy day or happy one, busy or laid back, I make it an ironclad goal to get in 1,000 new words.

Some days that means just fitting it in during my lunch break. Other days, I’m writing feverishly before I fall asleep or lugging my little Chromebook around while hauling the kids here and there. I’ve written two paragraphs while standing at the checkout counter waiting for a hairstylist to ring me out. I’ve endured a few questioning looks at my kid’s swim class when people saw “CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE” pop up on my screen.

It’s been a bizarre, breathtaking, and incredible experience so far. I never really thought, outside of NaNoWriMo, that I would actually write a book… but here I am. I have never, ever written a single piece of fiction this long. I’m on the edge of my seat, worried and wondering if I’ll be able to land the whole story in the next month as I aim for 100,000 words.

I haven’t shown anyone it yet. My wife has been remarkably patient considering how much curiosity she’s had over this novel, but perhaps she’s just glad I’m writing. After all, she’s been encouraging me to write books for years now. My daughter, the reader, is the most interested and keeps trying to sneak peeks at my screen. Not yet, I say. Wait until it’s done.

I’m having a great time doing it. I’m proud, in the good-kind-of-proud way, of what’s come out of me. Compared to my previous attempts at fiction, this one actually has more structure, flows better, and isn’t a mad-dash scramble to come up with crazy scenarios. Every day when I sit down to write, I honestly don’t know where the story is going to go. Oh, I have a general idea, but so very often the tale takes a turn away from me because it’s what needs to happen. It’s what the characters would do. I don’t fight it or force it, I just go with it and continue to ride the wave while guiding it in a loose way. I’ve been surprised countless times at what has happened — how a throwaway character became one of my main cast, how this fictional world has taken shape, how loose plot threads were resolved.

But while the experience of writing it is quite ducky, I’m gnawing off my fingernails because I can’t stop asking the question, “Is it good?” I think so? But I’m both too close to the material and too hard on myself. I hope it’s good. It’s not Tolkien or Martin or anywhere near the level of popular fiction writers today. There are many rough spots that need smoothing and reworking. I’m going to plan for at least two rounds of revisions before I even think about showing it to others.

I hope it’s good. I would love to entertain others as much as this has entertained me. But it might not be a book for everyone. There’s practically no fighting, for starters. I don’t think I’ve written a single fight scene in those 75,000 words. Not much in the way of romance or evil empires or children of prophecy, either. It’s a fantasy world, yes, but a much more grounded one than I had originally envisioned.

There’s no part of me secretly hoping that this will be a best-seller, but published? Maybe. Again, I have to see when it’s done. I have to do drafts and evaluate and have others read it to give me feedback. I already have ideas for a sequel, but that’s really getting ahead of myself.

I don’t want it to be good because the praise would boost my ego. I want it to be good because I want it to be good. I want someone to pick up this novel and be drawn into it, wanting to find out what happens next all the way through the final chapter. So I’m going to ride that bucking bronco of a story to the end, and hopefully then I’ll be able to look back and see a good thing standing behind me.

Novel: How long should a book be?

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

In his book on writing, horror novelist Stephen King advised that any serious writer should spend four to six hours a day doing some mixture of both reading and writing to hone their craft and become good at what they do. As you may imagine, this can be incredibly difficult for people who don’t have the luxury of just sitting around doing both hobbies for a large chunk of the day. I, for one, have two jobs, four kids, a wife, and other interests and activities. So should I just not write? Am I doomed to mediocrity?

I understand the spirit of what King is saying — mainly that it’s important to train in reading and writing to become better, and you can’t do this in tiny measures — but I don’t fully embrace it, either. You do what you can do. I don’t often get as much time to read every day as I might like, but I get a little in here and there — with devotions, audio books, and the occasional 10-minute bursts of Kindle while I’m waiting to pick the kids up, etc. I write a lot, but most of it is for my work, and that’s a much different style than fiction writing. So to make this novel work, I’ve had to restructure my day and carve out some time here and there to get a few more paragraphs done, maybe a page, maybe two. But six hours? No, it’s just not happening.

When I started this novel a month or so ago, it wasn’t with any sort of lofty ambitions. I had a story idea that I wanted to get out. I wasn’t even thinking of size or scope. But by the time I was deep into the fourth chapter and the structure of the book was coming along, I started to be concerned about the larger picture. Namely, how long should this book be?

That actually matters a lot, because it will influence how fast I progress through the plot and give me a target goal to shoot for. I know that some people might say, “Just write it and see where it ends,” but that has some problems. What if it’s way, way too short to be an actual novel? I would like this book to arrive in the 300-450 page range, and so I did a little bit of research on word counts.

What I found was general recommendations that gave me a better idea of general length:

  • 60,000 words or less is a very short novel or novella — not what I’m going for
  • 80,000-100,000 words is a nice, average length of a novel
  • 100,000-130,000 words is more expected for fantasy novels, as they typically have greater world building and more epic tales

My general concern is that I’m going to fall on the shorter side of the spectrum. What I’m discovering about my writing style is that I like things to happen. I’ll give some descriptions, sure, but I like to keep the plot moving and inject interesting explanations over spending the better part of a page setting the scene. I also keep my dialogue light, which I’m deliberately trying to address although it slows down my writing when my characters enter into a conversation.

So my goal is this: I’m shooting for 100,000 words for a first draft with a daily goal of at least 1,000 words. It’s pretty reasonable, and in fact most days I easily reach 2,000. I think NaNoWriMo had us pumping out 1,667 words a day to get to the 50,000 mark by a month’s end, so this feels about normal for that. With over 30,000 words already done, I should be crossing the finish line for a first draft sometime in June.

I’m not getting obsessed with word count, mind you. It’s just one way to measure progress, and I enjoy tracking it on a spreadsheet every day to see how it grows. Plus, it’s another good little motivational technique to encourage me. Another one of my “daily quests,” if you will.

To answer a question that I’ve been asked: Yes, I’ll make this novel available to the public if (a) it gets finished and (b) I put in a couple of rounds of serious edits and formatting. Even if it never sees the light of day in an official printing, I’ll still shell out some money to have a few copies made up for my wife and kids. So far, it’s a fun read and a fun ride, and I think you might enjoy it.

Novel: Was writing always this hard?

So I’m writing a book.

I don’t usually discuss my personal life much on this blog because it’s not a therapy outlet and you don’t get paid to listen to me whine about my petty problems, but this past year has been a rather difficult and uncertain period especially when it comes to my work and future career. It has been stressing me out, and as much as I lean on God, some days it gets to me. I’ve grown weary of not knowing what to do and what the future holds, so while I’m having to be patient, I’ve decided to channel some of this frustrated energy into a productive project.

Hence, book.

I also don’t usually talk about writing fiction here, I guess because I used to think it was bad luck or something. Probably the truth is that I would be embarrassed to tell you that I was writing what would most definitely end up being a poor, half-finished book and then awkwardly avoid all future inquiries as to the progress of said poor, half-finished book.

But right now it’s one of the few things in my life that genuinely excites me, and I want to share that. Perhaps jotting these thoughts down will help to prompt me to write more and persevere to the end.

I always have a few ideas for novels bouncing around in my furry head — who doesn’t, really? — but as of late one particular idea kept nagging me and poking me, saying, “C’mon, write me already!” I won’t go into specifics, but the general catalyst for this story comes from the fact that about 90% of all fantasy fiction that I read tends to be about the same types of characters: coming-of-age wizards, assassins who are really, really good at killing, battle-scarred veterans with a heart of gold, and anyone who discovers that they’re secretly a werewolf/vampire/c’thulu and feels conflicted about that. Some of it is good, and occasionally a writer will impress me by giving me an unusual protagonist, but I see a lot of common threads of “hero killbot” running through these.

The thought I had was of a protagonist who lived in a fantasy world but wasn’t involved in killing whatsoever. He wasn’t a warrior, he didn’t have super-incredible magical powers, he just had one of the many other jobs that happened to exist in such a landscape. It’s an interesting job, at least to me, it’s just not one that will pit him against a dragon.

A few weeks ago, I decided that enough with just thinking about it, I would sit down and hash out a world building document. I knew enough about my previous writing ventures that I would lose myself in the weeds if I didn’t have a sense of how the world and characters were constructed prior to getting into the narrative. And over the span of a few hours, a rather lengthy document emerged. It kind of just exploded out of my head and I was pretty surprised to see it sitting there. It wasn’t completely unique — what is? — but it felt fresh and different.

Then I started to write. Probably one of my favorite parts of fiction writing is when the narrative and characters take me to unexpected places. I have some general ideas of what’s going on, but these chapters are starting to take a life of their own. That keeps me writing because I want to know what’s next.

So far, I’m four chapters in. I’m trying to rearrange my schedule a little to accommodate regular writing, but I’m still working on that. I need to do this every day, I think, so as not to stall out and so that I can keep momentum going. It’s good fun thus far, all first-person narrative with a strange guy that goes back and forth in a timeline, but it’s not going to be any instant best seller. I have a lot of difficulty with inserting natural-sounding dialogue — I tend to shy away from dialogue, period — and I keep wanting to move the story along to the point where I neglect proper descriptions. So I’m trying to force myself to work those in and not rush.

I did purchase myself a cheap Chromebook, because I want a writing device that’s a little more portable and that won’t tie me to my desk. I can see writing a bit before bed instead of watching TV, as long as I can do it on the couch.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with this weird little section of my life. I might periodically write down some updates on how it’s going, or I might awkwardly avoid your glances for a while. As long as I’m enjoying it and improving my writing abilities, I consider it time well spent. Plus, my kids found out that I’m doing this (my wife knows not) and they’ve been pestering me to read it.