What to read next

Picking my next read is a task brimming with possibilities. So many things to consider, so much to gain from a good choice, so much disappointment from a bad one.

I’ve been thinking about what I want from my next reading experience, but am torn in several directions. One of my goals this year is to read more difficult but rewarding books, a bill that was filled by my previous two very different reads Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and The Iron Council by China Mieville. Both definitely work to get through, but both were amazing in their own unique ways.

I also want to read more unique post apocalyptic novels, because 1) I enjoy them, and 2) I’m writing in that genre and need to scope out the competition. I’ve read a few post apocalyptic books in the past (my favorites being The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and is Roadside Picnic considered post apocalyptic(?)).

I’ve narrowed my next book down to four very different choices, and I want your input. Pick from one of the options below, click on the tweet thingy and fill in your choice of book with one reason why. It can be any reason, even if you think it just has the best cover.

The choices are:  Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Pulp by Charles Bukowski, Stoner by John Williams, or My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Let me know what I should read next by filling in the blanks in the tweet below:

You should read -FILL IN BOOK- next #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

Why these books?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven Book Cover by Emily St. John Mandel

I first heard about Station Eleven while googling for “best post apocalyptic novels” or “best dystopian novels” or something like that. I saw it mentioned more than once, thought that was a good sign (though I have read terrible books from ‘best of…’ lists, so you never know).

This came up and I mentioned it to my wife. “I’ve only heard great things about that book” she said, and then, “Read it ’cause I want to read it and we should read it together!” But she’s currently reading something else so it’ll be a while before we can read this together? Should I get started early? Probably because she reads SO MUCH FASTER than me.

Really, that’s all I know about Station Eleven. I haven’t looked at its goodreads page, I haven’t even cracked it open. All I know is it’s supposed to be good and it shares the genre that I’m currently writing in. Should I read it?

You should read Station Eleven by @EmilyMandel #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

You can follow her on twitter @EmilyMandel

Pulp by Charles Bukowski

Pulp book cover by Charles Bukowski

I’ve never read a Charles Bukowski book. I think many people consider that a crime. I don’t know much about him except that he’s highly regarded and wrote books with titles like Ham on Rye. To be honest, I don’t know what’s kept me away from Bukowski for so long.

Anyway, I only own one of his books, Pulp. I have a feeling that it’s not the Bukowski book you’re ‘supposed’ to start with, but it’s the one I own. So there.

For some reason I put Charles Bukowski in the same camp as Kurt Vonnegut (one of my all time favorites), but I don’t know if that’s accurate or not. They just seem to exude similar vibes. Am I wrong? Should I read it next?

You should read Pulp by Charles Bukowski #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner book cover by John Williams

Stoner, I have heard, is one of the best American novels ever written. This is a novel that’s been floating around my periphery for years. I think I heard about it first from an article from a publication like The Guardian or something. It wasn’t this article but it was a similar one to this.

I forgot about it for a while, then rediscovered it through this YouTube video by Better Than Food, the book recommendation channel by Clifford Lee Sargent @BksBtrThnFood. He gives it about as high of a recommendation possible, which has me intrigued. Should I listen to Clifford and read it next?

You should read Stoner by John Williams because @BksBtrThnFood told you to #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle book cover by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I only recently heard about My Struggle. This one I also learned about from Clifford Lee Sargent (there, I think I linked to all of his things, lol) while bingeing his channel. The same day I watched this video I went to Half Price Books and found the book in the staff recommendations section. It felt like a fatey type of thing, so I bought it.

It’s been a few months since then and the details as to what makes this book great are escaping me now. All I know is that some people who I think have decent taste like it, so hopefully I’ll like it too. Should I read it next though?

You should read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard because @BksBtrThnFood told you to #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

So which should it be. They all seem to be very different books. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on twitter @scbarrus

 

 

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

The Three Greatest Influences on Grim Curio

This week I reached a major writing milestone in Grim Curio. I wrote my 50,000th word. This is a big step in the process and to celebrate I’m going to share some of the works that have influenced me over the past few months.

What follows are GC’s three greatest influences, which is by no means a complete list. Each of these books feature specific elements in the area’s of tone, character arcs, and genre elements that I’ve taken, made my own, and tried to emulate. Let’s get started.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - Book CoverEvery Cormac McCarthy novel has blown me away. The guy is a master of prose, at genre subversion, and at non-conventional storytelling techniques. He has a voice all his own and manages to write genre fiction with deeply embedded literary flair.

Of his works, you might expect The Road to be the greatest source of inspiration. It shares the Post Apocalyptic genre with Grim Curio, and it’s probably his most well-known book at this point. And while The Road is certainly a book that makes me aspire to being a better writer, there are only really superficial similarities between that book and mine.

No, the McCarthy book that had the greatest impact on GC is easily No Country for Old Men. From the tightly paced narrative and the interesting moral dilemmas to absolutely stunning prose and fantastic character arcs, there’s so much to draw on.

Is No Country for Old Men an action novel? You could argue that it’s an action subversion, taking the guise of an action narrative while flipping all the tropes on their heads. Or perhaps it’d be better classified as post-action, especially in the way the book ends. Whatever it is, it’s a damn fine novel, and one that inspires me continually as I write.

Check out the three biggest influences on Grim Curio by @SCBarrus #novels #thriller #fantasy #scienceficiton Click To Tweet

The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson - Book Cover

Switching genres, the next major influence is the Mistborn trilogy which consists of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. These books feature an epic fantasy plot with a unique magic system and massive twists all along the way. But it’s not really these elements that inspire any element of Grim Curio.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every aspect above, but what really caught my eye was the near perfect character arcs. While reading I kept picking up on these often subtle character changes. Almost none of the major characters are static, they all end up as drastically different people than they started as, but the progression feels so subtle and natural.

Taken by the character progression, I ended up watching a series of novel-writing lectures from Brandon Sanderson on YouTube hoping that his secret would be revealed. Turns out it totally was, and it changed the way I write.

He has a unique approach to novel planning which I’ll dive deep into in a future post. It involves listing out all the major moments in a characters arc, then figuring out how that a character will earn that plot point. Each of these will turn into a scene. The end result, when done well, is subtle character growth leading to major changes over time.

While Grim Curio isn’t going to be anywhere near as long as Mistborn, I hope it still carries elements of this kind of character progression with all the major characters.

Mushishi

Long time followers may have guessed Mushishi would appear on this list. Mushishi is a quiet, contemplative and amazing piece of entertainment. Some may criticize it for being slow, but to them I say “no one asked you!”

Mushishi follows Ginko, a sort of traveling medicine man in feudal Japan. He wanders the rural villages to cure the ailments brought on by Mushi, creatures that exists in a different plane, yet affect our world in sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic ways.

While this one isn’t at all an edge of the seat thriller, it does instill the viewer with a sense of awe rarely felt while watching TV or movies. While technically Grim Curio will likely be categorized as Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction, it’s really Fantasy masquerading as Sci-Fi. The fantasy elements are all written through a Sci-Fi lens, but really it’s closer to Mushishi than any sort of hard science fiction.

GC attempts to take these small moments of wonder, and then build and build upon them until the scale is massive and the stakes are higher than ever. But it also seeks to capture periodic quiet moments of contemplation.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Conclusion

There you have it, the three biggest influences on Grim Curio. If you’re interested in learning more about inspiration, be sure to check out this post where I explore how to live a lifestyle that encourages constant inspiration and idea generation. Or if you’d rather get more peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, check out Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio.

Creativity Juice: A Writers Playlist – 19 Hours of Great Writing Music

I’ve been building a killer writing playlist on Spotify for a year. I somehow created a 19 hour behemoth of music I can reliably count on whenever I need to get into the writing mood. Shuffle play, and instantly I get pulled into a more contemplative piece of mind.

It’s a mix of chill out, down tempo electronic, psychedelic post-rock, and movie and video game soundtracks. Almost all of the songs have a steady but relaxing beet and trance inducing rhythms. Few have any singing, and those that do feature the kind of vocals that blend with the music rather than drive it.

Below is the playlist. I called it Creativity Juice – A Writers Playlist. Look down further for a sample of some of the artists included. And if that doesn’t float your boat, scroll way down past that where I share some of my playlist creation wizardry tips. So good.

Listen to The Playlist

The artists include:

Want to give this playlist a test drive? Check out some of the artists.

Bonobo

Emancipator

Little People

Massive Attack

Efterklang

The Album Leaf

Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Interstellar

The Fountain

The Witcher

Bastion

Pyre

And Many, Many More.

What if you hate my taste in writing music?

Make it yourself! Below are some thing’s I’ve learned building a the perfect writing playlist for me. Feel free to give it a shot and before you know it, you’re going to be rocking your own masterpiece.

Add Songs Liberally

I like to add liberally. I start by picking an artist I like, listen to an album or two and add a song to the playlist every time I’m compelled to. Usually my criteria is to answer “will I ever like to hear this again while writing?” with maybe or greater. This builds your playlist quick, especially in the beginning.

Remove Songs Liberally

Once you’re listening to your playlist, you’ll quickly find that some of the songs that you thought would work just don’t strike the tone you want. Cut it as soon as you notice. Nothing is worse than listening to a playlist and skipping every other track. If you ever feel like skipping, just remove it instead. If you want, you can add it to another track later.

Utilize Recommended Artists

Once you’ve had your fill of any one artist, jump on a few of the related artists. I’ll generally give an artist I’ve never heard before a three song test. If I only skip one out of three songs in a row (adding songs I liked along the way), I’ll pick an album and listen to it from the beginning, otherwise I go back and pick again. Don’t just listen to their most popular tracks. Instead, pick an album and start from the beginning, adding songs you like as you go.

Listen While Your Not Writing

When you’re writing, the last thing you want to do is stop writing to manage a playlist. If a song comes on that you want to skip, if you’re like me you’ll just suffer through it unless it’s really grating. Instead, listen to your writing playlist when you’re not writing and remove the songs that aren’t working.

That’s all I’ve got. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a method that works for me. So what do you think of the playlist? If you listen to it during a drafting session, let me know how it went in the comments. If you’ve created your own writing playlist, feel free to share a link.

41 Questions to Improve Your Writing and Critiquing

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When refining, rewriting, editing and critiquing, what should you be looking for? Sentence structure? Character believability? Setting? Sometimes it can be a bit much to keep everything in your head, so I’ve written the following list of things I look for (or need to remind myself to pay attention to) in order to make my writing, and my critiques of other writers, as effective as possible. Hopefully it works for you too.

Style

  1. Is sentence length varied?
  2. Do sentences flow naturally?
  3. Is the information being communicated accurately and effectively?
  4. Do sentences start and end with strong, evocative words?
  5. Are long, wandering sentences used effectively, or should they be broken into shorter, punchier and easier to follow ones (depends on the situation. Long is good for lists and important points. Short is good for immediacy and impact.)
  6. Are there too many -ing and -ly words bunched together (happening, doing, jumping, running, happily, excitedly, remotely)? Too many of these words weaken prose.
  7. Are there semicolons? Rip them out.
  8. Are there parenthesis? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out.
  9. Are the colons? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out too.
  10. Are two words used where only one will do?
  11. Are there phrases like ‘in fact’, ‘there was’, ‘she had said’, etc. Rip those out.
  12. Are the words on the page interesting in themselves? Trade common words and phrases for unique ones. Make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.
  13. Is the same word used twice in a paragraph? If so, there better be a reason for it. Clarity and rhythm are good reasons, lack of vocabulary is not.
  14. Does it read like I spent all my time looking at a thesaurus? Simplify.
  15. Can a dumb reader make sense of your complex ideas? Consider simplifying your explinations.
  16. Does a smart reader feel they’re being talked down to? Make your ideas bigger.
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Descriptions

  1. As a reader, can I inhabit the scene with the information given?
  2. Are all the senses engaged? Can the prose make a blind man see or a deaf man hear? If not, add more.
  3. Is the flow of narrative slowed by an overabundance of description? Pair it down or rearrange it.
  4. Are the details portrayed in logical order?
  5. Are descriptions of everyday things lending value? Again, make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.

Characters

  1. Do we know the character enough to justify the current scene?
  2. Does the characters actions make sense from the characters point of view?
  3. From reading the current scene, can I imagine how the character might behave in a different situation? If not, the character is not as well defined as it should be.
  4. Can I picture the character in my head? If not, add more description and do it early.
  5. Does character speech feel natural. Read aloud.
  6. What mannerisms does this character have? Do they have a tick, a habit, or feature that sets them apart?
  7. What does each character want? How badly do they want it? What are they willing to do to get it?
  8. Do character actions reveal something about the character, or are they superfluous?
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Scenes

  1. Is the current scene vital? Justify it, if you can’t, cut it.
  2. What is the purpose of this scene? Furthering plot, building character, etc. Every scene should do what it does well.
  3. Does the current scene feel familiar? Is it familiar to another scene in the work, or familiar to something from somewhere else? If so, there better be a really good reason.
  4. Where is the tension / suspense? (from wikipedia: Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment) How many layers of tension / suspense are there? More on this next.
  5. Is there a basic level of tension? If there are two characters, they should each want something different. If characters have the same wants, then something should get in there way. If life is easy, then the read is boring.
  6. Is there a middle layer of suspense? Something else above the immediate scene should be looming. Something outside of the characters current control.
  7. Is there a grand level of suspense? There should be a singular overarching thing that drives the story, gives it a time limit, forces the characters to make difficult choices again and again. If it’s a villain, it better be a damn good one.

Cohesion

  1. Can each scene be explained in one or two sentences? Hone them.
  2. Can each chapter be explained in one or two sentences? Hone some more.
  3. Can the entire plot be explained in one or two sentences? If not, focus, hone, find the heart of the story and throw the rest away.
  4. Is the word count justified? The entire reading experience should feel tight, even if it’s 200,000 words or more. If there is a moment of boredom, cut cut cut.
  5. In the end, am I fulfilled but wishing there was just a little more. Perfect, time to start the next book.
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