Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 2

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading recently, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media. See part 1 here.

I finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring over the weekend, and I was eager to jump right into The Two Towers. Instead, I decided to take a couple days and absorb The Fellowship in its own right. So this post is just a collection of thoughts through the rest of that novel.

Description

This one may seem kind of obvious to anyone who has read or heard anything about Tolkien’s world. If nothing else, he is known for world-building. His intricate description of the land through which his characters travel provides a vivid image in the reader’s mind and sets the scene for every interaction with the characters.

Has this imagery been informed in my mind by the stunning New Zealand landscapes used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings? Definitely. But Tolkien’s descriptions also serve the story.

In Book II, Chapters 3 and 6 — “The Ring Goes South” and “Lothlorien”, respectively — the Company first try to pass over the mountain of Caradhras, and then manage to pass under it. As they approach the mountain from the west, hope to traverse its high pass, the peak glares at them red-stained in the morning sunlight, a warning of the peril they are about to face. The mountain defeats them with a mighty snowstorm and rockslide that only seems to occur on the narrowest spot of the pass as they try to cross.

Three chapters later when the Company emerges from Moria on the east side of the mountain. As they continue southward towards Lothlorien, they give one last look to the mountain that caused them so much suffering, both at its height and in its very depths. Now, Caradhras glows with golden sunlight, as if mocking them with its serenity.

I don’t need an illustration to picture the foreboding peak of Caradhras in my mind, and the colors that evoke so much emotion to the characters in a single glance.

Story Lessons

  1. Description of the environment can evoke scale. Although only a matter of days passes between the two images of Caradhras, that book-end demonstrates how much the Company has been through in that time. It also shows how far the Company has to travel just to get to the other side of the mountain, thus scaling out the world and making the journey ahead seem all the more arduous.
  2. Description of the environment can reflect the characters’ emotions. As in the example above, the mirrored descriptions of Caradhras also mirror how the Company feels about it: first as a symbol of foreboding, and then as a symbol of mockery, even shame for what they lost by passing under the mountain, rather than over it.

Presence

I think it can be too easy sometimes to get caught up in the action or the drama of a story and keep the plot surging forward. This up-tempo pace can be enthralling for a reader, but sometimes it’s just as important to let the characters, and the reader, breathe.

One of the most effecting sections of The Fellowship for me came during such a moment, when Aragorn speaks to Frodo about Lothlorien:

‘Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,’ he said, ‘and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!’ And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 456.

This quote does two things. First, it gives both Aragorn and Frodo a sense of presence within the story. After several chapters of danger and suspense, they come at last to place where they can rest. It’s thus natural that the characters would want to pause and marvel at their ethereal surroundings. Secondly, the end of this section implies a dark road for Aragorn and forces the reader to ask: why does he never return? Where does his journey take him that he can never see Cerin Amroth again?

Story Lesson

  1. Use a characters’ present moments to punctuate their arc. To put the above another way, I think it’s often in quiet moments that a character feels their sense of place within a story, within their world. It also allows the reader to step back, briefly, from the immediate plot and see their characters as more than just actors in a particular scene; here especially, Aragorn feels like a living soul whose present and future are wrapped into this singular moment of wonder and awe. He has a life to lead, and we are catching only a glimpse of his journey.

This post is (slightly) shorter than part 1, and this definitely does not represent everything I am taking from The Fellowship of the Ring. I just wanted to share some things that really jumped out to me.

Onto The Two Towers!

Steve D

April Write Day: Many Paths, One Set of Feet

Scatter-brained is how I would describe my March. Not necessarily from me. It just felt like a chaotic month for a variety of reasons, so I feel like I need to re-center.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,000 words.
  2. Work out at least every other day.
  3. Finish 4 books.

Write 6,000 words?

Nope. A bit over 4,000 was the final count for March. I ended up putting quite a bit of time into a family tree for my story, both to enrich the character building and to make sure I could keep track of all the kinship ties for this one family. Did I use this as a form of procrastination from actually writing? Yes I did. Will it help me write a better story later? I think so.

I also focused almost entirely on revising/rewriting part 1. Part 2 has not been left in the dust entirely, but implementing my newer ideas in part 1 is keeping me motivated. Honestly, living in the two stories simultaneously — even knowing part 2 will have to change — has not been as distracting as I expected. Even though I know changes to part 1 will mean heavier revisions to part 2 later on, it’s still good for me to work through the plot issues of part 2 as it currently stands. I will likely have to face these plot issues anyway in some form, so it never hurts to noddle a problem for a bit.

Work out every other day?

I think so…? I’m going to say yes! I don’t track my workout progress in this way, but I know I did my resistance exercises nearly every day. I fell off on my yoga routine a bit, but I’m satisfied to have done something at least every other day.

Finish 4 books?

Just 3. I finished one Audible listen, one graphic novel, and one full-length novel, all of which I reviewed in the last few weeks.

I am more than halfway through reading The Fellowship of the Ring, but that’s my only current read. I really didn’t listen to Audible much at all in March. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts recently, and there are only so many listening hours in the day.

I have plenty of things to listen, but most of them are super-long 15+ hour books, and I’m more in the mood for shorter listens at the moment. Anyway, this is the main reason I didn’t finish four books. I’m really enjoying my re-read of The Fellowship, though, so I’m not currently interested in reading anything else. The power of Tolkien, I suppose.

Goals for April

  1. Write 6,000 words. This is definitely achievable, I just need to put the time in. I think I really need to get back to writing in small chunks when I can, plus a few longer writing sessions. Small writing sessions of a couple hundred words each day can build up quickly.
  2. Finish 3 books. I plan to jump straight into The Two Towers upon finishing The Fellowship. I’d also like to find something to listen to on Audible, but it will likely be a shorter something.
  3. Relax more, preferably outside. I’ve had a lot going on recently, mentally, and it’s been hard not allowing it to bleed into interpersonal relationships. I really just want to prioritize my own relaxation more, even if that’s just wandering around the yard with the toddler. One of his favorite things currently is to walk circles around our garage/sitting room. He just… walks… around the outside of this building. I don’t know what he gets out of it, but I find it quite cathartic. I need more moments like that week-to-week or even day-to-day. I’ve also started using our time outside together to do little things around the yard, like weeding the patio, which helps with the stress.

Steve D

March Write Day: Monotones

Monotonous. That is how I would sum up my February. Whether it was stress at work, an uneventful social calendar, or lackluster exercise progress, February was not great for me mentally, physically, or otherwise. I’m not sure why this monotony hit me now as opposed to any other time in pandemic times, but it did.

I’m glad we’ve entered a new month, because I need something to break me out of this funk.


Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,855 words for The Herb Witch Tales #2.
  2. Do more yoga and resistance training.
  3. Finish 4 books.

Write 6,855 words?

Nope. I buried the lead by saying I didn’t make much exercise progress, but I also didn’t make much writing progress! I wrote about 3,300 words in February, which isn’t terrible, but I’m definitely not proud of it. I just lost motivation about halfway through the month for reasons other than my story.

In the last week of the month, I decided to begin the third draft of Uprooted, giving myself a break from drafting its sequel by hand in a journal. I wrote over 500 words in one short sitting, I wish I had turned to this story earlier in the month. I probably could have gotten a lot more done.

My as yet untitled part 2 is still coming along, just not as quickly as I would like. I’m at a pivotal point in the story where tension between two characters is supposed to be escalating, and I’m having trouble hitting the right emotional notes. Now that I’m more than two-thirds of the way towards my total word count goal of 38k, I also have my sights set on the ending. So, this is just an important point int he drafting process that I simply did not have the determinaiton to attack in February.

I’m hoping that revisiting part 1 and shoring up some of the larger issues with these stories in that draft will help me prepare for the ending of part 2.

Do more yoga and resistance training?

I started off strong but fell off my routine a bit towards the end of the month. When I’m in a funk, everything tends to spiral, so I’m not surprised this happened. Luckily, I’ve already started off on a good foot in March, so I’m not too worried. I like exercising regularly way more than I like not doing that. I just need to make it a point to do so during the day.

You’ll see this in my goals for this month, but I really want to focus on exercising more consistently, and continuing to add variety to my routine.

Finish 4 books?

No, but I’m not taking full blame for this one. I finished two books in February and am most of the way through three others. I got stuck on Crossroads of Twilight, which became even more of a slog of a book than I thought last month. I just didn’t feel like reading it, which may be the first time that’s happened with a Wheel of Time novel. Luckily, I’ve reached a point in the book that’s a bit more interesting. At this point, I just want to finish the damn thing so I can complain about it in my review.

On a positive note, I’ve dipped back into comics for my reading for the first time in probably… two decades. I’ve really enjoyed the MCU films, and particularly Thor, so I wanted to read some of the more recent Thor comics. With Thor: Love and Thunder coming out in the relative future, and rumors flying around about Jane Foster as Thor, I settled on Jason Aaron’s run with the Thor comics from about 2012 forward. He wrote the series, Thor: God of Thunder, that eventually leads to Jane Foster taking up the hammer and continued the arc from there.

So I’m buying the collected volumes of those issues wherever I find them. Currently on volume two, Godbomb, and really enjoying it. As a friend and avid comics reader told me recently, Marvel’s “Marvel Now” run of comics in the late 00’s and early 2010’s was designed to bring in non-comics readers by resetting a lot of their characters’ stories and not bogging them down with decades of canon. Which is just… I’m the precise audience for this.

That’s honestly one of the highlights of February for me.

Goals for March

  1. Write 6,000 words. I don’t care which of my Herb Witch Tales drafts I end up putting more time into this month. I just want to hit my word count goal. More than likely I will work on each as the mood takes me, which is probably for the better anyway.
  2. Work out at least every other day. This is a slightly different goal, but is more to the point of my exercise routine. If I take more than one day off in a row, I start to feel it physically and mentally. So, regardless of how many days I work out this month, I just don’t want to let my days off take away from my routine.
  3. Finish 4 books. Okay, I really am in the best position possible to do this in March. I have 200 pages left in Crossroads, barely a chapter left in an audiobook, and a freaking comic to finish. I should be able to finish each of those this week without trying, and easily polish off another book by April.

Steve D

Seeing the Story Trees for the World-Building Forest

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I already don’t like that strained analogy of a title, but we’re going with it unless I can think of something better. The writing part of my brain pretty reliably ebbs and flows between two points. Sometimes, all I can think about is the story in front of me and how I can bring it to fruition. Other times, all I can think of is all the stories except the one immediately in front of me.

I’ve been pretty heads-down on part 2 of The Herb Witch Tales the last few weeks, but recently, my mindset and thought process has started to shift. This is a natural phase for me, but it’s helped me come to a bigger realization about my writing. I need to focus more on the stories themselves. Continue reading “Seeing the Story Trees for the World-Building Forest”

Book Publishing and Marketing Goals c. 2021

Title card for Marketing Your Novel, photo from AwesomeCon 2019 table, The Warden of Everfeld: Memento fantasy novel, Steve D'Adamo

I wrote earlier this month that I was reserving longer-term goals for my book publishing and marketing efforts, so here we are. In some ways, I have come to find yearly publishing and marketing goals a bit strange when I’m not publishing multiple books per year — or even one book per year.

However, I still think it’s important to have something to shoot for in any endeavor.

Continue reading “Book Publishing and Marketing Goals c. 2021”

The Third Draft is Coming

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I’ve decided recently that my first part of The Herb Witch Tales will definitely need a third draft. Not just revisions, mind you. I’ll likely rewrite the story in a new document from the start.

As I’ve progressed on part 2 of this duology, I’ve continued to think about some of the incredible suggestions my beta readers made. They will help me enrich the world and get the most out of my characters.

But it’s not to get distracted by one story while trying to draft another. I’m about halfway through the first draft of my as yet untitled part 2 of The Herb Witch Tales, but I write it knowing that certain things will be changing. Nothing major, but the relationships between certain characters will. I think some of the finer details about the setting will.

So why have I not given up on this first draft? Because I’m currently trying to solve the problem of what this specific story is really about. If I stop now, in the middle of that crucial process, I may not be able to recapture that same train of thought. As soon as I’m finished with my current draft, I’m going to return to part 1 and rewrite it. That means a full rewrite of part 2 as well, but I’m good with that.

Writing two stories of a series simultaneously, as I’m learning, means having the opportunity to make both stories as good as possible. I’ll probably be going back and forth between these until they’re both finished, no matter how many rounds of rewrites or revisions I have to do. I still intend for part 2 to stand on its own as a story, so striking that balance may be difficult.

I’m also learning that letting a draft simmer for a bit, especially with feedback waiting to be resolved, really helps the writing process. I feel fully confident now that I can return to part 1 and make it better, because I’ve given myself ample time to just ponder on it.

Really, I just came here to say that I’m buckling in for an extended drafting and revision process for these stories. I still want to publish this year, and I know I can do so, but I really won’t be able to publish part 1 until part 2 is also ready to go.

Short post today, mainly because I started two other completely different posts before deciding to write this one. At least I already have ideas for next week!

Steve D

2020 Marketing Goals Wrap-Up

Title card for Marketing Your Novel, photo from AwesomeCon 2019 table, The Warden of Everfeld: Memento fantasy novel, Steve D'Adamo

Well, it’s not quite the end of 2020, but I’m ready to put a pin in my marketing goals for this year. The main reason: marketing did not go well for me. I can likely point to a number of reasons that this is the case, but the primary one is that I was likely too ambitious to start the year, and even a little too ambitious with my adjusted goals at the mid-year point.

One key thing I’ve learned this year is to aim high in my goals while still being more pragmatic about which ones are really attainable. Let’s dig in. Continue reading “2020 Marketing Goals Wrap-Up”