the written world: dragons, tacos, and the good place

like most right-thinking people on the planet, i forking love The Good Place. (for the uninitiated, it’s a 20-minute sitcom about heaven, hell, moral philosophy, and the redemptive power of human connection). (note that, if you haven’t seen the first season of The Good Place, this newsletter contains spoilers).

i also love Adam Rubin’s best-selling picture books: Dragons Love Tacos, Dragons Love Tacos 2, and High Five.

here’s what they have in common: they both take a good idea, and then take it further. i don’t have the lit-crit vocabulary to say it better than that. it’s the thing where a story begins with a charming or clever premise, and then breezes past it to the next good idea, and the one after that. 

in Dragons Love Tacos the concept is that--spoiler--dragons love tacos. but it instantly introduces the idea that dragons also hate spicy salsa, because it makes them breathe fire, and then the scenario that you (it’s written in second person, which i adore in picture books) are throwing a taco party for your dragon friends, except you mis-read the salsa jar and the dragons burn down your house and then help you rebuild it because they feel bad. you see how the story just goes boom-boom-boom, no brakes?

Dragons Love Tacos 2 keeps it rolling. it opens with a crisis: there’s a national taco shortage! oh no! which prompts my favorite line of either book, exemplifying the whatever-you-call-it i’m trying to talk about: I know we aren’t supposed to mess with the time machine in the garage, but it sure seems like now’s the time.

what a goddang curveball. what fun. 

The Good Place is nothing but curveballs. the first couple episodes are based on the charming-but-not-necessarily-groundbreaking premise that someone not-great has ended up in heaven. it’s a little preachy and moralizing, because you can see how it’s going to play out: trashbag human slowly learns to be good and earns her place in heaven, how sweet. 

except it doesn’t play out that way at all. except (actual, major spoiler alert) it turns out they’re actually in hell being tricked into tormenting one another, endlessly striving to win a game they’ve already lost. by season 2 it’s become an escape room, as the humans try to break free; by season three it’s a quest, because they’ve become convinced that the entire good place/bad place system is unjust. literally every episode ends with the audience saying what!

so the lesson here is something like: don’t be afraid to take your story further.

i think it takes guts (all writing takes guts, which is a bummer because i’m a coward). i think it takes a kind of narrative fearlessness, a cheekiness, a faith in readers or viewers to follow you wherever the fuck you go. i think probably it results in a lot of dead-ends. but i also think it’s worth it.

other reading

  • my husband read this completely batshit article on the author of the mega-bestseller, Where the Crawdads Sing, and honestly i can’t stop thinking about it. it’s like a fictional murder mystery wrapped in a real-life thriller. it’s meta and weird and i don’t understand how publishing twitter isn’t obsessed with it.

  • if you find yourself stressed and unhappy, weighed down by the endless cruelty and buffoonery of the white house, i recommend middle-grade graphic novels. it’s like stumbling into an alternate planet made of radical empathy and charming aesthetics. i especially recommend Nguyen’s Pilu of the Woods, which is about grief and botany, Telgemeier’s Smile, which is about dentistry and middle school, and Jen Wang’s new Stargazing, about K-pop and talent shows and friendship (her debut, The Prince and the Dressmaker, is also a favorite in our house).

  • and i just finished Circe by Madeline Miller. oh my gods and goddesses, my nymphs and naiads. someone go back to my third-grade self--the one who kept hamilton’s Mythology in her desk, the one who named her parakeets zeus and hera--and tell her one day she’ll see all those stories come to life. it’s phenomenal: witchy and angry, human and epic, beautiful and hideous. it’s my new obsession.

news

the first month of having a book out in the world has been wild and distracting and nerve-wracking and great. some very cool things have happened, like a rave review at NPR, like my hometown B&N selling out of my book on the first day, like my publisher using Google Lens and augmented reality to make my book cover move, like seeing my book on the LA Times Best Seller list a month after publication. i’m exhausted and grateful and very lucky.

  • if you happened to be looking for a signed edition of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Carmichael’s Books in Louisville should be back in stock this week!

  • i’ll be at the Kentucky Book Fair in Lexington on Nov. 16, signing books along with very excellent people like Gwenda Hecking Bond!!

  • on january 11th at 6PM, i’ll be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, talking with Erin Motherhecking Morgenstern!! (note that this event is ticketed, because Erin)

the written world: on starless seas

news

the news section is moved to the top because my book (my book, the book that I wrote, my book) is out today. that feels momentous. or at least it feels like it ought to feel momentous; all i actually feel right now is a sort of anxious distraction, a flighty certainty that i’ve left the stove on or the laundry on the line with rain in the forecast. as if i half-started something and lost control of it; as if i’m likely to be punished for the hubris of starting at all.

but still: it’s out. (probably; i scheduled this post for 12:01AM because i’m very chill, so it might not be the 10th where you are. also it doesn’t come out til the 12th in the UK). if you live near a physical, actual bookstore, it might be there! it was an Indie Next September pick; a Barnes and Noble Discover pick and a B&N Best of the Month pick; and an Amazon best-of-the-month editor’s pick. you can read the first chapter here or find it on goodreads. or purchase it at indiebound, amazon, barnes & noble, or request it from your local library! there’s also an extremely lovely audiobook, if you’re an audiobook person, read by--get this--January LaVoy, which got an earphones award from audiofile. 

also, i’m doing an AMA on reddit’s r/books at 10:00am today; a launch event at carmichael’s books on frankfort ave. in louisville, ky, on september 12th at 7:00PM; and i’m reading and signing at our dearly beloved local library in berea, ky on september 14th, 4:00-6:00 PM.

come say hi?

of starless seas

the absolute number one coolest thing about being an Author is that, sometimes, if i’m very good and cross my fingers, i get to read excellent books slightly before the rest of you. this combines my two greatest passions: reading good books and knowing things slightly before other people.

this summer i got an advanced copy of erin morgenstern’s The Starless Sea. “morgenstern? as in The Night Circus? the book that swept us away eight years ago and left us with an ache in our hearts, a yearning for what never was?” yes, my darlings, my dreamers. that morgenstern.

The Starless Sea is better. or maybe better is too straightforward a word: it’s stranger, deeper, older. The Night Circus was alice catching sight of the white rabbit; The Starless Sea is alice tumbling headfirst down the rabbithole. (it is also specifically calibrated to tug at my particular heartstrings. it begins with a child who finds a magic door, but doesn’t walk through it; there are separated lovers and very significant books that don’t belong on library shelves; there is a sense of wonder and want, of loss and ache. erin and i have joked on twitter that the venn diagram of our books is very nearly a circle.)

i don’t know if it’s possible to extract writing lessons from something so wondrous and unique, but if i did, they would be something like:

lesson #1: the world is enough

on the sixth page of The Starless Sea, we are told:

“Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals...It is a sanctuary for storytellers and storykeepers and storylovers. They eat and sleep and dream surrounded by chronicles and histories and myths. Some stay for hours or days before returning to the world above but others remain for weeks or years, living in shared or private chambers, and spending their hours reading or studying or writing, discussing and creating with their fellow residents or working in solitude.”

and that’s enough. that’s all it took: we are hooked as effectively as fish on her line. we are convinced there is secret world of storytellers waiting for us, and that’s enough to pull us through four prologues and a half-dozen characters and stories. it occurred to me that many of my favorite books pull a similar trick: they rely on my longing for a place that doesn’t exist, that i desperately want to exist. i wanted to attend hogwarts and wander through the black and white tents of Le Cirque des Rêves and walk the hills of Gont with Ogion. i wanted to fall through the wardrobe or climb the rooftops of Lyra’s oxford.

in my own writing, i’ve found it helps if i give myself a place i want to be, to build myself a haven or a heaven. it’s only fiction, but sometimes--it’s enough.

lesson #2: tell all the truth but tell it slant

but why is that underground world so alluring? why does it pull at my soulstuff? because, i suspect, it’s a fanciful metaphor for finding a community, a home, a place-you-belong. because i know how it feels to wander for years and finally find a place--or a person, actually--that feels like home. and isn’t that the secret superpower of good fantasy, that it can take metaphors literally? that it can tell the truth slantwise, by starlight, and therefore let as look straight at it? like dickinson says: “the truth must dazzle gradually/ or every man be blind--

the movie About Time--a perfect film unfairly maligned by rotten tomatoes--uses time travel to talk about the mundane miracle of time passing, the things we lose and gain as we time-travel slowly into the future, at the rate of one hour per hour. more darkly, colson whitehead’s Underground Railroad made the underground railroad into a literal tunnel system. he took the entire history of american slavery and reconstruction and condensed it into an odyssey-like epic that is totally fabricated and entirely true.

so like: instead of trying really hard to make stuff up, maybe we should try really hard to tell the truth.

lesson #3: lessons are bullshit

this book has four prologues. it has alternating perspectives and dropped threads and books within books within fairy tales. it starts “slow.” the magic is murky, unexplained, ineffable. the main character has no clearly established Stakes or Motives, but is merely an endearing grad student who likes games and narratives, who i would personally die for.

what i’m saying is--The Starless Sea doesn’t follow the rules of writing, because there are no rules of writing, because writing is just chaos and hope and breadcrumb trails in dark woods. sometimes i think i get too bound up by hero’s journeys or beat-sheets or prescriptive twitter threads and forget to just follow the damn story. to walk willingly into the dark woods and know the crows are eating the crumbs i’ve left behind. to get well and truly lost, because getting lost is the only way you find gingerbread houses and wolves and witches.

other reading

some other things you might like, because i do:

  • NPR’s Embedded series has five episodes on mitch mcconnell, the thesis of which is: fuck that guy. (and truly, fuck that guy). it’s good reporting and storytelling, a lot of kentucky history, and an interesting insight into the strategies of a real-life supervillain.

  • The Good Place podcast has an entire episode talking to Lin Manuel Miranda, and there has never been a sentence more specifically designed to soothe my troubled soul. the amazon is on fire and hurricanes are getting worse and there’s been another shooting and we’re deporting sick children and torturing families, but--Lin Manuel Miranda is on the Good Place podcast.

  • i’m re-reading patricia briggs’ Dragon Bones books for the eight millionth time. i couldn’t tell you why i love them so much, except that they’re about a ragtag team of misfits on a mission to save the kingdom and everybody has a secret identity/backstory revealed at the most shocking moment and also there are dragons.

p.s.

did you know you’re allowed to reply to my newsletters, if you like? as if it were just an overlong email i sent specifically to you? because they are, and you can! i like talking to people about books, and i like long emails, and i might not be able to respond to every message but i love them very much.

the written world: of murderbots and time wars

in the last month i’ve read martha wells’ Murderbot Diaries (consisting of four separate novellas: All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy) and amal el-mohtar and max gladstone’s standalone novella, This Is How You Lose the Time War, which is a long-winded way of saying i’ve been terribly spoiled with effortlessly good writing and faultless pacing. i’ve been staying up too late, smiling into the gentle glow of my kindle, thinking how did they do that?

they’re extremely different stories: Murderbot is the harrassed, sarcastic inner-narration of a security robot gone rogue, hitch-hiking through the galaxy in search of purpose and belonging; Time War is a series of love letters between two time-traveling agents on opposite sides of an endless war. Wells is sharp and practical, often funny (“the way murderbots fight is we throw ourselves at the target and try to kill the shit out of it”); El-Mohtar and Gladstone are poetic, mystic, indulgent, full of urgency and longing (“have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?”).

but both stories work, wonderfully. both of them make me want to shake them gently by the shoulders, listening for the rattle of prose and sentence structure, the machinery that makes them tick. or maybe i want to brew tea with their pages and divine lessons from their dregs.

if i did, i might come out with something like:

lesson #1: novellas require tunnel-vision and self-control.

reading novellas on a kindle is disorienting. you come to the end of them, bam, at roughly the time you’re expecting to sink into the murky middle of a novel. they’re short. sometimes they feel rushed, like novels stuffed into too-small suits; sometimes they feel slow, like short stories wearing grown-up clothes.

but these were all goldilocks books (just right). they had character arcs. they had beginnings and middles and ends. they had loose ends but not too many. they were all under 40,000 words. how?

tunnel vision, i figure. they cared about one thing—Murderbot finding its place, Red and Blue falling in love—and told everything else to fuck off. we don’t know the history of the far-future corporation that built Murderbot; we don’t know how and when the time war started. we just know how Blue feels when she reads Red’s words in her tea, and that Murderbot prefers the made-up people in her space-operas to the real thing. so if you’re going to write a novella, maybe decide what the thing is you care about, and care about it as hard as you can.

lesson #2: you don’t need an idea that’s never been done before. you need an idea that’s never been done before by you.

artificially intelligent fighting machines who eventually attain independence and personhood is not a new thing in sci-fi. neither are time-traveling agents fighting for alternate futures. but Murderbot and Time War both felt fresh, exciting, smart, unlike-other-books, uniquely and precisely themselves. (isn’t that the real trick of great books? that they know exactly what they’re about, down to the last semi-colon).

i think a lot of writers, and maybe especially genre writers, live in terror of unoriginality. you’re supposed to write new planets and unseen horizons! invent gods and languages! go boldly where no book has gone before!!

but like—what a weird measuring stick that is. as if readers carry around checklists of tropes and deduct points for every familiar plot or character (when, in reality, they often do the opposite). god knows i’m not advocating for stasis in subject or form, but surely mere newness isn’t the real measure of a book’s worth. these authors brought something new to some fairly un-new ideas—they brought their specific passions and perspectives, their curiosities and sympathies, their queerness and immigrant-ness and subversiveness. they brought themselves.

so maybe, i don’t know, write your vampire romance. your young-girl-becomes-a-knight, your fae-folk, your retold-mythology, your cinderella story, even your zombie apocalypse. (actually i just read a zombie book that was, no joke, totally unlike anything i’ve seen. eat your heart out, clarkesworld submission guidelines). so long as you bring your whole self to it.

other reading

some other things i have loved/am loving:

  • daniel ortberg’s aggressive reaction to finishing his book is relatable as shit: “Sorry for saying fuck you but sometimes my joy at finishing things I’ve been dragging out becomes wildly hostile. This is part of my process and you have to respect it.” I Finished Writing My Book So You Can Go Straight To Hell.

  • rebecca roanhorse’s Storm of Locusts. did you like Trail of Lightning? good. then you will like the sequel.

  • amal el-mohtar has an article in the guardian that is just so damn smart and good: “Every time we recover a female author, scientist, doctor, activist, every time we affirm that black people lived in medieval Europe, that queer people have always existed and often led happy lives, we change history – not the past, crucially, but history, our story about the past, our narratives and paradigms. And as we change history, we change the future.” Why Are There So Many New Books about Time-Traveling Lesbians?

  • kathleen jennings’ Flyaway, a forthcoming novella from tor.com, is so good??? i’m not even done, but i have that hairs-on-end, skin-prickle feeling i got the first time i read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. holy shit.

    news

so: my first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, comes out September 10th in the US, September 12th in the UK, from Orbit/Redhook. you can: read the first chapter here, find it on goodreads, and/or pre-order it at indiebound, amazon, or barnes & noble.

i’m doing one of reddit’s ask me anythings on September 10th at 10:00 on r/books. also, if you’re anywhere near louisville, kentucky, i’m doing a launch event at carmichael’s books on frankfort ave., on september 12th at 7:00PM. or if you’re near berea, kentucky, i’m reading and signing at our dearly beloved local library on september 14th, 4:00-6:00 PM.

welcome to the written world!

a monthly-ish email reflecting on something i’ve read or seen and what makes it so great, + self-promotion.

who are you?

alix e. harrow. ex-academic historian, recovering adjunct, writer of speculative fiction. my debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, is out september 10th, and this year i’m a finalist for the hugo, nebula, locus, and world fantasy awards in the short fiction category (see my author website for more publishing stuff). i live with my husband and our semi-feral kids in rural kentucky.

why subscribe?

i’ve written two novels (forthcoming). i’ve published half a dozen short stories in top-tier markets. i’ve been nominated for a couple of awards. 

i still don’t know wtf i’m doing. i still want desperately to get better.

i don’t have my MFA. i’ve never even taken a creative writing course or been to a critique group. i learned to write by reading, and thinking about reading, and writing about reading. every journal i’ve ever kept eventually devolved into lists of books and authors and call numbers, quotes surrounded by frilly doodles. one of those quotes was this line from All the Pretty Horses:

“...they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.”

the vision of those two young adventurers riding into the abyss, side by side, choosing from ten thousand worlds--it pierced me. lived in my heart for ten years like a shard of ice. when i drew it out, it was my first novel.

i want to keep finding stories that rattle around in my heart. i want to figure out why. join me?

(plus you’ll get news about new publications, events, sales, giveaways, and other shameless self-promotiony things!)

why don’t you capitalize your sentences??

because i have a switch in my brain that says capitalization is for Work and lowercase is for friends. because lowercase says: just-for-fun, between-you-and-me, listen-to-this. it says text messages between siblings or late-night emails to long-distance friends or middle-school conversations on AIM. also because i write for a living and the shift key gets my tendonitis going.

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