Sunday, June 10, 2018

Read a Book (or a Bunch of Them) Part 1

2018 Goal Update
Books read: 40
Words on WIP: 8,500

I'm deep in the drafting cave right now. Since I (finally) settled on a project that I'm excited about pursuing, I've been doing my best to get a first draft on the page.

The thing with first drafts is that they pretty much always make me feel like I don't know anything about writing. So, I'm not going to be posting about writing for the next few weeks.

Instead, I'm going to talk about books I've read.

Since I'm a person that reads a lot, I get asked for book recommendations pretty regularly.


Rather than just listing books I like, I want to tie my recommendations to specific tropes, archetypes, and trends that I like. I read a pretty wide variety of books, but there are some specific things that pretty much always catch my attention in books. For these lists, I'll tell you a little about some of my favorite elements and recommend a book or two that showcase that element.

We Are the Monsters

I read a lot of genre fiction that pits humans against supernatural creatures or beings from outer space. A pretty frequent theme in these stories is humanity banding together to defeat a common enemy. But what's more interesting are the stories that make me question what it means to be human--ones that point out that human and monster aren't mutually exclusive categories.

My Recommendations


I've talked about this duology before, but it's one of my favorites. In the Monsters of Verity series, violent acts create actual monsters--the worse the violence, the smarter and more dangerous the monster. The city of Verity is divided. A human, Harker, offers protection from the monsters in exchange for a hefty fee. On the other side of the wall, Flynn pushes for stopping the problem of monsters before it starts--and using the most dangerous type of monster, soul-stealing Sunai.Harker's daughter, Kate, wants to prove that she's worthy of her father's monstrous reputation. Flynn's Sunai son, August, just wants to be a normal boy. These books were based on one idea: Plenty of humans are monstrous, and plenty of monsters know how to play at being human.

Grief and Grieving

Loss is always difficult to cope with, and reading has been one of the tools I've used to work out my own feelings. Art--movies, plays, books--give us an chance to vicariously experience the emotions of grief. They help us find catharsis. They give us some tools to deal with these difficulties in our own lives without us having to go through a trauma of our own.

My Recommendations

For this category, I have a genre recommendation and a contemporary recommendation.


THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER follows a girl named Leigh who is navigating the aftermath of her mother's death by suicide. Leigh is convinced that, after her mother died, she turned into a bird. To find out what her mother's spirit is trying to tell her, she takes a trip to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents and connect with the parts of her mother she never knew. This book is devastating--and I mean that in the best possible way. Leigh's journey is as much about figuring out how to manage the way her life has changed as it is about developing an understanding of her mother's struggle. Plus, the prose is beautiful.


UNDEAD GIRL GANG is one of my favorite reads from this year. Mila's best friend was found dead in the park in what the authorities think was part of a suicide pack with two of their school's queen bees. Unsatisfied with the official explanation, Mila casts a spell to bring back the dead, hoping that her best friend will be able to tell her what happened. Unfortunately, she also brings back the other two girls and is no responsible for managing three undead girls for a week while they work out who killed them. This book isn't the gut-wrencher that ASTONISHING COLOR is, but it does dig into the power of grief. Though Mila gets her friend back temporarily, she does have to figure out how to live in a world where her best friend is there. It's got some great action, wonderful friendship, and magic.

That's it for part one! I'll be back with another round of recommendations. If there are specific tropes, trends, or archetypes you'd like to see recommendations for, let me know.

 
 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Schedules and Recs

2018 Goal Update
Books read: 39
Words on WIP: 6,000/?

So I guess I took a month off from blogging?

May was an exercise in figuring out my new circumstances. Though my new job leaves me with much more in the way of energy and is something that I'm actually done with when I leave for the day (no more student emails in the middle of the night!), it requires my physical presence for a greater number of hours than my previous jobs did. I'm still figuring out the best way to manage this.

I haven't been slacking in my absence. Though there have been a few false starts, I've finally settled into drafting my new WIP. It's not BRUSHSTROKES or Space Frankenstein (though I'm holding on to my notes for both of those--I want to write them, but now's not the time). It's an older project that I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at last year. I think it's had time to percolate, and I'm really enjoying digging into it. As much as it's possible for me to enjoy the torturous process of writing a first draft.

That being said, finding the time to put together blog posts has been a struggle. I plan to keep blogging, but I'll likely be switching to posting on a different day, and maybe once every other week as opposed to once a week. More updates on that as they come, I guess.

June's going to be a month of reorganizing. Hopefully, I'll have my act together by the time of my next in-person author event.

I'll be a guest at the Rocket City Author Event in Huntsville, AL on July 21. It's a day-long event, and tickets are pretty cheap (I think $5 for guest tickets and $7.50 for VIP tickets?). I'll have copies of EVIN and MATA HARI, so it's a great chance to get those signed if that's the kind of thing you're into.

Since I'm going to be busy in the drafting cave and doing event prep, I'm trying to plan out my next few blog posts. What I think I'm going to do is a series of book recommendations. I'll start with ones based on my favorite things in books--favorite tropes or character archetypes or settings. But what I'd really like to do is give recs for things you're looking for.

So here's what I'd like you to do: in the comments, tell me what things you're looking for in books. I'll see if I've got anything on my list that hits those marks.

Catch you in a couple weeks.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Filling the Well

2018 Goals Update:
Books read: 30 (last week should have been 29, but I guess I got too excited)
Space Frankenstein: Outlined
Words on Space Frankenstein: 400/?

This has been a week of changes for me. I started my new job full-time. I still have a few odds and ends to take care of for my teaching gigs, but they're not my day to day anymore (and emails from students have slowed down--now I'm mostly seeing "can you round up my grade/can I do extra credit" emails that I don't have to respond to).

It's a little amazing how immediately this change trickled into other parts of my life. My level of energy has changed. I mean, I'm not suddenly out here running marathons, but I'm still able to focus at the end of the day. I still have some emotional reserves left to pull from.

I haven't been able to get many words on paper this week. Part of this is a time issue--in the early week, I was doing a lot of grading. But mostly I've been more focused on digging into the planning.

I had originally planned for the next long project I worked on to be BRUSHSTROKES--my take on YA Contemporary. But no matter what I did, I couldn't make it work.

I wasn't ready to make it a book yet, and I think, because so much of my mental and emotional energy was tied up with teaching and the stresses that go along with it, I wasn't able to see that I wasn't ready.

I've mentioned several times that I'm mostly a planner. I don't know everything that happens every step of the way before I go in, and I still do pretty extensive revisions. But making an outline is my clue-- "Hey, there's enough here for me to make this idea a whole book." That may not sound like much, but it gets me through the drafting process. When I'm wandering in the middle and can't figure out what I'm trying to do--when I'm starting to think that maybe the whole writing thing isn't for me--being able to look at that plan and see that I've got the pieces I need keeps me going.

With BRUSHSTROKES, I was never able to put together an outline. I thought of it as trying something new--shaking up my process. But the lack of guidance wasn't freeing. It didn't let me create something in a different way. It just stressed me out.

On top of the general background of stress in my life.

It was a bad combination.

This week, I've been able to clear my head. I've shelved BRUSHSTROKES. I still want to write it, but I'm going to leave it for a while until I'm sure I can make a book of it. And I've started work on another idea. I've written a shoddy synopsis and a rough outline. I've sketched out a couple of scenes.  I think I'll be able to get to the end of this one.

And all because I have the brain space now.

Sometimes I forget that writing is work--it's mentally and emotionally taxing. I can't draw from the well if the well is empty, and, in the last couple months, it's been empty pretty frequently.

Now, I'm feeling refilled. I'm excited to dig into something new. It's good to be back.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Restart

2018 Goal Update
Books read:29
Words on BRUSHSTROKES: 250/ ?
Words on UNTITLED: 750/?

Starting new projects is always a little weird for me. It think it's rough for everyone, honestly. You're basically going from a near-finished product that you've been polishing for ages to a place where you're pretty much throwing words at a page to see if they stick--like checking to see if pasta is done. First drafts always start pretty slow for me because I can't stop comparing the new thing to the old thing. I get past it eventually, but it makes getting off the ground rough.

I expected these issues when I started BRUSHSTROKES, so I wasn't terribly surprised when I decided to scrap the 5000 plus words I had and start over.

I love the idea for BRUSHSTROKES. I think it'll be a pretty great book when I sit down to write it.

But I'm starting to think maybe now isn't the right time for me to work on it.

I'm in sort of a weird place. CANUS has taken up so much of my creative space over the last couple of years. I've worked on other things, sure, but not in what I think of as my usual way. Each time I've switched to a new project, I've gone in with a pitch, a contract, and a deadline. There was more structure to my writing. Now, I'm a little normless. I want to write another novel--it's time to write another novel--but there's no outside timeline. There's no prepared pitch.

It's been difficult to focus on much of anything in the last two weeks, but BRUSHSTROKES has been a particular nightmare. I can't get deep enough into the POV. I can't organize the scenes. I thought it was the usual new-project-slow start.

But a couple nights ago, I got caught up in another idea. I jotted down a couple paragraphs of a summary. Yesterday, I sat down and put some words on paper. They weren't great--first drafts and all--but they felt good.

So, for now, I'm going to work on the project that feels good. Or at least, feels better. First drafts are generally a hellscape for me, but I think I might be able to get this one on the page.

And that's the important part.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cool Down

2018 Goal Update
Books read: 27
Words on BRUSHSTROKES: 5900/? (probably 80-85K)

Remember that last week of March when I wrote about 5,000 words in that one week?

Yeah, that didn't happen in the last couple weeks. I didn't even manage to get in last week's blog post (um... sorry about that).

I expect productivity to fluctuate. I know some weeks I'll get more done than others. There are natural dips.

That's not what's been going on.

I've mentioned before that I'm in the process of switching jobs. Adjunct life has been interesting, but it's time for me to move on to work that's more reliable (and comes with better pay and benefits--I love you, academia, but you've got to pay your workers what they're worth). I found a new job that's pretty great and that's willing to wait until the end of the semester to bring me on full-time, so long as I work part-time hours until then.

It's a good deal. Except for one thing: it means that I, right now, have four part-time jobs.

It's been an exhausting couple of weeks. I'm not great at the whole work-life balance thing to begin with, and adding another job to the mix has taken its toll. I've been burning the candle at every conceivable end, and it's drained my writing mojo.

This four-job situation is temporary--at the end of the semester, just a couple of weeks from now, my three teaching jobs end and I'll be down to one full-time job with normal hours. A few low-productivity writing weeks isn't so bad a trade off in the long run. Predictable hours and a decrease in the emotional labor I'll have to do on a daily basis will free up more brain space for creative work. In light of that, a few low-productivity writing weeks aren't a bad trade.

But, oh man, do I feel awful about it.

I'm sort of a slow-producer when it comes to words. Sure, I can crank out over a thousand on a day when I'm on a deadline, but in general it's a slower process for me. Since most of my writer friends are more prolific, I'm pretty insecure about my tiny daily wordcounts under the best of circumstances. It's not as bad when I'm able to squeeze in several writing days in a week. The cumulative wordcount lessens the feeling of inadequacy.

The past two weeks, though, I've been lucky to get in a single 250 word day. A two-week wordcount of fewer than 500 words is a gut-punch.

One of the ways that my brain lies to me is that it constantly tells me that I'm lazy. No matter how much I get done or how many hours of work I put in, there's a voice in my head that's telling me I'm not trying hard enough. I know that this is objectively not true, but it's hard to ignore that voice in times like this when I'm not getting words on the page.

It's a struggle to keep my expectations reasonable this week. There's only so much time in a day, and I only have so much mental space. If my productivity is low now, that's not so bad. This overwhelming situation is temporary, and once things settle, I should be able to get back on my feet--maybe not back to that end-of-March-I-had-a-whole-week-off level, but to somewhere reasonable.

In the meantime, I guess I have to take some time. Allow myself to recharge. Write what I can, when I can, but not get caught up in the numbers.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Uncharted

2018 Goals Update
Books read: 25 (my original goal was 50...I think I'm gonna make it)
Words on BRUSHSTROKES: 5,506/?

My Spring Break, such as it is, is drawing to a close. All three schools had their break on the same week this year, for once, so I actually did have a full week away from my day jobs. But I wouldn't exactly call it a week off.

Even with classes not in session, there were still emails from students to field. I did all the pre-screenings and onboarding paperwork for my new day job, which starts on a part-time basis next week. I'll shift to full-time when the semester ends, and my days as an adjunct will be over.

In spite of the flurry of activity, I managed to have some pretty productive writing days. I wrote to keep my mind off of waiting for Author Mentor Match results, and I wrote to distract myself from the disappointment when I didn't get chosen. But mostly, I wrote because this idea won't let go of me.

The beginning of a project is always weird. You go from looking at something that you've trimmed the fat from and polished and smoothed to looking at the rambling, incoherent slop that is a first draft.

My favorite part of writing is revision. I like tinkering with the story once it's down, looking at the bits and pieces and doing a diagnostic. Working and reworking the sections. I like the part where the shambling mess of a manuscript starts to look like an actual book.

Which means that writing a first draft can be a reeeeeeal challenge. First drafts are, by nature, imperfect. And, when it comes to my writing, I have a tendency to be a perfectionist.


Not all first drafts are alike. Not even all of my first drafts are alike. Some are..draftier, for lack of a better word. Some are more polished. But they're all kinda bad.

Most of my first drafts are solid stories. My tendency to outline serves me pretty well in that way.

But this story is different.

I don't have a plan for BRUSHSTROKES in the way that I had one for CANUS. I have a couple of paragraphs of a summary and a list of the major characters. I know, sort of, where the story will eventually go. I have a pretty solid idea of what the first handful of chapters look like. And that's pretty much it.

Not having a plan has definitely made the process more stressful. There's nothing for me to look to if I get stuck or lose the thread of the story. It makes things feel messy.

Phoebe, my main character in the new MS is messy. She's complicated. And this MS requires a close perspective--BRUSHSTROKES is my first real attempt at first person narration.

I'm hoping that the lack of form, the lack of my usual structure will let me dig a little deeper into Phoebe. It'll mean more revision on the back end, I'm sure, but if I can find her voice, I think it'll be worth it.

But boy, is the process ugly. I'm trying to embrace the crap. I'm really trying.

Long term, I can't say how this experiment will work out. It's certainly let me put a lot of words on the page pretty quickly, but that might have more to do with the week off than anything. We'll see if the wordcount keeps up next week.

When's the last time you shook up your process or wrote something out of your comfort zone? How did it go? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Building the World: Language

2018 Goals Update
Books read: 23
Words on LIBRARIUM: 4,646/4,646 (It's finally dONE THANK GOODNESS)
Words on BRUSHSTROKES: 1,020/? (probably around 80-85K)

I finally feel like I'm back in the saddle as far as writing goes. The last couple of weeks have been lackluster as far as my creative work--day job stuff has taken up more of my time and I've, frankly, been lazy and distractable.

One of the things I've been doing while not getting words on the page is playing Dragon Age: Inquisition (which is my least favorite of the DA games, but we no longer have a working controller for our Xbox 360, so it's the only option right now).

For those unfamiliar, Dragon Age is a series of fantasy role playing games (we know how I love my RPGS) set on the fictional continent of Thedas. This is, in general, a meticulously crafted world. The various nations each have their own history and sets of relationships and political structures. Each location has its own architectural style and fashion, its own set of norms and hobbies. It really is spectacularly well thought-out.

Except for one thing.


Language is one of the aspects of world building that I don't think gets the attention it deserves. And I guess, in some ways, I get it. Not all of us are Tolkien. Most of us don't particularly want to sit down and create an entire fictional language (you don't actually have to do that to have quality language world building--but I'll get to that later).

It's pretty easy to wave away language in settings that involve multiple countries or planets by saying that everyone speaks "Common"--I mean, that's the one language that your character automatically knows D&D. But just saying that there's a shared tongue ignores the way that language intertwines with history and politics.

Basically, a language doesn't just become common. It's a process that's wrapped up in economic and colonial relationships.

Allow me to get sociological for a minute.

What are some of the situations where a language becomes widespread? Which of our fictional nations' languages would be the one most likely to be picked up and used in other countries?

The languages of colonial powers tend to be more widespread. English is spoken around the world in no small part because for a while the English national pass-time was sailing around the world, conquering nations and making the native peoples speak and behave in an Anglicized manner. England's not the only example--the story of how Spanish became the dominant language in so many Central and South American nations is pretty similar. What nations or world in your fictional setting have the itch to claim land in other nations or on other planets? The colonized often have to learn the language of their colonizers. Which language is "common" will in some ways be a matter of which nation has power.

Trade will also have an impact on what languages people learn. Which nation holds the economic power? Who controls the shipping lines? If you want to make money--if you want to be able to trade with other nations, to expand your markets--you have to learn that nation's language. Again, power is at play. The nation (or group or whatever) that controls the trade lines doesn't need to learn others' languages because they are the folks you have to go through to make money. They're needed and as such they can dictate terms. Learn our language if you want access. Take it or leave it.

It seems like such a little thing, but something as simple as what language is most commonly spoken can add so much detail to a fictional world. Ignoring this part of world building pokes a hole in your world's history.

Now, when it comes to fictional languages--I definitely get the unwillingness to craft an entire language. I know some basic structural things about my alien species' languages in my space opera, but I don't have a dictionary or anything like that. But I don't necessarily need to have one. I wrote the whole book, even scenes that are spoken in one of the fictional languages, in English. With a few hints, the reader can assume what language is being spoken.

Movies do this all the time. US adaptations for Les Miserables, for instance, are typically scripted in English, but we don't assume that all of these 19th century French folks are actually speaking English. The same idea can apply for a fictional language. An author can drop some clues--mention the setting and origins of the characters, say something about the familiarity of a language or if someone struggles to find a word, or even flat out say that someone is speaking in a particular language--to plant the idea of what language is being spoken in the reader's mind. No need to come up with a new language. Unless you just want to.

Every aspect of your world is a chance to make the reader's experience of it more complete. Language is no exception.

So, maybe take some extra time to think about who's speaking what and why.