Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Out of Hand

Project 2016 continues to be an on-going struggle.

Lately, I've been looking back over the responses to my queries. I still have a couple outstanding, but the responses so far have been nos. A couple of them have been form rejections, but the ones that have had even one non-form line have suggested that I've got something here--there's something about this project that has potential. It's just not quite clicking.

So, this has sent me back to the drawing board, so to speak. I've started another round of revisions on the project. The plan was to make a few tweaks. The structure of the story itself is pretty sound. There were a couple of big things that needed to be done--blank page rewrite on chapter 1, add a chapter in the first act, change a setting in act two. But I figured most of the revisions would be pretty small. Manageable.

As has been the trend with this project, I underestimated.

The thing that I've learned in this past year--the year that I started diving in to writing as a craft and as a pursuit in earnest--is that the writer that I am changes over the course of time.

I wrote the bulk of Evin in 2011. It was absolutely the best book I could write at that time. But, if I sat down with the intent to tell the same story today, I wouldn't end up with the same book. I can even see changes in my writing style between Evin and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which was written in 2014.

Changes in writing style over three years might not seem so surprising. What's been more striking is the changes I've seen in the way I write in this one year.

I wrote the first draft of the manuscript that I'm currently revising this past November. In the time since I wrote the draft, I've done a couple major revisions, written two short stories for anthologies, and done small writing exercises that were more for practice than anything else. I don't write every day, but I spend several hours a week engaged in my writing--actually drafting or building or outlining a scene in my head (or on my phone, as the case has been a couple of times).

That time spent with the work makes a difference.

When I did the blank-page rewrite of chapter one, the strategies I used were completely different. My focus was in a different place. Certainly, part of this was the fact that I knew the story better this time around, but it's impossible to discount the amount of time I've spent learning about writing and practicing what I learned.

This was great for the chapter rewrite. But it's turned into A Thing as far as the rest of the revisions are concerned.

I'm still working my way through act one. There have been a couple of chapters that I've only tweaked. But there have already been chapters that have moved from the "light revision" category to the "start it over" one.

The writer I am now isn't satisfied with some of what the writer I was before did.

This isn't a problem, really. In the end, the writer I am now is better than the writer I was earlier this year and late last year. Reworking parts of the project is letting me get closer to the story, the world, and the characters as they exist in my head. It's a good thing in the long run.

The theme with the work on project 2016 has been "this is getting out of hand." But I think, really, that's what a project like this should do.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Events, Workshops, and Appearances

This summer has been hectic.

Though things have slowed down in terms of my day job, I've still been doing work. The summer class I'm teaching lasts until the end of the month. I've had the worst month in terms of migraines that I've ever had. I've had two pieces due on deadlines (both are out the door now, thank goodness). And I've been going back to Project 2016 trying to get it in the best possible shape (I've about decided to call in a professional editor to take a look at it--I think I've hit the end of what I know to do to clean it up).

So I've had a fair amount on my plate. But, as I've mentioned before, my ability to use moderation in the creation of my schedule isn't the best. I'm trying to take breaks and get some rest, but I promised myself that 2017 would be the year that I did everything in my power to further my writing. Part of this is wrapped up in working on the writing itself. Part of it is working on promoting the work that I've already got out there. In the coming months, I've got a few workshops, events, and appearances on the schedule. If you want to find my work, check out a workshop, or meet me, check the schedule below.

JULY

July 29--Indies in Indy, Carmel, IN

I won't personally be attending the Indies in Indy event, but Evin's publisher, Foundations, LLC, will have a table. Copies of Evin will be available for purchase. Be sure to say hi to Steve and Laura and to check out the other Foundations books at the event.

AUGUST

August 12-- LitPow Author-Prenuer Workshop, Huntsville, AL

I wrote about going to the Alabama Writers Workshop back in February. That event was an excellent experience, and I noted at the end of my post about it that it was a shame I wouldn't be able to do many similar events.

And then one got scheduled right next door.

Where this workshop differs somewhat from the ALAWW is that there's more time given to platform building and getting a career started. This and the opportunity to get feedback on my first page and to hear what agents are looking for has got me pretty excited for the workshop.

August 19-- Southern Authors Expo, Huntsville, AL Library Main Branch

This day-long event is a combination of panels by authors dealing with different aspects of writing and publishing and a writers market. I'll be there all day with copies of Evin for sale. I'll also be signing copies, so if you're local and have already bought one, bring it by. If the event works the way it has in the past, there will also be door prizes and chances to get your own writing reviewed and critiqued by the participants.

I'll be posting more events as they're scheduled. If you want to keep up with what I'm doing, you can follow me on Twitter or Facebook or check out my website.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

First Impressions

I've been querying again lately. The whole process makes me nervous. Pitching is always an anxious process, but this project is more important to me than anything I've written so far, so the tension is higher and the rejections have a harsher sting. I'm letting this round wrap up, and if nothing comes of it, it'll be time for the next round of revision.

I've got to where I'm pretty comfortable with my query as it stands. It was the basis of the in-person pitch that got a partial request from an agent at ALAWW, and I've had it critiqued by an Writer's House agent via The Manuscript Academy (this is a great resource for authors, by the way--I really recommend checking them out). From the feedback I've had on it, it's pretty solid. And I'm proud of that. It's not easy to distill 82,000 words of novel into a compelling two-paragraph pitch.

But, of course, a good query is only part of finding representation. What I've really been thinking about recently is first pages.

Most of the agents I've got on my query list ask for sample pages. The number of pages varies. One agent asked for the first 50 pages of the manuscript. One only asks for 3. Most want the first 10 pages or the first chapter. No matter how you look at it, there's not a lot of time to make an impression.

I've poured over my first chapter dozens of times. I've moved the starting point. I've sheared description and reframed sections from the character's point of view. I've cut words that create space between the reader and the character. I've played around with starting at a different point in the story entirely to change what the reader knows at the beginning. I'm trying to find a balance between compelling reading, connection to character, and a solid establishing of the world. I've had test readers and critique partners give feedback, and I've applied it--or at least tested it to see if it would work.

The first chapter--the first page--of a book has to do so much. I know what potential the entirety of my story has. I love the narrative and the characters--I have followed them through their journeys.

But a reader doesn't. I have to earn their time. If a reader doesn't like the first page, there's no guaranteeing that they'll read the second page--let alone the second chapter.

I've been reading and listening to podcasts and researching, trying to find advice on how to craft the best first page I can. It's overwhelming. But there are a few things that are common threads in all of the information.

A first page has to introduce the main character. That seems obvious, but it can be more complicated than it sounds. You have to give a sense of who the character is and what they want, and you have to do it without relying the cliche: things like waking up in the morning or getting ready for work (there are always exceptions--some authors can make these intros work, but more often they get boring).

The first page should introduce the conflict, or at least give a sense of it. I tell my students that, by the time I read through the introduction of their papers, I should know what to expect from the rest of the work. In some ways, this same principle applies to a first page. You don't have to telegraph the ending, but there should be something of a feeling that "oh, hey, this thing is probably going to be a problem."

On top of this, the first page should give a sense of the world. What is the structure and how does it inform people's actions and reactions? What are the rules? What is the character's place in all of it?

When you consider that a single page in the standard format-- Times New Roman 12 pt., double spaced, one-inch margins--is only about 250-300 words, you get a sense of what a tall order all of this is.

I've been trying to find ways to be more precise with my language. Some of this is dropping crutch words (the word "that" is a big one for me--also "had"). Some of it is finding ways for sentences to do double duty: to reveal something about the character while simultaneously introducing the conflict or building the world. It's improved my writing overall from where it was when I wrote my first book--even from the way I was writing at the beginning of the year. I don't know that I've "cracked the code," but I certainly have more tools in the toolbox than I did before.

There's still a lot of the process that's out of my control. I have no say over what editors are interested in. I can't control agents' personal preferences. Even an excellent first page won't excite someone who's not into the story idea. But I keep working on the things that I can address, and I'll do what I have to to make my work the best I can.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Schedule

I have been really bad at keeping up with my schedule this summer.

I guess that's not really surprising. During the school year, my days are highly regimented. My time is so limited that, if I want to get anything done at all, I have to carve out a specific time to spend on each task. The level of "get up and go" I have in me doesn't matter all that much, because the schedule itself is unforgiving. My 300 or so students don't care so much about my energy level or about the fact that there are so many of them--they want their grades; they need me to lead class. So I do. And I jealously guard the time I have for my writing--for the work that I love.

But things are different in the summer. I'm still working. I have one class that I'm leading over the summer--but it's one class of 16 compared to six classes of 40 plus.

This opens up so much time. At the start of the summer, I had the best intentions. I'd spend my days writing--wrap up a short story for a local anthology, start re-drafting the second book in my trilogy, outline book three, spruce up my submission packet, and send out new queries. I'd prewrite and schedule blog posts to give me more time on the weekends. I'd use my mornings for marketing work for Evin and "Smoke," and my afternoons for new projects. And I've done some of these things: a couple of interviews and guest posts on other blogs, a promotion through IWIC, some query refining and some new submissions. I've got about 600 words on the anthology project, which is turning out to be more of a struggle than I'd anticipated.

But by and large, I've not kept up with my schedule. I've had to fight to pull myself out of bed most mornings, and by the time I do, the time that I planned to spend working is half gone. So, rather than work, I loaf around. I promise myself that I'll work in the afternoon. And I do, about two thirds of the time, but lost days are much less infrequent now than they usually are.

Some of this might just be recovery. My schedule this spring was unforgiving. My three jobs are technically all part-time, but when you add it all together, my work weeks were well over 40 hours, and that's before we get to the hours spent working on Canus and other parts of project 2016. In the past year and a half, I've treated writing as another job--one I love, but one that requires a lot of work and a sizable time commitment. I'm still getting things done, though the pace has slowed down. Maybe a few lazy days in a week during the only time of year when lazy days are an option isn't such a bad thing. And I've been able (willing?) to take the time to read both in and out of my genre, which is both relaxing and helpful in terms of improving and focusing my own writing.

But it makes me feel miserable. I feel like every moment that I'm not working is a wasted one. If I were a real, serious writer, I'd me making use of every minute of this time (I guess that Daily Beast article got to me more than I thought--though I still think the piece was misguided and ultimately harmful).

There has to be a balance. I can't procrastinate--there's too much to do, and by mid-August, the time I'll be able to devote to it will be limited. But I also can't beat myself up every time I take a break, and I shouldn't fault myself for trying to relax a little during a time when I've got a lighter load to carry. Figuring out how my process has to work in these different circumstances is a struggle, but if I can manage to find the sweet spot between productivity and rest, this could be a great time.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Interviews

It's been a busy few weeks. I've been pounding the pavement, as it were, trying to get the word out about Evin  and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." In case you've missed it, here are the interviews I've done in the past few weeks.

I hope you enjoy them!

First, a video interview with Lorana Hoopes on her show Lorana Writes the World. (Watch for my cat, Stormageddon, to make an appearance.)


I also had the chance to do a live interview on the ArtistFirst Radio Network program Authors First on June 20. The live broadcast has come and gone, but the show has been archived here. Sit back and listen to me chat about myself, my books, and the wonder that is the Wishbone television series.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Team Building

A few weeks ago, there was a Daily Beast article that made the rounds on creative Twitter. I'm not going to name names, but this is what I typed into Google when I was trying to find when it was published.


Look, there are a lot of issues with this article. Most attention has been given to taking apart the premise that someone who isn't writing everyday should just hang it up and stop trying. I don't intend to retread that ground too much. Yes, having a writing habit is important--for me, it's crucial--but everyone works in different ways, and as long as you're getting the work done, it ultimately doesn't matter if you're writing every day or a few days a month.

There were a lot of smart people who gave some pretty excellent takes on that aspect of the article. Literary agent and blogger Eric Smith (who I had the pleasure of seeing at ALAWW back in February) gave one of my favorites.


The part of the article that bothered me--the part that convinced me to write this post--was the part where the author said that he hated other writers.

I'm not paraphrasing there. "What is certain is that on that same day [when I start writing my novel], whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them."

I had two initial reactions to this statement.
1. Yikes.
2. That's the most self-sabotaging thing I've every heard.

The article's author isn't wrong on one point: thousands of people do start writing novels, and plenty of them don't finish. But where this goes awry is with the creation of this needless sense of competition. It flat out doesn't make sense. From a reader's point of view, reading one good book doesn't stop me from reading another. That I read one person's book doesn't mean that I won't read someone else's. In fact, good books usually make me hungry for more books. Someone else's success doesn't hurt your own chances, because it's not like there's a finite number of books that will be read. People will keep reading new books as long as there are new books to read.

From a writer's standpoint, I can't imagine viewing everyone else who's trying to write a novel as my enemy in no small part because working with and building friendships with other writers has been one of the biggest factors in my growth as a writer. I've written a couple of times about some of the ways that other writers have helped me. With longer projects, there's always a point where I can no longer see the forest for the trees, and there's nothing better than having another person who's familiar with storycraft to take a peek and see where things might have gone off the rails. Apart from reading and critiquing with writer friends, I've also found my local writer's group to be a boon.

It's not just about having someone else look through your work to help you improve it. Reading and critiquing others' work helps you figure out where some of the common pitfalls are (pretty much all of us in my local group have a hard time with beginning hooks, for example).

And other writers have different experiences. If I want to write a story with a military setting, I know three or four writers off the top of my head that I can go to for advice. I'm not limited to pulling from my knowledge and experience--there are other people who know how stories work who can help me cut through the material I find in research.

On top of that, there's value in listening to people with varying levels of publication experience. I can talk queries with people who've had success. I can hash out the costs and benefits of self-publication with people who have tried it out. I can compare experiences with small presses to find the best fits for my work. Being able to talk shop with other writers has encouraged me to try new things with my process. And some of those new things have made me a better writer than I ever would have been on my own.

Other writers aren't--and shouldn't be--the enemy. For me, writing has always been about community. Yeah, I do a lot of work by myself, but I rely on others that are in the trenches with me.

I guess what I'm saying is: if you want to write, do it. But don't view other writers as your competition--view them as a resource. They're people you can learn from and people you can teach. And that is what's great about it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Sincerity

I went to see a movie this weekend, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The movie I saw (I'm sure this will surprise no one) was Wonder Woman.


I'm not going to review the movie here--because I'm not sure how to frame all of my feelings about it. I thought it was great and enjoyed it, but there was, for me, an importance to it beyond the movie itself that I'm not sure I can properly articulate. What I really want to talk about today is tone. Wonder Woman, apart from being a really enjoyable movie, was something of a tonal departure from big-budget superhero properties (particularly DC superhero properties) in the last several years.

My overall enthusiasm for superhero movies and shows has cooled over the last few years. This isn't to imply that there haven't been cool things happening in superhero properties or that there haven't been recent superhero movies and shows that I've enjoyed (I thought Logan was a very well done movie, for instance). But superheros on film and TV have definitely started to feel a little bit like a slog.

Some of this is specific to trends within the superhero genre itself. DC and Marvel (to a somewhat lesser extent--though only somewhat lesser) have leaned pretty hard into the grim-and-gritty trend. It's understandable, I guess. The superhero renaissance we've been seeing over the last decade really got started with the wildly successful Nolan Batman movies, and part of the draw of those movies is that they don't treat the titular hero or his rogues like kid stuff. The stakes are high, the action is powerful--and we see the consequences to a greater extent than we have in the past. This all works within the context of the Nolan films. It suits what he's going for in tone, and (though angry-vengeance Batman will always be less interesting to me than broken-person-trying-to-fix-broken-people Batman) it matches his interpretation of the character. But, because entertainment is an industry that's really more about minimizing risks by replicating formulas that have worked before, the success of this film led to a slew of grim-dark superhero stories and reboots.

This isn't a trend that's limited to superheros. American media in general has jumped on the grim-and-gritty bandwagon in the last decade or so.

And this isn't necessarily bad. There are things that edgy, dark stories can do very well. Our lives and stories include moments of darkness and despair, and our fiction, films, and television should reflect these moments.

Here's where my problem is: at a certain point, "grim-and-gritty" became a proxy for meaningful.

Certainly, dark stories can be meaningful. Poignant moments are sometimes painful, and mediated version of these moments can be cathartic and help the viewer negotiate their experiences and emotions. But darkness is no inherently meaningful. That a story is grim, that a character suffers, doesn't make the story automatically meaningful. Killing off a character for the quick gut-punch to the viewer or reader doesn't necessarily make the work more powerful.

Wonder Woman had its share of darkness--the movie is set during World War I; painful moments are inevitable. But the powerful parts of the movie, the moments that were the most poignant, were the once that sprang from sincerity, not grit. The momentum didn't come from a thirst for revenge or anger or bloodlust. It came from a sincere desire to try to improve a bad situation. That was the motivation. That was the lens through which the action was framed.

I've found it hard to root for some of the heroes in movies in the past few years. I like a reluctant hero as much as the next person, and I like a redemption story--remember, the heel-face turn is one of my favorite tropes. But it was refreshing to see a hero that wanted to help people just to help people.

There's certainly still room for gritty and dark hero stories. But, at least to me, Wonder Woman speaks to the value of sincerity. We don't have to rely on dark, tortured heroes to create compelling, meaningful stories--we just have to tell stories that are true to the people in them. And, frankly, we could stand to see more stories about people motivated by their love for other people.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Smurfette

May is sort of a weird month for me in terms of being a fan of nerdy things in general and of space operas specifically.

See, in spite of loving adventure stories set in space, in spite of Star Trek: TNG, Firefly, Mass Effect, and the more recent iterations of Captain Marvel being among my all time favorite pop culture properties, I never got in to Star Wars.

Every May the 4th, I sigh and shrug and apologize for missing whatever reference I inevitably miss and try to explain why I never got in to a thing that, on paper, has the hallmarks of my favorite things.

There's not a simple answer to this question. Usually, my response is some version of "I missed the boat." Star Wars is, in my experience, sort of a difficult thing to get into as an adult in a world where it's existed for 40 years. I was ten or eleven when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, and I saw it in the theater. It, understandably, didn't get me hyped about the series as a whole. I didn't watch the original trilogy until my early twenties, and when I did finally make it through all three, my general reaction was along the lines of, "That was okay, I guess."

No one ever really accepts my "didn't get into it at the right time" explanation. Which is fair, I guess. There are some problems with it. I mean, it's not like I didn't have the opportunity to watch the originals as a kid--my parents are fans; some of my friends have been fans their whole lives. If I had asked, I could have seen them. And I obviously knew of them, so I would have been able to ask.

But I never did. I've been thinking lately about why, and I think the answer is actually pretty simple.

I've been hungry for stories for as long as I can remember. And not just stories, but stories that would pull me out of reality. I wanted space adventures, or to travel through time, or to live in a world with magic. So I sought out fantastical stories. There were plenty among children's media, and I had the good fortune of growing up around voracious readers and librarians in an overall pretty bookish community. It was great. Except for one thing that I kept noticing.

There weren't a lot of girls in these stories. I mean, there were some exceptions.
Sailor Moon had an all-female team.
Reboot had Dot from the beginning and eventually added Mouse and both the child and adult versions of Andraia (not to mention Hexadecimal, who's one of the best villains ever).

But the pattern for the stories I found was pretty much the same across the board: the main hero was a boy. Sometimes he lead a team. Pretty much always, the other members of that team were also boys, with the exception of one girl.

There's a name for this phenomenon. It's called the Smurfette Principle. And it's everywhere.

I didn't know anything about tropes when I was a kid. And I didn't know anything about how media are made that might have explained why I saw so few women and girls. (And I didn't know that I'd be living in a world that, almost 20 years later, would see a major network passing on a pilot because it skewed "too female.") All I knew was that I wanted to see stories that starred girls. And I was tired of the stuff that I liked that starred women and girls being dismissed as being badly made or too girly.

So I started being more selective. If a book or a movie didn't have a girl on the cover, or if the back copy didn't mention a girl by name (meaning not just in terms of her relationship to a boy--his sister or his crush), I put it back on the shelf.

This drastically changed the types of stories that I interacted with. I piked up fewer adventures, fewer fantasies, fewer space operas. I read a lot of historical fiction--the Dear America and Royal Diaries series made up a hefty chunk of my reading after this period because they were all about girls and (mostly) written by women. I kept going with some series--Harry Potter didn't really meet my criteria, but I started reading it before I made my changes, so I kept on (and thank goodness I did, because I need a hero like Minerva McGonagall in my life), and though many of the Animorphs books had boys as narrators, there were still two girls in the main cast.

I guess the reason why I never asked about Star Wars was because I already knew the score as far as women characters. Though I recognize now that the character of Leia has more going on than a damsel in distress narrative, at the time, the image that defined Leia for me was this one:
And ten-year-old me was aggressively not interested in another property where the girl was there to be pretty and to date one of the heroes.

Whenever I mention to someone this period in my life where I steered clear of stories about boys as much as I could, someone inevitably points out all of the cool things I missed. And, yeah, there's a lot of neat stuff that I didn't see because I was looking for things that starred girls. But, ultimately, the "look what you missed" sentiment misses the point.

It seems odd that I would actively avoid stories about boys because, even if we're not consciously thinking about it, we know that stories about boys are everywhere. They're the vast majority of the stories that get told--particularly when we're talking about genre fiction (sci fi, fantasy, action/adventure, etc. etc.). The idea of avoid stories about boys and men strikes as odd because it's practically impossible.

But do we think it's weird if boys don't want to read or watch stuff that's about girls? Do we ask what boys who didn't read Dear America books missed out on?

I guess my ultimate point is that someone shouldn't miss out on "cool stuff" because they're looking for a character that's like them. And also that maybe content makers could stand to be more aware of the messages that they're sending to their potential audience. Leia may be more than a metal bikini, but that's all that I saw. It might not be the only reason that I'm not enthusiastic about Star Wars now, but it's definitely part of it.

Also, would it have killed them to add some more women? It's a whole galaxy.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cafe Diem

I have an unusual amount of free time right now. The Spring semester ended last week, and Summer term doesn't start for another week. I wrapped up my story for the Mata Hari anthology and even finished up the first round of edits. There aren't any friends or family visiting from out of town at the moment. Where I normally only have a few hours a night to work on my writing, I've now got full days.

It's great, and I'm getting things done. But I've definitely been going a little stir crazy. 

While I love spending time with my cats and dog, and working from home is a great option, considering how anxious I get in even the most benign social situations, even I can only stay at the house so long. By late last week, I needed to get out.

Though I wanted to get out of the house, I didn't want to give up my working time. So, I decided to camp out at a coffee shop for a few hours--a place with lots of windows, an outside seating option, and a staff that wouldn't be concerned about a patron claiming a table for an undetermined length of time, since so much of the traffic is drive through or carry out.

Not pictured: The guy that didn't understand that my headphones meant I was not interested in a conversation.


There are all manner of sneering stereotypes about people that write in cafes. It's not something I've done much of, myself. It's always struck me as a little performative, and my imposter syndrome is generally unwilling to let me perform the role of writer in public--at least, outside of times when I've been invited to. And being a woman in a public place comes with the burden of being assumed to be available for chit chat. Even if you're clearly working on something. And have headphones in. 

But I wanted a change of pace. Not just to look at something other than my house's walls, but also to shake loose some of the blocks I've had. The last few problems that I'm trying to patch up in Project 2016 have proven to be somewhat difficult to untangle. I'd hoped that changing my setting might shake things up enough to reveal new avenues.

And it did help a bit. I've been able to work out some of the major issues, and I have the beginnings of new solutions for most of the rest. I managed a blank-page rewrite of the center of a chapter that's been giving me trouble since the beginning, and now the sequence of events makes more sense. I've been able to trim some fat from a few chapters so that I can add in more important bits of story. I visited the cafe twice last week, and did some good work both times.

But I'm not sure I want to make a habit, however temporary, of cafe writing.

I can see the appeal, in some ways. There is something about a cafe setting that sharpens the brain (or at least my brain). And if you get stuck, there are goodies--never underestimate the power of goodies. If you're the type that gets energized by being around other people, it's a great workspace.

All that said, it doesn't really work for me. I mean, I'm all about tasty baked goods and coffee, but there are some issues. First and most obvious is the expense. Cafe coffee ain't cheap. And, if you're like me, you feel like an asshole sitting somewhere for hours after your coffee and croissant have been consumed so you buy another coffee and croissant.

And then there's the music. I went to a chain cafe, so I expected that I'd hear some pretty generic tunes--whispery-voiced indie singers and soft guitar strumming. I can work through most music, so I thought I'd be fine. The days that I went to the cafe, though, the music of the day was apparently "whales screaming."


Not exactly conducive to work. I guess some people find it relaxing?

And then there are the people. I'm sure others' mileage varies on this, but I work best when I'm allowed to do my own thing without interruptions. For most of my stay at the coffee shop, I was able to do this reasonably well. But now and then, someone tap at my shoulders to ask about the other chair at my table (and then to put it back). And once, someone asked me to move (my body, my laptop, my laptop bag, my coffee and my croissant) to another table. Worst was the man who decided that I must have come out in public to be talked to by a stranger (pro tip: if someone has headphones on, they're not interested in talking--if they're not in danger, leave them alone).

It was a good experiment. I'm glad I did it. But I don't expect that cafe writing is going to somehow become my thing.

Are any of you cafe writers? If you're not, what do you do when you want to write somewhere other than your usual office or writing nook?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My First Girlfriend Turned Into The Moon

The semester is winding down, which means that I've been spending a lot of time grading. I don't mind this too much. It's repetitive work, which is a nice change from the acrobatics of managing three hundred students' needs during classes.

I like to have something going on in the background while I'm grading. When I'm in the office, I use podcasts. When I'm grading at home, I use TV. Generally, I like to turn on something I've seen before, stuff that I'm familiar with--I've used Community, Roseanne, The Closer, Forensic Files, Snapped. This time has been a little different. Our Netflix account isn't working, and our dog ate most of the remote control for the blu ray player, so I've been making use of the Amazon Prime account. And they recently added one of my all-time favorite shows to their options.

Oh my gosh, do I have OPINIONS about this show. And I've expressed those opinions pretty frequently. When I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper on how differently gendered behaviors were valued in the context of this show. I introduced it to every member of my friend group in college. If you were to ask me about Lu Ten's death or about brainwashing in Ba Sing Se, I would likely talk for literal hours.

As I've been rewatching the show, I've been trying to pin down what it is exactly that works so well for me. If I can see the parts that sell it for me, I can maybe use those tools to make my own work better. But I'm deep into season 2 on my rewatch, and my list of things that are great about this show is long.

Really long.


So, I've tried to distill the key ingredients down to three main things. I had to go sort of broad strokes with this, but I think I managed to get to the three things that I want to make use of in my work.

1. The overall story.

I think by now, my stance on outlines is pretty clear (but if you've somehow missed it, I am very much pro-outline). Something about having a map for a story makes it easier for me to put the thing together. If you want to see a good story plan in action, just look at A:TLA. The main conflict, the endgame, the major players, the teen romance subplot are all laid out in the first episode. The pilot makes a very clear promise--a hero coming of age story with characters that have complicated histories, well choreographed action scenes, emotional drama, and enough goofs to make it palatable.

The only reason this works--the only reason we can get this clear promise so early on--is because the creators already know the story. Maybe not every single beat, but the benchmarks are already there.

This is also important in terms of writing for limited space. A season only gets so many episodes. A show, even one as successful as A:TLA was, is only granted so many seasons. The plan lets the creators get the most punch out of each episode. It lets them better sell their story--there's not an open-ended run; the story has a specific endpoint. And it cuts WAY DOWN on filler. One of the best things about A:TLA is that the vast majority of the episodes move the story forward. They aren't wasted. Even some of the "filler" episodes give us something--"Tales of Ba Sing Se" quickly communicates the hurry up and wait that goes on in Ba Sing Se and gives us hints as to what happened to Appa. Even "Ember Island Players" serves as a great play on the clip show trope and gives us a chance to explore some of the character relationships. (There's also "The Great Divide," but let's not get into that one).

The episodes do work, and they're able to do that work because the plan is so clear.

2. The characters.

I could go on for days about how Zuko's character arc is one of the best in animation. Or about how characters like Teo and Toph rewrite the script on how the stories that characters with disabilities can tell. Or about Iroh's role as moral center for Zuko and the questions that I have about how he got to that point. Or about Katara and Suki and the ways that women can and do balance "feminine" demands with "masculine" ones. Or Azula's downward spiral towards the end of season 3.

The characters are deep, is what I'm saying. The main cast, the villains, the recurring characters read as having full and complex lives and personalities. They exist within the plot, but they don't exist for the plot, which is a complicated thing when you consider that the plot is literally what they were created for.

It goes beyond the major characters in the story. Even the bit players shine. I'll give two examples that, with gifs alone, illustrate the personality that go into characters that only briefly appear.


3. It doesn't pull punches.

At the end of the day, A:TLA is a story about a war--a war that's been going on for a hundred years. The world the show takes place in, in spite of its magic and bright colors, is a dark place. And the show doesn't conceal that--at least, not to the degree that you might expect in a show geared towards children. We see wounded soldiers. We hear about or see implied deaths in combat. We see the extreme measures taken by both sides.

And that's just the main arc conflict. We get subplots surrounding Aang's guilt at running away (essentially leaving his people to die and ensuring that the war would continue), Sokka and Katara's truncated childhoods and the loss of their mother, Toph's complicated relationship with her parents and with her class position. We see the complicated family politics and the straight up abuse that happened within the Fire Nation royal family (and we get a glimpse of the different tactics Ozai uses on his children and their different coping mechanisms). We get examinations of colonialism and cultural appropriation.

This is, again, at the end of the day a coming-of-age hero story that is geared towards children. But it does so much and in such a way that it doesn't feel like a sermon and doesn't underestimate its audience. That's a fine line to walk under the best of circumstances. And let's remember, because it's easy to forget when you're binging a show that's been off the air for almost ten years, the creators were beholden not only to the network itself, but to advertisers. Imagine telling a toy company that you'll be airing their ads during a show that going to depict, on screen, the brainwashing and murder of a child. Sounds like a tough sell, yeah?

There are a million things I could say about this show, but these three are the most impressive bits to me. It's hard to tell a good, complete story. It's harder to do that with a set of characters that, down to the last, live and breath beyond their story purpose. And it's even harder to balance that story with the complexities that would accompany it in reality. And then to succeed in the business end and sell the complete thing.

A:TLA isn't a novel, but it's definitely a master class in storytelling. I'm not getting things graded as quickly as I might have planned, but I'm so glad I decided to rewatch it. I can only hope that I've learned at least a little of what it has to offer.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Heel-Face Turn

My best friend has been visiting from out of town this week, and we have unsurprisingly been looking back over the past--in part because our ten-year high school reunion is coming up and in part because we just generally miss the old days. As often happens in our conversations, we started talking about the stories and characters we love.

One of the things I've noticed as I've started reading and watching stories with a critical eye is that there are certain tropes, certain story gimmicks, that I fall for every time.

I'm a sucker, for instance, for a good ensemble cast (Community, for instance; or The West Wing; or les amis de l'ABC in Les Miserables). And I pretty much always love a story where a super-powerful being has to live as an average mortal (this happened to one character in the first US version of The Power Rangers twice, and if you stretch the definition a little bit, it's part of the central conceit of The Devil Is a Part-Timer).

But one of my favorite tropes--one that wins me over pretty much every time--is when a bad guy tries to be a good guy. I love a Heel-Face Turn.

The name for this trope has its origins in professional wrestling. A "heel" is a wrestler whose shtick is being unlikable--they're the one that you're supposed to hate, who's supposed to be the bad guy. A "face"--short for "babyface"--is the good guy. The face is the one that you're supposed to root for and rally behind. So, a "Heel-Face Turn" is when a heel turns a new leaf and becomes one of the good guys.

And I am 100% here for it every time.

I think what gets me about this trope (when it's well executed, and, to be fair, sometimes it's not) is that it gets to something that, to me, is so important from a character-crafting standpoint: most of the time, the baddies think of themselves as the heroes.

There are exceptions--to quote one of the Batman films, "some men just want to watch the world burn." But, usually, the villain has motivations outside of tearing everything down. Maybe they have a job to do. Maybe they're trying to protect their family. Maybe they're trying to survive in unforgiving circumstances.

Some of my favorite character arcs from childhood on work their way through this process. Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender. Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z. Tommy, the Green Ranger in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. H.G. Wells in Warehouse 13. Regina in Once Upon a Time (what I've seen of it, anyway). Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Kovu in The Lion King II (don't hate--that movie was precious).

There's something about a character that isn't necessarily practiced in it trying to be good--even if they're bad at it. Sometimes especially if they're bad at it.

Yuuuuuuup.

For as much as I love this trope, it's not one that's made it into my work very often. I write ensemble casts every chance I get. I've got outlines and partial drafts for stories with all manner of deities or supernatural creatures that have to live as mortals. But I've only ever written one Heel-Face Turn.

And it's in Project 2016. 

I've talked a lot lately--if not on here, then in casual conversation--about how much I love the characters in Project 2016. I think this is part of why. 

The thing with a good Heel-Face Turn is that it takes time. There has to be a build up. You've got to plant the seeds--there's something that's not quite right, something that's striking the character in an uncomfortable place or some view of the world that's not quite true. But making that switch shouldn't be easy. It can't be--not if your character's actions up to the point of the turn are going to have any meaning. You have to have a complete understanding of the character if you're going to pull it off effectively. And, beyond that, you have to know how well your other hero(es) are going to adjust to this apparent shift. How trusting are they? To what degree with they have safety measures in play if the turn isn't genuine? What will they or won't they do to protect their loved ones?

I've had a good ten years to spend thinking about these questions with the characters in Project 2016. And I've had plenty of people smarter than I am to look take second looks and ask questions I didn't think of.

Heel-Face Turns have given me some of my favorite stories and characters. All I want for Project 2016 is for it to do the same for someone else.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Playing Around

I finished up a contracted project this week, which means that I've got some free time to fool around.

Okay, actually it means that I can start working on the next round of revisions on Project 2016 and on a short piece for the anthology my local writing group is putting together. But I can pretend that I'm going to take some time to relax.

Really, one of my favorite pastimes is one that mixes well with my work. It lets me explore stories and try to get inside a character's head to see what they'll do when confronted with different situations and options. It lets me take part in a narrative that may go down unexpected roads. It lets me get a sense of who a character is without having a specific set of events planned out and pinned down.

Have you figured out what I'm talking about?



RPGs have, in the last five years or so, become one of my favorite hobbies. I played my first session of D&D back in 2012 and had more fun than I think I've ever had in my life. I've tried other systems since then--World of Darkness, one of the Star Wars systems (shout out to my RPG buddies from grad school--I miss you!).

I started playing the first Dragon Age game around the same time, and while video games aren't and will never be my "thing," Dragon Age and Mass Effect are two series that I'm pretty much always down to play, and I've played each game over and over.

I think, for me, the appeal hits on two levels. The first is the performance. I love theater--I had aspirations for being an actor at one point. Though I'm not able to pursue that professionally, it is still nice to get to play around and stretch those muscles (you never stop being an actor, I think--but you do sometimes stop trying to make your money that way).

The second draw is the way that the games help me figure out a character. I've never written anything that stars a character that I played in an RPG (though my WoD changeling Val is begging for a story), but I have sometimes based my characters on things that I'm working on. It lets me put the character in a situation where I don't know what will happen. This isn't really possible in a story that I'm writing because, as I've mentioned, I start with some pretty thorough outlines. Knowing what happens or what needs to happen changes the way that I approach the character.

Playing with a character in an RPG lets me take the character out of the box. In tabletop, I don't know the endgame. I have to rely fully on the character's instincts, even if those instincts mean that the character is going to run right up to something that will probably try to kill them (I played a chaotic good druid once and nearly died pretty much every session).

Even playing a character based on one of mine in a video game is useful. I know the story (because I pretty much only play two series of games, and I know how all of the current stories end), but the situations aren't the same ones that I put my characters in. It gives me a chance to sit down and figure out what different situations might pull from my characters. I've learned a lot about who some of my characters are this way.

So I'll still be working on projects in the coming weeks. But I do plan to spend some time playing--because the playing, even when it feels frivolous, helps.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Anniversary

This blog turned a year old this past week.

That's a pretty big milestone for me. I've never been very good at sticking to a blog schedule. I'll make it six months, eight months, but I think this is the first time I've made it an entire year.

When I started this blog a year ago, I had just sent out the submission packet for Evin. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" was in publication limbo. I had just started meeting with my writing partner and trying to find local writing groups.

This blog's anniversary is the anniversary of my making a conscious decision to actively pursue writing. Not to the exclusion of my day job (because that is still not feasible), but in addition to it. Basically, this time last year, I took on another job--one that takes up as much time as my day jobs and, at this point, pays me mostly in the feeling of accomplishment or wonder or frustration that comes with taking something from my head and putting it on paper.

In this year, my first novel has been published. My short story has made its debut. I've successfully pitched for an anthology. I've written, rewritten, and re-rewritten a project that I've been working on since high school. I've sent queries, gone to conferences, and met with agents. I've found a writing group in my community. I started an author website.

But most importantly, I've written.

I've written more this past year than ever before in my life. Granted, not all of it has been good and sometimes the doing has been a struggle, to put it mildly. But I've written. I've finished projects and started new ones. I've revised and outlined and retooled and expanded.

It's been great.

I'm not sure how my writing career, such as it is, will progress in the next year. There are still queries out, still lumps in projects that need to be smoothed, still stories that have upcoming due dates. There will be more conferences and revisions and drafts.

I'm not sure what's next. But I am looking forward to it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES now available!

‘SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES-ONLY 99 CENTS!

Crime and Family collide in SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES, a pulpy period short story by A. S. Crowder, now available as a Pro Se Single Shot!

Helen revels in the pulsing nightlife in her home city of New Orleans. She has a fashionable look, a bootlegger boyfriend, and a city full of speakeasies to explore. She also has an older sister who staunchly opposes Helen's involvement in the city's shady underground.

On one eventful night, Helen discovers that her sister is neck deep in her boyfriend's business and that her boyfriend is less than happy with her sister's work. When a threat to her sister's life is revealed, Helen takes action, planning to take down her boyfriend's organization one man at a time.

Win or lose, taking down some of the most powerful bootleggers in the city will change Helen's life forever. She stands to gain much, but what will she lose?

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES by A. S. Crowder. From Pro Se Productions.

Featuring an evocative cover and logo design by David Foster and digital formatting by Antonino Lo Iacono and Marzia Marina, SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES is available now at Amazon for only 99 cents at https://www.amazon.com/Smoke-Gets-Your-Eyes-Crowder-ebook/dp/B01N9WBCYO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492023375&sr=8-1&keywords=Smoke+Gets+In+Your+Eyes+crowder.  
It is also available for most digital platforms via Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/699690.

For more information on this title, interviews with the author, or digital eBook copies to review this book, contact Pro Se Productions’ Director of Corporate Operations, Kristi King-Morgan at directorofcorporateoperations@prose-press.com.
To learn more about Pro Se Productions, go to www.prose-press.com. Like Pro Se on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ProSeProductions.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sometimes It's Queer

(This is, yet again, not the thing I planned to write this week, but it is something that's been on my mind for about a month. Since minor tasks are still proving to be pretty difficult, I'm going to go with what's got a stronger hold on my brain.)

Though I only realized it in hindsight, most of my childhood was spent looking for characters that were like me.

And let me start of by saying that finding those characters was easier for me than it was for a lot of people. I'm white, I'm cisgendered, I'm from a comfortably middle class family. There are fewer white cis girls than white cis boys in media, but they are present.

Still, the absence of characters like me kept me from engaging in a lot of media. I missed the boat on Star Wars largely because the only image of a female character that I saw was Leia--and I saw her in the metal bikini more than any other outfit. I might not have understood at the time why exactly this bothered me so much, but I know it made me say "no, thanks" to the franchise. Even when I did (finally) watch the movies, I couldn't get past that to really engage with them. There are a lot of books, movies, and TV shows that I skipped over. No women? Nah, I'll pass.

As I've gotten older, I've started looking for representation beyond gender. I've figured out another aspect of my identity--one that doesn't typically show up on screen or in pages or that, when it does show up, is used as a code to indicate something shady or wrong or evil about the character. See, I am attracted to men. I'm also attracted to women. Which means seeing characters like me that aren't depicted as depraved doesn't happen much.

In recent years, I've started seeking out queer characters. What I've found is that some creators have always been trying to get queer characters in the picture. Somewhere in my mind, I guess I was always dimly aware of this. I don't see how a person could, for instance, not read Idgie and Ruth's relationship in Fried Green Tomatoes as anything other than romantic. You'll never convince me that Grantaire isn't in love with Enjolras in Les Miserables. And even though I grew up watching a dubbed version of Sailor Moon that painted Michiru and Haruka as cousins, I understood that the relationship between the two wasn't familial.

There's a documentary called The Celluloid Closet that tracks some of the ways that Hollywood films have included queer characters without being explicit. These coded representations, for better or for worse (and, just to be clear, some of these have lead to tropes that are definitely for the worse) have been the main way that queer characters have made it to screens and pages.

We've moved away from some of this--LGBTQ+ characters are present in media now in explicit ways--some of the time, anyway. And that's good. It's not been without its problems, but it's good.

Something that gets me, though, is the degree to which people will bend over backwards to not notice the existence of some queer characters. I was baffled by some of the apparent response to LeFou "having a gay moment" in the remake of Beauty and the Beast (which, to be fair, I didn't go see, so I have no idea what said moment entails). But my confusion was less that people would be upset about the presence of a queer character than it was about the fact that apparently a bunch of people didn't pick up on LeFou's attraction to Gaston before.

Dude literally sings a bar song about how hot his friend is. Come on now.

In my work, I include queer characters--mainly queer women. But I don't often use the word girlfriend--mostly because I find both girlfriend and boyfriend to be inadequate descriptors. I communicate characters' affections and attractions through actions. The characters take actions that, in other contexts would be read as clear indications of a beyond-platonic relationship.

But people just. Do. Not. See. It. These women hold each other's hands. The cuddle together. They lean their foreheads against each other. They explicitly say "I love you" to each other. Several of the readers get it. But for some, the notion that these women are romantically involved just sails overhead. If I was writing about a heterosexual pair, there would be no question as to the nature of their relationship.

I guess I understand, on some level. We're not trained to expect queer relationships the way we are straight relationships. That take-for-grantedness lets people make those leaps for man and woman pairs, but hesitates to do the same for pairs of women and pairs of men. And, as The Celluloid Closet suggests, we're used to queer characters being presented in such a way that their queerness is easy to gloss over. The potential that some characters are queer is frequently dismissed out of hand.

But, even if a character's sexuality is ambiguous, even when they don't explicitly label someone as their boyfriend or girlfriend--sometimes, they're queer. So I guess maybe keep that in mind next time you read or watch something.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mood Boost

My plan for this week was originally to write about knowing your genre--something that is super important for a person like me who writes across different genres with specific tropes and expectations attached to them.

But at some point on Saturday, I hit a serious downswing.

The thing with depression, even depression that's typically reasonably well-managed, is that sometimes it just slams you. Nothing happens; there's no inciting incident that sets off a spiral. Sometimes you're just standing in the middle of a snack aisle at Target and all of your energy is suddenly gone and the notion that you should bury yourself under the covers and never move again seems like the best possible use of time--and even if it's not, what does it matter? It's not like what you do is important in the long run anyway.

I haven't worked on anything in almost a week. I've spent too much time sleeping. There are plenty of things that I have to do--some things that, under normal circumstances, I'd be jazzed to do--but I can't do them. Getting out of bed was Herculean. Now I have to do more?

And so your weekly blog post ends up being late because the effort of actually taking the laptop out of the bag is too much, and the ceiling's not gonna stare at itself, and you know there's not going to be a way to get out of work on Monday, so you might as well just try to save up whatever mana you can so that you can make it through work and then go back to bed. And, of course, the fact that the post is late makes you want to do it even less.

So I'm not going to talk about genre knowledge this week. Maybe, hopefully, I'll be able to next week.

Instead, I'm going to share some songs that I use as pick me ups when I feel, for lack of a better word, blue. And, for my purposes, I'm using the Drowsy Chaperone definition of blue:

"A little anxious for no particular reason. A little sad that I should feel self-conscious at this age. A little self-conscious anxiety resulting in non-specific sadness."

It's not completely accurate, but it offers a little insight.

This doesn't have much to do with writing, beyond that I sometimes use these songs to pick me up when I feel this way. And one of the songs is on the playlist I made for project 2016 (you can find part of that playlist here, if you're interested).

Thanks for hanging in there with me. See you next week.




Sunday, March 26, 2017

Quiplash

I don't, in general, think that I'm a very funny person.

Part of it is anxiety--being funny, to me, is a very spontaneous thing, and I am so bad at being spontaneous in conversation. I like to know and--to a degree--rehearse what I'm going to say before I say it. It's a trait that makes me pretty good at giving presentations, a fair actor, and handy to have around in a situation that requires intense listening and digesting information.

But love-of-God, don't rely on me for a witty observation.

Even though I'm not particularly funny, I do think I have a decent sense of humor. I love to laugh, and I appreciate a well-executed joke.

And I really enjoy quips.

Banter between characters is one of my favorite things in narratives. When I play a video game (which, for me, essentially means when I play either a Dragon Age game or a Mass Effect game), I spend a lot of time wandering around aimlessly just to hear the extra conversations the writers put in for the characters. I love the extra bits of backstory I get from these exchanges, the little quirks of character relationships that aren't dealt with in the main narrative.

And I love it when characters snipe at each other or share quick jokes. A fast-paced exchange between sharp-witted characters is one of my favorite types of dialogue.

That being said, when I watch TV--particularly when I watch sitcoms--I get a sense of...let's call it quiplash.

 Every media maker that I talk to--authors and publishers, playwrights, screenwriters, everyone--talks about how little time there is to catch a consumer's attention. It seems like I've been hearing about people's (and my generation's, specifically) shrinking attention spans for years.

I get it. There's a lot of consumable media out there, and we can get to most of it at a push of a button. There are so many options that, if something doesn't grab us right off the bat, we've got a dozen other things to try that might be more interesting. I understand the pressure to show off what you can do as soon as you can.

So you fill the first five minutes with jokes at a mile-a-minute pace to prove that you've got a ton of them. No danger of running out of funny here.

Maybe this works for some folks. But for me, it feels like being pummeled. There's no room to breath, no time for a joke to settle. The next quip has come and gone before I've had time to realize that I was supposed to be laughing at the first.

To me, it comes off as a little try-too-hard. Sort of like when I try to work a million ideas into one story.

I do that when I'm afraid I'll never have another solid story idea. Maybe sitcom writers line up the jokes like this because they're afraid they won't have another chance to tell them? I guess I can understand that.

But there's something to be said for letting a joke breathe. Giving your audience a chance to appreciate the moment. Or for letting a joke build--working up to a well-earned punch line. Letting a joke repeat while upping the stakes each time (the comedic rule of three is a beautiful thing). There's so much that a joke can accomplish if it's just allowed to take its time.

There's something to be said for being able to laugh without feeling like someone is trying to slap you around with a joke book.

But then, I'm not really funny, so what do I know?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Switching Gears

I did more or less what I predicted I would do last week. I took some time off. I played some games and read some books.

But I also spent a lot of time with Project 2016, going over it just one more time before I put it away (for now).

I'm trying to ease back into a normal schedule by doing some day job work today. This hasn't been fun, exactly, but the transition has been smooth. What's weird is the shift I'm having to manage in my writing work.

I made it through the draft of Project 2016. It's time to let it sit and to work on something different. And it's not like I'm lacking other things to work on: a part from two more books set in the same universe as Project 2016, I've got a short story with an April deadline that's only about halfway done.

I've got a pretty clear plan of what I've got to do. The story has to come next. I've done the outline and some of the work. Also, you know, there's an actual deadline by which a publisher wants it. It's super clear what I need to do.

But I'm having a hard time pulling myself out of the world of Project 2016 to focus on a different world and a different set of characters. It's not that I don't like the story--I was jazzed enough about it to successfully pitch it, and I wrote the first half of it pretty quickly. It's a good story. Or it has the potential to be, at least.

The problem--such as it is; I imagine I'll work my way out of this funk soon enough--might be that I've spent so much time in the Project 2016 universe. It's been more than a year since I started revamping the project. I've taken breaks here and there, but it's been most of what I've written in the past year. And that universe and those characters are going to be at the center of my next two major projects. Project 2016 lives in every crevice of my brain all of the time. Shifting my focus, even for a month, to work on something totally unrelated is daunting.

I can do it. I've done it before. And, to be fair, I need to shake things up--to get away from the big project for a while so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

It's always rough to move to something new after so much time devoted to a project. I'm not so good at making the shift, but I'll manage.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lazy

This week, I plan to be lazy.

Lazy is relative. I'll still be working--both paid labor at the day job and the unpaid (and seemingly unending) labor of polishing the manuscript. But I'm going to take it easier than usual.

Two of the three schools that I work for are on Spring Break this week. I have maybe two hours worth of prep work to do, rather than the usual five or six. There's no writers' group meeting this week. My spouse doesn't have a show this coming weekend. In comparison to my usual schedule, this week is practically a vacation. I plan to make the most of it.

I'm not very good at the whole work-life balance thing. When I'm describing this characteristic of mine in job interviews, I usually call it "being self-motivated." In the middle of the week, when I'm lamenting the fact that I have to teach a six-class course load to live comfortably, I call it "desperation." I don't mind work. I understand that achieving goals requires a combination of sweat and kismet. But it's hard to keep the pace that I have to.

So, I'm trying to actually take some time from working this week. I've set aside two books that I want to read (I'm about a quarter of the way through the first). I'm checking out times for movie showings. I've figured out where I put my copies of the Mass Effect trilogy so that I'm ready to go when the next installment comes out (there's a lady Turian in the trailer--I'm already in love).

I'm probably being too optimistic with my leisure plans. I've met me. I'll likely find some way to spend hours grading or obsessively scrolling through my work email. I know I won't be able to leave the manuscript be this week. And I still have a project due in April that's not quite done.

But I'm going to take a comparative break. I'm going to be lazy.

And it's going to be awesome.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Best* Books of 2016*

Two months and five days into 2017 sees me trying to catch up on my reading goals. For the second year in a row, I'm participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The idea is that you set a goal for the number of books you want to read during the year, and Goodreads keeps track (provided that you've input your reading into the site). This is a bit difficult for someone like me who holds three jobs and is, depending on the point in time, trying to write or trying to get representation, but I managed my goal of 25 books last year.

I have plans for some of the books that I want to get to this year, and I think, even though I'm already behind, I should be able to make this year's goal--30 books this time. For today's post, though, I wanted to focus on some of the books I read last year.

I titled this post Best Books of 2016, but that comes with a couple of caveats. The first is that, when I say best, all that really means is that these books are the ones I enjoyed the best. Tastes in books are subjective, but if you've been reading this blog for this long, it's fair to guess there might be some overlap in your tastes and mine. The second is the "of 2016" bit. Only three of the five books on my list released in 2016, but I read them all during 2016, so close enough.

Here's my list, in no particular order:

(Also, I'm including Amazon links to all these books, in case you want to do some reading of your own.)

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This is not the type of book I normally pick up. I tend to shy away from books that take place over the course of centuries because I tend to get lost in the historical details and miss the individual characters and their stories. Gyasi managed to weave together multiple stories in such a way that, even though each character really only gets one chapter, they lived and breathed. Aside from the storytelling itself being riveting, Gyasi's prose is some of the most beautiful that I've ever read.

Other fun facts: Gyasi is roughly my age and grew up in the same town I did, so that's pretty cool.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

This book was recommended to me by one of the beta readers for Project 2016. I was familiar with Chambers's work at The Mary Sue, and I'm pretty much always looking for good soft science fiction that stars women, so this book was a hit with me. Chambers does a great job giving you a sense of the different species that inhabit her universe, and she takes the time to show the different social arrangements of other species in such a way that it explains their actions and motivations. This book is the first in a trilogy, and I've already preordered book two, which comes out this month.

Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

It probably comes as no surprise that I am a big fan of Matilda--both the Roald Dahl book and the 1996 movie. I follow Wilson on Twitter, so I caught the announcement of her book of essays pretty early on and knew immediately that I had to get my hands on it. Wilson's sense of humor is sparkling, and she addresses issues of loss, childhood, and mental health with remarkable deftness. I'm not a crier in general, but this book hit me hard a couple of times. It was easily one of my favorite reads last year.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I missed this book when it first came out in 2013. I was in graduate school, and if it wasn't one of the books that I had to read for my classes, I pretty much missed every novel that came out. I finally got around to reading Fangirl in December and tore through it in a couple of days. As someone who's dealt with levels of social anxiety that range from inconvenient to incapacitating, Cath resonated with me. Books like Fangirl are why I will always read YA. I'm ten to twelve years removed from the "target" audience of this book, but I cared so much about the characters and their struggles--they felt familiar and honest in a way that sometimes Adult novels don't.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

I'm sort of cheating twice with this one. I read the paperback version of Nimona last year, but I originally read it in twice-weekly installments when Stevenson originally posted it online a few years before. This is also not a novel in the traditional sense. Nimona is a graphic novel--a comic. The thing that I admire most about Stevenson's writing is her ability to pace a story. Some of this might be by virtue of the medium: the mechanics are different when you're using the combination of images and words and panel shape and size to communicate than when you're using words exclusively. Even so, there's never a moment where you feel like you're spinning your wheels, waiting for the story to pick up. Stevenson's characters are also captivating and complex--she's able to explore morally grey areas without falling into the trap of being aggressively grim-dark.

And that's my list for 2016! I didn't set out to create a list that only included books by women, though I'm sort of pleased that the list worked out that way. One of my goals for 2016 was to read more books by women--I looked at my shelves and saw rows and rows of men's names, so I made a conscious effort last year to pick up more work by women. I'm trying to continue the trend this year--reading more women and, especially, more women of color. We'll see how well I do with that next year. In hindsight, I'm so glad I made the effort to seek out more books by women--otherwise, I could have missed one of these amazing books.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

ALAWW

Normally my Fridays are spent in my office grading papers, doing course prep, meeting with students, and doing other generic academic grunt work.

But this week I took a day off--from academic work, at least.

As I mentioned in last week's post, I signed up for the Alabama Writing Workshop. The meeting was Friday, so I rescheduled my office hours and, instead of spending the day on campus, I spent it at a hotel in Birmingham, schmoozing with other writers and meeting industry professionals.

I'm a nervous person in general. My anxiety brain never stops coming up with potential scenarios for disaster--which can be great for writing, but is considerably less great when it comes to trying to make a good first impression. I spent a pretty significant portion of the day reminding myself that the goal was to learn more and if that was all I accomplished that would be a victory. I also spent a pretty significant portion of the day reminding myself that I had to do things like breathe and blink and maybe drink some water. My hands shook when I met new people. I tripped over my words and stuttered.

It was awesome.

As someone who's spent the better part of fifteen years trying to make something of my ambitions to write professionally and to get my stories out into the world, I went in with a solid body of background knowledge. I knew about some of the resources mention (I've actually plugged some of them in different blog posts--I'll go back through and make a full list to post soon). I had done a fair bit of the recommended prep work. But even at that, hearing the professionals name check the resources I've been using was encouraging. I frequently feel--and I imagine other writers in positions similar to mine also feel--like I'm treading water. Now, though, I've got a sense that I'm at least treading the right water.

The seminars were led by agents and editors. They dealt with topic ranging from seeking out representation for work, improving writing, making use of social media, and what happens after a book deal is signed. It was a ton of information, and I took pages of notes (and, thankfully, the speakers provided outlines and resources for their talks, so I should be able to review and find what I inevitably missed). And those were just the talks.

The session that met right after lunch was, to me, one of the most informative. It wasn't so much a talk as it was a review. Attendees were told they could bring copies of their first page (sans names, of course) and the panel of agents would read through them--or parts of them--and give critiques. Essentially, the panel members would indicate when a page lost them, when they'd stop reading. My page didn't get read (and I'm actually glad it didn't since this panel was before my scheduled pitching time), but the issues that were pointed out in the pages that were read gave me some insight into how to improve mine.

It was a fantastic insight into how quickly some of these decisions can get made--how vital a strong first page is. It was also an opportunity to learn where the mileage varied for the specific agents on the panel. When they found something that didn't work, they said why. Sometimes it was an issue with the structure, but sometimes it was more subjective. And when panel members disagreed, they said so and explained why.

To me, though, valuable as all of the sessions were, the best part was meeting in-person for a one-on-one session with an agent.

The one-on-one was an addition to the conference--an extra event with an extra fee, and each instance of the fee got one sit-down with one agent. This was another instance where my background research came in handy--adjunct pay isn't great, so I only had enough funds to sit down with one agent. I reviewed the list, checked their websites and MSWL and Publisher's Marketplace (and availability--I registered last minute, so some slots were sold out). The sit-down was a ten-minute conversation, an opportunity to do a quick elevator pitch of the project and to ask and answer questions.

I spent the whole day nervous, but this is where the butterflies got out of hand. I managed--I made it through my pitch without too much word vomit. My hands (and voice) shook the whole time, but not so much that I couldn't be understood. I lost the thread of what I was saying for a second, but I got back on track, and the conversation didn't seem to suffer for it. The agent that I spoke with really did more than politeness demanded to ease my nerves (seriously, she was the nicest person I talked to through the conference--which made pitching that much more pleasant).

I didn't walk away with an offer of representation or a full manuscript request--I didn't expect to. But I did get an invitation to send a sample of Project 2016. And, after my pitch, she asked about other projects related to Project 2016 (some of the things I said in my pitch, she said, suggested that there were more stories)--which she asked for brief pitches for in my submission packet. There are never any guarantees--she liked the idea of the story, but it's still totally possible that my writing style won't be what she's looking for or that the draft flat-out isn't strong enough. But I am so glad--so glad--that I took the chance to talk to her face to face about the project.

It's the most promising lead that I've got so far, and even if it doesn't work out, I know where the strengths and weaknesses of my pitch are better now than ever before. I've got new tools to use as I keep working.

I won't be able to do many of these conferences--again, adjunct pay leaves a lot to be desired--but if I have the chance to go to another, I think I will. If you've been working on a project and are considering a conference, I hope you go. Worst case scenario, you still win--you still come out with more than you had when you went in.