Sunday, September 7, 2014

Scalzi at Vroman's

Tonight Derek and I went to Vroman's (link to tweet w/ pic) to see John Scalzi talk about his newest book, Lock In. I was anxious about this event for a few reasons: 1) My anxiety has been getting the better of me lately, a problem I credit to being socially oversaturated the past few weeks; and 2) I wondered if it would be better not to meet someone I've admired from afar.

People often say, "Don't meet your heroes." That resonated with me because Derek and I recently met an artist responsible for a huge, beloved photograph that hangs in our home. She told us about the creation of the photograph and afterwards, I felt a little let down, like I had been happier not knowing the technical details. It wasn't a huge disappointment, but I felt that by meeting the artist, I had made a preventable mistake, and I was eager not to repeat that mistake so soon.

However, I had already bought the Scalzi book earlier in the week, and I wanted to fight my anxiety by being brave. So I got dressed, put on my make-up, liked what I saw in the mirror, and off we went.

By the time we arrived - 10 minutes early - the event was standing room only (link to tweet w/ pic - I'm in that cluster in the back left). I didn't mind because I actually had a good view, and I was standing next to shelves full of fancy soaps that smelled like heaven, and I ended up, through some stroke of serendipity, standing with "the cool kids". John Scalzi entered the event space through my cramped corridor and he stopped to talk to several friends, all of whom were standing close to me. He gave Derek and I a brief, puzzled look, perhaps wondering if he knew us, too. I assured him that he didn't know us, but I was very happy to meet him.

So what was this particular hero like in real life? Well, shorter than I expected. When I read Scalzi's tweets and blog, I picture him as this wizard-of-oz-type floating head, issuing tweets like decrees in a booming, amplified voice. Seeing his normal-sized head on shoulders was a little weird, but nothing disappointing. Beyond trivial details, he was more cheerful than I expected, humbled by how many people were there and by how many old friends and schoolmates had come to see him. In general, he walks an artful line between confidence and humility. This was definitely going better than my introduction to the artist.

Scalzi read to the crowd, not from Lock In, but from an unpublished work; a treat, he said, for those of us who made the effort to come to the signing. I had never seen an author do this before. The result was fantastic. He read a whole chapter, and he had my attention completely. As he joked afterward, the chapter was about a conversation between four people sitting around a table, yet the dialogue was so engaging and clever that I wanted to hear what came next!

Finally came the Q&A. He got some good questions about what inspired him to be a writer (encouragement from teachers and friends + the realization that writing gave him a voice he might not otherwise have), whether he'd write more books in the world of Lock In (that depends on Lock In's success), and whether he could talk about the TV shows and video games based on some of his earlier works that are currently in production (a producer there stated he could not).

One woman who was called on admitted that she didn't have a question. Instead, she wanted to thank Scalzi for the topics he tackles on his blog, saying that his words meant a lot to her. This resonated me with deeply. Here's a confession: To date, I have not read any of John Scalzi's books. I plan to, but I went to the signing tonight primarily because I have read his blog and followed him on twitter for years, and everything I read makes me admire him more.

In the midst of the recent misogynistic chaos plaguing the gaming world - neck-beards threatening violence against female gamers and those who speak up about the way women are portrayed in and excluded from gaming - people like Scalzi roll their eyes and shout that the men who oppose female voices in gaming are being sexist, plain and simple. Scalzi admitted that he has several advantages which allow him to say such things with impunity. He's male, white, straight, and respected in his field. He does get backlash when he supports people like Anita Sarkeesian, but the backlash he gets is, "I'm not buying any more of your books," a consequence which does not bother him because he knows he has plenty of other fans who will. He knows that if he were a woman and did the same thing, the repercussions would be far worse, probably along the lines of what Anita and others like her are facing now: threats of violence beyond the scope of what most people would believe.

In the interim between Q&A and signing, something happened that bothered me. Derek and I ran into an acquaintance we had met at another book signing months ago. I was happy to see him, but I wasn't happy with how the conversation went. He talked to Derek about the tech world, the space program, etc. and asked some half-hearted questions about what I do. I said that I was writing and then he asked me if I'd read a certain book. He told me the author and claimed it wasn't an obscure title, but I had to admit I didn't recall ever coming across it. And then he said, "Well, that just tells me you know nothing about fantasy."

The book I'm writing now is not fantasy; it's YA science fiction, yet YA and fantasy and sci-fi are all worlds in which I feel supremely comfortable. Hell, I have an Elvish tattoo on my back. I've not only read The Silmarillion, I've read it multiple times and I can tell you that my favorite book in it is Akallabeth. Mists of Avalon is one of my favorite books, and I can tell you the mottoes of every major house in A Song of Ice and Fire.

Yet - based on one title I haven't read - I know nothing about fantasy?

I hardly feel the need to argue that the world of fantasy literature is large and diverse, full of sub-genres and countless titles, all of which carry different values to different readers. Most people I know don't read as much as I do, but when they tell me what they do read, I always try to react positively, because at least they're reading something! I might make a recommendation for something else I think they'd like, but even if they said to me, "I like 50 Shades of Gray, so I'm really into romance," I would not react with a comment like the one I heard tonight. I would understand that this person may not know a lot about the romance genre - maybe they haven't read a single other romance book! - but I would not quiz them or lecture them or shoot down their excited claim that they're really into romance. (As I side note, I didn't even tell that acquaintance tonight that I read fantasy. He must have made the assumption that by writing any fiction at all, I must be a well-read expert in every genre . . . *facepalm*)

My general view is that if people are reading ANYTHING, that is GOOD, so I do not like this dismissiveness when it comes to single titles or authors. I know from being a teacher that discouraging a kid from reading a book they like may discourage them from reading for the rest of their lives.

- end rant -

I was relieved when the acquaintance left and it was time for Derek and I to join the signing line. Given that it was Vroman's, the queuing process was very civil. We picked out Christmas cards while we waited and when we reached the front and John signed my book, I barely summoned the courage to tell him that I, too, appreciate what he writes online, and that I'm glad he uses his voice the way he does. Not at all an eloquent speech, but he seemed to understand me, and to Anxious Dani, that's called success.

In terms of John Scalzi, meeting my hero did not at all diminish the admiration I have for him. It DID make me determined to finally read some of his books.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ALS Challenge

While Derek and I were in Michigan for my sister's wedding, my dad was nominated for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by a friend. My sister and I took great delight in explaining how he would have to pour a bucket of ice water on his head. At first he refused, but we wore him down and about an hour before I had to leave for the airport, the bucket came down.

In case anyone reading this is wondering what I'm talking about, here's a brief explanation. (Please keep in mind that we're talking about a viral social media phenomenon and I am not an authority on this subject, if there even is such a thing. This is my interpretation based on the videos I've watched.)

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge:
  1. The purpose of the challenge is to raise money for research into a cure for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Many people know it as the disease that afflicts Stephen Hawking.
  2. If challenged, you have 24 hours to respond.
  3. Responses must be filmed and posted online.
  4. Traditionally, nominees could respond to the challenge by either donating to ALS research ( or pouring a bucket of ice water on their heads. However, the challenge has evolved, and now it seems the gracious thing to do is donate regardless. There have been great examples of people donating without any ice water involved. (See Sir Patrick Stewart's video.)
  5. Nominees who do pour ice water on their heads get to nominate three new people to accept the challenge in turn.
For his nominations, my dad chose his two sons-in-law and - duh duh DUH - my mom! Her face when he announced it during filming was priceless, and any trepidation she had about pouring a bucket of ice water on his head before the announcement went out the window at that point.

This morning, Derek completed the challenge. In the video (below), he mentions our friend Will who was diagnosed with ALS three years ago. Will's wife once referred to ALS as an orphan disease, which means it's under-researched and under-resourced (treatment-wise) because it's rare and because many ALS patients lose their lives so quickly that even if pharmaceutical companies did create effective treatments, they would not have enough customers to make the drugs profitable. Those words have haunted me, and for that reason, I am so glad this fundraising scheme has gone viral. When I made our donation this morning, I was thrilled to see that ALSA reported donations exceeding $94 million in the past 30 days. I hope to see that figure double or triple before the fad wanes.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Two Parties in a Pod

My sister is getting married this summer, and my biggest responsibility as matron of honor was to plan her bachelorette party and bridal shower. I'm pretty proud of the results, so I thought I'd share some of the details here.

Note: Due to so many guests (including my sister and I) having to fly in from out of town, we held the parties back-to-back, hence "Two Parties in a Pod".

The bachelorette party was unconventional. I didn't have a bachelorette party myself, and I frankly would have been useless at planning the traditional type, so with the bride's permission, I based the party on the Midnight Dinners from Erin Morgenstern's novel The Night Circus. In the book, these dinners were sumptuous affairs with very few guests, wondrous entertainment, and food so good that the host wouldn't disclose their ingredients.

Left: I used a red ink pad and a stencil to make envelope liners, and the invitations were tri-fold, held together in the front with sticky-backed ribbon and badges with a quote from the novel; Middle: a wrapped copy of The Night Circus; Right: invitation assembly; I stenciled the backs of the RSVP envelopes and cards and found address labels and stamps that matched the color scheme
We held the party at 7 instead of midnight, but otherwise, I think I was able to capture the essence of those fictional meals. There were only 12 guests and the dinner was held in a restaurant's private room that doubles as a wine cellar. The color scheme was black, white, and red because that's the the color scheme of the novel's eponymous circus, and those colors lent themselves well to a nighttime Victorian dinner. The guests all wore black and white and my sister, the bride-to-be, wore red. Our entertainment was the sweetest violinist who was so good, my sister insisted on keeping her an hour later than we'd planned.

The Details (clockwise from top left):
  1. Chocolate mice favors from L.A. Burdick in NY, apparently the exact mice that inspired Erin Morgenstern when she was writing The Night Circus
  2. Vignette table with framed B&W pics of my sis and her fiance, a framed print of the novel's protagonist, Celia, along with a mat that guests signed, and a Wishing Tree (inspired by a tree from the novel) on which guests hung candles and made wishes for my sis
  3. My place setting, ft. calligraphed placecards and LED tealights inside real wax holders
  4. Boxed favor - L.A. Burdick was kind enough to package the mice in the party's color scheme
  5. Red bows tied around each chair
  6. The complete tablescape (everyone sat together at one table)
  7. I sent temporary tattoos to every guest so we'd all match at the party; you can also see a sliver of my black and white dress and red nail polish in this pic
  8. Close-up of tablescape ft. handmade table runner
  9. (center) Close-up of centerpieces by Red Poppy Floral Design - red carnations and lush black magic roses in mercury glass pedestal bowls
* * *

The bridal shower took place the following afternoon. The theme of this party was rain - a 'rain shower' - get it? This party had twice as many guests and a color scheme of turquoise, navy, and orange.

The Details (clockwise from top left):
  1. Instead of favors, we played a gift-stealing game in which guests had to answer trivia questions about marriage traditions; if they answered incorrectly, they got to open a wrapped present like the ones shown here; if they got their question right, they could open a wrapped present or steal a gift someone had already opened; very few people stole despite my mother's vehement encouragement that they do so
  2. The tablescape - one long table for all the guests ft. a filato paper runner and chair bows
  3. Balloon 'clouds' with ribbon 'rain'
  4. Vignette table ft. framed photos, silk flowers in watering cans, and floating candles
  5. Tablescape again - my mother planted begonias which we used as centerpieces, alternating them with tall glass vases that held parasols and acrylic 'raindrops'; you can also see the banner I made in the background
  6. Calligraphed placecards with a raincloud-inspired stamp
  7. Cupcakes with mini umbrellas
  8. My place setting
  9. (center) A custom-color m&m mix inside tiny pails lined with wax paper
* * *

Frankly, I'm exhausted just thinking about these parties again. They were a lot of work, and while I'm thrilled they went well, I'm also relieved to get back to writing without distractions.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ruin & Rising Launch Party

Center: Book cover; Clockwise from top left: Bar sign, happy faces, me and Horsehead (AKA my husband) at the photo booth, Derek's drink, Leigh giving a charming speech that included reading from her middle school diary, my antler tattoos, giant book pages, and my view from the balcony

Last night, Derek and I attended the launch party for Leigh Bardugo's Ruin & Rising, the final installment in her Grisha Trilogy. The party was at The Last Bookstore in downtown LA, across the street from the very first apartment I lived in when I moved out here 7 years ago. I'll tell you, the intersection of 5th and Spring was not nearly as cool when I lived there. The only place I could walk to back then was the LA central library, and that was several blocks away!

The party sold out ahead of time and when Derek and I arrived 20 minutes early, the line was already around the corner from the bookstore's entrance. Pretty soon it was halfway down the block. Standing in line was fun, though. We got to see everyone's keftas and hats and a lot of costumes that had nothing to do with Leigh's books but looked like a lot of fun to wear. My costume was a set of temporary tattoos in the shape of antlers applied to my collarbone like Alina's amplifier. I thought it was pretty clever since it only cost me five bucks!

Once inside, we grabbed some drinks from the bar - an event-themed cocktail for Derek and plain old yummy champagne for me - and headed upstairs to escape the crowd and secure ourselves a good view of the stage. There were a few dozen seats set down on the main floor, but they were either all taken or reserved by the time we got inside. Not that I would have traded our balcony view. Derek loves the art lofts up there, so he wandered up and down the hall while I continued to enjoy looking at the costumes and fabulous decorations. There were giant pages from each of the three books, banners hanging between columns, and the entire scene was dotted with the bright red swag bags everyone was given at the door.

If there was ever a launch party that made for good study by an aspiring author, it was this one. I was so happy to be there, and I can't wait to devour the book.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Endings, *Heat* & Dreams of Gods and Monsters

About Spoilers:
The following post contains spoilers for the novel Days of Blood and Starlight and what I would call "teasers" for its sequel, Dreams of Gods and Monsters. In regards to the latter, I do not answer any major questions, expose plot twists or declare that anybody is dead (or not dead). If you are particularly sensitive to spoilers, well, that's why I put this text in red :-) Proceed with caution.

I finished Dreams of Gods and Monsters yesterday morning. It's the last book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor. Books 1 and 3 of the series are two of the best books I've read in the past several years, and the accompanying novella, Night of Cake and Puppets, is one of the cutest things I have ever read in my life. (Book 2 is not of lesser quality than the others, but its character development, while appropriate for the trajectory of the novels, is brutal.)

Link to IndieBound
When I was only a few chapters into DoGaM, I started drafting a blog post in my head. The title was to be "How to End Something". This has been a rough year for endings. I've been disappointed with the endings of several stories in various media, books included. The most recent appallingly bad ending was How I Met Your Mother. I wasn't too invested in that show, yet I thought Ted Mosby deserved a better ending than that*.

*I won't spoil it here because I know a lot of people are watching it on Netflix. However, if you are doing that, my humble suggestion is that you reconsider. Besides, Netflix has every single season of Futurama, and you can't go wrong there.

Given that I am a writer myself, I worry about being hypocritical when I'm negative about other people's work. Would I want someone talking about my characters, my story that way? No, I would not, and that's why I'm writing this post. I want to figure out what these authors did and why they might have done it so that I don't make the same mistake.

In stories, the rule I believe in is that character always comes first. Character + World = Plot, which means plot is last, but too often - especially in movies and TV - plot comes first. I think when authors end their stories in a way that makes readers angry, oftentimes it's because the author violated the integrity of their own character.

Let's say you've followed a character's development over three books, believed it all, and then in the last chapter of the last book, they do something completely out of character. Sure, people can change, but if a character is going to change drastically, and at the very last minute, I as a reader want to understand why. If you tell me why and the reason is believable, I will happily accept the curve-ball ending. But without that explanation, I assume that the author has none, which means they violated the integrity of their character for the sake of plot, for the sake of doing something sensational.

The excuse these authors sometimes give is that they always knew how the story would end, that they didn't make the decision at the last minute, and readers should somehow feel better because of that. I feel more betrayed because of that! If the author knew how the story would end since they started writing it, then they did put plot first, and while it's possible to bring a plot and a character's development into alignment, the fact that said authors shocked and angered their readers means that they failed to do so.

But now, back to Dreams of Gods and Monsters. I am ecstatic over this book because it wasn't just a worthy ending to a trilogy, one that the characters deserved and felt natural in terms of plot, it's a brilliant book all by itself. I might even say - le gasp! - I liked it better than Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Here's why:

1. The scope of the narrative
In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the narrator mostly hovered over Karou's head the whole time, which was perfect because we got to know and love her and see her crazy world(s) through her eyes. It got broader in Days of Blood and Starlight so that we got to follow both Karou and Akiva, who was doing some interesting things on his own. In DoGaM, the narrator is all over the place, and I loved it. Every chapter felt fresh and because the narrator was following so many characters, we got to see each scene through the eyes of whoever had the optimal vantage point. There's also something about this style of narration that leads to fantastic comedic timing.

2. Eidolon eating a piece of fruit
The imagery in this scene is just amazing. I pictured the whole thing like it was a movie in my mind and I was thoroughly, delightfully creeped out.

After I read her first few chapters, I got so entranced that I started skipping ahead and I ended up reading all of her portions of the story straight through.

4. The bath cavern in the Kirin caves
Some interesting things happen there, and the way it's described (dangling pink moss!) in the words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."

5. Justice
Laini Taylor is pro at justice. I'm not saying that all of her characters get what's coming to them; her books aren't pink and purple with happy endings all around. But there is a sense of justice in the world of the books that feels natural, like it's the will of the characters instead of the author, and I love that.

6. Mik's continued effort to complete three heroic tasks
This is a guy who I would definitely call a feminist because he 100% respects Zuzana's right to make her own decisions, yet he's put himself on a mythic crusade to win her hand. It's adorable.

7. Akiva's character development
These books established pretty early on that Karou is amazing, but she and Akiva had a rough start and he had some redeeming to do. He was also a little Byronic early on, which I never like, and I was worried that he would become a trope - the "hero" who acts like a miserable jerk because the girl he loves has important stuff to do and isn't paying him enough attention. Thankfully, he's matured and in this book, he takes on some important stuff of his own. The fact that he stepped up to the plate and got absorbed in his own work made me like him a lot more. It made him worthy of Karou.

8. Liraz's character development
I had written off Akiva's half-sister as a bitter sidelines character, the angry voice who brought tension to scenes that might not otherwise have it. She was sort of flat for Book 1 and 90% of Book 2, but in Book 3, Liraz is flat no more. There is one scene with Liraz at a river with her canteen that just melted my heart.

9. Ziri
Epic songs should be written about this guy. Sweet and funny and brave and so... Ziri.

10. "The Heat"
Laini Taylor handles "the heat" between her character couples with finesse*. Romance from the male's perspective is often mishandled in books. Many authors shy away from the male's perspective altogether - we can thank the Puritans for that - while others go too far in the opposite direction and give unnecessarily clinical descriptions of boners, as if doing so should cover all their bases when it comes to men and love.

I fear I'm treading into delicate territory here, but I don't know why since I'm not saying anything negative. My point is positive, and it's that male sexuality can be...adorable. Touch can be a powerful thing to a guy, and it doesn't have to be touch down there, it can be the brush of fingers on his cheek, a head resting on his chest, the feel of warm breath on his neck. Those things can mean so much to guys, often more than the same gestures mean to girls. In DoGaM, Akiva's feelings for Karou were distinctly male, but in the best, sweetest way. Karou could melt him with a touch, and validate his entire being with a smile. It wasn't just believable; it was beautiful.

Another thing I loved is that this book didn't shy away from female sexuality, a topic that's avoided even more often than male sexuality. Listen here, World: Women like sex, too. Get over it. We need more books - especially in YA - that portray positive female sexuality. I can think of more books in which girls are sexually abused than books in which girls have a positive sexual encounter, and that is sad beyond belief. What kind of message is that sending? What kind of expectations are girls growing up with when we're showing them only the ugliest side of sex? There is plenty of happy territory to tread. I remember being a teenager and wanting to touch a guy's muscular arm but fearing I'd hyperventilate if I did. It was exhilarating, feeling something that intense! Likewise, Karou gets so tingly and fixated on Akiva's body that she thinks she's going to explode, and I am so happy for her in those moments.

*Another author who does this really well is Tahereh Mafi. There are certain chapters in all three of her books (Shatter Me, Unravel Me, Ignite Me) that I had to read like, three times before I would move on because they were molten hot, and she was equally good at all the things Laini Taylor is as described under #10, above.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Poppy: Editing and Confidence

Please enjoy a guest post from my critique partner, Poppy!
I’m currently editing my first book. Writing the first draft was a journey in and of itself. I think I was so excited to be done with it; I never imagined that the hardest part of the journey actually lay ahead of me!

Editing and revising (oh my!).

I, like all creative people, battle with the small voices inside my head. Stay with me, I promise I’m not a crazy lady! While I was writing my first draft there were these voices that continually barraged me with several thoughts:

“Are you sure you can do this?
“You’re not a good enough writer to write a book.”
“Stick to your day job!”
“Who do you think you are?”

At first the voices were loud, but the more I wrote, the less those voices mattered. Now that I’m done with the first draft, and I’m working on revising and re-writing, the voices are back. Lately I've been working on ways to shut them out for good.

One of the writing books that’s helped me the most on this journey is Alan Watt’s book “The 90-Day Novel”. In it he drops this little gem:
“You are uniquely qualified to write your story.”
One of the ways I deal with those voices when they come a knocking is I remind them that I am qualified to tell this story, because in a way the story chose me.  My book idea is a result of my life experiences, my influences and the quirkiness that rumbles around in my cute little brain.  And the same is true of you. Your story chose you for a reason, which means that you are qualified to bring it to life. It won’t be easy (believe me!). It will take hard work and discipline and patience, but if you stick with it in the end you will do your story proud.

So next time you here those voices, remind them whose boss!
Keep an eye on Poppy's blog {Poppy Writes a Book} for follow-up posts about her writing process, favorite new books, and probably a Firefly quote now and then :-)