Favorite Reads of 2015

The best books I read in 2015, listed in no particular order:

Song of the Lioness

by Tamora Pierce

I read the first book in this series in an effort to acquaint myself with some 'classic' YA. I loved Alanna so much that I bought the rest of the series and read it over the next three days. The heroine was authentic and so tough she actually made me want to work out. And then there was a certain character named George who made me swoon.

The Wrath & the Dawn

by Renee Ahdieh

A lush atmosphere, a tough-as-nails yet glamorous heroine, and a love story that won me over. I can't wait to read the sequel.

Anna and the French Kiss

by Stephanie Perkins

Another effort I made this year was to read more YA that wasn't fantasy or sci-fi. I picked this because I've heard great things about Stephanie Perkins and because I love the paperback covers of her books. My favorite thing about the story was the authenticity. It felt exactly like what I imagine high school in Paris would be. The friendships, the romance, the homework, the parents, the teachers, the adult challenges of venturing outside one's comfort zone -- it all rang very true.

Graffiti Moon

by Cath Crowley

A meet-cute story that takes place in the 24 hours after high school ends. It's romantic, authentic, and at times poetic. Absolutely loved it.

Illuminae

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

As close to reading a movie as it gets. So exciting, fast-paced, a multi-layered story with danger, action, science, horror, romance, and a surprising amount of humor to meld it all together. I'd do pretty much anything to get my hands on the sequels right now.

Winter

by Marissa Meyer

The conclusion of the Lunar Chronicles series, and a worthy conclusion it was. It's Winter's story, but at this point it's a true ensemble cast, and the heroes from the previous books do not get left out. I think "sweeping" would be a good way to describe this one. The author has to manage so many characters and plotlines that it makes me dizzy wondering how she did it, but the conclusion is unarguably wonderful.

Sabriel

by Garth Nix

Another classic fantasy pic, although this book isn't actually as old as it feels. It feels old because the characters are kept at arm's length; we don't get to see too deeply into Sabriel's psyche. There's plenty else to love, though. The plot carries an impressive amount of tension and the settings and fantasy elements (a river of death?!) are enthralling.

Throne of Glass

by Sarah J. Maas

This series that just slays me with its new covers. I'm usually not one for people on covers because I think it robs the reader of the right to imagine the characters themselves, but in this case, I think they nailed Celaena. She looks like an assassin. She looks tough and scary and like she could beat most people up. It's a respectful depiction of a character who is indeed more than a pretty girl playing with danger. Sarah J. Maas's work reads like a sweeping epic fantasy, but it's devoid of sexist tropes, so much so that's it's jolting at times (in the best way possible). I can't wait to read the sequel.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

by Rae Carson

It feels like classic fantasy but without the misogyny, which is refreshing. The heroine goes through genuine changes and you get to watch as she transforms from a kid into an adult. I know that happens in most YA books, but in this one, the growing up feel real.

One Poem, then Another

I heard a reading of a poem last night on NPR. It was called "A History of Everything Including You" by Jenny Hollowell. (Link is to a video. I found a copy of the text here.) I liked the beginning, but eventually the simplistic boiling down of all human history irked me. It felt pessimistic, like it was mocking humanity instead of representing it.

The last part, in particular, about a marriage that's American Beauty meets Everybody Loves Raymond depressed the hell out of me. The message I was left with was, "Life sucks. It's meaningless and 95% ugly but hey, what else is there to do?"

The experience brought to mind a similar poem. It doesn't chronicle the beginning of human history, but the end of it - Byron's "Darkness". Byron's poem is about the apocalypse and the slow, awful death of absolutely everything. (Alternatively, it's about a volcano in Indonesia, but that's a matter of interpretation.) Here are the first few lines:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
- Lord Byron

How is it that this doesn't depress me? To the contrary, I'm drawn to it like I'm drawn to Tim Burton movies and Edgar Allan Poe and Vegetarian Vampires by Remedios Varo. (No good link to Varo's painting. Google or look it up on Pinterest if you want to see. It's worth it.)

So why is this? Is it dark humor or the romance of death or something? Maybe it's the absoluteness of darkness and death. The people in Byron's poem are doomed. No doubt about it. Beetlejuice was dead before his movie even started. The narrator of A Cask of Amontillado was incurably insane.

There was no hope in these stories, but there was surety. They're black and white, not gray. Hollowell's poem is gray. I always think of literature as a whole as gray, because it's open to interpretation. If you can state a thesis and point to evidence in the text to support it, you're right. That can be a wonderful thing. But gray also leaves a lot of room for moving about. It's not stable.

I think that's it. It's got something to do with stability.

Reality is unstable. It's the epitome of unstable, isn't it? Life is a never-ending battle against darkness and evil. Every choice is a swing at the ethereal enemy. It's exhausting.

Have you ever thought about how you'd react if your plane was going down? I mean, going down hard, with no hope of survival. Don't judge me, but I have thought about this. There are really only two options for how to react in this situation. You can scream your head off, fighting and ranting and raving to the end. Or you can be Douglas Adams' bowl of petunias, which appeared spontaneously in the air, already plummeting to its death.

the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again.

- Douglas Adams

In other words, you can accept that the plane will crash and ride it out nice and calm. I like to think I'd do the latter. Dylan Thomas might disapprove, but perhaps not. There's dignity in serenity, in acceptance, in not giving in to fear.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite images from Byron's Darkness, and a hope that you've enjoyed these existential ramblings as much as I have.

The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal : as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge--
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before
- Lord Byron

Predictions for Game of Thrones Season 5 Finale -or- How I Wasted My Morning

UPDATE (6/19/15): Correct predictions in bold and italicized for my satisfaction. That word's a stretch, though. Despite accurately guessing the best-case-scenarios for 6 characters and the worst-case-scenarios for 4, I have found this entire season to be so unsatisfying that I'm glad it's over.

Warnings

  • Trigger - Mentions of sexual violence
  • Spoilers - All of them through Season 5

So, I don't know about you, but I've been incredibly distracted thinking about Sunday's season 5 finale of Game of Thrones. To help me let this train of thought go, I thought I'd outline all of my worst fears and best hopes for the characters below. Worst-case scenarios (WCSs) come before best-case scenarios (BCSs), obviously, because it's GoT.

I have so little hope.

In ESSOS

Daenerys

  • WCS: Wandering the Red Waste 2.0

  • BCS: She gets really good at riding Drogon. She begins the process of leaving Meereen for Westeros.

Tyrion

  • WCS: He dies. From anything. This would be catastrophic. I would cry. Or Jorah kisses him and he gets greyscale.

  • BCS: He becomes the dragonrider of Rhaegal or Viserion. His dragon burns some bad people up. Judge me all you want, but I love watching bad people die by dragonfire, especially when the event is preceded by the word Dracaris.

Jorah

  • WCS: His greyscale is revealed and he's banished from the city for a third time, which would be boring and repetitive.

  • BCS: He dies an honorable death before he can infect anyone else or be banished some more.

Daario + Missandei + Grey Worm

  • WCS: The Sons of the Harpy take over the city and kill or imprison them. Or Jorah gives them greyscale.

  • BCS: They sit quietly and wait for their queen to return.

Arya

  • WCS: Meryn Trant rapes her (I'm sorry, but given the show's history, it's not impossible.)

  • BCS: She kills Meryn Trant. Also Jaqen blinds her because right now her storyline is boring and some temporary blindness would spice it up a bit.

Varys

  • Is he still on the show?

In DORNE

Jaime

  • WCS: Nothing happens. He isn't in the episode.

  • BCS: He's in a fight. He or Bronn dies. They're all boring at this point.

The Sand Snakes + Ellaria

  • WCS: They continue being useless.

  • BCS: They kick some ass like they were always supposed to. Or one of them dies and this gets Doran off his butt and motivates him to do some political damage.

Myrcella + Trystane

  • WCS: They go to King's Landing. *yawn*

  • BCS: They make out some more. This show needs more making out.

Doran

  • WCS: He's not in the episode, or he continues to do boring things that make me lose hope that he ever had a master plan to take down the Lannisters.

  • BCS: He unveils a master plan to take down the Lannisters, which is pretty much just Cersei at this point, although Doran may not know that Tommen isn't evil.

In THE NORTH

Jon

  • WCS: Olly kills him, and his death is clear and finite. They burn his body and he doesn't even survive the flames like a Targaryen. He never gets to ride a dragon or meet his awesome aunt (presumably). He never learns the identity of his parents. GoT loses its last swoon-worthy hero. Besides Daario.

  • BCS: He lives and Olly dies from something random. I'm tired of that kid's dirty looks.

Sam + Gilly

  • WCS: Sam throws himself in front of Olly's knife to save Jon but dies himself.

  • BCS: He kills Olly and saves Jon. He and Gilly have sex again. Or get married!

Stannis

  • WCS: He continues marching to Winterfell but doesn't get there by the end of the episode.

  • BCS: He conquers Winterfell (because the Boltons need to go) and dies from something super mundane, like falling off a tower. OR HE GETS GREYSCALE!

Melisandre

  • WCS: Stannis wins the battle exactly like she hoped and she continues to believe she knows everything. Maybe they need some more luck so she burns Sansa for being related to the King of the North.

  • BCS: She watches Stannis die and I laugh hysterically as she realizes she was wrong about everything.

Selyse

  • WCS: She enters a conquered Winterfell and acts like a queen.

  • BCS: She quietly kills herself for allowing her daughter to be viciously sacrificed.

Davos

  • WCS: He's not in the episode. Or he stands up to Stannis and Stannis lets Melisandre burn him.

  • BCS: He abandons Stannis or kills him. 

Sansa

  • WCS: She's pregnant with Ramsey's child. Her hellish life continues.

  • BCS: She gets to watch her husband die a horrible death. Also her father-in-law dies and Littlefinger dies, too, because I no longer believe he has good intentions for her. Also Stannis conquers Winterfell and makes her Wardeness of the North. (Although if he did, what would she do? She has no idea what to do with power.)

Brienne

  • WCS: Ramsey or Roose or Stannis kills her.

  • BCS: She rescues Sansa and kills Stannis, Ramsey, Reek, and/or Roose. 

Ramsey

  • WCS: He kills Stannis and continues to treat Sansa and Reek the way he has been.

  • BCS: Most of the episode is devoted to his slow, agonizing death. Sansa gets to watch and smile. Fat Walda burns the papers that legitimized him before his dying eyes.

Roose

  • WCS: He wins the battle against Stannis.

  • BCS: He dies painfully but quickly. I don't want to waste a lot of time on his death, I'd just like to be assured that it happens.

Reek/Theon

  • WCS: He continues living his wretched life.

  • BCS: He kills Ramsey and/or helps Sansa escape. Or he dies. I am so done with this character.

In KING'S LANDING

Cersei

  • WCS: She does her walk of penance but all the focus is on her sexual crimes (because she's a woman and it's GoT). A million people call her a whore (so sick of that word). She gets to the end and Robert Strong rescues her. I know he's coming because they showed him on Qyburn's table but I don't want him to do anything useful. Cersei has been in power far too long.

  • BCS: She does her walk of penance and the focus is on her real crimes, like arranging King Robert's death. There's no Robert Strong and she realizes she's alone. She goes back to Casterly Rock a broken woman so I don't have to look at her anymore.

Margaery

  • WCS: She dies in prison. Or she stays in prison and slowly starves. Or she isn't in the episode at all.

  • BCS: She does some minor penance and gets free of the stupid Sparrows. She returns to her husband and teaches him how to be a real king and they start kicking ass. (Likelihood of happening: <1%.)

Olenna

  • WCS: She's not in the episode. Or she dies and House Tyrell loses its mastermind.

  • BCS: She gets her grandchildren out of prison and eats cotton candy while she watches Cersei's walk of penance.

Tommen

  • WCS: He continues being useless.

  • BCS: He dies. It's time. He's proven himself to be entirely useless with no potential whatsoever. It's time to get Cersei's prophecy moving, and her children have to die for that to happen.

The High Sparrow

  • WCS: He gains more power and his zealots spread beyond King's Landing.

  • BCS: He slips on a banana peel and dies.

Defensive Writing

A few weeks ago I finished a major rewrite/revision - those words mean pretty much the same thing to me at this point - and I hope that'll be the last one for this book. (Oh, look, I already lied. I intend for there to be one more after my sister reads. But THAT is the last one. Hopefully.)

After I finished the rewrite, my husband read for me and gave me some very excellent feedback. I dubbed last week Overdrive Week because I was determined to apply all of his feedback in five days.

AND I DID IT.

Usually my deadlines are optimistic, but I killed this last one. I was done by 11AM on Friday, at which point I looked around, trying to remember what people do when they're not revising books.

Now that I've caught you up, here's what I wanted to talk about: Defensive Writing. This is a term I made up last week when I was going through Derek's notes. Basically, there were a lot of points in my novel where I would over-explain or justify a situation in a way that disrupted the narrative. I didn't know I did that, but I know exactly why.

I love to read and discuss other people's books, and just like how everyone at a party gets drawn to the kitchen, book discussions are drawn toward the holes. The tropes. The missing character motives. The deus ex machina. The "Why didn't the character just do this? It would have been so much simpler" etc.

I look for these holes in books and I've been on Goodreads enough to know that everyone else does, too. And it's not because we're jerks, trying to tear each other's work apart. We're lovers of literature. We look for the weak points not because we want to find them, but because we don't. We want to search and think and discuss and come to the conclusion that This is a Great Book. For me, finding a single great book I can recommend to everyone is enough to justify reading a dozen books that are just meh and one or two that I donate because I can't stand the sight of them.

So the problem is not that readers look for holes in stories. The problem is that when I wrote the draft Derek critiqued, I had written it like a reader. I saw all the places where people might poke the plot with a stick to see if it collapsed and I added a few extra sentences to prop it up. There were a lot of sentences in that draft along the lines of,

MC knew this wouldn't work because A and this wouldn't work because B, which meant C was the only option.

Derek pointed out quite rightly that 90% of the time, such justifications for my choices are unnecessary and they come across as defensive.

I've spent the past few days thinking about how to avoid this pitfall in the future and here's what I've come up with: I'm not going to try to avoid it at all. I'm going to let myself trip into the pit because that's what drafts are for.

I don't ascribe to the idea that stories are like dinosaur skeletons waiting to be unearthed, but I do believe it's necessary to write a whole lot of crap before you realize what a story needs. For me, defensive writing is part of that crap, part of my process, and now that I know about it, I can make later drafts that much stronger.

That's all for now. Good day - or good morning, or good night...good afternoon?

What time zone are you in?

just kidding

Favorite Books of 2014

My favorite books of the year, listed in no particular order. It's a full list. I read a lot of great books this year.

UPDATE (7/17/17): Some of the covers shown aren't the original hardcover version; since this is a list of books I liked best, I went with the versions of their covers I like best, too.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters

By Laini Taylor

This book is so good, it gets its own post.

For Darkness Shows the Stars

By Diana Peterfreund

This is an adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion, which I love, and I thought the book honored its source material really well. It takes place in a sort of post-apocalyptic future, although it's funny because it feels more historical than future-y. It does a great job of showing how completely power can shift hands in society and how easy it is to forget about such shifts.

These Broken Stars

By Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

This books starts in an enormous spaceship (enough said, right?) yet quickly becomes a tale of survival and romance. It's a singular, focused journey with excellent character development and a good mystery to unravel.

Poison

By Bridget Zinn

This is a quick and really adorable read. It's also a pretty original take on the classic fairy tale. The protagonist, Kyra, is a potions master specializing in poisons. She goes on the run after a failed assassination attempt. She starts out with just a pig for company - this pig is arguably my favorite character in the book - but later she's joined by a charming stranger named Fred. One thing I love is that Kyra and Fred's relationship is not the focal point of the story. Kyra's mysterious relationship with her best friend takes precedence, which means this book passes the Bechdel test in a way few stories do.

Dark Triumph

By Robin LaFevers

This is the second book in the His Fair Assassins series. It's about assassin nuns living in the northwestern part of France known at Brittany. The story takes place against a backdrop of really interesting history that I previously knew little about. Grave Mercy was a fabulous start to the series, but Dark Triumph rose up to another level. I LOVED the two main characters in this book. Sybella is about 30% brains and 70% rage, and Beast is a walking hunk of granite with a heart of gold. They're a perfect match and they don't fit into archetypes I read very often. I have added Beast (who, BTW, is nothing like Belle's Beast) to my list of favorite fictional crushes.

Champion

By Marie Lu

Champion is the conclusion to Marie Lu's Legend series. This trilogy hit the ground running and never stopped. It was consistently brilliant, although I think I loved Champion the most. In typical trilogy fashion, the story started with a narrow focus and gradually expanded until the stakes were at the societal level. The story takes place in a hypothetical future where the United States has been split into two separate countries. We only see one of those countries throughout the first two books, but in Champion, we get to travel, and I was so impressed to see that Marie Lu came up with not one, but two distinct and fascinating future worlds. Whenever a series ends, I don't necessarily want a happy ending, but I want a conclusion that's worthy of the previous books as well as the characters. Champion achieved just that.

Cress

By Marissa Meyer

Cress is the third volume in The Lunar Chronicles series. I would rank it above Scarlet but a little beneath Cinder, which had such a unique premise that I still remember fondly being captivated by this futuristic world where cyborg rights are a contentious issue and there's a trigger-happy psychopath for a queen living on the moon. Cinder and Scarlet were both pretty concentrated stories that focused on their two MCs, but Cress takes all of the earlier characters, adds two more, and starts building an ensemble cast that's so much fun. I am already DYING to get the last book in the series.

Scalzi at Vroman's

Tonight Derek and I went to Vroman's 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 over-saturated 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 resonates 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. 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 people, 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, but I was very happy to meet him.

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 not disappointing. 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 just 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!

signing.jpg

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 the book'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. I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Seconded!" Now here's my confession: To date, I have not read any of John Scalzi's books. I plan to, but I went to the signing tonight because I have read his blog and followed him on twitter for years, and everything he writes in those venues 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. 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.

Finally, it was time to get in line for the signing. 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.

So 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.

Endings, Heat, and Dreams of Gods & Monsters

Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for Laini Taylor's Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters.

I finished Dreams of Gods and Monsters yesterday morning. It's the last book in the Daughter of Smoke & 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 & 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.)

When I was only a few chapters into Dreams of Gods & Monsters, I started drafting a blog post in my head. The title was to be "How to End a Story". 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, but I thought Ted Mosby (and his wife!) deserved a better ending than that.

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 mistakes.

In stories, a rule I believe in is that character always comes first.

Character + World = Plot

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 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/screenwriters/showrunners generally 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 & Monsters. I am ecstatic about 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 & Bone. Here's why:

The scope of the narrative

In Daughter of Smoke & Bone, the narrator hovered over Karou's head most of the 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 & Starlight so that we got to follow both Karou and Akiva, who was doing some interesting things on his own. In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, the narrator is all over the place, and I loved it. Every chapter felt fresh because the narrator was following so many people, and we got to see each scene through the eyes of whoever had the best vantage point. There's also something about this style of narration that leads to fantastic comedic timing.

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.

ELIZA JONES

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.

The bath cavern in the Kirin caves

In the words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."

Justice

Laini Taylor is pro at justice. I'm not saying that all of her characters get what's coming to them; her books are not Disney movies 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.

Mik's three heroic tasks

This is a guy I would definitely call a feminist - Zuzana would accept no less - yet he puts himself on a mythic crusade to win her hand. It's adorable.

Akiva's character development

This series established early on that Karou is amazing, but she and Akiva had a rough start and he needed some redemption. He was also a little Byronic in the beginning, which I never like, and I was worried 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.

Liraz's character development

I had all but 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 for about 90% of Book 2, but in Book 3, Liraz is flat no more. There's a scene with Liraz at a river with her canteen that just melted my heart.

Ziri

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

"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 POV altogether, 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 men, sometimes more than they mean to women. In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Akiva's feelings for Karou were distinctly male, but in the best, sweetest way possible. 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 female sexuality positively. I can think of more books in which girls are sexually abused than books in which girls have a healthy 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.

Guest Post from Poppy: Editing & 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 hear those voices, remind them who's boss!

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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 :-)

Celebrating an Achievement

I finished my complete re-write of Safira's story on Labor Day - very appropriate, don't you think? Derek had promised me "fancy drinks" to celebrate once I was done, but it was late by the time I finished Monday, so we went out last night, on Tuesday.

It is an ordeal to finish a novel - to get through the conception, sorting your ideas, outlining, developing characters, researching setting, writing and re-writing and re-writing some more. In my case, I re-wrote an entire book that I finished over a year ago. I switched the POV from 3rd-person omniscient to 1st-person with three narrators. I'm so happy with the result. With the 3rd-person draft, I felt like a lot was lost in translation between my head and the page, but with 1st-person, the reader is up close and intimate with the narrators, they get to experience the emotions and the chaos, and it's wonderful. And here's another clue that I made the right choice: I cried when I wrote this draft. Not all the time, of course, but during the scenes that I meant to be sad, I actually cried! I still feel terrible for what I did to some of those characters.

The point I'm trying to make is that, since it is such an ordeal to finish a novel, it's important to celebrate. Finishing a novel is an achievement for which I am immensely proud. Especially because I have so much faith in this story. So while my temptation was to type the last word, send it off to my beta readers, and immediately jump into pre-query mode, I resisted. I took the rest of Monday night off. I got into that research mode Tuesday morning, but we still went out and celebrated the book itself Tuesday night. Unfortunately, by that point, my ability to celebrate was somewhat compromised.

THE FEAR had already set in.

What I love about writing is that I have total control. I can put my characters through hell or I can send them on vacation. I can let the villain win or I can cut off his head. But after the book is done, I lose control. I have to send off letters and hope beyond hope that the agents who read said letters like my pitch, that they don't have something like it already on their list, and that they believe it can sell. There seems to be so much luck involved in this phase of the game and that makes me nervous. I have no fear of hard work. But I have great fear of things that I can't attain even with all the work in the world. And querying feels a little like that.

While I was writing, I did a good job of avoiding distractions. I didn't draft query letters or synopses or check in on agents on Twitter or read any of their blogs. Doing that stuff plays tricks on my mind, and I know that my story is the product, so it deserved my full attention while I'm crafting it. Of course, as soon as I was done, I headed for those sources that would have been distractions before but are now my job. And they still play tricks on my mind. I read agents' advice for writing a good story, I read the reasons why they pass on a hundred books, and I wonder if my book will fall into those categories. It will inevitably fall into some, sure, but will it fall into all of them? Is my setting great and the pacing good but my narrators' voices weak? Will the agents be able to connect with my characters? Will the book push the boundaries of the genre and make agents doubtful they can sell it? Will they think the writing is decent but that the story needs more work?

This is the fear I'm talking about. I fear the answers to the above questions, and my only hope now is that my two trusty beta readers will send me back buckets of criticism that will help me make the story stronger. Until then, I will try to gather data on agents without getting bogged down by the fear, and I will try to look at this picture often and remember that no matter what happens with querying, I still have something grand and dandy to celebrate:

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Kaijis & Writing Tools

Pacific Rim vs. Women

In case you missed it, there's an argument going on about whether or not women were underrepresented Pacific Rim. I caught the movie the second night it was out and while I loved it, I don't know why there's even a debate. Women were absolutely underrepresented in the movie. No question.

People who disagree with my view are holding up the character of Mako Mori as proof of why I'm wrong. Mako was a main character of the film, but she was the only female character with a speaking role aside from one other woman who I'm pretty sure was just cussing in Russian. The golden roles of the movie all belonged to men, and it's not like there were only a few to go around:

  • Raleigh Becket
  • Stacker Pentecost
  • Newton Geiszler
  • Hermann Gottlieb
  • Chuck Hansen
  • Herc Hansen
  • Hannibal Chau

Absolutely any of those roles could have been played by women. But the bigger retort to the Mako Mori defense is that Mako had no agency. She made no decisions, was responsible for none of the plot, did nothing to change her world. Raleigh disobeyed orders and saved lives. Stacker held Mako back. Newton acted like a jackass. Hermann ultimately decided to help said jackass. Chuck started fights. Herc ended them. I'm still not sure what Hannibal Chau was doing, but whatever it was, he was following his own orders. As for Mako, she followed Stacker and Raleigh's orders, performed heroically only when told to do so, was sheltered and saved by men, and that was it.

I loved Pacific Rim, but it utterly failed the Bechdel test, and it is guilty of under-representing women.

Polyvore as a Writing Tool

I found a new writing tool! In the most unlikely of places, too. And it's going to sound really esoteric and maybe even trivial, but I have found it to be useful in creating visual aids to help me really see my characters.

The tool is an app that allows you to assemble a wardrobe collage on Polyvore. Polyvore is sort of an online shopping meta-store. You can search for "black tank top" and get results from department stores, chain stores, everything down to online-only boutiques based all over the world. I've found it useful because it's allowed me to take a scene from my book and dress up the characters in that scene. The process forces me to consider things like the practicality of what they're wearing (is it weather appropriate?) and what it says about them as a person (what kind of image are they trying to project to the world?). For some of my characters who don't ever wear outfits that are fully described, I've made collages of "daily wear" - things they wear on a normal basis, basically a 2D version of their closet.

Since my book is still a WIP, I'm going to hold onto my character collages for now, but I'll share with you the set I drew up of what I'm wearing today (roughly - only one of the items is exact):

sample.jpg

In my character collages, I put the character's name where my name is (obvs) and where it says, "Sitting at my desk" I write the chapter number or the scene where the character is wearing the outfit. I can then upload the collages to Pinterest, drop them into Scrivner, and reference as needed.

bird by bird

I finally finished reading an aspiring author's staple:

bird by bird by Anne Lamott

I've read other books like this - guides to being a writer and whatnot. Stephen King's On Writing is a classic. King's guide was great, but it was a bittersweet read. There were joyful parts (buying his wife the hair-dryer on Mother's Day - *tear*) but there were also really tragic parts, and not much humor. Plus, I dislike horror, and even the brief descriptions King gave of his own books kept me up at night. I haven't read Cujo or seen the movie, but after reading On Writing, I am terrified of being trapped in car with a rabid dog clawing at the door.

I would say that King and Lamott provide equally good advice for aspiring authors, but they take different approaches. Anne Lamott is hysterical and shameless. She admits to things like wanting someone who's rambling about their success to just shut up already - the kinds of thoughts we all have, but few of us admit.

Writing is a lonely pursuit. Most of the time that suits me just fine, but sometimes it feels like my mind is starting to unravel. You can only have so many conversations with fictional people before you start to wonder about your own sanity, you know? What I loved about bird by bird is that it reminded me I'm not alone, and that even when I think I might be acting lazy or neurotic, I'm really being perfectly normal as far as writers go. I love that idea not just because it means I'm not crazy, but because it means that I'm on the path of the writer, which is exactly where I want to be.

First Chapters

I had to make a tough decision relating to the first chapter of one of my WIPs. The story is written from a third-person limited perspective, and for a long time, the first chapter looked over the shoulder of my story's villain. I loved this because it gave the opening of the story an ominous feel. The exposition didn't feel forced because it's reasonable for the villain to discuss and work on his master plan, especially since he's "winning" at this point in the story. Comparatively, the hero of the story isn't such a reliable source for exposition as there isn't as strong a motive for her to give it; she's not even aware of the villain's plans. And finally, in this particular story, my MC is a bit beaten down at the beginning. She's isolated and a bit brainwashed. Because she has so little agency at this point in the story, it made sense for the villain to be the one to introduce her, rather than have her introduce herself.

Here's the problem with my method: Anybody - be it a reader or agent - who picks up the book is going to judge it within the first few pages. I don't expect them to feel invested in my villain and keep reading for his slimy sake, plus the story isn't about him anyway. But a wisp of a young woman suffering from Stockholm Syndrome probably isn't going to hook many readers either.

I discussed this problem with one of my fellow Big Sur attendees and she pointed me toward a video in which agent Lara Perkins discusses how to write a gripping first chapter. She reinforced a lot of things I already knew, like the narrator should be assertive and confident, but she also had some suggestions that hadn't occurred to me, like using a puzzle or a mystery in the first chapter. By raising questions in the reader's mind, you're compelling them to read onward and get answers to their questions. As an avid reader myself, I love this method. It's like creating a contract with the reader.

After watching the video, the solution to my problem was clear. I didn't want to start the book with a browbeaten protagonist; however, she hadn't always been browbeaten. Before she met the villain she was vivacious and lovely, the kind of person a reader wants to root for. So that's going to be my first chapter - how did the villain and the MC meet, and how did the MC get to the point where she is now? This seems logical anyway because I want the reader to know that the MC's behavior is not a reflection of her natural state. She wasn't always like that, and she's capable of becoming herself - becoming better than her original self - again.

Worldbuilding Workshop

Hello, writing world! How are you? I've been away for so long! It's been months since I blogged, and even longer since I've worked on my manuscript. But I have THE BEST excuse: Derek and I bought a house! We've been here for three weeks now. It's a long time to not be writing, but it seems short given how much work we've done to this place. We've hung artwork, painted walls, installed appliances, and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned.

Writing has not been out of my mind completely. After I went to Big Sur in December, upon the suggestion of another writer I met there, I joined SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). I'm so glad I did because I got invited to a workshop that took place near my new house. I attended said workshop on Sunday. The track I took was led by author Malinda Lo, who I was thrilled to meet. The topic was diversity in world-building, something in which I am profoundly interested because in my writing, I try to build the kind of gender-equitable world in which I wish I lived. The workshop was full of other friendly writers and it was so much fun to be surrounded by people who shared my passion for writing and science fiction.

Malinda Lo started by dismantling a lot of the assumptions that people make when they're building a world, like heteronormativity (the idea that the only normal sexual orientation is straight) and that female characters can't be their own agents. But honestly, the biggest thing I learned from the workshop was that I already know a lot about world-building just from my own experience. That's not to say I'm not glad I went. It was good for me to go and socialize with other writers, and it was a good confidence boost. I felt like an intermediate aspiring author instead of a beginner.

Stages of Writing a Book: Pros & Cons

Lately I've felt torn between writing Vix, revising Safira and writing an outline for another book that's so new it doesn't even have a code name yet. This dilemma has forced me to think about the various stages of book-writing, and I've decided to put down my thoughts here. Please note that this is how I write, and as far as I can tell, every writer has a different process. Mine is no better or worse; it's simply mine.

Stage 1: Conception

Conception is an exciting stage because you're dealing with something brand new. It's like getting a new haircut and being surprised and fascinated every time you spot yourself in the mirror. (Or is that just me...?) New book ideas are escapes from the real world and real work.

PROS: You're not committed yet. You're not under pressure to explain it to people, you don't have to worry about their judgement, and you certainly don't have to deal with their input.

CONS: It's basically a dreamworld. You can't stay there forever.

Stage 2: Research

After a few weeks of thinking about a new idea, my thoughts get so complex that I have to start putting them onto paper - or screen - in order to sort things out and get into more detailed brainstorming. The word "research" may be misleading here because it doesn't always mean losing hours on Wikipedia, reading similar published books, or checking out big stacks of non-fiction from the library. Research can mean all of these things, but for me it also means drawing maps of towns and blueprints of buildings, writing profiles of my characters, and looking for photographs to inspire me.

PROS: You're building a new world that nobody gets to live in but you, at least for now.

CONS: This stage can become a trap for me. I'm a completionist, and research is a nebulous thing, so it's hard for me to know when I've done enough and earned the right to move on. Research can also be overwhelming, especially to one prone to jumping down Wikipedia rabbit holes, like myself. While researching, I often end the day feeling painfully aware of how little I actually know about anything.

Stage 3: Outlining

On the Plotter vs. Pantster spectrum, I'm a Strong Plotter. I've tried free-writing in the hope that something concrete will come out, but I end up writing little summary paragraphs of plot points, i.e., I write in a structured way even when I'm trying not to. That's just my nature.

Unfortunately, I don't write perfect outlines. Does anyone? By the time I began my third novel, I had learned enough to avoid outlining the whole book before I began writing. I knew what my MC was going to accomplish, where she was going to go, and where she was going to end up. Before I began drafting this book, I wrote a pretty solid outline for the first third it. (I thought I'd try it Suzanne Collins' style and write this book in three acts.) My first third turned into my first half, but otherwise, this method worked out well. As I drafted, the second half of the book became clearer and I outlined that little by little.

PROS: You get to take all of your research and put it together into a cohesive story.

CONS: Given the inevitability of deviation, outlining can feel a little futile.

Stage 4: Drafting

Ah, now we're back to the good stuff. Drafting! That delightful phase of book-writing in which you take all your brilliant ideas, fictional conversations, and contentious relationships and bring them into being.

One of the trickiest parts of drafting for me is figuring out where to put everything. From the very beginning, the plot has to get moving, but I also have a big bag overflowing with exposition. Exposition has to be placed meticulously so that it won't slow down the story or make the reader feel like I'm going to give them a pop quiz at the beginning of the next chapter. I like to break down my exposition into tiny pieces, sometimes as small as the color of a character's hair or the rotational direction of Venus. (That last one will probably apply only to my current book and maybe five others, ever.) Doing it this way reduces the pressure. I don't have to worry about the reader learning everything because I've distributed the exposition and I know I'll get to it eventually. This is also a helpful method because some kinds of exposition have to build, e.g., you have the know that my characters are on Venus - and preferably know why they're on Venus - before the reader will even care that Venus rotates backwards.

PROS: It's alive!

CONS: Drafting is exhausting. It's also the phase in which I'm the most insecure. Until I have a solid draft in hand, I don't know for sure if the story is going to work. I could get all the way to the end only to find out that there's no possible way for my plot to coalesce. Another disadvantage is that at this stage, it's too early to share your work with anyone, and the temptation can be high. I used to get so excited about certain passages I wrote and I would ask to read them to Derek. Unfortunately, those "brilliant" passages often got edited out later and I regretted my impatience.

Stage 5: Revising

The great thing about revising is that you've had some time away from the earliest stuff you wrote and you get to re-approach it with fresh eyes. It's easier to see what's good and what's bad, and you get to polish the words until you can say with a degree of objectivity that they're pretty darn good.

PROS: The big benefit of revising is that you get the thing you long for during the previous stage: security. Once a scene or a chapter or a whole book has been through the revision wringer and you know that you've done everything you can to make it shine, it's a bit easier to sleep at night. There are no worries about the book falling apart because it's already standing.

CONS: This is a tedious stage. I have no rules for how many times I revise a single chapter because that depends wholly on the chapter. Revising for me often means re-writing. I've re-written every single word of chapters that were perfectly decent because who wants perfectly decent? I don't. I bet agents and editors want it even less, and readers want it least of all. Revision can mean tweaking a few words to re-writing a chapter 20 times. Because of this, it's hard to estimate how much time I need to revise. (I can usually draft a chapter in 1-2 days, so if I'm working off an outline, it's simple math to figure out how long it'll be until I'm done.) Unlike the drafting stage, in which everything is fresh, revision can require re-reading the same passage a dozen times, which gets boring. Plus when you're re-writing, you're basically making stuff up all over again, and in that sense, revision can be as tiresome as drafting.

Stage 6: Critique

Here's something I didn't realize before I started writing: Positive feedback is about 10% as useful as negative. Of course it's nice to get a confidence boost, and praise can be helpful when someone is pointing out a specific strength, but positive feedback can also be wasted time. At worst, it's a sign of a low quality beta reader.

Constructive criticism, on the other hand, is gold. Here's a tip for people trying to find good beta readers: Pick people who are good readers, the kind of people who read all the time and have lots to say about what they read. My sister is my best reader because she loves to read and she thinks hard about what she reads. She applies the same level of thinking to my WIPs, so when she gives me comments about characters feeling flat or plotlines feeling heavy, I run with it.

PROS: The critique stage is awesome because for the first time, people are reading your words. You get to see if your intentions for your characters are clear. Is the hero likeable? Does the villain make people's skin crawl? Is the setting as beautiful or as tragic to readers as it is in your head? For each book I've written, my feedback from beta readers has gotten better and better. It's incredibly fulfilling to hear that someone likes your book, and it's even more exciting when they give you suggestions for how to make it better.

CONS: While the book is out with beta readers, you have to leave it alone, and if you've written good characters and you're like me, you'll probably start to miss them. For this reason, it can be helpful to give beta readers a deadline: certainly long enough for them to read comfortably, but short enough that you're not twiddling your thumbs, mourning your characters, and considering querying the thing before you actually get feedback. I'd recoemmend 2-4 weeks.

Lessons from Big Sur

Last weekend I attended the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop. Ever since I got home, people have been asking me to sum up my experience, and it's been hard. But as I've answered this question over and over, my answer has gotten better, and I think I can sum up the experience in a few key points.

Clockwise from top left: jellyfish, view from the PCH, sardines, a sea dragon, trees at the conference center, and a seagull who tried to steal my breakfast

Clockwise from top left: jellyfish, view from the PCH, sardines, a sea dragon, trees at the conference center, and a seagull who tried to steal my breakfast

I met wonderful people.
The workshop was arranged so that each writer was part of two critique groups. You met with your groups twice, and each group had five writers and a faculty member, who was either an agent, an editor, or a published author. These critique sessions were what the weekend was really about. Getting feedback on my work was the primary benefit, but there was also a surprising secondary benefit in simply getting to spend time with other aspiring authors. We read each other's work, explained our histories with writing, and bonded over the shared misery of synopses. Before I even got home, I had emails from fellow writers. I now have several brilliant people I could ask to read my MS once it's ready, and I'll happily do the same for them.

My book is on the right track!
At my very first critique session, I brought copies of the first three chapters of Vix. We only got through the first three pages. It became a running joke with that group because nobody got through more than three pages at a time. My group had some great suggestions, but nobody said any of the things I had feared, e.g., you should start over, your protagonist is despicable, nobody will read this, I have no idea what's going on, this is offensive, etc. I was expecting much more criticism, but I happily traded that expectation for affirmation.

My synopses and query letters got some much needed help.
I brought querying materials for both Vix and for my last book, Safira. I queried Safira last spring but I wasn't able to attract an agent's attention. I've never fully understood why. With my first book, Mina, I knew a few weeks after I had finished that I could do better. As the criticism for the book began to came in from agents who requested it, I agreed with everything they said, and I'm happy to keep that book on a shelf forever. But with Safira, it was different. I still adore that book. I love the characters and the world I built and I feel like that book somehow defines me, even though my current WIP is more directly related to my worldview.

I think 90% of why Safira failed was because I made mistakes during the querying process. I shared my synopsis and query for the book at the workshop and got so much feedback that I struggled to write everything down. This was wonderful. It might not sound like it, because nobody likes to hear that something they wrote sucks, but the thing is, I already knew these things sucked, and I was thrilled to finally understand why. Not only that, but my group members gave me suggestions for fixes, things I can actually do to make the querying materials better. Despite the fact that I left with my pens half-drained, I felt extremely hopeful.

I remembered something important about querying.
Back before I ever sent my first query letter, I had a confident attitude toward the process of finding an agent. I was as concerned with finding an agent who suited me as well as I suited them. But after getting so many rejections, it was easy to forget about the partnership and fall into the mindset that I was at the mercy of agents.

There were several panels regarding querying at the conference. The agents there supported the idea that an agent is a partner, and that writers need the right agent just like agents need the right writer. (Say that five times fast!) Hearing this took some of the pressure off my shoulders. Now, when I query Vix, I'm going to say, "Here's a little about my book. Here's why it's great. Here's why I think we might work well together." And I'm going to remember that I have to accept the agent just as much as they have to accept me, so there's no place for apologies or excuses or kissing up. I wouldn't approach my spouse, my neighbors, or my co-workers like that, so I won't approach an agent like that either.

I got to go to Big Sur.
I say this without reserve: Big Sur is the most beautiful place on Earth. The trees and the ocean and the rugged cliffs - it's so overwhelmingly lovely that it defies description. (Stupid thing for a writer to say, right? I'm probably just being lazy.) I'm already working on convincing Derek that we should go there for our next anniversary. Luckily, our anniversary is not in December. I didn't mention this yet, but despite my awe for Big Sur's beauty, it tried to murder me. Sheets of rain, strong winds, narrow roads, rock slides, and waves so big they washed over the freeway - this was my path to the conference. I got to appreciate the trees once I got there, but I think I'll return when the sky is clearer and the atmosphere is less hostile.

After the conference, I drove up the coast to Monterey and visited the aquarium. Derek tells people he could leave me at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for days and I wouldn't notice. He's probably right. I spent almost five hours there this time. I wore earplugs to tune out the screaming kids whose parents are apparently deaf, and I spent a large chunk of my visit just sitting in front of the Open Sea tank. I don't have a good picture of it, but this tank has a million gallons of water, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the most graceful creatures in the aquarium - sharks, rays, turtles, shimmering schools of sardines, yellowfin tuna, and my very favorite: the Mola mola.

The Mola mola, AKA the Sunfish, is the pug of the sea. It is a huge, slow, dopey-looking fish that's basically the biggest joke natural selection ever played. (The pug has the excuse of being bred by humans.) One of the great things about the aquarium is that a lot of their animals aren't permanent residents. They pull them out of the bay, keep them for a while, study them, then set them free. (They believe - and I agree - that caging mammals is inhumane, so you'll never find dolphins or orcas there.) This rotation means that you never know what's going to be in the big tank. There was one sunfish this time, but it lingered down at the bottom, so I didn't get a great shot. You can see a few of the pictures I did take in the collage above.

UPDATE (7/10/17): Can you tell I had just learned how to use PicMonkey when I made the collage for this post? The lens flare is pretty incriminating.

Drafting Cycles

Work on Vix continues. I'm on my second draft right now. The first draft wasn't complete, but this seems to be the way I write:

  1. Develop an idea.
  2. Write a rough outline.
  3. Write the first few chapters to let characters and plot develop. They're going to take over anyway. Creating a safe space in which to let them seems to work well.
  4. Stop draft to write a very specific, detailed outline.
  5. Write a second draft.
  6. Stop when I start to lose control again.
  7. Re-outline.
  8. Write next draft, and so on.

This way, the book builds itself incrementally. Vix is my third novel, and this is the third time I've worked this way, so I think it's safe to say there's a pattern. Right now I'm on Step #5. I'm already working off an outline for my second draft, but last week I stopped to outline the rest of the book. I converted the complete outline into a synopsis, which is something I need for the conference in Big Sur anyway.

Onward and upward!

Mood in Writing

As I explained a few posts back, I've been creating scene maps for my WIP. I'm writing this book in three acts with about 20 scenes per act. So far these maps have been incredibly useful. Identifying the purpose of each scene has allowed me to see that some of the scenes I've planned weren't necessary. The maps have also allowed me to strategically place bits of exposition so that I'm not dumping too much in one scene. I try to drop exposition one or two scenes before that information becomes an essential part of the plot; that way the reader feels familiar with it by the time it's important.

Another thing that's been very useful is identifying the mood of each scene. This is usually the last piece of the map I complete, after I've written out the plot description. Never before have I actually written down the mood for a scene. Having it right in front of me is a good reminder as I write. Knowing the mood guides my choices for pacing, sentence structure, dialogue, even colors. However, coming up with the right word for a mood can be tricky.

I Googled "mood in writing" and found a decent list. I crossed out the moods I thought I'd never use (how do you even write a scene with a mood that's "flirty"?) and I've been adding new moods and organizing them by category. The moods aren't consistent when it comes to tense - I think that just has to do with the fact that "mood" in writing can be hard to define. You sort of just know it when you read it. In my list, just as the color indicates, moods are listed vertically from least to most extreme.

moods.jpg