March Reading Roundup

I know, I know, it’s not March anymore. I was all over posting this last week, but my computer seriously died, and that slowed me down a bit. But I’m back now with my March reads.

 

I didn’t read as much last month as I did in January and February. This is partly because I realized I was listening to audiobooks at almost double speed in January and February, and in March I decided to turn that back to normal speed. I also spent a week at home and my family and college friends who visited didn’t let me live constantly in my cave of books.

 

Still, I read fifteen books in March. Four of them were Braille books; the rest were audiobooks. One of them was nonfiction. I continued the series I’ve been reading and started a few new series. I also read a few stand-alone books. I’m now more than halfway to my goal of reading a hundred books this year.

 

Like my previous reading roundup posts, I’m grouping these books by series, for sake of clarity, and I’m trying to keep these thoughts as spoiler-free as possible.

 

First, I continued James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series with the fifth book, Max. At this point, I’ve lost a lot of enthusiasm for the books. We seem to have lost a lot of character development and plot in favor of political messages about global warming. I understand that authors can and do send political messages in their books, but you can’t do it at the expense of, well, basically all the reasons I want to read a book in the first place. I feel like James Patterson tried to get things back on track with this book and fix some of the problems with the last book, because Max’s mom is kidnapped and the kids go off on a submarine to rescue her. But it didn’t work for me. So much of it just strained my willing suspension of disbelief—like the giant sea monsters and the characters gaining crazy new skills whenever it’s convenient for the plot—and it just made the book less fun to read. I’m a completionist, so I’ll keep going, but after book three this series has gone way downhill.

 

Next I read Inkheart, the first book in Cornelia Funke’s Inkworld trilogy. I read this book a long, long time ago, like middle school long ago, but all I remember is that I really liked it. I still really liked it now. It’s kind of a bookworm’s paradise. Meggie’s father can read characters out of books—and people into books. Ten years ago he read the villains out of the book Inkheart and read Meggie’s mother into the book—all accidentally of course. Now the villains are back, and they want Meggie’s father and the book that could be the only way to get her mother back. Reading the book now, I will say that I really wished that Meggie had more agency, because for a lot of it she’s just sort of along for the ride, but I still really enjoyed it and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.

 

Next, I read The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. This was a fabulously fun book. It’s the book that the movie Home is based on, but I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t compare them. I will say that I had so much fun reading the book. Gratuity—tip—has to write about what the alien invasion meant to her for school, and she has quite a story to tell. When the aliens invaded Earth, they abducted Tip’s mother and sent all the humans in North America to Florida. Tip decides to drive herself and her cat rather than taking the alien transportation. Along the way, she meets an alien who has gotten himself into trouble with his own people, and thus begins a great cross-country road trip in a flying car. This book was just a blast. The plot was strong. The characters were strong. The world-building was strong. The only thing that isn’t my favorite is the framing device of the school essay contest, but the rest of this book was so great that I don’t really care.

 

After that, I read the next towo books in Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters. Honestly I didn’t like Swiftly Tilting Planet too much, because it really just felt like watching a series of events throughout history, all with characters named the same thing, and our protagonists weren’t obviously doing anything to save the world and yet somehow the world was saved. I liked Many Waters better, partly because it’s one of the more coherent stories in the series and partly because it’s about the twins, who have so far been the normal side characters of the series. Yes, the religious aspect of the book is a little over-the-top for my tastes, but the twins take the time to learn the rules of the world where they have found themselves, and they use the rules to come up with a way to get home. Definitely an enjoyable installment in the series. And I’m looking forward to picking up the final book in the series.

 

Next, I continued the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley. This month, I read books seven and eight in the series, The Everaf War and The Inside Story. These books were so intense, but they still maintained the fun adventure tone of the previous books in the series. Still, I was devistated by the big reveal in The Everaf War and the characters’ decisions in The Inside Story. I just got the final book in the series from the library, and I am so excited to read it, but also sad that this series is coming to an end because I have enjoyed it so much.

 

This month’s book club book was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I listened to the audiobook, and I regret it, because the audiobook was really, really confusing, and based on what I gathered from the book club discussion, I may have actually enjoyed the book if I read it in Braille. It’s written like a play, sort of. It’s complicated. The audiobook had about a hundred and fifty narrators, and it only said the names of who was speaking the first time. The premise is that a bunch of ghosts, for lack of a better word, are trapped in the graveyard where they were buried, like a kind of purgatory. Then Willy Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, comes along—because he dies. Children can’t stay in the graveyard, and if they do, terrible things happen to them, but Abraham Lincoln comes to the crypt and spends the night holding his son’s body, and Willy Lincoln hangs around, and the other ghosts have to try to get him to move on. Because I was so confused, I really didn’t like the book, but I could recognize how you might like it, if you read it instead of listening to the audiobook.

 

Next, I read War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars by Richard N. Haass. This was another book for my Negotiation and Diplomacy class. I was only assigned half of it, but I read the rest because it was so interesting. Richard Haass worked at the State Department during both Iraq wars. This isn’t a political book, but a comparison of the behind-the-scenes decisions in both wars. My AP American history class—the last history class I took—ended before the first Iraq war, so I admit that I didn’t know much about it. And even though I lived through the start of the second Iraq war, I didn’t really understand what was going on because I was eleven, and everything I did hear was filtered through people who disagreed with the war, so it was interesting to read about both wars and both presidential administrations. If you’re interested in the diplomacy—or lack thereof—during these times, this was an interesting read.

 

Next, I read Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce. This is the first book in Tamora Pierce’s new series, the Numair Chronicles, about the childhood of one of the main characters in her Immortals series. I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a long time, and I was not disappointed. It was really interesting to read about Numair’s early years, before he was even called Numair. I never thought I would like Ozorne, who we know will grow to be the evil emperror in the Immortals books. But I did like him in this book, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens to make him change so much. I do wish this book had a bit more of its own plot. As it is, it’s a bit meandering and feels like a lot of setup for what’s to come. But it’s definitely a promising start to a series, and I’m looking forward to the next book.

 

After Tempests and Slaughter, I got back to the Divergent series and reread Allegiant by Veronica Roth. This is every bit as much of a mess as I remember it being. Actually, this time through, it seemed like even more of a mess. The world-building, the plot, the characters, the ending, everything fell flat for me. I could rant on and on and on about this, but I’ll spare you. I will say that I appreciate what Veronica Roth is trying to do with this series—or at least what I think she was trying to do. It’s a really cool idea that with each book, we learn more and more about the world, like piecing a puzzle together. Unfortunately, I don’t think it worked as well as it could have. But I still really like the first and second books in this series, and Allegiant is just going to be one of those things—like the ending of How I Met Your Mother or all of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—that I’ll just pretend never happened.

 

Next, I read the third book in the Giver series, Messenger by Lois Lowry. I really liked Messenger. It pulled everything together from the first two books—The Giver and Gathering Blue. I liked the mystery and the build-up of suspense, and that ending was just heartbreaking and perfect. (Note that I do think it is possible to pull off this kind of ending and still have the book be meaningful, because Lois Lowry did it here, unlike another book I read this month, which I won’t name because of spoilers. If you’ve read both you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

 

Next, I reread The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Susanne Collins. I picked these up again because I was looking for something that had inspired me to write in the past, and rereading these books did in fact give me a little spark of inspiration, so at least I’m thinking about writing again. Now I have to actually write. But rereading these books was a lot of fun because I was able to remind myself just how much I love the first book in the series. The world is rich, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is fast and gut-punchy. And I just adore the ending of the first book—it lands so well. Catching Fire is pretty good too. It definitely has some pacing issues, but I think it deals well with Katniss’s actions at the end of The Hunger Games and also is does a great job creating a plot that is both similar and different from the first book.

 

Finally, I started rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. I finished The Bad Beginning at 11:45 PM on March 31, just to give you a sense of how down-to-wire I was getting. I started rereading this series because a friend recommended that the second book might give me some ideas on ways to edit a chapter I seem to always be stuck on. Basically, in this chapter, the main character, who is an orphan and who has been passed from one abusive foster family to the other, is finally in a place where she thinks she might be able to be happy. The problem is, going from running for her life to sudden happiness is a huge drop in tension. So this friend recommended I reread The Reptile Room—book 2 of the series—because it might give me ideas on how to keep up tension while important happiness is taking place. And of course, because I’m me, I said well okay I’ll just reread the whole series. The new season is coming out on Netflix too so this seems like a great idea. I really enjoyed my reread of The Bad Beginning. It does a good job establishing all the characters and their talents. The tension ramps up appropriately. And it was fun. Looking forward to continuing with this series in April.

 

And that’s it for March. Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

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This Too Shall Pass… I hope

Last week, I got involved in a conversation on Twitter about the challenges of writing while attending school. It was past midnight, so I let out a lot of feelings I normally try to keep tucked away. Now, in the light of day, I’m trying to crystalize what we were talking about into something coherent and at least a little bit constructive on the challenges of writing while you’re a student and, because this is how those challenges have manifested for me, overcoming cosmic writer’s block.

 

To be completely honest, all through college and the few years after college before I started law school, my friends considered me something of a writing wonder. I write a lot, and I write fast. And in college, I always found time to write. But at the same time, I was steeped in creativity. My friends were the same people in my writing group. We would set aside hours for quiet writing time. We were so involved with each other’s stories that we talked about them all the time, formulating theories, helping each other work out plot holes, and so on. And when we weren’t writing or talking about our projects, we were disecting books we were reading and shows and movies we were watching. It was a really great experience, and if you have a group like that in college, then I totally agree with anyone who says that college is the best time to get writing done. But I’ve also heard a lot of college students say that it’s hard to get writing done in college because of all the other things you have to balance, and while I didn’t really get it as an undergraduate, I’m definitely getting it now.

 

Since I left college and I’ve lost that constant, in-person writing support group, writing has become a struggle for me. I kept going through my first year of law school, partly because it was the only thing that was keeping me sane. But it wasn’t easy the way writing used to be easy. Just the other day, I saw a Facebook post from last year where I was saying that I was going to do Camp NaNoWriMo in April because I was tired of a paragraph feeling like a victory. And in my second year of law school, it’s only gotten worse. I was told my second year of law school would be easier than the first, but this has turned out to be a big fat lie, at least for me. The only real difference is that I chose all the things that are making me busy. Still, I managed to get some short stories written in the fall, and even about a third of a new novel during NaNoWriMo in November, at least before the work really hit, and I had to write a two hundred page paper and edit it four times with a partner in a month, and I stopped writing. And anything I’ve written since has been like pulling teeth and doesn’t even feel like a victory when it’s on the page.

 

I’m calling this cosmic writer’s block. It’s not like writer’s block as you would traditionally think of it. I’m not stuck on a specific story or a specific scene. I’ve tried switching projects, and now I just have about fifteen unfinished projects floating around, which of course just makes me feel worse about the whole thing. I’ve tried all the things the internet recommends for combatting writer’s block—taking walks, taking showers, just powering through because writer’s block isn’t real, and—but nothing helped. I remembered the distinction Anne Lamott drew in her book Bird by Bird, the distinction between blocked and empty. But even her suggestion to do things that normally inspire you, like reading books or watching movies or TV shows that inspire you to write really hasn’t made  much of a dent. I’m just exhausted, and the idea of writing right now feels more exhausting, and when I can’t write, I’m even more discouraged and exhausted. So even though I’m fully aware that I’m spiraling, I can’t stop it. I just have no desire to write, and since for so long writing has been the only thing I really want to do, this is really scary to me.

 

I don’t have any answers to this, except that maybe I just need a week-long nap. But that’s part of the point of this post. I’m not here to tell some story about how perseverance makes everything okay, because I can’t say that right now, and if you’re feeling anything like me, you don’t want to hear that. I’m talking about writing, but I could be talking about any number of things in my life in the past few months, and any time I try to talk to someone about how I’m feeling, they come up with some baloney about how your twenties suck and “this too shall pass.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard those words in the past few months, I could probably pay back a big chunk of my student loans, which would be a lot more useful than that advice. Maybe it will pass. I really hope it does pass. But right now I’m in the middle of it, and it feels like it won’t ever get better, and just saying “this too shall pass” is the least helpful thing anyone can say.

 

So I don’t want to hear that this will get better. I don’t want you to present me with all the examples of other writers who have overcome this kind of block or received hundreds of rejections or who have struggled with writing as a student. What I want is to know that I’m not the only one struggling with these feelings. What I want is to have a productive conversation about these feelings and how we, the young writers and students, can deal with them. Because as far as I can tell, these conversations aren’t happening. To write about rejection and confidence issues and writer’s block and the unique challenges faced by writers who are also students, to some extent we need to talk about failure. Nobody wants to talk about their own failures. And nobody wants to come across as whiny or bitter or incapable. If you’re trying to be a professional writer, it’s not the image you want to present to the interwebs. Even I struggled with whether I wanted to write this post, but I can’t be the only one struggling with this. And if I’m not alone, then maybe writing a post about these challenges will help someone else, even if it just lets them know that others are out there dealing with the same things.

 

So here I am. I am trying to write while attending law school. At this moment, I am struggling with writer’s block on a level i have never experienced before. I’ve published a few short stories, yes, but I’ve received way more rejections, and right now my predominant feeling is that I am somehow a failure and I will never be a successful writer.

 

I hope that someday soon I will be able to write a blog post about how I’ve gotten past all this. But right now, I’m in the middle of it, and sometimes I feel like I’m not going to get past it. If there’s a magic bullet to kickstart my creative brain, I’d love to hear about it. But while I don’t have a magic bullet of my own, I do have some inkling of the roots of the problem.

 

First, I need to work on setting reasonable goals for myself. I had this crazy idea that I would write an entire novel during NaNoWriMo last November and then spend the rest of the school year editing it to perfection, all while keeping up with all my classes and clinics. This was a ridiculous goal, but it was still what I wanted to accomplish this year. And when I failed, I couldn’t pick myself up and press on.

 

As a student, you’re juggling a lot of things: classes, including homework, projects, and exams; extracurricular activities; summer internship and post-graduation job searches; having a social life; and any hobbies you want to keep up. You also have to eat and sleep. Throw consistently writing into that mix, and it’s a little mind-boggling that one person can handle so much. If goals and deadlines motivate you to accomplish things, that’s great. Set goals. But don’t set crazy goals. And when things get out of hand and you don’t accomplish your goals, you can’t beat yourself up over it.

 

Obviously, I really need to work on this. It usually works for me to set goals for myself, but when I fail to accomplish them, I beat myself up and just make the situation worse. I have realized this is a problem, and I’m working on solving it. I considered doing Camp NaNoWriMo again this month and setting a small goal for myself that I felt would be a challenge but would still be something I could accomplish. But I also recognized that I have two fifteen-page papers due this month, as well as a final play to write and perform for my french class and a final exam. I also need to get everything in order for my summer internships. And in the place where I am now, even setting myself a small writing goal would be setting myself up for failure, which wouldn’t help the situation at all.

 

This goes for goals for publication too. The publication market is so subjective, and so much of it is outside your control, that beating yourself up over success or lack-there-of is just counterproductive. The most you can do to pursue a goal of getting published is to keep writing and keep submitting. Yes, rejections suck, but remember why you are writing. For me, I’m writing for myself, because I have a story inside me that needs to be told. Beyond that, I have a close group of friends who want to know what happens next. I hope  that someone, at some time, thinks that others need to read my stories too, but if an editor thinks that’s not the case, I’m not going to let that stop me from writing, because first and foremost I’m writing for me. I’m writing because it makes me happy.

 

Finding what inspires you also helps. Generally reading inspires me to write, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been reading a lot in the past few months. But this year I’ve been reading books that I haven’t read before. A couple weeks ago, I picked up The Hunger Games books and started rereading them. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I might want to sit down and write. I first read The Hunger Games back in college, and it was a big inspiration for my memory-wiping academy novel, which I’m now editing and expanding into a series. So maybe, if you’re stuck, don’t just do things that typically inspire you. If you can pinpoint it, specifically target what drove you to write this story in the first place and revisit it. It might also help to reread what you’ve written so far and remind yourself that it isn’t complete garbage and there’s a reason you’re writing this story in the first place. Basically, find what will inspire you now, which may  not be what usually inspires you, and tap into it.

 

Remember that there’s time. Along with setting reasonable goals for yourself and not beating yourself up if you have to change those goals, remember that there’s time. Yes, it would be fantastic to write, edit, and publish a novel before you’re twenty, or twenty-five, or whatever age you pick. But you’re in school for a reason, and even if you’re studying creative writing, that reason is to learn, not to write the next Harry Potter. Also, all your experiences in school and beyond school will inspire your writing and contribute to the stories you tell. I really, really wanted to get my novel published before I graduated college, but now I’m glad I didn’t, because my experiences being on my own, separated from my family and friends, and adulting for the first time in Italy right after college really informed my characters’ struggles and decisions, and ultimately made that story stronger. So don’t freak out. There’s time.

 

And because there’s time, it’s okay to take a break to recharge. School is exhausting, and it is also constant. You are surrounded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with school. In a lot of ways, I feel like law school has taken away everything I love to do, one by one: reading books in Braille, playing the clarinet, drawing, and now writing, mostly because I’m just too busy and too exhausted to keep it up. I’ve clung to writing, saying oan more than one occasion that it’s the only thing keeping me sane. But now I can’t even muster that up. So if you’re just burnt out, which I’m feeling like is a large part of my writer’s block right now, it’s okay to take a break, let the creative part of your brain reboot, and get back to it when you feel ready.

 

I’m only just starting to feel the itch in my subconscious calling me back to my writing projects. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about my stories more than I have in a while. I haven’t really gotten to the actual writing part. So I could be completely wrong about these strategies for how to write while being a student or how to overcome writer’s block. I’m still in the middle of all of this,  and I’m hoping that it will get better and I can tell you for sure that these things worked for me. I hope that these strategies work for you, too, if you’re having a hard time, and I hope it helps to know that you’re not alone in your feelings. And I would love to hear others’ opinions on how to overcome this cosmic writing block and how to successfully manage being a student and writing.

“Polaris in the Dark” Published in the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide

I am way late on posting about this. Finals got in the way, and then it was Christmas, and then I was working at MIT’s Office of the General Counsel in January and then the spring semester was starting up again and yikes how is it February already? But my own tardiness aside, the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide is out (has been out for two months now), including my story “Polaris in the Dark.” This is the first science fiction story I ever wrote ever. It is also the second story I’ve written about a blind person. You can get the anthology on Amazon, or wherever you prefer to buy your books. I highly recommend the whole anthology. It’s filled with science fiction adventure stories that are all really unique and fun. I am so glad to be part of this anthology! And can I just say, it is really cool to look myself up on Amazon or Goodreads and have a book pop up. I’m not getting over that anytime soon. And always, once you’ve read the story, you can check out the story behind “Polaris in the Dark,” which talks about where I got the idea and some of the challenges I faced while writing it. I also have some interesting musings on writing realistically about disability while also maintaining a positive, empowering message in the story. I hope you find it interesting, and I hope you enjoy reading “Polaris in the Dark” as much as I enjoyed writing it.

“Polaris in the Dark” to be Published in the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide

I’ve been sitting on this for about a month now, because there wasn’t a contract and I didn’t want to jinx it. But it’s really happening, so I am super excited to tell you all that my short story “Polaris in the Dark” will be published in the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthology! It’s an anthology of science fiction stories about diverse characters aimed at middle grade readers. My story is about a blind girl indentured on the train that runs around the rings of Saturn… until she escapes. This isn’t the first story I’ve written about a blind character, but it is my first ever science fiction story, which is really cool. I had a lot of fun inventing gadgets that I actually want in the real world. Also it’s my first professional sale, so yay! If you’re interested, you can vote for the cover of the anthology here. I’ll keep you all posted as the anthology develops.

How I Conquered the World in 2016 and Other Stories

I’m still having trouble believing it, but 2016 is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for my annual round-up of the year. And what a year it has been.

 

Twelve months ago, I was working at the New Hampshire Disabilities Rights Center. I’d only been home from Italy for a few months, and Mopsy and I were still working through our nerves about other drivers while walking around town. I’d just submitted my final law school appplication—and I’d already been admitted to several fine schools. Now, I have just completed my first grueling semester at Harvard Law School, and when we aren’t studying, which isn’t that often, Mopsy and I are cruising around Boston like pros.

 

The only goal I set for myself this year was to not be afraid. I think I was mostly successful, though it was hard to keep that in perspective when I first realized I was going to have to do a lot more cooking than I originally anticipated, or when I was exhausted from studying for seven days straight and terrified I was going to fail my civil procedure exam, or when I woke up from my recurring hospital nightmare this morning feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Or when the election happened.

 

But with my signature optimism, when I look back at all the things I did this year—so many of them brand new—I have to give myself credit.

 

Everything I did at the DRC was totally new to me, from attending hearings to investigating voter accessibility. After I finished my internship, I went on a road trip to visit all the law schools I was still considering. When we were in New York visiting Columbia and NYU, my mom and I also went on two tours of Alexander Hamilton’s New York—one of the financial district and one of Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, and Morningside Heights. They were fascinating. Then my Italian host parents, Stefania and Bruno, came to America for three weeks, and we visited Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, New York City, Boston, and of course New Hampshire with them. my older brother got married. I went to the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind for the first time, where I tried ballroom dancing, swing, and 1Touch self-defense. Then I spent the summer learning my way around Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston.

 

And then I started at Harvard Law School, where every single thing I’ve done has been new. I’d never read a legal opinion before. Now I feel like I read nothing but legal opinions. I learned how to do legal research and how to write in legalese. I learned how to think in a completely new way that I’m still not used to and I can’t describe. For the first time, I took final exams with no indication of my grasp of the material—an experience I’d never like to have again but unfortunately I will have to repeat five more times. And right now I’m in the middle of my first ever job search, complete with cover letters. So many cover letters.

 

But I haven’t done only law stuff. I joined a book club with some of my amazing sectionmates. So far, we’ve read Kindred by Octavia Butler and Cinder by Marissa Meyer (the last one was my recommendation if you hadn’t guessed). Right now we’re reading The Dinner by Herman Koch (well, I haven’t started it yet). I also tried out for the law school a cappella group—I didn’t get in, but it was fun to try—and I also applied to write for the law school parody—didn’t make that either but it was both the first script and the first parody I’ve ever written.

 

I’ve also started becoming politically engaged this year. I’m not going to go into the election too much here, because it really isn’t what I want this blog to be about, but I have written about my feelings on the election,and of course you’ve seen my posts on Braille literacy and the Foundation Fighting Blindness’s #HowEyeSeeIt campaign. I was chosen as a section representative for HLS’s law and government program, and I’ve applied to volunteer for a 2017 gubernatorial campaign.

 

All along, I’ve kept writing. At the beginning of this year, I started queryingagents about my novel. I paused when law school hit, but I’m going to send out a new batch of queries in January.

 

My story “Dissonance” was published in Abyss and Apex in April. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it right here. And over the summer, I wrote and revised three more stories in the Phoenix Song universe—what i’m calling the world where “Dissonance” is set. I also wrote a poem set in the same world, my first poem since tenth grade. With a lot of luck, you might see those some day ever.

 

Once law school started, while I did write less, I did keep writing. I made sure to find time to write at least a couple times a week, not only because I love it, but also because I’ve found if I don’t write, I become first cranky, then miserable, then practically nauseous. When I feel like I’m drowning in law, my stories keep me sane. I finally got back to revising my memory-wiping academy novel, and I succeeded at my summer writing goal of getting the number of projects I’m working on down to two. And in the last couple months, I’ve been trying new things with my writing too. I wrote my first ever 250-word flash fiction story. I usually have the problem that every short story I write turns into a novel, so I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to do it, and I was pretty darn shocked when I actually did. And right now I’m almost finished with the first draft of my first ever science fiction story. This story was actually inspired by whatever happened with my left eye back in January when my vision went all dark and shimmery for a day. Funnily enough, that was the same incident that inspired my first blog post of the year, about my decision to be brave.

 

Finally, I added some new sections to the blog this year too. Now, in addition to links to my published short stories, you can also read the stories behind the stories to find out what I was thinking when I wrote the stories and why I made the choices I did, as well as other fun facts and even some of my own illustrations. I’ve also been having a ton of fun writing the posts from Mopsy’s point of view, and I hope you’ve had fun reading them, because there’s more to come.

 

And after I don’t know how many New Years resolutions, I finally learned to use Twitter. The secret was  linking my Twitter and Facebook accounts so I only had to worry about one. I also entered a couple Twitter pitch slams for my novel, which not only got me in touch with some agents but also got me into the habit of checking Twitter and tweeting—twelve hours of tweeting and constantly refreshing does that sometimes.

 

I didn’t really conquer the world in 2016. In fact, especially in the last few months, between the pressures of law school, the election results, and the feeling that I just wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to or moving forward with my writing career as fast as I thought I would, I’ve often felt like the world was doing a good job of trampling me into the dust. But looking back on all I’ve done and all the new things I’ve tried, I’d say all and all, 2016 was a reasonable success. Now that I have a handle on how law school works, I feel like I can balance things a little better second semester. We’ll see how well that actually goes, but after a few more good nights of sleep, I’m ready to hit the ground running in the new year.

 

So bring it on, 2017.

Summer Writing Goals

Since I’ve finished my internship at the Disabilities Rights Center as well as my grand road trip of visiting law schools and the grand tour of the northeast with Stefania and Bruno, I’m taking summer off before law school. With the exception of a trip to Florida for the National Federation of the Blind’s annual national convention this week and the changes to the Braille code I need to learn (more on both those things later), I’m staying home, playing, and writing. After this year, I won’t have another full summer off again for who knows how long. So why not?

 

On the other hand, I don’t do well with no goals or deadlines. I just sort of flop around. In fact, writing-wise at least, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been flopping around a bit for a while. In college, I was part of a writing group that met every week and shared pages from continuing stories. There was pressure—not a ton of pressure because we were pretty laid back about it—but there was pressure to keep writing on the same project and to make progress on that project, because everyone wanted to know how things turned out. It was lots of fun, but it was also great for keeping me focused. And since college, I’ve been finding that I’m missing that focus. I’ve been having a hard time staying focused long enough to actually accomplish anything—or even to feel like I’m accomplishing anything. I feel so scattered, working on so many projects.

 

Here’s the thing. I probably have been making progress on all these projects. It just doesn’t feel like it. And it’s too easy, with so many projects, to avoid any problems I’m having with any of them, because the minute I get stuck, I can switch to something else and not actually address the reason I’m stuck.

 

I think it’s probably okay to be working on multiple projects at once, but I think I would be more productive if I was at different stages in each story—the planning stage in one and the writing stage in another, for example, or writing one and revising another. But when I have three or four things going, and I’m in the beginning of writing all of them, it’s hard to feel like I’m moving forward on any of them, even if I am.

 

Complicating all of this, I’m starting law school in the fall. Everything I’ve heard about the first year of law school is that you have no time to do anything ever. I don’t know how true this is, or how true it will be for me, because I’ve always found time for writing no matter what else I’m doing. But if I’m going to get any writing done in law school, I need to be organized about it. More than that, I need to feel like I’m moving forward, or I won’t be motivated to do anything.

 

So this summer, my goal is to clean up my writing desk—figuratively speaking. Right now, I’m in the middle of four pretty major projects. By the end of the summer, I want to be done with or at a different stage in three of them.

 

The first is a set of seven linked short stories set in my Phoenix Song universe—what I’m calling the world where “Dissonance” is set. I’ve written and revised three of these stories, and I’m partway through a draft of the fourth. By the end of the summer, I want to have a rough draft of all seven.

 

Second is a fan fiction novel I’ve been working on for fun. I’ve never written fan fiction before this. I don’t have anything against fan fiction, I just have so many story ideas of my own that I never had time for it. But I had this great idea and my friends really wanted to read it, and I was sort of blocked on everything I was writing last year, so I thought I’d give it a spin. It’s been a lot of fun, but I still have a ton of my own stories that have been taking a backseat to this, and if I have limited writing time in law school, I want to use it to work on my own original stuff. So by the end of the summer, I want to have completely finished that and gotten it off my plate.

 

Next, I came up with an idea for a sequel to my upper middle grade fantasy novel—the one I’m querying agents about. Actually, if I go ahead with the sequel idea I have, it will be a trilogy. Friends who have been published have advised me that it’s not always a good idea to write a sequel for a book that hasn’t been published, because there’s no guaranteeing that a publisher will want to publish a sequel, and you will have put a whole bunch of work into something that will go nowhere when you could have been working on something else. And again, upcoming limited writing time. My novel could definitely stand on its own, but I have an idea for a sequel that I love. So I started an outline to clarify my idea and make sure it is in fact a viable story—and assuming I get that far, I’ll need to pitch the idea to people with a reasonable amount of coherency. I don’t have any intention of writing the sequel yet, but I want to finish the outline and then outline the third book by the end of the summer.

 

This leaves my memory-wiping academy novel, which I decided earlier this year that I want to expand and split into four books. The first draft, which I finished just before I graduated college, was designed as a test to see if I could write the plot of a young adult trilogy into one book. The answer is yes, I could, but the book was one hundred sixty thousand words—which is way too long if you didn’t know that—and that’s when I glossed over a lot that I wanted to explore deeper. Plus I had a lot of extra plot I left out because I started panicking about the length. And also there were a bunch of plot holes that come from being one of my first drafts. So I started on that around Christmas but didn’t get very far (because of all the other stuff I’ve been working on). This revision will be my project in law school.

 

It’s a lot to get done this summer, but I write fast, and I’m pretty sure I can accomplish most of it. But I better stop talking about it and get writing.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Welcome to my final post on writing awesome characters. If you’ve missed any of my earlier posts, I’ve talked about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters; developing your characters so they become real people to your readers; and finally killing your characters. I want to finish up with characters by discussing point of view. Point of view could be its own series of posts in and of itself (and maybe I’ll get to that later), but here I’d like to talk about it as it relates to your characters.

 

To give a very basic overview, point of view is literally the viewpoint from which you are telling the story. The most common points of view are first person and third person limited. In first person point of view, the story is told directly from the point of view of one of the characters, usually the protagonist. To describe it another way, the point of view character is telling the story as it unfolds around them. First person point of view uses the pronoun “I”: Today I went to the store and bought kumquats. Third person limited, however, is not told directly from the point of view of the character, but instead the story is told about the character, narrating their actions, thoughts, and feelings from the third person. It uses the character’s name or the pronouns “he” or “she”: Today Jameyanne went to the store and bought kumquats. You can also have third person omniscient (where the reader sees the thoughts and feelings of all the characters) and third person objective (the story is told objectively with no thoughts or feelings for anyone). Even rarer types of point of view are second person (Today you went to the store and bought kumquats) and first person plural (Today we went to the store and bought kumquats. All the kumquats.) Complicating matters even more is the idea of the narrator of the story (especially in third person scenarios) having thoughts and feelings of their own unrelated to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. You can also have multiple points of view in a story, and there are myriad ways to do that. In my small child magician novel, for example, I have three points of view: my young magician (in first person), her mother (third person), and her father (third person).

 

But I don’t want to get into the specific nitty gritty details of all these types of points of view. I’m talking about your characters and their stories, because once you have your plot and your characters, you need to decide how you’re going to tell the story. A key part of that is deciding your point of view. Who’s telling this story? And whose story is it anyway?

 

In almost all cases, your protagonist is the answer to both questions. There are other options, certainly, but there’s a good reason why this is the most common approach. If it’s your protagonist’s story, then your protagonist is the character you want the reader to connect with most, and the easiest way to get a reader to fall in love with a character is to give a direct window into the inner workings of that character’s mind.

 

But let’s not just leave it there. What if it’s not just the protagonist’s story? What if it’s many people’s stories? Or what if, as you developed all your important characters, you’ve planned out lots of character arcs, and you want to show them?

 

One option is multiple points of view, but there are dangers to that. I’d say, when there get to be more than four or five point of view characters, the story can feel confused. I felt this way, for example, when I recently read Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel for the first time. While I was pretty sure who the protagonist was, I couldn’t be sure it was actually her story because there were so many points of view. This isn’t to say that lots of points of view can’t be done. By the end of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, there are at least nine point of view characters running around, and that worked for me, but at the same time, she built up to that, adding a couple point of view characters each book. And while this works for me, it might not work for everyone.

 

Something else to be conscious of if you plan to work with multiple points of view is what the protagonist knows versus what the reader knows. Not only can it get confusing, but when other characters know important information—and the reader knows they know—but the protagonist doesn’t know, it can lead to the reader being frustrated either because the protagonist appears stupid or because the characters aren’t communicating with each other. I find this particularly true when one of the point of view characters is the villain. I get really, really annoyed when the villain goes and reveals his plans, and then I know them, but the protagonist is still angsting about not knowing what the villain is up to. A huge part of this for me comes back to the question of whose story it is. If it’s the protagonist’s story, I want to follow the protagonist along her journey, to make discoveries when she does and to feel what she is feeling, not before. Call it simplistic, but that’s the most enjoyable reading experience for me.

 

Finally, it’s crucial to consider the length of the story you’re telling. With multiple points of view, you’re implying that each POV character has a story of their own to tell, their own path through the plot. However, if you’re writing a 5000 word short story, chances are good that the scope of that story is too narrow to focus on more than one character. If you’re writing a novella or novel, on the other hand, you have more room to explore other characters’ journeys through their perspectives if you so choose.

 

I’m not saying don’t use multiple points of view—I do it myself. But there are things to be careful of when you decide to do it. If you decide not to use multiple points of view, you can still have character arcs for multiple characters. As long as your protagonist doesn’t completely live in a bubble, they’ll notice the people around them changing (they don’t even have to say anything explicitly), and your readers will notice it too. Basically, this boils down to showing the other characters’ journeys externally, as they are observed by your point of view character.

 

Point of view and character overlap in complicated ways. There are so many types of point of view to choose from, with their own advantages, disadvantages, and pitfalls to watch out for. but when I’m deciding what to use, it comes down to the two questions: Whose story is it? And who’s telling the story? And of course, why? (Sorry, that was more than two questions.) These questions are not just about the technical aspects of point of view. They are about digging into your characters and the heart of your story.

Kill Your Darlings

Have you ever been reading a book, and a character dies, and you’re completely thrown out of the story? It’s happened to me more times than I can count, and it is the worst.

 

If you haven’t guessed by this point, this post is not about the old adage to trim down your novel by cutting words, characters, scenes, subplots, etc, though incidentally I’ve gotten pretty good at that. After talking about creating and developing strong characters, this post is about killing them. If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series on writing characters, you can go read about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters and about character development in general.

 

Fair warning, I will be using lots of examples in this post, so there will be some spoilers ahead, specifically from the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, the Lunar Chronicles, The Book Thief, Tamora Pierce’s Trickster books, and the Mortal Instruments. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, where possible, but you have been warned, so read on at your own peril (but honestly, if you don’t know who dies in Harry Potter by this point, you deserve to be spoiled).

 

So let’s start with looking at some character deaths that drove me nuts.

 

First, Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey. The climactic sequence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a huge battle, so naturally people are going to die. Lots of people are going to die. I accept that. Among my writing buddies, I am personally known for killing whole bunches of characters ruthlessly. That is not my problem with some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter. We’ve already lost Hedwig, Dobby, and Fred in this book alone. Oh, and by the way, Harry’s about to go sacrifice his own life. And then we find out, just by seeing their bodies, that Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey are dead. I get that this is the cost of war. But we don’t see them die, and then their deaths pale in comparison to the idea of Harry’s sacrifice. Personally, this combination doesn’t work for me.

 

To give one more example of a death that doesn’t work for me, let’s look at the end of Mockingjay, when out of nowhere, Prim is in the middle of a war zone and gets blown up. I will admit that the movie did a much better job with this and cleared up a lot of the confusion about what happened (in the movie, it may in fact be something I accept), but in the book, it was not okay. First of all, Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games in the first book in order to save Prim, and by killing Prim, it really makes you wonder, well what was the point of all of this? Furthermore, in the books, Prim is never developed as a character—she is always just an object for Katniss to protect. We are sad when she dies because Katniss is sad, but we are not forced to mourn her in her own right. Finally, though again I think the movie clears this up nicely, there is nothing gained by Prim’s death. She doesn’t save anyone or accomplish anything by dying, and we already very clearly have seen the cost of war *takes a minute to wail “Finnick!”*. And then Katniss votes for one more Hunger Games, for Prim, which invalidates everything even more.

 

These are just some examples of how a character death can fail. In these cases, and I’ve found in almost all cases when I’m annoyed by a character death, it’s because either the character wasn’t sufficiently developed (Prim) or because the character’s death was not given enough attention in the book (Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey). For the record, I’d also like to say that I really don’t like it when the book ends with the main character dying, even if it’s a noble self-sacrifice. It is never okay with me.

 

There are plenty of examples of character deaths that work well for me, though, and I’d like to talk about why. First, look at Dumbledore. He is Harry’s mentor, so it’s kind of a given that he has to die at some point. In order for the hero to go off and kick butt, or at least to go camping for a year in search of butt to kick (I say this with love because I actually have no issues with the camping trip that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the mentor needs to get out of the way. Yet Dumbledore’s death works well because it is the culmination of a really dramatic scene. Harry and Dumbledore have stolen the Horcrux and made it back to Hogwarts. Dumbledore is sick, but Harry is confident he’ll be all right once he gets help. But then Snape, you awful person you, and oh yeah the Horcrux isn’t real. Plus, let’s not forget that there’s nothing like the drama of Dumbledore being blasted off the tallest tower. Finally, though we feel like we know enough about Dumbledore to mourn his death, there are also mysteries surrounding his death and also what he didn’t tell Harry in his life.

 

Next, think about one of the first deaths in The Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder’s younger stepsister Peony, who dies from the plague Cinder has discovered she is immune to. Peony isn’t Cinder’s mentor in any way, but she is the one person tying Cinder to her step-family. Though we haven’t spent much time with these characters yet, we already love Peony, not just because Cinder loves Peony but because we’ve gotten to know her ourselves. Finally, the sheer tragedy of it is just beautiful. Cinder is so, so close to saving her life, but she is just moments too late. I love it.

 

For similar reasons, I think all the deaths in Tamora Pierce’s books Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen work really well. We know the characters and we love the characters, their deaths push the plot and other characters forward, and with one exception, we see it all. Even the important death we don’t see on-screen is done really well, because we have to witness the other characters’ anxiety and grief while they wait for news. I also have no problem with everybody dying at the end of The Book Thief, though I know people who do, and in other World War II books with similar endings, I have been annoyed at the mass slaughter committed by the author to illustrate the tragedy of war.

 

I think how readers feel about character death can be so subjective. It depends on the reader and the book. Some of the situations that I described as not working for me might work for someone else, or might work better in a different book or different context. I prefer happy endings to tragic ones, or at least endings on the positive spectrum as far as endings go, but I recognize that not everyone shares this preference, and I have certainly been won over by books that don’t have happy endings. I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules on how to effectively write a character death. I’ve killed a hundred characters in one move, and I’ve also killed an important character off-screen, though I can’t objectively say if any of those deaths work. There are all kinds of reasons for and ways to kill characters, whether because the character is a mentor or someone tying the protagonist down, or because the character’s life is part of the cost of war. Honestly, when I’m going into the last book in a series, I feel this awful and wonderful trepidation knowing that in some way, for the story to be significant, someone important has to die, but at the same time I don’t want anyone to die because I love them all so much. Of course, if it’s a long series, people have probably already died, so I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for someone to die in the last book. Also, I’m definitely a fan of fates worse than death, such as Simon’s choice at the end of the Mortal Instruments series.

 

But while I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules on what makes a character death effective, I will say that for me it’s important that the character is sufficiently developed, that their death is given enough attention in the book, and that it is significant in some way to moving the plot and characters forward. I feel like it’s very similar to what I said a few days ago about developing your characters in general: people want to read about other people. Your characters lives should feel so real that your readers love them, cheer for them, and weep for them, and so should their deaths.

Developing Your Characters

It’s been a while since I last talked about writing characters—I was distracted by other things—but fear not, I still have a few things to say on the subject. So, last month, I talked about how to write strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters. Now, I want to talk about developing these characters: how do you make these characters leap off the page and into your readers’ minds and hearts? Because, in case you haven’t guessed, it isn’t all about their motivation. Your characters can have excellent goals and excellent reasons for pursuing those goals, but no one wants to read about a bunch of stick figures. People want to read about other people.

 

So how do you turn your characters into real people? You develop them. There are so many ways to do this, and I’m not sure one way is better than another. I know people who write a short paragraph about each character outlining their most prominent traits. I know people who write a simple scene—like an encounter at a supermarket—about each character to get a grip on their voice and their thinking. There are character questionaires all over the internet, or you can create your own. When I was in high school, I used to fill out a 200-question worksheet of my own devising for every single character, but that got to be too much, because I tend to work with large casts, and honestly, no one cares what fruit your character would be if they could be a fruit. So I stopped that.

 

Now, I honestly tend to wing it. A character’s motivation can tell you a lot about the person, so I figure that out first, and then I extrapolate from that, and then I extrapolate some more. Sometimes, when I conceive of a character, I have a very clear picture of who they are, but other times I need to really dig into their personalities. As I write, who my characters are tend to come together for me, and this is even clearer as I revise. One time, when I had a large group of characters to introduce in one scene for the rest of the story, I spent some time looking at tropes of how personalities within groups break down. I figured out who I wanted to be what kind of personality within the group and then how they overlap, and that gave me a starting point to build their characters. When all else fails, I take long walks or long showers and ask myself one question after another until I figure out the basics. All I need to start writing are the basics. The character will grow on their own as I write and revise.

 

There are two things I like to think about when it comes to developing my characters, however. The first is character arcs. Like plot arcs, a character arc looks at the character’s path from the beginning of the story to the end. I examine where the character starts in terms of their personality, and I then look at who they are at the end of the story. Finally, I look at the events of the plot and I decide how these events affect the character—their personality and their motivations. A character’s personal journey doesn’t have to be straightforward. It isn’t just, this is who the character is at the beginning, and this is who they are in the end, and they just slowly change over the course of the book. A character can change suddenly. A character can change in a different way before they grow into the person they will be at the climax and finale of the story. A character can, and should, struggle with their growth and their identity. All these things make a character more realistic and thus more relatable.

 

The other important part of character development for me is looking at personality traits. I hear a lot of talk about character flaws, but I don’t buy that as a way to develop your characters. For one thing, it’s so general and overused that my initial response whenever anyone brings them up is “What does that even mean?” But beyond that, your characters don’t possess flaws. They possess traits. Yes, no one is perfect, and your character shouldn’t be perfect either, but I don’t think looking solely at the ways they are flawed is constructive. It’s much simpler to look at it in terms of traits that have positive and negative sides. For example, someone who is super organized might do really well in school or at work, but the minute something throws a wrench in their perfectly ordered world, they can’t handle it. Or someone who is stubborn or strong-willed might have the perseverance to pursue their goals, even against seemingly unbeatable odds, but it also means they can be single-minded and inflexible, unwilling to consider another approach or that someone else’s goals might be just as important as their own or even that their goals may be impossible. See what I mean? The important thing is the character’s traits and how they can be both positive and negative in any given situation.

 

So, that’s how I approach character development. This is what works for me, but like I said, there are so many ways you can do this, and I don’t think any one of them is better or worse than the others (except I really don’t think looking at character flaws works). However you develop your characters, it is an extremely important part of the story. You are asking your readers to spend time with your characters, to invest themselves in their lives and their problems, to cheer for them when they conquer challenges, to yell at them when they make bad decisions, and to scream and flail when they suffer. For your readers to do that, they have to feel—really, they want to feel—that these are real people.

Music in Writing

I am still reveling in the publication of “Dissonance” (and if you haven’t read it, go do so, now), and since it’s relevant, I wanted to take some time to talk about music in writing. If you didn’t know this already, music is very important to me. I’ve played the clarinet since I was eleven, and I enjoy singing (though usually in the shower). So it stands to reason that music works its way into almost everything I write. But for me, music in writing is a two-fold concept, and I’m going to talk about both aspects here.

 

First for the obvious part, literally writing about music. I’m not talking about stories that are solely about music—though I do have several of those kicking around. I’m talking about the role music may play in a story. When you think about it, music is a huge part of our culture. You can’t go anywhere without hearing it, and it affects you. You have favorite songs and songs you like but don’t want to admit you like and songs that oh my God if you hear them again you are going to yank your ears off. Why shouldn’t it be the same in your writing?

 

I have stories where the entire world’s magic system is based on music—like “Dissonance”—and I have a novel series I’m working on where the main character’s magic operates through music. But it doesn’t have to be so big and grand at all. In almost all my other stories, my characters have songs that hold special meaning for them, and beyond that, music is always part of the world—whether fantastic or real. It is played on street corners or in restaurants and stores or over the radio in the car. People sing, hum, or whistle, or they tap their toes in fingers in time with whatever song is going in their head. It is music’s all-encompassing presence that I try to incorporate into my stories, even the stories that aren’t about music at all (though it’s considerably less encompassing for those).

 

This is all well and good, you might say, but how can you pull it off without being obnoxious? No one likes it when authors include singing in their stories. Before I read Lord of the Rings, I never understood this viewpoint. I liked songs in writing. Then I read Lord of the Rings, and I got it completely. I was less than a quarter of the way through the book when I was like, “oh God, if there is one more song, someone’s gonna die!” My trick is to keep it short—no more than six lines at a time. If I have a longer song, I break it up with description of what the characters are doing or thinking or feeling. If there’s a chorus, I intimate that it will repeat, but don’t actually write it out. I also make sure that it is relevant—to the story, to the character, to the setting, something—relevant in a way that can’t be accomplished just by describing the music.

 

The point is, music is a huge part of our world and our culture, so I try to make it part of the worlds and cultures I create in my stories. But believe it or not, I’m not always writing about music, which leads me to the other aspect of music in writing I want to talk about, because even then, there is music in my writing.

 

I’ve seen a lot of writing advice given about finding your voice as a writer, and I never really got that, honestly, because I try to develop a different voice and style for each story I write. What’s important to me is finding the musicality in the writing—the rhythm of the sentences and the lyricism in the words you choose. This is why I believe that reading out loud is such a fundamental part of the editing process, because it springboards your words off the page and into life. It doesn’t just show you places where your prose need smoothing, it lets you hear the music of your words, which are the heartbeat of your story. If you can manage it, read out loud to other people, because they might spot something you don’t.

 

I don’t believe there’s one right rhythm for sentences (in fact one of my friends and I always seem to have just slightly different ideas of what sounds good to us). I don’t believe that only certain styles produce lyrical prose. I don’t even believe that lyrical prose is always called for. But I do believe that music and writing are not separate entities. I believe that they are, in fact, so tightly entangled in each other that it would be difficult to separate them. Even if you aren’t writing about music, the music is in the writing.