Reading vs. Writing

Is there a book you've read you wished you'd written? This is a harder question for me than I initially imagined that it might be. If I'd written some of the books I ardently admire, I'd have been robbed of the opportunity to enjoy reading them. At the same time, some stories are so enchanting, some writing so smart and wicked, that I can't help but wish I'd had the idea and the skills, too. And of course, there are some tales - I find this particularly true of retellings - where I am so deeply disappointed in how a legendary concept is so poorly imagined.

In the end, I'm not sure there's any book I've loved that I'd really rather have written than read, though there are a few stories so skillfully told that they're more than worth mentioning.

The Native Star

M.K. Hobson's The Native Star is an underrated gem and one of the few steampunk/weird west tales that doesn't get so involved with itself that the story and the characters are lost. Perhaps it is that I am most drawn to the characters is what makes this one stand out to me - the elements of the world embellish their lives, rather than the other way around. I'm all for a well-built world, but Hobson manages to make her alternate history feel as vibrant as the real one without overshadowing some truly spectacular characters - and a unique magic system - in Emily and Stanton.

Naomi Novik's Uprooted is definitely in my top five favorite retellings-ish, ever. Novik does exactly what I aspire to do when approaching writing any kind of folk or fairy tale, making it feel familiar and strange in the same instant, surprising in the ways that it conforms to what we know as much as it breaks away into new and delicious territory. I plan to fangirl Novik so hard at Dragon Con this year, you have no idea.

Leigh Bardugo manages to do something with Six of Crows that I honestly think I may never be able to do as a writer: invest readers deeply into the lives of multiple, distinct, and distinctly unheroic protagonists. I don't even generally enjoy reading books where the perspective changes, but with this one and the equally unputdownable sequel, Crooked Kingdom, I wouldn't have had the reading any other way. While I felt connected to certain characters more than others, I still felt affinity for each, and readily shifted between their voices and aims.

I know that I am still writing the sorts of books that I liked to read, for the ideal readers who enjoy the same weird and wonderful things that I do, but truly: I think I'd rather focus on getting better and read more from authors I enjoy than co-opt their voices and ideas.

Whoa, Whoa, Ohioana!

If you'll be in the Columbus, Ohio area on April 14 and want to talk nerdy about books, writing, or my latest trash ship (there are so many), I hope you'll stop by the Ohioana Book Festival to chat. I'll be selling and signing books, as well as participating on a panel with some truly excellent writers of fantasy and science fiction, including Laura Bickle, Linda Robertson, and Susie Newman.

I plan to throw money at other authors and bribe readers with candy and stickers, because I am an adult.

But really, it's a lovely and free event for book devourers of all ages. And if you don't want to eat words, there are food trucks.

Changing Diapers, Changing Times

My capacity for sentimental attachment is really out of control. I went digging in my basement for the totes of cloth diapers I'd stored after our youngest finally started (but still suuuuper unreliably) using the potty. There are boxed up baby clothes that certainly give me the sniffles, but there's something about these diapers that threatens to undo me.

Changing diapers is such a small, regular act with a baby, but also, it is an intimate one. All hours of the day, sometimes multiple times within an hour, you lift and clean and swathe their little bottoms. When they are very small, they are pliable and sweet with their noodle-skinny legs. Later they may giggle and kick. Later still, they are just not having it, and you devise ways to distract or entertain them while you do the necessary deed. I remember reading that as much as I was tempted to make diaper changes as quick as possible when my girls got older and less willing, actually slowing down, taking my time, talking with my baby-then-toddler, would help me get back to the littler times, when it was a moment of quiet and care. Sometimes, that even worked.

And so it is surprisingly difficult to part with these diapers, because they remind me not only of my girls when they were small, but the rituals of caring for a baby - something I will most likely never do again, at least not with my own. As much as I do not miss the laundry, realizing that there's a part of your life that's truly behind you - even with new joys ahead - instigates a surprisingly deep sorrow.

Even when what you're mourning is a diaper change.

The Heart is a Lonely and Not Particularly Wise Hunter

I've got a thing for tragic bastards. I should clarify, my desire is purely for dudes of a fictional variety. I have exactly zero time for the bullshit of living, breathing disasters. But I have been thinking a lot lately about the themes and sorts of characters that resonate with me, what I'm drawn to read and write. As silly as it is, my recent experiences playing Dragon Age: Inquisition have made this pretty clear to me. I've always appreciated Bioware's nuanced characters and the ability players have to befriend or isolate or irritate them, and this installment in the series is, in my opinion, the best in terms of executing this particular hallmark of the studio.

My first two play-throughs, I barely spoke a word to Solas, became absolute besties with Dorian and Cassandra, and romanced Cullen, whose awkward word vomit and head scratching endeared him completely. But, I kept seeing folks talking about the draw of the Solas romance and how it tied in with the game's overall narrative - which is spectacular - so I decided to give it a try and rolled an elven Inquisitor.

And now I'll never look back.

What is it about colossal fuck-ups that is so appealing?

While the charming, well-intentioned dude may at first secure my attention, it just doesn't last. Perhaps this is why your average romantic comedy can't hold my attention - I love a good love story but I need even more than space and elves to complicate things for my weird little heart. I need world-shattering mistakes.

There are other fictional fellas in here. Not surprisingly:

As I am writing the final book in my series and contending with some of the choices and realizations in The Dread Goddess, I am trying to feel my way forward with Gannet and Eiren - without giving anything away, certainly things between them have never been easy, and there are new troubles now. In earlier drafts of the first few chapters, something just didn't feel right. The forgiveness, the comfort, the ease with which they were moving forward, together. Because something is wedged between them still, and Gannet is, of course, claiming responsibility. Given what he knows and doesn't know about himself, and what's at stake, there was a tension and a distance that wasn't at play yet in that draft.

So, I had to make some changes.

In each book, we've learned something new about Eiren and Gannet and about their world, and now that they're presumably holding all of the pieces, they're finding that their shapes are strange, sharp, fragile. I feel as much at Gannet's mercy as Eiren does, sometimes. Even though I'm technically steering this ship, there are storms in their characterizations that even I underestimate, or miss alltogether.

But, take heart. I may enjoy tragic bastards, but I do not enjoy tragedy.

Replaying = Rereading

Sometimes I turn the difficulty down on games so I can enjoy the story. I bristle when this is called “casual” mode – because there’s nothing casual about an immersive gaming experience. I’ve noticed recently that some titles are referring to this as “story” mode, which is a whole lot closer to what I am trying to get out of my games.

I sat on the couch in my parents’ living room as a kid and cursed into an empty soda can watching my dad play The Legend of Zelda on our Nintendo. I’d later swap controllers with my brother, working our way through Resident Evil 2 – because, survival horror. Safety in numbers, right?

I spent as much time playing Morrowind and Knights of the Old Republic as I did writing papers as an undergraduate in literature and creative writing, and I got through my Master’s thesis raiding Karazhan.

Games, and RPGs especially, I just. love. them.

I was talking with my husband recently about the replayability of certain games, not unrelated to the fact that I am working my way through Dragon Age: Inquisition for a fourth time. I know, I know. He's judging me, too.

But the interesting thing was, we weren't quite in agreement about what makes a good replay. I might deviate slightly from the choices I made in my first - or second or third - play-through, but often, I'm replaying a game like I might reread a book. I want to experience the story I grew to love again, just the way I experienced it the first time. I would imagine my husband, who often makes entirely different choices and pursues different outcomes, is more typical in his desires. It's not that I don't want to see more of the world. It's just that I identify so strongly with a particular narrative thread that I can't let it go.

This is probably a good explanation for the allure of fanfiction, too. There's just always more between the lines of dialogue and morally defining moments of choice - I don't want to miss anything.

What about you? Are you a replayer?

Five Favorite Reads of 2017

While 2017 was perhaps my least productive writing year ever - even the poetry I scribbled in the sixth grade amounted to more worthy words than I managed within the last twelve months - I did read some incredible books. And I am trying to take it easy on myself, especially after seeing one of the excellent Lucy Knisley's daily comics yesterday.

Part three of my Hourly Comic Day. #HourlyComicDay #HourlyComicDay2018

A post shared by Lucy Knisley (@lucyknisley) on

I think for creators the world over, especially here at home and especially, especially those of us whose work is not inherently social or political, it's an incredibly challenging time to make things. Mostly it feels damned selfish, when energies could be better spent collaborating with, advocating for and elevating the voices and struggles of those who are being ruthlessly targeted in our current political climate. So I've been endeavoring to be a better human and friend, and escaping at night not as often into worlds of my own creation, but into those of others.

I've got higher hopes for 2018. Or so I am telling myself.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine combined two of my favorite things: a 1920s aesthetic and a fairy tale retelling - one of my favorites, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The freedom the princesses yearned for in the original tale is such a delightful fit for the expanding social boundaries of the Jazz Age, I'm surprised this hasn't been attempted before. But, thrilled that someone as skilled as Valentine did it.

I read a lot of Shannon Hale this year but Book of a Thousand Days was by far my favorite. Another fairy tale retelling, and such a unique lens. Dashti was tough and brilliant and I absolutely loved her as a narrator - the journal format doesn't work for many books, but like Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper: A Tortall Legend series, it works so well here. This is definitely a book I can't wait to share with my girls when they are a little bit older.

Side note, I've become obsessed with the move adaption of Austenland. I've watched it three times since finishing the book and it's become my go-to guilty pleasure film.

I did a lot of traveling in 2017 which meant a lot of devouring comics on airplanes. Rat Queens absolutely stole my heart, and probably nicked bits of my soul and charged some suspicious things to my credit card, too. I'm so cool with it. While the first few volumes are strongest, in my opinion, I'd recommend the whole series to anyone who enjoys rowdy ladies.

There is so much to be enchanted by in The Bear and the Nightingale that I am not even sure where to begin - the characters are real and flawed and fascinating, the writing is absolutely lovely and the world Arden has crafted is both haunting and beautiful. I wanted all of the creepiness and the mystery and the feelings. A book I'd wish I'd written if it weren't for the joy of having read it.

I didn't actively avoid reading Rainbow Rowell but somehow I'd never managed to read her work until I picked up a copy of Landline at a library used book sale - and my goodness, did I read this at the absolute perfect time. As a many-years-married creative-type in my thirties, this book was so sweet and stirring and affirming. I loved Georgie. I loved Neal. I know Georgie and Neal. I cried and cried reading this book and told my husband all about it. I feel like if i weren't quite who I am, right now, it might not have resonated as much for me. But I am and it so did.

What about you? What were your favorite reads last year?

Fantasy Casting Book of Icons

When I had time for journal-based roleplaying games, one of my first and favorite things to do in developing a character was to think about what they looked like. I loved scrolling through icon collections of lesser known actors and actresses, or beloved familiar faces in unique roles, and choosing just the right person to play my version of Padma Patil or Eddie Carmichael (had a soft spot for roleplaying Ravenclaws, even though I'm pretty sure I'm a Gryffindor). Anyone who has ever played in one of these games, or ever seen a movie that's been woefully miscast, knows what it's like to see someone playing a character who is just all wrong. Strangely enough, picturing my characters is not something I do much in the beginning. Maybe it's because all of the shit I gave myself as a young writer for describing what people looked like by letting them look in the mirror, or because I immediately drop any book that tells me what a character is wearing or describes their "tresses" within the first 10 pages. Still, I know that it's important to have a few details to go on, and that usually those details belong somewhere in the beginning of a book.

Writing in first person presents a unique challenge when conveying what your main character looks like, but I'm particularly fond of how Eiren describes herself and her siblings in the first chapter of The Hidden Icon, when looking at her mother she,

"... studied the vault of bones beneath her skin, like mine the color of the honeyed beer she and my father enjoyed, the taste of which had always paled considerably when compared to the thrill of pilfering some from their reserve."

I wish now that I'd had resources like Writing with Color when I was working on the first book, because it's incredible. Even though it's fantasy-land, it's important to check assumptions and language when it comes to writing characters of color. For me, Eiren has always been a brown girl, and I hope that she was always for readers, too.

We don't get much else about Eiren in the first few chapters, beyond that she's a small woman, made smaller by the challenges of living in exile. Again, she sees herself in comparison to others, this time, when she observes Morainn rising from a chair and feels,

"... weak as a foundling child. Morainn had eaten well and stretched her legs in the flower of her youth, and I’d spent the last five years living like a rodent in a cave."

I did give Gannet a little bit more structure in the beginning, though, even with half of his face obscured for the reader and Eiren both.

"The man wore a half-mask roughed of some metal fitted to his features, riding the bridge of his nose and curving back to his ears. It was the mask I saw and little else, registering but barely the sandy hair, the thin, blank line of his lips.

He was less formidable in proximity than he had been at a distance. I could not keep from studying his face as the moment lengthened to discomfort, the rough lip of the mask below his cheekbones, splitting his brow above. His hair strayed from where it had been smoothed back, softening his unnaturally muted expression."

Despite the fact that I have a lot more to go on with Gannet's description, or maybe because of it, he's always been harder for me to point to a real person and say, that one. I don't think he's traditionally handsome, and I picture him with a wide, expressive mouth that would probably be goofy on someone who smiled a lot. His nose is severe because frankly, I like noses.

And Eiren, well. She's beautiful but melancholy, too. She's also never had cause to pay attention to how her hair or body is dressed, allowing an innocence to persist in her appearance that might not otherwise for someone of her age and experience.

Most recently, I've been pairing these two together in my mind and feeling pretty confident about their potential.

Sonam Kapoor is just the most glamorous usually, which I feel like works for Eiren's sisters but not so for her. But when I saw her in Saawariya, I just felt like there was a dreamy quality about her, an intense grace and depth that felt right for Eiren. As for Austin Butler, his model face is all wrong for Gannet and I would never have looked at him twice if it weren't for a laundry-filled Sunday when I decided to give The Shannara Chronicles a watch. Dude has got so much more going for him when he's walking and talking and, you know, emoting.

And not to bribe or spoil folks or anything, but if you're interested in seeing a bit more of Gannet's face, you should probably make some time to read The Dread Goddess.

So, what do you think? Who would you cast? And what about Morainn, Antares, Imke, or Jurnus? Clearly I ought to give them a think next.

What Teenagers Write About is Weird

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote? When I was in the fifth grade, heavily influenced by multiple readings of The Secret Garden and The Little Princess and my own deep desire for Kirsten, I wrote a short story for class about a Victorian-esque pauper girl who coveted a doll in a window at Christmastime. Naturally, that porcelain beauty was bound to sustain her more than bread or soup or central heat, so a kindly young mother who had lost her own daughter to illness made everyone's dreams come true by adopting the child and buying her the damn doll. Appealing narrative for an 11-year-old with no disposable income, right?

I think of this story now and then, and remember that my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Cole, told my parents I was writing at a college-level. I thought that was a bit of a joke until I taught college, and then I suspected for a hot minute it was an insult, but still. She was an incredibly supportive teacher and the first in a long line of teachers who indulged my love of writing fiction.

In the seventh grade, I wrote what I realize now was basically erotic friend fiction - though with far fewer butts and a whole lot more dystopian wasteland. This was the first long-form piece I ever wrote, beginning with a natural disaster that conveniently swept all of the adults out of the picture and allowed me to populate a post-parent fantasy land with my peers. We foraged for food, crafted weapons, built shelters Island of the Blue Dolphins-style, and even relocated from Ohio to the beach, where I was able to introduce new characters from my class who had been presumed dead. Why? Because it took me months to write this thing and I was crushing on somebody else by then and needed a reason to write them into the story.

Teenagers, man.

The best/worst part is honestly that I shared this, chapter by painstaking chapter, with my English teacher. She was so nice about it that I wonder now if she even read it, or if she just felt sorry for the girl who repeatedly had her name slandered on the chalkboard by some of the same boys she was writing about. If I could go back in time, I'd make them eat those pages. Or just kick them repeatedly in the shins.

But it was easier at thirteen to retreat into a world whose boundaries I could write and rewrite, whose conflicts were of my own devising and whose resolutions happily followed a linear narrative. There is still an element of joy in controlling a world when I'm writing - or at the very least, trusting that when I'm not in control I'll reach a suitable ending.

And at least the most embarrassing things I've ever written and will ever write are behind me.

I hope.

You Say it's Your Birthday

So, last year I had some lofty goals for 34. Now I'm 35 and this year I just have a lot of excuses.

  1. Finish writing another book. I would argue there was an aggressive rewrite of book two in my series, but that doesn't count. Been dabbling since.
  2. Continue to work out at least three times a week.
  3. Read 34 books.
  4. Watch Star Wars: A New Hope with my oldest daughter. It's not that I think four is necessarily old enough, it's that I just can't wait any longer.
  5. Attend Books by the Banks as a guest. With my second book slated for publication in May, I am cautiously optimistic. Was not invited. Going to day drink instead.
  6. Finish one new costume for Dragon*Con. Of course I have more than one planned, but I'm being realistic about my sewing follow through.
  7. Run a successful writer’s retreat. After the holidays I plan to hit the ground hard plotting for a writer's retreat in April at a castle. If that sounds like something you'd be into, you know how to reach me.
  8. Go swimming.
  9. See a play.
  10. See Bethany and Stephen get married!
  11. And my girls are going to be flower girls, so, weep profusely.
  12. See Alex and Christopher get married!
  13. Go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Dreaming big, friends. And I never wanted to leave.
  14. Grow vegetables.
  15. And then eat them.
  16. Blog twice a month. So close I'm counting it.
  17. Sew something for each of my girls. I've actually already managed this, but I'm not letting myself completely off the hook.
  18. Write real letters. Volunteers? I have a lot of stickers to compliment my poor handwriting.
  19. See live music.
  20. More candid photographs of my girls with my actual camera.
  21. LARP more. After years of playing I took a break when my littles were very little, but I found time again last autumn and I want to keep it going.
  22. Send Miss E to kindergarten in style with a Schultüte. Her first day of kindergarten sans cone, but she opened it at home and I got a photograph with my proper camera.
  23. Grow my hair out.
  24. Or cut it off if I'm really feeling it. It had to go.
  25. Watch Gilmore Girls in its entirety. I love it now but never watched it while it was on the air, so I am woefully behind.
  26. Knit. I may as well if I am going to be watching television; these hands are so rarely idle.
  27. Finish the quilt that's languished half-assembled since before I was married.
  28. Discover some new music. Any recommendations?
  29. Visit my dad at least once a month. This hasn't worked out due to schedules, but we are on really good terms right now.
  30. Endeavor not to fight with him.
  31. Acquire a Stratton compact. While Peggy Carter turned me on to these vintage beauties, I'm not attached to hers unless I get lucky. SCORE.
  32. Read, paint, dance, and dream more with my girls.
  33. Appreciate my husband in word and deed.
  34. Elect a female president. #sorrynotsorry You know what, WE DID. 

I Dream of Cosplay, Again

I told myself I wasn't allowed to start planning cosplays for next year's Dragon Con - and I am too broke to buy fabric anyway - but that doesn't mean I can't compile a list of dream cosplays that I may lack the time and skill to make, right? Just run with it.

After this year's experience with painting my entire face you'd think I'd be turned off by it, but of course pining after a Kyoshi warrior means the application would be even more complex. Alas, I can't resist a beautiful badass.

Captain America Peggy Carter because, obviously. I may or may not already have bookmarked tutorials on triple victory rolls. I'm not telling.

Maybe it's the hair. It's certainly not the shoulder pads. But cosplaying Rachael from Blade Runner at least means I won't need to wear a wig and don't need to worry about my weird smile. Because, you know, she doesn't.

I've been wanting to join the 501st since I first met (and drank with) them many years ago at an Ohio convention, and of course I can't let myself just make an officer - the easiest way in, though still screen accurate - I have to aim BIG. I loved every little thing about Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, and Kreia turned Darth Traya was no exception. And I'd have a reason to buy a red lightsaber. That's called winning.

What do you think? If I were going to make one of these dream cosplays happen in the next year, which should it be?