We are officially halfway through Nanowrimo, and if you’ve taken up the challenge, you might be needing some extra inspiration about now. It can be hard to believe that anything you write in a month could ever get published, but several books that got their first draft written during NaNoWriMo have gone on to top bestseller’s lists. Here are some fantastic books that came out of this challenge and the stories behind them:
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
It actually took three NaNoWriMos for this hefty book to be completed, but it all started during November 2005. Morgenstern didn’t originally intend to send her characters to the circus, but the book took a surprise turn during her first month of writing, and she decided to go with it. She advises other writers to “take risks” and “let yourself be surprised.” It certainly worked out well for her. Her book was published in 2011 and spent seven weeks on the New York Times’ Best Seller List.
On Morgenstern’s website, she admits to being a binge writer who does not write every day. She also mentions that she didn’t seriously start trying to write until her mid-twenties and that The Night Circus was published when she was 32. As an “older” writer myself, I find that inspiring. Morgenstern is proof that there is no age group or writing style that you have to fit into to be successful.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
You might remember when this book and the movie adaptation of it were all the rage back in the early 2010s. Water for Elephants was first written during NaNoWriMo and then revised during the following year. Gruen’s efforts ended up launching her writing career.
If your November hasn’t gone smoothly, take heart! Gruen, who lives with a menagerie of pets and farm animals, had to deal with several sick pets and a broken foot during her NaNoWriMo effort. She says she got through her draft by focusing on the “fun bits.” She advises writers to remember that no matter what they are going through, someone else is out there in the same boat.
This is excellent advice, and it’s comforting to be reminded that we don’t have to have perfectly ordered lives to make writing work.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Unlike most of us who attempt NaNoWriMo, Rowell was already a published author when she took up the challenge. She admits to being skeptical about the one-month deadline, but she ended up producing one of her most beloved novels. She claims that the challenge of writing every day for a month improved her process and “helped me push past so many of my doubts, insecurities, and bad habits.”
So remember, even though your book probably won’t be finished and ready for publication by the end of the month, what you’re doing now can help you be a better writer, and that’s worth a lot.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Meyer penned Cinder, the first novel in her popular YA Lunar Chronicles series during NaNoWriMo, and has since published several more books and series. If you are an aspiring writer, you should note that Meyer is the third person on this list whose career was launched by her NaNoWriMo efforts. It really does happen, and you really could be next.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
This bestselling romance novel (not to be confused with the eponymous movie) was not Guillory’s first published book, but it did become one of her most popular. She advises writers to give themselves credit for what they’ve accomplished instead of just feeling guilty about the days where the words didn’t flow. She’s written seven novels and published four of them, so she knows about the struggle and the reward of getting words down on the page.
If you are looking for more inspiration, you can find pep talks from these authors and many more on the NaNoWriMo website. I especially enjoyed reading what Brian Jacques and Lemony Snicket, two of my childhood faves, had to say. NaNoWriMo has done a great job of assembling a diverse group of writers from all walks of life and several different genres to talk about their NaNoWriMo experience and writing in general. I highly recommend that you check it out. But then go write cause you only have 15 days left.
Hello creators! Today I’m going to be talking about those creative ruts we all fall into from time to time and strategies I’ve found for getting out. I’m using the phrase “creative rut” instead of “writer’s block” or “artist’s block” because I think it sounds less permanent and more solvable.
Sometimes I sit down to write, and I just can’t get into it. Nothing I come up with sounds interesting or exciting to me; I feel boring and like maybe I don’t have what it takes. Other times I stare at a blank page for an hour without making much progress on what should be happening next. Sound familiar? Here’s how to get your creative juices flowing again:
Explore Other Mediums
Often, when I hit a wall with my writing, it’s because there is some story point that I’m not clear on. Or I’ve just come off a really productive writing week or month, and I’m simply burnt out. Like many of you, I enjoy creative pursuits other than writing, and I’ve found that picking up my paintbrush or even doodling in my sketchbook can help me overcome storytelling problems. I’m not sure why this works, but I think it helps me to view the problem from a different angle. These other artistic activities are also relaxing and re-energizing.
If you’re having trouble with your primary creative activity, I recommend that you experiment with some different mediums. Make sure you do this in a no-pressure sort of way, don’t jump from the piece of writing your frustrated with into a painting for your next show. Pick something that you don’t have to be a perfectionist about and just enjoy the process.
Go Outside and Look at Things
This didn’t use to be a challenging thing to do, but 2020 has made many of us feel like animals at the zoo with our noses pressed against our windows. Of course, if you’re an introvert like me, you might be familiar with the problem of passing days or even weeks in your home with little social contact and then realizing that it’s been weeks since you’ve seen a friend or gone to dinner.
Netflix and the internet can provide some fodder for creative refueling, but I find that nothing fuels my creative spirit like actual experiences. Even hanging out in your back yard can be an experience if you try to really be present and see the details of the scenery around you that you’d normally miss. Getting together with friends, going to new places, and seeing new things is a stimulating experience that can help you feel more energized and inspired. Sometimes I find it helpful to give myself creative challenges when I’m out and about like “how would I paint the light on that tree,” or “how would I describe the person who just walked into the restaurant if she were a character in my book.”
Remember that as a creative, you’re constantly focused on output, but you also need input so that you don’t end up running on empty.
Learn Something New
It’s easy for me to spend all my free time reading fantasy books and watching fictional T.V series, but I’ve found that when I’m in a creative rut choosing entertainment that teaches me something can really help. Learning, to me, always feels like an adventure, just as exciting as mountain climbing or diving. If you feel the same, then you might find that learning about something new will help you when you are feeling on creative empty.
Watching a fascinating documentary or catching up on the latest scientific discoveries often inspires me. Non-fiction books and films can take you to places you couldn’t go in real life and show you people, lifestyles, and natural wonders that will change your perspective.
That change in perspective can work wonders on the imagination. Next time you are feeling uninspired, take a look at NASA’s website, pick up the latest National Geographic, or watch something from the “documentary” section of Netflix. You might be surprised by how quickly you get your mojo back.
Do you ever have times when the idea wheel runs dry? Or maybe you have a great idea for a character but no idea what kind of world you want to put them in (or vise versa). When I’m stuck for ideas, I find that it’s helpful to expose myself to new and interesting things. Information about real-world cultures, stories, and places, or even the latest science news, can get the gears turning again. Here are my favorite podcasts to plug into when I’m on empty.
Friendship, feminism, and lots of “creepy cool” stories and legends, all served up with a signature cocktail. Spirits is hosted by two life-long friends, Amanda and Julia, each week they talk about mythology, and how the stories we tell define our lives, and societies. They have several different kinds of episodes, so you can tune into whatever fits your mood. Some of their shows are deep dives into ancient mythology, and others are lighter takes on modern myth-making as depicted in film or urban legends. No matter the subject, this podcast always makes me laugh and feel more positive after listening. You’ll learn about all kinds of mythical creatures, heroes, gods, and villains that just might inspire your own stories.
The Prancing Pony Podcast
This podcast focuses on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. I always feel more inspired to dedicate myself to my writing after listening to Shawn and Alan’s exhaustive analysis of Tolkien’s work and his writing process. It’s easy to forget that Tolkien’s ideas weren’t just “made up” in a vacuum. He was inspired by older stories and by his passion for language. Learning about his inspirations is always helpful to me when I feel like I’m not as creative as I’d like to be. It’s also inspiring to get inside the mind of another writer and see how their work evolved. This insight always gives me more hope for my own work.
Hosted by several well-known authors, including Brandon Sanderson, this podcast is perfect for any writer looking for a creative jump start. The podcast functions as a writing class of sorts, with the hosts covering different writing topics each episode. Topics of past episodes have included “Hijacking the Knowledge You Already Have,” “Engaging Characters,” and a series on “Writing the Other” that includes how to write characters from a variety of backgrounds, sexual orientations, and abilities. Each episode ends with a writing assignment to help you put your newfound knowledge into action. I’ve found that sometimes those assignments can generate ideas even if the topic is not one that applies to my current work.
TED Talks Daily
Sometimes the best way to get creative juices flowing is to take the focus off yourself and spend some time looking through someone else’s eyes. TED Talks are the easiest way to get into the heads of people from a huge variety of backgrounds and all walks of life. If you are looking for some inspiration for a character, look no further.
This podcast explores the intersections between science and the human experience with an entertaining style that makes it easy to listen. If you want to learn about stuff that affects the world around you and fill up your idea bucket, Radiolab will help you do both. I recommend their timely and informative episode “Dispatches from 1918”- about the impact of the Spanish flu on politics and society. Some of their episodes are science-heavy, while others focus more on the historical or philosophical implications of scientific knowledge. I listen to this podcast when I’m ready to learn something new, or when I want a different perspective on something I thought I already knew.
In June, I read two very different books that both draw on fairy tales and folklore to inspire their stories and settings. Today I’m going to be talking about Uprooted by Naomi Novak and House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig. First, I’m going to give you an overview of what these books have to offer and then compare them to demonstrate how unique books inspired by fairy tales can be. If you love fairy tales and want to use them in your writing, this blog will give you an idea of the different types of stories you can create.
I read House of Salt and Sorrows first, and it was a deliciously creepy start to my summer reading. It straddles the line between fantasy and horror, and Craig paints an atmosphere so real that you can almost taste the salt in the air. The story follows Anneleigh as she investigates the murder of her sister, the fourth death that the family has suffered over the past decade. As she scrambles to prevent another death, she realizes that supernatural forces are at work on her island home.
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a Grimm’s fairytale, inspired Craig’s book. In the original story, a king is puzzled by his daughters’ nightly disappearances and offers his eldest daughter in marriage as a reward to the man who can figure out where they are going. The wily princesses drug most of the men who are sent to spy on them, but one clever man succeeds in finding out that the princesses are visiting the fairy realm every night and dancing the night away.
House of Salt and Sorrows features nods to the original tale, including dancing shoes that get worn out prematurely, and lavish, eerie balls. The story takes a much darker turn than the original and not in the way that I anticipated. Craig also makes up her own mythology and creates a unique world that is recognizable but not cliche. The pacing was similar to a thriller, and I couldn’t put it down until I found out how it ended.
Uprooted by Naomi Novak also draws from fairytales. The author is Polish-American, and she was influenced by Polish folktales, including stories about Baba Jaga. The setting will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of European folklore –a small village at the edge of an evil forest, a wizard who lives in a tower and takes a girl every ten years. Novak subverted and expanded on these tropes to create a unique story that is both delightful and terrifying.
The pacing is much slower than in House of Salt and Sorrows, more of a traditional fantasy book pacing than the fast-paced, thriller pacing of the latter. That’s not to say that Uprooted lacks action. There are plenty of edge of your seat moments interspersed with the slower character building sections. Novak’s characters shine. They live in a world filled with trope-y story elements, but they are individuals who react in realistic ways to their circumstances. No one is who you would expect them to be.
Both Novak and Craig spent time expanding the setting of their stories beyond the original scope of the fairy tales that inspired them. Each of these books creates an atmospheric experience for the reader and puts them in a place where bizarre, magical happenings seem both plausible and wondrous.
They also created complex characters, rather than the flat characters typically found in fairytales. Both books deliberately defy expectations about fairytale heroines by making the main characters strong, independent, and flawed. Agnieszka, the heroine of Uprooted, is especially unique. She’s always getting dirty no matter how hard she tries not to, she’s not regarded as being good looking, and she’s hopeless at the type of magic that is considered sophisticated. It turns out that her own magic is in line with who she is: organic, disorderly, and as powerful as nature.
If you want to create your own story based on fairy tales or folktales, you don’t have to feel pigeonholed into writing just one kind of tale. You can use as much or as little of the original story as you’d like and expand on the elements that you find most interesting. You can create a swords -and- sorcery type story or go with a modern or futuristic interpretation. You can keep things light or delve into the darkest aspects of the folklore. The options are endless!
*These books were reviewed from fall 2019 through June 2020, the reviews are still available for you to read and are tagged under “Reading Challenge”
Reading Challenge Book List: Genres Outside My Comfort Zone
Welcome to my reading list! This list is the first of many that I will be using as I tackle my self-imposed reading challenge to read all different types of books in an effort to become a better writer. I invite you to read along with me, or to create your own list that reflects genres that you aren’t very familiar with.
How I Chose These Books
As you may know from the About This Blog page, I’m a fantasy fan from way back. I’ve also read quite a few classic novels (some of which fall into the below genres, but my purpose now is to read contemporary examples.) Even though my goal is to read outside my comfort zone I wanted to read books that sounded interesting to me. To that end, I used sites like Goodreads to help me determine which books to read. There were hundreds of popular books I could have chosen in each category so this list is not representative of all the great stuff that is out there. I consider this list to be a starting place and I will probably add to it as the year goes on. Please feel free to recommend books I should read. The genres I consider to by “outside my comfort zone” are: science fiction, romance, nonfiction, horror and the YA versions of those.
Without further ado here is the list:
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
I picked this book because it was raved about as being one of the best science fiction books about evolutionary biology that’s ever been written. I haven’t read much science fiction, but I have always been interested in biology so I figured I ‘d give this one a go.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Romance is honestly the hardest sell for me genre-wise. This book looked interesting because it involves diverse characters and a rather unique situation. I’m hoping it doesn’t just follow the predictable tropes of Rom-Com movies.
Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry
I am picking an adult and a YA version of some of these genre’s because I think they have unique things about them that might be helpful. I picked this book because, like the Kiss Quotient, it looked like it might not follow all the tired tropes of the genre.
The Shining by Steven King
So, true confession time, the only book I’ve ever read by Steven King is On Writing. I really need to fix that. He’s one of the masters and if I want to learn about writing by reading then his work seems like a pretty great place to start.
One Of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
Again a YA version. This book has really good reviews and I hope it will teach me something about writing creepy stuff for a younger audience.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer
I read a lot of non-fiction in college but since then I haven’t read for information very often. This book stood out to me because it is a book about the Native American struggle that is written by a Native American author. I think that for any writer to be able to effectively write “the other” we first have to understand “the other’s” story as told from their own perspective.
The Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Hard Science Fiction
I’m hoping this book will take me even farther from my comfort zone than Children of Time. Biology is at least somewhat in my wheelhouse, but Yoon Ha Lee’s book deals with math. Nothing is further from my comfort zone than that.
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
A book about writing. I want to read several of these, as different authors probably have slightly different advice. This will be the first book about writing that I’ve read that is by a female author.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This book is about the experience of being Black in America. I’m hoping it will provide some insight that will help me to write “the other”.
This blog is hitting close to home. I just read a book about the black experience in America, and now I’m blogging about it days after the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police. As I sit to write today, I’m feeling a lot of anger, but rather than make this blog about my own opinions; I want to let Invisible Man speak for itself about the challenges of being a black man in America.
If you are an ally of the black community and want to educate yourself about African American history, reading Invisible Man is a great place to start. This book is wonderful because it puts you in the mind of a young black man and lets you see the world through his eyes. Ellison tells us a complex and many-layered story. I’m sure I’m not going to do full justice to it here. This article is merely a starting point for helping you understand Invisible Man and the issues it describes.
Ralph Ellison was an African American novelist who wrote several books and essays about the black experience in America. He served in World War II and began writing Invisible Man when he returned home. It was published in 1952 and spent 16 weeks on the best seller’s list. In 1953 Invisible Man won the National Book Award. It is still considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
The book follows an unnamed black man as he struggles to form his identity and find his place in Anglo-American and African American society. When we first meet him, he is attending a black college in the South. He is intelligent and ambitious and has high hopes for his future and the future of his people. He believes, as he has been taught, that if he becomes educated and does his best to live a useful life, he will be doing his part to “elevate his race”.
Later the young man realizes that the leadership of the college is not practicing what they preach. They subscribe to the ideology that blacks should try to behave like whites and be “humble” (read servile) towards them. After a series of illustrative incidents that lead to his leaving the school, he goes to New York to look for work. His experience there is one of disillusionment with one ideology, followed by enthusiasm about another. Eventually, he becomes disillusioned with ideology in general and realizes that no single ideology can ever be a fit for an entire group of people, or even for one individual.
This is a book designed to demonstrate rather than tell. It forces the reader to see injustices that one might overlook in real life. Ellison shows us how the game is rigged against black people in America; how every time they fulfill one white expectation of them, they violate another. He shows us the clash between individual identity and stereotyped racist expectations. The main character finds that his complexity as an individual is limited whenever he tries to fulfill the whites’ expectations. He decides that all definitions of blackness, both those imposed from without and those that come from the black community, keep black people from fully expressing their identities.
Towards the end of the book, the narrator watches as his friend is shot by police. He then becomes involved in the more violent side of the protest, but ultimately is not fully satisfied by that either. He realizes that he is invisible because when people look at him, they don’t see who he really is, they only see the racist stereotype they’ve been trained to see. Ultimately, he concludes that the most effective thing he can do to conquer racism is to force people to see him in all his human complexity.
The purpose of this blog is to review books as both a reader and a writer. Invisible Man provides a lot of food for thought from both perspectives. As a reader, I was impressed by the power of Ellison’s writing. He accomplishes what his character wants to do– making the reader see the main character as a person rather than a stereotype. It’s sad to me that the injustices described in a book from the 50’s are identical to what I see on the news today.
For writers, this book is a wonderful example of “show don’t tell.” As I mentioned earlier, Ellison doesn’t just tell us that there are injustices; he shows us the character experiencing them. The characterization is very well done throughout the book. If you are writing anything about a group of people ( real or imagined), who have been oppressed, marginalized, and abused, this book will help you understand the complexity of racism and write it accurately. Of course, Invisible Man is specific to the African American experience, and I’m not suggesting that it is a one size fits all answer to understanding prejudice.
There are some similarities between the experiences described in Invisible Man and other experiences of prejudice. For instance, in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, the Native American author, and his interviewees describe being stereotyped and struggling to figure out what their identity as individuals and as a group should be. They also describe instances where groups who were supposedly working to help them did more harm than good. These are the types of overlaps in the experience of racism and prejudice that we can use as writers to create a believable and relatable society. If you are lucky enough to have never personally experienced prejudice, these books will show you how it feels.
Invisible Man is just as important today as when it was published. I hope this blog inspires you to read it (if you haven’t) and use what it can teach to inform your advocacy and your writing.
If you have read Invisible Man, please tell me what you thought. Are there any other books about the African American experience that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments, and please read my note below about the future of the blog.
Update On Reading The Write Way
I’ve decided to start a new “season” with the blog. Up until now I’ve been reading books from a variety of genres and trying to learn from what each genre does best. I’m hoping that you have enjoyed the journey with me and feel that it has improved your writing. This next season is going to be about reading different types of fantasy literature. This genre is dynamic and has changed enormously over the past 40 years. There are many sub-genres and they all have something to offer to readers, and to writers as well. If you are interested in writing fantasy then I hope this next season of the blog will be useful to you and show you the many options you have in the genre. If you are not a writer, then please join us to find your next favorite book (but beware of some spoilers.)
I am still putting together a definitive list of books for the next season (it will be posted on this page when it’s ready). My next blog is going to focus on two books: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin Craig and Uprooted by Naomi Novik. We are going to dive into the enchanting world of retold fairy tales and look for tips on creating our own.
Hello everyone! Today I am going to write about something very different from my usual book reviews. With the COVID-19 lock-downs in full swing, I’ve been seeing a lot of people on social media who are asking for tips on how to be productive while working at home. I’ve also seen some posts from people who are struggling with their mental health and the isolation caused by quarantine.
For me, working at home has been a hugely positive change in my life, but it does come with its own set of challenges and adjustments. Today I want to share some strategies with you that I have found helpful while I have been working at home. These span the gamut from how to focus and increase productivity to keeping your spirits up and fighting depression and anxiety when there is no one around to distract you. I hope you find these helpful:
Set a Routine and Stick to It
This is so important. My husband works crazy hours and often has his weekends on weekdays. It is tempting for me to just take the day off with him, but I’ve found that if I stick to my work-at-home schedule regardless of what he’s doing, I am much more productive and have less anxiety.
I choose to work in the morning because I have found that prioritizing things that must get done is the best way for me to fight procrastination. Getting up at the crack of dawn isn’t for me, but I get to work by 9 on a good day and by 10:30 on days when I’m struggling. I also have an ‘end’ time for my workday. This is just as important as having a start time so that you know when you are free to focus on other areas of your life without feeling like you are shirking your work responsibilities.
If you have been laid off and are struggling to fill your days, consider a routine of hobbies mixed with chores and other things you have to do. If you don’t have a hobby, there’s never been a better time to start one, just go online and look up videos on whatever you are interested in. Having interesting and healthy activities to do every day will also help to take your mind off of financial worries. Most people find that they feel safer and have less anxiety with even a loose routine than they do with none at all.
Get a Room of Your Own
If you are fighting the double battle of having to adjust to working at home while other family members are also in the house, I strongly urge you to find your own space to work in. When I first started working at home I would sit on my couch with my laptop, but after a couple of months of that I realized that I really needed a space of my own where my thoughts could flow without distractions.
I now work in a spare bedroom that I’ve converted to an office space. Not only does this keep me from being distracted by other people, but I also can’t look around and see dishes that need washed or other household things that are waiting for me. This goes a long way toward helping me stick to the task at hand. If you have young children at home, this might not be an option, but the point is that you need to minimize distractions as much as possible.
Put Your Face On Everyday ( Even if You’re the Only One Who Sees It)
This is a strategy that I’ve been working on, it’s still a bit hit and miss for me, but I find I feel better on days when I really ‘get ready’ in the morning. My grandmother, who would be 100 years old this year, lived through a lot– diphtheria epidemics in the 1920s, the Great Depression, WW2, and she endured all that while also fighting depression and anxiety. Every morning for as long as I knew her, even when she was very elderly and not going out anywhere, she would get up in the morning and put her makeup on. I’m talking full face makeup; foundation, blush, lipstick, everything. As I’ve gotten older and begun to think more about coping mechanisms and healthy habits, I’ve realized that this morning routine was an important part of my grandmother’s fight against depression.
So even on days when I am going nowhere, and only my immediate family is going to see me, I try to look good. I’ve noticed that even just a few swipes of mascara and some cover-up make me feel better about myself and more confident to face the day. I feel more productive and more like a ‘real person’ if you know what I mean. I also try to get dressed, even if “dressed” means leggings and a t-shirt, but even on pajama days, that little extra attention to my make up helps me feel better.
If you are a man or someone who’s just not into makeup, then I guess this advice translates as, “just make yourself feel good about how you look in the morning.” Go to a little extra effort after your basic morning hygiene. You won’t regret it.
One of the best things about working from home is the time it gives you to take care of yourself. Even if your job requires you to be chained to your laptop for eight hours, you are still gaining time that you would have spent commuting. Right now, going to the gym isn’t an option. For people like my brother who go to the gym every day (but don’t even lift) this can be hard to adapt to. I’ve always been a workout- at- home person, and I’ve recently found some ways to spice up my workout routine.
I’d been off the workout wagon for a while, and this past January, I decided I needed to get my rear in gear. I found an app called “Johnson and Johnson Seven Minute Workout,” and downloaded it for free. It’s honestly the best thing I’ve ever done for an at-home fitness routine. The name is deceiving; it’s not just a seven-minute workout. I’ve been using the “smart workout” option that allows you to customize a workout to your fitness level. I love this feature because I’ve been able to work my way up to being in better shape. It goes all the way to super hard fitness-nut levels, so anyone can use it. The seven-minute feature is also nice for days when you just can’t, but you’d rather do something than nothing. I’ve also heard that the Nike fitness app is good, but I haven’t personally tried that one.
There are a lot of options out there for streaming a workout at home, and once you’ve found the one you like, you need to commit to doing it a certain number of times per week. This is where having a schedule comes in again, if you know when you are working; it’s easy to know what times would be best for working out. Whenever I get out of a fitness routine I have a hard time getting into one again, but once I do, I’m always mad that it took me so long because I really do feel so much better. Especially if you are struggling with your mental health right now, physical activity is one of the best things you can do for yourself, and hey, seven minutes does count as a workout.
As an introvert, I often have to remind myself to be social, but I love hanging out with my friends, and the quarantine situation is becoming tiresome. My friends and I have been trying to make up for the lack of face-to-face contact by talking on the phone more often. Skype or Facetime are also great options. The chances are that many of your friends are sitting at home being bored right now too, so you don’t have to worry about timing your call around their work schedules.
I’m also looking at this as an opportunity to spend more time with the family that I live with. We have been enjoying activities that we don’t have time for when we are out running around, like playing games and baking or cooking together. If you live alone and have a pet, do fun, silly stuff with them and make some memories. (Please also share videos).
Find the Joy in Life
This is something that I always strive to do ( sometimes more successfully than others). Right now, it’s really hard to look around and see goodness, but it is there. People are going out of their way to accommodate those who have been hit the hardest by this crisis. Outside of that, it’s also spring and the days are getting more and more beautiful. I’ve been taking allergy pills and trying to get outside more often. I think that connecting with nature is one of the best ways to improve your mental health and see the good in the world. I’m also trying to see the bright sides of the situation, like the possibility of cheap plane tickets later in the year.
I’ve found that taking time away from the news and allowing myself to escape into enjoyable movies, podcasts, or activities has been an important part of reducing stress during the last few weeks. At the end of the day, I think it’s also important to go easy on yourself, this is a trying time for everyone, and most people are going to have days when they struggle to cope. It’s also important to give yourself credit- you’re still here, you’re reading this article because you want to do your best at handling this situation, and that counts for a lot.
Hello everyone! I hope that you are all staying safe. Today I am reviewing Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. After the review, I will have some updates for you about how the pandemic is affecting the blog and what you can expect in the coming months.
I’m going to be honest; this book was a slog for me. I’ve given a lot of thought as to why that was and what specific things could have made this book work better. I know there are probably a lot of people out there who love this book and can’t understand why I didn’t, as always, this review is subjective. On some level, my problems with Ninefox Gambit might be stylistic, but I think that Lee failed to do some important things that every writer needs to do to make their story connect with readers.
Ninefox Gambit takes place in a distant future and follows the story of Cheris, a young soldier from a military organization called the Kel. When she is recruited to help bring down a fortress that is rebelling against the government, she determines that the only way to win is to enlist the help of a long-dead general who was known as a mad genius. The catch is that the last time he commanded troops, he turned against his own men and perpetrated one of the biggest slaughters in history.
Cheris’ universe is run by a mathematical system having to do with the calendar. The government has defined an orthodox version of the calendrical system and they require a religious devotion to it. Throughout the history of this universe and in the present of the book, there have been rebellions against the orthodox calendar. The calendrical system is a source of both magic and technology, and the ‘heretical’ calendrical systems have access to different varieties of these things. The rebellion that Cheris is fighting against is one of these heretical groups that have managed to infiltrate an impregnable fortress.
On a surface level, that description sounds like it has the makings of a fascinating story, but it’s the presentation that goes all wrong. Lee throws his readers into a very alien world very quickly. As an avid fantasy reader, I am used to this, and I usually enjoy the mystery of finding out how different aspects of a world function. The problem in this book was that almost no explanation was given for fundamental parts of the world that were important to the story.
I was able to figure out what some of the terminologies related to from context, but all the bizarre words for things that ended up being spaceships and robots took me out of the story. During some sections of the book, I felt like I was trying to read something in a language I don’t speak proficiently. This would have been fine if it had lasted a few pages and then become more intelligible, but I was halfway through the book before I understood the basic setup and terminology of the world.
The main problem I had with Ninefox Gambit, is that Lee doesn’t provide enough information about why his protagonist’s actions matter or about why the characters in the book have chosen the sides that they are on. For instance, why are people opposed to the orthodox calendrical system? Is it because they are suffering under its rule? Do they think they can build a better society? What would “better” even look like? I got the impression several times that philosophical or pedantic differences were at the root of the conflict. If there was any tangible reason for rebellion it was never made clear. I was also never clear on what would happen if Cheris were to fail in her mission to end the heresy at the fortress. Lee didn’t let us know what kind of fallout would result from that or what it would mean for anyone other than the ruling elite (who presumably would lose their jobs.) I didn’t know why any of these things mattered to the characters, so they didn’t matter to me and I had a hard time caring about the story.
Having said this, I have to acknowledge some strengths of the book. The characterization was pretty well done, especially the character of Jedao, the undead general. On a sentence level, there was some fantastic writing, and the magic/technology presented was unique and visually appealing. I also appreciated the idea in the book that what a group of people believes in can alter physical reality. There are a lot of great ideas here. I just didn’t feel like they were presented in a way that pulled me in as a reader.
I think that from a writing perspective, this book serves as a good reminder that no matter how cool your ideas are, you need to consider your reader and give them a reason to care about your story. The best way to do that is to let them know what the status quo of your world is, why it’s good or bad, and what would happen to your characters if this status quo were to change. The reader also needs to know what the stakes are for your characters if they fail in their missions. As long as these ideas are presented clearly, you can make the minutiae of your world-building obscure or bizarre without chasing away your reader.
If you have read Ninefox Gambit, I would love to hear what you thought of it. In April I will be reading (or rather listening to) The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a novel that deals with the Black experience in America.
How Covid-19 Is Affecting the Blog:
All of the libraries in my county closed abruptly a few weeks ago. Luckily I do have access to their digital loaning services and was able to rent the audio book version of The Invisible Man. Since none of us know how long the lock-down will last I am looking at alternative blog topics to write on. In the event that I’m not able to access the books I have planned for future months, I will read books that I already own. I think that The Lord of the Rings would be a great book to look at on this blog. Alternatively I could also do a blog on the Wheel of Time series or another fantasy classic. Please let me know if you have a preference and I will try to accommodate it.
My goal is to keep the blog interesting and educational, even if I can’t follow my initial reading plan. I hope that you are all well and that this blog can be a source of entertainment and escape for you during these challenging times.
Hello everyone, and happy Leap Day! Today I am reviewing The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer.
First, I want to refresh everyone about why I chose this book to read for the blog. As writers, we often find ourselves in the position of writing ‘the other.’ This means writing from the perspective of someone who differs from you in a significant way (race, gender, ability, etc.) This can be a tricky and even risky proposition. But it’s also necessary unless you want to spend your whole life writing about people who are exactly like you. Personally, I think that would get boring pretty quickly. To write ‘the other’ well, you have to do your research. Ideally, a good percentage of this research would involve information that comes directly from your target group.
David Treuer is a member of the Ojibwe Nation. He’s a Native American talking about Native American life. This first-hand perspective is invaluable for anyone who is trying to understand another group. For the writer, it’s also beneficial, since we are trying to create a realistic perspective for our characters. I have a BA in History, and we spent a lot of time talking about how important it is for groups of people who have been historically marginalized to be given the space to tell their stories in their own words. As a writer, I intend to honor the spirit of that sentiment. Even if I am writing from the outside looking in, my characters should be based on the perspectives of real people from whatever group I’m writing about.
Now maybe you are thinking that this doesn’t apply to you because you make up your own fantasy cultures. That’s fair. I also write fantasy, and while historical civilizations inspire some of my cultures, they are not meant to be representative of the real thing. But the concepts I’m about to discuss still apply to us. Bear with me for a moment.
Let’s say you are writing about a fantasy culture that has been invaded by outsiders. Learning about something like the Native American experience could help you create realistic reactions to that situation. Or maybe your main character lives in a society where almost no one is like him or her. Learning about any minority group would help you write that character’s emotions and desires in a way that will connect with your audience. So now that we all know why we are here let’s talk about the book.
I highly recommend The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee to anyone who wants to learn more about the modern Native American experience. This book introduced me to a ton of new information that has changed the way I think about Native America. One of the best things about this book is the Treuer doesn’t settle for just telling us about his Ojibwe perspective. He traveled the country and talked with Native Americans from various tribes and walks of life about issues like Native identity, the outcome of government policies, and Native rights activism.
Treuer’s stated mission in this book is to overturn the pervasive idea that Native Americans are hopeless victims whose cultures virtually ended after 1890 (the year of the Wounded Knee massacre). He shows us a diverse group of Native peoples who have survived the depredations of colonialism and continued to grow and adapt. Yes, some things have been lost, but much has also been preserved. This book wasn’t just written to educate white people, but also to give Native people a more positive outlook on their past and their future. He’s not minimizing the damage that was done to Native America by colonialism; he’s just shifting the focus to the amazing story of Native American survival.
Treuer also highlights the ways that Native Americans are participating in modern life. In K-12 school, most of us are taught to think of Native Americans as being somehow frozen in time. We don’t ever learn about what Native life is like today. Unless you live in a part of the country where Native Americans are visible in your community, you might not have ever thought about the fact that many Native people have jobs in tech and use social media. Even in our age of “social justice,” racist and just plain inaccurate ideas about Native American people are pervasive. Again, this is a concept that we, as writers, can apply to our work even if we are not writing about Native Americans. But on the real-life side of things, it’s also important to be educated about these issues.
I think that this book has a lot to offer to any writer who is trying to create characters that come from groups that are marginalized, misunderstood or misrepresented, (even if those groups are made up). It’s also an essential book for anyone who wants to bring their knowledge of Native America up to date.
If you have read this book I would love to know what you thought of it. As always, I’m open to recommendations of other books that could further my education in this area.
In March I will be reading The Nine Fox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, a hard science-fiction novel that deals with my favorite subject–math. Wish me luck.
It’s a whole new reading year, and I’m making up my list of new fantasy books that I must read over the next eleven months. (If you want to follow my progress you can check out my Goodreads page ). A few years ago, I found myself in a bit of a reading rut. I decided to step away from the epic fantasy genre and pick up some new literary fiction and nonfiction. That experience was part of why I decided to start this blog. I had always read classics, but other than that, it had been all fantasy all the time. I realized that broadening my horizons could have a positive impact on my reading- and hopefully, my writing- life.
Having said that, I am still a fantasy fan, and after getting out of my rut, I jumped back on board. As we speak, I’m finishing up yet another Wheel of Time reread. But I also realized that I could broaden my horizons within the fantasy genre. There are new and exciting fantasy books coming out every year. Sure, I enjoy the ‘big names’– Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, etc. But what about the emerging authors? What do they have to say? How are they transforming or subverting the genre? Fantasy is more diverse than it has ever been, with female authors and authors from non-western cultures contributing their unique perspectives.
Last year I read The Poppy War by Chinese-American author R.F. Kuang (published in 2018). Kuang created a riveting story, set in a fanciful version of 1930’s China. In 2018, I read Children of Blood and Bone by Nigerian-American writer Tomi Adeyemi. Her book takes place in Nigeria and was inspired by some really cool Nigerian mythology. As far as I know, nothing like these was being published twenty years ago. So I’m on the search for other newish fantasy books that will breathe fresh life into the genre and show me something unexpected.
Here are ten books that I’m hoping will do just that:
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
This book came out in March 2019 and has already generated a lot of buzz. A Memory Called Empire is a space opera about an ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, who is sent to the multi-system empire of Teixcaalani. When she arrives, she finds that her predecessor has died under suspicious circumstances. No one will admit the death wasn’t an accident, and Mahit ends up playing a deadly political game while navigating the strange alien culture.
Readers rave about this book’s multilayered, detailed world-building and fascinating cast of characters. If you love to read about political maneuvering a-la A Song of Ice and Fire or the Kushiel’s Dart Trilogy, then you will probably enjoy A Memory Called Empire.
My favorite epic fantasy books involve big, complex worlds and cosmologies that lend themselves to theorizing and mystery-solving. I’m hoping to find a new series that pulls me in like that. Maybe A Memory Called Empire will be it.
The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller
This book was published in 2011 and was Miller’s debut novel. It wasn’t on my radar until I heard about her more recent novel, Circe, on a podcast I was listening to. The Song of Achilles is supposed to be a lyrical, profoundly moving retelling of the story of Troy. Reviews indicate that Miller’s works are destined to become classics. I’m really hoping that this one lives up to all the hype. I also plan on reading Circe, but I want to start with Miller’s first book. Give this one a read if you like mythology, romance, and damaged heroes.
House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
This book is described as a dark take on the Grimm’s story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” I’ve always been intrigued by that story, and I’m interested to see what Craig did with it. Reviews describe this book as being a super creepy fantasy/horror, which I’m always down for. I also like that it’s a stand-alone book. I’ve been a series reader all my life, but I really appreciate being able to pick up a book and finish the story in one read with no waiting for sequels. I’m hoping this book is a little punch of awesome in my reading year (and yours too).
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
This book was already on my list, and now that it’s won the Goodreads Choice award for 2019, I’m especially excited. Bardugo has been writing for a while now; she’s the author of the Grishaverse books (The Shadow and Bone trilogy, Six of Crows duology, etc.) I had vaguely heard of these books, but they had never really been on my radar. Ninth House is Bardugo’s very first adult fantasy novel (her other stuff is YA). She apparently made the most of writing for an older audience because every review I’ve seen for this book comes with a paragraph’s worth of trigger warnings.
I like the premise of a girl investigating the occult goings-on at real-life Yale secret societies. I remember hearing about the Skull and Bones Club at some point during the most recent Bush presidency, and I thought it was strange and interesting. It just makes sense to create a world where these societies have actual occult powers. This is supposed to be the first of a series, so I’m hoping the world building will be fascinating and complex. If I like this one, I will probably check out her other work. Fans of dark urban fantasy should find something to love in Ninth House.
The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons
This book has been compared to the biggest stars of the fantasy genre, including the work of Patrick Rothfuss and George RR. Martin. Fortunately, reviews indicate that The Ruin of Kings is also very much its own story, not just a rip off of popular books. This book is a debut, and it is supposed to be one of the most complex, detailed fantasy books of 2019. If you, like me, are a fan of extremely complex world -building as seen in Tolkien and Robert Jordan books, then you will want to give The Ruin of Kings a try.
The Ruin of Kings tells the story of thief Kihrin via a conversation between him and his not-quite-human jailor Talon. Kihrin’s life was changed forever after a burglary job went horribly wrong. His initial flight from the demons and sorcerers he helped unleash turns into an epic tale with multiple twists and turns. The world-building is multilayered and includes dragons-you can never go wrong with dragons, right?
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
This is not Jamaican -born author Marlon James’ first book, but it is (as far as I can tell) his first foray into fantasy. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, tells the story of Tracker–known far and wide for his hunting skills, and his search for a missing child. Along the way, he ends up working with a group of unusual and mysterious characters, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard. James draws from African mythology and history to create the type of unique world that fantasy readers crave. Black Leopard, Red Wolf was named The Best Book of 2019 by The Wall Street Journal, TIME, NPR, GQ, Vogue, and The Washington Post. It was also a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. I’m hoping it lives up to the hype.
The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood
This book is slated for release in February 2020, and the pre-release reviews are already out of this world. The Unspoken Name tells the story of Csorwe, raised from birth to be sacrificed for her people. On the day when she is supposed to fulfill her destiny, Csorwe meets a powerful mage who offers her the choice to turn away from her god and become his apprentice. Csorwe’s apprenticeship leads to her training as a thief, an assassin, and a spy, toppling empires. But her debt to her god will someday have to be paid. This one made my list because it is supposed to be a fresh twist on the high fantasy story. And because I love anything about assassins, sacrifices, and fighting destiny. This is also a high fantasy story by a female author, and those aren’t growing on trees.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
What if Rumplestiltskin was a woman? And what if instead of literally spinning gold, she was just really good with money? Better than her father or other men around her. Now, what if she got pulled into a dangerous web of plots involving a Tsar and the fae. Well, you’d get Spinning Silver.
This book has garnered rave reviews since it came out in 2018. It’s interesting because I’d never thought about how seldom you see women heavily involved with money/finance in fiction until I saw the plot of this book. I’ve also heard that if you read between the lines, you’ll see some statements about Jewish moneylenders and antisemitism. The author is a woman of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, so she brings a unique voice to fantasy. I always love to find out what kinds of stories different sorts of people tell when given a chance. Novik is also the author of the highly acclaimed novel Uprooted. I recommend both of these novels if you like twisted fairytales and subversive fantasy.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
This is the oldest publication on the list (2008), and the only ‘children’s book’. I put that in quotes because it really is for anyone, not just kids. Reviewers seem to have very strong feelings about this book, both positive and negative. That tells me that the author must be doing something right. It doesn’t get much more original than this story of a boy and his dog from a town where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. One day, said boy, Todd, stumbles into an area of complete silence, where he can’t hear anyone’s thoughts. There he discovers a horrible secret that puts him on the run for his life. But how do you hide a secret when the people chasing you can hear your every thought? Read this one if you are looking for a book that will make you see the world around you in a different light.
So there you have it, ten fresh new SFF books I’m going to read this year. If you haven’t checked out new fantasy stuff for a while, then I hope you’ll join me. If you have read any of the books on this list, I’d love to know what you thought of them. I’m also always open to recommendations. Be sure to check out my Reading Challenge page to see what non-fantasy book reviews I have coming up this year.