The May Book Review: From Couple’s Chicken to Supernatural Support Groups

To Have and To Hoax (Martha Waters)

As I admitted before in this post, I’ve completely fallen head over heels for the romance genre (or, more importantly, I’m much less ashamed to admit to being so). I started the month of May with finishing Martha Water’s To Have and To Hoax.

 It’s a book I had on my radar for a few months while looking into other romance books to read. I already had a few in my basket, so I put this on my TBR. This month, I finally picked it up.

The premise immediately fascinated me. Lady Violet Grey and Lord Audley James, the two leads of this story were the perfect couple when they married. But then a bad argument occurred, and we meet the couple again 5 years later who live in a frosty cohabitation under the same roof. The ice is broken when after Lord James falls off his horse and Violet rushes to his side, he tells her she really shouldn’t have been concerned. To give him a taste of his own medicine, she fakes an illness and shenanigans ensue.

The story ended up being a novel length game of chicken between the two. The lies and scenarios get more outrageous, and I loved every minute of it. It was a light, laugh out loud read with a lot of heart. It was just the thing I needed.

Evvie Drake Starts Over (Linda Holmes)

This book and I have been dancing around each other for a few years. When I was a bookseller a few years ago, it was one of the book club picks. I know that I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it didn’t seem like my cup of tea. But it ended up being May’s pick for my local book group so it feels like destiny.

 Evvie Drake Starts Over is about the titular Evvie Drake who, a year after her husband’s sudden death, is still trying to navigate her life as a widow in a town where everyone knows her. She takes in Dean Tenney, a former baseball player suffering the case of the yips (or the sudden inability to pitch after so long doing so) as a tenant in an apartment she has in her huge home. The two grow closer as the story goes on as they both find ways of healing and starting over (hence the title).

I was half-right in my initial assessment. I would’ve never picked this book up on my own and I probably wouldn’t have finished it if it wasn’t for the book group. The start of it was slow, bordering on meandering for me. That isn’t to say it isn’t a good book. It’s a very cozy read with characters that are quirky and flawed. The dialogue especially made these characters seem real and made me chuckle a few times.

This book is so unlike the books I count among my faves but I appreciate it for what it is. It’s a very cozy blanket of a book.

Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free (Sarah Weinman)

I try to read one nonfiction book every month (maybe even more when I really get in the mood). Scoundrel was last month’s.

The long subtitle tells you all you really need to know about this book but let me affix some names. In the 1960s, National Review founder, William F. Buckley Jr. begins a decades long correspondence with New Jersey death row inmate, Edgar Smith, who was convicted for the 1957 murder of Victoria Zielinski. During Smith’s time on death row, he worked to get himself a college education and expressed himself so eloquently in his letters that Buckley believed he couldn’t be responsible for the murder. After bringing him into contact with a Knopf book editor which brought on a passionate affair through letters.

This was a very bingeable history. The weaving of the correspondence in the narrative to make a cohesive story of this relationship makes it very engaging. Highly recommended if you’re into true crime!

We Are All Completely Fine (Daryl Gregory)

This is a quirky little horror novel.

A therapist brings together a group of people who endured supernatural trauma. Among their ranks is a retired monster hunter, a celebrity by way of being partially eaten by cannibals, and a maybe mass arsonist. Beneath the horror trimmings, this is a story about finding connection through similar experience. You can never predict what happens when volatile elements come together in one setting, but I loved the end result of this.

I don’t want to say too much more about this because it is a truly a book worth experiencing blind. And it’s a quick read too. No more than 200 pages.

So Currently…In a book club

I joined a book club. I attended my first meeting back in April.

As the cloud of the pandemic (very) slowly disperses, I found myself wanting to connect with people again. These last two years made my general reluctance to interact with people develop into a halting hesitation fraught with perils. I wanted to take steps to combat this fear. To connect with people with mutual cause and interest.

I did try a few online book clubs but I could never commit to them. It was so easy to just not open up the video conference app. I needed to get out and go to a place. To make it an obligation that I put time, energy, and mileage into so I looked at a few book groups at my local library and picked one.

I chose the group based on the book title they were going to discuss. The first ended up being the Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. It’s a very thought-provoking book that I may talk about in more detail in another post. I was excited to talk about it.

But this was my first ever book group. Outside of school, I never sat down with a group of people to discuss my general thoughts on books so I was very nervous for the first meeting. I’m a bit embarrassed by the number of mini-pep talks I had to give myself before I made my way out the door to the library.

And…it was really fun! No one was more shocked than I was. I love hearing people talk with passion about an experience we all shared. I even shared a thought or two of my own which felt really empowering. I knew I would go again.

This book club is introducing me to titles that I would never pick up on my own. Here are some selections if you’re at all curious. I may talk about each of these at some length in future posts.

Monday Musings: Trials of an Anxious Planner

I’ve spent the last several weeks coordinating this post. There’s a draft of this post written that I am right now in the process of revising. I don’t like the first draft so I’m trying something different. I’m trying to give you a glimpse into my thought process.

Since I didn’t think the post was up to snuff, I set it down to let it rest in the draft section. I busied myself with other projects. I have a major fiction project with a very involved outline. My chapters have bullet points and side notes of things to keep in mind. It’s so obsessive about the details that, after a certain point, it’s hard to look at because of how busy it is. I reference it for broad strokes and then write. New details pop up unaccounted for in the outline. I have to retroactively think about how this impacts the narrative.

I step away from writing. I start thinking about dinner: the food in the cupboards, the food in the fridge, and how do I make these things into a meal? But dinner is a long way off. There are work responsibilities, family responsibilities, and self-care responsibilities. I sketch out all these things into a planner that I sometimes adhere to.

I can spend minutes, hours, days, and weeks, silently thinking about things. I’ve made it an art form. From the mundane like waking up wondering what I’ll eat for dinner to the particulars of work training to my very own fiction outlining strategy—I plan.

I see my dedication to detail as an admirable trait most days but my tendency to perfectionism means most projects stop short. I get really excited about something and then drown in the details. Previous to this year, it’s what killed many a project I’ve been excited about. I consider what it’ll take to make something “perfect,” try to sketch out a plan, and lose steam because of how anxious I get considering the avalanche of minutiae.

Thoughtful planning can be the driver of creation but getting caught up in it can also suck the fun out of the very thing you’re trying to create. I’m in the valley between the peaks right now. I’ve spent so much time and energy planning things that the execution already has me exhausted.

And that’s okay. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. I truly believe it but that driver to create makes me feel guilty for not wanting to do so.

I’m trying to slow down and roam the valley. The work isn’t going anywhere.

Revision: Rewriting by Another Name

2021 was the first year I participated officially in NaNoWriMo. It was a fantastic experience and I ended up completing the first draft of my novel, “Divided Loyalties.” Towards the end of it, I started looking into resources on how to keep the momentum going and start the revision process.

I’m good at completing first drafts. Just before starting my current project, I finished a whole other 90,000+ draft of a sister story. There were highs and lows, but the initial outlining and drafting are my favorite parts of the writing process, when an idea is so new and full of potential. I trip up when looking back because that shiny, new idea wasn’t as polished as I initially thought. Confronted with the enormity of what it’ll take to make it a cohesive story, my motivation quickly fritters away until the next shiny new thing comes along.

I believe all writers can relate to this struggle.

I wanted to take a more steady and thoughtful approach to revision. Here are some takeaways from my (ongoing) journey.

  • Let it Rest

Upon finishing Divided Loyalties, it was locked in the furthest depths of my hard drive for at least two weeks before I touched it again. My heart was still emotionally tied up in the story. I knew it needed improvements. I knew a lot about it needed to change but it was still the perfect story to me. I needed some time away from it so that I could develop a more objective perspective.  

  • Then I read it. Oh God, I read it.

This was a very painful process, but it needed to be done. While I read, I took notes and highlighted passages that needed expanding or complete revising. I broke possible expansions down to character development, plot development, world-building, action scenes, and repetitive details that may need clarification or excising.

  • Rewrite it, don’t revise

I heard often enough that for the second draft, rather than opening and editing within the document, it’s better to open up another blank document and rewrite the whole thing from the beginning. After reading completely through the first draft and making extensive notes, I saw the wisdom of this.

The story was rather bare-bones. That couldn’t be helped as a first draft. The thematic elements didn’t present themselves really until closer to the end when I had a better idea of what I wanted to tell. I knew a part of the revision process would be weaving this throughout the story in the second draft. To work harder at making the story a story, rather than a series of events that happen to the characters.

Keying in on these issues, I employed a more disciplined revision strategy. Rather than writing another detailed outline from beginning to end and then drafting (like I did for Grim Hollow), I decided to break up the process in several narrative chunks (ie, the end of the war chapters, the travel chapters, etc).

In these chunks, I zeroed in on character development and plot threads. In first drafts, I’m bad about making my main characters passive in their own story. Again, events happen to them to get them to one narrative point to the other. Though Jalmekion was conceptualized as a man of action, a lot still happens to him rather than him affecting the plot. He goes from a prince to a prisoner so it’s understandable to a point, but I needed to do more to center his actions in the story.

The first narrative chunk I’ve tackled are the Sumar chapters. The story starts with a siege of  Loryn’s capitol, Sumar. This is the climax of a war between the Satinos and Simaya kingdoms, a war that’s taken place for the last 10 years and a good portion of Jalmekion’s childhood.

Here are my principal goals for the Sumar chapters:

  1. Flesh out Jalmekion Simaya’s character and his relationship with others, namely his parents, his betrothed and the people he fights alongside
    1. To establish Sumar as more of a place
    1. To introduce Aerula’s magic system
    1. Coordinating action scenes
    1. To offer some version of the history of the Simaya family and the road that led to this point

Writing Inspiration:

Gang of Youths was hugely influential in conceptualizing Jalmekion’s character throughout the writing process. This was one of the songs I played whenever I needed to think through his emotional journey.

Monday Musings: Daylight Savings and The Great Confusing

Daylight Savings was this Sunday. I feel like I’m in some bizarro world where time has lost all meaning.

The changing of clocks somehow snuck up on me. I knew it would happen. Had it marked on my calendar even, but I’m still confused by everything. I woke up from my alarm yesterday, bleary-eyed, and wondering why the clocks were all wrong. I’m used to seeing the sun at six and found myself wondering why it was still dark at 7 this morning.

It doesn’t necessarily help that this is a ‘long week’ for me. Seven days of work, Saturday to this Friday. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I’ll survive. I don’t even feel it yet but that may be because I woke up with coffee this morning and I’m always more hopeful on Mondays. Tuesday will be my real test.

 

Recently, I’ve been wanting to get back into history again. This is a noted change from the romance book binging I’ve indulged in for the last few weeks. The Noble Blood podcast has given me good doses of royal history and I began a book about the world of early Hollywood around the time Howard Hughes came on the scene in the late 1920s (also by another podcaster, Karina Longworth of You Must Remember This fame). I’ve queued up several books from my library to also feed this need. I find that learning about the past offers comfort in our present.

 

In other not-so-concrete news, I’ve been giving some thought about my blog here and the content I’d like to share with you all. I’m a planner (sometimes to a fault) but my blogging schedule has more of a frenzied pantser energy. I like to build a consistent habit out of it, but that requires talking about things.

Blogging forces me to be more thoughtful about what’s going on in my day to day. I don’t like looking back on the week and thinking that if I’m not writing then nothing was done. It’s good to celebrate the little things and the changes in season.

WIPs and Tricks: What Do You Write?

“You’re a writer? What do you write?”

Ah…that’s definitely a question….

Historically, I’ve been really bad at talking about my stories. I’ve avoided proclaiming myself a writer in my daily life in fear of the question that comes after: What do you write?

The question is fraught with pitfalls. First, my mind goes blank. What do I write again? Do I write? My first thought is a little bit of everything. I like to experiment sometimes. My next ready answer is something vague like speculative fiction but that hardly encompasses everything.  

In college, it was “real life” with a twist! Something that fell into an uncanny space dealing with disjointed perception or some existential horror a character couldn’t name. I’m still very much into these types of stories, especially for exploring interesting concepts. My biggest project of this era of writing was “Noise in the Room Upstairs” which was a story about an ordinary guy whose TV happens to talk to him, his upstairs neighbor’s noise drives him to homicide, and he’s not insane—no, definitely not insane! I’ve been thinking of revitalizing this project and actually finishing it in some capacity for several years now. First, that means coming up with an ending and doing some major edits.

Since 2017, I’ve been really drawn towards horror and fantasy writing starting with the Hollow Grove projects. These stories are about the fictional town of Hollow Grove, home to several supernatural creatures and a dark history. The contemporary Festival of Shadows story centered on the characters of a newspaper office who want to solve the mystery of strange disappearances that take place during the first week of the year. The Grim Hollow series is set in the 1850s, several years after the town’s founding when long-buried secrets start clawing their way to the surface. The latter of these stories deals more with the horror side of the fantasy than its contemporary cousin. There were other parts of the timeline I’ve been meaning to explore, but as of right now, this project has been benched in favor of the Divided Loyalties project.

Divided Loyalties is a spin-off of a sister project that’s been over a decade in the making. Back when I was a baby writer in middle school, I came up with “The Chronicles of Enishi.” It coincided with my introduction to anime and its influence is readily apparent in its construction. The basic plot was that a young boy named Haru, a prince of some faraway dragon dimension, after being imprisoned for the whole of his 12 years gets sprung from the joint by his absent father, Jalmekion. His father ditches him on earth, after which he meets Jamie, a hotheaded martial artist fighter (who is also 12) and her group of friends, who were a jumble of character tropes and comic relief.

I made two and a half books with these characters. They’re terrible, but I’m still proud of them for existing. Around high school, I started to revise the stories but tabled it quickly for moodier projects.

Last year, the stars must have aligned because I was able to approach this project again and write a draft for the first story. I ditched the title and now goes by the vague name of “Story 1.” I’ll go more in depth about this project once I take it off the backburner.

Right after finishing “Story 1,” I wanted to write something for NaNoWriMo and the idea came to me to write a story about Haru’s father, Jalmekion. It’s a fantasy romance about how he met Haru’s mom, Uraya, and from that humble premise, it exploded into an epic about family divisions, the consequences of colonialism, and the ultimate fall of Aerula, their home dimension. Right now, I’m in the middle of getting through the second draft of this project and it’s a long, tedious, fun, and exciting process.

I promise to go into more detail about the bigger projects as part of this series. It might get easier to talk about my stories if I talk about my stories. I’ve poured thousands—for Divided Loyalties, a good 100,000– into these projects.

Stay tuned for more chaos.

This Week’s Inspiration:

Usually music that inspired something in a story.

Monday Musings: My Problem with Romance Novels

I’m a hypocrite. Or, maybe I’m just growing up.

Talk to me ten years ago and I would tell you that out of all genres of literature, romance was my least favorite. High school me liked the dark, pretentious, and overall tragic elements of media–the more twisted the better. Romance was fluff and cute. High school me couldn’t stand that unless someone dies at the end. Or if it was an anime. Clannad was one of my favorite shows but if you know anything about Clannad, you know it gets pretty tragic, pretty quickly.

Talk to me five years ago and I’ll freely admit that I have soft spot for Victorian novels with sweeping romances (Wuthering Heights comes to mind) and Young Adult literature where a central theme is finding out who you are and the blossoming of first loves. But in the same breath, I would tell you that adult romances just weren’t for me. Have you seen those ridiculous book covers? You know, the ones with well-oiled bare-chested men embracing swooning damsels whose collars were suggestively askewed. How could you take those books seriously? I’ve never read one but I know what you’re about (I say as I eye the bookshelf and point accusingly). I don’t mind if romance is an element of literature, I says, it just can’t be the main thing.

These observations were so…wrong. Yes, wrong! I was wrong! These last two or three years especially have had me looking for comfort in my media. I like a good challenging novel, a thoughtful artistic movie, but lately, I’ve been craving media kinder on my nerves. Something that I could enjoy without thinking about themes or the implication of a narrative in a larger cultural conversation. Something that would just make me feel good.

And do you know what I turned to?

I turned to romance novels.

I turned to media about two people who fall in love and, by golly, may even get a happy ending.

Rereading Lore Olympus has done more to improve my serotonin levels than anything else these last two weeks. In between violent deaths in the Jenna Moreci Savior Series, I was rooting for those crazy kids to fall in love. I picked up Beverly Jenkin’s Rebel and saw how intricate and sexy a historical romance could be. Right now I’m reading Red, White and Royal Blue and wondering how Alex and Henry will make their romance work being two very high-profile and highly visible bachelors in the realm of US politics and the British monarchy. It’s the food I need. It’s giving!

My assumption about romance books was wrong. Assuming that all romance novels were just two people making out for a book’s entirety was spectacularly narrow-minded. I’m ashamed to admit that. Even though I grew more open to other genres once I started working at my library, I never thought to read a romance until about a year ago. I still ran on the thought that romances just weren’t for me after not bothering to read them.

Are there any genres you eventually came around to after being a naysayer for years? Let’s discuss!

My Thoughts on “Laziness Does Not Exist” by Dr. Devon Price

What I’m doing is probably antithetical to the book’s thesis statement of not trying to wring every ounce of productivity/work out of every experience to feed the social media machine, but I wanted to share my thoughts. And by practicing self-compassion, I needn’t worry over this point.

Laziness Does Not Exist shifted my perspective on laziness. When I first read the title, I was skeptical. Shelved firmly in the personal development section of my library’s Dewey Decimal system (158.1 if you’re at all curious), my initial observation on first reading the title was that this would be another screed on how to kick unproductive habits in the teeth. That laziness was a lie with a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps emphasis.

I see some value in these books–talks, podcasts, what have you–but I’m also burnt out on the hustle lifestyle that this media tends to advocate for.

But the book does the exact opposite.

Though I tell myself that my constant need to strive is a symptom of America’s unique capitalism, I still find myself criticizing my perceived lack of productivity. Sometimes after work, I veg out and watch Youtube all the while thinking I could be reading or writing or making better use of my time. I’ve bought in. I thought laziness was bad.

Price makes the argument that laziness is necessary. It’s our body’s way of regulating our mental exhaustion and clueing us into impending burnout. Ignoring these signals only hurts you in the long run and could also bleed into your physical health. Rather than combat it to be more productive, they argue that laziness should be embraced. We shouldn’t feel guilty if we take a whole day to sleep in our beds or do nothing but watch movies.

Admittingly, the book can be repetitive and could benefit from being more concise in its points. I often found the author made the same point over and over again in different portions of the same chapter. The first few especially were a bit difficult to get through but Price sprinkles in enough anecdotes to make it engaging.

I’m very happy I picked up this book.

FYI: Fantasy Writers’ Week

I wanted to spread the word about an event that I learned about this morning!

ProWritingAid is hosting a week long Webinar series for Fantasy writers from February 28th to March 3rd. Two of my favorite authors, Tomi Adeyemi and Jenna Moreci, are participating in it and I’m so excited to learn about the craft from them!

If you want to save your seat to this free event, you should go to https://go.prowritingaid.com/fantasy/ to sign up.

I’m not quite sure if this is necessary (seeing as I’m small potatoes in the blogosphere and this isn’t Instagram or YouTube) but this isn’t sponsored. I’m just a fantasy writing nerd trying to reach out to other fantasy writing nerds!

Monday Musings: Writing on Empty

I love writing. It’s an essential part of my daily life and my life would be incomplete without it.

At the same time, it burns me out.

Starting in late September, I’ve experienced a writing high that I haven’t experienced in years. I had my mojo back. In between then and January, I completed two novel-length projects and started revisions on one.

That hasn’t been the case these last few weeks. There’s a frenetic energy that accompanies a first draft. You get caught up in a story first written, get excited by its potential, and it’s a precious thing that gives you purpose every day. The initial drafting is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

With a revision, however, you’re forced to examine the flaws of the first draft up close and correct them. My process is rewriting whole chapters: expanding scenes, questioning dialogue and character motivation, throwing in more flashbacks, putting a little more effort in worldbuilding, and the like. It’s fun at times, soul-crushing at others.

And these last two weeks, I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle with motivation. My work has taken a toll on my energy after an extra-long week and, with the news being the news, my emotional reserves have been uniquely depleted as well. I have a schedule I’m trying to keep to maintain momentum but I’ve fallen behind. But I’m trying to be gracious with myself. I’ve learned that burnout is the mind’s way of telling you that it needs a breather.

Rather than force the issue, I take a break. I try to relax.

It’s easier said than done though. I fear not being able to pick up the pen again. I fear losing the momentum. I haven’t written like this in years (plural with an s!). That fear is always there. Even though I know from experience that a break is the best thing I can do for my creativity. Even though I know some of my best ideas come when I’m not thinking about my story. I recently read a Joan Didion quote that an author’s greatest fear after writing their first book is that they can’t write another and that this fear remains after the second, third, or fortieth book. It was more talking about ideas but I think it’s applicable here as well.

Regardless of my mood, I still try to write. Even on days I wake up and think that writing is the absolute last thing I want to do that day.

So here is what I do. I stick to my routine. I get up to dedicate my weekend mornings to writing. I open my story and see where I left off. I tentatively start writing something, give myself 25 minutes to find a groove. If I get into a rhythm (like on Saturday), I write until 1 and manage to crank out 2000 words (a win!). If I find myself unable to concentrate and looking for distraction (like on Sunday), I put the story away and promise myself I will try a little later after giving my head a rest.

The important thing is I never try to force it anymore. It shows in the work when I’m writing on empty. It’s painful to read and a nightmare to edit.

I’m trying to emphasize being kind to yourself when you lack the motivation or stamina to do things, especially when it comes to things you love. Breaks are a necessary component of the creative process. Never be afraid to indulge in them.

Thank you. I’ll step off my soapbox now.