Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An observation on being mean to my characters

I can tell when I've really pushed the envelope of my own boundaries as far as what I'm willing to do to a character. I will actually have a hard time facing up to it, for some weeks. I might find myself shying away from writing details. And what I do write is generally the character going through grief reactions: shame, anger, self-pity, etc.

Eventually I will realize I have worked it out, and then I have to go back in and add strength to the character. Nobody wants to read a bunch of crying, lashing out, pity and horror without at least a good dollop of fortitude. But sometimes I need time to find that fortitude myself.

It's a good illustration, to me, of how stories help us to learn how to cope with being human.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A few Dark Metropolis updates!

Dark Metropolis now has an official release date:

June 17th, 2014! Whee!! 

And I am told that ARCs will be printed soon. Although this is my fourth book, seeing these little signs of a book creeping out into the world are just as exciting as ever. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writing disabled characters (pt. 1?)

I've really been enjoying the month of posts over at Disability in Kidlit. They've covered a wide range of topics of physical and mental disabilities and all the bloggers have a disability, so they know of what they speak. Today's post on tropes, I particularly urge every writer to read, because it is *shockingly* hard to find a book with a disabled character that doesn't fall into one of these tropes.

It also got me thinking about how I've written disability over the years. Characters that are physically different from other people are very near and dear to my heart, I doubt I will ever write a book without them. This covers a broad range of characters, of course, not just characters with disabilities but also characters who are a different race or species from the majority, or characters that have to deal with magical curses and what not. In Magic Under Glass/Stone, Nimira is an ethnic minority and Erris is trapped in a clockwork body. In Between the Sea and Sky, Esmerine is a mermaid and Alan is a winged man, but the story mostly takes place in human society, which makes them both a little out of place and disadvantaged in moments, especially Esmerine who can take a human form but only with great pain, but they are perfectly normal within their own species. I don't consider any of these characters to be truly disabled so I don't feel bad for doling out some magical healing at the end (I won't go into details for anyone who hasn't read them yet). But when a character really has a disability, I take it very seriously.

I actually feel pretty disappointed when a character is "cured". I find it much more satisfying to think of a character living with limitations and difficulties but also finding love and happiness. When a character is cured, that isn't an ending that makes me feel warm happy fuzzies, but instead anger, and it isn't just because I'm thinking of kids with disabilities that need role models or something like that. I have to think back to why I was drawn to characters with disabilities to begin with.

From the moment I could pick up a pen, I wrote characters that wore differences on the outside. I myself was and am a reasonably attractive, average weight, able-bodied white girl. But I was homeschooled, in a very unconventional new-age-y way, and I was intelligent, and I also had maaaajor anxiety issues. Whenever I got around "normal" kids, like the one year I went to public school in 2nd grade for example, I got a LOT of, "Jaclyn, you're WEIRD." I wasn't terribly offended by being called weird, because for one thing I was super naive and trusting and I seriously didn't think anyone would say malicious things to someone else's face, but I also thought being weird was a good thing. I did feel perpetually lonely and confused, however. Everything I did and thought seemed to be off-kilter from what everyone else was doing and thinking. After getting out of the hell-hole that was 2nd grade and getting back to what felt to me like REAL life at home with my stacks of library books and complicated fictional life, I experienced this culture shock throughout my life in small doses. When I got my first job at 18 working at Sears, I didn't expect it to feel a little like 2nd grade all over again. But in some ways it did. People were always telling me I used an awful lot of big words, or nosing into my business in the breakroom because I was drawing or studying Japanese, or asking me what the heck I was eating, even telling me to pluck my eyebrows or wear makeup, and questioning my life decisions ("Why aren't you in college?" "Oh, you want to be a writer? Good luck.") I was not invited to any work parties, which was fine, since I don't like to have more than one drink, and once I again I found myself as the lonely weirdo. Only I was older and less naive and it felt more depressing.

I think in some ways it's always been appealing to me, the idea of being different on the outside instead of the inside. In my stories, the characters who were physically different may have been rejected and ostracized at first, but in the end they fell in love and had amazing friends and were successful and rich and basically SHOWED EVERYONE. It was kind of the opposite of my own life where I felt normal on the outside (except maybe for my eyebrows) but constantly left out in the cold because of how I felt on the inside.

That's one reason to write disabled characters, at least for me. The other reason was to cope with fear. When I was a little kid I didn't deal with disabled people very well. There was a girl in elementary school in a wheelchair and she wasn't in my class, but she was in the rehabilitative PE class I was put in for a time (since I was also spectacularly bad at anything athletic) and I always felt SUPER awkward around her. Her name might as well have been "Wheels" like the wheelchair-bound character in the Burger King kids club that was around at the time for all I saw her as a person and not just a wheelchair. Around this time I was also worrying a lot that I could go blind, after having seen the Mary-Goes-Blind episode of Little House on the Prairie while myself running a high fever, the kind that makes your eyes hurt. In my anxiety-visions, the sucky part of being blind wouldn't so much be not being able to see, it would be everyone looking at me the way I looked at the girl in a wheelchair at school, only seeing a blind girl and not just a girl.

A couple years after that, I wrote a blind character into a story for the first time, and I wrote other disabled characters as well, always with the same pattern: in childhood, they were underestimated by everyone around them, and mocked and teased and maybe forced into a special school, all the while protesting that they didn't need all this because they had burgeoning magical powers that not only compensated for their disability but made them better than everybody else. Of COURSE. And when they grew up they were able to show them all and have the super-awesome life mentioned above. I was definitely not guilty of the magical cure trope, at least, because I didn't want any magical cures. I wanted to write stories where people who were clearly different were the BEST. But I was guilty of most other tropes, most especially the Magical Disabled Person and also the super broody angsty disabled person whose life is defined by their disability, because before I would give them their happy ending they had to go through bucketloads of emotional turmoil. It wasn't "inspiration porn", but it was maybe "angst porn".

And did I research any of these disabilities at all before writing them? Ha ha ha!! At that point I wouldn't have been caught dead even checking a non-fiction book about disabilities out from the library because I would think the librarian and my parents and anyone who happened to see the book would think I was weird.

But the good thing about adulthood, at least for me, is that I did start to feel less embarrassed and self-conscious, and the good thing about writing various disabled characters is that even though they were trope-tastic and unresearched, I did really care about my characters. They were like real people to me, like reflections of myself, and so when I encountered customers with disabilities at my retail job I wasn't nervous about helping them, and I no longer viewed them just as their disability like I did as a little kid. I would like to think that's just part of growing up, but hearing how adults sometimes treat or talk about people with disabilities...I'm not so sure. I started thinking about how disabled characters in the fiction that was around when I was young were spectacularly horrible...erm, like Wheels. And that those books about inspirational girls in wheelchairs or a deaf neighbor who moves in next door and turns out not to be as scary as the kid thought...had actually contributed to my childhood discomfort of people with disabilities. This got me thinking that I should probably do some research so I was not guilty of contributing to misconceptions (as much as possible, anyway).

Sheesh, this is long. I might have to make a two-parter out of this one!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Writing Female Characters with "the Secret Ingredient"

I was, perhaps, around 20 when I looked at my girl characters and realized something: They don't have tragic pasts.

At this point in my life my stories were overwhelmingly based around male characters. Females were jammed in out of necessity to be love interests, childhood best friends, and moms, with some warrior women and mystical wise priestesses to fulfill some sense of demographic requirement. But I didn't care about them. What I realized, at this point, was that the guys had all the coolest parts of storytelling. All the conflict, all the angst and pain and complication.

When I thought back on all the stories I had loved as a kid, this was almost always true. In any given story, I was attracted not to the hero or the heroine, but the weirdo. Maybe the funniest character, because I like characters with a good sense of humor. (The funniest character in a story is almost always a guy.) The character with a good heart but a somewhat skewed sense of morality (aka, your thieves, your mob bosses, your pirates...), the tormented character with the complicated backstory, the character with a limp or a stoop or an eyepatch or a missing hand, the character who is the quirky intellectual with a memorably charming but eccentric personality...

One phrase I have never been especially fond of is "kick-butt" or "kick-ass" as applied to female characters. Because...I don't really care for a guy character that kicks peoples butts or asses, and I also am not especially compelled to read a book if a female character is described that way. There are plenty of people, of course, who do want to read about kick-ass girls, and there are different interpretations of the word too, so I don't want to sound like I'm against it or anything, but I also sometimes think that even now, STILL, we don't always think beyond that when we write girls. We ask ourselves, "Are they strong?" But we don't always ask, "Are they COOL? Are they complicated? Do they have the secret ingredient?"

The secret ingredient is a little different for everyone, but you just kind of know it when you hear it, too. It's there in fan favorites like Magnus Bane and Eugenides. I think girls get left out of it a lot. Less than they used to. But still. Too often. Even with writers that write strong female characters.

Including, I realize, myself, more often than I'd like.

This has been a thought I've been particularly keeping in the back of my mind when I write Dark Metropolis and I am very proud of that aspect of the book. When I began the first book I thought, "I'm going to write Nan like I'd write one of my boys." My idea was not to write her like she is "A BOY", as in, the elements that common wisdom suggests are how boys act. No, I just mean like one of MY boys. Because I realize that all my characters are me to some degree and I don't write super manly men (I don't even know super manly men) but there are subtle differences between how I portray girls and boys. I really tried to twist that. I'm not sure I was always successful, but Nan is definitely unlike any other girl *or* boy I've written. And a good character really should be unlike any other character I've ever written, so I'll take it. And in book 2 I'm trying to take it further. I can't really get detailsy about it because a) spoilers and b) stuff's gonna change anyway...but the most exciting part of book 2 for me is how darn cool these girls are. To me, anyway.

This feels like a personal triumph for me, when I think that 10 years ago I barely liked any of the girls in my writing enough to give them their own point of view in a story.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Anime Space Opera!

You hear writers talk a lot about "filling the well". I think it's a really important part of the creative process, remembering to lose yourself in other people's stories sometimes and not just your own. I have to admit, some of my best filling-of-the-well comes from anime, and in the past couple of years it has been all about the space opera around here.

My first true exposure to anime space opera was Legend of Galactic Heroes. We got this series AGES ago (thank goodness because it's very hard to find now) and we got super sucked into watching it. It shows two very different (but in my mind, equally lovable) military figures. One is a beautiful, ambitious Germanic blonde dude, Reinhard (anime loves those) and the other is brilliant-strategist-but-humble-everyman Yang Wen-Li. They are rivals, but both sympathetic. There are also a zillion other characters. Character development and intrigue up the wazoo, lots of space battles...

Except, we never FINISHED watching it because we started getting intimidated by knowing the ending would be gloriously tragic and have us holding each other and sobbing. So this summer we decided to start again, and finish this time. I've got the tissues ready!!

So then we watched Gundam. Lots of Gundam. The original Gundam, Zeta Gundam, Double Zeta, Gundam Seed, Gundam 00, and Unicorn. My favorites were definitely the first two series. Classics! The formula is not too far off from Legend of Galactic Heroes: everyman versus beautiful blonde dude, complicated politics, and space battles. But Gundam has more female characters, including mecha seems so strange to me that in Japanese 80s cartoons women actually got to fly around in robots, even, whereas in the States we pretty much got pink princesses. Gundam is also a little less heavy...although, yes, people still die and I still cried. 

Now we're watching the new remake of Space Battleship Yamato. It's still coming out, but OMG, so good. I never saw the original or the old US version Starblazers, but the new one, at least, is a little more focused on the entire crew than the previously mentioned shows and there is more of a sense or urgency because they have to save Earth, and as the Starblazers theme song so clunkily suggested, "If we don't in just one year, Mother Earth will disappear." (Makes "Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight" sound downright elegant.)

The thing I love about all these shows is how multifaceted they are, and how they have plenty to appeal to both genders. It isn't just about having strong female characters (of which some of these stories are better than others), but about telling a story in a way that combines action, intrigue, drama, romance, humor, little tiny quiet moments and big heavy ones, complicated and lovable characters... Boy, I'd be a happy girl if I could capture all of that in one story.

In the meantime, it's good material for filling the well, and if you're an anime or space opera fan (I really can't say sci-fi...despite space and some telepathy, these are really stories about politics and war, with occasionally some uncomfortable parallels to real life!) I highly recommend any of them!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Dark Metropolis update!

It's been a while. Oh, how I meant to blog more often, but all I've had to talk about lately is my garden. And I'm aware that my garden would be very boring to anyone who isn't also learning to garden, because if you don't garden at all, you wouldn't care about my attempts, and if you're GOOD at gardening, well, you also wouldn't care about my attempts, because they are blundering and amateurish.

But whatever. I don't want to talk about the garden too much anyway. The thing I like about it is how it is a place where communication happens without words. Plants grow and thrive and die and get eaten by mean old ants and flower and set fruit, silent but alive. I love to just stare at them and marvel how things can change in a day.

However, I have also been hard at work and guess what? This book is actually happening! I mean, I knew it was, but a part of me never believes until we get to things like line edits and cover comps. And we're HERE! So here is the latest:

--The title has changed back to Dark Metropolis! I kinda like it because it matches so well with the cover comp.

--Which you CANNOT SEE, because it's just a comp. But, oh my, I love it. I love it SOOOO much. It somehow looks exactly like I imagined and also so much cooler than I imagined. I can't wait to show everyone the final version.

--And yes, I just finished line edits, paired with some minor-to-moderate bigger picture edits. This book has had the most intense edits I've ever done and it's occasionally been kind of an ego blow, but now that it's done I'm extremely impressed by the work that was done. The book is SOOOO much better. I am not as diehard over the absolute necessity of editors as some people in this self-pub vs. trad pub age, because I have read some unsold manuscripts every bit as good as most published books, but...oh boy. Editors can also work some serious magic. Although it certainly didn't feel much like magic at the time, more like hard work and a lot of "what am I doooing?" "why did I write that in the FIRST PLACE?" and "why can I not get this scene right, ever?"

I really hope all this means the book is my best work, but...I am never able to tell. At all.

I've found myself creeping back, step by step, into the internet world a bit. For a while there just wasn't much to talk about, because I moved and it felt terribly monumental and I've been like someone falling in love, only my romance is with the farmland and the Blue Ridge Mountains and Owinda (that's the name the original residents of my newly purchased home gave it, in the 19th century--I don't know why), and everyone knows falling in love is boring to everyone except the people involved. But I am also very close to having a real, new, book-shaped thing again.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Takeaway from Downton Abbey

Behind most of the writing world, I am finally watching Downton Abbey. I had heard SO many accolades and recommendations for this show, I have to admit I was expecting something different. Something with really realistic dialogue and breathtaking plot construction. Now, don't get me wrong, it has much to recommend it, but it is a pretty-looking soap opera with really superb costuming. (Seriously...give me all Edith's clothes! Just the fact that they gave everyone enough different styles that I want Edith's clothes but not Mary's or Sibyl's is commendable.)

(grabbed from this lovely Pinterest acct:

Throughout the show I find myself pausing to mutter over the incredulity of many moments, such as the wonky timelines (suddenly they say months have passed and yet all the character plots are EXACTLY where they left off), or the fact that characters are constantly exclaiming things like "TIMES ARE CHANGING!!" or some unbelivably prescient remark, or that aggravating thing when characters don't tell each other things just so the drama can be ratcheted up a notch.

However, now that I understand what I'm in for, of course I'm hooked. I mean, I never miss an episode of Once Upon a Time. I can't exactly bitch about some writing missteps.

But this reminded me, once again, of another shade of the same idea that I spoke of in my recent Skip the boring parts post. If you are writing commercial entertainment, your number one objective must be to tell a good story. I know that, like many of my writing peers, I spend a lot of time making sure that my timelines are correct, that I have done my research, that my characters aren't absurd and my situations aren't unbelievable and I don't have tension simply for tension's sake and I haven't committed the sin of cheesiness and the list goes on and on. But in the end? This year I have been emphasizing entertainment above all else. Lit by Shadows was bought along with a sequel, and that's a first for me. I want to keep people up at night. I want to write a book that makes you want to preorder the sequel. I'll confess I am not ENTIRELY sure how to do that. But I am making it my priority to try.

Tension for tension's sake? Maybe better than no tension at all.
Cheesiness? Still maybe better than a scene of realistically rendered parliamentary procedure.
Unbelievable situations? Just why ARE we escaping into books anyway?

It isn't like I suddenly intend to write a poorly researched and improbable mess, heavens no, but questioning my *priorities*? Absolutely. And sometimes these lessons are actually easier to learn from something that is flawed but delightful, rather than something told so smoothly that I don't even think about it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

For the first time in my life, here in Maryland, I can say I am a TINY bit tired of winter. Of course, not as much as I'm dreading summer. Florida girl's had enough summer to last for years. I was looking at my last year of pictures and this one was from mid-March:

I'm looking forward to seeing those again. But it is funny, we had just moved and I wasn't like, "FLOWERS!!" I was more like, "Wow, pretty things are growing in my new yard!" It's all very relative. There are always flowers in Florida.

Winter has many delights, though. A warm cup of cocoa in the morning, climbing under a feather-stuffed duvet at night, long quiet nights with the space heater for writing, dancing flakes of snow (though we only got one good snow this year), exceedingly cuddly kitties.

What I actually miss more than warmth is fruit. Of course, February and March aren't good months for fresh produce no matter where you are, though in Florida we do get those honey tangerines that are my FAVORITE. Local farms around here are still providing us with a lot of root veggies: in the past month  I've eaten pounds upon pounds of turnips, red turnips, beets, celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke, parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, and potatoes. They are delicious, roasted in medleys in big pans with sliced onions, salt, and seasonings. But how I am dreaming of strawberries, fresh peas, asparagus and garlic scapes...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The latest Dark Metropolis news! Or, should I say...

Some of you may have been wondering just what is going on with Dark Metropolis anyway. Well, I have some bad news (that is actually good news, believe me):

The book has been pushed back again, to 2014.

I've actually known about this for months, but when I first heard, I was pretty bummed. When it was pushed back to fall 2013 I was like, well, okay. But NOW, I hate that I have no book in 2013 for you, dear readers, especially since I actually write pretty fast, most of the time. But this past year has definitely been out of the ordinary, and truly, I am glad my editor wanted to push the book back to give it the time it needs to be the best book it can be. It's better to wait and have a great book.

But I know, it is still a bummer. I am feeling broke and un-famous. But it's probably been good for my creative process. A kind of re-centering.

However, I also have some nifty news. The book has a new title, and I love it!! It is...


It hasn't gone through marketing yet so there is a wee chance it could change, but...I think it is so evocative! I had nothing to do with choosing it, of course, because I am the WORST with titles and I try to push that job into someone else's hands as much as possible. Pleeeeease, I will write the book, just do not make me title it!!! I gave Hyperion a list of words and they came back with this, which I simply adore. I hope you like it too!

Shiny updated Goodreads listing:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Skip the boring parts

The other day I was editing a scene from the sequel to Dark Metropolis and I realized what the problem had been with the original: I had added in boring parts, subconsciously, because "it's more realistic".

Once I noticed this I realized how often I do it.

I will feel the need to add some extra characters no one cares about, because I simply feel like, realistically, more people would be involved in these endeavors.

Or I drag out a scene because, well, come on, realistically things probably wouldn't happen THAT fast.

Or I make characters more boring than they need to be because some little voice in my head says, "Realistically, not all the people my MC comes across would be fascinating and awesome. Some people are just dull!"

I am going to try to banish the word "realistically" from my vocabulary--well, or at least pare it back. It's one thing to get serious research details wrong, but the actual storytelling? Well, it probably shouldn't be TOO realistic.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

This week's food adventures

First, if you have not yet seen it, I just realized Kristin Cashore wrote up a post of her tour presentation of how she wrote Bitterblue: A must-read, if you haven't seen her on tour--well, heck, I did see her on tour and I'm still bookmarking it to remind myself that you can struggle and struggle with a book and it might NOT be crap, in the end.

I also think this Food Timeline is awesome: (via bodlon).

I cook a lot. This week I had some good luck with various recipes.

First, I made this Peanut Butter & Greens Soup: because Food Lion had bags of prewashed collards on sale for .50. They must have over-ordered for New Year's. It was really good, though I didn't have as much peanut butter as the recipe calls for. I added Huy Fong Chili Garlic sauce instead of cayenne pepper.

I also tried this Thai omelette: which turned out delicious and very rich... I used only a couple tablespoons of coconut oil instead of the 3/4 cup vegetable oil. The recipe tells you not to do this, but I don't use veggie oil, and coconut oil is much too pricey to use in such quantity. It absorbed all of it, I'm not sure how much the lesser quantity of oil may have affected its ability to "flash fry". However, the end result was really good. The coconut oil is scrumptious. I ate it with Jasmine rice as suggested, hoisin sauce and more chili garlic sauce. If you need something that will hold you for a loooong time for less than a dollar, this is it.

I had gotten A Taste of Thai Spicy Thai Peanut Bake for 99 cents at Amazing Savings in Asheville in November, which I finally remembered I had and tossed on some roasted sweet potatoes. I put the peanut bake on about halfway through the roasting time, but it did burn a little. I think I could've put it on just in the last ten minutes. I really liked this, though. It's peanutty, sweet, a little spicy, and really gives roasted veggies a pop.

Thus concludes this week's food adventures. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Remembering Evan S. Connell and Mrs. Bridge

PW Daily has just informed me that Evan S. Connell passed away yesterday. I must comment on this because he happens to be the author of one of my favorite books of all time: Mrs. Bridge. (I am also quite fond of the companion novel, Mr. Bridge.)

One of my favorite styles of writing to read is the witty and satirical portrait of how absurd people are. It's very hard to do well. I'm sure I couldn't, although bits of it do filter into my writing. My favorite novel of this type is Mrs. Bridge.

I came upon the book in a funny way. I was reading a non-fiction book about people who collect and resell antiquarian books, and they purchased a copy of Mrs. Bridge and included a generous excerpt from the novel. An entire chapter, I think, which wouldn't be hard because the entire book is written as a series of short chapters, moments in the life of a repressed suburban housewife.

I'd never heard of the book--most 20th century literary fiction isn't really my thing--but I was so impressed by this chapter I purchased the book that very week, and I was gripped from the first line:

"Her first name was India-she was never able to get used to it."

These books are funny but also sad. Occasionally downright dark. Thoughtful. And impeccably written. What else can I say? It's difficult to make a book about a suburban housewife sound like a must-read. But I adore this book. I might just have to go read it again...

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Casual Blogger

Heyyyy there.

It's been a while. But it's a new year, a much less INSANE year, and I'm feeling like it's time to blow the dust off the old blog.

I'm also going to try to post about more little things instead of waiting a month and writing like, a magazine article. I vow to post about smaller things! More frequent things! Things I can write in the morning (12:06 is totally the morning in my book) when my cat Betsy, happy and full of her morning kibble, conks out on my lap and is too distractingly heavy and adorable for me to do anything more important.

Thought for the day: I just went to the calendar store this week and got my 2013 calendar 50% off. You never know what you'll get, if you wait until after the new year, but I have to say this year might be one of my favorites EVER. Vintage sheet music.

Some of the images are just the BEST, like this month it is an image of an ice palace for the "Ice Palace March-Twostep".

What's on your calendar this year?