Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Short Story: A Reading List

The Short Story & Its Writer: 9th ed.

The two courses I'm teaching this semester are both "The Short Story." I'm re-teaching some from last semester, and trying out some new stories. I also assign a whole bunch of supplementary readings, essays, video essays, etc. But, if you'd like to try out some new short stories, here are the ones I'm assigning:

  • "Happy Endings" Margaret Atwood
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • "The Lesson" Toni Cade Bambara
  • "The Red Convertible"  Louise Erdrich
  • "The Children" Julie Otsuka
  • "The Darling" Anton Chekov
  • "Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin
  • "Two Kinds" Amy Tan
  • "UFO in Kushiro" Haruki Murakami
  • "Robert E. Lee is Dead" Danielle Evans
  • "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • "The Healer" Aimee Bender
  • "Brownies" ZZ Packer
  • "Interpreter of Maladies" Jhumpa Lahiri
  • "Old Father, Old Artificer" Alison Bechdel
  • "August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains" Ray Bradbury
  • "Two Sheep" Janet Frame
  • "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" Ursula Le Guin
  • "The Duniazat" Salman Rushdie

Feel free to leave your own short story recommendations and your reactions to these stories in the comments! I also recommend, if you're in the market for a whole collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Planners: The Perfect Place for Optimism

It's funny. I put up a vote for my next blog topic on Twitter days ago, and I've been thinking about what to write for that long. Then some news this morning gave me a slightly altered perspective to think about, too.

The topic that was most popular on my Twitter poll was technically "Plotting Out 2018 Goals." (If you're less interested in this bit, glide right on down to "II." It's all good!)  I've been working on my goals list since November. (Making lists soothes me.) I'd gotten down what projects I wanted/needed to work on. I figured out how long it'd take for each (by, for example, taking into account that when I'm in the first draft of a novel I hold myself to 1,000 words per day, barring Really Bad Days™). Then I saw when I'd need to give myself a light workload, like when I have finals at the end of the semester, or for my daughter's birthday, so that I can give myself those breaks. From there I hammered out when I'd work on what. I got it all into an app I downloaded on my computer.

And, one week into the new year, the app decided that I couldn't use it anymore or access any of that data because my "free trial" was up and apparently there's no free option, I guess. In the interest of NOT paying $50 for the year, I went out and picked up a lovely pink flowery planner and filled all my goals in there. (Luckily I had hand-written copies of things. I was enraged enough as it was.) So far, I've been mostly hitting my goals no problem, with the occasional item one day late. I know my pacing, I know my limits, and I'm working with that. We'll see how well that holds up once in semester starts in about a week.

I listed out the final goals in the back of my planner so that I can keep an eye on the big picture. It includes finishing three first drafts of novels, one of which will get a draft two revision. I'm also completing a poetry collection, taking care of professional/PhD stuff, writing five stories, writing three articles, and sending to lit mags, agents, and publishers. It's A LOT. Like, a lot a lot. I understand this. I pride myself on my ambition. I know that I may not make it through every single goal on this list. (See "III" below for an example of changing plans.) I have my priorities, and if I even accomplish a few of these projects, I'll still likely be surpassing what I did in 2017.

But this is when I came to the realization of the title of this post--your planner is the perfect place for optimism. Of course you shouldn't expect loads more than you can handle, and you shouldn't feel guilty when you fall short. You might. This is just a thing that happens, especially if, like me, you have anxiety and/or depression. But if that old cliché about "dreaming big" has a place anywhere, it's got to be the book you keep with all your bright-eyed ideas of what the year will bring, right? And maybe ambition looks like finally finishing a novel, or reading 100 books, or finishing five knitting projects--whatever the case is, a planner or a notebook is low risk. You're never obligated to show it to anyone. You can ignore it if it gets to be overwhelming or guilt-inducing. And it might just serve as a great place to organize your time while keeping an eye on the bigger things you want to accomplish. And this brings me to...

This morning, my husband had to ask me if I was okay because I looked about to throw up all over my laptop. In truth it was good news, though I needed to get past some stress of it initially. I received some really generous and helpful feedback on a manuscript that I've been sending around (my queer YA fairy tale). So now I, naturally, want to use that to make the book better. However, I saw the list of revision suggestions and my mind immediately went to "O NO." Before I could even catch up with it, my brain was trying to sort out how to fit this into my well-oiled machine of a year. So I opened up my planner, got two sets of revisions weaved in with my other goals, and suddenly felt able to appreciate the opportunity for what it was. I'm someone who responds well to structure and planning (especially if I'm the one doing the structuring and planning), so it takes me a hot minute to adapt to organizational changes. Luckily, my husband wouldn't stop telling me all the good things about this until I realized that, while this was more work, it was exactly the kind of work I'd been looking for.

And, after a soothing cup of coffee, I know that that's definitely the case. It just took me a little time to re-calibrate.

I'm really glad that I thought to write in my planner in pencil.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Favorite Reads of 2017

Novel: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova and Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

Poetry: Franny Choi's Perihelion: A History of Touch from Poetry Magazine

Children's Book: The Answer by Rebecca Sugar, Tiffany Ford, & Elle Michakla and Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott

Comics: Spell on Wheels by Kate Leth, Megan Levens, & Marissa Louise

Story Collection: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Reference Book: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Encyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to the Buffy by Nancy Holder and Lisa Clancy

What were your favorite reads of 2017? (They don't need to have been published in 2017.) Are there any books you're looking forward to in 2018?

Have a great holiday season!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Baby and Teaching and Writing During PhD: Oh My (A Sequel)

If you regularly follow my blog (which, bless you), then you may be familiar with my post from March titled "Pregnant and Teaching and Writing During PhD, Oh My." This post is the sequel to that one. The main difference, of course, is, well...

December is a good time to reflect on the past year, to think about changes in your life and all that jazz. Obviously the biggest change for me was becoming a mother. Everything shifted all at once. I was protective of Anna before she was even born, once I had a feeling that I was pregnant with her. But every maternal instinct, every protective ounce of loyalty, every bit of fire that I have had in me from a very young age has only magnified with her in my life. She has been two months ahead on milestones pretty much from the start, which is super cool given the fact that she was born five weeks early. She's smart and sweet and strong and adorable. Best decision I ever made was her.

Now, let's move beyond the mushy-gushy stuff. How in the bloody hell do I balance it all? I still have PhD classes. I'm still teaching. I'm still writing (sometimes--I'll get to that). And now I have this scarily (and I mean that with love) advanced six-month-old to keep up with. How do I balance it all?

The simple answer: I don't. Not really.

The slightly longer answer: Everything is a sacrifice. Every choice. If I'm playing with Anna and enjoying my time with her, I'm not writing or grading or reading for class. If I'm in class, I'm not spending time with her or writing or grading. If I'm giving my students paper feedback... Well, you get the idea. It's a constant struggle to keep all the balls in the air. Anna will never be this young again, and spending time with her and learning all her likes and dislikes and watching her discover the world are all so vitally important to me. But I feel a lot of pressure, for my own academic career goals and also as Anna's main female role model, to get my PhD and really dedicate myself to learning and growing intellectually. Additionally, I have a responsibility to give my students my skills and guidance and engagement, to help them learn what they might love about literature and to help them express themselves in academically sound ways.

And, of course, my writing. I hate to say it, but I feel that my writing has suffered the most for this year. I try not to be too hard on myself. The Spring 2017 semester was difficult, between taking two classes and teaching two classes and being as pregnant as I was. Then there was the giving birth thing and recovering all summer. (Giving birth is hard. Recovery is ridiculous, or at least it was for me. I didn't even need a C-section and it still took eight weeks for me to even be functional.) And then this semester started and I got swept up in classes and teaching and getting together committees and comp exam reading lists and mom-ing. In thinking back to this year, writing is the one thing that I wish I'd been able to find more time for. It's so unlike me to have not found the time for it the way I usually do. (Admittedly, I wrote an article or two, some poems, a couple of stories, and a few thousand words on a novel. This is very, very light for me. Oh. You know what? I forgot that I finished editing a novel of mine this year, too. That helps me feel better.)

The way I've been handling this emotional baggage is, true to form, by planning. I've started listing and planning out goals for my writing in 2018, with deadlines and timelines and all sorts of goodies. The whole thing is wildly ambitious, but I am nothing if not wildly ambitious. If I fall short, I'll still accomplish a lot. The rhythm of things is getting more regular again. Everything is always in flux, every moment spent doing one thing is in sacrifice of half a dozen others. But now that things have evened out, these goals seem that much more attainable.

And, can I just say, a) I'm so glad I don't have morning sickness this winter, and b) I'm never, ever giving up coffee again.

This isn't a "how-to" blog post. Mostly it's just a "this is where I am" blog post. And, if you can take away from this an excuse to give yourself more credit and absolve yourself of some guilt/regret over what you haven't accomplished this year, then that's pretty freakin' amazing.

2018: I'm coming for you, and I'm bringing my best pens.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Favorite Fictional Witches

So, I'd wanted to post this on Samhain, but I was without power all week (yahoo!). Whatever. It's only been a week, yeah? And, as far as I'm concerned, witches are a year-round obsession. Without further adieu, here are a few of my favorite fictional witches, in no particular order:

Tara MaClay, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Tara is just my favorite character of all time. She's sweet and shy and powerful and smart. She helps the Scoobies whenever she can and however she can. In season five, she stands up to Glory to protect Dawn and the people in the park. She helps Buffy work through her stuff in season six when most of the others are piling expectations and responsibilities on her, and she keeps Buffy's secrets, telling her that it's okay to be going through what she is. Even before that, they bond when Joyce dies. And, in a later episode of season six, Tara both teases Spike on Buffy's behalf and stands up to Anya when Willow is trying to make the right decision. Tara goes from the wallflower to an independent badass without totally losing who she is or how compassionate she is. The character development happens too often in the background, and as a result she feels like a totally under-appreciated character.

Freya Mikaelson, The Originals

While Freya makes some questionable choices (see: Davina Claire), she does it all to keep her family safe. This isn't an excuse, of course, but it does make her more relatable. Also, who doesn't like to watch a super-powered witch ruin the bad guy's day? 'Cause I know I do. Also, I ship her and Keelin so hard that it's not even funny. Keelin is great and tough and smart on her own, and she also tells Freya when she's running herself into the ground with her obsessiveness and hurting herself in the process.

Vincent Griffith, The Originals

On the other side of the coin, Vincent knows that the Mikaelsons cause heartache and death wherever they go. He's seen it with loads of people, including but not limited to Davina and Cami (who I'm still heartbroken about). He knows that when they're around, they make his city more dangerous. The dude's not wrong. However, he's not so unreasonable that he won't work with the Mikelsons when the need is there for the greater good. He is an advocate for peace and cooperation with the witches of New Orleans and the other creatures of the town, but he's another witch who can really ruin somebody's day if he so chooses. (Yusef Gatewood also just does an awesome job with the acting here.)

Alex/Alejandra Mortiz, Labyrinth Lost

Alex (who is technically a bruja, not a witch) makes mistakes. She's not a bad person because of it. She's human. She wants a say in how her life turns out. She just doesn't go about it in a way that initially works out. And she's not weak because of it, either. Alex is strong and loyal to her family and caring. She also gets some badass lines, like "I am an element. I am the storm" or "Right now, I'm just a girl, and there is also magic in that." (Further Labyrinth Lost love here.)

Claire, Spell on Wheels

She has cool powers (clairvoyance, for instance) and she's a ginger. This is a character very much up my alley. She's really on the ball about so much, and she got herself out of an unhealthy relationship and moved beyond it to be a really powerful witch. She's also got these really strong friendships with Andy and Jolene, which makes the emotional stakes of the story that much higher. (Full Spell on Wheels review here.)

Minerva McGonagall, Harry Potter

The badass-witch-in-residence. She's wise and kind, even if she's tough on the outside and likes to do things by the book. She stands up to Dolores Umbridge because, while McGonagall abides by rules she is more loyal to her duty to both educate and protect the students at Hogwarts and so, appropriately, she is also a leader in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter

Smart, brave, and kind. Hermione is the witch I related to most as a kid--the know-it-all who wanted to do well in school and get ahead, sometimes at the expense of social relationships without realizing it. But, in the end, she realizes that "friendship and bravery" trump book smarts (even if the latter are super useful for, say, getting out of Devil's Snare or creating an endless bag).

Molly Weasley, Harry Potter

Motherhood incarnate. She is strong and nurturing and takes crap from no one. And, when it comes right down to it, she will brawl with Bellatrix Lestrange and knock her ass down because no one messes with Mama Bear Molly's daughter and lives to tell the tale.


I'm sure that I'll realize I've forgotten about five characters once I hit "post," but so it goes. Who are your favorite witches from this list? Do you have any favs that I didn't include?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Jane, Unlimited Review

This book, you guys. This book.

I'd been waiting for this book for months. I got it on pre-order. If you're reading this blog, I've likely recommended at least one of the Graceling Realm series books to you, and it was likely more than once.

This book isn't high fantasy like Graceling Realm, and it's a standalone. When I'd read the sample pages on Amazon, it reminded me of Aimee Bender (another of my favorites/writing influences). Jane, who makes umbrellas, gets invited to a mansion on a private island after her Aunt Magnolia dies in Antarctica. There are so many things that I adored about this book--the characters, the bi representation, the structure, how engaged I was. I don't want to spoil too much if you haven't read it. If you like Gothic lit, Lemony Snicket, Downton Abbey, Aimee Bender, Ray Bradbury, Alice in Wonderland, and/or The Wizard of  Oz, then I urge you to stop reading my review right now and go pick up the book, then come back. I literally only knew about the premise I mentioned above and I think that is the absolute best way to read it. After this point, I'm getting into major tons of spoilers.

Oh. And also: If you're a writer, there's lots of innovative genre and structural things going on, too. That's as much as I want to mention pre-spoilers.





Okay. You've read the book already? Good.

WHAT THE DAMN HELL, RIGHT?! And I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

Okay, so, in order to keep myself from going all over the place I'm going to do a list. I like lists.

1. Bi Representation
Jane is at least not monosexual. She shows interest in both Ivy and Ravi. She has a short passage that states her interest in men and women. Even before that, I got the hopeful sense that she might be, and it was nice to see that acknowledged in the narrative. Ravi's sexuality is described by Ivy as "panoptically" attracted to people. He might identify as bisexual, or pansexual. Ivy seems (in my reading) to be a lesbian, or at least this was how I took her complete shut-down of even flirtations from Ravi. The queer rep was awesome, and I loved how natural it felt. Plus, I was so excited that this was the second novel in a row where the main character was a bi girl.

2. Structure
This is possibly the most innovative structure I've seen in a novel. When I got to the beginning of section two, I thought it read a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure (which is funny, because in the author's note Cashore mentions that it started that way). When I got to the end of section two, and the start of section three, I lost my mind. I was so excited to see multiverse. It felt so fresh.

3. Shades of Characters/Plots
Each section added new knowledge about the characters and what was happening. Though this is a multiverse and it's not all happening in the same universe, you can guess from what's been revealed in earlier sections what's going on in the background (where the sculpture's gotten to, why Mrs. Vanders et. al. are sneaking around, etc.). It's a clever way to reveal more without simply telling the same straightforward story over and over. Which brings me to...

4. Genre
The first section feels like the set-up for a Gothic novel where the house is alive, a character of its own. The second section was a mystery/heist with a Lemony Snicket vibe. The third a spy novel, Mr. & Mrs. Smith meets Downton Abbey. The fourth a dark magical realism (the most disturbing section by far if you ask me) that felt like "Quiet, Please" by Aimee Bender. The fifth section was a space adventure that reminded me of Ray Bradbury's "August 2026," with the addition of space pirates. And, finally, the last was a portal fantasy akin to Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. This variety of genre helps each section to feel distinct.

5. Themes
The genre bending and structure felt natural to the story, and I think a lot of that has to do with what's going on thematically. So many of the characters are at in-between points in their lives--not quite here, not quite there--Jane, Kiran, Ivy, Lucy, Ravi (depending on the universe you're in). The multiverse predicated on every possible choice makes sense here, because choice during these in-between spaces these characters exist in is such a vital and important thing. To boot, these characters are at an age where they're trying to figure out who they are and how they want the rest of their lives to go. There's also loss and grief so deeply embedded in this novel--Jane loses Aunt Magnolia, Ravi loses his favorite art, Octavian loses Charlotte. How the characters deal with that loss shapes the plot and ultimately, it seems, the universe itself.

In general, as a reader the book excited me, especially once I realized, as Kiran was talking at the end of section two, that it was a multiverse. I loved the characters. Ivy was one of my favorites, and most versions of Jane, and Ravi was such fun. (Really, the only one I totally hated was Colin. He's the worst.) Each section complicated my understanding of the characters, and of what was going on. As a writer, the innovative structure and genre-bending really challenged me to consider what a novel can do.

This book was just such a delight. I even loved the cover--the dust jacket is gorgeous, and the actual hard cover of the book had a pretty surprise. I've already added this one to my favorites list. Now to find a way to squeeze it onto my favorite books shelf...

Bonus: Songs I had stuck in my head as I was reading:

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bivisibility Day Interview with Megan Manzano

So I made a call on Twitter for bi writers to be interviewed as a part of Bivisbility Month/Day. Megan Manzano was generous enough to respond and provide the interview below. So please go on ahead and read, then follow her everywhere!


On your site, you mention The Perks of Being a Wallflower being made into a movie as an “ah-ha” moment where you discovered that you love writing. How did this affect what you did with your writing?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower made me realize I wanted to write as a career. I was always a fan of writing. I still have the notebooks from childhood with horrible (trust me on this) stories. The point is, the inkling was there. Perks made it something tangible for me, made me go “wow, why aren’t you trying to do this too?” After that, I declared myself as an English major, started writing short stories for magazines, and just finished the first draft of a book.

What themes do you find yourself obsessed with in your writing?
Ha, well, I have some friends who say I’m obsessed with dark themes: death, betrayal, ominous cliffhanger endings. Every time a friend reads a short story of mine, I get a message asking where the happy ending is. It always makes me laugh because I don’t intend for my stories to turn out that way. They just kind of happen, where I have a line in my head and I just see where it takes me.

What are your thoughts about bi representation in media? Are there any tropes or misconceptions that you wish would just vanish in a puff of smoke already?
Bi representation in the media definitely needs work. There are too many narratives that seek to question bisexuality as an identity and others that disregard it completely. Some of the main tropes that need to go away are:
  • Bisexual people can’t hold long term relationships because they’re promiscuous.
  • If a bisexual person is in a seemingly heterosexual relationship, their identity is completely erased.
  • Bisexual people are not really queer.
I could go on about this. Thankfully, I have seen some positive reps of bisexuality in recent media, but there is still a long way to go.

If you could live in any sci-fi/fantasy world, which would you pick and why?
This is so hard. I don’t think I could pick one world as they are either super terrifying or have things that go horribly wrong, but I’d love a world where I could space travel. The universe has always been a fascination of mine.

How do you feel that being bi has affected your writing life, if it has? 
Identifying as bisexual has definitely made me seek out works that claim to have this representation in it. I look to see if they’re breaking through tropes and stereotypes or if they’re reinforcing them. I look to find me in the pages. One book that handles bisexuality so well is How to Make a Wish by Ashley Blake. It is wonderfully written and was probably one of the only books I read that truly understood my sexuality.

As for my writing, I tend to want to include positive queer representation in my stories. There’s too little of it out in the world and it is definitely needed. 

What writing project(s) are you working on at the moment?
I have several I’m trying to work on, though my brain keeps doing the thing where it hops between ideas because why not? I’m reworking an old short story of mine from about 3 or 4 years ago. It’s a dark fantasy piece that explores the relationship between siblings, power, and magic.

I’m also trying to write a second book which too falls under the fantasy genre. However, I’m thinking of shifting the genre from high fantasy to urban fantasy. Fingers crossed that this actually works out well as I love my main character so much.

What do you recommend binge watching on Netflix?
SENSE8. Please watch this now.
But also, The 100, Shameless, Stranger Things, and Jessica Jones. 

[Audrey's note: I second Jessica Jones and Shameless so hard, you guys.]

Do you feel like you’re a part of any writer communities on Twitter, or online in general? What communities are you involved in? How did you find them? What does contributing to that community/those communities look like to you?
I’d definitely say I am. I started twitter about two years ago, but didn’t really engage as well as I should have until this year. This was partly due to me being socially anxious and partly due to getting a feel for the community. I’m a lover of YA literature so that’s where I found most of my writing friends. Whether it was through liking relatable tweets, asking them about their stories, or messaging them to freak out about a really good book, I found my people.

I like to give back to the YA community so I do my best to be as open to writers as possible. I work in publishing and write/edit often. Starting off in publishing can be difficult and overwhelming so I try to give out tips, offer critiques, and keep an eye on the market. Also, especially for the YA community, listening to teens is important as they are the intended audience for those books.

You’re a part of the family friendly Youtube channel Geektastic. What do you feel like you’ve gotten out of that experience? Do the reviews and discussions affect how you approach your own writing at all?
I think the main thing I got from doing the YouTube channel was being able to film with some of my family members who love books and television the same way I do. We’re able to rant and freak out about the media we enjoy. Editing the videos are a bit more complicated as there are usually tons of extra footage from us either laughing, making inside jokes, or going on a complete tangent.
I can’t say it’s affected my writing, but it’s definitely made me more excited to read/watch something and then prepare to share it with them.

Plug time!
I’m the kind of person that does a lot of things at once. I really do enjoy editing, writing, and publishing so here are all the things to know about:
The Inkwell Council: This is my editing service that I co-run with my family. We give free critiques to the first 3 chapters of a novel and short stories. To find out more, click here:
Editing: I freelance edit. Everything you need to know about that can be found here:
Publications: I have gotten a handful of short stories published over the years and they can all be found here:
 A sci-fi short story of mine is coming out later this year that I will be sharing everywhere as it is my first anthology publication.

Twitter: This is the main way to find me as I talk about publishing, books, offer critiques, and giveaways at times. Plus, I love making new writing friends. My handle is: @megan_manzano


Looking for some further reading? Then check out the winners and finalists of the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards!