Monday, July 31, 2017

Reading for Fun

One of the things I most want to instill in my daughter is a love of reading. I don't mind what she loves reading--fantasy or scientific explanations of animal behavior, memoirs or comics, long complicated tomes or breezy beach reads. But I read with her fairly often (and I have since I was pregnant with her) because I want her to get into reading as early as possible.

There are lots of reasons I want to help guide my daughter toward reading--it helps engender empathy, it arms you with knowledge about the world, it sparks your own imagination and creativity. I think something that is severely undervalued these days is reading for pleasure. This has become painfully obvious for me this year. My first love--both in reading and writing--is the novel. I realized about a week or two ago that I was in a real novel reading slump this year. I hadn't read many this year, and the ones I had read weren't as fun for me as I was hoping.

Then I started really thinking about this. The last time that I'd really read for fun consistently was before my PhD program and before my MFA program, in the gap year when I was only working and not attending any sort of English/Creative Writing program. And before that year, I hadn't read purely for fun since high school. And by "purely for fun" I mean not reading with a pencil in hand or for class or with the intention of picking it apart for some specific writing-related purpose. Of course, there are exceptions here and there--for example, Felicia Day's You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) that I read in the summer between my MFA and PhD programs. And this isn't to say that I don't really enjoy novels like Madame Bovary that I've read for class--hell, my favorite book, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan, was originally pulled from my MFA thesis reading list.

So, taking all of this into consideration, I thought about that year between my undergraduate Creative Writing program and my MFA program. I had gotten a library card for the Osterhout in Wilkes-Barre and made regular trips there, where I'd pick up an armful of books to read. The pressure was low, both because I didn't have strict "read this in a week" types of time limits and because, if I wanted to for any reason, I could stop reading a book twenty pages in and move on. This let me experiment widely and find books that I personally really connected with (like the Graceling Realm series). And so I decided to do this last week at my new location--going to the Peace Dale Library in my current neck of the woods, getting a library card, and coming out with an armful of books that just looked interesting. (Bonus: I have a license now and don't have to walk to and from the library if I want to go on my own.)

I happened to come across Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, a book I'd heard tons about as a queer writer who writes queer things and tries to keep up on this sort of thing as much as possible. I had fun reading it. I got really into the characters and narrative. I recommended it to a friend. It's been a long while since I've gotten into a book that I just went and picked up myself.

There's that saying--people who say they hate reading just aren't reading the right books. While that may not be 100% true for everyone, I think that if people expanded their idea of reading beyond Shakespeare and Hawthorne (I love Much Ado About Nothing and The Scarlet Letter, don't get me wrong), then they might be more likely to find something they enjoy, whether they're reading sports biographies or some basics of cooking or whatever.

In hopes of giving some ideas of what you might want to try out, I asked some writer friends what they're reading at the moment. So here are ideas, but--of course--please feel encouraged to do your own wandering at the library or bookstore, and find something that you'll enjoy and get wrapped up in! Don't hesitate to let us know in the comments how this goes, or to make your own recommendations.

  • Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli
  • Poetry Magazine, July/August Asian American Poets issue
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Kill Six Billion Demons, Tom Parkinson
  • sea foam mag
  • Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp
  • Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
  • Armada, Ernest Cline
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  • My Bloody Life, Raymundo Sanchez
  • Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher

Want to keep up with my reading list? Check out my Goodreads page here!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Starting New Projects: The Myth of the Blank Page

One of the most conflicting things that you can do as a writer is start something new.

There seems to be this kind of fable set up of THE BLANK PAGE as the writer's bogeyman of sorts. Now, in general, I tend to put a lot more time into revising endings than beginnings. But sometimes starting is the literal worst.

Take, for instance, the most recent novel that I wrote (the one I'm currently sending around to agents). When I started the project, it was third person from Celeste's point of view, straight-up (haha) YA queer literary. Then I started mostly from scratch when I realized it was falling flat, turning it into YA queer magical realism. Then I had to re-start it again because I realized that the voice was wrong and that it should've been first person from her POV and that it was going to be more heavily fantasy. Then, two-thirds of the way into what would become an actual first draft, I started adding in first person sections from Simone's POV, which then also had to be spliced into the beginning and middle in revisions. It took a lot for Strange High to figure out that it was a dual first person YA queer fairy tale.

More recently, I just started a new writing project. I've been working on a new collection of poems (collection #3, because I've been sending collection #2 out to publishers), and that's been great. But I've had a big, novel-shaped hole in my life. Of course, with a new daughter who wants to be cuddled 24/7 there's hardly a spare moment and, when there is, I do more frivolous things like eat or shower or buy the family groceries. I've been finding spare moments to write poems, but I haven't really touched fiction since I finished revising Strange High. Option #1: Go back to a novel idea that I really believe in and that I actually wrote 15,000 words of before switching to Strange High last year. Option #2: A recent nightmare that felt like an amazing novel idea. My feeling was that I'm young and can do both ideas--but one has to come first. As I'd like to maybe do the started novel for my dissertation in a couple of years, I decided to give this new idea a shot. And, last night, I managed to come up with character names and write the first 450 words (in addition to the plot idea that the nightmare gave me).

Now, maybe I'll leave the idea when I get 1,000 or 10,000 words in because it's not working. Maybe I'll switch to the other novel idea because I find that's what my heart is pulling me toward. This is what I'm talking about when I bring up how conflicting the start of a novel is. Sure, you could do whatever you want. You have that freedom. But you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT. It's the fear that I hear from my students sometimes when they're trying to find a thesis for their paper--How, in the wide world of paper ideas, do I just pick one? Where do I even begin?

So, for me, it's less that I can't figure out a good first line. (I actually think I'm pretty good at those.) It's more the total sense of uncertainty. Unless I do major planning first, I don't know these characters, I don't know where this is going, and it's not going to be done in one go of it. What's more, I don't even know if I'll like it enough to finish, or if I'll be able to sell it once the time comes. Uncertainty is one of the most uncomfortable things in the world for me and I really struggle with it.

Now, if I never wrote without a clear idea of every last detail of the entire project then I'd have to quit this gig and go find something where uncertainty wasn't in the job description. I find a way to do it. That doesn't make it a pleasant part of the process. I kind of just need to put my blinders on and push through the discomfort of uncertainty. It's knowing that, later, I'm going to really start getting into the groove of things and have fun with it that helps keep me going until things click into place. Ultimately, this makes it worth it.

Are you a writer, or a creator of any sort? What part of your creative process is least enjoyable for you? How do you soldier through anyway?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Apparently I'm Popular in Germany (And Other Fun Stats)

Page views by country:
United States: 950
Germany: 51
Russia: 49
United Kingdom: 32
France: 26
Canada: 21
Poland: 9
Ireland: 7
Portugal: 7
Australia: 6

Page views by browser:
Chrome: 741 (59%)
Mobile: 156 (12%)
Firefox: 134 (10%)
Safari: 91 (7%)
OS; FBSV: 18 (1%)
PhantomJS: 13 (1%)
SamsungBrowser: 7 (<1%)
Maxthon: 2 (<1%)
Shiretoko: 1 (<1%)

Page views by operating systems:
Windows: 489 (39%)
Android: 301 (24%)
iPhone: 180 (14%)
Macintosh: 170 (13%)
Linux: 54 (4%)
Unknown: 13 (1%)
Unix: 11 (<1%)
iPad: 11 (<1%)
compatible: 9 (<1%)
iPod touch: 1 (<1%)

So where do you fall in all this? What country are you from? What browser do you use? What operating system? Let us know in the comments, or on your preferred social media platform(s)!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Summer Reading

Hopefully you'll excuse my hiatus. My daughter was unexpectedly born on May 24th, so blog writing time has not really been a thing since we've gotten back from the hospital. I'll post when I can!

I thought it might be fun to put together a bit of a summer reading list. I'm going to count it from when my semester ended, and I'll look to what's highest up on my TBR list as well.

What I've Read So Far This Summer:
Disney Princess Storybook Collection (4th ed.)
The End of Magic, Amber Benson
Truthwitch, Susan Dennard
Corduroy, Don Freeman
The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf

What I'm Currently Reading:

Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, Edited by Micheal Dumanis and Cate Marvin
The Book of Goddesses & Heroines, Patricia Monaghan
Earth Power, Scott Cunningham

What I'd Like to Read:
Earth, Air, Fire, & Water, Scott Cunningham
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, & Metal Magic
The Aguero Sisters, Cristina Garcia
The Complete Stories, Flannery O'Connor
Unfinished Stories of Girls, Catherine Zobal Dent
The Calliope Reaper-Jones series, Amber Benson
The Spellmason Chronicles, Anton Strout
Labyrinth Lost, Zoraida Córdova

This summer I want to get started on reading for my comp exam lists so that I know what I want to put on them ahead of time, so that's where a lot of my TBR is coming from. I almost certainly won't complete the list (money is a constraint, so I've got to check out what's in the local libraries and all), but this is the selection I'll have to choose from.

What have you guys read/are you guys reading/will you guys read this summer?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

How Do You Beat Writer's Block?

This is one of those questions that I get asked pretty frequently, probably because it's one of the most frustrating things for a writer to feel like they've come up against. I've had teachers say that they don't believe in writer's block because it makes it into this invincible entity. However, here is my response to how to beat writer's block (pulled from my author site's FAQ):

I don't like the term "writer's block."  I feel like it gives too much power to the idea.  Fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself, according to some smart witch/wizard or another.  (Harry Potter references ftw.)  

My friend Ian talks about "refilling the well," which I think fits much better.  Think of the well as potential for creativity.  You've got lots of passion for a story, lots of ideas and all that fancy jazz.  The well is full.  Then you're 50,000 words into a novel and running on empty.  Your well needs refilling.  This will happen differently for each writer: some need to read their favorite book for the billionth time; others need to people watch; some need to watch their favorite television show or movie and think about its character arcs or themes; others need to write something shorter--poetry, maybe, or just some freewrite scribbles; others still need to get away from writing for a while, maybe by drawing or knitting or getting lost on Tumblr for a few hours.  Take the time to do this so you don't run yourself into the ground.  When you've refilled your creativity well, you can return to your project or start a new one, as the case may be, with a renewed zest for your craft.

I also took to the Creative Exchange Network on Facebook and to my Twitter to ask other writers for their perspectives. After all, not everyone responds to the same methods or writing processes. (In fact, that's pretty much one of the main tenants of my teaching philosophy. I'm pretty married to that idea.) Here's what other writers had to say:

Erin Sullivan: "by giving up on coherency and just stream of consciousness word vomit, or going through old work and revising that instead, or or thinking critically about what i like/dislike about a work i admire, or just being content to let myself zone out and a stare at the screen for awhile. my personal experience with writer's block is it being less 'i can't think of anything' and more 'i don't feel like thinking of anything'"

Joe Ginman: "go out, get a coffee and people watch. Something usually pops into my head while doing that"

Louie Land: "Personally, I've never been a fan of the whole "if you can't write, you can work" strategy because it seems like trying to just push the big boulder of writer's block out of the way. I'd much rather go around it. So, if the writing isn't inspired, I'll take a walk, or do the dishes, while continuing to be engaged with the work. I'm not abandoning the concept or problem at hand per se. Instead, I'm trying not to beat my head against the wall too many times. I'm getting away from my need to fill the page and weather the boulder away with my nonsense, and getting in touch with the work on a more intuitive level. So while I might be reading someone else's work instead of writing (or whatever it is I'm doing to help me see the forest instead of the trees), I'm doing so with an eye to get around whatever obstacle I'm facing, and when I've figured it out, I go back to the page feeling fresh."

Meg Gaertner: "I exercise my creativity in some other way--painting + dancing, for instance, help me get out of my head and more in touch with inspiration" Thank you to everyone who offered their advice! So how about you? What do you do to beat writer's block? Are there any ideas here that you're going to give a try the next time that it's plaguing you?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

5 Places to Write

Sometimes you can get into a rut with writing. This can be for any number of reasons--stress at work, not feeling your current project, etc.

Or maybe your favorite writing spot is no longer accessible to you, be it because of construction at the coffee shop or your decision to move halfway across the country.

Alternatively, you might be looking for a fresh place to start a new project and really feel like you're marking the occasion by trying out somewhere new.

Whatever the case is, where we write and the conditions we write under can have a profound effect on our writing. We all have our preferences--Do you listen to music, have TV on in the background, or need absolute silence? Do you work better on a laptop or with pen and paper? Do you need the pressure of constrained writing time or like a leisurely pace to create as you will?

One of the major factors that come into play is, whether it's something that you've considered or not, location. Here are some ideas of places to try out if your current location has gone stale for you:

1. Nature

Nature can be accessed in a variety of ways under a variety of conditions. If you want more silence/white noise, you can trek out to the woods or a mountain or a secluded lake. If that's not your thing, or if that's a long journey for you to make, you could try a park, which may have other people's chatter and goings ons as either a drawback or a bonus depending on how you like to work. Types of nature vary as well, of course: Beach, forest, grassy field, lake, mountain, etc. etc., each with its own personality and potential to help you write.

2. Coffee Shop

Need people around to keep on target while writing? There are a number of options available to you: Dunkin' Donuts, a local brunch spot, your campus library, the used bookstore down the street, and so on. Each of those venues is going to have different benefits and obstacles depending on your own personal writing needs. (For example, I love writing at Dunkin' Donuts because of the white noise and the reinvigorating smell of coffee. However, that may be too chaotic for you and you may want the quiet and solitude of a library corner all to yourself instead.) One of the wild cards here, of course, is that you can never know how crowded and busy or empty and subdued a place will be on any given day, which is an x-factor that you'll have to play by ear.

3. Bar

Maybe chaos suits you. You might like the loud buzz of noise and a lot of activity going on around you--think your high school cafeteria. There are lots of options, of course, to achieve this--a bar, a crowded auditorium, the quad or student center of the local campus, a really busy waiting room, a train or bus station, wherever. Try out a few places with lots of traffic and high energy and see what helps your writing get going or continue.

4. Transportation

While I wouldn't recommend writing while driving (unless you use a voice recording system of some kind, I suppose), there are ways to write during travel. You can write as your husband drives you a few hours to a different state to see family. You can get out the old pen and paper on your flight to London. You can take a day trip on a train and bring your laptop with you. Sometimes the (constant) change in scenery can do you--and more specifically your writing--some good.

5. At Home

This may seem like the most obvious choice. There's a lot of benefit here. You can write any time that you want. You can create the conditions that you want--music or not, comfortable couch to sit on or a rigid desk, bright lights or dim lights. But maybe you have a kid (or four) at home who will demand your attention if you're around, or maybe you'll get distracted by household chores, or maybe it'll take longer to get your work done because your mind wanders more easily here. How well writing at home works for you is something that no one else can determine--only you know your circumstances and how you write best. However, if you've been writing at home a lot, it never hurts to switch things up every once in a while and test out some other options just for a change.


So where's your favorite place to write? Any of these from the list that you might try out?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

My Favorite Books

As a writer, one of the most common questions that I get (aside from things like "What inspires you?" or "How do you beat writer's block?" or "But seriously, what's your day job?") is about my favorite books/authors. I think any list like this will, for me, be incomplete on some level. I'm guaranteed to forget some, and to finish reading one in three days that I decide belongs on here. But, keeping all of that in mind, here's a shout-out to some of my favorite books!

Of Bees and Mist, Erick Setiawan

This is my favorite book ever, bar none. I read it over winter break in December of 2015, back when I was visiting Rhode Island/the University of Rhode Island for the first time. It hits so many notes that are right up my alley--fantasy, gender dynamics, compassionate rendering of characters, stunning prose. I could go on and on about this one forever and, if you've ever asked me for a book recommendation, then I probably have. Here's my Goodreads review: "The fantastical elements build an enchanting world and the metaphorical truths make this a very human and resonant story. The language is lyrical and the characters dynamic. Meridia's life is in (quite a few) places heartbreaking, but I never stopped hoping she'd find peace. A beautiful novel."

The Beginner, Lynn Hejinian

This is my favorite book of poetry. The mastery of echoes is something I aspire to in my own work. If you can find a copy, I highly suggest picking it up and not only reading it but going back and rereading it to get the full potential out of it.

Graceling Realm Series, Kristen Cashore

This is another book (okay, series, really) that I've probably recommended you read if you sit still long enough. Each of the protagonists of the three books shows a different set of strengths as a female character. While I love all of these books, my favorite is Fire for a lot of reasons, not the least of which I think is the fact that I found the titular character the most natural to relate to on a personal level. If you love strong female characters (and not only in the ass kicking sense), fantasy, romance, adventure, or any combination of the above, this is a wonderful series to give a go.

Coven of Echo Park Series, Amber Benson

Two out of three of these books have been released, with the final installment coming this May. My review of book #1, Witches of Echo Park: "There is nothing more disappointing than when a book you've waited months for is no good. Luckily, Witches of Echo Park did not disappoint.

This book serves, at its core, as a eulogy for Eleanora. (No spoilers here: The book opens with her dying of cancer, which is why her grandniece, Lyse, returns to Echo Park in the first place.) Flashbacks allow the reader to get a real sense of some of the biggest moments of Eleanora's life, letting a plot that only covers maybe a week of present-day time delve deeper into decades worth of character development. We do not experience Eleanora only through Lyse's perspective, or Eleanora's friends, but through Eleanora herself--a major benefit of switching character points of view. If you love character-driven work, this is the book for you! The bulk of the present day plot seems to take place in the last 50 or so pages of the book. Much of the book is dedicated to character exploration, acquainting you with a whole cast of different kinds of women (anyone ranging from the girl who starts the book with a hangover to the mother of two who reads tarot cards to the pink-haired, leather-gloved woman who is anything but warm and fuzzy, except when it comes to her cats). 

Author Amber Benson shows reverence for the place, lingering on images of houses and landscapes as well as any opportunities to explore the culture of Echo Park. The prose is--simply put--beautiful without being self-involved or indulgent. Benson's lovely descriptions feel fresh and true and relatable. Overall, I highly recommend this book, the first in a trilogy (if I'm remembering that correctly) that you'll want to pre-order book #2 for by the end of this installment."

My review of book #2, The Last Dream Keeper: "One of the real joys of reading this book is the character groundwork laid out in Witches of Echo Park. With basic personalities and relationships established in book one, Last Dream Keeper really gets to deepen our sense of each of these women, as well as project them even more emphatically along their character arcs. The questioning of loyalties takes deeper root as the story unfolds. There's a lot of payoff for the connections and threads that may have seemed, based on a quick or surface-level read of Witches of Echo Park, simply there to flesh out the world or characters, and this payoff is extremely rewarding as a reader.

In addition to the character exploration and development here, everything is more intense: stakes, tension, scale of impact, horror. There were parts of this story that were so horrific and haunting that they created a visceral reaction in me. And, for the last 100 pages or so, I mostly chanted a mantra of "HOLY SHIT. No, that can't-- Holy shit." (Pro Tip: Make sure when you near the page 200 mark, you're prepared to finish the rest of the book in that sitting.) The ending leaves plenty of cliffhangers, and the fate of many in the balance, though book two's story arc hits where it intends to at the conclusion.

The descriptions, as they were in Witches of Echo Park, are very often stunning. When used in regards Echo Park itself these descriptions are consistently reverent and detailed and familiar and, when these descriptions are used to ramp up the terror factor, they get dark and chilling really quickly. The descriptions of the more heightened uses of magic are surreal and cinematic, making very ethereal concepts extremely visual in the mind's eye.

This is a series where the characters make the world more interesting, and the world makes the characters more interesting. The lighter, happier moments are born out of the women connecting in very supportive and meaningful ways. I was especially partial to Lyse and Lizbeth's relationship, but all of their connections, with each other and with other people in their lives, are interesting. The work done to sharpen each of the leading ladies as flesh-and-blood characters on the page, and to enhance our understanding of their relationships with each other and their lens on the world at large, is fascinating and well-crafted. As the best witch stories do, this novel highlights a lot of truths about our own world, including but not limited to the capacity for women to work together toward greater ends and support each other, and the kind of fear-mongering and oppression that should be outdated but can be seen in our society at large.

If you haven't started this series yet, go grab Witches of Echo Park and The Last Dream Keeper, snuggle in with a quilt and your hot beverage of choice, light a candle, and get reading."

You better believe I've already pre-ordered The End of Magic.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender

This is my favorite short story collection. Aimee Bender has been such a tremendous influence on me as a writer, which is interesting because I didn't especially connect with her work the first go-around. Her ability to slip between the strange, even fantastical, and the mundane is something I've incorporated more and more into my own writing. Her voice and style are stunning. And, without overtly drawing attention to it, she has some really interesting display of female narratives throughout a lot of her work. One of the included stories, "The Healer," is my favorite short story of all time.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

It's a classic for a reason. While it's not what I would by any means call a happy read, the writing itself is gorgeous and the themes are both haunting and valuable to engage with.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

This was the first novel that ever taught me your main characters didn't have to be likable. I credit a lot of my love for this book to an amazing high school English teacher who made it utterly engaging. The fact that Cathy and Heathcliff are unabashedly selfish and reckless people blew my mind as a young teen writer and expanded my concepts of writing in a lot of really important ways.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day

And here we have my favorite memoir, a birthday gift from my husband. I absolutely devoured this book. Here's my Goodreads review: "It's funny and geeky and relatable. From finding her home with an Internet community to dealing with anxiety and depression, there's so much in here that I connected with personally. And, having gotten this as a gift on my 26th birthday and read it right before starting my PhD program, I think it was perfect timing. Felicia Day touches on a lot of smart points about perfectionism, driving yourself into the ground, being a creator, and letting yourself take stock of where you are and where you want to be. I especially recommend it to anyone in their 20s and anyone who considers themselves a nerd, but I think that there's a lot of insight and humor here for just about any reader. If you've been on the fence about buying this memoir: Do it."

Yes, Please, Amy Poehler

There are lots of reasons to pick this up. Like Day's memoir, it's definitely funny and relatable. You can pick it up if you already love Amy Poehler and her work--whether that's Parks and Rec or Amy Poehler's Smart Girls. It's especially engaging if you're already a fan of hers, but I think there's a lot to connect to either way.

Garbage, A.R. Ammons

This is a book I had to read my freshman year of college and I found myself marking it up constantly without even thinking. The line work and use of breath is fantastic.

Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak

My Goodreads review: "Stunningly written and emotionally provocative." To expand a bit, Shafak's writing is stylistically some of the best that I've read. This novel does quite a bit of jumping around--between characters, from one time and place to another. I was especially invested in the characters of the past because they felt so complex in a deeply human way. There's a lot of different things for people of different tastes to appreciate in this one, I think, and, to me, it's worth it to read for the lovely writing alone.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans

Evans' command of voice, dialogue, and the form of the short story are all not only enjoyable to read, but also an excellent study of craft if you're a writer yourself. This is another one that very much benefits from subsequent readings that let you deepen your understanding of what Evans is pulling off, as well as notice different aspects of the stories themselves.

Bone, Jeff Smith

This is another one of those "right up my alley" ones. It's a huge volume of graphic novel. Fantasy, strong female characters--seeing a pattern here? Thorn and her grandmother are amazing, but Bone is such a wonderful character as well. (Bartleby may be my favorite though. That might be weird. I probably don't care.) It's a great adventure tale that lets you get really invested in the story over a long plot.

Spell on Wheels, Kate Leth + Megan Levens + Marissa Louise

My blog review of this series is here.


So... that ended up being a really, really long post. Which of these would you like to give a try? What are your favorite books?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Current Novel: Strange High

I made these today as part of a pitch contest on Twitter, and I thought I should share them here! They're pitches for Strange High, the queer YA fairy tale you might've heard me mention a few times here and there. (Think something along the lines of Steven Universe and Of Bees and Mist, with maybe a bit of Aimee Bender flavor.)

What do you think? Have a favorite protagonist yet? Let me know!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pregnant and Teaching and Writing During PhD: Oh My

I have a lot on my plate right now.

In September of 2016, I started my PhD program at the University of Rhode Island, which also involved a Graduate Assistantship where I'm able to teach essay writing courses. By the end of September, I'd decided I wanted to have a baby and was pregnant, and by October my pregnancy was confirmed. Add, on top of this all, that I'm also a writer with several manuscripts that I juggle at any given time.

I have to say, this period of my life kind of reminds me of one from two years back where, when I explained to my therapist all that I had to do and all that was expected of me, he flat-out asked "How does your head not fall off?" I think that's worth talking about. Having so much to do, putting a lot of pressure on myself and feeling the extreme need to live up to/surpass the expectations of others, can be detrimental to me. (See: my history/continuing struggles with anorexia, depression, and anxiety).

At first, the juggling wasn't too bad. In my first trimester of pregnancy/most of my first semester of PhD, I was painfully fatigued (because coffee is my life source and I had to give that up) and I got the painfully ravenous munchies every day when I dismissed my second class. But overall, it wasn't too much. I learned how to balance my classwork in a way that kept me sane--not dedicating hours and hours to taking extensive notes on every homework reading, getting ahead where I could, etc. I was only teaching one class, which is still definitely hard work but not overwhelmingly so. I was even managing to continue writing the first draft of my queer fairy tale novel.

And then, a little while after Thanksgiving, during Week 11 of my pregnancy, shit hit the fan. I was violently ill with morning sickness to the point where it was difficult to keep any food down or eat in the first place. I could honestly barely even function--mental processing was difficulty, physically doing anything but lying on my side on the couch was a challenge. This a) came right before my first set of finals of PhD and b) lasted until halfway through Week 15. By starting my seminar papers early and taking them bit by bit, I managed to complete them. I had to put my novel writing on hiatus for the time being because expecting myself to do 1,000 words per day when I felt like that only made me feel worse about my whole situation on account of guilt on the days when I fell short.

Honestly, it was a lesson in prioritizing and self-care. I pride myself on getting things done, on productivity, and sometimes my body can't handle that (see: fibromyalgia). I knew that I wasn't only taking care of myself but also my baby and that running myself ragged, making myself feel bad for not being able to do all the things at once, would only hurt us both. So I learned to slow down a little and make my number one priority taking care of myself.

Then I hit the halfway point of Week 15. The morning sickness (mostly) stopped; the baby started kicking. I was able to get myself together in the couple of weeks before my second semester picked back up. This time around I was teaching two classes, which is a lot of work in and of itself. In the interest of keeping myself in good shape, I allow myself to take my time with things that I would have expected myself to do much more quickly and efficiently before--like taking more than five days to grade 46 papers. Honestly, more than the pregnancy (which strikes me as odd), the intense grading over Spring Break made me feel more like a machine and less human. I'd have to balance it, when I got to a certain point, by watching The Nanny or Everybody Loves Raymond, or by cooking corned beef, or by painting the baby's bookshelf, or by doing out for an ice cream cone. I also made a promise to myself that I wouldn't accept any more obligations that aren't things I want to do for me until at least one month after the baby is born. (So, for example, any writing projects that I want to pursue are fair game, but if people ask me for things and it's not something I'm interested in doing, I'm not adding more to my plate.)

For my classes, again I try to get what I can done early. For example, my plan is to write one seminar paper in the first half of April and the other in the second half of April, in hopes that I'll be in a good enough mental and physical place to create better papers. Last night I did some substantial work thinking out my academic career path--Where do I want to be? What do I need on my CV to get me there? What do I need to do to get that on my CV? I have some investigative questions written to turn one of my seminar papers--on cisgender-normativity in feminism and the need to include trans women--into an article. Plus I have two scholarly journals researched to send it out to once it's all edited up.

I also, in the early part of the semester, finished out the first draft of my queer fairy tale novel and am looking at getting back to it for edits soon. My plan had been to start those last week, but I was under a time crunch for grading papers, so I let myself off the hook for a little bit, at least. In the past couple of days, I've also been researching more publishers to send my short story collection and my second poetry collection to, as well as sending out some pieces/chapbooks for entry-free competitions. Even just that mechanical aspect of writing has made me feel better, more like my writer self. Sure, it doesn't compare to actual writing and editing, but it feels like getting back this huge piece of myself that I had to, for the sake of my health and sanity, let go dormant for a few weeks. Plus I'm reading some stuff recreationally when I can, and gearing up to work on a currently incomplete first draft of a goddess novel that I've let sit for about a year.

As for pregnancy, the baby is really strong and active. Overall it's going well, but I think I'm hitting the point where things are just starting to get uncomfortable and are going to stay that way until the kid comes Irish step-dancing out and, I imagine, for a little bit after that. On the other hand, I got a new dress and shoes for my baby shower and I never get myself things like clothes, so treating myself to that was nice (and, ya know, helpful since I'd like to have something to wear that actually fits at that point).

So that's where I am. I certainly don't claim to have the perfect balance, or all the answers. But I'm managing to keep my head from falling off and, as far as I'm concerned, that's an achievement. I'm going to do what I need to as far as teaching and coursework this semester; I'm going to write what I want to and try my best not to put too much pressure on myself; I'm going to paint my baby's bookshelf and bake and knit my baby's blanket and garden once the weather's stable enough up here in Rhode Island in a couple of weeks.

I'm still not quite sure how I'm functioning and/or surviving without coffee. It's not one of the habits that I'm aiming to maintain post-pregnancy, that's for damn sure.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Spell on Wheels Series Review

Today's post is going to be a full series review of the comic Spell on Wheels, written by Kate Leth with art by Megan Levens and colors by Marissa Louise.

First, a non-spoilers teaser. You should pick up Spell on Wheels if you enjoy:
-road trips
-women who kick ass
-a diverse cast of characters
-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Supernatural, Secret Circle, The Craft, or similar supernaturally-based shows and movies

It's also great if you don't have a ton of money to invest in comics because it's a five issue series in full, so it's super easy on the wallet.


So we start the series with a break-in. We're not sure of the context, but this brings us into a conflict immediately, and one that both makes us curious and colors the next scene. One of the most clever moves these comics make is how it introduces the three leading ladies. With the first dialogue of each, we're given a helpful box next to them that tells us their name, age, and magical abilities. I love the use of the comics form on this one, and how it just bypasses getting too involved with spending tons of time showing off/explaining each of their abilities.

As a personal preference, I immediately connected to Claire. I have this thing where I pick the redhead as my favorite character in general because of ginger bias. (Seriously. As a kid? It was all about Mystique, Jean Grey, Poison Ivy, Ariel. Even now, Brave is one of my favorite Disney movies.) Of course, I also tend toward the character with her abilities. Given this immediate attachment to Claire, it was great to see where she went as the comics continued.

Now might be a good time to pause and admire the art. I followed Megan Levens from the Buffy season 10 comics over to Spell on Wheels (and because, I mean, really you don't get any more "me" than a bunch of witches in a muscle car on a quest). The art is just as gorgeous as Levens' other work. Each of the witches is physically diverse not only in race, but also in design. With everything from facial expressions and body types to hair style and outfits, each of these women is distinct and their appearance really feels like it reflects their personality. This is only enhanced by the wonderful color work done by Marissa Louise, who knows how to take advantage of contrast within a scene background as well as between characters, which really makes Levens' art pop.

So Claire senses a disturbance in the force and the witches head home to discover that the dude from the first panels stole a bunch of magical stuff. Andy's naiveté gives us an in to the story, and gives us a starting point for her arc as the comics will continue. Jolene is a blunt, take-no-crap kind of character, with lots of humor thrown in, that adds a nice counterbalance to the whole mix. This ties in nicely to the back story we'll get of her and Claire later. The witches try to scry for the items, but it doesn't work. Then they discover that they're being sold on the online black market for magical goods, the "GOBLIN MARKET." They decide to go hunting for their stuff in the morning. We then get a hilarious moment from Jolene, who wakes the other witches up with coffee and a gorgeous muscle car. And then their quest begins.

In issue two, we get to actually meet one of the buyers of their stolen objects. Andy recognizes the man as an artist and they get invited to stay for a party. One of the visual techniques I didn't pick up on the first read-through was how the six pages after the first, everything is green except for the witches. The walls are green, the artist's sweater, the shirt of the guy they meet. It makes the witches stand out, certainly, but it also creates this soothing, almost hypnotic sense. Then, when the party starts, we have people in shadows and much more intense blue and pint tints. It seems like this story is all about second layers and shifts in perception and uncovering what's underneath, so this shift is not only visually interesting but also feels like it plays into that story motif.

One of my favorite exchanges of the whole series? When Claire is on a couch, this drunk guy is trying to figure out what she does. Claire has to say twice "I'm a witch" and he finally says "Oh! Can you cast a spell to make yourself fall in love with me?" And, when she finds Jolene, Claire says "Jolene, we need to go before I hex someone." This moment was funny, of course, but it felt so genuine and relatable that it just ended up being an instant favorite of mine.

So I know that I said this would have spoilers, but I don't want to give a play-by-play of every last moment. Suffice it to say Claire, who hasn't been drinking, realizes something is up, Andy's naiveté kicks her in the ass, and then one of the witches does some ass-kicking of her own.

Moving on to issue three, the first thing I want to mention is the cover by Marguerite Sauvage. It's one of my favorites, and I really think that has a lot to do with the color scheme. I'm all about pink, and it adds a softness to the cover while still having a sense of foreboding in the witches' facial expressions and body postures, as well as the figure between the flowers in the background.

So the witches end up at another house of someone with their magical items, this time in a very Wisteria Lane-esque neighborhood. We get another very funny line from Jolene as they pull up to the house. (It's another one of my favorites, but I'd prefer to err on the side of not just giving the best stuff away.) And, for the first time that I've found in re-reading, Andy mentions her grandmother and the tension between her grandmother and her parents. This very, very subtle seed lays the groundwork for later in a way that I did not even remotely pick up on in my first read-through. It's also entirely appropriate that this is the start of issue three, because it bookends the issue in a way that you're not aware of until you've gone through the entire series.

So it turns out that the women in this house could really use the help of some witches, so Claire, Andy, and Jolene stay to do so in another moment of breaking up what could be a tedium of road trip with what's essentially a side-quest. In the midst of helping these women out, Andy gets a very disturbing message from the beyond that makes the final two issues feel more threatening and menacing.

The cover of issue four, done by Jen Bartel, certainly reflects how much darker the story is getting. Still, the story opens here with Claire joking around in the car. It never feels like these comics get to lead zeppelin levels of despair. Leth could've gone the direction of pure angst, or super serious story all the time (which there's certainly a precedent for in this sort of genre), and I love that she doesn't. Leth hits different registers to keep the story flowing and to keep us from getting stuck in one (especially depressing) mode at all times. Personally, I appreciate this.

So, in contrast to the Wisteria Lane type of place they just came from, they drive up to what looks like a haunted house. When Claire senses it's empty, they come in to what's actually a really nice place. They come upon the homeowner and, as Andy got her fangirling moment in issue two, Claire gets hers this time around, with some bonus flirting. While this is really cute and, again, a breath of levity, I also really loved that we could see a transformation in Andy here. She went from being naive enough to want to call the cops in issue one to getting taken advantage of in issue two. Even in issue three the voice she hears is trying to push her around. But here, Andy confidently states "I'm really good at practical magic." It's simple, sure, but it shows a self-assurance that she might not have had if she hadn't been through the journey of issues one through three. This is just a great issue for delving in character in general, because we also get Claire's back story with her abusive ex, which makes her all the more relatable, and Jolene's back story of helping Claire, which adds a lovely layer to Jo's fierce personality. In the course of all this, the witches discover who broke into their place and decide to go after him.

And finally we come to issue five. The cover, done by Joe Quinones, is provocative. The women look ready to battle (and, really, Jolene steals the whole cover if you want my honest opinion). The basis of the tower tarot is a really spectacular backdrop. And the second thing I want to make sure I mention? I loved the magical girl transformation on page two. If you follow Kate Leth on Twitter like I do, then you probably know that she has much love for the Sailor Moon series. When I got to this page, I literally said "I see what you did there" out loud. Again, this gives us a moment of fun before we go into something more serious and sinister.

The final battle starts out against a particular "Big Bad" and turns into something completely different halfway through, which took me by surprise. At first I felt that it came a little out of left field. However, after reading through, I definitely see the hints, and I'm sure there are even a couple that I missed. I'm not sure if I would've wanted more rehearsal for this reveal or not. It is a five issue series. Would more hinting have felt too heavy handed? Is the shock a good thing, since the witches are as well? I'm not sure what the answers are, but I do know that this reveal sits better with me re-reading than it did reading it for the first time.

Overall, this was exactly what I wanted out of this series. I know that people have been asking about it continuing, and at first I didn't see a case for it. But, going through this review, there are threads that can definitely be picked up--like Claire's crush in issue three, or the final moments of issue five. If this series got picked up for a continuation, I'd definitely be all over it, but I'm also very happy to have the series as is in a tight, fun/dangerous road trip.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Want a Free Book?

That's right! I'm giving away a free signed copy of Queen of Pentacles, my first book! How can you enter for a chance to win? It's easy! Pick any of the following:

Each of those earns you one entry into the raffle! (So you could do one, all, or any number in between.) This raffle will be active until Tuesday, February 28th. I can sign it without your name, with your name, or with the name of a friend if you'd like to make it a gift. Good luck. 👍

Saturday, February 11, 2017

5 Things to Do Before Writing in the Morning

Whether you're chipper as Mickey Mouse in the morning without so much as a cup of coffee (which I couldn't possibly fathom) or you would rather sleep until noon, sometimes mornings are the only time that you have to write, whether that's because of work obligations, school obligations, parenting obligations, or just random chores. And sometimes your time to write in the morning is very limited. Here are five things that you could do to get your ass into gear in the morning:

1. Drink coffee/tea/cold water

Coffee is great for a jolt of caffeine to get your brain into gear (and is always my beverage of choice). However, if you'd like a little less caffeine, or a slightly more soothing drink, tea is a great option with a lot of variety. If you don't like those options, there's always the waking-up benefit of a tall glass of ice cold water.

2. Freewrite for 10 minutes first

Sometimes you can get caught up in the idea of what you're writing and, because you want it to be perfect, it becomes impossible to write. One option is to just write whatever comes into your head for ten minutes first in a separate Word document or on a separate piece of paper. It could literally just be your thoughts as you're thinking them. The important thing is to remind your body of the mechanics of writing and that they are, in fact, physically possible.

3. Read something short

Inspiration might be the key. You may pick up a poem, a short story, a chapter of a book--whatever. But, depending on the day, reading the writing of others could help push you to write yourself. If you read something new and random and are still stuck, you could always try instead one of your standby favorites.

4. Physical activity

Now, this isn't generally my cup of chamomile, but if you're really into the physical activity thing, or if you work better with your blood moving, then it's definitely an option. Yoga, taking the dog for a walk, lifting weights--you know best what you respond to, and maybe getting those endorphins going is just the morning wake-up you need to get your writing started.

5. Gaming or Puzzles

Maybe you're the kind of writer who needs to engage the logical side of their brain before getting things onto the page. You might pick up a crossword or word search. Or, if you're a gamer like me, you might pick up a controller. Playing video games like Bejewled or Trivial Pursuit can really help get my mind firing on all cylinders in a very low-stress way. The trick here is not to pick something with too high a time investment so that you end up gaming for three hours and never get to the writing bit.


So there are some of my suggestions! What do you do to start writing in the mornings? Or do you avoid writing in the mornings altogether?