12 December 2020

A Reading Project Begins!

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

Hello folks and happy December! I hope you're holding up well enough in these strange times. 

You last heard from me in October when I mentioned being a panelist at the Japan Writer's Conference. Well, how did that go? I learned about crafting villains with Charles Kowalski, plotting formulas with Melinda Falgoust, and structuring with Michael Pronko, all of which were panels I hoped would help me with my writing journey with Son of the Siren (they certainly gave me plenty to think about!). 

And of course, I did a panel on what it's like to get an MFA in creative writing. I talked about my experiences with Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program...and I also had technical difficulties with Zoom and some issues with my nerves where I rambled a bit 😓 so I wouldn't count my personal performance as all that successful, but my fellow panelists and moderator John Gribble all spoke well and were very helpful and I think our attendees got a lot of good information out of it. 

November came and went like a blur. I honestly don't remember what happened that month. Obviously nothing exciting or important enough to mention here. 

And then lately, I've hit a hump with my writing where I'm really stuck with a major secondary character and what to do with them; I'm finding my plot isn't working too well; and I can't seem to get from point A to point B. I knew how my book would start and I know 90% how it should end (I know what the hero and the major secondary character do; I do not know how to resolve the villain's part of the story).  

I've officially entered the dreaded writer's block section of drafting, waaah. The thing is, I plotted this baby out in full -- the first time I'd done so with a book, and I had some help using The Novel Factory software -- but as I wrote I kept thinking about all these potential problems, then plot holes, then silly contrivances that I was laying down, and then I realized I had created people with not enough to do, or giving them things to do with no real reason for it. I need more plot! 

To try and help calm my brain down, I'm taking a breather and doing something I haven't done in a long time: read books. 

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash
This has been a problem for me long before pandemic brain set in. I've mentioned, or at least alluded to, that I suffer from mental illness. My brain has changed over the years. When I was much younger, basically the entirety of my school years and partway into college, I read books all the time, and fast, too. I could finish a book in a day and start the next one and actually retain and process what I'd read.

Then bipolar disorder hit in my early 20s and my attention span and ability to focus went out the window. I lost my ability and the perseverance it takes to make it through a standard novel. Books just didn't hold my attention anymore and they became something that took effort that exhausted me. In short, they were not longer fun, but a chore to be endured. This tragedy has lasted for years (don't even ask me how I managed grad school; I still don't know how I made it). 

The one benefit during this troubling period of my life was that I discovered the joy of reading graphic novels and comics, mainly manga and manhwa (Japanese and Korean comics) and web comics, with some modern classics thrown in (like Saga, for example).  Then in 2015 Tor.com started publishing novellas, which were a slow reintroduction to reading fiction again. The stories were manageably sized, often fast-paced, and easier for my brain to digest. I highly recommend them. 

Enter 2020, where pandemic brain added another layer to my decades-long brain funk, and the progress I made reading actual books halted. 

Stephen King has said, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."  And two more quotes from King for you: "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write" and "reading is the creative center of a writer's life... you cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you."

I can't say that I haven't been reading at all -- I've got years of a wide range of comics under my belt -- but I am someone who writes novels, and to not read novels means I'm not utilizing the tools at my disposal.  

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
I needed to re-educate myself in the ways of writing. And Son of the Siren is YA fantasy, so I decided once I hit writer's block with my book to just start reading as many YA fantasies I could get my hands on. Primarily I sought out YA fantasy that played with or adapted fairytales since that's what my own book is doing, but I didn't brush off any novels that didn't fit that category. If it is fantasy meant for young readers, I'm lapping it up.

This reading project is a very recent endeavor, so I don't have a lot of books under my belt. And where I used to be able to read one book a day, it takes a week or more to get through a book, depending on how the prose and pacing are. And I am trying my best not to DNF anything I picked out for this project, choosing to take it as a learning experience.

Here's what I've read so far, with descriptions of the book sourced from the publisher. 

Long before she was the terror of Wonderland―the infamous Queen of Hearts―she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.

Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

In her first stand-alone teen novel, the New York Times-bestselling author of the Lunar Chronicles dazzles us with a prequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Emeline's quiet village has three important rules:

Don't look at the shadows.

Don't cross the river.

And don't enter the forest.

An illustrated fantasy filled with beauty and power, Between the Water and the Woods sweeps you into a world where forests are hungry; knights fight with whips; the king is dying; and a peasant girl's magic will decide the future of the realm . . .

When Emeline's little brother breaks all three of their village's rules, she is forced to use her family's forbidden magic to rescue him from the dark things he awakens, the Ithin. Now that the Ithin are afoot in the land, she must, by law, travel to the royal court and warn the king. But the only way she and her family can make the journey to the capital is with the protection of a sour magister and a handsome, whip-wielding Lash Knight. Will Emeline survive in a city where conspiracies swirl like smoke and her magic is all but outlawed?

Seven full-page black-and-white illustrations accompany Between the Water and the Woods, a lush, fairy-tale-style fantasy perfect for readers of Karen Cushman and Shannon Hale.

She survived the curse. Now she must survive the throne.

All Ekata wants is to stay alive—and the chance to prove herself as a scholar. Once Ekata's brother is finally named heir to the dukedom of Kylma Above, there will be nothing to keep her at home with her murderous family. Not her books or her experiments, not her family's icy castle atop a frozen lake, not even the tantalizingly close Kylma Below, a mesmerizing underwater kingdom that provides her family with magic. But just as escape is within reach, her parents and twelve siblings fall under a strange sleeping sickness, and no one can find a cure.

In the space of a single night, Ekata inherits the title of duke, her brother's captivating warrior bride, and ever-encroaching challengers from without—and within—her ministry. Nothing has prepared Ekata for diplomacy, for war, for love . . . or for a crown she has never wanted. If Kylma Above is to survive, Ekata must seize her family's magic and power. And if Ekata is to survive, she must quickly decide how she will wield them both.

The Winter Duke is an enchanted tale of intrigue by Claire Eliza Bartlett, author of the acclaimed young adult fantasy novel We Rule the Night.

Three books doesn't seem like a lot, but I have continued to read manga and comics (Given, Dungeon Critters) and sneak in some horror (Pet Semetary, The Hunger) and nonfiction (Ghosts of the Tsunami) during this project. 

I'll continue to write little updates here and there to show you the progress with this project. I hope from studying the craft of these novels I can see what's happening in the genre and the market and break through my writer's block. 

See you next time!

10 October 2020

Come see me at the Japan Writer's Conference on October 11, 2020!


Photo by Tianshu Liu on Unsplash

This year I'm participating in the Japan Writer's Conference, which will be held online for 2020 via Zoom due to the coronavirus. Check out the schedule of events!

I'll be appearing in a panel discussion with authors John Gribble (host), Warren Decker, Percival Constantine, and Alec McAuley about

The MFA: The Good, The Bad, The Expensive

Here's the official program description of the panel:

Should I get an MFA or other graduate-level degree in writing? Aren’t they expensive? Are they difficult? Are they any good? What sort of program should I look at? What kind of benefits should I expect to receive? These questions and others will be addressed in this session.

Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and other advanced degrees with a writing emphasis have become a viable option for those seeking to improve their writing skills and advance themselves professionally. Some programs are full- or part-time on a university campus, some are on-line, some are hybrids, blending elements of both. The panelists, all with advanced writing degrees, will each talk about the programs they attended, their own experiences and answer your questions.

I'll be talking about my experiences with the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction program, where I received my MFA in 2013. Spoiler alert: the program changed my life for the better! 😃 

Please join us -- we'd love to see you there! 

31 August 2020

#52writing cards: Prompts from Shaun Levin's Writing Maps - no. 14

A version of this prompt appears on the Writing Art Writing Map illustrated by Alex Green.

Seafoam Green

Neither the internet or myself can agree on what color constitutes seafoam green, but all three of the colors above are in my apartment. 

When I first got to Japan, the colors consisted of an off-white wall, pale pink futon closet doors, and a very loud seafoam green door (the color on the left above). I seem to have a disorder with matching things, so I opted for the apartment to match the door instead of all the pink, because it was the loudest color in the apartment...and I'm not partial to pink as a decorative color. 

It turns out the shade has a pretty calming effect for me. I've paired it with white bookcases and gray furniture, and it's a haven of comfort for me. I will be sad when I say farewell to all of this when I return to America because I think I've truly done an amazing job with my decor. 

My computer desk is white with a seafoam plate glass tabletop. 

My curtains are white with Moroccan-style seafoam patterns. 

My candleholders are glass seafoam green. 

My binder holders are seafoam green. 

My pens are seafoam green. 

My paperclips are seafoam green. 

The sand in my hourglass is seafoam green. 

The picture frames on my wall are seafoam green. 

The plastic holders in my shower room are seafoam green.

The bathroom has small shadowboxes with seafoam green frames and sand dollars and starfishes inside. 

The art on my wall consists of two prints of cotton plants, but the shading on the plants is seafoam green. 

The vinyl stickers of Moroccan tile prints I put up in the kitchen has seafoam green in them. 

This seems like a ton of the same color, but I promise these are mostly accents, and the loudest seafoam green comes from the door and from the curtains. Everything else is just a small splash here and there. 

I think the constant theme that runs through the house is the sense of calm that comes from the color. I love the sea, and the shades of it bring me peace as well as the rhythm of the waves coming in and out. The color of seafoam doesn't actually match the sea from any time I've looked at it in real life, but the color still evokes that sense of peace for me. It's like humans found this color to suggest the idea of what we think the sea could be, and that's how we came up with seafoam.

My home is my haven from the rest of the world. It is my safe space. I worked very hard, knowing that I would be in Japan for five years, to make this place beautiful and peaceful. I am devastated to leave it all behind but it's my hope that I can recreate some of the magic of this place back in America when I return in 2021. 

29 August 2020

Today's Writers #Ask

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

Today's post prompts come from the tumblr of author Amanda Witow


The Basics

1.     Do you listen to music when you write?

Not all the time, but when I need to build atmosphere I listen to film, anime, and video game soundtracks. 

2.     Are you a pantser or plotter?

I was always a pantser but I have since graduated to plantser -- a plotter that allows opportunity to pants a text where needed. That's my personal definition of it, anyway. 

3.     Computer or pen and paper?

I do research with pencil and paper in a notebook and then I draft with my computer. 

4.     Have you ever been published, or do you want to be published?

I have published a few poems in literary magazines. I want to publish my novels. I keep going back and forth between self-publishing and traditional publishing. I think my eventual goal is to be a hybrid publisher where I do a little of both. Honestly, though, self-publishing to my personal standards is really freaking expensive, and I'm poor. So I think starting out trying to get traditionally published first is the way to go. 

5.     How much writing do you get done on an average day?

Ha. Ha. HA HA HA. According to Pacemaker my average is 1300+ words a day but I can tell you right off the bat this is skewed. More days that not I write nothing. Here's a graph of my progress since I started drafting...and the first day was my logging of the total amount of words I already had, so this is driving up my number.

My lack of progress via Pacemaker

6.     Single or multiple POV?

In terms of reading, there were a couple books that had multiple POVs that I thought pulled it off really well. My first encounter with it was with Susan Kay's Phantom, and she labeled each chapter with a character name and then you got their first-person POV. I really enjoyed it. But as far as writing goes, this strikes me as pretty difficult to pull off, so I'm going with single POV. Maybe when my skills develop in the future I can try multiple POV, but it seems like you have to be a master plotter to pull it off, pulling all the character threads together, so I probably would be reluctant to do more than two or three in a single book. 

7.     Standalone or series?

Overall, I'm going with standalones. Publishing in any form can be fickle, and with writing a series there's always a risk that due to low sales or other issues beyond the author's control, the continuation gets scrapped. As a reader (or sometimes viewer of TV shows), it always bummed me out to be left hanging with a compelling story getting cancelled. As a writer, I don't want this to happen to my readers, so I want to write standalones. However, The Name and the Key has a companion novel, The Step and the Walk, but my goal is to write both as standalones so anyone can come into the duology without having read the other book and still be able to follow what is happening. I had an idea for a third book, The Eye and the Storm, but I don't think that's going to happen anymore because I can't come up with a plot to justify a third book.

8.     Oldest WIP

Officially? The Name and the Key. I decided to rewrite it from the ground up. Its first completed form as a graduate thesis was in 2013, but now that I'm doing the whole thing over again, that makes it my oldest WIP at a whopping ten years... because I first started writing it in 2010. Yikes. The problem is I've paused it in order to write Son of the Siren so this baby is probably going to be a fifteen-year draft or so. I could give up on it but I created a character I love and Andresh needs his story, dammit!

Page 1 of the 2013 iteration of Son of the Siren.
9.     Current WIP

My current WIP is Son of the Siren. It's at 126 pages...but this WIP has also been going on for quite a long time because it started out as a comic at first around 2013. I got through the cover and the first page and found it way too difficult to continue in its iteration as a graphic novel, so I gave up and decided to rewrite it as a novel. Making it into a novel started around 2017. I write SO SLOWLY. 😭

10.  Do you set yourself deadlines?

I tried to do monthly deadlines with Son of the Siren and failed. I have an overall deadline of October 29, 2020 for me to finish my first draft but at the rate I'm going, I don't see this happening, especially with some upcoming issues I'm seeing with the plot. I have a plot outline but I'm not sure how to get to these key pieces in the story, and that's what's taking forever. 

The Specifics

11.  Books and/or authors who influenced you the most

I've answered variations of these questions in different #ask posts, so I'm just going to single out one author. Juliet Marillier wrote Daughter of the Forest, a retelling of the fairy tale "The Wild Swans." In fact, Tor.com listed it as a notable retelling in this article here complete with four other notable versions. Anyway, I read this novel when I was a freshman in college. I want to adapt fairy tales, the stories that shaped my life and my love of fantasy, and how she did it made me count Marillier as writing role model. 

12.  Describe your perfect writing space

A beautiful desk with room for books and pieces of art and knick knacks to inspire me. My desk in Japan is very much my perfect writing space, except the desk is too low (as in I'm too tall) so my knees bum into it a lot. I alternate between my writing shrine and my folding table I use to eat. 

13.  Describe your writing process from idea to polished

OMG. I don't think I know how to do this. I'll try to talk you through the process for Son of the Siren. The general idea pops into my head at first: "A fairy tale that combines elements of other fairy tales and weaves them together." Then I make a list of my favorite fairy tales, including some lesser-known stories. In no particular order, I've got Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, the Wild Swans, and in the process of writing even more may come up in the rest of the text. Then I started coming up with names of characters and places, and then had to come up with my own cosmology/mythology to explain the magic system in the story. Then I start drafting, doing additional research along the way. 

The most difficult part for me is writing beginnings, so I do get beta readers to look at the opening, then I try to knock through the rest of the book without having additional readers until it's done. With Son of the Siren, though, I've been a bit more self-conscious with it and have some self-doubt, so I've asked for more people to read it before it's finished than I usually do. After I finish drafting Son of the Siren I'll sit on it for a few days to a few weeks, print the whole thing out, directly write changes on the manuscript, and hop into the post to retype. I have a crappy memory so I often edit as I write if I know bigger changes are needed. Every single writer manual says that you should not do this, but I can't help myself. Anyway, after I make my changes, I plan on hiring a beta reader or two before submitting to agents for representation.

14.  How do you deal with self-doubts?

OMG #2. I'm embarrassed to say this but I need to seek validation from outside sources. Writing this all out, I see a lot of unhealthy behaviors in my process, especially caring so much about what others think, but this is how I've always operated and I don't know how to change myself. 

15.  How do you deal with writer’s block?

To be honest, I do stop writing, as you can see from my Pacemaker progress. But when I'm really desperate, I try to watch TV that looks and feels like my own writing (especially if it's heavy on costumes and set design), or I immerse myself in music that makes me think of the story I want to tell. For example, Son of the Siren isn't clearly set in a specific time period, but I'm taking a lot of clothing descriptions from the reign of Henry the VII and Queen Elizabeth. So if I'm blocked, I pop on The Tudors or Lady Jane or Elizabeth or Wolf Hall and let myself get sucked into the designs of the period. I don't think my readers will be able to tell that I'm talking about a pseudo-16th century unless they are very, very familiar with clothing terms, but as long as they are able to see that the story is "once upon a time, long ago," I'll be happy. 

16.  How many drafts do you need until you’re satisfied with a project?

I will write as many drafts as it takes until I'm happy. I save all original versions in case I need to go back to something I previously wrote, but I basically am running at version 11.4.2 ...and I just realized my numbering system doesn't exactly make sense, but oh well. 

17.  What writing habits or rituals do you have?

Back in America I used to stick a hat on my head while I was writing, most commonly one of those sea captain/cadet caps. In Japan I don't have a neat writing hat like that (my sun hats are ginormous) so I often just tie my hair back. I wonder why I do this.

18.  If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be, and what would you write about?

Knowing my personality, I realistically do not think I could collaborate with anyone. I'm really picky and sometimes a little pushy if I have a specific outcome in mind, and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or take away what they want, so I think it's better if I just work alone. 

Lirien from Son of the Siren (c) Lauren Walsh.
19.  How do you keep yourself motivated?

It's pretty much the same answer to the writer's block question...but I also do an extra step, which is hire authors to make character art. The work they produce intensely motivates me. For example, Lauren Walsh's art of Lirien for Son of the Siren will motivate me for months to come. She really went above and beyond with an absolutely beautiful piece and I can't thank her enough for her work. 

20.  How many WIPs and story ideas do you have?

Including Son of the Siren I have five books in my head or on paper. 

The Favourites

21.  Who is/are your favourite character(s) to write?

Andresh from The Name and the Key and The Step and the Walk; and Lirien from Son of the Siren has been an absolute joy to work with. I also have a lot of fun writing siblings and showing their loving relationship with the lead characters.

22.  Who is/are your favourite pairing(s) to write?

Lily and Andresh are my power couple. 

23.  Favourite author

If I had to single it down to one, it would be Juliet Marillier for writing Daughter of the Forest. 

24.  Favourite genre to write and read


25.  Favourite part of writing

Character creation

26.  Favourite writing program

I've been using Novel Factory to help me plot and that's been pretty fun! 

27.  Favourite line/scene

"If there's no difference between above and below, and all and one are exactly the same, then anything is possible." -- Andresh from The Name and the Key

28.  Favourite side character

In The Name and the Key it's Lily's sister Lainey; in Son of the Siren it's Kitra. 

29.  Favourite villain

In The Step and the Walk I created a villain named Sebastien Arvensy and he's been fun to write. 

30.  Favourite idea you haven’t started on yet

Kill It With Fire, which is clearly influenced by my love of Japanese anime, about demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon and similar demonology books summoned to fight a great, apocalyptic evil. 

The Dark

31.  Least favourite part of writing

The plot! It's sooooo difficult to come up with enough things for my characters to do!

32.  Most difficult character to write

In Son of the Siren, it's Kitra. Kitra is a fox spirit who shape shifts and I am having a hard time justifying why they change forms aside from a generic "I just feel like it 'cause it's fun." Plus, it's the whole thing with plot -- giving them enough stuff to do for reasons that are reasonable.

33.  Have you ever killed a main character?

In my play In the Hands of Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll kills himself. This will probably be the only time I kill a main character. I don't like doing it. 

...Maybe in Kill It With Fire it would happen, but at the moment I'm really not pushing for it.

34.  What was the hardest scene you ever had to write?

In The Name and the Key, it was this stupid accident with a horse bucking and throwing my characters from it. I had watched videos of people getting up from being thrown off a horse, and some even being rolled while still attached to the saddle, but even with all this, the scene was not convincing enough for my mentor and crit partners in terms of the injuries sustained and how it even happened. I think I rewrote that scene four or five times. It was so difficult!

In Son of the Siren, I'm in it right now. I have my characters transported to a mysterious castle in the middle of nowhere overrun by thorny vines (sound familiar?) and I'm trying to combine elements of Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast with this castle while at the same time making the scenes creepy and enticing at the same time, and wow, this is challenging!

35.  What scene/story are you least looking forward to writing?

In Son of the Siren, I know I'm going to struggle with the last act of the story...not just the ending itself but the penultimate task the characters have to face in order to solve their problem. There's a big reveal during this part of the story that I'm not sure how to pull off or again, justify. I'm not looking forward to this section even though I mostly know what should happen. The getting there is the hard part. 

The Fun

36.  Last sentence you wrote

"The armor the guards wore looked old; likewise, the remains of tattered clothing that poked out of each seemed dated by a hundred years or more."

37.  First sentence or your current WIP

"Late on the night of Lirien’s eighteenth birthday, his father walked into the sea."

38.  Weirdest story idea you’ve ever had

I came up with an idea for a Southern Gothic necromantic musical with characters named Doc Carrion and Marie Tourniquet. It was basically about reanimated corpses/ghosts putting on a carnival-like show. No real plot whatsoever; just a big danse macabre.

39.  Weirdest character concept you’ve ever had

In Kill It With Fire the main demon is Pruflas and his "human" identity is Lucien Pruflas. He has memories of being flame outside of Babel and I acknowledge his many animal/hybrid versions of himself. I also plan on having him being a seductive romantic lead. The only problem is his name is similar to Lirien from Son of the Siren, gahh! But I really like how "Lucien Pruflas" rolls off the tongue (if I'm even saying the name right. My head says it like Looshie-en Proof-luss and that might not be how you pronounce the demon's name. If it's something like Pruff-luss I'll scream). 

40.  Share some backstory for one of your characters

Lirien is a bastard son of King Neven, and his mother is a mysterious siren who, after eighteen years, calls his father into the sea. Lirien uses the siren song to try to bring his father back, but as he is half-human, the magic backfires, and he accidentally bewitches the first person who hears it -- his stepmother, the Queen. The Queen will stop at nothing to possess Lirien, even if it means sacrificing the ones she loves most.

...This became less of a backstory and more of an elevator pitch, lol.

The Rest of It

41.  Any advice for new/beginning/young writers?

Do what's right for you and don't worry about how everyone else does it. To paraphrase my mentor Tim Waggoner, "don't fight your process."

42.  How do you feel about love triangles?

Mehhhhhhhhhhhh not a fan. I have something close to one where Lily's sister crushes on Andresh, but it's a youthful crush and the feelings are definitely not returned. So it's more like two lovers with a third party trying and failing to invade. 

43.  What do you do if/when characters don’t follow the outline?

I let them go where they want to. 

44.  How much research do you do?

Tons of research ALL THE TIME, even in the middle of drafting.

45.  How much worldbuilding do you do?

I do as much as needs to be done to appear in the story. I don't want to overdo it (like creating encyclopedias or tons of maps or anything like that) because I don't want to infodump. It's important that readers only know just what they need to know for the story to make sense.

46.  Do you reread your own stories?

Yes. Obsessively. It's how I find out what's wrong with them. 

47.  Best way to procrastinate


48.  What’s the most self-insert character/scene you’ve ever written?

I'm super embarrassed but the character Emma in my musical Melancholia was supposed to be a bit of a self-insert and...it's just so wrong. I look back and she's not even me. She's more like a bit of what has happened to me and she was my way to process that. 

...I never want to do self-inserts or "based on real-life" plot points ever again. I didn't realize at the time that using my writing to process such things can actually be harmful.

49.  Which character would you most want to be friends with, if they were real?

When I was a ballet dancer growing up I wanted to be friends with the girls from the Bad News Ballet books. These were from the 1990s and was kind of like the babysitter's club in terms of girls being friends in a group with different personalities. My favorite book was when the girls were cast as dancers in the musical The King and I. I just wanted to be friends with this group so badly -- they seemed like so much fun!

50.  [Other question—ask me anything]

Feel free to comment, or answer some of these questions yourself below!


25 August 2020

#52writing cards: Prompts from Shaun Levin's Writing Maps - no. 13

A version of this prompt appears on the Description Writing Map illustrated by Ricky Butler.

Pandemic List - Doing, Seeing, Experiencing, Witnessing

1. Having lots of nightmares involving dying or freaky supernatural stuff

2. Eating more ice cream

3. Taking an unhealthy amount of naps

4. Cycling through spells of oversleeping and total insomnia

5. Reading more online manwha (Korean comics)

6. Overthinking about the future

7. Feeling a generalized severe anxiety 

8. Working on Son of the Siren very sporadically

9. Watching horror movies

10. Cleaning, but not actually getting cleaning done -- more like shifting piles around or shoving things in bags and boxes in my closets

11. Using Facebook to complain

12. Using Facebook to post pretty nature pictures from Japan

13. Gaining weight

14. Feeling unnaturally exhausted at work

15. Reading more romantic stories (mostly through webcomics)

16. Eating lots of rice

17. Drinking way too much soda

18. Having difficulty with my city's 12+ category trash disposal/mandatory recycling system, which is the reason why my apartment isn't actually clean

19. Feeling self-doubt and second-guessing everything

20. Stopping all travel, even locally within my city

21. Being unable to read anything due to lack of concentration

22. Wanting to draw pictures and comics but finding no motivation to do so

23. Missing my family and friends that I haven't seen since 2016 because I live in Japan

24. Missing my family that were able to visit me but I still haven't seen in over a year

25. Wishing I could see an English-speaking therapist

26. Getting psychiatric medicines changed and dosages adjusted

27. Missing cosplaying but simultaneously not motivated to put any costumes on -- even with Halloween coming up

28. Seat-warming at school

29. Not adjusting to changes with my teaching schedule and visiting school schedule very well

30. Likewise not adjusting to my new teaching role very well

31. Painting my fingernails with gold sparkly nailpolish

32. Finding that underneath my mask I tend to leave my mouth open and drool accidentally

33. Feeling guilty about not washing hands more often and accidentally touching my mask and face

34. Going back and forth between eating too much and too little

35. Occasionally treating myself to conveyor belt sushi even though I shouldn't

36. Missing going outside

37. Missing going to shrines and getting red stamps...I'm not going to be able to fill the rest of my books

38.  Finished rehabilitation of my knee injuries...

39. ...But finding that they are still very weak and not much has improved except for lack of pain

40.  Wanting to get bangs very badly even though I have really curly hair and everyone says it's a bad idea

41. Realizing that despite being an introvert, social isolation has been much harder on me than expected

42. Realizing that the more things you decline to go to, the less chance you'll be invited ever again, although during a pandemic, I guess that's ok

43. Being irrationally scared of natural disasters 

44. Cataloging all of the books I own in Japan through LibBib

45. Entering the ISBNs of all the Japanese manga I own into Amazon Japan to buy the electronic versions so I don't have to ship all of them back to the states with me

46. Punching myself for my insistence on buying books that I can't keep since I'm returning to America in 2021

47. Doubting my decision to return to America in 2021

48. Terrified of returning to America in 2021

49. Avoiding the news because it makes me angry, want to cry, and feel hopeless

50. Missing deli turkey...they don't have that here. Actually, any turkey. 

51. Going through all the cosplay I bought or made in Japan and sorting which items to keep and which items to toss

52. Getting weepy a lot

53. Dealing with a long-lasting depressive episode in my fun bipolar cycle

54. Revealing too much personal information on the internet in terms of how I feel

55. Collecting things impulsively like anime figurines and acrylic pieces...I never collected these in the USA and never understood the appeal, and suddenly when I got to Japan, a giant switch flipped! I own four collectible figures... WHAT?!?! 

56. Praying much more than I have in years

57. Missing chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream

58.  Making s'mores without graham crackers since I can't find any here...I used plain digestive cookies from the UK and they are a good substitute!

59. Switching from my skinny jeans to my fat jeans

60. Not being able to wear makeup anymore because wearing it under a mask dirties the mask

61. Getting mask acne (macne?)

62. Reading tons of BL manga (yaoi wowie!)

63.  Trying to fix The Name and the Key even though I'm working on Son of the Siren

64. Falling behind on my own website

65. When I'm sad, watching feel-good movies like Eurovision; The Story of Fire Saga

66. Likewise getting "Ja Ja Ding Dong" stuck in my head

67. Making lots of peanut butter sandwiches

68. Got commissioned art completed and it's the most beautiful thing in the world

69. Editing and contributing to Speculative Chic

70. Watching Voltron: Legendary Defender and not understanding all the hate

71. Playing lots of horror movies in the background while I work on chores

72. Finally watched Knives Out for the first time

73. Watched Doctor Sleep and loved it

74. Watched Netflix's Haunting of Hill House at least six times

75.  Played Jackbox TV games with my family via Zoom for the first time ever

76. Cut my hair myself

77. Regretted cutting my hair myself

78. Declined teaching at an English camp because I thought it would be dangerous to my health

79. Felt super guilty about declining said English camp

80. Ate something in Japan that's like a cup with smooth egg in it that's whipped but not and I have no idea what it's called so I named it "Eggie Surprise" because they hide mushrooms or pieces of crab or a bean or two in there and you don't know what you'll get until you eat some egg. I get it at conveyor belt sushi places and I love it.  I really wish I remembered what it was actually called.

81. I gave up learning Japanese. Once I decided to return to the USA, my brain shut off and said, "Stop punishing yourself for sucking at Japanese." 

82. Researched companies that ship stuff overseas for you so that way I won't have to do it myself (it stresses me out)

83. Realized my driver's license will expire while I am in Japan so when I am in America I have to get a driver's permit and take all of the tests all over again. I requested how to do it as "temporarily out of state" but with Ohio's new driver's license rules, I don't have a way of verifying Ohio residency because I've been out of America for 4+ years

84. Trying to seriously save money for the first time in my life

85. Terrified about student loans...so terrified I can't even elaborate here

86.  Debating whether or not to go traditional or self-publish, fully knowing that I'm pulling the horse before the cart

87. Missing my harp from back at home -- when I'm stressed I would play it and I couldn't bring it here with me

88. Doing a lot more things online, but not telecommuting unfortunately

89. Teaching at school as if a pandemic isn't happening. But the difference between Japan and America is that people willingly wear masks with no problem

90. Trying and giving up on sewing my own masks

91. Wondering if Americans ever got over the toilet paper crisis

92. Missing my mother's homemade cake

93. Missing the energy I used to have with frosting premade cupcakes for everyone at work

94. Cooking considerably less

95. Plucking my eyebrows myself as I've always done

96. Spending too much time researching how to throw away my own trash

97. Missing going to Fukuoka City

98. Missing going to Karatsu

99.  The past few shrines I went to, I said hi to Benzaiten

100. Discovered "pokechiki" at Family Mart and my life is forever changed

24 August 2020

Today We Turn 10!

I can't believe it, but 10 years ago today, this website came into being. 

This site started out as a required component for my graduate degree program -- the Writing Popular Fiction Program from Seton Hill University -- so it coincides with my first semester of school. 

For many classes, particularly Readings in the Genre, we were required to post our assignments online for public consumption. Our essays, our critiques, and other coursework would go on a blog and as classmates, we were required to comment on each other's work. 

Of course, we could make our blogs much more than a homework assignment. I consider my graduate degree program a part of my professional writing identity, so I opted to make this site a proper domain with what I chose to be my official author name; later when we would take courses in the Business of Writing or learn about author platforms, I decided to make this a part of my platform

Real life gets in the way frequently, so the amount of posts have waxed (and certainly waned) over the years, but the point is, I'm still here sharing my writing journey with you. It's slow going and challenging at times, but I hope that at any point you've stopped by, you've been entertained, you've learned something, and you've never felt alone. 

Thank you so much for being with me all these years. 

22 August 2020

#52writing cards: Prompts from Shaun Levin's Writing Maps - no. 12

A version of this prompt appears on the Big Gay Writing Map illustrated by James Daw.

When we got to the top of Mount Snowdon, one of the first things I noticed in my group was how everyone had snow and ice on their eyelashes. We had climbed the mountain in February as part of the Outdoor Pursuits course and I was the worst climber of the group. I had very bad anemia at the time and was climbing with already low oxygen in my body, plus I was weaker than everyone, plus I did not have the right kind of footwear for mountaineering on. The boots themselves were inflexible and added extra weight around my ankles. 

I was ashamed at how terrible I was at outdoor activity, but I loved being in nature. I don't think my group made me feel guilty about my lack of physical ability; I did that fair enough on my own. I was not someone who played sports. I was not someone who enjoyed working out or doing anything physical, but here I was, making myself climb the highest mountain in Wales at 3,560 ft. 

We climbed the mountain in the snow. We were suited up, rucksacks on, in freezing weather. Sometimes it was hard to see. Sometimes the snow came down while we were climbing. 

I remember slipping and falling on ice many times. At one point I was so close to the summit point and I had slipped on the ice and accidentally yelled something like a "SHIT!" or "DAMMIT!" as I landed on my butt, which is something I would never really say in what was essentially a classroom environment, despite being out in the middle of nature. I was cold, I was frustrated,  I was embarrassed, I was thirsty because I had lost my water bottle down the side of the mountain, I had no appetite, and I just wanted to get to the top. I felt like there were so many obstacles in my way, and most of them came from me.

When I got to the top with my climbing group, I think there were maybe four or five of us (this was sixteen years ago or so), we posed around the summit marker, trying to smile in what seemed like a whiteout. 

The photograph of us is in an album back in America. The background of the photo is all white. You cannot tell we are standing on the top of the mountain. We're just in front of a screen of snow. We're squinting, not just from smiling, but from the ice that has formed on our eyelashes. 

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

08 August 2020

I Broke Through the Hundred-Page Barrier!

Photo by Floris Andréa on Unsplash
Once upon a time, I wrote a book that was my graduate thesis at Seton Hill University. It was my first book ever, completed in 2013. And for a long time, I worked on that book to clean it up for submissions for agent representation. Then after a couple years of trying to tweak it and simultaneously work on its sequel, I stopped when I realized the book was problematic. I had to throw the whole thing out and start again, but I couldn't figure out how to do that from the bottom up. 

So I finally started working on something new, except it wasn't completely unfamiliar to me. Years ago I wanted to produce  my own comic; a love letter to fairy tales. Then I got to drawing and realized how difficult it was to produce something like that up to my own high standards...but I really liked the story idea, so I decided to switch it from being a comic series to a novel. That's how Son of the Siren came into existence. 

I changed names completely but the bare-bones concept remained intact -- about a half-human, half-siren Prince who uses his voice to save his father, but the magic of the siren song backfires horribly, changing his siblings into wild animals, and him having to go on a quest to save them.  I knew I wanted to combine elements of fairy tales such as The Seven Swans, Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and other stories. 

In seven years, I had not treated myself to writing anything new. And in seven years, I had not written more than some cursory notes and maybe at most twenty pages of prose. 

In 2019, something in me changed. I don't know what...but it's the first time I've had this much momentum with a project in ages, and the first time since graduate school I've written over one hundred pages of a new book. Two days ago I blasted through 100 pages and will keep going. What makes this even more miraculous is that somehow I've managed to do this through a long-lasting, major depressive episode.  

I'm so relieved and happy, I could cry...but I gotta stop here and work on the book. 

I just thought I'd share this momentous occasion with you all, though, just because. 😘

01 August 2020

#52writing cards: Prompts from Shaun Levin's Writing Maps - no. 11

A version of this prompt appears on the Writing the Love Writing Map illustrated by Işık Bayraktar.

I. Kikuchi Gorge

Kikuchi Gorge is part of the Aso Kuju National Park in Kumamoto prefecture, and it's about 20 minutes from where I live. It's known for its beautiful blue rivers and waterfalls, but the forest is full of different types of trees. The only kind I know to recognize are the sugi, or cedar trees. 

The cedar trees at Kikuchi Gorge. (c) Kristina Elyse Butke. 

I don't have the capability of describing the scents of the forest properly. Cedar has a distinctive smell, wet, woody, and maybe almost sweet. The forest smelt mossy and damp...there's a rich, earthy scent to it equally indescribable on my part. 

I did not bring a journal with me when I went on this trip. I put one foot in front of the other to focus on reaching my destination, which included quite a few different waterfalls.  If I were to have stopped to write, however, I would remark upon the moss that covered the rocks and trees; the cold air that came off the river; the mist rising from the water as it rushed down the rocks; and the hikers lugging their tripods and giant cameras with great zoom lens that ruined the atmosphere of forest bathing.

II. Welcome to the Natural World

My mother told me a story of when I was growing up. I'm from Queens originally, and the rest of my family is in Ohio. When we would make the trip to visit our grandparents and other relatives, Ohio would be our gateway to nature. Through stories from my childhood, I'd heard that as tiny children growing up, we were afraid of the wind when it blew through the grasses. Ohio was our first true encounter with nature versus the concrete jungle that is New York City. 

Once I moved to Ohio at age five, suddenly nature was everywhere. My grandparents took us many places to explore it: Gorman Nature Center, Malabar Farm, Mohican State Park...and my mother enrolled us kids in summer camp, so every season we were out in the forests and fields.

November in Yakushima. (c) Kristina Elyse Butke
III. The Seasons

Most of the time, when I think of exploring nature, it tends to be during the summer months, so almost every memory I have is when the woods are at their most verdant green, and the temperature is a bit too much for me to handle. This is probably because summer was the only period where I ever had free time growing up, thanks to school being on break. 

But since coming to Japan, which prides itself on its four seasons, I've done more hiking in autumn -- probably because I find the Kyushu heat so unbearable! 

Japan is a lush, green country all year round, even when the leaves are off the trees (and even flowers bloom in winter, something I'm not used to seeing). 

Imagine my surprise when I chose November to visit the famed Yakushima Island  only to find most of the forest and its mosses were a bright, vivid green, with hardly any leaves turning. The picture at right was the only photograph I took that shows some variance in the color of the leaves. Deep in the forest interior, everything is bright and brilliant even amid the dark, misty atmosphere that pervades the wood. 

I have been in the forests of Japan in every season but winter. Where I live, the snow is scarce, so having snow-dusted trees is a bit of a far-reaching goal, but something I truly would love to see before my time here in Japan is at an end. 

IV.  The Animals

Since Yakushima has my all-time favorite forests, I can't forget about my first time seeing monkeys in the wild. 

A monkey in Yakusugi Land. (c) Kristina Elyse Butke

A lone monkey on Yakushima.
 (c) Kristina Elyse Butke
The photo above is the first monkey I saw on Yakushima. I was walking along the covered path, maybe only about twenty minutes into my journey, when I heard a loud thud right in front of me that startled me so much I froze in place. The monkey just two feet away from me. The animal was much larger than I expected it to be, and it moseyed (really!) across the wooden platform and climbed up the tree. It didn't even seem to care that I was there. 

I saw many more monkeys in the woods at Yakusugi Land (like a family with babies!) and also along the road on the island, just hanging out. 

They also make the cutest little squeaking noise when they cry out -- I heard one calling out to the family group as it climbed a vine running across a river. 

Seeing monkeys in the wild -- and seeing them in a place that's not meant to represent a jungle -- proved to be a memorable experience and one of my many favorite parts of my journey to the forests of Yakushima. 


02 July 2020

Presenting Lirien of Ardeth

I am pleased to introduce to you the lead character of my current work in progress, Lirien of Ardeth, from Son of the Siren. 

Lirien, the Son of the Siren (c) 2020 Lauren Walsh

I commissioned the phenomenally talented Lauren Walsh to do his portrait as a birthday present to myself, and he is absolutely beautiful. 

Here is a quick description of Son of the Siren: 

Eighteen-year-old Lirien of Ardeth, bastard son of a king and a mythical siren, unleashes a forbidden power to save his father from the sea creature's clutches... but there is an even greater danger close by that threatens to possess him and destroy everything he loves. 

This book is a love letter to fairy tales. I play with motifs, imagery, and concepts from three stories: The Little MermaidThe Six Swans, and Allerleirauhall woven together in this fantastical tale of love, courage, and obsession. 


I'm currently on the second act of the draft and plan to submit this to agents upon completion. Wish me luck, and please look forward to this forthcoming work. 

And while you're here... SUPPORT THE ARTIST!

Lauren Walsh is on:
And one of her most recent projects was a cover for IDW Publishing -- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Jenneka #2! How cool is that?!?

29 June 2020

Book Genre Tag: Fantasy

Blend of images by Shot by Cerqueira 
and Alice Alinari on Unsplash
Today's post is inspired by Paper Fury, an excellent book blog and one of the prettiest websites I've ever seen. If you love books and reading, you should check it out! You can also read author C.G.'s original book genre tag post here

When I went to Seton Hill University for their Writing Popular Fiction program, I formally declared two genres: fantasy and horror. These are my favorite genres to read, and while I haven't written straight horror yet, I do let horrific elements creep into the fantasy that I write. 

...But if I had to choose between two of my genre loves, I'd always shoot for fantasy first. It's the genre I've known the longest, staying with me from early childhood all the way up to the present, particularly in the form of fairy tales, myth, and epics. 

Watch me simultaneously idolize and lay waste to my absolute, all-time favorite genre. 



I greatly enjoyed John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, which to me is a love letter to fairy tales and fantastic stories. The premise: 
'Once upon a time, there was a boy who lost his mother . . .' As twelve-year-old David takes refuge from his grief in the myths and fairytales so beloved of his dead mother, he finds the real world and the fantasy world begin to blend. That is when bad things start to happen. That is when the Crooked Man comes. And David is violently propelled into a land populated by heroes, wolves and monsters, his quest to find the legendary Book of Lost Things.
I remember reading this novel and thinking I absolutely wanted to write something like this, and in a way, my current WIP, Son of the Siren, is also seeking to honor multiple fairy tales and their motifs in a single volume. 

This story haunted me as I read it and I'll always love it. It's an engrossing, dark, beautiful story. 


N.K. Jemisin's The Inheritance Trilogy (consisting of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of the Gods) just blew me away. It's all about those gods, especially *swoon* Nahadoth. The premise:
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.
This book changed how I looked at epic fantasy. I just got sick of that genre for many years -- probably at least a decade -- and I avoided anything that sounded like the stereotypical LOTR-tinged tome. I hadn't read anything that really spoke to me since college, and then when I was assigned to read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in graduate school years later, and my faith in the genre was completely renewed. I love these books. 


Photo by Louis Maniquet
on Unsplash
I am a sucker for The Journey and The Mentor. 

When it comes to The Journey, I'm not talking about the Hero's Journey specifically, although that makes plotting a story easier. I'm talking about any time a character has to leave their familiar home and venture out into a new, weird, exciting world -- the more fantastical, the better. Maybe it's because I love travelling. Maybe it's because our world is beautiful, diverse, and exciting, and I love seeing that represented in fiction...only with speculative fic, there are no limitations to the types of worlds we can build. Whatever the reason, whenever characters depart the small space they've always known in exchange for a wide one with unlimited possibilities, I fall in love with this trope again and again. 

Going hand and hand with the Journey is the Mentor, and these two often crop up together because the Mentor is usually, though not always, someone the protagonist meets on their journey. Dispenser of helpful information? Check! Imparter of wisdom? Check! Benevolent educator? Check! Doorway to self-actualization? Check! In real life, I've always valued my mentors, most of whom are teachers or role models in the field in which I write. If you've got someone you can look up to and coach you along the way, the long and winding road isn't so lonely, and you learn from them (and learn more about yourself) in the process. I love wise and kind characters who are there to give the protagonist some info and a gentle push. 


Photo by Javier Peñas
on Unsplash
The Generic Fantasy Opening™ gets on my nerves. Because I don’t want to name and shame, and because I see this in countless books anyway, I’m just going to make up something to show you what I mean. 
The cloaked stranger, carrying on his back the sins of twenty-odd summers, one for every cursed year he walked this earth, peered at the dark shadows looming in the forest, feigning disinterest as he silently clutched his jeweled dagger. The corpulent ebony shades reached out to him like wafting tendrils; the branches of the ancient trees clawed upward like crooked fingers; the air hummed with electricity, and the wind whispered, destiny.
I swear, like 80% of the fantasy I’ve seen starts out this way. It takes a lot to get me to keep reading if the book sounds like this. I need a lot of convincing to continue on.

…This is the snobbiest thing about me when it comes to the genre. 😅😭


I remember being unimpressed with Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. 


Lori M. Lee's Forest of Souls. 


Doorstopper books or series with multiple volumes intimidate me. The one and only series like that that I've gotten through is Harry Potter, and nothing since then. This means I avoid stuff like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series; Terry Brooks's Shannara books; and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I just don't want to devote the time and energy to processing these works. 


Photo by Steve Halama
on Unsplash
I feel like I really need to read a lot more romance. I realized that in my own stories, I always have some sort of romantic element, but I have only read a tiny handful of actual full-blown romance novels. I'd probably stick with historical or fantasy; maybe some paranormal thrown in. But I feel like if I want to write convincing love, compelling relationships, and sexy times, I need to read from the masters and get a handle on readers' expectations from the genre. 


Science fiction intimidates me quite a bit, especially hard science fiction. I like elements that involve robots, androids, aliens, and far-off galaxies, but the minute science fiction gets all technical, weighed down by jargon, exposition, and explanation, I check out. I've read some sci fi, but I feel like the science should be a backdrop to a compelling story with equally compelling characters. The moment the science takes center stage, my eyes glaze over. I also think a lot of stuff goes over my head, a feeling that never went away ever since middle school science classes. 


Readers, what is your favorite genre? What works delight or intimidate you? Let me know in the comments!