28 April 2020

#52writing cards: Prompts from Shaun Levin's Writing Maps - no. 5

A version of this prompt appears on the Write Through School Writing Map with illustrations by Steve Wiltshire.

I. Daisy 

Time/LIFE image sourced from Crumpled Envelope 
Miss Staple makes me think of Daddy's horse Roger because when she sits down at her desk sometimes she makes a snort sound and I don't know if it is the chalk dust that makes her do it or if she wants to be a horse (sometimes I want to be a horse) but I don't like it when she does it while she looks over our papers -- makes me think I did poorly and it's her way of laughing at me (if it isn't the chalk dust after all).

She doesn't know I'm looking at her now, good. I don't want to listen to Miss Staple. I want to go home and brush Roger's mane and pick the grass out of his hair. He's a happy horse who likes to roll around in our field and I think he's a horse who wants to be a puppy like I'm a girl who wants to be a horse. But only sometimes.

II. Billy

Miss Staple at it again. What is wrong with her? Does she have something stuck in her throat? I wonder what she eats that makes her do that. It's annoying. My sister Daisy says she's a horse or something. I don't see it. I think the chalk dust gets up her nose or she doesn't chew her food, but I don't know which one. Chalk dust doesn't make me sneeze and snort and cough. Hay does, though. That's why I can't help on the farm so much or play with Roger. I have to stay away a bit, and Daddy doesn't like that so much, but I can't help it, so he has me help Ma in the house to "make it even." I'm supposed to help Ma pluck a goose after school. That's something Daisy should be doing if you ask me. No, Miss Staple, nothing's wrong. I'm just thinking a bit. Sorry. I'll get back to work.

III. Peter

Billy's got a really big head and the back of it is like a porcupine. He's so dumb, sometimes I want to kick the back of his seat or hit him upside the head. But I have to stop. Miss Staple gave me a last warning and she'll talk to Pa if I don't calm myself down. I just wish this school day was over with.


Hmm...I was not feeling this particular exercise. My actual school pictures are back in America while I'm in Japan, and I didn't want to write about high school anyway...but for this particular prompt, it was like pulling blood from a stone. Not my best work, but you're going to see it anyway, just to show the first time you write it all out, things tend to suck. I hope you enjoyed my "meh" of a story!

25 April 2020

Writers #Ask, No. 43 - 53

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All right, you've reached the end of the tunnel! I hammered through 53 writing questions in the epic Ask Game for writers on Tumblr from author R. Meisel. I divided them into four parts: 1-15, 16-31, 32-42, and now this last post for the finish. Thank you for sticking around and looking into the window of my writing life. Let's wrap this up!



Author Jennifer Loring was my crit partner in graduate school and she taught me so much about writing and was very, very kind and honest in her feedback. But there was one gem from her that was so good, I'll take it to my grave. It is in regards to this specific piece of writing from The Name and the Key: 
If there's no difference between Above and Below, and All and One are exactly the same, then anything is possible. 
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She described it as "the most beautiful description of magic" she'd ever heard. ❤️

Then there was some commentary from literary agent Suzie Townsend, who passed on The Name and the Key but kindly took the time to give me some advice on where it needed tightened up. From her partial reading she told me, "I really love your premise" and "the prose is lovely." This was my first agent submission, guys. I thought I was going to die of happiness when I heard this. It confirmed that I did have talent, and that although it didn't make the cut, I was close. It made things seem less impossible for me and showed me that if I take the advice given, I can make it. 

My mentors Tim Waggoner and Scott A. Johnson also gave me valuable feedback with The Name and the Key, and while they had a lot to say to fix it, once again I heard my writing described as "beautiful" and "very good" and a great deal of positive response to Andresh. I was also complimented on how quickly I made improvements between term writing projects, which made me really happy.

It may not seem that special, but simple words of encouragement or positive feedback can nestle in your heart and keep you company for years to come. When I feel down about writing, I will always remember these moments from these talented people and it helps me push through the dark times in writing.


Hooray! I get a chance to vent (and maybe be a little petty) about my absolute best and simultaneously worst workshop critique ever from Seton Hill...and it happened to be my very first one, so I was terrified. It came out really well, but there were moments that made me twitch because people tend to do pile-ons in workshops, even though they're meant to be safe spaces for feedback.

I submitted an excerpt of Stolen Fruit, my retelling of the Persephone myth that was intended to be a novella (this, by the way, is on a very long pause at the moment). Anyway, I was under the impression that the writing we submitted for the workshop were rough drafts, which meant mistakes were to be expected. So, I submitted a rough draft knowing that one of the sections was riddled with errors: where Charon, the Ferryman, sings opera in Italian (I have him as a Venetian gondola man in this version of the underworld). 

Guys. I do not know Italian. But I put Italian in the rough draft anyway, knowing I would have to come back and have it professionally checked later if I wanted to keep it. I thought it would be ok to have it like this in a rough draft, because ROUGH DRAFT. 

How did I come up with Italian? I wrote out the English, then I fed it into five different translators online, checking each translation against the other and looking up words online in the dictionaries as well. If there was zero consistency among the machine translations, I knew something was very wrong, so I would rewrite the English, refeed it into the translators, and once they matched each other, I put it in my manuscript. This took hours to do, by the way. I did not "search one and done." 

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So low and behold, someone who actually knows Italian is at the workshop critique, and she lets me know that I accidentally used negation in a sentence when it should've been positive, and she asked me point-blank if I knew Italian, and I said no. I was so embarrassed I blurted out that I had used Google translate and you guys THIS WAS THE WRONG THING TO SAY BECAUSE PEOPLE ACTED LIKE I KICKED JESUS. I didn't properly explain my process, and I didn't have time to, because then came the heap of criticism. 

I was so nervous and embarrassed, I didn't defend myself. I did not mention how much work I had put into trying to find a translation - it seemed the people who piped up assumed I put five seconds into writing this part when I definitely hadn't. I also did not mention that because it was a rough draft, the Italian there was a placeholder and of course it would not be the same Italian for the final draft. I thought that would've been obvious to people, but instead, they treated like it I had set it in stone. People didn't back off of it until I mentioned I had a coworker who knew Italian and I would check it with him and people were like, "Yes, do that, because you can't use Google translate to write." 

WELL, DUH. I already knew all that.  

Why did you need this preamble? Because I need you to understand that apparently if you commit one faux pas at a critique workshop that makes people think you're stupid, they're going to think you're stupid for the rest of the workshop. So here's the actual bad feedback I got from the same session. 

Stolen Fruit takes place in an apple orchard, before Cora (a play on Kore, one of Persephone's names) is taken into the underworld by Hades. Cora stole three apples from the orchard and she kept them in her apron during her time in hell. If you know the myth about Persephone, Hades tricks her into eating a pomegranate and that keeps her trapped in the underworld with him. Since my story is a retelling of the Persephone myth, apples are a stand-in for pomegranates, and they are literally part of one of the twists in the story because I AM SUBVERTING A MYTH.

The Lady Who Speaks Italian asked me, "Why did you choose an apple instead of a pomegranate? It's a pomegranate in the myth."

I responded, "Pomegranate means 'apple.'"

And reader, she shook her head at me and told me, "No, no it doesn't." 

Again, I felt attacked and nervous and embarrassed so I didn't stick up for myself. But reader, I'm fucking right

Screenshot Source

I had done my research, but because I made *one* mistake I lost credibility in that workshop classroom and certain people decided I didn't know what I was talking about anymore. 

The only other rough feedback I got in that very same workshop was a complaint from a different author that she thought it was clichéd I had a skeleton ferryman in the underworld. I stuttered quietly, "It's..it's Charon." Mind you, I had Charon dressed up in Venetian carnival attire singing opera in Italian, rowing a gondola through the River Styx, and pulling his skin off like gloves to reveal his bones underneath, but...whatever (my mentor came to my defense for that one, thank goodness). 

Despite those snafus I still walked out of that workshop feeling like a million bucks because the rest of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but ouch, those moments.

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Anyway, workshops are always squirmy experiences for me, because they are always immensely amazing, helpful, and awful...and because I'm always nervous during them, I screw them up. I actually botched feedback I gave to another writer, freaking award winner Stephanie Wytovich, and told her her work was "too literary" which was NOT what I meant but I garbled that so horribly I got the stinkeye and rebuttals from soooo many other writers for blurting that out. Luckily I was able to pull Stephanie aside after that workshop and apologize and try to reexplain what I meant. She said she understood what I was trying to say, but holy crap, INSERT FOOT IN MOUTH. 

And my last story didn't happen to me, but I witnessed it in another workshop in the same program. Did you know that when you call someone a "child," it can be a term of endearment for an adult? Well, in this workshop, the author wrote a dark fairytale with a bit of sexy times happening and the sexy monster force called his prey "child..." and the person critiquing it did not read it that way, thought it was literal, and pretty much reamed the author for something like pedophilia (she did not use that word, but she used strong words like "disgusting"). That was the most uncomfortable workshop I've ever sat in on, and when the author had a chance to rebut her, she did so in a very dignified, polite way, unlike the critiquer, who looked like a smokestack would blow out her ears. 

Workshops are weird, people. 


I want my books to be animated so freaking badly, but I think The Name and the Key could be live action (though I prefer it to be a big-budget television series as opposed to a movie).

The book that would be best as an anime is Son of the Siren. I always dreamed Kyoto Animation would do it (I like their character aesthetic) and I would cast Yoshimasa Hosoya as Lirien, because not only is he a good voice actor, but this man can sing:


Characters. They are my favorite part of writing, and the story comes from them.

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Fantasy. This is what I've settled on writing for the rest of my life. Horror is my runner-up genre, but I haven't written straight horror yet. I just like to put horrific moments in my fiction.


The beginning! As much as I struggle with plot, and plot is so important to the middle of your manuscript especially, my main issue is with the beginning. I can't balance the pacing or exposition most of the time, and so usually once I wrap up my draft I have to actually go back and cut the first couple chapters, because it turns out my natural story start occurs later than it should. That's a pain in the butt to fix. 


So, I used to write musicals, and after I wrote Melancholia I came up with an idea to do some French/Southern Gothic "necrophilia musical" (my nickname for it). It was going to be reanimated corpses in love with each other wearing 18th century French fashions; it was going to have voodoo and dark magic and necromancy; and its lead characters were Doc Carrion and Marie Tourniquette. ...But then I swore off theater, so this idea, which is probably my weirdest, has remained an idea only. 



I don't think writing has changed me. I've changed my writing, and that has only come from embracing good health, stability, compassion, and maturity over the years. 

Photo by Riz Mooney on Unsplash

It is my life and who I am.


Don't give up, don't fight your process, and keep what has always worked for you.


Congratulations! You made it through AAALLLL the posts. Thank you so much for your kind attention and I hope you enjoyed this closer look at what I have done, what I do, and what I will do. ❤️

24 April 2020

Writers #Ask, No. 32 - 42

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Hello again! I'm continuing the epic Ask Game for writers on Tumblr, courtesy of author R. Meisel. There are 53 questions total, and if you need a refresher, you can read questions 1-15 here and 16-31 here. The prompts give a chance to share writing advice, personal manifestos, and the process and craft of writing. Do we share a lot of the same viewpoints and methods? Read on and see!



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Yes, but not all the time. If my absolute concentration is required, I'll leave the music off, but if things are easygoing in the writing department, or if I'm deliberately looking to capture a specific mood, I'll switch on music.

It's always instrumental, and usually soundtracks to film, games, or animation. In some instances it's traditional classical music, but older music tends to be more technical and less about mood or ambiance like modern music is.  If a song is too busy with notes or words, it distracts me from my own writing, so I prefer the sound of modern-day soundtracks most of all. They still tap into the emotion I need to propel my writing.


Both. If I am doing internet research, I will write notes in a notebook by hand. If I am filling out worksheets, I tend to type directly into them, then print them out and put them in a binder. I have no idea why I write out some info but not others. Oh well!


From Son of the Siren -- Kitra is a trickster spirit, a fox who can change her fur, eye color, and size, and flit between human and animal forms. Kitra's younger twin Kai was captured and killed, and he became a Havock stone -- a remnant of the power of the old gods, capable of great magic but at the price of total chaos. When Kitra learns of her brother's demise, she seeks vengeance against the wielder of the stone.



I have a few. First, the quote associated with this website and my Google profile comes from Lewis Carroll:
Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
From a work as nonsensical as Alice in Wonderland, this quote is a motivator for me. I write about impossible things and I want to believe in that writing...and starting your day off with s"six impossible things" seems like a healthy goal to me!

Next, from Terry Prachett:
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.  
I need to hear this because I am overly critical and way too much of a perfectionist when I am drafting. Revisions are what makes my story suitable for other people, and I have to remember that.

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From Paul Gauguin:
I close my eyes in order to see.  
This quote speaks to me of the dreams I have that influence my writing. I can see so many things without looking at them. My mind is vivid and I see better when I shut out the world.

And my last one for this post, attributed to Franz Kafka:
Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.
When you write what you intensely love, the goodness of your work shines through.  A perfect thing to bear in mind when the going gets tough and you're worried about what other people think. 


Considering I don't really outline my story, I don't have anything to share. I just don't have things planned that specifically or that far in advance, and even my vague three-plot-point outline (which is really just a checklist) gets changed all the time depending on where the writing takes me.


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Ugh. Ok. I did this once, with Melancholia. The musical was my catharsis dealing with my mental illness and my first relationship, which I blasted to smithereens with my instability, immaturity, and downright bad behavior. I was not myself during these times. Of course, considering I was actually manic when I wrote this show, I did not have the common sense to see my role in the destruction of my relationships because I was still so very sick. I didn't directly write these real people into the story; it was more like I took a particularly specific situation and made unique characters perform the roles from the real-life circumstance.

And you know what? Taking something private and personal and shoving it before a live audience in the way that I did was not a nice thing for me to do. A stranger wouldn't have been able to tell what I was talking about, but anyone on the inside could. In hindsight, I feel shame for doing this. I really thought I was clever at the time, but I honestly, I was pretty fucked up. Because of this, I vowed not to write characters based on real people ever again. And as this has also been done to me, I can tell you as someone who has both dished it and been served it, it all sucks and isn't worth the potential pain, no matter how clever or cathartic your work is trying to be. 


Original fiction. I am not against fanfiction and I think it's a fun, safe space for experimentation and learning how to write, but I will always prefer original fiction. Part of it is because I get cringey when fanfiction tinkers with canon in a way that affronts my taste. And while original fiction can be terrible, there's something about genuinely awful fanfiction that makes me want to run away from it. I can't even bring myself to laugh at it because fanfiction is and has always been a labor of love and it seems cruel to rip it apart in the way that soooo many people often do. I'd rather avoid it altogether than read it and feel bad about it.


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My brain can only hold space for one. I may get more than one idea at a time, but this is rare. I'm quite single-focused once I start a project.


I already described this process in a separate post, so hooray for copy and paste:
[...] Names are some of the first things that pop in my head - story titles, character names, places - and I tend to build around that. If the name doesn't appear first, then the character will, and the name immediately afterward. Once I get a picture of a person, then I come up with what to do with the characters, and I do this in a very weird way. I am a visual and emotional person, so those are the key aspects to how I think stuff up (and how I learn and interact with the world). When a character appears in my mind, they're already fully formed in terms of how they look and sound. I see them at different angles and I imagine them with different facial expressions (kind of like how animators make style sheets for their characters), and I can hear their individual voices clearly (but it's not like they talk to me or anything). Anyway, when I look at their faces and see the full range of emotions, I ask myself, "What happened to you to make that expression?" And that's how I come up with things to do to the characters...i.e., plot.

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Not anymore. Before bipolar disorder, I was an avid reader of fiction and nonfiction. But since bipolar disorder and over a decade of treatment for it, my brain has changed, and with it came changes in my concentration. Books are harder for me to get into, so I pretty much only read comics and manga now; particularly webcomics. It's just easier for me to process. When I do foray into fiction, it tends to be novellas from Tor.com or similar; or if the fiction is the traditional length of a book, it has to have really clear prose and fast pacing from the get-go in order for me to be able to work through it. I can usually decide within the first two pages or so if I'll be able to handle the book enough to read it.

This transformation has long depressed me, to be honest, but on the other hand, it's helped me as a writer. I've mentioned before that I write the things I want to read, and that means that I have to write it to match my capacity to read. In other words, if I can only handle fast-pacing and clean prose, my own writing has to be that way. If my story is not a page-turner and muddled by foggy sentences, I'll close the book -- and so will my readers.


Great work! You've made it this far, and you're almost done. Stay tuned for the final installment of Writers #Ask, coming soon!

23 April 2020

Writers #Ask, No. 16 - 31

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Welcome back! I'm continuing the epic Ask Game for writers on Tumblr, courtesy of author R. Meisel. There are 53 questions total, and if you need a refresher, you can read questions 1-15 here. These questions cover everything from writing advice, personal manifestos, the process and craft, and also lets you provide some sneak previews. Read on!


Compulsion. I don't know how to explain this all that well...but writing is something that I've always done and always have to do. I was always ambitious with it from an incredibly early age on. I don't know how not to be writing. It feels like my world would fall apart if I had to stop. Writing is so wrapped up in my personal identity that if it were to come to an end, I'd cease to be me somehow.

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Other motivating factors include the desire to write the things that I personally would like to read. I also want to create characters that fill a void in the world somehow, or fill a void in readers who would like to see themselves in what they read.

I am also motivated to become the type of writer who can make a living from writing. As much as I enjoy teaching, it drains me, and teaching does not allow me to live comfortably. Adjuncting led me to poverty, and assistant language teaching has doubled that paycheck, but by American standards, I'm still on the lowest level of middle class. It's not even class or wealth that matters to me insomuch as I'd like to be able to make student loan payments, have healthcare, pay bills, and afford to live independently.  Writing on the whole doesn't pay, either, but there is a small (teeny tiny) window of opportunity for people who can do this, and I'd love to be able to write fiction full time and do research and teach writing workshops for fun.


The problem is I don't (and can't) write everyday, so the numbers are all over the place. Maybe in one weekend I'll knock out 13,000 words because my brain is on fire, or spend seven hours writing a 2000-word article for Speculative Chic, or only get 300-500 words completed in a single day. This is probably the most consistent amount I've written, and again, this is not everyday. I know that if I want to write for a living I need to work harder to create daily output, but I've struggled with this for years and I don't think I have the capacity to make this kind of change. 😫


Cut the beginning. Starting a novel is the hardest part for me, and based on previous experience I can see that sometimes the novel's true start - where its natural rhythm picks up - is around the third chapter. This is usually because I haven't shown the inciting incident immediately enough. I will reread the manuscript and look for the story's natural beginning, and that usually means cutting the first two-three chapters completely.

Then, the primary things I scan for are errors with pacing, clarity, mood, tone, and continuity. I want an emotionally fulfilling page-turner, and if it's not quite there yet, I have to go back and find a way to speed things up. I also continue to cut whole sections or chapters if the need arises.

In the end, I proofread the manuscript 947 times, whereupon I still find errors after a work has been finalized and printed out. Aaaargh.


From Son of the Siren:
Late on the night of Lirien's eighteenth birthday, his father walked into the sea. 

From Son of the Siren, one of the songs Lirien sings:
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It took you on a blust’ry day.
The wind was cool, the sky was gray.
The cold waves that brushed ‘cross your skin,
the tide’s embrace that drew you in –
the ocean dark, it was your end.
I took your hand but could not keep
you from the bitter, drowning deep.
Like the moon enclosed by cloud,
a veil of foam became your shroud.
The ocean dark, it was your end. 
A voice unheard called you to sea,
and stole you far away from me.
So my own words are what remain.
I sing it now, a sad refrain:
The ocean dark, it was your end.
Farewell my dear, my love, my friend.

From Son of the Siren, a speech Queen Aurinda gives to her subjects:
My husband long desired to see his firstborn legitimized, but in his love for me, he suppressed his wishes in deference to mine; the feelings of loss have not left my heart, and the weight of my shame for what I’ve done to Lirien, to Neven, has brought me to this moment. 

This is so difficult for me as a writer and editor who suffers from obsessive tendencies. I don't consider something done until it's received multiple passes, revisions, and proofing. Deadlines force me to stop over-correcting and get something turned it, but as I mentioned before, I still find mistakes after the fact, so sometimes, even when a work has been printed, if there are typos or formatting issues I'll consider the work unfinished. I suppose something isn't done until it's without error...but the thing is, mistakes happen all the time, even when there are already several eyes on a manuscript; so this perfectionist tendency of mine needs to be nipped in the bud because as long as I keep feeding that beast, I can only see it becoming more harmful over time.


Single. I just don't have the skill or focus to pull off multiple points of view. I did read one work aaaages ago, Susan Kay's Phantom, which was my first introduction to alternating POV with first-person narration. The name of the chapter was the name of the character speaking. I thought this was so interesting and she pulled it off well, but given this was the era before my bipolar disorder, I was able to keep up with the character swapping. For about fifteen years now I've been treated for mental illness, and I have to tell you that while I've been stable for quite some time, my ability to read and write quickly, as well as process more complicated narrative styles, isn't what it used to be. Because single POV is easier for me to read, it's also what I choose to write. If ever in the future I try my hand at multiple POV, I will probably only alternate it between two characters. Ambitious, right?


Prose. This is my preferred method of telling a story because of how you can play with narrative and dialogue. It just feels more complete to me.

That being said, I love poetry. I'm old fashioned and love the meter and rhyme of poems - this is why I prefer writing songs, as this seems to be the last acceptable realm for rhyming poetry. It bums me out to no end. There are so many poetry journals I've researched that strictly say "no rhyme" in submissions because they consider it artificial or contrived. That's the fun part about it, though - of course people don't speak in rhyme or a specific pattern of syllables on the regular! You're deliberately playing with structure and sound -- which is exactly what prose poems do, too, by the way.

I am so relieved that Lirien is the titular Son of the Siren and that he sings. I don't want to overdo it, because I know many readers skip over songs in fiction, but I love that I have the opportunity to write lyrics for him to sing in the novel. It's filling the void where my musical theater writing used to be.

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Standalones. This all hearkens back to my special bipolar brain and its (in)ability to concentrate and keep track of things. If the series has books that can function as standalones, in that you can read them out of order or don't need to know about what's happened in other books, then as a reader I'm more apt to give a series a try.

I'm also particular about books, and if they are part of a series, I have to buy all the books in the series or else my library feels incomplete. Too many series have a great first book and lackluster follow-ups which have made me regret my purchases; or the series is awesome but there are so many volumes, so I get discouraged and don't want to part with my money.

I also don't feel comfortable with the idea that if a first book doesn't sell well enough, and you've set it up for a sequel, trilogy, or more, that those follow-up books can get cancelled by the publisher if they see it as too much of a financial risk. Then the narrative feels incomplete and readers are left hanging, and if the first story was good, cancellation of the rest of a series is so painful!

It's my goal to write only standalones for these reasons, especially making sure readers have a complete story and no cliffhangers. But when it came to The Name and the Key, the character of Andresh was so freaking awesome that I didn't want to part with him, so he got his own book, The Step and the Walk. I supposed they're a series because they are set in the same universe with connected characters, but it's written in a way that you can read the books out of order and independently of each other, without them feeling incomplete in any way. I flirted with the idea of a third book, The Eye and the Storm, but I don't see that materializing because I think the third book would have to be dependent on The Name and the Key, and I don't think I want that. If I only get one shot to write in this universe, I'd better make that shot as heavy and complete as possible.


I share excerpts of my rough drafts. This all came about thanks to my graduate school program, where every month we had term writing projects with a mentor and two critique partners who gave you regular feedback on your work. That spoiled me. It was so helpful and encouraging to bear their advice in mind while writing, and their feedback helped guide the story to better places. It actually helped me propel through a draft!

Now, I don't have that kind of attention available to me, so I don't really share drafts anymore, with some exceptions.


Family and friends. Everybody's really well read and can be quite critical (in a good way), so I don't have the "my daughter is the bestest writer in the world!" syndrome going on. My brother is really freaking blunt, sometimes painfully so, which is what I need. My sister and mother give me more balanced criticism and ask me a lot of questions that help me probe my story further. I have two friends, Drew Brigner and Nate Zoebl, who are incredibly creative people with their own writing chops as well, who have given me amazing advice when I worked on my thesis.

I've been a bit more stingy with my draft of Son of the Siren, though. I've only shown the beginning to my brother and sister (although my sister kindly showed it to her family) because I needed a confidence boost -- I had officially halted work on The Name and the Key and The Step and the Walk and was scared to start something completely new, and they both encouraged me, which was just the fuel I needed to propel myself into the next chapter. I'm going to try holding off sharing the rest of the work until I'm finished.

I do want to get back into the habit of properly hiring beta readers that include fellow writers, though. As much as I want to participate in critique groups, that's a reciprocal agreement where you exchange each other's work for feedback, and given how much editing I do for Speculative Chic, I just don't have the time to give back like that. It looks like hiring beta readers will be the only solution there. 


Myself and my audience. I write for myself first because I want to write the stories I would like to read. But I can't deny that I also write because I want to be read by others, which happens to be as many people as possible. If I look at my tastes and style, though, I think my most popular readers will be the geeks, the fantasists, and the dreamers; particularly female readers in the older YA/New Adult range. I'm not deliberately trying to write YA (not that that's a bad thing!) but I've been given enough feedback from writers who've told me that my work would be good for that audience, so it is what it is. I just hope my writing is good enough for them!


Photo by Emre Öztürk on Unsplash
From The Name and the Key. Andresh explains magic to Lily:
If there's no difference between Above and Below, and All and One are exactly the same, then anything is possible.

Queen Aurinda. She's my villain in Son of the Siren, and she is so difficult to write because she does such evil things to Lirien and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Yet at the same time, she's a beloved queen to her people and her husband, and a fiercely devoted mother to her children, who all love her dearly.

I call this the "Cersei Lannister" problem. How do you make someone awesome and awful at the same time? How do you pull off that cognitive dissonance in a satisfactory way? Essentially Aurinda is simultaneously a good person and the worst person, and I'm having a tricky time pulling her character off. We'll see how it goes as I progress through my draft!


Andresh. I've mentioned him sooo maaaany times in these #Ask posts but I suppose when you love a character and he pops fully formed in your head, he becomes easy to write. Having fun makes the time pass quickly, and Andresh is such a fun character!


Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time for another batch of writerly questions!

21 April 2020

Writers #Ask, No. 1 - 15

Photo by RetroSupply on Unsplash

Today's post comes from a special Ask Game for writers on Tumblr from author R. Meisel. There are 53 questions total, so I'm breaking them up into three posts. Join me with lot to commiserate, get advice, and see some sneak peeks of my work; please stick with this project until the end! ❤️🤞


Benzaiten, the goddess of all that flows. Source
My writing nook in Japan. It's basically a home writing shrine. The desk is a fantastic size, and it has this industrial, modern look to it with its white metal and light blue plate glass. My desk lamp, mouse pad, and mouse all look like they're from the future, too. Plus, Daiso is the most amazing store ever (100 yen shop!), and that's where I got the majority of my office supplies and decorative knick knacks. I also have extra-special handmade works I got through Etsy (wooden "Writer at Work" sign; paper roses made from the pages of books I love), various Writing Maps, commissioned character artwork, and photographs of some of my favorite writing buddies from graduate school. I also have little touches of Japanese culture from Shinto shrines for good luck: a giant gold daruma doll for wealth, and the boar from Sumiyoshi Shrine for good fortune. I also have Benzaiten's white snakes and a water dragon from Takachiho Shrine to summon all the inspiration and prosperity from writing I can. Let the words flow out and the money flow in, please! 


Making characters. I mentioned in Never Have I Ever that names are some of the first things that pop in my head - story titles, character names, places - and I tend to build around that. If the name doesn't appear first, then the character will, and the name immediately afterward.  Once I get a picture of a person, then I come up with what to do with the characters, and I do this in a very weird way. I am a visual and emotional person, so those are the key aspects to how I think stuff up (and how I learn and interact with the world). When a character appears in my mind, they're already fully formed in terms of how they look and sound. I see them at different angles and I imagine them with different facial expressions (kind of like how animators make style sheets for their characters), and I can hear their individual voices clearly (but it's not like they talk to me or anything). Anyway, when I look at their faces and see the full range of emotions, I ask myself, "What happened to you to make that expression?" And that's how I come up with things to do to the characters...i.e., plot. 


Plotting. The problem is I may have awesome characters that I love, but giving them enough to do is a huge source of hardship for me. Part of the issue is my pantser tendencies...I tend to write where the mood takes me, or go where the characters and dialogue lead me. This makes sitting down to write a thrilling surprise every time (woo!), but writing on a tight schedule, keeping to deadlines, adhering to a structure, and having a clear (if even albeit general) outline very difficult for me. When my characters are created, I may have 2-3 things that will happen to them. But how do they get there? What brings them to that point? How do you make the journey from point A to B in a way that's coherent, consistent, cohesive, and most importantly, not boring?


From the Met's Costume Institute.
18th century tricorne, CC
Hair or Hat! Apparently I have a subtle ritual where if I'm going to write, I've got to put on some kind of hat, or I have to put my hair back in a bun on my head. I don't know if I have literally trained myself to "put on a thinking cap" or what, but I've done it for years. Back in America, I had plenty of hats, so this was really easy for me to do. But in Japan, I only have one hat, and it's a tricorne from my Jack Sparrow costume that makes my head really hot and uncomfortable...so putting my hair back is the next best thing. 


Here's the thing... If "style" here is being interpreted as "voice," I don't want any author influencing me. My voice is my own. The words I choose, the punctuation I choose, how I arrange sentences and paragraphs, how I build a text...this is all a part of my voice. But, if "style" means something a bit more here (like types, trends, tropes, or tastes), then I can say that Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Patricia McKillip's The Riddlemaster of Hed, Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea, and Cecilia Dart-Thornton's Ill-Made Mute are all novels that have had a huge impact on me in terms of what I want to do and be as an author. Manga, manwha, manhua, and comics influence me, too - particularly the works of Sui Ishida, Junji Ito, Jun Mochizuki, Mingwa, EZ, GyaGa, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Harada, Byeonduck, and many, many more.


Andresh and the Guardian © Dawn Shue
Andresh. He was originally supposed to be a bit character in The Name and the Key, being a friend to Lily and then marrying her sister Lainey, but then he was just too fucking cool to be relegated to the sidelines. He was a fully formed visual and voice in my head, but his purpose was a gelatinous idea - he was a side character to give another side character something to do - but then when I actually started putting him on paper, and his dialogue just started writing itself, he essentially staged some sort of revolution in my heart and I made him the male lead. He is also the first character I ever wrote that people genuinely (and universally) seemed to love. Because of Andresh I decided to make The Name and the Key into a trilogy (and I am mostly anti-series as a writer); and it's because of Andresh that I won't shelve The Name and the Key despite it needing a massive rewrite. I miss working with Andresh, and once I've got Son of the Siren completed I will jump back into Andresh's arms wholeheartedly and give him all my time.


Ursula Le Guin. Back in 2004 I was going to university at Trinity St. David (then Trinity College) in Carmarthen and enrolled in a Science Fictions class, and we were assigned to read The Dispossessed. That was my first encounter with Le Guin. I like sci fi, but it's not really my jam, so when my professor said she also writes fantasy, I went to the library and found The Earthsea Quartet. It wasn't so much the stories by themselves, but all of the big ideas and philosophies humming like an electric current beneath the words that made me fall in love.


Friends-Turned-Lovers, The Mark of Destiny, and The Quest. In terms of my fiction writing, these seem to be my top three.

I cannot write a single story without some element of love in it - it's just not possible for me. It doesn't have to be romantic or erotic, but the presence of love (finding it, keeping it, growing it, returning it) is always a major component in my work. If we are going the romantic route, then I am a sucker for love blooming naturally out of a friendship. This is not the same as unrequited love in a friendship, where one friend pines for the other and it goes unreturned until there is a Big Realization of some kind that unite the two - I actually hate that trope (see #9). I think friendship is already a type of love that people experience...so with this trope, my two characters are already committed, but want to give more of themselves to each other, and naturally (and mutually!) their friendship blooms into something greater and more passionate. I enjoy this trope so much because it feels safe and comfortable to me - it is a relationship between people who are already devoted to each other, just leveled up. 

Lily's scar, from the sketch
of  Butterfly Touch © Dawn Shue
I've written about the Mark of Destiny before, and usually it's something visual and therefore glaringly obvious to indicate that the person who bears the mark is Special and Important.™ I'm not so much a fan of the "destiny" part of it - I like to think we all have hands in making our destinies - but on the most base level, scars, marks, moles, freckles, and tattoos just look COOL. Lily from The Name and the Key has a spider-web type scar on her forehead; Andresh has one on his lip from biting it during an accident; and in my current WIP, Son of the Siren, Lirien has a teardrop mole close to his right eye that's actually a pale, shimmery fish scale. There are no prophecies or predetermined fates for any of these characters - their destinies are apparently to be the leads in my books.

The Quest is the oldest trope in fantasy, and honestly, this has trickled into my real life. The home world is safe and comfortable. To grow, you have to leave it. You have to set out on your own, cast your net wide, learn from the new people around you, and come back - if you come back at all - stronger, fuller, smarter, and more compassionate. The Quest figures in heavily in The Name and the Key and The Step and the Walk. It makes up the middle of Son of the Siren. And when I've gotten stir crazy and felt too safe or stunted, I've left the home nest, too, in whatever capacity I could. Sometimes you have to get out to find yourself.


If I don't like a trope, I try not to write it unless I plan on subverting it or spoofing it in some way. I'll go ahead and use this section to complain about I Love My Friend Who Doesn't Love Me. 

You already know that I like the Friends-Turned-Lovers trope, but the Unrequited Love version of that gets a "nope" from me, because too often I've seen it go from "I know we're friends but I've always loved you" to "YOU OWE ME." I've seen it in the form of Nice Guys complaining about being stuck in the friend zone (also referred to as the "Entitled to Have You" trope). 

If I consider my definition of friendship as a type of love, then it must also be considered that as soon as conquest, ulterior motives, possessiveness, or any sort of manipulation or power imbalance figures into that relationship due to unrequited feelings, it's not a friendship anymore. Or maybe (gasp) it was never one in the first place. 

In a similar vein, I hate that men and women can't be friends with each other because apparently one of them must want to fuck the other (and of course it's got to be one-sided). This is perpetuated through fiction so often that people in real life are suspicious of these friendships and often seek ulterior motives in an opposite-gender friendship pairing.

I also hate the other bad behaviors that come out of this trope. I hate it when the heroine's best guy friend pouts and tries to sabotage the heroine's chances with anyone who isn't him. I hate when the object of affection "must be stupid" for not seeing he's the best guy there. If I flip genders, it's basically the main conceit of a Taylor Swift song.

I could ramble on forever about this trope, but I'll just say this: ENTITLEMENT IS NOT SEXY.


I'm going to reveal something awful about myself: I'm a control freak, and because of this, I don't know if I could ever co-write a book, and I would be terrified of a lack of unity of voice in a work. But if I eventually work through that hang-up and improve myself, I would be curious to pump out something with Neil Gaiman or Tade Thompson. With Gaiman it would be something related to fairy tales, and Thompson, something akin to what he does with his Molly Southborne books, which are cool as all get out. I also wouldn't mind doing something with Ellen Datlow, also relating to fairy tales somehow.

11. Describe your writing process from start to finish.

  • Generating ideas. This is where I do my thing of thinking about cool names, visualizing  characters, and (as a new tidbit for you) picking time periods and settings based on fashion. When it came to playwriting, I literally based shows around the costumes I liked and imagined people wearing. That has carried over to a certain degree in my fiction. If you haven't figured it out yet, I love costuming, and I'm a fervent believer in "clothes make the man."

    Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.
  • Character creation. I come up with a basic character template, sometimes filling out character interview worksheets just because those are fun; I do the thing where I picture emotions on the characters' faces and try to come up with reasons for them to feel the way they do, and that informs the plot.
  • Come up with a couple major plot points. I suck at this. Maybe I come up with a total of three vague points as a general checklist of things to hit, with zero promise that I'll actually hit it.
  • Pants the manuscript and simultaneously do research to make sure the ideas are plausible and sensible.  I'm not exaggerating when I say I do lots of things as I go and on impulse. And sometimes you can get great ideas for your story when you go down the research rabbit hole!
  • Have an existential crisis or block during drafting. Yup. The crisis point comes from me not knowing what my characters should do, or from some sort of dilemma that I can't work my way out of while writing.
  • Show people the beginning to make sure I'm on the right track. I don't like to go too far off in manuscript land, so when I'm stuck, I check the groundwork laid in the first chapter or two with someone else, and if I get positive feedback, I try to build the rest of the plot from that. Plus, validation can fuel me for months!
  • Have a couple anxiety attacks or sleep disruptions. This has always been par for the course, unfortunately.
  • Character dialogue or a sudden slide into a different situation derails original plans and something new and better comes along. This is one of the joys of pantsing a novel, but the downside is it makes deadlines, or time management, all the more difficult.
  • Finish the rough draft and cry from relief.  This has only happened to me once, as I've only finished a book once. I'll get another one done at some point - my WIP is looking pretty good, and I'm actually taking time to plot it out to see if that helps me finish a work at a reasonable time despite being a slow writer.
  • Get more feedback, especially on scenes that gave me trouble during drafting, and revise several times. Multiple drafts are definitely a thing, and I always save multiple files of the same work in case I want to go back and splice an old draft with a new one.
  • I did not do this with my first book and I should've, but I'd like to run passes through sensitivity readers going forward. This is to make sure I'm respectful and not culturally appropriative or problematic when I "write the other." I'm also veering into some dark topics with my WIP so I want to make sure what I write is not overly triggering for readers. My work in the past (playwriting) unfortunately was, and I am still embarrassed about that to this day.
  • Once I clear all those passes, I move onto the proofreading stage. To help with proofreading (beyond simple line edits), I have recently started feeding my writing into a text reader to hear it out loud. I use one in Word, an American male voice, and then TTS Reader online to hear it in an English female voice. It's nice to check the cadence of words and sentences, but it also helps you catch mistakes like duplicate words, or where you've left out a word. As a fun tidbit, I notice that the American voice in Word mispronounces my character and setting names all the time, but the British voice does not!
  • After proofreading is cleared, I prepare for submission to agents. This means preparing writing synopses, log lines, back cover copy, and the query letter. I hate all of that, but if I want representation, it's a necessary step. 

Photo by niklas_hamann on Unsplash
12. how do you deal with self-doubt?

Get feedback. I seek out fellow authors, family, or friends to get a boost of energy from their words, and a sense of validation that I know what I'm doing. I also try to look back at everything I've accomplished in my life, and that helps me calm down. Usually self-doubt comes from not being published yet - along the lines of "I''m getting older. I'm approaching my 40s. Who knows how much time left I have to make it? When will I have my books out?" I could self-publish, of course, and that is very appealing to me, but I'd like to go traditional first. Plus, I cannot afford to self-publish to my high standards, so I'd rather not have a work out at all if it's not good enough.

13. How do you deal with writer's block?

Get artistic. I like to make things that inspire my WIP. I will make playlists of soundtracks that seem appropriate to my current writing. I will watch movies with awesome costumes or settings to get charged up. I will make Pinterest boards and go crazy. I will commission artwork of the characters to put me in the mood to write. 

14. what's the most research you've ever put into a book?

Three years of research for The Name and the Key. Since this was my graduate thesis, and I like to research to brainstorm and while the manuscript is being written, this is the duration of how long I was in graduate school. I started writing The Name and the Key in 2010 and finished in 2013.

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust
15. what inspires you?

Fairy tales.  There are tons of things that inspire me (you can read about it in My Favorite Things), but fairy tales have always been the love of my life when it comes to stories. They were my first introduction to fantasy. I love the symbolism and how fairy tales play with archetypes. I love that they are a global phenomenon and a part of the collective unconscious. I love that images recur throughout every country and culture, even if the story itself is different.  I love the enduring legacy of fairy tales and how they continue to appeal to the masses after so many centuries. Thus, most of my writing is in one way or another inspired by (or a love letter) to fairy tales. 


Thanks for reading all the way through! There are tons of more questions coming up, so stay tuned for part two of Writers #Ask!