Sunday, December 16, 2018

3 Tips for Writing Seasonal Stories

Now before anybody starts freaking out about or praising my “politically correct” title, allow me to clarify: I will not just be talking about Christmas stories but also about stories set in specific seasons whether it be Christmas or All Saints Day (Nov. 1, DE), the Fourth of July (US) or Guy Fawkes Day (Nov. 5, UK). However, I will be focusing a lot on Christmas stories for my examples because the holiday is nearly upon us, but these tips can apply to various holidays.


1) Consider the Literature Written about that Season


Research. Research. Research.

Ask yourself what are the themes that are usually connected with this season? What do the settings look like? What makes the literature worthwhile? How can I write something unique?

When it comes to Christmas stories, I don’t necessarily enjoy ones filled with white Christmases (I’ve never had one) and mistletoe (not a romance fan either), but I do enjoy narratives with realistic characters and great themes.

2) Please No More Stereotypes


A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life are among my favorite Christmas movies because they’re not your typical everything-is-perfect Christmas stories. I wonder what Charles Dickens was thinking when he wrote his famous book. “You know what Christmas stories really need? How about a stuffy businessman, ghosts, and death?” It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, hardly takes place during Christmastime at all. Not really. And it’s a story about a man contemplating suicide. Merry Christmas—here’s more death (potentially).

Yet both stories have been considered classics for years. Why? Because in light of darkness, they offer hope.

Christmas is a time about love and hope, certainly. But that doesn’t mean the day is exempt from tragedy. During WWI, troops on both the German and British ceased fighting to celebrate Christmas Day only to resume fighting the next. When I was a kid, my dad was deployed in Afghanistan, and we got to meet up with him for Christmas, only to have him go back after a week. Another time, when I was a teenager, my dad was the on-call duty chaplain, meaning he had to carry a government cell phone with him and be ready to respond to any emergencies regarding the military—and he had to go counsel the wife of a service member who committed suicide on Christmas morning.

Even Mary and Joseph fled with young Jesus because King Herod was trying to kill him and massacring the toddlers and infants in Bethlehem.

Ignoring tragedies won’t make them go away—they only feed taboos. That’s not hope. That’s fear.

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”—C. S. Lewis

3) Get Ready to Write Outside the Season


Perhaps one of my favorite facts about It’s a Wonderful Life is that the film was shot during the summer and that the actors were sweating wearing winter coats.

Writing is similar. If you can write, edit, pitch, edit again and again and again and publish and market a Christmas story before the Eve, HOW? Marketing itself is a long process, and even the fastest writers and editors are dependent on an attentive audience. While you can write a certain story during its set season, it’s not practical to only write then.

When I started writing “The List”, I was listening to Christmas music for inspiration in July 2014. Submissions for Splickety ran from August to September, and most of my edits took place during October/November. Though the magazine released December 5, I didn’t receive my author copies until January 2015. All that for a 1,000-word story.

If you’re going to write about a particular season, prepare to be focused on it for a while, even longer than the season itself lasts.

There you have it. And because I’m not politically correct…


Let’s chat! What are some of your favorite Christmas stories? Do you have any tips for writing stories about certain seasons?

***


Film & Literary references: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the Holy Bible

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Poem: Pine Trees

I had a hard time picking a poem for this month. I haven’t been doing a lot of creative writing lately and nearly ran out of original poetry. Then I remembered some of my favorite poems from my undergrad writing class.

This one in particular is loosely inspired by some of my childhood memories of Washington, aka the evergreen state. I spent seven years of my life there, a pretty long time for a military brat. Of course, when I say loosely inspired, I mean loose. My dad did deploy to Afghanistan, but the rest of the family and I were living in North Carolina at the time. After a year, my dad came home.

Here’s to the soldiers deployed this Christmas season. Here’s to the spouses and children waiting for their return. Here’s to the families living overseas.

You are not alone.



Pine Trees


In green they mock fall’s bright red-orange d├ęcor
to show off leaves where small squirrels abide
with naught but cones for life on forest floor.
My friends and I, we’d build small forts to hide
pretending tales were life with every stride.
Like sweets, the sap did cling to child’s small hands
and time blew through the trees with open fronds.

The evergreens wore their cold cloak of snow
among the dead bushes from which we picked
berries until he left. Would that I knew
safety was guaranteed, but stars were pricked
by tall toothpicks. For pines, the world’s not strict.
For one long year where trees upward did press,
I stood beneath the boughs now fatherless.

Then pines sang songs of lights and frailty—
One snap. One ax for Christmas time all ‘round.
Soft smell, strong hearts for God and our country,
like stumps uprooted from their ground,
he left a hole. Still there, old wound,
the pines, they stand in mist shrouded from sight,
empty patches sinking into the night.

***

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Let’s chat! What are your thoughts on the poem? Any fellow military brats out there? What’s the longest you’ve lived in one place?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Book Review: Antiheroes

I received an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review. I want to thank the Phoenix Fiction Writers for their anthology and for helping me practice how to properly spell the word “antiheroes.” (Nailed it!) All opinions are my own.

As this book is not a traditional novel but rather a short story anthology, I found myself confronted with the unique pursuit that was writing a review. With so many different authors and stories, it hardly seems adequate to evaluate one story based on another. So, I thought I’d break up my review in a similar fashion to the short stories with mini reviews and a precursor review of the book as a whole.



Book: Antiheroes by Kyle Robert Shultz, E.B. Dawson, Hannah Heath, Beth Wangler, Nate Philbrick, J.E. Purrazzi, and K.L. + Pierce
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Short Stories
My rating: 4/5 stars
Awards: None (yet!)
Year published: 2018
Seven-word description: A story a day keeps boredom away.

Some of the stories work well as stand alone narratives, referencing but not depending on other novels, other stories are a little harder for me to grasp. Overall, the fantasy stories made more sense, not that the science fiction ones were bad. I’m just saying that, as independent stories with unique world building and character development, the fantasy ones worked better for me.


Fantasy


“The Wolf at the Door” by Kyle Robert Shultz


Don’t read this. Don’t look at a single word past this introduction.

I’m sorry to say I followed the advice, at least for a few minutes. I was sitting at my computer when I first downloaded the e-book, then moved to my bed for more comfortable reading. Author of the Beaumont and Beasley series, Shultz is brilliant at writing fairy tale retellings. Though this story references characters from the series, it can be understood and read on its own.

Reminiscent of the tale of Red Riding Hood, the story follows one Wilhelmina Grimm to a village in the woods. And that ending, though! I definitely didn’t expect that.

Overall Thoughts: Best Plot Twist

“Vengeance Hunter” by Hannah Heath


“Quila turned away. ‘I would rather starve than live on the blood of innocents.’”

I don’t usually read stories about vampires, but wow! That one was good.

I was first introduced to Heath’s writing by her short story Skies of Dripping Gold, and I’ve been hooked on her stories ever since. Her themes are amazing. Yes, even in a story told from the perspective of an antihero who harvests blood for her people. Creepy. *shudders*

My only question: is it plausible to harvest blood from a person after they’re dead without compromising the blood? I mean, sure, it’s a story about vampires, but still.

Overall Thoughts: Best Themes

“The Word Thrower” by Beth Wangler


“Words are sharp; wield them kindly.”

Several of Wangler’s books are on my TBR list, but I haven’t read much more than her short stories. While I may not have much to compare Wangler’s work to (yet), I still enjoyed this story and the way it explores how words have power and how they might have even more power if certain people have the ability to speak and have their words become reality.

I’m still not sure whether or not Dax counts as an antihero, though. I mean, I’m pretty sure I get what the author is going for, but still. *shrugs*

Overall Thoughts: Most Thought Provoking

“The Astounding Mortal Peril of Denna Dorwen” by Nate Philbrick


“When six o’clock tea-time settled over the Dragon Tooth Curiosity Shop, Denna Dorwen found herself suspended by the blouse from a peg on the wall, contemplating her own imminent doom.”

Well that was entertaining! I was first introduced to Philbrick’s work when I read his novel Where the Woods Grow Wild, a light-hearted fantasy adventure with great characters. Philbrick doesn’t disappoint with this short story, either. His writing style is witty and entrancing, and the plot twists took me by surprise. Seriously, I should have seen that coming!

The only thing is that I’m not sure whether to root for Denna or not. I’m leaning toward not. Antiheroes are so complicated.

Overall Thoughts: Best Antihero


Science Fiction


“Stealing Freedom” by J.E. Purrazzi


I’m sorry to say I don’t remember this one very much. I like the idea that Koya seems to be some sort of cyborg with some pretty cool abilities, but nobody seems to view his physical appearance in a positive light. That and he doesn’t seem to take a very active role in his own story. The story ended on a sort of cliffhanger, though, so perhaps there’s more to be told.

Overall Thoughts: Most International

“Gynoid” by K.L.+Pierce


This story is about a balance between logic and emotion, human and artificial intelligence. I liked the uniqueness of the writing style. Though it threw me off at first, I came to appreciate it more as the story went on. And the narrative introduced me to some terms I hadn’t understood before.

I’m not sure I fully understand this story. There were organizations I’m quite sure what their purpose was, much less what their acronyms stand for. Perhaps it’s meant to be a part of another novel I haven’t read?

Overall Thoughts: Most Scientific

“Striker” by E.B. Dawson

“I may not be religious, but I think my mother would have said that no scientific procedure can remove a man’s soul; he has to give it up willingly. And I’m not gonna do that.”

I had read one of Dawson’s novels before and didn’t care for it, but her short story in this anthology had to be my favorite in the sci-fi category. The plot follows Danny, a government agent with enhanced abilities known as a Striker, as he goes rouge and embarks on a self-imposed mission of vengeance. With stellar world building (pun intended), well-developed characters, and thought-provoking themes, this story is everything I enjoy about sci-fi.

My only complaint is the cliffhanger. I need more!

Overall Thoughts: Best Suspense

In all, I gave the Antiheroes anthology 4/5 stars for some great stories and some confusing ones, some heroic actions and some less than heroic. But hey, we’re talking about antiheroes here. Whoever asked for perfection? I’d recommend this anthology to readers of science fiction and fantasy looking for some interesting and thought-provoking stories.

Interested in Antiheroes? Have you read it yet? You might also enjoy these books: Colors of Fear by Hannah Heath, The Beast of Talesend by Kyle Robert Shultz, and Where the Woods Grow Wild by Nate Philbrick.

Let’s chat! Has Antiheroes made it to your to-be-read list yet? Have you read it yet? Have any fantasy/sci-fi anthology recommendations?

***

Sunday, November 18, 2018

3 Types of Writers You Should Know

I’ve learned a lot studying for my MBA, from marketing techniques to filling out an Excel spreadsheet. Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out that second one. It’s a steep learning curve. But one of the things I’ve enjoyed so much about the course is the way the professors encouraged each student to study what they’re interested in—particularly the area of business they wanted to pursue.

My interest lies with publishing and book retail. I did projects on various companies, from Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing to Barnes & Noble to my own idea for an independent bookstore.

One particular piece of advice that I’ve taken from my studies has been concerning leadership and learning. If you want to improve your skill, you should know three different types of people. And I thought, “Hey! This can apply to writing as well.” So I’ve put the following categories into writer’s terms.


The Student: A Writer with Less Skill


When it comes to learning, one of the best teachers is experience. Another is teaching. I’ve heard it said that if you can’t explain a concept in simple terms, then you don’t really understand it.


Not only do students help me refresh my memory on a concept I’ve heard about a million times (e.g. what is POV?), but they also teach me things I may have forgotten or may have missed (e.g. new words!). When it comes to classes where I’ve taught writing, I like to review the material myself and do extra research so I really know what I’m talking about. The same goes for editing or beta reading. Just because I may have been writing for years doesn’t give me an excuse not to pick up my Chicago Style Handbook, Writing the Breakout Novel, or even the dictionary.

Yes, talking to a less-skilled writer may make you feel smart, but it’s also a great way to pass on knowledge.

The Ally: A Writer with the Same Skill Level


The allies are perhaps the most fun to hang out with. No offense to the mentors or the students, but it’s easiest to make references and jokes when you better understand where the person is coming from.


Writers with a similar skill level also make great critique partners. That’s not saying you shouldn’t have somebody with more skill look over your writing. You probably should. Writers whom you can easily relate with are pretty good at catching mistakes you may have missed and critiques are easier to receive when they come from your peers.

That and when you’re done talking about your stories—Haha! That’ll never happen—you can talk about the latest books you’re reading.

The Mentor: A Writer with More Skill


I like to think of myself as a humble writer, but if I’m going to be completely honest, sometimes I can be particularly arrogant. I’ve been writing since I was twelve; I earned an M.A. in English Literature; and I’ve self-published a novelette series. (See, I even know what novelette means!)

Recently, I was put in charge of the writing group at my local library, and I was super excited to kick off our get together for the fall. Two people aside from myself showed up, one of whom is a published author (with an agent and everything!). When we got around to talking about querying agents, the author switched into teacher-mode and went into some of the details I feel like I’d heard or read countless times before. I wanted to say I already knew what she was talking about, but I kept my mouth shut for the benefit of the other writer who hadn’t heard it.


I had to remind myself that sometimes it’s okay to listen to advice instead of show off what I already know. Even though the meeting didn’t go quite as I expected, I still walked away with some valuable advice on showing emotion in writing, something I’ve struggled with for a while.

Mentors help keep writers humble. At least they do for me. While they can also make me feel uncomfortable sometimes, what with my lack of skill or review of concepts I already know, they can still help me learn.

If you haven’t already, find a writing mentor. You don’t have to go and stalk the writer closest to you (actually, please don’t), but ask for advice. This mentor can be a teacher, an indie author, a traditionally published author—so long as they have more experience than you. You may just learn something.

Let’s chat! How many of the writer types do you know? When’s the last time you talked with a writing mentor? What are they like?

***

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Joys of Rereading

Minimalization can be pretty important.

Sometimes more is less, whether it’s having fewer knickknacks (do I really need 500 bookmarks or twenty-five?) or using fewer words in a story or blog post. Because my family tends to move at least once every three years, I even have to limit my book collection. Books mean weight, and more weight means more money.

This past year, we’ve paired down some more, and I got rid of more books. *gasp* But I only got rid of the books I knew I wouldn’t read again. The ones I bought on impulse and didn’t care for. The books I liked but couldn’t remember enough to want to keep it.

My reader goal is to own only books I like. The ones I know I’ll reread and reread again. The ones that are signed. The ones with covers that are falling apart because I read them so much. The ones with notes in the margins.

Then again, minimalization is great… but I’ve never understood people who don’t like buying books because “Why would you want to read it again if you already know how it ends?” To which I like to reply, “Why not?”

So here it is, a semi-brief case for owning books to reread.


1)      Rereading great books means no due date.


I like visiting the library so much, I often leave with way too many books. Every now and then I have to return a book without having even started it. Which then makes me feel guilty for not having read the book and messing up the library’s statistics for books read. At least I don’t have to worry about library fines because military libraries rock and rely more on the honor system. I’m dreading the idea of one day checking out books from a civilian library.

With books I own and want to reread, I don’t have to worry about a due date. Of course, this also means sometimes, they’re harder to start because I feel like I have all the time in the world. Once I get started on a reread, though, I cannot be stopped.

2)      Rereading comes with fewer disappointments.


That’s not to say that your opinion on the book won’t change. Maybe it will. And that’s okay. But when you pick up a book you’ve read before, you know what you’re getting yourself into. If you choose one you gave five stars, you’re probably less likely to wind up giving it two stars upon finishing it again. Whereas books you’ve never read before can be pleasantly surprising or they can be incredibly disappointing. You don’t know.

Rereading is like revisiting an old friend.


3)      Every time you read a book, you have a different perspective.


When I first read The Tale of Desperaux as a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But when I picked it up as a teenager, for some reason, I didn’t like it at all. Then, when I reread it for a class in Children’s Literature during my undergrad, I liked it again. I must have been a weird teenager because my reading tastes have switched since then.

Every time I read a book, my perspective is different though. I don’t just read a book for the sake of reading a book. I read it having enjoyed (or not enjoyed) the book before it. I may pick up a fantasy book after having been immersed in nonfiction. Or maybe I’ll start a middle grade novel one after another and then switch to adult fiction.

Then there’s life. The books I read during midterms weeks are the same books I read after I finished my first graduate degree, but that doesn’t make me the same person. I have more experiences and a slightly different view.

No matter how many times you read the same book, the experience will not be the same.


4)      Rereading helps you discover new things!


When I first picked up The Scorpio Races, I almost didn’t finish it. Say what? This from the person who won’t stop ranting about how good it is. I checked it out from the library during the summer when my professor posted which books we’d be reading for YA fiction the next semester, but I didn’t make it past the prologue. Later, I bought the book for class and read the entirety then, starting from the beginning. I discovered that I could really like some slower-paced books with just a smidge of romance and a lot of blood. Nearly three years later, I picked up the book again, having completely forgotten why I enjoyed the book so much.

Similarly, my family and I have a Lord of the Rings marathon once a year. Because I tend to remember plots pretty well, when I’m re-watching movies, I start predicting what will happen in the next scene before it happens. Before I know it, my mind is three scenes ahead and then I get frustrated because the movie is so slow. With the watching The Lord of the Rings, I started focusing on certain characters, their mannerisms and character development, so by the time I got to the end, I could enjoy the movies as a whole instead of mentally skipping ahead. I like to apply this same focused technique to rereading as well, whether it’s focusing on the writing style, the dialogue, or the character development.

Reading acquaints readers with the plot and the characters. Rereading helps readers get to know them even better. Reading is an introduction, but rereading is a friendship.


5)      Rereading is rewarding.


Sure, it’s fun to have books up on my shelf to look at and show off to all my fellow readers. With all the time I spend collecting my treasured books, what good are they if I don’t actually read them? Going to the library is good, yes. But it’s important to spend time on books you’ve invested money and space to.

After all, rereading isn’t just educational. It’s also fun.

Let’s chat! What’s your stance on reading a book once vs rereading it? How often do you reread books? What’s one book you’ve lost count of how many times you’ve read it?

***


Literary references: Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Desperaux, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Mary Elizabeth Edgren’s Methuselah’s Gift

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Poem: Goodbye Again

I recently discovered where my first poems ran off to. For some reason, when I got my new laptop, they’d vanished. When revisiting my old (really slow) laptop to clear it off, I found the poems I wrote for my Creative Writing class back when I attended Evangel.

My main question when posting one here: how much do I edit it?

After four years, my writing style has certainly changed, for my stories and for my poetry. Would editing it now change the meaning I had intended when I submitted the poems, first for my class and later for my writing portfolio? Would editing now reflect my current style more than my former?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way, I’ve decided to leave the poems, at least the one I’m sharing here, untouched. Don’t worry, though. I edited it multiple times back in uni. The following work is dedicated to the members of the armed forces and their family members. Thank you for your sacrifice to protect the United States and her allies.


Goodbye Again

The threshold of another hollow house remembers the
months—years ago with company, smiles, and shouts. Now
filled with disinfectants, paint, and empty air, the building
stuffs Memories into the car again to
fly from the void
of singing oceans, laughing thunder, and whispering evergreens.

Another house frames our past:
handmade leis, cowboy hats, and matryoshkas.
New neighbors—family, not in blood,
but in swamp-or-desert-green garb,
fill home with guest books, new quilts, and pecan pies
as a company, we smiling and shouting.

Day—years tiptoe past.
Another house empties, chucking up its goods
like vomit. Our camo family remains behind
filling the void with “Goodbye.”

***

Let’s chat! Any other military brats out there? What sort of things in your house speak to where you’ve been? What’s the longest you’ve ever lived in one house/apartment? How long have you known your closest friends?

Similar poems: Dandelion Seeds, Cathedral, and Bury Me

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review: The Bird and the Blade

Me: One day, I aspire to write a book this well.
Sister: That’s nice.
Me: *throws book at couch* *to book* How dare you!? Stay there and think about what you’ve done!
Sis: *jumps* Oh…

2018 has been a good year for YA books, from A Conspiracy of Stars to A Thousand Perfect Notes. After recently reading a bunch of 3-star books, I was starting to wonder if I’d find another good one again. Then I did.

As I was scrambling to find a book to review for this month, I picked up The Bird and the Blade from my TBR shelf. Not to be confused with my TBR list. I actually have a shelf of five-to-ten books I plan to read next whereas my list is just a concept. Actually, my shelf has spilled onto another shelf and I need more hours in the day to read. Seriously, where did all my reading time go?


Book: The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
My rating: 5/5 stars
Awards: None (yet!)
Year published: 2018
One-word description: quest

“The only reason Timur Kahn isn’t dead is because he is ludicrously lucky. The only reason Khalaf isn’t dead is because he is brave beyond measure. And the only reason I’m not dead is because I was singing in a tree like an idiot.”

In a world ruled by men comes a tale of two women who destroy everything. Okay, so that’s not exactly how it happens, but it’s pretty close. The Bird and the Blade is a tale about family and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, love and respect. Oh, yeah, and blood. Lots of blood. From the Song Empire (China) to Il-Khanate (part of the Mongol Empire), the majority of the story is a journey across Asia.

I particularly liked the main characters, Jinghua, Khalaf, and yes, even the obnoxious Timur. I especially liked the way the relationships developed, especially how Khalaf respected everybody from slaves to rulers, which played into one of the overarching themes—what does it mean to love and respect a person? And though I’m not usually a fan of romance, I totally ship Jinghua and Khalaf.

I also enjoyed the riddles, though I was only able to correctly guess one, but to be fair, that answer was given to the readers.

Every now and then a plot twist would creep up that I was able to predict oh, maybe five paragraphs before it happened. Then another twist would hit me like a bus. Suffice to stay the story was told from a first-person unreliable narrator with a nonlinear narrative. At first, I found the nonlinear part killed some of the suspense, but in the end, it all made sense.

Then there was the moment when the title finally made sense. I particularly like the way Jinghua earned her title as “the little bird”—because she likes to sing even though her mother tried to teach her that it wasn’t ladylike. From my twenty-first century perspective, that view doesn’t make much sense, but I like the songs and the way the book included poetry and intellectual and heartfelt discussions. That and the story was based off an Italian opera, Turandot.

There were times when I wondered why the story was told from Jinghua’s perspective. I mean, I enjoyed her storytelling, but at times it seemed like she was just along for the ride. As the story progressed, though, she took on a much more active role, which I appreciate.

In all, I gave The Bird and the Blade 5/5 stars for excellent storytelling and character development. I’d recommend the book to readers of YA fantasy and historical fiction. I look forward to seeing what the author Megan Bannen has to write next!

Interested in The Bird and the Blade? Have you read it yet? You might also enjoy these books: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan (see book review), and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Let’s chat! Has The Bird and the Blade made it to your to-be-read list yet? Have you read it yet? Have any historical fiction or YA recommendations?

***