Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book Review of The Arasmith Certainty Principle by Russ Colson

A geology grad student with a spiritual bent and a mystic from the Pleistocene find a modern skeleton in ancient rock and must risk their friendship to save the world from an unexpected danger lurking within the laws of physics. 

Jen Hewitt, a quiet geology graduate student, doesn't actually believe in time travel. Were it possible, rocks from the age of dinosaurs should already be cluttered with artifacts from future time-tourists. Nevertheless, she proves with fellow geologist Jonathan Renner that a human skeleton encased in Pleistocene rock came from their own time. Their work, coupled with fundamental research by physicist Susan Arasmith, reveals an unexpected character to the universe that carries them from the safe world of science into a struggle with powers and possibilities they hadn't imagined. The three friends, along with Kar-Tur, a frightening mystic from the ancient past, learn that discovery is sometimes as much about faith as knowledge, and that friendship and love are often found where least expected.

Amazon   Goodreads

*We were given a copy of this book in exchange for our honest review*

As a huge fan of all things science fiction, I was super excited to read this book, and it did not disappoint! For me, this book had all the goodies a sci-fi fan would want. Right out of the gate I loved the premise of the book. A geologist finds a modern human skeleton in 40,000-year-old rock?! Sign me up!

Not only does this book have a superb premise, but the characters are fleshed out as well. I loved how the chapters jump from person to person, giving the reader insights into their lives and thoughts. 

This story moves quickly as well, which is always something I enjoy. I may not have understood all of the science terms or language, but Colson explains the experients and concepts in a way that an average Joe could understand and appreciate. 

Fans of sci-fi, speculative and just plain adventure will love this book. Time travel, government conspiracies, and romance are just the tip of the iceberg with this book. 

Russ Colson is a scientist, teacher, author, gardener, and grandfather living in northwest Minnesota, far enough from city lights to see the Milky Way and the Aurora Borealis. During the dark northern winters, he teaches planetary science, meteorology, and geology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. In summers, he writes, gardens, and collaborates with undergraduate students on research projects in experimental planetary geochemistry. In 2010, he was selected by the Carnegie Foundation and CASE as US Professor of the Year.

Before coming to Minnesota, he worked at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and at Washington University in St. Louis where, among other things, he studied how a lunar colony might mine oxygen from the local rock. In addition to science fiction books and books on Earth Science and gardening, he has published a variety of technical papers, science fiction short stories, and essays on earth science education.

Website    Twitter   Facebook 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Just Like Magic: Why You Must Avoid the Magical Cure Trope

Whether it’s the misuse, the lack, or the excess of it, magic usually holds sway over our fantasy worlds. If you’re more a sci-fi person, you know that technology takes the place of magic here. With this, however, comes a problematic road: everything is an easy fix.
Many fantasy authors argue that magic must have a cost. While I don’t necessarily agree, I do think the relationship between magic and people must be carefully constructed. It needs laws, or limits, whether those are because the wielder must draw their own blood to cast a spell, or because they did not survive the Water of Life, like in Dune. 
Magic healing, for example, becomes even more complex when characters have disabilities--even ones caused by magic itself.
I don’t disagree at all with portraying magic that causes a character to become disabled, depending on the context. But battling through an entire book by a character's side should never be cheapened by a magical cure. 
Often the cure is rewarded for being Good or Brave or Selfless and Doing the Thing. Suddenly they’re no longer blind or their limb is restored, or the voices of anxiety and depression stop their incessant yammering.
But that’s not how things work.  At the end of the day, magic is as real a cure as a parent’s kiss on a scraped knees. It paints a dark picture that if we’re not Good, if we’re in fact Bad, or Fearful, or Confident, then we will remain or become disabled. Follow that thought through to the next step:
Disabled people are Bad, because surely if we were Good, we would have been cured by now.
That’s not very inspiring or helpful to anyone, now is it? Plus, it’s way more interesting to read and write a book where the easy route isn’t an option. Sure, fantasy and science fiction are supposed to push the boundaries of our understanding of society, but I’ve always felt they also serve as examples of how people can live and what they face, regardless of the source. 
Another issue with the magical cure trope is it perpetuates the idea that all disabled people want a cure. Many, do. But often, like in the case of Autism Speaks, seeking a cure is actually driven by abled people’s need to be free of the “effort” of accommodating disabled people. What’s so wonderful about fantasy and science fiction, though, is you can build entirely different reasons why your character doesn’t feel they need or want a cure. Cures are unnecessary with magical and advanced accessibility. Example: they don’t need to be magically able to walk without pain, because their hover chair can go anywhere on and off the electro-mag grid.
I’m in pain most days. Obviously, I wish I wasn’t, but I can’t change it. What I can change is how I navigate the world and how others interact with me in regards to my disability. Perhaps your character doesn’t want to be able to hear, they just want to communicate and connect with people more easily. Besides, if you’re going for wow factor: changing a society’s perception is a way bigger miracle than just changing one pesky human body!
All this to say: magical wounds and madness are fantastic ways to explore disability and metaphor in alternate realities. Just be sure you’re exploring all the nuances of life as a disabled person, and giving us real rewards to aim for. You’ll find our wants are like most people’s: peace, friendship, and food!
Are you near Denver, CO? I’m teaching a workshop at the Siren’s Conference this October titled Navigating New Waters: Understanding the Nuances of Creating Disabled and Mentally Ill Characters. Let me know if you’re in the area!

Tune in on the fourth Sunday of every month for more on disability in fantasy and sci-fi. Learn more.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Bowl of Peanuts: What to Write About

My dad just told me a story in which he, returned from a late-night gig, wanted to wind down with a snack before bed. He took a bowl of peanuts and a glass of wine to the recliner and started to watch TV, only to wake four hours later, the bowl of peanuts on his chest, the TV blaring. 

I laugh at this, because my dad loves portraying himself as a silly old coot and telling me the goofy things he forgets. My favorite was the story about thinking a guy forgot his bag on the bus and readying himself to leap off the bus and heroically restore it to its rightful owner, only to see it claimed by... a totally different guy. 

When my dad tells my these stories, I can see him playing out the action in my mind. I can summon a vision of him in his fluffy maroon bathrobe, an updated version of the original "Big Red" I was comforted by as a kid. His slippered feet are kicked up in the recliner, and a dumb old cowboy movie is playing on the TV. I can see him drifting to sleep while the bowl of peanuts is perched precariously in that little divet between his chest and belly, which he jokingly calls a built-in cupholder. I can craft the time passing in my head, shape it into a story where something changes when he wakes up, drawing a picture of his character as he realizes his folly and immediately begins to laugh at himself. 

I used to think that to write creative nonfiction or memoir, I had to tell my whole story each time. Or that I would have to deliver pieces of my childhood trauma or the problems of my family. I do write about those things, but usually for myself, not to be shared. Often, the things I write bear some truth of my life or reveal something about who I am. But no one thing I write is going to perfectly represent my entire identity. Throwing out that pressure has been helpful- it has freed me from the unfair expectation that everything I write must be significant in a grave way. 

But I still need things to write about. Especially if I am writing every day (which I actually live up to for about a month at a time). I draw from memory, things I notice about people, things I see on walks through my neighborhood. Things happen - ordinary things - and if I can draw a conclusion or make a connection to something else, this might be fruit for writing. 

One of the people who encouraged me to do this was Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, which remains one of my favorite books about writing. She emphasizes that in order to be a writer, you have to write. What should you write about? Anything you can write about. One of the exercises she suggests is: tell me everything you know about school lunches. So I'll try that now, in my notebook, and share whatever comes out as (Lamott's term) a "shitty first draft." 

I never bought school lunch in elementary school. Our school didn't have it except one Friday a month when there was HOT LUNCH, which was to delineate freshly prepared food rather than bags that had been sitting in lockers all day, but which to me always seemed literally piping HOT! LUNCH! 
Usually it was pizza. 
So we were all brown bag kids on all the other days, but when your parents forgot to pay for HOT! LUNCH! you were especially noticeable on that day. That was me. I was also especially noticeable for the amount of mustard I put on things. The Catholics were suspicious of mustard; it had too much flavor to be virgin-Mary approved. I was dark German (baked potatoes and brown mustard among my favorite foods) and they were almost all Irish with a few Italians thrown in for excitement. I don't know why this was so significant but at some point it dawned on me that this might be the reason I was so very different from all of them.  
You were also especially noticeable if your Dad made your lunch instead of your Mom. I thought at the time I was the only one in this situation, but now I think I should have looked for the signs. It was immediately detectable from the handwriting on the brown bag, which also told if you were an only child (no name written). Most kids with siblings had full names written out in Mom handwriting. I had my first initial in black sharpie. And if I'd had a particularly bad day with the Catholics the day before, a funky angular heart went with it. <3 Moms also write cute little notes on napkins. Dads did not. No Dad would cut crust off of bread, but Moms did it all the time.  
But I never would have stopped dumping three or four packets of deli mustard on my ham and cheese when HOT! LUNCH! was sandwiches. And I never asked my dad to write out my full name or put a note on my napkin. I liked that he knew what kind of sandwich I wanted and wrote N to show me my lunch was distinguishable from my sisters. I loved that he absorbed the habit of initials in black sharpie and signed everything from then on: <3, D. 

See? You can write about anything. I know, I know. Now it seems I've taken this problem and whipped it around to the opposite side. If I don't have to write about everything that's ever happened to me, but I also can write about anything at all that ever happens, what the heck do I write about? 

I face this problem every time I write, it seems, which right now (thankfully) is every day. What's interesting to me varies, so I might write about how there is so much pollen around Providence right now, which would probably lead me to compare it to the pollen in Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the most aggressive Spring ever. Sometimes I write about a topic just long enough to know I don't want to write about it. This just happened for me with an essay about yoga and learning. I might write about my houseplants, or a little kid's funny comment on the street, or about ice cream shops or block parties. 

If you've read this whole post, you probably think I need to write about my Dad. Maybe. I certainly want him to know how important he is to me (if you're reading this, Dad, ahoy!). But right now I'm more interested in investigating news stories about how trees around the White House are dying (I know of at least two). The thing is, once you open your eyes and start noticing, like writers do, there is no end to the things you can write about.

Your assignments this week are all inspired by Anne Lamott. (You really should read her book).  

1. Write about your school lunches. 

2. Choose a topic to examine through a 1-inch picture frame. How can you describe that moment, that memory, that sight? 

3. Practice remembering. Choose a holiday or birthday party from when you were a kid and write everything you can see, smell, and hear. 

A final word of advice: sometimes (maybe most of the time!) the value is in doing the writing, not in what comes out. Translating my memories and the view from my little frame of reference into words gives me hope that I'll keep finding things to write about for the rest of my life.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Review of A Drop of Rain, My journey to Post-Traumatic Growth by Heather Smith Callahan

On a rainy April evening in 1993, a serial killer responding to an ad for Heather Callahan’s used car, attacked her on the street in front of her Denver home and left her for dead. Heather didn’t die. She refused to, thinking, as her blood pooled in the rain-soaked street: This is wrong. I am not going to die, not now, not this way. 

Heather not only survived in the aftermath of this terrible attack, she thrived, her indomitable spirit a testament to her physical, emotional, and psychological recovery. She came to understand this unexpected and powerful blossoming as Post-Traumatic Growth. 

A Drop of Rain, her extraordinaire memoir, demonstrates in no uncertain terms that life doesn’t stop when you become a victim. Indeed, she is living proof that the most horrific traumas we face may also, in the long run, be the most significant turning points in our lives.

Amazon   Goodreads 

*We were given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*

When I pick books out it can sometimes take a while, as I try to "feel" the book and sense if it is the right book for me to read at this time. Doing review requests on this blog I just read down the list, often missing this connection with a book. This time though, with this book, the timing was perfect. 

Heather's story of living and growing through a traumatic experience mirrored what I myself have gone through. No, I wasn't stabbed five times and left for dead, but I, along with everyone else at some point, have experienced trauma. 

When something life-shattering/life-changing happens to you, your whole world is shaken. Heather is able to express this process of rebuilding and all the work and questions that go into it in a beautiful and relatable way. 

If you have experienced trauma of any kind before, you will find this book encouraging as you grow through your own experience. I would also say to those that haven't experienced trauma in their life (yet, sadly) that this book still has something to offer to you. Hearing others stories increases our empathy and understanding of the people around us every day. 

Thank you, Heather, for sharing your story and letting your readers see an inside look into healing and growing from a trauma. Your story has helped me as I am recovering from a life-changing surgery and starting a new phase in life. 

Heather is a storyteller and surviving a serial killer attack is a big story to tell.  What happened? How did she survive? What helped her get through it?  Sharing her story started as a means of healing. It began with classroom presentations and keynotes for fundraisers. Then there were media interviews of all kinds and an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Soon she found that sharing her story enabled Heather to give back and help others.  

Heather used her storytelling skills to build a successful career in IT, data storage management, and security.  Her success was due in great measure to her tenacity, her refusal to give in to fear, and her ability to fuse compassion into long-standing and trustful partnerships.   

Along the way, she discovered that Post-Traumatic Growth had, unbeknownst to her, become a significant part of her life. The trauma of her attack was fueling her recovery and propelling her to new heights of discovery.  

Heather made a promise to herself. She would tell her entire story, and she would do so by writing a book that chronicled her attack and the amazing growth and change she has experienced post-trauma. The healing and growth, she has been surprised to discover, have continued to evolve. This evolution includes the active Colorado lifestyle she enjoys with her husband and three energetic boys.  


Monday, June 10, 2019

It All Starts with a Murder

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, when you’re writing a mystery, you must have a strategy. Unlike other genres, with a mystery, if you don’t begin with a general idea of what’s going to happen, you’re going to paint yourself into at least one corner, if not more.

Because of my years of experience as a technical writer, I generally can get away with not creating a detailed outline for my novels. In fact, I’m more creative and write faster without one; however, I’ve always had a plan, not a detailed plan, mind you, but a plan nonetheless.

It’s usually something like this one I made for Devil Take Me Down:

  • It’s Southern Decadence in New Orleans.
  • Q and Ben are happily engaged, she’s still suffering a bit of PSTD from the ending of That Old Devil Sin
  • They find one of Ben’s employees dead.
  • Ben is accused of the crime.
  • Q starts investing with the help of Detective Sanger.
  • They discover X is the killer because of Y clue/motive (no spoilers here).
  • Q confronts X at Z (again no spoilers).

That’s not much to go on and to be honest, the plan for that particular book was a little more detailed than what I’ve listed above (not much more, but a little); it was, however, enough for me to write an entire book. The rest? The scenes, the characters, the music, the vibe? Well, that’s all in my head.

Having written the first five Clementine Toledano Mysteries to completion and the seventh waiting in the wings just needing a couple of edits, when I started writing the sixth Clementine Toledano Mystery, I got cocky. Don’t get me wrong; I had a plan:

  • Q flees New Orleans to Grand Cayman because of the ending of Until the Devil Weeps (no spoilers).
  • She repairs her relationship with her father.
  • She finds her father’s married girlfriend dead.
  • Her father is accused of the crime.
  • Q teams up with a local constable to solve the crime.
  • The woman’s business partner is actually the killer, but her husband is the one the reader should suspect.

The following problems quickly unfolded as I began writing:

  1. I liked Henry Toledano too much to kill his first girlfriend in many years. Also, his girlfriend’s character was cool AF and I was immediately attached to her, which means the reader would be as well, which means I would be in the doghouse for killing her dead.
  2. Henry Toledano would never ever engage in an extra-marital affair; it’s just not in his nature.
  3. I felt like the plot was a rehash of two previous novels and a giant, predictable snoozefest.

And that’s when I got over-confident. I deleted the scenes from my plan and started writing from the hip and the writing was good but, yep, you guessed it, the story was quite literally going nowhere. I had no victim, no killer, and no plan.

When I finally decided who was going to die and how, I had to pick a killer, and that’s where I am…still. I still don’t have a killer, which means I have no motive, which means I have no mystery.

And so, I write this Mystery Monday post humbled by my recent discovery that I fell into the most deadly of writers’ traps; the one that simply says ‘I got this.’

Don’t get me wrong, it takes a healthy dose of confidence, chutzpah, ego, and inner-strength to sit down in front of a blank page and begin to create an entire universe into being. But like anything, you can’t get ahead of yourself. There are still processes that need to be followed and in a mystery, that means you have to know at the very least the following four things before you begin to write a single word:

  • The victim
  • The crime
  • The killer
  • The motive

Once you’ve committed to those, you can write by the seat of your pants to your heart’s content (sorry, planners) or sit down and write the most detailed outline that was ever written (sorry, pantsers). But without those bits of information, you don’t have a mystery. You might have a kickass story, amazing characters, and the best version of “it was a dark and stormy night” first paragraph you’ve ever read. But you don’t have a mystery.

Having learned from my mistake, I am now doing the painstaking work of going back to the beginning of my story with a plan. It’s not a great place to be with 50,000 words done and a completion deadline that’s three months in the rearview mirror. I should be speeding along solving a crime and scheming up an exciting ending. Unfortunately, without a killer or a motive, nothing is going to be exciting unless I do the work to make it happen.

In Louisiana cooking, there’s an adage that goes something like: oil, flour, onions, green peppers, and celery…what’s for dinner?

The reason is that almost without exception, every single savory Cajun or Creole culinary delight includes those five ingredients. And in many ways, writing is just like cooking, especially series writing. You find a recipe that works and you can make variations on that recipe until you have a complete menu. But you can’t skip the basics. Creole cooking may all start with a roux, but a mystery? Well, that starts with a murder.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Poetry: To whom do you write?

"Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? 
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?" 

- Mary Oliver 

The oft-quoted Mary Oliver poem, "Summer Day" is usually reduced to the last two lines and seen as a call to action. What interests me is that the rest of the poem doesn't say "you" at all - it's about the speaker, "I", and then at the very end switches to the reader. It turns the meditation on us, and asks us to choose, because life is short. 

Sometimes poems reach out and grab you by the throat. They shake you awake; they run a soft hand over the goosebumps you are wearing. They, speak to you -- yes, you -- I'm talkin' ta YOU. 

But do the writers of these poems know us? Could they even imagine us? What if we didn't exist at the time of their writing? What if we are very small and they are very big and important? 

photo Nora Pace 2019 

I find that poems come more easily when I address them to someone. Recently, I've written to a future son, the graduating seniors I teach, a long-distance friend of mine who could be more than a friend, another future child but not necessarily a son, and a mystery, beloved "you." All of these poems have a specific flavor based on their object, a certain language of feeling. At least they do to me. I wonder: will readers still relate to them if the "you" is too specific?

And why am I so drawn to this way in the first place? It probably would not be possible to write these poems with these specifici colors without the element of "you," but I'm not sure why.

Sometimes poetry can be a way of saying what we cannot say to someone. Because he would hurt us, because she wouldn't listen, because they are not born yet. Or it can be a way of imagining conversations that are foreign to us, scary, uncertain, exciting.

If you've never written a poem to someone before, I recommend trying it. Here are some ways to start.

1) Write an Ode

The day we write odes in my high school poetry class is a fun one -- we read dreamy Harlem Renaissance odes like "To a Dark Girl" by Gwendolyn Bennett or strident ones like Countee Cullen's "Atlantic City Waiter." Then the kids and I have to write our own odes. We get to choose any object - a person, thing or idea, and write a poem praising it or describing it. I wrote to a dear teacher friend of mine, describing her crinkled curls and her too-loud laugh, which I love. My students chose a wide variety of beloved "you"s: her mom, her boyfriend's red sweatshirt that she always steals, the 4x4 at Wendy's late at night, his dog Blitz, and "an Ode-a to Yoda."

When you write your ode, think about starting each line with "you" or "your"; this jump starts your ability to describe the person as you extol their virtues.

2) Write a message in a bottle

This exercise yielded some interesting results when we tried it in class. Many students wrote as if they were stranded on an island and just wanted someone to know - not even to be rescued but to be remembered. And some, oddly, wrote to a person stranded on an island. "If you are lost, don't panic! Just send a message back in this bottle, and someone might find it and send help." I loved this hopeful vision.

I decided to go more abstract, writing to an unknown and far away "you" about whom something could still be known. So I will end this post with the poem I wrote that day, which is a tribute and a love song to the graduating seniors of my school.

A Message in a Bottle 

Oh greetings to you in your wide world
on your coastline laced with brambles
and sage grouse and sandbrush.
What does your wide world look like today?
Are the skies lined with orange and sea salt?
Are the hands you carry still free?

What will you give yourself to sail,
what craft will embark today with you at the helm?
In every possible light you are fated
to venture so far you follow the stars.
In every decade you'll sink in the sea
so far down the coral is sun.

But what does your wide world tell you today?
Does it whisper or shout or sing?
How will you answer
as you look at the waves?
Speak welcome -- then throw the bottle back.

Thank you for reading! I write about poetry and creative nonfiction here every fourth Thursday, and also occasionally at my blog, 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Book Review of Part-time Zombie by Gerald Dean Rice

When Alice develops a hunger for human flesh she unwittingly unleashes an ancient evil only she can stop. As Detective Lazarus races to get to the bottom of these horrid crimes he discovers a sinister connection between the killer and himself.

Goodreads   Amazon 

*We were given a copy of this book in exchange for our honest review*

Part-Time Zombie is the story of Alice, who suddenly experiences some crazy cravings, and Lazarus, a cop investigating the incidences surrounding her and the rather creepy Dr. Price. It is an engaging story of grand plots, sinister alternate worlds beyond ours, and the scheming of a mad doctor/scientist who is hell-bent on bringing this sinister world to ours. Join Alice as she explores her origins and discovers who she is. Join Lazarus as he grapples with the recent loss of his wife and the strange experiences he has just stepped into. 

My only real complaint is that the pace is a bit off for me. I enjoyed it up until a certain part when the pace shifted such that I felt lost. It seemed like I was missing some information. I had been reading the whole story up to that point but still felt like I didn’t totally understand what was going on. There’s just a seemingly abrupt change in tone, at least in how I interpret it. I think this story would do well with some additional plot and character development unless I am missing some previous information or other books by him with these characters. 

I like the character, Lazarus. I think I also like Alice, as well, but her character wasn’t fleshed out enough for me to decide (no pun intended!). In general, I would have liked to have more length to the book in order to have the characters more well-developed. I wanted to know more and understand more about the work of the evil doctors and learn more about this “other” world. I think it might actually have helped me understand what was going on a little bit better.

I think it’s a really original idea, at least in my reading experience. It’s not your typical zombie story. It almost reminds me of the world of the TV show Supernatural, with its supernatural and paranormal horror. Or a little bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in there, as well. I think this book would appeal to fans of that genre. The author also noted it is a nod to the 80s body horror genre and I think he does a good job with that. I was actually pretty gripped by it as I read, hence me wanting to have more time with the characters and understand more about that other world.

I can definitely say I will read more of this author’s works! 

This review was done by Michelle Green. 

Gerald Dean Rice is hard at work on something right now. Whether it's vampires, zombies, or something you've never seen before, he's always dedicated to writing something unique. He's the author of numerous short stories, including the Halloween eBook "The Best Night of the Year", "30 Minute Plan" which is free on Amazon, the YA book "Vamp-Hire" and the upcoming anthology "Anything but Zombies". 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sensitive: The Awkwardness of Writing Outside Your Lane

There’s an amazing push for diverse, authentic representation in the past few years. With it comes a rocky road, both for marginalized folks and the authors who want to help--and of course, the intersection between those two. Twitter blew up last week with the controversy around a white trans-woman who wrote a South Asian trans-woman character. I won’t detail it here, but it was messy and poorly handled by the author. After all: it wasn’t her story to tell. 

So in this complex world of hot takes, cancel culture, and 100% legitimate rage, where do we fall as authors who want to help represent the world in an authentic and respectful way? 

 There are several steps to writing an experience not your own, and each has its pitfalls. My first suggestion is to be honest with yourself--why are you telling that story? I strongly urge you, when it comes to POV characters, to stay in your lane. This doesn’t mean white/straight/able/cis wash your book, it just means your POV character shouldn’t be too far outside your own experience. 

Writing fantasy and science fiction is a gray area here--but not a Get-Out-Of-Bigot-Jail-Free card. Much of the controversy surrounding the aforementioned situation comes from the author using an existing, colonized culture to tell her story of transness. There are thousands of South Asian trans women who are better equipped to tell their stories, and many feel the author should rework the plot to center the experience she’s familiar with--white transness. When writing epic fantasy, we aren’t using actual cultures and existing landmarks, but there are still experiences we might not be familiar with. 

If you’ve decided to go ahead with your character, you have a lot of work to do. Listen to members of that marginalized community before you even start drafting. And I don’t mean badger them. Follow folks on Twitter, check out blogs, pick up some books written about those experiences. Just sit down and listen. Knowing how people navigate in our world will help you plan their experience in yours. 

If they’re disabled, work their disability into the plot as you write. Have them notice when the stairs are too steep for their pain, or the market is too loud and overwhelming. 

As you think about your plot, imagine how the story would look if you swapped out your character’s gender, ability, race, or sexuality. If the story barely changes, you’ve got a problem. What we’ve experienced is intrinsic to how we navigate the world--even if the world has magic and dragons and entirely different continents than Earth. Once your draft is polished, now is the time to look for a sensitivity reader. I cannot stress enough that this is someone you should pay. Many authors confuse sensitivity reading with beta reading, but they’re quite different. Sensitivity reading is analogous to content editing, simply more focused. If you’re not sure your work needs it, ask around in your author community, specifically in groups that welcome whatever marginalization you’re writing. When in doubt, err on the side of caution! 

I’ve never had a hard time finding sensitivity readers--I post on social media with appropriate hashtags, like #disability or #deafcommunity with a few words about my project, including genre, age, and word count. Be sure to include that you’re looking to hire someone, so they know you’re not expecting them to work for free. Know someone who’s written a book with a similar character, #ownvoices or otherwise? Ask them who their reader was, or offer to hire them if they’re available. 

When writing Rih’s POV in Madness and Gods and Blood and Mercy, I sought out a reader to check Rih’s experience as a deaf woman who can lip-read and sign. It was the most valuable investment I made! Another key point: most sensitivity readers prefer if you keep their names private, as far as your readership goes. Since people often experience the same disability (or race, or gender, etc.) differently from one another, calling out your reader doesn’t always mean you’ve created a one-size-fits-all character. Using their name as a stamp of approval--even if you never took a word of their advice--comes across as virtue signaling and tacky. 

Many of us work under tight deadlines, so be sure you allow enough time to do a thorough re-write after receiving your sensitivity reader’s feedback. I re-wrote and added several lines in most of Rih’s scenes, and changed the dialogue punctuation to traditional quotes for her signed conversations, which took a few weeks. 

You might disagree with their feedback or feel attacked by what they say. Please, for the love of Dog, remember: they understand their experience best, your intention doesn’t matter, they are your colleague. That being said, if you truly feel something is being misunderstood, ask how you might reframe it so it’s more clear, or hire another reader to see if it is something subjective. If you ultimately choose not to change anything (I highly recommend that you listen to their suggestions), be prepared for backlash. 

Though it can be a messy and uncomfortable experience, as humans, we need to perfect our skills at apologizing and moving on to do better. 

I work as a sensitivity reader for queer-femme experiences, f/f, anxiety, connective-tissue disorders, depression, and PTSD. I'll also consult to make sure your archaeology is accurate! 

Do you offer sensitivity reading? Let us know in the comments!

Tune in on the fourth Sunday of every month for more on disability in fantasy and sci-fi. Learn more.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book Review of Once Upon a Fallen Time by Samreen Ahsan

All her life, Myra Farrow has been obsessed with medieval castle-and the kings and princes who once inhabited them. When Steve Bernard, a wealthy videogame designer offers her to model for a princess character in his new game, Myra can't resist his offer to enter the mysterious, colorless, and cursed Hue Castle. But unknown to Myra, her soul is bound to it by blood and sorcery. When she enters the castle's doors, she awakens dark powers, time traveling through a cursed mirror, torturing her present, and rewriting her future, leaving Steve Bernard with millions of questions. 

Edward Hue, the last of the Hue royal bloodline, has never stood in the sunshine, nor felt the rain, or held a living flower. Cursed from birth to live in darkness and bring death to all he touches, he is at the mercy of his cruel, tyrannical father King Stefan, who will not rest until he shatters Edward's soul and makes his son into a diabolical copy of himself. Edward's one hope is the mysterious woman, who walks into his life through a cursed mirror, out of his dreams, and introduces him: love. 

Will Myra break Edward's curse and bring him out of the darkness, or destroy him utterly? Will Steve ever be able to finish his game without Myra? Past and future collide in a tale of love, obsession, betrayal, and the hope for redemption.

This is book 2 of [STOLEN] SERIES

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*We were given a copy of this book in exchange for our honest review*

I really enjoyed reading book one a few years ago, so when the opportunity came up to read book two of the Stolen series I was so excited! I am happy to report that this book was just as enjoyable as book one!

It was so easy to fall back into this story. Even with chapters from different characters prespectives the story moves quickly and keeps the reader engaged. I liked that Ahsan allows the reader to see what is happening on both sides of the mirror. 

The characters in this story are very human, having both good and bad traits. It can make it hard to decide who you want to see get together, but so enjoyable. Edward does portray a beastly prince, but Myra is both full of compassion and spark. 

If you are a fan of fantasy, romance or even mystery you need to add this series to your list! 

History, art, and literature are my passions. I love digging out information about prophecies, divine miracles and paranormal events that are mentioned in history and holy books, that doesn't sound possible in today's modern world.

Since childhood, I have been into reading and writing--and yes, it can't happen without imagination, which luckily has no boundaries. Dance and music are also pastimes I enjoy, as well as reading romance fiction. I love to travel and explore historical cities. I live in Toronto, Canada.

A Silent Prayer and A Prayer Heeded (A Prayer Series) is my first story about paranormal events based on Islamic concepts.

Once Upon A [Stolen] Time is my second story, a romantic fantasy fairy tale. It is the first book of [Stolen] Series.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Popular Idioms from Invaluable

As writers, we use figurative language throughout our work often. These phrases and idioms that are so ingrained in our English language that we often use them without even realizing what the words mean or where they came from. Many of our most used figurative phrases have curious origins whether it be from an influential book of the time, a cultural custom, or historical event. For example, did you know that the phrase, “the pot calling the kettle black,” derives from Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish novel, Don Quixote?

Invaluable created a neat visual that explores some of the most prevalent English language idioms, and how they live on today in a modern context. Check it out, and think about the literal meaning behind the phrases next time you go to use them in written or spoken language.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Change Up

Picking the point of view (POV) for any novel is a big decision. Whether it’s the immediacy of a first-person narrative (think Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro books); or the third-person limited view that most mysteries use (including my own); the point of view you choose will drive the way you develop characters and your plot.
Because every Clementine Toledano book is told from the third-person limited, with Q as the sole focus of the narrator’s attention, I’ve sometimes found this style, well, limiting – especially when there’s something important I want the reader to know about a character that’s not Q, that she can’t know yet. This constraint of this particular style automatically transforms any author into a student of human nature. For example, if you need the reader to know that a character is hiding something, how can you describe that in a way that maybe your main character might not notice? Does the character look away? Do they shuffle their feet? Do they abruptly change the subject?
First-person point of view has the same challenges plus one more. The person telling the story has to notice something for the reader to notice it too. So, if you want to hide something from the reader, it has to be hidden from your narrator, too.
Despite their challenges, the third-person limited and first-person narratives continue to be the most common points of view in commercial fiction for good reason. We experience our lives through our own lens. If someone was narrating our life, they’d hear our thoughts (which can be useful in telling our story), see things that we might not notice (useful information for people to understand our story), but be limited to seeing and hearing only that which we see and hear (useful for experiencing the world the way we experience it).
So, how does one escape the limits of these most popular of fictional narratives?
The reason this is on my mind is because I’ve recently read two of the most devilishly clever mysteries; devilishly clever because of their handling and mishandling of the third-person limited point of view.
The Investigation by J.M. Lee, beyond being ethereally beautiful writing, tells its mystery by switching between the point of view of the detective using first-person and the point of view of the victim (prior to his demise) using third-person limited. By doing so, the reader not only uncovers the mystery, but the humanity and motivation that led the victim to his demise and the detective to follow him along the same path.
I’ve used this technique myself twice. In Devil Take Me Down, I wanted the readers to get to know our killer a little better, so that they knew the object of his obsession and how long it had been going on. The reader only gets to live inside the killer’s head twice in the book, but it let me do some creepy stuff I wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed to do.
In Until the Devil Weeps, I switch to the first-person midway through to finally give our staid Detective Sanger a platform to speak his mind. I needed to do this for two reasons: first, to add more tension about the whereabouts of the main character, but also to cue the reader in on a mystery that was set up way back in Devil Take Me Down. This mystery has continued through Chasing Those Devil Bones and all the way through The Devil’s Luck and it was time to put it to rest once and for all. Also, if I’m being honest here, I just love the way Aaron Sanger speaks and getting to write his words for a chapter was a lot of fun.
Tami Hoag takes this technique of switching points of view to a whole other level, however. I’ve just finished reading The Bitter Season and quite frankly, I'm still not sure how she pulled this off without me – a pretty savvy reader if I do say so myself – figuring the mystery out. Hoag tells the story from the third-person limited point of view, but from the perspective of every character in the story. This means the detective interviews the suspect and the narrator tells the scene from his perspective, then the scene continues from the suspect’s perspective, still in the third-person limited. We experience the murder of the victim from his perspective and the reaction to his death from the perspective of the killer. The result? The reader comes away with a holistic understanding of the crime from beginning to end.
Both of these novels inspired me for different reasons, but what I came away with is a better understanding of why perspective matters so much to your narrative. Sometimes, as writers, especially series genre writers like myself, we get locked into our own voice and our own style. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But like every rule in writing, even the point of view is not set in stone. And in a mystery, if you change it up just right, it can take your story to a whole other level.