Writing is solitary. Being a writer shouldn't have to be.
Jacqui Castle is an author and freelance writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, NC. Her dystopian science-fiction novel, The Seclusion, was named the winner of the North Carolina Author Project, a finalist for the national Indie Author Project award, and a Foreword Indies award winner in Science Fiction. The sequel to The Seclusion is currently in production. When not writing, she can be found consuming too much caffeine.
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads January 2019 Edition. Welcome to the sixth post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of January, we hear from Michael, Becca, and Jacqui. Still not sure what to read next? Check out Writing Bloc’s 2019 Writers as Readers Challenge.
Michael’s Recommendation – Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
I love weird stuff, I’ll admit it. And this book sounded weird from out of the gate, which made me surprised that it had become popular enough to not only become a bestseller, but to be produced into a Tim Burton film. There is something to the presentation of this book alone that piques the curiosity, and though the old adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover” should apply, I still knew I’d be reading this book as soon as I laid my eyes on it. It’s filled with odd and creepy old pictures that the author collected over time and strung together to make a story. I thought that was a cool and unique approach to writing a book, and I must say, it paid off.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children pulls off a haunted vibe without the story being horror. After his grandfather dies in a gruesome manner, Jacob, the sixteen year-old protagonist, is set on following clues his grandfather left behind to discover an old orphanage in Wales. At first, all Jacob finds is the bombed out ruins of the orphanage, yet there are indications that the children may somehow still be alive nearby. After hunting for clues and searching the small island, Jacob soon finds himself in an entirely new world confirming all the stories his grandfather told him – stories he was sure were nothing more than fairy tales.
The story is mysterious, creepy, unique, and downright strange. It has its own brand of thrills I’ve never encountered in another book. I’m not saying this book is the peak of every aspect in its story, but it is definitely effective in its choice of storytelling elements. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing the series. The fourth book, AMap of Days, was just released.
Becca’s Recommendation – How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
George and Irene’s mothers created them to be soul mates– but are they? This is the central question of How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, the second novel from the author of Shine, Shine, Shine.
The book explores the ideas of fate and compatibility through George and Irene’s story, from before their births until they meet again as adults, when they are both astrophysicists. What results is an enjoyable, smart romance novel, though Netzer’s approach is a twist on the genre.
Unlike other books which on their surface appear pulpy and end up having a deeper meaning (I’m thinking Laney Wylde’s After Twelve series–legal dramas that surprise readers with a deeper theme of racially motivated police violence), How to Tell does the opposite. On its surface a deep artsy book, at its core, Netzer gives readers a satisfying love story.
Jacqui’s Recommendation – Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
“We have an obligation to read for pleasure. If others see us reading, we show that reading is a good thing. We have an obligation to support libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not support libraries you are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”
– Neil Gaiman
When this little number arrived in my mailbox, and I promptly curled up on the couch and read it in about thirty minutes. Neil Gaiman has held onto his place as one of my favorite authors for over fifteen years (so much so that my son is named after one of his characters in Stardust). Art Matters is a collection of Neil Gaiman quotes and longer passages, accompanied by illustrations from artist Chris Riddell.
It is enchanting from start to finish, and a must-read for all writers and artists out there who have ever struggled with imposter syndrome and how to define success. A wonderful book to keep on the side table for those times when you just need a few words of encouragement to put you back on the right path and to remember that what you are doing matters.
It’s a new year, and at Writing Bloc we’re taking the opportunity to set some intentions for 2019, both as a group and individually as writers. Expect Writing Bloc to grow throughout the year as we continue to find additional ways to support the writing community. We checked in with a few of our contributors on what their goals are for 2019. Also, don’t forget to check out Becca’s Writers as Readers Challenge.
Becca’s 2019 Writing Resolutions
My writing resolutions are to finish the edits for Rock of Ages, do a second draft of my second novel or draft a third, and read– a lot. The edits bit is hard since it depends on pleasing someone else. It’s not something entirely in my control. And I know it will be hard to pull myself away from RoA to focus on something else but I’m sure it will also be refreshing. I learned last year how important keeping up my reading habit is for improving my writing, and I’m upping my goal to 24 books this year.
Having three big goals is a bit overwhelming, so I’m really just pushing myself to work every day, even if it’s just a little bit. I think (and hope) that if I just keep going, I’ll get to everything.
Cari’s 2019 Writing Resolutions
At the end of 2018, I learned that my adjunct professor gig for spring 2019 was going to a doctoral student. While I hope to be teaching again in the summer or fall, I’m trying to look at this as an unexpected gift of time. I am on my third draft of How to Remember, and I’d like to turn that in during the first quarter of the year. I’m also finishing the first draft of my second novel, The Enigma Variations. I signed up for a “Book in a Week” challenge – actually, that’s next week! So we’ll see how many words I can knock out then. I’m looking forward to editing another anthology with Writing Bloc as well. On a personal note – I’m kind of a workaholic, with a plate that’s more than full most days. My goal is to be easier on myself this year, leaving some space for discovery and wonder.
Jacqui’s 2019 Writing Resolutions
2018 was a big year for me as a writer. My first novel The Seclusion hit shelves, I completed NaNoWriMo in November, I started co-hosing WordPlay Radio in Asheville NC, and I teamed up with five of the most authentic, amazing people I’ve ever met to play a hand in starting Writing Bloc. From beginning to end, 2018 felt like a whirlwind. A positive whirlwind, but still one that left me struggling to remember what routine looks like. In 2019 I would like to slow down, and bring more intention to my writing. I am going to aim to read every day for ten to twenty minutes before I begin to write, and write by hand every day. I’m easily distracted…. sorry let me log off of twitter here and finish this thought…. and I find that when I write by hand the words flow more easily. On a personal note, I’m also going to strive to cut down on the whole caffeine addiction thing.
Michael’s 2019 Writing Resolutions
After allowing myself a good reflection on 2018, I realized that it was an enormous year that started with struggles but finished strong (I’ve detailed it somewhat in my most recent blog post). The reason I finished strong was thanks to gathering a great group of positive friends and influences around me with Writing Bloc. Thus, my first resolution is to keep that momentum going. I will stay heavily involved in Writing Bloc and push this thing to be as big and helpful to other writers as I can make it. Of course, my major writing goal is to finish my novel, The Man Who Stole The World, and I’m pushing myself with that already. Otherwise, I will continue to read a ton, write even more, and push away the negative. 2019 will be a great year, I have no doubt.
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads November Edition. Welcome to the fifth post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of October, we hear from Jacqui, Robert, Michael and Becca.
Jacqui’s Recommendation – The Humans by Matt Haig
Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So, we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.
Basically, the key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.
I was first introduced to Matt Haig when I read his book of essays, Notes on a Nervous Planet. I instantly loved his writing style, and wanted to give one of his novels a try. I’m thrilled that I did, and I’m sure I’ll be reading his whole arsenal in the future.
I read The Humans in about three sessions, and it was a blissful combination of raw emotion and comedic timing. The Humans tells the story of an alien who takes over the body of a mathematician who is on the brink of a life-altering discovery. His mission? To stop this discovery from getting out to the general public by silencing anyone who knew of the breakthroughs that the mathematician had made. .
Through the lens of this extra-terrestrial, the reader views the human species – quirks, faults, and all. Through this novel we answer the question – why would anyone ever choose to be human?
Robert’s Recommendation — Redshirts by John Scalzi
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.
Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that:
every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces
the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations
at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.
At first glance, Redshirts appears to be a simple spoof of Star Trek, specifically, “What would happen if the often-memed ‘redshirts’ realised their only reason for existence was to die dramatically on an away mission?” This alone would make the book worthy of examination, but I came to realise it was more. The premise may be whimsical, but Scalzi has written a solid narrative that stands alone, even if you’ve never watched an episode of Star Trek.
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, narrated by Will Wheaton (Will-Friggin’-Wheaton narrating a Star Trek spoof people!), and it was brilliant. You can read more of my thoughts here.
Becca’s Recommendation — The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas took over my mind for the two weeks it took me to listen to the audiobook. Every night at bedtime, I would eagerly plug in my headphones, excited for the next chapter. It was hard to turn it off to go to sleep. Thomas brings the realities of police brutality to life through the eyes of Starr Carter, a sixteen year old girl who witnesses her childhood friend killed during a traffic stop.
Starr confronts the arguments we hear all the time– her friend’s life didn’t matter because he was a drug dealer, police officers are scared too, if people just obeyed the law, things like this wouldn’t happen, and more. And through Starr, we see incredibly clearly the fallacy in all of these.
Thomas shows the complexities of Starr’s life in the hood, and the codeswitching she must perform to assimilate in her wealthy white school, in a way that helps white readers like myself challenge their assumptions about race and poverty.
Especially moving is the tribute at the end to real victims of police violence. Viewing this major problem in our country through the eyes of a relatable young character makes the serious subject matter digestible and approachable This book should be required reading at every high school and college, and really, for every person in the U.S.
Michael’s Recommendation – A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Wow. I was blown away by this book, and I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. Not only is this a jaw-dropping analysis of the human condition, the role of free will versus societal blending, and evil itself, but the novel is written in an amazing and unique form. Written in first person, the story takes you through the perspective of Alex, who is a fifteen year-old in a dystopian future in which he and his “friends” get together and commit crimes and perform acts of violence on random people. When Alex’s friends turn on him and leave him to be caught by police, he is sentenced to fourteen years in prison for the murder of the woman whose house he was caught at. Interested in a shortened sentence, Alex agrees to be the first in an experimental “Ludovico technique” in which he is trained to be physically repulsed by violence and acts of criminality.
The novel is beautiful in that it includes Alex’s own dialect and slang, called Nasdat, which incorporates a wide enough vocabulary for some versions of the novel to include a glossary. However, the way the story is written and the events are described, there is no need for a glossary while reading. The character’s actions and perspective are clear enough that you can finish an entire page and look back at it realizing that you aren’t entirely sure of the meaning of half the words on the page, yet the understanding of what was written is clear as day. It’s a short book, and a real horrorshow to read.
An extra bit worth mentioning if you read A Clockwork Orange…
The version I got was at a secondhand store for a dollar. It was printed in 1972. The book is split into three parts, each consisting of seven chapters, or so I expected, but the third part in my version stopped at chapter six. I was curious about this and found out that copies of the book printed in the United States prior to 1986 omitted the final chapter, and this is the version Stanley Kubrick’s film is based upon, as well as the version Anthony Burgess loathed. I hopped over to the library and read the last chapter, and I can say that both versions of the novel are quite interesting. If you pick up a copy with the 21st chapter, stop at 20 and consider your thoughts before finishing the book as the author intended. Interesting stuff, indeed, and worth a conversation over. Either way, read this book.
When I was coming up with this reading list, I toyed with several different directions that I could go. I considered a reading list comprised of novels loosely related to mine. Perhaps consisting of science fiction or dystopian reads with political themes, but with a slightly different twist. I considered other dystopian novels inspired by current events at the time they were written. Then, while turning to my bookshelf for inspiration, I thought about the various books I have reached for these past two years. About the books that helped keep me grounded or allowed me to open my eyes to the experiences of others when I was craving precisely that. I realized this was the type of list I wanted to build.
I hope a few of these books find their way onto your bookshelf, and that you reach for one when you need it. Whether you want to blanket yourself with inspiring words when anxiety is on the rise and the news is moving too fast to keep up with, or when you’re seeking to stretch those empathy muscles by pushing beyond your comfort zone, or you simply want to read a poignant story about the beauty of monarchs and the importance of conservation—this reading list is for you. Happy reading!
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
“Reading isn’t important because it helps to get you a job. It’s important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape.”
― Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet
In this series of essays, Matt Haig tackles anxiety in the age of social media and news overload. If I had to select one book to sit on tables in doctor’s offices, mental health facilities, dentist’s offices, salons, that weird spare room at the mechanic’s next to the vending machine, or anywhere else someone is left waiting… it would be this one.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
“More and more, as I think about history,” he pondered, “I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”
― Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here
Originally written in 1935, this novel that explores how quickly democracy can be dismantled stands the test of time.
Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration, edited by Rose Brock
“So what is Hope Nation? Simply, it’s a collection of unique and personal experiences shared by some of my favorite writers for teens. Stories of resilience, resistance, hardship, loss, love, tenacity, and acceptance—stories that prove that sometimes, hope can be found only on the other side of adversity. I’m so grateful to each of these talented writers for sharing their own paths to hope.”
― Rose Brock, Hope Nation
As with any compilation, some essays hit harder than others, and with a collection like this one, readers will certainly find those that reach out and pull them in for personal reasons. My favorites included The Kids Who Stick by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely, Don’t Listen to the A**Holes by Atia Abawi, and Baseball Pasta by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”
― Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
In the current climate, talking directly about sexual assault, feminism, and misogyny has to happen if progress is to be made. Roxane Gay gives us the opportunity to approach these heavy topics with a dash of humor, and to recognize we are all human and we aren’t going to get it right 100% of the time.
All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds
“Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests? Who am I if I need to be shocked back into my best self?”
― Jason Reynolds, All American Boys
This moving YA novel, written from two vastly different perspectives, transports the reader into the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing fight for racial equality in our country.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
“Being privileged doesn’t mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right. It means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of the puzzle.”
― Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race
If you’re ready to dive head-first into race relations(and learn about privilege, police brutality, microaggressions, and bridging the gap), this book is for you.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior
This is my favorite novel tackling the topic of climate change. Follow a young-woman’s paradigm shift as she discovers her family property now falls within the flight path of migrating monarchs.
American Like Me by America Ferrera
“I was beginning to learn that bravery is like a muscle, and once you flex it, you can’t stop. And being authentic requires a lot of bravery.”
— Reshma Saujani, American Like Me
Compelling first-hand accounts of what it is like to grow up in America for those who may not always feel like they meet the standard mold of an American. Voices such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Issa Rae chime in.
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads October Edition. Welcome to the fourth post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of October, we hear from Jacqui, Michael, and Robert.
Jacqui’s Recommendation – Women Like Us by Jason Pomerance
My recommendation this month is Women Like Us, an endearing debut by author Jason Pomerance. Pomerance’s writing is rich and engrossing, and he draws you into the world he has created with a gentle ease. I truly enjoyed his style and will be picking up anything Pomerance comes up with in the future.
Women Like Us follows the story of a woman in her 30s who is re-examining certain choices she made in her past. She then sets out on a mission to reconnect with her teenage son, who is being raised by her ex-mother-in-law.
Each chapter of Women Like Us was so packed with self-reflection-inducing emotion, that I found myself feeling a bit like a freshly squeezed orange each time I closed the book for the day. There were multiple times I thought the story was veering towards a cliche, but Pomerance time and again flawlessly weaved in a different direction. I found myself wanting to know more about what inspired Pomerance to create these deeply-developed and refreshingly-human characters. A breezy but powerful read that suggests it is never too late to right past wrongs and encourages expanding the traditional definition of family.
Michael’s Recommendation – Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers
Respect the children’s picture book genre.
I have read a couple of other books this month, both of which left a great impression on me, but neither could compare to this incredible piece of literature. I have a couple of young kids, and we picked this up from the library based on a librarian’s suggestion (can never go wrong with that, in my experience). After the first reading, we almost immediately popped over to Amazon to grab a copy for ourselves. The love for this book swelled within us that quickly.
Yes, I know, you’re probably thinking that you wouldn’t get a children’s book unless you have children, but I urge you to at least give this book a chance by reading it in your local library, kids or not. Its images and art are unique and wonderful. The perspective is brilliant. And the message is urgent.
It’s not what you’re probably expecting, either. It’s not a book about environmental issues. It does mention to take care of the place, as it’s all we have, but the end message is all about humanity and how we carry on through generations. I’m being intentionally vague so as not to spoil the book for anyone.
But it is as advertised: notes for living on planet earth. It’s a welcome. And its simple messages and reminders are worth revisiting, even as adults. So treat yourself to a children’s book this month, especially if you haven’t read one in a while. Aren’t some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned encapsulated within a book you cherished in your youth?
Robert’s Recommendation – Lifel1k3 by Jay Kristoff
On an island junkyard beneath a cigarette sky, a deadly secret lies buried in the scrap.
Seventeen-year-old Eve isn’t looking for secrets; she’s already too busy looking over her shoulder. The robot gladiator she spent months building is a smoking wreck, and the only thing keeping her grandpa alive was the handful of credits she just lost to the bookies. Worst of all, she’s discovered she can destroy machines with nothing more than her mind, and a bunch of puritanical fanatics are building a coffin her size. If she’s ever had a worse day, Eve can’t remember it.
This is my first Kristoff novel and it will not be the last. Wow. This book was so good it blew my mind. There’s a lot of Idiocracy in the world, but… darker. Much darker. In inexperienced hands, this could have come off cheesy, but it doesn’t. The characters are a sarcy delight and the story is an intense rollercoaster. And that ending… Holy Hell.
(Also, Kristoff just recently tweeted he’s finished the sequel.)
Rachael Sparks is the author of the hard science fiction novel Resistant, which Publishers Weekly called “a scientifically accurate apocalypse.” Resistant takes place in a near future in which drug-resistant bacteria are winning the battle over humanity. Rachael was kind enough to chat with me about science, character development, and writing habits.
In the final battle with drug-resistant bacteria, one woman’s blood holds a secret weapon.
Rory and her father have survived the antibiotic crisis that has killed millions, including Rory’s mother—but ingenuity and perseverance aren’t their only advantages. When a stoic and scarred young military veteran enters their quiet life, Rory is drawn to him against her better judgment . . . until he exposes the secrets her mother and father kept from her, including the fact that her own blood may hold the cure the world needs, and she is the target of groups fighting to reach it first.
When the government comes after Rory, aiming to use her for a cure it can sell to the highest bidder, she’s forced to flee with her father and their new protector. But can she find the new path of human evolution before the government finds her?
Your novel draws from real-world science. Tell us a little bit about your background and what the research process was like for you.
I’m a microbiologist by training, a transplant expert, and now I work in hospital infection prevention with a medical device startup. So my education and career has centered around public health and that experience was half a lifetime of research for several books! For this novel, the research I needed to do was easy in that it was mostly mining my own brain and then confirming my filed-away facts were not yet discredited. Knowing that several friends who are legit scientists would be reading, I wanted badly for them to be convinced.
When did the idea for Resistant first strike you?
I’d wanted to write a sci-fi novel that explored this problem[antibiotic resistance], but a dream of a scene in the climax really inspired the characters. A handsome guy with swaths of discolored skin. . . readers will know his disfigurement plays into the plot but I honestly couldn’t say whether that was already in my mind or came after the dream!
Tell us about your protagonist? Are they inspired by someone you know in real life?
Rory is an amalgam of a lot of wonderful people I’ve known. She’s smart and a little unfiltered at times, with a bravery that can get her into trouble. I wanted her to be flawed, to make mistakes and be mature enough to solve them on her own.
Do you have a favorite character out of all the ones you’ve created?
Yes, I like Navy. He’s not an open book, not easy to read, so he was a challenge to write. I wanted him to be reserved but not aloof, to have integrity despite having made massively bad judgement calls in his past. He’s fun to get to know as I write more about him.
How important is research to you when writing a book?
It’s critical, in my genre. In retrospect I would’ve loved for Resistant to be longer, with more science background explained — an excuse for even more research! So aside from enjoying the process, translating the useful bits into my writing in order to create an absorbing, believable premise is important to me. Science can be unwieldy for some, but the best sci-fi makes it palatable and fascinating to any reader.
Do your novels carry a primary message?
I hope so. My goal is to entertain while also imparting a bit of knowledge that arms the reader, even if only for an interesting fact to drop into cocktail hour.
If given the opportunity to start over, would you change anything in your books?
Ugh. Who wouldn’t? I’d just do more backstory for everything and everyone.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you keep a hold of the reigns?
When I’m writing, it feels like it! Even the end of Resistant surprised me, so I credit Rory for that. But more often I feel like I’m a director talking to an actor: “How do you think your character would react?”
Do you often project your own habits onto your characters?
Sure! Our habits are our expertise, too, right? Rory and her father brew beer, for example, and I sorely wanted an excuse to explain how they might have harvested and cultured their own yeast and scavenged ingredients. Alas, it had no plot value.
I love a good mystery fiction with a bit of adventure, action romance — couples in peril saving each other is catnip for vacation reading. Magical realism genre is delicious when the authors ground it in theoretical science. I’m still in awe of Deb Harkness’ use of genetics to plausibly structure a tree of life that could explain a vampire!
Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?
Oh hell no. When I sit down to write, I’ve usually been thinking about scenes for a while, and I first refresh myself on where I left off. But often I’ll also pick a random spot in my MS to re-read, as it helps me keep a consistent mood. And I turn on my playlist for each work in progress, and pretend it’s the soundtrack to the future movie. I don’t judge my progress on words — if it’s something I want to keep reading, I feel successful. Some writers create a bubble around themselves until they finish a project – how true is that for you? Gosh, that sounds lovely. I have a 4 year old, a husband I love to spend time with, dogs, career, and other relationships to nurture. Maybe one day I could do that! The closest I get to a bubble is a closed office door on an early morning.
If you were given the opportunity to join a book club with your favorite authors, dead or alive, who would you want to become a part of the club?
Michael Crichton. Emily Dickinson. David Walton. Nora Roberts. Katherine Howe. Jacqui Castle. Deborah Harkness. Celeste Ng. Emily and Anne Bronte. And I’d invite Andrew Mayne, if he promised to entertain us with magic tricks.
Anne and the Emilys would likely clique off, but maybe we could ply them with sherry and put them at ease.
Awww shucks. I would love to be in a book club with you!
What do you do to market your own books yourself? Any advice on that front?
I doubt I have some magical insight here, but I try to promote myself on all the normal channels: website, social media, Goodreads and other places an author profile can be added. Talking about yourself is the pits, so I just try not to take myself very seriously. I think being fun, informative, genuine and engaged is the best marketing.
For advice, specifically to new authors, I say: to make the most of social media as an author, I think you have to abandon rules about friends on platforms. When launching a new book, everyone is your friend. I also suggest they ask themselves before spending dollars in marketing (a website, for example) – how can I measure its return, so I’ll know whether to continue investing there. Analytics and data are your friend!
What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with or follow you (website, blog, Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and links?
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads September Edition. Welcome to the fourth post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of September, we hear from Michael, Jacqui, and Robert.
Michael’s Recommendation – The Sellout: A Novel by Paul Beatty
“‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, red, green, or purple.’ We’ve all said it. Posited as proof of our nonprejudicial ways, but if you painted any one of us purple or green, we’d be mad as hell.”
This novel is one of the newest novels I can say changed me. I remember these books growing up, and I’ve had a few claim the “changed me” title within the tail end of my twenties, but it’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit back after closing the back cover of a novel and say honestly to myself while tapping the center of my chest: “Something’s different now.” And I’m still processing what, exactly, has been changed by The Sellout, but that’s the beauty of it: There’s no way I can process it all in one reading. This is definitely a book to have on the shelf and read annually.
But don’t take that as to mean this book is unapproachable. It’s truly the opposite. This story is incredibly approachable, engaging, entertaining, hilarious, and one of the most wonderful pieces of satire I’ve read in my life. Written from the perspective of Me, a black man on trail at the Supreme Court for owning a slave, the novel rushes, ducks, and weaves in between nearly every bit of racism experienced in the past few centuries with incredible wit, insight, intelligence, and flow. Paul Beatty is a master of language. He chucks it around with a curve I’ve never read anywhere before. This novel is equal parts biting satire, concussive commentary, and historically accurate mayhem. I could not recommend this book more.
My recommendation this month is for Mr. and Mrs. American Pie by Juliet McDaniel. I’ve been powering through a lot of heavy reading material lately, and this smart, timely romantic comedy was a breath of fresh air.
I devoured this quirky, delightful story that followed socialite Maxine Simmons from Palm Springs, CA to Scottsdale, AZ. Mr. and Mrs. American Pie was satisfying from the first page to the last and, in several instances, I found myself awkwardly laughing out loud while reading it in public places.
I was hooked into the self-discovery journey of Maxine, a car-crash-that-you-can’t-look-away-from of a character. I’m beyond excited to see this gem adapted to the screen, as it has recently been optioned by Lara Dern and Platform One Media for a TV-series adaptation.
I found out about this book randomly through social media when an author posted about the advanced review copy they’d received. I instantly knew I had to have it and was surprised that (at the time) it was a little hard to track down. Since then it seems to have become more readily available, so you’re all in luck.
If you grew up with a love of space, you’re going to want this book. Gloriously irrelevant yet chocked full of amazing facts and artwork, it is a joy to read and looks stunning in its oversized hardcover format.
Taking all the best bits of science and fusing it all together, Space is Cool as Fuck will be finding a permanent home on living room tables around the world. With a brief history of the whole universe, you’ll be left scratching your head and gazing up in absolute wonder.
Everything you thought you could never understand about the universe is explained in plain-old filthy English. Giving you a little taste of the glorious reality you inhabit by providing an introduction to some of the incredible stuff out there.
I mean, look at this thing!
Pick it up from Amazon (or your favorite book retailer).
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads August Edition. Welcome to the fourth post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of August, we hear from Robert, Becca, and Michael.
Robert’s Recommendation – Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
My audiobook this month has been Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi and narrated by Bahni Turpin. The novel is a fantasy that draws on African culture to give us a wonderful new world to explore, full of beautifully realized people and places. It tells us the story of Zélie Adebola, a young Diviner whose birthright was to become a powerful magi — until magic inexplicably left the world.
Read the official synopsis:
Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for an enemy.
Everything about this novel is captivating. The characters are deep and complex, the world is detailed, and the plot sings. This is further enhanced in the audiobook by Bahni Turpin’s narration, which is flawless. Children of Blood and Bone has already earned a lot of hype, and been optioned for a motion picture, so you’ve likely heard the title before. If you haven’t read it, I recommend picking up a copy.
Becca’s Recommendation – Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson
My pick this month is Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Midnight at the Electric. This book follows three protagonists, Adri, a young woman who has been selected to colonize Mars in the year 2065, Catherine, who dreams of escaping the Dust Bowl with her ailing sister in 1934, and Lenore, who plans to leave post World-War I England for America.
Anderson’s story navigates between these three women, revealing their connections through letters, stories, and a tortoise named Galapagos.
Midnight at the Electric is a page turner that had me invested in its characters from the first chapter. Anderson somehow manages to seamlessly weave themes of humans’ role in climate change, American and British history, family, and friendship into one epic tale. I found it pretty impressive that she created a story that effectively appeals to fans of sci fi and historical fiction, often blurring the lines between the two.
This book stands alone easily, but I am dreaming of ways Anderson could turn it into a sequel.
Michael’s Recommendation – Calypso by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is a national treasure. I realize that it’s odd to say this, as he usually lives in England. However, Calypso renewed my confidence in his national treasure status, as most of the book follows events surrounding an oceanside home he and his husband bought in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. And in true David Sedaris style, he christened said home the “Sea Section.”
If you’ve read Sedaris’s previous work, then you know what you’re in for. It’s embellished memoir pulled from bits and pieces of his life told in a style that is easy to fall in love with, soothing to read, and laugh out loud hilarious. If you haven’t read any of his work before, then what are you waiting for?
While the “Sea Section” is the thread pulling each story together, Sedaris fills the book with wonderful stories following such topics as adopting a fox, saving a tumor to feed to a sea turtle, how people cuss each other out in traffic in different countries, and oh so much more. Despite the seemingly disjointed and bizarre topics I just listed, Sedaris has a talent for pulling everything together to make you smile on every page. He’s a master of his art; one of those writers who can move from silly laughter to heartache in moments while allowing you to enjoy it all. If anything, this book, like all of David Sedaris’s books, is so amazing simply for its sweet, brutal honesty.
Writing Bloc’s Best Reads July Edition. Welcome to the third post in our ongoing best of series, in which a few of our Writing Bloc contributors share their favorite read of the month. For the month of July, we hear from Becca, Jacqui, and Michael.
Becca’s Recommendation – We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
I came across We Are Okay on a list of the best young adult books of 2017. It lives up to the recognition.
Most of the book takes place over the course of three days as Marin, a young woman struggling with the passing of her grandfather, is visited over winter break at her college by her best friend Mabel, who Marin has ghosted– left behind without notice, ignoring all her texts.
I didn’t know this was the premise when I downloaded the audiobook, and if I had, I would have been even more eager to check it out. My own best friend of over 20 years “ghosted” me, leaving me grasping for music or literature that describes the painful experience. We Are Okay conveys the situation from the point of view of the person ignoring her close friend, which I found strangely comforting. It is not, the book makes clear, about a lack of love for her friend. It is actually the opposite, as Marin loves Mabel so dearly she aches.
My only complaint about We Are Okay is that it didn’t explain clearly how Mabel planned her visit to Marin. LaCour makes it seem like Marin has ignored all of Mabel’s attempts at contact and yet they somehow coordinate a cross-country visit. In spite of this, though, LaCour has crafted a lovely, moving novel.
We Are Okay explores themes of grief, loss, family, and home, in a touching and realistic way, and for many, these themes will shine most brightly. For someone who is grappling with the loss of a friendship and coming to terms with that relationship ending without answers, LaCour has created a novel that allowed me to do vicariously what I have imagined so many times– show up on my friend’s doorstep, not to demand an apology, but to tell my friend that I love her.
Jacqui’s Recommendation – Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood has been on my to-read list since it hit shelves in 2016. The story delves into some intense and eye-opening subject matter – taking place in South Africa during the fall of apartheid and educating the reader on the complexities of politics of South Africa and race relations during that time. Trevor Noah’s father was Swiss, and his mother Xhosa, and Trevor’s very existence was considered illegal at the time of his birth, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Noah delivers his story of struggle and navigating a dangerous society with a brilliant mix of comedy and humility, bringing the listener from laughing to crying and back again many times over as he tells tales of kidnapping, abuse, pirated music, and celebrity impersonation.
The book is laid out as several personal essays and Noah’s relationship with his mother is a continuous thread throughout the book. It is heartwarming and inspiring what the two of them made it through together, and through many of the events are atrocities that none of us would ever hope to live through, Noah delivers his story without bitterness and instead fills it with strength, comedy, and hope.
While I almost always opt for reading a physical book over listening to an audiobook, I generally make it through about one audiobook a month. This is one of those rare stories that I have to recommend experiencing in audiobook format. If you are a fan of Noah, you won’t want to miss him narrating his own story.
Michael’s Recommendation – Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
I first heard about this book from author Peter Ryan, who said that it was one of his favorite science fiction stories. Fast forward about a year later, suddenly I’m having people ask if I’ve seen Altered Carbon on Netflix. Trust me, I’d like to, but I promised myself I’d read the book first. And I just finished it. Wow. This book is no joke.
Hard-hitting, thought-provoking, and thrilling, Altered Carbon delivers. Written in a fast-paced first person from the perspective of ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs, Altered Carbon presents a unique and haunting future in which consciousness itself is transferrable between bodies (or sleeves), making death itself something of the past. That is, if you can afford the procedure.
The story takes place in a 25th century San Francisco (now dubbed “Bay City”), where Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in a new sleeve hundreds of light years from his home. He was brought to Bay City by Laurens Bancroft, a wealthy man who has re-sleeved himself enough times to live for hundreds of years. Laurens hires Takeshi to investigate his “suicide,” as he is convinced he was actually murdered. Under circumstances that make it difficult to refuse, Takeshi Kovacs takes on the assignment, and is launched into a dark conspiracy he never could have anticipated.
The story is compelling, violent, and incredible. I enjoyed reading it even more than I anticipated. And now that I’m finished, I can watch the show and see what everyone is talking about. But, probably not before I read the next novel in the series…you know, just in case. I hate spoilers.
Today we have author Susan K. Hamilton with us to discuss her upcoming novel Shadow King, releasing on October 2nd. Susan’s manuscript for Shadow King finished in the top 10 for the 2016 LaunchPad Manuscript Competition, which received over 1,000 entries from over 24 countries.
Welcome, Susan! Your book Shadow King is currently in production and set to release on October 2nd. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about Shadow King and what inspired the story?
Thank you! In Shadow King, the world of Faerie has been destroyed by a corrupt, dark spell and all the Faerie races are forced to live in our world. Aohdan Collins is the Fae patriarch of Boston’s criminal underworld, and has worked relentlessly from the shadows to expand his empire. Everything changes, however, when he shares a shot of whiskey with Seireadan Moore. But Seireadan has her own secrets, and she’s looking for revenge against the person responsible for killing her family—and to get it, she may end up betraying the one she loves.
The inspiration for this story really came from one of the main characters: Aohdan Collins. I’d been trying to think of an idea for NaNoWriMo a few years back, and while raking leaves in my yard, the idea for his character popped into my head. From there I started to think about who he was, what he’d do, how he would move through our own world, and everything else came from there.
Aohdan Collins rules Boston from the shadows, and nothing stands in his way… until he meets Fae Seer Seireadan Moore. A shared shot of whiskey changes everything, but Seireadan is bent on finding the man who destroyed her family. And revenge always demands a high price. #bookspic.twitter.com/vTnXXVOh1W
You describe Shadow King as Dark Fantasy. For those who many not know, can you explain some of the differences between Fantasy and Dark Fantasy?
That is actually a much harder question than it seems, and I have to confess, before Shadow King, I’d never written a dark/urban fantasy before. My work had mainly been more traditional fantasy.
But to answer your question, I would define dark fantasy as a story that takes elements of traditional fantasy and ties them to darker themes. In more traditional fantasy, you find mythically-inspired characters who occupy the moral high ground, and the story tends to have a very optimistic feel. Dark fantasy still has the fantasy themes but they’re often shown in a darker, grittier, more realistic light even if they happen in a fantasy world. If you change the setting of a dark fantasy to our real world, you also start adding the urban fantasy aspect to it.
Many people seem lump dark fantasy and horror together as well. I think the edges of both these genres bleed into one another but each also has very distinct and unique qualities, so I don’t think they’re the exact same thing.
Dark fantasy is also defined somewhat by the characters and their behaviors. In Shadow King, the heroes are dark heroes, and they do unsavory things. Aohdan is not a knight in shining armor—he’s a dark knight, but he has a very strong moral code that he lives by. He has a very strong sense of loyalty, responsibility, and of right and wrong—at least right and wrong as he views the concepts, which may be a little different than how readers perceive them.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day? In a perfect world, I try to do some writing every day, but things don’t always work out as planned. After finishing my manuscripts for Shadow King and The Devil Inside, I was “written out” and needed a break. I spent quite a bit of time catching up on my “to read” pile. However, recently I’ve been getting back to writing and working on some new projects.
What books by other writers have had the biggest influence on you? The first would be Patricia Kennealy-Morrison. I read her Keltiad series years ago. I’m not sure they’re even in print anymore, but there was something about those books that I loved. They blended fantasy, science fiction, and Celtic mythology in a way I’d never seen. I loved her characters, the plot, the world she built… all three books just delighted me, and made me want to write something that (fingers crossed) would make people feel the same way.
Next would be JK Rowling. I’m sure lots of people would list her but what I admire about her work is her ability to take themes and make them not only understandable for children but engaging for adults as well. Plus her ability to craft a character like Snape. For so long in the book he is part of the darkness, the villain, the character you love to hate, but in the end, when his motivations become clear, it adds such depth of character. I aspire to have my characters be that three-dimensional.
And lastly, I would say both Donna Grant and Karen Marie Moning. Both write in the romance genre, but they have very strong fantasy/dark fantasy elements in their stories. They’ve built magnificent worlds that, for me, transcend a single genre. I love how they’ve built their worlds and constructed their stories. And then there’s the sex. Personally, I struggle mightily with writing sex scenes… finding that balance where it is steamy without being overly graphic, but also not skirting around the subject either. I find both Moning and Grant have a keen eye for this balance and reading their work has helped me more clearly define what I want my voice to sound like in this area.
Okay, one more. I’d also include David Eddings in here. I devoured his Belgariad series, and while I appreciate the foundation that Tolkien laid for the entire fantasy genre, the characters in the Belgariad were, for me, so easy to relate to and care about. He also, in my opinion, does a wonderful job drawing his story out over several books without it feeling forced.
All books say that characters are fictional, but are they really all made up, or do you base them on people you have known in your own life?
To this point, I’ve never fully based a character on someone I know, although in The Devil Inside—which will come out after Shadow King—I had jokingly told an old high school acquaintance that I’d write him into the book. I used part of his name for a character, and the number of his football jersey is incorporated into an address that factors into the story. I did not, however, base the character on his actual personality.
A good villain is hard to write. How did you get in touch with your inner villain(s) to write this book. Was there a real-life inspiration for him/her/it? Because Shadow King is a dark fantasy, my primary characters have some traits that you usually ascribe to a villain. Aohdan is an underworld mob boss, and he didn’t get where he was by keeping his hands clean and following the rules. As someone notes in the story, “Bad things happen to people who cross Aohdan Collins.”
So it was important to me to find that balance between embracing Aohdan’s dark side but also the role he plays as a hero in the story. He’s not always a good guy but he’s got a very clear moral compass.
To create him I tried to keep in mind how characters were portrayed in TV series like The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy. When you look at those characters on the surface, they are criminals. They do bad things. They hurt people. They also live by clear codes of loyalty and honor. So while you might not like the things they do, you become invested in them as characters and dive into what motivates them to behave the way they do. Hopefully that will come across to people when they read Shadow King.
Did you ever have a rough patch in writing, where nothing in the story seemed to fit or make sense? I have them. All. The. Time. I even had one time where I ripped up 250 pages worth of work and started over from scratch because I was so frustrated with the story.
In Shadow King in particular there was one point where I was trying to do more of the story from the perspective of Seireadan, my female lead, and it meant rewriting some scenes that had previously been in Aohdan’s POV. Sometimes getting things from her perspective, because she’s not part of his inner circle to start, was hard.
And during my development edit, I had a definite writer’s tantrum where I knew—based on the editor’s advice— that I had to push the story out further, but it didn’t come easy. I ended up sending my editor probably a two page email just ranting about my frustration and how this didn’t work and that wasn’t lining up and I hated the whole story – and so on and so forth. Definitely had my “drama queen” crown on that day!
But the act of just dumping all that emotion and frustration out there, solved the whole problem. Halfway through the rant I had that, “ohhhh, that’s what I need to do” moment. I gave myself the next day off from rewriting and when I went back to it, things worked out great.
Did you have any differences with your editors while you were still becoming used to getting your work edited? How did you work through those differences? Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of major differences but we did have a few disagreements. It can be hard to get feedback on your book, especially about changing things. The important thing to remember is the editor is trying to be your ally, not your adversary. They want to take your already great book and make it an amazing book.
The big key to working through those things is communication. You need to be able to express why you made some of the choices you did, but you also need to really listen to—and understand—why the editor is questioning certain things in your story.
There were a few places in Shadow King where I looked at feedback and (I confess) I got a little defensive. When that happened. I put the manuscript away for a little while and then went back and looked at the comment again. Most of the time, after I’d allowed myself to noodle through what had been said, it made more sense. If it didn’t, I asked for clarification.
In a few cases, there were some things I held firm on because they were important–and because I was able to explain my reasoning, the editor also had a better understanding of the point I was trying to make and we were able to reach a point where I felt I stayed true to the story while finding a way to improve it.
My favorite question – If you were given the opportunity to join a book club with your favorite authors, dead or alive, who would you want to become a part of the club?
Some of these names will sound familiar, but I would say Lloyd Alexander, David Eddings, Kim Harrison, Donna Grant, JK Rowling, Karen Marie Moning, and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison because they’ve all written books or book series that have meant something special to me. I would love to hear their perspectives on other books and on writing.
Are you working on something new? And can you tell us a little bit about it? I am working on something new. A couple somethings, actually. The first is a short story that I’m planning to submit for consideration in an anthology. I’m having a lot of fun with that, especially since I’m writing in first-person which is something I normally don’t do. It’s got some dystopian aspects and probably leans a bit towards supernatural fantasy.
I’ve also started tinkering with two new manuscripts. One is another urban/dark fantasy involving witches—the title right now is The Cardinal Witch. Along with that, I’ve also started some work on a follow up to Shadow King. Both are pretty new so I don’t have a lot to share yet, so I apologize for not having more details!
Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?
Most definitely! From a writing perspective I would tell myself to start writing sooner than I did. I loved to write as a little kid and then got away from it. I didn’t really get reacquainted with writing until I was in college. The other advice would be to be braver. Easier said than done, I know, but I wish I’d been more comfortable being bold when I was younger.
What advice would you like to give writers who are working on their first novels?
First thing is be persistent. Things don’t happen overnight. There will be people who reject you and people who don’t like your work. Learn from those things and get better because there ARE people out there who do like your work and who will support you.
Second, make friends with other writers and authors. They understand what you’re going through as a writer. They’ll support you when you hit a rough patch but they’ll also call you out on BS as well, and that’s important.
Third, learn to love imperfection. No story is 100% perfect in every respect. Make your work the very best it can be, but when you get there, let it go and let it be what it is. It won’t be perfect, but it is yours so love it just the way it is. I learned this after self-publishing my very first novel many years ago. I couldn’t afford an editor or anything professional really other than the cover (and even that was a big favor from an artist friend). I know if I went back and read that story now, I’d be horrified because I’m a better writer now than I was back then – but that book was the absolute best I could do at that point in my life, and I love it for all the things it taught me.
What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with or follow you (website, blog, Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and links?
Probably the best sites are Facebook or Twitter, and I’d love to hear from readers! You can find me all of these places:
Ambition. Betrayal. Revenge.
Centuries ago, the Faerie Realm was decimated by a vile and corrupt spell. To survive, the different faerie races―led by the Fae―escaped to the Human Realm where they’ve lived ever since.As the Fae Patriarch of Boston’s criminal underworld, Aohdan Collins enjoys his playboy lifestyle while he works from the shadows to expand his growing empire, until one night when he shares a shot of whiskey with the lovely Seireadan Moore…A Fae Seer, Seireadan is haunted by a vision of the Fae responsible for destroying Faerie and murdering her family. Common sense tells her to stay away from Aohdan, but his magnetism and charm are irresistible.As their passionate affair intensifies, Seireadan is pulled into the center of the underworld. And while her heart is bound to Aohdan, she cannot let go of her lifelong quest to hunt down the Fae who haunts her visions… especially when she realizes Aohdan might be the key to helping her find him.But is revenge worth betraying the one she loves?