On Natasha Hanson

Just as a skeleton supports the human frame, she was the scaffolding upon which her life was built. All steel and all bone. If she could believe in nothing else, she could put faith in herself, for she was made with the strength to withstand the northern sea. An island, upon which she grew a family and a community, an economy of ambition and love. Storms crashed over her, but she stood fast. Waves broke upon her shores, to no avail. She sheltered her loved ones behind her indestructible ribcage, in the place where her heart beat. Under her protection, they could come to no harm.

Advertisements

My First Book Signing: Road Kill at Burrowing Owl Books

Here’s a thing to add to my future autobiography: I’ve signed books for people who bought them.

22859982_10210200326660378_8243940718473482649_o
Summer Baker (left) and Keith West (right) at Burrowing Owl Books. Photo credit Russell Parker of photographybyrussell.com

I had my first book signing event for Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers Vol. 2 at Burrowing Owl Books in Canyon, TX, alongside Keith West, a fellow contributor who wrote “Cemetery Games.” It was just before Halloween, and, as you can see, I dressed the spooky part.

The wonder of such a thing hasn’t yet worn off. Keith said it best as he took his seat next to me: “Nice to finally be on this side of the table.”

Which was to say, on the signer side. How right he was. At the time, I was too nervous about how the event would go to really appreciate the reality that I was signing books, not just getting one signed. But looking back, I’m a little awed at past Summer. That was really me. There’s even photographic evidence to prove it wasn’t a dream.

The signing itself was two hours long and that first hour passed like a blur, with several of my friends and family turning out to snag a copy of the book for themselves. With a bit of gimmicky brilliance, both Dallas and I had the idea to bring candy (since Halloween was soon) and I brought colored sharpies in a spooky box for fans to select for our signatures. Those are probably the most psychedelic copies of Road Kill out there. Though I tried my absolute best, I still messed up on one signature as I tried to write out his nickname instead of his real name. We sold most of the box, all but ten books — far more than I expected for a first signing — and signed some stock for Dallas afterward.

Keith West is the first of the other anthology contributors I’ve met in person. He turned out to be courteous and willing to talk writing shop with me, which we did for the last part of the signing when things slowed down. We were both riding in the first-signing boat and I was impressed with his enthusiasm for the craft. You can visit his blog at Adventures Fantastic.

Burrowing Owl Books itself is a cozy bookstore on the square in Canyon, filled with a comfortable array of new and used books. Its shelves are close enough to be cozy, but its open floor plan and high ceilings ward off any sense of claustrophobia. Dallas Bell, the owner, was incredibly helpful and cheerful as she guided us both through our first signing. Overall, it’s one of my favorite places in Canyon to visit.

If you missed the signing, you can  still purchase a paperback copy of Road Kill on Amazon.com for $19.95.

I did a lot of research beforehand over what to expect at a book signing. The Tricked Out Toolbox was a huge help with preparation guidance and I would recommend taking a look at their tips for your own signing. 

 

On Rebekah Cannon

She was a song I had heard long ago, one to which I remembered the tune, but not the words. A hazy recollection of sharp afternoon sunlight slanting across the stage where she sat cross-legged, body wrapped around an acoustic guitar. Fingers strumming the strings, gaze directed inward. We the audience might have been watching her, but she attended to the music the way she did everything: fiercely. She had a way of carving out space for herself, not waiting for permission, demanding the right to exist freely. Sometimes, when I felt hollow and uncertain myself, I hummed that tune and the notes would tether me to reality again. I think that song must have been a spell and she a bard, imparting a bit of her magic to her listeners.

On Jennifer Archer

She forever had her arms stretched upward toward the clouds overhead, eyes on the sky and questions on her lips. It was clear she was meant to be born with wings, because were it not for gravity, she would have taken flight and never landed again, soaring through storm and sunshine. An outline surrounded her ground-bound form, one of a mythical, multi-hued bird that you could only see through a magical lens. This bird swooped and circled the top of the highest snowclad peak, bright eyes watching you watching her.

If you could flap about a bit yourself, you might travel to her mountaintop to take a crack at her riddles. Fear not, there were no penalties for answering wrong. Her pleasure was in the asking, not the knowing—for seeking is like flying, finding like landing. But if you provided satisfactory answers, she rewarded you with a gust of wind all to yourself.

Because, you see, she wanted everyone else to fly, too.

Reasons to Skip NaNoWriMo This Year

 

What if I told you you don’t have to do NaNoWriMo? Meme Source: https://imgflip.com/memegenerator/Matrix-Morpheus

 

Today is the last Monday before November 1st, a day known for the past 18 years as the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. As November creeps up, writers start considering whether they’ll participate in the grueling one-month effort to write 50,000 words in pursuit of a novel draft, at a rate of 1,666 words each day. It’s like a one-month celebration of writing in which the measure of fun is in how much agony you’re experiencing.

I read an article from Chris Brecheen early this year that examined the detrimental effects NaNoWriMo can and often does have on writers. He maintained that trying to write 50,000 words in a month without doing regular writing throughout the rest of the year is like attempting to run the Boston Marathon after going for a few morning jogs. Such an ambitious but ill-advised undertaking only results in hamstrung legs and dreams.

The one time I completed NaNo left me feeling sick of words and incapable of writing for a long, long time afterward. I haven’t participated in it whole-heartedly ever since. Yet every year, I find myself getting caught up in that fever-pitch of anticipation as those around me gear up for another stab at that 50,000 words. As NaNo looms, I hear other writers (and myself) giving common reasons for why they might just roll up their sleeves and dive in again.

I’m skipping NaNoWriMo this year. Those aforementioned arguments often stem from guilt and misguidance, so I want to address some of them and present other, less detrimental, solutions.

#1 “It’s been so long since I’ve written and NaNoWriMo will get me back into it.”

Getting back into writing doesn’t have to wait until November. Also, it doesn’t have to take the form of writing an ocean of words every day. It’s as simple as picking up a pen and writing one sentence. Then doing that again the next day. And the next. The more writing you do, the easier it becomes and the more you’ll write.

Neil Gaiman was posed a question with this sentiment almost word for word on Tumblr. He gave an excellent response, saying that to get back into writing, putting down just 300 words a day will net you a 90,000 word novel in a year. That’s almost twice as much as NaNo, using a method that won’t destroy you.

#2 “Writing is so lonely, but NaNoWriMo gives me a sense of community with other writers.”

The advent of those new-fangled internets has connected writers all over the world. There are loads of websites, social media tags, critique groups, and match-ups available out there. With just a quick Google search, I found:

Critique Partner Love Connection – a forum set up to connect potential critique partners
Inked Voices – what looks like a GoogleDocs-esque group collaboration
Writers Online
– a database for seeking online writing groups
Writer’s Relief – featuring a list of writing groups by state or region

Most of these were just on the first page of results. Give some of these a try and get yourself some writing pals.

#3 “I just can’t seem to write without NaNoWriMo word count goals and deadlines to motivate me!”

I can see how “just write your goals down!” may not be concrete enough an answer to this dilemma. There’s something delicious about watching that word count line graph rise and rise the more you write. A physical, visual affirmation of the work you’ve done. (For me, a measurable distance for how much farther I have to go.)

There are some great programs out there that measure your progress toward your goal against a deadline of your choice. Give these a try!

MyWriteClub
Pacemaker
Writeometer
WriteTrack

#4 “It’ll be easier to write if I don’t have to think of the quality, just the quantity.”

But you will. While NaNo gets it right in encouraging writers to get those creative juices flowing through actual writing, it’s entirely possible to do too much. The more crap you sling at the wall, the louder that voice in the back of your mind will whisper this sucks. It doesn’t take long to succumb to the understanding that not only have you written total garbage in pursuit of that word count, you’re also not going to want to look at that mess long enough to edit and revise it in the future. It’s going straight into the trashcan.

This is because there comes a point where you pass productivity and cross over into word-garbage. Brent Weeks has been asked several times about how much he writes in a day. His answer (in a tweet somewhere that I can’t find now) was 500-1,000 words, saying that if he tries to go too much over 1,000, he starts to outstrip his creativity.

I discovered the exact same problem myself earlier this year when I was shooting for 1,500 words a day on a novel. It hurt. It resulted in a serious writing slump that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t overtaxed my creative muscles.

So avoid this problem by not setting such a high 1,666 daily word goal for yourself. Something reasonable, like 300-500, is a great way to start. Then, when you reach that mark, maybe you’ll feel like you want to keep going, more and more, until you hit your limit. You’ll know it when you do. At that point, all you have to do is stop…

…and start again tomorrow.

Book Review: What the Hell Did I Just Read?

Capture
What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong

Synopsis

Dave, John and Amy recount what seems like a fairly straightforward tale of a shape-shifting creature from another dimension that is stealing children and brainwashing their parents, but it eventually becomes clear that someone is lying, and that someone is the narrators.

The novel you’re reading is a cover-up, and the “true” story reveals itself in the cracks of their hilariously convoluted, and sometimes contradictory, narrative.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here’s what I expected from David Wong‘s What the Hell Did I Just Read?: a boyish romp through nihilistic philosophy and loads of gratuitous violence, eldritch horror, existential dread, and dick jokes.

What I got: exactly that, but with more thoughtfulness.

Just before the release of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, I reread the first in the series, John Dies at the End. I found it as good on the second read as on the first, but the difference four books (and countless articles at Cracked.com) can make in a writer’s skills and priorities shows. Wong (or Jason Pargin, really) has put his platform to work in order to touch on a few social issues, set against the background of absurdity.

I still don’t know for sure what happened in What the Hell Did I Just Read?, because as the synopsis and the title suggest, our narrators are incredibly unreliable this time around. (They may have always been. Who even knows?) It would have been easy to give readers a new logic-defying adventure characterized by the IDGAF attitude of David, John’s occasional wild narrative inputs, and Amy keeping up with the usual lunacy. That’s how it looks at first — just another fun time with our trio of badasses.

But unreliability, I think, is the point of the narrative. Real life is messy and noisy and confusing. Stories get convoluted when one person tries to cover for another, your friends prove somewhat untrustworthy, and, like internet comment threads, nothing gets tied up in a neat, satisfying bow. Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.

You tend to hear “it’s about the journey, not the destination” as a consolation for an unsatisfactory conclusion. By the time I tumbled to the last page of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, that phrase is exactly what I was thinking. As I mulled over the events of the narrative, I realized that, as in life, what happened along the way was far more important than the end. I had fun and that was what mattered.

I won’t spoil, but there are two “along the way” events I really cared about: Amy’s role in this unholy trinity and the issue of David’s mental health. Both of them indicate Wong’s changing social issue stances.

My favorite part is that Amy gets to have her own agency, her own (contradictory) opinions and desires, things she does outside of hanging out with David and John, actions that impact the narrative, and even acts as the household provider in her and David’s dynamic. Things women don’t often get to do in fiction, despite them being daily realities for us all. Things Amy didn’t get to do much in the previous two books.

My next favorite is that, while Wong has never forced David into taking action about his depression before now, he finally takes a dig into the resistance depression sufferers often show toward psychological improvement, using David and company as his mouthpieces to get the message across to his readers. He’s made no secret of David’s mental health issues, but here he brought it to the forefront instead of letting it stagnate in the background.

Overall, I’m pleased with Wong’s execution of this newest installment, particularly since it takes the frightening and makes it familiar through the lens of relatable characters who could, at this point, be any of us.

Goodreads rating: 4.43 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

On Micah Baker

A mysterious figure walked a wild forest path ahead of me; she had for as long as I could remember. Sedate patience was in her step, quiet, so quiet upon soft dirt. She did not forge her way forward so much as request safe passage; before her feet, the foliage shifted aside to let her through. As she passed fragile plants and skittish creatures, she disturbed neither. When she found things that did not belong—garbage, traps, pollution—her delicate touch righted the wrong and restored life to the earth. She whispered kind words to flowers and whistled to the twittering birds above.

I walked the path she had already created, admiring her handiwork in her wake. How brave she was to traverse this deep wilderness alone. Sometimes darkness loomed in the shadows all around us, but as I groped along in the night, the green light of a lantern bobbing ahead kept my feet from straying into danger. At times, she became so distant that I could no longer see her. But when I began to endanger the forest around with my clumsy ways, I recalled her serenity. She may not have known I was back there, following her footsteps, but she was my reminder: to be gentle and brave, just like her.

Book Review: All the Crooked Saints

20171015_155204.jpg
All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Synopsis

Here is a thing everyone wants: A miracle. Here is a thing everyone fears: What it takes to get one. Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here at last, I thought as I began reading All the Crooked Saints, was a Maggie Stiefvater book I wouldn’t love with all my heart. That’s a natural thing; no reader will adore every single piece a writer sends out.  I was prepared to accept this and look forward to her next book while rereading her previous ones.

The tone of All the Crooked Saints is more fanciful than usual, for starters, presented like an old folktale, with sparkling liveliness glinting in its eye. Also, it’s told in third-person omniscient, a style that I tend to dislike, as it jumps point-of-view too often for my taste.

But this, it turns out, is because while there are a dozen characters, each with their own wants and fears, darknesses, miracles, and personal arcs, there are really two characters in this story: the Saints and the pilgrims.

In a Facebook post prior to the release of All the Crooked Saints, Stiefvater alludes to last year, when she became inundated with requests for advice. “I found myself with a Tumblr inbox overflowing with readers asking me for #dubiouslifeadvice. But even as I answered the questions, I asked myself: what qualifies me to answer? Aren’t I imperfect, too, maybe more than the seeker?”

That very question shapes this story. Stiefvater weaves metaphors like a spider weaves silk, and she filled this brief, slim novel to the brim with them. There are so many to examine, and I very well may in the future, but I think I’ve picked out the main one.

Once, in an article for Jalopnik, for which Steifvater writes pieces about cars that are actually metaphors for life, she pointed out something about my generation that stuck with me:

…young people can be anxious and say they’re anxious. There’s no longer a stigma to admitting it. On the one hand, this is beautiful. Name the monster and you can kill it. But on the other hand… people aren’t killing it. They’ve named it and now they’re keeping it as a permanent fixture of the household. It lurks in the living room with its pretend immortality. Will you kill it for me, please? They ask.

That’s us. We’re the pilgrims, asking the Saints for a miracle, then finding that once we’ve named the monster, we must be the ones to kill it. No one else can do it, because they’re all wrestling their own darknesses. “This is one spider you’ve got to kill on your own,” she writes.

The takeaway here, I think, is that we cannot cease solving ourselves. To work through our own problems (instead of setting them on the mantelpiece) is to help others with theirs. But, as in the tale, one follows the other. Perhaps it also returns on itself.

So, in conclusion, I loved this book. It’s filled with tasty morsels for my mind to chew over a good week after closing it. I identify with Beatriz Soria, who struggles with a darkness that gnaws at my own heart at times. I’m sure readers can find themselves somewhere inside this story, too. But will you be a pilgrim, or will you be a Saint?

Goodreads rating: 3.93 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

On Deborah Elliott-Upton

This is a true story of an almost-assassination: mine. When I was just setting out on my journey, I apprenticed myself to a professional king-killer. For someone purported to move unseen in the shadows, she had a glamorous air about her. But since she used the same black ink for a weapon that I did, we got along rather well and I learned much about the trade from her.

Early on in my apprenticeship, I (perhaps foolishly) revealed to her my weakness: a nut allergy. I’m not sure if it was before or after that when she regaled me with a story of how she had impersonated a king’s wife—hired because the queen in question wanted to be freed of her dreadful husband. He too had a nut allergy and the assassin proceeded to poison him with airline peanuts in his chocolate cake.

It was a clever execution, I thought, and a fate which I took steps to avoid.

But time passed after I completed my training with her. Many years later, she invited me back to her home kingdom, to attend her second wedding to the only king who could ever hold her heart (and remain alive). I was standing right next to her as I munched on the wedding cake after the ceremony and it was only when my teeth crunched down on a tree nut that I realized my mistake.

I spluttered and choked in surprise. With a single raised eyebrow, she slipped me the antidote to her poison, one she had taught me how to make. One I should have been carrying with me all along.

As I took a swallow of the life-saving liquid, I asked, “Was this a test?”

Smiling, she leaned close to me and whispered, “You still have a lot to learn.