On Saturday, I sat down with fellow Inkwell Council member, Megan Manzano, and Craft Quest’s Ari Augustine and Maria Tureaud for a livestream about writers and self-care. Check it out below.
Today I’m sitting in on Craft Quest’s YouTube page with a short video containing my 4 step rule for handling a critique. Check it out below, and be sure to join us live on Saturday at 5PM EST for a live panel on self-care for writers! Hope to see you then!
It’s a funny cycle and it goes like this: I write a book. When marketing said book for potential agents, having comparison titles can be very helpful. I go looking for comp titles from comp title extraordinaire, Megan Manzano. She does it for me for free because she’s my husband’s little sister, and I spent hours when she was a kid playing pet shop with her stuffed animals, so she owes me. She does charge for the service as well, so you should check it out. The next step in the cycle is to read the books she recommends and make sure I agree and know what I’m talking about when an agent says, “what in particular did you think was similar to the book?” That would be a really bad moment to gape like a fish. Anyway, I read, I love, I gush to her in annoying ways via FB Messenger, and then I write one of these. The Monsters of Verity series by Victoria Schwab was recommended to me mostly based on tone, family politics, and monster battles, but I stayed for so much more.
Book Summary: Below is the jacket copy for the first book of the duology, This Savage Song. I will not include a summary for Our Dark Duet, because that would be spoilery as all get out.
Kate Harker wants to be as ruthless as her father. After five years and six boarding schools, she’s finally going home to prove that she can be.
August Flynn wants to be human. But he isn’t. He’s a monster, one that can steal souls with a song. He’s one of the three most powerful monsters in a city overrun with them. His own father’s secret weapon.
Their city is divided.
Their city is crumbling.
Kate and August are the only two who see both sides, the only two who could do something.
But how do you decide to be a hero or a villain when it’s hard to tell which is which?
Corsai, Corsai, tooth and claw,
Shadow and bone will eat you raw.
Malchai, Malchai, sharp and sly,
Smile and bite and drink you dry.
Sunai, Sunai, eyes like coal,
Sing you a song and steal your soul.
Monsters, monsters, big and small,
They’re gonna come and eat you all.
What I enjoyed: I have to really stop and think about this, because on a knee jerk, I want to think I enjoyed everything, but I want to be more specific. This was definitely a novel that swept me up and through me through the dryer in the best possible way, so I’m still a little dizzy over it. Okay, deep breaths.
For starters, the characters–generally my favorite part of the book, I loved these characters. Kate was difficult to love, and at first you kind of loved to hate her, but by the end of her arc, I was blown away by her. She was a complex and truly wonderful character. August was a character I loved from the beginning, but his journey was a gripping ride, as he came to terms with who he was, what his role could be and what it should be. The villains ran the gamut between disturbing (the monsters) and oddly understandable and still disturbing (the human villains).
The mythology of this world was surprising and inventive. The monsters here are born of violent acts, meaning each act of brutal violence creates a monster. Dealing with your own demons is a big theme in this book. I was intrigued by the breakdown of differences between the monsters, and the creation of the war-divided city of Verity. I applauded her use of music as a way to draw forth a soul for devouring in the Sunai. This was a completely unique monster concept to me, and I loved the way this played out, especially in the end. The writing in itself is downright poetic. Like the music from August’s violin, it drags you in and holds you in its comforting lull or pulls you into pieces, depending on the moment.
The tone of the story was another lovely point. It was gritty and real and lived in. No punches pulled.
What I’d avoid:
There were a couple of things I didn’t love about the story, although they definitely weren’t as prevalent as the things I did. Schwab delivered a new and inventive world, and I understood that she wanted to leave some room for speculation, but there were a couple of threads I felt were left hanging. Things like “what happened to the US to create a city like Verity?” or “What happened to certain characters Kate and August weren’t able to maintain contact with?” just kind of never get answered, even though they felt like they would be. They aren’t integral to the plot, but it nagged me a little bit. Bigger questions, like “why are the Sunai SO DIFFERENT from other monsters, and from each other?” could have been purposely left open as something for the reader to suss out and theorize about, but I felt a few more clues would have been very much appreciated.
Would I recommend it:
I actually just did. I hope my husband is enjoying his audiobook of it right now! And I will continue to. I really enjoyed this story.
What can I learn from it:
I’ve been struggling with the bittersweet ending of one of my novels, wondering if I’d gone the right way with it. The Monsters of Verity series, along with its popularity, made me feel much better about this choice in my work. It also helped me trudge forward without fear in my latest work, which does have a gritty backdrop and a slightly selfish heroine. This story is a class in “Write what the story wants, the rest will fall in place” and I love that.
Despite my few tiny gripes, this series had me from the very first line and held me. And, it helpfully works as an addition to my list of comp titles. One of my favorite things about looking for comp titles is discovering new authors and new stories. Have any of you ready This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet? Any recommendations of similar books?
If you want to learn more about the best ways to build a character, as well as hear an inordinate amount of cinnamon roll related discussion, check out the YouTube Live panel I participated in on Saturday on Craft Quest’s channel. The archived version is currently available. Craft Quest was created by Maria Tureaud and Ari Augustine, and Megan Manzano and I had a great time chatting with them. Tune in below.
Based on a game I recently saw making the rounds, come join me while I spell out my name in fictional characters–and then tell you why I love them.
Jason Todd–aka the second Robin, as in Batman and Robin. Died, got better. Became The Red Hood.
Jason Todd is currently my favorite fictional character of everything, anywhere. Because we’re dealing with DC Comics here, and they don’t always do a good job of consistency in characterization, sometimes Jason isn’t written in the best light. And really, he’s kind of an asshole. An anti-hero in the truest sense, Jason Todd breaks Batman’s strictest rule–he kills to protect the people of Gotham. Having returned from death only to discover the man who beat him to death with a crowbar, The Joker, still lived, Jason decides that the only way to keep someone like that off the street is to kill them.
Sure, he veers into bad guy territory, like the time he tried to kill his successor for the Robin title, Tim Drake, but Jason is tormented by memories of his death, feelings of abandonment by Batman, and the fact that he was trained to be an assassin by The League of Assassins. He lost it for a while there. Now he’s stumbling through a redemption path fraught with questions of why he’s still here, and whether he really wants to be or not. It’s rough, it’s dark, and it’s a departure from the “yes, sir!” mentalities of Dick Grayson and Tim Drake’s earlier run.
Plus it’s just fun to see Jason struggle to reintegrate into his family, and try not to care about Bruce Wayne. It’s a compelling story arc. And we all know how I love those.
Ursula, The Sea Witch–Does this one really need explanation? I mean, she’s the feared witch of the sea! She even makes King Triton nervous. She’s charismatic and charming, her big song and dance number is catchy as hell, she makes being an octopus look sexy and bawdy! The Little Mermaid really never stood a chance. I firmly believe that this was the beginning of me sympathizing with morally questionable characters, a trend that has followed me into adulthood. I mean, who didn’t wonder what Ursula did to lead Triton to banish her?
*Sings Poor Unfortunate Souls and saunters out of the room*
Simon Lewis–For those of you who know nothing about The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Simon Lewis is the regular guy in the story. He starts out as the only human among a bunch of supernatural friends. Though a vampire bite in the first book turns him into a vampire, he still has a very human point of view on everything.
Anyone who knows me, knows I have a love/hate relationship with Clare and her series’, and while badass archer Alec Lightwood became my favorite character down the line, it was Simon and his acerbic, sardonic wit that pulled me into the story, even though I was flagging on it from the very beginning. Simon is the “you” in the story. He is your representation. The things you find odd are the thing he comments on. The things that are annoying are mocked by Simon. He is sweet, he is innocent to the world around him, and we all kind of root for him. In the end, though I won’t spoil you, his story ends up being at the heart of main character Clary’s journey.
Tara Maclay–I really loved Seth Green as Oz on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I had a really hard time accepting Tara when she was initially written into canon. As far as I was concerned, he and Willow were meant to be, and here was this lady, flirting with Willow! Add to that the fact that I thought they were just queer baiting with the clear close relationship between Willow and Tara, and playing with Willow’s witchcraft dabbling with a metaphor to her dabbling in lesbianism, I actually hated the storyline in its first few weeks. But Tara grew on me as I came to realize that, while not a perfect storyteller or human being by any means, creator Joss Whedon did mostly right by this couple, making them an enduring relationship on the show, and a beautiful and inspiring character in her own right.
A child of abuse, Tara has a natural inclination toward magic, and is ridiculed by her family because of it. When she joins The Scooby Gang, she is quiet, shy, and initially, will only talk to Willow, fearing alienation by any who don’t dabble in magic. But by tackling crisis after crisis head on, and after being protected by Buffy, Willow, and their friends when her family comes to call, Tara grows into a strong, confident woman, who often plays a large role in the gang’s adventures. She becomes so confident, that she walks away when Willow, the love of her life, begins to use magic like a drug, only coming back when Willow is clean for a long time, despite her love for her. Though in the end, she dies (DAMMIT, JOSS!), her character’s loss is felt for the remaining season of the series, and is known as one of the most shocking moments of the series.
And yes, I am aware she comes back to life or something in the comic books after the show, but I refused to accept those as canon the moment I realized they made Dawn into a giant for mostly no good reason. The comic books are deader than Tara to me. Sorry not sorry.
Inej Ghafa–The Wraith! The Spider of Ketterdam! As one of the ragtag group of criminals that makes up the six in Leah Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Inej has a background that, though tragic, strengthens her. As the team’s intelligence gatherer, Inej uses her past as an acrobat to help her survive in the crime-ridden city of Ketterdam. Initially she is kidnapped from her life as an acrobat and forced into a life as a sex slave. She is coded as being of middle eastern dissent, and she is brought to a pleasure house called “The Menagerie” for her “exotic looks”. Not content to be used in such a way, she uses her stealth to provide information for a future crime boss, and quickly comes under his protection. She makes herself invaluable to him, and plans to use the money the Six make on their criminal exploits to pursue her dreams of ridding the world of the slave trade.
Gotta love a woman who turns things around to her advantage. Even when she’s falling in love with said future crime boss Kaz Brekker (who is another character study for another time…there is no K in my name, darn it), she always has a clear mind to his faults and refuses to weaken herself for him. Definitely an inspirational character.
Nadia Stafford–She’s an assassin with a heart of gold. The lead character in the Nadia Stafford series by my favorite author, Kelley Armstrong, Nadia appears cute and unassuming. She’s the girl next door, but she’s hiding a gun under her jacket and won’t hesitate to kill in self-defense. There’s something appealing about that. *scratches chin* Can’t imagine why…
After the murder of her cousin when she’s young, Nadia becomes a police officer like the rest of her family. A trained sniper and so, a badass with a gun, Nadia goes off the rails when she fails to get a kid killer imprisoned…so she kills him herself. Publicly. Shunned by her family and fired from her police work, Nadia follows her dreams and starts a wilderness retreat…which she can’t seem to keep afloat financially. But her brand of vigilante justice catches the interest of a mob boss that needs bad guys taken care of…the rest is history.
By turning her childhood trauma into life as a vigilante assassin, Nadia is able to overcome what happened to her cousin, and unravel the mystery of what happened to her that fateful night. Despite her tendency toward specialty jobs, Nadia makes herself a name in the hitman world, a world usually dominated by strong arms or sexuality, without using any of those things.
And she also catches the interest of a man with somewhat less morals, but a willingness to turn things around…for the right woman.
Ender Wiggin–Though the Ender’s Game series of novels have been somewhat soured by Orson Scott Card and his 1) BLATANT and RAMPANT hate for the LGBTQ+ community; and 2) Card’s tendency to write relationships between the siblings in the stories that smacks of incest, Ender’s Game was my favorite novel for quite a long time.
Bred into a family of high intelligence in hopes that he will become the future of the battle against a breed of alien that threatens to destroy the Earth, Ender grows up in a family that nurtures and accepts him. All except his bully of an older brother, Peter, who tortures him to the point of traumatizing him.
When Ender is sent off to battle school, he is forced to prove himself among other rather exceptional children, most of which view him as a threat. Ender quickly learns that the only way to stop an attacker is to make sure they can’t come back at you again, and begins to fight with a brutal precision. While he works and eventually leads in surgical, deadly strikes, he also has an endless well of compassion and respect for life–a fact that eventually tears him apart when faced with the repercussions of his actions. However, it is this compassion that leads the calculating Ender into hero status, and helps him understand the alien threat.
So, that’s my name in characters I love. A common thread I have noticed is a hard edge, intelligence, cunning, and a willingness to overcome all obstacles. I tend to lead toward complex characters who are sometimes difficult to love, though not all of them fall into that category. The largest common thread I’ve discovered is that these characters are easy to respect. Either way, all of which are characters you should get to know…but if you’re as disgusted by Ender’s author as I am, only read Card if someone is throwing away his books…then toss them in a dumpster fire when you’re done. The others you can safely pursue through normal methods, I promise.
When I initially created this blog years ago, it was called Pieces of the Puzzle, and it discussed all of the different aspects of who I am. That puzzle is still a work in progress, and every now and then I get a different piece to set in place, and with it, a new understanding of who I am. This time, I didn’t just place a piece, I placed an entire corner of the full picture and gave myself a better understanding of the challenges I’ve faced, and what may come down the road.
I’ve always felt like a complainer. I have back pains due to scoliosis, migraines, pelvic and stomach issues, and I’m always feeling just a little icky. That’s not even to mention my ADHD, my depression, my anxiety…so when a person comes up to me and asks how I’m doing, I have a tendency to smile and say “fine” no matter who they are. Rarely do I admit to all this stuff going on with me, because if you’re in pain every day, and you tell someone every day, it feels like you’re whining. This has been true for nearly fifteen years, but over the last five years, this feeling has intensified. Now, not only did I have these problems, but I had random muscle cramps and spasms in places other than my back, muscle weakness, burning on the bottom of my feet.
Where I used to bop around the office, I started begging off projects that required me to run between floors because I seemed to always have a strained muscle. Where a three mile walk from the office to my doctor’s appointment was never a big deal, the half-mile walk to my son’s school had me limping to the office.
More than anything, I was just exhausted–a person who was always hyper-alert and jumping from project to project, and suddenly, I was falling asleep at the slightest lull in activity. Then my fingers started tingling, like my hand had fallen asleep. Suddenly, I felt crushed by all of the many different things that were bothering me on a day to day basis. If it wasn’t one thing, it was always, invariably, five others.
I still didn’t do anything substantive about it. Wear a wrist brace until the tingling stopped. Put some BenGay on a back muscle, keep my feet warm so they don’t cramp. But these were easy fixes. Nobody needed a doctor for this.
Then a friend of mine was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
I didn’t know what that was, and I’m never content to have holes in my knowledge base, so I googled and learned. Fibromyalgia is a pain syndrome, and it effects the way pain sensors in your body process pain, amplifying pain signals. It also causes many neurological and muscular issues. The list of symptoms was like a punch to the face. Nearly all of them were things I experienced on a regular basis. I called the doctor and set up an appointment.
I went to my general doctor, and then to a specialist. And now I know.
The pieces of the pain puzzle I’ve been dealing with for years has finally come together, and the image I’ve been building is one of a fibromyalgia sufferer. Surprise!
I have to be honest. When I first got this diagnosis, I wrapped up some things I was handling, then laid down and cried for hours. I completely melted down. Because the questionnaires I had to fill out on the way to diagnosis listed symptoms I hadn’t had yet. LOTS of symptoms I hadn’t had yet. And the anxiety-ridden side of me (see my short story, One Percent, about a girl who genuinely believes she will fall into the 1% of people whose spinal surgery paralyzes them–that may have been based on a true tale), went straight to the worst. I cried, imagining myself unable to play with my son, unable to work, unable to write. I completely tanked out in an image of continual level-10 pain.
Because I had to go there. My brain had to let it out. And the next morning, I woke up ready to fight. Because fibromyalgia doesn’t mean these things for everybody. Because I was already living with this, and giving it a name wasn’t going to change that for the worse. Because I would find a way. Even if every one of the things I worried about the night before came true, I’d still be okay, because I would find a way to cope. Because this is my life, and I’m gonna make the best of it.
Because I’m a badass.
Just now, I’m a badass who knows she has fibromyalgia.
Which, let’s face it, really just makes everything I do that much more badass, right?
It’s amazing how easy it is to live within a bubble. I live in Bronx, NY, and I have my entire life. I work in Manhattan, known to New Yorkers as “the city”. But while I’ve been a part of the online writing and bookish communities for years now, and I’ve made appearances at events in the city on and off over that time, I somehow never managed to stumble upon some of the events going on in The Bronx for artists within my very own borough. What an oversight! And the truth of it is, there aren’t enough of them. The Bronx has been continually disenfranchised, the media doing its level best to portray us as a neighborhood without thinking minds, a place where only the strong survive. It’s a myth perpetuated by those who proliferate it, a story created to make the old white men who so often make the big decisions feel better about continually pulling funding on education and literacy programs for the area.
But strides are being taken in the right direction, often by stubborn members of the community itself, who have had enough of this wrong-minded take on our rich community. Created in 2013, the Bronx Book Fair takes place yearly at Bronx Library Center and, I’m ashamed to say, this was my first year in attendance. With the Bronx being a focal point of diversity, the organizing members look to reflect the community, with a diverse group of speakers and vendors. And this year just happened to be the first year in which the Executive Director was a woman–Lorraine Currelly, who was just a delight, her kindness and care for the community shining through every word she spoke as she made her presence known. It also happened to be the first year with a female keynote speaker, the lovely badass book lover and owner of the only bookstore in the borough, Noelle Santos.
Owner of The Lit. Bar, Noelle is really the person who pulled me into the Bronx literary community. I stumbled upon news of The Lit. Bar by accident, while looking into Bronx venues in which to do future book signings. I discovered The Lit. Bar’s website and emailed her for details. Noelle explained to be that she was still in the process of creating the bookstore, and that she’d definitely be happy to have me once they were up and running. After talking Bronx literacy with her, I have watched as Noelle gained media attention with her winning smile, her intelligence, and her real talk. “I’m not polished,” she said, but the truth is, she’s just not doing business-as-usual, and it’s about time for that. She doesn’t need to be polished. She needs to be authentic. In following her, and helping when I could (some of you have probably seen my social media blasts attempting to raise crowdfunding bucks, for instance), I tripped my way into the Bronx literary world.
As the Keynote Speaker of this event, Noelle shined as she related her story of discovering that the only Barnes & Noble, the only BOOKSTORE, in the Bronx was set to close, and how this inspired her to make a change. “I’m not signing any more petitions,” she said. She decided she was going to change the way the gatekeepers viewed readers through her own actions. She was going to show people that a real reader comes in many varieties, and she was going to do it by proving the need for a Bronx bookstore. And she has! Not only has she garnered a ton of press for herself and her cause, but she will be opening her bookstore this summer. And in many ways, she sounded the trumpets for others, looking to find a way to prove our borough is worth more than the gatekeepers of the education and literary industries believe. Hell, I heard the call! By the time I left her speech, I was itching to do something productive for the community. If her closing poem doesn’t rile you up, I don’t know what will.
If I dive into everything I did at the fair (I bought books! For me! For Logan!), this will become a very long blog post, so I’ll give you the condensed version, to the best of my ability. I unfortunately didn’t get to attend everything, due to a combination of the split between programs held in the auditorium, programs held in the conference room, and the vendor floor. Also, I ended up having to leave an hour earlier than originally intended thanks to a migraine (chronic illness and large crowds don’t mix all that well for prolonged periods). But here’s some of the compelling finds I made.
Bronx Library Center is a beautiful and rather large library, and its librarians are kind, caring people who truly believe in spreading a joy of reading. One of the panels I attended included a discussion of book recommendations from librarians that work in all age groups, and suggestions on how to break a book slump and to encourage reluctant readers. One thing I learned? Don’t discourage children from reading outside of their age ranges. Reading over their age range can help challenge them. Reading below their age range can remind them of all they’ve accomplished, thus boosting their self-esteem.
I watched a presentation about a wonderful children’s story about dealing with grief, My Yellow Balloon by Tiffany Papageorge. Following that, there was a reading of the book in Spanish, as that book had just been released, translated into Mi Globo Amarillo by Fernando Aquino and Melissa Coss Aquino. Melissa also taught a writer’s workshop that focused on narrowing yourself to one writing project and how to remain focused on it until its completion. Specificity was stressed, and the need to cut out a time to work on several small goals to contribute to your larger goals was a very helpful discussion for a writer like myself, who always has a billion balls in the air.
Another highlight was a panel titled “How to Get Your Work Published.” While I’ve been around that block a time or two, this was a great panel for people who are just starting out and are looking at the different methods of getting your work out into the world. The panel featured Carolyn Butts, Editor/Publisher of African Voices Magazine, Steve Bloom, writer, and Jennifer Baker, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and contributing editor of Electric Literature. The moderator was Marc W. Polite, Founder and Editor in Chief of Polite on Society. The sentiments here varied, with some discussing the advantages of self-publishing, while others discussed methods of snagging agent representation. Editing your work was stressed, as well as a need to get out into the world and make human connections. There was a general agreement that opinions are arbitrary and taste-based, and the reminder that rejection doesn’t mean the work is bad, it’s just not right for the person reading it. Writing Workshops were also discussed, reminding young writers that a writing workshop should feel helpful, not soul-sucking. Jennifer in particular discussed the helpfulness of borough-based grants in NYC.
Women in Leadership: Arts, Activism & Social Responsibility featured Yolanda Rodriguez, Co-founder and Executive Director of BxArts Factory, and Poet and Author Mercy Tullis-Bukhari as they discussed the various demands and misconceptions that circle women in the arts. A particularly interesting point was when a question was posed: Is it an artist’s responsibility to also be an activist? Both women stressed that activism should find its way into art when it comes from a genuine place. Tullis-Bukhari specifically discussed how her identity and the identity of her family are among the groups that are under attack in this country, so she often has no choice but to lean towards activism–it’s a part of her life. However, Rodriguez pointed out that if a person chooses to create work that does not serve as activism, or if a person cannot march among activist, it does not mean that they are not assisting in any way. There is more than one way to protest.
From the vendor floor, I got to meet so many amazing people, and wish I’d been able to make a stop at all of them. I discovered the National Writers Union (and joined them), an organization that offers tremendous resources to writers such as contract advice and seminars about important writing issues. To learn more, check them out here. Riverdale Avenue Books had a table, and I had a great time chatting with Publisher Lori Perkins. I picked up an intriguing book about the #MeToo movement that I intend to gobble up.
Another great vendor represented at the fair was Boogie Down Books. Specialized in readers from 0-18, Boogie Down is a bookstore without walls, with pop-up shops and special book-related events hosted in local stores around the borough. Another great place for children who love reading to try, Writeopia Lab offers writing classes for kids in grades K-12, both individually, and through their school, or camp. It truly sounds like a great way to turn reluctant writers into pros.
All in all, while chronic illness left me super tired and kinda hurting through this, the people I met and the discussions I viewed were both inspiring and invigorating. It’s been a few days and I’m still riding high off the feeling of community and the sense that I want to do more. The Inkwell Council was my first attempt to try to do more for the writing community, and it has been a success. But my brain is starting to work towards what I can do for the literacy community in The Bronx itself. Stay tuned, folks–I’m spinning around a few ideas…I’ll keep you posted.