Take Back the Night

Black clouds scud across the moon, nearly full. The chill breeze has a little…bite to it. A tap-tapping on the window startles you out of your slumber. Perhaps it is only a tree branch, shaking in the wind. Or perhaps it is something else? Someone else? What are they saying, as they lurk outside?

“Let…me…in.”

Although pop culture seems to have something of an on-again, off-again relationship with vampires, I’m a steadfast fan. If there’s a vampire movie, I’ve probably seen it, and I’ve definitely made a dent in the books about them. Some authors *ahemStephenieMeyerahem* tried to make vampires into sexy, brooding vegetarians, but that trend can’t last forever. From the reported reboot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Renee Ahdieh’s new The Beautiful, to Jay Kristoff’s forthcoming Empire of the Vampire, I predict pop culture is swinging back toward our long-time fascination and obsession with the dark, immortal creatures of the night.

Halloween reminds us that while vampires might be fangtastic, and know how to have a bloody good time, they are ultimately denizens of the night who enjoy violence and murder. So let’s sink out teeth into some of my favorite creepy vampires…

That's what friends are for!
That’s what friends are for!

CarmillaCarmilla

Beautiful, languid, and mysterious, Carmilla insinuates herself into the lives of innocent young women, one at a time. Her mercurial moods and unsettling sexual advances distract her prey from her exotic tastes: the catlike monster that visits them in their nightmares and drinks of their blood is really her. Eventually, each girl wastes away and dies, leaving Carmilla free to find a new female companion. Best friends forever…or until you die.

Edward Cullen, Twilight

One of the most insidious vampires in literature, Edward lures Bella–his teenaged prey–with his brooding demeanor and ascetic lifestyle, then utilizes psychological tactics such as stalking, threat of violence, and abandonment to confuse her and alienate her from her species. Finally, Bella succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome and marries Edward, who is then able to complete his goal: impregnate his human wife with his unnatural half-vampire spawn.

Claudia, Interview with a Vampire

After being sired as a child by her adoptive fathers, Louis and Lestat, Claudia matures into a ruthless, murderous vampire with the face of a doll, who “appears to her victims as a little angel” before luring them to their bloody deaths. In cold blood, Claudia attempts to destroy Lestat by feeding him the poisoned blood of a young boy, and she manipulates Louis into doing various dastardly deeds, including siring an innocent woman so Claudia could have a “mother.” Sugar and spice and everything nice…

80’s vamps slay

Miriam Blaylock, The Hunger

Once every few hundred years Miriam, a vampire whose life began in ancient Egypt, assuages her loneliness by siring a human to be her half-vampire companion and lover. (This century, it’s David Bowie. Swoon.) Together they hunt, feed, and slaughter. But eventually these companions wither away into dusty, bloodless corpses, unable to die yet still conscious and aware. Unable to put her lovers out of their misery, Miriam instead encases the half-living corpses in coffins and keeps them with her for eternity. Talk about skeletons in the closet!

Kurt Barlow, Salem’s Lot

In Stephen King’s classic novel, Barlow is an ancient, master vampire who terrorizes the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot when he invades and quickly begins slaughtering and turning the citizenry. He causes some bad blood by performing human sacrifice before moving on to blood-letting, hostage-taking, murder of the elderly, and finally subversion of religious figures. This vampire really goes for the throat.

"I don't drink...vine."
“I don’t drink…vine.”

Count Dracula, Dracula

Ah yes, Dracula–a vampire who really sucks. After luring Jonathan Harker to his decaying castle in the Carpathian Mountains and subjecting the young man to unnatural penetration by his three vampiric brides, Dracula infiltrates London and begins menacing the beautiful Lucy Westenra and her companion, Mina Murray. He feasts upon Lucy’s blood until she dies and resurrects as a violent vampire herself; then, with so much at stake, Mina falls under the Count’s thrall, betraying her fiance and friends for Dracula’s sake. With his potent combination of sexuality, violence, and aristocratic charm, Dracula rains a dark terror upon London, and imparts a lasting and toothsome legacy to Western Literature.

Do you have any favorite vamps? Take a bite out of our comment section, fang you!

Surviving Criticism

In the play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington famously says, “A critic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This assessment may seem harsh to some, but I would wager that anyone who has ever created anything for public consumption might be nodding their heads just a little.

As a writer, reviews of the negative persuasion are more or less inevitable. And as I approach the one-year anniversary of my debut novel and the upcoming publication of its sequel, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the role of critics in the creation of art, and my relationship as a creator with that criticism.

I’ll be honest–when my book first hit shelves, I obsessively read every review I could find. Kirkus. SLJ. Booklist. Amazon. Goodreads. Book blogs. Bookstagram. If someone was writing about my book, I was going to read it. And honestly, most of the reviews skewed toward the favorable–not all bestowed glowing 5 stars, but most were decent. But every now and then I’d find a real stinker–you know the kind of review I’m talking about. The kind of review that says they would have cared more about the characters if they’d all died. The kind of review that implies the only good thing about the book was when it ended. The kind of review that obsessively lists everything the reader hated about it, in vicious detail.

And I started noticing something. Every negative review I read counted for more in my head than every positive review–it was like the bad completely outweighed the good. And every negative review I read made it that much harder for me to write.

So I put on my big girl pants and stopped reading reviews. I blocked Goodreads in my browser. I asked my editors to stop forwarding me trade reviews. I deleted the google alert for my book title. And I breathed a sigh of relief. But simply going out of my way to not find reviews doesn’t mean they don’t find me. In this age of social media and author-reader interaction, it’s really hard not to stumble across criticism. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been tagged on Twitter or Instagram for really scathing reviews. It can be almost day-ruining to click on a lovely bookstagram photo, only to scroll down to the caption and get slapped in the face with vitriol directed toward a novel you spent years of your life and buckets of love creating.

And I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t taken a toll on my writing. I’ll be in a flow and a really great metaphor will pop into my head. But now, that metaphor will be accompanied by all the critical junk I’ve read: the penchant for metaphor is distracting or ugh, I can’t stand purple prose or the writing was so flowery I DNF’ed 10 pages in. Dialogue, character development, action sequences–it’s gotten to a point where it’s a challenge not to second-guess every element of my own writing.

Okay. Deep breath. And…segue.

I listen to the local classical music radio station a lot when I’m in the car. Recently, the radio host shared an anecdote about the composer Rachmaninoff. Apparently, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to be publicly performed was received so poorly by critics that he fled the concert hall amid catcalls. One critic compared the piece to the ten plagues of Egypt. “If there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us,” newspaper critic Cesar Cui sneered.

Rachmaninoff was crushed, and stopped composing completely.

“Something within me snapped,” the composer wrote. “All my self-confidence broke down….A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything.”

It was three years before he was able to compose again. It was ten years before he attempted another symphony. But the piece he composed after his depressed hiatus was his Piano Concerto no. 2, arguably his most famous piece and incidentally, my favorite. He would continue composing for another 45 years, right up until his death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get over receiving negative reviews. But that’s okay. I just need to learn to pick myself up after getting knocked down. To turn the other cheek. To let the good outweigh the bad, instead of the other way around. And most importantly, I just have to keep writing. Because the only way to drown out the critics is to let my work speak for itself.

“Once in a golden hour 
I cast to earth a seed. 
Up there came a flower, 
The people said, a weed.” 
― Alfred Lord Tennyson

Outlining With Index Cards

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but on the continuum of pantser to plotter, I’m pretty far down on the pantser scale (as in, by the seat of my pants, meaning I don’t do much in the way of outlining). I do try to outline–really, I do! I’ve read a number of craft books promoting the practice, from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. I’ve downloaded beat sheets and mapped pinch points.

But for some reason, outlining has never quite clicked for me. I’ll get half-way through an outline for a project, only to get so excited about the project that I abandon the outline and just start drafting. Or, I’ll outline all the way through, but then once I start drafting I’ll realize some plot point isn’t working, and instead of going back to the outline and working it out that way, I just say eff this! and figure it out on page. Usually, by the time I’m done with a novel and go back to look at my original outline, the finished manuscript looks absolutely nothing like the outline I started out with.

And honestly, that’s worked out okay for me so far. I’ve written mostly first person narratives that move linearly through time (well, one was close third person, but that’s almost the same). I’ve never pushed myself to work with multiple POV characters, different settings or times, or even too many subplots.

Until now.

I’m really excited about the project I’m about to dive into (no spoilers yet!) but I’m self-aware enough about my own creative process to know that my usually laissez-faire style isn’t going to cut it. With 4-5 POV characters, two parallel timelines, and plenty of intertwining plot lines, I need to do the diligence of actually outlining. Which means I think I need to change my method of outlining in the first place, since nothing has really worked for me in the past.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the past few days, and I’ve finally decided to try out using index cards to outline! It’s not a method I’m totally unfamiliar with–several authors (including Caraval author Stephanie Garber) who I follow on social media use it to outline their books. But I never knew exactly how. Apparently there are numerous methods, but all of them focus on the basic principle of writing scenes, character arcs, plot points, conflicts, etc on single index cards, then adding, removing, or rearranging the index cards until they begin to resemble the coherent plot of a novel.

I’m not positive it will convert me from my pantsing ways, but I’m hopeful for a few reasons:

First, it seems like a very tactile method. Before I actually start drafting on my laptop, I really enjoy brainstorming, jotting down ideas, and fleshing out characters longhand. But in the past, I’ve done my outlining digitally, either on a word processor or in a program like Scrivener. I’m hoping the index card method will be a more organic way for me to explore my ideas.

Second, there’s plenty of flexibility. Like I said, the second I feel boxed in or off base with my outline, I go off script in the draft. But with index cards, if something isn’t working I can just get rid of the card or write a new one. I don’t need to have a sense of pinch points, character arcs, or even linear plot in advance of jotting down scenes and seeing how they fit together. I’m hoping this will stimulate my creativity while still providing structure.

Finally, it seems new and fun. Hey, I’ll admit it–I can be a bit of a dilettante! But sometimes, exploring a new method or element of craft can be just the thing to keep you moving forward and learning new things.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few of the resources I tracked down:

Holly Lisle–Plotting Under Pressure

Writer’s Digest–Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards

Greenkeys–How to Plot a Novel

Have you ever outlined using index cards before? Do you want me to report back on how it turns out? Let me know in the comments section!

Best Reboots

Reboots. Returns. Revivals.

I’ll be honest–these days it sometimes seems like I can’t turn my head without seeing an advertisement for a new reboot or revival of an old franchise. Often, these reboots are of something that played an important role in my childhood or adolescence, and seem cringingly designed to play on my sense of nostalgia. From live-action remakes of Disney movies to newly diverse CW reboots of 90’s television, it can seem like the only new movies and TV shows getting made these days…are old movies and TV shows.

As a writer, this sometimes strikes me as short-sighted. After all, there are so many amazingly talented authors, screenwriters, and playwrights out there writing original, creative, and often groundbreaking content that would be perfect for the big or little screen. But at the same time…sometimes these reboots really nail bringing an old storyline to a new audience. So with no further ado, here are my favorite reboots/revivals/returns from the last few years.

A Star Is Born

I know, I know, me and everyone else in the Academy. For me, though, this was really a high bar as far as comparison goes. I’m a big old movie buff, which means I’ve seen (and enjoyed, in different ways) both the 1937 and 1954 versions by the same name, starring Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland, respectively. (I have not seen the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand). I thought Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s rock-opera reimagining of the familiar story was poignant, inventive, and incredibly well acted.

Queer Eye

Full disclosure, I’ve never actually watched an episode of the original early-naughts version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. However, even without a comparison, I think 2018’s reboot of the franchise is nearly impossible to argue against. The newly minted Fab Five are just about everything this world needs: a group of queer, diverse, empathetic, thoughtful, kind, and playful men who bring joy, change, and self-worth to people’s lives. If anyone who works in TV is reading this…more of this, please!

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mel Gibson, Shmel Gibson. I’d rather partake in this heart-pounding, feminist reimagining of a parched post-apocalyptic world, headed up by a prosthetic-wearing, shaved-head sporting, monster-truck driving Imperator Furiosa (played with aplomb by Charlize Theron). Bonus points: every still this movie looks like it could be a poster.

Roswell, New Mexico

Oh, I had my doubts, not least of all because the original show wasn’t very good (sorry!). But with the 2019 reboot, Liz is a scientist, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, and Max is–well, Max is very attractive. All joking aside, while the reboot is not without flaws, it does a much more thorough job of placing an alien invasion storyline amid the real-world xenophobia of modern America.

Ghostbusters

From the moment they announced an all-female reboot of this beloved classic, I knew I was all in. And I was not disappointed. Featuring some of the funniest ladies in comedy–Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones–and the welcome eye candy of Thor himself (sorry, can’t think of him any other way) this reboot did not disappoint. Ghosts, occultists…I can’t really say more without giving spoilers. Just trust me, hilarity ensues.

And that’s just a few of the reboots/returns/revivals, past and present. What are your faves, or ones you’re looking forward to? Personally, I’m really excited about Disney’s reboot of Mulan, and Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV series!

Learning to Love…Myself

Today’s post is a little personal and a little vulnerable, so I hope you’ll bear with me. This year has been a bit of a whirlwind for me so far–tight deadlines interspersed with post-debut-year *feelings* punctuated by a few personal crises have made for a bit of a rocky emotional landscape. Now, emotional rollercoasters aren’t something particularly new for me. I’m an empath and a creative and I always feel things pretty strongly.

But something about this year has put me in a bit of a tail-spin. I’ve been stress eating like whoa. When I wasn’t on tight deadline, I binge-watched like 8 seasons of a show I didn’t particularly like just because it let me turn my brain off. More than once, I’ve started off an evening happily having a glass of wine while cooking dinner with hubby, only to drink too much and start crying about nothing. These aren’t normal behaviors for me, but so far they haven’t been problematic enough to raise any crazy red flags.

Until last week, when I walked into the bathroom, looked myself dead in the eye in the mirror, and said out loud: “I hate you.”

Cue record scratch sound.

You’re probably wondering how I got here. Truth is…so am I.

I’ve talked on this blog before about how much of a perfectionist I am. The problem with perfectionism is that it sets up ideals that can never be met, because perfect is impossible. Don’t get me wrong–setting goals is important. It’s a way of marking progress and keeping yourself focused. But when the goals are unattainable…you’re just setting yourself up for failure. And that’s what I do to myself, over and over and over again. I set myself an unattainable goal (whether in my work, my fitness, or my personal relationships), and when I inevitably fail, I punish myself. And then set even stricter goals.

This sets up a spiral of disappointment that leads straight down to self-loathing. And if you tell yourself you hate yourself enough, you start to believe it. And that? That affects every area of your life, not just your mental and physical health.

I think self-love and self-acceptance have been pretty buzzy phrases the past couple of years, especially if you follow more than a handful of so-called influencers on social media. If you’re anything like me, you scroll right past that gorgeous girl in a bikini posing with detox tea while touting self-love–been there, seen that. But the fact is, your relationship with yourself is like any other relationship in your life, in that it takes work.

So, this week I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to mediate my own relationship with myself. Like anything else, I’m a work in progress, and I’m sure these steps won’t change me overnight. But I thought I’d share them in case–like me–you’re struggling with learning to love the most important person in your life: you.

  1. Practice positive self-talk. Since my negative self-talk was the thing that initiated this desire to change my relationship with myself, I’m starting here. Our internal dialogues are more important than we give them credit for. It feels really silly, but sometimes I make myself stand in front of the mirror and, out loud, practice complimenting myself. I practice forgiving myself for my flaws. I practice telling myself I love me. I dare you to try it–it feels weird, but also, very very powerful.
  2. Practice gratitude. As an ambitious person who thrives on external validation, I am constantly moving my own goal-posts. I set a goal (usually an impossible one) and if I miraculously hit it, I immediately shift where the next finish line rests. Sometimes, it’s important to sit down and think about all the things I have, all the things I’m able to do, all the goals I have accomplished already.
  3. Practice mindfulness. I have a hard time sitting still and just being. Oh, I’ve downloaded the meditation apps and the breathing apps, but (shocker) they always make me feel like a failure. So, I’m trying something new. For 5 small minutes each day, I’m just going to sit with myself. No TV, no phone, no music. Just me. I’m going to try to watch my thoughts, feel my emotions, catalog my wants. Not to act on them, but to understand what they are, where they’re coming from, and how I have the capacity to act on them, or not, as I choose.

I’m starting off small. But I hope it’ll help me change in a big way. I’m just a girl, standing in front of herself, asking her to love her. And I think it’ll work out in the end.

Do you ever struggle with self-love? If so, what are your tips for learning to accept yourself? Any advice is appreciated 🙂

Heroic Sacrifice

This weekend, here in the U.S., we celebrate Memorial Day. It is a day of remembrance, when we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country; when we pay tribute to all the brave men and women who have lost their lives in armed conflicts over the years. Most of us know someone (or many someones) who we thank and honor for their service on this holiday, whether we spend the day itself visiting national monuments, leaving flags and flowers at cemeteries, or just spending time with those closest to us.

It may seem strange to honor fictional characters as well as real-life heroes, but I often think about the fact that literature and pop culture act as both mirror and tribute to the real world. Books, movies, and TV give us access to stories we might not otherwise be exposed to, and teach us lessons about ourselves and the world we live in. Through stories, we learn to be brave, to be selfless, to fight for the things we hold most dear, and to always stand up to injustice. We spend this weekend honoring and remembering real-life heroes, but here are a few of the most poignant and selfless fictional sacrifices in literature and pop culture that have inspired me also.

(No big spoilers for anything released in the last 3 years.)

Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities

Sydney Carton is a brilliant but depressed drunkard, full of cynicism and self-loathing for his wasted life. He falls deeply in love for Lucie Manette, but she marries Charles Darnay, Carton’s client and eventual friend who bears an uncanny likeness to Carton. When Darnay is imprisoned and set to be executed in Paris during the French Revolution, Carton smuggles himself into Darnay’s cell and swaps himself for Darnay, ensuring he will be executed in his place. I was always deeply touched by this dissipated character who trades his own life for the happiness of a woman who could never love him.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There were many sacrifices on this series *coughSPIKEcough* but none which brought on the waterworks like Buffy’s death in Season 5. In order to prevent the hell-god Glory from murdering her younger sister in ritual sacrifice, Buffy realizes her greatest gift is her ability to die for her friends, her family, and ultimately the world.

“She saved the world. A lot.”

Hodor, Game of Thrones

In one of the most affecting episodes of Season 6, we finally learn the background and history of Bran’s sweet but simple-minded ally, Hodor. When wights led by the Night King attack Bran’s hiding place, Hodor bravely holds the door to save Bran, losing his life in the process. But his heroic gesture ripples through time and space, and we discover it was this harrowing event that broke his mind many years ago.

Donna Noble, Doctor Who

Donna had one of the most inspirational character arcs as the Doctor’s companion, going from a spoiled and self-centered woman to a compassionate and empathetic time traveler. But when she develops near-godlike powers, she poses a threat to herself, the Doctor, and the world. Her mind must be wiped of all her memories with the Doctor, and all the growth and learning she did on her journeys. While Donna doesn’t technically die, her mind, personality, and growth are all erased, returning her to the person she was before she met the Doctor.

Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

Star Wars has a number of heroic sacrifices to choose from, but Obi’s always struck me the hardest. In order to give his protégé Luke time to escape, Obi-Wan faces off against Darth Vader, ultimately letting Vader kill him. Obi willingly gives his life for the greater good, but Luke has to lose his friend, guide, and surrogate father in order to achieve his destiny, which is always a heartbreaking moment.

“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Lily Evans, Harry Potter

Another series with so many sacrifices to choose from! Yet the selfless sacrifice at the heart of these books is the one made by Lily Potter on the night Voldemort came to murder her infant son. Her willingness to die in Harry’s place works such powerful magic that Voldemort cannot harm him. She saves her son’s life, nearly kills He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and sets off one of the most iconic stories of our time, all with the power of a mother’s love.

The Iron Giant

*deep breath* I’m getting a little weepy just thinking about this one.

A lonely boy meets an enormous robot who is being pursued by the military. As their friendship unfolds, Hogarth explains to the metal behemoth that he doesn’t have to be the villain the army paints him as–he can choose to be a hero instead. So when a nuclear missile inadvertently hurtles toward their small town, the Giant says a heartfelt goodbye to his young friend before flying into the sky to intercept the bomb. He forces the missile out into space, and it begins to detonate, smiles and whispers:

“SUPERMAN.”

Who are the heroes you honor on this Memorial Day? Real or fictional, let me know in the comment section below!

History and Storytelling

The Pantheon in Rome

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of visiting Italy with my husband. Although I travelled fairly extensively through Europe in my twenties, somehow I never made it to the land of wine and pasta (with the exception of one short stopover in Sicily where a raging storm kept me and my friend stuck in our hostel for three days straight). It’s been on my travel list for years, so when the opportunity arose, I flung myself bodily upon it.

It was an amazing trip. But one of the reasons Italy has now bumped itself near the top of my favorite-places-in-the-world list came from a somewhat unexpected angle–one that felt more than a little salient to this blog. Italy felt so rich with history–and therefore, stories–that I almost didn’t know what to do with myself.

Who needs armor when you got dat booty?

While I’m no historical scholar, I do know my way around European history. But while touring the various cities we visited in Italy, I found myself nearly overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of history steeped into every inch of the country. In Rome, two thousand year old Imperial ruins abide beside Renaissance basilicas and glossy designer stores. In Tivoli, the rococo grandeur of Villa d’Este stands mere miles from the ancient pleasure palace of Emperor Hadrian. In Umbria, we stayed on an olive-producing estate whose owners once protected Via della Spina, a major arterial road connecting Rome to the Adriatic, used from Etruscan times through the Byzantine Empire. In Venice, the very canals seemed to whisper the astonishing story of a city founded by peasants fleeing Attila the Hun, which would someday become one of the world’s greatest ship-building and mercantile capitals.

Byzantine Mosaics in Ravenna

I don’t write historical fiction. I don’t even really write historical fantasy, although most of my other-world fantasies are in some way informed or inspired by our world’s history. But everywhere I turned in Italy, I felt as though I was touching the edge of some great, palpable history, and I hated that I could only discover so much about each story. Etruscans settling the hills around Rome; the growth of a vast, tumultuous empire where slaves could become emperors; a dissolute, gilded bureaucracy beset by “barbarians”; popes and princes and art and music; a modern legacy of food and fashion and incredible wine. For me, all those periods and stories felt layered on top of one another–a palimpsest place, with fading years etched like ink upon its face. I wanted to read every single line, even the ones lost to time.

As a storyteller, that much history felt incredibly inspiring. I tried to take in as many of those histories and stories as I could–I can only hope that one or several will take root inside me and begin to grow. And if not? I certainly enjoyed the wine, pasta, and sunshine along the way.

Where have you traveled that inspired you with its history or stories?