Creating New Worlds

Every novel, regardless of genre, needs a few big things to make it work: great characters, a riveting plot, and a compelling setting. But for speculative fiction–fantasy, science fiction, and everything in between–setting carries a little more weight than in other genres, especially in alt-world settings, where the world is totally invented by the author.

World building is one of my favorite parts of writing craft, and is probably one of the more intuitive elements of my writing process. In fact, sometimes it’s so intuitive that I forget to actually put any thought or effort into it while in the planning stages of my books. And then, inevitably, I’ll realize I completely failed to come up with something crucial and need to go back to the beginning.

To help me improve my mastery over world building (and maybe yours too!) I’ve rounded up my favorite tips for deepening already complex worlds.

Breakfast

In one of my favorite quotes from Margaret Atwood, she talks about how she likes to start her world building with breakfast.

“I like to wonder what people would have for breakfast–which people, as their breakfasts would be different–and where they would get those food items, and whether or not they would say a prayer over them, and how they would pay for them, and what they would wear during that meal, and, if cooked, how … Breakfast can take you quite far.”

With this technique, a seemingly simple, basic act becomes a lens through which a world’s customs, values, and systems are distilled. Focusing on a single activity can help you color in a world’s broader dynamics, from the micro to the macro.

Death

One of the most interesting and diverse elements of human culture is how we deal with death. How a society approaches old age, funeral customs, spirituality and grief can tell a lot about their values, religious beliefs, and understanding of their place in the world.

Ask yourself–do the characters in your book fear death, or accept it? Do they bury, cremate, or entomb their dead, and why? Do they believe in ghosts, spirits, or ancestors? Answering these questions will help clarify the deep-seated values of your characters and define where they believe they fit in the cosmology of your world.

History

Your characters aren’t the only thing that needs a backstory. Give your world a history, too! While you don’t need paragraphs and paragraphs outlining the last thousand years of your world’s history, you do need glimmers of what has come before and how it may have affected the world your story takes place in.

Have their been any wars in the recent past, how did they start, and how did they end? How did the people in power get there, and who came before them? Have there been any societal shifts that changed the way the culture saw themselves?

Once you understand the history of your world, you’ll be able to offer the reader glimpses of it when needed.

Keep it simple, stupid

It may seem like a complex world needs complex world-building. This isn’t necessarily the case, though. If you need to bend over backwards to explain something, chances are you’re overthinking it. If your magic system needs a glossary, simplify. If you need to explain the past two thousand years of history for the current social structure to make sense, simplify. If your readers can’t figure out what invented words mean through context clues, simplify.

Speculative fiction can stand–nay, demands–a degree of lushness and intricacy. But don’t get so tangled up in your own world building that it becomes convoluted.

Say yes to you

At the end of the day, trust yourself. This may seem a little contradictory to the last point, but you know your story and your characters and your world best. The details that will make your story shine will ultimately spring from your glorious imagination. Try not to second guess yourself too much, especially in the early stages of a project.

Sometimes the wildest concepts will make your world sparkle; other times, it’s the simplest of details that will make your world shine. Try not to be precious about being so original that no one has ever done something similar; try not to be too derivative, either. Trust your gut and your imagination–that’s how you’ll build your world from the ground up.

We Need to Talk About New Adult

When I was growing up, my town had a magnificent public library. Downstairs was the children’s section. It encompassed everything from board books to chapter books. Many of my favorites, like Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Madeleine L’Engle, were relegated to this section, because of the age of the characters or the perceived audience for the content. We’d now probably call this Middle Grade, but I selected books from these shelves well into high school, because the stories rocked and the writing was epic. Upstairs, they had a small but dedicated Young Adult section, featuring the likes of Tamora Pierce, Vivian Vande Velde, and Jane Yolen. I spent a lot of time here, and read so many amazing stories. But the selection was frankly a little sparse. Which meant that eventually, I wandered into the wide, weird world of Adult. Which in my library, at least, meant everything else. 

The thing was, there was no road map out there in everything else. I read dry classics that had zero kissing, let alone anything spicier. I found graphic novel series that triggered existential crises (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, in case you’re looking for a spectacular mind-cuss). I stumbled upon novels with way more adult themes than I was looking for (thanks for the mental scarring, Mists of Avalon.) The point is, once you pass Young Adult, there’s very little in the way of guidance as far as content goes.

That was the late 90s/early 2000s, but the problem I ran into as a young teen still remains. Although some have made a concerted effort to add a new category to the ones we’re already familiar with, New Adult–or NA–fiction has failed to achieve lift-off. And I think that’s a shame.

For those of you not in the know, “New Adult” was coined in 2009 when St. Martin’s Press held a writing contest calling for “fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult.” Since then, the genre has faced criticism and push-back. Some claim it’s nothing more than “smutty YA,” while many booksellers believe it’s nothing more than a marketing farce. Some publishers will throw your manuscript right out the window if you frame it as NA, while others look for books in the genre but want to either age them up or down to fit into YA or Adult.

Look—I write YA. I read YA. I love YA, and always will. But there really is an odd little liminal zone between YA and Adult, both for readers and authors. I grew up on YA and will read it until the day I die, but I’m also a 33 year old woman who occasionally likes a little spice in her books, if you catch my drift. As an author, I also struggle with the bounds of YA—sometimes I wish I could age my characters beyond their teen years and give them bigger responsibilities and bigger problems without automatically pushing my book into the Adult genres.

And the weird thing is, New Adult does exist, whether the label officially does or not. There have been a mess of books out in the past few years that I would personally class as NA. Anything written by Sarah J. Maas seems to fall in the category, but one of her series is shelved in YA and the other is shelved in Adult despite both having similar themes and content. Shelby Mahurin’s Serpent & Dove series seems a perfect fit, but is billed as upper YA, whatever that means. Jennifer L. Armentrout’s runaway hit From Blood and Ash is billed as Adult, but with a late-teen protagonist, plenty of coming-of-age themes, and a lot of ahem hands on action, it seems pretty much made for NA. Basically, there are plenty of people reading and clamoring for books featuring the originality, quality world-building, and well-drawn characters we’ve come to expect from modern YA, but with more mature themes, characters, and yes, a little spice. 

So whether it’s named or not, New Adult exists. We may all be more familiar with the traditional categories of Children’s, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Adult. But those categories are all pretty arbitrary themselves. So why not make space for a new category? Come on, publishing industry! This isn’t just some fad that’s going to disappear. We want New Adult, and we want it now! (At least, I do.)

Do you read “New Adult” books? Or do you prefer the genres as they stand? Any thoughts welcome in the comment section below!

Write Something That May Change Your Life

Real Talk: as the mom of a six month old, I haven’t yet found any kind of rhythm when it comes to writing. I promise myself that the second she goes down for a nap, I’m going to jump right on my laptop and pound out a few hundred words. But realistically, there are so many things I feel like I have to do around the house or for basic self-care that writing often falls all the way to the bottom of the priority pile. What I do have time for–between marathon feeding sessions and contact naps–is reading. My Kindle has been getting a real work out lately. But as someone with a back-log of story ideas, it can be frustrating to exclusively read other peoples’ stories when I kind of wish I had time to work on my own.

Then, the idea struck me: what if I peppered some craft books into the mix? Then I would at least feel like I was preparing or honing my skills for when I finally had the time to write. The only question was, which craft books? I’ve already read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, On Writing by Stephen King, and Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes. Fortunately, the answer was dropped into my lap when an author I follow on Instagram mentioned the method she uses to outline–Anatomy of Story, by John Truby.

Now, I usually approach these craft books with a hefty grain of salt. First of all, I’ve been writing for long enough to know that every author’s process is different and what works for someone else is not necessarily going to work for me. No point in trying to fit my square peg into someone else’s round hole. Second of all, a lot of the “beat sheet” methods strike me as underwhelming and a bit unspecific–I struggle with the idea that all stories “must” follow these precise structures to be successful. I want a craft book that will guide me, inspire me, and deepen my process, not boil it down to a generic three acts, seven plot points, and three pinch points.

So far, Truby’s book is that and more. I feel like I’ve been highlighting every other passage on my Kindle! But one line in particular shook me to my core, and I want to share it with you all in case it helps you as much as it helps me.

Step 1: Write Something That May Change Your Life. This is a very high standard, but it may be the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer. I’ve never seen a writer go wrong following it. Why? Because if a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.

Anatomy of Story, by John Truby

Superficially, this isn’t the most novel advice in the world. It’s a variation of “Write the book you want to read.” But for me, that last line gave me chills. Because it shifts all of the focus from the external outcome to the internal outcome, which is something I’ve struggled with since the very first query letter I sent out into the world. From the moment I decided to “become an author,” I’ve grappled with what success could and would look like to me. Getting an agent? Getting a book deal? Hitting a best-seller list? Selling a million copies? I found that I could never define what success would look like, and whenever I did manage to hit a milestone, I found my own goal-posts had already moved.

In the past few years I’ve tried to shift that focus back to the internal, but it’s harder than it sounds. Even when I tell myself that I’m just writing something for me, or just writing the book I want to read, or just writing for fun, the fact of the matter is that writing books will never just be a hobby for me again. I’ve sunk years and tears and too much love into this career to never try to publish another novel. So how do I balance those external expectations with those internal motivations?

I think that’s why this advice from Truby resonated with me so much. He’s not telling you to simply write for fun, or for yourself. He’s not even telling you to write the book you want to read. He’s encouraging you to do so much more than that–he’s encouraging you to write the book that may change your life. He’s asking you to dig so deep, work so hard, and aim so high that the end result will literally transform you.

I find this idea daunting, but so inspiring. No one–not a craft book, not a friend, not a mentor, not even myself–has ever asked so much of me. So I’m going to try to follow his advice. The story I write may not sell a million copies. It may not hit any bestseller lists. It may not even get published.

But what does any of that even matter if I’ve changed my own life?

The Juggling Act

When The Spellbound Scribes went on hiatus late last year, we all had our reasons. Mine was small, had huge eyes, and was vaguely human shaped.

No, I didn’t get abducted by aliens. I had a baby!

As a first time mom, trying to navigate the ins and outs of raising an infant has been a truly novel experience. As expected, it’s been incredibly challenging at times–sleepless nights, tears, diaper blow-outs, you name it. But it’s also been just plain incredible–the snuggles, the smiles, the milestone moments. Sometimes when I look at my daughter, it feels like my heart has grown three sizes and I’m full of more love than I ever could have imagined.

But now that she’s almost four months old, I’ve been setting about trying to get back into writing. Although I don’t have any books being published in the near future, or even any on deadline, I do have a completed novel my agent and I hope to send to editors soon, as well as two projects that stand at about 20k words, and about a hundred ideas that need fleshing out. The only thing standing in my way is…time.

Here’s something I didn’t anticipate–you can’t type while holding a baby. It’s just not possible. If they’re chilling out in a baby carrier on your person, you might be able to. But otherwise, the basic rule is: if the baby’s awake, you’re probably not writing. And if your baby is anything like mine, and loathes daytime naps with a fiery passion, that means you’re probably not writing most of the day. And when they finally do fall asleep, either for naps or bedtime, writing has to compete with a thousand other things you need to get done, like cooking and laundry and cleaning and playing with your dog and spending time with your spouse.

But funnily enough, in those random small moments when the laundry’s in the dryer and my dog is sleeping and my husband is working and it’s just me and my laptop, I’ve discovered that I’m actually really happy to write. For the first time in a long time, writing feels more like the refuge it did when I first started out. When I open up my Scrivener app and start typing, it doesn’t feel like work–it feels a little like an escape from the day, a quiet moment between my thoughts and I, a space to create. And as much as I love my new job of being a mom, it’s so nice to have something just for me. Even if I’m only able to write half a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence before the baby wakes up again, in those moments I’m a writer again.

When I was pregnant, I worried a lot about losing my identity to motherhood. But it turns out that you don’t lose any of your identities, you simply gain a new one. And yes–recently, that new identity has taken over my life. Mom has overshadowed baker of cakes and sweeper of floors and yes, even writer of books. But it won’t be that way forever.

Nora Roberts was once asked how she managed to be a mom and a writer and a businesswoman and a wife all at once. She replied that she liked to think of life as a juggling act. All her responsibilities–kids, book deadlines, interviews, anniversaries–were balls flying above her, and she was the juggler desperately trying to keep them in the air. Except, she said, some balls were plastic and some balls were made of glass. A plastic ball, if it got dropped, bounced. No harm done. But a glass ball shattered. As the juggler, she was eventually going to drop a few balls. She just tried to remember which balls were made of plastic and which were made of glass.

We’re all jugglers in our lives. I know I can’t do everything all at once. But I can do the important things one at a time, in stolen moments if I have to. Because life is short and long and messy and beautiful and full of many wonderful things. And for now, I’m happy to juggle as many of those things as I can, and hopefully I’ll only ever drop plastic balls.

The Perfect First Line

I consider myself something of a first line connoisseur. What do you mean, that’s not a thing?

Seriously, though, I have a pretty intense fascination with opening lines. I like reading them (I actually have a list in my Notes app with all my favorite opening lines), and I’m borderline obsessed with writing them. I love them in poems and novels and short stories. I’ve heard it said that perfect first lines contain the entirety of the work they represent, and while I’m not sure that’s entirely or always true, it certainly highlights how significant a first line can be. To boil it down: great first lines have the power to entice a reader enough that they wouldn’t dream of putting down your book/short story/poem.

So how on earth do you write a compelling first line? Here are a few methods to make your first line sing!

Use vivid imagery

Invite your reader into the world of your story with an image or feeling that cannot be ignored. It doesn’t have to be long or complex–in fact, with this method I tend to think shorter is better. Pick a specific image or sensation and make it as visceral, punchy, and vivid as possible.

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Make the reader ask questions they can only answer by continuing to read

Many great first lines introduce elements of world-building without explanation as a way to entice readers into the meat of the story. This can be incredibly effective as long as it’s not too confusing. Keep the language clear and simple to balance the unknown elements.

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

Introduce a theme that begs further explanation

Rather than opening in media res, or in the middle of the action, some great opening lines choose instead to posit a theme or a motif that will continue to be explored throughout the story. This can be risky, as the reader may not immediately identify or connect to the theme, but it can also be done very well.

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story…a writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Introduce a character’s unique voice

If your story is very character driven, or told from a unique point of view, this may be the best way to draw your readers in to their particular voice, tone, or cadence.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Play with time

Perhaps you want to hint at an event that takes place further along in your story than you’re starting the narrative. Or perhaps you want to tease something that happened in the past that led up to the moment your story begins. Either way, referring to something that happened in a time other than where your story is happening can be a compelling way to draw your reader in.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Make your reader laugh

If your book is funny…why not make the first line funny as well? This is not my forte, so I don’t have any more salient tips than “be funny,” but who doesn’t love a hilarious opening line?

“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams

And that’s all I got! First lines aren’t always easy to write, but when you finally get it right it can be like a path opening up in the woods. Be patient with your craft, listen to how your story wants to be told, and good luck writing your own perfect first line!

How do you go about crafting first lines? Let me know your best tips or drop your favorite literary opening line in the comments section below!

What’s In A Name?

Oh, naming. You fickle beast. I want to cuddle you close yet curse you to the ends of time. For you have caused me many a sleepless night.

Naming people, places, and things in my writing is an interesting element of my work, in that it’s really important to me. Now, I happen to know this isn’t the case for all authors. Some writers name their main character Emma, name the love interest Jack, have them go to Ridgeview High, and get on with it. (There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these names–they’re solid, straightforward names and I respect and envy them.) I know other authors who don’t bother naming their characters or places anything at all in their first drafts, simply using X, Y and Z and filling everything in later. (This is some chaotic evil energy, if you ask me, which no one did.)

Neither of these methods work for me. In my writing, a character’s name is integral to who they are–how they grew up, how they see themselves, how others see them, where they’re from, what they believe in, et cetera. To name them something offhand would be to deprive me of insight into their character, and to name them nothing at all would be chaotic evil. (I’m a true neutral, okay?) And although not quite as important as character names, naming places and things is also really important to me. As a fantasy author, I believe place names should evoke the story’s aesthetic, world-building, and possibly even give hints about the history and purpose of a place. Objects should be named in a similar vein. (For example, Excalibur has a real ring to it. That Sword Over There really doesn’t.)

The problem is, I’m kind of terrible at naming, well, anything. With character names, I usually have a sense of what kind of sound or feeling I’m trying to evoke–for a healer, I’d want something soft and lyrical, while for a warrior, I’d go for something stronger and sharper. But that’s usually all I have to go on. And not just any name will do–I need the right name. A name I’ll only know is right when I hear it. A name I need to know before I can even start writing.

Place and object names are even worse. For some reason, my creative brain leaves me totally in the lurch when it comes to these, and I go wayyyy too literal. If there’s a place where people gather, you know I want to call it the Gathering Place. A sword with a destiny? Sword of Destiny it is.

So, I’ve developed a process. Since character names are most important to me, I usually start with online baby name lists. (Nameberry is my go to, although it’s only one of many.) You can usually sort these lists by gender, style, popularity, and sometimes geography. This helps me narrow down what I’m looking for, and what I’m definitely not looking for. Sometimes I even find a few unicorn names here!

Then, I move on to random name generators. I quite like this Character Name Generator, which allows you to sort by Language, Gods, Archetype, et cetera. As a fantasy author, this really starts to get my gears turning, and even if I don’t find the exact name I’m looking for, it often inspires me.

But my favorite all-time naming tool is Fantasy Name Generators. Seriously, this site has everything! No matter what you’re trying to name–Dwarf, Motel, Motorcycle Gang–this site probably has a generator for that category. My only caveat for using this site, is that sometimes the names generated are quite silly! I’ve had more than a few good laughs while playing around here (no, I’m not going to name my fantasy character’s horse Malibu.) But that said, I’ve found it’s the absolute best at getting my own naming gears turning in the right direction. Even if I don’t use the precise suggestions from the generator, variations and similar names have definitely wound up in both my published and unpublished works!

In my opinion, that which we call a rose by any other name would not smell so sweet. So if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here naming the leaders of my Barbarian Horde Ulskath and Hirtmaurbes. Or, y’know, something along those lines.

Do you have trouble naming character, places, or things? What tools do you use for inspo? Share your thoughts below!

And Now For Something Completely Different

In the spirit of my fellow Scribes eschewing too much discussion of the Virus-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, I thought today I’d talk a little about my work in progress! You can maybe guess from the title of this blog post that what I’m working on is wayyyy out of my wheelhouse, which has been challenging, but also, fun!

At the beginning of the year I was working on some spec pages for a dark, gritty, and seriously fantastical project involving witches and old gods and necromancy. I sent those pages off to my agent just a few short weeks before things started getting kind of dark and gritty in the real world. And then I sat around twiddling my thumbs for longer than I care to admit, not sure what to work on. I had a few new projects I was outlining, but most of them were very much in line with what I usually like to write–angst-ridden atmospheric fantasies with scary high stakes. And for whatever reason, none of them felt like the right story in the time of corona.

So I decided to take a chance on a whim of an idea I hadn’t given much thought to. It actually started as a joke–one lazy Sunday afternoon a few months ago, I was complaining to my husband about bad reviews. We started making up the worst reviews we could think of, and I jokingly said that one of these days–as a form of authorly catharsis–I was going to write a main character who loved writing bad reviews. You know the kind of reviewer I mean–one who just loves to hate on things.

I genuinely meant it in jest–I had no story, no plot, no world prepared for my mean-spirited reviewer! But like so many book ideas, that kernel of a notion had already wormed its way into the little corner of my brain that raises plot bunnies for a living. And one by one, those lacking elements started falling into place. It would be set in the present-ish day, in our world (my reviewer would need technology to spread her scathing gospel). It would be YA, and set at a posh prep school (any other Gossip Girl addicts out there?). And finally, it would OF COURSE be a hate-to-love romance, because character growth (and I love a good trope). Basically, I wanted wish-fulfillment

But then I got cold feet. I’ve written six full length novels and countless partials, and none of them–not a single one–could be considered even loosely contemporary. Okay, so one of them took place in our present, but only for the first two chapters until the main character discovered magic and got swept away into a fantasy adventure. And another thing–no book I’d ever written lacked magic. None of them. Was I even capable of writing a book without spells or illusions or monsters or powers?

And then I decided I didn’t care. I could either keep staring at outlines of books I wasn’t in the mood to write, or I could jump head-first into a totally different project that was demanding to be written. And honestly, it’s been fun. It hasn’t been easy–I won’t go that far–but getting out of my comfort zone and writing something a little light, a little fluffy, a little snarky, and a little romantic has been just what I needed to get me out of my slump.

What are you working on in these challenging times? Let me know in the comment section!

It’s Okay…to Not Be Okay

“May you live in interesting times.” –ancient Chinese curse (likely apocryphal)

Honestly, I didn’t really want to write about COVID-19 today. It’s hard enough being bombarded with constant news articles and opinion pieces and press releases and tweets (however humorous). But the more outlandish blog post ideas I tossed around in my head the more it seemed the inevitable was probably going to happen. I was going to talk about coronavirus.

But I don’t want to talk about staying home or flattening the curve or how our leadership has botched their response to this crisis, although these are all important things (and I encourage you to read about them if you haven’t already). I want to talk about you. And I want to tell you that it’s okay if you’re not okay. Because I’m pretty sure most of us aren’t.

I was reading about a woman who was diagnosed with the virus and was strongly advised to self-quarantine by officials. Instead, she went to a local bookstore, where she complained to the staff about her diagnosis while browsing books. The staff understandably asked her to leave immediately. She grew enraged, intentionally touching as many books as possible before being dragged out by security. The entire bookstore staff had to be quarantined because of this woman’s selfish actions.

Obviously, this woman’s behavior is reprehensible. But the more I thought about her actions, the more they seemed familiar. First, she reacted to her diagnosis with denial: “I don’t feel sick and I won’t stay home.” Then, those feelings transformed into anger: “If you’re going to treat me like I’m sick then you’ll be sorry!” If you’ve ever taken Psych 101 or dealt with a loss you may be familiar with these terms. Denial and anger are the first two stages of grief, followed by bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.

Not many people I personally know have been diagnosed with coronavirus yet. Hopefully, if we band together as a community and look out for each other, that will remain the case. But I think the fact of the matter is, we’re all grieving on some level as we move deeper into this global pandemic. While our responses are hopefully less negative than Bookstore Lady, I think we should all be giving ourselves time and space to explore these feelings instead of pushing them away or letting them fester. Grief isn’t a straightforward thing, and navigating novel feelings about a novel virus might not be straightforward either.

Personally, I’ve been grieving in small ways for many things. Grief for the little old lady at the grocery store who couldn’t buy toilet paper. Grief for the people who felt so overwhelmed by this situation the only way they knew how to cope was to hoard toilet paper. Grief for the high school students whose proms and graduations have been cancelled. Grief for the victims of domestic abuse for whom quarantine is a new nightmare. Grief for all those who will die from this disease. And ultimately, grief for a world that cannot help but be irrevocably changed by all this.

(If you aren’t feeling grief or aren’t sure what you’re supposed to be grieving, that’s okay too.)

So if you’re not okay, give yourself space to not be okay. My husband has been throwing himself into work. Personally, I’ve been finding it difficult to focus enough to work much. A friend confessed she’s rented two or three movies in the past week only to let the rental periods lapse without finishing the movies. Meanwhile I’ve actually been making a dent in my long-standing “movies-to-watch-someday” list because it’s one of the few things I can concentrate on.

Baking. Working out. Staring at the wall. Reading. Cleaning. Complaining online. Facetiming loved ones. Whatever makes you feel more okay, do that. Whatever makes you feel less okay? Skip it.

Obviously a lot of us still have responsibilities during this difficult time. Jobs, kids, pets, bills–the world is still turning. But in case you needed someone to tell you that being not okay is okay? Consider yourself told.

This will pass. We’ll be okay again. But until that happens, I hope you’ll give yourself the space to grieve what was while we try to make space for what is, and what someday will be. Stay strong out there!

Doing What You Love

There’s a saying I hear a lot as a writer that I’ve come to really hate. It goes: make a career of something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

*incorrect buzzer sound* Wrong answer! In fact, whenever confronted with this annoying adage I usually argue the opposite is true. Because I have pursued my passion as a career, it actually means more to me than the average day job. Which is not to denigrate day jobs, of which I’ve had many. But I’ve invested not only time and effort into becoming an author, but also a bit of my own soul made manifest in paper and ink and many, many words.

Writing is work. Hard work. But what I think that saying is driving at is this: when you make a career out of something you love, you should be able to find some measure of joy in it every day. And sometimes I wonder whether I’ve lost the joy that brought me to writing in the process of trying to monetize my passion.

I’ve written for as long as I can remember. My mom recently found a handwritten story I wrote when I was six or seven–illustrated and bound with yarn–about a clever farmer’s wife who tied chickens to pigs in order to trick her useless husband into doing chores. By the time I was nine, I was filling notebooks full of rambling tales about a warrior princess named Jade and her faithful unicorn steed. By twelve or so, I somehow acquired an old typewriter and spent long hours clickety-clacking away on its half stuck keys (I’m sure my parents were sooo proud). In high school, I wrote such excellent essays that my Lang/Lit teacher frequently asked me to read them aloud to the class (why yes I was the teacher’s pet, why do you ask?).

Writing was a hobby, a passion, a joy, a solace–something I did in my spare time because I wanted to. Because I loved it. Hardly anyone read anything I wrote, and it didn’t occur to me to want it any other way. Because I wasn’t doing it for anyone but myself.

And then I took a fateful elective Creative Writing class my junior year of college. And when we workshopped my first short story, all the other students loved it. They compared my writing to F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite author at the time. Words like “provacative” and “professional” were thrown around. And when the professor returned his feedback he stapled a list of literary journals to the front with the suggestion that I submit to them when I was ready.

And so a monster was born. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to write for just me anymore. I kept writing–private diary entries and short stories no one read and the seeds of some of the books I would later write in earnest–but it wasn’t quite the same. A voice in the back of my head kept whispering: what if you could do this as a job? And suddenly, the reason for writing shifted, minutely at first and then irrevocably, until I wasn’t doing it for myself at all but all the faceless people who might one day read my words.

I’ve written about my journey to publication in other posts, so I won’t reiterate here. It was a long trek, and a lot of hard work, and I’m proud of everything I learned and everything I accomplished. I’m not complaining. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to pursue my passion, and reached some measure of success with it.

But success is a funny word to define. I remember when I first started seriously writing, I used to tell myself: if I can just finish a novel, I’ll be happy. That seemed enough. Later, when I was neck deep in the query trenches trying to get my first few novels published, the mantra became: if I can just sign with an agent, I’ll be happy. Eventually, that too came to pass. Then it was: if only I can sell a book, if only I can sell its sequel, if only if only if only if only…

When does it end? When will it all finally be enough to “make me happy?” If my books hit the NYT Bestseller’s list, will that be enough? If my books are translated into every human language, will that be enough? If my books are ejected into space as a symbol of the sum of human arts and culture for visiting extraterrestrials, will that be enough?

Enough is enough. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s time to get back to basics. I have to find a way to make writing about the writing again. It’s going to be hard–the fact of the matter is, I am a published author now. Other people do read my writing and will continue to do so (at least I hope they will). I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to forget that my words don’t belong just to me anymore. But I want to try to have them start out that way, at least.

Why did little Lyra write stories about clever farmer’s wives and spunky princesses and talking unicorns? I don’t know. But she didn’t do it because anyone was going to read it. She didn’t do it because the plot was marketable or the characters were trendy. She didn’t do it because she was on deadline and just had to write something. She did it because she loved it.

I want to learn to love what I do again. I don’t know yet what I’m going to write, but when I do write it…I think it might have to be just for me.

Best Hate-to-Love Romances

I’m a sucker for romance. There’s nothing I love more than a good love story, where a swoon-worthy gentleman does everything he can to win the hand of his special lady/gentleman. And the only thing that makes all that better is when the two love interests start out as bitter, bitter enemies. It’s a trope, but I love it–especially when it includes banter, misunderstood intentions, and loads of sexual tension.

So, this is my paean to all the handsome fictional boyfriends out there who also start out the protagonist’s antagonist. We love to hate to love you!

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, from Pride & Prejudice

I think I am safe in saying Darcy and Elizabeth epitomize the hate-to-love romance genre. I mean, it’s in the title! Elizabeth can’t stand Darcy from the get-go, and with pretty good reason–or so we think. It’s not long before their opinions of each other begin to shift, but not before we’re treated to some really delightful shade on Elizabeth’s part.

Rating: From “not handsome enough to tempt me” to “you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” in only 33 chapters.

Damianos and Laurent, from the Captive Prince Trilogy

When Prince Damianos of Akielos has his throne usurped, he’s sold into slavery to the crown prince of Vere, his sworn enemy. Fortunately (and occasionally unfortunately) for everyone concerned, Laurent is beautiful, cruel, and fiendishly intelligent. And he’s not about to let Damen forget where he came from–or what they both stand for.

Rating: three books’ worth of devious, delicious mind games and beautiful boys

Vikram and Gauri, from A Crown of Wishes

Exiled princess Gauri and foundling prince Vikram team up reluctantly to win a supernatural contest and unite their kingdoms. But they really can’t stand each other. Until an ordeal including magic apples, serpent kings, and poisoned courtesans forces them to stop arguing for like two seconds and work together…

Rating: “You spend an awful amount of time looking at my
lips.”
“That’s only because I’m horrified at the sheer idiocy of the words
leaping out of them.” 

Alex and Henry, from Red, White, and Royal Blue

Alex is the first son of the United States. Henry is an English prince. Really, need I say more?

Rating: tack room assignations and late-night ice-cream

Jude and Cardan, The Cruel Prince

Wow, I’m only just realizing how many princes are making it onto this list. Sorry not sorry.

Jude is a mortal girl living in Faerie after her parents were brutally murdered. Cardan is the wicked, handsome, wastrel prince who’s like 6th in line to the throne. He torments her endlessly. She plots her revenge. And revenge is best served…hot and bloody?

Rating: she’ll only kiss him with a knife held to her throat…or is it his throat?

Sunder and Mirage, from Amber & Dusk

Shameless plug! When Mirage arrives at the Amber Court, she doesn’t know who to trust, but she has a pretty good idea who not to trust–the haughty lord with knives in his fingertips and deceit in his soul. But it’s not long before their fates are hopelessly entangled…

Rating: I’m biased because I wrote it to be everything I wanted in an enemies-to-lovers romance!

Do you have a favorite hate-to-love romance? Let me know in the comment section below!