A question of genre

November 2, 2015

Welcome to the continuation of month’s Stonecoast blog train! Our topic today is…

What is your genre?

Mine would be fantasy, mainly fantasy that is grounded in our world. While I enjoy reading some epic or secondary world fantasy novels, I prefer magic that creeps in at the corners of every day life–perhaps because that’s been my experience with magic.

Magic is a man you meet in a woodland clearing that you will never able to find again. Magic is discovering a photograph of a girl with your eyes who died seventy years ago. Magic is the feeling of being carried away by a story and knowing that you are being healed by it. Magic is knowing all is right with the world when you are with your closest friends. Magic is the benevolent ghost on the fifth floor of a hotel.

Magic can be very subtle and very small. And the more I write, the more I realize that it is those smaller stories that I am interested in the most.


So, what am I currently writing?


The Lovely Dark

After the death of her father in the Napoleonic Wars, Magdalena Eisenholz goes to live with her uncle in Kassel, Germany. Soon, however, she discovers why her father was estranged from her new guardian and begins to take refugee in her private fantasies to escape the truth…until a chance encounter with royal librarian Jacob Grimm makes her realize she has the ability to fight back after all. The first draft is complete, but I desperately need to rewrite it before I can even consider showing it to anyone.

Blood and Poppies

Broken and badly injured by monstrous beings, the faerie Casimir takes a desperate human girl named Gizela as a companion after she demonstrates no fear towards his twisted appearance. But Gizela is soon taken darker and deeper than she would like into Casimir’s schemes to exact his revenge against those who exiled and rejected him–and must decide if her love for a wicked creature is enough. The first draft of this book is also complete, with the exception of the ending. I’m still struggling with it!


A post-war fairy tale about a little girl, a man who can become a raven, and a woman with no memory of her past. There is an outline! And the first 2,000 words, as it is this year’s NaNoWriMo novel.

Where will all of these stories take me? Will I successfully complete NaNoWriMo? Will the right ending come to me? We’ll see…

Next up is Dallas Funke, who has excellent insights into when genre is and is no useful to individual writers to share!

“Ruta Lato and the Ghost of the Revolution” is out today in Betwixt!

This story was inspired by research I did about Eastern Europe for my middle grade book, particularly the regime changes that took place in the region during the 20th century, as well as dystopian YA novels such as The Hunger GamesMatched, and Divergent. I sought to deconstruct the archetypes that regularly appear in those novels: the revolutionary heroine, the innocent sibling or best friend, the smug tyrant, the fanatic who replaces the tyrant. All that’s missing is the love triangle.

“Ruta Lato” is also a story about the ways in which death changes us. After the passing of a loved one, we sometimes find that our values or overall worldview must shift to accommodate their absence. We drift apart from old friends; we rebuild in unexpected ways. Loss can make us kinder and more understanding…or it can make us harder and sharper.

As you read, as yourself this question: do you think Wiatr is real or do you believe he a manifestation of Ruta’s need to change her life after the death of her sister? As the author, I can firmly say that there is no right answer. What I do know is that sometimes, we need someone–real or imaginary–to give us permission to fight back again against grief, falsehoods, and our own limitations.

I certainly did.

tumblr_mg7kksgBIK1r3fkjno1_400 (1)

How I picture Ruta; painting by Otto Theodore Gustav Lingner (1856-1917)

A friend and I had a very involved conversation a few nights ago about whether or not the fairy tales compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were feminist stories. We didn’t come to an exact conclusion, but and I did generate a lot of thoughts on the matter.

The Brothers Grimm were very much products of their time and their religious upbringing. They wholeheartedly believed that if they were ethical and hardworking people, God would reward them. Even the stories they collected in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) are saturated in Protestant mortals. If a character is kind, courageous and, most of all, clever, God protects them and allows them to overcome all the obstacles in their path. But despite the more conservative elements in these fairy tales, quite a few of them feature female characters who not only embody many of the values of 18th and 19th century German families, but have a fair amount of agency as well.

In “The Founding-Bird”, Lenchen is the one who informs her adopted brother of the cook’s evil intentions and suggests the objects they should transform themselves into so that they can escape. The little sister in “The Six Swans” proves her innocence to her husband by speaking the truth after her brothers have been returned to their human forms (after spending six years as swans). And the Miller’s Daughter in “The Robber Bridegroom” brings about the downfall of her wicked husband-to-be by exposing his crimes.

Indeed, if there is a consistent thread among Grimm heroines, it is that their voices and their truths are the most powerful weapons they have. And given that the Grimms heard most of the tales in their collection from a group of middle class women (including Wilhelm’s future wife, Henriette Dorothea Wild), the importance of female voice in fairy tales makes perfect sense. Girls–Final Girls, girls who descend into basements and decaying cottages and the darkest parts of the forest–are truth tellers. They reveal the monster for what it is, even if they are not always the ones who rid the world of it.

Are the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm feminist in the 21st century definition of the word? No, probably not. The strict adherence to gender roles and the overall emphasis on submission is very problematic. But that does not mean we should completely dismiss them.

From the undertones of escaping incest and abuse in “The Handless Maiden” to the social criticism found in Madame d’Aulnoy’s wonder tales to Angela Carter’s modern retellings, fairy tales have always been a means for women to express their hidden truths.


Ten of Wands and Seven of Wands from the Fairy Tale Tarot by Lisa Hunt

So speak your truths, let your voice be heard.

You will be in very good company if you do.

All aboard the blog train!

September 1, 2015

As part of the Stonecoast MFA Blog Train organized by J.R. Dawson, I’m going to take a moment to introduce myself both as a graduate of the fabulous program and an author.

I write Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction with fantastical elements (mainly magical realism) while dabbling in poetry and adult fantasy. This is not a literary path I saw myself on when I began the program over two ago, but being at Stonecoast enabled me to discover it. I graduated in July having finished my first MG novel, The Dollmaker, which was also my Master’s thesis. The Dollmaker tells the story an enchanted doll named Karolina and what becomes of her in the human city of Kraków, Poland. I drew my inspiration for it from the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, Slavic mythology, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and my own travels in Europe as an undergraduate.

And to think a year ago, this book was only an idea!


My thesis and the real Karolina

I often joke that writing is my sole talent, other than charming cats and being able to horrify audiences worldwide with my double-jointed elbows. Writing really is my life and has been for over a decade now. “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,” Karen Blixen once said, and as someone who loves fairy tales and often frames her own life in them, I hold that to be the most fundamental truth in my life.

When I’m not spending time in imaginary places with equally imaginary people, I work in a haunted hotel, study German and folklore, generate inside-jokes with my best friends, and take walks around beautiful Colorado. I live in a household of human women and male animals. This menagerie includes a black cat named Colonel “Boo” Brandon, who might just be my familiar.


He’s also vital to the creative process.

The next person on the blog train is another Stonecoast graduate, Dallas Funk! Dallas was in my very first workshop, where she provided thoughtful comments about my piece and we discussed a series we both love, Kushiel’s Legacy  by Jacqueline Carey! I still remember her graduate reading last winter; it featured a vivid action scene I could visualize blow-by-blow, which as any writer can tell you is quite a feat! Here is her blog post for you to enjoy!

The dreaded second novel

August 21, 2015

My Middle Grade novel is currently in the hands of many talented writers who are ruthlessly picking it apart so I can make it the best book possible.

The reading of the first chapter I did at my graduating (!) residency at Stonecoast was well-received, which made all the time and effort I put into the novel feel worth it. Well, that and my fancy hood. I felt very much like a Wizard of Fine Arts rather than a Master of Fine Arts at the ceremony. Just look at my robe and my magical professors!


Nancy Holder, James Patrick Kelly, myself, Theodora Goss, and David Anthony Durham

With my MFA on the wall, a new job to fill my bank account, and my first book temporarily out of my hands, I’m now embarking on a new challenge: writing a second novel.

The idea of producing a second book is almost more intimidating than committing the first one to paper or screen. When you sit down to write without a novel already under your belt, you don’t know what to expect. You’re blissfully unaware of the highs and the lows, the potential pitfalls, and the long revision process at the end of the journey. Now, I have some idea of what awaits me.

In some ways, this is good. I can correct issues as I see them cropping up instead of having to make major revisions at the end of the process. On the other hand, I now understand the scope of the universe I’ll have to build, character by character and word by word.

I tried to remember how I had done it before. Was I in a particular state of mind that I should attempt to recreate? What music did I put on in the background? Why did I settle on that story and not the half dozen other ideas I had? But recreating the situation I wrote The Dollmaker in would be not only strange but uncomfortable. I hammered out the first draft for NaNoWriMo in a lawn chair with my cat stretched out across my lap as I listened to Tchaikovsky in the hopes of ignoring my neighbor’s aggressively cheery pop music. This method didn’t feel magical then and it doesn’t feel magical now.

And the truth is that I already wrote my second novel between May and July, frantically typing away at night and on the bus to work every morning. I worked on the book I had wanted to write three years ago and didn’t for various reasons. However, as the story wound down, the only possible ending I could think of was too depressing to even consider. Who wants to read a novel about a girl who goes on an adventure and returns, broken, to exactly the same place she began?

I was at work the other day when I realized that I couldn’t figure out how to wrap things up nicely because the book was the backstory for another novel altogether. The ending was really the beginning, one I needed to write in order to understand where the characters had come from.

Here I sit, poised to write my 2,000 words or more for the day, and I’m still intimidated by the task ahead of me. But I’m less intimidated than I was even 10,000 words ago.


The sidewalks of Miami speak the truth

“An Amateur’s Guide to Time Travel” is now out at Daily Science Fiction!

Falling has become an almost iconic means of traveling between worlds, time periods or even between parts of a story. John “Jake” Chambers in Stephen King’s The Gunslinger falls to his death in Mid-World and arrives back on Earth. Amy Pond and Rory Williams from Doctor Who throw themselves from the top of a building to return to their original world (or die trying) after becoming trapped in an alternate timeline. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Theon Greyjoy jumps with Jeyne Poole in his arms from the battlements of Winterfell, thus exiting one story and entering another. Indiana Jones must perform a leap of faith in The Last Crusade to retrieve the Holy Grail, leaving the “mundane” world behind as he does. And so on and so forth.

This piece also deals with what it would be like to be a time traveler in our world and to carry such a secret with you. How would it feel to never fully be able to fit in? How could you cope with constantly losing people and languages and cultures you loved to the steady march of history? I tried exploring these questions in a novel once, but I found that the story I was trying to tell was not the right one. I abandoned it, though I could not quite shake the protagonist, a young Chinese woman who takes to the winds of time after suffering a great loss.


The time traveler in question, drawn by Avialan @ Deviantart (who also designed my website!)

Here, she returns as the subject but not the teller of the tale.

Just who is the teller?

Well, that’s another story entirely…

The road goes ever on

July 1, 2015

My writing schedule is a bit odd nowadays.

I write about 1K on the bus to work every morning, 1K on the bus back, and 1-2K when I return home. My new project is based on the infamous story I mentioned in this post about the girl who befriends and runs off with the monster rather than the hero. I have about 50K and am debating about how much I need to scrap now that I finally a clear idea of where the story needs to go. Books can be like that; they aren’t always forthcoming with you. And because I try to be creative during my free time, even if I’m not writing, I made puppets of the characters to put on my desk.

Yes, puppets.


“You’re a bloody puppet!”

I finished the second draft of The Dollmaker two weeks ago and after a short break, I began work on the serious edits. I decided I needed to par down the book by at least 15K to make it an acceptable length for a Middle Grade novel and tighten up the second half, which was less cohesive than the first half.

Writing new material is far easier for me than editing, so the weekends are the best time for me to do heavy revisions. I got through about 30 pages of the book on Saturday, sitting in a sunny Barnes and Noble cafe with my red pen. At that rate, I thought I could have another draft by the end of July.

Then I got an email from a teacher who wanted to see the entire manuscript as soon as possible.

I edited over 150 pages between Sunday afternoon and Monday night in a whirlwind, because who needs sleep when you have Coke Zero and ambition? I’ve powered through the last three years of my life on both.

It occurred to me midway through the session that I’ve put nearly a year into this novel, the premise of which came to me at last summer’s Stonecoast residency, and I have no way of knowing if all my hard work will ever pay off. What I do know is that this story is important to me and I would very much like for more people to meet these characters.

So, I’ll continue to press on.


Research and realism

June 18, 2015

Recently, I’ve been watching the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell miniseries, as the book it is based off of is one of my favorites. Author Susanna Clarke went through great lengths not only to incorporate real history into her world of magicians and faeries, but to write in a style reminiscent of famous 19th century authors such as Jane Austen. I loved what she did, but I know other readers found that the historical details and writing style bogged down what they thought was an otherwise interesting story.

One of the challenges we as writers face is how much research we need to do on a topic we’re going to be writing about–and how much of that research should actually end up in the novel. This is particularly relevant to those of us who write historical fiction with fantastical elements in it. If your novel is about vampires in the Civil War, will an adherence to historical accuracy allow the reader to submerge themselves in your story or will it alienate too many modern SFF fans?

When I was in middle school, I cowrote a pseudo-medieval fantasy with a close friend. We were in the middle of a very dramatic scene in which I had the hero’s lover leave a note on his door when my friend burst out laughing. When I asked her what was so funny, she pointed out that I had the hero’s lover tape this note to the door. Since she and I had been writing for fun, “medieval tape” became a running gag between us, but it also took us out of the story. If I had seen an obvious anachronism like that in a published piece of fiction, I probably would have stopped reading and complained about it to whoever was around.

Don’t assume your primary audience is made of experts. You may have one or two people who will throw down your book in disgust because buttons on your hero’s uniform are wrong, but they won’t be the majority of your readers. At the same time, you are doing a disservice to history if you completely misrepresent the time period you’re writing about and instead use the “Hollywood” version. History is a much more interesting subject than your high school teachers most likely made it out to be, full of sweeping love stories, great tragedies, and totally absurd incidents that seem stranger than the contents of any novel.

To tell the story of The Dollmaker, I needed to find the answers to odd questions. How many people had telephones in Poland in 1939? What did identification papers look like? Who were famous Polish artists and composers that the protagonists would be familiar with? When my Stonecoast mentor pointed out to me that acrylic paint was not widely used until the late 40s, I had to ask myself what would be used instead. And I looked at the photographs I’d taken of Krakow when I visited the city as an undergrad; certain areas are almost frozen in time after sustaining little damage during the war.


The Rynek Główny or Main Square of Krakow in 1870

My advice is to do as much research as possible before embarking on a historical fantasy novel, then pick and choose what kinds of information you want to include based on what will serve the story best. Accuracy can make your setting vivid, but it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the details if we aren’t careful.

Narnian exiles.

May 14, 2015

To say I was obsessed with The Chronicles of Narnia as a child is an understatement.

I spent about ten years convinced that I could find my way to Narnia if I knocked on the backs of enough closets and wardrobes. (Yes, this included custodial closets in elementary school. Narnia sounded like a much better place to be than math class.) And when I finally gave up, I chose to enter other worlds through a different means: by writing. But I was still thrilled when I heard that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was being made into a movie. I remember waiting for an hour for my dial-up connection to load the first trailer.

The Lion, the Witch , and the Wardrobe is not a perfect adaptation of the world I spent so much time inhabiting as a child. It suffers for the post-Lord of the Rings tendency to turn all fantasy films into action films. There is also a strange of thread of realism that runs throughout the film. It is tonally dissonant from the books, but I found it appealing nonetheless.

This realism means that when Peter Pevensie goes into battle, he is not suddenly an expert swordsman; he looks so weary by the end he can barely lift his sword when he duels with the White Witch. It means that magic is greeted with extreme (if amusing) skepticism by Susan, who at one point reminds her siblings that their parents sent them away from London to spare them from being in the middle of a war. It means that the movie opens not with the Pevensies exploring the Professor’s house, but with the London Blitz, and Jadis grounds us further in the Second World War by throwing a Nazi salute to silence her followers at the Stone Table.

As an adult, this Narnia felt like a real world that could exist next door to our own, one where there were tangible consequences to every action. After leaving the theater, I began to think about what would happen to these Pevensies after they returned to England. In the books, the four kings and queens of Narnia seem to have no adjustment issues, but I couldn’t see that being true for their film counterparts.


Photo by Rebeca Cygnus

A few years after The Lion, the Witch, the Wardrobe was released, I tried to answer this question in the form of a novel called The Never Bridge, a deconstruction of the portal fantasy. It was about four siblings who returned from another world and were unable to cope with the transition back to being ordinary teenagers after a lifetime spent as monarchs. In desperation, they turned to a magician who claimed that he could return to them to their lost fantasy kingdom…for a price.

While the protagonists inhabited the bodies of teenagers, it never fit comfortably in the YA genre, which made is very difficult to write for any specific audience. There were no epic battles, no romance, and the protagonists made no attempt to find their footing in the real-world. There were uncomfortable questions about underage sexuality and what it was like to perform childhood. The ending was a complete downer, with the magician revealing that he had been unceremoniously booted out of a fantasy world himself as a child and lost most of his marbles in the ensuing decades. And the siblings became dysfunctional adults themselves.

So in many ways, I relieved when Lev Grossman’s The Magicians came out. “Thank God,” I thought to myself. “Someone else wrote that book, so now I don’t have.” But Grossman’s trilogy has received polarizing reactions. It’s a series readers either love or hate. It’s my opinion that The Magicians seems to appeal to a very specific type of adult, one who was once a “gifted” but troubled young person. The protagonists are all intelligent but destructive teens and twentysomethings who refuse to invest their energy in anything that doesn’t offer physical or mental stimulation. They are selfish, arrogant, and self-loathing all at once. Having been that type of young person, I felt a strong kinship with most of the characters and admired Grossman’s often harsh take on what magic would look like in the real world.

Because of my fascination with stories that deal with children and teens who come back from magical lands, I was thrilled to hear that Seanan McGuire will be releasing her own take on the idea next spring, Every Heart a DoorwayBeing YA, McGuire’s book will probably not be as dark as The Magicians, and I wonder if friends who were displeased with Grossman’s series will find it more appealing. Either way, I’m excited to see another writer’s take on the subject of Narnian exiles.

“Hello, everyone! I’m Amy’s imaginary friend. But I came anyway.”

— The Doctor

A few years ago, a fellow writer and I were walking through Target. We had gone there to get something purely practical, but as we were making our way to the checkout area, the other writer paused in front of a tacky turquoise lamp fringed with blue feathers and sapphire rhinestones. I couldn’t imagine why she was so interested in it until she said, “One of my characters would just love that hideous lamp.”

To someone who doesn’t write fiction, this might seem like a strange response. But we writers spend more time with our characters than do we with some of the flesh and blood people in our lives. This means that we think about our “imaginary friends” constantly.

Character development is the driving force behind any story. No matter how fascinating the worldbuilding or how exciting the plot is, a story will fall flat if the reader doesn’t connect with at least one of the people in it. They don’t have to necessarily be someone we’d like to have tea with, but we should at least feel something about them, whether that’s affection or disgust.

When I workshop stories, the compliment I hear the most is that my characters are very vivid. (I’m still working on that “plot” thing everyone keeps telling me about.) I started to think about this as a craft issue but unfortunately, I’m one of the lucky writers whose characters frequently show up on the doorstep of the house in my imagination almost fully formed.

But how do you really get to know your characters, whether they arrive in your head with suitcases full of emotional baggage to be explored or they’re complete strangers to you?

  • Interview them about their history, likes, and dislikes. What is their favorite food? How about their worst childhood memory? How many people were in their family? Did they like their hometown or did they escape as soon as possible? Finding out the answers to these questions may give you insight into what motivates them, even if the material never makes it into the story itself.
  • Propose scenarios, even if those scenarios won’t make it into the story itself, and allow your characters to explain how they would handle them. As a writing exercise, I once put two characters I was stuck on into the Hunger Games universe to see how they would react to stress. Obviously, I’m not Suzanne Collins and I can’t use the material from that story, but it helped me get to know my characters better and solve a tangled plot thread.
  • Create a Pinboard about your character. You can gather pictures of actors who you could see playing them in a movie, clothing they would wear, quotes that remind you of them, and even pictures of what their house or bedroom looks like. These are all details that can help your character come to life in your own mind and if you can do that, you can translate it for your reader. Here is a board I made for my character Mei-Xing, who is the subject of a flash piece that is going to be published soon and a novel that I have been writing on in various forms for years.
  • Make a playlist of songs your character would listen to or that make you think of them.

A few of these characters might be cagier than others when it comes to talk about themselves but be patient–they’ll eventually open up to you. Some of these fictional people may even become semi-permanent residents in your head, determined to stick around until you get their story right. I joke that I’m haunted by two particular characters who have been knocking around my imagination for over seven years.

Even when we hate our stories and are deathly sick of looking at them, characters force us to return to our desks and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) once more. They can be demanding–but they lead us to the most extraordinary places and we should listen to what they are telling us.