Well, this is awkward. It’s been so long since I’ve blogged I’m not really sure how to do it anymore. I’ve never been great at blogging at the best of times (mostly because my natural response to sharing any aspect of myself with strangers is to hiss like a cat and run and hide under some blankets), and I think we can all agree that these aren’t exactly the best of times.
It’s been over a year since I last checked in here so let’s address the elephant in the room – WOW 2020 is basically one giant shitshow huh? Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the US election, rampant wildfires, controversy after controversy after controversy… it’s started to feel like we’re all trapped in some eternal hell cycle. If you’re having a tough time right now just know you’re not alone. Like most of us, I’m really struggling right now.
Back in January, I was so sure that 2020 would be my year. I planned to query agents for my children’s novel (which I haven’t really done), I planned to polish my Urban Fantasy novel and consider self-publishing it (which I haven’t done), and I planned to have at least one more novel fully drafted (as of today, I have exactly 1683 words written). So yeah, 2020 has not been a great year for me writing-wise (it’s also not been great mental-health wise, but that’s a sore spot I’m not quite ready to unpack publicly yet).
But enough of the doom and gloom (let’s face it, you get enough of that on Twitter). I’m here to talk self-promotion baby! Despite the fact I have let my writing goals wither and die like a pot of grocery store basil, I haven’t been entirely idle. About two months ago, I decided that I couldn’t keep putting off my writing goals and I started making tiny steps back in the right direction. Because of that, I actually have quite a few fun projects to share (who knew that making even a small amount of effort could actually yield results?!).
If you know me in real life, you’ll know I have a mind like a sponge but ONLY for strange or useless facts (seriously, I don’t remember 90% of my life but I’m great in a pub quiz). I also happen to have a friend who loves learning weird things as much as I do. Throughout the worst of lockdown, we were desperately searching for something to take our minds off of, well, EVERYTHING, and so the idea of The Uncurriculum was born. It’s a blog of sorts where we share our love of the strange and talk about all the shit you don’t learn in school. For example, did you know that the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin may have some basis in historical fact? And have you ever heard of the saint who faced off with the Loch Ness Monster?
It’s still early days for the Uncurriculum but we’d love it if you gave us a follow.
Dark Tales for Dark Times
Speaking of strange things… back in September, my friend (and Uncurriculum co-founder) Sarah Lally and I had a crazy idea – what if we made a bunch of short horror-themed radio plays for Halloween? Considering we only had 5 weeks to write, cast, record, edit, and produce the plays we knew it was an ambitious undertaking. Luckily, our friends are as batshit as we are and we managed to rope a few of them in for the ride. The result was Dark Tales for Dark Times – an anthology of four short radio plays.
The days grow shorter and the first frosts of winter touch the land. We are entering the dark time of year. A time to gather round the firelight and tell stories. So listen close dear friends and try to ignore the howling of the wind and the branches that beat against the windowpane. These are Dark Tales for Dark Times.
Each play is 5 to 10 minutes long and it was so interesting to see the different directions we all took the prompt in. Some stories are scary, some disturbing, and some feature some very dodgy American accents (my apologies America, but consider it payback for decades of Darby O’Gill-level Irish accents). Honestly, this project was so much fun. It reminded me that there’s joy to be found in creating something that didn’t exist before. I think that the rest of the cast and crew had fun too…at least I hope so since I absolutely plan on roping into another round of radio plays in future!
Silver Apples Sunday Sessions
A few months ago, my Silver Apples Magazine co-founder Gráinne had the wonderful idea of starting a virtual writing group that would meet on Zoom every Sunday. Her idea was that we’d and spend two hours writing together (except, you know, not actually together) with a few sociable chats in between. We’ve been going at it for around two months now and I must say, it. has. been. GLORIOUS. I’ve met so many lovely people and there’s something about knowing that other writers are cheering you on that’s so motivating. The sessions run from 3pm – 5pm GMT and we’re ALWAYS open to new people joining. Check out this post for more info (fair warning though… our Sunday Sessions are actually called No C.U.N.T but I promise it’s for a very good reason…)
Honestly, writing is a lonely business and it’s so lovely to feel like we’re building a little community. We have people from Ireland, the UK, Canada and America and people come and go all the time so please do drop by if you’re curious – I promise we don’t bite.
I think that’s about it for now. Hopefully it won’t be another year before I check in again!
When I was 15 years old, I picked up a tatty old paperback from my uncle John’s old bedroom in my grandparents’ house that got left behind when he moved out. It had a frankly garish cover that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a 1980s metal band album cover (complete with the token large-breasted woman), but it was by that guy who co-wrote Good Omens which I’d read a year before and loved so surely it wouldn’t be that bad?
Reader, not only was it not bad, it was one of those books causes such a profound shift in thinkng you know you’ll never quite be the same again. The book was Mort, by Terry Pratchett, the fourth entry into his Discworld series.
I bring this up not to tell everyone to go out and read Pratchett (I mean, you absolutely should… but more on that later), but because when I was trying to think of how to begin this post, I remembered a snippet of an interview with Pratchett that another author, Patrick Rothfuss, posted on his blog in the days after Pratchett’s death. The interviewer questioned why an author of Pratchett’s immense talent would choose to write fantasy of all things, noting that it is “less serious than science fiction”. This was Pratchett’s reply:
(Sighs) Without a shadow of a doubt, the first fiction ever recounted was fantasy…Guys sitting around the campfire telling each other stories about the gods who made lightning, and stuff like that. They did not tell one another literary stories. They did not complain about difficulties of male menopause while being a junior lecturer on some midwestern college campus. Fantasy is without a shadow of a doubt the ur-literature, the spring from which all other literature has flown. Up to a few hundred years ago no one would have disagreed with this, because most stories were, in some sense, fantasy. Back in the middle ages, people wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing in Death as a character who would have a role to play in the story. Echoes of this can be seen in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which hark back to a much earlier type of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest works of literature, and by the standard we would apply now—big muscular guys with swords and certain godlike connections— That’s fantasy. The national literature of Finland, the Kalevala. Beowulf in England. I cannot pronounce Bahaghvad-Gita but the Indian one, you know what I mean. The national literature, the one that underpins everything else, is by the standards that we apply now, a work of fantasy.
…Fantasy can be serious literature. Fantasy has often been serious literature. You have to fairly dense to think that Gulliver’s Travels is only a story about a guy having a real fun time among big people and little people and horses and stuff like that. What the book was about was something else. Fantasy can carry quite a serious burden, and so can humor. So what you’re saying is, strip away the trolls and the dwarves and things and put everyone into modern dress, get them to agonize a bit, mention Virginia Woolf a few times, and there! Hey! I’ve got a serious novel. But you don’t actually have to do that.
(Pauses) That was a bloody good answer, though I say it myself.
Even now, reading fantasy feels like coming home. It has meant so much to me over the years and whenever I hear people deride it as worthless or lacking literary value, I can feel my hackles rise.
Having said that, I completely understand that it can be an intimidating genre to dive into and that certain subgenres of fantasy will not be for everyone. So, in a similar fashion to my previous post on getting started with science fiction, I decided to put together a list of recommendations for anyone willing to expand their horizons and take a leap into the wonderful world of fantasy.
Let’s begin, shall we?
What is Fantasy?
Fantasy might be the one genre that’s even more difficult than science fiction to define. Wikipedia isn’t much help because it opens its entry on fantasy by stating:
Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe
Which is already problematic since tonnes of fantasy works take place right here in our universe (The Dresden Filesand Harry Potter immediately jump to mind).
The entry goes on to say:
Fantasy is distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the absence of scientific or macabre themes respectively, though these genres overlap. In popular culture, the fantasy genre predominantly features settings of a medieval nature. In its broadest sense, however, fantasy consists of works by many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians from ancient myths and legends to many recent and popular works.
So… not exactly helpful then.
Broadly speaking, Fantasy literature includes any or all of the following elements: magic, supernatural elements, fictional creatures, fictional worlds, and fictional history. It can be serious, humourous, epic in scale or focused and contained. Like science fiction, fantasy can be broken down into a number of subgenres. Some common ones include:
High fantasy (also called epic fantasy): this is probably what comes to mind when you think of “fantasy”—typically set in an entirely fictional world, often (but not always) medieval-inspired, and epic in scale. Examples include The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, and Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.
Low fantasy: stories that take place in our world but with an added fantastical element. Apart from the works I listed above, stories like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper are good examples.
Magical realism: sometimes the term magical realism is used to denote books that are thought to have more “literary merit” than typical fantasy stories, but more generally it refers to works of fiction where fantastical elements are commonplace and the nature of reality is questioned. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez are two examples that spring to mind.
Grimdark: a relatively new subgenre of fantasy, grimdark works are usually, well, grim and dark. They typically eschew traditional fantasy ideals of good and evil and instead, favour more realistic or gritty interpretations of humanity. Think George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Urban fantasy (also called contemporary fantasy): stories that are set in the present day, usually in cities, which typically contain elements of the paranormal or supernatural and often take the form of noir or police procedurals. They also often include romance or romantic subplots. Great examples of this genre are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and The Southern Vampire Mysteriesby Charlaine Harris.
This is only the tip of the iceberg—there are dozens more subgenres to explore so I guarantee there’s something out there for everyone.
With that in mind, here’s my list of book recommendations to help you figure out what kind of fantasy books you might like to add to your TBR.
Warning: A few mild spoilers ahead.
If you enjoyed fairytales growing up try…
My first Naomi Novik book was Uprooted, a standalone fantasy that also has strong fairytale vibes, but I think that it’s Spinning Silver where she takes the concept and makes it shine. Drawing on elements of the Rumpelstiltskin tale and Slavic folklore and mythology, Spinning Silver is really a story of compassion and power and women doing remarkable things. It has a unique mythos and a darkness that runs just beneath the surface giving the whole book a sense of quiet menace that I can’t get enough of.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. She will face an impossible challenge and, along with two unlikely allies, uncover a secret that threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike.
My second pick for this section isn’t really a reinterpretation of a fairytale but it is a book that feels like the fairytale genre’s spiritual successor—Howl’s Moving Castleby Diana Wynne Jones.
In the land of Ingary, where seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility do exist, Sophie Hatter catches the unwelcome attention of the Witch of the Waste and is put under a spell.
Deciding she has nothing more to lose, she makes her way to the moving castle that hovers on the hills above Market Chipping. But the castle belongs to the dreaded Wizard Howl whose appetite, they say, is satisfied only by the souls of young girls… There she meets Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and Calcifer the Fire Demon, with whom she agrees a pact.
But Sophie isn’t the only one under a curse – her entanglements with Calcifer, Howl, and Michael, and her quest to break her curse is both gripping – and howlingly funny!
Yes, this is a children’s/YA book but honestly, it’s just so magical I would recommend it to anyone looking to reignite their sense of childhood wonder.
I adore Diana Wynne Jones and I think few children’s authors even come close to her level of creativity. Her books were just so damn weird! But they’re also magical through and through. Plenty of her books have become comfort reads for me but it’s Howl’s Moving Castle I turn to time and again whenever I need a mental hug.
If you’re a fan of detective novels try…
The Dresden Filesby Jim Butcher and Rivers of Londonby Ben Aaronovitch are similar in premise but very different in execution. Both are about wizards who solve crimes, but whereas Harry Dresden is a bit of a lone wolf with a dark past, Peter Grant is a relative newbie to the magical world and we get to follow along with him as he learns just what he’s gotten himself into.
The place to start with The Dresden Files is Storm Front:
Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.
As a professional wizard, Harry Dresden knows firsthand that the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most of them don’t play well with humans. And those that do enjoy playing with humans far too much. He also knows he’s the best at what he does. Technically, he’s the only at what he does. But even though Harry is the only game in town, business—to put it mildly—stinks.
Storm Front is a solid beginning but like any police procedural/detective series, I feel like it takes a few books before you really start to care about any of the characters. For me personally, it was book three, Grave Peril, where things really took off. Harry is such a compelling character to follow and as the series progresses we get to see him grow and change. He’s funny and sarcastic and (stupidly) brave. There’s also a nerdy pathologist with a penchant for polka music and a filthy-minded talking skull called Bob. I mean, come one. That’s pretty great.
Having said that, there are a few…um…let’s just say weaker entries to wade through (I won’t get into it here because of spoilers, but there’s a fairly icky storyline that I really struggle to deal with whenever it rears its ugly head). There’s also a slightly misogynistic undertone (in the vein of describing every woman’s body in excruciating detail) that makes me roll my eyes every now and again, but if you’re able to get past these quibbles, Dresden Files really is such a fun series.
The series is currently 15 books deep with book number 16 (hopefully) due out in 2020 so there’s plenty to keep you occupied.
(P.S. I highly, HIGHLY recommend listening to these books on audio. James Marsters is Harry Dresden).
Rivers of London kicks off the Peter Grant series which is currently up to seven books with the eighth coming out in 2020.
Probationary constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.
It suffers from a few of the same problems as The Dresden Files (every woman being a total babe who’s hot for the protagonist) but is maybe a bit more self-aware.
Definitely worth checking out if you like British police procedurals.
If you don’t believe that Fantasy can tackle some big questions try…
His Dark Materialsby Philip Pullman is one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. I read the first entry in the series, Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it was renamed in North America) for the first time when I was around eleven years old and it blew my tiny mind. It was the first time a book made me question things like religion and the afterlife and it may or may not have thrown me into a mild existential panic (spoiler alert: it totally did).
Outside of that, it’s just a gorgeously written story and every entry in the series adds layers of nuance and depth to the story of Lyra Belaqua and her quest to save the world.
Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.
Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want–but what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other.
I’ve gushed about Terry Pratchett already so I’ll keep this one brief. Small Godsis part of the Discworld series but can be read as a standalone novel in its own right. It’s also the funniest book about religion and the nature of faith and belief that you’ll ever read. It posits that Gods can only exist as long as they are remembered and the more followers you have, the more powerful you are. The Great God Om learns this the hard way when he loses almost all his followers and is forced to live life as a small tortoise. Hilarious and thought-provoking, Small Gods is a fantastic introduction to Terry Pratchett and the world that made him famous.
Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’ Religion is a controversial business in the Discworld. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods. Who come in all shapes and sizes. In such a competitive environment, there is a pressing need to make one’s presence felt. And it’s certainly not remotely helpful to be reduced to be appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book. In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast. Preferably one who won’t ask too many questions…
If you love heist movies try…
The Lies of Locke Lamoraby Scott Lynch is probably one of the most fun fantasy books I’ve ever read. It’s got strong echoes of Oceans Eleven as well as mafia movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather… if they were set in a fantasy version of 18th century Venice.
I have seen some people complain that it takes a while to get going, but I was so immersed in what, to me, is one of the more unique fantasy settings that I didn’t mind the slower pace at all. There are also a lot of flashbacks which, again, didn’t bother me. In fact, they were some of my favourite parts. I loved seeing who Locke and Jean were before they became The Gentlemen Bastards and it opened up so many questions about what happened to them in the intervening years. If you’re ok with a slower pace and lots of lush description (peppered with very colourful language) then give this one a go. Honestly, this book is so damn good I think it’s high time for a reread.
An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.
On the surface, The Legend of Eli Monpressby Rachel Aaron (which comprises of The Spirit Thief, The Sprit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater, the first three books in The Spirit War series) sounds very similar to The Lies of Locke Lamora. Both feature charming and witty thieves with burly best friends planning the biggest heist of their career, but the similarities pretty much end there. Eli Monpress is very much its own beast and it includes one of the most unique magic systems I’ve ever read. Happily, it’s also a completed series (five books in total, collected into two omnibus editions, The Legend of Eli Monpress and The Revenge of Eli Monpress) so you can binge-read it to your heart’s content.
Eli Monpress is talented. He’s charming. And he’s a thief.
But not just any thief. He’s the greatest thief of the age – and he’s also a wizard. And with the help of his partners – a swordsman with the most powerful magic sword in the world but no magical ability of his own, and a demonseed who can step through shadows and punch through walls – he’s going to put his plan into effect.
The first step is to increase the size of the bounty on his head, so he’ll need to steal some big things. But he’ll start small for now. He’ll just steal something that no one will miss – at least for a while.
Like a king.
The Legend of Eli Monpress includes the novels: The Spirit Thief, The Sprit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater.
If you’re ready to explore the genre a little deeper and want a soft entry point to epic fantasy try…
Brandon Sanderson is rapidly achieving legend status and his first series, Mistborn, is a great place to start if you’re a newbie to high fantasy. With an unbelievably well-thought-out magic system (also called a “hard magic” system — i.e. a system where the rules, limits, and cost of magic are very clearly established) and a brisk, pacy plot, Mistborn is the story of what happens after the evil Emperor wins.
For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler, the “Sliver of Infinity,” reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison. Kelsier “snapped” and found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark.
Kelsier recruited the underworld’s elite, the smartest and most trustworthy allomancers, each of whom shares one of his many powers, and all of whom relish a high-stakes challenge. Only then does he reveal his ultimate dream, not just the greatest heist in history, but the downfall of the divine despot.
But even with the best criminal crew ever assembled, Kel’s plan looks more like the ultimate long shot, until luck brings a ragged girl named Vin into his life. Like him, she’s a half-Skaa orphan, but she’s lived a much harsher life. Vin has learned to expect betrayal from everyone she meets, and gotten it. She will have to learn to trust, if Kel is to help her master powers of which she never dreamed.
This saga dares to ask a simple question: What if the hero of prophecy fails?
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, the first book in the Farseer Trilogy (which itself is the first Trilogy is the larger Realm of the Elderlings series), is a slower story than Mistborn but it has become one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. Very character-driven, the slower pace of Assassin’s Apprentice allows you to fully immerse yourself in the world that Hobb creates. Published in 1996, it’s also a great bridge between the more old-school fantasy works of the ’70s and ’80s and contemporary fantasy.
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.
As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
This post is monstrously long so I’ll wrap it up here. What books have I missed? Where would you send your fantasy-skeptic friends to get a taste of the genre?
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, less than 48 hours into my “no social media for a month” resolution, I find myself on Twitter. And not just passively scrolling either. No, I find myself obsessively reading the replies to a Nigel Farage Tweet deriding the Irish government for its response to the latest Brexit proposal. I don’t know how I found myself here (I don’t follow Farage or any of his ilk — I would rather stick a rusty fork in my eye), but I can’t look away.
“Its nothing but pathetic Anti British sentiment. It all goes back to the old adjective, “England’s struggle is Ireland’s gain”. The Irish psyche is too bitter to make an honest decision” says one anonymous Tweeter (typos ALL that Tweeter’s own).
“If Republicans want another war, I say let’s give them one. Let’s see how they like hellfire missiles through their windows and dealing with an SAS fresh from slaughtering ISIS and Al Qaeda” screams another.
And on and on and on they go. Dozens of tweets and most of them singing some variation of the same tune — “The Irish are bad, it’s Ireland’s fault”.
I read through them until a pain erupts deep in my belly and I can feel the old familiar feelings of panic rising in my chest. I’m reading horrible tweets about my home country, about people like me, and yet I can’t stop. It’s like a scab that you can’t help picking at until it bleeds. Finally, I catch myself and think, why am I doing this?
This is not a post about Brexit or even about politics, it’s about social media and how broken it’s become. Before I go on, I want to acknowledge the incredible privilege I have as a well-educated cishet white person. I can’t even imagine the difficulties of navigating social media as a POC, member of the LGBTQ+ community, or any other marginalized group and I absolutely do not mean to minimize the issues they face. I can only speak from my personal experience and my personal experience is that the internet in general, and social media in particular, has become a cesspit and I don’t know what we can do to fix it.
I’ve been online in one form or another since I was about fourteen years old, connecting to the family computer for a stolen hour or two every couple of days until my mother yelled at me to get off so she could make a phone call (hard as it is to believe, there was a time when you could have the internet or the phone but not both at the same time). Back then the internet felt exciting and fun. I spent hours building GeoCities sites dedicated to obscure interests, entered chatrooms and asked strangers “A/S/L?”, and giggled with friends when someone tried to “cyber” with us. I joined forums and gave myself usernames like “Rainbow Moonchild” and gained an American penpal who I would spend hours chatting to on AOL instant messenger, him telling me to listen to Eisley, me telling him to listen to Muse. Back then the internet was something I could turn off at will. Something I could walk away from. I could go days at a time without logging onto my email and I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid.
It was 2011 when things began to change. That was the year I moved to Canada and got my first smartphone and I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. I was far from home in a strange city and having 24/7 access to Facebook made me feel connected to all the people I was desperately missing. It tethered me and made me feel less alone. From that point on, the internet was no longer a useful tool or a happy distraction. It was essential.
It’s not a unique story. The insidious march of forward-progress means that all of us, all of us, are more online than ever before. In fact, I’d bet good money that some of the people reading this don’t remember a time without the internet being literally everywhere, all the time. Looking back, it’s easy to see how it happened — with every new step, every new app, every improvement to software and hardware our lives got easier and easier. I’m far from immune to this. All of my banking is done on my phone, I use it to check when the next bus is coming, what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow, and the best route to get from A to B. Even social media can be a force for good. I’ve discovered so many artists, writers, and musicians I never would have if not for Twitter, Instagram and yes, even Facebook. But these days, I can’t help but wonder what price we’re paying for this convenience. We’ve all seen news articles citing studies that show that social media is making us lonelier. What are any of us really gaining from being online all the time?
Last year I deactivated my Facebook for 30 days. Facebook had been making me feel uneasy for some time and I wanted to see what life would be like with the temptation to “just log-on and check” (“check what?” you ask. Exactly). One month turned into six and, a few months back, I finally logged back on and deleted my account permanently. I knew I never wanted to go back there again. After months with no access to my account, I was able to definitively say that Facebook added nothing to my life. It only took (hours and energy and tears of frustration). It’s not just me that’s feeling this way. A few weeks ago I had dinner with a friend who deleted all her social media a few months back. “I was starting to think in terms of Instagram captions” she confided in me. It frightened me that I knew exactly what she meant.
Does that mean I think all social media is bad? Well… no. But I think that our relationship with it is broken. Social media at its best helps us to connect. It helps us to build community and share the things we love. But lately, all I can see when I log on is the other side of the coin. For every person highlighting an injustice, there are others spewing vile hatred. For every person trying to promote their new album or book or film, there are others who want to tear them down. I don’t want to think that people are inherently bad but after the past few weeks of mudslinging and grown men screaming at 16-year-olds who want to change the world and right-wing hate speech the dam has broken. My tolerance is shattered. I’m exhausted and I’m opting out.
The internet and social media aren’t going to go anywhere. For better or worse, they are a part of our lives and our jobs now. We can’t go back to the internet of before — the internet that was a fun distraction. We can only move forward and try to find new ways of building community in a broken internet.
For my own part, I’m doing what I need to in order to preserve my own mental wellbeing. For the rest of the month of October, I’m not going to open Twitter or Instagram. I’ve deleted both apps from my phone. I’m trying to be more present, to use my phone less in general. I’m trying to re-learn that the internet might be an integral part of modern life, but it isn’t everything. Who knows, with all this extra time on my hands now that I’m not passively scrolling down a page, I may even have time to write another novel or maybe I can start another website, in the fashion of the GeoCities of old, dedicated to obscure interests with a sparkly banner atop that says “respite from the storm”.
This post was something that’s been rattling around in my head for a while now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t direct you to Sarah Maria Griffin’s Girl Offline column on The Gloss. She’s a gorgeous writer who explores this idea in a lot more depth (and far more beautifully).
Genuine question here guys. How do you know when a novel you’re writing just isn’t working and, relatedly, how do you know whether it’s time to give up entirely?
Let me back up a second.
You may remember a few weeks ago I finally (finally!) finished writing a novel from beginning to end and got it to a state where it’s fit to be seen by other humans. About two weeks ago I sent that manuscript off to a few beta readers for feedback and I figured, while I was waiting, I might as well start working on something else. The only question was…what should I focus on? Should I reach for the shiny new idea (of which I have several percolating away in the back of my brain) or should I return to a previously abandoned novel attempt and try to see that through to the finish line.
I chose the latter option.
I have two abandoned novels that, for one reason or another, I never got around to finishing (long story short, a combo of being a longtime Discovery Writer or “Pantser”, a severe lack of confidence, and increasingly busy full-time jobs worked together to create the perfect creative storm).
One novel was a YA portal fantasy that I thought I had abandoned at the halfway mark but turns out I just wrote and rewrote the same six chapters over and over again trying out different scenarios (again, the plague of not outlining anything for years).
The other was an adult urban fantasy novel that I actually got pretty far with before running out of steam. I took a look at the most recent draft, which I had optimistically titled Draft 2 for some reason (I don’t know why, both Draft 1 and Draft 2 are almost exactly the same and neither of them was complete) and found I had 48,000 words with 17 chapters fully written, two chapters half-written, and six chapters with a couple of bullet points in each. I knew how the story would begin and how it would end and I had somehow meandered my way over the years to a manuscript that was 3/4 of the way done. Seems like a no-brainer which project I should work on, right?
Yeah, I think it was a bad idea and here’s why:
I decided my first course of action should be to transfer everything over from Google Docs to Scrivener (my current writing tool of choice). Once that was done, I started to read through everything to understand a) what I actually had, b) where the gaps were, and c) what I would have to do to make a minimal viable draft—i.e. a draft that I could work with and improve. At first, I was pretty optimistic. I like my opening chapters a lot. I think the dialogue is pretty strong and I really do love my main characters—they’ve lived in my head for seven years now, how could I not?
But therein lies the problem. The roots of this story are seven years old. Seven. That means, when I started writing this book, I was 24-years-old. I’m 31 now and a LOT has happened over the years to make me a very different person. I still love a lot about the characters and the world I created, but looking over the draft now, I’m just not sure it’s really working.
The more I read, the more it feels like a book written by someone else—after about three or four chapters it just doesn’t sound like me anymore. Well, actually it sounds like me trying my best to write like someone else (an unholy mashup of Jim Butcher and Neil Gaiman). So there’s my first problem—the voice of the book is all wrong.
By chapter seven, I realized I was mixing third-person limited and third-person omniscient perspectives in the same scenes. That my friends…is not good. Over the last almost-a-decade I’ve learned so much about the technical aspects of writing and I recognize how amateurish it reads to me now. To be honest, the whole book has massive structural issues that would require an extensive rewrite to make work. So that’s my second problem.
My third problem is that it’s obvious I had no idea as to where I wanted the story to be set because I never committed one way or another. I jump back and forth between setting the book in Toronto and setting it in a fictionalized, unnamed city. There are pros and cons to both approaches and even now I’m still not sure which would work best for this story.
There are a whole host of other problems with this book that I won’t get into right now but essentially boil down to this: if I go ahead and try to finish the draft of the book in its current state it will be bad and I would only be doing it for the sake of being able to say that I finished the damn thing.
Now, an argument could be made that this isn’t a bad goal in and of itself. It’s good to finish things because you learn something from the process of seeing something through to the end. It’s just so hard to make myself finish this when, in its current form, it’s a story I no longer believe in.
There are kernels that I could salvage (the premise, the characters, a few scenes here and there) but in order for this book to work, I honestly believe I would have to go back to the drawing board and outline the whole thing from scratch. Truth be told, I don’t know if I can do it right now.
Seven years is a long time and maybe any affection I hold for this story is simply a product of familiarity—like a friendship I’ve outgrown or a job I should have left years ago. Maybe it’s time to shelve the novel for good and finally move on to something else. It’s just so hard to let go.
I don’t have a good way to wrap this blog post up because, honestly, I don’t really have an answer for what I should do next. So I suppose I’ll end with a question—have you ever abandoned a novel? If so, why?
Don’t get me wrong, these books are essential reads for a reason, but today I want to share with you a few books on the craft of writing that may have flown under your radar.
Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative, Chuck Wendig
Hook Your Audience with Unforgettable Storytelling!
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common?
Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling. In Damn Fine Story, you’ll explore:
Freytag’s Pyramid for visualizing story structure–and when to break away from traditional storytelling forms
Character relationships and interactions as the basis of every strong plot—no matter the form or genre
Rising and falling tension that pulls the audience through to the climax and conclusion of the story
Developing themes as a way to craft characters with depth
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, comic, or even if you just like to tell stories to your friends and family over dinner, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.
If you’re an aspiring author and don’t know Chuck Wendig you’re doing something wrong. His blog terribleminds.com is a treasure trove of tips and tricks for aspiring authors and as well as writing a whole bunch of novels and comic books, he’s also found the time to publish several books on the craft of writing as well.
In Damn Fine Story, Wendig mixes personal anecdotes with tangible examples from some of the world’s best-known stories to explain the elements of storytelling and, most importantly, why these elements work.
It’s funny and irreverent and honestly, I got so much out of it! It really helped me think about the mechanisms of story and how I can apply them to my own work.
Fair warning, Wendig swears A LOT (and very creatively might I add) so if you’re the kind of person who gets offended by that sort of thing this one might not be for you.
2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, Rachel Aaron
“Have you ever wanted to double your daily word counts? Do you sometimes feel like you’re crawling through your story? Do you want to write more every day without increasing the time you spend writing or sacrificing quality? It’s not impossible; it’s not even that hard. This is the book explaining how, with a few simple changes, I boosted my daily writing from 2000 words to over 10k a day, and how you can, too.”
Expanding on her highly successful system for doubling daily word counts, this book offers practical writing advice for anyone who’s ever longed to increase their daily writing output. In addition to updated information for Rachel’s popular 2k to 10k writing efficiency process, 5 step plotting method, and easy editing tips, this book includes all new chapters on creating characters who write their own stories, plot structure, and learning to love your daily writing. Full of easy to follow, practical advice from a professional author who doesn’t eat if she doesn’t produce good books on a regular basis, 2k to 10k focuses not just on writing faster, but writing better, and having more fun while you do it.
Rachel Aaron (who also writes as Rachel Bach) is an absolute powerhouse. She’s a hybrid author who has been both traditionally published and who’s recently taken to self-publishing. It’s safe to say she knows her stuff.
The first section breaks down the method she used to maximize her writing output and take herself from writing 2,000 words per day to over 10,000. She explains everything so well and gives real, concrete advice on how to implement her method to increase your own output.
The second section includes more traditional advice on plotting, writing memorable characters, and editing your own work.
No matter what stage of novel-writing you’re at, this book has something for you. And honestly, the eBook costs about as much as a cup of coffee so it’s an absolute steal. Highly recommend this one.
On Writing and Worldbuilding: Volume I, Timothy Hickson
Writing advice tends to be full of ‘rules’ and ‘tips’ which are either too broad to be helpful or outright wrong. In On Writing and Worldbuilding, we will discuss specific and applicable ideas to consider, from effective methods of delivering exposition and foreshadowing, to how communication, commerce, and control play into the fall of an empire.
Part I: Prologues
Part II: The First Chapter
Part III: The Exposition Problem
Part IV: Foreshadowing
Part V: Villain Motivation
Part VI: Hero-Villain Relationships
Part VII: Final Battles
Part VIII: The Chosen One
Part IX: Hard Magic Systems
Part X: Soft Magic Systems
Part XI: Magic Systems and Storytelling
Part XII: Polytheistic Religions
Part XIII: Hidden Magical Worlds
Part XIV: How Empires Rise
Part XV: How Empires Work
Part XVI: How Empires Fall
Part XVII: How I Plan a Novel
Dozens of sidenotes and extra thoughts on all these wonderful stories
Hickson’s YouTube channel, Hello Future Me, is a fantastic resource for writers—particularly those of us who write fantasy and science fiction—and this book is basically an updated collection of Hickson’s video scripts along with some new material.
What I really appreciate about Hickson’s work is that he avoids using absolutes where possible—there’s no “you should/shouldn’t do this” to be found here. Instead, he lays out some best practices for everything from writing prologues to creating a fantasy religion and, like Wendig, he explains how and why they work.
He pulls from dozens of well-known novels and movies to illustrate his point and turn potentially abstract concepts into concrete and easy-to-grasp examples.
At $5 or so for the eBook, it’s another absolute bargain for any writer.
There you have it, three of my favourite underrated writing books! I’m always on the look-out for great new writing resources. What are some of your favourites?