Writing Thoughts: Doing What’s Best

Doing what’s best for the story is a refrain I had heard multiple times over the years, whether it was from Agents/Authors on conference panels, other blogs from Authors I follow, or from Twitter threads.

It seems like a simple thing, shouldn’t it?

But in reality, we, as authors, get stuck in our made-up reality that is our story.  And then we get blinded by our world, our characters, & our process, and we really have to step back from it. Examine it anew. Especially newer authors, or ones (like me) who have been working on a story/world for many years, it gets harder for us to look at the story with fresh eyes and see where we need to fix things.

Critique partners/beta readers are excellent sources for this to happen. With unbiased critique, they let us know what needs shoring up, and what can be ultimately cut.

And this is where we have to truly put on our author hats and take that broadsword and slash the ever-living shit out of our baby.

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Now, in my own journey, I had to make a decision that would alter the very fabric of the story I set out to tell. But after multiple years of failing to find that illusive unicorn that is known as a literary agent, I realized that I had to do what was best for the story…

Last time I spoke about the change in scenery to my series The Mistlands Tragedies. But prior to the final change, there was another major decision made and that was to focus my story on a different character than originally intended.

Let me get some back story out there. The original draft of my first book was strictly an Epic Fantasy with multiple points of view (POVs). I love ensemble casts and wanted to tell a story that had a big cast of characters. By the time I got the first book to a draft that was readable, I had 5 major POVs and 3 minor. I wrote the other two books of what was once a trilogy with this story. All said and done, I had 7 major and 10 minor character voices (Hells, over the course of these 3 books, I had 125+ named characters that had dialogue and parts to play in the narrative). But from the get of book one, my main character, Brynn, was the focused plot driver, and her story arc was the catalyst for nearly all the other characters. Meaning, almost every single character was introduced to expand her story. Except one.

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Well, that’s exactly the point, this industry is so subjective and there are “rules” that new authors need to follow to even get a sniff at getting traditionally published (which is the route I want to pursue). One of those unwritten rules is word count. My first draft of this book was 140k words, you know, 40k more than the unwritten rule for new authors…So whatever. If you’re GRRM or Sanderson, you get to write 500k and no one bats an eye. I hate this rule.

But honestly, even with 140k words, not every character was given enough room to grow and allow readers to get to know them. Minor characters it’s not as important, but the major POVs need to have a connection with the readers (good or bad depending on the character, aka my proper bastard villain that all my betas/CPs seem to love). Over the course of a series, you can have that growth, but in the first book of a series, it is difficult to have so many characters and give them the life they need.

And here is where that issue of doing what’s best comes into play. I needed to refocus this story if I want it to see the light of day on a book shelf. It was also a defining moment in my growth as a writer.

The character of Ashe did not directly affect Brynn’s story in the first book. Actually (and quite stupidly on my naive part) Ashe didn’t even interact with Brynn or the other POVs until midway through the second book. Her arc was completely separate from the rest of the story. While Brynn and the other main characters were all tied together on this quest story, Ashe was having her own plot. And it isn’t until book 2 that she meets the rest of the cast, but then even that was a small section because not long after, something happens to her and she goes off on her own, completely separated from the rest of the cast (I’m not counting other majors I introduced from other parts of the world because they haven’t met Brynn yet either).

On top of the Ashe conundrum, I faced the same exact problem most SFF writers face – world building. This damn series has such a complex world, religion, magic system. Everything is just dense. And trying to build a cohesive world in 140k words tends to have a ton of exposition within. Nobody wants that, let alone an agent/publisher. So that needed to also change.

Doing what’s best for the story (see recurring theme!!!), I made the difficult (and slightly frightening) decision to completely pull Ashe’s entire arc from Brynn’s story. I could have done the easy thing and just left it on the cutting room floor, but I loved this character as much as Brynn. I didn’t want this lowborn sasspot street thief with the power to summon the dead to go into the deep unforgotten realm of computer files. A decision had to be made.

Make Ashe her own story and write Brynn’s story as is!

Well, again, it’s not that simple. Ashe’s entire arc was built upon this world I had crafted. Creating a new world, while still fitting her in, was difficult (ask my CP Claire, she knows…). So I did the next best, and smartest, thing I could think of, Ashe became the first book in the now 5 book series.

As much as I love Brynn’s story, I had always struggled with creating that opening, that inciting incident that would draw readers in. Like how much to show, where to start, etc. Then throw the world building on top of that. It became a bogged down mess.

That is why having Ashe as a story on her own worked so well. I was able build the world slowly. I didn’t have to introduce all these complex concepts because not all of them pertained to Ashe’s arc. And Ashe’s arc from start to end works brilliantly as a standalone story. Yes, I had to craft other scenes to fill in sections. Yes, I did some major scenery changes. Yes, I made some changes to Ashe’s personality (next blog post!). Yes, I had to come up with a completely new climax. But that was not as difficult as starting from scratch if I had to plop Ashe into a new world.

The best part is that Ashe’s story has been read by my CPs and they all agreed it was the best decision for the series as a whole. She is a good lead in character to the concepts I want to invoke. And they love her quirky, fun attitude with that devilish badass just waiting to come out at a moment’s notice. And now I’m able to introduce Brynn properly in book 2 and give the readers the opposing characters/concepts without inundating them all at once. And then once I get to the later books and the ideas that I already have written, the emotional connection will already be there. (Oh, and I decided to cut down those 7 majors to only 3 and combine some characters together)

In the end, I did what was the best for my series. I think it’s something that I never would have dreamed about when I first set out with this story. It took years to realize this, but this time doing the queries/pitch sessions/pitch parties/what-have-yous, I feel insanely confident that my story is ready for that next step!

Writing Thoughts: A change of scenery

I want to start off by showing this really cool aesthetic one of my excellent critique partners created for me.

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She did a damn sight better job than I ever could have done. Granted, I’m not big on these types of things because I don’t need a visual to see my world, but the fact that she put this effort in, only goes to show that having a CP (having three excellent ones is even better!) is critical to success.

Now, you’re probably asking why I bring up critique partners when this post is about setting. It was strategic, I tell you! You see, when I first started writing this would be fantasy series, I started with a fairly vanilla traditional medieval fantasy world. In my head, the world was secondary to the story (at least in the first draft of the first book at the time). It was all about the characters and the plot for me. And I think that is the way it might normally go for many first-time writers. You need to focus on getting that story on paper, then you can go back and add more flavor to it. Spice it up.

Near twelve years on since that first draft started, I’ve made so many different changes to not only this story as a whole, but the world as well.

As I said, it was set in a world that the greater majority of worlds are based on. Very Western ideals of building shape, style, and architecture. That still works for some stories, and when I was writing the first draft of the series (trilogy at the time), it worked for the story I was trying to tell.

But the Gods’ honest truth, it was boring as Hell.

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There was nothing in that world that made it interesting. I tried my hand at the query trenches, digging away for a couple of years with no success. And then I did an online course with an agent/editor and he confirmed the exact same thing about my world. There was nothing about it that was cool or different from the thousands of fantasy books out there in the market. It was a cookie-cutter book.

It was around that time though that my interests in becoming a better writer grew, but also my taste of sub-genre grew as well. I started reading more grimdark, more steampunk, more New Weird fantasies and many of those stories have worlds that aren’t the standard run of the mill.

And that got me thinking on how to change my world up some.

At first, I decided I wanted my world to have steampunk elements. Completely altering the setting is a huge undertaking, it’s like bulldozing a skyscraper and building a brand new one with the same structure, just painting the metal/glass a different color. It is so time consuming to alter a setting from no/low tech, to one with much more technology. And I like to start each draft from scratch and only take phrases/sentences/paragraphs/ideas that I like from the previous draft and put them in the new one with all new writing.

More failed queries later (even though the writing became much neater and sleeker), I was still at a crossroads with this story. It still felt incomplete. It was missing something to give it that oomph.

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I used to be a gamer. I used to spend hours when I was in my 20s playing videogames (mainly PS) and the Final Fantasy series are some of my all time favorites. Final Fantasy IX of all 23432535 of them is my favorite. It has such a spot in my heart. But one really cool aspect of that game is the mist covering one of the continents. The mist powers their airships, their lights, what-have-you.

So I stole that idea. I added mist to my world instead of steam power. But that’s just lame to rip off something like that. Right? Right.

That meant I had to twist that concept somehow. I needed to tie the mist existence to the story. And that is where I came up with the idea to have the mist be a byproduct of a God’s failure. And the mist is also poisonous to all humans. Yet, it also has magical properties, so people can use the mist to make magic spells, weapon enhancements, physical enhancements.

Now that is a cool (at least in my mind, and a few agents I’ve pitched to) concept for a setting.

But back to the aesthetic at the top of this blog, even with this cool world and mist-tech, I was still lacking that extra sauce to push it over the edge.

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This world lacked a distinct difference from the traditional thought of steampunk = Victorian Goth. Don’t get me wrong, I love that aesthetic but I want to stand out. I want my world to have a different feeling, yet still evoke something we’ve seen and understand.

This (and not to prove my father wrong that my Classics & Anthropology degrees aren’t useless or anything…) is why I chose to have the setting be inspired by Roman Antiquity.

And Oh Gods, this made my story pop like I couldn’t even imagine!

A mash-up of Rome and steampunk (mistpunk) is so unlike anything I’ve read before. But it also really played into the story I wanted to tell (after some major story-shifting, of which, I’ll do another post about in the very near future) because the ancient mysteries/cults that actually existed in Roman times run directly into where I was heading with the mist. Cults of alchemy, Gods, and blood magic. Man, there is so much to toy with. It just made the right decision even easier.

Some of the things I added into this world are your basic columns, domes, aqueducts, you name it, but the biggest thing that helped shape this weird Roman mistpunk story is the addition of Latin terms, titles, and slang. I bet most people have no idea that Ancient Romans were dirty AF. They talked about sex constantly, and they had such a vernacular that would make censorship in this day and age pale in comparison.

By having these types of additions, the story no longer feels bland or meh, it feels like a world that is unique and different. I mean, it’s not everyday you picture centurion guards wielding gladius swords and firing wheellock pistols aboard airships (and if you have, tell me of this literature Valhalla).

But to sum it all up, why did this all come about? Because of working with that agent/editor and critique partners. They opened my eyes to a world that just existed and had no bearing on the story. It was just there. Now, after earthrending changes, the world is a character of it’s own! We get bogged down in our own stories that having other sets of eyes on it really enhances this odd journey of writing. Perspectives are the key to success, especially when they are different than your own. You grow, your story grows, and in the end, that is the basis of why we do this in the first place.

And it all starts with immersing yourself within a world that has a story that demands to be told.

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What I’ve Read: Endsinger

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Endsinger by Jay Kristoff, book 3 of The Lotus War Trilogy

Brief Summary:

With betrayal on all sides, Yukiko, Buruu, and the rest of the fading group of rebels are holed up in the Fox Clan’s city, and worse things are about to force the world into one giant fight for mankind. As the rebels try to destroy the Lotus Guild’s Earthcrusher behemoth, the remaining forces of the shattered Shogun are bearing down on Yukiko’s group. As Kin reintegrates himself into the Guild, he uncovers more secretive backstory of the First Bloom and the Inquisitors. Hana and Yoshi come face-to-face with their demons, aka their gaijin past. And to top it all off, the Endsinger, creator of all life and death is trying to tear a hole in the world and release her “children.”

What Works:

I want to start off by saying I love Mr. Kristoff’s writing. I read Nevernight prior to The Lotus War and I instantly fell in love with Mia and Mr. Kristoff’s particular style. I thought Yukiko and Buruu’s relationship growth over the first book was excellent as a debut author, and there was an underlying joyousness in that book that bespoke of an author coming into his voice. Now in book two, I could still see that growth Mr. Kristoff was working toward, but it wasn’t until book 3 where you could sense he truly found his writing voice.

I understand that not everyone is a fan of more visceral writing/sentence structure.

For example, take this passage: The ascent was torturous, fumbling in the dark, fingers scrabbling against the pipeline’s greasy innards.

I freaking love this, but how we are trained in school, this is not remotely grammatically correct. It just feels choppy and wrong to our trained minds, and most authors tend to not veer away from the standard sentence structure. That is one thing I love about Mr. Kristoff’s style, he goes as far away from it as you can think of. You saw the early stages of it in book 1, the teenage years in book 2, but in book 3, the visceral style was fully matured.

And I loved every second of it (again, not everyone might agree).

As much as I didn’t enjoy it in book 2 as much, the fact that book 3 is an ensemble story really helped make this book great. There is so much going on in this book that it would be impossible to only have a handful of POVs. Aside from Yukiko remaining fun, I want to single out two POVs that really stood out:

– Hana became a truly awesome character. I like how she became a Stormdancer like Yukiko, but her arc wasn’t the same. She had her moments where she was still the flawed gutter child of mixed heritage and I thought that was excellent behavior/mannerism within the overall plot. Her interaction with Akihito from book 2 grew in this book and I was happy to see them come together. And with how that all went down, bravo Mr. Kristoff, bravo. Didn’t see that coming! But I also truly enjoyed her relationship with Kaiah, though due to constraints of plot, it didn’t get as much time to grow like Yukiko/Buruu, but I’m not disappointed at all.

– Kin, without spoilers, was hands down my favorite character in this entire series. The route he took in book 2 and the way in which it all played out in book 3 was great! It didn’t take long for things to become clear, but everything in his arc was cool and twisty. I loved how his interaction with his “What Will Be” dream and the Guild was fun to watch unfold.

One thing Mr. Kristoff knows how to do very well is to make a giant battle all seem helter-skelter as well as beating with emotional heart. The battle between the rebels, thunder tigers, Guild, gaijin, and other stray characters was close to 150 pages long. Yet, it didn’t feel that long because of all that was going on at the same time. There were four different subplots happening at this time: 1. war in the sky. 2. battle on the Earthcrusher. 3. Hana and the gaijin. 4. attack on the First Bloom (Guild HQ). Each one of these things are crucial to the overall success of the book, but none are short-changed at all. Just excellent weaving back and forth, keeping everything flowing and tense.

As much as I really didn’t like the whole Yukiko/Hiro love subplot thing from the first book to this one, the way in which it all came to a head was well-crafted and satisfying as a reader.

So the ending, whew, grab the Kleenexes and prepare for all the feels. Even after all the deaths along the way (of which there were a toooooon, and well written too, very emotional!) there was still one giant hurdle left for the survivors, and Yukiko in particular. Now without spoiling how it goes, the previous Stormdancer and his thunder tiger went into legend by sealing the fate of their world with their blood. And Yukiko and Buruu know that only a Stormdancer’s sacrifice will make the plan work. Honestly, I’m pretty good at picking up on plot threads and if I wasn’t, I never would have seen this coming, that is how subtle Mr. Kristoff was in setting up this conclusion (it’s definitely built in, you can see it if you try hard enough to find it). But the manner in which the finale played out was not something I expected, it came from a completely different point. That’s great writing there!

One last thing I love about Mr. Kristoff’s style is that he knows how to leave scenes on a cliffhanger. There is a chapter toward the end of the major battle between all the factions (not the end battle though) where there are multiple POVs going through an emotional moment. And then, just when the characters are about to hit that crescendo, Mr. Kristoff ends that scene and moves onto another one. Now to do it once every chapter, I see that all the time, but this was at least three characters with very heightened emotional factors being dragged up the mountain top here, and when they are about to fall, BAM, next scene and we are left hanging to see if they survive or not (and because of all the death, you never truly know in this book). But what truly makes this part of the book great is that each cliffhanger ends with the exact same word: Squeeze. So much connotation in one single word. Just excellent stuff!

What doesn’t Work:

There really wasn’t a whole lot that I didn’t like about this story’s conclusion. Although, even though he turned out OK in the end, I still wasn’t a huge fan of Yoshi’s character. He was kinda funny though, but most of his scenes were just there.

Honestly, I really didn’t need the gaijin POV Aleksandar. I get that he was brought on to give a different perspective, but in the end, he really didn’t add anything we couldn’t have had with Hana or Piotr.

Rating:

5 out of 5

What I’ve Read: Kinslayer

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Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff, The Lotus War Book Two

Brief Summary:

Picking up from the epic showdown with the Shogun, Yukiko, along with her mind-melded thunder tiger buddy Buruu, is now seen as the poster child for open rebellion within the Shima Imperium. But Yukiko is still fuming about the death of some loved ones and her power of being able to enter the minds of animals is growing so bad that she falls to liquor to numb the onslaught. Told that there might be some ancient knowledge far to the north, she sets off to learn to control this power. Meanwhile, the rebellion is planning to infiltrate the heart of the empire as some characters thought killed in the first book have resurfaced, and a new link to the throne arises. But Yukiko’s actions have spurred other would-be insurgents into action. More twists and turns abound between warring factions and the ever-present Lotus Guild.

What works & What doesn’t work:

Normally I separate these two sections, but it was an odd thing while reading this book, many things that I really really liked, I also disliked for some reason or another, of which I’ll explain below.

Kinslayer becomes an ensemble book. I love ensemble books! Give me GoT, WoT, or any other epic fantasies where there are multiple Points of View characters and different arcs all going on at the same time. I love that this book became an ensemble cast, I really did, however, starting Book One as a limited POV cast and expanding greatly here has really diminished Yukiko as a character in my eyes. Stormdancer was in essence, all about Yukiko and Buruu’s connection. Yes, her father was a major POV, yes, Kin and Michi were POVs, but they were minor POVs. IT was ALL about Yukiko’s arc. And in this story, she is nearly pushed aside to grow the rest of the cast.

Yukiko’s storyline was great, she was angry, she was depressed, she had other things that I won’t spoil happening to her, but Godsdamn, her scenes were very short. I mean, her going north was a really damn good arc, but it was sporadic and limped to the finish. And then, she didn’t show up for 100 pages until the very end of the story!!!! Not exactly my favorite way for the main character…

I will say, making Kin and his arc a much bigger thread was a genus idea by Mr. Kristoff. I loved Kin’s character in the first book and he grew so dramatically in this book. The things he does and the actions he ultimately took were just epic and I didn’t see coming. I really loved it! I especially liked how he dealt with the inward hatred of him being a Guildsman amongst rebels. There was this real feeling of distrust, a fox in the chicken coop kind of feeling. It really made for some interesting character dynamics.

But to the detriment of the story, two siblings were introduced and given soooooooo much screen time. I liked the final outcome of their arc, but Izanagi’s balls I didn’t care for the vast majority of what they did. I liked Hana to an extent, but I could have completely done without Yoshi’s character POVs and thread. Hana had a purpose to the story, she rose to the forefront of the rebellion infiltrating the Imperium. But Yoshi’s story with the yakuza didn’t add anything to the overall plot other than to set up some gruesome scenes toward the end.

And then there was Michi. Man she really is a cool femme fatale character, but her temptation of love was not my favorite. Again, her climax to her story was really damn sweet and a bit unexpected, but the drive there was meh. At least there was some great emotional moments at the end for her.

The less said about Hiro, the better…

I really did like the introduction of the “round-eye” gaijin in Yukiko’s arc. It was interesting to see another people out there that was only alluded to. And, again, this part of the story was really fun and full of twists and turns for Yukiko and Buruu, very character defining. I mean, we got more thunder tigers!!!

The climax was amazing. It was such a slow build to the attack on the heart city of the Imperium, and when we finally got to witness it, it was a thing to behold. While I love epic battle scenes in books, I like the more intimate (or back-stabb-y???) moments against the battle backdrop. For example, Michi’s conclusion takes place during this epic invasion, but her scenes are concise and have huuuuuuuuge emotional impact to her character as a whole. To me, that is perfection on paper when an author can hit an emotional response to all the destruction going on around these characters.

But I temper the entire thing because of the introduction of so many one-off POVs that it sometimes felt erratic (I mean war is erratic, but this was a bit much).

On the whole, I really like the set-up and execution of the story, but things got muddied for me in the process.

Rating:

3 out of 5

2018 Writers’ League of Texas Conference

Earlier this month was the annual Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, TX. Below is a picture of my badge as well as a nice little ribbon (which I will get to in the meat of this blogging remembrance)

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A little backstory first: I moved to Texas a couple of years ago when my lovely wife got a job offer she couldn’t turn down in the great city of Austin (seriously, it is a sweet ass city with lots to do, but good gracious, it is hot as sin down here, and being from Chicago, I was not prepared for this temperature change…). Anyway, I had started writing what would become a series called The Mistlands Tragedies many years ago (of which if you follow this blog, you’ve seen the many changes it has undergone), but it wasn’t until we moved to Texas that I really found the push I needed.

You see, up until I moved to Texas, I was a man alone with this writing thing, no fellow writers, no critique partners, no one but my brain and my fingers to work with. And then I found the WLT. Now the WLT is simply amazing for bringing writers together and creating that community. I won’t bore you with all the rah-rah-rah stuff or the bloody tears of joy (wait, what? jk!) but the best thing is, each year, the WLT has a conference where honest-to-goodness professional book industry peeps show up and listen to us writers ramble about their stories!!!

I went last year and, as my first ever writers’ conference experience, I would say it was a smashing success. I gained experience and knowledge I never would have on my own. I met a great writing friend, Amanda, and just had a great time overall.

This year, while still great, was a different experience for me, and most of that comes down to where I am as a writer this year as opposed to last.

First, the ribbon at the bottom of my badge. So each year, the WLT has a manuscript contest. You submit the first ten pages of your MS and a synopsis. Then the WLT has panels of judges based on the category you submit to (mine was Science Fiction/Fantasy, obvi). Then these judges will read each submission and then come up with a list of finalists and a winner. Then we all get recognized at the conference for our awesome work!

So I’ll be frank: I wasn’t expecting anything from the contest. Last year I submitted and obviously didn’t get anything. This year, I was in the midst of drastic rewrites/editing of what is now the first book in the Tragedies. I was still working through things, but my overall plot was plotted, the characters characterized and vibe the vibing (I don’t think that’s how it is spelled, but I’m going with it). I submitted the first ten pages, which I had polished so many times it shone like newly shined black Sunday Church shoes, and the synopsis like a good little follower of rules. And then sent it off to the Gods. Little did I expect I would be named a finalist. I mean, as a writer who has been rejected (rightly so) by many agents in the query trenches, this was like the world had opened anew for me. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes into this Valhalla of bliss. I couldn’t have been more happy or motivated to keep on writing.

But here is the thing, with growth as a writer, you tend to level up (I mean that is the nature of the world) and that also pertained to the WLT conference.

Last year, I learned a ton from the panels offered by the conference, this year, very little. I’m not here to say the panels this year were worthless, but more to say that I am past the 101 class level of the book industry, past the very basic overview of things, past the cursory ideas tossed out there. I’ve been querying for ages now. I know how to structure a query letter or synopsis (not saying I’m great at either, but I know what needs to go in them). I know the basics of what happens with an agent, with an editor, with a publisher. I’ve either been to those panels before, or have done extensive research on my own.

The panels this year were very similar (if not the exact same in some cases) to the ones last year. And for newbie writers, those things are great. But for me, I needed more detail, more in depth discussions on craft and business. I needed more knowledge from the agents/editors, and unfortunately, I didn’t get that very much this year. I’m at that point where I feel my story is so nearly polished (per my critique partners) that I’m nearing the point of no return with agents. If I do the query right, I should be getting some hits. So I need some 400 level courses and panels about the industry AFTER the query process. And the conference didn’t have those available (minus a good portion of the book contract panel, which was quite eye-opening).

One thing I also want to touch on is the agent pitch. I talked about the pitching in my post about the DFWCon I went to last month, and, at the WLT conference, I also had a pitch session. I had a glowing response to my pitches at DFWCon and the WLT was not as glowing to very nearly the same exact pitch. But here is the thing, all the agents said to query them (which is the great thing, better to get requests from a conference than to try the slushpile), but getting to that point of them telling me to submit was markedely different between them all. Now, that is no knock toward the agents from either conference, but I do think it adequately sums up the industry: THIS STUFF IS SUBJECTIVE AS HELL!!!! Not every agent (and more importantly, readers) will be interested in the same stuff, even in their preferred genre! And that is perfectly acceptable. Yes, it’s weird when it happens in person (in that microcosm of the 10 minute pitch session where you are trying to sell your story to a very important person), as opposed to anonymous email queries, but it is a great learning experience nonetheless.

Even if the panels were a bit lower level than I would have liked, and my pitch session was not as strong as I would have wanted it to be, the conference on the whole was still a good experience. I got to spend time with others like me, introverts working on stories that are near and dear to their hearts (although, I seriously got tired of hearing people say they are writing memoir – but that is just not my particular brand of whiskey). I got to spend the entire weekend talking/plotting/idea generating/shooting the shit with my good buddy (and critique partner) Dewey.

And I think that is the most important thing to take away from conferences: it is all about the writing journey, and take those with you that are also on the same quest!

What I’ve Read: Stormdancer

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Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Brief Summary:

In a world based off of feudal Japan and mixed with the steampunk vibe, the child of the Shogun’s greatest hunter embarks on a journey to find a fabled “thunder tiger” on the whim of said Shogun. As the hunters track down the thunder tiger, it attacks their airship and causes it to crash, but that is only after the father slices off the griffin’s wings, rendering it unable to fly. Now, the heroine, Yukiko, has a gift where she can meld minds with animals. As the ship is crashing, she mind melds with the griffin and they save each other from death (even though the thunder tiger hates her). Because this world is based on honor, the hunter faces death for losing the thunder tiger, as well as rogue ronin are attempting to overthrow the Shogun. And lest we forget, there are the Guildsmen, the purveyors of the source of power in this world have their own schemes.

What works:

Buruu the thunder tiger is awesome. Mr. Kristoff created this wonderful mythical creature that is not only deep, but also very humorous. Yukiko and Buruu’s connection is really a joy to read and Buruu is very witty for an “animal.” I really enjoyed reading their growth and reliance on one another to survive. It was organic and natural, but also had that layer of respect to each other. I dig it.

I loved the Japanese steampunk world Mr. Kristoff created. Sure, I don’t know enough about Japanese culture (and many internet trolls say that of the author…), but it wasn’t overtly jarring to read. Yeah, some of the terms needed to be Googled (thankfully there is also a dictionary in the back of the book of Japanese terms), but I thought it was cohesive enough, and detailed enough to get a true understanding of the world. I liked the Mr. Kristoff went all out with his Japanese world, using terms, clothing, myths, legends, titles. I like seeing something different like that. Really made the story stronger.

I really enjoyed the vibe given from the chi (the source of power), as it is both energizing the world, but also used as a drug. Very cool stuff. I definitely loved the Guildsmen. These people wear suits of metal (called their skin) and are basically robots. I thought it was a cool idea to have the character of Kin learn his history isn’t exactly the correct path.

The writing is very fast-paced (a staple of Kristoff’s) and easy to read. The action was action-y and the dialogue neat. Though there were some flow-y prose in certain points of the story, but I enjoy that (I know others might not)

But the best thing is obviously Yukiko. I love me some hardnosed badass chicas. Yukiko has a temper, but also grounded in every which way. She’s smart, witty, loyal, and overall, just a fun character. Obviously her connection with Buruu is amazing, but I also found her connection (or early lack-there-of) with her father to be a true reflection of the setting and the world they inhabit. It started as one thing and then ended completely different, far away from what I would have expected to see. Very well done.

What doesn’t work:

Personal preference alert: I hate hate hate hate hate hate 3rd person omniscient POV. I just can’t do it. I dislike going back and forth between characters in consecutive paragraphs. I much prefer a set POV for each scene. Granted, Mr. Kristoff did a great job of maintaining voice of characters when switching to and from, but I just can’t get into it.

Even though this is Adult with YA crossover, one thing I really didn’t like was the “green-eyed samurai” love interest for Yukiko. It felt shoehorned into the story and I could have done without it, or at least made it a slower burn.

One thing I can also agree with some of the other reviews out there is that it takes quite a long time to get the story off the ground. It takes about 100 pages before we meet the thunder tiger. Now I understand the need to set the story up, but I think some of the earlier chapters could have been tightened to get to the best part of the story and that is Yukiko and Buruu.

Rating:

4 out of 5

Meeting a Role Model

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Good God, yes that is me meeting the great Terry Brooks! (squuuuuuueeeeeeee)

Let me explain this total fanboy behavior. When I was twelve years old, my preteen brain was just getting into reading for enjoyment. My parents are huge readers (I mean like a book or two a week) and I’m a product of nurture. My middle school also had a program called Accelerated Reader where if you read books, you got points based on the reading level, and those points added up to buy useless toys and knick-knacks (you know, useless shit that kids want – Pogs were big back then and we could buy frickin’ Pogs!!!), not to mention we got pizza parties too from it! But for someone like me, addicted to books via the reading blood coursing through my veins, my reading level was much higher than someone of my age normally would be and this is where I was introduced to two authors that forever changed my life: Richard Adams’ Watership Down & Terry Brooks The Sword of Shannara.

I’ve always been drawn to science fiction and fantasy movies and tv shows (shit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adorned everything in my room that wasn’t Ghostbusters…), so naturally I preferred this type of story. I hadn’t yet read Lord of the Rings (only read The Hobbit at that point), but I latched onto Shannara with the deathlike grip of the Skull Bearers. I devoured his books (he had just finished the Heritage of Shannara series and about to launch the impeccable Voyage of Jerle Shannara series) and this led me to find LotR and others as I aged into high school. His books were the launching pad of my love for fantasy stories.

But not only was Mr. Brooks responsible for my reading genre love, he also gave me the nudge of writing. I hate math, I won’t lie. I suck at math like there is no tomorrow. Hell, even though I’m good at science (and studied archaeology) and actually work in the scientific field, I really didn’t enjoy it like I did with English and Literature. I remember in my senior year English class, we had to write our own Canterbury Tale. I remember diving headlong into it with such gusto that I loved it.

So how does all this relate to Mr. Brooks you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. That Tale I wrote (mimicking the poetic style of the actual Tales) about a knight going on a journey to an unknown land (um hello Druid of Shannara and the Voyage series).

And then when I got to college, I began to craft the basis of what would become my Mistlands world. I began to write more than just a few words (thanks Anthro/Classics majors for making me write 30 page papers like it was life-sustaining…) all while trying to live to the magic Mr. Brooks instilled in me.

I have never gone to a book signing before, but when I heard Mr. Brooks was coming to Austin (at the amazing local Book People!) with his latest book dropping, I knew I had to go. I’ve literally read all his books multiple times and he is just a pure genius in this genre.

But the best part of the night (aside from him being wildly funny and divulging his upcoming plans in terms of his projects, not to mention reading a passage from a new Word & Void novel – more squuuuuueeeeee!) I actually got to spend a few minutes talking about writing with him! He genuinely seemed interested in listening to me ramble. He offered me some sage-like advice of keep going and work with writing partners. As well as mentioning that even though we might never make it, to always stay positive and enjoy what you write. And I think that’s the key. This year has got me excited for writing because I’m stoked where my story is, but in the end, I absolutely love this story, and that’s the biggest thing – love what you write! He even said he hoped to see me on a bookshelf one day!

Even though I’m just one of his millions of fans worldwide, he has inspired me from a young age to just enjoy the magic that is in literature!