Saturday, April 30, 2016

WIP Marathon - April

Last check-in: Started re-outlining the novel

Currently: Finished re-outlining. Wrote the first scene of chapter one.

WIP issues: I didn't get much done this month, but I'm very happy with the small amount of progress I made.

Things I learned in writing: It's really hard to describe a snowstorm in a way that isn't cliche.

Distractions: Spring break, academic writing, laziness, various TV shows, going to the gym, Passover, reading a lot, stressing out about away rotations. (I really have no good excuse for how little writing I got done.)

I'm currently on a rural family medicine rotation. You know you're in rural Kentucky when the nurses think your Indian classmate is black and your preceptor tells you about one of her patients who got into a fight outside Walmart on Black Friday and started a riot. Also, I got to see things like black lung disease and tick-bite induced beef allergies. My preceptor is really cool.

Books:

Finished:
-Walk on Earth a Stranger - slower, but well-written
-A Gathering of Shadows - I fucking love this series
-We Have Always Lived in the Castle (audio) - subtly creepy
-Rebel of the Sands - it was okay
-A Visit from the Goon Squad (audio) - well-written, though very different from what I usually read
-A Sense of the Infinite - I wish I saw more books like this one
-Sisters' Fate - fun and mostly a feel-good book
-Sharp Objects (audio) - if you like fucked-up books, you will love this

Currently reading:
-Far From You - I like it


Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Long Tl;dr Post About Inconveniencing Your Characters

A couple weeks ago, I came across a great post about incorporating magic and technology into disability narratives. This is a really insightful post which you should all go read if you haven't yet. In fact, I'll pause for a few minutes so that you can have a chance to do so.

***

Okay, are you back? Cool.

What I'm posting now is a bit of a tangent to that post. (Note: Although it touches on the subject of disability, this is mostly a post about character building. This post is not meant to butt into or derail conversations on disability representation. Those conversations are very important, and while I make an effort to listen to them and boost others' voices, I do not personally feel qualified to join that conversation. If this post does come across as hurtful, appropriative, or offensive in any way, please let me know.)

Remember this line?

"Glasses enable perfect vision for many people, but they require upkeep and are often impractical. Contact lenses seem like a good alternative, but not everyone can tolerate them, they’re much more expensive than glasses, are more work to use, and can easily get lost."

It was interesting to see glasses and contacts brought up because I'm not used to thinking of my near-sightedness as a disability. Near-sightedness is extremely common in our society, and as a result, we do a great job of accommodating it with glasses, contacts, and occasionally surgery. But this post brings up a great point about how vision problems can be a huge inconvenience at times. Contact lenses give me a headache if I wear them for too long and they get really uncomfortable if I fall asleep in them. They also require travel planning--if you're flying one of those budget airlines that charges you to check a bag, you better make sure you have a small bottle of solution that you can take in your carry-on. Glasses can also be annoying. My glasses get smudged a lot, they hurt the back of my ears if I smile too much, and I hate wearing them in the rain. They're also obnoxious in the operating room, since they sometimes fog up while I'm wearing a surgical mask or slip down my nose and I can't push them up because I need to keep my hands sterile. And although my vision is fine with correction, there are times I can't wear glasses, such as swimming or showering. I've had several occasions where I put my glasses down to brush my hair and then had to ask my roommate to help me find them again.

As common as glasses and contacts are in our society, though, you don't see them that often in fiction. I can only think of a handful of protagonists with glasses or contacts in YA (Harry Potter, Gansey from The Raven Boys, Melinda Sordino from Speak.) It's almost as if correctable vision problems aren't "important" enough to shape a story, so authors ignore them altogether. (Also, I'm throwing the middle finger to every novel where a character only wears glasses to look smart--looking at you, Divergent.)

Your mileage may vary on what you consider a disability and what you consider an inconvenience. It would probably depend on both severity and context, such as how well a society can accommodate that problem. (Being near-sighted in a society where glasses and contacts don't exist or are not easily available would absolutely be a disability.) One great example that blurs the line is the fictional disease called retinal Kellis-Amberlee in Myra Grant's novel, Feed. While it doesn't significantly affect the plot of the novel or prohibit the protagonist from engaging in most activities, it does affect her day-to-day life and it serves as a great world-building detail.

I'm also not saying that "inconveniences" should replace disabilities, or worse, be used as a metaphor for disabilities. We definitely need more novels with accurate and respectful disability representation. But there's no reason we can't have inconveniences in addition to disabilities. (After all, people in wheelchairs sometimes wear glasses, too.)

It's also worth noting that not all of these inconveniences are health conditions. One of my protagonist's inconveniences is that she has to (well, okay, chooses to) wear gloves. She changes them several times a day, avoids almost any food that can't be eaten with silverware, limits how much she drinks so she can avoid public bathrooms (and carries hand sanitizer for those times when she can't hold it in). She has special fibers sewn into the tips so that she can use touch screens, and has special pairs for swimming and exercise. When she first started wearing them, she probably had trouble with tasks that required a lot of dexterity, such as flipping through pages in a book. The gloves also attract a lot of unwanted questions about why she wears them, which she usually can't answer honestly.

The reason I bring this up isn't so much for the sake of representation, as it is for realism. A lot of these minor-seeming inconveniences can really add dimension and detail to a character. I'm sure every person in real life, whether disabled or able-bodied, consistently faces some sort of inconvenience that other people don't even think about. (If you're disabled or otherwise under-privileged, you probably face more of these than the rest of us do.)

If you want more examples, here's my list:

Voluntary inconveniences (things that I don't necessarily have to deal with, but are a consequence of my lifestyle choices):

1) I'm a vegetarian, which means that sometimes I have trouble finding something to eat at restaurants or group dinners.

2) I don't have a smartphone, which often means that I have to explain to people why I can't look something up on a whim. (Very minor, I know.)

Involuntary inconveniences:

1) I have an anxiety disorder. My anxiety disorder isn't debilitating or severe enough that I would consider it a disability (though I'm aware this isn't the case for everyone), but it does affect my personality and my way of navigating through life. It has made it difficult for me to make a good impression on strangers, I don't adapt as quickly to new situations as other people do, and it has manifested as both somatic symptoms (I was convinced I was allergic to eggs for over two years) and as uncontrollable crying spells. The crying spells have mostly gone away since I started medication, but the medication does have side effects. It's also a problem because I'm pursuing a career in the medical field, where the unwritten rule is "keep your mouth shut about your mental illness." (And people wonder why the suicide rate among doctors is so high.)

2) I have a rare condition called Duane syndrome*, which is a mis-wiring of one of the nerves in my right eye. (I can't move my eye outwards.) It doesn't affect my life in any major way, but I do have trouble tweezing my right eyebrow and shaving my right underarm without a mirror, I look really weird in right-sided photos because I have to turn my head all the way around to see the camera, and I sometimes get a headache if I spend too much time looking at the person immediately to my right. It also means that if I ever walk into an unfamiliar ER with altered mental status and doctors can't access my medical records, they'll probably think I'm having fluid buildup in my brain and won't treat me correctly.

3) Seasonal allergies. Enough said.

4) I used to have facial hair before I went through several electrolysis** treatments. A lot of women have to deal with facial hair, and yet I have never encountered a female protagonist in a novel who has this problem (or who has facial hair but doesn't consider it a problem, which is a viewpoint I hope our society comes to adopt). You see hirsutism in movies sometimes, but it's usually treated as a joke.

5) Menstruation. About half of our society has to deal with it, and yet you don't see it mentioned in fiction very often (unless someone might be pregnant).

I'm sure that you yourself could think of a hundred different inconveniences you have to (or choose to) face on a regular basis, but that aren't the center of your life. What about your characters?

*One of the characters in my novel has Duane syndrome, and it does have a significant role in the plot.

**Electrolysis is supposed to be better than laser hair removal, and it worked a lot better for me than waxing and tweezing, but hair can grow back later in life, it can cause scarring (especially in darker-skinned individuals), doesn't work well in everyone (ie, if you have PCOS), and does require some time and money. Also, it involves having needles repeatedly poked into your face, which isn't fun.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

WIP Marathon - March

Last check-in: Wrote one new scene for chapter 3, decided to change characters' ages

Currently: Re-outlined Part One and half of Part Two

WIP Issues this Month: I've been having two major issues with edits. 1) Need to cut a ton of words, and 2) Need to edit it with changes to the characters' ages in mind. After months of angsting over edits, I realized that making lots of micro changes to individual pages wouldn't be enough. I needed to look at the big picture.

I'm a very number-oriented person, so I started with that. When I wrote this draft, I mentally divided it into three parts.

Part One: 14 chapters, 51,934 words (average 3700 words/chapter)
Part Two: 12 chapters, 39,985 words (average 3300 words/chapter)
Part Three: 15 chapters, 42,759 words (average 2800 words/chapter)

Then I thought about my ideal word count: 40,000 words in Part One, 25,000 words in Part Two, and 40,000 words in Part Three. Then I divided those numbers by the average number of chapters in each part to determine an ideal number of chapters.

Part One: Ideally, there would be 10 or 11 chapters. When I re-outlined, I couldn't quite figure out how to condense it. The new version still has 14 chapters. However, I did identify 4 scenes that could be cut, and if I cut 850 words from each chapter, then I can bring it down to an ideal word count.

Part Two: Ideally, there would be 7 or 8 chapters. Part Two has always been my least favorite part of the book, with the exception of a small handful of scenes. It was also the part of the book most affected by the changes in characters' ages. This part of the book follows two separate plotlines. I managed to re-outline one of those plotlines and cut it down to 4 chapters. I haven't started working on the other plotline yet.

Part Three: Ideally, there would be 14 or 15 chapters. I haven't started working on this part yet.

So even though I didn't get any writing done this month, I've finally reached a major breakthrough, planning-wise.

Things I learned in writing: This post is starting to hit tl;dr length, so I'll skip this part.

Distractions: My psychiatry rotation was partially a vacation and partially an adventure. I've also been trying to put in a lot of face-time in the operating room and get academic writing done.

Books:

Finished:
-The Near Witch - beautifully written, but kind of forgettable
-Adamant - (this is weird b/c I've never reviewed a book by a fellow WIP Marathoner) This book was a very fun read and I loved the part with the hover boots, though I did think it was too heavy on fights with magical creatures. (My enthusiasm began to wane by the time we saw the third wyvern/chalder vox.) Also, I wasn't very clear on the "rules" of magic.
-The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (audio) - I'm adding Frankie Landau-Banks to the list of "fictional characters I wish I could be" (It's a very short list.)

Currently reading:
-Walk on Earth A Stranger - I like it a lot
-A Gathering of Shadows - So much awesome.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

WIP Marathon - February

Last check-in: figuring out chapter 3

Currently: wrote the second scene of chapter 3, but still trying to figure out the first

WIP issues this month:

I'm toying around with changing my characters' ages. It would take a long time to explain my rationale for this, but most of it has to do with maintaining a sense of consistency in the rules of inheritance. What this means, though, is that my characters, who were originally juniors in high school at the beginning of the novel, are now halfway through their senior year in chapter one and have already graduated by chapter two. This would put my novel pretty firmly in the New Adult category as opposed to YA.

The problem is that I'm not confident I can sell it as NA, mainly because there's virtually no romance. I guess I could try to sell it as adult.

***

Honestly, writing has been really difficult lately, partially because of lack of time, but also because I have no idea how to re-write this book. It needs to be shorter, but every with every edit it gets longer and more complicated. I feel so overwhelmed with it.

Distractions:

I had two weeks of Labor and Delivery, which was cool but also really stressful. Then I had an exam, then a weekend in St. Louis which ended with another major car accident. (Don't drive in snow. Even if you know how to handle it, the 18-year-old in the lane next to you probably doesn't.)

Right now I'm on psychiatry, which is basically a vacation compared to most of my other rotations. I'm getting back in the habit of reading, but haven't done much writing-wise. I'm also finally getting my mental health issues under control.

Books:

Finished:
-Feed - cool premise
-Fall for Anything - it's a good book, but also slow

Currently reading:
-The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (audio) - very smart and self-aware
-The Near Witch - beautiful style

Saturday, January 30, 2016

WIP Marathon - January

Last check-in: 600 words into chapter 2 edits

Current check-in: finished re-writing chapter 2, trying to figure out chapter 3

WIP issues this month:

I've been too overwhelmed to prioritize writing during the last few months. It mostly happens when I'm in the mood, which is happening more and more often.

Editing is still a challenge. I've more or less broken even with words cut vs words added. The new chapters are different, but I don't know if they're necessarily better.

Things I've learned in writing this month:

1. Writing prayer feels so tacky.
2. A lesson I learned in reading
3. While reading The Unbound: This book made it very clear that the protagonist is, well, not the brightest bulb in the basket. You would think that this would be a detriment to the story, but it actually isn’t. The character’s bad decisions make sense in context, and they drive the plot. (And if she had gone about things the safe, smart way, it would have taken all of the tension and suspense out of the story.)
4. Your writing style changes over time. You might think a chapter was "one of the ones I got right the first time" but that chapter is also older, which means it's stylistically inferior to the one you had to rewrite a hundred times.

Distractions:

I started the month by blocking social media sites during certain hours of the day. It worked really well for the first couple weeks, but I spent the last two weeks on a subrotation with long hours and not much for me to do, so I've been cheating a lot lately.

Also, something they don't tell you about med school: You spend 90% of the time standing around with almost nothing to do. You're usually the dumbest person in the room and always the most useless. Then, when you come home, you're too tired and emotionally drained to do anything productive. Another problem is that you can't really talk about your feelings with other people, because those who aren't in med school don't understand and those who are in med school are either too busy to talk about it or don't want to talk about it. Even seeking mental health services is kind of a pain, because you never know when you'll have time to make an appointment.

I also started going to the gym every other day. I hate the gym, and I hate the elliptical, but it's a good time to get reading done and it's supposed to keep my anxiety under control.

Books:

Finished:
-The Second Mango - meh
-Sorrow's Knot - cool worldbuilding, but it was very hard to connect with the characters
-The Ocean at the End of the Lane (audio) - really liked it
-None of the Above - really informative, but I didn't care much for the story itself
-Wither - I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it
-Black Dove, White Raven - a slower book, but worth it
-The Archived - excellent characters and worldbuilding
-This Is Where it Ends - sad, but really good
-The Unbound - not nearly as good as The Archived, but still readable

Currently reading:
-Feed (Mira Grant) - I like it
-Fall for Anything - not bad, but I can definitely see why this is Courtney Summers' least talked-about book

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My new reading system

There are fast books and there are slow books. The fast books are the ones that grab you immediately and force you to finish them in a day. The slow books generally take much longer. You might have to plod through half the book before you're officially hooked. Other books never hook you at all.

I know some people who only read fast books. If they're not hooked by the end of the first chapter, they put the book down and never touch it again. I hate the idea of this. Yes, some books are slow (or start out that way), but if I put down every book that didn't hook me immediately, I would miss out on a lot of great books.

The thing about slow books is that you have to learn how to read them in a way that fits your schedule. When I was younger, I didn't believe in leaving books unfinished. I also refused to read more than one book at a time, unless one of them was for school. I would stagger the fast books and the slow books so that the fast books would motivate me to get through the slow ones faster. This only worked marginally well. I would sometimes spend weeks or even months trying to get through a slow book, while the fast books taunted me from the shelf.

After a while, I decided to compromise. "One book at a time" was still the default, but If I'd been reading a book for a few weeks and with no hope of finishing it any time soon, I would throw in another book. If by page 100 or so, the book was still boring and there was nothing redeeming about it, then I would DNF.

This year, however, I came with a new system--one where two books is the default setting. Based on the pace of the book, I set a certain page goal or chapter goal for each day and follow that until the book speeds up. Since I'm reading two books, I can still get a lot of reading done. It works even better if I partner a fast book with a slow book.

I've been using this system for the last 10 days, and I'm currently on my 5th book (and about to start my 6th). I'm expecting to finish 7-9 books during this month alone. (Confession: It also helps that I've blocked certain social media accounts for several hours a day.)

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 Reading Round-Up

In 2015, I finished 20 out of the 28 of the books on my to-read list, as well as four other books that weren't on the list. I also DNFed two books that weren't on the list (Gone Girl and The Casual Vacancy (audio)) and started another book that was on the list (Black Dove, White Raven) but didn't manage to finish it in time.

Here is the final list of all the books I finished. The books I loved or really liked are in bold.

1. Dark Places -- Gillian Flynn
2. Blue Lily, Lily Blue -- Maggie Stiefvater
3. Some Girls Are -- Courtney Summers
4. The Lowlands -- Jhumpa Lahiri (audio)
5. Charm and Strange -- Stephanie Kuehn
6. Otherbound -- Corinne Duyvis
7. The Martian Chronicles -- Ray Bradbury
8. Red Queen -- Victoria Aveyard
9. Pointe -- Brandy Colbert
10. A Picture of Dorian Gray -- Oscar Wilde (audio)
11. We Were Liars -- E. Lockhart
12. A Darker Shade of Magic -- V.E. Schwab
13. An Ember in the Ashes -- Sabaa Tahir
14. Under a Painted Sky -- Stacey Lee
15. The Dirty Streets of Heaven -- Tad Williams
16. Pantomime -- Laura Lam
17. Wild Awake -- Hilary T. Smith
18. Made You Up -- Francesca Zappia
19. In the Shadow of Blackbirds -- Cat Winters (audio)
20. Star Cursed -- Jessica Spotswood
21. Seraphina -- Rachel Hartman
22. The Second Mango -- Shira Glassman (ebook)
23. Sorrow’s Knot -- Erin Bow
24. The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- Neil Gaiman (audio)

24 books isn't a lot, but it's also been a really busy year.

I made a good choice in prioritizing books I was excited about. The fact that 15/24 of these are bolded is really new for me.

Genre breakdown:

9 YA fantasy/supernatural
6 YA contemporary
3 adult fantasy
2 literary
1 historical YA
1 adult suspense
1 adult SF
1 NA fantasy

Gender breakdown:

20 books by female authors, 4 books by male authors

12 cis female POVs, 5 cis male POVs, 1 intersex POV, 6 male and female POVs

Diversity (books in bold are "own voices*"):

5/24 by authors of color:
-Sabaa Tahir (South Asian American)
-Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian Begali American)
-Brandy Colbert (black American)
-Stephanie Kuehn (black American (also Polynesian, I think, though I couldn’t find the post where she mentioned that))
-Stacey Lee (Chinese American)

8/24 with POV characters of color**:
-Otherbound (one Hispanic American, another from a fictional race)
-An Ember in the Ashes (unsure about this one, as these are fictional races, but people often include it in POC lists)
-The Lowlands (Indian and Indian-American characters)
-Sorrow’s Knot (based on Native Americans)
-Pointe (black American)
-Under A Painted Sky (Chinese American)
-The Second Mango (based on Jews of different ethnicities)
-Red Queen (Word of God says the protagonist is mixed race, but let’s be real, the actress that plays her in the movie adaptation probably won’t be)

7/24 with a queer POV character:
-Blue Lily, Lily Blue (strongly hinted as bisexual)
-Otherbound (bisexual)
-The Lowlands (bisexual)
-A Darker Shade of Magic (confirmed as bisexual by Word of God)
-The Second Mango (lesbian)
-Pantomime (bisexual)
-A Picture of Dorian Gray (first chapter from the POV of a man attracted to another man)

10/24 with POV characters dealing with disabilities and/or mental illness**:
-Dark Places (debilitating depression/PTSD, digits amputated)
-Otherbound (one character with an amputated leg, another with an amputated tongue)
-The Lowlands (one character in therapy, another with strong hints of depression)
-Some Girls Are (character previously in therapy, with continuing psychosomatic illness)
-Pointe (anorexia nervosa)
-We Were Liars (debilitating migraines and drug addiction)
-Wild Awake (bipolar disorder)
-Made You Up (schizophrenia)
-The Second Mango (food allergies)
-Charm and Strange (trauma-induced delusions)

*In the case of "own voices," I only counted authors who were open about their sexuality and mental illness.

**I counted whether a certain demographic was represented, not whether that demographic was portrayed well or even accurately.
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