Z: Zen Time, or, theta waves are magic.

Consider me a skeptic.

It’s just… part of my personality. I’m skeptical about everything. I like proof that something works. I don’t accept anecdotal evidence. I’m just that kind of person. So it’s especially impressive that I swear by such a weird, unproven, scientifically vague thing like theta waves.

I suffer from pretty bad anxiety attacks and I found theta waves while looking for some way to take the edge off them. I was desperate enough to try it despite my skepticism and was amazing when, at least for me, it totally worked.

Amazed, I tried some other frequencies. Ones designed specifically for getting to sleep or stimulating creativity. And call me crazy, but each one has totally done what it said on the tin! Maybe it’s psychosomatic. Maybe it really does work. But everytime I need them, I load them up, and somehow it always seems to do the trick.

Whether it’s just pure beats…

Or a mix of soothing music and sounds with the biaural beats mixed in…

They always just… seem to work.

They might not work for you. Or maybe they will! It’s hard to say. But give them a listen. Even a total absolute skeptic like me has come to be just a little bit of a believer when it comes to these magical little beats.

Advertisements

Y: Yuck/Yum, or, being an author who hates caffeine

It’s my curse.

A writer runs on caffeine. Most creative types do. Hell, most noncreative types do! Caffeine brings your brain to life, chases away all the cobwebs, and lets you work to your best potential.

So what good is a writer who hates coffee?

I’d tried it all! Iced coffee, hot coffee, lots of sugar, lots of cream, fancy espresso mixed drinks… I hated it all! I tried dealing with it and gaining it as an acquired taste, but that was no good, either. I hated it more and more the more I drank it!

It’s a little silly, but not liking coffee makes you feel… bad. You feel like a little kid. And especially in a subculture that loves coffee so much, you sometimes feel… kind of like an outsider? Oh, stop laughing. I told you it was silly!

starbucks canada, bring back valencia orange!
starbucks canada, bring back valencia orange!

In the end I did find my salvation: Starbucks Refreshers!

They’re full of caffeine so they really give you that amazing boost when you drink them, but they’re also sweet and fruity, but they also don’t just taste like juice. They have a really interesting flavour. There are hints of caffeine in it, but not too much! They have lots of different flavours so you can switch them up when you get bored, too!

I still wish I could just like coffee, though! Only Starbucks really has refreshers, and they can be a little pricey! Alas, this is my curse, and I must live with it.

W: Write Women Unique

Here is the trick to writing strong female characters:

Write your women unique.

We need frumpy housewives to stand beside femme fatales and for both of them to be equally valuable to the narrative. We need fine ladies in sparkling gowns and we need rough tomboys in stained overalls. We need women who spend five hours on their hair and women who shave their heads. We need ladies in politics and ladies on the battlefield. We need adventurers and we need beaurocrats. We need women who are amorally machiavellian and women who are dedicated to a code to the point of fanaticisim. We need tall fat women and short bony women. We need black women and white women and brown women.

When all your female characters stand together, they should create a beautiful collage of opinions, colours, outlooks, sizes, and paradigms. They should agree on some things and be willing to fight it out on others. They should each be different.

When none of your female characters are comfortable in dresses, you have a problem. When none of your female characters can handle themselves in a fight, you have a problem. When none of your female characters are interested in romance, you have a problem. When none of your female characters are focused on their careers, you have a problem. When none of your female characters want to have children, you have a problem.

And when those “nones” become “all?” You still have a problem.

Real women are unique. We come in every single variation you can possibly imagine. We’re all strong in different ways and we’re all weak in others. We all value different things. We all have different dreams, different fears, and different desires.

Strong female characters aren’t a template. Strong female characters are a rainbow.

V: Venomous Opinions from Point of View Characters

One of the cornerstones of my writing style is my fanatical dedication to character voice. It’s very important to me that every single word of the narration feels as if it’s coming from my point of view character and not from me. That applies to everything. What’s observed and what’s ignored, what metaphors or similies are used, the exact words chosen to describe something… it’s just so important to me that those things always feel like they’re attached to the narrator. I want my POV characters to be the lens through which the entire story is observed. This is something I love about my writing!

But I also make a point to have my characters be flawed. So what do I do when those flaws come through and infect the narrative?

It’s hard. Even though my characters are the ones telling the story, it can still be very offputting. My primary narrator is a traditional sort of young man who’s never been in a situation to have his very default views challenged. Though he grows a lot throughout the planned four books, he’s still, for example, scandalized and confused by LGBT people. When he sees his first black woman, he performs the faux pas of immediately comparing her skin to coffee. And sometimes it’s just basic stuff, like the fact that he’s twenty, inexperienced, and notices women in an entirely sexual way.

While that’s him, and not me, I need to make sure that the reader knows that I know it’s not okay! So then we reach a point where a trade-off has to be made.

I’ve come up with a few little tricks. One is to have him actually vocalize his ugly thoughts whenever possible, so that someone else in the scene who’s more forward minded can be annoyed by him. This also helps creates a diversity of opinion within the story, which immediately makes it feel more real.

But people don’t always just say what they’re thinking outloud, and that’s when I have to admit that I’m still struggling daily with what to do. I don’t like to sanitize my characters. I like them flawed. I like them real. I like their predjudices, hang-ups, and ugly thoughts. At the same time, I think it’s extremely important to make it apparant to my readers that they are flaws.

I tweak and I tweak. I ask opinions from my workshop friends, my agent, my editors. I make sure people know that I want to be told is something is coming off the wrong way. And I just do my best and constantly look to improve. I think that’s all any of us can do.

U: Undressing History, or, fashion research and invention

I had to do a lot of fashion research for my debut novel. My protagonist is very concerned with appearances and is always studying people to see how they hold up against the current trends. That meant that I had to know what those trends were, in enough detail that Christopher Buckley could fixate on it.

Some authors are just immensely talented at writing descriptions of clothing. Gail Carriger is one of them. When I read her words, the gowns and coats she’s painting just come alive. I admire the incredibe detail that goes into her work. I just can’t do that! I have to be a little more subtle in my descriptions to give them that sort of life, and let my reader fill in some details.

That’s why I find it actually really hard to just describe clothing in photographs! What I write never comes out looking how I want it to. And that’s why I like to mix a little bit of invention in with my research.

My novel may have the aesthetic of Edwardian England, but it doesn’t actually take place there. So I’ve been able to have some fun. I add and take away bits from the fashions of the time, mixing things that were in fashion years before, years later, or never in fashion at all.

M-4316I’ll start with something like this beautiful plate, and then just… tweak it a bit. Sometimes for ease of writing, where I might obscure the exact cut of the overgarment. And sometimes to conform to my little world-building details, where I’d give her lace gloves because I wrote those as a current fashion trend in Darrington. And then I might tweak a little or a lot more depending on the character. Fashion isn’t universal, after all! While my narrator, Chris, always is dressed to the very letter of the stylebook, his boss, Olivia Faraday, likes to experiment and shock with her choices. I might drop the underdress entirely above the waist for her to give a plunging neckline, or have her throw leather belt to cinch the waist up.

I admire the hell out of people who can write actual historicals, but one of the reasons I don’t is because I’m not interested in mimicking a time or place, but in creating one. Allowing myself a bit of flexibility while still remaining true to an overall aesthetic leaves things a little loose and strange.

S: Stirring up Genre Stew

My debut novel, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, is a classic whodunnit mystery novel. There’s a brilliant detective and her erstwhile assistant. There’s a gruesome murder. There’s a suspicious grieving widow, a conniving mistress, and a slimy creditor. It has all the elements of a by the numbers detective yarn.

It also has some more elements. A lot more elements.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant is a genre smash to say the least! I’m telling a coherant and full murder mystery at the same time as a fantasy novel filled with wonderous creatures and strange magic. And as if that wasn’t enough,  I also thought it would be a good idea to write relationship driven, very personal character arcs for the two leads that have a beginning, middle, and end… and while we’re here, let’s throw in an overarching narrative with conspiracies and ecomonic depression and feuding political ideologies and… geez!

I love genre-mashing, but it’s tough! You need to provide what your reader is looking for in every element you’re covering. I knew that to do it well, I had to identify just what those things were.

I tried to pinpoint the most important elements of each of the different genres I was pulling together and incorporated them. But even that was a challenge! If I included every major expected beat from all of my genres separately, the book would be way too cluttered. So then there was combining my touchstones into macro-events, trying to handle multiple genre expectations in the same scene, finding places that the genres overlapped so one beat could pull double duty…

It’s hard to tell what you really have until someone else sees it. I remember finishing my first draft, both elated and terrified. I had finished a novel, and I thought it was good… maybe. Or maybe it was a completely unreadable mess that was trying to be too many things at once. What if my genre stew disappointed mystery fans and fantasy fans at the same time?
But no! What a relief it’s been to have so many people tell me that they loved the way I combined all the different elements together. And I think the key was that I always kept in mind that to tell so many stories at once, I had to juggle them all with equal respect.

R: Random Facts About Me

I’ve talked a lot about my writing, a lot about my inspirations, and a lot about my interests. But what about me? It’s tough because I’m a super private person! I don’t like putting myself out there. It’s my instinct to try and conceal facts about my life. But I want my readers to feel like they know me, so in this post I’m going to share five random facts about me that are not available anywhere else in my online profile!

1. I love cold weather and hate “nice days.”
It happens at least once a week. I’m paying for something at a cash register, and the friendly cashier looks out the window. “Horrible weather we’ve been having!” they bemoan, indicating the snow. Or “It’s finally nice outside!” they chirp, talking about the 28 C/83 F weather outside. And I smile and nod and agree and get my change, because arguing about the weather with a poor service employee just doing their job is a douchey thing to do. But deep inside, I’m crying. Because I love snow, ice, and freezing cold. And if it’s too warm for a sweater, it’s too warm for me. Something is deeply, deeply wrong inside of me, everyone agrees.

2. I didn’t eat a taco until I was 28.
It’s not that there isn’t Mexican food where I’m from. It’s just that Mexican is foreign food where I’m from, like Indian or Thai. It’s there, you just have to know where to look for it, and it’s considered something of an acquired taste among the locals. There’s only ever been one Mexican restaurant in my hometown, and it’s so high end that I never went. We don’t even have Taco Bell! My best friend is from Southern California and she finally sat me down and made me some nice, authentic tacos with real guacamole. I had no idea what I’d been missing!

3. My favourite colour is purple.
Oh, yes it is! My wardrobe, my jewelery, my makeup, even the colour I painted my bedroom… there’s a definite pattern! I love every shade! Royal, violet, wine, burgundy, magenta! Maybe it’s embarrassing to love purple (and pink!) so much, but it makes me happy, and happy is good!

I still want to be her when I grow up, I'm not gonna lie.
I have to confess: I still want to be her when I grow up. I’m not gonna lie!

4. I love mice.
Longtime blog readers might recall that my first novel when I was just a little sprout was about a nonhuman lady detective, Mary the Mouse. You also might think it sounds familiar when I say that my childhood role model was Gadget from the Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers! What came first, the chicken or the egg? I can’t say, but I do know I’ve collected mouse stuffed animals, figurines, magnets, Christmas ornaments and other bits and bobs both kitschy and classy since I can remember!

5. I love birthdays and Christmas more than anything because…
I love giving and receiving presents! I don’t know which I love more. It’s like choosing between your own children! The feeling of opening a gift and knowing that someone you love picked it out just for you? Or the look on that same loved one’s face when they see what you spent months working on? How could anyone choose! I’m like a little kid on birthdays, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. And I put little kids to shame when December 25th comes around!

Q: Queens of Fantasy, or, random female characters in fantasy who I think are ballers.

I established earlier this month that I’m a feminist. I’m proud of that. Having been interested in SFF since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved female characters I can identify with and admire in the genre. It’s a sad fact that a lot of books I’ve read — and even books I’ve loved — just don’t have good roles for women. But it’s also a good fact that more and more every year I find a lady who makes my toes curl with joy between the pages of a fantasy novel. I’d like to hope that, with my own book coming out this summer, I’ll be contributing just a little bit to all the great fictional women out there. But for now, I want to take some time to write a love letter to some of the ones already kicking around.

To make this list a little more fun, I’m going to try to name five different female characters I adore who are all different kinds of awesome.  Because I think even more than strong female characters, we need varied female characters. So here we go!

1. Malta Vestrit (Realm of the Elderlings Series // Robin Hobb)
Malta is my favourite iteration of the spoiled, willful princess type.  She’s materialistic, petty, and self-absorbed. And while she has an amazing arc, slowly becoming more and more strong and independent and fierce, she keeps being all those things. Malta’s love for beautiful things, her unfair judgements of people, her penchant for primping in the mirror… They’re a part of her. Whether they’re good or bad doesn’t matter. Having those traits doesn’t keep her from having adventures, becoming a queen of an ancient race, and fighting tooth and nail for her family. Why can misanthropic assassins be heroes, but overindulged girly girls can’t? While she kicks ass left and right, Malta gives us the answer: there’s no reason at all.

2. Sabetha Belacoros (Gentleman Bastard series // Scott Lynch)
A con woman and spy, Sabetha gives us our roguish ne’er-do-well. Sabetha is a feminist dream. She’s politically savvy, brilliantly clever, frighteningly competent. She dresses down men who sexualize her, but is in charge and exercises agency with her own sexuality. A brilliant actress and con woman, she can play any role required of her with aplomb and loves every minute of it. Sabetha is so amazing that she almost feels like cheating to list, except for one thing — a lot of readers hate her! How did Locke Lamora ever lose his heart so completely to such a “shrill harpy?” She’s a “bitch!” And somehow, that makes me love Sabetha more, because I imagine how she’d treat the complaints: with a witty retort that left haters with their pants down while she rode away with all their money.

3. Irrith (Onyx Court series // Marie Brennan)
Irrith is my queen for the rough and tumble boyish type of character. She’s a sprite fae from northern England and is always seen with twigs in her hair, wearing tunic and leggings, making trouble. Irrith is completely unfeminine, and even prefers to glamour herself as a gentleman while walking among humans. While her arc is about understanding love and why we fragile human lives value it so much, femininity is never forced on her. She’s wild, fey, and strange, and she revels in it. The impish tomboy character isn’t uncommon in fantasy, but Irrith is one of my favourite iterations because she never resents either her own femininity, or the femininity in others. She respects the hell out of all other women and avoids that “not like those OTHER girls” trope I hate so much!

4. Phedre de Montreve (Kushiel series // Jacqueline Carey)
Ah, yes, the a curiously common erotic priestess of a strange god archetype. How can there be such an amazing version of it? Phedre is defined by her sexual appetites and preferences, her status as a prostitute, and her relationship with the god of pain and pleasure, Kushiel. And yet she’s the true mover and shaker for the most important historical events of her time and the sole narrator of her amazing story. One thing I love about Phedre is that she never learns to fight and has essentially zero action scenes. Her power all comes from her command over her sexuality and her boundless cleverness. It’s refreshing seeing a woman empowered by her story without needing to muscle her way through it.

5. Eshonai (The Stormlight Archive series // Brandon Sanderson)
And what would a list of amazing fantasy women be without a lady who wears armour and wields a magic sword? Of course, Eshonai isn’t in a chainmail bikini. Her armour is full bodied and half of it is built right onto her body. She’s not human, but she is human. She’s a conservative traditionalist in her society, but can be a bit of a maverick. She cares so much about her family and is defined in large part by her relationships with her sister and her mother, strong female connections. Eshonai is a warrior through and through, fighting and willing to die for her people. She’s the traditional fantasy knightly ideal type, only for once, that role has gone to a woman. There’s a lot of terrible things that could end up happening to this fierce bruiser lady, so join me in hoping she gets to keep her agency as the story moves forward!

I encourage everyone to check out these books! They’re all wonderful and amazing, and the women within them are incredible too. Five completely different types of women, all strong and fierce and empowered.

P: Patterns in my Writing

Like all first-time authors, I’ve got a stack of unpublishable, half-finished, quarter-finished, and barely started novels laying around. Some were typed out when I was still just a little girl, those are in boxes somewhere. Others are stored on floppy discs that no longer have anything to load them with. Yet more are on the old harddrives to skeletal computers clustered in a closet. There are about twenty in total, ranging from “totally finished but written by an eleven year old” to “a really interesting 2000 word first chapter that I never touched again.” And they’re all very different! Murder mysteries, political thrillers, high-seas adventures, romance novels… they’re all at least a little bit fantasy, but otherwise, they’re all across the spectrum.

But despite how different they all are, there are a couple of universal threads that seem to go through all of them. Here are some I noticed kept appearing, whether I meant to include them or not!

1. The Tough, Get-Things-Done Redhead.
In the adult world, other women approach me just to tell me how beautiful my hair colour is. But things were a whole lot different back when I was little and my red hair got pointed out by my peers for entirely different reasons! Maybe that’s why the iron-hearted, smart, unconventionally attractive ginger lady started appearing in my writing right from the start.
Is she in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant? Yes! Officer Maris Dawson, the police supervisor who makes sure Olivia Faraday doesn’t burn the world down looking for killers, is this character to a t.

2. The Mild-Mannered Male Lead Surrounded by Women Way Stronger Than Him.
Speaking of childhood grievances — why is there always only one girl? Only one girl smurf. Only one girl muppet. Only one girl transformer. Even female characters I loved and identified with seemed to be the only ones in their universes! Gadget from the Rescue Rangers, Maeve from The Adventures of Sinbad, and Princess Leia from Star Wars stick out like sore thumbs. So maybe I was trying to desconstruct something when, right from the first book I wrote when I was barely more than a baby, I had one sweet-tempered guy standing in a tidal wave of powerful women.
Is he in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant? But of course! He’s the narrator!

3. The System the World Depends on That’s Fallen/Falling Apart.
I don’t even know where this came from. Maybe I just had an early start learning about how important recycling is. But it just keeps cropping up in my writing: the unsupportable status quo which continues long after the time to safely reform it has passed because future collapse is preferable to immediate change.
Is it in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant: Oh, yes! And in a far more prominent position than I’ve ever put it before! This very thing has caused a recession that’s become a depression when the book opens!

4. The Conspiracy Looming Behind It All.
I’m an odd duck. I don’t think there’s a single conspiracy theory out there that I actually believe in. But by golly, do I love them. Chemtrails, faked moon landings, and secret cities on Mars… they’re definitely not true, but wouldn’t the world be a more interesting place if they were? Conspiracy narratives aren’t what they used to be. With more and more average citizens believing them, they do more harm than good. Still, I can’t help my love.
Is it in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant? Can I ever resist? The answer is no, I can’t. There’s defintely a big ole conspiracy (or two, or three) lurking in the background.

5. The Cast of Thousands.
I adore the cast of thousands. I cut my teeth on the doorstopper fantasy epic and it’s always been my instinct to pack my books with characters. It’s a sickness! The thing is, that’s one big reason why it’s taken me so long to finish a novel.  It’s hard to plot all those people together, and my work has always collapsed inward!
Is it in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant? No! I broke my curse and forced myself to keep a small, insular cast. I’m finally free of the cast of thousands… for now. A few new faces join the fray in the sequel, and it’s getting a bit unwieldy…

O: Oliva Faraday, or, writing a main character who isn’t the main character.

The main character of my novel is…

Well, that’s a actually a hard statement to finish.

There are two main characters in my novel. The mild-mannered and soft-spoken  proper gentleman, Christopher Buckley, and his employer, Olivia Faraday, who is mercurial, eccentric, manic, and brilliant. But there’s only one narrator, Chris, and The Deathsniffer’s Assistant spends a lot of time exploring his family life, backstory, and connections, while very little personal time is given to Olivia.

So why is it that I find it hard to say who the main character actually is?

I’ve always been fascinated by characters like Olivia. Characters with minds too curvy and mazelike to make for very good narrators. She was the jumping off point, the keystone right from the start: a lady detective who was coy, clever, energetic, and ever so slightly askew. The world according to the twisted mind of Olivia Faraday isn’t really something a reader can identify much with. Her way of thinking is so alien and offputting that telling the story from her perspective would certainly be compelling, but it would also be repulsive. So what to do about the problem of Miss Faraday?

The fact is that Olivia’s assistant just made for a better storyteller. His backstory and personal problems start affecting the plot much, much earlier than Olivia’s, and he’s a simple, good-hearted, put-upon sort of fellow. Much more approachable to readers. I decided early on that to curb my natural tendancy to inflate my stories, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant and its sequels were going to have one and only one narrator. So that left me with only one real option: Christopher Buckley would be the window through which my readers accessed the world of Darrington and its routine wonders.

But where did that leave Olivia?

I worried about it as I wrote, but as it turns out, I didn’t need to. Every single person who’s read the book has said the same thing — Olivia Faraday makes an impression. Not only that, but Olivia from the perspective of a normal person leaves all of her strangeness and mystery intact. She’s very private, and as Chris learns about her bit by bit, so does the reader. Despite the fact that she only appears in two thirds of the book’s scenes, Olivia shines through exactly as I’d imagined.

It’s not really conventional to have your main character be separate from your narrator, but I think that sometimes it works. Some characters are considerably more interesting when seen from a safe distance. Keeping them at arm’s length preserves their mystic nature.  The most famous example is, of course, one of my inspirations: Sherlock Holmes. While John Watson is the one telling the story, no one would ever think he was the protagonist. But he’s not the only one! Ishmael tells Ahab’s story, the quest for the white whale, and Nick Carraway is the means by which the reader gets to know the larger than life Jay Gatsby. So I’m walking in very comfortable shoes! (Though these shoes look a little hard to fill, don’t they? Eek!)

I hope everyone who reads my book once it’s out there in the world this July appreciates what I’ve done with Miss Olivia Faraday. I think she’s quite a character, and I’m looking forward to all the people who love her — or hate her!