Writer’s Workspace: 2/29

Good morning!  It’s Leap Day!

Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on: Today I’m putting the finishing touches on the first three chapters of my newest novel, a secret project involving viruses, magic, and murder.  This 8k sample will be my submission for a writing workshop I’m attending in Dallas in March.  Here’s a sneak peak from Chapter One:

Snippet from the screen:  Aaron Rooney’s eyes bulged with dislike.  “You keep your mouth shut, you little freak, or I’ll have you up on charges.”

I was getting all ready to snarl back when Daniel settled his hand on my leg.  Time was I would have opened my veins right there, bathed the pickup with my blood, persuaded it to turn into a monster, and sent it chasing Sherriff Aaron Rooney all the way down to the Port Townsend ferry.  But that was before I’d met Daniel.  I took a deep breath.  

“Apologies, Sherriff.”  I tried to smile winsomely.  Problem was, I hadn’t felt winsome in about three years.

In my mug: It’s an English Breakfast type of morning, so naturally I’ve got a cold mug of green tea with honey.  Sigh.

On the iTunes: my playlist this morning features an eclectic mix of moody tunes.  Right now Solomon Burke is crooning “Cry to Me”; next up, “Losing my Religion” as sung by Dia Frampton.

Keeping me company: His Royal Highness, Sir Ramses the Displeased, has parked his majestic behind on my desk.  He insists on sitting on top of my mouse pad and mouse and biting me every time I attempt to dislodge him.  Please send help.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: an interesting read here, from Jody Hedlund’s blog, on the importance of story over perfection, the latest podcast from Writing Excuses, and three pudding recipes that are sure to make you fat (and happy).

How are YOU taking advantage of our temporal bonus this year?  What’s on tap for your Leap Day?

Dollshouse Downton

As any of you who follow me on Facebook are likely aware, I’m obsessed with the cleverly written, beautifully produced soapy delights of Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey.  Sadly, Series Two just finished airing here in the US and we have to wait a WHOLE YEAR for more on the upstairs/downstairs drama of our favorite Brits.

But, there are consolations to help us keep a stiff upper lip during the long wait, including this delicious dollshouse version the show.  I’ve embedded the first episode here, but you can see them all on good ole YouTube.  May I just say that I love that William is a penguin and O’Brien a weasel 🙂

Book Review: The Drowning City

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum (2009. 384 pages. Fantasy)

Tired of fantasy novels that all strike the same culture notes, revolve around a (male) chosen one and his quest, and stretch laboriously across book after book?  If so, I recommend you check out Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City.

A delicious blend of cultural influences from across south Asia, the story is set in the titular drowning city, Symir.  Symir is a lush place — humid, veined with canals, and thrumming with violence and intrigue — and it is to this city that necromancer and spy Isyllt Iskaldur is sent by her masters to stir up rebellion.

Though Downum does a great job of making the world her story is set in feel like a vast, diverse, and sprawling place, and though she alludes to larger schemes at work, they all lie beyond the scope of the novel itself.  This is an epic fantasy in tone, but it’s set in just one place with just one story; it is self-contained and absorbing.

As Isyllt goes about her work of inciting revolution, she encounters a secretive fire mage, an out-of-her-depth would-be revolutionary, and a displaced, genocide-ravaged jungle people who’s ghosts won’t lie quiet.  The intrigues Isyllt uncovers and encourages soon prove far more dangerous than she imagined and the world of Symir positively steams with magic of all possible stripes and persuasions.

Isyllt herself is an unusual heroine — definitely one of the “dark and troubled” ilk.  As a necromancer, her magic is literally the power of death, and she wields it in interesting ways (no spoilers here, though, I promise!).  Prickly, brooding, and thrill-seeking, Isyllt is the kind of woman to plunge headlong into danger, which makes for plenty of thrilling action.

Some may find her character unlikable and her apparent death wish unsettling, but her ruthless, ends-justify-the-means exterior is just that, her exterior.  In Isyllt, Downum has created a very textured character, and one I found a fascinating guide through the story (though her point of view is not the only one relied upon in the narrative).

A final comment:  despite it’s fantastical nature, the Drowning City and it’s inhabitants feel incredibly real; Downum has grounded her tale in believable emotions and motivations.  The betrayals, sacrifices, and triumphs come twisting at you unexpectedly while still managing to seem inevitable (at least in hindsight).  Best of all, if you find this book as satisfying as I did, there are two others (both stand-alone novels featuring Isyllt) to come: The Bone Palace and The Kingdoms of Dust.

Happy reading!

The Magic of Place

I was listening to a recent Writing Excuses podcast discussing the city as a character and special guest Sarah Pinborough made an off-hand remark that set me to pondering the connection between place and magic.

She mentioned that London’s gritty and historical character made it a city particularly easy to imagine as magical.  Though it has a far shorter historical resume than London, I’ve always felt the same was true of New York City.  Where does that dark, garbage-strewn alley lead?  To a magical land?  To hell?  Could the stall at the end of the row in the bathroom at the New York Public Library be a portal to another world?  Surely there are fairies living in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park?  Surely there are.

Not only the history of the place, the sense that it’s current incarnation is built on the bones of something older and darker and different, but also it’s mood of danger, excitement, and anonymity, lend New York an air of believable mystery, of magic.

Is this true of every place, though?  Is Newark, NJ a magical city?  Could we set a convincing urban fantasy tale in Miami or Dallas, or would New Orleans be better?  Is there something about the run-down, dilapidated corners of older places that make them better suited as magical settings, or can new, shiny cities provide inspiration too?

Another question: what about urban versus rural?  The countryside is magical, isn’t?  We can picture magic lurking in the dark, cool depths of an old growth forest and sparking in the bright, sunny charm of the pastoral world, with it’s crooked fences and falling-down stiles.  But what about in the manicured limits of a suburban park?  Does the vast swath of strip mall America provide a good setting for a magical story?  Will we find Selkies bathing by moonlight among the concrete fountains of open-air malls or a coven of witches dancing beneath the glow of parking lot lights?

When we devise settings for our stories, how important is location?  To what extent does the place we choose influence the flavor and believability of the magic woven into the narrative?  Can any place be magical?  Does taking a seemingly unlikely place for magic and making it work lend your story a freshness that setting it somewhere more obvious might not have achieved?

I like to think New York is a magical place, but maybe that’s because I live here and I love the city.  Perhaps we all feel that way about places we love – be they Savannah, GA or Palo Alto, CA.

What do you think?

Can we make magic anywhere, or are some places better-suited to telling magical tales?  Share your thoughts in comments!

Nebula Nominations

SFWA has announced the Nebula nominees for 2011 — and not only are some of my recent favorite books and stories on the list, but also some of my friends!

First, a huge shout-out to Ferrett Steinmetz, a fellow Viable Paradise (VP) alum and member of one of my writing groups, for his novelette Sauerkraut Station.  Another VP alum, Jake Kerr is nominated for his novelette, The Old Equations, and fellow Superstar Writing Seminar alum Brad Torgerson is up for his novelette, Ray of Light.

I was also excited to see Daughter of Smoke and Bone (by Laini Taylor) nominated for best YA novel; I just finished this one a few weeks ago and looooved it (review to come soon), as well as the always-awesome Mary Robinette Kowal for her novella, Kiss Me Twice, and N.K. Jemisin for her novel The Kingdom of Gods.

A HUGE congrats to all the nominees!

Topsy turvy

It’s been a tospy turvy week for me, and one that’s hard to sum up in a tidy blog post, being neither wholly good or altogether bad, but just the messy stuff of life.

The week started with a surprise visit from a brace of construction workers who swept in without warning to sand and refinish portions of our (yes, brand new) floor, rip out the wall behind our washer-dryer in pursuit of a phantom leaky pipe, and generally make a big freaking mess.  Granted, it’s a mess that needed to happen, but a little heads up (after a two week silence) might have been nice.  So, we’ve been battling toxic fumes and wood dust and accumulating a big pile of dirty laundry all week.

Then, on the other side of the scales, I’ve had one of my most productive writing spurts in ages and ages.  My newest project has positively burst life for me, keeping me awake at night and driving me out of bed early to get it all on the page.  After plodding along for months on revisions, this new tide of words feel cathartic, to say the least.

But the pendulum swings back.  Honduras, a country I’ve been traveling to, working in, and living in off and on for more than a decade has recently slid into turmoil.  Well, “recently” might be too strong a word (and “turmoil” too weak of one).  Two years ago the government was riven by a coup d’etat from which it’s never really recovered.  Political instability opened the door for the burgeoning drug trade and in recent months Honduras has been labeled the most violent and dangerous country in the world. 

The Peace Corp pulled all their volunteers out in December, the U.N. announced Honduras had the highest murder rate of any country in January, and yesterday a prison riot in Comayagua left 300 burned to death and 400 inmates escaped.  To see a place that has been such a huge part of my life for so long slide into chaos leaves me feeling sick, sad, and helpless.  I can choose not to visit, can even find a new place to do my archaeological research, but the people I’ve met and grown close to over the years are stuck in an ever-worsening situation from which they can do nothing to extricate themselves.  It makes my petty cares and worries about construction workers and uneven floorboards feel exactly that:  petty.

So, as the week draws to a close, I feel unsettled, off-balance, and, more than anything, powerless to effect anything outside of my own little sphere.  I guess this is all just a reminder that life is neither predictable nor fair, a reminder to be aware of and grateful for the priviledges and advantages I’ve been given in life, and to try and keep things in proper perspective.

Birthday Blog Post

Today I am 37 years old, which seems weird because I swear I only just turned 32 yesterday (or maybe it was the day before).  Even though I feel like I’ve lurched suddenly, shockingly closer to 40, life is pretty darn good and I feel okay about getting older (I mean, it’s get older or die, right?).  I plan to spend the day writing, shopping (not something I do often, but it *is* my birthday), and drinking Cava and eating tapas.

There’s not much I need or want, other than for my life to continue being awesome.  Still, if you’re looking for a last minute gift idea, here are a few things to consider getting me:

1. I’d like Tottenham Hotspurs to win the English Premier League.

2. Hugs.  You can never have too many hugs.

3. A (clean) seat, every day for the rest of the semester, on the F train and Q64 bus.

4. An umbrella like the one Mary Poppins had.  That was an awesome umbrella.

5. I’m not going to ask for world peace, cause that’s just silly and unreasonable.  Still, it’d be nice if folks could at least realize it’s okay if not everyone is exactly like them and stop acting like people who look or think differently should be legislated against, imprisoned, bombed, invaded, or killed.

6. A year of good books.

7. The ability to watch all future Downton Abbey episodes *now*.

Too much?

Well, time to get to part I of Miranda’s Awesome Birthday Adventure and start writing (yes, I used the word “awesome” 3 times in this post, but it’s my birthday, so shove off, haters!).

Adios, and see you all when I’m 37 and 1.

Writer’s Workspace: 2/6

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  Revisions to ABSENT, my archaeological time travel novel, are roaring ahead, plus I’ve started drafting a new, very exciting project (top secret, of course).  Here’s a little excerpt:

Snippet from the screen: “Daniel laced his fingers through mine.  His palms were callused and his dark skin was warm.

I sighed.  “I don’t deserve you, you know.”

“Sure you do.”

Huh.  Like I’d ever believe that. 

We sat in silence, holding hands.  Outside, the rain began to fall.  A gull shrieked as it sought shelter in the broken-down third floor turret and raindrops pelted the window, tappity-tap, tappity-tap.  They sounded like a fairy’s tiny fists knocking against the glass. 

If only.  If only magic was fairies and rainbows and wishes.”

In my mug: Mighty Leaf Tropical Green Tea, with a little honey.

On the iTunes: Keep on Tryin’ by Poco.

Keeping me company: No pictures of Mr. Ramses today.  He’s found some dark corner to hide in; probably where he’s working on his manifesto for a world free of human overseers.  Maybe I’d better go check on him…

Out the window: global warming continues to offer Brooklyn a deceptively mild winter.  Sun. 52 today.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: a few links to share.  First up,  if you haven’t been over to Adventures in SciFi Publishing recently, you should check it out. There’s all sorts of yummy book reviews, podcasts, and interviews with awesome authors.  And, speaking of book reviews, some fellow VP alums have started a new blog for that very purpose, Spec Fic Chicks.  They have in-depth, thoughtful reviews of books featuring strong female characters or written by women authors.

Okay, that’s all from me today, folks.

Over and out!

Book Review: I, Demon

I, Demon by Samuel T. Crown (Historical Fantasy, e-book, 2011)

I, Demon chronicles the life and (rather tumultuous) times of a nameless demon exiled by both heaven and hell  It is recounted in the first person by the demon himself after he is summoned (via a computer program) into a 21st century basement by a perky blonde with a mysterious agenda.  While the aforementioned mysterious agenda plays a role in the larger plot (no spoilers here), most of this story takes places in the medieval past, revealing how the demon lost his name, was freed from hell, and found himself on a globe-spanning adventure to save the world.

If that sounds like rather a lot for a novel to tackle, it is.  But Crown handles the sweeping scope of the story by grounding it in the interactions of witty, likeable characters and in exhaustive research on the Middle Ages.  The first of these two components was, for me, the most compelling.  Nameless Demon has a narrative voice reminiscent of Harry Dresden – a world-weary, cynical exterior surrounding a heart filled with surprisingly compassionate depths.  Taking a demon and making him a likeable character (while not negating his essential demon-ness) is a tricky task, and Crown handles it well.  Over the course of his adventures, we see the nameless demon do many things – some of them good, some of them bad, and many of them morally ambiguous.  Somehow, nearly all of them work to endear him to us.

As far as the plot goes, there’s plenty of intrigue, sex, swordplay, political maneuvering, betrayal, and grandiose clashes between angels and demons.  There are also lovingly detailed accounts of how life really was during medieval times and, briefly, glimpses of a terrifying universe beyond this mortal coil.  If I found one thing to complain about, it would be the middle section of the book, which drags a bit as it sets things up for the novel’s climax.  However, history buffs will probably find little to lament here, as this portion of the book also contains some of the most well-written and well-researched medieval scenes.

All in all, I, Demon is an entertaining read and a great opportunity to spend time with a character who is many things:  cerebral and venal, thoughtful and impulsive, compassionate and wicked.  Oh, and also funny as hell.

What more could you ask for?

Release the hounds!

I’ve been writing casually since 2004 and seriously since 2009.  In that time, I’ve written three novels (plus some short stories).  The first novel is a shiny mess I’ve relegated to the filing cabinet, the second is finished (well, except that I can’t stop tweaking it) and I’m shopping it, and the third is on its second round of revisions.  Pretty much the only thing these three books have in common is the fact that when I first sat down and wrote the initial drafts I did very little organized planning.

Oh, I’d worked out the basics of the plot and done some character development and so on and so forth.  But, in essence, I took a deep breath, dove in, and let the story unfold.  Basically, I pantsed the first draft of each novel.  As a result, each came out in fits and starts, with lots of backtracking and reworking, and plenty of “oh, I should do THIS” going on.  For the second draft of each novel I had to knuckle down, rip the first draft into the birdcage fodder it was, and more or less re-plot the entire thing.  It was fine.  I’m happy (more or less) with where each novel has ended up.  But maybe, just maybe, it was time to try something new.

So I’ve spent the last 8 months doing exactly that.

Yesterday was the dawn of a new era.  I sat down to begin drafting my fourth novel, a novel I had (wait for it) plotted, outlined, world-built, and character developed in detail, in advance.  In fact, for the better part of a year I’ve been working on the ideas, places, conceit, and characters behind this novel.

Did it make a difference?  So far the answer is a resounding YES.

Sitting down to finally start writing was like opening the kennel door and letting a pack of vicious, feral dogs who’d been fed nothing but blood loose on the page.  To borrow a rather crude phrase, they tore that shit up.  I didn’t have to write a sentence, sit there, scratch my head, ask “how would the protagonist react to this?”, scratch my head some more, and then write another sentence.  Instead, the words were flowing.  I knew exactly what the protagonist would do.  Her voice has been battering around inside my head, growing louder and louder, for months now.  I could close my eyes and see every detail of her surroundings and every nuance of her supporting characters’ thoughts and actions.  I knew where she was going, what she was doing, and (most importantly) why.

It was, in a word, awesome.

There were still surprises.  Of course there were.  My fingers still lay down words I wasn’t expecting to write and I still encountered scenes where I had to go back and revise because what I’d written was taking the characters in the wrong direction.  Even with a good outline, it’s still writing and it’s still hard.  Nevertheless, the difference was substantive and satisfying.

So, I may have become a come-to-Jesus plotter.  We’ll see how it goes in the long haul, but for now I have to say that putting in all that development work upfront has given the first chapter of the first draft significantly more richness and complexity than any other first chapter first draft I’ve ever written.  I’m hoping that, down the line, it will also mean fewer major overhauls of the plot.  Only time (and my outline) will tell.

So that’s my testimonial as a born-again plotter.  How about the rest of you?  Any experience switching from pantsing to plotting, or vice versa?  Share your thoughts in the comments!