Blogmas #2: No, Seriously, Watch Critical Role

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OK, so I talk about Critical Role all the damn time, but not enough people are basking in its amazingness yet, so I will continue to squee. Seriously. Seriously. Watch Critical Role. And as I spend yet another Friday with Vox Machina, misfit heroes of Tal’Dorei, I just want to think about why this show has so much of my heart.

Brief summary, for the uninitiated: Critical Role is a live weekly Twitch show where a group of nerdy-ass voice actors roll dice and play Dungeons and Dragons.

Critical Role took good care of me this year, and I mean that completely sincerely. I’ve talked a lot about how sick I’ve been this year, and in the long weeks where I couldn’t read, couldn’t focus on TV, couldn’t do pretty much anything, I could pile up some pillows, snuggle under some blankets on the couch, and sink into the next instalment of this show. When I struggled to get invested in or focus on anything, my whole heart fell in love with this.

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Blogmas #1: It’s December!

Blogmas! It’s like vlogmas, only not.

A super catchy tag-line there, huh? But you get the idea. A blog post every day of December, leading up to Christmas. Like vlogmas, but without all that filming and editing and uploading and having to have a presentable face and stuff.

Both my blogs have been super quiet this year. Thanks to a whole mix of things, I’ve been unable to write full stop, or unable to write and find the energy blog, for most of 2016, and opening a blank blog page is like, “Holy crap, what is this?? What do I do??” And that needs to stop being a thing.

So. December. A post a day. Not much time to worry or self-censor, cos it’s gotta go up! This definitely wouldn’t work for Feminist Fiction, cos those blog posts take a lot more time, but it’ll work here!

And I thought, for the first one, we’d do something a little bit simple. What are your guys’ goals for December? Mine, on top of this blogging one, are:

1. Finish the third draft of my current WIP

My untitled project for 2016! I’ll be honest, I’m not where I would have wanted to be with it, thanks to the same problems that caused the blogging freeze. But I have two drafts done, and am doing a final big December push to finish off the third! And even though I’m not sure the words themselves are right yet, I’m still in love with the heart of it. And the more I work at it, the more good things are starting to peek out from under the surface. Fingers crossed, it’ll be a project I can share with you all one day.

What can I tell you guys now? Not much, except it currently has multiple first-person POVs, which is definitely a new thing for me. And that it doesn’t have a title yet.

Speaking of…

2. Come up with a decent working title for this book

I can’t keep calling it “that book thing.”  I thought I had a few ideas, but I just looked at that list, and I hate them all, so back to the drawing board, I guess! I miss Long May She Reign, when I came up with the title while the story was nothing more than a three sentence pitch on a page of possible ideas I scribbled down one day.

3. Stay offline

Well not, you know, 100% offline, since I need to get work email and blog and watch Youtube (the most important thing on the list). But no social media. No random internet browsing. Just, gasp, some actual peace! I might write about this later on, cos I have a loooot of complicated feelings about it, but the Internet and I have been on the outs for months now, and I’m never happier than when I convince myself to turn it off.

4. Watch at least four Disney movies

Because that’s what Christmas is all about! I can’t wait to see Moana, and obviously Frozen is a must. And then I haven’t seen Tangled and the live-action Cinderella in ages, so those might be on the cards too.

5. Learn to play Winter Song by Sara Bareilles on the ukulele

Because I love it, and the song isn’t very hard. I just need to practice, instead of playing Taylor Swift songs all the time because I already know how to play them.

6. Do a pirouette without wobbling

Look, I’m still a total beginner at ballet, okay? And this is the level I’m at. Almost, but not quite, able to pirouette. I get most of the way around, but then I wobble and end up putting my foot down in the wrong place. But one day. One day.

7. Take a break!

Run away with us for the summer, let’s go upstate. But no, actually. I’m planning to stop writing on by the 18th, and not do any blogging or checking email or anything on the week between Christmas and New Year. I will just listen to Hamilton on repeat and play video games and maybe, like, sleep and stuff. Yay! I predict I will last two days before I start insisting that I just need to go and write for a little bit, just to get down one little thing. We’ll see.

November

So, uh, did anyone have a good time this month? I swear, this political chaos seems to have fed into life crises for almost everyone I know. This really was a month for not getting much done, except perhaps worrying. I got a lot of that done.

But here’s my little update summary for the month.

November Writing

 

November Books

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I really wasn’t in the right headspace for reading this month. I didn’t finish a single book until about a week ago. But in the last few days, as I was house-bound with a cold, I got through these three books:

  • A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston. A lush, magically reimagining of Arabian Nights. Amazing.
  • Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz. Really important exploration of undocumented immigration, but the end was a bit too deus ex-machina for me.
  • Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall. An excellent look at agoraphobia, and probably the best YA book tackling mental illness I’ve ever read.

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What Happens Next?

Well, guys. This past week has been– well, it’s been a week, hasn’t it? I know a lot of people are struggling right now. People are scared. So many people, including me, are heartbroken by what the reality of the world seems to be, and maybe even feeling foolish for ever imagining things could turn out otherwise. At least, that’s how I feel. A longtime feminist blogger shouldn’t suddenly wake up and go, “Oh my god, misogyny exists, guys!”, but it feels like I realized that in a very different way last week.

One of the worst parts of this is how powerless it makes us feel. Powerless against hate, and powerless against the direction of the world. It’s hard to know what to do. And my default state this past week has been “doing nothing.” I haven’t been able to write, or blog, or reply to emails, or read books, or do anything that requires a little bit of self-motivation or sitting with my own thoughts for a moment.

But we can’t shut down for the next four years. We need to find our strength, and we need to fight back. So here are some of suggestions that I’ll be trying to follow over the next few days.

1. Self Care

I mean it, guys. Stop constantly scrolling through Twitter. Don’t you dare read any news comment sections. There’s staying informed to take action and then there’s punishing yourself into paralysis, and I feel like a lot of us are in the second camp. Take time for yourself. Turn off your devices. Turn off your internet at the wall if you have to. Take a walk outside. Listen to an audio book. Frantically reorganise and embrace your Marie Kondo. Spend time with friends. Spend time sleeping. Whatever. But give yourself space to process and space to breathe, without the constant barrage of information and voices that the Internet provides.

And when you’re ready to come back:

2. Tune into a few smart voices

Stop the barrage of constant information. Find a few people (and I’m always eager for suggestions) who are informative and intelligent, whose information you trust and whose opinion you respect, and set aside specific time to just check in with them. Right now I like checking into Heidi Heilig’s twitter to see what’s been going on. She’s smart, brave, witty, and I at least find her commentary and calls to action inspiring amongst all the anxiety.

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October

October Writing

 

October Books

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  • The War on Women by Sue Lloyd Roberts. Really dark, serious reading, but so important and informative.
  • This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills. I LOVED THIS. Friendship and fandom and shippiness and omg love. I have a full review here.
  • The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee.  Such an interesting book about North Korea, from a girl who never actually intended to defect.

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“Aha! I was lying the whole time!”

Not an example of this trope, but a DEFINITE example of betrayal

Not an example of this trope, but a DEFINITE example of betrayal

“Surprise! The protagonist has been working on a secret plan all along and just didn’t tell you about it!”

We’re inside the protagonist’s head, so we know exactly what they’re doing! Wrong. They’ve had secrets all along, and now it’s time for the Big Reveal. Aren’t you shocked? Isn’t this a thrilling plot twist?

For me, no. Lots of people must like it, because it’s been cropping up more and more in popular books lately, but it’s probably one of my least favorite narrative devices. No matter how well-written the book otherwise is, if this device comes into play, I immediately mentally check out of the book, no matter how much I was enjoying it before.

“Aha! You didn’t know I had a way to turn this on its head all along!” Well, I should have, protagonist, because we share thoughts.

This kind of “twist” is like a barrier slamming down between me and the protagonist. When I read, I love the sense that we’re inside the characters’ heads, that our perspectives are almost overlapping as the story unfolds, and these moments immediately take that away. At best, they make me go, “Dude, you didn’t trust me? You kept secrets from me? WTF.” But most often, I just feel cheated by the author. They were telling me the character was one way, from inside the character’s own head, and actually they were another?? Even if the character is a trickster or a schemer or a liar, they shouldn’t omit important details from their own thoughts.

And once that trust is gone, it’s gone for good. There’s no longer any point reading the book, because the protagonist could be lying to me at any time. I can’t trust that the story I’ve been reading won’t just get ret-conned for drama when convenient. No matter how much I was loving a series before, once this happens, I am done. I can try to force myself to keep reading, but I’m not going to get far. The world and the characters just don’t feel real to me any more.

Of course, like all things like this, there are very, very rare occasions where it works. In Crown of Midnight, for example, Celeana is literally repressing her plot twist-y memories. She tries very, very hard not to think about any of it, so it makes sense that we only get vague hints from her before she’s forced to face it. Otherwise — well, I guess you could say the character thought about it and planned while they were “off-screen,” but that feels a little cheap to me. I find it hard to believe that the perspective characters never think about these things while they’re happening, especially if they’re that important. If you pick one perspective to write from, in my opinion, you have to let us into it fully. And if you pick multiple perspectives, you have to let us into all of them. You can’t pick and choose perspectives so you can best mislead the audience.

Basically, if the reader is going to be surprised by a plot twist, then the perspective characters have to be surprised too. Otherwise, our connection with the characters collapses, and if you’re a character reader, like me, the book is never going to recover from that betrayal.

Writers: Play D&D!

This post will be accompanied by Critical Role gifs, because... well, because I can.

This post will be accompanied by Critical Role gifs, because… obvs.

Dungeons and Dragons. That final frontier of “well, yes, I’m a nerd, but I’m not that kind of nerd.” So endlessly uncool. Which is a shame, because it’s so much fun. And, for writers, it’s a totally overlooked way to practice writing, make creative friends, and have a really great time in the process.

Before I played, I always imagined D&D as a stat-based fighting game, which interested me not even a little bit. That’s basically the most boring part of video games for me. But although combat is part of D&D, it’s actually a collaborative storytelling game. The best way to describe it is like an open-world, decision-based RPG computer game (like Dragon Age or Skyrim), except you can actually, genuinely, do anything you want. You can approach problems however you please. You can flee from the city under attack to save your own skin. You can stab the king in the middle of him giving you a mission. You can do anything, as long as you accept that your actions will have real consequences too.

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In D&D, you control one character — but only one. You develop them and their relationships over weeks and months and years, and unlike writing fiction, you don’t get to decide what happens to them, only how they react to what happens, and what they’ll attempt to do next. Then it’s down to the other players to figure out how their characters would react, the game runner (Dungeon Master or DM) to decide how non-player characters react, and down to the dice to decide how successful your attempted actions might be.

Not that the dice run a dictatorship on the story, like I once imagined. You get boosts or penalties for your attempts based on your character’s stats (a charismatic character is going to have an easier time deceiving people than a socially-awkward one), on how good your strategy is (you’ll have a better chance sneaking into a place through the back door at night after making sure all the guards are drunk than if you stride in through the front door at noon), and perhaps on how convincingly you roleplay the situation. It forces you to strategize, think outside the box, and dig deep into your character.

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But you don’t get to choose exactly what happens or what path your character will take. All you can decide is their personality and goals and play it out from there. Which makes it an awesome exercise in character development.

This was proven to me recently, when I started playing a selfish and ambitious human sorcerer called Kethra. In my head, she was going to end up on an adventure and learn to be a better person. If I’d written her story as a book, it would definitely have gone in that direction. Instead, she started a steady fall into Pure Evil, and was a hair’s breadth away from betraying her entire party by the end. (Yup, D&D friends. If I hadn’t been out of spells and low on health when you guys destroyed those black dragon eggs, I would so have fought you to keep one). It wasn’t what I expected her story to be, but the way people reacted to her and the way her actions played out just kept leading her deeper and deeper into Team I Love Evil Dragons.

No one knows where a game of D&D is going to go, not even the DM. Things get weird. Sometimes you adopt little goblins called Droop and end up rolling deception checks to convince him that actually you do like his terrible cooking, really (and feel really guilty when you fail). Sometimes an attempt to gather information undercover goes awry because your friend wrote “Wizardy Bloke” in her notes instead of the relevant character’s name, and you end up being blackmailed by a smuggler with some really second-rate goods for sale. Sometimes you make deals with chromatic dragons, because everyone knows that always ends well. And sometimes your DM wants to kill you when you keep trying to find out things about an ancient civilization that she has barely any notes about because it was just supposed to be a little side worldbuilding thing, seriouslystop doing investigation checks, there’s nothing else to know, why do you hate me?

And it’s great for learning how to stay true to your character and develop character-driven story arcs, even in super-plotty fantasy situations. It’s definitely made me think differently about narrative and about how characters pursue (and are thwarted on the way to) their goals. And, of course, it’s just plain fun. At least, it is if you like stories, really weird improv, and having great adventures with your friends.

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Book Love: This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills

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More and more recently, I’ve been reading books that I LOVE, but that I don’t feel like I can review on Feminist Fiction. Not because they’re not feminist, but I don’t have anything to say about feminism in the book. So this is a new blog series where I just get to straight-up squee about recent books I’ve really loved. 

Sloane isn’t expecting to fall in with a group of friends when she moves from New York to Florida—especially not a group of friends so intense, so in love, so all-consuming. Yet that’s exactly what happens.

Sloane becomes closest to Vera, a social-media star who lights up any room, and Gabe, Vera’s twin brother and the most serious person Sloane’s ever met. When a beloved painting by the twins’ late mother goes missing, Sloane takes on the responsibility of tracking it down, a journey that takes her across state lines—and ever deeper into the twins’ lives.

Filled with intense and important friendships, a wonderful warts-and-all family, shiveringly good romantic developments, and sharp, witty dialogue, this story is about finding the people you never knew you needed.

This book was so WONDERFUL. So readable and so fun, and all the characters felt so REAL. At first, I overlooked this one on my “to read” list, because the “missing painting” plotline didn’t feel too interesting to me. Then I started hearing people rave about it, and after reading a couple of serious non-fiction books, I reeeally needed a good book to cheer me up.

Not that this book is fluffy. God, it hits where it hurts. But the characters and the friendships? Gah. It was so perfect. I just want to squish all the characters. I want to crawl into this book and hang out with these people forever.

And it has a side-plot about fandom
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I’ve read quite a few books recently that have attempted to tackle fandom, but I haven’t come across anything that felt real since Fangirl. But This Adventure Ends absolutely nails it. The addiction, the excitement, the community. How fanfiction and fandom in general take on a life of their own, separate from the source material. What the characters come to mean to you. The weirdness and wonderfulness of AU fic. And also the why. Why people love fanfiction so much. Why it’s so enjoyable. Why we need the happy endings.

Fangirl was about BNF Harry Potter fans, which is a little out-of-date with actual fandom these days, and not exactly an experience many people have. This Adventure Ends was about everyday fandom, about finding solace in stories about stories, and omg it’s so good.

I need to buy a physical copy of this to sit on my bookshelf. And then I need to go and buy Emma Mills’ debut novel, First & Then, because I’m in LOVE with her writing. I’m so in love.

September

To everyone wondering about my absence this past month: yes! I am still alive! Yay for still being alive. Just been sorting out some Life Stuff. And drinking a lot of pumpkin spice lattes. Both very important and time-consuming things. 😛

 

September Writing

  • I didn’t write much in September, to be honest. At least, not where anyone could see! I did share the first few chapters of my post-Long May She Reign project with another human being, to get confirmation that it’s, you know, written in recognizable English and didn’t make her want to gouge her own eyes out so she wouldn’t have to keep reading. And she didn’t! So that was a success, at least!
  • On Feminist Fiction, I wrote about Robin Hobb’s Liveship Trader series, and why you should DEFINITELY 100% read it, right now.
  • On this blog, I wrote about some of my favorite finds while volunteering in a charity bookshop. My favorite thing since I wrote that? “Knit your own royal wedding.” I mean, what more could anyone want in a book?

 

September Books

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  • The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb. My new favourite fantasy series. You need to read it.
  • Ship of Destiny  by Robin Hobb. No, seriously. It’s amazing. Althea Vestrit is my queen.
  • Empire of Storms by Sarah J Maas. Not as good as Queen of Shadows, but still addictive fantasy reading.

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Being nosy in a charity bookshop

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Book collections tell you a lot about a person.

I volunteer at a charity bookshop in my spare time, and one of my favorite things to do there is sort through the big donations. I’d like to say it’s the writer in me, enjoying constructing stories about the people who’ve donated these books. In reality, I’m just super nosy, and even a person’s unwanted books reveal a lot about who they are.

Like the female minister who liked visiting museums and had recently got into decluttering. Or the crime novel reader who owned a camper van and liked hiking around the UK. You can see people’s hobbies and interests, their careers, their aspirations, major events in their lives… these donations are the detritus of their lives, parts of collections being decluttered or entire libraries being passed on after a person’s death.

We get novels from the 1940s and 1950s that were clearly bought brand new and kept for all these years. Gorgeous original Penguin classics. Children’s novels from literally a lifetime ago. Collections of people’s interests over decades. Some have related newspaper clippings from the 1960s held between the pages, or postcards from friends in the 1970s that were used as bookmarks. Sometimes they have people’s thoughts scrawled in the margins — we can’t sell them if there are too many notes, but they’re still fascinating to see. And of course, there’s the modern stuff. The speed with which people go through books. The number of crime novels that people buy from us, read in a few days, and then re-denote, over and over again.

But my favorite donation, so far, came in last week. They were sheet music collections, for piano, available for a few pence every month. Only a newspaper-y pages, kind of like monthly magazines, the sort where you need to buy them all to have a complete collection. This set spanned from April 1896 to June 1897. I don’t know whether then decided they had enough music or just lost interest in buying them. But they were beautiful. Really old and worn now, stained by age, but still intact. Honestly, I don’t know if they were in good enough condition for us to sell them. I’m always surprised by how many really old books aren’t really worth anything, at least monetarily. But it was amazing to sort through these and know that 120 years ago, someone was going out every month and buying them new, then taking them home and practicing them on their own piano. These weren’t just antiques. They were magazines, something someone specifically bought every single month for at least a year. Part of someone’s long-gone life in 1896.

I’d like to think they made that person happy. Or the person just kept buying them out of the hope that they’d motivate them to learn piano, and never actually did. If it was me, it’d probably be that second one. And I hope that, wherever they end up, they bring someone as much joy as they brought me in that back room when I discovered them, lurking in a Sainsbury’s plastic bag underneath a pile of other books.

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