Weekly Musing: 2016 Reflections

I think an overwhelming majority of us can agree that 2016 was a really rough year and one many of us would like to forget. Yet I can’t and during this month of reflection, I’ve thought a lot about what this year has brought me professionally. It was certainly a mixed bag, more so than in previous years.

The Good

Published stories: This year saw four stories published. This is great and brings my total up to ten stories in the few short years I’ve been submitting work. Even better, I got paid for three of the four stories so it seems like my continuing goal of only seeking markets which pay was a good decision.

First Interview: 2016 saw my first interview ever. Published on the Charlotte Writers Group’s website, I felt honored to be approached for the feature especially when many of the other interviews featured members with published books.

First Guest Blog Post: Back in August saw the first ever guest blog post on my little piece of the internet. Author M.K. Williams approached me via the website blogtour.com and asked me if she could guest blog. It was a neat feeling being asked and it was fun working with Williams. Here’s to a long career for her!

The Not-So-Good

Publishing Prospects: While I saw four stories published, three of those stories were things I submitted last year. Unfortunately, I have a giant goose egg in my spreadsheet for stories submitted this year. Needless to say this was demoralizing as each year since 2013 has seen the number of stories accepted for publication increase by one each year. Instead it feels like I’ve take a giant step backward. Some of the rejections were simply the story not being a right fit (an error on my part for not submitting something appropriate), while other rejections had to do with the story not quite being there for them or the issue was too full.

I’m not ashamed to admit that late summer I decided it would be best for me to take a break from worrying about publication. With a book I wanted to revise, my time needed to be focused elsewhere. The blow to my ego also factored in since nothing but rejections takes a toll on one emotionally. Sometimes it’s best to just walk away from something for a little while in the hopes of coming back to it in a better frame of mind.

Other Thoughts

Looking over the goals I set for myself this year, I didn’t quite live up to some of my expectations. Some I did meet like working more on diversifying my reading. I also did revise a historical fiction novel I’ve been working on and off for years. While I’m still fumbling around with the plot, damn those historical events, I feel like I’m getting closer to being what I’ve seen as it plays out in my head. In addition to the historical fiction novel I revised, I also did another revision on a novel in a completely different field. From those experiences I learned it is best to focus entirely on one project from and take a smaller break from it before diving into the next revision.

One of the goals I abandoned pretty early on was tracking my word count and aiming to up it. I’m discovering that the more metrics I try to implement, the more it hampers my creativity. Seeing days with zeros doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Those could be days where I’m doing research or revising an outline or scribbling down a story idea or simply dealing with personal matters. They are not indicative of a lack of work ethic and I know what I’m capable of doing. So no more tracking numbers.

As this year has progressed I found myself questioning if I’m actually getting better as a writer. I’m not honestly sure. I find myself more often than not struggling with how to get the characters and their emotions just right. Looking back onto earlier pieces I think those had more energy and depth than what I’ve produced of late. Perhaps because the more I learn about the craft and the industry, the more that information clogs my mind and affects my creative process. Perhaps what I’m actually experiencing is struggling with finding my voice and style. It doesn’t help that I’ve always been hardest on myself.

Another change I hadn’t expected was questioning much of the advice circulating around about writing. Some of this has been thinking deeply about supposed “rules” which often times come down to personal preference. To me, so much of this advice is drilled into writers it feels as if a writer’s individuality is sucked out in an effort to fit in. No wonder the authors with a unique voice and style stand out from the crowd.

 

2016 was certainly a mixed bag. Next week I’ll go over my 2017 goals. I hope 2017 will be better for everyone and Happy New Year!

Weekly Musing: Unforgettable Reads of 2016

Last week I went over the books which made my list of Regrettable Reads of 2016. This week I focus on the books which stuck with me throughout the year either because they captured me emotionally or were just plain fun to read.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: A pick by my book club, this is a beautiful book revolving around The Night Circus, an ethereal, magical circus unlike any other. At the center two magicians trained under rival magicians for the purpose of competing against one another. The fathers of the two magicians have been rivals for centuries, engaged in a continuous battle to prove who the best is.

What I loved about this book were the characters from the protagonists to the supporting cast of circus performers.

I loved the circus itself since it isn’t the kind we are used to. There are the more traditional acts one finds at a circus from a fortune teller to animal tamers to acrobats, but all of it is tinged with real magic. The color scheme of The Night Circus is black and white which should have presented a hindrance to Morgenstern to make the circus vivid, but she does a wonderful job presenting unique, gorgeous visuals for the reader.

I also loved the romance which developed between the two protagonists. It is developed slowly, subtly over the years and comes across as natural and not overdone. You actually root for them to fall in love because they mutually respect each other’s gifts and realize how dangerous and pointless the rivalry set in motion by their fathers is.

The Ming Storytellers by Laura Rahme: First let me start off with a warning. This book was self-published and is riddled with typos, formatting issues, and could have used another editing pass. That being said, I’m still putting it on my Best Of list because the story, characters, and prose were that compelling.

Set in the early days of the Ming Dynasty, it’s an epic historical fiction story. We follow several characters from a trusted naval general, who happens to be eunuch, as he falls in love with one of the Emperor’s concubines to the concubine herself to an unsavory government official to a Persian merchant and a mysterious storyteller.

All the characters were intriguing and fleshed out along with each of their stories. What I loved was the stories sometimes were directly woven into other stories and other times not, however, Rahme makes sure all the stories serve the larger story of the novel.

I loved the setting descriptions and felt like I was in this time period; key to historical fiction. Again, with a little bit more editing a book which is already pretty special could have been spectacular.

Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown: I previously reviewed this book and still find myself haunted by it. Doesn’t help that I finished it the day a particularly emotion wrecking episode of “Game of Thrones” aired. I don’t recommend reading this book if you’re watching that show. You’ll be ruined for days.

A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry: Another book I previous reviewed.  I’ll simply add that what I loved most about this book is how much of a fun it is.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George: A charming book set in Paris, it follows Perdu, a bookseller whose shop is a boat. He believes books are medicine, a literary apothecary, and recommends book to people to “heal” people simply by looking at them. He lives in an apartment nearby and at first the book starts off as a possible romance with a neighbor. Like him, she is lonely, suffering from heartbreak yet wishes for love. An event causes Perdu to leave Paris in his floating bookstore and travel the Seine River to the town his long dead one and only love lived. Along the way he picks up an interesting cast of characters including a young author not dealing well with sudden success.

Though ultimately a romantic love story, it is also a love story to books and the impact they have on us. It’s also a love story to living life and taking chances.

Perdu is an empathic and compassionate soul whom the reader roots for him to be truly happy and let go of the past. The cast of supporting characters I loved for their eccentricities and varying views on life and for being at different stages of their lives.

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson: One more book I reviewed previously. I’ll only add that I’ve read the second book in the series and look forward to reading books three and four in 2017.

The Last Adventure of Dr. Yngve Hogalum by D.L. Mackenzie: A self-published Steampunk novella, The Last Adventure of Dr. Yngve Hogalum is the first in a series. It’s a breezy read revolving around the assistant to the now deceased Dr. Yngve Hogalum, Phineas Magnetron, who assembles a crazy batch of scientists to go on a daring adventure.

Like A Skelton in the Family, this book is a fun, delightful read. The characters are insane in a good way and it’s not dark like some Steampunk novels tend to be. It knows what it is and Mackenzie shows he was inspired by late Victorian era science fiction.

I’m also impressed by how well Mackenzie accomplishes so much in fifty-three pages without sacrificing any elements. I loved the writing style and look forward to reading the next two novellas in the series.

 

So there you have it. My favorite reads of 2016. While these books are all over the place in terms of genre, they all share compelling characters and wonderfully individual stories I completely immersed myself in. They represent to me the kind of writing I wish to do in that they elicit a joyous response in the reader.

Weekly Musing: Regrettable Reads of 2016

As we come to the close of another year, my thoughts turn to reflections of the year that was. The words I’ve written and books I’ve read dominate my thoughts. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll reveal my lists of best and worst books I read in 2016. Today the focus is on the worst books I read.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: A first contact sci-fi novel from China, it started off okay opening with the events of the China’s Cultural Revolution before fast forwarding to the present. A selection for the book club I’m in, I was excited to read a novel written by a non-American and the novel is well-regarded. But as the book went along and more characters and layers were added, I found myself having a lot of difficulty finishing it. If I wasn’t reading it for book club I would have honestly stopped reading it because it started putting me to sleep.

There are many reasons why I didn’t like The Three-Body Problem. The story is told view several characters’ point of view, but none of these characters are fully developed. It was as if Liu was too focused on making sure the physics and engineering worked that he didn’t have the opportunity to develop the characters. None of them change and are incredibly wooden and one-dimensional.

While the plot itself is intriguing, the way it’s executed is dull. Heavily loaded with a lot of engineering and physics, the author himself is an engineer, much of the book reads more like a textbook rather than a novel. I appreciate Liu’s attention to such details and wanting to put the science into science fiction, but it’s that failure of the fiction component which lost me. Perhaps in the book’s original language the story grabs the reader and some of the magic of was lost in translation. Or perhaps for a liberal arts major this isn’t the book for me.

Data Bank by Tonya Sharp Hyche: Since I’ve previous reviewed this book I’ll not reiterate my reasons why I disliked the book.

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: *INSERT LINKS* Another pick by my book club, this book was one of several post-apocalyptic dystopian novels we read this year. This book, along with the others we read convinced me the post-apocalyptic genre is one I cannot get into at all.

Set approximately 150 to 200 years after an illness and subsequent war wipes out most of the American population, the story primarily follows two characters named after Lewis and Clark. In fact Percy uses Lewis and Clark’s expedition to move our Lewis and Clark from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest to meet with Aaron Burr (the character’s actual name) in the hopes of reuniting the country. The Lewis and Clarke influence is seen not only in the main two character’s names, but also in a Sacajawea type character who is the catalyst for the journey.

But besides clunky puns on famous names and sorta following the famous route, The Dead Lands is as depressing as you can get. The biggest reason why I disliked this book was just how much Percy reminds the reader of how bad everything is. While his prose is strong, the constant reminders become very grating. A little goes a long way. He spends so much time on the physical setting of the world it significantly detracts from the story itself. It takes forever for the Lewis and Clark led group to get to their destination. Once they do, the last quarter of the book is a nonsensical rush job which introduces new characters and a new setting giving the impression the story we’ve been reading for several hundred pages isn’t what this world is about.

The characters, with the exception of a protégé of Lewis and a mechanical owl (don’t ask), are annoying and difficult to like. While I’m the first to admit I’m a giant pessimist, even I had a hard time believing that every single person in the book can be so jaded and hard. Nothing good or positive in this world and all the characters were too cutthroat or weak for my tastes.

The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway: Another book I reviewed this year so instead of re-posting what I’ve said, here’s the link to the review.

 

Out of the fifty plus books I read this year, having a list of four books I couldn’t stand isn’t a bad percentage. The theme I noticed looking over this list for the biggest reason why I didn’t like a book came down to the characters. Again, for me if the characters aren’t interesting then it’s difficult for me to get involved in the story. As a reader I need some kind of emotional attachment to at least one character to make the novel worthwhile.