So it’s been a while…

 

Hey everyone. First off, I just wanna thank ya’ll for sticking with me this year. I know I kinda fell off for a while, and by while I mean several months. Second, this isn’t going to be so much of a writing post as it’s more of an explanation and apology for my disappearance this year. I wish that I had good news to share, that my absence was related to some awesome thing, but in truth, my mental health just took a huge dump at the beginning of the year and it’s only been recently that I’ve been able to pick myself even slightly off the ground in order to “feel” like myself.

For those of you who have been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms since my deployment to Iraq as a Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Army in 2011. The symptoms would come and go and shift and change, but for the most part, they were bearable.

Then 2016 happened and multiple things hit me in succession. My dog got poisoned by mothballs (she’s fine, no worries), a couple important relationships in my life rapidly and completely deteriorated, multiple PSTD triggers were hit, then I needed to find a new living situation (because of one of said relationship failings). So I moved back to Iowa at the end of January and attempted to pick up the pieces. Started weekly therapy sessions at the VA, started taking medication, and attempted to find a new job.

The longer trying to get a job took, the harder it was to sustain what little self-respect I had, which didn’t exactly help on the depression and anxiety end of things. Neither did the lack of compassion from certain people who just didn’t understand PTSD or didn’t want to understand it.

And of course, the worse my self-esteem became, the harder it was to face the things I loved or what I thought “defined” me. Writing was one of those things. Being a writer was everything I wanted since I was an itty-bit and because everything else that was important to me had failed, it seemed easier to put writing and everything attached to it inside a safe little lockbox in the back of my mind.

So I avoided it. All of it. The Manuscripts. Friends. Family. Twitter. The Blog. Critique Partners. TBR Books. Everything.

Next thing I knew, it was May and I didn’t recognize myself.

Now we’re at the tail end of August and I’ve lost most of 2016 to crappy mental health. Oy vey. The goals I’d set at the beginning of the year are near impossible to achieve. But I’m trying. It’s a daily struggle, but I finally have enough of a grasp on things that I can [somewhat] see a pale little light at the end of this very long, dark, narrow tunnel.

I’m happy to say that I am back to writing, more or less. Wrote a chapter last week that needs a crap ton of editing before it’s even remotely readable. But hey, one word at a time, right? And I’m reading again! Which is huge. Getting back to blogging three times a week is going to take some time, and I have no idea what these new posts are going to look like because I have a lot of catching up to do with the industry, not to mention my own work. But I have to [re]start somewhere, right?

Thanks again for sticking with me! It means more than I could even begin to say!

– Bree

Just Use Said: A Writerly Discussion on Dialogue Tags

There are a lot of articles and blog posts on this subject, but I wanted to open a discussion here.

Before I joined a writer’s critique group, my writing was far from publishable. I had adverbs everywhere, along with a lot of ‘said’ synonyms. The more my work was reviewed, the more I realized I had a lot to learn in the writing department.

Like the use of adverbs, I realized that when I began avoiding said-synonyms, I was forced to strengthen the narrative and clarify the action.

I’m not sure about you and your writing, but when I was using said-synonyms, it was as a means to avoid excessive use of ‘said.’ BUT the glorious thing about changing all those tags back to ‘said’ is that you begin to see all the holes in the narrative, giving you the opportunity to strengthen the prose and clarify tone.

Here’s an example:

“And what about you?” I whimpered.

Or.

A shudder rippled through my chest, spilling tears onto my cheeks. I pulled my sleeve over my knuckles and wiped them away. “And what about you?”

The first one is fine, sure. But the second gives a sense of what’s going on outside of the dialogue. As a reader, I start a book for the concept, but stay for the characters. When you take the time to reveal those subtle character traits, like how they interpret what they’re feeling or how they respond to what they’re feeling, the reader is able to get a clearer picture of the character, leading to a better connection between your writing and the reader.

Substituting action for dialogue tags also provides a more cinematic reading experience. Going back to the example, whimpered describes how it is said, but when you add in the details of the character wiping away the tears with her sleeve, you get to see what the character is doing. Again, this gives the reader more insight into the character, making the reader more sympathetic to the character’s cause/goals.

Of course, these are just my thoughts and preferences as a reader and writer. I believe that writing, like most arts, is incredibly subjective, so if you have additional thoughts, please share them in the comments section below.

 

 

Beautiful People

Beautiful People Link-up: Resolutions & Goals

During Oct-Nov-Dec last year, I participated in the link-up Beautiful Books, created by by Sky of Further Up, Further In and Cait of Paper Fury. The rest of the year, they host the meme Beautiful People, which consists of ten questions about writing and works-in-progress.

This month, the meme is focusing on resolutions and goals.

1. What were your writing achievements last year?
I had the first book, GUARDED, in my series beta-read, then rewrote the manuscript based on the feedback. I also won NaNoWriMo2015 with 65k toward book 3.

2. Tell us about your top priority writing project for this year?
My top priority this year is querying GUARDED. Right now that means adding new chapters from a second POV, revising said chapters, revising the whole MS for continuity, then doing a couple rounds of polishing. I’m not intimidated at all…

3. List 5 areas you’d like to work the hardest to improve this year.
No. 1 – Improve my copyediting skills. I’m currently taking a course through Writers Digest, so I’m on my way with that one.

No. 2 – Expand on skills developed in 2015. I spent a lot of last year learning how to write a fuller narrative. It still feels a little foreign at times, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to set those skills more firmly this year.

No. 3 – Improve world-building capabilities. I feel like I’m always battling the info dump or not providing enough details in my settings. Here’s to hoping I find the right balance.

No. 4 – Keep my mind open to new, creative possibilities. This might seem weird, but sometimes I get so focused on where I think the story should go that my mind closes off to all the awesome things my characters/world are capable of. [And now it’s time to sound like a nutter.] They’ve spoken to me a lot this past year, revealing things I didn’t even know existed inside my own fictional universe. I know there are plenty more secrets to discover, so I hope I’m open enough to listen.

No. 5 – Stop letting my PTSD get in the way. Though I’ve made some progress, I still have a ways to go. I have this stupid thing that happens whenever a trigger gets hit: I give up. Well, to me it feels like I give up. In reality, it’s more that I’ve fallen into a deep, dark well, and I have to claw my way up the slimy, slippery stone walls to get back to working order. Depending on which trigger is hit or the condition of my support system, it can take hours or days or even weeks.

4. Are you participating in any writing challenges?
I try to participate in the monthly twitter writing challenge where you’re to write at least 500 words a day. To learn more about the challenge or to participate yourself, visit writingchallenge.org.

And of course I’ll be participating in NaNoWriMo2016! I’m a big advocate for the vomit draft, so NaNo is right up my alley. I’ll be drafting book 4 of my YA Fantasy series this year.

5. What’s your critique partner/beta reader situation like and do you have plans to expand this year?
Right now, I have a couple brilliant writers who read my stuff when it becomes available. I’m not sure what the future brings in terms of my living/work situation. If I had my way, I would spend my days working on my books, reading/critiquing other manuscripts, or studying the industry. Hopefully one day I’ll get to that point. Then again… adulting…

6. Do you have plans to read any writer-related books this year? Or are there specific books you want to read for research.
I have a few books that I return to on a regular basis: The Kickass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience by Chuck Wendig, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglist, and Save The Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.

7. Pick one character you want to get to know better, and how are you going to achieve this?
Piper Saunders. She’s the protagonist for book 2 in my YA Fantasy series. Her story is the first I ever wrote from beginning to end, but due to the nature of it being written when I was fifteen and still learning how to write a novel, it lacks in a lot of areas. I’ve completed the outline for the new version, which is completely different than the original, so I’m excited to see how the story and Piper evolve.

As for how I’m going to achieve this: I’m just going to take off the reigns and see what happens.

8. Do you plan to edit or query, and what’s your plan of attack?
Yes. All the above. The query for GUARDED is already set and vetted, so now I just need to finish the revisions on the MS and kick it out into the world. I suspect there will be a lot of crossed fingers and refreshing of the emails.

9. Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  What are the books that you want to see more of, and what “holes” do you think need filling in the literary world?
Umm, this is a difficult question because there’s a lot of cross-pollination of genres out there through small press publishers or self-publishing. If you want an awesome steampunk historical thriller, pick up Odd Men Out by Matt Betts. Paranormal alternate history? Steel Victory by JL Gribble. I’m sure there are small slivers open in the literary world, but what it really come down to for me as a writer is simply writing the book I want to read. The characters and worlds I create I need to love enough to spend years with. It has more to do with me as the creator than what I feel is “missing” in the industry.

10. What do you hope to have achieved by the end of 2016?
I’m really hoping to have signed with a literary agent by year’s end… *prays it doesn’t take years to find one who loves my work like I do*

 

Ember in the Ashes

BOOK REVIEW: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes is Tahir’s debut novel in YA Fantasy. Since its publication in April 2015, it’s received so much praise that it became a NYT Bestseller and was optioned for film. And because of its success, Tahir fans have demanded a second installment. Lucky for us, her publisher agreed.

Seriously though, this was a fantastic debut that truly lived up to the hype. Throughout the read, I felt the story nod toward other bestselling YA novels like The Hunger Games and Shadow and Bone, but the heart of Tahir’s story and characters was completely unique to her.

But onto the review…

NON-SPOILERY REVIEW:

An Ember in the Ashes follows the winding stories of two characters: Laia, a slave bent on saving her brother, and Elias, a solider who desperately wants freedom from the empire. There’s friendship, love, betrayal, action, intrigue, and of course we can’t forget brutality. I’m pretty sure this book has something for everyone to enjoy. Probably why it was optioned for film.

Tahir manages to sculpt this expansive, complex world with a rich history that is routed in both blood and mythology. Because she wrote in a dual first-person POV, we get every angle of the story: the slaves, the scholars (conquered people), the Empire, and the Empire’s underlings. We even get a taste of a much bigger conflict, which due to spoilers, I’m not going to put here.

The one thing that I absolutely loved about this book was the fact that every character had a backstory, motivation, and character arc. You see the painstaking, attention-to-detail, efforts of the author from page to page that has you invested in every character from top to bottom. And even though it is a fairly large cast, every single character is important. Tahir does a fantastic job at tying in each character thread that truly makes for a phenomenal read.

My only complaint was that sometimes the writing wasn’t consistent. There were moments that were absolutely breathtaking in gorgeous imagery. Then there were moments where the emotional impact was softened because the writing wasn’t pushed hard enough. Whether it was a ‘tell’ or a ‘cliché’, there were times where I wished Tahir had just pushed a little further to really make my heart break.

Granted, this is a VERY SMALL complaint in the grand scheme of my enjoyment of this novel. If it weren’t for the fact that everything else was so beautiful and impressive, I may not have worried too much about it. But you know how it goes, once you prove you’re capable of something, people expect that same level of excellence ALL THE TIME.

Overall, I loved this book and am anxiously awaiting the sequel. I’m excited to see where this series, and its author, go from here.

NOW STOP HERE TO AVOID SPOILERS!

STAHP!

DON’T DO IT!

SPOILERY FANGIRLING:

Can we just take a second to admire the incredible world Tahir built in An Ember in the Ashes? Seriously, from the rich history of the Martials and the Scholars to the culture(s) and mythology, the world building was top notch and probably some of the best I’ve seen in a debut fantasy. The cultural struggles and strains go far beneath surface-level, and I think that’s what makes this book so special and so incredibly impressive.

I’m not sure which bit of world building was my favorite, so I’m going to cheat and say that it was the way Tahir unpackaged the world. Each page brought something knew and complicated to world. We start out with just a simple conflict: Scholars vs. Martials. Then we get Resistance and its different tensions. And Tahir pushes the world further still with the Augurs, their long game, and the Nightbringer and his history.

With the world building alone, there was no way this could be a stand alone, and I’m so glad I didn’t read this book prior to the news that the publisher had picked up the sequel. I would have cried. A lot. That ending, the mystery of what the Nightbringer has planned, the romance(s), the still-unknown long game of the Augurs. I NEED MORE! MORE!!!!

Moving on, THE CHARACTERS! I know I said this in the above section, but I really am impressed by the fact that Tahir gave every character a backstory and motivation, not just with Elias and Laia but all the secondary characters as well. We even see a little humanity in Marcus after he killed his twin. And despite the absolute CRAZY the Commandant’s got going on, we even get a glimpse into her motivations. But in the words of Sherlock Holmes, I suspect there’s a larger game afoot, specifically with her tattoo and her connection to the Nightbringer.

I did sympathize more with Elias than I did with Laia, especially in the beginning. The first third of the book was a lot of character development and story set-up, which I had a little trouble trudging through. But the moment the trials started and Laia started working at the Commandant’s house, the pace TOOK OFF! The moment the Augurs got involved, I couldn’t put the book down.

Moving onto the writing because I mentioned it above. Overall, I found the prose beautiful and lyrical. Tahir manages to capture the very essence of humanity and lay the souls of her characters bare for the reader. But there were a couple moments where I wanted more from the writing. Specifically, the scene where Helene (who I LOVE because she reminds me of Liraz from the Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy) vows her loyalty to Marcus. This is a huge, heartbreaking moment for Elias, and I just needed more. I wanted to cry, to feel the heartbreak and the abandonment, but I didn’t. The moment came and went so quickly.

The only reason I’m even able to say the above is because Tahir brought us torturous scenes that were beautiful in their brutality. The scene where the Commandant carves that ‘K’ into Laia, for example, was incredibly intense and painful.

I’m so excited for the sequel, A Torch Against The Night, to come out (slated for August 2016). This debut was sure to be the start of a phenomenal and impressive career for Sabaa Tahir.

What about you? What were your thoughts? Leave a comment below so we can discuss!

January 2016 TBR

If you’ve read my 2016 Resolutions post, you know I’m aiming to read at least 50 books this year. In order to keep myself on track, I’m setting up monthly goals and keeping myself accountable by way of the blog.

So this is the first of 12 posts mapping out what books I plan to read during the course of the month. And without further ado, here’s my January 2016 TBR.

No 1. – An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Ember in the AshesThis YA Fantasy came out last year and has gotten fantastic reviews. It was on my TBR list last year, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. And shame on me because so far, this book is wonderful. I’m a third of the way through it now, and the stakes are so high for each and every character. Laia is a slave trying to save her brother. Elias, the other POV character, is a soldier for the Empire that has tormented Laia’s people. I’m so excited to see how their stories intertwine!

No. 2 – Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
PassengerAnother YA Fantasy and a new release from the talented author who brought us The Darkest Minds trilogy. Passenger follows the high-stakes adventure of Etta, a prodigy violinist with a mysterious family legacy, and Nicholas, a man who longs to escape servitude, as they travel through time to recover a stolen object. I’m so excited for this book. 1) Because I heard Bracken steps up her writing game dramatically in this book, so I’m excited to see what she does with the prose, and 2) TIME TRAVEL.

No. 3 – Steel Victory by J.L. Gribble
Steel VictoryIn this exciting blend of apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy and alternative history, Gribble presents a unique world where the Roman Empire is still trying to expand centuries after (in our timeline) it should have collapsed. Victory, a centuries-old vampire and [retired] mercenary, and her adopted daughter and warrior-mage, Toria, have to keep their home from being taken over by the Romans. I’m also halfway through this one so far (started before the New Year), and I’ve already spoken a little of my love for this world and the characters. But the entire cast is delightful, Gribble has done a phenomenal job at creating an entire culture unique to her series. The vampires, the mages, the elves and other were-creatures. She’s really gone through and mapped out the different tensions between the species as well as the political tensions on local and international scales.

No. 4 – Cruel Crown by Victoria Aveyard
Cruel CrownThis is a bind-up of two novels that predate the events that happen in Red Queen. For those of you who haven’t read this best seller yet, it takes place in a world that divided by blood. The Silvers have special abilities and rule over the Reds. The Reds are human and don’t have abilities, and are basically pawns in the Silvers’ war. In Red Queen, we learn that Silvers aren’t the only ones with power anymore, but they’ll do anything to keep that secret from getting out. Though I did have some issues with RQ, I really enjoyed the pace and the twisty plot (and holy beautiful fight scenes), and I’m thoroughly excited for the sequel, Glass Sword, coming out next month.

AND LAST, BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST…

No. 5 – Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
TruthwitchGuys. Guys. Guys. I can’t tell you how excited I am to jump into this book. I’ve been waiting for this book for… MONTHS! Yes, definitely months. I read the first chapter in Susan’s Newsletter a while back and instantly fell in love with Iseult, a threadwitch, and Safiya, a truthwitch. They’re best friends, witches, and are on the run from people trying to get their hands on a truthwitch to use as a pawn in the struggles between the empires that rule their continent.

I’m starting off 2016 with some serious rockstar books. I don’t know how the rest of this year of reading will unfold, but I’m excited!

Happy Reading!