Mundane Magic

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There are plenty of things in the world that strike me as inherently magical—things that possess some kind of strange, surreal quality that may be obvious only to me. Keeping track of these things, even in the back of my mind, is good fodder for short stories or interesting details in scene, even some quick inspiration if I’m stuck. It’s nice to keep a little log of things that seem otherworldly. Here are a few of mine:

  • Kudzu that covers everything in sight, turning the landscape into a green, lumpy monster.
  • Those cats that look like goblins. They’re smarter than they appear, I just know it.
  • Small houses amid rolling green hills. Perhaps that’s my Irish ancestry rearing its head.
  • Strangely shaped rocks in the woods.
  • Crows and ravens: I know this one is cliché now, but it got that way for a reason. There’s a gang of four crows that lives in my neighborhood and I swear that they run the place.
  • Very shaggy cows, e.g. highland cattle. There’s something regal about a shaggy cow, and that’s just not how you expect a cow to look.
  • Mushroom circles. Botanically speaking, mushroom mycelia just grow in that circular pattern and sprout up at intervals; there’s no fairies involved. Knowing that doesn’t mean I’ll step in them, though.

If anyone has anything like this–common things that evoke a sense of the magical or uncanny–feel free to mention them.

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Writing Fear

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Fear. Pounding heart, searing breath. Vision blurred, chest tight, trembling, shaking, a buzzing head. Short, staccato sentences. Tight language.  Maximum impact word choice.

When you write fear you have to amp up the emotion. The best I’ve ever seen it done is in Kathy Reich’s Virals series, the only time I can remember reading a book that got my heart pounding and my body panic-electrified for real. It’s more than describing a character’s physical reactions, it’s making the reader feel the same terror that your protag does. It’s a moment where the reader will either be drawn further into the story or experience a disconnect from the emotion, withdrawing slightly from the narrative.

Here is a post by a great blog that touches on the more physical symptoms of fear a character might experience. It’s not something that I’ve seen talked about a lot, but it’s an important part of writing an effective scene. I’m still working on writing fear effectively. If anyone has any further resources, feel free to share.

 

My Writerly Agenda

Right now, approximately 500,000 people are at the Women’s March on Washington, standing in solidarity, with pink hats and exceptional art. Yesterday afternoon, 10,000 people turned out to the inauguration.

Today I was supposed to be at the march in Asheville, NC, making my voice heard as well. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am not there. So my voice is going into this post, in solidarity with wonderful, loud women across the country.

I undeniably have an writing Agenda, capital A. It’s always there, percolating in the background: to write diversely, to write realistically, to present to the world kickass characters who are diverse. The characters and who they are grow organically from the swamp of literature and discourse I have absorbed over the years.

In the Book of the Dead, I attempt to realistically present diversity–but not just diverse labels slapped on characters. Diverse themes. Diverse narratives.

I juggle a multitude of beliefs in this story. Ancient Egyptian and Greek, Mesopotamian, Hindu, Christian, Akan, Islamic. Too many to list in a brief blog post. And before I began writing, I sat myself down and looked myself in the eye and said: “They must all be equal.” It’s not a book about religion, it’s a book about belief, and friendship, and sacrifice. And each world I wrote about was just as complex, required just as much research and nuanced characterization.

My protags—two young women—explore their identities throughout the story. Both of them, one four thousand years old and one eighteen, are searching for who they are. One wants acceptance, one wants to find her roots. In an underworld of endless possibility, they forge towards their goals together.

My Writerly Agenda is diabolical. Girls discovering themselves in an infinitely complex world where all belief is equal, where they may struggle against monsters and maniacs but never against invalidity.

That’s what I hope to see reflected in the world. And today, thousands and thousands of people are fighting for this cause, among many others.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

 

In my novel The Book of the Dead, most of the characters are dead. All the action happens in the underworld.

Nebtu, a boatwoman, was murdered in the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt and had to fight her way through the Duat-the Egyptian underworld-to reach her afterlife.

The above video is from a TED talk describing, very accurately and prettily, the journey of a dead person’s soul through the Duat. They face monsters and gods with their own copy of the Book of the Dead, full of spells to help them out. (If I had this clip while I was first piecing together Nebtu’s journey, I could have saved myself a LOT of time.)

Nebtu’s tale follows this account fairly well, but there are a few deviations. First of all, she was not buried with her own book-in the Middle Kingdom only the wealthy and important were privileged enough to own a copy. But through her occupation as a scribe copying out the Book for others, Nebtu memorized the necessary spells. (She’s pretty crafty.)

Secondly, for narrative purposes, the main opponents she faces in the Duat are underworld-dwelling gods, not just monsters. Wepawet (wolfy god of war), Nehebkau (double-headed snake god), and Nephthys (goddess of the dead) all make appearances on a sliding scale of malevolence.

The judging and heart-weighing ceremony was one of my favorites to write, as that’s where one of my favorite characters/gods-Thoth-makes his debut. And the visceral experience of Nebtu’s heart being removed and weighed against the feather of Ma’at was weirdly satisfying to write.

And of course, if Nebtu had stayed to tend her plot of land for all eternity, there would be no further story for her. Instead of staying in Aaru, the reed fields ruled by Osiris, she sets off to make herself useful to the gods and understand the greater nature of the underworld.

Three thousand years later, our story begins.

Writing Prompt Struggles

Every Saturday in a small building perfect for authors (read: cozy couches, stocked with tea, and next to a cookie store), I co-host a writing group. Mostly it’s free writing with company, but for the first 20 minutes we snag a writing prompt off a reddit thread and try to beat the clock. Sharing afterwards is the scariest part, and most of us chicken out of actually reading our piece aloud.

Before inheriting the group, I’d never actually done any kind timed writing prompt (AP exams don’t count). Suffice to say, this practice changed me as a writer. I discovered a deep, abiding love of prompts. The high of quick, nonstop writing, the freedom of inventing characters and plot on the fly–all slightly addicting.

But it took me a while to get into the swing of the short prompt and stop writing the beginnings of lengthy plots. (My writing career bypassed short stories entirely and dove straight into novellas and novels.) Figuring out how to tell something briefly and concisely was–and is–a challenge, but one I am getting much better at.

Of course, the lure of the extended adventure still pulls my prompts off course more often than not, but I’ve managed to trim a few of them into satisfactory self-contained stories.

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Pictured above: my good intention to write a short story (left) vs. my deep-seated urge to start a new novel (right)

Query Shark Adventures

 

Over the last week I have been gorging myself on the Query Shark archives, hoping to assimilate enough information that I will become a well-tuned query-writing machine. For anyone unfamiliar with the glorious shark, it’s a blog wherein writers submit their queries and have them torn to shreds by the agent behind the curtain, who then posts the original query + subsequent revisions, with critique and commentary.

I’ve reached the 2012 archives in my search for the elusive query format outline that the agent (Janet Reid) insists has been posted multiple times within the bowels of the archives. Every day my doubt grows that it even exists, but still I forge on.

In the meantime, I’ve read a seemingly infinite number of critiqued/torn-apart queries, so below are some of the highlights I’ve gleamed from them.

  • Don’t use generalizations or be unspecific: you’re not querying a trope, you’re querying your inimitable story.
  • Don’t include irrelevant details: no one needs to know what the weather was like the day New York was overtaken by giant beetles.
  • Plain, simple writing is both the best and the hardest part of writing a query (but thankfully not blog posts).
  • Cut the back story/setup and jump right into the important parts of the novel
  • Don’t give away the ending!
  • NO TYPOS. In a 250 word query, there is no room for writing nda instead of and. Forgiveness is unobtainable, rejection imminent.

The query advice out there is literally endless, but these are some highlights I’m trying to keep in mind as I wander down this road.

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The query shark (pictured above) is attracted not to blood, but to clunky sentences and incorrect formatting.

2017 To-Read List

Much like the universe, my to-read list is infinite and ever-expanding. I have four libraries covered between home and school, but sometimes I still can’t get my mitts on every book I want to read. But below are the books I absolutely MUST read this year, come hell or high water.

  1. When the Moon Was Ours by Anna Marie McLemore

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This book looks beautiful and hauntingly magical, and I have been looking forward to reading it since before its release. My deeper agenda, however, is research for my current project (World Tree), because The Most Important Thing to do when writing diverse characters is to read books by diverse authors.

  1. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

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A classic I was never forced to read in school, and so I take the responsibility on myself. The truth is, Treasure Planet is one of my favorite movies in the world, so I feel like I should read the book it’s based on.

  1. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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This one is just for fun, people. One of those books that’s always been on my periphery, I’ve known about it’s existence, but I’ve never seen it in person.

  1. The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli

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A young boy with nowhere to go finds shelter in the abandoned head of a saint statue-and begins giving advice to the people he overhears pray to the saint. I have been trying to get my hands on this book for a year. This is the year I will make it happen. Mark my words.

  1. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

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I heard Adam Silvera speak at Yallfest 2016 a few months ago and he was funny and made me want to read his books. This one comes out this month, so I’ll be looking out for it. It looks sad and hopeful, and I’ll probably be blogging about it, and all these others.

I’ll stop myself at five, but don’t get me wrong, I try to average a book a week. Mostly by browsing my library shelves and picking out the ones with pretty covers and shiny blurbs. I’ll review these ones as I finish them.

Happy reading!