Booktalk: Interview with Melissa Jensen

Toymaker cover

This week I have an interview with Melissa Jensen, author of The Toymaker, a middle-grade fantasy novel. Take it away, Melissa!

So first of all, tell us about The Toymaker. What’s it about?

The Toymaker is the story of Ashima, a ten year old girl bound and determined to find her parents. And the man who helps her, Ren, who has an amazing ability in which he can bring inanimate objects to life.

Ashima’s world has nearly modern technology — cars, electricity — but it also has magic (of a sort) and fantastic creatures like goblins and intelligent wild beasts. What made you decide to do something a little different than a typical fantasy world? What are your favorite aspects of the world you’ve created, or perhaps the parts you would most like to tell readers about?

One thing I love about fantasy in general is that it offers so many possibilities to explore so much. I love the challenge of coming up with ideas that at first may seem strange and ridiculous, but after some mental tinkering end up being a ton of fun to create. The Toymaker, for example, was inspired by the movie 9 and the idea of living beings made of bits and pieces of everyday objects, which I really adored. I began tinkering with the concept of living toys, as well as various myths and legends of inanimate objects brought to life (specifically the story of the golem), and from there The Toymaker eventually evolved. Continue reading

Flash Fiction – Mission Savepoint Beta

There’s a weekly flashfic challenge at Chuck Wendig’s blog. This week’s was too entertaining to resist: randomly generated high-concept mashups:

As I have noted in the past, I love that some writers describe their stories — usually in an elevator pitch or to sell the story to an agent, editor or reader — as “THIS STORY meets THAT STORY.” Right? “Oh,” the writer says, “It’s like CATCHER IN THE RYE meets SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS.” And you’re like, whoa, what the fuck does that even mean.

So I tried it and discovered that I had to write something like … Top Gun meets Super Mario Brothers.

I have to admit that my first, second, even third thought was “Help! Do-over!” but then I thought, no, I can do this! So I wrote a thing. And I even did an illustration.

mushroom forest

Mission: Savepoint Beta

When the dropship hit the atmosphere, the jolt rattled Birgit’s teeth even through the shock-gel cushioning her in the pilot’s seat of the M32. It was the only way she could guess what was happening outside the ship. They were still in upper-atmosphere communications blackout, so her screens were blank, trapping her in a tiny padded cave with nothing to keep her company but the dim red glow of the cockpit lighting, designed not to wash out the instruments’ glow.

Birgit kept a running count in her head. Four minutes from blackout to clamp release. She’d reached a hundred and twelve when another shock rattled the ship. Stratospheric turbulence, she hoped. Well, if they got blown out of the air, at least it would be over fast. And Mom would have two kids to bury rather than one — but, no. She slammed the door on that line of thinking. Kersti had earned her wings, same as the rest of them. Continue reading

Booktalk: Revision

So far, I’ve spent most of January (and a not-so-inconsiderable chunk of December) revising two novels. To my shock and amazement, by this point I’ve actually revised enough novella-length or novel-length projects that I finally have an established system for it. You have no idea how big a deal this is for me! Revision is a writing skill that I’ve only been picking up with a great deal of work and difficulty. For me, writing is … well, certainly not easy, but it’s the part that flows. The more detail-oriented stuff — outlining, revising, and so forth — is the part I struggle with.

But I’ve finally got a process for revising something large.

While I’m writing the initial draft, I keep notes about things I know I’m going to need to deal with at the revision stage. I used to do a lot of editing while I wrote, but I’ve moved away from that, mostly due to my growing tendency to change plot elements on the fly, and therefore I used to end up having to go back and fix everything prior to the chapter in which I decided to, say, make the sister into a brother, or retroactively move a murder three chapters earlier. Now I just put in a note along the lines of [will have to change X to Y in previous chapters] and move on. (All my notes are in the text itself, in brackets, like the example in the previous sentence, so I can find stray notes later with a find-replace.)

Consequently my rough drafts are a mess, strewn with continuity errors and bracket notes about things I need to go back and fix later. I also keep a running, bullet-point list of notes at the top of the document to avoid forgetting assorted things I don’t want to stop to deal with while I’m in full writing flow but will need to do eventually. This includes details I need to research, items to double-check when revising (hypothetical example: “make sure all references to the sister now refer to a brother & use male pronouns”), characterization notes (“make X’s PTSD more obvious & remember that his triggers are Y and Z”), and so forth.

(I should note that my revision process on short-story-sized projects is a less detailed/organized version of this, mostly focused on sentence- or paragraph-level edits since my smaller projects usually doesn’t need as much structural reworking.)

Anyway, I always let a rough draft sit for weeks or months after I finish it — mostly because I’m completely sick of its FACE by that point — and when I pick it back up again to revise, here’s the process I go through:

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Interview with SL Huang

I’m delighted to have SL Huang here today to talk about her new suspense/sci-fi thriller Half Life. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, Zero Sum Game, and now mercenary-turned-reluctant-hero Cas Russell and her friends are back … and back in trouble!

Half Life cover

Tell us about the new book, Half Life! What can fans of the previous book look forward to? What might be enticing for new readers?

Kittens! And robots! I promise both.

More seriously: I think prior fans will enjoy Cas’s continued, stumbling journey into trying to build relationships with people. She’s trying, but she’s still really, really bad at it.

And I’m pretty excited about the cast in this one. I’ve enjoyed expanding Cas’s circle of acquaintances to include even more people who can snark right back at her.

Where did the idea for the Russell’s Attic series come from? Did you realize in the beginning it was going to be a series, or did it grow when you started planning it out?

Being a math person, for the longest time I’ve thought being able to do math REALLY, REALLY fast would be the coolest superpower in the world. Because what COULDN’T you do?

So I’d be learning a new sport and thinking, “Man, I can do all the math here — why doesn’t that help me catch the ball!” And meanwhile, I’ve always loved superhero stories, but the worldbuilding tends to drive me nuts. What POSSIBLE science randomly allows for superpowers that violate the laws of physics? I’d always wanted to write something just a little bit closer to reality, something just on the other side of believable.

I tried probably a dozen different versions of the “math as a superpower” idea before hitting on one that worked. Incidentally, it happened while I was contemplating how fun it would be to write a fun, action-packed open-ended series and it occurred to me to mesh the two ideas. I wrote the first few scenes, and it took off from there. Continue reading

Diana Wynne Jones, growing up, and unreliable narrators

Let the Monday “Booktalk” posts commence! :D

I’ve been on a Diana Wynne Jones rereading kick lately. It started with Hexwood and proceeded to the Chrestomanci books, of which The Lives of Christopher Chant is my favorite by far, and one of my favorites of all of her books — mainly because I think the things I like most about her books are more clearly on display in this one than in many of her others.

I didn’t start reading DWJ ’til I was an adult. I expect I would have liked her books as a kid, but I think I might’ve appreciated them in a different way — more seduced by the sense of wonder, less distracted by how the plots go (or don’t go). As an adult reading her books, I sometimes find the plots very hit-or-miss, and in particular the endings frequently leave me feeling let down or simply frustrated. She has a meandering approach to plot that breaks just about all of the standard plotting rules at one point or another — important characters fail to appear until halfway through her books, critically important plot elements may be held back until the very end, Chekhov’s Gun may or may not fire, etc. It’s a style that feels much more like an oral storytelling tradition — someone telling you a story — than a lot of fiction tends to, and sometimes I really appreciate it for its lack of artificiality, but sometimes it just completely misses the boat for me.

But the thing I love most about her books, that keeps me coming back to them, is the layered-ness of the characters, and in particular the way the characters are presented to the reader. One thing that frustrates me about a lot of fiction aimed at kids is the flatness of the character presentation. Good people and bad people are evident at first glance; they wear their goodness or badness on the outside. (Good people pretty, bad people ugly….) And certainly they don’t do both good and bad things at once, so you can’t even tell how you’re supposed to feel about them …

But DWJ’s characters are complicated and surprising. Her hapless protagonists have to guess, like everyone in the real world, about who the good and bad people are: who to believe, who to trust. And often they guess wrong (frequently misjudging other characters based on superficial attributes), only to figure things out over the course of the book.

Many of her books deal with a particularly challenging aspect of growing up — the way that your perspective on other people, and yourself, tilts as you mature and begin to recognize your own humanity in other people, and become aware of the flaws in yourself.

I enjoy all of the Chrestomanci books to one degree or another — I’m currently reading The Pinhoe Egg, which doesn’t seem at all familiar, so it’s possible I’ve actually never read it before — but The Lives of Christopher Chant has always been the book in the series that stood out the most to me.

(Spoilers follow.)

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Booktalk: Write more!

I think if you distill my 2015 goals to their basic elements, the whole list (well, most of it) simply comes down to “write more”.

One of the things I wanted to work on in 2015 is promotion, but when I got to thinking about it, I think it’s really just another facet of “write more”. More blog posts, more tweets — it’s not really wanting to promote myself so much as wanting to reach out a bit more. Writing is a solitary activity, and I work from home anyway, as well as living in a rural location:

(Exhibit A)

… so I can go days without seeing another human being besides my husband, and he’s gone most of the day for work. Mainly, I just want to use this blog a bit more, and talk to people.

So, to that end, I decided to start a regular Monday feature called “Booktalk”. The topics will be all over the place as long as they’re at least tangentially related to books and/or writing: posts about what I’m writing, about books I’m reading, about the state of books generally. I also have some author interviews lined up — next week (the 12th) I’ll have an interview with SL Huang, author of the sci-fi thrillers Zero Sum Game and Half Life.

I want to avoid doing too much general navel-gazing about writing (like I’m, uh, doing right now), though I have a few of those sorts of posts lined up too. I also want to get a little less reticent about discussing my current works in progress — I’ve found that I really love it when authors talk about what they’re currently working on, but I have always struggled with that. Writing is, in general, a very private thing for me, and I start a lot of projects I don’t finish, which means a good many times when I start to talk about something in public, I end up dropping it half-written or changing it beyond recognition, making me EVEN MORE superstitiously worried about discussing projects in their infancy!

However, right now I have a number of projects at the revision stage, and I think this might be a good time to start talking about them more openly, since they’re pretty solidly established as projects (i.e. past the point of being trunked unfinished) but I still have a ways to go before they’ll be finished, and therefore still have plenty to talk about. (But see, even now I’m speaking of them in general terms and not using their actual titles — it’s SO HARD! Baby steps, baby steps …)

So yes, on Monday I’ll start making regular weekly book-related posts. 2015: WRITE MORE!

2015 Creative Goals

Here’s what I plan to do in 2015:

  • Make a writing schedule/marketing plan and stick to it
  • Write two new novels
  • Finish editing the 2 steampunk ones I wrote this year and submit to Dreamspinner Press (which has right of first refusal); self-publish if refused
  • Edit both the novels in my urban fantasy series & start making progress toward whatever I want to do with them (submit to agents if going that route; start prepping for self-publishing if that)
  • Revise my first novel — an ancient, probably unpublishable YA fantasy called Wishmaker — and put it online for free.
  • Update Kismet every week, and finish the year with a page buffer
  • Publish the Hunter’s Moon book via Kickstarter

The first item on the list sounds more formal than it is, and mostly has to do with something I’ve been struggling with for the last few years, namely organizing my time more efficiently. I’ve never successfully managed to stick to a regular writing/drawing schedule, but maybe this will be the year I’ll do it.

Alarmingly (given the scope of the above list), I have a considerably longer private list of Stuff I’m Gonna (try to) Edit/Write/Do in 2015, but I decided it’d be best to keep the public-accountability list to the highest priority items. Especially given my abysmal track record of finishing my lists. This list already amounts to “edit five novels and write two”, plus at least 52 pages of Kismet, which is huge compared to anything I’ve managed to accomplish in past years. Some years I aim pretty low; apparently this is one of those years I’m aiming high. Wish me luck?

Creative Year in Review: 2014

It’s that time of year again – my annual year-in-review and accountability post. I’ve been doing them since 2006; here’s the LJ tag and the DW tag.

First of all, here’s what I accomplished creatively in 2014:

I also signed up for Patreon (hope to do a lot more with that in 2015) and taught comics-making at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival for the second year.

Under the cut, how I did with last year’s creative goals:

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Winter Solstice 2014

For some the solstice is an important holiday (and may yours be lovely, if it is part of your faith!) but it tends to pass unremarked in the nonpagan world — unless you’re in the Arctic, where severe annual daylight changes make it impossible not to pay attention to the time of year when daylight hits its nadir and everything starts to get warm again.

Alaska is interesting in that regard because we belong to a larger culture that doesn’t have a tradition of noticing the solstices at all. The solstice, summer or winter, is not a thing in mainstream American culture. But this close to the Arctic Circle, it is definitely an important turning point in the year. Fairbanks has a summer solstice street fair and other events, and the winter one is marked by fireworks, which we went to last night.

My camera doesn’t take great night pictures, so I hedged my bets by resting it on my knee in lieu of a tripod and taking a lot of pictures (with the advantage that I could just enjoy the fireworks without worrying about framing shots). This of course resulted in a lot of fireworks that were mostly out of frame, but some of my pictures came out pretty neat!

Sunrise in Fairbanks

A week before the solstice, this is what sunrise looks like in Fairbanks … at 12:30 p.m.

And this is also as close as the sun will get to our house today. That’s actually the shadow of the hill behind our house, being cast on the hill across the valley.

The trees on top of our hill. This is a little misleading as it’s not actually the sun — it’s diffuse sunlight behind clouds. (Those are also shadowed clouds above the hill in the top picture, not a blue sky.)

Our house, which is really turning into more of a compound now that we have the shop too, all hunkered down beneath the weird wild winter sky.