Starting Something New

Well, a new year has arrived. A chance to start over, to make new plans, to begin something new. For me, that means starting a new writing project–although admittedly the timing has less to do with the arrival of 2016 and more to do with the submission of my doctoral comprehensive exam. Nevertheless, I am ready to get out of the editing and querying doldrums that have been occupying my time for the past several months and make some substantive progress on my next novel.

It’s going to happen any day now.

No really, guys–I got this.

*wrings hands nervously*

*frantically averts gaze*

*sighs exasperatedly*

Ok, so I’m having a hard time starting something new. I mean, a really hard time. Like, there is no good reason why it’s taking me so long to get back into first draft writing mode. I have been craving this opportunity for months, and I have at least half a dozen solid novel ideas spewing about in my brain. But here’s what my progress has looked like so far:

  • Surveyed writing buddies and had them vote on which idea I should write next. Wrote first chapter of selected idea. Decided I’m not ready to write the rest and haven’t gone back to it since.
  • Wrote chapter one for a different novel idea. Re-read chapter one and hated it, so I wrote a new version of chapter one. Realized I needed to completely change the backstory of the main character, so I wrote a third version of chapter one. Then brainstormed with my critique group and learned I needed to dramatically alter my world-building strategy, which will mean re-writing chapter one yet again.
  • Wrote the first scene of the sequel to a third novel idea. The sequel. I haven’t even written a sentence of the first novel, but for some odd reason I felt inspired to write the beginning of the second. And it was really good, and it was so easy to write, and then I realized that none of that mattered at all since I had done nothing at all on the first novel.

So what’s going on, here? What’s my deal?

I have a couple of theories.

First, I think I’m intimidated by the process ahead. When I wrote my first novel–the one I just spent all that time editing and querying–I had no idea what I was getting into. I couldn’t have imagined that it would take me an entire year to write, and two years more to revise. And I had no idea the challenges that lay ahead in terms of searching for an agent and trying to wriggle my way into the publishing world. I did learn a lot of valuable lessons throughout that process–like the importance of having a critique group and honest beta readers, and the value of looking up things like expected word counts for your genre before you write your first draft (why? why did I only think to do that after I had written more than 50,000 words above the expected range?). But when I look back over the thousands of hours of work that went into my first project, the thought of starting all of that over again is, to be quite honest, a little daunting.

I also think I’m a little worried about whether I can produce another quality novel. It’s almost as if there is some part of me that believes this was a one-time thing, and nothing I ever write again will be as great. Each time I try to write something new, my voice sounds clunky, my sentences are awkward, my characters feel flat. When I compare that to my other, polished manuscript, I feel a little defeated. It’s hard to remember that my first novel, too, had characters that underwent enormous transformations from draft one to draft seven, and contained many phrases that still sounded awful throughout several rounds of revisions. I also think I’m taking more risks with my newer projects, risks that I didn’t take with my first novel. I’m challenging myself to write from perspectives that feel more foreign and distant. I’m taking on more complex world-building. I’m holding myself to higher standards as a writer, and I think that’s important. It’s just hard to notice what difference they’re going to make right now, when I’m still staring at a crappy first draft.

I don’t know if all writers and artists struggle so much with starting something new. I don’t know if everyone feels so frustrated and terrified and overwhelmed, all at once. But I’m learning that, at least for me, starting over is one of the hardest things about writing.

I want so much to return to the joy I experienced three years ago when I discovered that I had a story inside of me that had to get out, no matter what it took. I want so badly to remember that any act of pure creation is an ongoing cycle, an in-depth process, a strange and beautiful journey. And I think I’ll get there, eventually. I’ll find my way back to the zone. I’ll get out of this rut, and hopefully won’t beat myself up too much about it along the way. In the meantime, though, it helps to be honest about this new and unexpected challenge I’m facing. It helps to get it out there in the open, to see the words scribbled across the screen.

Here’s hoping I get many more constructive words scribbled onto the screen in the months ahead…

My Tattoo

A big thing happened in my life a couple of weeks ago…I turned thirty. Thirty. T-H-I-R-T-Y.

Like I said…a pretty big deal.

To commemorate leaving my twenties, I decided to get a tattoo. By that I mean I started researching and planning for this four months prior. That meant everything from figuring out what I was going to get, to where I was going to go, to what type of ink the artist was going to use.

I’m not a spur of the moment kind of person, guys.

I’m not going to lie, it was pretty intimidating walking into the shop and telling them I wanted a tattoo. Then selecting a font and watching the artist stencil a design that was about to be imprinted onto my body for the rest of my life. But this was a rare opportunity for boldness, and I was going to go through with it, dammit. And I did.

And I freaking LOVE my tattoo.

Check it out: here’s me getting ready to get inked:

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And here is a close up of my totally awesome tattoo:

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Arise. That’s the word I wanted inscribed on my arm, carved deep into my skin. It’s taken from one of my favorite songs by the band Flyleaf, back when Lacey Sturm was the lead singer. This song has one line in particular that gets repeated, over and over again, for an entire minute: “Arise and be all that you dreamed.”

A few years ago, when the album that contains this song came out, I listened to it pretty much nonstop in my car. My job at that time was incredibly stressful, and every day it was a battle to wake up and face the many fears and worries and doubts in store. The album as a whole provided a great deal of comfort during this trying time. But on the hardest days, as I was pulling up to the parking lot, I’d skip straight to this song, turn the volume way up, and sing at the top of my lungs, “Arise and be all that you dreamed.”

Several years later, these words are still an anthem for my life. They tell me to be strong when I am anxious, courageous when I am afraid. They tell me to press on toward my goals, to reach for my dreams, no matter how crazy they are. They tell me to keep going even when I fail, to keep pulling myself out of disappointment and dismay. To have hope. To believe.

To arise.

There’s a reason too why I chose to etch these words onto my left wrist. My left hand is the non-dominant one–vulnerable, flimsy, exposed. For some reason, the veins on my left wrist stand out more than the ones on my right, spidering up through my skin like gnarly green branches. It is there, in that place of ugliness and weakness, that I wanted a reminder to arise.

It feels really good to have this new ink on my body. So good, in fact, that I’ve already started thinking about the next one I’ll get. I’m thinking, maybe, the word “Juicy” in big letters across my lower back.

Just kidding.

Or am I…

Amy Shares Embarrassing Old Writings, Part 1

Recently a friend introduced me to an amazing podcast called Mortified. It features adults reading the things they wrote as kids before a live audience. It’s incredibly funny, mostly because it reminds me of all the embarrassing things I used to say and do. Unfortunately, I didn’t write them all down in a diary like a normal kid. Instead, I did things like kept a journal full of drawings of alien species I made up. If I did write diary entries, they were written from the perspective of a fictional character in a game or a TV show that I was into at the time. For instance, for several weeks, I once kept a journal as a character from Pokemon.

No lie.

I was a weird kid, folks.

And so, inspired by Mortified, I’ve decided to look up some of my old embarrassing writings and share them on this blog. Sadly I could not locate my Pokemon journal, so you’ll have to make do with some of my other materials. Is this a shameless attempt to drive up traffic on my blog? Possibly. But it ought to be entertaining nonetheless.

Today, I’m featuring passages from the very first novel I wrote as a 15 year-old. I never finished it…I got about a third of the way through it before realizing it had no plot. Since that’s a rather essential element of a novel, I scrapped it. But today, nearly 15 years later, I pulled it back out again and re-read it. And now I’d like to share with you some of the most ridiculous lines that I found.

1. “‘Recently…I discovered a coded message addressed to a stranger that was accidentally transferred to this computer.'”

The context here is that the coded message starts the characters off on a perilous journey. It just happens to have the secret information they’ve been looking for that will save their world from an evil tyrant. And, of course, this ragtag group of kids knows exactly how to decipher it.

Hmm. That’s mighty convenient, isn’t it? I mean, that happens all the time, right?

This, apparently, is how I decided to solve the problem of circumventing an evil dictator’s mass monitoring of technological systems. Through an accidental encrypted message that just happened to be sent to the computer of kids who must have been, by all accounts, geniuses.

2. “‘We heard your cries for help and saw your desperate situation, so we came to rescue you.'”

Ah yes. Well, why wouldn’t something like that happen in a world controlled by an evil tyrant? And when it did happen, why shouldn’t the rescuer explicitly declare their own heroism?

3. “I couldn’t be sure, but through the darkness, I thought I saw a tear drip down his cheek and fall endlessly to the ground in broken despair.”

Probably best to keep to one metaphor per line. Otherwise it confuses folks…and makes for an awfully long run on sentence.

4. “All at once Chaquelo, Dak, Mason, Maneila, and Kaneya were screaming…”

First of all, let’s admire the pure awesomeness of the names I chose for my characters. I know they look like random syllables strung together, but I actually put a lot of thought into them.

Yep, I was pretty pleased with myself about those names.

Now, about my decision to list every single one of them in a single phrase rather than saying “my friends” or “the others” or something to that effect…yeah, I’ve got no explanation for that.

5. “‘It’s obvious that…friendship is what has brought you safely this far and will keep you together in the face of future dangers.'”

Hey guys…are you wondering what my book is about? Are my subtle hints too difficult for you to grasp? Do not despair. I have a solution: inserting it directly into an unrelated conversation between key characters. And that definitely won’t make it sound cheesy or trite at all.

6. “Was teamwork something that should come automatically, or did we have to work toward it? But then, wouldn’t we have to work toward it by using teamwork? I was confused.”

We all are. By these words. And whatever point I was actually trying to make here.

There are plenty of other embarrassing examples I could include…like the fact that my villain is named Asteb, which is really just the word “beast” with the letters rearranged (because NO ONE would ever figure that out on their own, right?)…and the ultra religious overtones throughout (don’t judge me too harshly, though…I was really into the Left Behind books at that time, so, you know…). But I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the things I found when I reread my first partial novel. The pacing and flow of the dialogue wasn’t half-bad, and even though I had a lot of main characters, I took time to give each of them their own personalities. And they were diverse, too: about half were female, two were Latino, one was African-American, and one had a physical disability. Even then, representation was an important part of how I wanted to define myself as an author.

As I look back on my 15 year-old writer self, I can think of a lot of things that I could have done better. But my biggest regret, in all honesty, is that I never finished the thing. It would have been hard, especially considering my huge plot holes and my lack of direction–but it would have taught me a lot about just how much work goes into writing a novel.

In any case, I’ll be sifting through my other remnants of childhood written works over the next few weeks and posting my favorites. So stay tuned, folks. It’s gonna be fun.

And if I run across that Pokemon journal, I will definitely let you know.

Books You Aren’t Reading (But Should Be)

I’ve come to realize that in all the time I’ve had this blog, I haven’t done any posts exclusively about what I’m reading. Considering “reading” is the very first word of my blog’s tagline, I figured it was about time I changed that. So I decided to put a short list together of some of my favorite books that I’ve read within the past year. Most fit into the YA genre, because that’s generally what I read, but I hope you’ll still consider them even if you’re not a fan of YA fiction. I’ve also tried to emphasize some books that perhaps you haven’t heard of…though there’s a good chance there’s one or two in here that are familiar. Either way, I’ve provided my appraisal of each, which I’m sure you’ve been desperately pining for. And so, in no particular order, I present to you Amy Board’s not-so-comprehensive list of books you aren’t reading (but probably should be).

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Control and Catalyst by Lydia Kang: I was delighted to stumble across Control when it was first released at the end of 2013, thanks to an interview with the author featured on YA Highway. I was immediately drawn in by the creative and elaborate world-building, rich characters, and its emphasis on science. When the sequel, Catalyst, came out this spring, I was pleased that it had all the same quirky, nerdy, and imaginative feel of the first book. As a student of science myself, Kang is a sort of author-heroine of mine, and I hope many others will follow in her footsteps to offer quality YA science fiction that doesn’t skimp on the “science” part.

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The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo: Although these books have in fact attracted a lot of attention and popularity in the YA world, I’m continually surprised by the number of times I recommend them to other YA fans who haven’t heard of them. So I wanted to include them here, because seriously–these books are fantastic. They are easily the best trilogy I’ve read since The Hunger Games. I was instantly drawn into Bardugo’s world of magic inspired by old Russia. Her grasp of social and political forces and the way they shape us is phenomenal, and the story she weaves together through all three books is breathtaking. Plus I don’t think I’ve both hated and loved a villain so much in any other novel I’ve read. So that’s a bonus.

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani: This was absolutely my favorite surprise book find of the year. I fell in love with this re-telling of a fairy tale, filled with creative and diverse characters and a powerful underlying social commentary on justice and inequality. Khanani is a talented and poetic writer, and I was completely shocked to learn that this was a self-published book. I’ll admit I had some preconceived notions about indie publishing based on a few not-so-great examples I’ve encountered in the past. But Thorn blew every one of those out of the water. If self-publishing can produce something as wonderful as this, then I’m all for it.

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The Diviners by Libba Bray: By far one of the creepier books I’ve read, The Diviners is a fascinating supernatural thriller set in 1920s New York City. Bray tells her story through multiple characters’ perspectives, and each sounds just as authentic as the next. In addition to the great story-telling, I was very impressed by the incredible amount of research that went into writing this book. It’s clear to me that Bray went to great lengths to make the reader feel completely drawn in to the setting and the atmosphere, and I have a great appreciation for that.

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The Paper Magician Series by Charlie Holmberg: These books were another surprise find I stumbled across and have raved about to others. I’ve found it difficult to classify them, as they contain a concoction of fantasy, historical fiction, romance, and YA/NA flavors. All in all, the characters are enjoyable, and Holmberg’s unique approach to magicians and their relationship with the materials they use to conjure magic makes for a really interesting read. I secretly keep hoping for a BBC spinoff series based on this book, just so I could spend a little more time enjoying Holmberg’s world.

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Panic by Lauren Oliver: Lauren Oliver is a pretty well-known name in YA fiction, though this appears to be one of her lesser-known works. Which is a shame, because it’s absolutely stellar. It follows a group of teenagers in a small town one summer as they compete in increasingly dangerous stunts in order to win a sizable cash prize. The plot is fast paced and the characters are stimulating. I loved the way each of their dark back stories were revealed one piece at a time throughout the novel, alternately making me love and despise the majority of them.

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Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun: I’m taking a risk here, because I haven’t actually finished this book yet. But what I’ve read so far is so good I can’t imagine it disappointing me in the end; if it does, I promise to write a follow-up apology post. Basically, the novel follows a few characters as they cope with a world falling apart due to an epidemic of insomnia. Intriguing, right? I think so too. I also love seeing a book like this rise in popularity within a genre like science fiction, which too often gets confused with stories of intergalactic travel rather than a wide spectrum of science-based narratives.

If you’ve enjoyed these books too, or if there are other hidden gems you’d like to recommend, let me know in the comments section. I’d love to hear about them!

On Endurance and Writing

I hate running. I also hate jogging. I only barely tolerate walking when it’s needed to get me from point A to point B. As a general rule, I avoid activities that require physical exertion.

There’s a reason for this.

In junior high and high school, Physical Education was by far my most dreaded subject. Five days a week, for fifty minutes of torture, I fumbled around behind my classmates in whatever sport was scheduled for the day. It didn’t matter what we were doing, I was bound to suck at it. The most awful P.E. activities, though, were the mile runs. We did them once per week, on Wednesdays.

Wednesdays were the worst.

I tried my hardest. I really did. I ran my little heart out every Wednesday morning in P.E. class. I pushed myself to keep going even when my legs screamed for me to stop. Inevitably, though, I’d arrive at the end of the run, check my time, and find that I had made very little progress, if any, from my previous mediocre run times. No improvement week after week after week.

For a perfectionist like me who excelled in every other class, this was incredibly frustrating. It seemed like a complete waste of my time. Nevermind about the health benefits of running once per week–I wanted it to be something I was good at. Something I could win at. Or at least something that I got better at over time.

One thing I’m learning about myself is that I don’t like to spend time doing something I don’t expect to be good at. I’d rather just throw my energy into the things I know I can easily achieve. And making good time on a mile run is most definitely not on that list.

I’m beginning to realize though that this tendency to only invest in things I’m good at has a lot of downsides. For one, it’s made me terrified of failure. It’s made me afraid to try things that I don’t have much knowledge about or experience with. And it’s made me realize that I lack a very important skill in reaching my long-term goals: stamina.

Lately, this has become painfully obvious in my writing. When I wrote my first novel almost three years ago, it felt like I was sprinting. I experienced the chemical rush of endorphins as I breezed through one plot point to another, somewhat giddy by the time I arrived at the finish line. And then I threw up my hands in victory, donned my little writing medal, and went on to win the writing Olympics.

Except…not.

Okay, okay…I did throw up my hands in victory and did a little dance when I finished the story. But then I started editing it. I started doing a little more research into the publishing industry and realizing what it would take to actually land a contract. I learned that my chances of succeeding–really succeeding–were abysmally low. And that sucked all the life out of the celebration.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that writing a novel isn’t a sprint. It’s a whole heckuva lot more than reaching a word count goal or finishing a certain number of chapters. It requires excruciatingly time-intensive revising, rewriting, and revising again. It involves feedback–painful at times–from outside readers. It takes more energy and creativity than you ever thought possible to take a first draft and turn it into something…well, good.

Now, almost three years after I started writing the damn thing, I’m finally (finally!) beginning to see it take shape. It almost feels ready to be shared with the outside world. But I can’t even count the number of times I thought for sure I was going to give up on it. I’d look at the task ahead, at the mountain of edits that needed to be made, and I’d think there was just no way I could ever get it done.

Ultimately, I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s been a tiresome, messy process, but I’m proud of my little story. And one of the biggest things I’ve learned throughout this process is the importance of having endurance in writing.

I wanted writing to be a 500 meter dash, but it turned out to be a marathon. I wanted it to be quick, simple, and flawless, but it ended up being a whole lot more sweaty and clumsy than I ever would have anticipated. Yet unlike those high school mile runs, it hasn’t been an exercise in futility. It’s been difficult and unpleasant, to be sure…but beautiful as well.

I’m still waiting to find out if I’m in the running for the writing Olympics. I’ll keep you posted.

What Makes a Strong Female Character?

There are two things that I devour (and I mean devour) on a regular basis: YA fiction and teen cult shows from the turn of the century.* Both feature a fair share of kick-ass women in lead character roles. As an audience, we’ve done a pretty good job of praising these women and affirming the shifting tone they’ve set for an entertainment industry that is typically dominated by male heroes. I commend that. I really do. But I also take issue with this praise, and not just because these women are overwhelmingly white, perfectly toned, and have flawless hair, skin, and other…features. I have an issue with the way we revere them, the way we describe them, even.

The way we label them as “strong.”

I’m not trying to suggest that the Katniss Everdeens and Syndey Bristows do not deserve to be considered strong female leads, because they absolutely do. And I love these characters; I one hundred percent adore them. I admire them. At times I wish I could be just like them.

And therein lies the problem. Because if that’s what being a strong female looks like…then I’m totally missing the mark.

Sometimes it seems as though a female lead character can only be one of two things: a damsel in distress or a warrior who fights like one of the boys. These two archetypes are forever polarized, perpetually at odds with one another. And they don’t reflect the typical female experience at all. Neither one of them do.

It’s disappointing to me that in our increasingly creative and innovative society we struggle to imagine a female character that exists (un)comfortably between these two extremes. When we do, we often relegate her to the role of sidekick. Some of my favorite female characters–the smart and sassy Mac, the upbeat and capable Kaylee, the clever, loyal, and adorably awkward Willow–are given a backseat to their tough-as-nails female counterparts. And while I love Veronica and Zoe and Buffy just as much as the next person, they aren’t the women I can relate to. They aren’t the ones that I see my own failures and triumphs reflected in. They are strong–yes, by all means they are strong female characters. But so is Mac, even though she is shy; and Kaylee, even though she is bubbly; and Willow, even though she is nerdy.

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These are my strong female characters. These are the ones I celebrate and praise.

I believe that we will soon see more Macs and Willows being given their own status as female leads. And I believe that they, in turn, will help redefine and reshape what we think of as a “strong” female character. I’ve been encouraged by the new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, in which the lead character restarts her life in New York City after spending fifteen years trapped in an underground cult. The show’s creators could have gone so many different directions in the way that they portrayed someone who has endured such a horrendous experience. They want us to see their female lead as strong–that much is evident just in the title and theme song (“females are strong as hell”). But Kimmie’s strength is so different from the typical kick-ass character they could have depicted. She is sweet and optimistic and sincere. She is determined and refuses to give up, even in the face of remarkable obstacles. She is positive and cheerful and incredibly resilient in the aftermath of her trauma.

That, to me, is strong.

That, to me, is kick-ass.

That’s what I want to see more of in YA fiction and in my favorite shows and movies. That’s what I want to portray in my own fiction writing: women who are relatable, women who are complex, women who are real.

Women who are strong–in every sense of the word.

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*To be fair, there are way more than two things that I devour on a regular basis. Others include popcorn, cupcakes, dark chocolate, and news stories about weird scientific discoveries. But why are you bothering about those when you could be reading the rest of my really fantastic blog post?

Editing the Manuscript: A Ballad

Of all the relationships I’m involved in, the one I have with my manuscript is definitely the most complicated.

If I’d known it would be like this when I started, I might never have gotten involved with it. Because now that it’s pulled me in, it’s sucking the life out of me. It’s got me all emotional one minute and completely exhausted the next. It’s an abusive relationship, in a way — violent, even. I fight it, kicking and screaming.

And it fights back.

This is what it’s like to edit a manuscript that is stubborn, obstinate, and unwilling to change. Some of you know a whole lot more about it than I do. But for those who are less familiar, I’m going to try to explain it the best way I know how: in the form of a ballad. A love song.

Or maybe it’s a hate song.

I’ll let you decide.

Once, you were young, as gentle as a thought, as tender as a dream.

I was taken with you then, enraptured by your beauty, enthralled by possibility

And the hope of what you could become.

The hope of what I could become, too,

If I gave myself to you.

And so I did. I gave you my hours, my days, my weeks, my years.

You took them from me eagerly.

You took them from me greedily.

But I didn’t mind. I gave to you freely, invested in you wholly.

When I wrote my words across your blank pages,

I gave you my heart. I offered you my secrets.

traded them to discover your delicate lines and developing shape,

To clothe you in syntax and adorn you with imagery.

And when I finished, I looked you over, 

I held you in my hands, and I realized then

That you were not what I thought you’d be.

I saw the flaws in your seemingly perfect form,

Heard the awful grate of your inconsistent plot points,

Felt the sting of your awkward dialogue.

No.

You were not nearly as beautiful as you’d led me to believe.

Betrayal! I thought.

I wanted to cut you open right then,

To slice right through your split infinitives and double negatives,

Let you slowly bleed to death one run on sentence at a time.

But because I cared for you, I was patient, I was kind.

I rubbed my fingers raw caressing your rough phrases

And smoothing out your repetitive expressions.

My imagination ran dry rescuing your story line

And reconstructing the characters you failed to develop.

But after all that I’ve devoted to you,

What have I to show for it?

What have I gained, besides a stronger claim on obsession,

A closer glimpse of insanity?

Yet I am an addict. I cannot stay away from you.

I will keep coming back.

I will always return to you. I will keep trying to save you.

It’s not you that I love.

It’s the idea of you.

But maybe…maybe that is enough. 

Maybe, one day, that will be enough.