Keeping Warm With Diverse Reads

If you follow me on Twitter or under my bookstagram account, then you are well-aware that diversity in books is something very close to my heart. I am, of course, learning everyday, but as a marginalized person/reader, I long to see myself represented in books. There are some who might say that books are "just stories" or that they don't see details when visualizing characters, but that's easy to say when you are the default, when you walk through the experiences of people you relate to all the time in the books you read. I'd also like to mention here that I'm not a proponent of reading a book solely for its diverse elements. All books have got to do the bare minimum of interesting me and if it can't do that, I don't care how inclusive it is. When I call for others and myself to read diversely, what I mean is good books. I'm checking for good, diverse books to read and support. There's a ton more to talk about in that vein, including book box projects and my own writing, but for now, I'm talking about two ways that I've decided to participate in the movement for diversity this year. But first, a definition:

A diverse book is one that recognizes diverse characters and experiences (ie. race, nationality, sexuality, disability, mental illness, social concerns, religious or spiritual beliefs etc.) or tackles diverse issues. Diverse books is about putting our experiences on the page, not just some of us, not just the pretty popular girl from 4th period - all of us.

Now, what I'm participating in...  

DiverseAThon is a readathon dedicated to reading diverse books. This was the second time it's being hosted and this winter, it spanned from Sunday, January 22nd until Sunday, January 29th. (Yes, that means it's over. Shh. We still gonna talk about it.) There was a group book, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but there weren't any challenges. The DiverseAThon hosts simply ask for participants to celebrate diverse books by reading them for the week. Want more information? Check out Christina-Marie's video and their twitter!

Here are the books that were on my TBR this past week and what actually happened: 

When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

I mentioned in my favorite reads on 2016 that this novel is astounding. At the beginning of the week, I was rereading it in order to write a full review (which will be coming soon). When The Moon Was Ours tells the story of Miel, the roses that grow from her wrists, the witches who want them and her Samir, the Italian-Pakistani trans boy who literally hangs the moon. And let me confirm that it was just as amazing the second time around. Since I'd already known the plot, this second read felt more like a study in writing style and craft and we writers should be so lucky to write like McLemore because holy hell, this girl can tell a story. It's almost like the genre of magical realism is made for her. All of her books. Auto-buy. From here on out. 

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

I've heard such amazing things about this novel, this duology in fact, that I'm surprised I haven't gotten to this sooner. I purchased it during a BookOutlet sale, because hello, the cover is gorgeous and the price was too good to pass up and I planned to read it eventually, yet never did. As I stared at my shelves looking at my options for the week, that gorgeous cover called to me and so, I read it. And.

WHAT EVEN IS WRONG WITH ME?!?!?! I absolutely loved it. I could not put it down, I binged it all weekend, I cursed my past self for not having read it sooner. The second book is on the way to me (hurry up!) and thinking about how I do not have it in my hands right now makes me so mad that I need to just stop talking about it. Except I won't. For you. Because I still haven't told you what it's about. When Shahrzad's best friend is sacrificed by the King who kills all of his wives at dawn, she volunteers to be his next wife and vows to end his reign before he can end her life. Then the unthinkable happens - Shahrzad survives one dawn, then another, and another. And as she gathers more information, she wonders if she can kill the boy she's learned is nothing like the King she thought she knew. That's all I got. I am but a puddle of feels and a bundle of rage stalking my front door and chasing postmen for the final book. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas  

You've heard about this one. If you are part of the book community at all, you've heard. I mean, it had a movie deal and a lead actress, Amandla Stenberg, attached to it months before publication. It isn't even out yet. I lucked up and received an ARC of it a few months ago (Thanks Harper Collins!) but I wanted to wait until it was closer to the February 2017 release date to read it. The Hate U Give, or T.H.U.G. as it is affectionately called, is the story of Starr, a black girl who is the sole witness to the murder of her black best friend at the hands of the police, and her struggle on what to say and how to say it. It's the Black Lives Matter movement personified into what is sure to be a moving book, and no doubt part of any reader's must-read list this year. I didn't actually get to it during DiverseAThon but it's next, y'all, it's next.

With diversity in books becoming a bigger part of the conversation, I'm delighted to see that people have taken it upon themselves to start initiatives. This one is pretty intense and if I'm honest, it can be a little restricting in its specificity. But it's a great place to start, especially if you don't know where to start. I have nothing planned but I would like use this little bingo sheet as a guide of sorts, not a checklist.  

Have you read any diverse reads recently? Has this post inspired you to do so (because that would be awesome!)?

Beautiful People #012017

I said it in my previous post, but it bares repeating: writing is hard, you guys. For the past month or so, it's been difficult to jump back into revisions with any sort of enthusiasm. Every time I look at the pages all I can think about is how much there is to fix and so instead I do nothing. I recently found Cait @ Paper Fury's blog (which is completely absurd since I follow her on twitter and should have found her site ages ago), and not only is her blog a book haven, but she hosts a writerly link-up that is exactly what I need right now.

Beautiful People is a monthly link-up designed for writers by Paper Fury and Further Up & Further In! It connects writers to each other (and to potential readers!) through a series of questions aimed at showcasing their work and is a tool for writers to get to know their characters and books better.   

What were your writing achievements last year?

Definitely finishing the first draft of my fantasy novel Facing Demons. I'd been working on it since NaNoWriMo 2015 and finally completed it in July 2016 at 113,000 words. 

What's on your writerly "to-do list" for 2017?

The plan is to revise and edit Facing Demons, send it off to critique partners and betas and then beginning querying by the last quarter of the year. It's a plausible goal but I'll have to work hard for it. I'm a very thorough drafter so the story is there (the plot, the characters, the general world), but in revisions, I'm really focusing on breaking open the characters and diving deep into the world. I want the experience of reading my novel to be immersive, and I've got quite a bit of hard work to do in that respect. 

I'd also like to draft this love story, tentatively called Not Otherwise Specified, that's been floating around in my head for the past 4 months or so. I have bits and pieces scratched onto scraps of paper, but nothing concrete is written yet. At the very least, I'd like to have an outline for it in 2017.  

Tell us about your top priority writing projects for this year!

As I said, revising my fantasy novel is top priority for the year. I'm so ready for someone besides me to have read this story! 

Facing Demons is the story of Niles and Cassia, sibling hires who contract for unsavory work in the kingdom of Ciceria, a African-folklore inspired fantasy world that originated from four god-like deities many centuries ago. Niles' goal has only ever been to protect his family, but the biggest threat to that might be his traitorous mind. And Cassia is embarrassed to want so much more from a life that already feels like it's been borrowed. Encrypted letters force them to defend against a secret enemy, but can they do that while keeping secrets of their own?  

How do you hope to improve as a writer? Where do you see yourself at the end of 2017?

I'd like to improve in all aspects of writing craft, but most importantly, I'd like to get a better handle on world-building. World building and setting have always been tough for me because my flowery, detailed style of writing can weigh things down so I usually end up with none or too much. Most of my revisions for Facing Demons are world-building issues and even though Not Otherwise Specified is a contemporary set in NYC, I still want the setting to pop off the page. 

Describe your general editing process.

I found author Susan Dennard's website a while back and discovered that her site is an absolute gem for writing advice. Seriously, go check her out now. I've been following her revision plan and it has made the revision/editing process 400x smoother.

On a scale of 1-10, how do you think this draft turned out?

I've been talking quite a bit of shit on this draft of mine, but honestly, it's probably a 7 or 8 as far as drafts go. From what other people have said, their drafts are usually very incomplete, with entire chapters missing or fight scenes being nothing but "add fighting here" or characters needing to be written in/out. My draft is complete in that sense. It's readable, I just don't think it's very good.   

What aspects of your draft need the most work?

I kind of answered this in the improvement question above, but I'll broaden it to say my draft needs to be deeper. I need to get deeper into my characters, my storyline, the world I've created. It all still feels very surface-level to me and I want reading my novel to feel like diving to the sea bottom.

What do you like most about your draft?

Ehhh...that it exists, maybe? As I was writing, it was getting bigger and bigger and doing it's very best to convince me that would never be done. 

I also really like the spirit of my draft and the spirit of the characters. Sometimes in the midst of editing mediocre writing, I'll find a phrase that astounds me because I don't remember writing it and it's so perfect for the character or the moment. And I'll hold on to those words like a life-raft or lighthouse in the middle of dark waters. Moments like that give me hope.

What are your plans for this novel once you finish editing? More edits? Finding beta readers? Querying? Self-publishing? Hiding it in a dark hole forever?

Dark hole sounds about right :)

I'm working from a plan that has me doing one big, in-depth revision/edit as opposed to a bunch of little ones. Hence why I've been editing this round since September 2016 and I'm only about half of the way through. So after editing (which will probably be around late-March), I'll be searching for a few more beta readers.

What's your top piece of advice for those just finished writing a first draft?

I've got 2. 

#1. Don't be afraid to walk away for a little. Take a break from your MS. I know. Once you've finally typed that final word, it's like you're high on accomplishment and can't wait to jump back in to see what you've got. But I say give it a 2 weeks to a month at least before you do. I know you're itching to read it, but those few weeks of not messing with it will really provide clarity.

#2. Do whatever the hell you want. Yeah, I know I said take a break for a few weeks, but one knows you like you. Do you.

Have you got any writing advice? I can use all the help I can get :)

Coffee Date | Volume I

Coffee Dates is a segment created by Amber @ Mr. Thomas & Me, where bloggers share what's been on their minds recently. For me, a coffee date is the outing you plan with someone you haven't seen in quite some time to catch up. This is what I'd talk about on our date. 

If we were on a coffee date, I'd ask if you're as terrified of a Trump-run America as I am. I wouldn't ask who you voted for but I'd ask if you had any faith that life will be recognizable after he takes office. I'd tell you emphatically that I'm going to miss the Obamas and wonder aloud if they could stay for just 4 more years, knowing damn well that's not the way the system works. I'd reveal that I'm on the bargaining stage of grief and that although I fully believe we will make it through, some days I wonder how.

If we were on a coffee date, I'd prove to you that reading embarrassment is real. That despite knowing it's not a competition, having only read 29 books last year makes me hang my head in shame. That even acknowledging such a low number of books makes me feel like a fraud when most other readers and reviewers have read well into the 100s. In 2016, reading was very 'touch and go' for me. A month would pass where I'd read nothing at all. Then a weekend of voracious reading left 4 read books in its wake. It's like I've become a mood reader suddenly. And if I'm being honest, Netflix binge sessions have probably had an impact as well.  

If we were on a coffee date, I'd take you to get coffee from my new favorite, The Donut Shop. I'd complain about people who spelled doughnut 'donut' and then I'd get over it and tell you about how I stopped in randomly after salivating over the display window and I can't believe I've lived near it for six years without walking in. As we walked over, I'd paint a picture for you of the sweet smell of a bakery combined with the homey feeling of a diner and topped with the best coffee I've had in a while. The brew is so strong and rich that sometimes I can get away with adding only 2 sugars instead of 3, which I know is gonna kill me but hush, this is my story.

If we were on a coffee date, I'd share that writing a book is weird, because when I finished drafting my fantasy novel, Facing Demons, back in July I was over the moon with how amazing it was. I didn't differentiate whether it was the experience or the manuscript itself that was the amazing part. It just was. Yet in the months since, having reread and revised the story, my attitude fluctuates so quickly between "this will be a bestseller!" and "wtf was I thinking?" that it could give you whiplash. 

If we were on a coffee date, I'd complain about my sofa. I'd pull a handful of leather out of my purse because the shedding pieces of the sofa seriously stick to everything. Then I'd tell you about all of the strange places I've found leather scraps in my apartment and you won't believe me because "how in the hell could you get leather there?" And then we'd laugh about how dirty the conversation sounded and I'd only regain my composure long enough to ask if you know of a place to get an affordable sofa that doesn't insist on coming everywhere with me.  

If we were on a coffee date, I'd confide that I'm uncomfortable with my life some days and that seeing everyone else move on with their lives hurts sometimes. How I know I am genuinely happy for them, but find it strange to look at them and think "weren't you just here with me?" I'd tell you secrets of how I felt so lost after graduation, and how that loss mutated into loneliness, and how all of that combined to create so much distance that I'm not sure how to reach out anymore. How sometimes thinking about how my life use to be makes me sad, and I'm not sure if that's because I want to go back or if it's because I wish I'd taken it with me. 

If we were on a coffee date, I'd tell you that Buffy The Vampire Slayer might be made of the stuff my soul is made of and despite feeling a little silly about how dramatic that sounds, it's kind of true. I'd ask if you'd ever seen the show and then I'd fill our time together with either convincing you to check it out or reminiscing. I'd ask if you were Team Bangel or Team Spuffy and then give you the run down of why my ship is the best ship. Then I'd try to convince you to come back to my apartment and watch an episode or four with me because I'm currently on Season 5 of my rewatch and watching Buffy together is always better.  

If we were on a coffee date, I'd remind you that it's never too late. It's never too late to start something new or end something that isn't working. It's never too late to make new friends or end old relationships. Each day gives us the opportunity to make changes to the life we live. I'd insist that, although I have to remind myself constantly as well, you aren't nearly as old as you think you are. That life can always be better and you can always make it so.  

Best Books of 2016

This year was probably one of my worst reading years yet. I pledged 50 books at the start of 2016, which honestly isn't a lot, and at the moment of writing this, I'm sitting at a measly 25 with barely two weeks left of December. Baring a miracle of monstrous proportions, I've failed. But that doesn't mean I haven't read some good books this year because I really have.

Reading was strange for me this year. It's as though the middle ground simply didn't exist. Everything I read was either "yaaasss girl" or "is it over yet?". As much as I prefer not to read on polar opposites of the quality spectrum, it does make it far easier to make a "best" list.

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Read: March 2016

Earlier this year, I was shocked that I'd read a non-fiction and even more shocked to have loved it. The book was well-written, well-structured and easy to binge-read all the way through. Objectively, it was a good book. Subjectively, it was a great one. I read it at the perfect time in my life, a time when I felt like saying 'no' was weighing me down in a way that made me feel less alive. Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes' documentation of the year when she finally started saying yes to her life, inspired me to live better, fuller. It's a struggle but it's worth it and I completely intend to institute a year of yes of my own soon. To read more of my thoughts, see my review here

Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare

Read: March 2016

It's pretty much guaranteed that I'll love a Cassie book. There are quite a few reasons for that but one of the biggest ones is that when I dive into one of her books I know I'm in for a good time. There's bound to be laughter and sass and bad-assery abound and I look forward to that. But Lady Midnight surpassed that expectation. Because the truth is, Cassie did one thing here that I personally always found kind of lacking in her other novels, despite loving them too: she created characters with flaws. In this story about Emma Carstairs, the fiery seventeen year old Shadowhunter searching to avenge her parent's deaths, Cassie capitalizes on the fact that the readers know her world and that all of her characters are part of the Shadowhunter World, and she dives head first into exploring the complexity of her characters. Emma is hotheaded and frustratingly impulsive, Julian is jealous and scarily dishonest. And the others are all plagued by their struggles that somehow seem so much more real than our beloved TMI/TID fam. 

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Read June 2016

The third installment of The Raven Boys books just barely edges out the other three as my favorite of the year. The series follows Blue, an eccentric girl who's quirkiness is capped by her role as a 'battery pack' of sorts for her family of psychics, and the raven boys she meets who drag her along on a quest to find a sleeping Welsh king. And this book just seems to 'up the ante', heighten the stakes. To be honest, I can't remember exactly why I loved this one more than the others, as I inhaled these books so quickly they kind of blur in my mind. But I distinctly remember my feels spinning off into another dimension with all the ships (friendships and romantic ships alike), and falling so much more in love with the characters including the ensemble we hadn't seen much of in previous books. Most of all, I remember getting to the end and thinking "I need the next book but I really wanna come back and reread this one." 

Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Read: August 2016

This book was sneaky. You'd think it impossible for a 700-page book but it manages to creep up on you in such a strange matter that you don't even realize you love it until you're drowning in the deep and dangerous waters of obsession. When I began reading Final Empire, the story of a gifted crew looking to overthrow the cruel and unbeatable Lord Ruler, I thought it was interesting. It moved along well enough, had an interesting enough plot, developed enough characters. It had been hyped to all infinity and it was...enough that I understood where the hype could potentially come from despite my personal feelings. But then, somewhere around 100 pages, I felt a tether begin to pull taut and suddenly my heart was in it. Then my heart was in my throat. Then it was on the floor, flopping around like a fish because I just couldn't handle all the things and my precious babies, please survive this crazy insane thing you've decided to do and oh gosh! See? Creeping up on you.   

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

Read: September 2016

I loved this book. It touched a part of my soul that felt lost to a world that tells me to simply "get over it" or accept it for what it is. In The Female of the Species, McGinnis gives us an insanely and shockingly clear image of our world, the things we allow to exist and be said in it, the rape culture that permeates like an undercurrent and sweeps us away before we've got a chance to react. She takes normal, everyday occurrences and weaves them into the story in ways that highlight how messed up they are through the lens of a teenage girl. Alex's sister was raped and murdered a year ago and got away with it. Alex killed him. That's the first chapter. What happens after that is a world-wind of feels and frustrations, friendships and (in some moments) fun. My first review of 2017 will be for this book, so for now, just know - LOVE. If I had to chose a favorite of the year, this would be it.

When The Moon Was Ours by Anne-Marie McLemore

Read: November 2016 

Moved. I am completely and utterly moved by this book. McLemore weaves character and culture into her story in such a seamlessly beautiful way that I barely realize I'm falling in love with the book until I set it down. She tells the story of Miel, the roses that grow from her wrists, the witches who want them and the her Samir, the Italian-Pakistani trans boy who literally hangs the moon. From the very first chapter, my heart felt like it was leaping out of my chest. A thread of magic and wonder manages to string its way through the book despite the darker tones of the novel, and the writing is magic in and of itself. McLemore writes in a way that makes me feel like I've stumbled down the rabbit hole and for this book, I'd gladly fall. 

So there it is. My six favorite books of 2016. There were quite a few others that I enjoyed, but these six are the ones I find myself thinking about from time to time when I'm not trying to think about them. 

What were your favorite books of 2016?