Get spooky

Last October, I was just wrapping up my first round of novel submissions. Since then, I’ve spent every fortnight getting feedback from a talented group of writers, revising the manuscript, and preparing to come full circle for another round of submissions before Halloween.

More on the first part later, but today I want to focus on the last.

Today I want to tell you about fear.

There’s nothing that stops creativity dead in its tracks like fear. I can be as content as I’ll get with a draft, but once it comes time to share it, my anxious mind sows the seeds of doubt. My fear response talks in bold, full stops only:

Holy shit, why would you want to do that. What’s wrong with you. No. 

Sometimes it also demands weed and lying inert on the floor.

The trick is not mistaking the fear response for the voice of reason. Sometimes it keeps us from doing stupid things, makes us slow down and compose ourselves, helps us to survive. Other times, when it’s speaking from anxious impulse, it doesn’t have our best interests in mind. Rather, it keeps us from doing our best work.

Those who critique a piece of writing can be just as afraid as the writer. If they know the writer personally, it’s not an easy task to break it to the writer when the story dynamics just don’t come across.

I have a wonderful friend and beta reader who admitted they felt terrible at giving feedback, describing themselves as a “cheerleader type” critic. But there are so many flavors of critique, and while they can be informed by craft, they all come down to individual opinion.

I told my friend that not only is there absolutely nothing wrong with being a cheerleader; it is so important. Anyone who creates anything needs a support main as much as they need tough love to both improve and keep going.

There’s really no wrong way to critique, except maybe having no response at all. No response means no feeling generated, and that’s the essence of good storytelling. While I’d love to someday be a bestseller, to see my name in print, or even to have the bragging rights of a published author, those goals are self-serving.

When we do things for other people that feel performative or obligatory, or that are ultimately for our own benefit, we don’t get as much satisfaction as when we do things that others find pleasurable. Art is human connection, an evolutionary imperative vital to our existence.

The goal of writing should be to make your reader feel something. Anything. The goal of writing is not to please everyone, because you can’t. I might please a few people, and that’s enough.

However, the act of writing doesn’t live and die with reaction. That depends on familiarizing yourself with the trickster nature of the fear response, and knowing when it’s just noise.

My wonderfully supportive husband once gave me a pep talk to the effect of, “You need to believe that you’re good enough to do this, because you are. If you want to make art, you have to not be ashamed to be seen as an artist. Don’t sacrifice the importance of your goal for modesty. You didn’t work this hard for nothing. So you need to keep sharing it.”

Sharing is caring, and caring is creepy. It’s okay to put your work out there, raw and strange and fear-inducing as it may feel at first.

Because when we fear being vulnerable, we risk losing the comfort and validation of that vital human connection. When we share a piece of ourselves, we become better, bolder, and more authentic artists — and people find that energy refreshing.

Maybe then, they won’t be afraid to be themselves either.


On not writing

Up until recently, I’ve been a non-active writer. Not because of writer’s block, the dreaded phrase indicating a lack of inspiration to fuel the fire. Not because of writer’s slump, when there’s plenty of fuel but little motivation to do anything but poke around at sad coals.

Because it was a conscious decision. Because I wanted to walk away from the fire to explore the world, gather better kindling. Maybe even let my bones get a little cold, so I can better appreciate the warmth when I return.

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t that counterproductive? What happened to the age-old writing advice: “write every day”?

My argument, for your consideration: “write every day” is a misguided method. Its intentions are good, if you’re trying to stay on track to finish a first draft. But there are times when you need to get off track. There are times when you need to put the pen down and walk away.

Like a gift, this time presented itself to me somewhat serendipitously, when I was invited to join a local writing critique group shortly after finishing my manuscript. At least, it felt “finished” enough — but I needed more eyes on it that weren’t mine. I needed new, diverse perspectives to weigh in on my writing in order to achieve a more balanced, more informed perspective of my own.

Setting aside a piece so you can come back to it afresh is understandable, but I also chose not to write other original fiction during this time. I allowed myself distance from writing altogether — and I can see why some writers might shudder at the idea.

But here are some reasons why not writing, as crazy as it sounds, can actually improve your writing:

  • Every intense exercise needs a period of recovery. My husband and I love to run and lift weights, and created a schedule for our fitness goals. We’d probably hit the gym every day if we could, which sounds healthy in theory, but it’s not. Muscles need a break to repair themselves between workouts, so I blocked off my weekends for rest and yoga. As the body needs a period of recovery, so does the mind. You’re only human, and writing “every day” doesn’t take into account your mental health. Giving yourself a break also reminds you to be playful. Writing no longer feels like a chore, but can be paused and returned to as necessary. How long you measure your recovery depends on your personal goals and what you want to get out of your work.
  • It’s good to reflect on your mistakes, instead of ignoring them entirely or trying to fix them right away. By wanting to go full steam ahead on a manuscript, it’s easy to slap it down and call it done. It’s much harder to slow your roll, to be objective, to say, “you know, I really need to consider what could be changed about this.” Alternatively, if you suffer from perfectionism, it’s important to learn the difference between aimlessly tinkering with the writing versus creating any actual, nuanced revision.
  • What’s old to you is made new again, through subtle deception. Fiction writers are frequently asked, “How do you come up with your characters?” This is a hard question to answer, due to the way it’s phrased. I don’t so much “come up” with characters as let them come to me. Sounds like pretentious writer crap, I know. But actively seeking characters is like trying to approach a stranger, asking them 50 questions about their personal life, and waiting to see what they’re willing to reveal. When the process is more passive, you’re allowing a stranger to approach you, tell you their truths, and accept your counsel on their own. Taking a hiatus from writing allows the latent issues of your draft to reveal themselves anew. Treat it as an experiment in reverse psychology, and you might find that the characters magically devised their own development while you were away.

Writing is about the approach as much as the execution, and taking time away from it isn’t necessarily going to be the best approach for you. For me, it was downright difficult. Fledgling writers are usually preoccupied with getting into the “habit” of writing. But when it’s already an established habit, how do you get out of it?

Joining a critique group was the answer for me. Their thoughts are my kindling for the fire. At last evening’s meeting, a fellow member commented that my dialogue tags seem so natural, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I have a tendency to write all the dialogue in a scene first, so the stream of conversation flows naturally — the tags are almost an afterthought, added in later.

It’s amazing what you’ll discover about your own writing when you stop engaging with it, even for a moment. Stop writing, and listen. Learn and grow. Come back. Write again.

Get unstuck, then stick it to the man

For a few months now, moving forward creatively has been a struggle. I’m not talking about writers’ block, necessarily, but lacking the motivation to continue writing when things feel overwhelming.

When I started writing The Soft Fall, I was working toward a tangible goal that would have an end point. When I finished the novel, I could submit it and receive any number of reactions. Encouraging reactions? I get the opportunity to level up. Critical reactions? I get the opportunity to go back and fix something broken. Either way, getting reactions means getting opportunities means getting experience. Reactions beget actions.

I did receive reactions, both encouraging and critical, to the manuscript. I still have three full in-progress submissions in the hands of agents and publishers and out of mine. While awaiting their reactions, how could I move forward in the meantime? Career-wise, how could I best apply my time and energy?

I thought writing new content would be the answer. Writers only become more proficient and prolific through practice. Stick to the craft, set a word count for the day. I outlined a sequel I called Echelon Rising, a story about Eccka, a woman of color inheriting a corrupt, patriarchal government who despises her, all while undertaking the monumental task of winning a war with an outnumbered battalion. I slapped a few disjointed scenes on my keyboard, and thought. And kept thinking.

Then I stagnated. I spiraled. I didn’t have it in me to keep writing. You’d think our current political hellhole would add more to the fires of inspiration. And I am inspired. And I am angry. But more than ever, I am burned out. Because it feels all too real.

I want to write this story, but emotionally and creatively, I’m spinning my wheels, stuck in a muddy ditch. I’m exhausted from driving all night. And I want to get unstuck, but I’m going to need a little push first. Maybe I need to appreciate the rarity of a good Samaritan stopping by the roadside to help, taking time to critique my work and point me in the right direction. Maybe I need to check my mileage to remember how far I’ve come. Why stop now, after so long on this road?

Self-doubt is a constant companion to writers. Despite this, when I started writing The Soft Fall, I felt optimistic. I don’t know that I can say the same now. So in times of crisis, it can be therapeutic to acknowledge past times in which we created our own happiness, and try to recreate that feeling again. It can break us out of a destructive negative feedback loop of fear, inaction, despair.

Getting stuck and spinning wheels is easy, but what about when the survival instinct kicks in? When zombies are chasing you and you have no ammo left in your shotgun and your friends and loved ones are somewhere on the other side of that ditch counting on your safe return, are you going to sit there and wait for your brains to get eaten? Or are you going to leave the rig behind and run for your life? Will you let terror consume you or make you more courageous?

Call it irrational, but this old thing I’m driving is my baby. I believe she still has a little spark left. And maybe if I hit the ignition again — maybe if I go in reverse this time — I can gain traction, roll out of there and take out some of the horde in the process.

Or maybe I’ll stay exactly where I am. But isn’t it worth one last try?

I’m not giving up writing, especially in the wake of such emotional turmoil and devastating defeat. That only gives the winning side more power. But I am going backwards. Sometimes we are forced backwards, and the only way to go forward is to regroup and regain a hope we’ve already fought so hard to make a reality.

I’m going to gather my new critiques and improve on anything that could possibly be improved on, and then redouble my submission efforts. Because young adults need stories with hope right now.

After that, and after a little self-care and menial but hard labor at a day job for awhile — or if my novel ever does get picked up — I promise, I’ll come back for Eccka. And I’ll do her story the justice it deserves.

As the Romans do

Backpacking through Termini Station and out onto the chaotic cobblestone streets of Rome, clutching my husband’s hand, I can feel the rain streaking down my face. Nope, definitely not tears of joy.

All I can think is, we have finally made it to the Eternal City, the birthplace of my mythological muse and the basis for my novel, and the rain makes it feel like home (the PNW).

It is our last destination on a bar crawl-style tour across France and Italy, but it is the one I have looked forward to most of all. I’m a small town girl myself who finds city life too fast and often ugly. But the beauty of Rome is the cling of ancient ruins to a mecca with all its modern creature comforts and crazy traffic, and the juxtaposition of the two is one of the strangest and most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed.

 On our first night we find a local hole-in-the-wall and eat porchetta and drink Peronis, Italian beers. I am here to experience Roman culture and lifestyle as much as to understand what Rome used to be, to catch a glimpse of a past long since dead but never forgotten.

When I step into the Pantheon, it feels so open. The wind spirals through its open dome and flutters through my hair as if ushering me in, and it’s as close to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had. Here is where the dead history comes to life — the geometric marble floor unchanged for centuries, the stone shrines to pagan gods encircling us, and a sunspot shining through the oculus. We have been into many cathedrals on this trip, but this is the  biggest and oldest and most sacred to me. It is so hushed and peaceful.


At galleries I hunt for my huntress, and for the famous Roman She-Wolf. I have already found depictions of Diana, with her bow and hounds, in Florence. Some of them are partials or replicas. I look into Diana’s alabaster eyes and wonder who carved them, wonder if they hoped as much as I do that the version I’ve crafted of her is satisfactory enough. Only then does it become clear that these manifestations of her were really worshipped, that there were entire cults dedicated to her.


The Colosseum is the biggest attraction, but it does not leave as much of an impression on me as Palatine Hill. Supposedly Romulus lived here. Its mythological significance features in my novel, and even more prominently in its sequel.

Here, though the structures of huts and temples crumble, the landscape itself is breathtaking. Olive trees and purple flowers grow wild and rabbits grow big and fat. Here wealthy Romans once overlooked their city, turned this earth, burned their hearthfires. I can’t fathom exactly what their lives must have been like, but this place feels magical, like something out of my dreams. In some ways it feels like my own writing come to life — especially the rabbit who has clearly become used to the presence of humans, munching happily away at clover, just like the one Dianna and Aimes released into the wild at the end of my book.


On our last night, we picnic by candlelight on our balcony in the midst of a thunderstorm. In the distance, St. Peter’s basilica glows bright as the crescent moon. I take in the surreal paradox of Rome, and think about how its mythical origins have survived for so long, how they are taking shape in my fictional world even now. I am so grateful.

Women, agency, and storytelling

Think about some of the bestselling titles in YA fiction (especially those featuring a female protagonist) that you’ve read or heard of, and you’ll find a narrative pattern: most of these stories are told in first person. The Hunger Games comes to mind as an example. Katniss serves as narrator, telling her story in present tense. We are able to understand her character on a more personal level of thought while witnessing a dystopian world through her eyes.

It’s not a necessity for successful YA, although some say it helps. They might say the target audience for such fiction likes to experiment with telling their own stories; therefore they like to read stories told in a more personable manner — from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

I still say it all comes down to character. When executed well, first-person narratives can create a richer, more compelling story. They also color our perspective as a reader with the character’s inherent biases, subconscious emotions, and potential unreliability.

When they’re done poorly, it’s usually because the character lacks agency. The character becomes “lost” in the story itself, because she/he is passive instead of active. There is little reason to use first person when the character’s decisions have little or no bearing on the plot at all.

I’d argue that third person is much better suited for this task, depending on the story you’re trying to tell. My choice to write The Soft Fall in third was not just an aesthetic one. If I had told the story through Dianna’s perspective alone, I wouldn’t be able to cover the larger issues of the empire as a whole — because although she is the protagonist, her story is like just one facet of a cut gemstone. Each side has its own story to tell.

Third person made the most sense to me, not only because of the multiple viewpoints to address, but because none of the main protagonists really have agency. In fact, the main cast of characters — we’ll call them the pack — are basically at the mercy of their bodies and their environment. They can do things, they can make decisions, but only within limitations.

At the start of the book, Dianna has almost no agency whatsoever, and for good reason. If she did have agency, within the sphere of oppressive ideology she’s grown up to obey, she knows she’d get herself killed using it.

That’s why, in the very first chapter when she witnesses two of her townsfolk being burned at the stake for alleged crimes against god, she does exactly nothing. She wants to, but she can’t. What can a fourteen-year-old girl do to effect any real change?

She can do one thing, and that’s reject god.

The story begins here, at this tiny act of rebellion, this seed of agency that flourishes and blooms as the narrative continues. Whether she knows it or not yet, her primary goal throughout the narrative is agency, a goal that is consistently thwarted by conflict. Character development needs to occur before she can fully attain it.

That’s why, when she meets the pack for the first time, she comes to understand them fairly quickly. They’re all working toward agency. They’re all in this together.

When it comes to limited agency, Ram is a slight exception. He may be helpless in context, but he’s still the Prince of Myre (and, though it won’t be fully explained until book two, still pulling the strings in his own small way). His personal story has consequences for the entire empire, which his why his first-person prologue opens the book. But Eccka ends it with her first-person epilogue because his agency, his power as Prince, is transferred to her.

That’s why the sequel will also be written in first, alternating between Eccka’s and Dianna’s voices.

Because The Soft Fall‘s very title has multiple meanings, and one of them alludes to the fall of the empire. It is “soft” because it happens on a small scale, barely seen and hardly believable by anyone, derived in part from a question of quantum theory: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

In this case, yes. It is the sound of these women’s voices, which will resonate across an empire that has never seen women in positions of power. This power shift means they’re finally able to reclaim their stories. And it gives me a chance as storyteller to explore many feminist questions. Now that they have agency in the world, how will they use it? What new obstacles will stand in their path?

Writing stories about women’s agency inevitably makes me consider my own agency as a woman author in publishing, and in the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole. I’m currently in the middle of reading The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hugo award-winning author Kameron Hurley, who explains that navigating such territory as a woman often feels dependent on maintaining a constant self-awareness. She writes:

What I learned was that I had to work harder than the guys. I had to assume that when people looked at me, they’d automatically give me crappier offers. They’d assume I was stupider than I was. They’d pay attention to me less. They’d judge me by gender, by looks, by weight before anything else. I automatically started every interaction at a disadvantage.

In some ways, realizing this made things easier. I no longer worked on the assumption of equality. I always assumed I was starting ten steps behind. I learned I had to fight harder, shout louder, and demand more just to get five extra steps ahead, so I wasn’t starting quite so behind in the eyes of those who passed judgment on me, from bosses to colleagues to new friends.

These automatic disadvantages, I think, is what makes writing women characters so appealing to me — especially in a fantasy world where those disadvantages are made clear from the start, a world not unlike our own.

I want to watch women reclaim their stories as much as I want to tell my own. Like Hurley points out, I know it won’t be easy, but knowing is half the battle.

I know I will struggle with finding acknowledgement for my writing in a genre dominated by male writers. Even when I do receive acknowledgement, I’m anticipating inevitable yet misguided comparisons to urban fantasy or paranormal YA like Twilight, the likes of which have hardly anything in common with my story except werewolves (a word I actually entirely refrain from using in the narrative, because it is so loaded with preconceived notions). I’m anticipating such commentary  because I’m a woman writer.

But that isn’t going to stop me from trying, and it shouldn’t stop other writers who are women, or of color, or LGBTQ, or any marginalized group, either. Because publishing is undergoing its own power shift, toward a future of more diverse narratives. And the point of Eccka and Dianna’s journey toward agency is that once you have it, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.

We’re all in this together.

It’s time to tell our stories.

From concept to page

Happy summer solstice! Tonight there will also be a full Strawberry Moon (Rose Moon in the Myre lexicon), so it seemed fitting to make a post about how I came to write The Soft Fall.

The concept for the novel began, first and foremost, with the mythological figure of Diana the Huntress.


In childhood, I received my first crash course in Greco-Roman mythology from a set of audio tapes. The stories were simplistic, interspersed with lute melodies, and very dry. But I always found myself wanting more details instead of these bare-boned narratives. I wanted to know why the gods behaved the way they did, because they always made terribly mortal mistakes. So I imagined, what if they were, in fact, mere mortals who were only venerated as gods? What if I could expand on these stories by adapting them into a diverse, complex narrative?

I was a quiet kid who spent a lot of time in her imagination, but when I wasn’t inside writing, I was playing in the woods across the street where I grew up. I’d build makeshift stone bridges across the creek, flower crowns out of honeysuckles and clover, fairy castles out of twigs and leaves. Naturally, I felt a strong connection with Diana, goddess of animals and wild woods.

Wolves are my favorite animals. My mother had always been a strong supporter of reintroducing gray wolves to the wild, a heated and controversial debate among Oregonians. I may have been well-versed in fairy tales, but I never feared the big bad wolf, and imagined a happy ending for him too.

When I began writing about Diana the Huntress in my youth (Dianna Aergyris, in my retelling), it made sense to associate her with wolves, being a goddess of the moon and daughter of the she-wolf Leto. The very foundation of Rome was built upon the mythology of Romulus and Remus, twin brothers raised by a she-wolf. My reimagining of the mythos would also include lycanthropy. In college, I began outlining and penning THE SOFT FALL with abandon.

In traditional mythology, Diana is a virgin goddess sworn never to marry. She turns a man into a stag just for looking at her naked! She was a protector of women and childbirth, which was an appealing characterization to me as a feminist. I couldn’t help but envision her potential value for modern feminism. What if her journey was one of self-discovery and growth — a bildungsroman? What if I explored the social consequences of womanhood through her eyes, in an oppressive and theocratic society? What if she shattered that barrier, came into her own, and changed the course of an empire’s history? What if she fell in love?

This is when the novel really coalesced. After college, newly married and settled into an apartment across the country, I spent a year finishing the first draft (with my wonderful husband, and first reader and editor, cheering me on).

At the end of this summer, we will be traveling to France and Italy (which I can still hardly believe) and hopefully be fortunate enough to see some of the ancient sites in Rome influenced by the mythology of Romulus and Remus, as well as the goddess Diana herself: Lake Nemi, the town of Ariccia, and Palatine Hill, to name a few.

The story has come a long way since the first draft, and I feel especially grateful to those who have helped it come to life. I’ve had some incredibly positive reactions to the manuscript during this submission process, and I’m beyond thrilled to see where Dianna will lead me next.


More of my inspiration:

Ancient Rome research masterpost from my Tumblr, thesoftfall

The Soft Fall: A Soundtrack compiled on 8tracks

The Soft Fall: Unofficial Book Trailer on YouTube

…And they lived happily ever after

Today marks the anniversary of the day when, 10 years ago, my high school sweetheart asked me to be his girlfriend. He was about to take his SAT that week, and I, in the smoothest fashion, gave him a kiss “for luck.”

That’s what prompted it, really. I like to pride myself on that fact, because I’m a classic introvert who prefers not to make the first move. Not in this case. That move was mine.

This memory probably wouldn’t seem significant if I failed to mention that we’ve consequently spent these past 10 years madly in love, he eventually also asked me to marry him, and we had a decidedly perfect fairy tale wedding. We wrote our own vows. I threw the bouquet backwards into the hollow of a light fixture like an intentional trick shot. There were fat little polymer clay birds on the cake.

But no good fairy tale begins without darkness, and that’s why I call him my sunshine.

You could say that luck worked out for us both. “Lucky” is a term we collectively tend to ascribe to these uncommonly fortuitous situations, but that’s only part of the story. Devotion, passion, a willingness to grow up and grow together, and casually flipping off any “obstacle” like temporary long distance also worked out for us.

People have also said, “Wow, that’s so rare.” And they’re not wrong. I’ve heard young love is a flint and tinder that strikes only fleeting sparks, that the flames that do burn die fast.

Yet here we are.

There’s a fictional trope called insta-love, in which a romantic relationship between characters begins with “love at first sight” or some melodramatic variation thereof. They just met, but their destinies are intertwined! They must be together forever! They would die for each other! (Romeo & Juliet come to mind as the ultimate paragon of insta-love, but guys, I’m pretty sure Shakespeare had the jump on us all by satirizing the trope before the term ever officially existed, as Shakespeare was wont to do.)

The trope is considered unrealistic, for good reason. But if my 10-year relationship is also considered rare — really just another word for “unrealistic” — where does that leave me? Do I exist in some unseen plane of reality far from the mortal coil? Am I a robot? EXPLAIN PLEASE.

The problem is, readers are quick to stick the “insta-love” label on fictional relationships even when they’re not — they’re just perceived as unrealistic, like mine. Sometimes, the problem is our inability to consider the possible. We cannot move beyond our own limited definitions of love to understand the many, many kinds of love that we haven’t experienced or witnessed firsthand.

Next time you pull the “insta-love” card, ask yourself why. Is it because the characters are underdeveloped? Is there little basis for romantic attraction? Is it because Love Interest A compares the eyes of Love Interest B, upon their very first meeting, to microcosms of untouched galaxies within which (s)he must spend eternity exploring?

Or is it because you’re seeing what you want to see, and refuse to accept the alternative: that these characters actually have every reason to fall in love?

Maybe dating culture is partly to blame for our skepticism. Some people seeking partnerships can go about looking for them in the wrong ways. They look for the “right” kind of man, the “ideal” kind of woman. Active dating is inherently a process of judging, classifying, scrutinizing. One might seek commonalities in a potential partner above all else, when maybe someone with entirely divergent interests would be much better for that particular person.

There is too much focus on finding a partner with qualities that seemingly align with our requirements, when focusing on an alignment of goals will be more beneficial in the long run. We ask, “What kind of person are you? What can you do for me?” Not, “What are our needs, desires, and goals? Can they coexist and function well together?”

People are never static and always imperfect. The truest kind of bond does not come from meeting someone so great, you hope they never change. It is not about possession or manipulation. It is looking at the one you love and saying, “I love you for all that you are and all that you have been. I understand you, and I am recognizing you. And you will change, and I will love you then, too.”

It is strange, transcendent, and yes, rare. So it can be difficult to write convincingly.

In my novel, there’s a couple of characters who become romantically involved under dire circumstances: they’re going to die, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They haven’t known each other personally very long, but they decide they are, really and truly, in love. They don’t claim the extreme that they would die for each other — but they’ll die with each other, because at least they’ll be beside someone they love and care about deeply.

Conveying a real and powerful relationship is a challenge, but that’s the kind of love story I’m interested in telling. It’s the kind, after all, I’m living.