Favorite SFF Reads of 2016

SFF award season is upon us! I thought I’d share some of my favorite reads of the year that were published in 2016, in case either

a) you really liked some of these too and could do with a reminder they’re nomination-eligible, or

b) you’d like to check some of them out!

 

A few notes about my list here:

  1. They’re all novels, because that’s mostly what I read.
  2. There are no YA books, because this list would go on forever if I didn’t focus SOMEHOW.
  3. It looks like most of my favorite reads this year were not the first books in their series, so if you do want to check them out, keep that in mind when looking them up.
  4. I have not yet read everything published in 2016 that I meant or mean to. Story of our lives, I know, but there’s still time! If I’m missing something here that seems like it would obviously suit, though, that’s probably why.

Between moving and the election, this was a rough year for me, and I reached for a lot of stories that I either knew would be lighter reads or were set in worlds I was already comfortable with. I did try out new authors and series, of course, many of which didn’t make it onto this list — I’m picky, some were YA, many I enjoyed but weren’t my personal favorites (target audience is hard! taste is subjective!), etc. — but there are also some I desperately want to read and just haven’t gotten to due to limited mental bandwidth.

On that note, first, two shout-outs to books I’m really excited about and have on my e-reader, have started, have every confidence I’m going to love in their entirety, and have not yet had the brain space available to finish. I could just finish reading them before posting this, but if I delay I might never get around to posting at all, so. Really smart space opera and secondary world urban fantasy respectively!

  • Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1), by Yoon Ha Lee – from Solaris
  • The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2), by N.K. Jemisin – from Orbit

 

Without further ado, the rest of the list in order of publication, with some very brief descriptions of why they’re favorites:

  • City of Blades (The Divine Cities #2), by Robert Jackson Bennett – from Broadway Books
    • Secondary world urban fantasy. Mind-breaking and awesome in every way.
  • A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2), by V.E. Schwab – from Tor Books
    • High/portal fantasy. Action-packed and full of thieves, shenanigans, and feels.
  • The Edge of Worlds (The Books of the Raksura #4), by Martha Wells – from Night Shade Books
    • Best high fantasy world-building I’ve read in ages.
    • If you’re new to Martha Wells LOOK UP HER WORK NOW.
  • Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay – from NAL
    • GGK is the master of historical fantasy. Lyrical and dense.
  • Memories of Ash (The Sunbolt Chronicles #2), by Intisar Khanani – self-published
    • High fantasy, just straight-up fun. More thieves and magic and exploring an expansive world!
  • Four Roads Cross (Craft Sequence #5), by Max Gladstone – from Tor Books
    • Secondary world urban fantasy. Again with the “mind-breaking and awesome” descriptor.
    • Please believe me: you want to read the Craft Sequence. I promise.
  • Behind the Throne (The Indranan War #1), by K.B. Wagers – from Orbit
    • Space opera! Action-packed adventure and politicking.
    • (I believe K.B. Wagers is Campbell-eligible!)
  • No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished (Heartstrikers #3), by Rachel Aaron – self-published
    • Urban fantasy with dragons and sorcerers and adorable/terrifying demonic cat familiar. Definition of “changing the game and raising the stakes.”
  • The Guns of Empire (The Shadow Campaigns #4), by Django Wexler – from Roc
    • Military fantasy. Arguably his best yet.
  • Once Broken Faith (October Daye #10), by Seanan McGuire – from DAW
    • Urban fantasy, my favorite fae-based UF series to date. I love these characters so much.
  • Magic Binds (Kate Daniels #9), by Ilona Andrews – from Ace
    • Urban fantasy of the shapeshifter variety. Case study in how to do a long-running series while still pushing the characters and having a functioning arc.
  • Unquiet Land (Elemental Blessings #4), by Sharon Shinn – from Ace
    • High fantasy romance? Character work is exquisite, and I love this world-building a lot.
  • One Fell Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #3), by Ilona Andrews – self-published
    • I have no idea what subgenre this falls into, but I love it. Like a cross between urban fantasy and space opera.
    • You can try out the beginning of this serial on her website.

 

Happy reading! (And if I DID miss something you’re sure should be on here, please let me know so I can check it out!)

 

Easy Winter Beverages

 

I am COLD. In fact, I get cold more easily than anyone I know!

I am also always thirsty and drink on a semi-constant basis.

The solution to my problem here is clear.

 

So I bring you my five favorite easy and warm beverages to make in the winter!

All beverages on this list are nonalcoholic, largely due to the fact that I rotate them throughout the day. And I use “make” loosely, because I do mean easy–I am among the laziest chefs and also have books to write.

Without further ado:

 

  1. Chai.

    Tea in general is excellent in the winter, but if I must choose one, at the risk of waxing endlessly, chai is my favorite. Add in some milk and sugar and chai is probably the only reason I get out of bed.

    (No, really. I have to move out from underneath a cat. This requires extreme motivation.)

  2. Honeycrisp Apple Cider.

    I will accept other varieties of apple cider, of course, but honeycrisp apple cider is available by the jug here in Washington and it is AMAZING. I like heating it up with a mulling spice packet or cinnamon stick, but it’s good on its own, too. Honeycrisp apple cider is a permanent fixture at my house between November and February.

  3. Honey Lemon Tisane.

    This one’s especially good for when you’ve had enough caffeine for the day but don’t want to drink anything too filling. Put a couple dollops each of lemon juice and honey (do adjust dollops to taste–I am fond of sugar and err on the side of more honey always) into a mug, add a cinnamon stick, fill with water, heat, and stir. Done!

  4. Steamed Milk.

    A misnomer, but that’s how I learned to call it, and it’s a straightforward comfort drink after a hard or cold day. Add some honey to a mug of milk, heat, then add a couple drops of vanilla and stir. It’s that easy.

  5. Hot Chocolate.

    Last but not least, the classic. Adding marshmallows is traditional, but these days I love the variety of packets that come with salted caramel, cinnamon, or peppermint flavors. There are a thousand ways to do hot chocolate; you know what you like!

 

Combine warm beverage of choice with fleece blankets, a fireplace, and a comfortable cat or two, and I may make it through winter yet.

Let me know if you have suggestions for more winter beverages!

Introvert’s New Year’s Eve

Christmas has always been an Event in my family with much to-do. As I get older the days surrounding Christmas involve increasing amounts of not just travel, but also socializing. Which I enjoy!

But I’m an introvert, and intense periods of socializing, for days on end, is the most exhausting thing ever. By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, I’m done in. I’ve been hiding, inhaling books, and clawing my way back to adequate brainpower for days now.

At this point I’m mostly caught up on to-do lists, but the prospect of seeing a group of actual humans makes me shy away into a dark corner and start hissing. Watching the ball drop and toasting with champagne aren’t traditions I’m personally attached to, so I don’t feel particularly concerned about missing out.

So this year, I’m opting out of New Year’s Eve festivities. It’s not the first time I’ve done this, and when I do, I mark the occasion in another way. My introvert’s New Year’s Eve tradition, after the occasion of Christmas, which is historically super disruptive to my writing work.

On New Year’s Eve, I take some time to recalibrate alone on what actually matters to me. And I begin the year the way I mean to go on with it: devoting my time to writing a novel I’m passionate about.

However you plan to celebrate tonight, I wish you all a happy new year. =)

Bring on 28

This year is a wrap! Let me review what I’ve been up to.

 

I did finish editing AFTERSTORMS. It’s on submission, and so far that’s going well. I drafted one new book this year, which I consider the bare minimum; I aim for two in a year. There are a couple reasons I didn’t make that goal this year.

 

The first is that I moved. Not just moved, but set up an entirely new house. There were a number of challenges even getting into the house, and I will spare you those details, but suffice it to say a lot of unnecessary time was spent dealing with the consequences of the developing company’s questionable management. And then there was actually moving–sorting, packing, trashing–as well as acquiring a lot of furnishings besides. Here’s a teaser:

 

Ground Floor, with Bonus Cat!

Ground Floor, with Bonus Cat!

 

Now that I’m a little settled I’ll post about that more, but going from zero to fully outfitted house before hosting twelve people (including the first meeting of parents for my partner and me O_O) for Thanksgiving took some doing. It wasn’t that long ago I lived in a 390 square foot apartment; fully furnishing an empty house (to my satisfaction) just plain took a lot of time. (It’s never just about the big pieces of furniture; it’s the half a dozen small trash cans for various rooms.) But I’m really happy with it, and the space feels like mine, and that matters a lot to me.

 

The second reason is that I’m in the process of doing a serious revision on one of my novels, more extensive than any I’ve done before. Normally a round of edits takes me one month; this is going to take considerably longer. The revision is alternately exciting and terrifying. It’s a good thing I’ve leveled way up at editing in the last couple years, because it’s going to take a lot to pull this off.

 

On the bright side, not finishing another novel this year doesn’t hurt my long-term writing plans (I keep having to remind myself of this). I’ve reached the point where I’m literally finishing novels faster than agents can finish considering them, and unlike with short fiction there’s no benefit to shopping multiple novels around at once.

 

Which is not to say I’ve slacked off by any means! But this is as good a time as any to have a sizable revision project. And I’m also taking this opportunity to set the wheels in motion for another, sort of novel-adjacent writing project. I’m trying some new things with this one that I’m really excited about, and I hope I’ll have it enough underway to start telling the world about it soon.

 

And of course the real reason for this post: annual birthday flying adventures are still happening! For my 28th birthday flying adventure, I went ziplining in Thailand. The ziplining trip also included some abseiling, so it’s practically a double win.

 

Mid-ziplining selfie!

Mid-ziplining selfie!

Mid-abseiling selfie!

Mid-abseiling selfie!

 

The reason I went to Thailand was not specifically to go ziplining for my birthday. For years I’ve been seeing pictures of Yi Peng, a lantern festival, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

 

I have no good pictures, lighting being what it was. I released a lantern lifted by the smoke of its own fire into the sky, and from any distance I could see the trail of released lanterns like a river of stars climbing into the night. But my friends (thank you, Nicole and Christian!) did manage to get a picture of me at the festival worth sharing.

 

This is me, having done everything right to get the lantern ready but still terrified I’m about to set something on fire and going for it anyway:

 

Yes, that's a metaphor.

Yes, that’s a metaphor.

 

Getting this trip together took a lot of doing, but I’m so glad I went; having the privilege of participating in Yi Peng is not something I’ll forget. But there has been more than one occasion this year where I’ve wondered if the universe was spiting me for daring to imagine I could organize my life and have things actually go as planned. Moving was one, and this Thailand trip was another.

 

It all worked out. But if I’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that you do the work, as well as you can, and that matters, and sometimes life goes sideways anyway. It’s important to take precautions, but it’s just as important to know when to take a leap and go for it.

 

In any year wrap-up it would be disingenuous to neglect to mention that this recent election has made me angry and afraid, and I have a long habit of being goaded into action by anger. Amidst everything else I’m taking some time now to start figuring out how I’m going to cope with the election aftermath. There’s an alarming amount of work to do. It still matters. And I will be a part of that. I will do what I can to fight.

 

Next year I’ll also be finding a new job–that’s a whole other story, but the bottom line is while this state of affairs is suboptimal in the short term in the long term I’ll be better off. I’ll research and plan the shit out of it, because that’s what I do. Then I’ll take a leap, and I’ll roll with whatever unexpected challenges it brings. Which is not, really, so different from how I write. Here’s hoping I can make some happy news happen next year.

Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

We’ll See Where We Land

Friends have been asking where I’m at with writing and editing at the moment, and it occurs to me that I’ve let my blog languish. An unexpected side effect of living with people again is that when I feel ranty or something noteworthy happens I just, you know, argue with a living human instead of blurting it out on the internet. Alas for the regularity of my posting here.

So an update on my current projects for anyone curious:

Recently I’ve been writing a new YA fantasy novel I’m calling Sealed, and I just finished the first draft last week! It’s a story with female friendship at its center, along with quests, underground monasteries, demon invasions, political machinations, undignified and vicious floof friends, and magic.

I’m tentatively (I am rarely sure of anything when I first finish a draft) pleased with how this one came out. It took me a while to get into it — I tried a lot of new things and was coming off a looooong stint of editing and not drafting, so that’s not shocking but was still frustrating — but I think it’s come out approximately book-shaped.

Normally I’d do a quick clean-up and send it straight to readers for feedback, but this time I need to do a more thorough edit pass first. I have a document full of notes I jotted down while drafting of things I already know I need to fix, so I’m going to address those first. My manuscript needs to be in the best shape I can get it in before I ask anyone to put their time into helping me make it better.

I’m taking a brief (possibly too brief?) break to do some beta reading myself before diving back in, letting my mental gears adjust a bit from the mode of CHURN OUT ALL THE WORDS (I was writing 6-8k/day towards the end there — I did eventually get into it) to a place with enough distance where I don’t get caught up and can edit more effectively.

On the beta reading note, I think I’m going to have to officially close to beta reads for a while. I just counted, and I have four full beta reads and three partials already this year. I love beta reading, and I always want to be available for writers who’ve beta read for me in the past, but at least through July I’m booked on that front.

Next on the agenda is finishing up the final round of edits for Afterstorms, the adult fantasy novel. I’m actually excited to edit it, so I know taking a break to write something new was the right choice for me. And I’m really excited to get it on submission — honestly while I’m invested in being published I’m not usually so enthusiastic about the prospect of querying — and the submission packet is almost in its final form. This book is ready to soar into the wild, and I can’t wait to see how it flies.

So, to recap, this is where I’m at.

recently: wrote a new book
now: beta reading
May: first round of edits on the YA fantasy
May and maybe June: last round of edits on the adult fantasy
by June: submitting the adult fantasy

Why the rush? In part because I’m anxious for these books to go on to their next steps. But also because I’m going to have travel commitments coming up at the end of June and early July — con, wedding, etc. — and I don’t want to be interrupted after getting into the flow.

And after those I won’t be able to just pick back up, because in June and July, construction disaster notwithstanding, I will be moving at long last. I will be moving into a new house and furnishing the whole thing, and I am reasonably sure that getting settled to my satisfaction is going to take all my creative energy for a few weeks at the minimum.

SO. It’s been a busy spring, and it’s shaping up to be a busy summer! After that, we’ll see where we land.

Third Annual Flying Birthday Report

It’s now been two years since I took a leap (well, more of a roll out of the plane) and really committed to putting myself and my writing first. Continuing the flying tradition, for my 27th birthday I decided to try out a wind tunnel, which I highly recommend.

wind tunnel 1

Throughout various adventuring, I have learned that it behooves me to warn guides about two things in advance:

a) My skull, while unusually hard, is tinier than they really think it is.

Here I am wearing an actually child-sized helmet.

Here I am wearing an actually child-sized helmet.

 

b) My back is unreasonably bendy.

ziplining

When I ran out of momentum while ziplining and had to pull myself the rest of the way, I ended up alarming my poor guides.

 

In the wind tunnel, it didn’t matter how well I held position or how straight I kept my legs; because I was essentially doing an upside down backbend, I was constantly drifting backwards.

upside down bridge

Good times, good times.

And thus I finished out my second year of putting my writing first in my life.

I haven’t been good about blogging this year, so I thought I’d recap how this has been going.

The first year after quitting my fulltime job was largely about figuring out how to best arrange my life to support my writing, as opposed to finding a job that allowed me to write on the side. That’s a subtle distinction, but for me it’s been an important one.

I will probably always be adjusting. I changed part-time jobs again for various reasons, and the one I currently have — working at a root beer store and doing way more than is technically in my job description — is so far working the best of anything I’ve tried, so I am hopeful.

Last year was a learning year, and I knew it would be. I went into year two with such grand plans for implementing all the things I’d learned, but of course life, right?

First, I attended four weddings (plus related events) that included five out-of-town trips.

we1 we2 we3 we4 we5 we6 we7 we8

I am delighted for all of my newly married friends, but there were So. Many. Weddings.

I only went to three cons this year, but with Christmas that brings my total of out-of-town trips to nine. Each trip required varying degrees of work, from researching and writing presentations to herding bridesmaids and coordinating travel plans. Not only did this create some logistical and financial stress, it also cut into writing time. The problem wasn’t just the trips themselves, but the fact that a lot of them happened back-to-back (for instance, June included back-to-back trips to Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Minneapolis). Catching up on all the things I had to push while I wasn’t physically present to deal with them impacted my schedule more than I’d anticipated.

Second, I moved. And not only did I move, I plan to move again. There has been a lot of time spent physically moving things, picking out design items (be it duvet covers for the bed I have now or countertops for the place I will have), and all of the usual hassle.

In my defense, I basically knew about these events in advance and blocked out three months in my writing schedule on the assumption that life would happen. In practice, it’s ended up encroaching a little more than that, but I’m basically on track.

By “on track,” I mean that my current goal is to complete two novels every year.

For me, completing a novel now includes the initial drafting of the manuscript, time for at least two full rounds of beta readers to have a crack at it, thorough rounds of edits after I collect all the feedback, assembling the submission packet, and getting the final draft out the proverbial door.

I can draft a novel in about two months once I get going. Each round of edits takes me about a month. Even leaving some time for when life causes my schedule to go awry, that puts me at a pretty good noveling pace.

In theory, while I wait for beta readers’ feedback, I work on writing or editing a different novel. In practice this year instead I was usually at weddings while waiting for feedback, which skewed my schedule and left me with a lot of months of back-to-back editing.

But I’ve just about gotten myself on the schedule I want to be on: I’ve just finished the first post-beta round of edits on one novel; I’ll draft a new novel next; then I’ll do the second round of edits on the previous novel; then the first round of edits on the new novel; then I draft another new novel. And so on.

Of course, if I do get a publishing contract that will probably blow the Master Plan out of the water, but that is still to be hoped for and I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

At the moment I have a YA space opera novel (teenagers piloting mechas in space battles) out on submission that has been getting positive responses from industry professionals so far. And if that novel doesn’t get me an agent, well, I’ll have another novel ready to go in a few more months.

I’m really excited about the latest novel (which is unusual given that I just finished editing the thing, which normally leaves me feeling =/): it’s a secondary world urban fantasy starring a woman who is a professional mage and adventurer and also the single mother of a teenage daughter.

Overall, my writing grows increasingly tight with every novel, I’m better organized all around, be it in terms of story structure or work schedule, and I’ve gotten hugely better at editing. I’ve learned how to better set schedules for myself — they have to be mildly unreasonable to give me something to reach for, but not too unreasonable or the whole thing collapses. So far I haven’t blown a single editing deadline, though, so my current methods of organization and motivation are working as they should be.

Basically, everything is going well! There have obviously been bumps, but I have this writing/paying-work/spending-time-with-other-humans/recharging-in-cave-time stuff reasonably well-balanced at the moment.

And now I get to start working on a new novel =D. Onward to further adventures!