Realistic Magicalism

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“BBR” stands for “Beloved Beta Reader!”

A few weeks before Christmas, I completed the first draft of Rivers and Roads (I’m pretty confident I’m going to keep that as the title, this time.) By now I’ve entered it all into electronic format, done a couple of structural overhauls, and several passes through with an eye to basic line-edits. Today I’m going to complete the line-edits of the final chapter. This means I’m about to embark on the Beta Reader phase of this manuscript. I’m excited about that!

I am the opposite of excited about what I need to do once my BBRs start reading. That’s when, according to my List O’ Goals ’22, it’ll be time to hit Query Manager and start compiling a spreadsheet of agents who might, possibly, be excited enough about this novel that I should consider querying them.

It’s not that I dread rejection. Rejection is just proof to me that I am a Real Writer(tm)! It’s just that queries are supposed to state the novel’s genre, and cite comps.

“Comps,” in literary-speak, are books or authors published recently (preferably in the past two years) to which I can point and say “If you liked that, then you will love this manuscript, because it has the same premise and atmosphere in a similar setting.” I could probably find any number of books that have the same basic premise and atmosphere, or the same atmosphere and setting, or the same premise and setting, but never all three.

My readers have informed me that what I write is “Contemporary Southern Gothic Fantasy” and I like that. I’ll run with that as my genre even though it, technically, does not exist. Trying to find comps, however, fills me with an overwhelming sense of frustration, dread, cynicism, anger, outrage, bitterness, hopelessness, and the urge to throw any device on which I’m searching for comps through the nearest window (whether or not said window is open.)

People tell me I should just say: “Imagine Urban Fantasy Title A meets Literary Magical Realism Title B,” and this is good advice. But would I really be able to get away with saying things like: “Imagine Twilight has grown up into an intelligent woman who can spot a toxic relationship a mile away but has no time for them anymore because she’s too busy saving innocent ghosts from paranormal TV show hosts” or “Imagine Allison duBois finally dumps her whiny-ass husband and moves to Innsmouth.”

(Or could I get away with this? I don’t suppose it would hurt to try… If it would, please stop me before I do it. Thanks.)

Amazon often tags my books as “Urban Fantasy,” but it wouldn’t work to try to hook an agent with this claim. They’d be disappointed at the lack of, well, an urban setting, mainly. But also the lack of sexy supernatural shapeshifters who lust after mayhem. The only mayhem in my distinctly non-urban fantasy settings is committed by human denizens. Agents who represent Urban Fantasy would be irritated that I had wasted their time by “not doing my research,” or “not understanding the market,” and rightly so.

Amazon also often lists my work under “Magical Realism,” but I’ve learned the hard way that people who love Magical Realism do not like my work, because there’s (and this is a direct quote from a review) “too much magic.” Apparently you are not allowed to come right out and reveal that the magic is actually real, in Magical Realism. Any magic alluded to must never be proven to exist anywhere but in the POV’s highly unreliable head. Well, I don’t mind reading that kind of thing, but it’s not what I write (and I’m really not interested in ever writing it.)

I think what I write is closer to Realistic Magicalism. Too bad there is no such genre.

At least, there isn’t one now. But maybe there will be, someday when authors start using my work as comps.

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The End (only not!)

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The Inn at night

The other day, at my usual table at the coffee shop, with my usual coffee-flavored latte at my elbow, I penned what they call the “Final Image” of the rough draft of Rivers and Roads. I don’t usually write “The End” until I’m satisfied that I’ve done all the revising and editing I can before I call in the Beta Readers to hack it to bits for me.

But this time, well… the new barista here has always been very inquisitive about my writing. She asks me “How’s your novel going” every time I come in and set my mug on the counter, and listens patiently while she fills it with coffee-flavored espresso and then creates milkfoam art on top.

So as I jotted the last few words (they made me cry, by the way. I hope they make you cry, too!) I stood, picked up my notebook, and carried it to the cash register. Our excellent barista looked up at me and asked, “How’s the novel going?”

I said, “I just wanted to share this moment with you.” Then I put the notebook down on the counter and wrote “The End” at the bottom of the page.

She was very sweet about it. She’s just that way.

Well, I just figured, seeing someone writing “The End” isn’t something most people get to do very often. Heck, I’ve only seen it five times, now, and I’m the one who wrote it. Well, typed it – until now!

Now the hard part starts: structural revisions, line edits, sweeps through to kill crutch-words (I really use the word “really” far too much!) and then the whole Beta Reader thing. And then more revising and editing. Actually, I call this “the hard part” (actually, I use the word “actually” too much, too.) but, this time, anyway it’s not turning out to be as hard as it was to write the story itself. This story really took it out of me, in a way the Woodley series didn’t even come close to. It kicked my butt every time I sat down to write it. But I hope that means it’ll kick your butt, too. In a nice way, of course!

This isn’t him, by the way. 🙂

PS: Speaking of writers and coffee shops, there’s a fellow here right now who always sits by the window typing on his laptop… When I say “typing,” I mean he pokes those keys so hard with the tips of his index fingers, I can’t believe he still has index fingers at all anymore. He hatchets away at the keys in short, sharp bursts, then he sits back, looks at the ceiling, mutters furiously under his breath, and returns to the keyboard. I sure hope he plans to publish whatever it is he’s writing, because I can’t wait to read it.

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Books I Might Not DNF

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To say I’ve been in a reading slump for the past few years would be an understatement. I’m not sure why. I used to read voraciously. I mean like at least two or three books per week. Even ‘way back when I was a single mom who had to get up at 5:AM to go to work, I would stay up late reading.

For the past several years, though, I simply haven’t been able to get interested in very many new books. I mean, I still keep buying them! Hope springs eternal, right? I even try reading one of them, once in a while. Unfortunately, I Do Not Finish far more than I finish. My To Be Read piles now totter near the ceiling!

Maybe today’s books, like today’s movies and TV shows, “just aren’t as good as they made them back in my day, sonny.” (That makes me sound real young and vibrant, doesn’t it?) Maybe my brain is just too old and tired for reading, anymore? But I can still re-read my old books (and watch old TV shows, for that matter) over and over! It’s just the newer stuff I can’t seem to get into. I mean I literally can’t make myself read more than the first 20 pages or so of most modern books without being drawn away by something that compels my interest much more intensely, such as cleaning the bathroom or folding laundry.

But! I am told that if I want to be a traditionally published author, I need to converse knowledgeably about today’s literature market, and be able to tell an agent my work is comparable to [insert author and title published within the last five – or preferably two – years] or, as they say, “provide good comps.”

So I came up with a plan. I sorted my To Be Read pile by publication date and put all the books published more than five years ago (with a few exceptions, noted below) into boxes to donate to Dog Eared Books. Then I sat myself down, and told my household I was not getting up again until I had read the beginning of every single one of the remaining books. 

The idea was to get all of these beginnings into my head, and let them stew there awhile. If, while stewing, any of these beginnings should persistently call me back to read the rest of the book I would, you know, actually finish reading it!

A few days later, I went back and sorted the books into two piles. One, I mentally labeled “Will Probably DNF.” The other contains books I have high hopes of actually finishing. Their beginnings are still bright and distinct in my mind, and I’m actually excited about them. But most of all, to my surprise and delight, the “Might Actually Finish” pile turns out to be the taller of the two! Maybe, this time, I won’t get bogged down in books I spend weeks trying to force myself through, precipitating another slump.

Books I Might Finish

An Enchantment of RavensMargaret Rogerson 
This book is a little dated for use as a comp (2017) but people keep telling me I’ll like it, and now I can see why. It’s got real magic in it, but so far the magic doesn’t want to splatter everyone’s guts all over the walls. The voice of the narrator, an artist who does portraits for the fey folk, is smart and funny. So far, I can’t tell if it’s set in a contemporary era or what. Era may well be irrelevant for this particular story-world. If it turns out I do like it, I understand the author has some more recent books in the same series. If the setting turns out to be contemporary, these could work for me as comps.

Mistress of SpicesChitra Banerjee Divakaruni 
Okay this one was published all the way back in 1997. But I want to finish it even though there’s no way I can use it as a comp, because so far it is (pardon my language) Fucking Brilliant. I love the narrator’s voice. It’s beautiful and enchanting, like we’re listening to a sweet, old ghost tell her tale. (I don’t know, maybe we are?)

Tales From the Gas Station, Volume 1 – Jack Townsend
Think Night Vale meets David Wong. I know, right? If I don’t like “dark and gritty” then why do I love these things? But all these works are, at heart, deadpan, satirical, tongue-in-cheek commentary on how stupid the human race is, and I eat that stuff up. This book was published in 2018, but I can’t use it as a comp because apparently it’s self-published. But I’m going to finish it anyway.

Black Water Sister – Zen Cho
Finally! A traditionally published (2021) Contemporary Fantasy that is still enchanting, lyrical, lovely, intelligent, and not drenched in dismembered limbs. Not so far, anyway. Another book with lovely “voice.” I’m really looking forward to following the rest of this modern-day woman’s journey into magic. But if it turns out she’s only hearing ghosts because she has a brain tumor or something, I swear to god I will burn this book right on the living room rug!

This Book is Full of Spiders – David Wong
Speaking of David Wong. This is his sequel to “John Dies at the End,” the book I often cite as the last book (2009) that kept me up reading into the wee hours because I couldn’t put it down. I bought this sequel in 2012 but I confess I have put off reading it because I was terrified it would disappoint me, thereby tarnishing my beloved memory of the first volume. So far, though, I am not disappointed. So far, so good!

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig 
Published in 2020. I haven’t got to where anything magical has actually happened yet, but I think I can tell by now that this author won’t be trying to conflate fantasy with horror. The voice is very lyrical. The construction of the storyline itself is also an interesting time-skipping device, done properly. I’ll let you know how it goes. It might legit turn out to be useful as a comp.

Books I Will Probably DNF

I put these aside, rather than into the donation box, because I tell myself I “might finish them someday, after I finish the others, and if something new doesn’t come along by then that I’ll find worth reading.” In other words, I almost certainly will not finish them, and will end up donating them ten years from now or something.

Dead Heads (Gloomwood Book 1) – Ross Young
The premise is cute so far but, 20 pages in, still nothing is actually happening. We are still being introduced to a lot of (I think there are six, so far) POV characters who do a lot of world-building thinking aloud about life in the land of the dead, but we keep hopping from one POV to the next, like, every page and a half or so, and none of them has a unique enough voice for me to be able to keep track of which one is who.

Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames
Unlike the rest of this pile, I actually started this one a few months ago. But one day, after I stuck in the bookmark and went to dinner, I found myself not motivated to pick it up again. I was enjoying it quite a bit at first, but 15 chapters in (out of 53) I’m finding the “aging hero” jokes are starting to wear a bit thin. The premise was cute, and the rock-music references really rocked, but now it’s all just devolved to a bunch of manly men doing manly-man things, and I’ve always found that stuff tedious. I have a feeling we’ve already reached the mushy (and greatly protracted) middle; there are still two inches of pages in my right hand and the story has started going nowhere fast. I’m not even sure I care anymore about the far-off adult daughter caught in a besieged city who they, ostensibly, are intending to eventually rescue, since even if, after about a thousand more manly battle-pratfalls, they ever do win through to her and get her out, it’ll only be to let her live “free” in an altogether dismal, war-torn world without a speck of beauty anywhere in it. I’m sure there will be sequels (if there isn’t one already.)

The Other Black Girl – Zakiya Dalila Harris
I have to admit I was intrigued by the premise of the story even though it’s not even remotely fantasy. But it has reminded me of why I don’t care much for what they call Literary Fiction. Or is this Women’s Fiction? Literary Women’s Fiction, I don’t know. Anyway I’m 22 pages in (counting the prologue, a thing I’m told no debut author should ever attempt to get away with) and we’ve had about 20 pages of introspection and retrospection. Of the 3 brief passages that could be construed as “action” or “dialogue,” two of them have been conversations held over a cubicle divider. And by “conversations” I mean the other character speaks and then the main character introspects, for a few paragraphs, about what they said. I mean, at least get up and walk to the water cooler or something while doing all this deep thinking, FGS! The whole thing so far is like reading some long and rambling blog post… oh, wait…

Anyway, before you try to recommend them to me, I have already DNFed:

  • The Golem and the Djinni
  • The Bear and the Nightingale
  • Nevernight

I won’t go into great detail about why I DNFed these, other than to say the first two pissed me off by being the much-touted debuts of authors who got away with things I am told I should never, ever, ever do if I expect to be traditionally published, unless I’m already a bestselling author. Said things include, of course, prologues, as well as not even starting the story until after six chapters of events and characters we will never see again in the book. I might have finished these books regardless, of course, had I found them to be at all gripping, but they just slid out of my consciousness and didn’t call me back. As for Nevernight I can only say: please just stop. Just stop. Please.

Also. Some time ago, George R. R. Martin referred to his work as “Tolkien for grownups” and (after proposing he engage in several activities that are probably physically impossible) I vowed never to read or watch any of his work, ever. And to that I hold.

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Break Into Two

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I don’t always write according to any currently codified Story Structure, but when I do, it’s usually some form of the Three Act Structure.

I’ve found The Hero’s Journey to be a helpful guide in regulating my pacing, and also sometimes in figuring out just where the heck I’m going from here. Lately, though, I’ve become fascinated with Blake Snyder’s 15-beat “Save The Cat” structure. Not that I carefully adhere to it while actually writing, or anything like that, but on looking back I find I can deconstruct most of what I’ve written (or read, for that matter!) into these structures. I guess story, when you really let story tell itself through you, just naturally follows this sort of growth pattern. It’s in our DNA or something.

Anyway there’s a beat that almost all Three Act stories share, and that is the Break Into Two. And I don’t know why, but that’s just magical for me. I mean, all it really means is that this is where the story breaks into Act Two. Very prosaic.

But even knowing that, it still gives me shivers every time I hear it. Break Into Two. As far as I’m concerned, this is the real beginning of the story. The much-touted Inciting Incident is the very necessary beginning of the story itself, but it is usually something that happens to the character, outside of their control. The Break Into Two, on the other hand, is the beginning of the character’s story, because it’s something they choose willingly.

Here the character breaks their own world with their own hands. They know if they take one more step, they will plunge “down that damn rabbit-hole, where you know you can’t be saved.” But if they don’t take that step, there will be no story.

Couples and friendships are frequently broken up by the Break Into Two. When the old world is broken, the only hope of ever making it whole again is to forge unrelenting through the new world. The road is intimidatingly long, but the character shoulders their hastily-packed rucksack and sets out anyway (usually discovering too late that they have forgotten to bring a handkerchief.)

So I’ve just reached the Break Into Two in the [very rough] first draft of my current work in progress. This is the point where I, as the main character in my Author’s Journey, now honestly get a glimpse of just how far I have to go, how much work lies ahead of me, how ill-equipped I am to complete this task. It is also the point where I know there is no turning back. I’m as caught up in my character’s journey as my hapless character is, and abandoning the quest now would be as devastating for me as it would be for them.

Oh! Yes. About my story, my character, my current work in progress. I have given it the working title “Rivers and Roads” (you might remember this was also the original working title of Ghost of a Chance.) This, also, will probably change but I have realized there is definitely a theme (a river, and at least one road) running through all of my work, past and present. And yes, it’s the same river, in case you want to know. Just a different muddy riverbank.

Below is the blurb I’m writing toward. The content and wording, like the title, will almost certainly change as I get closer to the end, but now that I’ve reached the Break Into Two, it’s too late to turn back from the story itself.

Blurb v1.1 19June2021

Geddy Leigh Arkwright has a perfect, normal life – except she doesn’t. She vaguely remembers a magical childhood, wherein she believed in things more extraordinary than soul-stifling jobs and abusive fiancés. On the night when she decides she’s had enough, she throws her cell phone out her car window and sets off a chain of events which sends her tumbling, literally, into a hidden world of enchantment and mystery.

Only those who need a second chance can find the village of Tavisheen, or so its denizens keep telling her. Geddy isn’t sure she’s ever even had a first chance, but she checks into Keeper’s, a centuries-old country inn, anyway. After her initial shock at realizing not all of her fellow second-chancers are, strictly speaking, human, she begins to adjust to – and possibly even enjoy – her strange but intriguing new life.

But her old life comes back to haunt her when the dead body of her ex-fiancé turns up in the street in front of Keeper’s. She begins to understand it’s not so easy to leave your past behind by simply running away from it.

The Inn at night
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A Midnight Clear is available for pre-order

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After I launched Ghost of a Chance out into the newly locked-down 2020 world, I intended to take a purposeful break for a few months. I would do some reading, particularly of old, gothic classics such as “Jane Eyre.” Maybe even take a class or two to polish my craft.

As I carefully picked through my towering To Be Read pile (ready to run, in case it came crashing down on my head) I came across a notebook that looked vaguely familiar. Upon opening it I recognized my own “handwriting” and realized: this was the notebook in which I had penned my 2019 NaNoWriMo project. I remembered, then! I had written it to explore the idea of what Christmas must be like at Vale House in Woodley, USA.

I won NaNo that year, by the way. The rough draft was nearly complete at just over 50,000 words. All it needed was a bit of revising, a few editing passes, and hey presto, I could publish it in time to give it as Christmas gifts to all my beloved critique partners and beta readers. Right?

As you might expect, it turned out not to be as simple as that. “Revising” quickly became “completely rewriting,” and I soon found myself turning my back on my long-neglected TBR pile. I was still determined to keep this manuscript short, though. Well, short for me. Just a bit of Christmas fluff. A Hallmark special to tuck into the boxed set as bonus content, someday, maybe.

I just couldn’t stick with the “fluff” part, though. I found myself getting really serious about making this tale as fully-developed a story as the rest. The final result turned out, I think, a bit too dark for Hallmark. But it’s just the right flavor for existing fans of Woodley, USA and its quirky denizens. And I did manage to keep it down to around 50K! That is quite an accomplishment, for me. I’m really proud of myself about that!

I also believe A Midnight Clear, while it revisits many of the town’s most beloved characters, fills out their storylines and answers many reader questions about them, has turned out to be a story which is able to stand perfectly well on its own, even for people who have never read any of the other books.

It’s available for pre-order now in All the Usual Places, and will be officially released for retail sale on November 16, in time to get you into the spirit of whatever midwinter holiday you may be celebrating. And now, I promise, I will get to that Reading Pile, and I will take a Masterclass or Skillshare class (or maybe both!) And then I will begin research for my next series, coming soon to a mysteriously enchanted border-town near you.

Whatever you are celebrating this midwinter, I wish you warmth and cheer and good health and, if possible, loved ones all around you. To your health!

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I Believe There’s a Ghost of a Chance

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Ghost of a Chance preliminary cover art

This whole pandemic thing has really squashed the mojo out of a lot of creative people I know. Though supportive of others, I believed myself immune to this effect, since the third volume of the Woodley, USA saga was already written and in Beta by the time the seriousness of our situation became undeniable. All I had left to do (I told myself) was edit and format – technical, left-brained tasks I would have no trouble performing under the stress I wasn’t admitting I felt anyway.

But I guess I was also subject to the creative brain-fog, after all, because I really have been procrastinating things I need to be doing to get this book out the door on time. For one thing, I’ve been completely neglecting this blog! And I was avoiding getting to work on my back-cover blurb the way I avoid doing my taxes.

What helped me break this block was deciding to work on cover art instead. Unable to summon my favorite model for a new photo-shoot, I went through all the old photos of green-screen Cally, and suddenly my mind was filled with possibilities! I arbitrarily selected a Cally and color-corrected her outfit, setting her against a background and adding the proper atmospheric elements. To my surprise and joy, the whole while, my back cover description played through and through my head. By the time I was done, my blurb was nearly ready for prime time.

But I continued to struggle with the title. And you can’t make a cover without a title!

For the first two volumes in the Woodley, USA series, I had employed working titles that eventually felt so right, I ended up keeping them as actual titles. This experience did not repeat itself for me, this time. My original working title, “Rivers and Roads,” just did not seem to fit the story anymore, once it became full-blown. I tried everything! Brainstorming with Beta readers and CPs, free-association drawing, scribbling random words on slips of paper and pulling them out of a zipper bag. Nothing worked.

So for a few days, I tried to clear my brain while watching YouTube video tributes to Neil Peart. It would be hard for me to proclaim any one Rush song as my favorite, but “Ghost of a Chance” has always been one of my top fifty or so. Now that Neil is gone, his beautiful lyrics feel all the more poignant. I’m not sure why I did, but for some reason I held the title of this song up against my manuscript. It literally gave me chills.

A quick online search showed me there are already hundreds of books out there with this title. Well, that was a bummer. I talked it over with my CPs and readers. They all said. “Yeah, but if it gives you chills…and by the way, it gives me chills, too.”

My Biggest Fangirl said “Always go with your chills!”

So. There you go. I believe there’s a Ghost of a Chance.

Because Neil.

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This is Real, This is Now!

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It’s Launch Day for MOONLIGHT AND MOSS!

You know how it goes: It feels like I’ve been waiting for this day forever, but on the other hand, it all went so fast, once I finally decided on a release date.

That, they say, is normal to the point of being trite. Here’s the really weird thing, though: I feel like it all happened so long ago! I’ve been working a lot, lately, on the next book in this story-cycle, so that now when I talk about my work I get all mixed up about which story I’m talking about. I hope I don’t end up giving away any spoilers that way!

Each of the books in this story cycle is designed to stand on its own. The end of each book winds up the main plot and finishes the current story (with just a few Questions to give you a hint at what the next one might be about!)

You still might prefer to read them in order if you can, though, to avoid spoilers. Seven Turns happens, chronologically, before Moonlight and Moss and also focuses on Callaghan McCarthy. I am pretty sure there will be one more story (not counting the Christmas Episode – stay tuned!) with Cally at its heart. I have tentatively titled the next tale “Rivers and Roads.”

From here, I can see at least seven stories about Woodley, USA and it’s quirky denizens, and that seems like an appropriate number of rivers to cross. But you never know. There are a lot of people – and you know what I mean and do not mean when I say “people!” – calling my name. People who want their stories, also, to be told. I guess I’ll find out when I get to that bend in the road!

…and then they came upon the Thing…


(With many thanks to The Men for their amazing song and all the inspiring imagery it lent me.)

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