To First Drafts and Beyond!

First, a victory announcement: I just finished the first draft of my novella for NineStar Press’ “Lost” collection! It has polyamorous alien space pirates versus mad scientists and totally-not-dinosaurs! During at least the last five thousand words of the book, I listened to nothing but Meat Loaf’s discography, and everything is glorious!

The novella also ended up clocking in at almost 35,000 words; the collection requires between 30k and 120k, but I erred on the shorter side so I’ll have plenty of time to edit before the April 30th deadline. This was a new challenge for me, since I usually either write novels that are over a hundred thousand words, or short stories that tend to be under ten thousand. Thus, today I’m going to discuss the process of creating this novella, and how it differed from my usual methods (and what tended to be par for the course.)

First, I had to settle on an idea and an overarching plot in the first place. Other than the length, the only requirements were that characters were somehow lost, and that LGBTQIA+ romance be incorporated into the story. As I mentioned in the Valentine’s blog post, I’m not as inclined toward writing romance outside of pre-established relationships, so I bounced around a couple different ideas; a superhero and supervillain who get lost together and team up to escape while falling for each other, a demon trying to help a failed cultist after a ritual goes wrong, etc. But the idea I kept coming back to was an old sci-fi staple; getting lost on an alien planet. I already had a story in mind for a space fantasy setting, but with a long plot and an entire spaceship crew’s worth of characters, I figured it’d be too bloated to cram into a novella.

What I COULD do, however, was write a prequel in the same universe. And I already had a relationship set up to explore; one protagonist’s parents, a polyamourous quartet of space sirens (the Psyrens discussed over here) who were feared and revered pirates before being scattered across the galaxy. Of course I could have these pirates crash onto a bizarre alien planet, and what could be more romantic than four alien pirates who are all in love with each other? I busied myself with plans for what alien planets would be most interesting for these pirates to get lost in—and how to make sure my plots didn’t replicate pre-existing Star Trek episodes (thanks Mom!)

Next came the outline, a process I rigidly cling to even though I always deviate from the outline halfway through like a swiftly-derailing train. I’d already settled on having two protagonists, separating the pirates so they had to find each other and a way to escape, so I had to create two storylines that would meet at the beginning and end, and figure out how to have them mirror each other. It sounds like a complicated juggling act, but thankfully writing the “Deadly Drinks” series, which alternates between the Gallows brothers’ POVs, prepared me for doing it on a smaller scale. The main difference between outlining the two was that I didn’t mark when I would switch protagonists; I rigidly stick to chapter length and alternating in “Deadly Drinks,” but I elected to be looser about scene length and when POV switches happen in this piece.

Then comes perhaps the most necessary part of my process: writing and deleting a series of false starts. I’m not the sort who can actually write scenes out of order, and it often takes me a bit to set my train of plot on the outline track, so to speak. For this novella, the false starts led to an entirely new outline; where I’d originally planned to touch on the quartet early in their pirate days, I decided to go earlier and strengthen the romance aspect by having the story be about how three of the pirates find the fourth member of their spacefaring quartet. All I had to do was answer all the questions this brought up—why wasn’t their fourth member on their alien homeworld, how do the pirates reunite, how can they escape afterwards—and the plot practically wrote itself from there.

I had also originally planned to maroon my dear pirates on a frozen planet with a blood red sun (requiring characters to snuggle for warmth, which is the height of romance in the elements, right?) and hidden underground tunnels where most of the fauna actually survived to avoid all the snow. But between images of classic sci-fi art and a few hours of wandering through “No Man’s Sky,” I decided I wanted to explore the terrors of an alien jungle instead. I decided to keep the expansive network of underground tunnels, but what would the tunnel-dwellers be hiding from? Giant, hungry megafauna, of course. (Perhaps I’ve been playing too much Magic the Gathering, with the recent cards involving Pirates versus Dinosaurs…) And then what if there was intelligent life hiding in those tunnels, unnoticed by spacefarers overhead because the signals were blocked by being underground? That means a chance to introduce *more weird aliens!*

See, that’s perhaps the most important part of writing: there has to be something enjoyable about it. We authors joke about how much writing and editing equals suffering, but if you don’t enjoy the story or its purpose, then what’s the point? Even if they don’t all make it into the final draft, I always make sure I have a few key concepts or scenes in my stories that I want to explore, like a cool fight or examining the details of a magic system. Or, in this case, designing weird aliens who are relatable and “human”, even if they grow mouths instead of scar tissue and can control others with their singing. Yes folks, Psyrens are bizarre, even when they aren’t pirates.

While I had challenges writing my first novella, figuring out issues like pacing and how much information to include or discard, it was also a lot of fun. More room than a short story to add plots, sub-plots, and extra character development, but without the time investment needed for a full novel. Plus, I’m literally writing a classic sci-fi adventure and all the ridiculous twists that entails, but with polyamorous alien pirates. What’s not to love?

I’m taking a few days off from it to celebrate its completion (returning to a for-fun project instead to keep my writing chops up), and then I’ll go back into editing with a clear head. Should all go well, it’ll be ready by the April 30th deadline, and will hopefully release with the rest of the “Lost” collection. We’ll see soon enough~

~Dorian

Soul Love, Slow Burn

It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’ve got a long shift at the day job, while my darling dearest waits through jury duty; how romantic! Okay, we’ll actually just be celebrating later in the week, since to us it’s just another day to celebrate our relationship, which is something we do quite often. Yes, we’re one of those ridiculously sappy couples even after years of dating. It’s romantic no matter what day it is.

Surely, this reflects when I write romance in my stories, right? Well…

It’s no secret that romance isn’t my genre of choice. I’ve found a few I’ve enjoyed of late, but it’s a thing I’m picky about. Why? Emotionally, I try to be a practical person, and this applies doubly so to romance. My partner and I’s romance was a long one, years of friendship that later blossomed, and when people express surprise with how long we’ve dated, I just shrug and say “my parent’s dated for thirteen years before getting married.” I’m also the sort that made a checklist of things that would need to happen before even considering marriage (dearest, if you’re reading this, thanks for your patience with all that.)

Needless to say, love at first sight tropes and whirlwind romances make me gag. “You barely know each other!” I cry as I slam the book shut or shut off the movie. And forced romances in other genres, like a fantasy book where the protagonist and obvious love interest A fall into a contrived romance over a story that takes only a few days? Ugh. There are exceptions, but overall, it makes me roll my eyes so hard that I’m surprised I haven’t spent more time staring at the inside of my own skull. Give me a romance that slowly builds across a series, the kind where I cheer when the lovers have already gone through hell together when they finally kiss. That kind of love’s my cup of cocoa.

Furthermore, when I was in college, a discussion in my medieval romance class mentioned that at least in medieval literature, all romance was about the pursuit; there were only a handful of stories that actually touched upon a relationship in-progress. That struck a chord in me, because even as a child I’d noticed this in modern stories too. Just look at the Disney flicks we grew up with; do we ever see the princesses with their princes after their kisses or marriages in the denouement? Even in those shoddy direct-to-video sequels, half the time that relationship doesn’t even factor into the plot. What happens to that happily ever after once the credits have rolled?

Surprising no one, these points affect how I write romance in a couple of ways. Mainly, I like to write a lot of pre-established relationships, where the lovers are at least close friends if not already dating by the time the story starts. Instead of focusing on the pursuit of romance, I find tension in how the couple navigates their issues. Are they strong enough to survive complications? Will their love make them stronger, or does it blind them to darker issues arising in each other?

Valentine-Jarris

Jarrod (L) and Farris (R) sharing a drink for Valentine’s Day

No surprise, you’ll see these points and more come up in the Deadly Drinks series, seeing as protagonist Jarrod Gallows and his boyfriend Farris are already dating when “Bones and Bourbon” starts—and Jarrod hasn’t been entirely open about his past when his possessed brother starts reappearing in his life. There will be other relationships seen later in the series, but even those that start in one book are going to get a chance to breathe and grow throughout the series if I get any say about it.

 

Now, I am slowly starting to branch out and try my hand at showing a romance as it starts. I have a for-fun practice project (which is…totally not a self-indulgent fanfic, nope) that involves romance blooming between characters from literally two different worlds, which will give me some interesting complications to work with as I figure out how to actually write a first kiss. I’m also preparing a novella for NineStar Press’s upcoming “Lost” collection, whose requirements only asked for characters to be lost and for some sort of LGBT+ romance to occur. The result is what I’ve been calling “polyamorous, alien space pirates,” which has a runaway pirate threesome crash on an alien planet and, during their escape, discovering a fourth member of their relationship. I manage to partially avoid my distaste of a whirlwind romance by having them be soulmates, so a sudden connection makes sense because it’s destiny and they’re made for each other…but it’s a step in the right direction. And it has pirates in space! Everything’s better if you chuck it into space.

So happy Valentine’s Day, whether or not you’re in a relationship of your own or just romancing vicariously through fiction. I’ll be working, figuring out how to write the final romantic scene for my space pirates, and looking forward to many more years with my slowburn sweetheart.

~Dorian

Time After Timing

Before I begin this week’s blog, I must quickly apologize for how sporadic the blog’s been recently. Still trying to figure out how to balance deadlines, i.e. making sure my novella’s making timely process before its ultimate due date of April 30th while remembering to come up with blog topics. I’ll hopefully be better about this once the first draft is done and I’m onto the editing stage, but we all have things to learn as content creators, now don’t we?

In a similar vein is the topic of this week’s blog, which is one of the first things I had to learn as a writer: timing.

Back when I got my start writing fanfiction, I was notoriously bad at timing. Part of this was because I was so excited to just be writing cool ideas that I wrote whatever came to mind and let the story guide me—the ultimate pantser, so to speak. Which would’ve been fine if I didn’t write “hot off the presses” and posted updates as soon as they were written (which the posting guidelines for fanfiction.net explicitly warned us not to do back in the day). I was notorious for scenes dragging on too long, only to suddenly crash into the ending with no foreshadowing because that’s what I happened to write that afternoon. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a vicious plotter and self-editor now?

Either way, I’d like to think that years of constructive criticism from readers and workshops have helped me turn timing into one of my strengths in my writing, instead of a glaring weakness. I put a lot of thought into how I pace my stories, and that’s weighing particularly heavy on my mind this week as I near the end of my novella’s first draft. Thus, I’m going to talk about a couple of tips and tricks I’ve picked up about timing, so I can get into the headspace of puzzling out how I’m writing this ending.

  • There’s a delicate balance between action and rest. No matter how much is happening in your story, characters still need a moment to breathe and process what’s going on. Without such respites, they won’t have time to reflect on what’s happening—and neither will your readers. How much time you need depends on what kind of story you’re writing. If the action scenes are few but really need to stand out, you can get away with having more time to reflect and build character. A film that’s actually a great example of this is the movie Redline; there are two big races, one at the beginning and one at the end, and the rest is building up characters and stakes while gearing up for the ultimate race. On the other hand, if you’re trying to keep the characters and readers on their toes, however, you can actually pull off interrupting a calmer scene with a sudden beat of action, something Cordelia Kingsbridge does well in Can’t Hide From Me.

  • From a technical standpoint, reading tends to drag on if the sentences and paragraphs end up the same length; the repetition becomes monotonous. Furthermore, structure can be used to convey mood and tension. Action tends to be clipped. Clipped sentences. Short paragraphs grab our attention. But if the sentence goes on longer, it usually signifies a calm in the action…or at least that things are slow enough that the protagonist can stop to notice and think about things. Changing things up in your sentence structure like this will actually help the flow, amongst other things.

    (On a related note: Sentence structure can also be used to differentiate character voices. When reading “Bones and Bourbon,” note how Jarrod is more curt and thus uses shorter sentences that are to-the-point, while Retz has a tendency toward longer but more casual sentences.)

  • I often work with multiple protagonists in my longer stories, so timing becomes important in order to maintain consistency in the story. It’s not a matter of rehashing the same timeframe or event with different characters; seeing the same thing on repeat bores readers unless there’s enough variance between the differing POVs. I tend to utilize switching between POVs to escape lulls in the story. In “Bones and Bourbon” for example, there’s a lot of travel that takes place, and the Gallows brothers aren’t always in the same location. Readers don’t need to see the entire journey, so I use that as a time to swap, such as when Jarrod gets hired by a client and is traveling to them for more details, so I let him travel while seeing what Retz is up to in the interim.

    Showcasing the same scene in different points of view can be a little trickier, especially if you’re trying to see the same moment for both of them. The trick here is that if you rewind or fast-forward time so one protagonist can catch up with the other, to do so in small increments. When Jarrod and Retz reunite, I reach the scene first in Jarrod’s POV, where he notices evidence that his brother’s shown up, but how and why is a mystery. When I return to Retz’s POV, I only go backwards by a scene, showing his lead-up to how he leaves the evidence behind, and then continue moving forward. If I had moved too far back—such as having Retz’s chnapter start an entire day before what just took place in Jarrod’s scene—it would be too much of a difference for the readers. (Unless, of course, Retz’s chapters were always a few days before Jarrod’s, but I would have to keep that consistent.)

  • I’ve always been fascinated by parallels, callbacks, and reprises, those spaces in a story that echo an earlier event in some way. Sometimes this is to repeat an emotional response, and other times to subvert it, but either way requires timing to pull off. A silly example I remember from my childhood (so you don’t have to) was the pilot movie for the short-lived TV Show Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. In one fight scene, Buzz Lightyear is training a robot companion and says “You’re good, but I’m better,” only for the robot to destroy a bunch of enemies and repeat the line back at him, echoing the sentiments of heroism and one-upmanship…only to get shot by the main bad guy, who then echoes the line again, still boasting but considerably more sinister. While it showcases both uses of a callback quite well, it all takes place over the course of about one minute—without time for the line and its implications to settle, the repeated line just becomes annoying at best.

I could go on, but blogs are bidden to timing too in order to keep readers’ attention, and letting your eyes glaze over at this rate would defeat my point. Timing is a delicate act, and to complicate it further, everyone has different preferences over it—just look at the debate over pacing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the end, like any writing technique, timing becomes a matter of not just skill, but preference, style, and what suits the story best.

Now dear readers, I believe it’s time for me to get this novella finished.

~Dorian

Madness to the Methods (On Editing)

In lieu of blogging last week, I instead worked on the first round for editing on “Bones and Bourbon” before it releases. However, this was technically an optional round; my editor isn’t actually starting his work until February. I had a couple reasons why, so I figured I would share the most important ones with you dear readers. Even if you aren’t an author in the midst of the writing/editing process, I hope it still provides an informative look at what goes on backstage before a book goes live.

1. How Do These Work Again?

As I was originally querying for “Bones and Bourbon,” I was also working on the other books in the series. The second book was finished and sent to my beta reader and I began work on book three. Amongst other things, the third book prominently features the furaribi, Japanese fire-spirits first seen in “Bones and Bourbon.” When I started working on that, I decided to brush up on furaribi facts for ideas…and realized that more information had been dug up about these obscure supernaturals, which I had missed out on while writing the later “Bones and Bourbon” drafts because I’d lived in The Middle of Nowhere with all its dial-up internet glory.

I’d fixed most of these details before sending the novel to NineStar Press. However, now that I’ve written about half of the third book and settled on a few other worldbuilding details, I wanted to make sure that all the details for the furaribi worked between the two books. A minor example of one such detail was that originally, Aimi mentioned being only sixteen, and furaribi lifespans were implied to be much like human ones. After the research and edits, furaribi are much longer lived—Aimi still looks like a teenager, but there are hints that she’s far older than her looks suggest…

Other supernatural details also had to be doublechecked for logic and consistency, such as how huldra bodies operate (could/would a hollow body still be able to produce sweat and tears?), whether the details of the occasionally-used alchemy made sense, and so on. After seeing how other authors have changed the rules of their magic mid-story and thus created plotholes (unless Harry Potter’s Hagrid is MEANT to secretly be the most powerful wizard who taught himself wordless magic), I’ve decided to err far on the side of caution when it comes to making my universe work.

2. Wait, That’s Offensive!

Not only do I hail from the Middle of Nowhere, without access to much media, and also in a predominantly small town of predominantly average white folks. Most of what I learned from diversity was learned from my time at Mills College down in California, and then by actively seeking diverse voices in literature and social media since then. Much as I try, I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn about being a good ally.

As I discussed earlier in a twitter thread, I didn’t realize that albinos were often portrayed as villains or enigmatic, otherworldly beings, and how damaging that stereotype is. It makes complete sense when thought about, but not knowing any albinos personally, I simply didn’t think about it until someone brought that up. Problem was, “Bones and Bourbon” originally implied that main antagonist Nalem’s original body and thus true form…was albino. Erk.

Thus, during this edit of “Bones and Bourbon,” I removed all references of Nalem being albino and even changed a couple scenes and concepts around to fit this. I could’ve chosen to ignore the stereotype, clung to how long the character had been this way (I even had commissioned art of that particular design), and simply resolved to make it up in a later story while maybe subverting the stereotype somehow in this one. But if I did that, I still would’ve added to that damaging stereotype now, and potentially hurt my readers in the process. I’d rather spend a few hours changing details in my novel than spread harmful stereotypes for however long my book is read.

Another note I should add is to doublecheck words that refer to a minority group—be it race, sexuality, disability, or any other group—and make sure that the group that word is referring to doesn’t find it offensive. Some words used to be in common use and are now considered offensive (I know I caught one that had somehow snuck its way into my book). Others are words we’re told are offensive, but the minority group actually prefers it (such as discussions I’ve seen about those who are disabled preferring that term instead of “differently abled” or other such tip-toeing phrases). We creators don’t get to decide what is and isn’t offensive to people outside our experiences, so make sure to defer to the experts who’ve lived it.

3. A Season of Consistency

When I first wrote “Bones and Bourbon,” the story was set in Autumn, right around protagonist Retz’s birthday. It was full of pure Oregon atmosphere, full of pouring rain, falling leaves, drowning rain, apple harvests, early frosts, and even more all-consuming rain. For a variety of reasons, I decided that atmosphere was better suited for the second book, and thus I booted “Bones and Bourbon” back a couple months, to the end of July and beginning of August. Contrary to popular belief, Oregon does mostly take a break from the rain during the summer, especially during the last couple years where it’s instead been on fire.

I thought I’d edited out all the rain, save for one scene where I planned to keep it in (because what’s Oregon without at least a little rain?) Readers, I had to rearrange whole fight scenes to remove mentions of splattering mud and blood intermingling with the rain. I even found other consistency issues I’d somehow glossed over, including a reference to an encounter that was no longer in the book. Glad I caught that before readers could ask what that fight was about and how a taser got involved.

4. Making a Career of Evil

Villains are fun to write. Villains are also hard to write, because it’s so easy for them to seem funny instead of scary. Dracula may sound scary, but how terrifying can an elder vampire be when he’s seen bashing himself against a window in bat-form because there’s too much garlic in the way?

Many great villains get a chance to monologue about their evil plans, and Nalem gets his chance to shine in the middle of the book. When I read through this speech during my edits, however, I found it to be all style and no substance. His rivals were right to mock him, and I almost joined in! You can’t take a villain seriously if even the author thinks he’s all bark and no bite. I’d also developed a bit more about his past schemes and modus operandi while writing the later books, so I rewrote his speech both to sound more sensible to his audience and to better fit his plans later in the series.

These are by no means the only edits I did, and I’m sure the editing process is far from over, but at least I got these four main issues out of the way. Now more than ever, I’m excited that I’m actually in the process of publishing my first novel, and in a few short months, it will be available for the world to read. I must admit that it’s a little scary too, mostly because once this book is published, so many details for the rest of the series will be set in stone, and that means no more last-minute edits to fiddle with details like this. As an author, that’s just something I’ll have to learn to contend with: to finally let the story just be.

Hope you’re as ready for the final form of this story as I am.

~Dorian

Star Studded Settings

I don’t usually give much thought to celebrities (I only recognize a handful, if we’re being honest), but today marks the second year David Bowie’s been gone, and just a little over a year since Carrie Fisher’s passing, so I’ve been mulling over the concept a bit. It’s an impressive concept, to be so well-known and loved (or hated, in some cases) that your mere existence affects the social landscape, that people who’ve never met you have had their lives changed by your work. I know I cried when Bowie passed, and nearly did again during a certain scene with Fisher in The Last Jedi.

Naturally, I got to thinking: how does the role of a celebrity affect fictional worlds? Of course, there’s the celebrity as a character in their own right, from royalty in need of rescuing, or the childhood hero who doesn’t quite stack up to the legends. Instead, I began thinking of the celebrity as a part of setting; we create the specific royalties and pantheons for the worlds we create, but what about those folks the populace looks up to? Perhaps more importantly, what do your characters think about such celebrities, even if they never chance to meet?

Consider a couple ideas…

  • First off, what kind of celebrities might exist in your setting? Are they similar to those in our world, such as musicians and actors? Is it a fantasy world where adventurers are praised? A paranormal romance where werewolf wrestling is a key sport in the occult underground? Fans arguing over which of their favorite space diplomats have initiated more successful first contacts? Consider your setting’s culture and values, and use that to determine what its people would be fans of.

  • Need to showcase the passage of time and its effects? Use news about your celebrity. Say a tyrannical government is cracking down on free speech, so suddenly the concerts of everyone’s favorite musician is being canceled, but those in the gossip chain heard that he can now be found at a hidden speakeasy. Or a politician fell from grace during book one, but a calamity struck in book two and she helped with the reconstruction efforts, so she’s now back in the people’s good graces by book three.

  • Social events follow celebrities like felines to catnip, and these can be great scenes to showcase a different side of your character. What would force them to end up at a dance, a playwright’s newest show, a high-stakes competition crowded with onlookers—or are these events your characters would visit willingly? A celebrity’s influence can also cause such events to show up suddenly. Imagine a team of crackshot thieves are prepared to hijack a vehicle full of money when it hits a planned route; how do they react when a celebrity suddenly passes, and now the route’s been changed to make way for the funeral procession?

  • A celebrity’s opinions can have great effect on their fans, for good or ill. Say your characters are trying to enact social change, such as a good ol’ fashioned revolt and overthrow of the fantastical government. What will they do if the local celebrity disapproves and the public turns against them? Or if the celebrity approves, and now the rebellion’s ranks swell with more new members than they know what to do with?

  • Connected to that last point: consider how fervently devoted some fans are for their celebrities. Simultaneously consider events like pilgrimages made to the home of Elvis Presley, or the artwork of Carrie Fisher as a Saint (may she protect us and remind us to take our meds, amen). What if there is a celebrity who garners as much belief as a god in your setting…and if there are actual gods in this setting, what are their opinions on the matter?

  • If nothing else, there’s always the celebrity as good old-fashioned metaphor. Is your protagonist’s favorite dancer a beacon of hope, believing that no matter how dark things get, life still goes on so long as the dancer keeps moving? Perhaps the dancer represents a rogue’s lost dreams of what they could’ve been in another life—and if the rogue then realizes they’re still just as dexterous and nimble due to their lifestyle, or that their time adventuring has made them just as famous? Now you’ve got some growth and character development.

I’m sure there are plenty of other uses for famous folks in your fiction, and this isn’t even touching upon them as characters in their own right. That’s part of a celebrity’s allure, I think; the fact that their fame can say so much about a world without them speaking a single word.

Now if you’ll excuse me dearests, I’m going to bury myself in David Bowie’s discography for the rest of the day. Maybe watch The Blues Brothers again so I can see Carrie Fisher wielding a rocket launcher. It’ll be a good day.

~Dorian

Favorite Reads of 2017

Congratulations, dearest readers: you all made it to 2018! If your year was anything like mine, it was a roller coaster that was done before you even finished strapping yourself in. While most of it was a parade of bizarre news and awful weather, the year did have its bright spots. For me, one of the best perks of 2017 was all the books!

A quick confession: I’d actually taken a bit of a break from hardcore reading the past few years. Not to say I stopped reading entirely—an author that doesn’t read is like a scientist who doesn’t research, after all—but I had a hard time sticking with books that didn’t instantly grab me (or, if we’re being honest, fanfiction). I kept telling myself I was too busy to commit to a book, or that I was sick of over-analyzing stories after college.

Then “Bones and Bourbon” was accepted by Ninestar Press (and releases in three months, that’s so soon I can’t believe it), and in order to better get to know fellow readers and authors in my community, I volunteered to be a judge for the Rainbow Awards. Plus, I resumed social media and met all sorts of other authors on Twitter and Goodreads, ended up at the San Diego Comic Con and found more books, and so on. To make up for all the time lost, I threw myself headlong into reading, and now?

Now, I’m going to share with you my top ten favorite reads of 2017! There’s no particular order to this list; just a collection of books I enjoyed this year, from mainstream to indie, genre or otherwise.

  1. The Animal Man Omnibus, as written by Grant Morrison

    This whopper of a comic collection was what kicked off 2017 for me, being my 2016 Xmas gift from my partner. For those who don’t know what’s so special about Grant Morrison’s take on Animal Man, I won’t spoil the fun, but if you’re a fan of deconstructing superheroes, underutilized characters, and comic book metanarratives, Animal Man is a treat. I especially recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics (especially since they’re technically in the same universe…)

  2. Can’t Hide From Me by Cordelia Kingsbridge

    The first book I read for the 2017 Rainbow Awards, and one of my favorites to boot. This thriller has the perfect balance of conflict and romance, as its secret agent protagonists try to avoid both a killer and the threat of falling back in love with each other. All the characters are entertaining and well-developed (and diverse to boot!), the action is on point, and the use of tension is masterful.

  3. Haunting Muses, anthology curated by Doreen Perrine

    Four words: Lesbian Ghost Story Anthology. The premise alone is exciting, but all the stories within were so good! The definition of ghosts ranged wildly, from literal apparitions (some of who were the titular lesbians, but not always) to memories, ancestors, or even the faint reminders of a long-lost relationship. There are funny stories and dark ones, romances and tales of terrors, and even the sweetest zombie love story I’ve ever read.

  4. Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

    I’ve been meaning to read more Seanan books for awhile now, having only experienced her pseudonym Mira Grant (and some of her music, actually). Discount Armageddon was one of the most fun reads I had, where just the protagonist’s view on life is enough to lighten the narrative. I also loved how many less-common creatures were used (or invented, such as the cuckoos), and how the few familiar creatures we saw were given unique twists—and being the worldbuilding geek I am, I loved all the realistic biological details. Hail!

  5. Fire Sea by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

    The third book in the Death Gate Cycle, Fire Sea wasn’t a quick read, but definitely a worthwhile one. Each book takes place on a different world, and this one is a slowly dying planet whose inhabitants utilize necromancy and the strength of the dead in order to keep the living alive. The concept alone was fascinating, but add in two rival protagonists who must work together to survive, even with conflicting ideas on what should be done with the knowledge of necromancy in their inter-planetary war? Moral AND magical conundrums, a delicious combination.

  6. Sweet Blood by Dusk Peterson

    Sweet Blood is a special entry in this list, because while I didn’t like all of it, it gave me the most to think about out of all the books on this list. It’s the fifth book in a series, is technically five novellas strapped together into one book, and starts with a sadistic torturer punishing one of his own—but while it’s certainly not for everyone, there’s such wonderful craft past that opening! Inspired by historical prison reforms, this novel brings up important moral questions about redemption, sacrifice, how to balance tradition and revolution, and so much more. Even minor characters have intriguing developments, there’s worldbuilding even in minor details like the presence of hot cocoa in the dungeon, and that sadistic torturer I mentioned? He’s so multifaceted and developed that he became one of my favorite characters. Still trying to wrap my head around that one.

  7. The Ancient Magus Bride by Kore Yamazaki

    I jokingly call this my guilty pleasure manga, but I admit, I’m a sucker for anything with properly dark faeries and magic. Not only is this series well-researched in regards to British folklore and detailed with its unique brands of magic, but it’s a story of hope overcoming despair, be it saving endangered dragons or just learning new magics at home. Plus, who doesn’t want to smooch the powerful, naive eldritch wizard with a skull head?…Just me, huh?

  8. Hearts of Darkness by Andrea Speed

    Another book that, while not perfect, was flat-out fun to read. The protagonist is a master supervillain’s son who comes into his own as he doublecrosses other villains and heroes alike, with the help of overpowered gadgets and an adorable assassin sidekick. The evil plans don’t experience too many hiccups, but sometimes, it’s fun to just watch a protagonist be openly wicked as he crushes his competition throughout the city. Plus, one of the “good guys” that gets thwarted is basically Batman, which I found outright hilarious.

  9. Ardulum: First Don by J.S. Fields

    First off, bonus points for not only having prominent aliens in this sci-fi story, but having almost all of the POV characters be aliens. Especially when those aliens come from such vastly different worlds and backstories (and are all apparently inspired by different types of fungi to boot)! I also like that as the plot goes on, ripples and repercussions arise across the different POVs, especially across the radio transmissions heading many of the chapters. It’s such a cool technique to holistically tie all the storylines and settings together.

  10. Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson

    First off: that art. Just look at that art a long moment. Then go read the comic and see how much more of a gut-punch the plot is, its gorgeous art refusing to shy away from the visceral and terrifying. You would think that animals solving occult mysteries would be cute and quirky like a Scooby Doo knockoff? Read this comic and let your perceptions be ripped apart to shreds. Then give your pets a nice, long hug.

And now, as a bonus entry:

  1. Utter Fabrication: A Historical Account of Unusual Buildings, curated by Dawn Vogel and Jeremy Zimmerman

    Okay, this one’s cheating a little, because I have a short story in it, “The Orpheus Well.” Of course I’m going to like it. But even if you completely ignore my story, all the other entries are so good and diverse! From haunted spaceships to disappearing bike racks and fantastical hideaways, this anthology explodes with cool ideas and nifty words. Little touches like the transition markers and the extra artwork show what a labor of love this was; I’m honored that I got to be a part of it.

There’s the verdict, dearest readers. Now, onto all the books of 2018—including mine!

~Dorian

Laugh it Up

Like many others, I rushed to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters this past weekend. Now, I’m not going to spoil any plot points, but one spoiler-free element of the film surprised me: it had a sense of humor. That isn’t to say that Star Wars is a series without humor, but instead of dry humor and droid jokes, there are conversations that were genuinely funny, and a few moments where a combination of timing and unexpected reactions caused the whole theater to erupt in astonished laughter.

Thanks to Star Wars and other pieces of media I’ve seen recently (such as Thor: Ragnarok, finally playing through last year’s Ratchet and Clank game, and so on), I’ve been thinking about the use of humor in stories and genres that aren’t necessarily comedies. When you’re fighting bad guys in space in order to save your home from destruction (which actually describes all three examples above, coincidentally), why should humor be included amidst the action and drama? Actually, when used correctly, humor can actually be used to enhance the mood and tension of the narrative!

Humor can help strengthen the narrative in a number of ways. It can be used to highlight what your universe defines as normal; if your character can crack jokes about killer robots that look like crabs, the audience learns that either crab-bots are normal in this universe, or at least fitting in with the rules this universe has set up. Funny moments can help give characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe and collect their thoughts between action beats. It can also be used to betray expectations, such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi mentioned above, or in reverse where something seems to be funny but turns out to have a shocking consequence.

For an example on how this can work, I’m going to discuss an eccentric video game, Disgaea 4. It’s a comedic tactics game where a fallen-from-power vampire decides to overthrow a corrupt regime in order to fulfill the promises of fair treatment he made to his disenfranchised employees. Such a premise could make for a gritty, supernatural political thriller, but the humor is what makes the story—such as the vampire getting upset at a newspaper, not for running a smear campaign against him, but because of its atrocious spelling mistakes. Or the fact that he thinks sardines are a proper source of food for himself and payment for the series’ trademark exploding penguins.

We're serious about sardines here.

Just like any other vampire…?

Part of this humor comes from the reactions of other characters, such as the vampire’s resigned werewolf butler, which helps explain which aspects are normal (the exploding penguins) and which are uniquely the vampire’s eccentricities (his commitment to eating sardines instead of drinking blood). Tough attacks on a demonic overlord’s regime gets broken up by a teenage girl teaching her adopted younger sister/world-destroying weapon in-training, a breather moment that also serves as a subplot about humanity and sisterhood. And when the humor takes a backseat to penguin-exploding vampire revenge schemes, the risk of that being lost to our protagonist forever helps us realize the stakes in place.

My stories tend to face dark concepts, such as a demon collecting her first soul or a paranormal mercenary trying to save his brother from 20+ years of possession. Dark can be fun, but if a story stays dark for too long, it can become an emotional drag for readers. The demon child may be all-powerful, but she can still be confused why Earth canines are so much smaller than her hellhound Huckleberry. The possessed brother may occasionally try to take over the world, but sometimes the spirit possessing him just really wants dibs on his favorite breakfast pastries.

In the end, humor works much like a good story, wherein the punchline is the plot twist. The unexpected answer to the audience’s question catches them off-guard, be it revealing the identity of the protagonist’s lost parents or why the chicken crossed the road. Laughter and joy can be as memorable as any other emotional reaction to a plot twist—and in today’s world, couldn’t we use just a little bit more laughter?

~Dorian