November Wrap-Up

Hello! Welcome back!

It’s the first day of December, so I feel that it’s only fair to do a quick summary of November to give it a proper send off. And, as always, thank you for reading!

This month, I’ve reviewed Tempests & Slaughter by the wonderful Tamora Pierce, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, To Kill a Kingdom by stunning debut novelist Alexandra Christo, and Catwoman: Soulstealer by award-winning author Sarah J. Maas.

Most of my reviews came from listening to audiobooks this month, mainly because I’ve been swamped in post-production with the audiobook for All That We See or Seem, which I highly recommend. On that note, the audiobook will be available later this month on Audible, so if you’re looking for a new listen while traveling over the holidays, I’d be happy to read it to you. 

On the Rambling Thoughts side of things, we have articles on Book Marketing, Blog Marketing, and What to Research While Writing Fantasy.

This has been a fun month, and now I’m excited to spend the day enjoying my books from Black Friday. It feels like Christmas. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of reviews to come.

I don’t have a problem.

Really.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for some more exciting updates I have to announce in December!

From Daggers to Doughnuts: What to Research While Writing Fantasy

E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G

Am I stating the obvious?

Probably. But it still needs to be said.

Look, I don’t care if you’re writing about an orc falling in love with a dragon in a multidimensional galaxy, you still need to maintain certain standards of reality to keep your audience invested in your story.

I get it. There’s a freedom to writing fantasy due to its lack of restrictions, but there are still restrictions. If your orc from another world suddenly starts eating McDonald’s, I’m going to be yanked out of the story by sheer incredulity.

No one likes to be interrupted in the middle of a good book, so don’t be the one responsible for doing that to your readers.

Good, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk physics, food, and fundamental weaponry.

Physics

Think you weren’t constrained by the laws of earthly physics? You thought wrong – to an extent.

Physics is one area where you need to know the rules to break them. Why? Because until told otherwise, those are the rules your audience live by. It’s also much easier to alter these assumed rules than it is to scrap them and create your own – but if you choose to do that then you need to explain that to your reader.

A great (spoiler free) example of this comes from the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas.

Maas uses descriptive imagery of her witches flying, including the wild freedom of the rushing wind. When the witches get an upgrade in flying apparatuses, she explains that the wind doesn’t bother their eyes because they have a second set of eyelids that they can blink into place, serving as a sort of natural flying goggle. The witches are vicious killing machines, they can’t be bothered by something as insignificant as the wind in their eyes.

NOTE: My fiancé pointed out that flying itself goes against the laws of physics, but Maas explains this through her complex magic system. She does a great job of integrating the rules of it throughout the series instead of having a giant infodump.

*rolls eyes at fiancé*

Chemists.

Food

Gabriel Kreuther, NYC

Food is a major element, because while your audience may not be familiar with the feeling of escaping a dragon, they certainly know what a good meal should look like.

This is a big one for me. I. Love. Food. I am a foodie, and I do not discriminate. I love burgers and chateaubriand. This means that I am, perhaps insanely, familiar with foods from different cultures and classes.

Classes? You ask. Why does food have to be classist?

I’m glad you asked.

It doesn’t have to be, but if your characters are dining in the great hall of a palace and they’re eating gruel, your readers are going to be confused.

If they’ve been bragging about their chef, I don’t expect them to be excited about the bread. It’s minor details that can distract the reader.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying, make it make sense. Also, if your story is influenced by a certain culture, research their food. This can be so much fun, and you might end up with a few new recipes!

Ex. 1
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins distinctly identifies the food based on which District the characters are in, specifically focusing on bread. When Katniss goes to the Capitol, she is enthralled by the luxurious food, but the excessive richness makes her feel sick because she is not accustomed to it. There is a distinct difference between the special meal that Katniss’ family prepares for the Reaping, and the food that Katniss imbibes on her journey. What’s more, Katniss doesn’t take it in stride, because even the cuisine is a vastly different experience from what she’s used to and where she comes from.

“I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions from the woods. I don’t recognize the grain, our own tessera rations cook down to an unattractive brown mush. Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. As for the pudding, I can’t even guess what’s in it. Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitution for the Capitol version.”

 – Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

Ex. 2
In Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo illustrates the luxurious lifestyle that the Grisha live in contract to the common army when Alina suddenly discovers that she has the powers of a Grisha. She is removed from her post in the First Army to train at the Little Palace, where she is given a lifestyle more opulent than she has ever known. Literally, the only thing less extravagant than her previous life is the food. Bardugo does include some exorbitant meals, but in the dining hall itself she maintains a standard of common fare such as herring and rye. She has the Darkling use the food as a tool to humble the Grisha, despite the splendor of their lifestyles. As explained by Genya:

“The Darkling is very keen on the idea that we all eat hearty peasant fare. Saints forbid we forget we’re real Ravkans.”

 – Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone

Fundamental Weaponry

If you don’t have any sort of weaponry in your fantasy WIP, A) I’m shocked, and B) slightly impressed, so shoot me a copy when your done (haha, get it?) so I can satisfy my curiosity.

Most fantasy works, however, do have weapons involved in some way, whether it be wands to channel magic as a weapon or swords and daggers themselves. It’s especially important to research weapons to know how your characters interact with them and what their proper uses are. If your character is experienced with weaponry and uses a battle axe to chop wood, I’m going to cringe. Most weapons experts consider their accoutrements as almost sacred. There are also a variety of factors to consider such as weight or balance, in addition to experience

Ex. 1 & 2
In An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir takes care to note the differences between how her character Elias reacts when faced with an experienced versus an inexperienced opponent. Elias has been trained multiple forms of weapons and warfare for most of his life, and the narrative is more fast paced and full of action when fighting his experienced opponent. Likewise, his tone is almost nonchalant when faced with an inexperienced opponent.

“We match each other stroke for stroke until I get a hit on her right arm.
She tries to switch sword arms, but I jab my scim at her wrist faster than she can parry. Her scim goes flying, and I tackle her. Her white-blonde hair tumbles free of her bun.
“Surrender!” I pin her down at the wrists, but she trashes and rips one arm free, scrabbling for a dagger at her waist. Steel stabs at my ribs, and seconds later, I am on my back with a blade at my throat.”

Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes

“‘Don’t be sorry.’ I look for the clearest exit, but most are flooded with students. ‘You’ll be holding a knife to more than one throat before this is all over. You’ll need to practice technique, though. I could have disarmed you-“

Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes

Finally, research your own book.
What? But you wrote it. Why should you have to research it?

So you can be consistent.

You’re creating an entire world with complex rules of magic and laws of nature that do not currently exist. Don’t assume that your readers will forgive inconsistencies. Even if they will, why would you do that to your book? As a fantasy novel, your book already relies heavily on your readers’ suspension of disbelief, so don’t push them to the point of incredulity.

These are some of the most common matters that I’ve found distracting in fantasy novels, mainly because they are so prevalent in everyday life, with the exception of weaponry. Wielding weapons, however, is a skill that needs to be mastered and so few protagonists train enough for the skill level that they display.

What other common mistakes do you find in fantasy novels that distracts you from the story?

One I’ve seen frequently is using the wrong honorific for royalty, it always makes me cringe.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll (hopefully) see you next week!

-Lissa

Catwoman: Soulstealer: 3.5

Catwoman: Soulstealer
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Rating: 3.5

“She’d taken home more bruises than usual, and the man she’d beaten to unconsciousness… not her problem.” 

Sarah J. Maas, Catwoman: Soulstealer

I am a huge fan of Sarah J Maas and I love a good anti-hero, but Catwoman: Soulstealer was disappointingly obvious, and full of clichés. I mean, seriously, how many times did Selina Kyle have to purr her dialogue?

The problem I had with this book is that I loved the idea of Catwoman’s backstory more than I liked it’s execution.

Essentially, Selina Kyle is a trained League of Assassins alumnus who returns to her hometown of Gotham City with specific plans in mind, determined to do whatever needs to be done to meet her goal. She teams up with some of the city’s most notorious villains, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, thus creating the ultimate trio of female villains. Luke Fox, aka Batwing, is tasked with stopping them while Bruce Wayne is away.

The prose was well written, but not up to Ms. Maas’ normal standard. I get the sense that she wasn’t so much inspired by this work as she was filling in the blanks of a story that she was contracted to write. Which is technically true, so I suppose I cannot fault her for that. I can however, as a reader, be disappointed. Overall, it was a nice story, but not flushed out enough to make the reader feel fulfilled. The character relationships for the most part, although meant to be full of depth and meaning, felt more shallow because of the lack of development. It felt more like they took the steps out of rote than that they were truly motivated.

On the positive side, I loved the working relationship and friendship that bloomed between Selena, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn. I wish there had been more of a focus on this relationship. Instead, both Ivy and Harley’s backgrounds were revealed via an info-dump that felt too bland for their amazing stories. Let’s face it, these girls definitely deserve more airtime. Harley Quinn’s plan to blow up the children’s pageant stage (before the children arrived) as a moral protest is definitely #squadgoals and #girlpower.

I won’t discuss the “hate to love” romance that WE ALL KNEW WAS COMING, partially because of my no spoilers policy (please note my sarcasm), and partially because it bored me to tears. Seriously. Out of all of Selena’s relationships, her SO felt like the least significant. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for promoting girl power and family over one’s love life, but I’d rather there be no romance than be bored by a tired one.

Now, her sister, on the other hand, has a significant relationship with the protagonist, which is mainly portrayed in flashbacks. Maggie Kyle serves as the cornerstone of Selina’s motivation. I love the hint of personality that Maas gives us in the brief moments that we get with her. Give me more of Maggie Kyle.

In short, Catwoman is an independent powerhouse with the power to upturn a world ruled by men. All the factors were there for her story to shine, but it doesn’t. There are a few parts that sparkle with promise, but fade quickly in the vast emptiness of the unfulfilling world. Would I read it again? Probably not.

I wanted more, but not in a good way. I felt that the novel itself was lacking and needed more work before it was released.

BLOG Marketing 101

Hi friends! Here’s another marketing post, by request. It’s another lengthy one, so if you’re in for the long haul, buckle up.

This post covers the bare essentials of setting up your blog for success. I didn’t cover reaching out to the blogging community, even though they are amazingly supportive, because I wanted to focus on how to breach through to a larger audience.

Is there something I missed? Comment below!

Note: If you’re wondering why the heck you should even read my marketing advice, check out my BOOK Marketing 101 post for my credentials. I’m not going to type them out again, I feel pretentious doing so. Also, with regard to email marketing, Dea Poirier has a wonderful post on Email Marketing as an Author which covers some of the legal and social aspects of having a mailing list. It’s mostly geared toward writers, but many of the points overlap for bloggers as well.

  • Figure out what you’re going to write about.
    • I know this seems fairly basic, perhaps you have a broad idea in your head. For ex. I’m a book blogger who focuses on YA/NA novels. That’s great, BUT A) there are a lot of different genres within YA/NA (ie. fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.) and B) due to its popularity, there are A LOT of other bloggers that focus on the same thing. So why should anyone care about what I have to say?
    • I personalize my blog in two ways, A) in my About page, I emphasize that I hold a degree in English Literature from the University of Texas, so I am qualified to discuss ALL literature (sorry that I didn’t go to law school Mom), and B) I have a section on my blog for book reviews and a section for my  “rambling thoughts” as I like to call them. These are two ways in which I try to stand out, both by proving that my credibility and by allowing me to interact with readers. Thus far, my rambling thoughts section has consisted of requests made by readers, so thank you all for even taking the time to read it. I am truly humbled.
    • While it’s important to differentiate yourself, do not beat a dead horse by posting it at the beginning of every post (or video, if you’re vlogging, but that is a post for another day.) A great way to have it featured is to have an “About the Author” section at the bottom of each post, especially if you have a stable of writers who collaborate on the blog.
  • B-R-A-N-D-I-N-G
    • PERSONALITY IS IMPORTANT. Don’t be some emotionless voice on the internet. Unless you’re writing a science or tech blog, in which case by all means, feel free. But that’s still a part of your brand. As I said last week, branding deserves a post on its own, but I’ll go over some of the basics here and why it matters. I’ll also use my own website for an example. (Please note: I’ve technically had this website for a few months, but I hadn’t actually been active on it until last week, so it’s still being polished.)
    • As a blogger, you are the narrator of your blog, and maintaining the credibility of your narrative is essential to getting your readers to trust you enough to keep reading. What’s more, they are more likely to recommend your blog to someone else. It’s also important to figure out who you are as a blogger before moving on to this step. Why? Because that persona will effect the tone of your blog posts, your website design, and everything in between.
    • Ex. Lissa’s Library.
      • Lissa’s Library is not the first blog that I’ve run, but it is the first personal blog that I’ve launched.
      • Writing Style: You’ll notice that my writing style is a little ditzy and zany, with a touch of professional diction sprinkled throughout. This is intentional. It is a young adult blog geared toward a younger audience. I could easily write a post debating the merits and credibility of Bathsheba as a trailblazer for feminism in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, but that would be off-brand. My audience doesn’t want that. (Side note: if you do want that, please let me know, because I can go for days on that one.) 
      • Website design: You’re probably thinking, but Lissa, what website design? The stark contrast of the plain white background with the vibrant colors of the book covers I have reviewed is on purpose. It’s meant to be an aesthetic representation of my degree in English and the literature that I review with it. It’s the first impression of my credibility that you get before falling down the rabbit hole.  It’s also a metaphor for the way that I, myself, am a storyteller for other peoples stories as an audiobook narrator. Without their stories, my voice is a blank canvas, but writers add their own color.
        • Less is more sometimes. Look at your homepage. Is it cluttered? Is it difficult to navigate? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, consider cutting back and simplifying it until you’re happy with your base. Once you have a homepage that is on-brand and that you are happy with, it’s easy to add on from there. If you aren’t quite sure, it can never hurt to get the opinion of a professional. There are some wonderful website designer’s out there who specialize in blogs, and many will also be happy to give a consultation.
      • Social media: I LOVE supporting the writing community of Twitter. What’s more, as a book blogger, it’s completely on brand for me to do so. I’ve pretty much composed my entire Twitter account around this premise. It has enabled me to connect with some great writers and even other bloggers in my niche. More on this in a second. That being said, there are a few things I strictly steer away from on social media. I won’t curse, I don’t talk about drinking, partying, and I don’t overly promote myself. Why? Once again, I blog for the YA/NA audience, so the first three aren’t on brand, and I don’t want to alienate them. Overly promoting yourself is also almost as bad as doing no promotion at all. If your social media feed consists mainly of promotions, then your followers will either A) silence your feed, B) unfollow you, or C) just grow immune to them. Here’s a direct quote from my BOOK Marketing 101 post: “If your voice can’t cut through the clutter on your own feed, then that’s a problem. Also, as humans, we have grown so accustomed to seeing ads everywhere all day that we naturally tune them out. ‘Cutting through the clutter’ is literally an advertising term for making your ad (in this case yourself and your books) stand out, because in America alone its estimated that on average each person encounters approximately 5,000 ads a day.”
  • Say it with me: CON-SIS-TEN-CY
    1. Post consistently and constantly. If you have to choose one though, go with consistency over frequency. If you have enough writers collaborating to post every day, or multiple times a day, then that’s great! If you’re working on your blog solo and can only commit to posting once or twice a week, that’s fine too! It’s more important for your readers to know that they can rely on your posts than for them to have a frequent flow of content. Why? That doesn’t make sense? Actually, humans are creatures of habit. If reading your blog becomes a part of that habit, and then suddenly your posts become erratic, you’ll lose- want to take a guess?- THAT’S RIGHT, CREDIBILITY.
    2. I’m not quite sure how it works with WordPress, but if you’re posting multiple times a week, then don’t email your subscribers after every single post. It goes back to the issue of clutter. Break through it, maybe send an email once a week with a summary of your posts as a kind reminder for the subscribers who haven’t already checked your site. No one wants to read those emails every single day unless they’re your mother. Even then, I don’t think my mom has even looked at my website yet. (HI MAMAN)
    3. Do some research and try to figure out what is the best time to post. Are you writing a trade blog? Then most likely, people will be reading it during their workday. I have a very talented friend who is a journalist for a cyber security news site based in DC, and they send out an email to their clients (they operate behind a paywall) at the beginning of the work day with breaking news. SIDE NOTE: News services are different from blogs and are expected to send out daily updates to their subscribers. Unless you’re running The New York Times, or BuzzFeed, please abstain from daily emails. Dea Poirier said it best:
       
  • Networking
    • Can you say guest blogs? Good. Go write about it. First, though, you must make friends who will graciously allow you into their home(page.) Guest blogs are a symbiotic service that allows bloggers to be featured to each other’s reader base, and increases traffic and flow to your blog. Try to maintain your credibility on these blogs though, don’t write about a topic that’s completely off-brand. Why? Well, say I were to write a guest blog for one of my Mental Health blogger friends. Hypothetically, let’s say Reader X liked my post on relaxation techniques so much that they decided to go check out my book blog. Reader X was expecting another mental health blogger, and leaves the website. See how that’s ineffective? Now, if I were to tie the post to my book blog somehow, perhaps on how to choose a good book for relaxation, it better prepares Reader X for what they would encounter when they come to my site. For a more effective guest post, I recommend writing for a friend who writes to a similar audience. I have some lovely author friends who have agreed to host me, and their fan bases happen to coincide with my audience.
  •  SEO
    • Search. Engine. Optimization. Don’t know what this is? That’s okay, it’s easy to learn. There are some great resources for learning online and at your local library. Or, if you decided to get a professional website designer, many include this as an add on to their packages. 
    • SEO is essentially a way of using key words in the metadata of your website to improve visibility in the results of search engines. It helps direct people to your website. Please note that SEO is not a one-time thing. The algorithms that search engines use are being updated all of the time, so I recommend refreshing your SEO at least once a month to maintain your place in the search cue.
    • SEO can be used on any page of your website, including each of your blog posts and articles, to help boost clicks directed from search engines. Make sure to direct your SEO toward your audience. For example, when my friend Virginia time to do my SEO on Lissa’s Library, she’ll gear each particular book review toward the fanbase of that author. Ie. the grishaverse for Leigh Bardugo, Potterheads for J. K. Rowling, etc.
  • Advertising (Optional)
    • If you have the funds, targeted ads at the niche market your blog applies to are a great way to boost your reader base. Clickbait, especially on social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter, entices the reader so that they are already invested in the piece before they are directed to the website.
  • Quality Content
    • I can’t help you here. This is entirely up to you. I can give you all of the tips and tricks to draw people to your blog, but if the content isn’t there then they might read one post and then move on. Stay on brand, interact with your readers, and edit until each piece shines. Remember to consider what unique perspective you can offer your posts, that no one else can.
  • Analytics
    • Most social media and blog sites have an analytics section where you can track impressions and clicks. These are extremely helpful for those who are DIYing it and help to perfect your process for your own blog through trial and error.

My post next week will be uploaded on Friday, instead of my normal Saturday routine. Thanks for reading. I love you all and good night!

To Kill a Kingdom: 4.8

To Kill A Kingdom
Author: Alexandra Christo
Narrators: Jacob York and Stephanie Willis
Rating: 4.8
Genre: YA Dark Fantasy / Twisted Fairytale

“To them, the sea is never the true danger. Even crawling with sirens and sharks and beasts that can devour them whole in seconds. The true danger is people. They are the unpredictable. The betrayers and the liars.” 
― Alexandra Christo, To Kill a Kingdom

This is a wickedly stunning debut from Alexandra Christo, and I loved every minute of it.  I listened to the audiobook for this one, because I’ve been absolutely swamped this week and I can multitask much better with someone reading to me than I can with a book in my hands. Stephanie Willis and Jacob York did a wonderful job of bringing this dark fantasy world alive, and I couldn’t stop listening.

Lira is a siren princess. Actually, she’s the siren princess, sole heir to the throne. Think that’s a cliché? Well, when you add in the fact that it’s a sea queendom, sirens are reclaimed as the deliciously vicious creatures that they are, and Lira’s mother would rather get rid of her daughter than step down from the throne, I can be content with another princess story.

Lira, non-favored daughter that she is, makes a big mistake and her mother’s idea of a punishment is to embarrass her in front of the whole kingdom, weakening her in the eyes of the people that she is set to rule in a few short years. Lira then gets it in her head that bringing her mother the heart of the siren-hunting prince that is plaguing their waters will be a sufficient sacrifice to avoid this punishment.

Elian, crown prince of Midas, feels more at home onboard his ship than in his golden palace. He spends his days hunting the sirens that threaten the seas. Despite his murderous tendencies, he can’t help but stop when they encounter a drowning girl in the middle of the ocean with no other ships in sight.

I. Loved. This. Book. There are a number of reasons why, but let’s focus on the reasons it earned a 4.8/5 rating.

Stylistically, Alexandra Christo is amazingly talented. Since I was listening to the audiobook, her words combined with Stephanie Willis’ performance literally sent chills down my spine at times. The prose painted a refreshing re-telling of a classic tale, and even though the ultimate ending was easy to predict (it is a twist on a fairytale after all), it managed to keep me thoroughly engaged. It was smooth without being too simple, and the protagonists were pleasantly mature for their age.

The protagonists were refreshing as well in a love-to-hate, slow burn that had the perfect amount of sass. There were no gullible obsessions, no shy blushes, no butterflies in the stomach. Lira and Elian worked well together, because of how they were equals and I am here for romances like this. Both characters were strong enough to stand on their own, but they were stronger together.

As far as twisted fairytales go, this one is high on my recommended list. The extra oomph that brought it to the higher level of my ranking comes from Alexandra Christo’s subtle nods to various other myth and folklore tales and the dry wit that she infused her characters with. There was no shy innocence, nor gullibility. The purpose and reliability of her narrators allowed me to immerse myself fully in her tale, and not return from its depths until Jacob York read the closing credits.