My favorite books of 2016

books-1655783_1280I read a lot. I don’t know how many books I’ve read over the last year. Based on my account in Amazon, I’ve read close to 200 books. That sounds like I’m bragging. I’m not. Reading is basically my one form of entertainment. I don’t watch tv very much and I’ve missed out on a lot of good shows on Netflix. Due to having small kids, we don’t leave the house very much.  I’m also a fast reader, which I think can be a good thing and a bad thing. I read a lot of books, but I probably would get a little more out of them if I slowed down a little bit when I was reading them.

Since I am a writer, I use my reading to hopefully become a better writer. I try to think about what makes a story successful, what I like about the characters, what I think of the dialogue. I also try to pay attention to common tropes and cliches so that I can keep them out of my own writing. Reading to me is its own sort of education.

Anyway, because I read so much, I thought that I would end this year with a list of books and book series that I read over the last year that I enjoyed and would recommend. I’m not going to give a detailed review because I have a sizable list of books to review and the blog post would get entirely too long. Also, I always end up revealing spoilers even when I’m trying really hard not to. These books are not listed in any particular order.

Book series

  1. The Raven King (The Raven Cycle) by Maggie Stiefvater
    I really enjoy Maggie Stiefvater’s writing and I especially liked The Raven Cycle. The fourth book came out in the spring and it was a great ending to the series. YA. Magical Realism.
  2. The Rose and the Dagger (The Wrath and the Dawn series) by Renee Ahdie
    This duology made up of “The Wrath and the Dawn” and “The Rose and the Dagger” is a retelling of “Arabian Nights” so it’s about a ruler who marries a woman every night only to kill her in the morning. I liked the first book a little better than the second but they’re both  very good and it’s a nice short series. YA. Fantasy.
  3. The Captive Prince Trilogy by C.S. Pacat
    There were a lot of fans of this trilogy who had to wait a long time for the third book. Fortunately, I started this series only a few months before the last book came out. This series might not be for everyone but if you are looking to maybe step out of your comfort zone, you might like this. Fantasy. LGBT.
  4. Crooked Kingdom (The Six of Crows Series) by Leigh Bardugo22299763
    “Six of Crows” came out last year and “Crooked Kingdom” came out this year. I will read anything that Leigh Bardugo writes. I loved her first series, The Grisha Trilogy and The Six of Crows Series was set in the same universe. Only consisting of two books, it was filled with witty banter and heists that go wrong. Great characters and a fast read. YA. Fantasy.
  5. The Lady Darby Series by Anna Lee Huber
    I don’t really know how I found this series but I love it. I like books written in the regency era. I am fascinated by the limitations that were put on women at that time. I’m not always a big face of mysteries, but all of the books, of which there were five, were very good. Seriously, if you like historical fiction, give this series a try. Historical. Mystery.
  6. The Darkest Minds Series by Alexandra Bracken
    These books have been out for a couple of years and I think that they are going to make a movie out of them. They’ve been on my list for a while but I finally got around to them this year. I really loved the main character, what she goes through, how she changes, what she becomes. If you like dystopian books, this might be a good choice for you. YA. Dystopian.
  7. A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Rose and Thorns series) by Sarah J. Maas
    I read the first book last year and I thought it was okay, but the second book that came out this year, A Court of Mist and Fury was so much better. I think there is one more book in the series so we’ll see how it goes. YA. Fantasy
  8. Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass Series) By Sarah J. Maas
    Maas has two book series going right now and I have no idea how she does it. I think they’re both solid book series. Empire of Storms is the fifth book in the series and usually by now I would have grown tired of a series, but this has been an exception for me. I think there are two more books to come in this series and I have no doubt that I’ll read those as well. YA. Fantasy.

Books that are (thankfully) not part of any series

  1.  Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff61gfhxkbrll
    I love how this story was told in two parts, one from the husband’s perspective and the other from the wife’s perspective and how each told the same story in a very different way. Brilliantly written. Literary Fiction.
  2. The Swans of 5th Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
    I’m always interested in anything having to do with Truman Capote and he was such a bitch in this story. Biographical.
  3. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
    This story is about a girl who is born with wings and her brother who doesn’t speak. The story follows three generations of women in a bakery in Seattle. The writing is beautiful and heartbreaking. Magical Realism.
  4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    I love Donna Tartt. She is one of those writers that makes me feel like a total hack. It took me a while to get to this one, but I was not disappointed. My one thought that ran throughout the book was, “But what about the painting!?!?” So good. Literary Fiction.
  5. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty51tsqz9yfol-_sy346_
    A woman falls and bumps her head and when she wakes up she thinks that she is ten years younger. It made me really think about how much we change and our relationships change within the span of even just a few years. I thought about this book long after I finished reading it. Literary Fiction
  6. The Good Girl by Marian Keyes.
    I just read it, so it’s fresh in my mind. It was written from multiple perspectives and times which was a little confusing at first but you catch on pretty quick to what’s going on. I almost didn’t include this book because I thought for the most part it was mediocre. However, the end really sold this book for me. Mystery/Thriller.

New writers that I enjoyed

I feel like every year I find a new writer that I really like and want to read everything that 41ymnepsxpl-_sx329_bo1204203200_they write. This year, I read all of the books by Rainbow Rowell. I think her most famous book is Eleanor & Park, which was the first book I read by her. I liked it so much that I read her other novels as well. I loved all of them. I like her sense of humor. I like her characters. I like her stories. I like the way she writes. Read her books.

Another writer that I discovered this year was Courtney Milan. Up until now I haven’t read a lot of romance novels. I’ve read just about every book by Georgette Heyer, but up until this year have veered away from the bodice-ripping books. There is just something about a cover where a half-naked man is tearing off the clothes of a overdressed but very fancy looking woman that just doesn’t appeal to me. However, I read an article that talked about romance novels  actually being great feminist literature, so I gave the whole genre more of a shot. Out of all of the books that I read, I would say that my favorite were the ones by Courtney Milan. They were interesting, entertaining. The characters were well-rounded and a lot of the most annoying romance tropes were absent. I will admit that I was a snob about romance novels and I was pleased that I gave them a shot. Not all romance novels are created equal just like any genre, but there are good stories to be found there.

Reading goals for next year

First of all, I don’t think that it makes sense to write about all of the books that I liked at the end of the year. There are just too many books and I don’t have the time or space to really write about them individually. So, I think I want to write more about what I’m reading throughout the year. I hope that also gives you, my reader, the chance to recommend books to me or to let me know what you thought of the books that I’m reviewing.

Secondly, I think I should read a little more non-fiction this year. I’m a fiction junkie which I feel no shame about, but I know there are a lot of great non-fiction works out there that I should give a try.

Finally, this past year was one of the first years that I started to read outside of my normal comfort zone. I want to do more of that. I’d like to read more diverse books this year, and expand my universe a little bit more as a reader.

So, yeah, this whole post is entirely too long. It’s sort of like a big book dump. I’ll try not to do that next year. However, if you’re looking for something to read, I hope you’ll check some of these books out.

A lack of focus

bokeh-336605_1280“It’s red.”

“It’s red.”

“The light is red.”

“Oh,” I said, slamming on the brakes.

“Did you not hear me tell you that the light was red?” my husband asked.

“I heard you. I just think my brain decided to process what you were saying later.”

We sort of laughed about it. The light had turned green before I had even come to a stop. There was a good chance that had I blown through the intersection, it would have been close enough to green so as to not be dangerous. Still, I was on a flat stretch where I could see the traffic light for a long time before I came up on it and it was a road that I was very familiar with. I both saw the traffic light and heard my husband mention it three times before I actually moved to stop the car.

The other day I went upstairs four separate times to brush my teeth. I kept finding myself downstairs having never brushed them. It seriously took all day for me to complete this small task and it only happened because the mossy buildup on my teeth exacerbated by the excessive amounts of sugar I’ve been eating was getting out of control.

I don’t know what is going on in my brain. I’m not doing a lot of thinking. That’s for sure. I find the days just slip by. What did I accomplish today? How did I accomplish so little?

It’s like when I used to have dreams/nightmares about waiting tables. I always dreamed that I had too many tables and too many customers who needed something and I just couldn’t seem to fill up the water glasses. The whole dream felt like I was walking through chest-high water with weights around my ankles.

Fortunately, I still have it together enough to make sure my kids are fed, hydrated, clothed and bathed, but I have to give a lot of credit to my husband who has had off of work the last week or so. And if my daughter went an entire day in her pajamas, what’s the harm? She was comfortable and we put clean ones on her before she went to bed.

I’m basically functioning at the survival level. That sounds dramatic, but I just want to be clear I’m not at the clean house level (shout out once more to my husband who is picking up the slack) nor am I at the all the laundry is clean and put away level (although, to be fair, is anyone at this level?). I’m not even close to being at the I write novels level or even the I paint pictures level. Going for groceries or planning meals for the week feels impossible. How was I able to accomplish this before? Did I have some sort of algorithm? I get to the end of the week and I’m close to making a meal out of cheerios, frozen peas and tofurkey slices.

I don’t like talking about this. I want you to think that my life is just one beautiful, sparkling Pinterest board. I want you to picture me at home with my precocious children, making crafts and baking cookies. Not wandering the house like someone who has just survived a tornado. Not looking at my kids and husband as if I can’t even comprehend the words coming out of their mouths.

I also don’t want you to think that this is what my blog is going to be about. Post after post after post of Amanda wallowing in her own self-pity and doing nothing to fix it. I didn’t want to share the first post about being depressed and I don’t want to share this. I know that this loss in concentration is part of the depression I’m feeling. I’m sharing it because I want anyone else out there who is reading this and feels the same way to know that at least you aren’t alone. Maybe I’ll figure out how to get through this and I can share it with you. Maybe you have some ideas to toss my way. Maybe we pull each other up out of this mental haze.

This is what I’m going to try: I’m going to give myself until the new year. Then, I’m going to start making goals again. I think I might create a bare minimum that I want to accomplish in the next few months and just try my best to do that. I also think I might try to be a little more disciplined about when I go to sleep and when I wake up and what I eat. I think I may also start creating lists and keeping track of what I accomplish and what I don’t. Eww. This is beginning to sound like New Year’s Resolutions and I try my best not to ever do those. Just trust me when I say that I’m going to keep trying to find a way to get my focus back and if I find the answer, I promise, I will share it.

Finally, to the people who urged me to seek help for my depression, thank you for caring. Thank you for encouraging and even pushing. I am doing something about it.

Until then, if you see me wandering around the streets with a vacant look on my face, could you please point me back home?

On first drafts and the drafts that follow

girl-lostI’ve come to love writing the first draft of a book. It’s the sprint through the letters and the words, a pulling together of paragraphs and pages to get to the end. You’re not required to make every word perfect. You aren’t required to patch up any plot holes. It’s no big deal if your characters need a little work or your dialogue is stilted. All of those things are merely a blur as you rush past.

I’ve written about it before, about how I can’t look for perfection here. If I do, I won’t finish. I’ll be on the first page, agonizing over the first few words.

There’s also the discovery in the first draft. There are two types of writers, the pantser and the plotter. I’ve tried to be a plotter. I’ve tried to outline everything, make notecards, make a detailed map of where my story is going to go from start to finish, but it never works. I feel sort of suffocated by my plans. No, I like to have a couple of characters, a problem that they have and a vague idea of where I want them to end up. It’s a crazy sort of thing, writing something, not always sure how I’m going to get from one space to the next. It can be stressful, but man, it’s fun.

Now, it’s time to pay the piper. I imagine plotters usually have a better handle on what it happening in their books. They’ve done a lot of the hard work up front. I would imagine that at the end of their first draft, they have a pretty tight story. Pantsers have to make up for their fanciful dance through their story, with big changes in the next draft. I’m like the grasshopper that played all summer long and is now facing an uncomfortable winter.

So, onto the next drafts and the edits that come with it.

This doesn’t feel like playing anymore. This feels like work. I’m reading through paragraphs and it all feels clunky and disjointed and a mess. Maybe, the structure of it is good, but I’m going to have to really make the writing better. So, I make notes. I highlight the rough sentences. I think this is just like painting. I’ve roughed in the large swathes of color and now it’s time to really get in with the detail.

I’m ready.

Pen is up.

And go.

Go.

GO.

I know how to work past the paralysis of the first draft. I know how to just zip right along and not take myself too seriously. That time is over. Now, I really do have to do my best to make it perfect. Perfect is paralysis. How do I find the right words? Do I take this out? Should I add this in? Am I taking a piece of writing that had life and spark and movement and am I with every pen stroke murdering it? Am I turning my writing into wood?

It’s just as easy to doubt myself now as it was before. Maybe it’s worse. Now, it’s not just a case of not being able to do something well. It’s about ruining something that might have been good. This may be a little dramatic but it’s like dismantling a bomb and not knowing which wire to cut. Okay, no, that really is too dramatic. Actually, it is just like trying to find your way without a map. You hope that you’re going the right way and you’re using the little you know to orient yourself, but until you get there, you can’t really be sure that you’re heading in the right direction. I don’t have an answer for this. If you’re reading this and you do have the answer, I hope you’ll tell me. I think it must just all be about experience. As I become a more experienced writer, I hope that it will become easier. Of course, something tells me that there will always be space for doubt here, no matter how long I’ve been writing.

I’m just going to keep moving forward. It is the only advice I can give myself and anyone reading this who might find themselves in this place with me. Keep working. Keep moving forward. Let’s hope we’re not lost.

The fraud in the mirror

notes-514998_1280Over the weekend I applied for a mentoring program. It’s for unpublished YA authors with a complete manuscript and it gives them an opportunity to pair with authors who are in the process of publishing a book in the next year or have already published. The published writers will help the unpublished writers polish their manuscripts and help them with their query letters. If I get in, it could be an awesome opportunity for me. If I don’t get in, my plan is to continue moving forward. Work on my book until I have it where I think I need it and start querying for agents on my own.

No big deal.

So, I put together a query letter, and emailed it along with the first ten pages of my book. As soon as I hit send, the anxiety began to build inside of me.

What was I thinking? Why did I think that my book was going to be good enough to submit to this? Why did I let anyone convince me that it was good enough to send? They were probably just being nice. It’s like when your kids draws a picture and you have no idea what it is but you tell them it looks good anyway and you hang it on the fridge. That’s probably what everyone was doing. And I fell for it. I bought into this idea that I was going to be some published writer. What do I know about writing? I have an associate’s degree in graphic design. I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. Before a few year ago, I hadn’t written any fiction since high school. And what? Now, I’m a novelist?

Oh my god. Now, they’re going to know. They’re all going to know, what deep down, I’ve always known. I’m a fraud. A fake. There is a part of me that has always known it and has tried desperately to convince me.

It’s that voice in the back of my head. Sometimes, it is friendly. At times when I’ve struggled with writing, it gives me a sort of verbal pat on the shoulder and says, “It’s okay. You tried. Writing probably isn’t your thing.”

Sometimes, it is mean. It mocks. It urges me to give up because I’m just embarrassing myself. “Everyone feels sorry for you. You’re delusional.”

My fear is always based around the fact that I’m never going to be good enough and that everyone is going to find out. I don’t have to listen to that voice in my head when I’m sitting alone at my kitchen table writing. No, I hear it when I hand my manuscript over for someone to read. I hear it every week when I write my blog. When someone tells me that they enjoy my blog or they liked my book, I want to hug them and thank them but I also want to narrow my eyes and let them know that I’m onto whatever scam they’re running.

I find myself wondering when it will go away. Is there any level of success that would make me believe in myself? I was a graphic designer for three years and it never went away. I always felt like a hack. I still contend that I was. Will I always feel that way about my writing and my painting as well?

impostor-syndrome-cartoon-823x1024I know what it is. It’s called imposter syndrome and knowing it by name helps. It also helps to know that a lot of people have had it at some point in their careers. I wonder how many people will read this and nod their head. Everyone? It’s prevalent enough that there are tips on how to overcome it. Talking about it is supposed to help. Imposter syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young says, “It’s also a matter of changing your thoughts, slowly over time, and taking risks in spite of the inner voice telling you you’ll fail. Do the thing that scares the heck out of you, realize you survived – or maybe you fell flat on your face. But you gave it your best shot.”

So, I think we have to just keep working. Keep moving forward.  My writing isn’t actually some destination that I’m working to get to. It’s the never-ending road, the eternal journey. This feeling that I’m never going to be good enough can be the wind at my back, always pushing me forward, motivating me to do and be better. If I’m going to think of myself as a fraud, then I’m going to put my heart and soul into fooling everyone, especially myself.

For days when I’ve taken the risk and failed, when I’ve fallen flat on my face, there’s whiskey. And after that, a new day to dust myself off and got started again.

Maybe, I’ll get into this mentoring program. Maybe I won’t. Maybe, I’ll have to go a different way. This isn’t that song, “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. There isn’t just one shot. We have a lot of chances and a lot of ways to get to the same place. There are also a lot of ways to mess up and a lot of ways to feel rejected. There are countless ways to fail. The only way to avoid that is to never do anything at all. The problem with that is, then you never do anything at all. No dreams. No plans. No goals. I just sit at my kitchen table and write stories that no one reads.

Just like “‘Tis better to have loved and lost: Than never to have loved at all.” Tis better to have tried and failed : Than never to have tried at all.