Monthly Archives: August 2016

Writing lessons from a week in Costa Rica

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

I recently returned from a vacation with my family in Costa Rica. While the trip contained plenty of beach time, it also included a walk through the cloud forest that got me thinking a lot about setting and worldbuilding. (Yes, cloud forests are a thing, distinct from rain forests and the types of forests we see in the U.S. (Dry forests?) No, I was not aware of this fact until the guide told us that Monteverde is a cloud forest.)

In the cloud forest, we saw hundreds of different species of plants. This would have been cool by itself, but the really amazing thing was the way those plants interacted with each other. In their fight for a scarce resource (sunlight), several types of plants adapted to grow on the trunks or branches of other trees, their roots stretching hundreds of feet to reach the ground. There was a type of tree that did not tolerate these freeloaders, and shed its bark whenever anything tried to grow on it. There were plants on top of plants on top of plants.

What does all this have to do with worldbuilding? It got me thinking not only about the fauna of the fantasy world of my current WIP, but also more broadly about these types of cooperative and competitive relationships. What resources are available in one part of this world versus another? Do people trade to get those resources, fight for/steal them, or adapt to live without them? How do the experiences of a character who grew up working on the wheat farms that were constantly raided by a neighboring kingdom differ from those of a character who grew up eating plants and game from the forest on the other side of the kingdom? What expressions, mannerisms, and superstitions would these characters have developed? How would that impact the way they view their government, and what they would like from their government?

It’s easy to forget how much our environment affects us when we’ve become accustomed to our routines. Stepping out of my everyday world was a good reminder of all the ways settings impact characters, their goals, and the conflicts they encounter.

What questions do you ask yourself when crafting a new world? Do you come up with the setting first, or build a world that fits your characters and plot?


Moving, CYPD, and more

All the boxes!

My guest room, where I’m storing most of the boxes until the movers come.

I’m writing this, as I usually do, the weekend before it’ll be published. My apartment is in boxes, I’m attending my first library conference as a teen librarian tomorrow, and I’m eagerly awaiting Pitch Wars mentor announcements. Plus I have a week’s worth of work to catch up on at the library, and I’m frantically trying to finish a zero draft of a novel before the end of the month. And, oh yeah, I’m moving closer to my workplace. Long story short, I’m taking a break with this week’s blog post. I’ll be back next week with a recap of the CYPD conference in Indianapolis and maybe some writing updates.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something to fill your time, Melina Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road is a fantastic read. I read this while on vacation, and love the way the two story lines weave together. And if you haven’t discovered W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabulo’s podcast Politically Re-Active, I highly recommend checking it out. They’re two comedians who discuss the electoral landscape with various politicians and journalists, dropping a new episode each week through the election in November. I binge listened to this podcast while packing up my apartment.

Do you have any book or podcast recommendations? Please share in the comments, and have a great week!

Vacation reads, part 2

I’m still on vacation, so I’ve scheduled this post in advance. Last week I shared my new/forthcoming vacation reads. This week, I’ve got some backlist titles I’ve had on my to-read list for a while.

On the Jellicoe Road.On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

I started listening to this audiobook before I left town, and it hooked me right away. I can’t wait to finish listening on the plane!

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby

I picked this up at an indie bookstore a few months ago, but it kept getting pushed farther down on my to-read list because I had library books with due dates to read. I’m looking forward to finally digging into this.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

I feel like I don’t read enough nonfiction, and I want to have some good nonfiction titles to booktalk when I visit the local schools this fall. I liked Sheinkin’s Bomb, and expect this to be just as fascinating.

What are you reading right now?

Vacation reads, part 1

You know you’re a bibliophile when the first thing you consider after pulling out your suitcase is, “What books should I bring?” I’ll be out of the country for the next two weeks, and I’m taking plenty of reading material with me. Here are the new/forthcoming books I’m taking with me:

Caraval.Caraval by Stephanie Garber (advanced copy; publication date January 31, 2017)

I first came across Stephanie Garber when I applied to her and her co-mentor Stacey Lee in Pitch Wars 2014. (They didn’t pick me, but I loved their tweets and videos throughout the contest.) I’ve been excited about this book for a long time. The Selection meets The Night Circus? Yes, please!

Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliot (advanced copy; publication date August 16)

I really liked the politics and the world of Court of Fives, the first book in this series. So far, the second book has expanded that world nicely.

This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

I love basically everything by Victoria/V.E. Schwab. I’ve had this book almost a month now, and am excited to finally have the time to read it.

What are you reading right now?

Reflections on reviews, reviewers, and privilege

Let’s get this out of the way. Hi, I’m Liz, and I have a lot of privilege. I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman from a middle-class family. I’ve never had to worry about where I’ll sleep tonight or where my next meal will come from. Neither I nor my siblings have ever had “the talk” with our parents — the one about how to act if we’re stopped by the police. I’ve never been targeted by TSA agents because of my looks or my faith. I can never fully understand the experiences of those who have dealt with these things.

That said, I do my best to relate to and learn from those whose experiences are different from my own. I listen. I am fascinated by others’ stories — I want to know more about those who live in different communities or have different customs that those I grew up with. I care deeply about representation — in books, movies, media, workplaces … basically everywhere. Representation matters.

When We Was Fierce.So, when I first heard about e. E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, I was excited about a book written from the perspective of an African-American teen in an African-American community. After reading starred reviews of the book in KirkusPublisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, I eagerly pre-ordered it for my library and added it to my to-read list.

It’s a reflection of my privilege that, despite everything I’ve heard about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, despite my involvement in conversations surrounding the We Need Diverse Books movement and calls for #ownvoices representation, I didn’t consider who was writing these reviews. I trusted the word of reviewers who are not black and have never been a part of a community like the one When We Was Fierce is meant to represent, because they are professional reviewers. Because the reviews they’ve written, and the publications they’ve written for, have guided my reading and collection development well in the past.

Then my Twitter feed, which is filled with thought-provoking conversations by people like Justina IrelandEdi Campbell, and Zetta Elliot, exploded with concerns about this book. I read reviews by POC readers pointing out that Charlton-Trujillo’s “new vernacular” (in the author’s words) was broken and insulting, that the characters felt like stereotypes, that the book is an inaccurate and damaging representation of black communities. I haven’t read When We Was Fierce yet, but reading the excerpts in these reviews (which I realize were chosen as the most offensive examples), I was deeply concerned. Is this how the readers who gave this book starred reviews really see black communities? The language in those excerpts has no linguistic foundation, and presents black vernacular as broken and uneducated speech. I’m horrified by the thought of handing a book with this language to a black teen, as though saying, “this is how I see you.”

This is not how I see you.

I know my views are impacted by my own experiences and my own privilege, which is why it’s so important to have diverse reviewers evaluating diverse books. We need more #ownvoices books, but at the very least we need #ownvoices writers and readers consulted about books that are meant to reflect their experiences. If you haven’t read Zetta Elliott’s post, “Black Voices Matter,” or KT Horning’s post about “When Whiteness Dominates Reviews,” I highly recommend doing so. We need diverse books, yes, but we also need diverse critics who can speak to the authenticity of these books.