The importance of reviewing books you love

Why writers should review books they loveThis is a somewhat rewritten post from last year about a point I believe will always be important.

You may be here to learn about writing but when it comes right down to it, the thing that drew most of you to this blog, the thing that convinced you to start writing, was most likely a love of books.

We all have books we’re passionate about, both well known and almost unknown. I have at some point been touched deeply by books from every genre, but the genres that have impacted me most deeply are fantasy, YA and science fiction, particularly dystopian fiction.

Some of the books I loved are well known and loved: The GiverHarry Potter, The Chrysalids, The Hunger Games, anything by Terry Pratchett.

Other books I’ve loved are almost completely unknown, like Lady of Hay or A Raw Mix of Carelessness and LongingHow popular a book is has nothing to do with how much I enjoyed it. I can list quite a few popular books I didn’t enjoy much, but I won’t bother. That’s not what I’d like to talk about today.

I’d like to talk to you about those little known authors whose books you love. 

Those writers are struggling. Struggling to make a name for themselves, struggling to make a living–or even enough to go out for dinner once a month–from their writing. They might write the most amazing novel you’ve ever read, but without good reviews, their writing will never get the appreciation it deserves and they might well give up altogether.

Which means it’s your duty to review the books you truly love, especially when they’re written by an unknown author. 

You don’t have to start a book review blog. You can do a quick review on Amazon and Goodreads and go on your merry way. In fact, it’s really these sites where the more reviews a book has, and the higher its rating, the more likely it is that the author will make some money.

With the sheer number of small presses and self published authors flooding the market with new books every day, book bloggers are always pressed for time. Even the best authors struggle to get reviews, because there are so many different authors competing for each spot on every book blog–and while there is lots of crap out there nobody can be expected to keep up with all the good books either.

Most people who enjoy a book won’t take the time to review it, but every person who leaves a positive review is helping build an author’s career.

Why is this so important? Well, it’s partially because the authors you love can write way more books if they’re actually making an income from their work. This is why all readers should review books they love. But for people like me–and I’m assuming you, if you ended up here–there’s another reason. Because we all dream of being authors too, which means we have a vested interest in the success of the publishing network. As a writer you should review great books for one more reason:

1) Supporting small presses and lesser known authors helps ensure that you’ll have many different publishing options in the future. There are hundreds of small presses, which means that there are hundreds of opportunities for you to get published, but it also means they’re all competing to be heard by the reading community. A small press usually also doesn’t have much–if any–of a budget for marketing, so they are more reliant than anyone else on your reviews.

If you want small presses to keep producing amazing books and maybe even eventually publish your own book you need to support them, which means reviewing their books. And you don’t have to do a lot of work on this–even a three sentence review with a good rating helps.


Support authors and small presses you love and they’re a lot more likely to stay around long enough for you to enjoy the publishing opportunities they provide.

Do you review books you love? Why or why not?

Author Spotlight: Heather Rose Jones

DaughterMysteryCOVERToday’s interview is part of a series featuring novels with LGBTQ+ characters. If your novel features LGBTQ+ characters and you want to be part of the series please email your blurb & bio!

Heather Rose Jones has written a fascinating series of historical fantasy novels featuring queer female characters. This is a big deal since LGBTQ+ characters have thoroughly been ignored both in our history textbooks and our historical fiction. Oh, and Heather’s books are a lighthearted romp through history instead of the tragic tales that seem so typical of today’s LGBTQ+ stories.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling, it’s time to let Heather explain her wonderful series!

1. Can you tell us a bit about your Alpennia series?

The Alpennia series is, at its core, a fun, feel-good romantic adventure. I took a dollop of Georgette Heyer, a bit of Alexandre Dumas, a dusting of Ellen Kushner’s Riverside, but most of it was simply my dream of a complex, character-driven fantasy where the girl got the girl in the end. I wrote the first book, Daughter of Mystery, without any clear idea that it was going to be a series. I’d wrapped everything up. My characters were going to live happily ever after. But as soon as I’d finished, the question started nagging at me: which other character deserved her own story? The answer to that was clear. I’d fallen in love with Antuniet Chazillen despite–or perhaps because of–her being an antagonist in the first book. And as soon as my imagination turned to her, most of her story unrolled in front of me. After that, the threads just kept spinning out, weaving the cloth of the whole series.

The books have been marketed as romances, but that’s rather misleading. Although romantic relationships are a strong element, the series is driven more by the social and political challenges that my characters tackle to achieve their goals. And the magic. One major strand is how Margerit Sovitre learns that magic is deeper and more complex than what she first understood it to be. As the series goes on, a continuing theme is how she tries to integrate her experience of magic as a religious mystery with the ways other people around her experience it. Another continuing theme is the political and social transformation of Europe through the upheavals of the early 19th century, as seen through the lens of my little invented country. Yet another theme is experiencing all that through characters who are all, in some way, disenfranchised from power. Perhaps the most important continuing theme is the ways in which women create communities and networks that sustain them in the face of patriarchal society. And through it all, I want it to continue to be a fun, feel-good romantic adventure. I suppose I have my work cut out!

There are two books out currently. Daughter of Mystery is a coming-of-age romance between Margerit Sovitre, an unexpected heiress, and Barbara, her bodyguard. The Mystic Marriage continues those characters, but centers more on Antuniet Chazillen’s quest to redeem her family’s honor through alchemy, and her tangled relationship with Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, a social butterfly with more steel underneath than you might think. The third book is coming out in November 2016: Mother of Souls. This one introduces some new characters. Serafina Talarico is a frustrated scholar of mysteries from an Ethiopian immigrant family in Rome, and Luzie Valorin is her landlady in Alpennia, a widowed music teacher who aspires to compose opera. They all get tangled up in an international plot to affect the political balance of Europe through sorcery.

There will be at least five more books to finish the series as I currently conceive it. My standard answer on that point is “five more, or however long it takes to get to the revolution.”

2. What part of a story usually comes to you first?

I always start with one very vivd, emotionally-charged scene. Then I work outward from that scene to figure out how and why my character ended up there, and what consequences flowed out of it. For Daughter of Mystery, the “seed scene” was the confrontation over the reading of Baron Saveze’s will when Barbara discovers she’s been left to Margerit as a possession. For The Mystic Marriage, the scene was after the sweetheart divination at the Floodtide ball when Antuniet realizes she’s fallen in love with Jeanne de Cherdillac and knows it will mean nothing but heartbreak and disaster. For Mother of Souls, everything revolves around the climactic performance of Luzie’s opera.

It often takes me a lot of tries to get the rest of the plot to work out right, but the emotional core of that starting scene is always an anchor.

3. Most of your work revolves around queer female characters. Did you decide to do this or is that just how your characters appeared?

Back when I first started writing fiction, when I was in college, I wrote the same sort of characters that I found in the books I loved. So they were straight, and often the central characters were male. But over the years, I got more and more frustrated that I couldn’t find books with characters who were like me. Why should I always have to compromise and identify with a man? Or with a woman whose relationships are oriented toward men?

What seriously spurred me to start doing something with my writing was that frustration and hunger. If no one else was going to write the books I wanted to read, then I’d have to do it. The way I tend to describe it these days is that life is short, and I’ve chosen to prioritize writing those stories that center around queer women. I have a lot of other stories in my head, but I can’t write them all, so I’m writing these one.

So the characters didn’t just “appear” as queer women, rather I found those characters and asked myself what their stories were.

4. Have you found your queer characters more difficult to write than other characters?

Not at all! In fact, to some extent it’s much harder to write characters the more different they are from me. I had quite a challenge to write Jeanne de Cherdillac, because she’s such an extrovert and so good at social interactions, and she’s so strongly driven by her sexual desires that she’s made some unfortunate choices. But specifically writing queer character is easy. Not that writing straight characters is hard. After all, I have a lot more literary and real-life models for them! One thing that makes writing historic queer characters easier is that I’ve done a lot of research on historic understandings of sexuality. So I have a lot of models from history to work from as well. One of the most common missteps in writing queer historical fiction is transplanting modern people into historic settings. I always try to start from the history.

5. What are some of your favourite books with queer characters?

I’ll always have a soft spot for Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword, which was the book that both told me “you can write about this sort of character” and also left me heartbroken because Katherine loved Artemisia but they didn’t end up together. That was my moment of “Damn it, I’m going to have to do this myself!” Most recently, T. Kingfisher’s The Raven and the Reindeer was the book I would have given the moon and stars to have found when I was a teenager. My other favorite from the last year is a novelette “The Ghost Dragon’s Daughter” by Beth Bernobich, and some of the minor characters in her River of Souls series make me long for more books that feature them. The most unusual book I’m going to list here is a novel published in 1744, The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu. It’s an ungodly mess of a book, mixing together philosophy and lectures and travelogue. But the core of the book is the tale of two women who go romping across Europe together, both disguised as men, and who regularly declare their love and devotion to each other, and end up deciding to foreswear men and marriage and spend the rest of their lives as a devoted couple. There’s never any overt suggestion of sexual activity, but in every other way, it’s a lesbian romantic adventure. It just warms my heart to know that such a thing could be imagined and written in the mid 18th century.

6. Can you give us a brief rundown of your writing process?

When I settle down to one, I’ll let you know! Seriously, it’s been different for every book so far. For Daughter of Mystery, I was a total pantser–had no idea at all where the book was going as I wrote it. I wrote that one mostly longhand at first, transcribing as I went along, and it took years to finish a first draft. For The Mystic Marriage, I had a much more solid notion of the basic plot to begin with. I wrote from an outline, but the outline changed drastically toward the end. For that one, I composed on the laptop.

Mother of Souls was even more tightly outlined. As I go along, the constraints of the existing background and the need to plant foreshadowing for the rest of the series means I have to be a lot more structured. I did a lot of composing by dictation for this one, making use of my commute drive to lay out the basics of scenes. Then I’d flesh them out more fully as I transcribed them. Mother of Souls was also the first book where I promised a delivery date before I had a first draft anywhere near completion. So my writing was a lot more schedule-driven. In the end, I took a week’s vacation to write a chapter a day to finish the first draft.

My writing has to fit around my rather demanding day-job and my commute. My basic princple is that when I have a project going, I write something evey day no matter what. But another basic principle is that I have to avoid imagining the story in too much detail in advance of writing it down. Otherwise the life starts bleeding out of it. So I could never be an extreme plotter. That would kill the story for me.

7. Do you believe in writer’s block? Why/why not?

Oh, it’s definitely a thing. I mean, obviously, if people experience it, then my belief is irrelevant. When I have trouble writing, it generally isn’t a problem with having the ideas flow, but simply with being mentally exhausted. My day-job involves a lot of writing and problem-solving–in many ways, it’s very similar to writing novels. So when work is being very intense, sometimes it bleeds away all the fiction-writing energy.

8. What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career so far?

I’d have to say that the biggest challenge is connecting with my readership. Mainstream fantasy readers don’t tend to look to the lesbian publishers for SFF books. There’s often a different flavor of genre than what they’re looking for. Conversely, readers who focus on lesbian fiction aren’t really used to the “mainstram fantasy” style of story I’m telling. They tend to be looking for something more much romance-focused and not quite so convoluted in plot.

So here I am, writing mainstream-style fantasy for a lesbian publisher who isn’t quite sure how to market my books. It’s being something of a long, slow slog to build a readership and communicate what my “brand” is to the people who are looking for exactly what I’m writing. But I can see it happening now, after two and a half years. In the year after my first book came out, I was horribly depressed, thinking I’d never make that connection. But one great thing about independent presses is that you get a bit more support for the long haul. There’s less of a sense that if you don’t make an immediate hit, you get written off.

9. If you could give an aspiring writer only one piece of advice what would it be?

If someone’s an aspiring writer, the only useful piece of advice is: write. That’s the only thing that turns aspiration into reality. And the second most important piece of advice is: read. Read widely. Read all sorts of books. Think about what those books are doing and how they’re doing it. Read non-fiction. Read about people living lives very different from your own. Get inside other people’s heads. Stretch your understanding of the world. But, write.

10. What are you working on right now that readers can look forward to?

I’ve already mentioned Mother of Souls, which is currently with my editor. I tend to have a lot of projects sitting around in various stages–short stories, research project, ideas for novels that I need to think about more before I plunge in. The thing I’m trying to focus on at the moment will be my first book-length self-publishing project: a collection of the short stories I had published in the Sword and Sorceress anthologies, completed by a concluding novelette. The working title is Skinsinger: Tales of the Kaltaoven. I’m revising the original stories and starting to make connections for cover art and editing and whatnot. And then it’ll be time to start on the next Alpennia book, which will be a bit of a change of gears. It’s titled Floodtide and will be a YA story, focusing on a teenage working-class character whose life intersects with the protagonists of the series, but who has entirely different concerns and priorities.

HRJ 20150506Heather Rose Jones is writing a historic fantasy series with swordswomen and magic set in the alternate-Regency-era country of Alpennia. She blogs about research into lesbian-like motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and writes both historical and fantasy fiction based on that research. She has a PhD in linguistics, studying metaphor theory and the semantics of Medieval Welsh prepositions, and works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech.

Book Links

Bella Books  Amazon

You can also find Heather on social media: 

Blog  Website  Twitter  Facebook

Did you enjoy this interview? Have questions or comments for Heather? Please leave them in the comments section below!

Making immortal characters feel real to your readers

My little Sauron sitting next to his eye... Yes I do own these!Many of the most fascinating characters in fantasy are immortal–the vampires Lestat and Armand immediately pop into my mind–but so are many of the most shallow characters, especially villains(I’m looking at you Sauron). I myself struggled for years to find the true voice of Riana, the cursed demigod who is the main character of Moonshadow’s Guardian, the fantasy novel I’m currently preparing to self publish.

There are countless examples of immortal characters who have all the feelings of a cardboard cutout or who mindlessly serve a single purpose even when it’s doomed but it is possible to write an immortal character your readers will like, even love. You just have to be prepared to put in some extra work. This article will explain how to develop immortal characters who have lived several hundred(or thousand) years.

The Challenges of Writing Immortal Characters

Writing a truly believable character is difficult even when your character isn’t immortal but immortality brings its own set of challenges:

1. A longer history means more world development

If your character has been alive for one hundred years you need to know what life was like in their world one hundred years ago–and something about how they lived during all the years in between. If your character has lived a thousand years or even ten thousand years the same thing holds true.

This means you need to do either extensive historical research(if your novel is based on a historical period and especially if it’s in a real place) or extensive worldbuilding(if you’re creating your own world). You probably won’t add a huge portion of it to the backstory even if the immortal character is your main character but you need to know it. What your character knows and remembers will have a huge impact on their personality. The more time you spend getting to know them, the more you will understand them and how they would think/speak.

2. It’s way more tempting to make them Mary Sues/Gary Stus

Most immortal characters also have some kind of special powers, usually related to the reason why they’re immortal. It’s always tempting to overdo these powers, to have the characters quickly win every battle, but that ruins the tension of the book.

Another thing you might be tempted to do is create an immortal character who has lived for eons and spent literally their entire life devoted to one thing. Unless your character is forced to do this one thing or was created specifically for that purpose(and designed to enjoy it) they will eventually want to do something new. Your immortal characters should have spent at least some time doing other things. Or had doubts about the one purpose they’ve always served.

It is true that we form most of our personality and long term beliefs in our first 10-20 years of life but almost every person goes through periods of doubt and upheaval. If your character has been alive for two or more human lifetimes they’re likely to have experienced at least twice as many periods of upheaval. Immortal characters who are supposed to be similar to humans in almost every other way but who never even doubted their purpose are kind of hard to believe.

3. It’s also really tempting to just fill their past with torture

Our goal as authors is to make our readers feel with the characters and frankly the easiest way to do this is to give them some past suffering to think about. And writing an extensive backstory is hard, which makes it really tempting to kill off all the people your character cares about quickly and have them spend the rest of their lives as sad hermits until your story starts.

This does work once in a while but as a general rule of thumb all of your characters should have periods of happiness they can remember–and an immortal character should probably remember at least a few more happy moments than your average mortal.

A good character feels the full spectrum of emotions(unless the story is about them not feeling the full range of emotions) and always has.

How to thoroughly develop your immortal characters

Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who is lucky enough to get a well rounded character arc.

Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who is lucky enough to get a well rounded character arc.

Properly developing an immortal character is very similar to developing a regular character but it will take you longer. I like to start by building an overall timeline noting only the ten or fifteen most important events in the character’s lifetime. Often the events will slide into place as soon as I’ve written the first one down but sometimes I have to ask the characters questions, usually things like “what was your worst memory”.

Once I’ve figured out these fifteen defining events and where they sit on the character’s timeline I can dive deeper. I write scenes about most of these events, always working in the first person POV(point of view) of the character I’m trying to develop. Sometimes I’ll write two scenes about a specific event, one from the POV of another character, to see how it affected different people or how other people see the immortal character.

As you research the history of the setting you’ve chosen or develop the history of your own created world you should also tie these into your character’s life. By this I don’t mean have them directly involved–your immortal character shouldn’t be involved in every single historical event during their lifetime–but they should have an opinion on at least the biggest events both local and worldwide. Even antisocial people who never go out except to shop hear the occasional rumour and develop an opinion on it.

Your character’s age will probably also impact the way they use language. Immortal characters will obviously have to keep up with changes in language to be able to communicate with people around them on a daily basis but they might adjust slowly, always speaking like an old fashioned person. Or they might adopt new slang immediately to avoid attention, especially if they’re the type of immortal who doesn’t age. Developing some slang for them to use–whether it’s old fashioned or extremely new to your world–will give your character more depth. Of course, you can overdo this pretty easily, so be conservative about where you sprinkle that slang.

Final Tips

16 Quick CharacterDevelopmentExercisesThe best thing you can do to properly develop an immortal character is take your time. You should develop more details about your character and your world before, during and after every draft of every story they’re in. Be willing to spend countless hours wandering through your world with your characters–both the immortal ones and the regular mortals.

If you’re still not sure where to start(or you’ve worked through the aspects of character discussed here) you should do the 16 quick character exercises I posted last week.

Author Spotlight: Tommy Muncie

IMG_3737Today we’re taking a break from my series of interviews with authors who write LGBTQ+ characters to chat with a friend I met through my favourite Twitter chat, #Scifihour. Please give Tommy a warm welcome!

  1. Can you tell us a bit about your novel, Shadow’s Talent?

When the Seekers from the planet Carnathia discover Earth in the 22nd century, they find a planet engulfed in world wide riots, with oil supplies at zero and governments fallen. The next hundred years see the rise of the Seeker class as they rebuild the world, bringing fresh oil supplies, advanced space technology and a mind power known as Talent.

Shadow Hatcher is born into an exciting world, where colonies in space are thriving but his family’s farm on Earth is struggling. He dreams of becoming a space craft pilot, but his chances are virtually zero. Until the night he witnesses a murder in the back lanes of his farm, and his witness testimony starts to bring people to his doorstep who might help him achieve his dream. If they don’t lead him even further into a dark world of murder, mind altering drugs and conspiracy first. There are secrets in Shadow’s family that would be better left buried, and certain people are intent on digging them up.

  1. What part of the story came to you first?

The earliest spark came from wanting to write about mind powers and telepathy. I found myself asking ‘What if someone acquired these sorts of powers when they weren’t supposed to?’ What if it was even illegal for them to have them, but an exception might be made for certain people on the quiet? I kept on changing the rules and changing what happened to Shadow until finally I had a story I liked where all the details worked.

  1. Your novel is set in a 23rd century England with a strict class structure. How much does this class structure resemble that of historical England?

I really didn’t think much about historical England when I wrote ST, but I guess there’s some resemblance in that the rich have a lot of influence and the poor don’t, and class is often linked to wealth, but occasionally someone transcends those class/wealth barriers and reaches places that surprise those around them.

I wanted the social structure in Shadow’s Talent to resemble today’s society more – there’s this nice idea that anyone can become anything, but in practice it’s less likely to happen for someone like Shadow than it is for someone born into wealth and privilege with a ‘good’ family name. The novel’s more about power than it is about class, because the Seekers are only the highest up the chain thanks to the power they can wield and the money that comes with it. Most people like Shadow who decide to take them on don’t come close to winning.

  1. How much planning did you do before starting Shadow’s Talent?

I didn’t do any planning at all, I just kept writing drafts and made it up as I went along. I knew I was in final draft territory because that’s when I did have a clear plan, even though I never wrote it down.

  1. Shadow’s Talent is the first novel in a series. Did you set out to write a series or did that just end up happening?

On my first outing, I set out to write an epic space opera, and I got a 300,000 word draft that was a massive jumble of ideas. Shadow emerged as my central character, and I decided the story of his life and how he changes the world was complex enough to need a series, and it would make quite a good one too.

  1. What is the hardest part of the writing process for you and how do you make it easier for yourself?

Figuring out where to put what. A lot of sci-fi involves world building, and the important details have to be revealed at the right time, but when I’m writing early drafts I’m not always sure when the right time is. Sometimes the details weight the story down, other times they’re integral to it. I make it easier by writing world-building notes. I rarely ever plan the story, but I do plan the world.

  1. Do you believe in writer’s block? Why/why not?

Yes I believe in it because I’ve heard enough stories of people just getting stuck or drying up, but thankfully I don’t suffer from it. There’s always an idea burning a hole in my head and I can always write something, even if I don’t end up liking it. There are certainly days when I don’t feel like writing, and can’t face another word of my story, but that’s a different problem.

  1. What are you reading right now?

I always have one book I’m reading on paper and one on my e-reader. Right now my hardback is ‘The Abyss Beyond Dreams’ by Peter F Hamilton, and my e-book is ‘Ambassador II – Raising Hell’ by Patty Jansen. I like reading non-fiction as well, mostly about science based stuff, and I’ve just finished ‘Physics of the Future’ by Michio Kaku.

  1. If you could give only one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

Don’t spend too much time listening to writers giving out writing advice! Seriously, there’s so much of it out there, and there are many good writers whose advice contradicts that of other good writers. Check it all out, act as your own filter for it, but don’t let it take up all your time and don’t get too worried about what you might be ignoring. I’ve been there and got all neurotic and insecure, thinking ‘Writer or Reader X wouldn’t like this because I ignored advice X and Y.’ I really have to switch that part of my brain off sometimes and just say ‘Fuck em all because this is MY story and I’ll do what I want!’ Sometimes that’s the only way I can finish.

  1. What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?

I’m writing a side project called ‘Welcome to Sentago,’ set on the planet Carnathia again but not directly part of the Talent Show books. It’s the interlocking stories of a shape shifter who runs fight scams for money and a disgraced fleet officer – both live in Sentago trying to make better lives, but when they meet it ends up causing chaos.

There’s a short story I’m working on called ‘The Apocalypse Blues’ about a famous guitarist with a ticket to the world’s first colony after a meteor strike blacks out Earth’s sun for months. Trouble is a lot of people want to steal that ticket. It should come out anywhere between 15-20,000 words, so a lot shorter than anything I’ve published so far!

Tommy Muncie is a sci-fi and speculative fiction author, responsible for The Talent Show series, and published his first book Shadow’s Talent in 2014. The sequel, Ghost of the Navigator was released earlier this year. In his spare time he is an avid guitar player and likes rock music best. You can find more about his books and the science behind them at and at Author Central.

16 Quick character exercises

16 Quick CharacterDevelopmentExercisesI(and many of the writers I follow) subscribe to the theory that character is the most important part of your novel. The most memorable part of a good book is almost always the characters, but it’s more than that. Your characters, their emotions, actions and reactions are the driving force behind the story, even in story with a highly external plot. It’s why our books so often change dramatically from the outline during the first or second draft–because we’ve gotten to know our characters and realized they wouldn’t act the way we originally imagined.

So how do you get to know your characters? There are almost as many different methods as there are writers. Hell, I’d go so far as to say there are as many ways to develop characters as there are characters in our fiction–I’ve developed almost all my main characters in very different ways. Sure, the starting exercises are the same, but there are a whole fleet of other exercises I’ve used to get to know my characters(and occasionally other people’s) over the years.

Today I’d like to give you the tools to develop your own characters. I’m pretty confident you already know what a good character looks like, so we’re going to jump straight into a collection of the best character exercises I’ve tried(some are linked to the articles where I found them, some no longer exist):

1. Describe your character in three words.

2. Write an internal monologue from the POV of your main character about their first big crush or first love.

3. Write one page or paragraph about your character’s worst memory, using their first person perspective.

4. Follow a supporting character after they leave the protagonist’s presence.

5. Interview your character about a specific part of their past.

6. Write a diary entry about your character having an ordinary day.

7. Write a letter from one supporting character to another.

8. Get your character to confess their most shameful secret.

9. Ask your character to describe their favourite place. 

10. Send your character(s) to Disney World and watch their reactions.

11. Get them to tell you about their education in one paragraph, then expand it to a page.

12. Write a description of your character from the POV of the person they’ve hurt the most.

13. Write one page describing your character’s family from their POV.

14. List what’s in your characters pockets/purse/briefcase/car on an ordinary day. 

15. Write a scene from a support character’s POV about them meeting your character for the first time. Pay close attention to how they describe your character at first glimpse.

16. Create a factsheet listing everything you’ve learned about your character so far.

All of these character exercises were chosen because they can be completed within an hour(usually less for many of the exercises) but I’ve often found that once I get my characters talking about something one paragraph or even one page is rarely enough. If you have the time to keep going, let your characters ramble–it’s in these moments that you often learn the most.

What is your favourite character development exercise? Let me know in the comments section below!

Author Spotlight: Taylor Brooke

omen op knives artowkrThis interview is part of an informal series featuring novels with LGBTQ+ characters. If you’re an author whose book includes LGBTQ+ characters and you wish to be featured, please email with a blurb & bio.

I’m thrilled to introduce today’s author, Taylor Brooke, whose young adult science fiction novel Omen Operation has an extremely interesting premise and several important openly LGBTQ+ characters, including a bisexual lead. Most YA books with LGBTQ+ characters have them discovering their sexuality for the first time or coming out and it’s really refreshing to see a book whose LGBTQ+ characters are already aware of and open about their sexuality.


Here’s the blurb:

After an epidemic spreads through the country, Brooklyn Harper’s high school years come to an abrupt end… Implanted in a rural camp, Brooklyn and her friends are cut off from their families and the outside world. Each day is filled with combat training to assure their safety against the crazed, belligerent, and deadly— those infected with a mysterious virus. As if the world couldn’t get any crazier, a letter ups the insanity… After being assured day after day that the world outside their little camp had been compromised, Brooklyn’s cabin-mate, Dawson Winters, finds a letter that turns everything they’d known upside down. There is a world outside the trees that surround their camp, and the virus they’d all come to fear seems non-existent. Determined to see it herself, Brooklyn plots with others to attempt an escape… On the outside, Brooklyn finds the world is as normal as ever. But when they are attacked in the city, they dispose of their attackers far more efficiently than any normal human. Is there more to Brooklyn and her friends than just being highly trained? Betrayal, love, death, and a powerful sense of camaraderie lead Brooklyn and her friends to fight for their life, their freedom, and most of all, each other.

1.  Can you tell us a little about your novel, Omen Operation?

Omen Operation is a fast-paced, emotionally driven, urban science fiction novel about a group of young adults who are taken from their families due to the outbreak of a mysterious virus. As the story unfolds the reader learns about the virus, what it is, how it has affected the characters and their lives, and what it could mean for their futures.

2. What part of the story came to you first?

I actually had a dream (totally cliché, I know) about Camp Number Eleven. I saw it as this lush, green, beautiful place, meadows all around, mountain ranges in the distance, and a group of people that I deeply cared about surrounding me. I still to this day don’t know what character I was embodying in the dream itself, but I do know that Dawson (one of my characters) was the first person I saw. He was lighting a torch and rallying the other campers in this furious, terrified way, and I remember thinking “I have to go with him, no matter what. I’ll follow him anywhere.” I’m a lucid dreamer, and when I dream about something/somewhere in that much vivid detail, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll revisit it, but to this day I’ve never again dreamed of Camp Eleven. It’s strange, but fitting. Once I dreamt it, I wrote it, and once it was written, it became real.

3. How much planning/research did you do before starting the novel?

I outlined my general idea and stored it away until I felt comfortable writing it. When I finally did come back to it, which was probably a year or so later, I started doing research on genome therapy, mutations, microbes, and gene-splicing. The hardest part of the process was making sure my fabricated science was believable to an extent. I wanted my readers to understand and respect the science behind Omen Operation.

4. Your characters have a wide variety of backgrounds and sexualities. What was the most challenging part of writing all of these characters authentically?

Challenging isn’t necessarily the word I would use. I wanted to be inclusive, and I wanted my writing to reflect reality. I have friends and family from all different walks of life, and I thought it was important to include those differences in the group I cast for The Isolation Series. I did research on different ethnic backgrounds, names, family traditions, and so on. Though I did do my own research, it was important for me to constantly look outside of my own white-bisexual-female box. I read a ton of articles, reached out to a few of my friends, and tried to give an authentic voice to characters that I couldn’t relate to in the best possible ways.

5. What advice would you give to a straight person trying to accurately write LGBTQ+ characters?

I could go on and on about this, but really it dwindles down to some vital questions. If you’re a straight author and you intend to include LGBTQ+ characters, ask yourself why. Why am I creating this character? What do I want for them? Do I know enough about them to give them the story they deserve? If you can’t give detailed, passionate, eloquent responses to those questions then don’t write about LGBTQ+ issues/characters. I’ve seen some lovely representation in the last few years from incredible authors and it warms my heart, but I’ve also seen some extremely offensive and downright unnecessary stories written from a perspective the author tried to embody but couldn’t quite pull off. Basically, LGBTQ+ characters are not there for shock value, because it’s politically correct to include them, or because you need a trope/cliché to propel your plot. LGBTQ+ characters are reflections of people – they are more than who they sleep with, how they die, and how they come out. Give them depth, strength, and complications.

6. What are some of your favourite diverse books?

Oh, wow, there are quite a few. I just finished Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Cycle and I absolutely loved it. Madeline Miller’s A Song of Achilles is also wonderful and is probably my favorite book to date. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is another incredible novel.

7. Omen Operation is the first book in a series. Did you start out planning a series or did you realize partway through the book that you had more story to tell?

I actually did plan it as a series. I always knew it would have a sequel, but I was unsure of it being a trilogy until I was offered a contract for publication. When my publisher asked me how many books I planned for The Isolation Series I thought about it and decided that 3 was a good number. It wasn’t that I realized I had more story to tell, it was that I didn’t think I could fit the whole story into one or two books. I have a large cast of characters and I wanted to play with their emotions, relationships, and their own individual battles. I had to expand the series from a duology to a trilogy in order to accomplish that.

8. How many books do you plan to write in the Isolation series?

It’ll be a trilogy.

9. If you could give an aspiring writer only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t give up! Do your research, read a lot, take online classes, join a writing group, go out into a nature with a notebook and jot down thoughts, be active in your creative endeavors. Omen Operation was rejected over thirty times before I received two offers for publication. I know I listed a few things, which is much more than a single piece of advice, but it all ties into one monumental mindset: I am not giving up. Say it every single day and keep writing.

10. What are you working on RIGHT NOW that readers can look forward to?

Well, the second novel in The Isolation Series is going to be released on November first and right now I’m writing the last book which is pretty insane when I think about it, but I’m also in pre-publication steps for my first literary romance title. It’s an LGBTQ+ story about fate, the complexities of falling in love, the road to a happy ever after, and every bump along the way. I wanted to give people who are my age, in their early-mid twenties, a love story that they could relate to. I’m very proud of it and I hope I can get it into the hands of readers in the next year or so.

limitless bio photoTaylor Brooke is the author of the science fiction trilogy, The Isolation Series. She lives in the Central Oregon with a lazy black cat, and spends her time hiking, scouting out the best food in town, and advocating for animal rights. When she’s not writing, she’s usually wandering around on another continent or tucked away with a good book.

You can find Taylor at or and you can purchase Omen Operation here.

10Tips for outlining your novel

10 Essential Outlining TipsThis week I let Twitter decide what I should blog about(I occasionally have polls @DiannaLGunn) and they chose outlining, so I decided to compile all the outlining tips I could possibly think of. I was gunning for 13 but I spent this past weekend partying out of town and I am STILL exhausted.

1. Take your time

I know it’s really tempting to write a brief outline as soon as you have an idea and jump into your new book the moment you’ve finished that brief outline but this is a great way to end up scrapping your entire first draft and starting over.

Taking your time with the outline and the idea itself before you actually start the book helps you write a better book the first time. Hell, sometimes I don’t even write the idea down at all until I’ve already half-written an outline in my head.

2. Develop your characters and world first

Another reason why you should take your time is because you need to develop your characters and establish at least a little bit of information about your world before you write a serious outline. You can write down a partial outline right away, but if you don’t take the time to develop your characters well before you start they are sure to change the story dramatically as they grow. 

Your goal should be to know your characters and world well enough to know how they will react to the events that make up the plot before you start the outline. To do this I usually do at least one writing exercise in the POV of all the important characters and six or seven worldbuilding exercises. I also do another round of these exercises between drafts so I can develop the characters and world further, adding more depth to each draft.

3. Do it on paper

There are several kinds of outlining software and writing software that comes with its own outlining process but I much prefer creating mine on paper. Working with paper and a pencil helps my brain think in a different way than it does when I’m actually writing a novel. Having a paper copy beside me while working on my laptop is also easier than switching between windows every time I want to check my outline.

4. Make it easy to change

Notice how I said “paper and pencil” above? I write almost everything in pen but I’ve started writing outlines in pencil so I can more easily change things. This is because I often decide to change the order of things once I’ve written them all down and sometimes I get rid of things altogether or add new things. Admittedly it’s easier to change if it’s in a word document, but I like paper much better.

5. If it’s an old idea revisit your notes

If you’ve decided to drag out an idea you never went far with and breath new life into it or to rewrite a project you need to read everything you ever wrote about it. Often you’ll find that you’ve forgotten many aspects even if it’s only been six or seven months between drafts. You may also want to change things you had previously established about the world or characters to fit with a new vision of your story, and you can only do that properly if you know what the facts were supposed to be in the first place.

Reading a lot of old notes might be tedious but there is no other way to really immerse yourself in the material, especially if you’ve built a unique science fiction or fantasy world.

6. Be willing to try different outlining methods

Sometimes a new project will demand a new outlining method. Projects with more than one viewpoint character or extremely complicated plots typically need a slightly more complicated outline which connects all the story lines properly. For example, I actually wrote several outlines for my last novel–one for the main story line and one for each character arc.

7. Keep factsheets on hand while outlining

Factsheets are documents containing all the facts about specific characters and places in your story. I usually keep one for every main character and one for the recent history of the world I’m working in. This allows me to have all the information I need on hand and to make sure I don’t have anyone doing something totally out of character.

8. Ask critique partners & beta readers for their thoughts 

If you’re working on an outline for a second draft or a sequel you don’t have to figure out everything alone. There are(or at least there should be) other people who are familiar with your story and your characters, people who you can bounce ideas off of. If you’re really unsure about something these people can help you figure it out.

9. Let your outline sit for a few days

Once your outline is actually written you’ll be tempted to jump straight into your novel but this is generally a bad idea. If you revisit the outline a few days after you finish it but before you start the novel you’ll probably realize there are a few small(or large) changes you want to make before you start writing. You should also be using this time to do character development exercises to add depth to your story.

10. Give your story freedom to change

The truth is that if you’ve created a truly dynamic world filled with strong characters you’re almost guaranteed to encounter some serious change. The handful of writers I know whose characters tend to stick within outlines are the people crazy enough to spend several weeks or even months on an outline before they start.

If taking a new direction you haven’t built the structure for is completely terrifying you can always stop in the middle and rewrite your outline(this is part of why it should be easy to change). Letting your characters and world change will almost always make for a better story.

Do you outline? How much do you outline? Let me know in the comments section below!

Author Spotlight: Amelia Smith

3DefendersARCToday’s author grabbed my attention by mentioning something unique about her world: sacred prostitution, a concept which has existed at various times in history but is rarely explored in fantasy. I’m really excited about this novel and have actually requested a copy to review(the review should be sometime next month).

But I’m not the best at explaining other people’s books, so here’s the blurb:

The Defenders’ order is dying, but that’s no surprise. They’ve been in hiding for over a hundred years, and apprentices are getting harder to find – hardly anyone can see the dragons any more.

Eppie picked pockets on the streets of Anamat for years before one of the Defenders noticed her. She hid well, but one day she picked the wrong pocket, or was it the right one? She sets out to save the dragon Tiada, but if her mentor and the others fall in the battle, who will defend the dragons next time?

And now on to the questions:


1. Can you tell us a bit about your novel, The Defenders’ Apprentice?

The Defenders’ Apprentice is the story of a young woman who is recruited into a secret society that’s dedicated to defending the disappearing dragons of the land. It’s also the story of her mentor, Thorat, who is happy to have found Eppie but dismayed to realize that she’s also the girl he’s promised to deliver to his lover in the temple, a place Eppie does not want to be stuck, ever.

2. Which part of the story for The Defenders’ Apprentice came to you first?

It’s really hard to say, because the ideas built up and came together over a very long period of time. The first image I had when I started to write the series was of Iola arriving at the temple. That scene doesn’t even fit with the world I built up in the years after that, let alone with the story.

I think my original idea for the Defenders came to me when I was practicing aikido many years ago (I don’t practice any more, but would like to get back to it some day if my spine will allow it). There were all these people in the dojo who came from different and really very ordinary walks of life, but came together to practice this rather esoteric art. I began to think that this is what a secret society might look like – though of course aikido is not secret and we were always trying to get people to come by and try it out.

3. Your culture includes an order with sacred prostitution. How does this impact the culture’s attitudes towards sex overall?

In our culture, the ideal role of sex is within a monogamous relationship, to strengthen that relationship and/or to procreate. In the world of Theranis, the ideal is that sex is how you connect with the dragons, who are the gods of the land. It’s supposed to be a mystical experience first and foremost, and not necessarily to lead to romantic partnerships, especially if it’s with a priestess. Of course, people will pair up even when it’s not the accepted ideal, and they make those partnerships permanent when there’s a lineage to carry on, whether to pass on the family farm or command of an entire province.

4. How much planning do you usually do before starting a novel?

I try to plan, really I do, but what’s happened so far is that I get about a two-page outline done and then I feel that I’m ready to write. I also tend to stop and re-outline in between drafts, especially the first couple of times through.

5. You’re actually re-releasing the series but decided to publish The Defenders’ Apprentice first and release the other two as prequels. Why did you make that decision?

I published Scrapplings almost two years ago now. It’s the chronological beginning of the series, with Darna leaving Tiadun to come to Anamat as a youngster (about age 13, though she doesn’t know exactly). Ideally, I’d like people to read that book and Priestess before The Defenders’ Apprentice, or at least before the next book in the trilogy, but they’re not completely necessary. I actually wrote the original version of The Defenders’ Apprentice before those two books, ca. 2002/3.

6. How much editing did you do before releasing The Defenders’ Apprentice?

Defenders has had more editing than anything else I’ve ever written. I workshopped its opening chapters at Viable Paradise in 2003, reworked it, sent it for a professional manuscript evaluation, and I think that was when I decided to write the two prequel novels. I set the whole project aside in 2007, when I had my first child, and didn’t pick it up again until I shipped the younger one off to preschool six years later.

By the time I got to a new beta-reader-ready version of Defenders in 2015, I knew that the two prequels had failed to “take off” due in part to their quirkiness and slow pacing. I still think they’re good books, but Defenders is closer than the others to a traditional action-adventure fantasy, so I decided to re-launch the series with this one. I found another professional editor to give in a read-through and did another revision based on her feedback as a new reader. That was more useful to me than the earlier manuscript report had been, because this editor knows the genre very well. After sending it off to a couple of beta readers and doing a line edit, I sent it to a copy editor.

Was it worth it to do all that editing? Yes, probably, though I got better at knowing what I needed as I learned and wrote more, and I could probably have been more efficient about the process. Still, I never met a writer who felt that they’d done too much editing, and have come across many who wished they’d done more, so I try to do as much as I can before I run out of patience and/or come up against one of my self-imposed deadlines. Fortunately, I don’t have infinite patience, so I tend to push the work out sooner rather than later.

7. What have you learned so far about the self publishing process with The Defenders’ Apprentice?

I learn more with every book and every year of following the self-publishing scene. After releasing three novels and two shorter works, I feel like I came into this one with a solid command of the basics (formatting, sales channels, cover, book description, categories, mailing list, etc.), but there’s still a lot more I could have done which I skipped. One thing I’d like to do eventually is to put the book up on IngramSpark as well as on CreateSpace, so that I have a chance at bookstore distribution. I’d also like to do an audio book, but that’s an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. Finally, I’d like to get back into doing some of the more “traditional” book marketing things, reaching out to independent bookstores and perhaps doing a reading at my local library.

8. What have you found to be the most successful marketing technique?

Author cross-promos are a big one, and of course there’s the mailing list. Jasmine Walt organized a big cross promo back in March which gave me literally thousands of mailing list sign-ups, and that mailing list really helped my pre-orders and early sales, along with two more cross-promos and some paid advertising in the week after release. I think it’s best to try a variety of things and not get too hung up on one channel or technique, because although the ebook market has stabilized, marketing seems to be a constantly moving target.

I released this book at 99 cents, and I think that helped, but now that it’s at full price it’s still selling some. I don’t think I’ll do a 99 cent launch on the next book, though.

One thing I didn’t do, which many recommend, was putting this book in KDP Select/KU. KU borrows can really help with visibility, but my fantasy books don’t seem to do well with that audience.

9. If you could give an aspiring writer only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Keep writing, and try to orient yourself to intrinsic rewards and the process rather than sales, reviews, or awards. (I have not been able to do this myself, but I keep trying!)

10. What are you working on right now that readers can look forward to?

The next book! In The Turncoat Prince Darna rides off across the mountains and has an ill-fated affair but gains some self-knowledge along the way.

Author Bio

authorphotoalt400sqThanks to her novel-writing grandmother, Amelia Smith began life with the delusion that writing books was a thing grown-ups did for a living. Through high school and into early adulthood, she wrote poetry and stumbled through occasional longer projects, mostly in the fantasy genre. She’s currently working on a multi-volume epic fantasy, with occasional side projects which have included magazine articles, a Regency romance, and a screenplay.

Purchase your copy of The Defender’s Apprentice today!

7 things to do when you’ve finished a novel

If you follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter you’ll know that I finished the first draft of the sequel to Moonshadow’s Guardian, my dark fantasy novel currently being edited by a professional, last week. Finishing a book is one of the most amazing feelings in the entire world but it’s also kind of daunting. After all, you’ve been carving out an hour(or three in my case) of every day to work on this thing for months. What the hell do you do with that time now?

Personally my brain was immediately flooded with about a million things I could do with those hours, but here are 7 things you absolutely must do after finishing a novel:

1. Celebrate

This one is obvious, but it bears repeating. Most writers(realistically most of the people I know) have a terrible habit of downplaying their achievements. They fall into the trap of comparing themselves to writers who have already finished dozens of books or who finished their books before their 20th birthday. This is the absolute worst thing you can do to yourself, especially if you already have depression or other mental health issues. So stop and remember that finishing a book deserves a celebration, whether it’s your first book or your fiftieth.

How should you celebrate? That’s up to you but I have one suggestion: go big, especially if this is your first or second book. Don’t have a single drink by yourself to celebrate. Take yourself out for a nice meal and invite some friends out for drinks afterwards. You deserve it.

2. Take a week off

When you’re working on a book it tends to take over your mind at all times of day. No matter what you’re actively doing some part of you is always focused on the book, examining the problems and delivering solutions. As much as you might want to jump straight into a new project most of us have to put some distance between ourselves and the last book we worked on before we can really devote our attention to the next project.

During your week off you should do everything in your power to get the last project out of your head. Read a different book(or three). Watch movies that are as different from your last book as you can possibly imagine. Your goal is to put as much distance between yourself and your last novel as you can before starting the next project. Some writers even take longer periods of time off in between books to do this.

3. Thoroughly clean your house

The closer I am to finishing a book, the less I clean, and I know I’m not alone in this. In the last couple weeks of a project almost all the cleaning falls to my fiance, so when I finish a book I do a thorough clean of my house(although my desk always stays a mess).

Which reminds me, I really need to clean the bedroom when I finish this blog post…

4. Narrow down your options for the next project

Another common problem us writerly folk have is a plethora of ideas and a limited time frame in which to complete our projects. I’ve got entire binders full of partial outlines and notes for worlds I’ve never actually written a book in.

So how do you narrow them down? You have to pick your own criteria. For me I’ve narrowed it down based on which projects are closest to publication because I’ve decided to self publish my work. You might want to narrow it down based on which projects have the most complete outlines or based on something like project length. You might even narrow down your ideas to the most challenging ones because you want to break out of your comfort zone and learn new techniques.

Whatever your criteria is, I want you to narrow your entire list of possible projects down to three.

5. List all the pros and cons for potential projects

Once you’ve picked your three projects, make a list of pros and cons for each one. As an example I’ll share some of the pros and cons for one of the projects I’m considering, the third book in the Moonshadow’s Guardian trilogy(which will eventually have a better name):

Moonshadow’s Guardian Book 3


  • I’m extremely comfortable with the voice of the main character right now
  • Since I’ve worked on both the other books this year my brain is still kind of immersed in the world
  • I’m excited to further explore the mythology of the world in the third book


  • This book actually has the loosest outline of the three projects I’m working on: I know what I want the main character’s story arc to look like, but not much else
  • There will be complicated repercussions from events in the second book that I haven’t decided how to approach
  • If I write this book it will have a new POV character who is extremely mentally disturbed, and I’m not sure I’m stable enough mentally to sit in her head for very long at the moment

Your pros and cons can be anything that influences how well you’ll be able to work on the project. The important thing is to be completely honest with yourself.

6. Read a book about writing

The writer’s journey is an endless path of learning. And there are thousands of books to help you along the way. Some of my favourite books about writing are DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build your Community, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

You can get your books about the craft from the library or buy them so you always have a copy to refer to but the important thing is that you actually take the time to read them. Keep a notebook beside you while you’re reading them and write down anything particularly useful or interesting. You’ll always learn more from actually writing and receiving feedback on your work but if you want to learn quickly you need to get information from every possible source.

7. Start working on the next book

Every single blog and book I’ve ever read about writing sooner or later says the same thing: the best thing you can do for your career is write the next book. It doesn’t matter whether you’re giving the first draft of your first book some time to settle before you dive into edits or you’re waiting to hear back from an agent/publisher. Taking a week or two off to reset your brain and catch up with all the friends you’ve been ignoring is great but if you’re serious about building a career in writing you can’t wait long to start your next book.

Of course, working on the next book doesn’t necessarily mean jumping head long into a first draft. In fact, I have a whole list of things I like to do before I start a novel. Outlining is obviously one of them but I also often have extensive worldbuilding to do and I always do a series of character exercises. The character exercises are particularly important for me because I write in first person and they allow me to get used to a new character’s voice before I jump into a project.

What are you planning to do when you finish your current project? Let me know in the comments section below!

Author Spotlight: James Stryker

Assimilation_coverIt recently came to my attention that I’ve read a disturbing lack of books about LGBTQ+ characters and that my recent reading list contained a total of 0 transgender characters so I reached out to Twitter looking for books with LGBTQ+ characters to review. James Stryker was the first author to respond to my call for LGBTQ+ characters with his novel, Assimilationa story about a person who is resurrected in a body with a different gender.

But don’t let me attempt to explain the book, here’s a blurb to do it for you:

She was far away, this woman he’d been. He knew her child’s and husband’s names. He could see their faces. But Natalie was a ghost.
Natalie Keller was a happy, attractive woman in the prime of her life: a mother and a wife. The kind of woman some people are jealous of. When a fatal car accident ends Natalie’s life, a new technology allows her husband to bring her back. Except it isn’t Natalie who wakes up over a year after the accident. It’s Andrew.
Andrew is not the only one who has returned from death profoundly changed, and he soon finds a group of misfits who share his fate. They include the brilliant and reckless Oz, who decides to make Andrew his project. The closer they become, the more Oz pushes Andrew into a carelessness that jeopardizes both of their lives.
Having paid for the procedure, Natalie’s husband Robert has control over Andrew’s body and legal identity. In order to get his life back, Andrew must play a dangerous game, keeping Robert in the dark and preserving his own sanity until he can legally revoke Natalie’s identity. But Robert is not the only threat. CryoLife, the company behind the new procedure, is eager to cover up any “mistakes.”
In a world where a new life is possible, there are still those who would tell Andrew and Oz how to live theirs. When the truth of who they are is on the line, what are they willing to sacrifice for their freedom?
A dystopian sci-fi thriller for fans of Ann Leckie, Lila Bowen and Kameron Hurley.

Now on to the interview:

1. Can you tell us a bit about your novel, Assimilation

Assimilation takes place in a not-so-distant future where technology has developed to the point of being able to bring individuals back from the dead through cryonic preservation. The book is told from three points of view; however, it mainly focuses on Andrew after he has been reanimated following a fatal car accident. As Assimilation opens, an error in the medical procedure has impacted Andrew’s gender identity and he’s essentially a man waking up in the body and life of a woman. He then has to navigate his feelings of gender dysphoria in a struggle with the previous identity’s husband, and the cryonic corporation who’s looking to cover up any mistakes.

2. What part of Assimilation came to you first?

Cadaver preparation (embalming, cremation, plastination etc.) has always been interesting to me and I was researching cryonic preservation theories. In reading about current processes/challenges, an inherent part of such an invasive procedure would be significant impact on brain tissue – if/once cryonic reanimation becomes successful, there is a very real possibility that a person could return with different personality traits. While we still have a limited understanding of the exact structures that play a role, brain anatomy has more to do with gender identity, possibility, and expression than genitalia. I had the image of a young man paralyzed in a hospital bed opening his eyes to a man expecting his wife and a child waiting for his mother. The story built itself from there.

3. Your main character passes away as a woman and is revived as a man. Did you set out wanting to write a book that tackled trans issues or did it just sort of happen?

From its inception the idea of Assimilation centered around transgender issues. I thought the book’s concept would be a unique platform to explore a couple pieces of the transgender experience that I feel are often eclipsed in media sensationalism – managing the history of another gender identity and the struggle of a closet transgender youth.

For the first, essentially Andrew lived as a woman for 27 years – investing and building relationships as a woman. Coming back into the world as a man, that history doesn’t disappear. In choosing to pursue their true identity, a transgender individual has to manage and/or sacrifice the prior gender identity’s role. When gender is closely tied to our society and interactions, transition (even once complete) letting go of previously held images, expectations, and dreams is a painful, grief-filled process for family and friends.

Another twist in Assimilation is that while Andrew is 28, a guideline of the reanimation procedure has placed him under a conservatorship. He has limited rights and is under strict control of the woman’s husband, Robert. Leaking his struggle could result in being sent back to CryoLife, the organization responsible for the reanimation or worse punishment. As in the case of many transgender children and teens, Andrew is forced to deal with his gender dysphoria silently, with no options. He goes through a litany of emotions from trying to fit in as the woman to fighting thoughts of suicide.

4. Did you do much research into gender dysphoria and the trans experience before starting Assimilation

I’ve always been passionate about promoting a greater understanding of the transgender experience. I’ve attended TransCentralPA’s Keystone Conference, which hosts workshops, seminars, and other programs regarding gender identity ( Another great resource has also been Laura’s Playground, a support site for a variety of gender identities and expressions ( Laura’s Playground offers live chat, forums, and additional information. I’ve been friends with many of the moderators and site visitors for years.

5. What is the hardest part of the writing process for yourself and how do you make it easier for yourself?

For me, the hardest part of the writing process is finding adequate time to accomplish it. I write quickly, but I need dedicated time. To get through a first draft, I end up taking vacation time and barely leave my kitchen table for a week or so, writing continuously for upwards of 20 hours/day (can usually manage around 10K words/day). The result is usually a completed first draft, but it’s physically and emotionally taxing, so not something I can regularly do.

I try to make it easier by intermixing longer works with short pieces or editing. I still feel productive, but these smaller sprints aren’t as draining and are great creative exercises.

6. Do you believe in writer’s block? Why/why not?

I believe in writer’s block in the context of “what I’d currently like to write about isn’t coming easy for me,” but I’ve never seen it as a completely closed door to writing in general. While Assimilation was my first completed novel, my second novel, Boy, was in the works for about seven years due to periodic “writer’s block.” If a story is lacking expressional fluidity it’s not that there’s a bad story, a bad writer, or that the writer has “writer’s block” – it’s just an indication that additional development for that particular idea is needed. When I hit this feeling, I try to focus elsewhere and trust that the piece I’m stuck on will unravel itself when it’s ready.

7. What advice would you give to a writer setting out to write about their first transgender character?

Take the time to consider details. Elements of gender are woven into so many aspects of everyday life that often go unnoticed. For example, in Assimilation the idea of just getting a haircut is a huge ordeal for Andrew. What if the stylist refuses to give him a man’s haircut? What if it ends up botched and looking even more feminine? Even walking into a salon with an interior of mirrors reflecting an image he hates, is terrifying. If a writer is going to accurately portray a transgender character, they need to bring in the finer points, and the thousands of worries that accompany even seemingly small actions.

8. Can you recommend some other awesome books about transgender people?

Most of transgender books I read are biography or other non-fiction; I really enjoyed Dhillon Khosla’s account of his transition in Both Sides Now: One Man’s Journey Through Womanhood. On the fiction spectrum, there were several elements of gender explanation in Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex: A Novel that I found fascinating.

9. If you could give an aspiring author only one piece of advice, what would it be?

When you finish the first draft, remove yourself to edit ruthlessly. Editing is more than spell-check and comma placement. A writer has to be willing to detach, and treat the thing they’ve created as a body of work.

10. What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?

I have four other standalone books looking for homes – two of which have specific (though different) transgender themes:

In Boy, my second novel, after his father’s death a young man is shocked to discover that his father had a hidden past as a transgender man. To find out why this secret was kept from him, Luke must go through a journey of self-discovery which involves convincing his father’s terminally ill best friend that he can be trusted with the truth.

My third novel, The Simplicity of Being Normal, follows Sam, a transgender teenager stuck in an environment of religiously justified bullying at school and abuse at home. After confiding his gender identity to his only ally, a teacher hiding secrets of his own, Sam tries to survive the increasing violence at school in order to graduate and begin transition.

James Stryker lives in small-town Pennsylvania, though he grew up in Ogden, Utah. He relocated 2,000 miles to be with the love of his life, and he also shares a residence with a pack of pugs. James enjoys writing both short and novel-length pieces of speculative and literary fiction. Themes in his work focus toward diversity in the LGBTQ spectrum and the voice of underrepresented or misunderstood points of view. When not writing, James can be found reading, listening to opera at obscene decibels, wearing pedantic vests/sweaters with large buttons, and trying to figure out who in his neighborhood has fabric softener that smells like Dr. Pepper.

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