what I've been reading and what they're doing right (#SFWApro)

Last Thursday, I finished my latest work, Cygnet Moon, and shipped the novel and its accompanying submission package off to my agent. Writing a novel is an immersive business for me, especially when I get into the final quarter and during edits. I don't read anything but the story that I'm working on. I do this so that I don't accidentally pick up someone else's voice during my final round of edits.

I restrict my reading to blog posts and research, then once I'm done, I go on an absolute binge of reading. Here are a few books that I've found worth my while:

Preternatural by G.S. Anderson

I once had an agent who offered up a unique challenge: Anyone, he posited, can tell you what is wrong with a story. The challenge is in telling someone what is RIGHT with a story. Find what works, and you can discover writing secrets, which you can then apply to your own writing. That suggestion has remained with me all these years, so when I find myself enjoying an author's work, I start looking for what that particular author is doing right.

Anderson tells twelve unique stories in this little volume, and I had to read it twice to find out what she was doing right, because her writing is so smooth and enjoyable, I found myself reading for fun the first time through.

What she did right: smooth storytelling with skillful prose made me forget to study fiction and simply enjoy stories for fun. Anderson's writing reminded me Stephen King's Joyland. Skillful storytelling with a cool Twilight Zone twist hidden within each tale. I read it quickly--too quickly--and read it again. My favorite story was "The Unicorn" and I hope that Anderson will give us more shorts such as these. If you're looking for something perfect to while away an afternoon, I highly suggest you check out Preternatural.

Those Across the River and The Necromancer's House by Christopher Buehlman.

Over the winter, I read Christopher Buehlman's Between Two Fires. I enjoyed his story and writing style so much that when my daughter gave me a B&N gift card for my birthday, I ordered his other two novels: Those Across the River and The Necromancer's House.

Of the two, I found myself enjoying the Those Across the River more than The Necromancer's House, but I believe that was more to do with my mindset. Both stories are well worth your time, though, especially if you love horror.

I read Those Across the River in two days. The story is set in post-World War I Georgia when Frank Nichols and his wife Eudora move to Whitbrow, Georgia and learn of the town's disturbing history. Once a month, the town sends a gift of two pigs across the river where the old Savoyard plantation once stood, but the Great Depression is hitting all of the farmers hard, and the town votes to stop wasting its livestock in a ritual that only a few want to maintain. However, it isn't long before those across the river return to take what is no longer freely given.

What is right about this book: everything. The pacing moves at a breakneck speed and Buehlman has a talent for dark fiction, knowing just how much to weave into the story to keep the reader hooked without going overboard into the dreaded school of over-writing. The story is lean, quick, and cuts like a knife.

Unlike Those Across the River, The Necromancer's House jumped between different points of view, which jarred me at times. I had a little trouble getting into the story and the characters, but once there, I really found myself enjoying this twisted take on Baba Yaga. Buehlman's climax and ending were superb.

What he does right: Buehlman takes the time to research his stories, and he puts just enough of that research into the work to give his story authenticity. The balance is absolutely perfect. I'll be watching for more of Buehlman's work.

The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer.

This is the second book in Schafer's Shattered Sigil series and I am currently reading it. I love Schafer's storytelling.

What she does right: Likable characters woven into a good, old-fashioned adventure story with lots of twists and betrayals. Kiran is my favorite character in this story, and Dev is back with style.

I'll be back with a full review when I'm done, but Tainted City is my last fun read before I start work on a new novella.

If you've got a minute and you're reading something good, leave it in the comments. Let us know what you find right about the author's work.

no nano for me--2013 is the year of the short story #sfwapro

A short update on progress of Cygnet Moon and other projects:

2013 is the year of the short story for me. Thus far, I've written four:

"Naked the Night Sings" at 4,500 words;

"Love, Crystal and Stone" at 7,300 words;

"La Santisima" at 4,900 words;

"Down to the River" at 4,000 words.

That's a grand total of 20,700 words. In comparison, I have now reached the 31,700 mark on Cygnet Moon.

For the record, I thought about participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but with the pressure of a few other projects floating around, I had to decline.

If you're busy writing and counting those words, good luck. I'm hammering the old keyboard right alongside of you.

I've got two other projects under a deadline right now, so if I'm scarce, that's why. Meanwhile, here is a teensy peek at Cygnet Moon:

I dreamed that I hid in a forest. The trees grew close together. All sound was choked off.

Overhead, spirits swirled like a fine pale mist through the tightly woven limbs. The souls sought a way past the woods so they could ascend to heaven’s realms. The air hummed with their moans. The wind did not blow here. Nothing moved but the dead.

I squatted behind a tree and shut my eyes. Exhausted by my fear, I couldn’t move. I tried to be small and inconsequential. I hid in the darkest corners of my mind, yet Mother found me, her tongue a great silver blade that cut me to the bone. She opened her mouth and revealed eyes instead of teeth.

Nano away, my friends. I'll be around.

About the short story "La Santisima"

Last week, I gave you the cover reveal for a short story project that I've been working on for some time. This week, I want to tell you a little more about the story and how it came about.

Some stories, well a lot of stories, are written to market. That simply means that a story is constructed to adhere to reader expectations in such a way as to make the story more salable to publishers. There is nothing wrong that—every author writes to market if they hope to be published, but sometimes, every once in a while, a story doesn’t quite adhere to market expectations.

That is sort of what happened with "La Santisima." The story wasn't deemed to be quite genre enough for certain venues, and the genre tropes provided less appeal for the literary market.

That certainly wasn't my intention. "La Santisima" began with marketable aspirations. My original idea was for a drug story that incorporated some kind of supernatural suicide revenge. There was going to be horror and blood pacts and all sorts of badassery, but I wasn't precisely sure which supernatural elements to incorporate into the tale. I contacted a friend and asked her advice. Sabrina pointed me toward La Santa Muerte, a saint most associated with the drug cartels.

Outside of the most garish Hollywood nonsense, I had no idea what La Santa Muerte was about, either as a cult or as a symbol. I turned to Google and stumbled onto Eva Aridjis' documentary La Santa Muerte. She filmed a very compassionate look at the people who live in some of the worst poverty and the most dangerous neighborhoods in Mexico. After watching the interviews in La Santa Muerte, I realized that my original idea was not going to work.

About the same time, I saw an advertisement for another documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal? I have not seen this particular work yet, but it is about a man who died in the Arizona desert while trying to cross the border. The medical examiners' only clue to identifying the corpse was the name Dayani Cristal, which was tattooed on the body.

Out of curiosity, I looked up some facts and figures on the Sonoran desert just to see how many people die there every year in an attempt to cross the border. According to the non-governmental human rights organization, Coalición de Derechos Humanos, over 2,500 men, women, and children have died trying to make that dangerous crossing since the year 2000.

Those are the ones who are found.

I brushed up on my faulty Spanish and started reading about migrants, why they want to leave their homes and homelands for a country that is just as foreign to them as Latin America is to most U.S. citizens. I tried to imagine what would make someone want to cross a border with little more than the clothes on his or her back. One man talked about getting up before dawn and working until nine at night at back-breaking labor that did nothing to raise him out of his poverty. One day he woke up and decided that he just couldn’t do it anymore—he started walking the tracks, looking for something better.

His hope of finding a better life remained with me as I read more and more about the migrant experience. Through documentaries, I saw the conditions in which people are forced to live—in poverty and in fear. I read through the Coalición de Derechos Humanos’ website where they have listed the people found dead in the desert. Of all the bodies that were located, only a few had names. Most were listed as "unknowns," and I wondered about the families they left behind. I wondered about the whys and the hows and what would happen if.

"La Santisima" is the product of that wondering. I wanted to put myself in someone else's life and see the world differently. I wanted to understand a complex problem by giving faces, names, and histories to the unknowns found in the desert.

I'm not here to give you an answer on the topic of immigration, because I have none. I'm just not that smart. I do wish that we, those of us on both sides of the border, would spend more time trying to understand one another rather than seeking to blame. I'd like to see us reach out and find a more humanitarian solution to the issue, maybe something that is less about erecting walls and more about reaching out. Men and women, who are simply fighting to survive, are lost to the shadows, nameless and forgotten. Meanwhile politicians point fingers and argue patriotism, but we all know the truth about politicians—the dollar is the bottom line.

Only sometimes it's not about money, at least not to me.

I could have changed Sebastian's story, added a little gore and given La Santa Muerte a larger, more sinister role—I'm a writer, words are my business, badassery could have abounded.

But sometimes a story feels right, the characters feel true, and that is what happened here. For better or for worse, "La Santisima" is what I wrote, and I knew that if I tried to cram the story into a mold, I would have broken my characters' spirits; I would have cheapened their sacrifice—the story might have sold, but it wouldn't be the same.

I couldn't bring myself to do that.

I am going to bring you something very soon. It will be a gift, something that I choose to give in exchange for all that you have given me.

I see you out there on the Internet, pulling for me, offering me words of encouragement every day, and I know many of you by name. I am indebted to you for all of the beautiful diversity that you’ve brought into my life.

You know who you are.

Mis mejores deseos,