Saturday, November 18, 2017

some thoughts on my reading in 2017

As the end of the year nears, it is customary for me to do a round-up post discussing my favorite books. I might do a little vlog later on as a special December treat, but for now, here's my usual:

My top reads of 2017 are, in no particular order:

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill 

I've read this one early on in the year, but it still feels fresh like it was yesterday.

All Our Yesterdays is a time-travelling tale and it's got all the right moves. What attracted me about this book is its smart science, powerful narration and realistic resolution, albeit a sad one.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Gosh, I love books about super-villains! And Vicious does not disappoint.

It was so ridiculously good!

A must for V.E. Schwab fans as well as those not familiar with her fast-growing body of diverse work.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

I admit, I saw Andrei Tarkovsky's eponymous movie first, then read the book it's based on nearly two decades later. I wish it was the other way around: the movie had a very different ending, which honestly I prefer to the book's more convoluted conclusion. But don't get me wrong: I appreciated the book nonetheless - it's a timeless psychological study of what a truly alien mind would be like, think like, act like. These questions asked, we are left without a definitive conclusion. 

Also, be prepared for an agonizingly slow-paced plot, long-witted philosophical monologues and a few info-dumps. Though, overall Solaris is a science fiction classic for a reason!

(a version of this review was first published on my Goodreads account)

Here are a few stills from the movie, because I just can't help myself (I'm a huge Tarkovsky fan, HUGE!)

Still from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972)

Still from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972)

Still from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972)

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Where do I begin... 

I adore pretty much everything Leigh Bardugo writes. She's a genius.

If you feel intimidated by Bardugo's fast-growing number of books, starting with Six of Crows is a good bet as it gives you a nice entry into the Grishaverse and you can take it from here...

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

My mandatory Murakami of the year. First published (in English) in 1994, The Wind-Up Bird follows Toru Okada as he embarks on a metaphysical quest to save his wife from her evil mystic brother. (I think.) In the process, Toru becomes a mystic of sorts himself. He sits inside an empty well a lot, befriends a slightly disturbed teenage girl and listens to a prolonged war tale of an elderly psychic.

This book also has one of the most disturbing and violent sequences I've ever read (and it takes A LOT to freak me out!).

Check this one out if you're a die-hard Murakami fan (like myself), though better don't read this while eating or if you want to relax. Trust my advice on this.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

When I first drafted this post, I was about 75% into this book, and so based on my impressions then I had it sitting at the very top of this blog post, along with my infatuated praises and complements. Now that I finished The Female of the Species, I'm lost for words and I honestly don't know how to describe my feelings the right way - mostly I'm pissed off and slightly underwhelmed. 

Don't get me wrong - I loved about 75% of this book, and this is despite me going out of my way to avoid YA contemporaries (with a few exceptions, namely Brena Yovanoff, whose Places No One Knows rocked my world), multiple POV narration (the highest number of narrators I can handle is two, and even then only when dual-POV is absolutely necessary to the plot, and usually it's not) and stories set in 'typical' high school universes, complete with cliques, bullying and evil mean girls.

Anyway, I'll still include this book in my list because I did go into trouble of getting the image embedded into this post and such, but after being sucked in into Alex's (the main character? Question mark is because Alex is one of the three narrators...) raw agency and then let down so much by the ending, I'm cautious in my recommendations.

Trigger warnings: violence, sexual assault, animal cruelty, alcoholism, bad parenting

Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory by Patrick Wilcken

I finish up my 2017 top reads list with this biography of Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist also known as the Father of Structuralism.

It was not a breezy read, but a superbly meditative and ultimately enjoyable one as the persona and life of Lévi-Strauss were definitely fascinating (if not for the wrong reasons).

This is something you might enjoy if you happen to be an anthropologist by training (like myself) or just curious about stuff in general .

I thought, I'd conclude this by sharing some structuralist love from the book. Here's my favorite quote from Lévi-Strauss's seminal work Sad Tropics that Wilcken cites/paraphazes wisely as a summation of the anthropologist's (failed) effort to understand, classify and categorize humanity:

"The world began without man and will end without him... Man's endeavors are merely a 'transient effervescence', fizzing chemical reaction, destined to burn itself out, ending in sterility and inertia. Anthropology should be renamed 'entropology', since it is really recording a process of the breaking-down, the dismantling of structures, as cultures... disaggregate, losing their special forms and ideas."

That's it for now.

Leave a comment to tell me what you enjoyed reading this year!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

querying process myth-busting

Back in the day when I was querying What The Woods Keep like a woman possessed, I made a habit of reading up on any querying advice I could find. The Evil Editor and Query Shark blogs were my daily staple reads but I also devoured many a confessional posting from fellow writers at varying stages of the querying process.

I did appreciate the success stories the most, especially the kinds that started with the infamous ‘slush pile’. But then, I also paid attention to the troves of other kind of advice available out there, some pretty common sense obvious (e.g., research agents before querying, craft your query based on each agency’s requirements, don’t approach editors and agents simultaneously, etc.), but some didn’t turn out to be true for me at all!

Hence, this post, where I ‘bust’ some myths surrounding the agent querying process.

Though, I’d need to reiterate that this is my experience, and it happened this way for me because the publishing stars have aligned in the particular way the day I hit 'send' on my email to Amy, who eventually became my agent. So this may not work for everyone, but the point I’m making is that ‘rules’ could be broken sometimes. Or maybe those are not ‘rules’ at all. Judge for yourself!

So here goes:

Myth # 1: Don’t query agents who don't represent your genre 

I know, I know… 

This is like THE OBVIOUS THING: if an agent says they loathe space opera, it’s probably not a good idea to bother them with your Dune meets Dr Who meets gender-bender Flash Gordon opus.

After all, agents say they favor some genres/tropes/story-telling techniques over others for a reason. If they personally can’t stand multiple POV narratives or experience an eye-rolling episode whenever a story featuring a magical portal lands on their desk, then it’s likely they won’t be super-enthusiastic about your portal-focused book featuring ten narrators. And even if you somehow manage to snatch representation, despite the odds... It’s not enough that an agent believes they can sell your book, ideally they also should be super-excited about it!

Another reason not to pitch your werewolf detective story to an agent who swore off paranormal in the post-Twilight era is that it’s very likely agents know the market better than you do, and the reason they don’t want to represent werewolf books anymore is that editors don’t want to buy them.

So there, you have it – to only query agents who represent your genre is a great advice.


When I queried Amy with What The Woods Keep, I described the book as “a young adult urban fantasy with science fiction elements”, quickly adding in the same paragraph that it's written in a multimedia format. Honestly, in my querying frenzy, I totally missed the part where Amy says she doesn’t represent science fiction and fantasy!

A BIG OOPS on my part! What was I thinking? How could I have missed that? And it’s not like this was some hidden knowledge either – Amy is pretty clear about it in her bios and numerous interviews freely available to all. Yet, the oblivious creature that I am, I queried Amy with my weird mixed genre urban fantasy/SF ,multimedia book and she… requested a full, like an hour after my email was sent!

So here’s my take-away on this: while it’s probably a good call not to bother agents with books classifiable as genres they don’t like/want/rep, this can also—maybe?—work in your favor. Perhaps an agent wants to ‘branch out’ and try selling different genres. Maybe their situation has changed and they’ve met some new editors and those editors want stuff like urban fantasy. So what have you got to lose ? The worst thing that can happen if you pitch your asexual vampire book to a supernatural-avoiding agent is that they… reject it. It's fine. Rejection happens all the time - even if you query an agent with what you believe is their dream-book! Either way, it’ll take them a minute to read your query and determine if it piqued their interest or not. And the best thing? It might intrigue them enough to request a partial or a full, and you never know what can happen then.

Myth # 2: Agents want series and/or books in trilogies

Yes, maybe some do. 

But what I heard from my fellow querying/signed/published authors and then again after I signed with Amy, is that editors are not too keen on series/trilogies anymore because book-sellers prefer 'standalones'. It’s less risky that way – in case the book is a not a break-away hit.

When I was querying What The Woods Keep, I didn’t bother describing it as a ‘first in a series’, though I think in some queries I referred to it as a ‘standalone with a sequel/series potential’. It may not matter either way, because million things will change in the time it takes for a book to sell and then to be published. I wouldn’t go out of the way to leave too many loose ends in the your debut book in hopes of a sequel. If it comes, it comes, but meanwhile focus on making THIS book the best you can and that means, ending it in a satisfying way of a standalone.

Myth # 3: Agents want manuscript evaluation report

I’ve read somewhere a long time ago that Alexandra Adornetto (my fellow Australian YA author who wrote HALO and the like) had a manuscript evaluation letter included as part of her query submission package and that it impressed a certain agent so much, it resulted in a representation offer. (As a side note, Alexandra was a teenager at the time.)

I did consider for a few moments whether I needed to have my book professionally evaluated, but then I read lots of interviews with agents which all shared the following sentiment on the topic: agents could not care less. Maybe the above story was an exception to the rule. Or maybe there were other factors at play (like the book itself was amazing, for one)… But what I learnt from this was that not only agents don't care about what someone else had said about your book, some actually actively dislike being given an evaluation report along with the query/pitch. After all, they’re the ones making a judgement call about your book’s suitability for publication and it doesn’t matter to them that much what others have said/thought about it thus far. Like, it’s kind of the same thing as including a letter from your mom assuring them how great your writing is.

So, know the ‘rules’ well enough to break them, focus on your query, craft it good and send it off widely.

After all, all you need is just one YES.

Monday, November 13, 2017

visuals and writing YA

Back in August, I got an email from NaNoWriMo (that's National Novel Writing Month) organizers, inviting me to guest-blog for them. The theme was writing tips and/or motivation, but it was open to interpretation. I quickly said 'yes, please' (that's my usual tactic where writing is concerned) and got to work.

The use of visuals for inspiration and motivation emerged as a topic for me to write about and NaNoWriMo folks liked my pitch. So here's me reblogging this piece (all images are licensed under Creative Commons and you can find details in image captions on the original posting available here).

I'd like to thank NaNoWriMo for reaching out and for running my guest-post on their blog.

Can a picture inspire a thousand words?

Can a picture inspire a thousand words? NaNoWriMo investigates the power of images in our writing lives. Author Katya de Becerra describes how using an image board brought her novel’s setting to life:

For me, a book begins with a place. The feel of this place, its colors, its peculiar atmosphere–all of it has to be just right, especially early on in a new project. Whenever I start working on a new book, as I play around with the protagonist’s voice and craft the early chapters, I set up a dedicated image board. I then sift through hundreds of pictures on Pinterest, Flickr, Google, populating the board with images that make sense to the story I have slowly building in my head.

As my visual board grows, I jot down ideas. My image selection process is interwoven with those key writing stages when I’m working out my protagonist, her voice, her goals, the way her mind works. On a deeper level, the process is interlinked with the mystery at the book’s heart–a question, an old secret, an almost sentient locale where the protagonist perhaps had a reality-altering experience, or where she witnessed something she was not meant to see.

With my novel What the Woods Keep, which eventually got me my agent and later a publisher, I knew the title from the get-go. Then the book grew around it, becoming more complex with each revision. The book’s core remained stable throughout–a young woman’s emotional homecoming, her relationship with her mother, her creepy windswept hometown and the boy-next-door who stayed behind while she got to leave. With the help of my image board, the forest-locked town of Promise, where the book is set, eventually got to tell its own story, acquiring a mind of its own and interacting with the protagonist in a way a regular character would.

Later, when I worked on the book’s revisions, my image board came in handy once again: the pictures I had so painstakingly selected as I wrote the book’s first draft shifted my mind into the right kind of mood, taking me once again back to Promise. It can be a difficult task to maintain the same feel to the book after months of working on something else, while waiting for feedback from your editor. My image board was instrumental in the task of keeping my rewrites true to the story and I can’t recommend it enough to all writers, experienced or new to the craft.

Katya de Becerra is a Melbourne-based author of Young Adult books. Her stories tend to be set in strange locales where it rains a lot and odd misunderstood things go bump in the night. She has two forthcoming books, What the Woods Keep and Oasis, both acquired by Imprint Macmillan in 2016. In What the Woods Keep, a girl inherits a riddle from her mother’s estate that leads her to a strange Colorado town where her physicist father has been studying strange phenomena. Oasis, a horror-adventure with a diverse cast set in Dubai, was originally a 2014 NaNoWriMo project. Find Katya at her blog at where she talks about pop culture, urban fantasy, science fiction and monsters, and also on Twitter @KatyaBecerra and Facebook @katyadebecerra.

Friday, February 10, 2017

on the scariest ever book for kids (among other musings)

When I met with my editors in New York last November, we talked about all sorts of things, from the origins of ideas, to the reasons why we write, to our motivation to use non-traditional literary formats to tell a story. But this one thing in particular resonated with me: inspiration. I find myself going back to ponder one of my editor's questions in regards to inspiration behind What The Woods Keep: 'But why [spoiler removed]? Why not something else? Why this particular bit of mythology?'

Why indeed!

In response, I mumbled something along the lines of: 'When I was a kid, I remember reading this book... called '100 mysteries' or 'legends' or something... and [spoiler removed] stuck in my brain like a splinter and I don't know why but here's me twenty years later writing a book about it. I really don't know!'

Today, as I smoulder in the summer inferno that is Melbourne in February, I return to the question of inspiration once more. I dig deep into my childhood memories, remembering stories that stayed with me still, that are still hiding in the murky crevices of my subconscious, waiting for the right stimulus to raise their spiky heads. You know, those strange, wonderful, spooky stories. Anthropomorphic animals who talk and reason and wear clothes. Private detectives who are also baked goods. Those delicious urban legends featuring coffins on wheels, flying hands (sentient, not attached to bodies and definitely evil), all those strange dark things that go bump in the night...

Eduard Uspensky is one author who comes to mind here. Some would know Uspensky as the creator of Cheburashka, a sentient creature of unknown origin. The last one of its kind, Cheburashka escapes from his shipment container and makes a life for himself in the big city together with his best friend, a talking crocodile named Gena.


Here is Cheburashka taking a stroll with his best friend, a talking crododile named Gena.

Uspensky is also the author of a series of books-made-cartoons about a Very Serious Boy named Uncle Fyodor ('Uncle' because he is Very Serious!) who runs away from home with a talking cat, then meets a talking dog and makes a new life for himself and his animal friends in a decrepit house on the outskirts of a semi-abandoned village called Prostokvashino (the village's name translates as 'buttermilk' or 'clabber' - but it sounds a lot funnier in in Russian).

Uncle Fyodor's absentee parents occasionally come for a visit and then they all sing songs and decorate a Christmas tree with garbage (no, I'm not making this up). There's also this nasty mailman named Pechkin who keeps an eye on this suspicious house and constantly threatens to report its residents to the authorities because an unsupervised child is living there alone.

Here's Uncle Fyodor, having a supper with his talking animal friends.
Perhaps this is a metaphor for a lonely child making up imaginary friends to escape reality?

Finally, on the talking creature-feature front, there was Gingerbread Man Investigates, a book/cartoon about private investigators who are also baked goods! Their main concern? Not to get stuck outside when it rains!

Gingerbread Man Investigates is a 1987 book made into a cartoon.

But the true cherry on the cake of all the amazing book stuff I was lucky to have grown up with is without a doubt Red hand, black bed-sheet, green fingers, a 1990 Uspensky masterpiece of a Young Adult novella that both terrified and fascinated the child-me. And what about those illustrations? Just writing about them now is bringing back the memories of shivers I felt then when I was reading this book...

The cover for Red hand, black bed-sheet, green fingers.

Thick and glossy, the book came with a tag-line: frightful stories for fearless children. The author hence dedicated the book to all those who helped him with research: in 1986 when Red hand.. was germinating, during a talk on a teen radio show Uspensky asked his young listeners to mail him their scary stories. Based on these letters (and he received thousands of those), drawing on kids' urban myths - those weird, creepy horror stories passed down verbally, and becoming twisted in the process, with each new narrator adding a bit of personal touch - Uspensky wrote a book that defined a generation of Russian kids (me included) coming of age in the 1990s amidst the perestroika fever, empty grocery shops, food stamps, and crumbling school walls in need of urgent repair.

This spooky book that left a deep impression on my still developing brain was in its essence a crime mystery where a rookie cop named Victor was tasked with investigating a series of strange murders. The suspects? Mystical forces, as reported by witnesses: a shining red hand that was seen emerging from the wall, a red-faced woman seen right before a fire broke out or a man without face passing by before a murder was committed...

As Victor investigates, going deeper and deeper into the supernatural underground world, he has to travel from one creepy little town to the next, visiting abandoned mansions and spooky cemeteries. And everywhere, he goes he keeps hearing those spine-twisting stories from terrified witnesses until his own rational convictions are shaken, challenged...

The book's genre combines the elements of scary fairy tales, folk tales and realistic urban storytelling, where everyday objects are imbued with paranormal abilities and sentient minds.

Victor is encountering a floating ghost of a school headmaster. Or is it a ghoul?
Victor faces a terrifying adversary: an evil murderous ape!

Oh, the horror! Evil socks! But where is the rest of the... girl?

I remember reading this book and feeling unsure whether I should be terrified or laughing as Uspensky manages to ridicule as well as terrify. I guess, today the equivalent of the urban myths Uspensky wrote about would be the stories of red mobile phones not requiring electricity to function because they suck the blood and brains from its owner (hey, are these our deep-seated fears of consumerism? Or is it a way kids position objects they covet, like a killer TV set, and make those into supernatural entities that want to kill their owners?) Something can be said here about Jung's collective subconscious I suppose, but I'm running out of time.

The thing is, these fright stories have been around for ages, with the assortment of supernatural characters, like 'red stain', 'black curtains' or (disembodied) 'green eyes'. Some of these scary stories can be traced to the end of 1940: perhaps (as this article describes) the real horrors of World World II were fading away from children's mass conscious and new fears had to be created. After all, the act of telling/hearing a spooky tale brings about a form of emotional catharsis allowing kids to experience fear in a controlled, safe environment and by doing so they get over it.

I wrote this post as a long-witted and not very coherent answer to my earlier question of where does inspiration come from and why, as an author, some things never leave me, with memories of what my mind digested when I was a child still haunting me, making my fingers move over keyboard.

I still can't tell you why [spoiler removed] and not any other myth or legend formed the foundation of What The Woods Keep, but what I can tell you is where my fascination with strange small towns come from (Uspensky's Victor travels from one quaint little town to the next as he investigates a series of supernatural crimes... In each town he's greeted by tensions and secrets...) and I can tell you why Hayden (the main protagonist of What The Woods Keep) struggles so much with things refusing to fit into her scientific view of the world (her struggles are not dissimilar from those of Victor.) But  then, Hayden's whimsy reflects that of Uncle Fyodor who is serious but also maintains friendships with talking cast and dogs. (Though I'm yet to write a book with anthropomorphic characters, but I suspect I might get there eventually.) 

In conclusion: those childhood memoirs, they stay with you.

Friday, February 3, 2017

new year’s book resolutions

So indie author superstar Lauryn April (who by the way gave an interview to this blog – yay!) tagged me with New Year’s Resolution Book Tag and why not, so here it is…

An author you’d like to read (that you’ve never read before)

Margaret Atwood. (I tried several times before but the timing was never right.)

A book you’d like to read

Well... I currently have just over 500 books in my To-Be-Read folder on GoodReads and am currently reading 8 books at once. But if I’m to set my priorities and pick, say, three books I’d definitely like to read in 2017, those would be:

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill (It’s been sitting in my TBR folder for a while now. It’s time)

Burn (the 4th book in The Rephaim series) by my fellow Australian YA author, Paula Weston

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (everyone I know who had read this, adored this, so…)

A classic you’d like to read

Does Kurt Vonnegut qualify as a classic today? I’ve read Breakfast of Champions in 2014 and I *think* I’ve read several of his most important books in my teen years, but sadly my memory of that is patchy. So let’s say, I’d like to start with Slaugtherhouse-Five.

A book you’d like to re-read

I remember reading Vadim Shefner when I was a teen and I would love to re-read The Unman and his other novels (Shefner's style is this existential/young adult/SF/dystopian/humorous indescribable mix) but only if I find it in the original Russian anywhere or dig it up in my parents’ home when I visit next. Though I do worry that reading Shefner now will be so different from my first experience that it’ll erase all of the romantic/nostalgic memories from my teenage years, so maybe I shouldn’t do it. Will see…(I've blogged about Shefner's influence on me and my writing in 2014'post Five Books That Changed Me & There's No Way Back)

A book you’ve had for ages and want to read

Cloud Atlas

I first bought it and started reading in 2013, shortly after watching the move based on it. I loved the movie so much that I got absolutely determined that I must read (and love) the book too. But this book, it’s so d i f f i c u l t to engage with (also this super-small font used in the edition that I own doesn’t help the situation)… I do really hope that I’ll find my drive and finish it in 2017…

A big book you’d like to read

I want to go back into Isobel Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles that I abandoned for no good reason a couple of years ago. And since the books in this series have gotten chunkier and chunkier each time, I believe this qualifies as an answer here. So, the one I’ll be reading is The Keeping Place, which is the fourth in the series, with quite a few more to go to the grand finale.

An author you’ve previously read and want to read more of

That’s a tough one! Have a look at my list of influences – any author on my inspiration list qualifies, but if I have to pick one, Kali Wallace comes to mind. I’ve read Shallow Graves in 2016 and it stroke some kind of important note with me, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for Kali Wallace’s next publication which appears to be City of Islands slotted for a 2018 release. The one sentence description of this book reads:

In an archipelago of peculiar islands, a diving girl discovers bones on the ocean floor from creatures - and magic - that should not exist.

Please sign me up!

A book you got for Christmas and would like to read

No books got given to me for Christmas, alas, but I did recently buy Stephanie Scott's Alterations (which is a Sabrina retelling, apparently) and Jewel E. Ann's Scarlet Stone because it sounded like something SO MUCH outside my to-go genres that I was totally up for that. (I’m in a bit of a book slump at the moment, despite having read some real great books in 2016… so I’m getting myself out of the said slump by reading widely and keeping an open mind…)

A series you want to read (start and finish)

If it’s a completely new series I’ve never tried before, I’ll say The Sweet Evil series by Wendy Higgins, but possibly because I’ve just recently seen it mentioned on Lauryn April’s blog. Though I did have it on my TBR folder for ages…

A series you want to finish (that you’ve already started)

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins. I’m 2 out of 3, but my local library for whatever reason hasn’t acquired this trilogy's finale, hence my delay. I loved, l o v e d, LOVED the first two Hex Hall books – they’re everything a great paranormal YA should be! Though, now I’ll probably be re-reading the first two books before moving on to the series finale.

The Girl at Midnight by Mellisa Grey. I’ve read the first one in this trilogy and am intrigued enough to go for one more. Also, the protagonist's name is Echo and she lives in a hidden room in a library, so YES, PLEASE!

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. The first one in the series, Samantha Shannon's eponymous Bone Season debut blew my mind. It’s SO GOOD, you guys - GO, READ IT NOW, PLEASE! Then came book 2, The Mime Order and when I finally got my hands on it (from the library), it coincided with many other reading deadlines I had, somehow this book got pushed back to the periphery of my attention and then I had to return it to the library, so… I’m keen to try again, once I get through my current reads. And now the third book in the series, The Song Rising is out, so I’m going to have myself a little Bone Season reading party pretty soon…

Do you set reading goals? If so, how many books do you want to read in 2017?

Yes and No. In 2016 I’ve set a reading goal for 100 books, but only read 60 so I thought, you know what, I’m not going to set any reading challenges or goals for myself this year, because who cares... I know I read lots of books anyway, so.

That’s it for me in regards to my New Year’s Book Resolutions. Thanks, Lauryn April, for tagging me. I’m looking forward to reading Lauryn's Unearthed After Sunset when it’s out in 2017.

Oh, and if you want to be tagged with this challenge, just drop me a line in the comments, via Twitter, Facebook or GoodReads

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

year at a glance: forthcoming things, reads I loved & on learning to revise

2016 was…

Well, this is a bookish blog; so I will focus on the bookish side of things…

In March this year two books of mine have sold to Erin Stein of Imprint/Macmillan. I’ll never forget the whiplash-fever sensation hitting me on a Saturday morning when I woke up to an email from my amazing agent that had ‘offer’ in its subject line and started with ‘you will be pubbed!!!

At the time, I described my emotions to my agent as being in Surreal-Land – and now, months on, I still feel that way... It’s not a bad feeling:) I know there are more of these adrenaline-filled moments to come (I’m looking forward to seeing my book’s cover, for one), but the instant I knew this was all happening for real is going to stay with me.

Then came the middle of the year and I received the long-awaited editorial letter for my first book, What the Woods Keep. (The Woods is to be my debut once it’s finalised.) I was a jumping bunny full of excitement, not quite believing my eyes: but yes this was real, my editorial letter was really here. It was time to get back to work. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy ride, but was ready to jump back into the world of Hayden, my protag, to flesh out her journey, her personality, her struggles, relationships...

Credit: @katyadebecerra 

I was never labouring under illusion that writing is by any extent ‘easy’, but working on revisions for What the Woods Keep has shown me exactly how hard it is. Writing a book and revising a book are two completely different things and I’m still not quite sure which one is more labour-intensive. The process of revising WTWK has pretty much re-wired my brain. I learnt to let go (and delete), to see things from a different perspective, to understand how the agency of my protagonist affects her decision-making... Revising is an eye-opener that exposes things that sometimes we, writers, take for granted, like those a priori ideas that we think are clear to everyone but really they aren’t.

Then I had to travel overseas to see my family in-law in the month before the revisions were due. That meant I had to work non-stop whenever I had a moment. I became a frequent customer in a local Starbucks and drank so much of their coffee that relatives and friends started gifting me Starbucks money cards so I could buy more coffee.

Credit @katyadebecerra 2016. Here's me renamed by the Starbucks baristas of Bakersfield, CA

I’m yet to find out what my publisher thinks of my revisions but judging on a personal level, I’m happy with the work I’ve done. While it’s difficult to judge quality of your own writing, I think the book has improved tremendously without losing its atmosphere or purpose.

Another ‘Wow’ moment for me this year was when I (accidentally) discovered I had a Goodreads author profile with both of my forthcoming books listed… Yay!

Now that I’m waiting for my editors’ feedback on the revised What the Woods Keep, I’m working away on a brand new project that’s now at nearly 50,000 words. As with my other two books, this one took a while to conceptualize but I’m finally almost there…

And then of course, there are my reading highlights. As it’s become customary for me, I reflect on my year by reflecting on the books I’ve read. This year, once again, I’ve made an effort to step outside of my ‘comfort zone’ and read outside my ‘go-to’ genres (that would be supernatural and urban fantasy). This year, in particular, my focus was on the contemporary YA. This type of YA is definitely something I don’t read enough of. But more on that in a bit…

My Goodreads account tells me I’ve read 60 books this year.

2016 was the year I’ve finally read Albert Camus’s The Stranger; Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys series and Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha trilogy. As the latter two have made a lot of waves in the YA books community, I’m so glad I finally took the plunge… Sometimes I’m late to the ‘party’ where literary hype is concerned, but it doesn’t make the surrender experience any less enjoyable. Besides, it’s great to be reading a series after it’s all been published so I don’t have to suffer in wait for the next book to come out…

This year I’ve also read some very neat creative non-fiction (Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine and Lee Koffman’s The Dangerous Bride); the greatest illustrated encyclopedia of monsters I’ve ever laid my hands on (John Landis’s Monsters in the Movies) and some badass crime fiction (Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls and Tana French’s In The Woods).

Two amazing horror/supernatural YA books get a special mention from me this year: Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls and Kali Wallace’s Shallow Graves. I had shivers crawling over my skin while reading these… And what about that opening chapter of Shallow Graves? What the f*ck was that, Kali Wallace? What kind of an evil genius ARE YOU?

Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants was a mind-blowing debut, a book written as a multimedia document, drawing on linguistics and physics which was all YES PLEASE and MORE for me. I was actually thinking recently about Sleeping Giants again after watching Arrival. The latter reminded me of Neuvel’s debut novel in more ways than one: both deal with the topic of ‘first contact’, though in different ways, both elaborate on geo-political complexities of the modern world when speculating what comes next and, in my view, do justice to the idea of how a first contact scenario would unfold today, should an alien starship land on Earth.

The best YA contemporaries I’ve read this year are E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars and Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, while Melissa Grey’s epic The Girl at Midnight was my favorite urban fantasy.

I’ve also forayed into graphic novels this year and enjoyed tremendously the first book of the iZombie series. In fact, I enjoyed iZombie so much that I’m planning a visit to my local graphic novel shop in the near future to buy more of iZombie. Plus I’ve already gotten the first season of the eponymous TV show ready to be watched.

My top reads this year? All of the above... but two books deserve a special mention!

Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff and Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf.

Just wow! Both books surprised me (and I'm not easily surprised), both got me hooked from page one, and both had raw-power female protagonists who were smart and alive. I don’t normally throw around expressions like tour de force, but these two were just that.

As you can gauge from my books selections this year, the majority of my reads were authored by women… And I’m so thrilled to see so many female-identified authors totally dominating the YA field! Reflecting on my reading experience over the years, I find the situation so much better now in terms of gender representation in literature. Of course, there’s still a long way to go: school and university programs continue to be overwhelmed by male-authored ‘classics’ while female-identified writers are still appallingly less likely to be critically acclaimed or nominated for ‘serious’ literary awards, less likely to be included in ‘best of’ collections etc. (For example, both short story collections I'm currently reading are 75-80% dominated by men authors, both are edited by male writers… My rhetorical question is: Why? How is this still the case? Where are all the women?) 

But still… remembering the books I came to adore as a child/teen, books that shaped me, that impressed me, were all exclusively written by men. These books’ protagonists were also exclusively male. With the exception of Nancy Drew and my beloved Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia, I didn’t have any good examples of female protagonists when I was growing up. So Holden Caulfield was it for me: I loved all the snark and the ridiculous headwear but couldn’t really identify with a rich spoilt boy’s experiences. Even the idea of running away from home was unthinkable! Girls inhabiting Holden’s world were unfamiliar ghosts I couldn’t relate to (of course, his treatment of women is another issue in need of critique). Now… 90-95% books I read are written by female-identified authors and their protagonists are usually female. I love the first tense female POV narration and can't get enough of it!

So here it is… my 2016 at a glance… I hope yours was filled with great books too and I can’t wait to see what 2017 will bring.

Friday, June 3, 2016

physics on the silver screen: the real, the made-up, the outrageous

In case you didn't know but I am a huge SF fan and would (almost) *always* prefer a SF movie to a non-SF movie. A drawback (or more like a perk?) of my SF affliction is that I find myself thinking every time I watch a SF movie that's a new take on the old SF tropes - how much of real science is actually in it? Could that really happen? What does it mean?

Film directors are likely to hire real-life physicists as consultants now, which is great as it means science fiction is closer to real science and then the fiction side of it comes out more realistic too. But then, of course, there's always a place for some mind-bending storytelling that uses realistic scientific ideas to prove its fictitious points. Contemplating on all this, I decided to write about three SF movies which I thought had some truly great ideas at their core, brilliantly mixing science with fiction, and creating a mind-blowing experience for the view... and a few forehead-cringing moments too! I did some research and watched a few really cool science podcasts (thank you, YouTube! and a huge thank you, Neil deGrasse Tyson!) and here's the result: my (very modest) analysis of scientific ideas presented in Event Horizon (1997, dir. Paul W.S. Anderson), Source Code (2011, dir. Duncan Jones), and Interstellar (2013, dir. Christopher Nolan), divided up into three sections: 'the real', 'the made-up' and 'the outrageous' science ideas, used and twisted to create some very compelling science fiction.


SPOILER ALERT: if you have not seen Event Horizon (1997), Source Code (2011) or Interstellar (2014), please note:

And so, without further ado:

Exhibit 1: Event Horizon

1997; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Key Physics Concept/s: Experimental Gravity Drive. See also: Faster-Than-Light-TravelThe idea is that by creating a controlled black hole, a gravity drive can move a spaceship by bridging two points in spacetime - and by doing so it can cover unthinkable distance in a blink of an eye. Sam Neill's character Dr. William Weir explains how it works to his non-sciency crew led by Laurence Fishburne's Captain Miller in this TV-tropey video:

Oh, and the ship's name (eponymous Event Horizon) refers to a 'point of no return' - a boundary beyond which events (such as a black hole's gravitational pull) cannot affect an outside observer. Once you have moved beyond a black hole's event horizon, you are in big trouble.  

The Plot: The year is 2047. A distress signal from deep space is intercepted on Earth: it is coming from Event Horizon, a starship which has vanished during its maiden voyage to Proxima Centauri 7 years ago. A rescue vessel named Lewis and Clark, carrying a seven-person crew including Event Horizon's designer (played by Sam Neill) is on its way to retrieve the missing ship. 

When Lewis and Clark crew reach the missing vessel and get inside it, they see that a massacre took place aboard. There were no survivors. Of course, then Lewis and Clark gets blown up to smithereens, and the crew are forced to board the Event Horizon and then... the gravity drive is mysteriously activated. 

As the rescue team contemplates what happened to Event Horizon's crew, they start to experience increasingly violent hallucinations based on their deepest fears, regrets and feelings of guilt. Soon it becomes clear that Event Horizon, propelled by its experimental  gravity drive, has traveled far, far beyond the boundaries of the known universe and... perhaps... just maybe... it has been to a dimension known to the human world only as Hell. 

(It is important to clarify at this point that no cenobites were found on board the Event Horizon.)

And now to the science...

The Real: Faster-Than-Light-Travel or FRL is positioned within the framework of special theory of relativity which does not prohibit the existence of Tachyons - particles travelling faster than the speed of light. 

The notion of the 'event horizon', as explained earlier, in addition to being the name of the nefarious starship, is used in the movie both as a metaphor of a point-of-no-return and a plot device since an artificially generated black hole is involved. 

The Made-Up: according to this blog, Dr. Weir's explanation of the gravity drive is identical to that of Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's been ages since I've last read it, but that sounds about right, so I'm going to believe it. 

Still, let's give some credit where credit is due:

"What makes this film so frustrating in its later stages is that initially it does develop a genuinely interesting premise. The Event Horizon’s reappearance; the question of the unknown "lifeform" detected on board; and the increasingly ugly hallucinations experienced by the crew are mysteries worthy of exploration." From: And You Call Yourself a Scientist!
Unfortunately, while its science set-up is so very fine and got me super-excited during the first half of the film, the movie quickly became a gory 'haunted house' story where blood, torture and demonic possession took over the narrative. While the idea of the sentient non-human presence which feeds on its victim's worst nightmares while sending them on creepy-gory existential guilt-trips is the bread and butter of Solaris, for example, but Solaris (the original, not the terrible 2002 version) does it ultimately - infinitely - better and without any gore at all, which only makes it scarier.   

The Outrageous: mixing SF concepts with religious iconography was a bold move.

Further reading: head over to And You Call Yourself a Scientist for its nice critical analysis of the Event Horizon touching on gender, race, science fiction tropes and various other stereotypes

Exhibit 2: Source Code

2011; directed by Duncan Jones

Key Physics* Concept/s: (*technically coming from the computing/computer science discipline) 

Source code and "object code refer to the "before" and "after" versions of a computer program that is compiled (see compiler) before it is ready to run in a computer. The source code consists of the programming statements that are created by a programmer with a text editor or a visual programming tool and then saved in a file"
Definition from TechTarget

Source Code, the movie, cleverly uses theoretical science of parallel universes and alternative timelines. Where it stumbles a bit, in my view, is something that is known as the Grandparent Paradox that is inextricably linked to the idea of time travel.    

The Plot: A soldier wakes up in someone else's body and discovers he's part of an experimental government program working to find the bomber of a commuter train. A mission he has only 8 minutes to completeUsing a program known as Source Code, the soldier is sent back in time to the moment before the train explodes - while he's in this simulation, he's inhabiting a body of one of the commuters and has to use the 8 minutes he's given to find out the identity of the bomber.  

Max Andrews (
Sententias blog) explains how the program works:  
"The Source Code ... takes the electromagnetic field from one person’s brain and allows that person to assume the role of another individual bearing the same likeness. The personal duplication only lasts for eight minutes because that’s how much memory can be accessed by the electromagnetic field of the brain (per the movie)."

And now let's dwell deeper into the science of Source Code:

The Real: the concept of the multiverse that the movie so heavily draws on goes back to the work of Hugh Everett III who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation of the quantum physics. Our contemporaries, physicists Mark Tegmark and Brian Greene, lead on research in this sphere. The bottom-line is that multiverse is possible, but jumping between the worlds/universes is something that humanity is yet to master.

The Made-Up: well, the whole thing is not as much as *made up* per se but rather it gives us a look at how physical concepts (parallel timelines, multiverse...) could work on practice, and not in the world of physical particles colliding somewhere in the deep bowels of the Large Hadron Collider, but with real flesh-and-blood people. 

The Outrageous: some of philosophical implications behind Source Code, the program, are discussed here and this is something I kept wondering about too, long after I watched the movie: why the soldier ends up inhabiting the body of this one random specific person on the train - wouldn't it make more sense for him to maybe be a survivor of the bombing himself or have some kind of close connection to one of the bombing victims? Apparently, the bombing victim is chosen out of all the passengers because he is a 'neurological match' of the protagonist. But that doesn't really explain anything, does it?

And finally, what about the movie's sort of/kind of *happy ending* which relies on the idea that somewhere out there there's a universe where not only everybody on the train had survived but also that the protagonist could live on in the body of the passenger he's taken over. 

In this new universe, the protagonist sends an email to the Source Code employee who had originally guided him through his rescue mission - but a) she doesn't know who he is and b) in this universe, Source Code is at the early stage of development - and he asks her to essentially unhook his body from life-support and end his participation in the program so he can live on in this good universe. Huh? But if Source Code program is never invented, then the protagonist can never go back to save everyone on the train and this good universe won't exist. You see? Time travel paradoxes are annoying like that.

Also, there is no such things as parabolic calculus or time-reassignment technology - the two things which are apparently essential to making the Source Code program work. 

Further reading: 
Sententias blog on philosophical implications of Source Code

Jim Kakalios (a physics professor who wrote The Science of Superheroes book and was a consultant on the movie Watchmen - see this awesome video in that regard) also clarified a lot of the points in the discussion on the physics of Source Code. 

Exhibit 3: Interstellar

2013; directed by Christopher Nolan

The Plot:  Interstellar is the very definition of an epic SF masterpiece. I can't wait to watch it again and again as it has captured, in my view, the complicated essence of humanity - and I mean the good bits, not the ugliness - in the mind-blowing, goose-bumps inducing and tears-wrenching way.  

Inspired by the research into gravitational waves and astrophysics by Caltech physicist and Einstein's theory of relativity expert Kit Thorpe, (who also served as a scientific consultant AND executive producer on the movie), Interstellar's story is about the fate of humanity after the Earth's resources become dangerously depleted, farm lands are blighted and everything is screwed up to the point where humanity's time on Earth is up.

Meanwhile, Joseph Cooper, a former NASA astronaut lives the quiet life on a farm with his family. Oh, and have I mentioned his daughter Murphy? She believes her room is haunted - 'the ghost' keeps dislodging her books from the shelves among other odd activity. (Hint: this last bit about Murphy and her 'ghost' is important). 

Fast forward to the point where we learn that our salvation comes from deep space. A mysterious wormhole appeared decades ago near Saturn and through it humanity can potentially access other galaxies with habitable worlds. And so Joseph and a group of astronauts are recruited to follow in the footsteps of previous explorers sent into the wormhole earlier to confirm data received from several habitable worlds near a black hole Gargantua. As Cooper and his colleagues depart Earth leaving their families behind, scientists back on Earth work on a gravitational theory of propulsion which could allow humanity's exodus from the dying Earth and into space to colonize other planets. E
ventually, Murphy takes over this work and dedicates her entire life to working on the theory, but missing important data to complete it.  

Fast forward to the finale as Cooper must jettison himself into the black hole: there, he finds himself locked within a tesseract from where he can see into his daughter Murphy's room at different stages of her life simultaneously. He must find a way to communicate to her that key data so she can achieve her life's work and save all humanity. 

Key Physics Concept/s: The movie draws on the science behind black holes, wormholes, interdimensional beings, time travel - basically, all the good stuff. 

The Real: I will have to start by saying that Neil deGrasse Tyson gave Interstellar 8 or 9 out of 10, 10 being 'very realistic science'. 

Take that giant wave the astronauts are about to be swallowed by as they land on a planet orbiting a black hole. Apparently, that wave is a tidal wave, not a tsunami and that explains why the level of water the characters are wading in does not change as this gigantic wave approaches. The wave is caused by the nearness of the black hole. 

Or take wormholes - our understanding of them is purely theoretical, that is we know how they work but don't know how to manipulate spacetime to make one. As Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, wormholes are a tear in spacetime that could in theory allow us to travel from one point in the universe to another, avoiding having to cover a long impossible distance in the process - this is the same idea as the one used in Event Horizon  and its experimental gravity drive which propels the ship over the unthinkable distances in a blink of an eye by creating and sustaining an artificial black hole.  

Another concept that blows my mind every time and makes me feel very unconformable inside whenever I read or/and think about it is time dilation. 

Time dilation can occur, for example, around the gravitational pull of a black hole - as it was illustrated in Interstellar so brilliantly when Joseph and the others had to leave their spaceship Endurance and travel to the planet orbiting the black hole where time runs slower than on the ship. The only crew member who remained on the ship aged by several decades while the rest of them remained the same age they were when they took off. 

The made-up: you cannot survive falling into a black hole. Let me repeat that: you cannot survive falling into a black hole. If you do happen to fall into a black hole, the experience will stretch and tear you into pieces as well as squeeze you very, very tight...


The Outrageous: apparently you can in theory avoid the grisly fate described above if you plan your trajectory into the black hole real well and avoid going straight into the center of it. Besides, we don't know enough about this particular black hole that we have in Interstellar, so maybe, just maybe it was made in a such way that Joseph Cooper didn't get torn and squeezed to death as he fell through it but instead made him find himself in a mysterious tesseract from where he could act as Murphy's 'ghost' and help her with data she needed to develop the gravitational theory of propulsion which could then be used to enable  mass exodus of humanity from Earth and into the new world. 

Another interesting bit of 'outrageous' physics in Interstellar, as Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us, is that many of the habitable worlds found by the expedition into the wormhole are orbiting black holes and this what was triggered his disbelief. After all, we have found many other next-Earth candidates and none of those are orbiting black holes

I will end this post with a poem. 
Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night runs as a leitmotif throughout Insterstellar as it is a story of rage again the dying and against the inevitable. It personifies perfectly that very essence of humanity - its resilience and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds - that Interstellar storytelling brought up so well:  

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In the  next post on science in science fiction movies I will talk about two other science fiction movies which stood out for me in the way they utilised scientific concepts - Looper (2012) and Predestination (2014) - exploring time travel and Grandfather Paradox, both of which fascinate me greatly.