I Promise You Won't Learn A Thing From This Blog

The official blog for author Ashley Chappell. Check back every week for a few laughs at my expense or, if you know the love-hate process that is writing, commiseration.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Stuffageddon: Going Tiny Means War on Stuff

There comes a time in every woman's life when she has to finally ask herself - "Do I need 24 coffee mugs? And what about this eggy-separatory-thingy?" Unless I'm opening a diner that specializes in coffee and hollandaise sauce, the answer is no. No, no, no, no, and no. 

And that's just the beginning.

Our safari into the darkest reaches of our kitchen cabinets turned up mysterious unidentified kitchen utensils that might have been better suited for the Spanish Inquisition. ("That? Oh, that's our antique eyeball scoop. Just put it with the melon ballers.")

When we consolidated households almost three years ago, we both owned houses of comparable size that were filled with our own respective Stuff, and then had to cram all of that Stuff into one of those houses. We did donate a decent amount of Stuff at the time; things that neither of us had any need for and honestly couldn't even remember how they came into our possession. Things like a ceramic figurine of sandals that said 'Dominican Republic' (a place neither of us have been), or a broken pole saw that was beyond repair. 

Those were the easy ones. 

Then came the items that fell into the "Perfectly Good Useful Stuff" category where we had duplicates. You can imagine... Two toasters, two water filters, two microwaves, two sets of mixing bowls, two oak beds, etc. The discussion around things like that always resolved into a decision that we should keep them "just in case" we needed them someday. We're taught that it's always good to have a back-up. Well, we had back-ups for our back-ups. It always made perfect sense at the time to keep all of it, because you never want to find yourself having to re-purchase an item that you'd foolishly parted with, of course. And if I managed to set my toaster on fire, I'd be awfully glad I still had that other $20 toaster up in our attic, right? Right.

Skyrim, Hoarding
If I hoarded in real life as much as I did in Skyrim, we'd really be in trouble.

So we justified all of the extra attic space we expanded into without a second thought. One day, completely without warning, my super handyman husband sent me a photo of a gaping hole he'd cut into our kitchen ceiling for a brand new attic space, opening up all kinds of storage options for our tiny over-flowing home. The sub-par Martha Stewart in me had a minor heart attack, but the burgeoning hoarder had eyes only on the ultimate storage prize: Do you have any idea how much STUFF you can get into a stand-up attic space that size???

This philosophy has continued in our household for the past three years and we were close to reaching a critical mass of Stuff in every room of the house, from the Catio to the Robot Lab (What? You don't have a Robot Lab in your house?). 

Our dream has always been to purchase a huge tract of land in the mountains and build our dream home in the middle of it with my hobbit hole writing office in some picturesque corner of the property. In fact, we started our 5 year plan to make it happen as soon as we got married and part of our accumulation of Stuff has been to furnish this someday home. We literally have a bed under our bed and another bed in our closet. Our master bedroom is so crammed with mis-matched furniture that my shin has a permanent goose egg on it from night time navigation. We've purchased two storage ottomans in the past few months and were on the brink of buying a new buffet for additional kitchen storage to house all of this Stuff that we thought we couldn't live without.

And then Steven called me at work one day with an idea that changed everything. The gist of his call was this: If we scale back in the short term, our 5 year plan becomes a 2 year plan. That means getting rid of everything we can so we can squeeze into a Tiny Home for a few years.
Tumbleweed Tiny House
Seriously, isn't this Tumble Weed House just the most adorable thing ever?
We've been interested in the Tiny House movement for some time, but we've never had a motivation to seriously consider it as anything other than a vacation cabin. The utility and flexible design makes these tiny houses on wheels, usually well under 200 sq ft, perfect for a weekend getaway. But a long-term residence? Nah. We've got too much Stuff. 

But when getting rid of things that we may never use and don't really need suddenly means getting onto our dream property 3 years sooner (for us, it's always been more about the land than about the house), then show me the way to the dumpster! So now we've already taken one truck-load to be donated and our living room floor is piled with boxes full of other things we don't need now, never did before, and probably never will. And every single box we fill becomes another blazing symbol of our freedom from this tyranny of Stuff that we'd never recognized before. It's even becoming addicting to throw things out; I find myself looking at everything in the house with new eyes now. 

("Do we really need a sofa? We don't have people over. What about that dining set? We always eat on the sofa. Oh, maybe we do need the sofa.") 

It's an incredible feeling, honestly. I've always thought of myself as being practical by holding onto items of value that might one day be useful, even if one day never came. But I'm starting to believe that the road to Hoarder Hell is paved with Practical Ideas (though likely there are stacks in the corners).

Tonight, after I write for a while on A God of Gods, I'm going to walk into my closet and pry out some clothes wedged tightly in the back that probably haven't seen sunshine in 4 years (or 25 lbs), and toss them on top of the pile, too. And considering I'm going to follow all of that up with ice cream, I'm probably never going to have to worry about whether or not I'll have to eventually re-purchase a size 2 pair of jeans again.

If I hadn't downsized my face paint, this is how I would have
celebrated my escape from Stuff Culture.

Granted, it's going to take a much larger lifestyle change to adapt to a Tiny Home than just throwing away excess Stuff, but for us every box we donate is a celebration of this first step toward achieving our dream. We've gone from needing to buy more Stuff to contain our Stuff, to having empty cabinets and shelves that we never thought we'd see again. If we can do this in two weeks, what can we do in two years? What can YOU do in two years? 

Consider it. The War on Stuff can be your first step to freedom, too.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Distractionless December

I'm making #DistractionlessDecember a thing. Who's with me? I'm never good at sticking to New Year's resolutions and I think that's largely because I can't kick the subconscious stigma that they're made to be broken anyway. Everyone makes resolutions, but who actually thinks of them as firm life decisions? They're basically little glittery ideals flitting around with fairy wings that we look at and think "Oh yeah, I should totally do that" and stick them in a glass jar to show everyone how cool this little shiny thing we have is. Then they die after a few weeks of not being fed. (Don't judge me. Everyone had a butterfly or lightning bugs in a jar at some point. We're all murderers and we're all in this together. Right?)

Screw that. I'm starting now.

For my Distractionless December, I'm swearing off all forms of TV with one cheat night allowed per week. I'm also not allowing myself to even log into my Steam account, let alone play any games. I won't spend an hour or so a day browsing 9gag or updating my Amazon.com wish list.

Bottom line, if I'm not creating something, achieving a goal, or enriching myself somehow, I'm not allowing in my December. My goal is to balance my growing need for passive stimulation and get back to the place where I begin drawing my energy from being actively creative by the end of the month.

No more excuses.

No more distractions.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hubby, I mean, Happy Thanksgiving!

As we hit the hard road from Alabama to Kentucky, I just want to share a quick look at what I'm so thankful for on this, our first married Thanksgiving together.  

This gorgeous man giving me a pirate snarl for the camera while sporting his brand new Street Fighter head band from Loot Crate is no small miracle. He gets my obscure jokes, knows exactly where to scratch that elusive itch on my back, stands beside me through every event as my arm candy and pack mule, and he gives the best head pets in the world. And I didn't even have to build him in a lab! 

My best and warmest wishes to all of you this holiday. May it be filled with laughter, stories you'll never forget, and, if you're lucky, a little magic as well. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Surprise! I write real books, too!

*Spoiler*  - The "Surprise" in the title is pure, beautiful, and somewhat bitchy sarcasm.

Okay, mostly bitchy.

What follows might come across as a re-hashing of an old topic, but since it seems to keep rearing its fugly head I'm not going to apologize for making you read it yet again. This one just really got my hackles up.

What happened? On our recent honeymoon (yes, I promise a post is coming about that soon, too), we were on a cruise with some of the most well-educated and interesting people that I've ever met. Keep in mind, we were the outliers in average cruiser age by about 35 years, but these people have done everything - taken over banks, vacationed in Antarctica, built working test farms in drought-ridden African settlements, the list goes on. And I could have listened to the stories of 90% of these brilliant people until the sun rose. But that other 10% - pardon me while I take a drink for courage - were entrenched academics in primarily liberal arts disciplines.

Let me clarify here: The liberal arts are my lifeblood and where all of my passions go to snuggle up with a book, a surrealist painting, and a tangy wine and cheese pairing. But, in the darkest and narrowest parts of that arena, you can find the most immovable and pompous know-it-alls in the entire population of people with heads up asses.

You guessed right. This is the embodiment of the 10% I'm talking about here. These were the people who, despite the gloriously diverse selection of wine bottles paraded by our dinner table every night, tut-tutted with disapproval over every sip. Somehow conversation at these tables was always eventually guided to the topic of literature, an arena in which our resident academics were practically frothing over with wisdom they were dying to share. Whether we wanted it or not. And, without fail, they drew their prim little lines in the sand and placed fantasy, SF, and all popular fiction on the opposite side from 'Real Literature.'

The incident that got under my fur the most (and the one that left me lying awake in bed wishing I were more confrontational and not just a passive-aggressive blogger), was the dinner with the lady I will refer to as the I-can-quote-articles-I-read-on-Slate-Lady. Maybe I'll just call her Slate Lady for brevity.

This time the topic came up before I could even wave my Author Flag (they have those, right?), and Slate Lady made it clear immediately that she only read 'Real Books.' This, it turns out, is a literary unicorn of non-fiction and obscure authors who devote their lives to developing dark symbolism that would be a wet dream for any classic Russian novelists. I couldn't help myself. I asked the question:

Me: "What about Fantasy and Science Fiction?"
Slate Lady: *Sniff* *Derisive laugh* "Um, just no."

 That was mere moments before she launched into her tirade of shaming adults for reading YA that came almost verbatim from this Slate article that ticked off readers and writers of all genres this summer.

And no, *sigh*, I didn't call her out. I didn't acknowledge the immediate surge of brilliant rebuttals including this one from the Washington Post and this one from CNN. I did at least turn to another lady at the table (one of the sassiest and my favorite from the trip) and started talking loudly about how awesome it is that popular fantasy and even comic books are bringing a new generation of previously non-readers, especially among young boys. Remember that passive-aggressive thing I mentioned before? Damn it.

Eventually, that same awesome lady (an angel, she is) next to me pointed out to Slate Lady that I was an author.

Slate Lady: "Oh? And what do you write?"
Me: "Young Adult Fantasy and Satire."
Slate Lady: "Hmm."

I didn't say a word. I'd love to say it was because I just didn't want to spend the rest of the cruise on a small ship with someone at whom I'd thrown my glass of wine, but I just plain suck at confrontation. With or without alcohol. Eventually I'd have just gotten emotional and flustered and ended with an eloquent "Up yours," so I decided to save my venting for you lucky readers on the blog.

What I WISH I could have said to her is something along these lines:

I write a series about a young girl who was abandoned by her parents and forced to discover who she was all on her own in a world that wasn't forgiving of her 'gifts.' It's about a child in what amounts to slavery who's never known a life outside of abuse and neglect, but who overcomes her pains and heartache by retreating into her imaginary world.

It's about laughing at ourselves and the empty traditions we value without knowing why and taking stock in our instincts before we let our fickle brains over-rationalize us out of the right choice.

It’s about learning the hard way that maturity, at any age, is no match for experience. And finally, it’s about remembering that the right thing to do is still the right thing to do when no one is looking. It's a novel for anyone who’s struggled with how they identify themselves and learned to define their own niche in a world that doesn't have a place for them.

It just happens to be set in an alternate universe filled with magic, gods, and creatures. But yes, it is a REAL book. 

So this blog, I suppose, is as much about venting as it is a rallying cry for all of the writers and readers who've faced the accusation that fiction has nothing to offer because it "isn't real." Authors might seem magical to those who don't write, but we don't have wands that create mystical social, family, financial, or political situations that could never exist. It's pure insanity to think that our stories are anything other than a reflection of the world we live in, with the good and bad of personal experience all rolled into one literary package.

And yes, Ms. Slate Lady, I used the word 'literary,' because whether you believe it or not, I write real books, too.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Excerpt from A God of Gods

It seems like every time I share a snippet of my current work on A God of Gods: Dreams of Chaos #3, it's a scene with Ali and Andi Bentley. But I just can't help it - I love these girls and, darn it, they just made me cry.


“Really, Mona? This is what had you so upset?” Ali said, stifling a yawn as she let the lace curtains fall back over the window. Her little sister Andi was stargazing in the walled garden just beyond. “Nothing bad can happen to her in Mom’s garden.”

Mona pursed her prim mouth even tighter, turning what little color that still remained in her lips to white. “She’s been out there for hours! I’ve told her repeatedly to come in before she catches her death out there and she’s ignored me completely. It’s not proper for a young lady to be out at night alone like this.”

“She isn’t alone,” Ali said, turning back to the window with a soft sigh. Andi looked pale and fragile in the moonlight, nothing like the rambunctious twelve year-old that had just tried to scale the massive baro tree that towered over the opposite end of the mayor’s mansion earlier that day. “I told Andi after Mom died that part of her would always be here in the garden she loved so much. Now she comes here anytime she really misses her. This has been hard on her, you know. She would have died yesterday if Eric hadn’t saved her, and even without that kind of terror, today was bound to be emotional for her.”

“Today? Oh, dear, your mother’s birthday. It must have slipped my mind,” Mona said, wringing her hands under her lace cuffs. Ali knew there had been no love lost between Mona and her mother so she was touched to see such a deep regret in her eyes, even if it was swallowed by her unyielding devotion to duty a moment later. “I am sorry for the both of you,” she continued, “but she can’t stay out there all night. If she won’t come in I’ll have to get your father.”

Ali tried to smile politely, but her patience with the uptight governess was wearing thin. Mona actually had a heart of gold, but sometimes it got lost beneath her tightly corseted sense of propriety. “It’s a lovely night, Mona. Besides, my father has a city to run. Go on to bed and I’ll take care of Andi. I promise I’ll get her to bed soon,” she added when Mona opened her mouth as if to protest again.

When Mona was out of sight Ali snatched the quilt off the settee by the door and slipped into the garden to where Andi sat perfectly still, her knees tucked up to her chest and her dimpled face turned up toward the sky. Fallen leaves crunched under her feet, but if Andi heard her approach she didn’t show it. Not even when Ali draped the blanket around her shoulders.

“Hey Spunkster. Playing statue again? Hey,” she said, wrapping her arm around Andi when she didn’t even respond to the nickname she normally hated. Ali sighed and fell into silence beside her. She’d spent the day putting on a strong face for her father because she was certain he’d been putting on a strong face just for her. With her father locked behind doors in a late-night meeting and her little sister lost in her own memories, she was finally able to let the mask slip away for the first time all day. It wasn’t long at all before her cheeks were wet with tears. It felt so good to let them fall.

“I miss her, too, kiddo,” Ali said eventually.

“What if they’re not that far away?” Andi said, her gaze still locked on the sky.

“What?” Ali asked. “Who are you talking about?”

“The stars. Master Earl said that the stars are all just dreams that didn’t get to be real like us. But does that mean they’re dead? Why would Chaos dream about dead things?”

Ali inhaled sharply and made a mental note to have a conversation with her sister’s school master. 

“Well, sweetie, I don’t think they were really ever alive – ”

“But if those dreams are dead,” Andi plowed on, “does that mean Mom could be up there, too? And if we can see them, that has to mean they aren’t that far away. I could see her again,” she said, her eyes, full of hope, finally falling on Ali.

Aha, Ali thought. I should have seen that coming. She felt like she was suddenly in way over her head. What could she possibly say that wouldn’t break Andi’s heart even more? “Do you remember what Sister Patricia told us after Mom died?”

Andi nodded glumly. “That all dreams return to the Dreamer eventually, and that one day we’ll be reunited with Mom in the final dream of Chaos. But the Book of Haela says that Chaos never sleeps. How can he be the Dreamer if he never sleeps?”

“Well, he’s just – he’s not like us. He wouldn’t need to sleep, or eat, or anything like we do. Remember the Book also says that everything you see is part of Chaos. You, me, this garden, even all of those stars up there.”

“Even all of those stars,” Andi echoed, looking back up to the sky again. “Then I just have to figure out which one of them is Mom.”

Ali’s heart wrenched at the determination in Andi’s voice, bringing a fresh crop of tears to her own eyes. “I hope you do, kiddo. I really hope you do.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Writerly Tools: From Post-its to Final Draft

I love getting to talk to new authors and trying to help them answer the same questions I had when I first started writing novels. One of the big ones I get asked most often is about what software tools they should be using for writing. Unfortunately, that question is every bit as subjective as asking how to write the novel itself.

My brilliant and wonderful engineer husband would call me ‘artsy-fartsy’ for what I’m about to say, but it’s nonetheless true. Creating a novel is a personal journey and no one process will be exactly like another. Some writers need guided help developing characters before they even start writing, while others develop on the fly with the bare-bones plot in the back of their mind. Sometimes the problem is keeping the sub-plots in focus so the novel doesn’t end with unfinished business. If there is a problematic area in writing, you can bet there’s software out there to help remedy it.

But which to choose? Like every other process in writing, the answer to this requires loads of research into each program’s capabilities, but be careful weeding through the advertisements and the sometimes paid-for endorsements. There are endless recommendations of different writing software by authors all over the web. You can’t even go to a writer’s forum without having software ads flashing brightly across the banners these days. In terms of pricing, there is free software with limited functionality such as Storybook or you can spend as much as $250 on something like Final Draft. But here’s the thing...

A tool is only as good as the person using it.

I don’t mean anything about writing skills when I say that. I’m simply talking about dedication to the tool. Just like buying exercise equipment doesn't get you in shape if you don’t use it, most writing software requires you to be fully committed to really be effective. That means doing every bit of your plotting, writing, brainstorming, EVERYTHING in them. Most of them have libraries where you can enter every imaginable detail about your characters, world, sub-plots, etc. But if you don’t use them to the fullest you’ve wasted your time and money. At worst, the wrong software (even though the description sounded so great when you chose it) can even sabotage your work if it forces you to adopt habits that are in conflict with your writing style.

That was the exact experience I had with writing software. I decided before I started God of Gods: Dreams of Chaos #3 that I needed to get myself better organized and convinced myself that using software was somehow more professional (yes, I’ve been that na├»ve). The software I tried had the element libraries that I thought would be great to help me keep up with my 60+ characters and it used a tracking system in which every scene was written individually and the characters, locations, and dates were all recorded for the reports it would generate to show you the story flow visually. Sounds amazing, right? I did great with populating the element libraries, but when I had to start treating the scenes as individual elements I discovered it completely wrecked my sense of flow. I was no longer able to feel the motion between scenes and that led to a draft with no momentum and a feeling of disconnect between each scene. I’ve actually started the novel over twice now and I’m still struggling with getting the flow right.

Unfortunately, there's no Sorting
Hat for writers!
Since then, I’ve talked to other writers who thrived when writing scene-by-scene and a few others who came to a grinding halt with it like I did. That’s part of what makes this choosing process so very subjective. I’m all for software if it helps, but I think the idea that you have to use software to write a great book is as dangerous as telling a writer they have to use an outline when they write.

If you’re having trouble managing your WIP, try software, notebooks, Post-it notes, note cards, whiteboards, or tattoos even. Try anything. Actually, try everything. Creativity is all about being open to new ideas and resources and sometimes they can come in unexpected forms.

So I’m going to say it again, artsy-fartsy or not, but creating a novel is your personal journey and no one else’s process will be exactly like the one that ultimately works for you.

Once you’ve found that magical process, get out there and make something amazing!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cover Reveal and Some Piratey Goodness!

One thing I love doing on my poor malnourished blog is hosting the earliest stage of book birthing: the magical Cover Reveal. If you're an author, sharing your cover with the world is tantamount to releasing that first ultrasound to Facebook and waiting for everyone to share a virtual cigar with you amid the congratulations. If you're not a writer and you find yourself rolling your eyes at this idea, let me tell you right now...

Yes. It's really that big.

Books begin life, as have so many authors, as a mere twinkle in the eye and after conception most of them even have a longer gestation period filled with with all the highs and lows you'd expect when, well, expecting. But the best and primary difference between birthing a book and birthing a baby: authors are not only allowed to still knock back a beer or three, but most of those who know us highly encourage it just to tolerate being around us.

That said, I'm even more excited to be a part of this cover reveal for author James Raney because this is the culmination of a series I've grown to love and admire. The Jim Morgan series is an incredible middle grade fantasy adventure that combines magic, pirates, and fantastic creatures with the power of friendship to overcome all odds. The first two books were pure magic, and I honestly can't wait to read the this final book!

Now that I've yammered on, here is the moment you've all been waiting for.......

******************Drum roll******************

Jim Morgan and the Door at the Edge of the World is the climactic follow up to the IndieFab Book of the Year FinalistJim Morgan and the Pirates of the Black Skull, and the final chapter in the Jim Morgan series. Check out the first two books here, and look for Door at the Edge of the World in Fall 2014.


How seriously awesome is this? Be sure to tell James what you think!