The Darkest Minds Series Reading Order

Good morning! I hope everyone is enjoying a beautiful start to their autumn! I’m keeping busy with preparations for my brother’s wedding next month and editing LORE, my upcoming YA that should hopefully be out Fall 2020/Winter 2021.

Out of curiosity (and, okay, procrastination on aforementioned edits), I was looking at my site analytics and noticed a big uptick in people searching for the series reading order for The Darkest Minds. That totally fits with the amount of questions I get about it on both Twitter and Instagram. I put up an Instagram highlight about it, but I realized it might be nice to have my recommended reading order available over here on my actual website.

Let me start off by saying that there is a ton of flexibility in this, and there’s no one right way to read the series! I’ve worked hard to make sure that all of the material outside of the main novels isn’t necessary to follow the main storyline—my goal with them was to highlight different areas of the TDM world and give you some “off camera” scenes, so to speak.

RECOMMENDED READING ORDER TO MAXIMIZE YOUR FEELS

  1. The Darkest Minds

  2. In Time (novella in the Through the Dark bind-up)

  3. Liam’s mini novella (available for free by subscribing to my newsletter)

  4. Never Fade

  5. Liam’s Short Story (found in the new paperback edition of The Darkest Minds)

  6. Vida’s Short Story (found in the new paperback edition of Never Fade)

  7. Sparks Rise (novella in the Through the Dark bind-up)

  8. In the Afterlight

  9. Clancy’s Short Story (found in the new paperback edition of In the Afterlight)

  10. Beyond the Night (novella in the Through the Dark bind-up)

  11. The Darkest Legacy

When I say the “new paperback edition,” I mean the updated covers that were released in January 2018:

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If you’ve seen something called The Rising Dark, that’s a digital bind-up of the short stories found in these editions that my UK publisher has released to UK readers only. My international publishers have all chosen to release these stories in different ways. Some have chosen to release the extras as digital-only or decided to bind up certain stories and not others. If you can’t find a story, or you’d like to see one of them translated and published, my recommendation is to directly contact the publisher for your language/country via social media or email.

Writer to Writer: Character Backstories

Hi everyone!

Yes, it’s me. The same girl who swore she was going to start blogging regularly, and then took… oh, a year and a half off? 🤦🏻‍♀️ Sorry about that! I’ve missed blogging quite a bit—for whatever reason, I don’t enjoy journaling and can never force myself to do it, but blogs really become more of a conversation. I’m sure if I really forced myself to build up the habit I could… but I would much rather chat with everyone over here!

So, here’s my quick update: I’ve had a super quiet summer. I’m working on a revision for what’ll either be a Fall 2020 or Winter 2021 YA (currently called LORE) and I’ve been jumping in and out of my Spring 2020 release that I am SO excited to finally share with you guys. The Spring 2020 project just makes me happy and I’m looking forward to getting everyone’s take on it!

I’m headed off to my future sister-in-law’s bachelorette this weekend, but my newsletter should hit everyone’s inboxes on this Friday. Since I don’t have much news for said newsletter, I decided to make this newsletter pretty advice-heavy. The overwhelming request was for me to talk about how I go about developing characters—a topic I am ALWAYS happy to talk about! 😊

I get a monthly traffic report from this website, and while poking around the search results, I was pleasantly surprised to see that so many people are still finding some of my older posts with writing advice! (I also kind of cringe re-reading some of the posts because I relied so much on intuition and not as much on actual craft!) Sooz suggested that I might consider migrating some newsletter writing advice over here, to the blog, or at least breaking some of it off so I’m not crashing into everyone’s inboxes with monster-length emails every other month. 😅

I think it’s a great idea, both to show you guys the kind of content I include in my newsletters, and also to connect those newsletter subscribers to blog followers. If you totally hate this, please don’t hesitate to let me know as gently as possible in the comments! 😂

As I mentioned above, this month’s newsletter (if you’re looking at the archive, it’s the August 2019 How I Craft Characters + Writing Updates email) breaks down my four steps to developing characters, and I’m going to share my step #3 here. This step focuses specifically on how I think about character backstories and use them to reinforce my main character’s arc. That’s right—I don’t come up with backstories first! It’s important for me (and potentially you!) to know who the main character is before I can work my way back to figuring out what events made them.

The example I use over the four steps is Han Solo, so I’ll continue with that over here! The internet could always use a little more Solo.

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How I Develop Character Backstories

I think a lot of writers (myself included) struggle with the balance of how much backstory to include, and how soon. In my first draft, what I call my "draft zero," I'm telling the story to myself, so I let myself off the hook and include the backstory wherever I think I need it. Once I have the full story down, I have a better sense of how that information can be better spread out so readers aren't wading through info dump after info dump. So my first piece of advice here is to cut yourself some slack in that first draft!

If you’re joining us from the newsletter, you already know a bit about my love story with Anatomy of a Story by John Truby. Sooz introduced this book to me a few years ago and it’s totally changed the way I think about writing and helped restore my confidence after a low period. I go into a little more detail about how I use a few of his steps in the newsletter, but the most relevant one to figuring out your character’s backstory is to think about your character’s weaknesses and needs. Truby (and me!) believes that characters should actually have two needs. These are:

  • Psychological: How they’re hurting themselves.

  • Moral: How they’re hurting others.

The character doesn’t become aware that he or she has those needs until the climax of the story. These needs are what the character must overcome over the course of the story in order to grow and either achieve their desire or attain some kind of resolution. They serve as the foundation of your character’s emotional arc. Some folks like to think about it in terms of The Lie the Character Believes. I use both! Though, admittedly, I tend to think of the “lie” as the excuse the main character gives himself or herself about why they’re not going after their desire/goal, and the inciting incident offers them a chance to go after it and break out of that holding pattern.

I recommend starting here and working backwards. Truby recommends starting your brainstorming at the very end of your character’s arc (what he calls the self-revelation—a little more on that in the newsletter). Something I’ve always instinctively done as a writer, even pre-Truby, was to make sure I knew who my characters are the start of the story and exactly how they’ve changed at the end of it. Having a firm grip on these things helps you craft a specific moment that sparked the needs in those characters.

I tend to think of backstory in a few different ways:

  • World backstory: Part of worldbuilding—what’s happened in that character’s world leading up to the moment the story begins. Because I start developing all of my stories by developing the cast of characters first, I can directly link fears/beliefs/opinions that they have to those events. This is the backstory I really struggle to pace out over my stories.

  • Flavor backstory: To me, this is those random details that get brought up in the story to round out a character or share a bit more of their personality. I try to include unique/distinctive events to make the character pop. (See: Miracle Bus Boy in TDM) What matters most to the readers is who the character is RIGHT NOW and who they’ll become, so think of this like adding a pinch of salt to really draw out your character’s essence.

  • Emotional arc backstory: What we’re going to talk about now—the foundation of the character’s needs.

When it comes to your main character’s backstory, I almost always recommend teasing it out over the course of the story rather than revealing it all upfront. This adds in another layer of tension and mystery, and it allows your readers to get to know the present-day character and get to like them first. The best example of this in my work is probably the reveal of what happened with Ruby’s parents in TDM. I love a big reveal! (Side note: it was super interesting to compare the impact of revealing this same information early in the TDM film vs the way I withheld it in the book!)

A sympathetic/tragic backstory is a great and very popular way to get an audience on your character's side, though it can start to feel cheap or like misery tourism if every single character in your book has one. A backstory doesn’t have to be incredibly tragic to have an impact on readers. Your goal as a writer is to get the reader to connect on an emotional level with your characters, which means tapping into the human experience. While we might not have experienced, say, mental or physical torture or loved ones being murdered, we all experience moments of disappointment, regret, humiliation, loneliness, or feeling forgotten. Even quieter instances of these emotions can still be powerful points of connection. Compare: the shame/regret of blaming yourself for someone’s death vs the shame/regret of blaming yourself for a loved one missing out on a dream.

That said, I do LOVE a big emotional backstory—they best suit the stories I’m trying to tell. If I were writing a contemporary romance, for example, I would probably scale the backstory back a bit.

In any case, this emotional backstory moment is something I’ve always done instinctively as a writer. I used to call it the childhood trauma, thanks to this iconic-to-me Buffy scene, but I now prefer Truby's term for it, which is the ghost. One thing to remember: your character knows that this event changed their life's trajectory and beliefs, but they might not realize (or be willing to accept) to what extent. I consider this to be the most important backstory I include in my book.

What's interesting is that we don't actually know what Han's ghost is for the entire original trilogy--we get hints of it and can draw our own conclusions. While I know everyone didn't love Solo, I find it really interesting because the whole movie effectively functions as Han's ghost! It completely explains the origins of both his psychological and moral needs.

Here is how I would break it down for our favorite scoundrel:

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Han's psychological need in A New Hope: To believe that he can be part of something bigger/more meaningful.

In Solo: We see a young Han grow incredibly disillusioned in his time serving the Empire. On a very basic level, they strip him of his identity and reduce him and the recruits to identification numbers. But we also see them fighting pointless, losing battles that seem to achieve nothing. Later, we also see that his partnership with Beckett and his team is anything but.

Han's moral need in A New Hope: To stop being so self-interested and pushing others away through his cynicism and lack of trust

In Solo: I consider Qi'ra's betrayal/double-cross to be the true origin of Han's hardened cynicism. If nothing else, it marked the demise of his idealism. Reality didn't so much as check him as it body-slammed him. Beckett also plays a role in this, and warns Han, "I trust no one. Assume everyone will betray you and you will never be disappointed."

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After watching Solo, I had the same feeling about Han as I had about Anakin after watching Revenge of the Sith. While you still see that character change over the course of the films, having this backstory adds another, deeper layer that really increases the feeling of triumph and tragedy.

A truly impactful character arc sees a character struggle with their needs as they’re forced to make decisions and moral judgment calls—these moments are how you show readers how your character is or isn’t growing. What’s ultimately the most satisfying to readers/views isn’t necessarily that the character achieved their objective or stated goal, but the changes they undergo in the struggle to get that treasure/destroy that ship/find that magical doo-dad.

Han makes the right moral call at the end of A New Hope, which allows us to see how much he’s grown/how much he’s changed. The inverse is true of Anakin and it’s just as compelling, albeit more tragic: he makes the wrong moral call, but we still see how much he’s changed from the more innocent Anakin we both knew. As I was saying before, we don’t necessarily need Solo or Revenge of the Sith to still feel the impact of Han’s choice to come back in A New Hope, or, in the continuation of Anakin’s arc, Vader’s choice to save Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi, but, man, does the emotional arc backstory help those moments hit harder. (In fact, the first time I watched Return of the Jedi after Revenge of the Sith, I actually cried at the moment Vader saved Luke!)

I think that about covers it! If you guys have any questions about this method, please feel free to leave ‘em in the comments, along with any other writing topics you’d like me to cover. Otherwise, make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter for more strategies on building out your characters!

Looking back on 2017
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2017

Year in Review

Wow, after all of the madness of this year, I'm still finding it hard to believe that 2017 is in the rearview mirror. I've decided to start a new tradition of recapping my year so I can look back on these entries year from now and have a better sense of where I've been and where I'm heading. These questions were pulled from this site, with just the year updated. 

Approximate Words Written: 441,604

Published: Wayfarer, The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding

Wrote: Prosper 2, The Darkest Legacy, TDM short stories, half of a scrapped WIP (sigh), three proposals

Books read: 15 (I KNOW. It was suuuuuch a bad reading year for me. I was creatively blocked for a lot of this year, and I just didn't get as much enjoyment out of reading as I normally do. I also worked non-stop from April through the end of the year, so a lot of my reading time--right before bed--went to drafting instead.)

  1. What one event, big or small, are you going to tell your grandchildren about? Definitely visiting the set of The Darkest Minds movie and how overwhelming and wonderful it was. It felt like a true once-in-a-lifetime moment. 
  2. If you had to describe your 2017 in 3 words, what would they be? Productive, turbulent, introspective
  3. What new things did you discover about yourself? This year I discovered that negative thinking really does ripple through my whole life, and I can really spiral if I don't refocus my thoughts or recognize what's happening. That, and I have an a shockingly deep hatred of the character Kylo Ren??
  4. What single achievement are you most proud of? Finding and buying my house, which felt very adult of me. I feel very settled and love being home and working from home, but it was total madness getting packed, moved, unpacked, and buying what I needed before leaving on tour for twenty days.
  5. What was the best news you received? That my brother and his girlfriend were getting engaged. I'm so happy to gain another wonderful sister! I'm also deeply grateful that Wayfarer debuted at #1 on the New York Times list after struggling so much with that book.
  6. What was your favorite place that you visited in 2017? Definitely Barcelona, though I feel like Atlanta should get a runner-up mention. I visited Atlanta more this year than all the others years in my life combined! Second runner-up is Cabo San Lucas with my sister and mom. I accidentally booked us in a really nice hotel the last two nights (long story) and it was fun to have a a true treat yo'self moment. 
  7. Which of your personal qualities turned out to be the most helpful this year? Being a hard worker. This is a trait I inherited from both of my parents--I can sit and work for hours/days/months to meet my deadline obligations. My motto for this year was that if I agreed to the work, I wasn't allowed to complain about it. That served me really well in helping to reframe my thinking about my projects. 
  8. Who was your number one go-to person that you could always rely on? My mom for sure. The lady is a super hero.
  9. Which new skills did you learn? None, I'm just proud of surviving this year, Survey, so stop judging me. Wait, I take that back. I taught myself how to properly use a drill. SO THERE. (Now I want to take up archery just to have a better answer for this next year.)
  10. What, or who, are you most thankful for? No nuclear war, which feels like a very low bar.
  11. If someone wrote a book about your life in 2017, what kind of genre would it be? A comedy, love story, drama, film noir or something else? Oh, geeze... I wish I could say it was an adventure or love story, but I'm going with dramedy. 
  12. What was the most important lesson you learnt in 2017? You have to constantly fight for the things that matter most to you, and release the things (and people) that don't. 
  13. Which mental block(s) did you overcome? I've talked about this before, but I had a real creative crisis while working on Wayfarer and in the months after. It took almost the whole year to get back into a creative groove of being productive and having fun. I did a ton of work on two different projects that will never, ever see the light of day; I was initially really disheartened by what felt like two misfires, but I've decided I needed to have some free experimental time to try to clear out those creativity blocks. I also noticed that I'm much more comfortable with public speaking than I used to be, though I'm really not sure how that happened.
  14. What 5 people did you most enjoy spending time with? Honestly, this is too hard of a question--I would need to list way to more than five people, and all for different reasons. So I'm going big with my answer: every single reader who came to a talk, signing, or school visit. Writing can be incredibly isolating, but you guys give the work I do meaning. I'm so grateful for you and any time we get to spend together.
  15. What was your biggest break-through moment career-wise? I could take this question two different ways, I guess? On one hand, it's The Darkest Minds movie going into production. More personally, breaking through the creative block I mentioned above. It forced me to go back and analyze what works and doesn't work in my writing, and has helped me shake out a better way of going about drafting and editing. It felt like re-breaking a bone to reset it in a better way. I learned A LOT, even if there were moments of deep disillusionment and frustration along the way.
  16. How did your relationship to your family evolve? It's been so nice being home and getting to have family dinner with my family every Sunday. I definitely feel like I'm part of the team now that I live nearby, and less like a distant spectator. 
  17. What book or movie affected your life in a profound way? I read mostly non-fiction this year, so I'm going with a movie (I know, I know): Wonder Woman. It was by no means a perfect movie, but it was one of those films that reminded me how powerful storytelling can be. It was the perfect antidote for the cynicism that feels so deep-rooted lately. Diana was allowed to be flawed and have so many different sides to her, something that shouldn't be as rare as it is. I also recently rewatched the film Children of Men, which is one of the "spiritual" inspirations for The Darkest Minds (by that I mean, that film made me look at the world differently and made me want to write a book that had that kind of emotional impact). It was even more relevant in today's world, and I cried SO hard at the end. 
  18. What was your favorite compliment that you received this year? "Your brain is amazing and I want to live inside of it."
  19. What little things did you most enjoy during your day-to-day life? I really love having my routine of waking up, walking the dog, making coffee and breakfast, then getting to work. I know that sounds incredibly boring, but it's honestly so soothing and the consistency helps me to be that much more productive. I also enjoyed decorating my house for the holidays and occasionally buying myself flowers and making my own arrangements. 
  20. What cool things did you create this year? Books! Short stories! One thing this year reinforced was how important it is to do other creative work outside of writing, so I liked taking little breathers to decorate my house, create little videos, etc. I want to try needlepoint next year, or at least be able to mend clothing/sew buttons back on.
  21. What was your most common mental state this year (e.g. excited, curious, stressed)? Mostly stressed and exhausted. May through October was particularly rough.
  22. Was there anything you did for the very first time in your life this year? Visit a film set, be in a wedding, buy a house, visit Barcelona and Cabo San Lucas, publish a middle grade book... lots of little firsts, too, including becoming the caretaker of the trees in my yards.
  23. What was your favorite moment spent with your friends? First place: Julia's wedding in Connecticut. Second place: my very first writing retreat with author pals!
  24. What major goal did you lay the foundations for? One of my long term goals is to dabble in writing outside of YA. I'm really happy that I was able to release a MG, but I'd also like to try other formats... more on that soon!
  25. Which worries turned out to be completely unnecessary? My dog being carried off by a large bird of prey in my new backyard. I KNOW BUT HE'S ONLY SEVEN POUNDS IT COULD HAPPEN. 
  26. What experience would you love to do all over again? Definitely that Barcelona trip! There's so much more I want to see... and so much more delicious food I want to eat. 
  27. What was the best gift you received? Oh, gosh... I got some wonderful, meaningful things from my family this year (family photos, inherited furniture, etc.), but I'm obsessed with the plotting magnets that Sooz gave me for Christmas and know I'm going to get a ton of use out of them. Not to be a total sap, but I'm really grateful for the gift of friendship this year. The friends who helped me move into my house, the friends who kept my spirits up about work, the friends that widened my social circle... I really couldn't have gotten through this year without them.
  28. How did your overall outlook on life evolve? I feel much more settle and peaceful in my day-to-day life; I have a much better balance between work and living than I did before. I've gained a lot of confidence over the last two years by simply letting go of worrying about how other people see me and just having fun with the people I love, and I'm grateful for it. The political and social turmoil was terrifying and heartbreaking in turn, but it helped remind me how important it is to get involved, both on a local and national level. I want to volunteer for a political campaign next year. 
  29. What was the biggest problem you solved? When you put it that way... there really weren't big problems, so I feel like I didn't do enough! I had a huge plot issue with Prosper 2 that I've thankfully worked out before diving into edits on January 2nd. 
  30. What was the funniest moment of your year, one that still makes it hard not to burst out laughing when you think about it? This is such a small thing, but the band Papa Roach (of which I am not really a fan) randomly retweeted a tweet of mine and I still laugh about it. Also, the great escape that my sister, Mom, and I did from one hotel to another on our Mexico trip and the whirlwind of chaos it took to get everything packed in five minutes. (Again, this is a long story and it's one of those YOU HAD TO BE THERE type things, but we managed to make this event as dramatic as humanly possible, which isn't like us at all.)
  31. What purchase turned out to be the best decision ever? Generally speaking, the two vacations I took (I rarely take vacations, so this was huge) and my house/my house's office space, which has a window/natural light. Two more things: getting a dog door for Tennyson, which lets me sleep through the night uninterrupted, and this under eye concealer. I know this sounds like such a small thing, but I've always been extremely self-conscious about my dark under eye circles and this is the only thing that's really worked for me. 
  32. What one thing would you do differently and why? I really want to try to reclaim my weekends and not work on Saturday and Sunday, except on deadline crunches. Next year, if it's possible, I'm going to give myself mandatory time off from writing in order to get out more and make new friends, explore more of Arizona, and try to get in the habit of volunteering regularly again. I'm not sure that next year is the best one to try this with all of the movie stuff and deadlines, but we'll see. 
  33. What do you deserve a pat on the back for? Finishing The Darkest Legacy's first draft in the short amount of time I had to do it. 
  34. What activities made you lose track of time? Biking, chasing my dog around, meeting friends for dinner and drinks, being obsessed with updating my Letterfolk board in a possibly unhealthy way. 
  35. What did you think about more than anything else? Politics, society, how we got here and where we're going. Also, true crime. 
  36. What topics did you most enjoy learning about? I really learned so much more about our political and judicial systems this year even though I had considered myself pretty knowledgeable about them. I learned a lot about different true crime events as well, and must recommend this book to you as I had never heard about the horrifying Osage Murders before reading it. 
  37. What new habits did you cultivate? My new-old habit was getting back into cycling regularly, which has been great for my physical and mental health. Also getting into a routine of cleaning my house. Doing small things every day instead of waiting for a lot of work to pile up makes me feel like I have more control over the rest of my life. 
  38. What advice would you give your early-2017 self if you could? Don't be afraid to take time away from the world to do your work (you have to feed yourself and your dog), but always try to show up in any way you can for those who need help and support. 
  39. Did any parts of your self or your life do a complete 180 this year? Not this year, no...
  40. What or who had the biggest positive impact on your life this year? Honestly... spending less time online. This kills me to say because I love chatting with everyone, but it was so necessary for clearing my head and enjoying my day-to-day life more. I felt more productive and like I had significantly more time and energy to dedicate to family, friends, and causes that are important to me. Sometimes social media can feel performative and inauthentic, which can skew our perceptions of what matters if we're not careful. I'm trying to change the way I use my social media platforms in 2018; on Instagram, for example, I'm worrying less about curating the most devastatingly beautiful images and instead trying to respond more to comments and messages. 
Podcast Recommendations
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Listen up

PODCAST RECOMMENDATIONS

Oh man, the first thing you should know is that I just deleted the original intro to this post because it was from when I started drafting this on December 7th and everything in it was no longer relevant. WOW, Alex. You may have seen that I have some news (I need to update this site to reflect it!), and that news is actually the reason I wasn't able to keep my resolution to post twice a week. My deadline for The Darkest Legacy was so intense that my mom had to watch my dog on and off over the last two weeks of it so that I could have hours of endless, unbroken concentration to try to crank out the ending. It's definitely not my prettiest first draft, but I'm really proud of it and can't wait for you guys to read it! I'm so eager to get into edits for it that I've already started compiling a list of everything I want to tweak and change once I get my editorial letter back from my editors. 

In the meantime, I'm going to try to, you know, actually blog! I started this post at the beginning of December because I get requests all the time for something like this, and just didn't have time to finish it until I turned in my draft of TDL.  Enjoy! 

 

Okay--podcasts!

Over the last few years, I've become a hardcore podcast devotee. I listen to them while getting ready in the morning, while cleaning, while walking the dog, while driving, while showering... it's maybe a little ridiculous. While on tour this past September, I mentioned that I really love True Crime and that the bulk of the podcasts I listen to are True Crime/Murder-related. You'll definitely see that's true based on the list below! (I finally had to stop listening to a few of them at night because they were giving me nightmares and, as I always say, left me feeling like there was always a 50/50 chance I could solve a murder or be murdered at any given moment.) My writing section is the weakest because, um, I spend most of my days writing and thinking about writing so sometimes I need a break from that. 

Do you guys listen to any podcasts you love? Recommend me some in the comments below!

 

News 

I listen to these while I'm making my coffee and getting ready in the morning.

NYT's The Daily - The Daily does deeper dives into a few relevant news stories each episode, while still quickly highlighting the day's other news. I really appreciate the additional context they give to world events

NPR's Up First - I used to listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered at my day job, and I really like this distilled format.

Embedded- This is another NPR podcast... I'm still not sure if it belongs here or in the Politics category. Embedded takes a really focused look at stories that matter in today's world. This season has been dedicated to studying all of the various pieces of Trump's world, from his business interests to the people in his family and inner circle. Episodes I recommend: The Police, The Bikers, The Immigrant

 

Pop Culture

Call Your Girlfriend - CYG is one of the very first podcasts I ever listened to, and I still love it. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have honest and hilarious discussions about the female body, pop culture, and politics from a feminist angle. They adhere to the concept of Shine Theory, and the show continues to put more and more emphasis on highlighting female (and female-identifying) politicians, artists, activists, and others who are moving and shaking society. Recent episodes I recommend: Feminist Dystopia, Political Bodies Pt 1 and pt 2, Bloody Prince Charles, Hillary

Pop Culture Happy Hour - PCHH is actually the very first podcast I got hooked on, thanks to one of my coworkers. I really love this gang and their take on all of the television, films, books, and comics you can handle. There have been a couple of episodes that taught me something about storytelling, or got me to look at an aspect of it in a different light. Recent episodes I recommend: Justice League, Tom Hanks, The Princess Bride

Song Exploder - I have to be honest with you guys... I don't know much in the way of music or songwriting, but I love this podcast and find it endlessly interesting. I think a lot of it is just that I relish getting to peek behind the curtain on creative work. This quick podcast invites artists to break down the concepts behind, and compositions of, their songs and lyrics. Recent episodes I recommend: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Goapele, Stranger Things,

Code Switch- I got turned onto Code Switch initially by simply loving Gene Demby and his many guest appearances on PCHH, and now I consider it one of the highlights of my week. Code Switch focuses on issues of identity and race. This podcast, more than any other, has expanded my view of the world and exposed me to both new ideas and some of the most insidious, subtle forms of racism that my privilege has kept me from recognizing in the past. Episodes I recommend: Disrespect to Miss-Respect, Puerto Rico, My Heart's Devotion, It's Getting (Dangerously) Hot in Here, The Unfinished Battle in the Capital of the Confederacy

 

Life + Advice

TED Radio Hour - This one is great for long car rides and walks. They identify TEDTalks that have related ideas and package them under one umbrella of an episode, which also includes deeper conversations between the TEDTalkers and the hosts. Recent episodes I recommend: Transparency, How Art Changes Us, Dialogue and Exchange

Dear Sugars - This is one of those podcasts that I find really soothing, even as the hosts take on tough topics. Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond must have two of the most calming radio voices ever to the point that I think they record in a soft-lit studio surrounded by candles, drinking tea, and smiling warmly at each other. If you're not familiar with the original Dear Sugar advice column, do yourself a favor and go back and read through its archive, which is full of empathetic advice and hard-won wisdom. I really enjoy hearing Cheryl and Steve give their personal advice and view of the tough situations that people are writing in about as much as I love the different guests they bring on to tackle the subjects with them. My all time favorite episode (and the one that turned me onto the podcast) is this one about about receiving criticism about your workRecent episodes I recommend: The Double Bind of Female Ambition, When Friendship Ends, In the Shadow of Damaged Parents, The Price of Our Dreams

The Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe - This podcast recommendation came via my future sister-in-law, Hayley! I debated whether or not to include this here or under my storytelling category, because I listen to it mostly for storytelling purposes (AND because he genuinely picks truly interesting stories). When I take in any story, my brain is operating on two different frequencies: writer and reader/listener, and I LOVE how Mike constructs his stories and trying to guess what the twist is or who the subject is before he reveals it at the end. These are really short, ten or so minutes, and I like to save up a few and listen to them while I'm driving. Recent episodes I recommend: Strange Bedfellows, How Soon They Forget, The Ride of His Life, Better Late Than Never

This American Life - TAL is possibly one of the most popular podcasts and radio programs in the country. The topics are so wide-ranging, human, and endlessly interesting. Some episodes are incredibly moving, others are laugh out loud funny, but they always feel authentic and real. They've actually compiled a list of favorite episodes, so I'll share that instead of trying to come up with one of my own.  

Radiolab - ... aaaaand Radiolab is the other program that's incredibly popular and covers a huge range of fascinating stories and topics. They describe themselves as a "radio show and podcast weaving stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries," which is actually 1000% better than anything I could come up with for describing it. Recent episodes I recommendThe Girl Who Doesn't Exist, The Gondolier, The Ceremony, Breaking News

Invisibilia - What's that, Alex? ANOTHER NPR PODCAST?? Listen, I can't help myself. My podcast journey originated with listening to NPR every morning and they got me good. Invisibilia is different from the others in that it focuses on human behavior, beliefs, and the "unseen forces" that drive our lives. Like the others, each episode is really rich and amazing narrative storytelling. Episodes I recommendEmotions, The Culture Inside, True You

Oprah's Super Soul Conversations - These episodes are available on Podcast platforms or on her website as videos, just as a general FYI. I'm in no way a religious person, but I'm someone that has personal faith and a belief in the power of meditation, positive thinking, and community. I've found a lot of fantastic life advice here, and sometimes it's just nice to think about a big idea in a different way. Episodes I recommend: Joe BidenShauna NiequistSheryl Sandberg

 

True Crime

Dirty John - YES. It is THAT GOOD. And YES. YOU SHOULD LISTEN. I was basically screeching while listening to the last episode. The storytelling + the look into the human psyche is incredible.

My Favorite Murder - MFM is like a club at this point--I now decide who gets to be my friend by whether or not they know what the acronym SSDGM means. (Just kidding, but it is SO FUN to find other murderinos who listen!) Karen and Georgia put out two episodes a week, Monday is a shorter episode of "hometown murders" where listeners write in with stories and Thursday is the main, longer episode, where they tell one another about an interesting murder case. I always recommend making it a full-on listening project and starting at the beginning, but there are so many episodes now that... it's a big ask. I struggle to pick favorite episodes, but episode 85 also made me screech while listening to it while getting ready for a tour event this past September and now I'm convinced someone is living inside of my walls every time I hear a weird noise.

Last Podcast on the Left - LPotL covers all things horror, real and imagined. It's a bit more wide-ranging than MFM when it comes to topics. I like that they'll sometimes split a story up over a few episodes, which allows them to go a little bit deeper. Episodes I recommend: Episode 284: Fire in the Sky, Episodes 274-277 Oklahoma City, Episode 268: The Philadelphia Experiment

Sword & Scale - When I recommend S&S to people, I usually mention that it's not for the faint of heart. S&S, more than any other true crime podcast I listen to, is the one that usually leaves me the most unsettled and emotional. I think a lot of it is the fact that he'll use clips of the 911 calls in the case he's describing, and those are always an incredibly tough listen. Rather than recommend you a podcast episode that might leave you feeling incredibly unsettled, I recommend taking a look through the archive

Sworn - Sworn is a new podcast that delves into the legal cases and the emotional fallout of them. There are only a few episode sets so far, but I've enjoyed hearing more about the trials, which many true crime podcasts don't cover as extensively. Episodes I recommend: The Death of Cooper Harris (3 episodes)

Up and Vanished - Sworn and Up and Vanished have the same creative team behind them, only this one focuses on one case: the unsolved disappearance of Tara Grinstead eleven years ago. Each episode digs into a different aspect of the mystery, interviewing people of interest, revealing who Tara was as a person, and trying to track down new leads. 

Generation Why - Much like MFM, this is two friends (in this instance, dudes) discussing true crime cases, only their focus leans more toward unsolved mysteries and murders. As someone who needs to understand the rationale behind these crimes and some kind of resolution, many of these episodes are as heartbreaking as they are frustrating, because there are still so many questions left to be answered. Episodes I recommend: Stacey Castor, The Backpack Killer, The Acid Bath Murderer, The Co-Ed Killer, Ryan Widmer, The Springfield Three

True Crime Garage - TCG is, you guessed it, two friends discussing different murder and disappearance cases. Like LPotL, they go deep into each case and analyze it from many different sides, usually over several episodes. Recent episodes I recommend: Episodes 144-145: Kenneka Jenkins, Episodes 165-166: True East Murders, Episode 160 D'wan Sims

In the Dark - This is another podcast that focuses on one particular case (so far--season 2 next year will cover a different one), this one the abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota 27 years ago. The podcast covers police mishandling of the case, broader cultural implications, and--amazingly enough--the case being solved as the podcast was in production.

Someone Knows Something - SKS is now in its third season, with each season covering a different unsolved case. Season 1 is centered on the disappearance of Adrien McNaughton, a five year-old boy who disappeared into the woods never to be seen again, season 2 on the disappearance of Sheryl Sheppard, and the current season, season 3, on the murder of Charles Moore and Henry Dee, two black teenagers who were murdered in 1964. 

Accused - One more true crime serialized podcast for you! I haven't listened to season 2 yet, but I thought season one, about the 1978 unsolved murder of Elizabeth Andes was really well done. If I was frustrated about the back and forth Who did it? and the two trials, I can only imagine how her family felt. 

Heaven's Gate - If you've had your fill of listening to podcasts about disappearances and murders, may I interest you in a podcast about the Heaven's Gate cult? I listened to this one over my Christmas break from work and was riveted by the origins and personalities behind the cult, as well as listening to the families who lost their loved ones after trying to save them from their fates. 

 

Politics/Government

Pod Save America - I'm a lifelong registered Democrat, and I tend to stay in my lane when it comes to political podcasts--just a word of warning if you're more conservative-leaning. While I think it's important to expose yourselves to other viewpoints, I also mostly listen to PSA while driving or walking my dog, and I don't enjoy feeling frustrated or angry while listening to either of those things, hence why I stay away from conservative podcasts for the most part. I've come to really like the Crooked Media crew and appreciate that they're making more strides to be more inclusive with the voices they bring on. I also really enjoy their interviews with politicians and activists, and think they're doing more and more to help try to engage the liberal-leaning base. 

Pod Save the World - I find foreign policy to be pretty intimidating to learn about, but I appreciate how well Tommy and his guests break down really important international issues in a way that's thought-provoking and easy to understand. 

Stay Tuned with Preet - While I wish Preet Bharara was still U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, I'm selfishly glad to get his insight on current events each week. He has a very fair, even-keeled point of view that feels much needed in a very partisan environment.

More Perfect - I am OBSESSED with this great Radiolab spin off about SCOTUS. It's helped me realize how little I know about this branch of our government and how many truly fascinating stories and cases I've never heard of. Episodes I recommend: Justice, Interrupted, The Architect, Citizens United, Object Anyway

The New Washington - This is a NYT podcast that's branched off from The Daily to feature longer interviews with important movers and shakers in Washington, DC.

 

History and Folklore

Lore - LORE!! I've been listening to this podcast nearly from its beginning and it's the highlight of my day whenever a new episode shows up in my feed. I love how Aaron constructs each story to maximize the storytelling potential and links real world fears to folklore and the supernatural. Some of these stories are creepier/scarier than others, but they're all fascinating. The episode Unboxed DEEPY unsettled me, omg. Episodes I recommend: Within the Walls, Missing the Point, In the Bag, The Mountain, When the Bow Breaks, All the Lovely Ladies, Broken Fingernails

The Dollop - You guys know I love my American History... well, I love that the Dollop still surprises me and covers topics I know nothing about, or comes at familiar stories from angles I've never investigated. The format is simple: Dave reads a story from history to Gareth, and now I'm seriously wondering if there's an unspoken podcast rule that you can only have two hosts. Recent episodes I recommend: The Great Diamond Hoax, The Caning of Sumner, Lincoln's Body, The Almost Founding Father

Revisionist History - Bless Malcolm Gladwell, who was clearly born for this podcasting thing. I was struggling to figure out how to describe this one, so I'm going to borrow from the podcast's actual description and say that it reinterprets something from the past, and that ranges from the Civil Rights movement to McDonald's french fries. Episodes I recommend: The Lady Vanishes, Hallelujah, The Foot Soldier of Birmingham, The King of Tears, McDonald's Broke My Heart

Smithsonian Sidedoor - I usually describe Smithsonian Sidedoor as being Smithsonian "deep cuts." They imagine it as digging deeper into the Smithsonian Institute's vaults and finding interesting stories half-lost to history. Both work! Episodes I recommend: The Many Lives of Owney the Dog, Masters of Disguise, Grandma Turned Me Into a Ghost, If These Bones Could Talk, You Do You

 

Storytelling

88 Cups of Tea - Yin Chang is a wonderful human and a fabulous interviewer--I had so much fun chatting with her on my episode (#shamelessplug), and I love how deep she gets into the creative process with each guest. 

First Draft Podcast - The truly awesome Sarah Enni does fabulous interviews with YA and MG authors that I think you guys will love, if you're not already listening! 

 

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Grateful
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Hi friends!

First--I just realized the last few posts had the comments switched off! Sorry about that. I used blogspot and Wordpress for so long that I sometimes forget Squarespace has different settings. In this instance, I have to turn them on before actually posting. Squarespace is so great in some ways... but, like, how do I add a sidebar to the blog? How do I post links to the years of archives? (This is probably a sign I should have hired an actual designer to do this site, eh?)

In any case, HAPPY THANKSGIVING to everyone celebrating today! As the year winds down, I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the good and bad of 2017. Some of the good: my brother got engaged to a wonderful lady! I bought a house! I took trips to places I had never been before! I published two books! Those are all incredible things. But I think that this was one of those rare years where things didn't quite balance out, and the bad just swamped everything else. A lot of it has to do with the constant stress with what's happening in domestic and global politics, but it also just feels like so many dark, ugly things in our society were exposed this year, and each month brought a new thing to be angry about. It became a year of necessary pain and confrontation, and I hope it means that we can find better ways forward in 2018. 

I had a year of bad anxiety; I find that what anxiety I have is pretty manageable, so it's not something I frequently talk about. That's probably part of the problem. So much of that anxiety is rooted in a fear of failure and disappointing others, which of course means that it's tied strongly to my work. I knew my anxiety was beginning to get out of hand when I couldn't even appreciate the successes I had professionally this year without that constant, creeping fear of What if it all goes away tomorrow? 

Recognizing those spiraling thoughts initiated the reset I'm in right now. It's included a Twitter and Tumblr detox, and removing a lot of extra voices I didn't really need in my life. I am SO GOOD at using those negative voices as road blocks. I plant them in my mind and let them creatively block me and trap me in this prison of uncertainty about the smallest storytelling decisions. My poor writer pals were constantly getting "What do you think about ____ or do you think ____ would be better?" type messages. That indecision really had me in its teeth.

I think I'm mostly through that now. What helped for me was going back through and really analyzing what did and didn't work in my most recent books, and taking it upon myself to figure out solutions and read craft books addressing those problems. What that indecision and anxiety ultimately boiled down to, I think, is a feeling that I wasn't in control of my stories or my career, and working on craft is a way to feel more in control of a process that had been largely intuitive for me. 

I'm 22 chapters into a ~35 chapter book and feeling good about it--or at least less agonized over the things I know aren't working quite right yet and I need a critique partner's opinion on. The deadline I set for myself was December 1st, but that was always a little bit crazy. This is going to be a long book (somewhere around 145k, which is par for the course with my other YAs) and because of Prosper touring + promotion + book 2 drafting, I only really got to start working on it in October. I've written around 70k words this month alone, which was only possible by addressing the aforementioned anxiety.

As I've gotten older, I feel like I've mellowed out so much. What was going on with my writing was really reflective of what was going on with my life in general. My truths have been simplified so much over the last four or five years. I'm thankful for that. 

This April marked the fifth anniversary of my dad's death. I look back on it now and see what a radical shift that was in my outlook on everything. I don't talk about this very much, both because my dad was a very private person and because the way he suffered at the end of his life and how quickly his health deteriorated was incredibly traumatic. I'm still processing it, and how it's rippled out through all of the choices I've made, and the anxieties I can't seem to fully let go of. (In reality, that What if it all goes away tomorrow? is really What if it all goes away and I can't support my family if something were to happen?)

The other day I went on an email deleting spree, finally clearing out my inbox of emails I'd had since 2008. I cringed and rolled my eyes at myself so many times, and finally understood what a slow, deep current maturity is. You really have to earn it along with hindsight. Because all of these radical highs and lows, I have so much less patience for drama that doesn't really matter in the end. I don't want to waste my time with people who aren't true friends, or on stories I don't love with my whole heart. The clarity that comes in knowing that our time on this planet is limited is another one of those painful processes that we all go through, but ultimately helps us change and move forward.  

Anyway, I'm sorry for rambling. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this year, I'm working hard to be grateful for those painful things out of my control, and for the growth I've undergone because of it. I hope you all have a peaceful holiday, or even just a lovely, calm weekend with those you love best. 

 

Back in the Saddle
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Every time I see someone from my "old life," the one that existed back in NYC, I get asked if I ever miss it. The truth is, I do miss New York sometimes, but it's really just a few special little things that I grew to love or that took on meaning for me. For instance, I'm convinced there are few things better in life than walking home through Central Park on the first warm day of spring. The driver who picked me up at Charleston's airport last weekend and I waxed poetic about how amazing New York is around Christmas and the holidays. When it comes down to it, though, what I miss about living in New York falls into two categories: my friends and the routine I had there.

You learn very quickly to make apartment decisions based on what's immediately around you in your neighborhood. It is so nice to be able to walk to a Starbucks, a post office, a gym, a CVS. I really lucked out my last three years in the city. I lived on the Upper East Side around Third Avenue, up in the 90s. Yeah, we had Second Avenue subway construction happening and the 4/5/6 trains constantly broke down, but I had everything I needed nearby. After I started writing full time, this was key--I had plenty of excuses to leave the apartment, even in the dead of winter. 

One of the biggest routines I fell into was going to the gym for spin classes. Real talk: I am NOT athletic. I have never been athletic. The one year I tried to play JV basketball in high school, I threw out my back and spent six months with a persistent chest cold that always felt like it was on the edge of becoming pneumonia. During that WONDERFUL time in my young adult life, I found out that I had exercise-induced asthma, and that was why my chest always got so mucus-y and tight when I exercised, which made it almost impossible to regulate breathing... which made it impossible to build real stamina... which made me hate most forms of exercising. Weeee.

But writing is such a sedentary job, even with daily walks built in. I'd had a gym membership nearby that I used pretty half-heartedly, on and off. Finally, after realizing I was winded just climbing up three flights of stairs to my apartment (I refused to live above the third floor, which is a true case of recognizing and accepting your own laziness), I decided to try out a bunch of different classes my gym offered.

The only one that didn't immediately scare me off was spin. The reason it didn't immediately scare me off was because I was going at 9 AM, when, shall we say, the more elderly residents of my neighborhood would come. For that reason, I ended up in classes that didn't make me feel like I was spinning for my life in the Thunderdome, being blasted by rainbow lights from every direction. The instructors focused on form and the physiology involved with spinning, so I had time to build my endurance. Eventually, I was going between three and four times a week, and was even that person who had her favorite instructors and would follow them around the various New York Sports Clubs nearby. 

When I moved out of NYC, I definitely fell off the wagon in terms of spin. I really didn't enjoy driving around Alexandria and there wasn't a spin studio or gym nearby to walk to. Then I got Tennyson, and he really struggled with being left alone as a puppy... and, well, I never got back on. After being chased out of Alexandria by spiders (don't ask), I landed back in Arizona.

I tried a number of different studios that were closely modeled on Soul Cycle, but... wow, I do not like that style of spinning. Mad respect to everyone who loves it. My experience is that I feel dizzy if I'm spinning in a dark room and the music is always just a little too loud to hear the instructors' cues. I also still have some back issues, so doing a lot of the up-and-down out of the saddle and the arm work really made things worse. My old spin classes conditioned me to like riding in a bright room that was closer to cycling outside on a nice day than an awesome party. 

I gave up on it for a while, thinking I would try something else. But I really, really loved spin. After that initial hurdle of about two weeks of torment, I had understood why everyone else loved spin, too.

So, now that I'm in a new house and have a little bit more room for it, I decided to by an at-home bike (a Peloton, which probably costs more than my soul would fetch in a market down in hell, I can't lie). It's definitely an investment, but one of the things I'd been struggling with lately is trying to fit the exercise into a truly tough deadline schedule. I now have zero excuses because it is literally RIGHT THERE (I have to walk by it to get to my bed) and the classes that are offered through its screen (roughly the size of my Mac desktop??? Jesus, Peloton.)/subscription program range between 20-60 minutes, which is nice because sometimes I only have 20 minutes to spare.

It was delivered on Monday, and I basically gave it a hero's welcome. All that was missing was the shower of rose petals over its gorgeous form. I took my first class on Tuesday--one of the pre-recorded ones vs the livestreaming ones because I'm not ready to ride with the other People of Peloton, because omg the People of Peloton. I scrolled through the list of on-demand rides, wondering inwardly if the saddle had always been this hard, and decided that I would test my current endurance with an Advanced Beginner ride, because oh ho ho, I am no Beginner-Beginner. I once rode like the wind, with the fleetest of feet.

Reader, I just about died. If I had been in an actual class, and not in the privacy of my own home, I think someone would have called 9-1-1. Yes, I was huffing and puffing and sweating THAT HARD. Thankfully, only Tennyson was there to judge me silently from his comfortable bed. By the end of thirty minutes (THIRTY! MINUTES!) I barely had the energy left in me to clip out. It was Not. Good.

There's this thing that people who don't ride--bikes, stationary bikes, actual animals--might not know about, which is saddle soreness. Which is exactly what it sounds like. Here's another thing you might not know: that feeling does go away. Your body gets used to it and you no longer feel it days after a ride. I don't totally understand it, because #science, but I've been reminding myself of this fact all week, while I work at my job in which I spend upwards of six hours sitting. 

Today, I took another thirty minute Advanced Beginner class. It was not much better. I did not expect it to be.

Aside from being incredibly humbling about how little physical strength I have in my body these days, my recent return to cycling has reminded me quite of bit of what it feels like to jump back into a writing project after being away for a while. Or, you know, just jumping back into the habit of writing. It always feels so, so painful and awkward when you first start again--there's that voice that's constantly there, telling you that you don't remember how to do this and that it is HARD HARD HARD. 

But really, with cycling and with writing, it's all about building muscle. It's about getting through that initial period of painful adjustment and adapting your body and brain to the level of focus and work these tasks demand. I spent the first seven chapters of my current YA bemoaning how hard it felt to be writing YA after such a long break with Prosper, and how slooooooooowly the words were coming. Now I'm twenty chapters in, and flying. In the end, both with spinning and writing, it all comes down to perseverance. So many people quit before they ever truly begin, discouraged by how hard to feels to start.

Don't quit. Take it easy. Take it slow. Readjust at your own pace.

Just.

Don't.

Quit. 

 

 

 

 

Alexandra BrackenComment