Epic Fantasy Book Review: Dragonhaze

Dragonhaze is an epic Fantasy by Mirren Hogan. It’s the first in her Reasoner Trilogy.

The story opens with the first of our four protagonists, Daven, caught in the bombing of a tavern just after he orders a mug of ale. He witnesses the dead of a librarian right beside him, and as a healer feels compelled to save her, but is too afraid to help her because of the bombers. The guilt from this incident haunts him for the rest of the story, because not all is as it seems with both Daven and the bombing itself.

The next chapter introduces us to his mother, Kaida, a draakin (dragon rider) and her enigmatic dragon mount Risper. Dragons in Dargyn (a mouthful I know) are psychic and can only survive when bonded to a rider. We soon learn Daven’s father Del left the two of them when she took on the bond with Risper to save his life (a bond both her grandfather and grandmother held before her) and she’s still pretty sore about it.

When Daven goes to visit her, we discover the draakin had participated in the aptly named Dragonwar to stop a group of magic users known as magin from destroying Dargyn, but the current government sees them as little more than sapsuckers looking for handouts for their mounts. Kaida has been barred from advancing in her career due to this government pressure, and most citizens regard the draakin with suspicion.

We meet our next protagonist in Chapter Four. Dashka, who happens to be an undercover magin, as she has the ability to use magic when she sings. We also meet her Aunt Mabyl, who took her in after her mother abandoned Dashka upon discovery of this terrible power. They’re visiting the massive city of Paryos on vacation following the death of Dashka’s cheating husband. She tours the ruins of Paryos and banters with their guide, discovering quickly just how far the government has gone to suppress any knowledge of or reference to magic even in the ancient ruins beneath the city.

Our fourth protagonist is Brish, a young apprentice bard who overhears a conversation he shouldn’t between his guild master and a mysterious third party threatening to harm people if the government doesn’t change its policies. The word “yaraz” puzzles him, but his superiors refuse to explain it to him. He stalks the guild master in an effort to learn more, but it takes some time before he makes the connection.

I can’t speak more about the plot without spoilers, but I will say the direction this book went is intriguing. Most fantasy series involving magic, dragons, and the suppression thereof quickly escalate into all out war, and the politics and intrigue with the focus on ordinary people in this story piqued my interest. The characters were well developed by the end and the writing was decent, though there were a few typos and grammatical errors that were missed during the editing phase. They weren’t pervasive or overly distracting.

Hogan’s descriptions were a bit more minimalist than is my usual style, but those I did get to enjoy were well written on the line level and interesting. The plot moves along at a steady clip, though the point of view switching between chapters doesn’t seem to have a steady rhythm, so it felt a little erratic at times.

If I had one complaint, it would be all of the D names in the book getting a bit overwhelming. Dashka, Daven, Dargyn, dragons, draakin, Del, etc. It’s a minor spat, but it did get a little internally grating in the passages were multiple concepts/characters above were referenced.

Still, it was an interesting world populated by intriguing characters, and I’m interested to see where the series goes next.

4/5, a solid Kindle Unlimited read. I’d pick up the next one.

Cyberpunk/Sci-fi Book Review: Sleepless Flame

Okay, I promise I’m not falling behind. I’ve got over 100 emails to answer, so for authors still waiting on a reply from me, I just got done processing submissions from March. Hang tight, all right? I have over 50 people in my queue, and I had to rearrange it to add some variety to the various genres I’ve had submitted because I got a glut of epic fantasy and hard sci-fi recently, and I don’t want you wonderful readers to get bored of the same subgenres over and over.

So without further ado, Sleepless Flame is a cyberpunk-style sci-fi thriller by Odin V. Oxthorn.

It opens with one of the two protagonists, an alien being named Nara dueling with the personified Wind and Rain in one of her dreams. Flash forward to the present, and we see her infiltrating an underground operation which gets our second protagonist, Garett, caught in the crossfire. She rescues him for reasons she doesn’t disclose until far later, and he hires her to be his bodyguard while in the Undercity, a grimy, lightless but for the electric lights strewn about the wreckage, terrible place for seedy criminals and mercenaries to eke out a living.

He agrees to bankroll her missions and play Hawk, or hacker/surveillance, for her escapades.

There isn’t much plot beyond a mission-of-the-chapter style movement until about halfway through, when Nara gets a contract that radically alters their relationship with one another.

I really wanted to love this book. I genuinely did. There are some beautiful passages and fantastic world building, and I would’ve been sucked in if not for the repetitive sentence structures, overuse of the word “as” (over 2800 times throughout the manuscript, often 2-3 times in a single sentence) and lack of a coherent plot until over halfway through. The writing gets better as the story goes along, but I don’t think I would’ve gotten far enough to experience the awesome world building and tech stuff later on if I weren’t reading the book with intent to review.

That said, the cool stuff was incredibly cool, and with a good line editor or critique group and some trimming this book could’ve been really great. The characters (particularly Nara, who is agendered) become a lot more interesting about halfway in as well, and the interaction between the two of them gets more intriguing after the aforementioned fateful escapade. However, I did find the head hopping mid-scene to be a bit confusing, and it happened several times throughout the narrative. I understand that sometimes it might be important to understand the other character’s thoughts, but it’s jarring to jump from one point of view to another mid-scene (and sometimes mid-paragraph) without any real transition.

I think the series has a ton of potential, and I can tell that the author grew a great deal in skill as the book went on. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with later on in their career.

3/5, cool ideas, but bogged down by some sloppy writing and structural issues. Look forward to seeing what Odin comes up with later down the line.

Steampunk Thriller Book Review: Mission Clockwork

When I committed to getting my new reviews up on time and working on a new series of articles for the ADHD and Writing series, I didn’t expect a nasty bout of food poisoning to deliver me into pneumonia (dunno if they were related, but it sucked either way) and to be unable to even get out of bed for over 2 weeks. So yeah. That sucked.

I’m back and functional again, so here’s the (long overdue) review of Arthur Slade’s Mission Clockwork, a steampunky alternate history thriller set in London at the dawn of the Industrial age.

The story opens with a prologue-type first chapter, where the brilliant Dr. Hyde is propositioned by an attractive young woman with a claw for a hand about working on a secret new project. It’s clear he’s setting up the antagonist here, and the resulting scene involving feeding his “prized” hound a terrible concoction and watching it tear itself apart is suitably creepy.

In the next chapter we’re introduced to the first of our two protagonists, a deformed young man with shape-shifting powers named Modo. Modo has been adopted and trained for most of his life by the enigmatic Mr. Socrates, his wet nurse Mrs. Finchley, and his Indian guard, Tharpa. He goes through various combat exercises and basic education, and then Mr. Socrates tells him he has a special mission. He hops in the carriage and Mr. Socrates dumps him on the street, telling him it’s now his job to survive there.

He sets up shop as a private detective and is contacted by a young woman who tells him she’s looking for her brother, who is a member of the Young Scientists society in London. He follows the man and nearly dies in the hands of the scientists, only to discover the woman was not who she appeared to be.

This young woman’s name is Octavia, and she’s our second protagonist. Also a lower-ranked member of Mr. Socrates’ society of spies, she was sent by him to test Modo and see what sort of information he’d be able to bring back. The two of them end up having to work together to solve the mystery of disappearing children and murderous aristocrats causing havoc in London.

I can’t talk too much more about the plot with spoilers, as it’s a bit of an unfolding mystery throughout, but I will say I found Slade’s writing style engaging and interesting, though there was quite a bit more passive language than need be in some of the early chapters. The characters were interesting, and I like the steampunky twisted fairy tale/alt history angle the story takes on as it progresses.

The pseudo-romantic subplot between the two protagonists was a bit disappointing, especially given the deception on Modo’s part throughout the book. I was really hoping he wouldn’t go there, and it made me sad when he did. That said, the action scenes were memorable (think Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame blended with old school sci-fi like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and interesting, and I never had a hard time picturing what was happening or where the characters were in space.

The climax was fun and action-packed, with a character death tease and sacrifice arc that made me smile. The “science” behind it was a little thin, and I wonder how much Slade thought through the rules of his steampunk science before he wrote the book. Am I curious enough to pick up the second one? Maybe. It was a short, fun read and I’m glad I read it. But I’m not sure if it gets me into the all-out binge reading mindset that some of the previous books I’ve reviewed have.

4.0/5, worth picking up if you want a light read, but nothing really groundbreaking or original here.

Work Overload and Apologies

I’ve been going through a rough time these last few weeks. It’s been a struggle to get my nonfiction reading for personal growth done, let alone the massive queue of unanswered emails and committed reviews. For those of you who’ve been waiting a while to hear from me, know it isn’t personal. I’m just going through a period of overwhelm due to massive work commitments, an exciting new opportunity (that I don’t know if I can announce yet due to submissions still being open) and some setbacks that pushed back the release of my next book, Prisoner of the Hollow.

I thought I’d take some time to address what’s been going on. As I mentioned in my post on Resilience, I have a chronic back injury I’ve been dealing with for most of my adult life, and I managed to piss it off a week and a half ago by falling on my bridge. It’s been touchy ever since, and my hyper-vigilance in ensuring I don’t do that again has left me mentally exhausted when dealing with other things.

Like my work. And having the reduced productivity from mental overwhelm stacked on top of my already frustrated state isn’t helping. So when we found out my husband has been officially diagnosed with depression and he continued to refuse to acknowledge the condition despite it, I just about lost it. I know all these things seem small and manageable, and maybe if you haven’t dealt with chronic pain or a mental condition like ADHD that needs to be managed carefully and daily, it probably looks that way. But my husband and I will hit our 5 year wedding anniversary in October, and seeing him spiral downward while I’m trying to keep my head above water hurts.

A lot.

The only reason I’ve gotten anything done is because of the heavy investment in my daily routine I keep harping on in my ADHD and Writing series. Because it keeps me doing something rather than nothing, and right now it needs to be enough. But it means I’m a bit behind, and I’m sorry.

I’m planning on trying to get my review of Mission: Clockwork up by Saturday, and afterward, in order: Odin V. Oxthorn’s Sleepless Flame, Mirren Hogan’s Dragonhaze, and L.C. Ireland’s Horrid.

Regarding the massive stack of unanswered emails, I’m planning on going through them this coming weekend and trying to get back to the next 25 people on the list. I try to keep my queue as close to “in submission order” as possible, with a few exceptions: if you have a horror novel (as opposed to paranormal thriller), you’ll likely get bumped up as I have few horror submissions in my current queue. Likewise with Weird Westerns and literary pieces.

Again, my deepest apologies for the delay. I’m doing my best to rectify things, it’s just been hard recently. I’m picking myself back up as of today, and I’ve made the commitment to myself and you all to push through and get the work done.

Because it’s important. And because breaking commitments sucks.

Deep Work, Shallow Work, and the Benefits of Insane Focus

Welcome back to my ADHD and Writing series! This week (technically week 5) we’ll be talking about Cal Newport’s Deep Work and how his theories about deep focus and its relationship to value within the workplace apply to the writing world.

So first, what is the central premise of Deep Work? It’s pretty straightforward. Newport posits that in every job there are two kinds of tasks. Deep tasks, which require intense focus and potentially years of training in order to complete them effectively, and shallower tasks that one could assign to a college student with 6-8 months of training and be just as well off as if you did them yourself. Another version of shallow work would be things like busy work or light cleaning.

He argues that when the average person gets to work on a task that would be considered deep work, let’s say…drafting, they have a tendency to put themselves into situations where the degree of focus needed for said work is nigh impossible to achieve. Any distraction that pulls said person from the task, like an email popping up, a buzz from their cell phone, kids knocking at the door (or partners for that matter), T.V. in the background, etc, breaks the necessary state of deep focus required to complete the task effectively.

So if I sit down to draft the next scene of Prisoner of the Hollow and I have my phone with the sound or vibrate on, every time it buzzes my brain will be pulled away from what I’m doing. Even if I ignore the buzz. If I decide to answer the buzz, it can take 15-20 minutes (and this is assuming I’m neurotypical!) to get my brain back where it needs to be to complete the task.

The solution he proposes, which is the one I use during my own work time each day, is to divide your day up into “deep work” periods and “shallow work” periods. I define deep work in my writing life as drafting, editing, outlining, developing presentations, writing blog posts and book reviews, developing the plans and brainstorming for said blog posts and book reviews, working on my pitch, doing research for my projects, and drafting the emails I send out to my mailing list each week. Shallow work is just about everything else writing related: scheduling ads for my books, answering emails, social media engagement, networking, working out, lunch (yes, I schedule my lunch during a shallow work period), making tea, looking over my budget for business and home, reading the books for said book reviews, etc.

Newport recommends several exercises that can help improve focus throughout the book. One of the first is (SURPRISE! I’ve already covered it) a daily meditation practice involving breathing and counting the breaths, with the conscious choice to redirect your thoughts if you get distracted. Another is to get on a treadmill or take a walk and do a deep contemplation on something that has you stuck, kind of like what I talked about in Week 1 when I mentioned I hop on the treadmill when I hit writer’s block and can’t figure out what I need to do to make a scene work.

He also recommends not making your deep work periods longer than 2 hours each day, and trying not to have more than 2-3 in each work day. Why? Because even with training, deep work is rough on the brain. It’s hard to write for 5 hours straight and not get diminishing returns. I know when I’ve tracked per-hour word counts, there’s usually a pretty sharp drop-off after 2 hours worth of work, and it just gets worse from there. By keeping timers and switching gears after the 2 hour mark, I continue being productive (because eating, my second work out, my mind dump, email correspondence, ad scheduling, budgeting, etc are all still productive activities that need to get done) while giving the part of my brain I just gave a mental workout a rest. When my timer goes off for my second deep work period, I’m usually ready to go.

If I’m not I meditate!

The thing I found the hardest about his prescription for deeper focus was the planned abstinence from social media and television. If you indulge in social media, check your email, and watch T.V. whenever the urge strikes, he argues, you’re priming your brain for instant gratification. He suggests not accessing social media of any sort until certain specified times, and only for a limited amount of time using a timer. Also, those times cannot be right before bed or just after getting up.

Boy was this bloody hard! I can see why he recommended it though. When I succeeded in staying off Facebook (my mental crack) for two weeks straight apart from two specific times (one in the afternoon and one in the evening), I saw my productivity go up by 25%. When I fell off the habit, I lost those gains. Due to the nature impulsivity that goes with having ADHD, I’ve struggled harder with this particular suggestion than anything else, so how well I do fluctuates from week to week. But when I invest the time for long enough, the benefits stick.

I bet you’re wondering where this stuff fits in from a scientific perspective. Like most sci-fi writers, when I come across a claim I’m not sure about, I check the source and do some independent digging. Turns out, a lot of these ideas have a pretty solid grounding in science. The more frequently we allow ourselves to be distracted, the worse our productivity gets. The only thing I couldn’t confirm in my research is the 2 hour limit, and part of that had to do with the studies he cited being locked behind a paywall I couldn’t get through with the software I used for research.

So there you have it. Next week I’ll talk about reading in your genre and the difference between reading for pleasure and reading for work, and why you would choose to do one over the other.

See you next week!

The Meaning of Resilience

To those of you who follow this series and were disappointed to find I hadn’t written an article on Friday, I send my deepest apologies. I normally try to pre-write some of my content to make sure it gets out on time, but last week was extremely hectic and I ended up having to draft the article day of.

Which didn’t happen, because on my way home from my writing group on Thursday, I fell on the sopping wet bridge leading to my house. I’d been nagging the guys to get it swept and scrubbed for a while because mildew and algae love this time of year, and they also love untreated wood, which happens to be what that bridge is made of. I’ve mentioned once or twice that I have a recurring back injury, and boy did the fall flare it up. I was out all weekend.

This didn’t bode well for my usual routine. Not only was I scared to go down the stairs with my back being what it was (so I couldn’t get to my office to work), sitting up was painful all of Friday and workouts were out of the question.

So what did I do instead? Catch up on my reading for the review portion of this blog? Work on my self improvement book list? Write things out by hand until I could get to my work computer and relieve my poor wrist cysts? If you’ve seen enough of these sorts of lists to have guessed that I did none of those things, good on you. Gold star. Well, okay, I did read a little more of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, which I plan on covering in a few weeks. But I digress.

What I actually did was mope about for a day, start playing a new video game on my gaming machine upstairs (which doesn’t have any of the software I used to work), complete all the achievements in that game, and beat myself up for not working.

I had mostly recovered by Sunday, which meant I was able to go downstairs and start catch-up. But I didn’t. Because at that point, I’d thrown myself into the ring with my old nemesis, the most powerful force in the universe (or at least in psychological terms. I’m a sci-fi writer. I know the most powerful force is technically gravity under some circumstances and the strong force in most others): INERTIA.

Inertia is simultaneously wonderful and terrible. For those of you who’ve been out of the educational system for 10 years or more (or just never got into the whole physics thing), inertia is the tendency for moving objects to keep moving and sitting objects to stay put. Like my butt parked in front of my gaming computer after two days of no working out, no meditation, and no working period.

It takes a ton of force to get a still object moving again. Once it’s moving, it’s much harder to slow it down, but those first few days after sitting around feeling sorry for myself are always going to be the toughest. When I got up Thursday morning, I didn’t have to think about going out to eat breakfast, heading downstairs to sweat said lazy butt off, doing my devotions, dumping my brain on paper, and meditating before I started work. I was on autopilot. I’d done these things every bloody day for over four months. They were my routine.

Today I had to make a conscious choice. Today my brain was reminded of the unstructured, Wild West days of staying in bed until 12pm and eating a bowl of cereal, heading down later in the afternoon and working from whenever to who cares. Today I had to force myself out of bed on time, make a healthy breakfast and log it, drag my butt down the stairs, start up the workout video, and really focus on immersing myself in it.

I had to conjure the image of my word counts going up day after day, the miserable days I’ve been too injured to work out and the way I’ve suffered more from that than the 20-35 minutes it actually takes me to sweat my way through to victory.

And the most amazing thing happened. As hard as it was to start the workout, by the time I was done the endorphin rush reminded my grumpy brain that it indeed had a routine it liked sticking to. So doing my devotions and mind-dump on time came easier. And by the time I headed back upstairs during my shallow work/lunch period to feed my aching stomach, it finally felt like a normal day.

Because all the work I did before made this particular slip-up go differently than in the past when a day or two long bender could screw me up for weeks. Making the choice, and making damn sure I knew it was a choice and not a requirement, jogged whatever circuits I’d built and made the workout the pleasure my brain wasn’t yet expecting. I changed my attitudes because I knew the inertia was the hardest part.

The takeaway here, at least for me, is that resilience is the ability to make the future now and focus on the benefits rather than the difficulties in the present moment. And I fully believe that takes the experience of several months of forced consistency to make that happen. Anyone with ADHD knows how hard it can be to pick up a habit, even one you’ve practiced for months, after the chain has been broken so to speak. Inertia gets a boost from having less dopamine receptors and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. The deck is stacked against you.

But if you put in the work for long enough, you can build quite a bit of strength in your corner. And the memory of the benefits, the conscious choice to acknowledge the real benefits these practices have brought to your life, can be enough to get you to start. And once you start the bottom of your brain, the part that keeps this whole thing running smooth on autopilot day in and day out, the one you had to fight with to get the healthy routine going in the first place, that part becomes your ally after you get over the initial hump alone.

That is the definition of resilience.

So what about the article on Cal Newport’s Deep Work I promised last week? It’s still coming. Preferably on Friday.

What was it like last time your routine got thrown off because of injury, illness, personal drama, or whatever? Did you manage to get back on track? How did you do it? Feel free to post in the comments below or comment on my Facebook page.

See you Friday!

New to the series and want to catch up?

Week 1 was all about how working out doubled my word count and why on earth our bodies work that way.

Week 2 was all about meditation and task transitioning, and why meditating between tasks helps with focus.

Week 3 was about why throwing my daily routine off mattered so much to my productivity, and how having a daily ritual before writing can benefit the practice even if it can’t be done at the same time every day.

Paranormal Thriller Review: Frostbite

Frostbite is a prequel short story set in E.J. Stevens’ Ivy Granger Detective universe.

Given how short the story actually is, it’s hard to talk too much about the plot without spoiling it. It opens with a short prologue in the form of a tourists’ pamphlet talking about the sort of paranormal shenanigans someone visiting Ivy’s hometown might expect. We then open in Ivy’s detective office, with an older female client begging Ivy for help dealing with a haunting at her home.

At first she and her partner shrug off the haunting theory as an orgy from a type of fae that often infests houses, but as the woman describes her concerns, she ultimately piques their interest and they accept the case.

What follows is a unique take on paranormal activity and a touching look at what someone will sacrifice for those they love. As short of a time as I spent with the characters, I found myself drawn in by their world and some of the unique creatures and ideas presented within the haunted home. Some of the imagery was disturbing, but not in a torture porn or particularly gorey way. More…unsettling.

It’s hard to get a feel for an author’s overall style in such a short work (though frequent readers of short stories will likely argue with me), but I will say that the concentrated dose of creativity in the climax alone piqued my interest in the rest of the series. I wish the author would have spent a little more time on the mystery and let me linger in the house a little while longer, because although satisfying, the climax felt a little rushed with the buildup that led me there.

4/5 stars, looking forward to checking out more of Stevens’ work.

Epic Fantasy Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

Fire In The Dawn is a dark, fascinating epic fantasy from Justin Fike, the first in his Twin Skies trilogy. It blends epic fantasy with multiple sets of cultural practices and mythologies from throughout Asia, which gives the entire book an interesting pan-Asian flair.

We open with a beautiful prologue involving a human character journeying to the world of the Velynn, the sky gods and goddeses that rule over Fire In the Dawn‘s world. The character demonstrates the magic of the four elements of Fike’s world, and with his incantations and motions we get some beautiful philosophy and poetry to go with the demonstration of magic.

Fast forward to Chapter One and we meet our protagonist, Kyren, the son of the fallen Emperor who was betrayed by one of the more powerful Se’gin (read: nobility) families working below him. We see him posing as a Rai’gin (read: peasants, no last names, lowest of the low) servant with a mental disability and musing over the fate of Rana, a beautiful Daynan (also known as Nightkin, dark-skinned remnants of another tribe that once populated the region and now has few remaining survivors) woman he has a massive crush on but cannot approach due to the aforementioned disguise.

Later in the story we discover that one of the families that had betrayed his father wants to ascend to the role of regional governor/representation in the Council of Five, the ruling body under the now Shogin, formerly emperor.

The author’s depictions of how these announcements fall out and how politics work within the world are stunning, as are his depictions of the minor characters I can’t talk about too much without spoiling future chapters.

I definitely got the sense of a fully developed world and the author’s confidence moving within it. Even the line-level writing is original and compelling, and I particularly enjoyed the little snippets of poetry, history, prose, and philosophy that head each chapter and hint at the themes contained within. Although Kyren is hot-headed and impetuous (and I disliked how much of that was attributed to his race, but we’ll get there in a moment), I found myself sympathizing with him and his plight as the book went on.

The magic system itself is well rendered and original, clearly borne of a great deal of painstaking research into the cultures he mimicked and used as the basis for his world. I’m not sure whether I can quite call appropriation here or not, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed my time spent within the world and look forward to the second book when it comes out.

I also particularly loved the climax of the novel. Although much of what happened was abstract and difficult for the character (and the reader, through the character’s confusion) to comprehend, the descriptions were stunning and my emotions rose with the peak of the text. I’m definitely looking forward to the release of the second book in the series sometime later this year.

4.5/5, well worth your time and attention.

Priming the Brain for Writing: The Power of Daily Ritual

Welcome to week three of my ADHD and creativity series! During Week 1, I talked about how exercise shattered my writer’s block and helped me double my word counts from February through March. Last week, I talked about how meditation helps facilitate the growth of new dopamine receptors to help soak up all those lovely exercise endorphins, and how meditating when transitioning between tasks helps me focus better.

This week, I’ll be talking about my pre-writing ritual and how writing at the same time every day, doing the same things before you write each day, or both can help get your brain primed for creative work.

First, on my pre-writing routine. I’m religious, so I’ll say that up front. I also write full time, so I have a bit more time for a lengthy writing ritual before I start my work each day.

After breakfast, I head downstairs to my mini-gym and do the first of two short workouts (around 30-45 minutes each) each day. I then move over to my altar room and do a set of daily prayers and devotions to align myself with my purpose. A version of this could be a mind-clearing meditation or a short daily reading related to whatever it is you’re writing about, if you’re not religious. I then head to my office, power up the computer, and dump 3 pages of stream of consciousness into a running word document I use as a journal. If I’m stressed out about anything, having doubts, anxieties, in a really good mood, or just can’t stop thinking about something, writing it all down REALLY helps with purging it before I get started.

I then do a 10 minute meditation, cement my purpose at the end, and start my first writing task of the day. I break my day into two deep work (read: writing) periods and two shallow work (read: journaling, blog posts, correspondence, marketing, submissions, lunch, etc) periods, and I’ll cover why I do this next week. Suffice to say my first deep work period follows the above, and for my second I do my second workout and another meditation.

Doing this specific set of tasks each day before I write brings two main benefits. One: it ensures I actually do these things consistently every day. Journalling is known to help aid in emotional regulation for both ADHD and neurotypical folks, and getting crap out of my head before I start writing means that crap isn’t going to stop me from writing. We’ve already talked about the myriad benefits of meditation. And working out. By making each of these steps a part of my pre-writing ritual, I’m training myself to get them done every day, and giving myself the best time frame to reap the immediate benefits to my productivity in that moment.

The second is a bit more complex. A daily ritual, like a habit, activates parts of the brain your mind comes to associate with tasks that come afterward. E.G., if you drink the exact same tea just before you start to brainstorm for writing, or wear the same hat or outfit or go to work at the same time, the parts of your brain that work together for brainstorming light up like neon signs in Vegas immediately afterward. This works particularly well if you can do these things at the same time every day, as this adds the dual benefit of engaging your Circadian Rhythms, or the parts of your nervous system involved in when to be more active and when to sleep.

So what can you do if you can’t write at the exact same time every day because of a day job with an unpredictable schedule or something else? This is where the behavioral rituals really shine. Back to the tea example – if you use a number of different herbal teas and only drink them just before you engage in a specific writing task, then your brain will come to recognize those sensory experiences as being prep for practicing that task.

Tea isn’t the only thing you can use, obviously. Specific exercises, particular visualizations for meditation (there’s a fantastic creativity meditation on Headspace that works really well for this), putting on a whistling kettle or playing a specific musical album, the sky’s the limit. As long as it’s something you only do before you engage in creative work, most things that engage the senses in some way can function as a pre-writing ritual. The key is consistency. If you choose a musical album, you can’t just randomly play it in your car or you’ll be working against all that training you’ve put yourself through to tie the sounds with writing.

And it does take a bit of training. It took me about two months before my pre-work ritual really sank in, and it may have even been sped up because I’d been doing at least a few of those things for years before writing prior to the setup of my office. The level of detail and complexity of behavior is a personal choice, but I caution you not to give up on the practice if it takes a while to sink in. Often the shift in mindset is a subtle one, and you won’t really physically see the benefits unless you’re doing some kind of tracking outside of just word counts.

I have my word count and habit tracking spreads opposite each other in my bullet journal so it’s really easy to see what happens if I skip one of my essential pre-work rituals. Having the immediate feedback and seeing the numbers grow over time confirmed my internal feeling that this pre-work set of tasks really does benefit me.

Next week I’ll cover Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport and why I segment my work day the way I do. This particular post extends beyond creative work, and I’m hoping some of you can find some use for it in your day jobs as well. See you next week!

Epic Fantasy Book Review: City of Shards

City of Shards is the debut novel in Steve Rodgers’ Spellgiver series, an epic fantasy with strong sword and sorcery overtones. I’d initially tried to get the review out for release day on the 30th, as the author was kind enough to provide me a review copy, but unexpected guests delayed my ability to finish it.

And boy was I upset about the delay!

The book opens with the story of Larin, a young orphan boy taken in by his uncle Akul, who resides in the temple of Emja, the supreme human god. When he’s around 10, he starts exhibiting strange behavior involving thrusting his fist in the air and shouting a phrase in an arcane language at the sky. Alarmed by this, his uncle secludes him in the store room of Emja’s temple, lest the priests ever discover his strange fits.

Fast forward to Larin at sixteen, and things get a bit worse for him when he manages to anger Oarl, a bully/gang leader who all but rules the Wormpile, the slum where Emja’s temple resides. He makes friends with a young thief who can stand by his side because he can “outrun everyone else in the Wormpile,” so Oarl’s men can’t touch him. When the bully gang finds out about Larin’s fits, they take to tormenting him specifically for the purpose of forcing them out of him, much to his chagrin.

Larin’s life shapes up for the better when his father contacts a sorceress. She creates a charm for him that stops the fits, and with his newfound freedom, Larin sets about taking revenge on those who hurt him. The campaign is short lived when the six-legged god of chaos and pain Morphat begins tricking the Wormpile residents into training at his temple of pain and misery, and Larin discovers his true purpose: bringing the mad demon king Haraf back into the world.

I can’t go too much deeper without spoilers, but I loved this book for all the reasons I wanted to love Breakers of the Dawn. Later on in the book we get some scenes from the point of view of an indigen (six legged monsters banished in a prior war to the icy part of the continent) general, and the creature genuinely felt both inhuman and relatable.

The writing style was gorgeous without being over the top, and despite how many unique concepts I was introduced to over the span of the novel, I never found myself lost. The magical system was well explained and I never found Rodgers breaking any of his own rules, which is a major plus. The idea of a god war between factions isn’t new, but the way this one was presented certainly was, and I found myself hooked into Larin’s (and later minor characters’ whose POV we explore from a quarter of the book onward) struggle right away.

All his characters were well developed, and the villain, once revealed, is bone-chillingly creepy without being overly generic. If I hadn’t been interrupted unexpectedly, I’d probably end up binge reading the whole thing in a night or two.

The book’s formatting was well done, though I did find a bit of odd line spacing between the chapter images and chapter headers. It didn’t bother me any, and for all I know it was an early copy glitch.

5/5, can’t wait for In the Claws of the Indigen.