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Book Recommendations to Get You Through the Pandemic

We know the world is scary right now. The news is filled with warnings and grim statistics, grocery stores are chaotic (at best), and we're all being told to socially distance ourselves from our friends and families—or even shelter in place. Maybe you're self-quarantining, out of precaution or medical necessity.

Whatever you're going through right now, Anya and I wanted to let you know that we're here for you. We're all in this together, and it's more important than ever to practice kindness, both to yourself and to others. Take breaks from reading the news, limit the amount of time you spend checking your social media feeds, and don't forget to breathe!

For all the writers (and other creatives) out there, remember to be patient with yourselves. Some people may find comfort by diving into their work, using their own stories as an escape, whereas others may find themselves unable to write due to the stress and anxiety of our current situation. If you're in this latter category, go easy on yourself! Give yourself permission to wait until you have the mental space and energy to devote to your stories.

We're lucky to live in a time when we have so many options for communicating from afar, tools we can use to stay connected. It's important to remember that you are not alone. Make sure you keep in touch with friends and family you may not be able to see in person right now. If you can, get some fresh air (even if this just means opening a window). Do something that makes you laugh. Remember that this is temporary.

Personally, when I'm feeling overwhelmed and need to escape the real world for a little while, I turn to books. I bet many of you do, too. So Anya and I thought we would recommend some of our recent favorites for you.

Jennifer's recommendations:
  • Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston — This was my favorite book of 2019, and I've been recommending it to everyone I know. It's a queer romance set in an alternate 2020 where a woman is president and coronavirus doesn't exist. As if that isn't enough, it's also laugh-out-loud funny.
  • Witchmark by C.L. Polk — Another favorite of 2019, and another queer romance! This one is for the fantasy lovers. If the world and the magic don't leave you entranced, Polk's writing will. And book two just came out, so you don't have to wait for the sequel!
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman — This one isn't new, by any means, but it's a perfect blend of humor and nostalgia that's sure to relieve some stress. If you loved the movie, you'll love the book. And—and I don't say this lightly—the book really is even better than the movie!
Anya's recommendations:
  • Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert — A lovely contemporary romance, this story thoughtfully showcases life with a chronic illness, as well as the immense emotional impact of how others treat us, all while never losing sight of its uplifting core story and delivering on the promised HEA.
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfeld — I read this series many years ago, and in fact Westerfeld has now published two books in a derivative series set years later in the same world (Impostors). But I remember loving this fun, meaningful YA dystopian series about a world where every 16-year-old goes from regular "Ugly" human to joining the always happy, bubbly "Pretties." Planning to give this one a reread myself!
  • One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah MacLean — For the historical romance lovers in the crowd, this one delivers. A heroine who's aware she isn't quite like everyone else, a considerate, sexy, tortured hero, and some incredibly hot sex scenes make this romance a perfect escape.
We'd love to hear any recommendations you have! And if you've read any of these, let us know what you thought of them. Above all, stay healthy!

Warm regards,
Jennifer and Anya

Mini Lesson: Avoid Talking Heads

Today's mini lesson is all about the phenomenon called "talking heads." This term refers to a long stretch of dialogue with only speech verbs and no description of the physicality of the characters, or of the setting, aside from occasional movements above the neck. If you're only describing eyes, lips, eyebrows, and heads shaking/nodding/tilting, you have talking heads.

This is a problem for one very simple reason: novels aren't scripts.

When a playwright creates their script, they only include the dialogue, attribution (who's speaking), and rare scene directions. But a script is intended to become a performance. Its final form includes set design, costumes, and actors bringing the names on the pages to life with blocking (movement) and the characters' quirks or mannerisms. When we have only the dialogue and attribution, the experience of the story is incomplete.

The same goes for your novel, so you need to ensure all of those pieces are happening on the page the way they would on the "stage" of your story. It's up to you as the author to create the set, the costumes, the blocking, and the character mannerisms—plus internalization. If you only include dialogue and head-related movements, that's all the readers get to see, leaving your scene incomplete like a script.

The good news is that people are constantly moving. It's not practical or necessary to describe every time a character moves, but you want to ensure you're grounding your readers in the physicality of both the space (setting) and the characters themselves. How are they interacting with the furniture and items around them? How are they physically reacting to what is being said? 
    Examples include: crossing their arms after being accused of something; fidgeting with whatever little items are within reach; jumping out of their seat at hearing exciting (or infuriating) news; and pulling a blanket over their head and hugging their knees to their chest for comfort.

Including the elements aside from the basic "script" of your conversations helps to build a sense of your world, to break up stretches of dialogue, and to humanize your characters. Adding internalization does the last two as well, but you want to make sure to balance building the internal and external worlds of your story. If all we have is dialogue and internal reactions to what's being said, we still aren't getting a complete picture of your world or your characters, who in almost all cases will have bodies in addition to heads.

So if the only movements being described within long stretches of conversation happen above the neck, as if the bodies have disappeared or been paralyzed—and that isn't the effect you're intentionally creating—take another pass at your draft to help readers see the full scene.

    Do you have any special tips or tricks for fixing "talking heads" moments? Share in the comments!