Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ending 2011 on a high note

As with all other years, there were some changes in 2011.  Some were anticipated, like finishing a draft of "Awaken" and starting in on book 2.  Some were not, like starting this blog (entirely a whim, like most things I decide to do), moving into an apartment, and picking up a freelance editing job.  Most of the good things that have happened this year came because I moved out of my comfort zone, though.  The risk of submitting my manuscript to some people whose reactions I couldn't anticipate has paid off nicely - I've gotten some very positive and helpful remarks, and I feel more confident about submitting for publication.

The most pleasant surprise came a few days ago on Twitter, and I promise this is related to reading and writing.  You see, when I initially joined Twitter and started looking for people to add, I saw that Margaret Atwood, the brilliant author of the book that formed the basis by which I judge social commentary (The Handmaid's Tale), was on there, and had made news headlines for it.  When I joined her throng, she was wondering what a "squee" was. There were a lot of creative and amusing answers, which she retweeted to share with the rest of us.

So the other day, she got a response that included the tag, "#woot."  She wondered in her feed if that was a hoot of joy, or something else.  I replied (and that link won't work in a couple of weeks, because of how Twitter archives things, so I'm copy-pasting the text below):
      Woot is what a squee grows up to be.
And the wonderful, creative, unmatched Ms. Atwood not only saw my tweet, but liked it so much she retweeted it to her many followers.

Had you told me ten years, five years, even one or two years ago that such a thing would've made me want to dance with joy, I would've rolled my eyes at you.  But this small interaction, this stamp of approval from someone I admire, has made my week, my month, possibly my year.

It's a wonderful note to end 2011 on, even if that were all the joy I had for today. But I have more to look forward to, because my friend Grace, perhaps the most discerning and well-read of everyone I asked to look at my manuscript, has invited me and my husband to hang out with her and her fiancé and her friends I've never met in person, but interacted with online and heard a lot of good things about. Grace has excellent taste, which isn't limited to books.

2011 wasn't perfect, but it's certainly ending on a high note.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of 2011

I challenged myself to read 125 books in 2011.  I started out with a lowball figure, which I upgraded to 100 by spring.  Then, over the summer, I decided I could make it to 125.  And, as of December 22, I made it.

That's a lot of books.  Rather than talk about all of them, I thought I'd tell you about the 12 I liked best.  In no particular order, and bearing in mind I read them in 2011, not that they were published this year:

1. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (read on audio).  I liked how the book got into the mind of a teenager with depression.  Without turning her into a martyr or a specimen of human perfection the world suffers for the loss of, it tells the story of a girl who's angry, hurt, and who sees no other way out of her problems.  I was happy with the book for existing, giving some teenagers a chance to empathize with those they might otherwise drive to feel they have no other choice, as well.

2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (read on audio).  I loved this book not only for its effective use of the epistolary literary device, but because it was a light and heartwarming read where I expected a deep, depressing read.  It's ultimately about the warmth and friendship people can find when they reach out for others through a shared love of books, and the theme had some resonance for me.

3. UR by Stephen King (read on audio). I've heard a lot of complaints about the silliness of the idea of a haunted pink Kindle, but I enjoyed it.  I liked the Dark Tower references, this fleshing-out of a world we know so little about.  I like it when Stephen King steps away from the creepy, scary stuff, and just tells us about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

4. Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle. I liked the flexibility shown in this collection of short stories.  There was a great variety on display in this collection, and Peter Beagle writes each expertly.  Writing this up, I wish I'd picked up a copy so I could go back and revisit some of the stories.

5. When You Were Mine by Elizabeth Noble. I got an ARC through Goodreads' First Reads program, but I would've bought a copy, anyway.  I probably wouldn't have read it as promptly as I did, though, so thank goodness for First Reads.  I found it poignant and touching and lovely.  This is not a traditional chick lit romance, which is exactly what I liked about it.  There are logical consequences and hard choices, and it's not the happily ever after one expects from a book with a pastel cover.

6. Late Eclipses and One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire (books 4 and 5 of the Toby Daye series). There are precious few books I run out to pick up the week they come out, and there's a good reason these make that exclusive list.  I love the bread crumbs the author drops throughout these books, I love knowing that the writer knows where the series is going, and I'm in love with the world she's created.  The universe Toby inhabits is filled with fascinating and bizarre people, and the references to fairy tales is done with a light touch.  I recommended this series to a Goodreads member who asked for books like the TV show Grimm, but honestly, I use any excuse to recommend these I can find. They're awesome, and they keep getting better.

7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (read on audio). This is the only nonfiction entry on the list, but that isn't the only notable thing about it.  This book shows the average non-scientist why the legal rights of who our body parts belong to matters.  It presents a lot of history of medical science of the last 50 years in a way that's both memorable and easy to understand.  And it shows an awareness of racial issues that I didn't expect.  More than an informative read, this book was also fascinating and enjoyable to read.

8. The Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin (Matthew Swift #1). I hadn't expected to like this book as much as I did.  I expected a paint-by-numbers urban fantasy with perhaps a bit more narrative wandering than usual.  It is, after all, 613 pages, almost twice as long as most of its cousins on the UF shelf.  Instead, I got a gripping story set in a fascinating and textured world, with a protagonist who was both maddening and irresistible.  I couldn't get through it fast enough, once I'd started.

9. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I love the texture of Zafon's Barcelona of the early 1900's.  The tone is gothic and creepy, and his protagonists are inevitably in over their heads but keep chewing on the mysteries set before them, anyway.  I loved The Shadow of the Wind, and this one lived up to the high expectations I had as a result.  The language, even translated from the original Spanish, is lovely and flowing and adds up to a tale unlike any I've read lately, delightfully told.

10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It starts off as a mystery novel with a twist: the protagonist, Christopher John Francis Boone, has autism.  The mystery is solved about halfway through, creating more questions and setting Christopher off well beyond the comfort zone of his routines and what he knows about the world.  The book does an excellent job of getting into the head of a boy with autism, illustrating the thought processes that make some people with that particular diagnosis speak or act the way they do.  Christopher's actions always make perfectly rational, logical sense to him, while the adults around him are left scratching their heads.  I loved the insight this book offered, I enjoyed the story, and I loved Christopher and his unique storytelling voice.

11. Duma Key by Stephen King (read on audio). Again, it's not the creepiness of the story that I enjoyed, though I still refuse to walk through my apartment in the dark thanks to one of the scenes in this book.  It's that King takes a perfectly ordinary human being, shakes him up, takes him out of his comfort zone, and lets us see how he copes.  This seemed like a response to the terrible collision King was involved in years ago.  If only wonderful works could come of such awful things every time.

12. Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (read on audio). I loved the original J. M. Barrie story, and I'd been reluctant to pick up these modern prequels.  My fears turned out to be unfounded.  This is faithful to the source material, with much of the same sense of fun and freedom.  It didn't detract one little bit, but served as an excellent companion.  As my nieces and nephews grow into the recommended age group for this book, they can expect to receive copies as presents.

What were some of the best books you read in 2011?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones
Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second in Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz books, a YA series he supposedly writes for fun. As there are a lot of writing in-jokes, self-deprecating asides, and puns galore, I have no reason to doubt how much fun Sanderson has writing these books.

In this book, the title character rides a crystal dragon, gets lost to find his way to the Library of Alexandria, writes a story about a bunny who inspires a pig to change his name to Hambo, and begins to accept the heroic role everyone seems to expect of him.

I'm not sure how enjoyable this series would be for kids, because the jokes I love most are the ones that seem to be a direct response to some college literature courses I've taken. The puns are pretty clever (if one likes puns, anyway), but a lot of the literary jokes seem like they'd be over a preteen's head. I suppose there's plenty of silliness to occupy them, though, and then they can reread the book when they're older to appreciate the rest.

The YA I appreciate most, by the way, is the kind that can be enjoyed on several levels. I'm just not sure if this qualifies, because I don't know enough 11-year-olds to ask if they liked it.

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Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon
Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Dresden Files series. If you like Harry Dresden and the first book, I suspect you will like this one more. If you don't, I would not foist this book upon you. That isn't to say it's a retread, like certain series I might mention. But not a lot has changed.

In this book, Harry Dresden is even more broke than he was in the first, mostly because he assumes Karrin Murphy, His Chicago police contact who he works for sometimes, is still in a snit that he withheld information during the last book. It turns out to be that she's under investigation because he's been linked to a mob boss, and she can't afford to be seen with him. But, when people show up looking like they were mauled by humongous wolves, she has no choice but to enlist his help.

Evidently someone told Jim Butcher about ramping up the tension in a book, because Harry spends about half of the book unable to access his magic, or with very limited access. Add up the time he has his magical toys taken away, and he spends more time bemoaning his helpless state than magically showing off. I started to get exasperated with Harry for not doing anything to recharge, just before the final encounter. It made me worry for how much more later books would have to step up the punishment so the readers weren't yawning and saying Harry's gotten out of worse.

But the tension did keep me wanting more, and wondering how Harry was going to get out of it, and rooting for the jerk. And he makes some decisions to be less of a jerk in this book, so hopefully later books show that he's taken these lessons to heart.

I recommend, by the way, that you listen to these books on audio. James Marsters lends Harry a humanity he lacks on the written page, at least in my paperback copies. The narration makes the difference between my rolling my eyes at Harry making excuses for himself, and smiling at his self-deprecating humor.

If you've already read the first book, this will have a lot of what you liked about it, only with a greater sense of tension. I'm going to read the third, but honestly, if he gets half as much stuffing beaten out of him in that book, I might not make it all the way through.

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Review: Bloodshot

Bloodshot by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this a far cry from Cherie Priest's other novels, and not just because it's an entirely different genre with very different characters. The tone was different, the voice was entirely fresh, and the narrative approach was quite different from the other books I've read of hers. Nonetheless, it still added up to an enjoyable tale well-told.

The book follows Raylene Pendle, a vampire thief nicknamed Cheshire Red, who stumbles across a government conspiracy that left one of her kind blinded for all eternity. Her hunt for information on Project Bloodshot takes her from her comfy home base in Seattle to Atlanta, GA, then to Washington, DC.

The books wasn't without its flaws. I'm hoping the narrative flow is a bit more even in later books. This seemed to have clearly-delineated moments of action and tension, with very little blending or mixing-up. I don't want to call it predictable, but it was a little too easy to set aside for the night, knowing I was just about to read an action-y section.

I also didn't like the sexual tension, or lack thereof. As fun as it was to read Raylene's detailed descriptions of how delicious she found various men (and her speculation about a drag queen's "tuck job"), I got no indication within the text that it was at all mutual. Maybe she was supposed to skeeze out readers by coming across as a dirty old woman and call attention to how gross it is when guys do it, but I wasn't impressed.

It also seemed like Raylene had too easy a time throughout this book. Thinking on the events, it doesn't seem like there weren't a few times when the tension was ramped way up, but that's the danger with a character who's uber-paranoid, uber-prepared, and never loses her cool. I didn't feel that sense of danger.

I did enjoy this book, but there were some factors I was looking for that I found lacking, none of which added up to my knocking the book too far down in rating. Overall, I liked it, and plan on picking up the next one.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: The Stupidest Angel CD: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror

The Stupidest Angel CD: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
The Stupidest Angel CD: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a review for the audio edition of this book. I read the hardcover version a few years ago, and really liked it, and so I took this out of the library to listen to on my car trip to see family for Christmas.

The Stupidest Angel is the story of an angel who comes down to deliver a Christmas miracle. True to the title, though, he's not very bright. He interprets a child's wish for someone to come back to life by raising zombies who, after they're done munching on brains, want to go to Ikea. The residents of Pine Cove are confronted with this problem during the annual Christmas party.

This book is no less hilarious the second time around. If anything, I found it even funnier this time. I've read more of Christopher Moore's books, now, and so I understand the in-jokes his characters allude to.

That's not to say that his previous books are a prerequisite to this one, but you do enjoy it on a different level if you've read Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Island of the Sequined Love Nun, as characters from both feature primarily in this narrative, and don't overtly talk about the weirdness they've been through before. This takes place some years after both stories are set. Raziel from Lamb is also the title angel, but his part in that narrative is pretty well summed up within the text.

I feel compelled to warn you that I have a rather dark sense of humor, and you might not find this book as funny as I do. People die, have their brains sucked out by zombies, and lose their minds. I didn't find the violence too gruesome, but some readers may not appreciate jokes about evil developers deserving to be dispatched with gardening equipment.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was not for me.

I can certainly understand and appreciate its influence on modern literature. I like that it's one of the influences that have made urban fantasy such a popular genre. All on its own, though, I found it lacking.

The story starts with young Janet Carter starting school at her hometown college where her father works. The story doesn't wrap up until her senior year, and, in the meantime, we plod through her classes, meetings with her advisor, the development of a relationship with a boy who isn't the title character, and a number of tedious conversations about classic literature.

Had this been assigned reading in a college literature course, I would've approached it differently, and probably enjoyed it, on that merit. It brings together a lot of literary influences, going all the way back to the Hellenic Greeks. But, as an enjoyable urban fantasy update of the "Tam Lin" legend, it felt too much like homework.

The book spends far too much time on self-congratulatory college kids' aspirations to sound highbrow, and not nearly enough time developing the characters, or the romance that's supposedly central to the plot. I found the ending depressing, rather than uplifting or romantic. I got more of a sense that the characters got together out of a sense of duty than because they cared about one another. The declaration of love, when it comes, feels more like a bank transaction than a scene out of classic literature.

Lest my review sound too scathing, I do appreciate all Pamela Dean does to remain faithful to the original poem, and I respect that she was very much a trailblazer. The style of the book reads like many classical tales, where little is told and much has to be surmised about character motivations or why revelations are important to the plot. Had I been reading this when it was first published, I probably would've had a greater respect for the material. But, as a modern reader, it felt too much like homework, too bogged-down with literary references and devotion to dead white men to tell the story I wanted to hear.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Comma abuse

I'm going to be on the road starting tomorrow, and unlikely to have the time or inclination to post until after Christmas.  I thought today could be another grammar gripe, to carry you through the week.

Commas are a useful piece of punctuation.  I use them daily, if not hourly.  When used properly, they aid in the flow of sentences and make for a seamless reading experience.  They clarify (see Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves for many examples on how), they separate, and allow for parenthetical asides without the intrusion of parentheses.  The oxford comma is hotly contested, and if you read the previous sentence carefully you'll see where I stand on that argument.

What commas do not do, however, is separate sentences.  You cannot take two whole sentences and splice them together with a comma.  Sometimes a semicolon is necessary, if the two sentences are closely related and interdependent, though I'm told they're discouraged by most modern publishers.

Those are, logically enough, called comma splices, and they sound, in my head, like the writer is out of breath.  While writing is difficult, it's rarely strenuous, and so I regard such passages warily.

A sentence is composed of a subject and a verb.  Rarely, though, are sentences mere subject and verb.  They're often fluffed up with adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions.  I can't say a sentence with more than one verb is a comma splice, because I have several examples right in this post where they're not.  All of those verbs are separated out into their own separate pieces of the sentence, but it's difficult to articulate how without teaching you how to diagram sentences.

Incidentally, I learned how to do that in middle school, and I hated it.  But it did teach me about sentence structure and grammar rules and a grasp of the English language that I didn't previously have, so I'm grateful for the experience.

So, without all the strain and stress of diagramming your sentences, how do you learn to avoid comma splices?  By reading your sentences carefully.  If your thought is finished but the sentence is not, put a period.  If you really, really need to link two sentences, put a semicolon.  Ask what your commas are linking.  If it's adjectives, you're good.  If it's prepositions or lists, that's fine.  It's when you're linking thoughts that belong in different sentences that you have a problem.

Have a very happy holiday, no matter what you celebrate, and I'll see you all before New Year's to post a wrap-up post or two.  Meanwhile, feel free to request blog topics or share your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: Ines of My Soul

Ines of My Soul
Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am no history expert. I know even less about South American history. And so, from the standpoint of accuracy or filling in details I didn't already know, I can't comment on this book. But then, I don't think that was the point of this novel.

American audiences, in general, aren't familiar with Chilean history, so that makes the filling-out of a female role in Chilean history much more plausible than if she'd chosen a region most of us Americans have already been repeating stories about since we were old enough to speak. I don't think Americans were Allende's primary target audience, but I am an American commenting on the book, and I don't know how it was received by Chilean historians.

I'm waffling between 3 and 4 stars not because this was poorly written, but because I couldn't figure out the point of the book, beyond bringing an influential woman to life. Allende goes against her usual sympathy for the indigenous population. Then again, she's writing deeply within the point of view of Inés Suárez, who truly believes the Mapuche people would be better off if the Spanish took over their land and converted them all to Christianity. That the author still manages to slide in her opinion on the matter shows a skilled hand.

Some readers might be annoyed by the deep-POV style that has Inés, an old woman narrating her life's story, sometimes contradicting, sometimes repeating, sometimes skipping over parts or rambling on with no historical context. There's a sense of verity in the narrative, thanks to those so-called mistakes.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a strong female heroine outside where you'd normally find her.

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Down time

I have rarely felt as inspired to write as I do now, when I haven't the time.  Between preparing for Christmas, doing paid editing work, and having cable for the first time in ages, on top of my regular day job, I don't find myself with a surplus of writing time.  I am, in fact, cutting into sleeping time.

Not that I'm complaining.  I chose to take the editing job, and I choose to watch TV.  I could, just as easily, make my husband put on his headphones so I can be productive.  Instead, I move to the couch to engage in mindless entertainment*.

The point of all this rambling is that I can't write, and my brain, being, well, my brain, is therefore supplying all kinds of inspiration and writing energy that I can't use.  When I'm finished with all the editing, I expect a lot of time spent staring at the blinking cursor, grumbling about bleeding onto the page and teeth-pulling.

Down time is important, though, as I've learned and already posted about.  There is such a thing as too much down time, which is when I start dreaming about my characters growling threatening things about finishing their story or else.

I'm sure I could squeeze in a little writing time, a little creative energy.  But I like having these feast-or-famine times to remember when I'm feeling stuck.  When I'm truly in a rut, I think about how much I craved time to write, how I ached to get these words out into my Open Office document, about how it soothed me to arrange scenes just the way I wanted them.

Because, though I am suffering, when I do loose the torrent of words, there is little more satisfying than having that outlet at last.

I look forward to it.

* There are a lot of well-written television shows that help expand my creative palette, but not a single one of them makes me feel energized and smart.  Usually, I end up yelling at commercials.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Communicating with readers

Reading several of an author's works in close detail all in a row gives you an understanding of facets of the person's mind.  At least, that's what's happening with my copy edits.  I see some strong patterns emerging from what I'm copy editing.  There are some themes that run throughout all of the manuscripts, while others are limited to just one work, but it begins to paint a picture of what sort of person wrote these words.

I've heard it said, and read from many sources that writing is a sort of telepathy.  Simply by putting words onto a piece of paper or into a word processing program, a writer can evoke the senses, create a picture in a person's mind, create a connection to people that exist only in the writer's mind.  It may not be the exact same story, the exact same images or feelings, or the exact same connection, but there is a manipulation of thought.  This study, written about in the UK's Guardian, finds a link between empathy and reading, and that doesn't surprise me in the least.

One of my favorite book series is the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.  I love the absurdism, the existence of a world where books inspire Rocky Horror-like performances, and all of the strange touches that make the Thursday Next world different from our own.  But the most appealing device is that of the ImaginoTransference, which turns the action of a book into scenes the reader views.  In order for the books to come alive, readers must pick them up.  Characters in seldom-read works are often bitter or depressed, and have time on their hands to hatch diabolical plots.

It sounds silly on the surface of it, but, within the world Thursday Next inhabits, it seems perfectly logical.  As a metaphor for the process of reading and experiencing a book, it's quite appealing.

Good books, in my opinion, are the ones that allow me to inhabit and experience the story as if I'm right alongside the rest of the cast.  Books I dislike are the ones that kick me back out into my own reality.

How does one write to allow a person to experience the story?  Offhand, I'd say to invoke the five senses, avoid telling or preaching, and let the characters tell the story.

The two I haven't addressed sound like good topics for another day, so I'll jot them down on my list of points to address, and wish you all a lovely evening.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Apostrophe issues

One of the requests for posts, once upon a time, was for grammar snark.  Not in so many words, of course, but the reader asked if I might elucidate on grammar and writing mechanics.

I just wrote up a "study guide" for someone who has consistent issues with homonyms and apostrophes, so I thought that sounded like a good place to start.  For those of you who have graduated college, hopefully this is all very basic to you.  But then, I had several college classmates who didn't know these rules, and they never taught it in any English class I took in college, so it is possible to make it to adulthood without understanding how apostrophes work.

An apostrophe always, with one exception, indicates that there is a letter or letters missing.  If I see one, I'm mentally filling in that space.  Here are a few examples:

Can't = cannot, with the apostrophe standing in for n and o
I'm = I am, with the apostrophe standing in for the a
It's = It is, with the apostrophe standing in for the second i
They're = They are, with the apostrophe standing in for the a

I deliberately read contractions this way when I'm editing, so that I can spot potential apostrophe abuse.  It serves me well.

The exception to the apostrophe rule is when apostrophe s ('s) is used to show that something belongs or is closely related to the object:

The cat's food
The library's hours
His mother's phone

Where this gets confusing is, if we're working with a pronoun, you don't use apostrophe s:


This is just a rule you have to memorize and know.  The way I initially remembered it was because "my" doesn't have an apostrophe s.

With English, it's always the damn exceptions that get you.  Within this one little rule, there's an exception, then an exception to that, and you just have to try to remember, all while you're trying to get the sentence off the ground and going where you need it to.

Honestly, if I were anything but a pantster, I'd be putting these grammar posts first, because it's important to know your basic building blocks before you can put them together to make a story.  If you're churning out whole manuscripts, it may be a bit late, now, to start fixing your apostrophe issues.  But it's not too late for future edits, I suppose.

My next post will be less boring and basic, though I can't promise that. I hope someone out there finds this helpful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Making the most of your writing time

Someone found my blog, according to my blog stats, by searching for how pantsters make the most of their writing time.  I have a few tips scattered here and there on my blog, but not an explicit post on the subject.  So, I thought I'd toss out an answer.

Treat it like a second job.
When you're at work, you have expectations, you work on fulfilling them while you're on the clock, and you concentrate on that work (ideally).  The best writing productivity times I've had are when I get rid of pesky distractions, tune out everything but my word processing program (or pages for handwriting), disconnect from the internet, and just write.  It inevitably starts off rocky, for the first fifteen minutes or so, as I fight the urge to reconnect to the wireless router, or itch to click on a game.  I'll sometimes have a temporary writer's block, which I get through with the methods I talk about in the post I just linked.

For the writing time I've set aside, I treat it like I'm being paid to do it, and like I'm stealing from the company (in this case, myself) if I fritter away that time.

Set a goal.
In my writing group, we set goals at the end of each meeting.  Ideally, those goals are something we'll have to push ourselves to meet, but no one is grading goals, or punishing anyone for not meeting them.  They're a personal watermark on which to judge whether we chipped away at what we wanted to do.  It's something to keep in the back of our minds while we're doling out our time expenditures throughout the month.

Whether it's a goal for the week, the month, the year, or for the hour, having a goal in mind makes it clear that you're making progress during your designated writing time.  Also, it should, ideally, help you remember just what you're working toward in your "second job."

Take a break.
As I outlined in this post, it's important to recharge the mental batteries when you're writing.  Anything and everything you experience can and should end up in what you write.  An overheard conversation, the way light reflects off a puddle, or the sound of rain on a car roof, can all turn out to be the key that unlocks a passage that isn't working for you.  I don't know about other writers, but my inspiration comes from really odd places.  If I didn't give myself that time to not be writing, I wouldn't have those experiences with which to enrich what I'm working on.

I've heard a lot of writers say that some of their best ideas have come in the middle of a walk.  If you can, give it a try.

Your mileage is going to vary wildly on this one, because not everyone is a lifelong daydreamer, and it takes practice to pay just enough attention to the world around you.  But, when I'm doing something boring or rote, I slip into the heads of my characters to figure out what they'd say in a knot of dialogue I'm trying to untangle. Or, I ponder what might pull my characters in the direction I need them to go.

I have to be careful to still pay attention to the world around me when I do this, and I have to pick the right time and place.  But, without a little boredom in my life, I wouldn't get half as much writing done as I do.

This step should come naturally to my fellow pantsters.  Isn't most of your writing just an extended game of "what if?" on paper, anyway?

Make a habit of it.
However often you choose to write, do it regularly.  It doesn't have to be at the same time of day, though I've heard that getting up an hour earlier to write during the quietest time of the day has good results for those of you who can pry your eyes open to do it. (I'm a night owl who has to wrestle her conscious mind into slumber every night, so, not so much.)  It doesn't even have to be daily, though I've also heard about good results from challenges to write consecutively every day as a goal.  What's important is that you do make it a priority, and set aside that time, and keep setting it aside.

Know thyself.
If you're too tired and distracted and cranky to write, don't try it.  If you've been banging your head against a blank screen for more than fifteen minutes, walk away.  If writing is a consistently frustrating exercise, you need to get away from it, and figure out why that is.  If the problem is distractions in the form of twitter and facebook and blogs, then it's time to disconnect so that you can get your writing done.  If the problem is environmental, find somewhere else to write, or consider handwriting your words for the day and typing them up amongst your distractions.  If it's writer's block and you've tried all the remedies you can find, then try taking a long walk or otherwise doing something active where you can't write anything down until you get back.  Take a nap, if you need it.

If you consistently have some excuse or another to not write, you might have a problem.  But, forcing yourself to write when it's making you more and more miserable won't solve that problem.  Figure out what's going on, call out sick that day (figuratively), and fix it.

In the end, it boils down to being accountable to yourself for getting those words onto the page.  Only you know what motivates you, so you're the only one who knows for sure what will work and what won't.  But, if you want to write, you'll write.  The rest is just details.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: Duma Key

Duma Key
Duma Key by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Usually, if everyone starts telling me how much they loved a book as soon as I mention I'm reading it, I steel myself for disappointment. Books rarely live up to my expectations in such circumstances, for some odd reason I have yet to figure out.

Duma Key, though, lived up to my expectations, and then some. It was a well-crafted story not just about turning the mundane into something sinister (in this case, painting a Florida sunset), not just about overcoming the monster, but about a man's coping with loss, and accepting that his life will never be the same.

Edgar Freemantle narrates his tale of losing his arm and a lot of brain functioning in a construction site accident. He's slowly gaining it back when his wife asks for a divorce, and he decides his life his over. But his psychiatrist, rather than reporting him for suicidal ideation, tells him to take a year away from everything, so that he can at least convince his daughters it was an accident.

I couldn't help but feel like the descriptions of the pain and coping to a life after the accident related at least in part to King's own experience. Certainly his description of Edgar's healing hip is raw and real in a way I can't imagine simple research can tap.

But the story doesn't revolve around that, luckily. I feared most of the book would have Edger muttering to himself in Big Pink, the house he rents in the Florida Keys while he draws and paints and gets occasional visitors, but then Edgar meets the other residents of Duma. Jerome Wireman is the caretaker of Elizabeth Eastlake, who is suffering from Alzheimer's and who owns most of the island. She clues Edgar in to the supernatural element he's already encountered, and then, in traditional King fashion, the story gets creepier from there.

I found the book tightly plotted and well-written. Early scenes that seem like so much puttering turn out to contain some essential information that later comes into play, and there's an undercurrent throughout the book that pays off well in the conclusion.

I enjoyed it a lot, and I can see myself rereading it. This is one of King's best books, I think, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a story of supernatural intervention in healing.

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Buying books the independent way

I've seen some worrying talk bandied about online lately, and so I wanted to make sure to add one voice, at least, of dissension.  The idea addresses how much more expensive books are at brick-and-mortar book sellers.  The assumption that follows is how much more profit they're making than the big box stores who mark theirs down 30%, or Amazon, where they're consistently less expensive.

The profit margin on selling books in a physical store is typically in the single digits of percentage.  I Googled the stats yesterday, and found some solid numbers from 2008 that put Borders' profits at 1.7%, and Barnes & Noble's at 2.1%.

I don't want to devolve into a discussion about Borders' recent folding, because it's not because their profits were .4% lower than B&N's, and I did not major in business in college.  I'm using those numbers only because they're what I have.

Now, for a multimillion-dollar bookseller, a few percentage points do add up.  For a smaller business, though, that margin becomes the bare edge upon which each financial quarter balances to fund the next quarter.  When you're working on a small scale, that money matters a lot more, and it can get eaten up pretty quickly by theft, markdowns of bestsellers in order to compete, or gambling on the wrong books to take up space on the shelves. (Whether they get it back by sending the books back is irrelevant - they're still taking up potential revenue in valuable shelf space.)

Larger sellers of books get bulk rates, though, and Amazon has the additional perk of not having to pay for retail space.  They can afford to sell their books for less.  The problem comes when they run out of competition.  If the book they were selling at $17 is still the lowest-priced at $30 and people still buy it, what's their incentive to mark it down?  This has happened in a number of big-box stores who've driven out their small-town competition; as soon as no one else is selling a thing, it goes back up in price, often marked higher than it was being sold in a small store.

I'm going to tread carefully here, because I am not saying that no one should buy anything from Amazon.  I'm not saying you're wrong to buy books at chain bookstores, or that you're obligated to cross state lines to find an independent bookseller.

But, I have seen a lot of posts lately suggesting that independents deserve to go down the tubes, because their prices can't compete.  I've heard a lot of callous statements to the effect that we're better off driving the more expensive places out of business, because inexpensive is all that matters.

Here is where I ask my readers with no local bookstore, much less an independent one:  Would you shop at a local bookstore where you could pick up books, run your fingers over the pages, read the first chapter or two, or talk to a real person to get some reading recommendations?  If it were up to you, would you rather have such a store within walking (or easy driving with ample parking) distance from where you live, with hours convenient to your schedule?  Or would you rather click a few buttons to have the books delivered to your door in a few days?

Amazon and other online sellers of books do serve their purpose.  I'm not going to fault anyone for not wanting to join the crowds this time of year, or for wanting to save a little money.  But I would be delighted if this post could make just one reader, just one potential book buyer, think about heading down to the independent or even chain brick-and-mortar bookstore to pick up a book to help keep independent bookstores alive.  I suggest you check IndieBound's store locator, if you're not sure where to find your closest independent bookstore.

In the end, I think we all love books, and we all want to keep buying them, no matter the format.  I just want to keep buying mine from someone who loves them as much as I do.

(The following was edited into the post on 12/15/11)

Since I've made this post, there have been a few other views that I wanted to make sure I made note of.  Richard Russo wrote an op-ed in the New York Times recently criticizing Amazon's business practices and discussing the roles of independent bookstores in helping to form a writer's career, which is a point I didn't touch on.  In response, Slate published a pro-Amazon post that waters it down to price.  Today, I came across this blog post by Nathan Bransford that proposes independent booksellers and Amazon coexist.  Many, many commenters seemed to agree with the Slate piece, which worries me.

Also today, Richard Russo wrote a response to the Slate piece that, I think, addresses the point nicely.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Write What You Know"

One of the most often reiterated pieces of advice, especially to new writers, is to write what you know.  I've heard this piece of advice disparaged a lot in recent weeks, so I wanted to stick up for this adage.

When I hear "write what you know," I don't think of it as an excuse to avoid research.  I've never heard it as advice to only write my own experiences or things I've seen for myself.  While it does inform and inspire my writing to go out and do other things, as outlined in this post on stepping away from your work-in-progress, I've never thought that it was telling me that I had to limit my writing to my own experiences.  If I want to write about my life, I'll write a memoir, and it'll be awful, because nonfiction is not my specialty.

When I hear that piece of writing advice, what I hear is that writing has to come from someplace genuine.  You can fake facts and statistics and what it might feel like to use magic or read a person's mind or travel to a world where you can befriend talking dragons.  You can even fake emotions, by approximating them to strong feelings you have experienced.

But in every book I've read and enjoyed, I liked it because it resonated with me, somehow.  Within the pages of every single book I've liked, a writer poured out a piece of his or her heart.  Somewhere in each of those books, there is evidence that the writer is somehow different from every other author on the shelf.

Within all of us, we have our convictions.  We have those things that we know to be true, because we've lived it.  We have a way of looking at the world through a certain lens.

We can't force ourselves to change that knowing, though it can evolve over the years.  Nor can we force others to see it, because trying will turn readers off.  What we can do, though, is share how we see the world, point out the truths in everyday life, shine a light on the things that pop out to us so that others will notice them, too.

When I put it that way, it sounds like such a stretch.  But it's not, to me.  "What you know" is such a mutable, changing, stretching thing that to call it limiting is to ignore what knowledge entails.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Nifty Thing I Found On the Internet

Most people would put a game or a video or message board chock full of excellent advice here, wouldn't they?  Well.  I've established I'm not normal or 'most people' by now, right?


The site that exports my books reviews, image of the book and rating and all, is Goodreads (yes, that links to my profile so you can add me if you want), which recently rolled out some changes.  Based on site metrics and where other users rate and shelve certain books, you can get automated recommendations.  I've gone through the automatic rating system and found a few books I'd meant to put on my to-read list.  But, far more useful is where you can give and receive recommendation requests.  There are a lot of new requests on any given day, so anything you post is likely to scroll well out of sight within a week or two, though it'll stay at the top for your friends.

Much more useful is that I can go through the requests and rack my brain for books that fulfill people's requests.  I love sharing books I loved with other people, and regularly whine (privately) that not enough people I talk to on a regular basis read the writers I like.

You can comment on why you recommended a book, or what part of the request stood out to you when you go through the process.  Then people can "like" your recommendation, or comment back.

Out of all of the books I've recommended, 95% of the users have added them to their to-read lists (the others, the users had already read), and five people have added me to follow my reviews.  It's quite an ego boost.

It wouldn't be as addictive without the feedback, but I'm betting I'd still sink more time than I should into browsing the requests to find someone looking for speculative fiction or dark humor, which are the requests I gravitate toward.  I've recommended a lot of Christoper Moore's books in the humor category, and Dan Wells' I Am Not A Serial Killer has gone out to more than one member of the Goodreads community.  Peter S. Beagle's books keep coming up when people ask about classic fantasy, and I've found a lot of excuses to promote Seanan McGuire and her Toby Daye books, as well as the Newsflesh series she writes as Mira Grant.

Are there any books that you try to find excuses to recommend to people?  Who are your favorite authors who don't have nearly as many fans as you think they should?


A fair chunk of the manuscript I'm copy editing now is in dialect, so I thought I'd briefly discuss the topic.

I don't generally write in dialect.  I've been taught that it's distracting and doesn't add much to the story.  However, the manuscript I'm going over isn't something up for publication for the first time; it was first published in the '60's.  As I said in my earlier post, I'm about consistency, rather than "fixing" it to look the way I'd put it together.

Besides, I don't think it would fix this manuscript, to take away the dialect.  The piece I'm working on now is a collection of short stories, one of which indicates an uneducated narrator, perhaps from the deep South.  Another takes place in Maine.  Reading the dialogue, I can actually hear it in the voice of people I know from Maine.  It adds a layer of texture, another sense to experience within the story.  In addition to feeling the stinging cold of the blizzard, I'm experiencing the flat lilt of a Maine resident.

The question is, if I wasn't already familiar with it, would it be the same experience?  I don't know, but the fact that the story was previously published (at least twice) and left intact would indicate that's so.

Now, I wouldn't advocate overdoing it with dialect.  I think there are people who go for Southern, and end up sounding insulting or inscrutable.  The Southern narrator in the piece I edited breaks almost every rule of grammar, but I understood every last word of the tale, even understood why it was told through his voice.

In any case, I don't think I'm going to be writing my Boston characters' dialogue with dropped r's and other quirks (though I do drop in a "wicked" here and there), but I may experiment a bit more with dialect in the future.  I don't think I could do it to the same effect as the author I'm editing, but it's always helpful to have a good model to go by.

Do you write or read stories in dialect?  Do you find it distracting, or helpful?  Tell me your worst or best examples of dialect.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: Island of the Sequined Love Nun

Island of the Sequined Love Nun
Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this one up because it's been on my to-read for a while, and I needed something light and funny to cleanse my reading palate, so to speak. This was definitely the right choice.

Tucker Case, who shares a history suspiciously similar to a certain Prince of Denmark, gets himself in hot water with a prostitute who wants to join the mile-high club. His best friend gets him out of the way by shunting him off to a job in the South Pacific, where he's supposedly running supplies for a tiny island. But that's not the case at all, and Tuck has to overcome his weakness for a pretty face to do the right thing. Along the way, he meets a crossdressing navigator, a talking fruit bat, a cargo cult, and the ghost of a WWII pilot.

The first 100 or so pages drags a bit, as Tuck runs into one mishap after another on his way to Alualu. Once he gets there, though, the story is much more entertaining. Moore turns a lot of notions about superstitious natives on their heads; the Shark People read People magazine and speak English fluently.

This isn't Moore's best book, but it's still quite entertaining. It introduces Roberto the fruit bat, who shows up in The Stupidest Angel, which I recommend any fan of twisted Christmas tales read. And it had its laugh-out-loud funny lines, so it gets some credit for that.

I'm glad I picked it up. It gave me back my reading momentum.

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: Late Eclipses

Late Eclipses
Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won a copy of the ARC in a random giveaway on the author's blog.

This series just keeps getting better and better. This is the fourth book in the series, and, at this rate, the last one's going to be so mind-blowingly awesome that you're going to kick yourself for the rest of eternity if you don't read it.

I don't want to get into any specifics, because it's hard to do it without huge spoilers that will keep any new potential readers from picking this up. And really, anyone who reads urban fantasy, fairy tales, mysteries, thrillers, or any combination thereof, would enjoy the series. It has a strong, snarky heroine. It has relationship geometry, and side characters you want to get to know better as much as Toby does. It has Cait Sidhe.

One of the things that struck me about this book was the balance in setting. The first book mostly took place in San Francisco, and later ones are more in the Summerlands, where the fae can be themselves. In this, there's a switching back and forth that allows the reader to get to see more of both settings, and it blends them together to make them feel like they're both a part of Toby's world. This was the first book where it felt like an even balance.

Other than that, I have to be vague. Important questions were answered, but in a way that raised new ones. Not in the frustrating Lost kind of way, but in a way that makes me eager to keep reading. Lots of things changed, but it never felt out of the author's hands. I'm confident questions will be answered and conclusions will be reached when the final book hits the shelves. The tension was excellently plotted. If you have any doubt as to this book being a page-turner, allow me to point out that it's 2 AM, and I started reading this book at 9 PM.

McGuire makes writing this well look easy. I'd be totally jealous if she wasn't also an awesome person.

Now, what are you waiting for? Catch up on the series before this one comes out! If you've already read them, re-read them to refresh yourself. And then pick this one up in March.

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Previous books by Seanan McGuire reviewed by me:
A Local Habitation
An Artificial Night

Review: An Artificial Night

An Artificial Night
An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My husband won an ARC of this book from the author, so I was lucky enough to read it before the release date. Sadly, that means I have to wait that much longer for the next one. Late Eclipses doesn't come out until March 2011, and I'm already impatient to read it.

This book introduces May Daye, an exact double only in memory and appearance to October (Toby) Daye. As her name being a spring month might imply, though, she's quite different from Toby. For starters, she may look like a changeling, but she's a Fetch, or a double sent to escort someone to the afterlife, which brings with it her own set of abilities and drawbacks. She never experienced everything Toby did; she only remembers doing so. She has no past of her own, but she does have her very own personality, which quickly diverges from Toby's. By the end of the book, she was starting to remind me of the author, but not in that awful Mary Sue self-insert way. She was charmingly quirky, and likable despite herself.

An Artificial Night has Toby facing off against one of the Firstborn, the powerful early Fae deeply entrenched in the world's mythology. The one she's determined to take down is Blind Michael, leader of the Wild Hunt. If you don't know the story, don't worry; once again, McGuire makes the mythology all her own, bending it in a way that's both faithful to the source, and very creative and new at the same time.

I really like how all of the books in this series are so different. McGuire doesn't plug into a formula and stick with it; she's mixing it up, so that each book could be read and enjoyed all by itself. I don't recommend this, though, because then you'd've missed out on Toby's earlier adventures, and you wouldn't know why all of the characters she interacts with are so important. You'd miss out on watching the relationships develop.

Speaking of, no matter your ship, this book has something for you. Toby doesn't even seem to realize she's getting enmeshed in love geometry, but there are several relationship choices she'll have to make up the line. Each of her suitors makes a strong argument in his (or her) case, without ever asking her to make a choice. This is another reason to look forward to what happens in future books. I generally trust authors to set up a character with who he or she belongs with, but I always have my secret hopes. McGuire has shown throughout these three books that she can be trusted to do right with her characters, even if she likes putting them through the wringer in the meantime.

And Toby really does go through the wringer in this one. There's more than one point in the book where the reader might think, "Oh, that's why the Fetch is here; this can't end well." Toby makes it through several scrapes by the skin of her teeth, and, as in previous books, gets only a few moments to catch her breath. The tension runs high, pulling the reader through a very compelling story. There wasn't so much as a word wasted in the narrative.

Throughout, we get a lot of fun treats. Toby's trademark wit is sprinkled throughout, with a lot of laugh-worthy and quotable lines. Toby gets to show off a little, testing her skill against an opponent even the formidable Luidaeg hesitates to confront. Fans of Tybalt (and yeah, I'm one) will find plenty of scenes to enjoy his tomcat charm.

If you've been reading the Toby Daye series, pick this up. If you haven't been, and you like urban fantasy, well, why the hell not? It's a wonderfully original take on fairy tales and myth in modern day, and I highly recommend it.

I once remarked, sort of offhand, that Seanan McGuire is a future NYT bestseller, that it was only a matter of time. I'm also a huge fan of Charlaine Harris, but I think these are better than the Sookie Stackhouse books. If nothing else, they're on par.

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Previous books by Seanan McGuire reviewed by me:
A Local Habitation

Review: A Local Habitation

A Local Habitation
A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second in a series that will, hopefully, go for a really long time. I read the first standing in lines at Dragon*Con, which should give you a good enough idea of how riveting it was. This one matches, then outpaces it, for sheer sucking-the-reader-in.

This book has Toby on Faerie business, checking in on her liege's niece in a politically-charged little corner of the realm. It starts out showing a side we missed of Toby in the first book: she's stumbling home after a night of drinking. Not that the reader needs a lot to endear them to Toby, but it adds a new dimension the first book didn't have much time to go over. It was a nice touch, showing more of Toby's humanity before tossing her to the wolves.

And tossed to the wolves she is. I found myself wincing sympathetically a lot, and wondering just how much blood Faerie bodies hold. She spends probably a third of the book bleeding profusely, and another third dealing with other people bleeding.

It was easy to keep charging along, though. I was invested in making sure Toby made it through okay, despite all the obstacles tossed in her way. While the author, Seanan McGuire, confessed on her blog that she tortures her characters out of glee, the obstacles rang true in a way that many plot complications in urban fantasy fail to. Perhaps more authors need to find that glee.

All of the above delight may give you the impression my 4-star rating is too harsh, so I'll take a paragraph to outline the flaws. Some of the dialogue felt off, to me, especially toward the beginning. There was something involving a Selkie's skin that felt like a plot hole, until I went back to check; I thought a sentence could've made that a little less confusing. Also, I felt like there were times when there was a little too much filler, that the page was being filled up for no good reason, before the plot could take off again. Maybe that's a sign of good pacing, feeling impatient for what happens next. But it irritates me.

Not enough to keep me from reading, clearly.

But the good parts definitely drowned out the above complaints. The plot plays off Toby's weaknesses well, without ever feeling forced. She really is a technological plebian, and for good reason. The interactions between characters were wonderful. There were several laugh-out-loud moments, all the better for being right smack in the middle of a crisis. People behaved in ways that made perfect sense, giving them a sense of being real people stuck in a bad situation, rather than characters on a page.

I left this book looking forward to the third in the series, and looking forward even more to watching the rest of the series unfold. Let's hope McGuire gets that chance.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Editing for Consistency

I haven't posted in a few days because I've been busy with copy edits.  I'm basically looking over manuscripts that have already been published and swapped to different formats so they can be published in a new edition.  So I'm looking for errors that might've existed in the original text, or that were put in by the format switches.  It takes me about three times as long to edit text as it does to read it, and then I go over it a second or third time, depending on how time-sensitive the project is.  I'm currently on page 215 of 325 on the first of 6 manuscripts.  Phew.

So, while I'm working on this editing project, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about what I look for when I'm doing this level of editing.  The biggest issue I keep running into is consistency.

Now, this book was originally published in 1954.  Grammar rules have changed since then.  Spelling rules have changed since then.  Also, the dialogue is rendered colloquially (to very good effect), it's science fiction so names are weird, and the author uses words my spell checker has never heard of before.

I don't turn off my spell check entirely, by the way.  That can call my attention to a lot of things I might have missed, otherwise.  But, if something isn't an error, I add it to my spell checker's dictionary, because that red squiggle is damn distracting when you're trying to look at a whole page of text.

I've been maintaining a glossary of sorts, so that names that might be reused later can be checked against the glossary to make sure they're spelled the same way every time.

In any case, I don't want to iron out all of the text's quirks.  I don't want it to read like something written in 2011.  I do, however, want the grammar rules to be consistent.  That means going to the level of detail where I hunt down every last ellipsis to make sure it looks the same as all the others (not 4 dots, not dots without the space . . .).  Chapters begin with three words in all-caps, so I made sure that all the chapters begin that way.  A compound word that doesn't exist in any online dictionary shows up multiple times, and so I make sure it's spelled the same way every time, and leave it where it is.

The trick isn't following all of the grammar rules and marching lockstep with modern spelling rules.  If I had written this book, I could decide how everything is spelled and laid out on the page.  But this author is using his poetic license, telling the story his way.  I could smoosh the sentences flat to fit what the Manual of Style says they should look like, but then the flow of the language would be lost.

When in doubt, I'm relying on my familiarity with spelling and grammar.  But if I'm "correcting" something that shows up the same way every time without my help, I'm doing more harm than good.

It makes the editing process go that much longer, to track my editing changes to make sure I'm not changing things I shouldn't.  But I'd much rather take longer to do it right than to leave too heavy a footprint on something that isn't mine.

Review: Night Road

Night Road
Night Road by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With audio books, I listen to them in the car while I drive around throughout my work day. With this book, though, I had to take it inside to finish listening to it on headphones. Not only was the last third of the book so compelling I didn't want to wait another day to finish it, but I was afraid it would make me cry, and I didn't want to explain red, puffy eyes to my co-workers.

The story starts off with the establishment of a friendship between Mia Farraday and Alexa Baill. Mia's twin brother, Zach, has a crush on Lexi, but keeps it to himself for the same reason Lexi hides her crush on Zach: they're both worried it'll upset Mia. When they finally do realize their mutual feelings for one another, Mia turns out to be a much smaller problem than Jude, their mother. Then tragedy strikes, changing their relationships for good.

The tragedy comes in within the first third of the book, and the remainder of the story is aftermath. The middle third of the book sags a bit, because you have characters mired in grief, which isn't terribly fun to read. The last third reunites the cast, which brings unpleasant emotions people don't want to deal with bubbling up to the surface, which is more tension-filled and interesting to read than it sounds.

Kristin Hannah's specialty is emotional veracity. She's at her best when she's digging deep into her characters' emotions and letting them show the reader why they chose what they did, even when those choices are at odds with their own self-interest. Her finest medium is character development which is perfectly consistent and, while not logical or rational, makes perfect sense for a human being to behave. She accomplishes this masterfully in Night Road, giving us characters whose choices make perfect sense within the context of their own personalities, even if you want to strangle them for being the people they are.

One aspect of Jude did bother me, though. The seeds of selfishness that leave her wallowing in self-pity and dragging everyone else down with her existed before the accident, and I can't tell how strongly I was supposed to react to that. It's good that she remains consistent, but I found myself irritated at her early scenes of grief, rather than sympathetic, and like the reader was supposed to feel more sorry for her than I did. She was a smothering, overbearing force in the twins' lives long before she had cause to be so insufferable, and I didn't see her as the awesome mother Lexi later aspires to be. I thought she'd always been selfish, her every smothering move calculated to turn the twins into a vicarious life for herself. The text indicates she was supposed to be the perfect mother turned sour through tragedy, but I kept hoping for some sign, however small, that the book wasn't endorsing that brand of parenting. Instead, it seemed to be saying that she wasn't smothering enough, to which I say, phooey.

Hannah also tries a little more diversity in her casting in this book, and there's a positive depiction of a dark-skinned character. Unfortunately, that character is only there to magically fix a main character so she's a better person by the final third of the book, and the woman is serving a life sentence in prison. *sigh* Surely the coastal area of Washington state has greater diversity than that.

That said, I did enjoy this book immensely, and I found the narrative compelling and well-written. I couldn't put the last few chapters down, so to speak. And I was glad I listened to the last part in my apartment, rather than in the car. It did, indeed, make me bawl.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Progress post: Book 2, draft 3

I'm not going to have much in the way of writing updates for at least a couple of weeks, because I have copy editing to do now and will have to spend most of my writing time on edits, instead.

I'm still plugging away at the second book in the trilogy, and I just finished chapter 5.  I felt like I'd dropped into this rhythm of bringing characters in, two per section (one for each perspective character to meet), so I broke that pattern and had them encounter people for a second time who are important to the plot.  I read parts to Josh, my husband, and he laughed in all the right places.  This pleases me.

Currently, this draft is 16609 words.  The goal is about 100,000 words, but, as I am a pantster, that target is bound to shift.  I think it'll be shorter than that.  But then, I said the same thing about book 1, too.

That would be telling

In this post, I'm going to briefly discuss writing rule number one:  show, don't tell.

It sounds like such a simple rule.  Allow characters' actions, what other characters say about that character, and that character's thought processes speak for that character.  Don't outline what kind of person we're reading about.  And yet, I see it in so many books, where it feels like the author is droning on for pages.  Worse, many characters don't live up to what we've been told.  I don't buy it that the kid who just kicked his teacher in his old football injury is a lovable scamp, and anyone who tells me so is going to be regarded as an unreliable narrator for the remainder of the book.

Unreliable narrators can work, by the way, but that's a subject for a whole other post.

If your character has particular traits, you need to show that character acting consistently with those traits.  Even if the whole idea of the story is that the person acts strangely.  Especially if the point of the book is how your character is acting inconsistently.  I need to be shown, through a choice that character makes, that what you want me to believe is true.

The magic of writing is, you don't need to make it obvious.  In fact, you should hide it as much as possible, in words, in deeds, in gestures, in what this character notices.  If your character is happy and says so, that doesn't hold nearly as much power as his skipping down the stairs and humming as he loads the laundry into the washer and smiles at the chocolate stain on someone's favorite shirt.  The first one's a Facebook update; the second can build enough narrative tension to last a novel.

When you tell what's going on, the words fall flat, and there are so many missed opportunities to be inside character's heads.  You hold the reading experience hostage.

However, filling your book or story or whatever you're writing with details that engage the five senses and give insight into the characters in a few words make for a more enriching reading experience.  Readers want to feel engaged, they want to feel like part of the story, and they want to understand the characters.

I don't have a quick solution for how to show, rather than tell, except to practice.  Ask others which scenes or characters fall flat, then flesh out the scene or character in as many words as you can.  Write hundreds, thousands of words to describe what you want.  Then, boil it down to its essence, picking out descriptions you used that engaged more senses than just sight, or visual cues most people wouldn't have noticed.  Pick the most vivid or unique characteristics.  Write your sentences in a way that evokes the pace you're going for in the scene - short, rapid-fire sentences for quick action, long, drawn-out paragraphs for a reflective stroll where a decision is reached.

Do you have a tried and true method to show, rather than tell in your writing?  Do you have any examples you're particularly proud of in your own writing where you've shown a lot in a brief period of time?  I'm looking forward to hearing your feedback.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later

Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later
Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later by Francine Pascal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I won this book in Goodreads' First Reads.

I honestly can't remember the style of the original Sweet Valley High books, or if they were well-written. I remember reading them when most of my classmates were just starting chapter books, which isn't a zing on them so much as a comment on how having older sisters can influence one's reading habits.

That said, this matches up well with what I recall of Sweet Valley High, and that's not a compliment. None of the characters struck me as growing up into an adult; with one exception, they seemed like they were high school students playing dress-up. The one exception, of course, was Elizabeth Wakefield, who was always the most mature of any of the high school kids.

The book begins with Jessica having stolen Todd, who Elizabeth has been dating for the last decade. Elizabeth was so pissed off by this betrayal that she took off for New York, where she has a burgeoning career as a journalist. It's been eight months, and she is, understandably, still mad. Then there's a contrived reunion at the grandmother's birthday party (because that's not going to be awkward or anything), things blow up, Elizabeth goes back to New York pissed off all over again, and Jessica chases after her to cry at her about how unfair it is there are consequences for lying and sneaking around.

The characters are beyond shallow. Jessica is commended, in the book, for rubbing cancer survival in a woman's face when she asks if she's heard from her sister. Perhaps Caroline's motives were less than kind, but there's no indication she's hounding her or saying anything inappropriate, and Jessica's tantrum struck me as childish and petty. But everyone pats her on the back and tells her, "Good job," with no indication that there was anything wrong with what she'd said.

The moral of the book, that you should forgive your shallow, vapid, selfish sister because she felt kinda bad about betraying you, made my teeth hurt. There's also a nice slap in the face to anyone who's ever been cheated on, because Jessica says, without any kind of challenge to her assertion, that she only flirted with every guy on the planet because she hadn't found the right one yet. And the description of her second husband as cute and rich foremost over his supposedly awful temper and possessiveness (which Todd, himself, displays readily within the text) left me tasting bile.

I can't recommend this book to others who grew up reading the series, because I assume you've outgrown the books as much as I have. Maybe some high school readers might enjoy it, though I should warn you there's some sex and strong language, if you're a parent looking into picking this up for your teenager. It seems the book tried to substitute actual maturity for elements that were too adult for the original series.

Overall, this was a disappointment. Even the epilogue that outlined what became of the entire cast made me roll my eyes.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Feedback - beta readers

I sent the current draft of book 1 out to several beta readers, with the instructions to take their time reading and get back to me if/when they had input.

My father (who received a PG-13 version of the manuscript, because I would die of embarrassment if he gave me feedback on my sex scenes) mentioned a factual error, and had two lines he'd written down.  The first was because he tripped over it while reading (there are three prepositions in the sentence), but then it grew on him and he wanted me to keep it.  The second was because I'd described something in a way he'd experienced, but never thought of using those words to capture it.

The second person emailed me to say that she started reading it on Tuesday (when her work break started), and she tried to stretch it out to dole out feedback, she really did, but she couldn't put it down.  She finished it yesterday, and emailed me to say she liked it a lot.  She wanted to know if there were more books, and I assured her that, yes, there will be two more before the story is done.

The second reader I picked because she reads a lot of urban fantasy and, while our tastes don't always mesh, she's good at picking out what she didn't like about a book or expressing where a book lost her interest.

I still have two other beta readers and a crit partner to get feedback from, but so far, I'm pleased with the results.

Review: Bitten

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been on my to-read shelf as long as I've had bookshelves to call my own. I bought it soon after it came out, then other books just kept pushing it down on my to-read list. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading, but, now that I have, I'm going to have to add more of Kelley Armstrong's books to my to-read pile.

Bitten follows the story of Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf in the world, as she's pulled back to the pack to help deal with the non-pack member who's killing people in the pack's territory.

The premise is solid, and Armstrong doesn't ask the reader to wrap their minds around much more than the existence of werewolves in a world we can otherwise understand. This was published at the cusp of the urban fantasy trend, and so readers who have a hard time suspending their disbelief may have an easier time with this book than more recent publications.

Unfortunately, it's also clearly early Armstrong. It reads like an early novel, because the plot is uneven. Sometimes it hurtles along at breakneck speed, and others it tootles along while the characters have a leisurely breakfast. In the middle of the book, the plot nearly lost me, because there are three emergencies in a row, and one of them happens off-screen, so to speak.

I was also hoping for a better setup for the love triangle, but Elena's choice is obvious from the very start. She has to lie to her human boyfriend, and she's constantly steeling herself for how to tell him things without giving anything away. There's a comfort there, clearly, but I didn't feel a sense of attachment between her and Philip, or even a reason for her to be attracted to him in the first place. Clay, the other point in the triangle, is clearly problematic, but that doesn't make Philip any better of a match.

Armstrong also could've stood to pace the revelations about Elena's past a bit more. There's a lot of info dumping early in the book, when it could've been doled out more carefully throughout the story. There are also about four characters too many, in my opinion, and they bogged the narrative down with their deaths.

Otherwise, though, this book shows why Kelley Armstrong is a household name in the paranormal romance genre, and I plan on picking up more of her books in the future. It's a solid story with interesting characters and a fully-fleshed mythology, and I trust Armstrong to carry me through many more readable narratives.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Filtering advice

If you're like me (which I imagine you are, because you're reading a blog about writing and reading), you read a lot of writing advice.  There's a lot to be had.  A search for "writing advice" yields 434,000 hits, and that doesn't even scratch the surface of books written about writing, workshops, classes, BFA and MFA programs, or well-meaning strangers who will spout off advice if you mention you're writing a book.

The trouble is, it's often contradictory.  Most of the advice covers different subjects or different levels of writing prowess or different genres.  But with the vast store of opinions out there, a lot of it overlaps, and, within that overlap, it's inevitable that people will disagree.

The majority of advice about writing is opinion.  There are certainly hard and fast rules, like subject-verb agreement, spelling, sentence structure, and the formula of building to a climax within a story.  There are even opinions on these matters, though.  I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "poetic license."  One of my writing teachers once said that one earns one's poetic license by proving one knows how to drive the language correctly, first.  In order to break the rules, she expounded, you must demonstrate that you understand them.  I've read some books that broke all of the basic rules I learned back in high school, but I loved them.

If you're a writer, you can't accept every last opinion you read or hear, because you can very quickly become confused.  For example, you may read on one writing blog that you should write every single day, even when you don't feel like it, to keep up your writing momentum.  You may read on another blog that it doesn't matter how often you write, and that you should even take days off from writing to recharge the mental batteries.  And worse, maybe you're a single mother taking night classes who laughs at the idea of having fifteen quiet minutes anywhere in her day, short of cutting down to sleeping only four hours a night.

It's just an example, and not the best one I could've come up with.  My point is, you have to find out what works for you.  Every writer has methods and tenets that work for him or her, just as every writer has his or her own style, ideas, and approach.  You won't ever catch me saying on this blog that pantstering is the best way to write, because it has a lot of drawbacks, and drives my outliner friends batty.  They wouldn't write as effectively if they threw words on the page to see what sticks, the way I do.  Similarly, if I try to outline, I quickly get bogged down in that process, and then it feels like all the fun was sucked out and now I have homework to type up.

That is not to say that you shouldn't take any advice.  Other writers who have been there and written that are an excellent resource, and can lend you excellent perspectives on what you may be doing wrong.  My best example is when I stumbled across a post by Seanan McGuire about point of view.  Now, you may well skim that post and shrug, but, when I read it, I cursed up a blue streak, agonized over committing that very sin in my book, then went back to the drawing board to figure out if I needed to cover another perspective.  Ultimately, the answer was yes, and I was pleased at how much better the story flowed with the changes I'd made.

The trick is learning which advice to take.  Some of it won't work for you.  Some of it will be like inspiration in its purest form seeping into your brain.  Most of it will be something you can keep in mind as you're editing the next draft, and to be prepared to discard.

So, how do you know what to listen to?  If you're new, you find out through a lot of practice.  Write a short story or a poem with an attempt to follow one bit of advice you liked.  Try editing a few paragraphs with another writer's advice in the forefront of your brain.

If you're not as new, but still unsure, match it up to problems you've had in the past.  Will it help with this issue you've experienced before?  Will it make it easier in the long run, or much harder?  Do you think you've tried something similar before?

You may find yourself revisiting old pieces of advice you've discarded in the past, and that's normal.  As you get better at writing, you get to learning what works for you at your current level.  Taking on advice that's too advanced for what you're doing is like trying to break in a pair of shoes you'll wear for the rest of your life before your feet have finished growing.  It doesn't work at that moment, but it will.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice that you don't think would work for everyone?  How did you decide which advice to follow when you heard contradictory opinions?  How do you filter out writing advice that doesn't work for you?