Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What an odd book. This is not something I would normally read, and yet I'm not sorry I did. The ending left me with a bittersweet feeling, like I'd been dropped off the edge without warning, and yet I felt it was telegraphed quite well from the beginning.

This is no light, fluffy read, and perhaps I've been reading too many of those. Very little happens in this book, and yet, so much is said. Friendships are formed. People learn to look beneath the surface. Many observations are made about Truth and Beauty and Class and Intelligence and Art and cats. I found myself wanting a physical copy of the book so I could flip through for my favorite passages whenever I wanted.

And yet, I can't see myself reading it again. The characters were exhausting. I can't imagine seeing the world the way they do without needing to lie down every hour. Everything has a universal meaning that ties in to Art and Philosophy in a way that made a pretty whistling noise as it sailed over my head.

It was enjoyable to read. It was also draining to read. It was not what I expected to read.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Review: Elfland

Elfland by Freda Warrington

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ultimately, I enjoyed reading Elfland enough that I want to pick up follow-up books. But the book was not without its flaws.

The main romance tale, of Sam and Rosie, was told well. I believed that they were attracted to one another, I felt the tension between them, and I rooted for them to the end.

Other aspects of the story, though, were not told as well. A lot of the bizarre and unfamiliar names for otherworldly things sounded similar, so I often had to stop to figure out which one the author was talking about. I had a hard time believing that the faerie element is such a mystery, because it seemed like they'd spout off about it every time they'd had a few drinks.

Some of the characters were developed better than others, and I'm sure it's a limitation of perspective. We're given primarily Sam and Rosie's perspectives, though an awful lot of the supporting cast gets its say. The glaring omission, then, of perspectives that would've made the central tragedy make sense rather than seeming tracked on after the fact struck me as a weakness in editing. I realize some things had to be kept in reserve for something of a twist at the end, but it made other elements seem watered-down.

The biggest weakness of the book, in my estimation, was that it spans over 20 years, and is told chronologically. A lot of the tension trickled out of the narrative in the day-to-day happenings related within the text. Rather than building a mystery of what Lawrence Wilder feared, reminders about the Gates being locked seemed like a tacked-on reminder of the plot we were supposed to care about, but which actually detracted from the story I was invested in.

I did enjoy this book, ultimately, but there was a reason I had to renew it from the library. The narrative just didn't hold me as well as it could've.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was hard to listen to this book and not make the comparison to Stephen King. Joe Hill has chosen a lot of the same syntax and style as his father, to good effect. I couldn't help but wish, though, that Hill could step out from behind his father's shadow to become his own writer. The world already has one Stephen King.

This story starts with Judas Coyne buying a ghost off an ebay-imitation auction site. He gets exactly what he paid for, and then some. The ghost, it turns out, was marked for him for a reason, and now he has to get rid of it.

The story starts off creepy, but it veers into more thriller and mystery with horror elements. One particular scene stayed with me for days, but then nothing frightening happened for the rest of the book. The hypnotist's ghost is creepy enough, but I didn't find him particularly scary, and that's probably because of Jude's lack of engagement. He faces the problem fearlessly, and so we, the readers, don't get to feel the fear.

I enjoyed the story, overall, but I found the ending weak and too drawn out. I felt like the same ending could've been told in a way that didn't dilute the other elements in the story. It winds down like a literary novel. I can forgive Hill that, this being his freshman novel and all, but I was still disappointed.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

I survived my crit

As you know if you've been reading this blog, I am a delicate little snowflake who is neurotic as hell about getting critiqued, and I'm trying to grow a thicker skin.  I'm also submitting a short story to a writing contest whose deadline is September 15, and said short story needed work if I wanted to have any hope of winning, or even placing in the top five.*

And so, I submitted my piece to be critiqued by SWAG, and I gritted my teeth and tried to think about other things until the meeting today.  I had turned it in a week early, and I had about fifty bajillion ideas of how I could tweak or change it every one of those seven days.  But I didn't touch it, and I trusted my group to have the needed outsider perspective.

And they were right.  I needed to give two of the characters names.  I needed to eliminate a perspective, because the piece was too short for multiple POVs.  I needed to make some things more obvious.

That last one appears to be my biggest snag, incidentally.  People are always confused about the one thing I thought was crystal clear.  The characters and world and situations exist fully formed in my head, but they don't always make it onto the page, or they're not explicit enough.  It's frustrating, because this is something I've struggled with since the beginning, and I like to think I'm getting better.  But it's an unfortunate truth that I can't see things through other people's eyes.  Every time I think I've stepped back enough, it turns out I needed another viewpoint.

That, I suppose, is the entire point of critique.  Maybe after I'm done chipping away at the trilogy, I'll work up a backlog, so I'm not submitting things I wrote this month.  It's much easier to see the flaws if it's not freshly churned out.

So, tell me about a crit session you had recently.  Was it helpful?  Was it awful?  Did it help?  Did you hate it, anyway?  I'd love to hear about your experiences, positive or negative.

*No, I am not actually delusional enough to believe that, in my very first submission, I'll be one of the best five entries. But a girl can dream, can't she?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: Peter and the Starcatchers

Peter and the Starcatchers
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd been meaning to read this book for years. I'm a big fan of the original Peter Pan story, and I've gobbled up everything even remotely related through the years, hoping to capture the spirit of freedom and fun that the original story inspires.

And yet, I was reluctant to pick it up, lest, as a prequel, it changed everything I liked about the original J. M. Barrie story.

Luckily, Barry and Pearson hit the nail right on the head, and made a thoroughly enjoyable narrative that hits all the best points about the original story. There were a number of things that had to happen to make Peter into The Boy Who Never Grew Up, and yet the narrative still manages to have mystery and tension, and it does that by obscuring exactly how it's going to come about. It also sets much the same tone as the original story, with humor and a sense of adventure.

If I'd been reading a physical copy of the book, I'd call it a page-turner. But I listened to it on audio, and so I had to impatiently wait for the next time I could be in the car to listen to more. When I had to drive other people, and therefore be in the car without listening to the book, I thought I was going to die. I HAD to know what happens next.

The ending is wrapped up nicely; it doesn't seem like it was meant to be a trilogy, or however long it's going to be. And yet, I want to read more about Peter's pre-Wendy years, and see if Mollie (an excellent addition to the cast) gets to appear in later books.

This book does an excellent job of capturing all that made Peter Pan and Wendy a fun read, and spins a compelling story of Peter's origin, without changing who Peter is. I don't know that I'd recommend reading this before the classic tale, but I do think it's a worthy addition to the mythos.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Role-playing and writing

I had been writing for years before I picked up the hobby of role-playing games, and then only because I had nothing better to do that night.  What I found in that crowded basement was a tight-knit group of friends, and many opportunities to find my voice as a writer.

While the worlds in a role-playing game are usually premade, the characters are not, and there's a lot of space within that world to explore and make things up as you go along.  One cannot easily rely on role-playing, or the running thereof, to teach one plotting, however.  There's an adage in role-playing: "No plot survives contact with the players."  The harder a GM (gamemaster) tries to push the characters toward the predestined plot, the harder they'll push back, and wander off in their own direction, or spot something shiny that has nothing to do with the plot all nicely prepared in advance.

This is excellent preparation for a pantster in training.  Many writers complain about characters taking over, wandering off, having personalities of their own.  Good characters are like that, and nothing prepares one better than to have real people behind those characters, driving their motivations.  A good GM will let the characters run around and explore and be willing to toss out the hours of preparation.  An excellent GM will be able to nudge them back toward some semblance of the plot, while still allowing the characters' actions to affect the outcome.

Role-playing has helped in more subtle ways, too, though.  Every time I build a new character with a fully fleshed background and motivations, I'm preparing myself to form someone who'll live and breathe on the page.  Every time I'm mentally rehearsing my character's motivations and reactions, I'm getting into the head of someone else who can, potentially, carry a story all on her own.  Every time I build an elaborate back story that never sees light of day within the campaign, I'm seeing how little of a character's background makes it into the story.  Every last word of a character's back story may well be essential, but none of it is blatantly stated for the reader or to people that character meets.  I need to know it like the back of my hand, but the reader only needs to know what comes up in the story.

Building characters also helps in another way:  the most interesting characters I've played are the flawed ones.  I have a lot more fun with idiosyncrasies and quirks than I do with a character's powers or abilities.  It didn't take much of a logical leap to determine that the characters people might most like to read about are the ones who are a far cry from perfect.

The most blatant way role-playing has helped me with my writing is that I was able to create a world all my own, and to explore it with my small role-playing group to find the story potential.  I haven't written the Via saga yet; it requires a far more skilled approach than I'm capable of, as yet, and I'm still working on the characters who populate it.  But I do look forward to the day I can put that story to words, and, hopefully, let people read it.

Do you have any unusual hobbies that have helped you enrich your writing?  How have they helped?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Stepping away from the WIP

As important as it is to reduce distractions while writing, I've found that it's also key to get away and not write, sometimes.  This weekend I spent long periods of time behind the wheel of my car, taking myself far away from my computer and notebook paper and flat, dry surfaces upon which to jot down some words.  It's not the first time I've put myself on a writing vacation, and it won't be the last.

When I'm not actively writing, even when I'm trying not to, I find myself thinking about writing.  If it's not the current work-in-progress, usually I'll spot some other mundane detail, a quirk of human behavior, that will spark my wondering "What if?"  Sometimes I can integrate those musings into something I'm working on, but usually, they become new story ideas.

Just as it's important to read if one wants to write, one also has to get out once in a while.  Left to my own devices, I'd live in my own head for weeks at a time and never talk to anyone.  But getting out there and interacting with people reminds me of the rich tapestry of life I want my writing to depict.  It helps me flesh out characters, helps me find character's voices, helps me find physical models for the people I want to put onto the page.

If I didn't get out and experience new things, I think my writing would stagnate quickly.  Granted, I write mostly fantasy and UF, but even those need to be grounded in a world we can recognize.  Without the reminder of physical details, I start setting all of my stories in empty white rooms, and my characters tend to stay cooped up leading uneventful lives.

I don't have to do anything artistically valid to enjoy positive effects from these small vacations, though.  Symphonies are nice, and art galleries and nature hikes can be refreshing, but sometimes a walk to the grocery store can recharge my creativity just as well as a whole day spent staring at paintings.  The crucial thing is to give myself permission to not write for those periods of time, and to enjoy myself.

I'm not advocating taking days off at a time, nor weeks, but I am saying that, if you're feeling drained, maybe it's time for a change in scenery.  It certainly helps me to get away for a while, even when I'm not feeling less than inspired.  It's just as important, though, to get back to writing before I've made a habit of staying away.

How about you?  What was your last vacation from writing?  Did it help?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Review: Blockade Billy

Blockade Billy
Blockade Billy by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to an audio edition which contained the additional short story, "Morality."

Both of these stories were classic King, in that they took something ordinary and everyday and put a creepy spin on them. In this case, it's not inanimate objects coming to life or being possessed. There isn't even a supernatural element in either story. The stories are no less chilling for the lack of an unexplained monster, though.

Blockade Billy is about a miraculous catcher who shows up for a New Jersey team in 1957. He earns his nickname because he's very, very good at not letting runners past him. He's also clearly not all there in the head. It's set within a frame story of a man in a nursing home telling the story to Stephen King, years after it happened, which adds an intriguing layer to the text. Much as I love Stephen King's voice, I admire how he can make it sound like someone else is telling the story.

"Morality" starts with the question of what a person will do for $200,000, and the discovery of what a person's conscience is worth. It was a bit heady for a Friday afternoon listen, and I should probably go back to it when I can wrap my mind around it.

The 4-star rating is an average of the two stories. I would rate the top billing 5 stars, and "Morality" 3 stars based on the fact that I had to wash my mind out with some YA right after it.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Writing by hand

Lately, I've been finding myself with time to write, but no computer to type words into.  However, I always carry notebook paper with me, so I've been hand-writing a lot.  I have to approximate where I am in what I'm working on, and I usually have to fill in some lines of transition to line everything up correctly, but, overall, I find myself ahead for having handwritten a page or two.

I go back and forth with writing by hand.  I've had some writing instructors tell me that it's the only way to write a proper first draft, the only way to know the value of words, as opposed to pixels tapped out onto a computer keyboard, fixed by a few strokes of the backspace key.  One feels the words so much more acutely, I'm told, having to trace them out with a writing implement.

And yet, it's time-consuming.  It takes longer to write something out by hand, which is probably why it's espoused.  You have more time to think about what you want to write, and so the sentences that come out on paper are a lot more polished than typed ones.

It also takes time to transcribe the words into the work in progress, and, depending on how good you are at transcribing, you also have to go back and check for mistakes and typos.  When I'm typing up my handwriting, I usually read what I wrote, a sentence or a paragraph at a time, and consider if there's a better way to say it.  Therefore, anything I transcribe becomes even more polished.  Not perfect, mind you, but better, with more thought put into it.

Despite the time issue, though, I do benefit from this approach.  When I transcribe pages I've handwritten, I feel like I have a running start on that evening's word production.  The momentum carries me through several more typed pages before I've even had a chance to consider that I might not have the time or energy to get much writing done.

There's also the aspect of distractions.  When I have a clean sheet of paper in front of me, I don't have my email blinking at me that someone else has put me in a circle on Google+.  I don't have a very pressing game of Freecell I need to win.  I'm not wondering if someone's posted something funny on Twitter.  It's just me, my imagination, and plenty of white space to run free in.

So I don't always write by hand, but I do find it's a helpful habit to cultivate.  If you find yourself stuck, or unable to resist the allure of the internet, or your eyes are tired from an 8-hour day of staring at a glowing screen, I'd recommend giving it a try.  If you already do some writing by hand, let me know in the comments whether you find it helpful, or a hindrance, or what you like about it.

Review: True Colors

True Colors
True Colors by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is an excellent example of why, sometimes, I keep reading when I don't like a book. Granted, I had read this author before, and therefore was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt based on previous enjoyment. But I'm glad I didn't miss out on an enjoyable read.

True Colors is about the Grey sisters, who lose their mother to cancer when the oldest is 15. We skip forward over a decade. Winona, the oldest, is an embittered, fat spinster. The middle child, Aurora, is married with two kids: a twin boy and girl. The youngest, Vivi Ann, is helping to run the family ranch, and she's awesome. (I shy away from describing her as "perfect," but even her supposed flaws are spun as strengths, and descriptions of her made my teeth ache.)

The characterizations start off rather shallow. Winona has been driven her whole life, apparently, by jealous rage over her awesome little sister, and the desire to be loved by their distant and emotionally unavailable father. I lost count of the number of times dear old Dad expressed his feelings by walking out and slamming a door.

It took until the midway point of the book to move beyond the shallow characterizations, and to paint Winona in a more sympathetic light. Initially, she's all wrong, Vivi Ann is all right, and the text is slanted heavily toward the younger sister. That grated. There were a lot of assertions in the text, too, that I didn't agree with from the rest of the story. If the three sisters were so close, there were a lot of questions Vivi Ann should've been asking that she never did. She was supposedly selfless and giving and caring, but she was so wrapped up in her own little world that she never even thought to get to the heart of the rift between her and her sister, and I thought she carried at least half of the blame. No one else in the story seemed to think so, though, not even Winona, or Aurora, the supposedly perceptive sister. The conflict could have been written in a way that made both sisters' perspectives understandable.

The second half of the book, though, almost redeemed the sloppy writing of the first half. The characterization was much fuller, and the overblown description seemed less tacked-on. The sisters' relationships were a lot more nuanced, and, even though there was still conflict, everyone's perspectives were easier to understand.

Still, it didn't erase that the first half of the book had me rolling my eyes and considering moving on to another audio book. It was, in the end, an enjoyable read filled with some heartwarming messages about love and family and what's important, but I really felt like Hannah is capable of better characterization than what was in the first half of this book.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Writing Dialogue

I've heard a lot of fellow aspiring authors talking about dialogue lately, and how they struggle with it.  That's one of the few things I feel I got right, so I thought I'd spend today's post expounding on how I think I figured it out.

I credit my ear for dialogue and being able to put it on the page to my being a quiet child.  I was content to sit back and listen to conversations, instead of engaging in them.  I absorbed not only the ideas, but the words, and how they flowed.  I watched movies, listening for that same cadence I found in real life.  I learned to pick out dialogue that fell flat rather easily.  And, of course, I read books, trying to hear the voices in my head as characters spoke.

I also listened to a lot of music, which, by definition, has to fit into the flow of the surrounding notes.  I grew impatient with songs whose words I couldn't hear.  When I could make out the words, I listened until I'd memorized them, just so that I could replay them in my head.  I imagined the songs as a conversation, the music as how the singer spoke.

And so, when it came time to write stories of my own, the easiest thing in the world was to mimic the ebb and flow of a human conversation.  I'd observed hundreds, maybe even thousands, by then.

That isn't to say my early attempts were perfect.  If I could find them, I'm willing to bet I'd cringe at how obvious everyone sounded, at my tone-deaf renderings, at my "as you know, Bob," exposition.  I've learned quite a bit since those early days.

I've learned, for instance, that all characters should sound different.  It's usually in the cadence, or the words they choose, and their dialogue characteristics shift with mood.  This isn't something I set out to do deliberately, though.  As with most facets of the craft of writing, it's about trying out several things on one's own by writing something never meant to see the light of day.  To practice this skill, I once wrote a short story that was entirely dialogue, without the dialogue markers.  When this was shared with the class, I handed out copies, and highlighted the "parts" different colors for different classmates to read aloud.  When it turned out I'd highlighted one passage the wrong color, everyone knew, because it sounded wrong coming from that reader's mouth.

I've also learned how to avoid exposition within my dialogue.  I had taken the "show, don't tell" edict to heart so well that, for a while, I couldn't tell the reader anything, except through my characters' conversations.  It's okay to have one character fill in another on what she missed, but replaying an entire scene, or an afternoon, or a summer, is a no-no.  People speak in short bursts.  If someone is monologuing, I need to cut him off.

Most importantly, I've learned not to rely on the strength of my dialogue.  The story can't be primarily dialogue, unless I'm writing a play.  Even plays have stage directions.  I have to back up what people are saying with description, voice, setting, and, most importantly, plot.  As fun as it might be to listen to two of my characters blather on for five pages, I need to trim it down to only dialogue that serves the story.

I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, and, the most helpful bit I can relay, to anyone struggling with dialogue, is this:  dialogue should always serve two purposes in the text.  It should advance the plot, while also telling us something about the people engaging in the conversation, or about their relationship.  That's been extremely helpful in my editing sessions, when I'm figuring out where I need to cut my characters off.  Hopefully, it'll help you, too.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review: The Indispensable Calvin And Hobbes

The Indispensable Calvin And Hobbes
The Indispensable Calvin And Hobbes by Bill Watterson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just happened to pick this book up while visiting a friend, and, the next thing I knew, it was hours later. I read these when they were originally syndicated in my hometown newspaper, and I read Scientific Progress Goes "Boink" and The Revenge of the Baby-Sat. I could read these a million times and still want to read them again.

These are definitely written to be appreciated on several levels, which is what makes them so rereadable. I had one perspective on them when I was young, and another now that I'm all grown up, myself. Calvin's antics aren't laugh-out-loud funny anymore, but bittersweet now that I can imagine raising such a holy terror. And the section about the break-in at their home, instead of inspiring boredom, seems very apt, and I can sympathize with the parents. I finally see the humor in Calvin's declaration that this is the coolest thing to happen to him.

Most interesting is that I never understood how a bright kid like Calvin could do so poorly in school. It makes sense now, and I even understand why I didn't see it, before. Calvin's school isn't about nurturing creativity or teaching children to use their gifts. It's about teaching kids to sit down, shut up, and do their homework. Calvin is at his worst when he's told to obey for reasons that make no sense to him, and so of course he's going to the principal's office daily.

Watterson also manages to paint a decent view of the female perspective, despite Calvin's view of girls as gross and slimy, and his mother as a dispenser of disgusting food, clean laundry, and torturous baths. I got the feeling that he really gets it.

I need to remember to brighten my view with one of these books from time to time. We all need a little more imagination in our lives.

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Writer's Block

One of my friends in SWAG says that she doesn't believe in writer's block.  She says it doesn't exist.  I think that's rather an extreme view.  I will say, though, that I don't hold with muses, or waiting for inspiration to strike.  I think that there's this lovely feeling where the words are flowing from one's fingers, and they're all the right words, and every sentence makes you laugh when you put it down, and it's all a masterpiece.

For me, that's fueled by too much caffeine and staying up until 3 AM to write.  Inevitably, when I go back to edit those words of sheer genius, I find that I was floating on pure delusion.

So, instead of waiting for that inspiration, or wanting to feel that oh-so-right feeling of Being A Writer, I put my butt in the chair, and I get to typing.  That doesn't mean I'm always typing out words that will stay, or even that I'm being productive.  But, if I feel myself stuck for a very long time, there are steps I can take.

This trick was taught by a high school English teacher, and it's the most effective method I have of breaking out of a rut.  It works especially well if I'm having difficulty getting into a character's head, or if I'm just getting into a story.

I set aside a short period of time, usually 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  I set a timer, and then I start writing.  This works with freehand or typing, but the idea is to keep my hands moving, producing something.  The words that come out are not to be used in whatever I'm working on, though it can be related.  Usually it's whatever pops to mind, but sometimes I manage to keep pace with my writing well enough that I can plan what comes next.

What the freewrite exercise does is, it gets me working without the inner editor telling me what I'm doing wrong.  The early stage of writing is about exploration, seeing just how much you want to cover.  You can narrow it down in rewrites, but, when the idea is to get words onto the page, there's no place for the inner editor.  All the inner editor does is nag you with self-doubt in the early stages.

Most often, I run into a problem in the middle of my writing because I've written myself into a corner.  When this happens, I go back a few paragraphs, a few pages, maybe even a chapter or two.  I see where I started to lose the momentum, or where it became inevitable that it had to lead to what I just wrote.

Sometimes, when I read what got me where I am, I'll remember where I was going with it, and I'll be able to go on from there.  More often, I'll have to scrap it, because I tried forcing the issue.  If I'm lucky, I only need to delete a few paragraphs, but I have lost chapters at a time to the realization that Character X wouldn't do Y, except that the plot demands it.  Then I have to sit back and figure out how else I can accomplish what I need, without shoehorning my character.

From time to time, I draw a complete blank, or my mind wanders while I'm writing, or I'm sick and tired of what I'm writing.  As I am not writing under a deadline, I then get the luxury of setting aside what I'm doing to work on something else.  I can write a short story about a character I want to know better, or about what happens after the story is over.  I can switch over to something else entirely.  There's nothing holding me to my current project, except my own resolve.  I know I'm disciplined enough that I will return to what I was working on before, and so I can feel free to flitter away to whatever I please.  After I've let it simmer on the back burner for a while, then I can tackle my original project with a whole new perspective.

I'm sure there are other things I do to keep myself writing, but honestly, the trouble isn't feeling uninspired.  The trouble is finding time to write, and I'll tackle that subject another time.  For now, I leave you with the question of how you feel about writer's block, and what you do to get through it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Review: A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard
A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I so enjoy these books. Flavia de Luce is such a delightful narrator, and Jane Entwhistle does an excellent job of bringing her to life.

In this installment of the Flavia de Luce mysteries (this is the third), Flavia meets a Gypsy woman the the church fete, and accidentally burns her tent down. Remorseful, she invites her to stay on a remote piece of property owned by her family. But when she gets up in the middle of the night, she finds the woman's lodging filled with blood.

I can't stop myself from trying to guess the ending of a mystery novel, though, if done well, the ending will surprise me. This was no exception. The solution was nicely foreshadowed without giving it away, which is a tough balance to strike.

The book shies away from the usual Gypsy superstitions, and actually debunks a few. I suppose the plot was rather dependent on the fortune-telling stuff being real, instead of stemming from being observant of human nature, but I don't see that superstition going away anytime soon.

There was a surprising amount of character development, and the relationship between the three de Luce sisters shows itself to be more complicated than at first glance. I've hated Daphne and Ophelia as much as Flavia did these last couple of books, but, in this book, I'm left wondering how much Flavia's perspective is coloring mine.

While the mystery is wrapped up nicely this book, there are hints that Flavia's story isn't yet fully told, and that, therefore, I can look forward to more of these mysteries. I certainly hope so.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011


Once again, the blog topic is inspired by today's events.  I'm currently at a SWAG write-in.  We have two different kinds:  public write-ins where we go someplace easily accessible to the community, and informal SWAG-only write-ins, usually held at one of our homes.  We try to rotate, because we all seem to live about a half an hour from one another.

The biggest challenge in our write-ins is focus.  When you have half a dozen writers (more or less) all gathered together, we often want to chat.  It starts with what we're working on, or something we read recently, and then we notice one another's laptop screen savers, or talk about a local current event, or the weather, and suddenly we're talking far more than we're writing.

That's usually when we decide to do a word sprint (also called a word war) to get us back on track.  We do a timed run of writing, usually 15 or 20 minutes long.  When the time runs out, we compare how many words each of us wrote during that time.  There's no prize for the winner, except bragging rights, but bragging rights count for a lot in our group.

One could make the argument that the write-ins are there for the social interaction, and I'd be hard-pressed to contradict you.  But the reason we agreed in a meeting several months ago to give these a try was because a lot of us had trouble finding time to write during the week, and then we were too busy on the weekends, or resting up from exhausting weeks.  It helped bring writing to the forefront as a priority.  While I often don't write more than a few hundred words at the write-ins, the momentum can carry me for several nights.

I doubt many writers' groups would want to copy our model, but, for us, it works.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review: Over Hexed

Over Hexed
Over Hexed by Vicki Lewis Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am not, generally, a fan of romance novels. This author was recommended as one who doesn't use the tropes that so turn me off most romance reads. I'm glad for the recommendation, because I really enjoyed it.

The story is about Sean Madigan, a small-town hottie who's sick of the attention. He can't go out in public without being groped and propositioned. He enjoyed the attention when he was young, but now he just wants to go about his days without worrying about who he'll bump into.

Then into his life come two magic practitioners who have been exiled to this odd little town, and who are bored. They take on his case, dampening his appeal and summoning his soul mate, pitting the two against one another.

I liked that the story is about taking down the alpha male a peg, ultimately. He's stripped of his good looks and made helpless by the number of crises the witch and wizard's meddling churn up. He's well out of his element, and completely befuddled. Stories about women having the upper hand in a romance tale are evidently what I've been missing.

The characters are a definite strength of the novel. Maggie, the love interest, is strong and independent and smart. Ambrose and Dorcas, the aforementioned witch and wizard, are mischievous and fun and they play off each other well. The weakest character, the dragon George, is more of a prop than a character, unfortunately. I thought George had a lot of potential. Maybe in later books. With the rest of the supporting cast, I had the feeling they all had their own back stories and their own things going on that had nothing to do with Sean and Maggie.

The weakest points of the story were the aforementioned dragon, which was more of a prop than a character or major plot point, and the dialogue. I've been watching a lot of the classic Dark Shadows, with its maid-and-butler exchanges, expositionary monologues, and overly insightful remarks, and I thought this book sounded similar enough that I imagined the writer taking notes on dialogue while watching soap operas.

Obviously the dialogue and silly use of the dragon wasn't enough to kill my enjoyment of the book. It detracted a bit, but not enough to make me quit reading. Overall, this book was an enjoyable page-turner, and I would recommend it to others who shy away from romance novels because the usual tropes are a turnoff.

If anyone wants to drop a comment recommending more trope-busting romance novels, I'll happily add them to my to-read list.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Giving feedback

You may have noticed that I waited a week between my post on receiving feedback and giving it.  That's because I had to make sure there was space between them, lest I go on a rant about all the bad ways I've had feedback given to me.  I'm allowing myself a paragraph.

You see, in college, I majored in creative writing.  That meant taking a lot of workshop classes, which failed to help me grow thicker skin.  All they taught me was that readers are idiots, aspiring writers are idiots, and people will praise a piece to high heaven if it's too artsy to be understood.  I will refrain from naming names or pointing fingers at any specific instances, and say only that it was an excellent lesson in what not to do when critiquing a piece:  when I offer feedback, I will not insult the writer personally.  I will not grammar/spelling snark (unless specifically asked to).  I will not argue that my interpretation is the One True Interpretation, even though everyone else offering critique read it a different way.  I will refrain from making suggestions longer than a sentence.

What I will do is give the writer the benefit of the doubt.  I will try to find why the person might have written the piece.  Is there a really good voice throughout?  Is the main character delightful, and trapped in a too-dark tale?  Is the dialogue snappy and fun?  I've heard the suggestion that negative statements should be couched between two compliments, because it softens the blow, and makes it sink in better.  Maybe compliments are useless for the purpose of a critique, but it does make the process less painful.

When I critique, I will ask questions, rather than making bold proclamations about what I think the story needs. "I'm intrigued by X; does that come up in a later chapter?" Or, "Do you have an answer for this thing we're wondering, and is there a way to give the answer to sharp readers?" Or, "Is this supposed to have a funny tone, or a darker one?"

I will look at the overall piece, and ignore spelling and/or grammar errors.  If the writer is about to submit it to a publisher, I might offer to look it over for those types of mistakes, but, if I notice them for a regular critique, I mentally correct and move on.  In a printed work, poor spelling and grammar detract.  In a critique, it can be overwhelming, and quickly overtake the overall picture.  What does it matter if a name is spelled three different ways in the text, if the character is deleted in a rewrite?

I will listen to others offering their critique.  If I read something differently, I'll briefly note my perspective, and move on.

I'll keep my suggestions down to a sentence.  The writer knows best which way the piece is going.  Critique is not writing by committee.  It's drawing the writer out of his or her own head long enough to look at the piece through another's eyes.  I can suggest a sentence to clear up the confusion, or a way to depict what the writer is trying to say that might be more to the point, but, if I'm verbally rewriting scenes, I need to go write my own dang story.

Ideally, I will have learned from my own negative experiences.  Like everything else, it's a work in progress.  I can't very well do it correctly, though, if I don't know what to keep in mind.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Flush

Flush by Carl Hiaasen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a review of the audio edition. Therefore, names may be misspelled.

I enjoy Carl Hiaasen's books. His YA are a bit more iffy for me, because a lot of the grit and random violence that makes his adult line so fun to read is toned down significantly. But it's still an entertaining story with a similar theme as many of his other novels.

This book follows the Underwood family. The father, Payne, is arrested for sinking a gambling boat, and says he did it because the boat's owner has been dumping his sewage tanks straight into the ocean, instead of paying to haul it away.

It was never clear to me why drastic measures were necessary, instead of going straight to the authorities. There were reasons stated in the last few chapters, but, at that point, they seemed tacked on. Also never fully explained was why the money to dispose of the sewage was such a hardship that the perpetrator rather contaminate an entire beach and risk getting caught.

I was never sure of the ages of our protagonists, Noah and Abbey. Noah mentions a boy who beats up on him who's 16, but I was unsure whether he was supposed to be older. Noah is a very young 16, if that's supposed to be his age. If he's younger, he's sometimes very wise beyond his years. He describes a woman in her late 20's as "not that old," when I distinctly recall thinking of all adults as various shades of "old" when I was a teenager.

This is not the best of Carl Hiaasen's books. In fact, I would venture that it's my least favorite. It may be more enjoyable when read by a preteen audience. It's certainly cleaned up significantly for younger readers. I just couldn't help but feel that the cleaning-up was to the book's detriment.

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