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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Play 'Em Like a Drum

If you read my LJ or you followed the link I posted on G+ yesterday, you know that I went on a haunted walking tour on Sunday.  If you haven't already read it, you might want to, because this post assumes you've already read that one.

When I wasn't getting increasingly nervous about how creepy this daylight tour was getting, I was noting ways that the tour guide used various storytelling techniques.  I thought I'd share them with the five of you reading this, because it hammers home why you should use these techniques far better than anyone blathering at you about the right way to write.

Establish your credentials
Our tour guide introduced himself, listed his areas of expertise, and then proved he knew what he was talking about.  We started with names, years, actual historical events we'd all heard of.  He grounded us in facts before introducing the elements that would have the skeptics in the audience raising an eyebrow.  We trusted him, because he'd been telling us the truth so far, and so we were willing to later suspend our disbelief.

In writing, especially speculative fiction, it's important to show the reader early on that you know what you're talking about.  The world should be grounded in reality, where some of the rules still apply.  Show that you know what you're talking about in everything but where disbelief needs suspension, and the reader will follow.

Build up to it
The tour didn't start with stories of hauntings and creepy ghosts.  We learned history, heard about various sightings, learned the lingo.  The stories got gradually more creepy and menacing, until we began to believe that we were one ghost's whim away from hearing a whisper just outside our hearing, feeling a hand brushing through our hair.  Had the tour guide started with ghost stories on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I would've been rolling my eyes.  Instead, he moved us closer and closer to the sense of menace and danger, gradually bringing us closer to where the strongest menace lay.

No matter what you're trying to evoke, you can't just toss it at a reader.  You have to craft it, build it, then release it when you have your foundation set down.  Whether it's emotions, a sense of satisfaction, or anything else, if you want your reader to feel it, you need to spend time building it up.

Set the tone
As I've mentioned several times now, this walking tour was during the daylight hours, and it's difficult to feel a sense of menace when the sun is out.  The tour guide still had several things at his disposal, though.  The first was an old inn that's been rebuilt after a fire, and is now office spaces.  The door creaked like something out of an old horror movie when it opened, which evoked a burst of nervous laughter.  Then we walked through the hallway, looking for signs of the little girl who supposedly haunts it.  We went to a cemetery, and there, those of us who went to sit it out because cemeteries creep us out were treated to a bonus ghost story, of the one who followed our tour guide home.  From there, we headed to an old jailhouse, which was so closed up in the back that it allowed no natural light through.  The two places for sitting, after all that walking and standing, were in the deepest, darkest part, and was right where two ghosts were said to originate.  When the flashlights went out, I actually whimpered aloud.

You can have a horror novel set in sunny California.  You can have a dystopia set in Disney Land.  But you have to evoke the tone of what you're writing by what you surround it with.  Choose what surrounds your story carefully, and your setting, word choice and tone will tell most of the story for you.

Distract them
The part of the tour that stays with me the most is the voice recording, the ghost answering, "Are you going to follow us home?" with a whispered, "Yes, I want to."  I listened to it several times, and quite willingly.  Had the tour guide thrust a recording next to me and said it was a ghost's whisper, I would've shoved it away and cut him a wide berth.  He didn't do that.  He asked us what we thought it sounded like, and we all listened raptly, letting those hissing syllables sink in.  We listened several times, confirming what we thought we heard, or trying to hear something different.  It wasn't a question of listening or not.  It was a question of what we heard, not whether we heard it.

If you've ever covered for your terrible exposition by slipping plot points into dialogue, you've already done this.  Or, if you've introduced a character you don't think anyone will like as being opposed to the person you know they'll hate, you've done it.  Anytime you cloak something that won't hold the reader in a way that tweaks it, turns it into something they will like, you've used it.

And if you haven't, you should think about it.

I'm sure there were more ways our tour guide used the storyteller's craft, but these were the most transparent, and the most effective.  How do you use any of these techniques?  Or, do you have one you would add?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: The Children's Book


The Children's Book
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I thought I would like this book a lot more than I did. Unfortunately, it hits a number of my pet peeves, and was more of a slog than an enjoyable book. Maybe in retrospect I'll realize what the point was and suddenly like it a lot more. But, the only reason I like it as well as I do was because I shoehorned some themes I agreed with into the text.

The book covers four overlapping families over the course of about 25 years. And that was the problem. Each family has a slew of children, and switched from one kid's POV to the next seemingly at random. Some things, like history trivia, is droned on about at length, while other bits of the plot are left for the reader to figure out. I was never in any one character's head long enough or deep enough to figure out what made anyone tick. It was frustrating.

Most historical fiction exists because there's an echo of a problem from the past in today's society, and so I decided that Byatt was making a remark on children inheriting the sins of the parents, of modern sexual mores having been sold to women as feminism as a Bad Idea, and about parents living through their children without respecting the individuality of the kids. It can be interpreted that way, I think, but the text could probably also loosely be interpreted in 20 other different ways. To me, that isn't a positive.

I couldn't figure out why the book ended where it did. The book, itself, was grim, and descriptions of incest, child molestation, underage sex and the terrible things that went on in those stolid Victorian boarding schools were cringe-worthy enough. But then the tone switched over to the horrors of war, and it was hard to say which the author was trying to say was worse. I kept waiting for some bright spot in these children's lives. I know life is grim and terrible, but I really dislike fiction that reminds me of that.

There were a number of relationships in this novel. Suffice it to say that the healthiest of them was between a 47-year-old man and an 18-year-old girl, who was not 18 when they met.

I had read the description on the back of this book and gotten as far as "interwoven with fairy tales," and thought this would be something I would like to read. I was mistaken. It meandered through the most depressing and grim 25 years I've read in recent memory. I'm sure I could've better steeled myself for such a serious, literary read. Next time, though, I'll probably just skip the literary and stick to my escapist books.



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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction


Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



This was a useful book, but it also seemed rather basic. I wish I'd read it back when I was new to this whole writing thing. As it stands, I'll get some use out of it, but not as much as I would've in initially figuring out my process.

The book talks about Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, which are the basic building blocks of writing fiction. All characters have these three elements in every story, and Dixon uses examples from popular movies like Wizard of Oz, The Fugitive, and Casablanca to illustrate how it's used.

The trouble with using these already-existing media is that it makes one wonder what one needs to read this book for, if those successful movies were written without such a guide.

Also in this book, Dixon reiterates the need to made Goals and Motivation explicit so that the reader can understand them, and how there needs to be both internal and external elements of all three. Perhaps for YA it should be obvious and visible, but I hate having things smacking me over the head while I'm reading. She talks about knowing the rules before one can break them, but I don't agree that it should be a rule in the first place.

This book does have quite a few good tips on how to save a sagging narrative and to prevent having the book thrown across the room by characters acting in contradictory ways, and I would recommend it to beginning writers. The copy I read had a few spelling issues and some its/it's problems, and the copyright indicated it was self-published, so I'd also take it with a grain of salt.



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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Say Something Nice

My last blog post referenced the last writers' group meeting, where we talked about craft.  One of the things we decided would be useful and inspiring was that we'd talk about "the plum on your back."

If you've read the Fruits Basket manga or seen the anime, you know that, at one point, Tohru, the main character, notes that people are like onigiri, which are Japanese rice balls.  The tastiest part is on the back, and it's usually a pickled plum.  The rice ball sees itself as just plain, sticky rice.  But everyone else sees the plum, and envies the rice ball, never realizing they have a pretty, tasty pickled plum of their very own.

It's a convoluted metaphor to say that, when we angst about all of our flaws and the necessary rewrites and everything that's wrong with what we're doing, we miss our strengths.  We forget to factor in those things we're good at, because we don't need to pay attention to them.  But those strengths are why we started writing in the first place, in many cases.

What happened during the meeting was interesting.  A lot of us nodded knowingly at some of our compliments.  Most of us, though, had a moment of, "Really?"  Our eyebrows shot up, and we looked at our fellow writers with incredulity.  People really saw that in what we'd presented?  They'd noticed how hard we'd been working on that?  We were improving in these areas?

More than one person remarked that, after all the head-swelling, they felt inspired to write.  We'd temporarily trammeled the inner editor, that vicious beast who can slow word count to a trickle.  They felt confident, and like they'd chosen the correct path.

Such moments are precisely why I need a writing group in the first place.  I can't live in my own head all the time, wallowing in negativity and self-doubt.  I need other people to ground me, to remind me that I do this for a reason.  It was an excellent meeting.

Just because I like to keep it in mind, and because I like sharing, here are the things my writing group said I was good at, again:  my world-building is excellent, I have well-developed and fleshed-out characters, and I manage to convey a lot in a few words.  They immensely enjoyed these things about the short story I submitted for critique last month, and subsequently submitted for a writing contest this month.  They also contradicted my own assessment of my description, which I think is too sparse and literal, and it's hard for me to write.  But, apparently I'm doing a good job keeping my stories out of blank white rooms with faceless automatons.

I probably haven't read anything you've written, so, sadly, I won't be able to compliment you below.  But, if you want to comment with the best compliments you've gotten about your writing, I'd love to hear it.  What critique comments have you been proudest to receive?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Nerd in Shining Armor


Nerd in Shining Armor
Nerd in Shining Armor by Vicki Lewis Thompson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



This book cements Vicki Lewis Thompson as my guilty pleasure read. Her writing isn't inspired or literary or particularly deep, but it is immensely entertaining.

In this, the first of Thompson's Nerds books, Genevieve Terrence and Jackson Farley are stranded on a remote Hawaiian island through a series of improbable circumstances. Jackson's had a crush on Genevieve since he first laid eyes on her, but she just wants to fix him so he can find a girlfriend who isn't her. On the island, though, he comes into his own, and they spark a physical relationship that at least takes their minds off their situation. As this is a romance novel, I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that it carries into their lives back home, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The book does neatly sidestep the Nice Guy(tm) trope, where a guy is entitled to get the girl because he's been hanging around being Nice all this time. Jack is an honestly decent guy, and wins the girl by becoming her hero and being someone she can love.

There is a plot beyond the two lovers discovering their chemistry, though it's a pretty silly one, and I had to ignore several places where sharks behaved uncharacteristically, but very conveniently for the plot. The stereotypes were laid on fairly thick; Gen is from backwoods Tennessee, and embodies the wild hillbilly girl with precious Southern sayings rather too well. Her teenage brother, too, was a cardboard cutout from most sitcoms. And the less said about the fact that Gen's mother and brother are psychic, the better.

But the plot and character backgrounds are not why I read this author, and will continue to. I read her stuff because it appeals to me. It turns out I have a soft spot for guys who don't think they're good enough for the woman of their dreams. And Thompson does an excellent job of building tension and letting the reader feel her characters' frustration. She has some good, snappy dialogue, and a nice balance of humor to bring levity to all that sexual tension.

I have a feeling I'd be reading a lot more romance if I'd found books like this early on.



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Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Second Set of Eyes

At today's writers' group meeting, instead of offering critique and talking about superficial word counts and projects, we talked craft.  We discussed what we thought the others were good at (for mine, people said world-building, I have well-developed characters, and I convey a lot in a short period of time - they also disagreed with my assessment that I'm terrible at description), and then we discussed problems in their writing.

Most of the people in the group discussed issues they were running into with current projects, but my problem brought to the table was a bit more far-reaching, because I'm an overachiever like that.  I talked about how, in all of the critiques that I've gotten, ever, people say that they don't understand why my characters behave the way they do, or they miss something I thought was perfectly obvious.  How, I asked, do I write in a way that sidesteps this issue?

They didn't have a lot of ideas for how to avoid it in the first place; it is, after all, difficult to step outside one's mind to see things the way others do.  One can write and edit with this pitfall in mind, but, if your mind is filling in the blanks, your mind is filling in the blanks.

What they advised was beta, or even alpha readers.  Let people, not necessarily those in the writing group or with a writing background, read the story and give initial impressions.  Have them ask questions, and tell me if those questions are still there by the end of the book.  Does it need to be answered earlier?  Does the narrative lose steam?

Fellow writers look at manuscripts differently than readers.  Writers look at the mechanics, and want to break it down to the exact sentence where things started to go wrong.  But I need an overall look.  I need someone to look at it as if it were pulled off the shelf, and consider whether she'd buy it.

I already have one offer of a beta reader on the table, but it looks like I'll be looking for another person or two.  I even have some candidates in mind already.

It'll be scary, putting the book out into the hands of those who have no motivation to be gentle, who haven't watched me agonize over it for the last several years.  But it needs to be done.

Review: The Monkey Wrench Gang


The Monkey Wrench Gang
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



As an artifact of its age, reflecting social mores and values at the time, this book is interesting. However, as an interesting story with engaging characters, I was unimpressed.

This book is given as a strong recommendation for a character to read in one of Carl Hiaasen's YA books, and so I took that as a signal that it must've informed young Carl's writing. That may well be true; a lot of the same themes and sort of scenarios crop up. However, this book lacked a clear narrative. I was not riveted. I didn't particularly care what happened to these four, and thought perhaps it was an anti-hero story where the bad guys (the title Gang) get their comeuppance in the end.

I did enjoy the ending, but I'm not sure it was worth the slog to get there.

The points of view are spread between all four characters, but I never felt like I was in any of their heads. I didn't understand any of their motivations, and I disliked them all equally. I tried to like Bonnie, but her choices perplexed me. She seemed to exist merely to confuse the boys.

Worse, the story kept switching tenses on me. It would move to present tense for a paragraph or two, then switch back to past, apparently at random. It wasn't to put us in the moment for exciting scenes, either; most of the present-tense passages were of people waking up, making coffee, preparing dinner, waiting out the daylight.

There are some intriguing moments within the narrative of this book, and the many different ways they got away in chase scenes was amusing. But, overall, I was unimpressed, and will just re-read some Carl Hiaasen the next time I want to read about pro-environmental antics.



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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: One Salt Sea

One Salt Sea
One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



These books keep getting better and better.

That is not to say that the previous books sucked. On the contrary, they keep building upon one another, expanding the mythology and world-building and character development. This book would not be as excellent as it is without four previous books to build upon. But, as the latest installment in a series I run out to buy the day it comes out, it just keeps getting better.

This book has Toby trying to stop a war between Undersea and the not-all-there Queen of the Mists, which involves finding two kids who have gone missing, and who the Duchess thinks the Queen stole. Right around the halfway point, though, the stakes are raised, and it gets way more personal than that for October Daye.

After I read about 100 pages in, I needed my husband to comfort me that there was any point in my writing anything, because I would never be this good. It's tightly-plotted, the pacing is perfect, and McGuire knows her characters through and through by now. There were a lot of the elements I liked from previous books, and Tybalt, everyone's favorite Cait Sidhe, is downright charming in this one. Toby remains snarky and pricklier the longer she goes without coffee, and her friends remain a motley, unpredictable bunch who can still be counted on to have her back, no matter what. There were a lot of laugh-out-loud lines, and they're not all Toby's.

All-in-all, the only disappointment I have with this series is how few people I know offline who I can talk to about how awesome it is. If you like fantasy elements, if you enjoy a touch of fairy tale in your fiction, if you like well-realized characters in a fully-developed world and a well-plotted story, you should read it. ALL of it. You have a whole year to catch up before the next one comes out.

Me, I'll be biding the time by rereading what I have of the series and trying not to think about how long 365 days is.



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

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: Dexter in the Dark


Dexter in the Dark
Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



In this, the third installment of the Dexter series, Dexter loses the "dark passenger" who's been informing his murderous impulses all this time, and he learns about its nature. There have been hints of the supernatural throughout, and it grows a lot more blatant this time around. I had hoped that the talk of the "dark passenger" was simply allegorical for the parts of himself Dexter is uncomfortable with owning, but this is disproved.

I'm fine with this latest twist on Dexter's world. The loss of stars is more because I was annoyed with the interruptions in the narrative of the "it" who stalks Dexter throughout the book. I like Dexter's narration, and I like his voice. The detached, impassive voice in those sections, I felt, didn't add anything, and took away from the parts I liked.

As with previous books, I found myself laughing out loud at Dexter's wry, darkly humorous observations and his dry delivery. I'm more used to the reader now, too, so he wasn't as much of a distraction.

I plan on reading the fourth book, and I did enjoy this one. I just hope the "it" who watched Dexter doesn't keep getting to hijack the narration.



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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reading to Write

There's a reason why I've lumped my book reviews and posts on writing together on one "writer" journal, and it has nothing to do with the fact that Goodreads helpfully copies my posts onto Blogger.  I consider the acts of writing and reading to be closely related, and not only because they both involve words.  They're not just the opposite actions of producing and consuming.  To me, reading is essential to writing.

I'm not the first writer to say so, I know, but I did want to talk about it in some depth.  I've been mulling over the relationship between the two for some weeks, mentally composing this post since I started this blog and made the choice to lump reviews and writing thoughts together.

What I've concluded is that I would sooner skip eating, drinking, and sleep than go without a book to read for long.  Writing is something I do, but reading is a part of who I am.  It's such a small word for something I'd take off a week to do, to the exclusion of all other activity.

While I'm sure I could bore you all with the tales of books I've loved, the ways this love manifested, how I was the only kid on the playground curled up out of sight with a book, I would, instead, like to talk about its relationship to writing.

Without reading, I wouldn't have known, in the first place, that there were people whose job it was to put words on the paper.  Without reading, I wouldn't have found a refuge in various people's imaginations, and begun to populate my own.  Without reading, I wouldn't be aware of the telepathy, as those before me have called it, of one person's words written days, months, centuries before, creating a picture in a stranger's mind.

Some people have found inspiration in writing, in that they've realized they could do it better.  That was not my inspiration.  Mine came when I was reading an interview with Stephen King, and he talked about all the fears living in his head that he put onto the page so they could scare other people.  That isn't an exact quote, so I wouldn't advise trying to find the interview.  I read it sometime in 1990, so it had to have been printed before then.

At that stage in my life, I had an excess of imagination.  I jumped at shadows, turned on every light in the house at night, refused to go to sleep until dawn if I thought there was something in the corner, and rocketed out of the scary basement like something was chasing me.  The notion of getting that out of my head to do the same magic Stephen King performed to make something people wanted to read . . .  Well, the idea had appeal.  Never mind whether my jumpiness came from the fact that I was reading Stephen King books late at night.

I wrote a short story about a girl whose imagination comes to life, and I showed it to an English teacher.  He was a kind soul, underneath his dry sense of humor, and didn't tear my piece to shreds.  Instead, he found things to praise.  I had found something I could do that was mine, not shared with classmates who, frankly, frightened me.  And I kept at it.

That's not all the credit reading gets, though.  If you've checked my Goodreads profile lately, you may have noticed I'm going for a new personal record of 125 books read in one year.  A lot of that can be credited with all the driving I do for work; audiobooks are way more entertaining than the Top 40 rotation.  Even a book I dislike is better than listening to the same 40 songs on an endless loop, interspersed with radio commercials.

But I digress.

It's not just good books that are important to read.  Much as I like to read books that I enjoy to see what works, to spend time with fun and engaging characters and feel pulled into a story, I benefit just as much, if not more, from reading books I don't enjoy.

I know; it's hard to tell, reading my reviews.  I rip into those hated volumes with savage glee.  Part of the joy of reading a bad book is coming up with the best way to explain what went wrong, where the book failed.  I'm quite interested to know, actually.  Because if a book didn't work for me, I want to know why, so I can keep from including those elements in my own writing.  If it's the pacing, then I can see what made the pacing sag, and read through my own pieces with an ear tuned to such concerns.  If it's the characters, I can sift out which traits or descriptions grated so strongly, and keep from using similar descriptors or traits (unless I want the character disliked).  And so on.

I've often gotten the best ideas of what my latest draft needed from reading a lot of books I disliked, all in a row.  I didn't go out to accomplish this, but my random method of book selection reads me to some awful reading experiences.

For all the reasons I've written about above, I can't imagine writing without also taking time out to read.  I don't think I've gone 24 hours without consuming some sort of written material all year, which is just the way I like it.

How about you?  How important do you consider reading?  Do you get anything out of reading books you disliked?  Comments welcome!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: Thirteen Reasons Why


Thirteen Reasons Why
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I heard about this book through word-of-mouth buzz from several sources. Initially, I was intrigued, but worried it wouldn't do justice to the subject matter. Now, I only wish this book, or one like it, had come out when I was in high school. This book is everything I hated about high school, encapsulated. It would've been nice to know I wasn't alone, even if the person I related to was a fictional character.

This book deals with some controversial subjects: suicide, depression, misogyny, teen drinking, rape. Very few of them are addressed head-on, and Asher never preaches about these topics, though he makes it clear where he stands.

The narrative follows Clay Jensen, a high school student whose classmate killed herself a few weeks before. He gets a package in the mail that turns out to be her suicide note, a series of 7 tapes that comprise the 13 people who contributed to her death. Pained, he listens to learn what he did that drove her to kill herself.

Asher's treatment of a teenage girl who's driven to suicide is so sensitive, so aware of the reality, so tuned into the subtleties of how it happens and why it goes unnoticed and what it looks like that I couldn't help but wonder how the author knew. Sure, one can do research and talk to people with depression and interview those who've tried killing themselves, but being in the head of someone driven to such despair isn't easy. Is he that empathic? Or did he have a Hannah Baker of his own?

I would recommend this book to most kids in high school, to teachers who want to open the discussion of recognizing the warning signs of suicide, to adults who want to understand what their classmates went through, to parents who need to get into their teenagers' minds. I can think of very few people who wouldn't benefit from taking this in, though, judging by previous reviews, not everyone understands the nature of despair.

I took in this book on audio, which I highly recommend. It feels more like you're getting to listen to Hannah's tapes than I imagine text would convey.



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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Finding Your Voice

I've often heard that the biggest difference between a decent book and an excellent one is the writer's voice.  A strong voice can make the difference between an engaged reader and one who can set a book aside out of boredom.

I want to touch briefly on the idea of passive voice, which is when things happen to the characters, rather than characters engaging in or sparking the action.  Active voice is, for example, "Shirley opened the door."  Passive is, "The door was opened."  Passive does have its place within writing, mostly when you want to build a mystery about who's performing the action.  It should be used sparingly, though, because a whole paragraph of independent actions being performed by invisible beings quickly becomes tedious.

But that's not what I'm talking about.  What I'm talking about is how the words come out on the page.  Do you tend to use big words, or a series of small ones?  Are your sentences long and flowing, or short and choppy?  Is your tone serious, snarky, humorous, self-deprecating, or earnest?  These factors can and should alter, depending on what you're writing, who's narrating, and what's going on.  How you tell an event is just as important as what you're recounting.  For instance, action tends to be told in short, quick sentences with smaller words, while introspection or description tends to meander along.

No matter how those factors change, though, there is still an underlying voice, a marker of the flow of words that makes one writer distinct from another.  You could pick up three different pieces of text and know they're written by different people.  You may even be able to identify who wrote them, if you're familiar with the writer.  What gives them away is the voice.

So how does one develop the writer's voice?  I know how I did it.  I churned away, writing draft after draft of stories I never intended to see the light of day.  I wrote journals, and later joined an online journaling community so I could type out my daily thoughts.

It's all about practice.  Early on, my voice sounded stilted, and like someone else's.  Inevitably, early writers will sound like someone they admire, or like who they want to come across as.  But, as you keep writing, it's tiring to keep trying to be someone else.  Inevitably, who you really are will start coming out in the words.

I've advocated free-writing before as a way to combat writer's block, but it also works as a way to develop your voice.  Often, what holds us back from sounding like ourselves is the inner editor, who crouches in your subconscious to tell you that you're not good enough, that you have to pretend to know what you're doing to get away with writing.  But that's just the opposite of what you need to develop your voice.  Free-writing forces you to type from the deeper part of your subconscious, where your inner editor can't touch.  You'll be free-writing in your own voice.  It'll look strange to you, at first, because it's unpolished and probably riddled with errors.  But, once you find your voice, all it takes is practice.

How about you?  Do you have a strong writer's voice?  How did you find it?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: Chicks Kick Butt


Chicks Kick Butt
Chicks Kick Butt by Rachel Caine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Hmm. Well, there were chicks. And they kicked butt. So it wasn't like the title lied to me, or anything. Still, I was overall disappointed.

The stories were all very different, with different sorts of women kicking butt. The ones I enjoyed most were the ones with no supernatural reason for doing so. The two featuring ordinary human women drawn to doing the right thing made me want to read more (Carol Nelson Douglas and P. N. Elrod wrote those two, if you were curious). It wasn't the supernatural elements, themselves, that turned me off most of the rest of the women in these stories. Rather, it was the great pains that the authors had to take to find things that would threaten their kick-butt chicks so that I would feel they were in any danger.

I also didn't appreciate how each story dropped me in. Generally, I read anthologies to see who's worth reading, not because I've read every single one of the back stories and want to see more. But each story seemed to take place in an already-established world that was like stepping through a portal into some harsh reality I had five minutes to figure out. It was disorienting, after the first three. I would've liked to read a prequel, or a story that has nothing to do with previously written-about characters. An awful lot of the magic and powers felt like they were convenient for the plot, rather than something that was established several books ago as something she can do.

This would be a lot more enjoyable for UF fans who have already read these authors' stories, or at least a good chunk of them. While I like the idea of an anthology full of strong women's stories, this did not live up to my expectations. I would've liked it a lot more if I already knew the worlds and various mythos. Most of them were well-written, but I spent way too much time recovering from the whiplash of adjusting to each mythology to really enjoy them.



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Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: Finger Lickin' Fifteen


Finger Lickin' Fifteen
Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



How disappointing. Just when I thought Evanovich had gotten into the heads of all of her characters and that she was improving with each book, along came this lackluster offering.

I found the plot gimmicky and lacking in engagement. I found the characters stagnant and cardboard. I found this book, overall, a rehash of most of the elements of previous books, with nothing new to offer. There were new characters introduced, old characters made their requisite cameos, there were wacky hijinks, and then the plot wrapped itself up nicely.

I really hope this isn't the start of a new pattern. I liked the old pattern.



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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review: The Tent


The Tent
The Tent by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I've been reading a lot of "bite-sized" books lately, which is what I call slim volumes I could read in a single sitting, if I so chose. Most of them are to give me a good idea of whether I like an author's style enough to research further.

In this case, though, I already knew I liked Margaret Atwood's writing. I was looking for a small sample that could tide me over until I could brace myself for one of her deeper works.

I certainly got what I was looking for. This was an incredibly fast read, and yet a really good sampling of Atwood's strange, quirky, and yet beautiful, evocative and insightful work.

I would recommend this to friends of mine who have trouble writing short pieces or keeping their writing concise. Atwood crams so much into a few short paragraphs in each of the pieces in this book. She shows a real mastery of the language.

Unfortunately, some may find these inaccessible and difficult to wrap their heads around. Most of the stories are deeply symbolic, and it can be difficult to tell exactly what aspect of society is being skewered. There's little room for clarification, and so the pieces come across as deeply personal, while clearly about something the reader can relate to.

I really enjoyed this, but I can see why others might not. Flipping through may give some readers a good idea of whether they'd like Atwood's books, though I think it's a lot better for having read previous works and seen some of the longer clarifications. Tying the stories into other books Atwood has written certainly makes them resonate.



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