Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Feed by Mira Grant parts 3 and 4 - readalong

Parts one and two are here.

I had already read Feed when it came out, but, given the chance to nominate it for a readalong, I realized there were far worse books to reread and enjoy with others. While I am disappointed that not everyone enjoyed Feed as well as I did, I had some new insights, reading it along with them, got some new perspectives, and gained a new appreciation for this book and the world it's set in. I'm looking forward even more to Blackout, the final installment in the Newsflesh trilogy.

I'm also looking forward to the novella about SDCC in 2014, which happens during the Rising. Apparently it features Browncoats. I mention that only because George, our cranky narrator, alludes to San Diego's Comic Con and how there were 120,000 people in one conference center, and it wasn't pretty. Also, Mira Grant says in the interview section in the back of the book that she learned about crowd psychology through large science fiction conventions.

I promised not to spoil anything, being the only one of the group who's read farther than this book. And so, without spoiling anything, I will say that the ending we got is the one that the story called for. Anything less heart-wrenching wouldn't have served the narrative, wouldn't have fulfilled the promises early on in the book, wouldn't have had the same impact. It was necessary, and had just as strong an impact the second time around. There were nearly tears.

I also hadn't realized how tight the pacing was. I remember there being down time within the narrative, and, while it does take place over several months, every single scene in this nearly-600-page book is necessary. As I read, I wondered where the space between the scenes where things happen was. Apparently I only remembered them because I was so impatient to finish that I couldn't read it fast enough.

I'm going to reread Deadline before May to catch up and see if I missed anything else. I remember that as much more tightly-plotted, so we'll see how it stacks up to what I remember.

I don't know yet what we're doing a readalong for March, but I'm exempting myself from the nomination, since my book won this month. Whatever it is, I'm sure I'll look at it in a different way than I would've if I'd read it on my own.

Other readalong participants:
Grace at Feeding my Book Addiction
Jennifer at Book Den
Brittany at Self-styled Bibliophile

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Interview with Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire has published seven books to date — Five in the October Daye series, and two in the NewsFlesh universe under the pen name Mira Grant. In 2010, she won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer, and Feed, the first of the NewsFlesh books, was one of Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of 2010. And, as you know if you've poked around this blog, I'm a fan.

On March 6th, her third series hits shelves, starting with Discount Armageddon (my review is here). I emailed her to ask if she might have time in her busy writing schedule to do a brief interview about her new book, and her writing process. This is what I've been all excited about; I hope you all enjoy! I am also doing a giveaway for Discount Armageddon, so read all the way to the bottom to sign up.

Preorder this book
What was the initial seed of inspiration for the InCryptid series?
I wanted to write about cryptids, and about this crazy family that had been kicking around my head for a while, but I didn't know how to put them together.  My friend Kate wanted us to try watching SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, since we like dancing and it looked fun.  The season we started with had this cute blonde ballroom dancer named Chelsea Hightower on it. She could kick higher than her head.  I mean, you looked at this girl, you saw bubbly collateral damage.  And a series was born.

Did you have a favorite part to write in Discount Armageddon?
Yes.  It involved mice.

How much of what you write is outlined from the beginning, and how much do you make up as you go along? Has that changed since you first started writing?
I'd say it's about fifty/fifty, and that ratio has been pretty consistent since I started writing.  No plot has ever survived an encounter with the actual narrative, no matter how good it looked on paper.  The big things tend to stay constant, but everything else shifts and changes.

You write on your blog about the "machete squad," a group of readers who help you with revisions before an editor sees your manuscript. How much do you wind up changing between your first draft and after the machete squad has seen it?
The only thing ONE SALT SEA has in common with its original first draft is the involvement of the Undersea.  It even got a new title.  And a new central bad guy.  And a new location in the overall story arc.  A lot of that happened due to feedback from the Machete Squad.  Without them, my books would be a lot less solid.  I love them so much.

Herc and Risu hang out with Toby Daye
This is your eighth published book, and your third series. Do you ever get used to seeing your name (or your pseudonym) on bookstore shelves?
No.  Really not.  I look for myself in bookstores all the time, and it's not ego, it's disbelief.  It's like...this is what I've always, always wanted, and now I have it.  And that's amazing.

More by Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant:

Buy these books from your local independent
(Links are in the same order as the books appear above)

The Giveaway:

I would like more people to read and enjoy Seanan McGuire's books. Therefore, I will be buying 5 copies of Discount Armageddon to give to five lucky commenters, chosen by random number drawing. If you comment, you will be entered to win. If you have never read anything by Seanan McGuire and comment saying so, you will receive an additional entry, and the chance to also win a copy of Rosemary and Rue. If you link to this page or my review on your Twitter, blog, facebook, Goodreads, or wherever you hang out online, you will receive an additional entry, for a maximum of three entries per person.

I'm going by the honor code on whether you've read Seanan's books before, but I ask for links to where you've posted my link to verify your entry.

I will take entries through 7 AM EST on Tuesday, March 6th, and will draw and contact the winners on the 6th for your mailing address. I will ship internationally.

If more than 100 people enter, I will buy additional copies to increase your chances of winning.

So, leave a comment below with whether you've read anything by Seanan McGuire (or under her pen name, Mira Grant), and, if you've linked to this or to my review, a link to that post. Please do not post only a link; Blogger is likely to mark your comment as spam. If you link me on twitter, instead of putting it in your comment, you can @-mention me (@alicetheowl), and that'll count.

EDIT: the giveaway winners are listed here.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Another progress post

It's nearing the end of SWANoWriMo, and so I wanted to check in to tell everyone I'm doing well with my goals. With three nights of writing left, I have 2000 words to go if I want to have written 50k in February. I would've reached that last night, except that I wasn't in a good head space, and so I gave myself the night off. One does that, sometimes. I read a lot of Feed so I can get my part 2 post up on the 29th, instead, and turned in relatively early, for me.

While I've written over 80,000 words in the current manuscript of the second book in my trilogy, I know I'm going to scrap at least 10,000 of them because they're repetitive or don't add anything to the narrative. I spent a lot of the early part of the book piddling around, finding my stride and sliding in characters who may be important later. Now that I see the shape the ending is taking, I can trim out what doesn't fit. Outliners have these issues, too, I understand, but in a third draft? Ah, well.

Reading-wise, I've pulled ahead a little in my progress on reading 100 books this year. I read a lot of books in February. I had the readalong, a Goodreads book club selection, and my ARC, in addition to all the books on audio I listened to while schlepping about for my job, and a library book I couldn't renew. I wouldn't have had an issue with reading as much as I did if I hadn't also been churning out about 1800 words a day on my novel.

I thought about a few informational subjects I could post about tonight, instead of a progress post. We talked about editing at yesterday's writing group meeting, so I have that post on a back burner. I'm also mulling over a series of posts about my favorite book series, and what makes them my favorites, because I can't complain on here all the time. I have upcoming posts about foreshadowing, letting the characters tell the story, and rewriting vs. editing.

But I didn't want to overshadow tomorrow's post, which is going to be awesome. You guys have no idea how often I've spared you the squee in the middle of my posts this month. I am so looking forward to it, and hoping you all find it as exciting as I do. It'll be up by 5 AM EST tomorrow.

Review: Plum Lucky

Plum Lucky
Plum Lucky by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The "between the numbers" books, in my opinion, don't add anything to the rest of the series, though they can be fun for the hardcore fans.

In this installment, Stephanie's Grandma Mazur finds a duffel bag full of money, and goes off to Atlantic City to spend it. Diesel, who only shows up in these books and is never mentioned in the main timeline, appears because he's looking for the guy who stole the money in the first place. Turns out the guy thinks he's a leprechaun, and can talk to animals.

To which I remarked, "Now these are just getting silly."

I can't think of a single reason to read this one, unless you're a huge Stephanie Plum fan and need something to do until the next one comes out. There's no character insight, nothing that doesn't happen in any of the other books, no progression, and the humor was lackluster. The big punch line centers around horse farts.

I listened to the audio edition, and the same narrator who's been reading most of the books read for this one. She makes each character's dialogue sound slightly different, so it's easy to tell who's speaking. It definitely feels like less of a waste of time to listen to these in the car than it would if I was taking precious reading time from other physical books.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Advance review: Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

I won an ARC of Discount Armageddon through a Twitter giveaway by the author. I am under no obligation to write a review, and I will not receive anything in exchange for this review. I am a fan of Seanan McGuire's, not a representative.

That said, I loved it. I have refrained in the past from declaring any authors my favorite, because it depends on my mood, or what they've recently published, or what I feel like reading. With this book, though, Seanan McGuire cements herself as my favorite author.

In Discount Armageddon, the first of the InCryptid books, we meet Verity Price, the latest of a line of cryptozoologists who split from the Covenant of St. George several generations ago because they realized not all supernatural creatures deserved to be wiped out. Verity has come to New York City to pursue her dream of professional ballroom dancing, before her life as a cryptozoologist takes over. She balances her duties as a Price, her job as a cocktail waitress, and her dancing career on a knife's edge. Luckily, the skill sets have a fair amount of overlap. Verity argued her case for pursuing ballroom dance successfully because it uses the same muscle groups as fighting, running across rooftops, and crawling into critters' lairs. Verity is part Buffy, part Ripley, and all McGuire.

Verity meets Dominic De Luca, a sole member of the Covenant of St. George, who's there to see if the city needs purging of its supernatural element. She assumes, logically enough, that the series of disappearances of cryptids following their meeting is his doing, but, when he tracks her down again, he asks her where they've gone. They declare a truce to get to the bottom of the disappearances.

While the Covenant is a worthy opponent, and clearly has many resources at its disposal for wiping out cryptids, Dominic is a person. He's a person deeply indoctrinated into the beliefs of the Covenant, but it becomes clear, to both Verity and the reader, that his arrogance and certainty the Covenant's way is the only way comes from the fact that he's been sheltered from reality his entire life. One of my favorite early interactions is when Verity discovers he has no idea what Thin Mints are. Dominic's characterization is helped very much by the fact that he's clearly in over his head. Having him off-balance throughout most of the book lets his humanity shine through.

Discount Armageddon is the lightest of Seanan McGuire's books, but that's not to say it's fluffy. The fate of the world is at stake, or at least that of New York City, and the action and humor are balanced quite well. While I was reading the ending, I alternated between chewing my lip nervously and laughing so loud I was worried I'd wake my husband.

My favorite cryptid, and I doubt I'll be alone in this, is the Aeslin mice. They're wired to treat everyday things and events with fanatic worship, including Verity herself. Their antics could've gotten annoying if they'd driven the narrative or played a larger role, but Verity has as little patience for them as I would, if I had to live with them. They're adorable and excitable and a wonderful humorous touch.

The world-building in Discount Armageddon is solid. I haven't wanted to climb into a book this badly since I read The Neverending Story in sixth grade. We're given hints of Verity's crazy family and the things they're going through, the cryptids she runs into have their own lives and associated problems, and Verity mentions several back-burner conflicts she doesn't have to deal with right now. There's a lot more going on in the world than what happens within the narrative. The ARC (and hopefully the paperback edition) includes a family tree and an abbreviated version of the field guide, which Ms. McGuire has helpfully expanded with pictures on her website.

This being Seanan McGuire, there are strong female characters aplenty. Verity makes a flippant remark that her family breeds for women like her, but there isn't a simpering victim in the lot. Her grandmother, Alice Healy-Price, spends most of her time in various dimensions of hell, and comes home only to stock up on grenades. Her mother and sister spend most of the narrative hunting basilisks. Verity's upbringing itself is a lesson in survival and adaptation. The strength of female characters isn't limited to the Price family, either. Her co-workers are an object lesson in why not to judge a woman by her clothes. (The work uniform is skimpy; the women wearing it are scary.)

My only complaint in this book stems from the start of the love story. While I like the love interest, the initial actions that get them together seemed forced, and the second event felt like it was pulled straight out of a sappy romcom. I forgave the initial rocky start, because without those two things, the relationship might never have gotten off the ground in the first place, and it is handled well from then on out. I would've liked more of Verity's thought process behind the first kiss, is all.

Discount Armageddon comes out on March 6th, and I would strongly recommend picking up a copy from your local independent bookstore. If you like urban fantasy, if you like snarky humor and snappy comebacks, if you've watched and liked a single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think you would enjoy this book. That's not to say that Seanan McGuire is copying Joss Whedon. Far from it. Verity is the next generation of Buffy, an evolution that I can't wait to spend more time with in future books.

Added 2/28/12: I am giving away five copies of this book. See this post for details.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stuff and things

I called out sick today from work, and am trying to take it easy, so this is going to be a quick-and-dirty post. Have some bullet points:

  • This is not cool. Yeah, Amazon messed up. But the resulting abuse? Don't do that. Just because there are no repercussions for being a jerk online doesn't make it okay. That person you're heaping abuse and derision is still a human being, worthy of respect and fair treatment. Don't say things online you wouldn't say to the person's face with a surly rugby team at that person's back.
  • Has someone written a story yet about a team of hardy souls who go about avenging internet bullying? I'd like to read it. If not, I may write it. Hrm.
  • In happier news, I broke 40,000 words for the month on my current manuscript. I remarked the other day that I fell in love with the characters a little in a scene I wrote. Meanwhile, I sow the seeds of their destruction. There may have been an evil laugh as I typed that.
  • I'm thinking about doing a book giveaway with the February 28 post I keep touting. You guys, I'm looking forward to that post so much. I hope you all love it.
  • Josh posted his story about the time he met Stephen King. It's my favorite story of his. I make him tell it whenever I find out someone hasn't heard it, so I know it by heart. I still make him tell it.
  • I may have stretched myself a bit tight this month. SWANoWriMo, a readalong, a book club, and an advance review (which will go up this weekend), and I'm a bit worn out, which is probably why I'm under the weather. I'd say March will be less insane, but I can never count on such things.
How's your Thursday evening? Any plans for the weekend? Reading anything good right now?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have a feeling I'm judging this book more harshly because I disliked the narrator for the audio edition I listened to so intensely. But I'm reviewing the edition I "read," so this is the rating you get.

The narrator for this audio book read in a clipped, petulant tone that made it sound like she was perpetually angry, and that made it sound like it was positively riddled with sentence fragments when she read commas as full stops. It lent some verity to the fact that this is a teenage narrator, but there had to be at least some section where she wasn't pouting or flouncing. It got to the point where I winced every time she said "village" (it came out "vullaich"), or where her name and Harry's or marriage occurred close together.

Protip: don't make characters' names rhyme with a major concept in the first half of your novel, and read your work aloud during the editing phase to make sure you didn't inadvertently rhyme lines of dialogue. I cracked up laughing during one very serious scene, and I had to turn it off until I could stop giggling.

The premise of the book is that young Mary, our first-person teenage narrator, watches her mother turn into a zombie ("unconsecrated" for the purposes of this narrative), is almost turned into a nun, is almost forced to marry, and then the zombies rampage into town because of a zombie that's the Sisters' fault? I didn't follow that part of the story very well, and it was the only thing Mary doesn't obsess over in later chapters to hammer into our heads.

Then Mary, her brother, her sister-in-law, her ex-best friend, her fiance and his brother (who she's in lust with, but who's betrothed to her best friend) go wandering off to find the ocean. At least, that's her goal, and the others don't have a better idea, because there are zombies kinda chasing them from the other side of a chain-link fence and their village is all gone.

There are great swaths of wasted time within the narrative. The timeline is unclear, but it seems to me that there's a week of wandering along the path, hungry and thirsty, where she could've talked to Travis, the boy she's in lust with, about what's going on between them. Then, they reach a village that's been abandoned to the zombies, but there's lots of safe places to perch and lots of stockpiled food to eat. She and Travis shack up, and there's another swath of time during which they could talk or just snuggle, but I get the distinct impression they do neither. Mary goes on at length about how they don't need to talk to one another, because they understand one another so well, and I've never wanted to reach into a book to slap a character more than in that moment.

The rest of the book was probably supposed to be exciting, but I just couldn't wait for this idiot brat to pout her way out of my life. I wasn't feeling the love story, I wasn't feeling the fear or constant threat of the zombies, and the whole thing seemed so poorly paced.

Call this a victim of the hype machine. Call it a bad narrator wrecking a perfectly good book. I was unimpressed with this book, though, and won't be picking up the next in the series.

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Narrative kinks

I post a lot about the things I don't like in books, so I thought today called for a bit of a change of pace. I tweeted last weekend about seeing a movie that hit my "narrative kinks," which is just an attention-getting way of saying it appealed to me and had elements I like to see in stories.

Below is a partial list of things that, in books and movies, will better engage me with the story and make me like it more. My list is not your list, I'm sure, and tastes vary from one consumer of media to another. I don't pretend to speak for anyone but myself.

It bends a trope.
The older and more stale the trope, the better I like to see it twisted and used in new ways. Once, it was a twist on the vampire trope to make them sympathetic monsters, or for people to roleplay dark elves as good guys betraying their evil kin. Now, these twists have, themselves, become tropes. Many fairy tale updates and interpretations hit this kink, as do stories that explore a subject that's been portrayed as flat or one-dimensional in the majority of recent stories. Tucker and Dale vs Evil hit this on several levels, twisting the cabin-in-the-woods horror story, the idea of residents in backwoods West Virginia as idiot hicks, and the intelligence and self-preservation of clean-cut college students. The fact that the alpha male is taken down a peg is a bonus.

World-building is thorough and fleshed out.
I love to read a story and feel like it's set in a world as real as ours. The story that I'm reading shouldn't cover every aspect of the world; I should get the idea that I'm only getting a piece of the puzzle. There are certainly novels set in our own reality where the characters experience many cultures and travel to exotic locales, but I have yet to read a book that covers everything. I wouldn't want to. I'm looking for the same thing in my fictionalized world. Are there hints of other cultures, other places, other events? If not, I won't hate the book, but it won't intrigue me, and I'm unlikely to pick up another in that setting or by that author.

There's a strong female character.
When I say "strong female character," I don't mean that she can beat up all the boys in the story. I'm talking about a female character who gets some control over her fate by the end of the book, or if a choice she makes has a positive effect on the narrative. She can be rescued within the story. She can fall in love. She can be a housewife, or decide all she wants is to have the hero's baby. But if she only exists to be rescued, to serve the main characters food, to have sex with the hero or to be killed and/or raped so he has someone to avenge, I will be less apt to recommend the story to others.

It makes me laugh.
I have a dark sense of humor, but I also like light and silly things. It's hard to pin down my sense of humor, though, because stories others have found funny, I've found childish and absurd. Humor relying on physical comedy, like people getting hit in the head or tripping to their deaths, is unlikely to get so much as a smile out of me. One-liners, snarky back-and-forth dialogue, or dry humor is more likely to earn a laugh, and therefore my esteem. I like most British humor for its dry wit, but there are American humor writers I like, as well. My favorite humor writers happen to be male, but there are several female writers who include humor in their books, and I love them for it.

There's good dialogue.
If I can tell who's speaking without dialogue tags (or with my eyes closed, if I'm watching a movie), if the dialogue flows naturally, if I can learn something about the characters beyond what they're saying from the dialogue, I enjoy the story a lot more. Dialogue is tricky, and I was going to do a future post on the pitfalls of dialogue, so I'll cut this section short.

The tone is engaging.
This is harder to put my finger on, but I mean that there's something about the author's word choice and sentence structure that seems designed to draw me in and include me as part of the narrative. Some writers adopt a very informal tone that draws me in, but I've also read books with a tone bordering on stiff. The more formal writers accomplish it with a sort of wink within the story that makes me feel like I'm in on the joke, rather than being kept at arm's length. Acknowledging that characters are acting like morons can go a long way to engaging me in one of my least favorite types of stories.

I'm sure I'll think of some other elements that I forgot, but I think that encompasses most of what makes me really like a story. What are your narrative kinks? Do you share any of mine?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An exercise in perspective

I posted a challenge to myself yesterday, that Josh and I could write a paragraph about the same space, and there would be no overlap, except for the nouns. I asked if he might take me up on that challenge, and, because he is a kind and loving husband, he has done so.

Below is his two-paragraph description of our bedroom, as posted here:
The room is both spacious and cramped.  My dresser is small and barely fits the clothing I own.  I can't buy new clothes without having to get rid of the something else first.  The pile growing on top, the one that obstructs my clock from all angles but in bed, is a result of my resistance to find sacrifices.  The closet, if I opened it, would assault me with clutter that fills the bottom.  I find the space impractical, and yet I have freedom of movement.  I can make my way around the bed if I choose and access my side without that cramped feeling.  Yet, I'd love to have a dresser just a bit wider, deeper, and taller.  I'd love to get the clothes put away. 
The window has the curtains drawn and shades down when it is in use and is opened when the room is empty.  Not that this makes a bit of difference, the view of the water tower outside is hardly scenic.  The only true scenery offered by the bedroom are the numerous photos, posters, and art depicting different places.  The art represents everything from Boston to Machias to Asheville.  Perhaps it is these gateways that open up the room to give it that spacious feel, or maybe it is simply knowing that our king-sized, wire-frame bed fits in this room that makes me feel like it offers everything I could want.  That is, so long as the closet door remains shut.
And here's my description of the exact same room:
Our bedroom is smaller than the last place we lived, and yet it fits our furniture better. Instead of weaving or twisting to get through tight spots, there is a wide enough aisle on either side of our king-sized bed for either of us to pass. After we got all the furniture positioned the first day we moved in, I remarked that it looked like a hotel room. There was a place for everything, and everything in its place. 
It looks less like a hotel room these days; if it is a hotel room, it's one that's had the Do Not Disturb sign up for too long. There's often clothing or damp towels hanging off the edge of our iron-frame footboard, and laundry doesn't always make it to the basket. I joke with Josh that he dissolves into mist, rather than getting undressed for bed, because I'm always finding a pile of clothes on his side of the room. We both have clutter on top of our dressers, though I keep mine neater, and our nightstands are occupied with the books we're currently reading. The top of my nightstand is dominated by my CPAP machine, leaving very little room for the alarm clock. My books are on the shelf below, and I know my to-read stack has gotten too big when it fills the space.
We both remark on the size of the space,  and the clutter, and the bed, and moving around it. But I point out different aspects of the clutter, and, while I don't get around to pointing out the art he and I spent nearly an hour of precious unpacking time figuring out or the curtains he hung, he leaves out our nightstands and the parts of the clutter that bother me the most. I don't even bother with the closet, but clearly it's one of his priorities.

The bedroom in question -
how'd we do?
The purpose of this exercise isn't for Josh and I to have a fight. We won't; after nearly 11 years of marriage, it takes a lot more than a difference in perspective to rattle us. It's an illustration, though, of the point I brought up in yesterday's post. While Josh and I may both refer to our "cluttered room," our eyes won't travel to the same points within the room, and we're not talking about the same clutter.

In the same way, your characters shouldn't be describing things in the same way, either. What someone notices, how they tell you what they noticed, and what's important about the observation will vary wildly from one character to another. If you refuse to use that opportunity, you're cheating your characters and your readers.

Thank you, Josh, for your contribution to today's post. Everyone, make sure to stop by his blog to give him kudos.

Review: The Map of Time

The Map of Time
The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really liked the concept of this book, but the execution, not so much. This book had a lot of potential, and I felt like it was wasted on cliche and plots that have already been done.

Despite what the blurb says, this book is not some race against time to save great works of literature. That's one of three main plots in this book, which reads like three novellas stitched together. It's the third one, and it lacks the adventure of the blurb.

In the first section, a young man on the verge of taking his own life because his lady love was killed by Jack the Ripper gets a second chance to fix it. In the second, an independent woman falls for a hero from the future who isn't all he seems. In the third, H.G. Wells solves the mystery of murders by no weapon that's yet been invented, and both becomes the father of time travel, and doesn't. The three narratives are loosely related, and characters appear in all three narratives. H.G. Wells plays the strongest role in all three, which is too bad, because he's a jerk.

My favorite of the three narratives was the middle one, because it did something clever with the idea frequently found in romantic comedies and sitcoms about relationships based on a lie. I rooted for the liar, and even found myself liking him despite his underhandedness at the start of his section. He was one of my favorite characters, by the end.

Unfortunately, it wasn't all that clever or well-written. Jack the Ripper and time travel isn't a new idea, and I didn't see any reason to trot him out in this story, except to traumatize Our Hero, Andrew. I didn't like the explanation of the Ripper's identity, nor did I appreciate the author's failure to acknowledge that not all prostitutes in Victorian England had chosen it as a lifelong profession. Marie Kelly could've easily been painted as a whole person if that one little factoid had been integrated into the narrative. Instead, she was there as a canvas for the Ripper to paint his horror onto.

I also objected to the writer's attempts to get into the heads of various writers of the time. He talks about various writers' inspirations for their tales, and they're so pedestrian and banal that, rather than feeling like I was privy to a secret world, I felt like the author was deliberately tearing down the classics to reduce the mystique.

The time travel within the book is the same concept as in The Time Traveler's Wife, and I didn't think it was done as well.

I can see why this book has gotten the positive buzz it has, but I just felt like I was reading an anthology rather than a whole narrative, and like a lot of the book was filler in an attempt to make it sound authentically Victorian. It was too modern to be Victorian, though, and too derivative to be a modern classic. There were some flashes of brilliance within the narrative, but, overall, it fell far short of my expectations.

View all my reviews

Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing peeves: repetition

I've had a lovely long weekend, where I accomplished very little that I meant to, but relaxed and had fun and didn't get sick. This is what I mean, by the way, when I warn you that you won't have time when you think you will. I did get writing done, but not nearly as much as I meant to.

I haven't done a pet peeve about writing lately, so I thought I'd resurrect that theme to talk about one that frequently irritates me. I don't know why editors don't catch it, or why they think it benefits the narrative. But frequently, the reader will be witness to a conversation. Then, a few scenes later, one of the characters engaged in that conversation will repeat everything we learned in that conversation, sometimes reconstructing entire sentences.

Don't repeat yourself. It's patronizing. Scenes and dialogue are there to serve multiple purposes, and regurgitating the exact same conversation kills whatever point it may have had the first time around. Your reader only needs that information once. If your readers are smart (and, if you want readers, you want the smart ones), they'll pick up on whatever you wanted them to see the first time the conversation happened.

If you must have a character relate the conversation within the narrative, please, for the love of all Muses, please summarize it. Mention the basic points, and nothing more. It is true that what a character gets out of a conversation is as telling as how they behave and speak within the narrative, but that purpose is served far better with internal dialogue than with the repetition of an entire conversation.

Another form of repetition that bothers me is when people describe characters or settings in the same terms every time it comes up. This is especially irritating when different perspective characters do it. I can bet you that my husband and I could write a two-paragraph description of our bedroom, and the only overlap would be in some of the nouns. We notice different things about it because we approach it differently, even though we're similar people living in the same shared space. Different characters noticing the same features about a person or landscape means that either that feature is grotesque, or that the characters are telepathic. If there's no precedent for telepathy, that tosses me right out of the narrative.

It's a lost opportunity when the same terms or aspects are harped upon every time someone or something comes up. Even the same people will notice something different depending on mood or where they're looking, and sticking to the tried-and-true descriptive terms cheats the readers of potential characterization or making the world more real to them. The only place where it's okay is in songs and epic poetry. If you're not writing one of those, knock it off. Break out your thesaurus, if you must, but find new words.

I can't say I don't repeat myself. It's a real problem in first and second drafts; by the time I'm getting toward the end of the draft, I'm not sure if I've already written in an important piece of information, so I just toss it in there as if I haven't. I discover upon my read-through edit, then, that an essential tidbit shows up two or three times, and I have to figure out which reveal is the most natural.

If I were anything but a pantster, I could avoid this by outlining where things are supposed to be shown to the reader. By now, though, I am nothing if not honest to myself. Finding the same bit of information sprinkled throughout my manuscript makes me laugh at myself, and edits should be fun on some level.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How to build good characters

My Friday posts don't tend to be popular. I don't know whether that's because I usually half-ass it because I'm just crawling home after an exhausting week, or because nobody reads stuff on the internet on weekends. So I'll try an experiment. Because I am not exhausted today, I'm going to write something informative and helpful (which isn't always a guarantee of blog hits, but we'll see).

I've blogged before about building good characters. When I wrote about role-playing, I wrote about how characters in a role-playing game are fully-fleshed people with motivations that aren't always apparent. I also blogged about being able to relate to characters, so that a reader feels invested in the story.

My initial methods of building characters involved looking inside myself. I based my protagonists off my own traits, or who I wanted to be. I'm admitting this as a starting point, not as advice, because readers can smell an authorial self-insert a mile off, whether they know you or not.

When I realized that my own traits couldn't make for a full-fleshed-out world, I began looking at others, at their inherent contradictions and values. I started to see that, while I didn't always agree with some people, their ways of arriving at values and conclusions were sound and followed some interesting internal logic. I took note of their various complexities, and started writing characters with similar issues. Or, I learned about people's backgrounds, and imagined how they'd be different if some detail were changed along the way.

I also looked at the characters I liked in the books I was reading. If I couldn't get into someone's motivation, I'd make something up, and see what changed in the narrative as a result of this insight. I tweaked backgrounds, stole traits, lifted flaws wholesale out of some stories.

That wasn't the end of the process, though. While I may have been able to write some of the most faceted characters in modern literature, I had to give them the right story, and the right world to inhabit. My character with trust issues wouldn't work out in a world populated with open and honest souls, and my oh-so-superior protagonist would be boring in a world where there aren't things that are more powerful than she is. The characters' flaws and backgrounds had to be not only believable, but also relevant to the story.

Everyone's methods and approaches to building characters are different. What's important is that the people feel real and relatable to readers. Whether that means looking inside oneself for those tidbits of reality, or looking at others, or relying on basic logic and human nature, it shouldn't matter. Each character in a story should feel like a whole person, with his or her own problems, thoughts, and life, outside the protagonist. Irrelevant details need not ever come up in the narrative, but you'll make better characters if you develop every single named character in your story.

If you can't come up with a motivation and background for the guy who hands your protagonist her coffee in chapter five, don't worry. You don't have to name every single person the protagonist runs into, only the ones the perspective character thinks are important. But you will want more named characters than just your protagonist, a small circle of allies, and the antagonist. I can't give you a solid number, because that depends on the story you're trying to tell.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reading aloud as an editing tool

It's my birthday today. And for my birthday, Chuck Wendig gave me a present (not that he knows that, unless he does a trackback to this entry). He was tweeting writing advice, and one of the pieces of advice was something I'd been meaning to blog about.
There is no better way to tell if the language works or not than reading something aloud. When your eyes are traveling over the words you've written, you will "hear" them in your head the way they were meant to sound. When you're reading them aloud, though, it slows you down. If you have an awkward construction, your tongue will twist as you stumble over the words. If you're meant to have a fast-paced section but you're forced to read slowly, you'll know by how slowly you're reading. If you have a word in there that kills the flow of the sentence, you'll trip over it, and know it needs replacing with something that fits.
"Where are you going? Don't you want to hear what
happens in draft five?"

It's even better if you can read it aloud to someone else. My ex was great for this, because he liked the little tidbits I fed him as I went along, and he asked good questions. One of the members of the writing group has requested reading our critique pieces aloud to the group before the crit begins, for the same reason.

It can be just as effective to read it to yourself, though that might be harder to do. Chances are good the patrons of your local Panera won't appreciate story time. To that end, you may need to print out your story or download it to your ereader (if you have one), and go somewhere else to read your story aloud. I recommend doing this, anyway, because looking at the words in a different way detaches you from them. Reducing your relationship to the words makes it easier to cut them or change them. Nothing is harder than editing out passages at a time when you feel like every single word is sheer brilliance. Some of my most effective editing was accomplished with a red pen on printed pages.

Besides, reading words on a glowing screen is harder on the eyes. You're less likely to catch mistakes if you're skipping over it as fast as possible so you can make the burning stop.

In short: read your stuff aloud when you're editing, and listen to how it sounds. I won't hurt you if you don't; you'll only hurt yourself.

Incidentally, if you're reading my blog for writing advice but not Chuck Wendig's, you're probably doing it backwards. His stuff is funny, irreverent, and brilliant. I don't always agree with everything he writes, but I do find it entertaining. You may not want to read his blog at work, though: there's swearing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Grave Peril

Grave Peril
Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I kept hearing about how this book represented some "turning point" in the series, but I didn't see it. This book struck me as no different from the two that came before it. I enjoyed it well enough that I do intend to read book 4 on audio, but I don't see why people fall all over themselves to recommend this series to me. At this point, it's all James Marsters keeping me "reading" them.

In this book, Harry is scrambling to catch up with all of the ghosts that have been appearing all over Chicago. He has a new friend to help him with this, some kind of paladin character named Michael Carpenter. Harry crosses over to the Never-Never to get to the bottom of it, where his supremely sexy fairy godmother, Leea, waits to collect on a deal he made when he was young and stupid. And, because none of that is enough to deal with, apparently, his idiot girlfriend, Susan the intrepid reporter, tangles herself up in the whole mess so he has to run in and save her.

Harry's biggest supposed weakness remains his "chivalry," which is a nice way of saying that he infantilizes women and they're catty enough to use it against him. Tell me he gets over this and develops human traits, please.

There are some interesting characters introduced in this book, and a few developments that I'm hoping come up later. The plot did leave me guessing, though some of the mysteries were so transparently obvious I wanted to smack Harry, while others took a huge leap of logic to deduct.

I'm glad a friend is loaning me the audio books, because listening to James Marsters' narration is the only thing saving these books, and I would hate to have burned through $30 a pop just for this.

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Feed by Mira Grant parts 1 and 2 - readalong

Text reads, "To Alice & Josh" and "Rise up while you can."
I read Feed when it first came out in the summer of 2010. When the group started talking about horror for a February readalong, though, the idea of a reread held a lot of appeal. After all, I had appreciated the book when it first came out. But, having read another book in the trilogy, and with the anticipation of the third coming out in June, I wanted to refresh my memory and see if anything changed the second time around.

It did, indeed. However, I will be avoiding discussion of the early foreshadowing I'm noticing, for the sake of not spoiling anything for the rest of the readalong crew.

I do want to discuss the pacing of the book. I didn't remember it starting off slow, but, now that I'm rereading it, I do notice that the building of tension is subtle, and what's meant to grab the reader initially is the concept rather than the plot or characters. Georgia Mason (George), the narrator, keeps her sense of humor limited to wry observations about the world. She's writing for posterity, so everything she writes is cited by historical context, much like those found in newspaper stories or online news sites.

In retrospect, I do remember saying that it felt like the first two-thirds of the book were like being cranked up to the top of a roller coaster.

I'm much better able to appreciate the pop culture references throughout the text now, having read several interviews which confirmed my suspicions. In addition to the obvious George Romero references (and the director's fate, after passing along peacefully in his sleep), we have characters named after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the title character in Shaun of the Dead. I know Shaun isn't described as anything like that Shaun, but I still picture Simon Pegg in the role.

I didn't catch the reference to Steve Irwin (of "Crocodile Hunter") fame until someone pointed it out to me, though I did know that Stewarts, the Newsies who put a humorous spin on the facts, were an homage to The Daily Show. George also skewers several modern political and pop culture artifacts (or rather, things that are artifacts to her), including reality shows, the death penalty, and partisanship which suggests you're one the zombies' side if you don't take ridiculous measures to get rid of them.

What I'm really appreciating in my second read-through, though, is the allegory. This is a story about a world driven by fear. Just because people are right to fear zombies doesn't mean the hypervigilance has created a better society. People are afraid to gather in groups or leave the house. Meanwhile, the political landscape had changed, because it makes no sense to let people starve to death when they'll reanimate to munch on their neighbors. What separates the haves from the have-nots is how much security they can afford to fend off the zombies.

The worldbuilding and crunchiness of the science is even more impressive the second time around. I'm glad I'm getting the chance to explore this post-zombie world all over again.

More readalong posts:
Grace at Feeding My Book Addiction
Jennifer at Book Den
Britt at Self-Styled Bibliophile

Part 2 of the readalong is here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing Romance and Sex

I am not a romance writer, but several of the others in the writing group are. We have two romance writers, and one who writes literary erotica. All of them talk about the difficulty of writing sex scenes.

This used to confuse me, because, for the longest time, I had an easy time of it. I looked forward to it, in fact. It was the idea of other people reading my sex scenes that gave me pause.

I even wrote a NaNoWriMo novel that was an erotica. That was the year I hit 100,000 words in one month. I didn't realize how easy I was making it for myself, though. In my story, my main character encountered each partner only once, learned something about herself, and moved on.

That kind of sex is easy to write. What's less easy is the kind that most readers want to read. It's hot, it's sexy, but it also advances the plot or the relationship in some way. Much in the same way gun shootouts are the culmination of an action movie's buildup, sex scenes should be the culmination of tension and emotions between two characters. And that's harder to capture.

Even harder is when one has written a few dozen romance or erotica novels. The process doesn't change much from one sexual encounter to another, so writers have to find new ways of describing the action without sounding clinical about it. They have to avoid purple prose, or cliché terms and phrases. And they have to tie it into the relationship and plot in some way. Generally, the appeal of sex scenes in romance novels isn't that they're there, but that they're emotionally satisfying, to the characters as well as the reader.

It's a lot of work, and I discovered for myself just how much in my current project when it came time for two characters who'd been dancing around one another for a book and a half to voice their desires. It was a tough balance. I needed to make sure they were acting the way they'd act, not the way I wanted them to. (Just because I was sick of the will-they-won't-they didn't mean the time was right, necessarily.) I had to describe things in terms that were neither too purple nor too clinical. I had to portray enjoyment without falling back on tired language about swelling seas or earthquakes. And I needed to depict subtleties about their personalities and their relationship without interrupting the action. I've gone back to edit that section three times already, and I suspect I'll be picking at it through several more edits.

I haven't read a lot of bad sex, to my recollection, though anything overly flowery or metaphorical is unlikely to catch my attention. I've read sex scenes that have taken place over a paragraph, and others that have gone on for pages, and I can't say which I prefer. I think some aspects are better left to the imagination, but my romance writer friends may disagree.

I can say that, if the sex serves a narrative purpose, it should probably be written. If it adds nothing to the story, it should probably be implied through a fade-to-black. Beyond that, I wouldn't suggest any rules. It's not my area of expertise. All I know is, it's not as easy to write as you may think.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Perpetual tiredness and the creativity machine

Josh bears my attempts to embarrass him patiently.
I recently came across some research which suggests that people are more creative when they're tired. As I used to describe myself as, "always tired," this was relevant to my interests.

I was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea, for which I've been undergoing treatment. That goes a long way toward explaining my tiredness. What it doesn't explain, though, is why I still stay up until all hours of the night, working on my writing. You'd think I'd want to be tired, or something.

I've mentioned it before, but I used to spend entire summer vacations writing all night. I would often tell my parents I'd be in bed soon, only to tap away until dawn, or close to it. Most of it was that I didn't want to go through the entire scary house in the dark, but it was also that I was writing far more productively than I did in the daylight hours.

This doesn't work with other jobs. I've worked overnight shifts, and wound up so perpetually exhausted and groggy that I ruled it out as a long-term solution to my night owl ways. Apparently it's just writing.

I've joked with other writers about it. We agree that the wee hours are the best times to shut up the inner critic, though many of them find that the inner critic serves an important function. Rereading the high-output pieces fills them with dismay: it wasn't the brilliance they thought it was.

It's the ultimate in pantsterdom, really. Typing along with no plan, no frame, no idea of where you're going to end up, is about as seat-of-the-pants as you get. That would explain why some people in the writing group find it less useful than others.

Still, I can't go through life perpetually tired. That way lies madness. There are other ways to tap into this, to use it to my advantage. I can, for instance, try to get most of my writing done when I first get up on weekends, rather than after the coffee has kicked in. I can acknowledge that I'm more tired during the week, and so push myself to write more after a long day, instead of allowing myself a break. I can simply be mindful of my state of mind, and have the discipline and mental fortitude to push myself when I only want to take a nap.

And I can do all that while ending the cycle of perpetual tiredness. It's a luxury many (parents, full-time students, professional writers) don't have, and so I'm best off learning to tap it when I have time on my side. Lord knows, if I'm working under deadline, I won't be able to wait for inspiration to strike.

Odd that I should be talking about the luxury of being tired. It is nice to know, though, that my self-sabotage of my sleep schedule was serving a purpose.

Review: Heroes at Odds

Heroes at Odds
Heroes at Odds by Moira J. Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love this series, and I was saddened to learn that book #7 wasn't going to be out in paperback. Moira Moore is still writing it so that the series gets its proper ending, but the publisher has dropped the series.


As for this book, I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I did the earlier books. We do get a lot of fun characters and amusing interactions and a deeper look at a fascinating world, but I felt like there was something missing. Lee and Taro's relationship lacked the tension of earlier books; I felt like they were reluctantly going through the motions. That may have been the point.

In this book, Lee and Taro's relationship is tested when Lee's family shows up to tell her about a marriage contract made before she became a Shield. The contract is null and void because of her obligations, but that doesn't make the other side of the contract any less tenacious in seeking to force Lee to honor it. To that end, Taro challenges Marcus Pride, Lee's would-be husband, to a set of three challenges. Meanwhile, Flown Raven is threatened by outside forces in a bid to take Fiona out of power, Lee joins this world's equivalent of a coven, and Taro's mother tries, ineffectually, to get between Taro and Lee.

Where the narrative felt like it was missing something was in the three trials. Lee complains bitterly that her future is up to these stupid tests, but I never felt like she was invested in the outcome. During the final test, it comes down to a nail-biting finish, and yet I never felt the tension in Lee, nor did I feel it was terribly important to Taro that he win.

The rest of the story was good, and a lot of the things that happened in earlier books are tied in. This book does an excellent job of starting to bring things to a head for book 7.

Which is why it's so frustrating that I'm not going to be able to hold a paper copy in my hands to read the seventh installment. It promises to be a good one, and I'm sure I'll enjoy reading it online, but I'd much rather be able to pick it up off store shelves, and pay the author for all the world-building and work she's put into this story.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Always improving

When I write these blog entries, my hope is that writers who are even more new than I am to the process of writing and publication are stumbling across my entries and finding this useful. I don't have a lot of information that would be useful for seasoned veterans, and some of my advice may even seem naive or wrong-headed. I don't know; I'm still on the outside looking in.

I do know that new writers have an advantage more experienced writers don't: you're still learning. From where you're sitting, I'm sure that doesn't feel great. It feels like you still have so much to do, and isn't it enough that you're getting the words down on the page?

I'm sorry to say, no, it's not, and you're going to stumble and regress and make mistakes and get frustrated, and that's how it goes. But, believe it or not, where you are, that's an advantage. You're well aware you don't know everything, and so you're free to play around to see what works. You know you're not perfect, so you're still reading what other people tell you about how to write well, and you get to try it for yourself to see how it works. You're not locked into your bad habits. You can still change.

The thing is, no matter how good you are at what you do, there are always ways you can improve. When I was new at my current day job, I was in a meeting and a manager was talking about signing up for trainings. A co-worker spoke up to say she'd been working there for years, and didn't need any more training. The manager replied that she'd been in the field for 25 years, and was still learning new things. It clicked for me then, that education isn't something you passively absorb for the first chunk of your life, then go out and put into practice. Education is something you go through so you can find out how to best learn throughout your life.

That applies to writing, as well. Trends change, and interests shift, and the writers who are still producing bestsellers aren't the ones who write the same way they did when they first started. Sometimes it's a shift in writing style or approach to storytelling. Other times, it's an entire rehaul of the way the author tells a story, often winding up with an entirely different narrative from what that author was writing before.

Even authors who don't need to adapt or who started out being able to write well have room for improvement, though it's often harder to see. No one is so perfect that there isn't room to tell a tale better.

But, if what you're doing is working, there isn't much incentive to change, and one can stagnate that way. Authors who don't continue to adapt and learn may burn out, or they may face a market that's moved on without them. Readers may grow disillusioned with an author whose books are all the same, and move onto new narratives.

And so, future author, you have an advantage over established authors. You can set a habit now of lifelong learning. You have the opportunity, right now, to acknowledge that you'll never be complacent, that you'll always strive to improve and learn and adapt as you need to.

If you can accept right now that you're not perfect, and will always fall just short of perfection, you're well ahead of the game.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Make them suffer

After last week's write-in, Tara and I joked on Twitter about how we were too lazy to be serial killers, which was why we'd become writers. (I had just linked this shirt, for context.) We channel our daily frustration into hurting fictional people, because it's socially unacceptable to threaten people with weapons for minor infractions.

It's not that I'm one incident of being cut off in traffic from going on a rampage, or anything. I keep my violent thoughts quite hidden in my daily life, because I'm saving them up for my characters.

And not just the bad ones, either, though I do take great satisfaction in giving characters the endings they deserve. Mostly, the saved-up violence, the harmless fantasies, and the brutal deaths I read on news sites are visited upon my protagonists. I beat them up emotionally and physically.

It's not because they exist as a proxy of the people I hate. I like my characters. It's because I like them so much that I stack the deck so heavily against them. If I don't let them shine against tremendous odds, if I don't give them a chance to show off, I'm doing them, and any potential reader, a disservice.

When I was starting out, I hated to see my characters suffer. I wanted them to be happy, and I was gentle and kind to them. But my stories lacked tension, and I was telling, rather than showing, far too much. My reader only had my word for it that my characters were strong and capable, because I never tested them.

I also read a lot of published works that never ramped up the tension, never really challenged the characters. It seemed like their victories were handed to them, and I felt cheated of a real story.

What I like about spending time with other writers is that I don't have to explain or justify the above. They understand, because they've been there, and visited the same on their own characters. I'd say it doesn't make me a violent person, but that would be a lie. I've just found a socially acceptable way of letting it out where no one real gets hurt.

Review: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I "read" Oryx and Crake on audio a couple of years ago, but I hadn't realized this was a follow-up novel, or how much time elapsed between their being written. I'm not sure if that would've made me more or less apt to read The Year of the Flood, but I am glad I gave this book a listen. It greatly enriched my enjoyment of both books.

The story begins in the year 25, "the year of the flood," according to the calendar the Gardeners keep. We follow the stories of Ren, a woman locked in the biological containment zone of a high-class brothel, and Toby, an older woman making her way in a luxury spa. They both belonged to the religious sect who called themselves God's Gardeners, who predicted and prepared for the "waterless flood," a mass near-extinction of humanity. Toby hides out among the Gardeners, eventually joining their ranks, while Ren is raised with their dogma.

While the world in The Year of the Flood is exactly the same as Oryx and Crake, with many of the same characters, and the narrative is told in a similar frame, this is entirely different. Year of the Flood is told through the perspective of two women who were in the weird religious sect that inspired Crake's impact on the world. The satire and that Atwood was depicting a world that deserved to be wiped out was much clearer to me in this book than in Oryx and Crake. Jimmy regards things far more dispassionately than Ren and Toby do. They have a lot more to lose by a misstep in a world that considers female bodily autonomy a pesky question solved by putting a monetary value on it.

I'm sure the opinion that putting corporations in control of the world is a bad idea was depicted in Oryx and Crake, but it was far more frequently vocalized in Year of the Flood, often by the God's Gardeners. We spend far more time in the pleeb lands, the dystopian future's version of ghettos. Anyone unlucky enough to not be owned by a corporation makes their way through extreme violence, theft, scrounging and scraping, and selling whatever people will buy. The only glimmer of hope is with the aforementioned God's Gardeners or a similar religious sect, which vacillates between being ignored by the corporate-owned military, and persecution.

The plot, itself, covers much of the same period of time as Oryx and Crake. It extends that story by precisely two scenes. While it doesn't expand the timeline much, it broadens the story immensely. It has a similarly open end, but is a satisfying conclusion, nonetheless.

I would be remiss if I didn't warn you there is rape and sexual violence in this book. However, the brutality of the rape is depicted in the most sensitive way, with the least sexualization of it, I've ever read. The rape is never described, and the reader is spared experiencing it with the victim. And yet, the violence of it is depicted thoroughly.

There are also some gross scenes. Bugs are ingested for their protein, and maggots are used for medicinal purposes. The violence is often horrifying, though rarely dwelled upon.

A note about the audio book: this contained the Gardener's hymns performed by Orville Stoeber. It sometimes made for a strange juxtaposition, especially with how commercial the music sounded, with such bizarre lyrics. I liked it. I thought it was used to good effect. There's more information about the music here.

The audio book also had three separate readers for each of the narrators. The third is Adam One of God's Gardeners, and his sections always prefaced the singing of a hymn. I recognized Toby's reader as having narrated American Rose, but I didn't recognize the other two. All I can say is that they did the narrative justice.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The perfect tools

Tonight, Josh and I noticed our tax refund had cleared. We've needed a printer for a while, so we were off to the office supply store to pick one up. We'd done our research ahead of time, went straight to the laser printers, looked at what models they had, and picked one out within the first two minutes.

We didn't leave for another forty minutes. We had to pick up paper, and then he wanted to look at something, and, while he looked for a new mouse, well, I might as well look at pens, right?

We don't need pens. We have a ton of pens we don't use. A pen in our house is more likely to dry up from disuse than it is to be used up. And yet, every time I'm in an office supply store, I'm staring hungrily at the writing utensils aisle, wondering if one of the implements before me will be the instrument from which my genius will pour.

I have a similar problem with journals, but I've managed to keep myself from buying more. I have five that haven't been used, and four with just the first few pages filled in. The trouble there is a lot easier to put my finger on: when I'm blogging regularly and writing up my thoughts in my livejournal or on Twitter or randomly texting my friends, there isn't much left that I'd want marring the pristine pages of my pretty journals. If I outlined or plotted anything out in advance, I'd at least have that to put down on paper.

I sometimes wonder if I don't have a hoarding problem that I turned into writing ambition for lack of anything better to do with all the books, office supplies, and weird observations I collect in my brain. It comforts me to know my writer friends, and some social media-savvy authors, also admit to a strange fascination with office supplies. Josh collects notebooks like a squirrel burying acorns, and pointing out the stack of looseleaf in our office supply box rarely deters him from buying more. At our write-ins, the writing group frequently talks about our latest acquisitions in tools, and we trade merits or make recommendations.

I won't get into the time my office put me in charge of buying the supplies. Suffice it to say that we never ran out of anything with me in charge.

The thing is, the tools don't matter. Some great works have been penned with a leaky quill on cheap parchment, and others were scribbled on the back of bar napkins. The writers I know are too resourceful to let a lack of just the right pen stop them from getting the story down. I don't even have a burning need for pens, because I do most of my writing on my laptop. Its 8-hour battery life is all the tool I need.

So, why the obsession? I don't know, but I chalk mine up to superstition. So long as I'm searching for the perfect conduit for my ideas, I'm still striving to improve, never settling for what I have.

I don't think I'll ever be the perfect writer. I think I'll always have room to improve. And so, the hunt shall go on.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Plagiarism, originality, and the fuzzy truth

Sometimes when I'm browsing online, I come across a blog post on a topic upon which I have Opinions, and I use it as a jumping-off point for my own post. Other times, as today, I notice that someone else posted something I already posted about. Do I feel like my idea was stolen? Am I stealing an idea if I'm starting from the same point, but writing my own post about it?

No. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a lot of different bloggers think about a topic at the same time. Sometimes people have a different take on the same topic, and they have something to add. Complaining about a popular blogger posting about something I blogged about last week would be akin to stomping my feet and whining that someone else reviewed the same book I did, or that someone in the readalong wrote about the same thing I did. (None of them did; we had a refreshing gamut of opinions.)

The same goes for fiction releases. You may have noticed a lot of books being released with similar descriptions, or whose ideas seem remarkably similar. Sometimes, these books aren't based on a trend that's currently popular, and yet they come out within a week or two of one another. Who copied who, there?

Probably neither. There's a handy German word, zeitgeist, which I learned in my psychology background. It means, literally, "spirit of the times," and it refers to the cultural climate, and also to the knowledge and arts that have contributed to create that climate. I find it's a useful term when I'm talking about literary trends that spring up seemingly overnight, without any obvious trigger. Some trends come from the popularity of one book or series, but most of them appear in clusters. That's not a publishing house conspiracy; it's zeitgeist. Several different people grew up consuming the same media, observing the same events on the news, ingesting information the same way. This generation's writers shared a lot of the same environments and experiences growing up, and so they're able to process things in a way that's familiar to this generation of readers. People writing epic fantasy in its early years may have been copying Tolkien, or they might have read up on their Joseph Campbell.

There's more that goes into it, too. At the very core of stories, you have three basic plots: person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self. My high school freshman English teacher taught us this, and, for the rest of the year, referred back to it by asking us which of the basic plots came into play. Some of the better stories were some mixture of all three elements, but those plots were still there. It taught me early on that originality is a myth. Every story is derivative of another, and boils down to one of the basic plots. If we distract ourselves with how similar plots are, we miss out on the parts of it that are fresh and new.

I've found that plots that strive to be unexpected and new end up either nonsensical or jarring, and neither is a positive reading experience. There's plenty of room for surprising readers while sticking to a formula, exciting readers while presenting a predictable plot, or amusing readers despite the low-key language. I've seen each performed masterfully, and I've seen people try for fresh and new who had terrible execution.

That said, there is such a thing as plagiarism in the writing community. People do steal passages, or entire books with the character names switched around, or stories off the web. Be wary of ebooks whose authors you're unfamiliar with, for that very reason. But blatant plagiarism and what people call plagiarism when a book happens to share elements with another are entirely different.

Personally, I like playing with cliché elements and turning them on their heads, but that's a trope all its own. (Potential time sink warning — that site can suck you in for hours.) I'm not trying for originality. All I want out of the stories I tell is that they say something the way I want to say it. Sometimes, that will mean saying something someone else already has. All that matters to me is that it resonates better with someone than the old way of saying it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ratings scale

I've already written about my standards for reviewing, but I realized my ratings scale of one to five stars makes absolutely no sense without some idea of why I rate things the way I do. And so, what I'm looking for when I mark books the rating I do:

Five Stars—I want everyone I know to read this book so we can talk about how awesome it is. Reading this book changed my life. I thought about it when I wasn't reading it, and I see myself reading it again.

Four Stars—I greatly enjoyed it, and would recommend it to people who like that kind of thing. There were minor flaws and a few things I didn't like, but they didn't detract from my overall enjoyment.

Three Stars—I liked it, but I'm not going to be singing its praises from the rooftops. I can understand why people who do love it feel the way they do, but it's not for me. There were a number of faults, but not enough that I wouldn't recommend it.

Two Stars—I didn't like this book. I could barely get through it. I'm sorry I didn't listen to my gut, and discard this after the 100 pages I give a book to convince me I should finish it. There were more flaws than good points.

One Star—I couldn't finish it, or I'm sorry I did.. The themes were noxious, the characters unlikable, and I don't understand what people find appealing about it. I cannot strongly warn you enough not to read this book.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Review: Girl with the Silver Eyes

Girl with the Silver Eyes
Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book when I was younger, and I remember liking it very much, but I couldn't remember why.

Katie Welker is an unusual girl. She creeps people out, because of her flat expression and silver-colored eyes. That's even before they know that she can move small objects with her mind, call up breezes that can slam doors and scatter papers, and she can communicate with animals. When her grandmother, who's been taking care of her most of her life, passes away unexpectedly, she goes to live with her mother. Soon after, a man shows up asking odd questions about her, and she finds out she's not alone in what makes her different from so many others.

It's like the book was written for a young me. Young Katie is never happier than when she's curled up reading an excellent book. Her classmates don't like her and make fun of her, but she has ways of deterring bullies, though the bullies don't entirely realize what she can do. And her happy ending is finding other kids just like her.

But this could just as easily be an allegory for autism. While kids on the spectrum don't move things with their mind, they do tend to be shunned by their peers and have a sense of not fitting in, and there's been a debate, as at the end of this book, about whether they're better off sheltered from the general population or integrated into society. (We're moving more toward a model of integration, which is why I'm glad the book didn't end up with Katie and her newfound friends being shuttled off to an institution. The ending leaves it open to interpretation.)

Overall, while the writing style doesn't hold up to what I remembered, I did enjoy refreshing my memory about this book. The story held up well, and it told me a lot about my younger self, who loved this book to pieces.

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