Friday, March 30, 2012

Recap for March 2012

I've been doing a run-down of my month in posts at the end of every month, and no one's complained, so it continues. This is the last post of March, barring any reviews that populate from my Goodreads.

Book Reviews
Piratica by Tanith Lee (3/5 stars; YA adventure) — Spunky teenage girl sets off to become a lady pirate. More enjoyable for younger readers, doubtless.
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley (5/5 stars; audio book; Flavia de Luce #4; mystery) — Flavia has a film crew descending on Buckshaw. Murder happens relatively late in the narrative, which speeds the pacing considerably, and Flavia is always delightful. This is a good example of a series that isn't stuck in a rut.
The Nerd Who Loved Me by Vicki Lewis Thompson (3/5 stars; Nerds in Love #2; romance) — Entertaining but predictable romance tale. Interesting twist in having a beta male love interest, but on the repetitive side. 
Just Like That by Margo Candela (4/5 stars; romance; novella length) — I got a copy for review, but would've bought it, anyway, if I knew how much I'd like it. Details left to the imagination in this short-but-sweet romance with a compelling protagonist.
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (3/5 stars; audio book; dystopian science fiction) — Much-loved SF novel with intriguing premise winds up feeling emotionally disconnected and overly complicated to me.
Liar by Justine Larbalestier (4/5 stars; YA) — The ultimate unreliable narrator tells about the mystery surrounding a classmate's death.
Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich (3/5 stars; audio book; Stephanie Plum #17; humor mystery/romance/thriller thingy) — The next-to-most-recent of the Stephanie Plum books. Adds nothing new, though the ending is creative.
A Circle of Cats by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess (5/5 stars; picture book) — Thoroughly delightful tale about a girl saved from a snakebite by being turned into a cat. Then she has to figure out how to turn back. Almost wish I had kids of my own to read this to.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (5/5 stars; audio book; classic SF/fantasy) — A science fiction master at his peak tells of a man traveling back in time to let go of those he's lost to move forward emotionally. Read a radio play version.
A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar by John McDonald (4/5 stars; humorous essays) — A Maine native relates tales and views from his home state. More entertaining if you've lived there.
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (4/5 stars; YA) — A rough start turns around to become one of the most touching and emotionally honest books I've read in recent memory. This is how character development should look. 

Most Popular Posts in March
My interview with Seanan McGuire from February continued to garner lots of view. I'm unsurprised.
Turning Negatives into Positives became something of a theme in March, and that post contains links to all of my posts that fit the theme.
It would seem people like to read my departures from negativity, because people flocked to Good Stuff: Castle. Or maybe it's just Nathan Fillion's magnetism.
My progress post on my current project, where I hold myself accountable for failing to budget time to write this month, garnered quite a bit of interest. I'm proud to report that tonight I put my butt in the chair and tapped out the scene I'd been dreading.
And apparently people wanted to learn how to suspend disbelief (or they wanted to read about Hunger Games, to which I allude in the post).

See you in April! Have an excellent weekend!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Turning Negatives into Positives

I had a theme this month. I didn't mean to; it just happened that way. I wrote about introversion back on the 4th. I wrote a blog post about how my perpetual rewrites have helped me develop my craft. Then on the 14th, I wrote about my nemesis, the inner editor. On the 19th, I blogged about being thin-skinned and overly sensitive to criticism. This week, on the 25th, I posted about my overactive imagination and how writing is an outlet for it.

All of those posts started with an explanation of a personal flaw I have. All of them then explained how these flaws have helped me, and why I think they've made me a better writer.

I have more. I can post next month about how my distractions help. I can blog about my cynicism and pessimism. I go off on tangents, and I bet I could figure out how that helps me. I have lots of vices. They're tame ones, granted, but they've all contributed just as much to my identity as a writer as my virtues, if not more. I wouldn't trade them off, any more than I'd lop off my own hands.

Bear with me for a moment.

One of the most common job interview questions is, "What's your greatest weakness?" For the longest time, I was taught that the answer to that question was a flaw that was actually a strength in disguise. For instance, something like, "I get so determined to finish things before I leave that I usually end up staying late." But what I've learned through my job tells me that answer is actually wrong. Instead, look at a weakness you've learned to handle. For instance, my introvert tendencies mean that I sit back in meetings and listen to every side of a problem. I'm not the first one to jump in with a solution, but, when I do speak up, it's after careful consideration, and it tends to be more insightful than those who talk a lot in meetings.

Writing is the same. (I know, writing just like real life? Gasp.) You can bemoan all of the things that are stacked against you in this writing thing. Or, you can find out how they work for you. Granted, there are flaws that are deadly to a writer, most notably lack of knowledge of grammar and spelling. But those can be learned, and your grasp of fast-and-loose grammar is going to make for much more realistic dialogue.

So, before you say you can't be a writer because of your many flaws, think about how you can make them work for you. Turn them into positives, into tools you can use. You'll be a better writer for it. The most fascinating writers' voices, to me, are the ones that come across as human and flawed. So, embrace it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Progress Post: Reincarnation

I was doing so well in February. I'd written over 50,000 words, and I could see the end of the book in sight. I knew where I wanted to end it, what needed to happen in the meantime, and what the characters would do about it.

But, somehow, finishing became less of a priority in March. I have a bunch of excuses. Hunger Games came out this month, and I had to go see a midnight premiere with my friends. A friend from Kentucky came to visit, and it would've been rude to sit here typing while she occupied my living room. (Which didn't keep me from surfing the internet while she occupied my living room, by the way.) I picked up a hellish chest cold that had me spending a lot more time sleeping than usual. There weren't any write-ins (because I get so much done during write-ins, lemme tell ya). My husband picked up Disgaea 4, the latest in a video game series to which I am horribly addicted.

Those are all excuses. There is no real reason why a document that was about 90,000 words long at the end of February is only 115,245 words long now. That's a terrible output. Sure, it's better than nothing, but I can do better. What happened to writing every night and keeping up the momentum, anyway?

I know what happened to it, actually. What happened is that I wimped out on my own edict, and suddenly couldn't face putting my main character through what she was about to experience. Book 2's antagonist has a lot of hype to live up to in the book and a half I spend introducing him, and he's even worse than my protagonist expected. While I can't wait for her to emerge, victorious, first I have to get her through the impetus to take a suicidal risk. It's harder than I expected.

I'll get through it, and hopefully we won't be far into April before I tweet that I'm done with this monster. I'm cringing thinking about how much I'm going to have to edit it back down, but, one thing at a time.

Review: Jellicoe Road

Jellicoe Road
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an excellent example of why I keep reading even when a beginning fails to impress me. This book started off confusing and weird and with a narrator I hated. But the rough beginning was entirely worth it, by the book's end.

The story is set at the Jellicoe School, which is in a rural part of Australia. We get geographical hints that would probably make sense if I knew the first thing about Australian geography. All I know is that it's a small town whose economy centers around the school and the training grounds where Cadets come for summer training. As long as anyone can remember, there's been a war for territory between the Cadets, Townies, and the kids at the school. Taylor Markham is the leader at the school, but she's too busy worrying about the disappearance of Hannah, the closest she has to family, to care much about their war games.

The rough start to the book is partly because of Taylor's lack of investment in the war game, and partly because the war games are silly. They're posturing kids who would rather just hang out and listen to music together. The book later acknowledges the pointlessness of the territory wars, but that doesn't entirely cancel out the silliness. It makes me wish the author had found some other way of drawing the characters together.

There's a side plot in the book about events that happened 22 years earlier, tied to Hannah's disappearance. There's also a love story, strongly intertwined with the main narrative of Taylor's finding out where she came from. Mostly, though, the story is about looking back to find closure and perspective so that a person can move forward.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book is that, while Taylor is an annoying twit, the book acknowledges as much. Characters challenge her, and she faces consequences for her failure to emotionally grow up. Her growth as a character is an organic process, prodded along by events within the narrative, rather than a sudden epiphany or an event triggered by the plot.

My biggest complaint about the book is that it starts out confusing, and, while a lot of the confusing points are clarified, some of the narrative remains muddled. I'm not sure how the characters come to some of the conclusions they do.

Overall, though, this book is worth getting past the first few chapters to get to the good part. The characters are initially annoying so that they have room for growth, and the emotional impact at the end is stronger for it.

This is a YA book, but, if you're a parent of a younger teen who wants to read this, you may want to screen it. There are several deaths, and none of them are pretty. The damaging effects of drug use are discussed, and there are some sexual elements. None of it is lingered over in detail, but it's up to you to determine whether your kid has the emotional maturity to grasp the context.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Suspending disbelief

Over the weekend, I saw Hunger Games. Twice. It's not the height of cinematic genius, but it was a decent interpretation of a book, it was enjoyable and held onto the tension despite that I already knew what would happen.

This is not a movie review of Hunger Games, though. There are plenty of those out in the wild. Instead, I wanted to talk about the most common complaint I'm reading in the reviews I've run across so far. It sticks out to me because I don't agree. That complaint is one of being able to suspend disbelief. The world is too strange, too alien, too far removed from our own. Quite possibly it is, if you don't know about the world going in. After all, it does one of my favorite world-building things, which is to let the elements of the world stand without explanation, and to hint at a deeper story we're not getting yet.

This lovely image of galaxies merging courtesy of HubbleSite
I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Perhaps I'm more willing to suspend disbelief than literary readers, because I'm always immersing myself in improbable worlds. I don't think so, though. I've run across elements I'm unable or unwilling to wrap my mind around. I've gotten mad at authors for stretching my disbelief too far. I've read literary works where I was unwilling to suspend my disbelief so far.

So why would I be willing to believe that there's a world where magic is as prevalent as technology is in our version of reality, but have trouble with the existence of certain characters or elements in a world I can recognize as our own?

Part of it has to do with how well I trust the author. If an author shows I can trust him or her to handle one thing well, I'm willing to go along with something else I don't recognize. Often, this is handled through emotional veracity. Charles de Lint, for example, doesn't have people swallowing whole the idea of a fae world existing alongside our own. He has people who think the main characters are crazy, or who need persuading that what they're seeing is really happening. They react with fear, disbelief, and a number of emotions I might expect anyone I know to react with. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, Katniss is closed-off in a way I can understand, in a world where there's a danger she'll be sent off to kill a male classmate. She clings to what remains of her family and shuts out everyone else, for fear of the gut-wrenching loss of someone she loves.

It doesn't have to be the characters' emotions, though being able to relate to people in strange situations seems the most effective strategy. If characters react either in a similar way as I would, or in a way I can understand, I can stomach a lot more strangeness than I would if they take it for granted.

That works well for character-driven stories, but what are those writing plot- or concept-driven novels to do? In that case, I would advise showing the reader can trust you in other ways. If not the characters and how real they feel, make sure the concept is really well-researched. If you're doing a weird twist on the world of commercial fishing, make sure you understand fishing, boats, ocean currents, weather patterns, and everything the characters would know, inside and out. Be respectful of your source material, and get everything else exactly right.

After all, if you have a weird twist, but you get some other elements wrong, it won't look like you did it on purpose. It'll look like you just don't understand it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Excess of imagination

Before I dive into tonight's post, let me point out that my friend Tara had a book come out on Friday. It's available only on ebook format right now, and you can buy it from Amazon or her publisher, Ellora's Cave. It is contemporary romance, which is not my usual thing, but I will be reading it and letting you know what this anti-alpha male reader thinks of it.

I mentioned in my entry on how I'm thin-skinned that I have an imagination problem. When I'm alone in my apartment, I have to have all the lights on. If there are dark corners or strange shadows, my imagination insists there's something there, even though it's physically impossible. I can't do basements, because I'm convinced, no matter how secure I know the basement is, that there's a monster hiding in the shadows down there, waiting to get me. I can't see a dark spot without populating it with something menacing and strange and frightening. Even mirrors are a source of horror; I always imagine something emerging from behind me in the reflected surface.

I've been that way for a long time. I never outgrew that nervous phase that most kids go through, when they have a hard time discerning between fantasy and reality. To this day, I can't watch a scary movie without the feeling that the monster or mysterious menace from the movie is lurking in wait for me. It gets so bad that sometimes I make my husband keep me company while I shower, so it can't sneak up on me while I'm washing the shampoo out of my hair.

You'd think I'd want to get rid of this tendency. It's led to a lot of missed sleep, after all, and makes it difficult to be the full-fledged night owl I tend to be when left to my own devices. When I'm safe in my little island of light, the last thing I want to do is get up to cross the intervening darkness.

And yet, I wouldn't give it up for all the world. When I was still young (sixth or seventh grade, I think), and despairing of ever being anything but a nervous, panicky, phobic girl, I read an interview with Stephen King. I'm paraphrasing, but he said that he left the bathroom light on in strange hotel rooms. He told people it was to keep from banging his shins in the middle of the night, but of course he knew it was to keep the monster under the bed at bay. He was confessing that he, a grown man, was afraid of monsters and what lay in wait in the shadows. And he was, even then, one of the most successful authors alive. He'd turned that paranoia and fear into a very lucrative writing career, scaring other people just as effectively as he scared himself.

I wouldn't dare compare myself to Stephen King. I haven't nearly enough arrogance. But I do try to do the same thing. When I'm afraid, I try to capture that fear on the page. I try to depict it in ways other people can understand, even if they don't spend every nighttime moment jumping at shadows. I pour the things I'm afraid of into the antagonists, and give my protagonists what I'm afraid of to deal with.

I don't write a lot of horror, because that tends to increase my nervousness. But when I do, I feel it's an effective outlet. And all that jumpiness and irrational fear is worth it. Without it, I don't think I'd have half the ideas I do. I would rather have a lifetime of pulse-pounding moments than to not be able to write.

Review: A Moose and A Lobster Walk into A Bar: Tales from Maine

A Moose and A Lobster Walk into A Bar: Tales from Maine
A Moose and A Lobster Walk into A Bar: Tales from Maine by John McDonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spent four years in Maine going to college at the University of Maine at Farmington. In that time, I observed quite a bit about the state and its residents, and I even got to learn some of the in-jokes. This book did a lot to bring me back to that time, and to fill me in on the parts I didn't get to see of the people I interacted with. After all, one can learn a lot about people by the stories they tell, and how they tell them.

The first section of the book is jokes, Maine-style. Several of them are recognizable as jokes heard around the internet, with a regional slant. There are a few surprises, though.

The next several sections are essays on local politics, transplants (most notably from Massachusetts), black flies, tourism, yard sales, and what makes Maine what it is. This part gets repetitive in places, but, while I don't always agree with the author's position, I have to agree that he's fairly representative of the Maine natives I've known.

If you're looking for a few stories from Maine to give you insight about how the residents think and what they find funny, this is a good book to pick up. If you think they're generally more open and friendly than what you see during tourist season, though, you may want to skip this and keep to your illusions.

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Review: Dandelion Wine

Dandelion Wine
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to this as a radio play, performed by Colonial Radio Theatre. The work was adapted by Ray Bradbury for the radio program, and so I'm confident in reviewing this as a decent adaptation.

The medium made it a little hard to follow, at times, as some voices were quieter than others, and sometimes characters spoke over one another. There's more exposition through dialogue (or monologues) than one would find in a written work.

But, once I adjusted to the medium, I found it to be an enjoyable and touching story. It follows the summer of 1928 through the eyes of young Douglas Spaulding. He declares it, "the best summer ever, the summer that will never end." But menace lurks in this idyllic summer, first in the person of the "lonely man," who resides in the valley in town. Then there's the Tarot Witch, an automated fortune teller who foretells death. And then you have the campfire stories told by Douglas's aunts, which are quite effectively creepy.

I haven't read much Ray Bradbury, but, from what I've read, he's most in his element when he's scaring his reader half to death with quiet, creeping menace, and when he's depicting the loss off innocence using improbable elements. In this case, it's a time machine which allows a man to travel back to his childhood, when he stopped letting people into his heart due to a series of tragic events. The story is bittersweet, but ends on a hopeful note.

There are so many noteworthy images: the bottles of wine representing each day of a neverending summer, the happiness machine populated with all of the things that make life wonderful, the Spaulding boys tallying up all of the wonders of a perfect summer, Douglas's personally overseeing the start of each summer day. But, just as the wonder of the summer of 1928 can't be captured in its numbers, neither can the wonder of this book be captured by enumerating all of the things that are good about it. What's good about it is that it captures both a slice of life and an entire life's philosophy, without ever feeling preachy or over-the-top. It was a lovely story, a lovely message, and I think most readers would appreciate the brief trip to Green Town, Illinois in 1928.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: Smokin' Seventeen

Smokin' Seventeen
Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This latest installment of the Stephanie Plum series doesn't add anything to the series until the "punchline," which is the culmination of the entire book. One could make the argument that it is different from the sixteen before it, but, beyond surface elements, I couldn't see a single reason to tell people to keep reading to this one, unless you're that enamored of the series.

In this book, people are turning up dead in the lot of the bonds office. Stephanie is sickened by this fact, but she still has to pay the bills, so she's hauling in weirdos who didn't show up for court. This time around, she has a senior citizen who thinks he's a vampire, and a big, tough guy who hangs around his apartment naked because he has nothing better to do. Because, why not combine all the weirdness of the previous books' skips? Meanwhile, Stephanie's family is trying to set her up with an old classmate who wouldn't be all bad, if he would hear her when she says, "No."

That Evanovich has a positive message for women everywhere is new, and appreciated. Everyone pushes Stephanie to ignore her instincts where Dave is concerned, but she repeatedly tells him she doesn't want him around, he ignores her wishes, and she feels increasingly creeped out. She's justified in this, in the end, and I was glad to see a fictional representation of a stalker who lets himself into a woman's living space being dangerous. There are far too many fictional representations of that being romantic, these days.

The major difference between this book and the sixteen before it (plus the between-the-numbers) is that there's a lot more sex. Stephanie is cursed with a spell that's supposed to make her slutty, and so she feels little compunction in acting on the urges that have been building over the last 16 books. While we're not looking at romance-novel-level detail, there is less left to the imagination than in previous books. The cynic in me wonders if Evanovich really needed to change it up that much to keep her on the bestseller list.

Overall, if you like the Stephanie Plum series, you'll probably like this one. Don't go in expecting a lot of changes or for anything to be shaken up or decided. Stephanie continues to dither about her love life and eat things that are terrible for her, Lula continues to perpetuate stereotypes, Grandma Mazur continues to be a batty old lady, the love interests continue to be sexy and noncommittal.

If you're a completionist, or you really like reading basically the same book over and over, feel free to read it. But, if you're just getting into the double digits on these books, and you're wondering if it's worth it to keep going, you may want to stop now.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lucky Seven: Reincarnation

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
My friend Tara, whose first book comes out on Friday, tagged me on the Lucky Seven meme. The rules are as follows:

1. Go to page 77 of your current MS
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next 7 lines – sentences or paragraphs – and post them as they’re written. No cheating.
4. Tag 7 authors
5. Let them know

I'm likely to cut the scene below from my manuscript of "Reincarnation," but, I'm following the rules, so here it is. Oddly, my character is drunk, as was Tara's. That's all the context you're getting, because the character's identity is a spoiler for book 1.

“You okay?”

He didn't have to turn around to know it was one of the college girls, but it was rude to have a conversation without looking at a person. He turned. The girl was wearing a hoodie and shorts, and her cheeks were bright pink from cold.

“I'm too old for you,” he blurted out, then mortification forced his eyes shut. He'd heard her mental assessment of him as “cute,” and taken a mental leap. The alcohol had done the rest.

I will not be tagging 7 people, because I don't know 7 writers I know well enough to challenge. If you want to do it, consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Good Stuff: Castle

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
I spend a lot of time griping in this blog, so I have a note in my file of topics I'll tackle that I should write about stuff I actually like. As last night was a new episode of Castle, that's what I'll talk about today.

I first started watching Castle because I like Nathan Fillion. He both terrified and fascinated me in the final season of Buffy. He made me root for the "bad guys" in Firefly. And then he made me laugh my head off and forget how grossed out I was in Slither. I wanted to see what else he could do.

Also, the premise interested me. I don't know a lot of bestselling authors, personally, and I imagine very few are quite like Richard Castle. His is not a typical writer's life. And yet, there are writing in-jokes, and writers interviewing and shadowing the types of people they want to write about isn't unheard of.

I'm not usually a fan of police procedurals, so I don't know how Castle stacks up in that regard. I do know that I like the writing. There is a clear formula, but the writers have fun with it. They manage to slide in enough unexpected twists that I can't predict the endings most of the time. The show is fairly episodic, but there is character growth and development from one season to the next. The growth seems organic, rather than driven entirely by the plot, which I always appreciate.

The most fun episodes, for me, are when people are given more range. Beckett is normally a straight-laced detective, but she has a sense of humor, shown by a subtle gleam in the eye or biting of the lip by Stana Katic. Ryan and Esposito are normally in a support role, but we're given glimpses of their deeper lives in some of the most interesting plot asides. Dr. Parish is delightfully snarky and extremely good at her job, but she, too, is human underneath the lab coat, and pairing her off only to have it end spectacularly was one of my favorite parts of this season. I hope that's not all we see of that. Castle's family, too, is fun and fascinating, and I'm so glad his mother's and daughter's roles have expanded beyond the side conversations that give him the clue he needs to solve the mystery.

I don't watch a lot of TV, but, even when I didn't have cable, this show was a priority for me to watch every Monday night. You know for anything to take up an hour of potential writing time, it has to be worth it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thin Skin

I was browsing my old entries this weekend, looking for topics I could go into further depth on, or subjects on which Josh and I could collaborate, and I noticed that I talk a lot in my early entries about how thin-skinned I am. I haven't submitted anything for critique lately, though, so I haven't talked about it much.

I used to be even more sensitive than I am. There was a time, as I refer to in this entry, when I couldn't even write if someone was behind me. As I've gotten more used to writing in coffee shops, that's less of a problem these days. I still can't submit for critique without feeling like a nervous wreck, though. I feel like, if they criticize my writing, they're criticizing me, because that's where the words came from.

I do know better, intellectually. I feel a lot of ways I know I shouldn't. Let's not get into why I can't walk through my empty, locked apartment after dark without turning on every single light along the way. We'll get into my excess imagination some other time.

I've learned many coping mechanisms for how hard I take criticism. I've learned to take it better. I've learned to integrate a lot of these ideas. I try to remember how much trepidation I had the last time, and how helpful the critique was. I think of how much I've grown as a writer in reaction to the criticism I've received.

As with many of the other negative traits I've been talking about this month, I don't think thin skin on a writer is necessarily a bad thing. I think one can be oversensitive to criticism, and that's a problem if someone uses that as an impetus to shut herself up in her room and never let anyone read anything she's written ever again. But, as a motivating tool, it's one of the best.

No one starts out perfect. Certainly some people start out talented, and some writers have an innate gift for some aspect of writing. But no one can churn out a perfect first draft the first time they sit down to commit the idea to writing. It's not how it works.

If one has thin skin, the first critique is going to hurt. It's going to be a slap in the face, and that person will question his or her entire existence after all the mean things everyone said.

But then something else will happen. That person will want to do better next time. We human beings don't generally like pain. We do what we can to avoid it. So, the next time that thin-skinned writer reaches out, he or she will submit something more polished, and try to avoid making the same mistakes as before. There will be a slew of whole new mistakes, and it's going to be discouraging, but that person will be highly motivated to change and grow and do better.

This is far from the universal experience with thin-skinned writers, but it's certainly been part of my evolution as a writer. Clearly, one can make it to the publication stage without learning how to turn thin skin into a strength, as several author meltdowns have illustrated. But, for the most part, I think writers' sensitivity is why they're motivated to learn and improve.

Review: A Circle of Cats

A Circle of Cats
A Circle of Cats by Charles de Lint

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a picture book intended for kids older than 8. However, like many other illustrated classics, I can see parents picking this up because they enjoy it. The illustrations, done by Charles Vess, are rich, colorful, and each a small masterpiece. The story is engaging, though not too complex for a child to follow.

A Circle of Cats is about a girl names Lillian who leaves food for various wild creatures, from stray cats to the mythological man who lives in the twisty apple tree. She falls asleep under a tree where cats meet, and is bitten by a poisonous snake. The cats save her life by transforming her into a cat, and she has to face the Father of Cats to try to be turned back into a little girl.

Lillian is kind to wild and magical creatures for the sake of kindness, and there are underlying themes of doing things because they're right, drawing goodness to oneself by simply being good, and how good deeds are their own reward.

Sadly, this book appears to be out of print. But, if you're the parent of an 8-year-old (or so), I'd recommend getting your hands on a copy, perhaps at your local library. It's a delightful introduction to Charles de Lint's magical worlds.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saying a Lot with Few Words

Last month, Josh and I posted a description of our bedroom to illustrate that different characters will describe things differently, depending on their perspectives. Because we are both writers, we both enjoyed the exercise, and I asked if he'd be interested in doing more cross-post blogs.

I read off some of the topics I had on deck, and this is the one he picked.

The subject of conciseness originally came up because my writing group had critiqued a piece of my short fiction. I'd crammed a lot of characterization and world-building into 4000 words. I set my story in a desert world, but I never came out and said what the setting was. The others in the group said they liked how I'd managed to convey a lot of imagery and setting without taking up a lot of my word count.

In that particular story, since my space was limited, I didn't describe the setting initially. I had a character who didn't have any basis for comparison to understand there was anything unusual about his barren surroundings. Instead of going on about that, then, I had him quickly bored from being cooped up inside, and reading the equivalent of cereal boxes. The world's description didn't come in until he left familiar surroundings, and saw color (a white tent) for the first time.

I don't know how many words I saved myself by allowing those small pieces to stand in for paragraphs, even pages, of description, but that's my usual approach. I don't like to stand still or linger on background in my stories. If I mention the surroundings, they're either standing in for a larger part of the setting, or they're relevant to the plot. If I can make them pull double duty, by both standing in for a bigger piece and serving the greater story somehow, all the better. My characters notice only things that stand out to them, so what they notice should say something about their states of mind, or what surroundings they've had before, or hint at their personalities.

I've always felt that I'm sparse on description, but, apparently, some part of the setting is making it onto the page. One doesn't want one's stories to take place in white rooms with no doors or windows, after all. But a window can be implied by the scent of rain wafting through a screen, or a square of sunlight on the ceiling. Space can be implied by actions taking place while people navigate their surroundings. Description need be no more detailed than that someone grunts in surprise pushing open a door that didn't look that heavy.

In my view, description is as much about what you don't write as what you do. To get the idea across quickly, leave readers space to fill it in, themselves, while sketching out what needs to be there. You need to be succinct without coming across as terse.

To read Josh's take on the subject, click here.

Review: Liar

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a number of different ways to read this book, which makes rating and summarizing it difficult. Micah is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and every time I thought I had her lies figured out, there would be a new twist. One can read this book without believing a word of it, and still think you know what happened.

But then, what is fiction, but a series of believable lies?

The story is told through the first-person perspective of Micah Wilkins, a seventeen-year-old biracial girl who goes to a private school in NYC. A boy in her class dies, and when one of his friends points her out as his "out-of-school girlfriend," she's questioned by police about his murder.

That's all I feel confident in reporting as the truth in this narrative, though even pieces of that may be wrong. Micah plays fast and loose with the truth. She tells several lies, many of which she admits to, some of which she doesn't. One could read this book a dozen times, and come up with a different answer every time to what really happens in the book. I honestly can't say which is the correct one, and I'm not sure there's supposed to be one true interpretation.

Usually, open-ended narratives bother me. I like a neat ending, especially in my YA. But this book becomes something of a mirror for the reader in its unreliable narrator and story open to interpretation. How familiar are you with the tricks liars use? How well do you spot inconsistency? How well do you trust someone who's already lied to you?

There does have to be a point on which you trust Micah, or the whole story is pointless. There are several such points you could grab onto, though, hence my observation about multiple interpretations.

This book has a high potential for rereading in the near future. It's an enjoyable read, too; Micah is an engaging narrator, and the pacing is excellent.

The loss of a star is because of my personal preference for a neat ending, and my uncertainty that the author even knows which interpretation is correct.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While the second half of this book is a vast improvement over the first half, I'm not sure it was worth my patience to make it to the exciting part. This is a dark book about a dark future, and, while it's quite well-written, I never felt engaged as a reader.

Paolo Bacigalupi creates a future dystopia ravaged by cultivated diseases, famine, and invasive species created by playing with genes. There isn't enough food to go around, oil is no more, and the space and atomic races are things of the past, the big question being who can get the most calories out of the least effort. Into this world, we have a "calorie man," who works for one of the big corporations who helped make this world the terrible place it is, a "yellow-card" elderly Chinese man who used to own his own company before China and Malaysia became relics, a "white shirt" who's famous for refusing bribes and who used to fight in the Muay Thai ring, and the title character, who gets her name from the stutter-stop motions coded into her genes to give her origins away, lest someone mistake her for a real person. Emiko, the wind-up girl, was left by a Japanese businessman because he couldn't afford her passage back, and now she works in a brothel as the object of ridicule and derision. She's prostituted out on the virtue of her exoticism and abused daily onstage.

Sadly, Emiko is the only character with which I was able to sympathize. Everyone else in this world is corrupt to the core, and justifies selfishness and screwing people over with all kinds of mental gymnastics. An awful lot of the book is told through perspectives other than Emiko's, though, and the most exciting thing Emiko does happens off-screen, so to speak. Instead, we get a lot of philosophy and corrupt politics and background on a world we're tossed into with little preparation.

I'll give the author this: he knows how to world-build. After my daily dose of audio book, I felt like I needed to scrub the slime of the book's world off my skin. I felt filthy by proximity to such pollution. The book may toss the reader in without introduction (and without buying you dinner first), but it's clear that this is a fully-developed world, of which we aren't getting the entire story. There are hints of other goings-on, events which we can only infer.

Unfortunately, the book's greatest strength, that of its themes, has been handled before, and handled better. Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake presents a world similarly corrupted by an uneven power structure, too much control in the hands of corporations, and people screwed over by a system that doesn't care if they live or die. And The Year of the Flood has a much more sympathetic prostitute character who's a lot stronger than Emiko. I kept waiting for Emiko to get some semblance of agency, but instead, she acts only to react to terrible things happening to her, and to wait for a man to save her. It was disappointing.

But then, after the droning start and corrupt-as-hell cast of characters, my expectations weren't terribly high to begin with.

I can see why this might have won the Hugo, because it has all the highbrow literary stuff I dislike. It is well-written, it's just not what I like to read in my science fiction and fantasy.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Letting the characters tell the story

Before I get to the blog post, I need to ask that fyrefall contact me. I've Googled you and posted a response to your entry. Everyone else has responded. If I don't hear from you by Monday, your copy of Discount Armageddon will go to the next person in line.

Now, on to the post.

There are two ways to tell a story. The first way is plot-driven. It's pretty self-explanatory. It's driven by events in the plot, and most mysteries and thrillers are written with a plot-driven story.

The second way is character-driven, which is when the characters and their choices are what determines in which direction the story goes. That's how I write, and therefore what I'm going to talk about today.

In order to have a character-driven story, you first have to have strong characters. A cast who consists of people content to sit at home and watch the world pass by can be interesting to hang out with, but less fun to read about. That isn't to say that laid-back characters can't be prodded into action with the right motivation, but, in a character-driven story, you do need a character strong enough to carry the action.

Before you even start writing the story for a character-driven narrative, familiarize yourself with the main characters. That includes your antagonist, who should have strong motivations behind what he or she chooses to do. Map out the characters' internal and external motivation, as in, what happens where the reader can see, and what won't be on the page. Internal motivation is what you keep in mind for a character, without explicitly writing it.

Find out other things about your characters, too. There are character surveys online, which some people find helpful. For others, it's more of a conversation in your head with the character, as if you're on a date. Know at least five things about your character that won't come out within the story.

Once you're familiar with the characters, toss in the conflict, and find out what the characters would do with it. Ask the antagonist what he or she will do to thwart the protagonist. Develop the conflict as if you're witnessing both sides of the story. You need only report on one side, but remember to treat the characters as if they're real people who consider what's going on to be important. If there isn't a good reason to do it, don't have them behave that way.

I learned most of what I did about character-driven narrative through role-playing, specifically running games. No plot survived contact with the characters. I learned a lot about sitting back and creating satisfying narratives that challenged the characters without stomping on their character concepts. It was an easier way to learn about characters-driven stories, too, because I only had to write the antagonist.

When you write a character-driven story, though, be prepared for the plot to turn out differently than you expected, and for parts to be less important than you thought. It can work for an outliner just fine, provided you're willing to adjust the outline accordingly, or leave it open for characters to turn out differently than you'd planned. As with real people, characters in a story can, and should, surprise us. It can be really annoying to write, because it means the story is off in a different direction than planned. But, as a reader, it's fun when people surprise you.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The inner editor

I've talked about the inner editor before. It's the culprit behind writer's block. It's what you're thwarting if you want to try being tired to see if it makes you more creative. But the inner editor does serve a purpose.

In a first draft, you're basically tossing things out to see what sticks. You're generating ideas, trying out concepts, and seeing what works. At that stage, you don't want to listen to the voice in your head that tells you how much you suck. At that point, you want permission to suck. You can clean up all the random spew off the page in the editing phase.

It's in the later drafts that the inner editor finally serves a purpose. The inner editor is there to evaluate which plot threads and characters are important. It's there to slice off great swaths of dialogue, to sweep out all the scenes that don't serve the story, to kill your darlings (which is a post for a later time). It's there to keep the book grounded. It's there to make sure the sentences are strung together properly and in an order that makes sense.

If you don't have an inner editor, now would be a good time to get one. You need to read up on the grammar rules, take a writing workshop, and read some comments from publishers about why they didn't accept the books they didn't. A lack of an inner editor is why things like this happen, when an author goes off at length about how people's perceptions are wrong.

Granted, one can't anticipate all of people's criticisms, and one can't step outside one's own perspective to see it the way others will. But, without admitting there are flaws in the first place, when other people see them (and they will), you'll react poorly.

No one's writing is perfect. Some of the most-loved classics have one-star reviews online. (Despite the article writer's apparent belief that all of the reviewers are idiots, sometimes it gets down to taste and preference.) But one can't improve without seeing the flaws in what you're writing, and fixing it. Sometimes that means a writing group. Sometimes that means an editor. Most of the time, though, it means you have to look it over, yourself, find what's wrong, and eliminate it.

So, while the inner editor is the killer of productivity and the slayer of creativity, it does serve a purpose. Every writer needs to have one. It just needs to be tamed so it only comes out when you need it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Perpetual rewrites

I promised a story of why I've written and rewritten the story that's become the first book in my trilogy, and so that's what you're getting today. I could've sworn I'd already written about this, but a scouring and a Google search tells me no.

I've already mentioned that I spent a lot of my childhood tapping out stories. Most of those are what I now know are "trunk novels," which are manuscripts hidden away with no intention of seeing publication. They're stilted, derivative, and precisely what you'd expect from a shy preteen who lives in her own head. If you were to read them, you'd know what books I'd been reading and what movies had just come out. They were practice, and great for letting me find my writing voice and honing what I had for craft.

I still have most of them. They sit in a box in my closet, and I eye them warily from time to time, wondering if it would be worth the embarrassment to find out if there's anything salvageable in them.

But there's still one story that sticks with me. I wrote the first draft while I was in the middle of reading the Vampire Diaries series, which should tell you both how long ago that was, and what kind of story it was. It was also the first novel I'd ever finished, and I was proud of myself.

But this was in the early day of computers, when we had to save everything on floppy disks. I popped in the disk I thought my story was on one day, prepared for edits, and it wasn't there. I scoured every floppy disk in the house, but it wasn't on any of them. To this day, I don't know what happened to it.

I was disheartened for months, and I worked on a few other stories. One day, I realized that I remembered the outline of the plot well enough to reconstruct it, and I did.

That time, the computer died. The new computer didn't use the same word processing program, so I couldn't transfer the story. But I'd already retyped it, so I decided to do just that. That time, the disk was corrupted. By then, I had a computer in my own room, and I could back up the story on several formats. And yet, all of those formats failed me. When I went away to college and the school computers ate my ever-rewritten novel, I was starting to get a sense of humor about it. When my husband burned the wrong draft onto a CD for me and I deleted all the backups, I just shrugged and rewrote it from scratch yet again.

I took a break from rewriting the story for a while after college. I didn't write anything for years. Then one night, I had a dream about one of the characters. It wasn't the first time I'd dreamed about them, but it was the most motivating.

The thing is, in all of those rewrites, I found that I'd improved. The story was more compelling and tightly plotted, the characters were better developed, and it was easier to rewrite it every time. I'd been developing my craft as I went along, and so the story improved as I got more practice.

I've heard the advice that you shouldn't keep working on the same novel, that you should move on to other stories. While I'm sure that's excellent advice, I don't regret having ignored it. I feel like I've learned a lot from having done otherwise.

If you would learn anything from this blog, I hope you take two things away from this post. First, back up your manuscripts, in many different ways. Currently, I use Dropbox, and my husband burns the most recent drafts onto CD for me. Second, if you do lose your current draft, it might not be the worst thing to happen to you.

Review: Just Like That

Just Like That
Just Like That by Margo Candela

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got an electronic copy of Just Like That for free from the author. If I'd known how much I'd enjoy it, though, I would've bought it, anyway.

Just Like That is the story of Leslie, who works in high-end retail hell and whose boss takes advantage of her ambition and ability to solve problems. She breaks up with her milquetoast boyfriend of four years (it would be five, except for their year-long break), and her best friend then goes on a mission to match her up with the right guy.

This is a novella-length story, and apparently it's on an imprint that takes emphasis away from the explicit rendition of sex acts. There's plenty of naughtiness within these pages, but the majority of it is left to the reader's imagination.

What's left is a strong, compelling story about an ambitious woman and a friendship that's important to both women in it. Even when Paige, her best friend, is fretting about her upcoming wedding, she makes time for Leslie and makes it a priority to answer her calls. It was nice to read a romance story where the relationship between two women is just as important as, or even more important than, finding love and a happily ever after.

The pacing on this story is excellent. I meant to read perhaps half, or just the first couple of sections, when I first picked it up. Fashion isn't my area of interest, either, so, by all accounts, it should've been easy to put down. Instead, I wound up finishing it all in one sitting. I kept flipping forward to find out if Leslie ever finds the happiness she deserves.

That isn't to say the book is perfect. The story is so short, there isn't much time to develop the love interest, and I wondered what went through his head. Clearly, he's enamored of Leslie, but I know there has to be more to him than money, charm, and good looks.

The initial story has some rocky dialogue, too, with a little too much, "As you know, so-and-so" delivery. Two characters recap something of which they're perfectly aware for the benefit of the reader, when it would've been better handled through exposition.

Last, the version I read had some typos. They weren't too distracting; I was able to figure out what they were supposed to be. It was a blip on my radar.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this, and would've considered it money well spent if I'd purchased instead of receiving a copy for review. I would recommend this to romance readers who have time for something short and sweet. This is an enjoyable page-turner of a romance story.

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 11, 2012


I could do something clever by hinting about this blog post in a bunch of previous posts, but I think I mentioned it once already, and I have a friend visiting this week, so not a huge surplus of time.

As you know if you've studied anything at all about writing or literature, foreshadowing is when hints are sprinkled throughout the narrative that give away the ending. An unsatisfying ending can usually be chalked up to an inadequate buildup through foreshadowing, while a predictable ending is because the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed.

But if you're a pantster, like me, you're not going to know how your book is going to end as you're writing. Therefore, you're not going to know what to write in to telegraph the ending perfectly. People who write outlines might have this problem, too, because they're too focused on just telling the story to remember to write in hints about the ending, though I imagine it's easier to write in some foreshadowing from the start.

So, if you're a pantster, how do you make sure the ending is perfectly appropriate to what you've been writing, and that the ending feels satisfying to anyone reading it?

The first way to do it is to let what you've written guide you to the ending. By that I mean, you're going to write in odd details or scenes that were just plain fun to write. They might not be logically connected to the nebulous plan you have in your head, but you wanted to include them. When I write such things, as I approach the ending, I wonder how they might tie in to how I want the story to end. I try to figure out how to use them, so I can keep them.

It must be awful to be an outliner and have to toss those scenes out.

The second thing I do is edit it in. Editing is important for anyone who wants to be published, but it's doubly important for a pantster to go through the manuscript at least a couple of times to clean up all the random flailing that is the first draft. At least one pass of edits, if you're a pantster, should be spent on inserting hints and warnings that refer to the end of the story. Do at least one read-through of the story as if you've never read it before, and are looking for clues to tell you what happens and how much you should dread it.

When I sent my manuscript out to my beta readers, I knew I'd adequately foreshadowed the end because no one said anything about the ending coming out of nowhere. Of course, I'm not sure if that's the best example of a pantster at work, considering I'd written and rewritten that book enough that I knew the ending by the time I tackled that last draft. It may not be outlined, but I do know it better than a lot of the other stories I've banged out.

Tomorrow, I'm going to post about why I've rewritten that story so often, which has nothing to do with a reluctance to submit. See you then!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: The Nerd Who Loved Me

The Nerd Who Loved Me
The Nerd Who Loved Me by Vicki Lewis Thompson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These are a guilty pleasure read. They're light and fluffy and the dialogue makes me wrinkle my nose, but they're also fun and fast to read.

This is the second of the Nerds in Love series by Vicki Lewis Thompson. It's not necessary to read them in order or to get the whole set; in this case, the "series" is a theme that ties them together, rather than a narrative thread that you need to follow through several books. I would actually advise against reading them all one after another; the characters' angst about how a relationship would never work gets repetitive enough within the books, and this theme appears in both of the Nerds in Love series books I've read.

In this book, Lainie Terrell is a dancer on a Las Vegas stage, while Harry Ambrewster is the nerdy accountant with a crush on her. She has to flee Vegas when her ex (and father of her precocious four-year-old) shows up drunk, battering down her apartment door. Harry valiantly steps up to bat, and, in a situation somewhat less dire than the desert island of the first book in the series, they indulge the tension between them. Because this is a romance novel, they fall in love.

I did believe that these two had a future together and that there was more to the relationship than just sex. The challenge was convincing me that there was any barrier to their getting together in the first place, and, once you got past the single motherhood and "out of my league" issues, I didn't know what was holding these two back.

The biggest issues with the book, though, were the dialogue (it sounded stilted and awkward throughout), and the premise that relies on Lainie leaving her precious four-year-old in the clutches of an elderly woman who wants more than anything to be a grandmother. I could believe that she trusted Harry, but she trusts Rona far too readily. For a world dark enough for Harry to be worrying Lainie's ex wants to kill her, there sure is a lack of stranger danger.

I didn't let the above spoil my enjoyment of this book too much, though. I let it go in favor of the book's good parts. The tension between Harry and Lainie is built quite effectively, and had me turning pages and ignoring the terrible dialogue to get to the good part. Vicki Lewis Thompson knows how to write good sex with an excellent emotional payoff, to the point where she makes it look easy. And the book never takes itself too seriously, so there's a sense of humor and lightness that kept me from getting mad at the major narrative flaw.

Overall, I found this book an excellent antidote to the alpha male trope I dislike so much in the romance genre, and I would recommend this book to anyone willing to overlook a few flaws to get a good story about a beta male finding love with a worthy woman.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Writing momentum

Last month, the writing group did its own version of NaNoWriMo, which we called SWANoWriMo, because the writing group is SWAG, for the Social Writing Assistance Group.

While I reached my goal of over 50,000 new words written in my current work-in-progress, I didn't yet finish my manuscript. I did, however, line everything up for the climax, and figure out a point for a character who'd been hovering all book, waiting to do something useful. It has been easy, therefore, to keep working on it, and keep plugging away. After all, I'm almost done, and I get to write the fun part now.

It's always easier to make a regular habit of writing if I've been writing regularly. That seems common sense to you published authors, I'm sure, but I write this blog for people even newer at this than me, so I'm going to talk about that.

As with most good practices with writing, how you approach "regularly" will vary. Some people set aside at least 15 minutes or a few hundred words to write every single day. Others set a timer during which they must focus on writing, and they move on to other tasks when the timer goes off. Other souls much stronger than I get up an hour earlier every morning to spend it writing, when it's quiet and they're benefiting from the creativity of tiredness. Still others write during their lunch breaks unless it's a working lunch, or three times a week, or only on weekends.

I say it doesn't matter what your schedule is or how often you write, so long as it's a regular event. I have found, though, that planning to write every night when I get home has me thinking all day about what I'll write that night, and looking forward to getting a scene I've mapped out down in writing. It adds an anticipation value. I've also found that, if I end my writing for the evening having finished a scene, I'll have a harder time picking it back up. I prefer to pick up my writing on a cliffhanger.

I doubt you're exactly the same as me in regards to your writing and habits. You may find that leaving off mid-thought makes you delete a lot of half-sentences or half-scenes. You may find that, having spent all day in front of a computer, you haven't the energy to tap away for another couple of hours when you get home from work, to which I'd advise you consider writing things out by hand. What's important is that you know what's most effective for you. And the only way to find out is to try it, and compare results. To start with, your daily word count is usually a good gauge of your output, though you may find that the writing you spend less time editing afterwards is what you're hoping to duplicate.

Even if you're not terribly productive during your regular writing time, it is important to set it aside, because life won't make time for your writing. Even if you only tap out a few dozen words, that's a few dozen you didn't have the day before. You can have an abysmal daily output, and still write a book a year. You will find, though, that several days of a few hundred words here and there will turn into a few thousand-word days, as you work through the difficult scenes or find your voice.

The only thing that separates writers from non-writers is who's putting words on a page. To do that, you need to start today. Keep doing it tomorrow. Then, keep it up.

It sounds like so much. And yet, once you have that momentum behind you, you'll wonder what took you so long.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dialogue done right

I'm still waiting to hear back from 3 of the giveaway winners. But, for all intents and purposes, we're back to our regularly-scheduled randomness here at Tales of an Intrepid Pantster.

Today, for no reason at all, I wanted to talk about dialogue.

I can't be the only person this has happened to. I'm reading along, liking the characters, the description, the world-building. Then, the characters open their mouths, and it's like a needle scratching across a record. (If you're too young to know what that sounds like, substitute "nails on a chalkboard." Wait, are some of you too young for that, too?)

For a story to be good, all of the elements need to come together. But dialogue is the one that bothers me the most, probably because it doesn't strike me as difficult. One has to put words into the character's mouths that those characters would say, and that convey more than the words do.

Okay, so when I put it like that, I can see where people are running into difficulty. Let's break it up into the two pieces. The first half of that is to use words that the characters would use. This will vary from one character to the next depending on educational background, regional dialect, mood, general outlook on life, age, how much they're trying to impress the person they're addressing, status, or a number of other factors. No two characters should sound exactly alike. Nor should they sound like they're quoting a textbook or making a speech. People don't do that in everyday dialogue. Your character may expostulate at length, but are the rest of your characters patient enough to sit through that every single time? Because chances are, your audience isn't.

The best way to check if your dialogue sounds like something that character would use is to read it aloud, which works with all kinds of editing, as I outline in the linked post. If your tongue trips over sentences you've put in your characters' mouths, or if you can't get it out in one breath, you'll want to rewrite. Also, if you can't imagine saying that aloud in similar circumstances, you'll want to find a better way to put it.

The second half of that is to convey more than the words do. This gets down to word choice. Someone who's annoyed will speak in short, clipped tones. Someone who's relaxed and content will choose longer, languorous words. You don't have to add unnecessary and clunky adverbs to your dialogue tags if the words the characters speak do that work for you.

As for the words, themselves, they will convey information, but not as much as you think. Dialogue can be a good way of conveying information, but it can also turn a book into a wallbanger if you rely on it too heavily. People don't discuss things they already know, unless they're a forgetful married couple. Don't review things characters already know through dialogue, and really don't use it to review things your reader already knows. The latter is what exposition is for (when telling isn't always bad), and the former is repetition, which is annoying. People also don't discuss things that are obvious or common sense, unless they're making sure the person they're talking to isn't a moron. Having a character roll his or her eyes following obvious statements or questions is fine; having them answered earnestly will have me wondering if I overestimated the characters' IQs.

I've read an awful lot of books that can't manage dialogue with a decent flow that people would actually say, and it leaves me scratching my head. Is there a writing equivalent of tone deafness? Because bad dialogue, to me, is as easy to ignore as a five-alarm fire next door. I can't be the only one.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The giveaway winners

Today is the day of the drawing. Congratulations to the following commenters for being chosen by my random number generator.

Emily Dugas

Also, two new readers will get a copy of Rosemary and Rue. scottakennedy, since you're getting Discount Armageddon, I'll ship both together. The other is going, by another random draw, to Greg Kettell.

Congratulations to all the giveaway winners, and I hope you enjoy these books as much as I do. I'll be contacting you for mailing addresses.

To everyone else, thank you for entering, and I hope you end up picking up the book and enjoying it. Feel free to stick around. Seanan McGuire has lots more books coming out in the future.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows: A Flavia de Luce Novel

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows: A Flavia de Luce Novel
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows: A Flavia de Luce Novel by Alan Bradley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do so enjoy this series. Jayne Entwistle's narration helps, I'm sure. While she is not an 11-year-old girl, to me, her voice is Flavia de Luce. She lends a good variety of accents and tones to the other characters' dialogue, too, so that it adds to their characterization and makes them easy to differentiate.

In this book, Flavia is plotting to trap Father Christmas on her roof with a sticky substance. At the same time, the house is rented out to a movie production company for filming on location. When half the village shows up in the middle of a snowstorm to watch the actors put on a charity performance, and one of them turns up dead, Flavia is back to playing detective.

This book breaks the formula a bit, in that the death doesn't occur until you're over halfway through the story. It seems to be solved relatively quickly, then, though Flavia does assemble clues with just as much painstaking attention to detail and chemical properties as in all the previous books. It was a good way to freshen up the story, four books in, and I appreciated the approach.

We also learn several new things about characters. Characters from other books show up without seeming shoehorned in, while those who should be in the story show surprising new facets of themselves to Flavia. The dynamic between sisters is examined, and there are some intriguing developments when both sisters nearly make confessions to Flavia at which the reader can only guess. The author handles these with a light touch, so that it becomes obvious to everyone but Flavia that her sisters aren't the monsters she paints them as (though, being sisters, they're still pretty mean).

Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. Mysteries aren't generally my favorite genre, but future installments of this series will get priority on my to-read, thanks to the wonderful voice of the precocious Flavia de Luce. That the narrator is able to capture her whimsy and delight in the macabre makes these audio books all the more enjoyable.

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Changing midstream

Last night, while I was typing away at my manuscript, somewhere around word 104,000, I realized the ending I'd mentally plotted out lacked tension and drama. It occurred to me that I'd put in building blocks for a much more interesting climax to the story, and the change took the story in a much more interesting direction.

That isn't the first time that's happened. It happens to every pantster that I've talked to, and Seanan McGuire, who outlines pretty extensively, mentioned in her interview that she rewrote most of the elements of One Salt Sea, her most recent Toby Daye book. You realize that you're writing the wrong story, or that you have to drop the elements you're working with. Or, you get to the halfway point, and suddenly you hit upon what the tone and themes are and the first half no longer fits what you're writing.

What do you do?

If you're like me, you keep on writing with the new themes, tone, plot elements, or whatever has changed, and go back to edit that into what you've already written when the story is done. Others go back to change what came before immediately, while some toss the whole story and start over from scratch.

Which approach you take depends on how much you like the words that are already there, how much time it'll take, and how well you can keep track of what needs changing. If you'll forget what new direction you wanted to take by the time you've finished editing what you've already written, you may want to consider jotting it down at the end of the manuscript. I insert comments and bookmark parts of my manuscript so I know where to go back to or where to find something I need to fix. I keep moving forward, though, because I've given myself permission to suck.

The thing is, these midstream changes are one of the things I like best about writing, and are probably why I'm a pantster. I love getting several chapters into a story and realizing something that changes everything about the story. Whenever I get those kind of insights, it's always something that deepens and enriches it. It's always an improvement. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother to change it.

It would be a nice change to have it happen at the beginning, without having to change the story midstream, but, at least if you're a pantster, it doesn't work that way. I develop my characters while I'm writing them, which often means I learn things about them as I'm going. I explore the dynamics within what I'm writing, which often means entire scenes are scrapped because they serve no function beyond character study.

The beauty of the written word is that the first draft is not the finished product. You can go back and fix these things. You can edit in further depth, you can smooth over rough patches, and insight that comes to you as you're typing the last page can work its way into chapter one with a few keystrokes. There's no reason to throw your hands up in frustration because you've gotten a better idea. That's all the more reason to keep at it. Chances are, if you found it a pleasant and motivating surprise, your readers are going to love it.

Review: Piratica: Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl's Adventure Upon the High Seas

Piratica: Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl's Adventure Upon the High Seas
Piratica: Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl's Adventure Upon the High Seas by Tanith Lee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why was this book not around when I was younger? This had everything my young self loved: adventure, romance, pirates who don't kill, a treasure hunt, and an awesome young woman at the helm. Had I read this book when I was young, I would love it to pieces.

Alas, I'm older now, and I couldn't help but see flaws rather than the parts I loved. The style of this book is choppy and abrupt. There's some creative imagery, but there's also a treasure hunt scene with a distinct lack of tension, an issue with pacing, foreshadowing laid on thick, and an unconvincing reason given for the title character's innate talent for piracy.

The style of the book is straightforward, to the point of terseness. There are a few different perspectives the story is told through (it's third person semi-omniscient), and the transitions from one perspective to another aren't always obvious.

The style takes away from the tension quite a bit. I felt like the most interesting part of the story was told in the middle. While the ending still held some surprises, it was told with a hopeless, resigned tone that made it hard to plow through. The treasure hunt and subsequent climactic duel is the most interesting part of the book, but the hunt, itself, feels like reading about someone's afternoon walk.

There were a lot of elements in this book that I enjoyed, but this is a book best enjoyed by the age group it's written for. It's safe for a preteen audience; while there's romance, it's people pining after one another in a very distant, signals-crossed sort of way. Bad language is expressed in a made-up slang for the book, and the title character never drinks anything stronger than coffee.

This was an enjoyable enough book, and if I had a son or a daughter to read it to, I'd probably like it more. But on its own merits, reading it as an adult, it left something to be desired.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Introversion and writing

I talk a lot about introversion online, mostly on Twitter and my personal journal. Until the last few years, I didn't even realize that there was a non-judgmental word for the fact that I didn't enjoy social situations, and would rather spend a Saturday curled up with a book than spending time with a lot of strangers.

But it turns out that one is more likely to meet other introverts online than in public, thanks to the very nature of introversion. I can't speak for all introverts, but I know for me, interacting online isn't draining or taxing like meeting strangers is, unless I'm reading the comments sections on news stories.

And so I've been able to learn a lot more about my personality type, to the point where I've not only accepted it, I've embraced it. Introversion isn't just a matter of "shyness," it's a matter of what recharges a person. Introverts feel refreshed spending time by themselves, and are happiest living in their own heads. We can interact and make small talk and meet other people, and we even form deep and lasting friendships. The social persona, though, is not what drives us. If you don't know much about introversion, you may want to pay Psychology Today's primer a visit to know what I'm talking about.

I mention it today because I've been thinking a lot about its relationship to writing. A couple of authors have mentioned on their blogs that they're introverts, and another retweeted an article about networking I linked to with the text, "To an introvert, saying Never Eat Alone is like saying Never Go to the Bathroom Alone." The more I think about it, the more I wonder if there isn't something about introversion that gives  writers an advantage.

After all, it's my introversion that makes me so content to spend hours at a time talking to the imaginary people who live in my head to find out how they should manifest on the page. It's my introversion that makes me so content to spend hours and hours tapping out words. It's my introversion that makes me want to pop in my headphones and explore where a few story elements can take me instead of talking to all my friends when we gather at a coffee shop.

There are certainly extrovert tendencies that make them good writers. It must've been an extrovert writer who founded the first writing group and taught the first writing workshop. Extroverts have an easier time going out to meet people like those who'll populate their world, and getting firsthand accounts of things they need to write about. Extroverts will be more likely to understand what others won't pick up in their story without it being spelled out, where I regularly wonder why people can't follow a leap of logic I've made in the middle of my story. Extroverts, too, will have an easier time with going out and telling random strangers why they should read the book, where introverts will enjoy promotional events that aren't emotionally draining.

The trick with writing as an introvert, then, is to borrow extroverts' strengths, while using the advantage they have in being content spending so much time alone to use it for writing and reflection time. Extroverts can make up for their need for stimulation by joining a writing group, allowing others to read their writing for a sense of validation and accomplishment, and taking comfort in the advantages they have in getting published and selling well.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

February 2012 recap

Just as I did for January, I'm going to devote an entry to what you might have missed over the last month.

Book reviews
Daily Life in Medieval Europe by Jeffrey L. Singman (4/5 stars, reread) — nonfiction; covers what life looked like for the people living in Medieval Europe. Excellent resource for writers of semi-realistic fantasy or historical fiction.
The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts (4/5 stars, reread) — YA, contemporary fantasy; girl who has minor powers and creeps people out is in danger of her secret being found out, so she tracks down more kids like her. Read this first when I was the same age as the title character.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (5/5 stars, audio, second book in the MaddAdam trilogy) — post-apocalyptic literary fiction; two women who survive the global pandemic reflect on what life used to be, while adjusting to a new world. Continues Oryx and Crake by all of two scenes.
Heroes at Odds by Moira J. Moore (4/5 stars, book 6 in the Heroes series) — humorous fantasy; Lee finds out she was betrothed before she became a Shield, magic users go head-to-head, and Taro's home is threatened again. This is the last one that will be available in paperback, much to my disappointment. The author will make the final installment available online.
Feed by Mira Grant (4/5 stars, reread, readalong) — post-apocalyptic horror/political thriller; bloggers follow a Presidential campaign in a world very much changed by a zombie apocalypse. The second part of the readalong is here.
Grave Peril by Jim Butcher (3/5 stars, audio, book 3 in the Dresden Files) — detective noir urban fantasy; Harry Dresden contends with ghosts, a possessive fairy godmother, and vampires in what many fans say is a turning point of the series. I'm still only listening because I like how James Marsters reads them.
Map of Time by FĂ©lix J. Palma (3/5 stars, book club selection) — steampunk time travel; wins the award for most misleading jacket blurb in my recent memory, as the jacket blurb events don't show up until the last third. The other two parts are about a man who loses the love of his life to Jack the Ripper and goes back in time to save her, and a future savior of mankind who isn't all he seems, and who mires himself in further lies.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (2/5 stars, audio) — YA post-apocalyptic horror; a girl born after the zombie apocalypse pouts her way through woods infested with zombies. Pardon me, "unconsecrated." Possibly a decent read spoiled by a terrible narrator.
Plum Lucky by Janet Evanovich (2/5 stars, Stephanie Plum between the numbers, audio) — humor/mystery; not a lot to distinguish this installment of the Stephanie Plum series where she meets a wannabe leprechaun and rescues Grandma Mazur from a small-time gangster.
Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire (5/5 stars, InCryptid #1, release date 3/6/12) — humorous urban fantasy; Verity Price wants a chance to pursue her dream of a career of ballroom dancing before her family calling as a cryptozoologist takes over. Can't recommend this highly enough, which is why I'm giving away 5 copies of it.

Most Popular Posts in February
Interview with Seanan McGuire, by a long shot. Likely helped by the giveaway and the fact that Seanan McGuire is awesome.
Writing romance and sex, in honor of Valentine's Day. 
Stuff and things, with some random bullet points. This indicates the seat-of-the-pants approach is working for me.
Another progress post, where I discuss my progress on SWANoWriMo, my writing group's answer to the fact that our lives are too hectic to write 50k in November.
Narrative kinks, because nothing gets people's attention like handcuffs. Not as controversial as it sounds; it's about what I like to see in stories I read or movies I watch.