Friday, August 31, 2012

Recap for August 2012

Slight dip in blog hits this month, but that's okay. I'm still doing well for a writing/reviewing blog that's been around about a year.

I picked up an Audible Gold account this month, because I'm running out of audio books the library system has that I want to listen to. Also, there are audio books I want to own, and the account makes them more affordable.

Book Reviews
Chomp by Carl Hiaasen (YA humor/adventure; 4/5 stars; audio)—Wahoo Cray and his crazy father go into the Everglades with a "reality" wildlife show host. Hijinks ensue. Hiaasen seems to hit his stride with the YA elements in this one.

Persuasion by Jane Austen (Classic romantic lit; 5/5 stars; audio)—Anne Elliot verges on the edge of spinsterhood because she took her well-meaning friend's advice and rejected the only man she ever loved. He comes back into her life. Jane Austen's final published novel, at least in her lifetime, and it's a delightful read, especially for Jane Austen fans. I read this and several other Austen novels as part of a reading event.

No Need to Ask by Margo Candela (short romance; 4/5 stars; ebook)—Read this in May, but didn't get around to reviewing it until just now, after it was re-released with a pretty new cover. Jillian Winters is a set designer for a hit show, but feels stuck in a rut. Then she meets Ethan Marshall, who hires her to decorate his loft, and who she falls for, hard. From what I've read of Candela, her stuff is good if you don't like explicit sex scenes.

An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire (urban fantasy with fae; 5/5 stars; October Daye #3; audio)—A reread to hold me over until the next book comes out in September. Toby Daye tracks down the Firstborn who kidnaps children from their beds to use in his Hunt. Decidedly dark, with several visible influences throughout.

Home Improvement: Undead Edition edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner (urban fantasy anthology; 3/5 stars)—Picked this up because I like some of the authors. Liked their stories, for the most part, but found an awful lot of them lacking in quality. Overall unimpressed.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (classic romantic fiction; 4/5 stars; audio)—The Dashwood sisters have moved down in the world, but they make the most of their new cottage home, and its handsome (and rich) locals. My opinion of the book's quality may have been colored by a narrator I didn't like.

Death Masks by Jim Butcher (urban fantasy detective wizard; Dresden Files #5; 2/5 stars; audio)—I only listen for James Marsters' voice, and even that's wearing thin. In this installment, Harry evangelizes to a holy warrior, fights a duel, watches other people slice up demons, and recovers a stolen Shroud of Turin. If I detected any hint of character growth or changing his mind about the sexism, I might warm to these. I'm not going to gross myself out, in the meantime.

The Hollow City by Dan Wells (psychological mind screw/science fiction; 5/5 stars)—Michael Shipman has schizophrenia, but all he sees may not be hallucination. Excellently crafted in a way that makes it clear what's real and what isn't, even when what's real is implausible.

No Dress Required by Cari Quinn (romance; 4/5 stars; ebook)—Noelle and Jake are alone together on New Year's Eve, and ready to see if their not-platonic feelings should be consummated. A fun, light read, it cleansed my reading palate after the last two.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (classic romantic fiction; 5/5 stars; audio)—Fanny Price goes to live with her rich cousins, where she's looked down on and treated like a servant, until the charismatic Henry Crawford falls in love with her. Her protection against his charm is that she's already in love with someone else. A lot of elements in this appear in modern rom-coms.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (epistolary novel published posthumously; 4/5 stars; audio)—Lady Susan Vernon is selfish, vain, and manipulative, and the only relief at the end is that she doesn't ruin everyone's lives. An excellent study in perspective in Austen.

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs (urban fantasy with werewolves; Mercedes Thompson #1; 3/5 stars)—Mercy Thompson helps out a werewolf who's new to the whole shifting thing, and winds up hip-deep in it. The writing isn't excellent, but I can see glimmers of potential, so I'll keep reading.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (Victorian horror; 4/5 stars; audio)—An incredibly quick read, and worth it to get at the original story. Lots of differences between this and the version that's survived in pop culture.
Most Popular Posts in August
The first two most popular are the hyphen post and my 11/22/63 readalong post, neither of which were posted in August. Moving right along . . .

The Importance of Good Grammar explains why the rules are important to learn, which was recently substantiated in an article in the Harvard Business Review. Even if you're not a writer, you need to learn how to grammar.

A Pantster on Top Ten Tuesday lists the ten posts that give you the fullest picture of who I am. Considering I shy away from making this a personal blog, it was an easy list to compile. The hard part was picking which ones to weed out.

Good Stuff: Seanan McGuire's Toby Daye Series is borne of an impatience to read the next October Daye book, and it discusses why I love the series as much as I do, and why I think you should give it a try.

Throwing Out the Rules gives you permission to ignore everything I've written about the craft of writing on this blog, and just write. Helpful for those who feel overwhelmed by all the things they're trying to remember, and who just want to write a freakin' story, okay?
Bending Tropes discusses one of my narrative kinks, and how to accomplish it. I give some examples of tropes, and ways I've seen them subverted that I liked.

Setting Your Story talks about the pitfalls with using a real place, and with making up your own. Both have their pros and cons, and I can't tell you which you want to use. I can give you information about how to choose, though.

Speaking of choices, Editing vs. Rewriting explains why you don't want to toss out your whole story just because you have to make a few changes, and I tell you how I approach rewrites, when I do them.

Honorable Mention
I also wanted to point out that I did a guest post for Roof Beam Reader's Austen in August event, about using Jane Austen's dialogue to teach you how to write it more effectively. I've already mentioned it once before, but it bears repeating. I do like how it came out, and I get a warm fuzzy every time I look at all the nice comments.

Everyone, have a wonderful Labor Day weekend, whether you're at Dragon*Con, Worldcon, PAX, or hanging out on your couch catching up on some reading. I'll see you in September.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that's so iconic, so much a part of the literary landscape, that it's almost unnecessary to read. But, because it's influential, I wanted to read it for myself, to see how it's survived so well in pop culture. It was a quick read, but it wasn't what I'd expected.

For starters, the story isn't quite Dr. Jekyll's. He narrates the last chapter, through a letter addressed to the perspective character, G.J. Utterson, lawyer. Dr. Jekyll, himself, shows up in very little of the narrative, and Hyde, while he drives most of the conflict, remains off-screen for much of the book. There is one scene from another perspective, that of a maid who witnesses a murder perpetrated by Edward Hyde.

The story is built like a mystery, with atmosphere and narrative tension galore. A lot of that tension is lost when you know Dr. Jekyll's great secret, but not all of it. You're still left wondering what's going to happen to the doctor, how this came about, exactly why he acts so oddly, and how Utterson is going to uncover the truth.

There are a few discrepancies between the Jekyll and Hyde of popular culture, and what exists in the book. Edward Hyde isn't a big, hulking monster, though he is younger and more robust than Dr. Jekyll, with hairy knuckles. While he's not outwardly deformed, makes people uneasy to look at him. He's also described as being significantly shorter. Hyde also isn't a different personality. Jekyll describes remembering perfectly well what Hyde does, and his growing horror in Hyde's behavior. He can control Hyde, to some extent, he just chooses not to, because he knows there will be no consequences. No one knows he's Hyde, so he can get away with all kinds of misbehavior. In that, Dr. Jekyll is like Griffin in H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. Jekyll & Hyde precedes The Invisible Man by 11 years, in case you were wondering who might've inspired who.

Overall, I think The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is worth reading for yourself. It's a lovely example of Victorian literature: heavy on the atmosphere and symbolism, light on gore or vulgarity. And it goes by quickly.

I listened to an audio edition, narrated by Wayne June. It's very strange, listening to an American read British fiction. There wasn't anything wrong with his pronunciation, it just took some getting used to. He spoke clearly, with no discernible change in volume, even when characters whispered or shouted. The audio quality was on the tinny side, but it didn't distort it to the point of distraction. The deep-voiced narrator might've sounded strange, if he'd been narrating any female dialogue, but no women speak in this story, nor are there any named female characters.

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Review: Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

Moon Called (Mercedes Thompson, #1)Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this because I liked Patricia Briggs' short story in an anthology I read. It was called "Gray," and it was well-written and touching. This Briggs is one who hasn't yet evolved to that point, evidently.

Moon Called introduces Mercedes (Mercy) Thompson, a skinwalker who shifts into a coyote form at will. She doesn't know anyone else like her; apparently her father is dead, and, if there's a coyote-shifter community about, she hasn't found it. She does hang out with werewolves, though, and when a young, untrained one shows up at her door, calling himself Mac, she offers him her help.

Mac's had it rough, and the people behind his difficult transition come to track him down and make trouble in Mercy's little corner of the world. They nearly kill the local alpha werewolf, and kidnap his daughter, then dump a dead body on Mercy's doorstep.

What follows is something of a meandering journey to rescue the girl and figure out why all this happened. I felt like the narrative lacked a sense of danger, because Mercy kept assuring us that werewolves heal too quickly for any of the damage dished out to slow them down for long. Mercy's bravery in the face of chaos takes away from the reader's sense of immediacy. She stops to explain a lot of things in the middle of the action, either leaving them feeling tacked-on, like kids playing make-believe, or deflating the narrative tension. Also detracting from the narrative tension was that, rather than let mysteries lie where they will, to be continued in later narratives, perhaps, every single question was answered in painstaking detail.

It doesn't help the book's case that it has a strong emphasis on alphas, a trope that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The notion of being able to control people because of one's ranking in a violent society was difficult for me to stomach, and it bothered me when it affected Mercy.

Add to this mix a love interest that feels tacked on for the sake of creating a love triangle, a confusing ending, and Mercy's status as an Exceptional Female (the only other female character she doesn't hate or who doesn't hate her is fifteen years old) left me with the feeling that this was amateurish writing.

There are glimmers of potential, though. Mercy's "holy symbol" was clever, and Mercy, herself, is likable. I'm interested in learning what happens to her.

I just hope "Gray" reflects Briggs' evolution as a writer, and that these improve as the series goes on. While this book has potential, if they're all written like this, I can't see myself adding future volumes to my must-read list.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Editing vs. Rewriting

I have a guest post up at Roof Beam Reader for the Austen in August reading event. I read and reviewed Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Lady Susan, one of Austen's unfinished novels, for the event, in addition to writing my guest post. The post is about what you can learn from Austen's dialogue to be a better writer, and I was pretty proud of how it came out.

And now, onto my own post.

I wrote on Tuesday about how you can ignore as many rules and conventions of writing as you want, but then you have to edit what you've written. Editing is essential, whether you're a pantster or plotter. The first draft will never come out perfectly.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
I've already posted about how to preserve the tone when you edit, and why you need to give your words some space before you edit. I also discussed where to start, and how to prioritize your edits.

Tonight, though, I want to run a question past you that only you can answer: should you edit your manuscript, or should you rewrite it?

The answer will depend on your manuscript, and your approach. Before you answer that question, though, I want you to do one thing. Read through your entire manuscript. Go ahead and fix typos if they bother you, and touch up anything that stands out. But I want you to jot down the big-picture edits you need.

Do you need to add a character? Squeeze in a few extra scenes? Delete a character? Fix inconsistencies? Go back to a scene after you've done some research? Those are all examples of a need to edit your manuscript, rather than rewrite it from scratch. Even if the answer is "Yes" to all of the above, you can fix it through editing, and your story is salvageable.

If, however, you have a main character who's blatantly inconsistent, your plot is all over the place, or your ending totally changes everything you thought you were setting up from scratch, you might want to scrap it and start over. You can keep whatever sections work with the new book, so perhaps "from scratch" is a misnomer. But, if the vast majority of what you've written doesn't work with the ending you decided was the ending this book needed, you have to start a new draft.

Personally, when I start rewriting, I keep all of the words I have so far. I hit the enter key some 10 or 12 times, so that all I have to do to refer to what I might want to keep is scroll down. Then I start writing, and I delete the old manuscript as I go. Whenever I find a section I can keep, I delete the blank spaces, then scroll down in the old manuscript until I get to the next section I need to scrap.

That doesn't mean that's the perfect way to go about it. I can hear some of my writing group friends tearing their hair out from here. It's what works for me, though.

The most important thing to remember, when you're considering whether to edit or to rewrite, is to keep a sense of perspective. It can certainly feel like, "I AM THE WORST WRITER EVER" when I'm rereading a draft of something I thought I'd written well. But I have to keep in mind that some mistakes can be patched over.

If I don't remember that, I could be rewriting forever.

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan
Lady Susan by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up from the library because I finished all the books I said I'd read for Roof Beam Reader's Austen in August event, and I still had a few days left in the month. Little did I realize, I had time for this book, and probably the rest of Austen's unfinished novels. It went fast.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, meaning it's told through the exchange of letters. That may well have been Austen's substitute for outlining stories, though, as Sense and Sensibility also started out as epistolary, and there's such an unfinished quality to the ending. The last few minutes of the audio book were a summary of what happens after the correspondences cease, which could've been told in letter form just as easily.

The novel follows Lady Susan Vernon, recently widowed and with a 16-year-old daughter named Frederica. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his wife, Catherine Vernon. Six years before, she'd tried to prevent the marriage, so Mrs. Vernon is understandably wary of her, and warns her brother, Reginald De Courcy, to steer clear. He's more intrigued than warned off, though, and soon Mrs. Vernon and her mother are fretting about the possibility he might propose to Lady Susan.

Meanwhile, Lady Susan is trying to marry her daughter off to the rich Sir James Martin, but her daughter tries to run away from school to escape this obligation, and gets expelled. She comes to stay with the Vernons, and Catherine takes a liking to her. Frederica, meanwhile, falls for Reginald, and asks his help in influencing her mother to give up on the engagement she doesn't want.

This is not a story of comeuppance. In the end, Frederica escapes her mother, and there's a strong implication she marries Reginald De Courcy, who learns just in time what a terrible person Lady Susan is. There's relief for the Vernon family, in the end, and for Frederica, but Lady Susan remains selfish and manipulative.

This book seems like more an exercise in perspective than a real story. Lady Susan sees herself as put-upon by her inferiors, looks down on Frederica and considers her stupid, and complains she's taken advantage of. Alicia, the friend she corresponds with throughout the story, agrees with her assessment and writes of her deserving better treatment than she manipulates out of people, while Catherine Vernon practically tears her hair out that no one else can see what a terrible person Lady Susan is, beneath the beauty. Each person clearly believes their perspective to be the right way of looking at the world, and Lady Susan feels she has perfect justification for her behavior.

Nonetheless, the story still shows Austen's skill in depicting a full characterization in a few lines. We know Catherine Vernon has plenty of reason to hate Lady Susan even before she outlines all of her thoughts on the matter, because Lady Susan preemptively defends herself against everything she might be hated for, and even mentions some things Catherine doesn't. We see how she's neglected her daughter, even as she's defending herself against such charges. We see her influence in Reginald, who's forewarned against her manipulations, and still falls prey.

I listened to an audio edition that had different readers for each letter writer. Each reader sounded distinct and spoke clearly. I would've liked more collaboration between the readers for Catherine and Susan, so that the parts where Catherine quotes Susan in her letters would sound more like the way the narrator speaks. The audio quality wasn't excellent, but it was acceptable.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Throwing Out the Rules

Photo obtained from Free Stock
Every week, I read the PostSecret blog when it updates. It's partly because it gives me story seeds and character traits, and because the speculation and back-and-forth on the LJ community devoted to it gives me some outside perspective. Mostly, though, it's because I'm fascinated with people's secrets, and I like to know what people aren't telling those around them.

This week, the last secret was a picture of a bear, with the text, "When you tried to teach me the technicalities, You killed my love for photography." The secret, itself, didn't stand out in my mind, but then a thread cropped up comparing the sentiment with that toward writing. One person noted feeling bogged down by all the rules, and others wrote of writing technicalities killing their love of writing, or hampering their creativity.

I didn't address it there, because I don't like to be confrontational, and I don't think I could've gotten it across without the context of my blog. I talk mechanics here. I talk technicalities. I talk grammar. I talk building blocks. Obviously, I think these things are important.

And I think it's essential that a story be written well. There should be a cohesive theme. The dialogue should ring true. The story's tone should remain consistent. The characters should be fleshed out and believable. There should be research put into your story. And so on.

Knowing all that doesn't negate that you have permission to suck, though. Getting your first draft down is a lot more important than that it's perfect the first time around. It'll never be perfect on your first try. That's why I have my sometime series on editing.

As you get more familiar with what you have to edit in, you'll write it correctly the first time, but there will always be something to fix the next time around. You'll realize you have to research something that'll take some digging, or you haven't yet figured out the ending to know what to foreshadow.

There are several ways of marking your text to go back to later. Some people put remarks in double brackets [[like this]], then do a Ctrl+F for the double bracket to find the remarks. This works just as well with any mark of punctuation you wouldn't expect to see doubled up. Others jot notes in their document. I use Open Office on my computer, but Word also has this capability; Scrivener does not.

Technical aspects of writing are important. Yes, writing is creative, and creativity can be stifled by too many rules and restrictions. Thousands of authors have managed, though, while following those rules and mechanics. If it's truly getting in your way, you have my permission to ignore every last rule. Misspell every other word in your first draft. Refuse to use punctuation. Throw words out onto the page as they occur to you, if that's what makes you finish that draft.

You're the one who has to edit it when you're done.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this as part of Roof Beam Reader's Austen in August reading event. I'd already read it, but that was nearly a decade ago, and I didn't remember the finer parts of the book. I remember feeling bored.

This experience was certainly different. While the large cast initially intimidated and confused me, it didn't take me long to catch up, and I was able to trace my difficulty to the main character, Fanny Price, having hung back from involvement with her cousins and their friends. I also found a lot of themes I could wrap my mind around during this reading: that of raising children well, one's worth being tied to one's choices rather than birth, of underestimating people, of the value of one's instinct when logic suggests someone is perfectly harmless.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, and I enjoyed Wanda McCaddon's narration. She read some of the male characters in the same tones, and I thought it was a curious choice to give Mrs. Price a different accent than that of her sisters, but I was able to follow the narrative just fine, and I found her voice pleasant to listen to.

Mansfield Park is mostly about Fanny Price. Her mother had a falling-out with her sisters, both of whom married well, because she chose a poorer man to marry, which took her away from her family. When Fanny is 9, her aunt, Mrs. Bertram, generously offers to raise one of the many Price children, and Fanny, the oldest daughter, is sent to get a proper education.

Much of the next 9 years fast-forwards to when Fanny is 18, and her cousins are making the acquaintance of Mr. Henry Crawford and Miss Mary Crawford. Fanny sees a lot of faults and flaws in the new friends, and her suspicions are confirmed when they play a part in the Bertram progeny wanting to put on a scandalous play before their father returns from abroad. Fanny wants no part in it, and Edmund, who's always defended her and has plans to become a clergyman, tries to talk them out of it. He winds up right in the middle, instead.

Sir Thomas returns from his trip early, and that seems the end of that, except that Henry considers Fanny's ambivalence toward him a challenge. He decides he's going to make her fall in love with him. In a twist worthy of any teen rom-com, he falls for her, instead, and she's horrified when he proposes.

The story that results reminded me a lot of the current talk around friend zoning. Henry seems to think he's entitled to having Fanny like him, just because he declared his love. Everyone else pressures Fanny, in words rather reminiscent of modern sentiments on the topic, saying to give him a chance, and that she's bound to love him sooner or later. Her uncle goes so far as to call her selfish and stubborn for not jumping at the chance to marry the guy she's seen flirting with both of her female cousins, one of whom was engaged to be married at the time. She has every reason to think this is a mean-spirited game on his part, and, even if it isn't, she should have every right to refuse outright and be left alone. I know it set off several alarm bells in my head when Henry went on about how compliant and sweet Fanny was, and how marrying her would save her from her birthright.

I was glad when Fanny's steadfastness paid off, and her suspicions about his character were confirmed. There had been hints of her being right to stay away from him all book, but then he brings about quite the scandal, and his sister shows where her values are lacking in defending him, which makes Edmund give up on her. That leaves him free to realize what a good match Fanny is for him. (And here's where I remind myself that, in Austen's view, cousins marrying was no big deal.)

Mansfield Park is the first of the Austen books I've read this month that had inner dialogue from a male character. We get some insight into Edmund Bertram's thought process as he's falling in love with Mary Crawford, and his observations about why he thinks Fanny might fall in love with Henry. We also get his thought process of why he switches to Fanny, but that's more of a footnote, at that point in the book.

Mansfield Park struck me as the most easily modernized of all of Austen's novels. Most of the concepts in this book are already there in modern movies, in some form or another. And what a breath of fresh air it would be, to see a guy trying to wear down a woman he's in love with, and to be so thoroughly refused as Henry Crawford is.

One of the settings of this book is in Fanny's familial home in Portsmouth. Her family is poor, though it still employs a servant, and Fanny has several brothers and sisters. While I found the description of the Price family home as loud, with thin walls and a constant cacophony of children thundering around in it amusing, I was less entertained by Austen's painting the family as neglectful and uncaring. Granted, Mrs. Price is the sister of Mrs. Norris, the worst person in the whole book, and Mrs. Bertram, who hardly seems to notice things right in front of her own face. But what Austen would attribute to cold uncaring, I'd be more willing to attribute to the family's being too busy to put up a fuss about a daughter who'd rather sit in her room and read than jump in to help. I suppose painting them as more sympathetic would detract from Fanny's angelic description within the book, but it still seemed like lazy writing.

Overall, though, this is my favorite of the books I've read for Roof Beam Reader's event. It's longer than some of Austen's other works, but the tension is excellent, once it gets going, and the themes are remarkably timeless. If I were to vote for a Jane Austen book to become required reading in school (not that I'd do that—what better way to make students hate Austen?), it would be Mansfield Park.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Good Stuff: Seanan McGuire's Toby Daye series

How is it not September yet? It seems like it's been August for forever.

I don't think it's been showing in my posts, but I've been having a negative kind of month. And, when I feel awash in negativity, it's time to think about things that make me happy. Today, because I'm so looking forward to the next installment next month, I want to talk about the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire.

The series starts with Rosemary and Rue, and October (Toby) Daye is following the person she suspects of kidnapping her liege's wife and daughter. She's a changeling, which, in that world, means a person with a faerie and human parent. (Another definition of the term is a human child swapped for a pale shadow, which often dies soon after the switch.) She's transformed into a fish to stop her chasing her suspect, and she spends the next 14 years in a koi pond.

She returns to a world that's moved on without her, and she's more than happy to sink into a mundane existence. But then a friend dies, drawing her in with a curse that will kill her if she doesn't solve the mystery.

Rosemary and Rue is a murder mystery, and one could be fooled by its seemingly straightforward plot that this is a detective series with a fae twist. But the world expands with each subsequent book. A Local Habitation brings us to a nearby faerie realm that's trying to integrate with technology, to mixed results. That, too, involves a murder mystery, a locked-door that I almost figured out by the end. It's less straightforward, and it expands the world's mythos and its characters. Then, An Artificial Night seems to start out a mystery, but instead becomes a reluctant hero's quest. Still more is revealed about the world and its inhabitants, and there are hints about Toby, herself, not being all she's presented to the reader so far. Late Eclipses confirms that, further developing the world and its rules. Then One Salt Sea brings us to the undersea domain of the fae, just when you thought you understood everything there was to know about Faerie.

The worldbuilding is excellent, because it's a fleshed-out world with surprises yet to be discovered. A lesser author might infodump all of this neat stuff on our heads, but Seanan McGuire patiently reveals it, bit by bit, and only as it's relevant to Toby's perspective. The world, itself, is an amalgam of real-life San Francisco and myths and legends from traditional European fairy tales, Shakespeare, and Eastern mythology.

All of the books are named after things in Shakespeare, though nothing so obvious as play titles or parts of famous soliloquies. They're phrases you'd be familiar with if you had most of the plays memorized, or even if you knew them well, but those of us who've only read them once or twice don't know which play each phrase is from until we read the opening quote.

The tone of the series is fairly dark. There are comic moments, and lots of snarky dialogue, but victories always come at a price. There are no easy choices in these books, nor easy ways out, and Toby always faces the consequences for her choices.

The next book, Ashes of Honor, comes out on September 4th. I'd meant to reread all of the books before that one came out, but it doesn't look like that'll happen. In the meantime, though, I do have a new short story, "In Sea-Salt Tears," to last me until the fourth. It's free on the author's website, and she asks that readers download it rather than reading it directly on the site, to spare her bandwidth.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Setting Your Story

One of the factors going into anything you write is the setting. You can leave that vague, sometimes, but adding setting details makes the story easier to relate and picture in the reader's head.

Photo of Asheville, NC, taken by Zulske and posted on Wikipedia
The question is, then, whether to use a place that really exists, or to make one up wholesale. There are advantages to both, and it mostly gets down to whether you want to do world-building or research. 

When you set a story in a real-life city, you have to use existing structures, existing roads, existing local hot spots. Use a popular club by name, and you risk finding out that's the place that has "Elvis night" every Saturday and gives free cover to anyone dressed as the King. Give your protagonist an apartment building with quick public transportation access, and you might learn that bus stop was discontinued in 1996. I grew up on Cape Cod, and I have yet to read a book that depicts the Cape I know and escaped a decade ago.

Done well, though, a writer can make people feel like a tourist in their favorite city. Integrating local flavor will make those who know your city smile, and feel like they're a part of the book. Some of the books I've read that use their settings to good effect are Rosemary and Rue and the rest of the Toby Daye books by Seanan McGuire (San Francisco), Spiral Hunt and the other Evie Scelan books by Margaret Ronald (Boston), and A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin (London).

If you decide to use a real city, even if you've lived there, you need to research it. There are bound to be side streets you haven't explored, nooks and crannies or unsavory sections of town you've never wandered into. There's going to come a time when your protagonist has to duck into a store on a street you've never visited, and you need to find out what kind of store your character finds there.

When you make up a whole new place, on the other hand, you don't have those problems. You get a whole other set of problems, in that your town or city or mushroom-infested cow pasture has to be logical and believable and feel like a real thing. Just as your characters must be believable, so, too, must your setting feel like it grew and shaped and evolved to become what it is. That doesn't mean that your first chapter should contain your fictional town's entire history, any more than you should dump your character's personal history on your readers' heads in the first few chapters. Let any fun things you've made up come out in the narrative, or not at all.

Making up a place from scratch does mean that no one is going to automatically feel connected to it. It's going to feel generic, maybe even like a blank wallpaper. You'll have to use even more details than you would in a setting that already exists, just to make it seem real.

The book I'm currently working on is set in a fictional town, whereas the trilogy I'm working on is set in Boston. The trilogy needed that grounding in reality, because I toss in several improbable elements. The ghost story, on the other hand, runs the risk of calling attention to a place that isn't mine. The house I'm writing about is a house I actually lived in, but it doesn't belong to me. It wouldn't be very nice of me to call attention to that real place and reveal how to find it. What if someone takes the story seriously and goes to the house to do some amateur ghost hunting? It's not much of a risk, but it is a risk, and I'd rather not take it.

What I will take, though, is my own advice. While I am basing a lot of my ghost story on the actual town I lived in at the time, and I'm placing it, geographically, very near another town, I'm also adding a lot of details which exist in neither location. In my rewrite, I'll be sure to add sensory details, as well, to add a level of reality to the setting.

It's a lot of work to create something that feels as real as what already exists, but, hopefully, it'll be worth it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: No Dress Required by Cari Quinn

No Dress Required
No Dress Required by Cari Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I needed a quick, light read to get me to sleep, and that's exactly what I got in No Dress Required. Not that it bored me to sleep, but it got my mind off the book I didn't like and the book that messed with my head I'd just finished earlier that day. This was a sweet, quick, sexy read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Noelle is in lust with her best friend's older brother, Jake. Jake is attracted to Noelle, who he's always called Nellie, but resists because he's known her forever, and his sister would be furious. Noelle is determined to grab Jake's attention with an eye-catching dress at her friend's party, but then an incoming snowstorm, a weather delay at the airport, and a carjacking all throw her plans to the wind. When Jake challenges her to reveal the truth about her feelings, they're tossed together, and Noelle makes the most of it.

I picked this up for my Kindle because my friend, who's in my writing group and is friends with the author, assured me there was no alpha male, a common romance trope that I avoid. This is friends-to-lovers, and Jake, while self-assured and handsome, is also kind and has a healthy dose of humility. His wonderful girlfriend of five years left him to become a nun, and his ego is still recovering.

The story is funny, though not laugh-out-loud. Noelle has her idiosyncrasies, and not everything lines up perfectly between this pair. They laugh about it together, though, creating a warmth underneath the sexual tension that says a lot about their potential longevity.

I understand this book isn't the best representation of Cari Quinn's work. Her other books are naughtier, and skimming over the descriptions confirms what I've been told. This is the first Cari Quinn book I've read, but it certainly won't be the last. I'm intrigued about what her spicier books might hold.

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Review: The Hollow City by Dan Wells

The Hollow City
The Hollow City by Dan Wells

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dan Wells certainly had his work cut out for him in writing this. It's not just any writer who can write a book about a person with schizophrenia and therefore questions reality and everything he sees, and yet give it a strong narrative thread most of his readers can understand. And yet, he rises to the task, to give us this thoroughly engrossing tale.

The Hollow City is about Michael Shipman, who wakes in the hospital with the last two weeks of his memory gone. He's wary of all of the technology around him. He's convinced it's being used to monitor him, because a mysterious Them has a Plan for him. The things he tells the doctor makes everyone think of the Red Line Killer, who's been murdering people and removing their faces. It also makes them think he's had a psychotic break, and they hospitalize him involuntarily.

A lot of the narrative takes place in the mental hospital, as Michael is prescribed one medication or another to make the hallucinations and delusions stop. There are signs, though, that some of what he experiences is real.

There are perhaps more words devoted to Michael's speculation about what's real and what isn't than necessary, though it's probably more for the reader's benefit than for Michael's. It could've been a lot more confusing, and I was able to follow it where I was supposed to, and left wondering where it was left a mystery. By the end, the book does explain what's real and what isn't, and rather explicitly at that, without infodumping.

I don't know about the average layperson's understanding of schizophrenia and its treatment, but there was a bit too much expositionary dialogue to explain it. I thought the doctor treating Michael was explaining a bit too much, especially considering his later surprise at Michael's lucidity. That, too, was entirely for the reader's benefit, but I didn't find it necessary. It made the dialogue seem stilted, more than anything else. But then, maybe the average reader who didn't study psychology needs those explanations.

In the end, I found the ending quite satisfying, the whole book rather enjoyable. It reads fast, and grabs you from the first page.

I got a free copy of this book through Far Beyond Reality, but I'd be just as pleased if I'd paid full hardcover price for it. I greatly enjoyed it, and I highly recommend it. There aren't a lot of well-written, accurate stories about people with mental illness from their perspectives. This is definitely a good one for setting the bar.

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Review: Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks
Death Masks by Jim Butcher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don't know why I read these.

Okay, I know why I read them. James Marsters narrates the audio books, and he manages to turn the unlikable narrator into something less of a jerk. Still, after five installments, it feels like the books are going in circles. The same things happen, often in the same words, and nothing really changes.

In this book, Harry Dresden starts off in a TV studio, on a Springer-esque talk show. He's there to meet a contact, who doesn't want to be seen with him, except on TV, apparently. While he's there, Harry gets threatened by a vampire, and hired to retrieve the Shroud of Turin.

Up to this point, Harry has been painted as agnostic, though there's been a strong thread of the power of the Christian faith equaling the darker forces he taps into. Faced with a Russian atheist who wields one of the holy swords, though, Harry immediately starts proselytizing. Having just braced himself to defend his own lack of faith, it came as a rather curious about-face.

Harry meets another holy warrior, or whatever they're supposed to be called, an Asian stereotype named Shiro. Shiro talks like Mr. Miyagi, and has the same blinding competency for fighting that he doesn't want to use. He's also a mentor, both to Michael Carpenter, a character we were introduced to a couple of books ago, and to Harry. If this is what diversity looks like in the Dresden universe, I'd rather other ethnicities were left out of it.

And, of course, there's the casual sexism in Harry's "chivalry," which these nasty women-substitutes (they're not real women, just shadow puppets written by someone who doesn't seem to like women) then take advantage of to thicken the plot.

The tension I found in earlier books wasn't even there. I felt like Harry spent half the book watching other people fight and kill one another. There were very few moments when I felt like Harry, himself, was in danger. Other people kept showing up to pull him out of whatever scrape he'd gotten himself into, and I knew they would, every time. The ending felt needlessly drawn out.

A lot of my friends like these books, and I'm often reluctant to share my full opinion, because I don't like upsetting my friends. But I just don't think they're the be-all, end-all of urban fantasy. (Or, if they are, urban fantasy is in trouble.) I think they're a drawn-out concept spread too thin, with geeky references tossed in to appease the fanboys. Harry kept alluding to comic books in this volume, and I was rather surprised he had time to read them, considering how many pages he spends whining about how little time he has to sleep.

I don't know if I'll pick up the next book. I'm told they improve after this, and that I haven't hit the peak, yet. I also heard that about Grave Peril, and I wasn't impressed with that one.

We'll see if my friend will lend me the audio book for the next one, knowing how I feel about them, I guess.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bending Tropes

I mentioned, way back in my post on narrative kinks, that I liked it when tropes are bent or broken. I thought I'd discuss that today in more depth.

A trope is a convention of a genre. It skirts the edge of cliché, though sometimes it tips over into the realm of cliché through overuse, or misuse.

Two examples that come to mind are of romance tropes. The alpha male trope is where the male lead is someone any woman would want for herself. He's strong, he's confident, he's quite handsome, usually rich, and it's apparent from page one that the heroine wants him. The conflict comes in because there's something else standing in their way, or she's just too willful to give in.

In response, another trope has risen up, that of the beta male. The best examples I've read lately of the beta male trope are Vicki Lewis Thompson's Nerds series. The male leads are lovable and squishy and generally in touch with their feelings, but they lack confidence, and tend to get overlooked. The main conflict getting in the way of their romantic success is that they don't believe that the awesome women they're in love with could possibly want them.

Another romance trope is that of the happily ever after, or happy for now. By the end of a romance novel, your perspective character is glad to be attached to a partner. Some romance novels imply a marriage in the near future, while some indicate this is a temporary arrangement, good while it lasts. The happily ever after is one of the tropes that defines a romance novel, and, as such, isn't bent within the genre. I play with it in my trilogy, but the trilogy isn't romance.

In order to bend a trope, you first have to know what it is. Some studying of the TV Tropes wiki (warning, link can keep you distracted for HOURS if you're not paying attention) can highlight some tropes, or you can just pick out patterns within your chosen genre. Usually, you'll notice it because it irritates you. The epic fantasy parody I've been mentally plotting for ages came about as a response to the multi-volume doorstoppers I was tired of dragging my way through, though I have since identified several other tropes I want to poke at, along the way.

Once you've identified the trope, you want to make sure someone else didn't beat you to your chosen method of bending it. Vampires that don't kill people is taken, and most "evil" monsters have gotten a chance to show they're just misunderstood. That doesn't mean you can't do it in the same way, but it does mean that your idea isn't stunningly original. If you want to bend the trope the same way someone already has, you'll have to study how they did it, and at least address what that writer established. And don't expect your reader to be impressed with you for coming up with something another writer did.

From there, you'll have to figure out how far you want to take it. You can exaggerate a trope to comedic effect, or you can hang a lampshade on it. That means you call attention to it to show how silly it is. You can contradict a trope, or just alter it slightly.

The beautiful part about trope-bending is, if you've been irritated about a trope, probably your potential readers are, too. You have a built-in audience, there. You just have to tap it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Editing: Taking that Tone

I've posted about editing before, and hinted it's a sometime series. This is the third in the series, on preserving the tone when you're editing your story.

The tone is the overall feel of a story. A story can be funny, gritty, light, dark, satiric or earnest, pessimistic, optimistic, fun, sad, or some shade in between. Many tones blend those elements.

The tone isn't necessarily in the individual words, though the words you choose to employ can affect the tone. Tone is an overall picture within the book, the lens you're showing your world through.

In your early drafts, you're probably not even aware of the tone you're writing in, especially if you're a pantster. If you don't know whether the ending is going to be uplifting, bittersweet, or sad, you don't know which details to highlight or how well the words need to trip across the page.

At some point in your macro edits, though, you do need to figure out what tone the story needs. Don't settle on a tone before you've figured out an ending. Everything about the story will have to lead to that ending, but the tone will make the ending inevitable, so that it's the only ending that works for the story.

Once you've figured out how light or dark, humorous or serious, hopeful or cranky your story is, then you need to tweak the story to reflect that tone. Pick details that support the tone. Pick language that implies the tone you're writing toward. Weather, the colors your perspective character notices, the events you highlight in depth, all lend themselves to the tone.

You'll probably find that a lot of scenes don't need much work, because you knew all along what tone you were writing. Those scenes are fine to leave as they are. It's the ones where you lost the thread, maybe thought too much about what you were writing, that you'll need to fix the tone.

Tone can tie together a whole story, connecting even seemingly disjointed vignettes. A reader can be carried through a rather confusing start if they feel it's all part of the same picture.

Similarly, though, if you switch the tone around, indicating carefree happiness in one scene, then following that up with a grisly murder, for instance, no matter how good your transition, you're likely to lose the reader.

Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I already had this book marked as read, but I couldn't remember a single detail about it, which is why I decided to read it for the Austen in August event hosted at Roof Beam Reader. Nothing rang familiar while I was reading, so I have to conclude I marked it as read in error. It's certainly not an unmemorable book.

Sense and Sensibility is about the Dashwood sisters, mainly Elinor and Marianne, though they also have a little sister named Margaret who gets forgotten through most of the narrative. After their father dies, the sisters and their mother move away to rent a cottage from a distant cousin. Elinor thinks she has the interest of Edward Ferrars, while Marianne falls hard for John Willoughby, who she meets when she twists her ankle and he helps her. When their new friends Mrs. Jennings invites the two older sisters to London, Marianne jumps at the chance to run into her Willoughby again. Elinor, meanwhile, has to contend with a woman who says she's engaged to Edward Ferrars.

The story starts with an establishment that the sisters are close. Marianne mourns that Elinor will wind up with Edward, assuming that means Marianne will have to spend time with him, too. I took the sentiment to just be selfishness on Marianne's part, because she can't imagine anyone wanting something she doesn't. It takes her some time within the narrative to show she's actually attached to her sister, and not just reliant on her steadfast, calm nature.

I had taken the story to be more in Elinor's perspective, but the character who goes through the most change within the narrative is Marianne. While she does start out with the most room for improvement, it makes Elinor seem a little too perfect, by comparison. No wonder Marianne was such a brat, sometimes, with an older sister she couldn't possibly live up to. Elinor, herself, was hardly stodgy or stuck-up, but her unwavering certainty made her hard to sympathize with.

The story contains a few themes, among them the danger of marrying for money. One character cautions of the misery caused by not having enough money, but another suffers dearly for choosing a rich wife. That it's women being sought after for money in the book is an interesting reversal from what modern readers may expect. There's a strong thread of wealthy people consolidating that wealth by marrying one another, but the solution, at least in this book, is to seek a comfortable living with the one you love.

I listened to this on audio, read by Flo Gibson. The narrator has one of those husky voices, like she smokes too much, which made her a strange narrator for soft, feminine speakers. She sounded less odd reading the men's lines of dialogue, which I suppose is a plus. But the worst part was the piercing whistle she made periodically. It wasn't just when she pronounced the letter S, either, and it made the version I listened to sometimes painful. Surely the audio could've been cleaned up to reduce the effect.

Sense and Sensibility was the first book of Jane Austen's to be published, though it wasn't the first she wrote. It doesn't read like a debut novel; it contains all the polish and depth of her later work. It's also enjoyable to read, and not just by comparison to the rest of the classics. The language isn't indecipherable, and, despite the different social classes and mores of Austen's time, it's easy to follow.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Progress Post: Grinding Gears

I posted about how I'd started a new project last month. As you can imagine, it's not going quickly.

Part of the problem is that it's been so long since I've thought about anything other than my trilogy. When my mind wanders, I'm used to thinking about my characters from the trilogy, working out a future plot point, or assessing the ones I have. Switching gears to a new project is good practice for when I'm done and it's out of my hands, but I'm still gaining that practice.

There's also the problem I mentioned in that last post, where I'm relating something that scared me, and writing about it involves revisiting an upsetting time. I've had to deliberately push it out of my head so that I can walk to the basement to do my laundry, wash my face in the shower, and get to sleep with the light off. I also scared myself half to death by letting my mind wander to my story when I heard a noise on the other end of the building. I went to say hi to what was apparently the only other person on my floor, and found all empty offices.


There's also the standard process of getting into characters' heads, establishing their motivations, cementing their voices in my head, and all that initial groundwork outliners take care of ahead of time. I've been figuring it out as I go, which makes for a more slowly constructed story.

My pace, therefore, has been glacial. There has been progress, but not nearly as much as I'd like. I'm dissatisfied with myself. I can't give you a number, because what I have is on handwritten pages, but I have seven of them I haven't typed up yet.

I'm also taking part in a walking challenge for work, which is taking away time I could be writing. It's refreshing me enough that I do plan to continue doing some walking after the challenge is over, though not an hour and a half of it every evening.

This has not been my most productive summer, thus far. Still, with everything going on right now, I'm glad to have accomplished what I have. I'll keep plugging away at it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: Home Improvement: Undead Edition anthology

Home Improvement: Undead Edition
Home Improvement: Undead Edition by Charlaine Harris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I always have a hard time rating anthologies, because my enjoyment varies so widely from one to the next that my rating rarely reflects my enjoyment as a whole. It took me a while to get through this, because most of the stories I really liked were sandwiched between ones I really didn't, and that made me pause before I moved on to each new story.

And so, here is my assessment of each story within this anthology:

"If I Had a Hammer" by Charlaine Harris is a Sookie short story about her helping her friend Tara fix up her new house. I realize such short stories can't affect the narrative of the novels, because it's unfair to those who don't want to track down the short stories, but the story lacked substance. It introduced a "magical negro" in Tara's black nanny, who's psychic and leads to the resolution of the haunting, and includes a gay character who committed suicide. Maybe the story was fine around those elements, but I had trouble stomaching it.

"Wizard Home Security" by Victor Gischler is about a magical security system, and what happens when it turns against you. Not a lot of substance to this story, either, but at least it was amusing, and the inclusion of a zombie bear wins it points.

"Gray" by Patricia Briggs is about a vampire making amends to the man she loved as a human, and killed when she became undead. This was an unexpected high point of the anthology. It was sweet and self-contained, and it made me want to look into Patricia Briggs' books.

"Squatters' Rights" by Rochelle Krich is about a young Jewish couple moving into their first home, where the previous wife killed her husband and herself. The wife is affected by the same forces. I liked how the first-person narrative showed plainly that she was losing her mind, and the conclusion made me shiver.

"Blood on the Wall" by Heather Graham was about a PI in New Orleans tracking down a werewolf who seems determined to pin its crimes on the local cult leader. The cult leader's conversion from a power-hungry manipulator to a productive member of society with a healthy dose of humility made this deeper than I'd come to expect from this anthology.

"The Mansion of Imperatives" by James Grady was my least favorite of the stories. It tells of two couples going out to the middle of nowhere to fix up a house, and the owner who's eager to be rid of it. The story is told in a detached, tell-y style that made me wish I'd skipped it entirely.

"The Strength Inside" by Melissa Marr is about two supernatural sisters trying to pretend they're human, until the head of the Homeowner's Association comes by. Intriguing worldbuilding and a creepy ending, but I couldn't help but feel there was something missing from the narrative.

"Woolsey's Kitchen Nightmare" by E.E. Knight presents a world in which vampires, werewolves and zombies live outside society's notice, but they have a mainstream society of their own. Woolsey goes to a restaurant catering to supernatural clientele in Wisconsin, just in time for the famous would-be entrée to escape. The ending made me chuckle.

"Through This House" by Seanan McGuire is the whole reason I bought the anthology, and it didn't disappoint. Toby Daye has her own knowe, but other creatures have set up house in it during its vacancy. With the help of her friends, she's ready to make it ready for habitation. But first, she has to turn on the lights. This story has some serious spoilers for Late Eclipses, so I'd advise you read that before you pick up the short story. The story, itself, doesn't disappoint. There's no Tybalt, but we all know Toby can carry a story all on her own.

"The Path" by S.J. Rozan is about the ghost of a timid Buddhist monk trekking to NYC to retrieve the head of the statue that was stolen from his cave. It, too, is told in a detached style, and the description of a mountain's expressions being its weather patterns and rock slides quickly grew tiresome. I don't know a lot about the author, but it sounded like she was trying really hard to sound Asian.

"Rick the Brave" by Stacia Kane is about a contractor who goes to fix up a house that's infested with aggressive ghosts. He's never seen a ghost face-to-face, but he has to face a room filled with them, along with a witch named Chess. His ignorance about the process of banishing ghosts proved a good point of entry for those of us who haven't read any of Kane's other books. I can see myself picking her stuff up, on the strength of this short story.

"Full-Scale Demolition" by Suzanne McLeod wasn't terrible, but, in a market saturated with urban fantasy, her London UF about a faerie with no magic didn't stand out. I gathered there was supposed to be tension between her and the kelpie guy, but I just didn't feel it. The story is about a sidhe who catches pixies, and who's lured into a cannibalistic ritual by a lamia.

"It's All in the Rendering" by Simon R. Green is about a house that sits on the boundary between worlds, when inspectors from both worlds come by on the same day. The whole point of the story seemed to be to introduce the reader to the house and its premise, and therefore the plot was thin. The dialogue consisted mostly of "as you know, Bob . . .", which I detest. The story had potential, but wasted it on showing off its cutesy gimmicks.

"In Brightest Day" by Toni L.P. Kelner is about a voudou practitioner who raises a well-known architect to finish his final project, and solves the mystery of his death, along the way. The story amused me, and played with the tropes, though I wish the main character hadn't been the only exception to the personality types of houngans. Also, the description of a typical houngan clung too closely to that of a traditional Romani for me to give it a pass. That the main character darkened her skin and wore a black, curly wig to fit the expected role made me squirm.

I think this collection does have its high points, but, overall, most of the stories were disappointing, or they were a slog. Based on this must-read of their anthologies, I have to take the rest of the Harris/Kelner anthologies off my to-read list. If this is what I can expect, well, never mind.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012


I always have such high hopes for my future reading plans. My to-read shelf on Goodreads is 486 items long, and hasn't shrunk since I joined the site. I just keep adding to it, and I always forget to add the books I actually own.

If I keep a book once I've read it, it's either because I want my husband to read it, or because I want to reread it. Rereading is part of my high hopes for reading, but then I look at that list of 486, and I renew my hope to make a dent in it, and I toss rereading by the wayside.

That's changed a bit this year. So far, I've reread the first three Toby Daye books by Seanan McGuire (reviews for books 1, 2, and 3), and my participation in Austen in August means I'm rereading Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, neither of which I remember reading the first time around.

There are good reasons for rereading, beyond simply that it's fun. Repeat readings allow you to read in more depth, to look for foreshadowing, to better analyze the text. When you reread a book, you're not just absorbing the story, anymore. You know what happens next. You're seeing how it was done, and you can pay a lot more attention to the craft while you read.

That doesn't mean that you should only reread books that are perfectly crafted. I would advise, at least if you're trying to read as a writer, that you read books that do something you want to learn. If you greatly admire one writer's dialogue, and that's what you want to know more about, read and reread that writer's books. If another does worldbuilding in a way you admire, that's who you want to read in depth. Any book that's made you say to yourself, "I'll never be this good" is a tool at your disposal.

There is a line between emulation and learning from those who have come before, though, and I would caution you not to cross it. Your voice should still be yours, and you should still use your own style and unique way of looking at the world. Use other writers' tools, but not their products.

Like most things in my life, which books I choose to reread or read for the first time are a matter of which I feel like. I don't make lists, I don't schedule books (unless someone's asked me to review one or I take it out from the library, which bumps it up in the queue), and I certainly don't plan when I'm reading what. My reading priorities, too, are by the seat of my pants.

But, I'm glad I was able to learn the value of rereading, all on my own. It's one of the things that's helped me learn to be a better writer. Anything that helps with that is well worth the time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire

An Artificial Night
An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had already read this book, back when it first came out. I've been trying to reread all of the books in the October Daye series before the next, Ashes of Honor, comes out in September. I don't think I'll make it. I do, however, think that I'm enjoying my rereads.

This is the third in Toby's series, and, while it's just as good as I remember, I couldn't help but compare it to the later books and the successive game-changing developments. Still, it was fun to catch the foreshadowing and breadcrumbs Seanan McGuire left in this book, and to predict what we might see in future installments.

In this book, Toby goes to a 4-year-old's birthday party, then gets a frantic call the next morning. The little boy in question is missing, as is his sister, and another sister isn't waking up. She can't make sense of the clues left behind, but the Luidaeg points her to Blind Michael's realm, where children are being harvested for the once-a-century Hunt.

Blind Michael is a Firstborn, which leads Toby to the unique situation of facing off against someone she hasn't a chance against. In the previous two books, it was only that she hadn't figured it out, yet. But Blind Michael isn't hiding. He's right there in his realm. The trick is getting there (by a candle's light), and getting back out again. There are three roads, and Toby needs them all to free the children she's vowed to rescue.

This book introduces May Daye, Toby's Fetch. A Fetch is a physical double sent to accompany people on the occasions of their deaths. However, May is no passive herald of death. She's bright and sunny and cheerful, and winds up saving Toby's life, or at least sparing her a painful death. One might think that's against the rules, but no one knows what the rules are. Not even May, who's mad at herself for possibly wrecking the reason she's there.

I originally read this book in paperback format, but my reread was of the audio edition. Mary Robinette Kowal does an excellent job with narration. She has subtle pitch changes that separate out the characters. I needed an adjustment period to get used to how she voices Tybalt, my favorite secondary character and the source of my kitten's name. But, now that I'm adjusted, I hear all of his dialogue, even when I'm reading, the way she reads him.

The audio edition does highlight one thing several other readers have complained about: the repetition. Several phrases crop up more than once, Toby relates how she performs actions in the same words, and the "hero" concept is fairly well hammered home. This being a fairy tale with strong song elements, I felt the repetition served the story well. It was like a refrain. But, some of the repetition sounded like it might be a mistake.

If you've read the first book, or the first and second, and you're hesitant about picking this one up, I would advise that you stop hesitating. It only gets better from here. There's so much that's being set up in these books, and you are in for such a treat.

However, if you haven't read the earlier books, I strongly advise you do. You're missing out on a lot of story and previous worldbuilding. You can pick this one up without preamble, but I don't advise you do.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Review: No Need to Ask by Margo Candela

No Need to Ask
No Need to Ask by Margo Candela

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Did you ever get the feeling a book was written for you? Not that the author sat down with you in mind, but that you said to yourself one day that you'd like to read a book with this type of character and this kind of pacing and this resolution? And then, you picked up a book, and read it, and got the funny feeling the Universe had granted you a request?

If I'd known I'd get that wish, I probably would've wished for something different. But still, a book that hit all my tastes at once, well, I'll take it.

This book, which is novella length, follows Jillian Winters, a set designer for a TV show which shares several elements with a few TV shows I recognize, though not so many Maisy York, the spoiled star of the show, could be matched up to an existing actress.

Then, while Jillian is hunting for the perfect lamp, she meets Ethan Marshall, who asks her to decorate his spacious loft. He's handsome and successful and recently divorced. Her love life consists of the leftovers her jerk ex-husband, Owen, is willing to share, so she's ready to entertain romantic notions.

The story is sweet, though not the most complicated one I've ever read. I did believe that these two people genuinely liked and were attracted to one another, and that the obstacles in their paths were truly obstacles and not anyone being stupid. The romance is sexy without ever getting explicit, leaving it to the reader's imagination why Jillian is grinning like that.

Once again, Margo Candela uses elements that I liked in the last book of hers I read, Just Like That. Jillian is smart and successful, and she has a strong friendship that never takes a back seat to her relationship. Her banter with Trudy, her best friend, makes for some of the best lines in the story.

I understand this book is getting a repackage from the release I originally read, including a new cover. It was a good investment even before the repackage. If you like fun stories about wonderful women getting what they deserve, I'd strongly recommend you pick this up.

View all my reviews

A Pantster on Top Ten Tuesday

I decided, on the spur of the moment, to participate in The Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday. Being a pantster, when else would I decide to participate? I'd glanced at topics before, but struggled to come up with more than two or three responses, which makes for a weak top 10. I feel like I'm cheating a bit, because my blog isn't exclusively reviews. Ah, well.

The topic is, Top Ten Posts I Think Give You the Best Glimpse of Me

1. Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants explains the blog title better than any of my earlier posts on the topic. I write by the seat of my pants, and that post explains why that's my approach, in the face of lots of writers who'll tell you an outline is necessary.

2. Turning Negatives Into Positives wrapped up an impromptu series about my weak points as a writer. So, not only can you read about the things that get in my way, you can read the links to see how I deal with them.

3. Rules to Review by lists the standards I hold myself to with my reviews, and therefore what people can expect from them. It's a short list, but I've been consistent on those points.

4. Reading for Pleasure is my reaction to being told there are books that are good for me, and that I should, therefore, read. If it's not fun, I won't read it. There are books that are both good for you and a pleasant read (precisely why I'm taking part in Roof Beam Reader's Austen in August event), but talking about literary value isn't how you talk me into reading a book.

5. Bad Grammar Makes Me [Sic] discusses how I feel about grammar, and why I post about grammar mistakes or how to properly punctuate. I'm no Grammar Girl, but I don't think there's such a thing as overdoing information about how to use grammar correctly on the internet.

6. Narrative Kinks lists the things in stories that turn me on. If I see those elements in a story, movie, or TV show, I'm apt to love it, unless it does one of the other things very, very badly.

7. Care and Feeding of Authors is a how-to guide on approaching authors to spend time with them without leaving them with a bad impression of you. The post leads into the stories of the times I had dinner with Peter S. Beagle and Seanan McGuire. I love telling those stories. I get so warm and fuzzy thinking about them.

8. Perpetual Rewrites reveals how I got into a particular habit I have, and why it's made it easier to edit earlier drafts. It's a story of a younger, less intrepid pantster.

9. Learning to Write discusses the ways a young writer-in-training can learn how to be better. I talk about how I think college actually got in my way, and less expensive alternatives.

10. Insurmountable Obstacles to Writing is generally about recognizing when you're in over your head, but it reveals a major problem I struggle with. I have a manageable form of depression, but I have to watch for the signs and prioritize, sometimes. That's the most personal entry in my entire blog.

There. In ten posts, I think that's the most complete picture you'll have of me. Now you don't have to read the other 303 posts. (Though, feel free to poke around, and let me know if there's something you'd like to see me post about, or if there's a post label that would make some things easier to find.)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Harvesting Writing Ideas from Real Life

Photo of harvest time obtained here
One of the best places to get writing ideas is in one's own life. That doesn't mean to only write about things you've experienced, though, or your books will get repetitive and boring pretty quickly. Still, if there's something you have done that's exciting or interesting or heart-wrenching, and you want the reader excited or interested or heart-wrenched, those experiences are good to tap into.

However, there is a way to go about it, for maximum effect.

Give it space. If it just happened yesterday, and you're still upset, you're going to have a hard time presenting any perspective but your own. Some of my most embarrassing writing is when I was frustrated about student loans and working two jobs and not getting ahead, and I wrote about it. Now, I think I might be able to write a story on that theme, but then, it was too much of a Message.

Mix and match. You don't have to write out the event verbatim. Take the most interesting things from one thing you remember, combine it with the funniest part of a whole other encounter, pare down the boring parts, and voila, you've made yourself a funny story. Later, you can take that same story, play up the less exciting parts and combine them with something sad, and elicit a feeling of heartache.

Add detail. Chances are good you don't remember the event exactly as it happened. Or, you're fuzzy on the exact play-by-play. Have you ever listened to someone relate a story, but get hung up on who was standing where, and it turns out it doesn't even matter? Don't be that guy. Instead, make up the parts that are important. Fill in sensory details, add people who need to be there for the story to work, add enough lighting for the characters to see what's going on, or add dialogue that never happened. Detail will make it seem more real.

Subtract irrelevance. As I mentioned in the last tip, the minutiae that didn't matter are irksome to hear in painstaking detail. Maybe all of this interesting tale happened when you were on your way to your favorite aunt's funeral, but the story is a funny one. Maybe it was midnight and you'd just closed up the store where you worked and it was an okay day, except for this one weird customer stayed fifteen minutes after closing and talked your ear off the whole time, but you want to tell about the cat you helped out of your tree and adopted when you got home. Those events may be tied together, and very skillful writers can blend two disparate events to serve a theme, but, if you're not doing that, leave it out.

Remember you're not writing nonfiction. If you are writing nonfiction, you'll want to interview people who were there, read written accounts, look through photographs, and dig up news articles. But, with fiction, you get to make it up as you go along.

Change names. People will see themselves in your fiction regardless of whether you put them there or not. I've listened to several authors talk about family and friends approaching them to say, "Y was me, wasn't he?" or "I see a lot of myself in Z." And, inevitably, they're wrong about which character was based on them. Don't make it a giveaway, unless that's the idea. Most people will not react well to a fictionalized version of themselves. People don't see themselves the way others do. Also, if you write anything really insulting, they may sue you. Obfuscate the use of real people as much as you can. With place names, think optimistically. If your story were to become immensely successful, would you want people visiting this place? If not, fictionalize it.

If you want to use real life to enhance your fiction, remember, truth is stranger than fiction. That's because fiction is supposed to have a theme and cohesion. Life has no such restrictions.