Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant

San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats (Newsflesh Trilogy 0.6)San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was far too heartbreaking to be a horror story.

In the Newsflesh universe, 2014 is the year the dead came back to life, and infected humans lost everything but a need to eat and to infect more people. This novella is set during the 2014 Comic-Con in San Diego, before the outbreak is common knowledge. The infected get onto the vendor floor on preview night, and are locked in with the uninfected. The living have an advantage, in that they're apt to believe it's a zombie outbreak, and to have seen the movies to know what to do about it.

There's a large cast of characters, which would've been a lot easier to follow if I'd read it in one sitting. As I didn't, I spent a couple of paragraphs sorting out who was who with each scene change. It made it difficult to connect with anyone except the two discussing the events in "present" day. I'm not counting that against the book, because that may have been the point.

I had pictured more of a "last stand," based on the title of the story. Sadly, there is no Serenity-Valley-type showdown here. There's no blaze of gunfire (which isn't a spoiler, as Comic-Con doesn't allow live weapons). Instead, there are good people succumbing, one by one, to inevitability. There are moments of heroism and bravery, and the trademark Mira Grant wit. It just felt like something was missing.

That something was not heart. I teared up at several points in the narrative, and I did connect with Lorelei, who's telling the story of what happened in that locked convention center during the Rising. I felt her pain and grief, even decades later.

If you really like the other Newsflesh books and need to read more, I think you'll like this a lot. If you're not especially a fan, though, it's not going to seriously alter your opinion on the series. There are no major revelations in this novella. It's there to fill in more of the picture, not to expand on it.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey by Chuck Wendig

Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey
Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of blog posts by Chuck Wendig, who's something of a household name in foulmouthed writing bloggers. He puts his money where his mouth is, though: he's published freelance, through self-publishing, and traditional venues. He knows what he's talking about.

For him. I must emphasize that I didn't find everything he said useful in my own writing. Mostly, the utility came from thinking about things I took for granted about how to craft a good story. Some of the entries seemed random. Some were rambly and too theoretical. Generally, though, the book was a good mix of entertainment and information.

If you don't like swearing, you'll want to steer clear of Wendig, because he isn't shy about peppering profanity into his prose. I know that turns off a lot of readers, but it didn't bother me. It seemed appropriate. Again, for him.

There is something of a tone in some of the essays that implies his way is the One True Way to think about writing. He backpedals on that in his commentary, which is tacked onto the end of each entry. The commentary is there because he's learned better since posting some of these blog entries, and editing each post would probably be tedious. I thought it was a good approach, actually, to see what he learned as he went along. It goes to show how nebulous writing rules can be, and that you're in trouble only when you think you have all the answers.

Overall, if you like humor sprinkled liberally with profanity and you want to hear some perspectives on writing, it couldn't hurt to pick this up. Wendig infuriates some writers, and I can't blame them, but I do like that he gets me thinking about why I don't agree with him.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: Distant Shores by Kristin Hannah

Distant Shores
Distant Shores by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here's some free advice, worth the pixels it forms on your screen: don't read books about marriages on the verge of collapse when your own isn't doing too great. It's upsetting. I was hoping for an uplifting tale of a couple that makes it, despite the difficulties, to get some idea of what to do about my own situation. Instead, it just depressed me.

Distant Shores is a play on the last names of the main characters, Elizabeth ("Birdie") and Jackson ("Jumpin' Jack Flash") Shore. They are, indeed, distant, which is probably the first time I've found a title too apt. Jack is a former football star who injured his knee, got addicted to painkillers, and got thrown off Monday Night Football for getting into a car accident while high. Birdie is his wife of 24 years, mother of their two lovely daughters who are now in college. She's deeply unhappy. When Jack gets a job in NYC, she opts to stay behind in the house she thought she'd get to keep forever.

This is not well-written. It's trite, and absolutely stuffed with cliché. I thought about making a drinking game of one shot per cliché, but realized I'd be dead of alcohol poisoning before 20 pages were up. The sea is like a kaleidoscope, a tall, thin rock is a "monolith," eyes sparkle, people pop things into their mouths, hearts break, it's the end of the world. At one point, Birdie thinks that maybe there's a lesson in the spider who keeps rebuilding her web even after it's swept away every time, and I literally smacked myself on the head.

There is some grey area within the book, which is surprising. The separation is neither Birdie's nor Jack's fault, and they both have realizations to make before they can think of reconciling, or even know for certain if that's what they want to do.

But the majority of the prose is written with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. There's a subplot about a sports star raping young women, but it's there entirely as a springboard for Jack's career. The author is aware this causes controversy, but the reactions from the football star's defenders are flimsy, nothing like the actual remarks made about women who accuse sports stars of rape.

I didn't like the audio edition, and I don't know if that's because of the infestation of clichés, or because a third of the female characters, all the women that were supposed to sound sexy, sounded like they'd just had dental work done. When a third of the background characters are slurred, it grates. The narrator also had a weird lilt. She put emphasis in places where it didn't belong, making the characters sound like they were children, mentally.

In the end, I found the solution too simplistic, not worth the setup, and definitely not worth wading through all that cliché.

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Temporary Hiatus

There will be no new blog posts until I sort through some major personal issues/potential life changes. If you're dying for something to read, feel free to comb through my Best Of page, or my monthly wrap-ups:

January 2012
February 2012
March 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012

I hope everyone is having an easier time of it than I am.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday Makes You Think

I checked the Top Ten Tuesday on Broke and the Bookish today, and I thought of a handful right off the top of my head. The topic is Top Ten Books that Make You Think. This list is not the books that make you think, but the ones that have most expanded my inner horizons. Consequently, many of them are books I read in school.

1. Othello. I can't very well list every Shakespeare play here, and that's the one that made me realize the universal and timeless notions Shakespeare was tapping into. Also, y'know, racist, so it taught me how to start approaching problematic elements in things I like.

2. Crime and Punishment was the first book I enjoyed that everyone around me disliked. I think the notion of being sick with guilt resonated with a part of my angsty teenage self that hated me just for existing. I found a new sort of escapism in this reading, the kind that's glad you're not that bad off.

3. Night by Elie Wiesel brought the horror of the Holocaust home for me in a way the pictures of mass graves, of skeletal survivors, of firsthand accounts by soldiers, couldn't. I'd never experienced the kind of hunger and pain and cold Wiesel describes, and I never will, but I understand it better.

4. The Yellow Wallpaper not only messed with my mind, but helped me to see ways women were being silenced without the vast majority of us even noticing. It made me start looking deeper into my assumptions about power dynamics and human relationships.

5. The House of the Spirits helped raised my awareness of political turmoil in places other than the U.S., and our role in it. It's a fictional tale about one family, with magical realism throughout, but it opened my eyes to a much bigger world.

6. House of Leaves scared the ever-loving crap out of me. Maybe it's pretentious and annoying, but reading it made me want to dig through symbols and peel back layers of story and spend hours dissecting it.

7. The Handmaid's Tale. To me, the best science fiction is the kind that shines a light on aspects of our own society. Not only did I finish this book with the sense of being glad it wasn't true, but I also started to notice where Atwood got the ideas in the first place. If we use it as the cautionary tale it was intended to be, it won't happen, but the erosion of Roe vs. Wade and the recent discussions around birth control being covered by insurance makes this all the more relevant than when it was written.

8. The House of Discarded Dreams is a lovely book that integrates a mythical tradition I'm totally unfamiliar with. I didn't always understand it, but I sure wanted to see what would happen next. This is a book unconstrained by the narrative structures I know, and it was fascinating to read.

9. The Grapes of Wrath was written to highlight the greed of those who caused the Great Depression, and to create sympathy for the workers who suffered from it. The fact that some profit while many starve today hasn't escaped my notice. Nor has the "get a job!" sneering.

10. Brave New World. Once again, science fiction that shines a light on the world it isn't depicting. Lots of aspects of modern society are raised, and satirized. It got me thinking about a lot of things I take for granted. I'm still mulling over some of the topics the book raised.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Back to Writing Basics: Empathy

Image of boy and girl hugging found here
While I'm posting about tools and building blocks, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss other skills a beginning writer should cultivate and develop. I was discussing books I was reading the other day when I hit upon a crucial skill of character development. The ability to empathize, or even sympathize, was never taught to me as a skill set I would need, but developing it has served me well.

A writer can certainly write without any empathy, but I think the lack of it is where I often feel whacked over the head with a Message. This is where straw men and thin characterizations come from. Not understanding why people would feel any other way than the Message you're trying to get across is going to lead to a weak argument, easily overcome by the moral message you're trying to impart.

When I was much younger, I wrote stories about a sympathetic serial killer. Rather, I thought he was sympathetic. I know now that his anger was only justifiable for that level of violence if the people he killed were less than human. In the stories I wrote, they were, because they were mere cardboard cutouts. If I gave the victims lives and personalities, their sins were no longer egregious enough to justify snuffing them out for the slights they'd committed. At least, not to anyone who wasn't the killer.

Like most writing skills, you cultivate empathy through practice. I spend a lot of time in my own head, and about a tenth of that time is mulling over things I don't agree with. It's not to change my mind, though sometimes that's a side effect. All I want to know is, why would someone think differently? If I lack the cultural awareness or history, I look it up, or read a book on the subject. I find authors from different backgrounds than mine, and read up on the context of books whose perspectives were jarring to me.

 Empathy will also lead to a greater variety of characterization, as you'll be able to better write characters who don't agree with your personal beliefs. I mentioned in my post on throwing out the rules that I read PostSecret and the related comments, and one of the reasons is empathy. I'm interested in how people are different than me, what makes them think or act that way, and what other people's opinions are on those thoughts and behaviors.

While very little of what I find out about how other people think ends up explicitly in what I'm writing, the overall understanding I gain is quite valuable. I'm learning to slip into several different perspectives, because I understand how very different characters might feel.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to remember which perspective I'm supposed to be in, but, I'm learning.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another classic I'd heard about, and that's something of a household name, but that I'd never read for myself. I read an audio edition. The narrator was fine, though the accent he chose for John made me cringe. I kept having to adjust the volume as I was listening, too, because shouted or exciting parts were shouted, and whispered or calm parts were murmured. Surely post-production could've cleaned that up so I could hear the whole thing without blasting out my eardrums.

Brave New World depicts a dystopia that, on its surface, appears a utopia. People are happy and prosperous and youthful, there are no uprisings, revolts, or protests, and predestination is determined at conception. The novel starts in the building where eggs are fertilized, embryos nourished in a particular way to result in a particular type of person, children conditioned to fit into their roles in society. We learn that children are traumatized to keep them from wasting time walking around in nature, and that they're encouraged in "erotic play." The book never specifies what it entails, and I think I'd rather not know.

The book satirizes several aspects of modern society, many of which have worsened since 1932, when Brave New World was published. Consumerism, the human tendency to march lockstep, escapism, science without ethics, even advertising and movies get a sly poking-at. Some of the aspects of society being satirized are more obvious than others, but it's all razor sharp.

There are some aspects the story seemed to present as basic aspects of human nature, rather than to satirize. As much as it shines a light on objectification of women, it also presents women as, by nature, weaker, more suggestible, and still the gatekeepers for sex, even in a world where sexual expression is open and free. If the book had said they were conditioned to not like sex, I could buy their passive roles in it, but the only time a female character wants to sleep with someone, it's because he's from an entirely different culture and doesn't want to jump into bed with her.

The brief visit to the "savage reservation" of New Mexico was deeply racist, and I couldn't help but wonder what would make Native Americans uniformly turn their back on learning. Perhaps they were in the reservation in the first place because they'd rejected the outside world, but it wasn't clear in the text. They'd integrated Christianity into their beliefs, but not reading or math? It was a weird amalgam of Amish and stereotypical Native culture.

Other than those issues, I did think it was a good book. Not a particularly enjoyable read, but satire shouldn't make a person feel content or comfortable. It's for making a person question, creating a community of those who see things differently. As we see in this book, one individual, or even a handful, can't change an entire society with their discontent.

One of the things I wondered about, while reading, was the work that goes into sustaining this society. From the day they're conceived, the members of this society are groomed to be another cog in the wheel, watched and manipulated into never making waves. The chilling part came from the realization it's no more work than goes into indoctrinating people in modern society. We're inundated with messages about who we are from the moment we're born, rewarded for some behaviors and punished for others, and slammed with pretty pictures modeling who we should become. It's not nearly as organized as in Brave New World, and it can be changed, but not before we question those messages and work to dam the flood.

I liked the inclusion of Shakespeare, especially where this narrative parallels The Tempest, but I felt like it was heavy-handed, in places. During the big climactic scene, it's just dogma about the society versus a mishmash of Shakespeare quotes. I couldn't figure out why the Controller kept arguing his points in the face of regurgitated lines from an author he considers obsolete.

The story ends on a depressing note, with two of the main characters exiled, two dead, and status quo upheld. The point of the book isn't to be an uplifting tale about throwing off the shackles. It's a warning to all those who unquestionably embrace all that society teaches them.

I think I'm glad I didn't read this sooner. I don't think I'd've appreciated its gloom. I'm glad I did read it eventually, though. It got me thinking about a lot of things I take for granted.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Review: Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire

Ashes of Honor
Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved it.

This is the sixth book in the October Daye series, and there was a year between this one and the publication of the last book, One Salt Sea. I'd hate to say the wait was worth it, lest it encourage the publisher to torture us every time, but we already know The Chimes at Midnight doesn't come out for another year.

In this book, October (Toby) Daye is hired by Etienne, the knight who trained her, to find his changeling daughter. Chelsea is a teleporter, and Toby quickly realizes that her changeling blood means she doesn't have the limits of a pureblood Tuatha de Dannon. Translation: she's getting into parts of Faerie that have been locked away, and they were locked for a reason. If Toby doesn't find Chelsea, domains may start to collapse. And suddenly, it seems someone may be using her powers for their own gains.

We meet Duchess Riordan this book, who we'd heard about way back in book 2, A Local Habitation. For someone so imposing and aggressive, her initial introduction sure charmed me. But then her actions speak up, loud and clear, about why she deserves her reputation.

In addition to Chelsea, we also meet Bridget, her mother, a folklore professor at Berkeley. She's human, but no less imposing for her lack of magic. Her initial introduction has her threatening Toby with a cast iron frying pan. She's halfway panicked about losing her daughter, but still manages to show the intelligence and resourcefulness that would've made Etienne notice her in the first place. I found myself looking forward to reading more of her, and speculating if I'd get to.

We also meet Li Qin, widow of January O'Leary and luck manipulator. Her magic comes in handy, but it also becomes clear why she doesn't always use it.

Meanwhile, we learn more about Tybalt's past and his motivations, Toby tests the limits of her fast healing ability, we find out how delightfully snarky Jin (Sylvester's resident healer) can be, and things that have been building since book 1 come out in the open. I was most pleased with the resolution of one subplot that I know has been driving a lot of readers crazy. If you're one of the readers who cares about that subplot, I don't see you being able to put this down past page 200 painlessly.

I don't know how Seanan McGuire writes in a way that forces you to slow down during the slow build, and then paces it breathlessly for the last third so you can't imagine stopping, but I'm determined to find out, even if I have to read this book 20 times.

The book ends with a reference to an early scene in Rosemary and Rue, with Toby and Tybalt caught out at dawn together. It was a beautiful ending, and could've been a satisfying wrap-up to the entire series. Thank goodness it's not. I'm looking forward to the next book like crazy.

If you haven't picked these up from my prior recommendations, well, now you have to get through 5 other books before you can get to the awesome of this one. It's hardly punishment, but it will take time. And it's your own fault. I told you to read them.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Back to Writing Basics: Change

I was reading a lot of book blurbs yesterday, and I got irritated with a pattern I kept seeing in the book descriptions:

I'm not blaming writers for the back-of-the-book blurbs. The author rarely gets a say in cover art, blurbs, or promotion. My irritation stems from the fact that the essence of a story is so little-known that this blurb works. (If it didn't work, after all, they wouldn't use it.)

The essence of a story is change. The protagonist does have plot happen to him or her, but the whole point of that plot is that it gives that character a new perspective, a new outlook, a new approach. The change isn't always positive, and how obvious or subtle it is can vary significantly. But, it's there. What makes a story a story is that the character changes (or that several of them do).

In Star Wars, Luke goes from a whiny farm kid who wants to see what else is out there to the guy tapping into his newfound abilities to blow up the Death Star. In Harry Potter, just in book one, Harry goes from an orphan neglected by his aunt and uncle to a hero with two close friends and magic within his grasp. I picked those two because they're the ones you're most likely to already be familiar with, but I could've picked any story at random.

The alteration in your character isn't just of that character's situation or resources or physical location, either. The story should, more importantly, reflect a psychological change. I watched Nim's Island last night, which is a cute kids' movie about a girl living on her own personal paradise in the middle of the South Pacific, and the writer she imagines to be far braver (and less female) than she is. The writer, Alexandra Rover, has to battle her agoraphobia to help Nim, which means facing her fear of the big, scary world outside her apartment. She starts out too frightened to get her mail or go to the store for her precious hand sanitizer but winds up halfway across the world. We watch her taking braver and bolder risks as each frightening thing fails to kill her, until she finally has to live up to the high opinion Nim has of her.

Kids' stories, by the way, tend to discard subtlety for a more straightforward approach, which is why they're excellent for illustrating points about storytelling.

There is another important factor to change within a story. It needs to be introduced organically. In other words, the change needs to be logical, gradual, and within your characters' personalities. If you want a character who's a cultish Christian to embrace atheism, you can't convince him by having him talk to one person about how his religion doesn't have all the answers. If you want your character who was viciously attacked by a dog when she was a child to adopt a mistreated pit bull, you'll need more to happen than just making her walk into a shelter for no good reason. In Nim's Island, the greatest part of Alex's struggle was getting out her front door, but just that step didn't give her the bravery she needed. The rest came gradually. In all stories, you need to lay the groundwork for that change before it can happen.

A story with a consistent and believable plot is all well and good, but, if nothing changes for your protagonist, it's not a story. Be aware of that change, accentuate and highlight it throughout your story, and you'll find you have a much stronger narrative.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: In Sea-Salt Tears by Seanan McGuire

In Sea-Salt Tears
In Sea-Salt Tears by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a short story that expands on revelations from One Salt Sea in the October Daye series. If you haven't read that far in the series, there are minor spoilers.

Chronologically, this story is a prequel, with only a little of the timeline overlapping. None of the main characters show up in this. It is, instead, a story which gives insight into the Luidaeg, the grumpy sea witch Toby both fears and needs in her adventures.

She's less grumpy in this story. Here, she's Annie, the green-eyed cousin to skin-less Selkie, Liz. Without a skin, Liz is essentially human, with no powers, and a human life span. As she's watching her cousins and brother (Colin, who appears in A Local Habitation) go off to become full-fledged Selkies, she's falling in love with Annie. On the day her brother inherits his skin, she spends the night with Annie, and they soon move in together. But then Liz gets the call with the announcement she's been waiting for all her life, and, though Annie asks her not to, she accepts it.

This works as a tender, sad love story between women, as well as a story of a young woman coming into her own, and a further development of the world presented in the October Daye books.

Seanan McGuire never writes explicit sex in her books; most of it's fade-to-black. This story is no exception, though it does contain a bit more prompting about what the imagination should be filling in.

I enjoyed this story, though I'd imagine it wouldn't hold the same appeal to those who haven't read the rest of the October Daye books. I grabbed it free off the author's website, and, if you enjoy this series, I recommend you do the same.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire

Late Eclipses
Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I already read this, shortly before it came out, thanks to an ARC contest on the author's blog. But, with the next book coming out today, I wanted to refresh my memory, and see what bread crumbs I could pick up on by rereading the series. I've been picking them up on audio, because Mary Robinette Kowal's narration is lovely, and these are well-produced audio books.

This is the fourth book in the October Daye series. Toby is summoned to the court of the Queen of the Mists, who rules over the fae of California. The Queen is clearly plotting, but, before Toby can fully get to the bottom of it, she's whisked off to see to Lily of the Tea Gardens, who's fallen ill. Soon, everyone around her is getting sick or dying, and clues point to her losing hold on reality enough to have done it. The only other explanation is that it's Oleander de Merelands, the cruel pureblood responsible for Toby's 14-year stint as a goldfish.

The story marks a major turning point for Toby, for her and for the reader. She realizes that many of the things she's taken for granted all her life aren't true, which changes a lot more than just her outlook. She faces death several times in the book, and the presence of her Fetch, usually an omen of impending death, is explained.

But a lot more questions are raised in answering questions, most of which aren't answered in One Salt Sea. This is one of the major strengths of the series. The narrative tension doesn't make me want to scream about the wait for the next book, but it does make me speculate and hope.

Each book in the series has introduced someone new and interesting, and Late Eclipses is no exception. In this book, we meet Walter, the alchemist and chemistry teacher. We meet the imperious Dugan Harrow, who gives Toby plenty of reason to hate him. We also get a glimpse into the inner workings of Shadowed Hills, the duchy of Sylvester and Luna Torquill.

Though I knew the heart-wrenching scenes were coming up, they still hurt to read all over again. After the scene in the Court of Cats, I had to hug my own fuzzy beasts for comfort. Seanan McGuire can slice right through your defenses in a few well-chosen words.

She can also make you laugh with those few words, and, dark as Toby's world is, there are still moments to smile about. This book ends on a far more hopeful note than An Artificial Night did, though the world is no less complicated by the events in this book. If anything, Toby has even more reason for dread.

I'm going to have to skip over rereading One Salt Sea, because the next book is out now, and I don't want to wait to read it. Well, no longer than it takes for my husband to finish reading it, anyway.

I highly recommend you give this series a try. It's one of my favorites, by an author who's become my favorite.

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When Critique Is Good

I have a lot of negativity about critique on this blog, and it's come to my attention that it isn't entirely helpful for people sifting through a plethora of critique comments. Sometimes a critique won't be bad. It will seem helpful, even constructive. If you turn your head and squint, you can even see where taking that comment might improve your manuscript.

The problem is, you have 8 comments like that, or 20, or a few hundred. If you make all those changes, it won't even be the same story. How do you know which ones to follow?

Good comments are the ones you agree with. I'm not talking about immediately. Immediately, at least if you're half as thin-skinned as I am, you'll want to say, "Nuh-uh! You're stupid!" and lock yourself in your room to pout. When that impulse has passed, though, and you've given the comments some space (over the course of days, not hours), you'll read them and realize they have a point, and that you can work with this.

Good comments are the ones about which there is a consensus. Not all those offering critique will have the same, exact observations. But, if the majority of them say your plot is based on a cliché, it's time to think more creatively. If people are supposed to like Handsome McAlpha and half the comments are that he comes across as a jerk, you'll need to bring out his likable traits earlier in the story. If most of the comments fixate on one scene, even if they don't agree what's wrong with the scene, they've noticed something is off, and you'll need to look more closely at that part.

Good comments are the ones that inspire you. Maybe the comment gets you thinking about the story in a way you hadn't, before. Maybe a critique comment points out some foreshadowing you hadn't noticed you'd slipped in, and now you want to fulfill that promise. Maybe you weren't married to your ending, and a piece of feedback gives you a better one. If a comment makes you want to change your story, even if it's not in the way the person commenting intended, use it, and see what happens.

Of course, you don't have to listen to a single comment anyone writes or says about your manuscript. If you think it's perfect the way it is, feel free to ignore them. But, write down the comments, or save them somewhere they won't be staring you in the face all the time, and go back to them when they don't sting as badly. The news that you're not pouring sheer perfection into your keyboard will always sting, but it'll hurt less as you reconcile yourself with the idea that writing isn't about the first draft, or even the third or eighth. It's as much about polishing and recognizing when it's done as it is about generating ideas and writing them down.

Remember, while you may be a part of your reading audience, so, too, are those critiquing your work. They're a much better reflection of your manuscript's reception, out there in the big, cold world than the perfection you believe it to be. Critique partners, writing groups, and those who critique online are an invaluable resource. More often than not, they'll offer good comments, and help your story put its best face forward.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Review: Nerd Gone Wild by Vicki Lewis Thompson

Nerd Gone Wild
Nerd Gone Wild by Vicki Lewis Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in Vicki Lewis Thompson's Nerds series. Though they're called a series, there are no shared characters between them, only a concept, that being that nerds need love, too. The heroes of these books are sweet and considerate and smart, and are flying under their love interests' radars.

This book breaks the repetition of the last two. Mitchell Caruthers grew up geek, but then he shed that identity to become a member of law enforcement. His current assignment, where he's the bodyguard for heiress Ally Jarrett, has him slipping back into old habits so she doesn't realize he's her bodyguard. If she knew, she'd never put up with him. So long as she believes he's just a harmless nerd, she lets him be, though she chafes at his overbearing presence.

Then she runs off to Porcupine, Alaska in the middle of February to photograph wildlife, and secretly meet up with her disowned uncle. Mitchell follows her, and, between an oversexed lodge owner and a small town full of bored Alaskans, Ally and Mitch find themselves pushed together. Not that either of them mind.

The build-up to the relationship was a lot slower in this book than in previous Nerd books, which allows for more sexual tension and believable development. Mitch really is attractive beneath the dweeb costume, and Ally's surprise and gratification upon realizing it seems genuine. Their reasons for not pursuing a relationship, and for resisting it within the book, are logical and unique to their situations.

The writing showed some improvement from book 2 to 3. I didn't cringe at the dialogue, and characters weren't spelling things out in their internal dialogue that was already painfully obvious. The story flowed well, and, while hardly poetic, I wasn't stumbling over clunky passages.

The sexual tension was good; the main characters don't get together until over halfway through the book, and the first 200 pages are a slow simmer. The sex is described in sensual detail, though some of the imagery made me raise an eyebrow. ("Magic wand?" Really?)

However, the book paints S&M adherents as depraved, selfish sexual predators. In one scene early in the book, Mitch looks over evidence that Uncle Kurt is into S&M, and nods knowingly, as if that's all the character reference he needs. I happen to know a lot of perfectly well-adjusted, kind people with kinky tastes, and I can't help but scowl at Thompson's naïveté. I know sexual practices are often confused, in romance novels, for character development, but I didn't appreciate the inclusion of the trope.

Overall, this was a fun, quick romp. I enjoyed reading it. I highly recommend this series for anyone looking for a steamy romance read featuring a beta male. And, if you start at book 3, you get to skip past the clunkier books in the series. You're not missing much.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Thinking Critically about Critique

Image from Free Stock
I posted briefly on critiques before, but the post rather buried one of the most important points newer writers need to know about critiques.

Take everything you hear in a critique with a grain of salt.

There could be hundreds of reasons why someone's critique remarks aren't valid. Maybe that person has bad reading comprehension. Maybe the person doing the critique is having a bad day. Maybe that person doesn't read the genre you're writing to, and therefore doesn't understand the conventions. Maybe that person secretly dislikes you and wants to hurt you.

If you were to hand me a romance novel with an alpha male you wanted me to critique, I wouldn't just hate the alpha male. I'd be more critical of the heroine for liking him, and probably more picky about the writing, too. I do try to be fair in my critiques, but I have my biases.

When you're in a writing group, you can learn your group's biases. If the person who writes about animals urges you to give your heroine a cat, you can nod and pretend you're writing that down as a suggestion, knowing that writer's biases are informing her opinion. If the one who writes in flowery description tells you to describe more in a scene, you know that the writers telling you they could picture the scene just fine probably have a point.

Not all of you have the good fortune to live near other writers, though. There are ways to interact with other writers online to get critiques, and there are workshops you can attend, either of which I'd recommend. But, I would caution you, don't take everything people write or say about your work as gospel. Even if it's coming from an instructor, a published author, or a professional editor, you'll want to think about the utility of the remarks. Throw out any comments which meet any of the following:

  1. Does it change a major character trait for a main character?
  2. Does it change the genre of the book to one you don't want to write?
  3. Does the alter the plot significantly?
  4. Does it stifle your voice or tone?
  5. Is it heavy-handed?
  6. Is it insulting of your manuscript without offering constructive, concrete feedback?
Don't throw out a person's comments in their entirety if they meet the above criteria; they may have something constructive and useful in there, too. 

Now, if your manuscript is being edited professionally for publication, an editor's remarks may seem stifling or heavy-handed, but you'll have to give them leeway. That editor has a lot more experience than you in what readers buy. You'll probably still find points where you disagree with your editor, and you think you should stand your ground. If you've had practice at sifting through critique comments and finding which ones work and which don't, you're going to be far better equipped to handle it than you would be if you'd been either taking or rejecting everything you've heard so far.

Feel free to add your own examples of useless critique remarks in the comments.