Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cress by Marissa Meyer

In this third book in the Lunar Chronicles, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, now with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army.
Their best hope lies with Cress, a girl imprisoned on a satellite since childhood who's only ever had her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker. Unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.
When a daring rescue of Cress goes awry, the group is separated. Cress finally has her freedom, but it comes at a high price. Meanwhile, Queen Levana will let nothing prevent her marriage to Emperor Kai. Cress, Scarlet, and Cinder may not have signed up to save the world, but they may be the only hope the world has.

This is a loose retelling of Rapunzel. Cress was placed in a satellite when she was a child, and, since then, she’d never had a haircut. So, her hair is very long, and it’s *everywhere*. It’s how I imagined Rapunzel’s hair would be in the fairy tale, except she always kept it tamed (in good fairy tale form).

The main difference in Cress is that she’s not locked in a tower and blind to the rest of the world. Cress is in a satellite, and has hacked into every system she can find. She knows exactly what’s going on in the world and she wants to be a part of it. She doesn’t wait to be rescued—instead, she rescues herself. She just needs a ride in order to do it. I liked that.

The relationship that develops between Cress and Thorne is predictable, but enjoyable. And I really like that Thorne didn’t ‘change’ at the end. So many YA stories have the hot-jerk-boyfriend suddenly change and become not-a-jerk by the end so that the protagonist can live happily ever after with him. That drives me crazy. Thorne isn’t the hot-jerk-boyfriend type, but he has a reputation of being something of a player. Cress has a crush on him, but that crush doesn’t develop into insta-love. It takes a more realistic path. I really liked that.

The action is just as fun and engaging as previous books. Cinder’s doubts in herself are realistic and fitting, and her choices fit her age and experience. I’m very much looking forward to the next book, which appears to be a retelling of Snow White.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Invisible Writing

Last week, I talked about how great books make a lasting impression on the reader, as well as how seamless and invisible writing contributes to that. This week, I want to talk about what makes writing invisible and seamless.

The definition of invisible is, quite simply, that it’s not visible. It’s not noticeable. It’s not front and center. I think of invisible writing as similar to stagehands during a play. You see them occasionally, when there’s a necessary set change that’s not possible to do behind the curtain, but they’re never seen for long, and the audience hardly gives them a second thought. The focus is always on the actors and the story. The stagehands are absolutely necessary, though, because, without them, the play would fall apart. The audience just can’t see everything they do. Not unless they look for them specifically.

When I write, I strive for ‘stagehand’ writing. Basically, I want my words to bring out the story and only the story. I don’t want my readers to notice the words I used unless they are specifically looking at them. With that in mind, these are the guidelines I follow when I write.

Avoid Repetition
If you convey an idea or concept in one paragraph, don’t do it again three paragraphs later. This makes the reader feel like you are hammering it into their heads, and it generally puts him off. Instead, keep the paragraph that most effectively conveys what you want to say and ditch the other.

You also need to be careful with words that sound similar. If you use the word ‘though’ in one sentence, don’t use ‘although’ in the same paragraph. Or even in the next paragraph. Instead, grab your handy thesaurus and find another word that sounds completely different but conveys the same meaning.

Streamline Your Sentences
Don’t use two words where one will do, especially when one of the words paints a vivid image on its own. One word that does the job of two has more impact on the reader, and gives the impression of clean and sharp prose. For example, we know a skyscraper is tall so there is no need to include that descriptor. Instead, we need to know about its uniqueness, and, most importantly, it’s impact on the story and characters.

Filler words can also clutter up a sentence, and most are not needed. Some examples are very, just, a lot, actually, pretty (as in pretty good or pretty close), really, rather, etc. Unnecessary prepositions fall into the same category. For example, ‘At around’ is a common phrase, but both words are not necessary. They also conflict with each other: ‘at’ implies precision, and ‘around’ implies estimation. Use one or the other, but not both. In general, watch how you use prepositions. Most times, there are better ways to convey your ideas.

Avoid Adverbs and Adjectives
Adverbs are the easiest way to get your ideas across to the reader. They are also weaker and, most often, unnecessary. Instead, use a stronger verb that conveys the same meaning and gives the reader a clear image of what’s happening. For example:
“What are you doing?” she said shrilly.
“What are you doing?” she screeched.
The first example uses two words where one will do, which is illustrated in the second example. It can be hard to find the right verb, but, when you do, your words will come alive. The same principle applies to adjectives.

Once you’ve gone through your story over and over and are finally in your last stage of revision, look at each word and assess whether it is necessary, whether it is doing the job it’s supposed to do. All of these things will give you a vivid story.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Full Contact Writing

I have carpal tunnel. It’s a side effect of typing at a computer for most of the day, every day, for the past twenty years. Many people have it and we’ve figured out how to live with it. I also study karate, and that requires impact on my wrists at times. One of my teachers can always tell when I’ve been doing a lot of writing because my wrists are more tender than usual. The last time he noticed, he said to me “Full contact writing again?” I laughed because karate-related injuries can happen in our dojo and we all know how to deal with them, but writing isn’t a contact sport. It’s sitting in a chair all day, and the only things moving are your fingers.

After I went home, though, I thought about what he said.

Full Contact Writing.

Actually, that *is* what I do, or, at least, what I strive to do. I don’t mean this in a physical sense, like chucking a book at someone’s head. I mean mentally, intellectually, and emotionally. When I read a great story, it makes an impact on me. A hard hit in karate can leave bruises, which usually last about a week. In a good book, the characters and situations leave an impression on my mind, sometimes for days after I’ve finished it.

A book that can do this has effectively used all the working parts: relatable and interesting characters, unpredictable plot, vivid and believable world-building, increasing tension, satisfying conclusion, etc. But the thing that really ties all these together is the writing. Good, solid, strong writing.

What makes writing good?

I’ve taken quite a few writing classes over the years. Inevitably, someone picks out a flowery sentence and reads it aloud as an example of amazingly good writing because it sounds so beautiful. But, does that make it good writing? In my opinion, no.

Beautiful sentences and turns of phrases work great in poetry or books in verse. But in a regular story? Nope. For me, it makes it sound like the author is trying too hard to impress the reader, and she comes across as pretentious. These sentences also do a disservice to the story because the reader is no longer absorbed in the story, she’s focusing on the words. The best writing is invisible, seamless, and never distracts from the characters or the story. It’s the stitching that binds the various pieces of the story together, and stitching is best when it’s not the focus of the whole work. Occasionally, some stitching is visible and adds to the overall beauty of the whole, but it’s never the focus, and it’s never what you notice first.

So, how do you write invisible and seamless sentences? That’s the topic for next week.


Thursday, May 08, 2014

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She's trying to break out of prison--even though if she succeeds, she'll be the Commonwealth's most wanted fugitive. Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit's grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn't know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother's whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

The first book in this series, Cinder, is a futuristic sci-fi retelling of Cinderella. Scarlet is about Little Red Riding Hood, but with a modern twist.

In the original fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood is meek, scared, and incapable. Scarlet is none of these things. She learns that her grandmother is in danger, so she rushes off to rescue her. She has such determination that she overcomes any obstacles by sheer will. She has no problems taking care of herself, and isn’t easily scared off. I loved reading about her.

We meet two new characters in this book: Wolf and Thorne. Thorne is hilarious. He’s got the perfect blend of swagger and cluelessness. Wolf is, of course, something of the Big Bad Wolf character, but in an interesting way. He’s not your typical alpha male character because of his damaged past. I liked him, and I liked the romance that blossoms between him and Scarlet.

Cinder is in this book, too, and the story starts out with two separate story lines: one for Cinder and one for Scarlet. They seem unrelated at first, and then Meyer connects them in a pretty cool way. The plot has plenty of tension and the pacing makes it impossible to put this book down.

If you like fairy tales and sci-fi, you’ll probably like this series. Definitely recommended.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Crafting Powerful Sentences

My oldest son is in fourth grade, and he recently came home with an interesting homework assignment. He had to pick out what his teacher called ‘juicy sentences’ from the book he was currently reading. These juicy sentences (I love that term, btw) are the ones that evoke the most emotion, imagery, tension, etc.

It’s difficult to craft sentences like that. It’s all about choosing the right words for your story, which is easier said than done. Part of it is feeling out the story and using the words that pop into your mind, and you can’t really explain why you choose them. You just do. This skill takes a long time to learn how to do effectively, and can’t really be taught. But there are a few guidelines that can help steer you in the right direction.

1) Avoid repeated words.
When we repeat words or phrases in our stories, it lessens the impact each time that word is used. This includes repeated imagery. If you’ve just referenced a color as a feeling, or a metaphoric smell, or specific kind of texture, then avoid using that same reference again. If possible, don’t use it anywhere else in the story. This keeps it original, and the single use makes it powerful.

2) Avoid common, everyday words.
Words like just, then, anyway, so, though, etc. dilute the sentence because they’re filler words. They don’t add anything to the underlying meaning of the sentence, and can (most often) be deleted. Don’t worry about these words that crop up in your first draft. After you have the big picture working, then you can go through and remove them.

3) Avoid overly used phrases.
The most powerful sentence is one that conveys a familiar meaning/image/feeling/etc while using unfamiliar construct of words. Phrases that have been around for quite some time are more like conversation filler. They don’t really have any meaning except to let the person verbally meander. A powerful sentence doesn’t meander; it gets right the point and hits you hard with its intent. Instead of taking the easy way out and using a phrase that you’re familiar with, find a new way to say it.

Some examples to avoid: of course, I was like, I couldn’t help but wonder, I noticed, in my mind’s eye, only to be met with, sent shock waves of, like a bat out of hell, glimmer of hope, throw in the towel, etc.

To create your powerful sentences, constantly ask yourself if there’s a stronger way of telling your story. Embrace the concept of ‘less is more.’ Look at each word and ask yourself what its purpose is. If you can’t answer, then you either need to delete it or find a different word. Make your sentences as juicy as possible.

This is a lot of work. A lot. But it’s also what separates the good writers from the great ones.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl.
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

This is a fantastic and imaginative retelling of Cinderella. I'm not always fond of retellings because they are sometimes rote and predictable. It's their nature because the basic plot is well-known. But a good author can make the reader invest in the story even if we know where it's heading. I was invested in Cinder.

Cinder is a cyborg because of a horrible accident that almost killed her when she was a child. In her society, cyborgs are considered second-class citizens. Actually, more property than citizens, which brings about some serious discrimination issues. Meyer handles them well. Cinder does as much as she can to hide the mechanical aspects of her body, but she can only do so much: one of her legs is mechanical and her foot is much too small (it's left over from when she was a child), making it near impossible to disguise. The change in attitudes from people she encounters is spot on and heartbreaking.

This theme is further illustrated in Iko, the android that lives with Cinder's stepfamily. Iko has a human personality, but she's not human. She *is* property, and her wishes, dreams, and feelings are never considered by the stepmother. It doesn't even occur to her. In fact, it will never occur to her because she sees Iko as far beneath her. Not unlike slavery.

Cinder herself is a fantastic character. She's a brilliant mechanic, feisty and strong, and smart about how she stands up for herself. She's also practical about her interactions with Prince Kai, but still loyal and selfless. She made the story interesting. Well, that and the pages and pages of action-packed tension. :) The romance develops slowly and on the more realistic side, and I liked how the two came together.

If you haven't read this, you should. It's great fun, and very entertaining. Definitely recommended.