Thursday, April 17, 2014

Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

In The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

The basic premise behind this series is compelling, and the writing is quick and vivid. It's easy to pick these books up and not set them down until the end because they are full of non-stop action. Cia is interesting, too. It's refreshing to read about a super smart girl, especially in math and science, who is also brave and can look at things from a 'big picture' perspective.

With the first book, I had issues believing in the basic world-building. Unfortunately, I had the same issue with this book. There are still too many holes in why someone would want a society to function this way. The kind of people who would graduate from a program like this would be more of a threat to the leaders, simply because it rewards selfishness and greed, *and* the only people accepted are super smart. So they will come up with creative ways to get themselves more power, which threatens those currently in power. Therefore, I still couldn't buy into the world.

That said, I thought this book was better than the first...until I got to the end. Cia is too smart to do something so stupid. Because of that, I figured out the plot twist well before it was revealed, which really bummed me out. I was hoping to be surprised. Endings are important to me, so this one impacted my enjoyment of the rest of the story quite a bit.

I'll probably read the last book just to see how it ends, but I'll wait until I can check it out from the library.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Revision Read Aloud

A couple weeks ago, I posted about how a good verbal narrator can influence the listener’s enjoyment of a story. But today I want to talk about using the act of reading aloud as a revision tool.

When you’re revising your story, especially if you’re on draft ten or so, you know what’s on the page so well that you can miss little details here and there. In a MG I recently revised, I altered the story such that the main character no longer had a mom. Instead, he had a close aunt. I went through the whole manuscript to remove all references to the mom, but missed a few. I never did catch them—my agent did. :) And, even as I was staring at the sentence with the mom reference, it still didn’t register completely. I’d read that sentence so many times that my brain had stopped noticing it. Even when it was pointed out to me directly. :)

So, after I’d gone through another round of revisions, I decided to read my story aloud, just to make sure everything sounded like I wanted it to sound. Aaaand, I caught another revision remnant (not the mom, something else) that was left over from an earlier draft.

When you read something aloud, your brain seems to go to a different place than when you’re reading silently. My brain does funny things when I read aloud. As a kid, whenever I was called on in class to read, I couldn’t ever read and comprehend at the same time because I was too nervous. No one wants to be that kid that mispronounces a word and says something ridiculous in front of everyone. :) So the only thing I focused on was pronouncing each word. But when I read my novel aloud without an audience, I found myself listening to the sound of my voice. The awkward sentences were suddenly obvious. A missing word, or an additional word, presented itself. Repeated words popped up, arms waving and screaming ‘here I am again!’ It’s really astounding.

All this said, there are times when it’s not useful to read aloud. For example, when you have a first draft. :) In this part of the revision process, you’re still looking at big picture issues. Does the plot build tension? Is it resolved with a satisfying conclusion? Are my characters likeable and believable? Do they grow? Does the story flow well, or does it have moments when interesting things don’t happen?

When you’re investigating these kinds of questions, reading your work aloud isn’t going to help you much. But if you’ve got a solid draft and you’re ready to polish the language, then reading aloud is incredibly useful.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Dualed by Elsie Chapman

In the city of Kersh, everyone must eliminate their genetic Alternate twin, raised by another family, before their twentieth birthday. West Grayer, 15, has trained as a fighter, and has one month to hunt and kill her Alt. A tragic misstep shakes her confidence. Guilty, grieving, she feels unworthy, runs from her Alt and from love - both can destroy her.

I found the premise of this book intriguing, though was a little worried about where the story was going to go. I ended up listening to the audiobook (something I do while I’m folding laundry or washing dishes—it makes the chore so much better), but I really didn't like the narrator. By the end, her voice was grating on my nerves and that got in the way of the story quite a bit. Multiple times, I wished I was reading it instead of listening.

Anyway, attempting to leave the narrator out of it, the story was okay. My initial worries turned out to be valid… West ends up becoming a killer for hire because it’s the only way she’ll get real training for dealing with her own Alt. I had some issues with that. It’s one thing to be forced into an impossible situation where it’s kill or be killed, and another entirely to kill for money. You've got to have a certain kind of cold heart in order to kill for hire, and that interfered with my enjoyment of the rest if the story.

Then, West becomes ‘active,’ and has to kill her Alt. But she doesn’t. She runs from every opportunity, and continues with the killing for hire. I wasn’t okay with this, either. I'm guessing that the author was trying to allude to scary aspects of oneself, how it's easier to face other people's faults than your own, but the killing overshadowed all of that. I give props to the author for tackling such a difficult and strong theme, and I wish it had come across stronger.

So, overall, it was okay. Definitely read the book instead of listening to the audiobook.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing a Story vs. Telling a Story

I think everyone has had the experience where you’re with a friend, and you turn to them and say ‘so, I was on my way to (somewhere), and...’ or ‘you’re not going to believe what happened to…’ or something along those lines. And then we tell them what happened, which is basically an abbreviated story. In this scenario, the story works really well, especially for those who tell it with gusto. But if you were to transcribe those words onto paper, stick a title on it, and call it a story, it would read as flat and boring. Why? Because there are several key elements missing.

When you recount an event verbally in this way, it’s very linear: first this happened, then this, then that, and finally this. End of story. Basically, you’re giving your friend an outline of what happened. You’re not trying to immerse her in the events. If you did try to immerse her in the events, she would get bored and make that ‘get on with it already’ face. She doesn’t want to know what the room smelled like, or how soft someone’s skin is. Not unless that *is* the story. I.E., “Every time I walk by that spa on the corner, it smells like soap.” Or, “You have got to try this new body lotion. It makes your skin so soft!”

But when we write a story, our goal is immersion. We need to include all five senses in our prose, because we want the reader to feel as if he is right there in the world we’ve created.

Many new writers don’t make this distinction. I think it’s natural to sit down and write a story the way you’d tell it to someone. After all, it’s probably the only thing most writers have known up to this point. It’s all I knew when I first started writing, and that’s what my very first story looked like. :)

That’s not to say that verbally telling a story has no merit. It does. People read to their kids all the time, and there’s a huge market for audiobooks. And, most of the time, the people reading aloud can really get into it. Sound effects, altered voices, changes in pitch and speed, depending on the level of tension in the scene, etc. A great reader can turn a mediocre story into a fascinating one simply by telling it well. I’ve experienced this with audiobooks. I’ve also experienced the opposite, where the reader was not very good and made a great story sound annoying or boring.

So, basically, you can’t rely on a good reader. :) Your story has to stand on its own and generate images, feelings, sounds, and smells without the help of a good reader. That means you need to go far beyond the linear nature of this-happened-then-this-happened-etc. and the best way to start is to look at a moment in your own day. What do you notice? How do things feel or taste? What puts you in that moment and makes you feel like you’re there? Those are the details that need to go into your story.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Little Android by Marissa Meyer

When android Mech6.0, saves the life of a handsome hardware engineer, her body is destroyed and her mechanics discover a glitch in her programing. Androids aren’t not meant to develop unpractical reasoning or near-emotional responses…let alone fall in love.

This is a short story, which I don’t normally review, but I really wanted to review this one because I loved it! This is one of the best fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read.

The Little Android is a retelling of The Little Mermaid, set in the world of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder and Scarlet. Cinder even has a cameo halfway through. :) Anyway, this retelling has been done so remarkably well that if you didn’t know the story of The Little Mermaid before reading it, it wouldn’t matter. This reads like its own coming of age story.

Mech 6 is a likable and sympathetic character, and her journey feels authentic and relatable. If you know how The Little Mermaid ends, then you already know how her story is going to end. Still, I couldn’t help but cheer her on. And then, when the end came, it felt so natural and touching and my heart went out to her.

The story doesn’t take long to read, so if you’ve got a spare fifteen minutes or so, I highly recommend it. You can read it for free here:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cybils Winners!

I apologize for not posting more regularly lately. Life has thrown me more than a few curve balls these past few months, and I'm just now getting back on my feet.

Anyway, the winners of the Cybils Awards were announced some time ago, but I still wanted to celebrate them. You can go here to see the full list.

I want to take a moment and gush about the winner of the YA Fiction category... It's Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina.

Of the 90ish books I read as a panelist for this category, Yaqui was one of my absolute favorites, and I'm so glad to see that it won. It's the best book on bullying I've ever read, and has a realistic ending. If you haven't read it, you should. Like, now. :) In the mean time, though, I'm going to check out the winners of the other categories.

Happy reading, everyone!