Saturday, February 28, 2009

One Year Ago Today...

...well, sort of. Last year was leap year, so there's no February 29th this year. So it's not exactly a year to the day, but close enough. Anyway...

I created this blog in July of 2007, but I didn't start using it until February of 2008. So I guess this is really my one-year anniversary of writing this blog. It's hard to imagine how much it's evolved in just one year, and how many people actually read what I post. I can honestly say that I'm honored.

So, as a thank you to all of you, I'm launching something new. Every month, there will be at least one book given away on this blog. So check here on the first saturday of every month to find out what it is!

For this month, the book is National Book Award nominee, THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp.

To enter, leave a comment on this post. I'm also going to take a leaf out of Presenting Lenore's book and offer chances for extra entries.
-For one extra entry, post a link to this contest on your website or blog, then let me know about it here.
-For another extra entry, become a follower and then let me know about it here (or let me know you already are a follower).

I'll draw the winner out of a hat on the last saturday of each month. Except for this month, since it already is the last saturday of the month. :) For this month, I'll draw the winner in one week, on the same day I post the book for next month.

Thank you all, once again! And good luck! :)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Compound by S.A. Bodeen

Plot Summary: Eli and his family have lived in the Compound for six years. The world they knew is gone. Eli’s father built the Compound to keep them safe. Now, they can’t get out. He won’t let them.

This has been on my TBR pile forever, mostly because I was waiting for it to arrive at my local library. When it did, I snatched it up. And then devoured it in a day. : ) It’s a fantastic, fast-paced, sitting on the edge of your seat kind of book that I highly recommend.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Bodeen knows plot. Boy, does she know plot. She has laid out this story extremely well, planting clues that things are not well, and utilizing them such that I couldn’t put the book down.

For example, when Eli first mentions the Yellow Room, he does it in a natural way for him. He knows what’s in there and doesn’t like it, and since his story is for him, he doesn’t stop and explain it to us. This does two things. It shows us the kind of person Eli is – mostly concerned with himself – and it adds another level of suspense for us because we MUST know what’s behind that door. Very well done.

Bodeen does things like this with the plot throughout the story, which made it impossible to put it down and I ended up reading it in one sitting. And if I had to put it down to, I don’t know, go to the bathroom or eat or something, I was still thinking about the story and wanting to get back to it.

The characters were interesting, too. Even the dad. No one had been shunted into a category, even though the older sister tried doing just that to both herself and Eli. They were as complex as real people, and just infuriating at times. : ) The only thing about the characters that gave me pause was Eli seemed older than fifteen at times. Some of the things he understood, admitted to, and explained seemed well beyond his years. But there weren’t many, and it didn’t diminish the enjoyment of the novel.

Like LITTLE BROTHER, this is another great example of pacing. And it’s also an amazing example of a well thought out plot. Definitely get a copy and read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is It Ever Really Done?

Is the story every really finished? Or do writers just keep working on it until time runs out?

This question is commonly asked among writers with a good amount of experience (after we realize that a first draft does not equal done). :) If someone asked me this question a year ago, even six months ago, this would have been my answer: "I would like to think so, but no matter how hard I try I keep finding things to change. And I'm always left with a niggling feeling that something isn't quite right. So, maybe it'll never really be finished."

I've had this sentiment for pretty much my entire writing life (since age sixteen). It's only just recently that it has changed.

I've been working on a story, called ROYAL ROSE, for the past two and a half years. It's the hardest story I've ever written, hands down. It's not a story I would typically read, and it's so far out of my comfort zone it's not even funny. And yet, it was a story that got into my face and demanded to be told. So, I sat down to write it. But, everytime I thought I was done, a feeling that it wasn't done followed me around everywhere.

No matter what I did - let the manuscript sit, ask others' to read it, etc - that feeling never went away. Until recently.

I just finished my fifth draft for this story, and it's done. There might be better ways of executing certain aspects of the story, or a better way to say certain things, but the story itself is done! I've said everything I want to say in a way that's consistent with the characters and the setting. In other words, I knew the story I wanted to tell, and i finally figured out how it needed to be told.

Other stories I've written are still not "done," in that there is still something niggling me about them. Either something is missing, or an aspect of the story is bothering me, or something. I can't look at them and get a satisfied smile on my face that says all is well. And, it's now glaringly apparent that I wasn't absolutely sure of the story I wanted to tell, except in a general sense.

With ROSE, I have known her story since day one. I think this concept is simiar to an idea being "fully formed," like JKR said about Harry as she was sitting on that delayed train. Rose's story fell into my head with a very clear direction and outcome, and for the past two and a half years, I've been trying to figure out all the details. Now that I have, it has made so many more things clear.

My writing process will need to be adjusted because of it - before I write a single word, I want to know my story. Inside and out. Backwards and forewards. Upside down. Everything.

So, there may be some stories that can never be truly done. But my answer to the opening question has changed: "If you truly know your story and where it needs to go, then, yes, it's possible for it to be done."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

King vs. Meyer

A few weeks ago, Stephen King publicly stated that he thought Stephanie Meyer wasn't a good writer. The fallout from that was a zillion people discussing whether his comments were appropriate, or just plain too harsh. Personally, I'm on the fence, but that's not why I brought this up. :)

What do you think about book reviews, specifically ones from a writer's perspective that pick the book apart and lay out all the shortcomings? Is this similar to what King did?

Each week, I discuss a book from a writer's perspective, and some discussions have been a bit negative. Does that make me the same as King? Or is it different somehow? (aside from the obvious - I'm not famous and he is) :)

Just curious... :)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Plot Summary: Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.

Cory Doctorow offered this book as a free download not too long ago. I promptly downloaded it, told all my friends, and then never read it. I guess I'm just not equipped to read a book electronically yet...but that's a discussion for another day. :) Anyway, I had to get it from the library, read page one, then couldn't put the thing down. I'm seriously sleep-deprived. :)

I had also planned to discuss a different book today, but in light of the elements in LITTLE BROTHER, I changed my mind.

Last week and this week, I've been discussing messages that authors put in stories, either intentionally or unintentionally. This book is a prime example of everything I've been talking about. Funny how the universe works, huh? I ponder a subject, then the universe hands me a book similar to it. I wonder if I can make requests... :)

There is an obvious message in LITTLE BROTHER, and yet there are no hit-you-over-the-head lessons or morals or anything of the sort. It presents a what-if scenario - terrorists blow up a bridge, killing thousands, not long after 9/11 - and then shows us a potential outcome - the Dept of Homeland Security turns San Francisco into something like a police state. The potential outcome told in this story is scary and heavy, and I think touches on the fears that probably live in most of us. Fears that have been lurking since 9/11. I can see this book evoking a strong reaction, positive or negative, from many readers.

The story itself is well written, with great humor to lighten the seriousness of the subject, and breakneck pacing that wouldn't let me put it down. I started it tuesday evening, which was a big mistake. I stayed up way too late reading, and then carried it around everywhere, sneaking in page after page until I'd finished it. If nothing else, this story is an excellent example of how effective good pacing is.

There was another aspect that I enjoyed, but that I can see others finding tedious (except PJ). There was a lot of technical information given to the reader. I loved it, mostly because it was clearly authentic and the author did his research well. But there was so much, and often in large doses, that I could see the average reader saying "come on already!" :)

Overall, the story really hit home for me, and I got angry as I read it (I am sure this was the author's intention). I am the perfect audience for a book like this, because it got me all riled up and wanting to Do Something. I am sure this was the kind of influence the author intended for his readers. I am not sure how far this influence will go with me, but I can see others picking it up and running with it, which is a great thing.

A good story, and I definitely recommend it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Customer Is Always Right, Right?

Last week, we talked about authors writing messages (subtle and obvious) into their stories. This week, I want to look at the reader. How much does a reader glean from a story? Does he pick up on everything an author intends? Does he find less? More?

I'm sure that depends on the reader, of course – his life experience, his way of thinking, how open-minded he is, etc. But, what if a reader gets a message from a book that tells him it’s okay to cheat on his girlfriend? Or, maybe another reader gets a message that she should take her cheating boyfriend back if he promises not to do it again. Say these readers follow the message, and everything ends in disaster. Is that the author’s fault? Or the readers’? Or, is it no one’s fault?

Some recent books to evoke such strong reactions, both negatively and positively, are the TWILIGHT books by Stephanie Meyer. Some say that she sends unrealistic messages to girls – girls should be helpless so a man can take care of them, possessive boyfriends are romantic, suicide is an acceptable solution to breakups, etc. Others say that the stories send messages of strength, family, and friendship. Who is right?

Another book to evoke strong reactions was THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS. Frankie’s character is a strategist, able to set aside her emotions and assess a situation in order to get what she wants. Some said this makes it okay to be cold-hearted. Others said it was a brilliant message about thinking clearly and going after what you want. Who is right?

The short answer, of course, is that they’re both right. A reader is going to glean what he can from a book based on who he is and what his experiences are. That makes his interpretation of the story ‘right’ (even if it’s incomplete) because it’s his interpretation.

The gray areas come with the author. Say a teenage girl read TWILIGHT, then ran off and married the first possessive boyfriend she found. Is that the author’s fault? Not really. Is the author somewhat responsible? Well, that’s where things get fuzzy.

Authors are in the position to reach many readers. And, depending on how well the words are written, authors can potentially influence a good portion of their readers. Therefore, authors do need to be careful with their words. Especially since readers have all kinds of different experiences, backgrounds, and ways of thinking. The author has just one.

So how is it even possible for an author to account for all those different readers, to ensure their messages don’t go awry?

Short answer: she can’t.

Long answer: the closest an author can get is to use a similar strategy to writing characters.

A highly effective way of writing a character is to pretend to be that person. How he thinks, what he likes or dislikes, how he would react to certain situations given his background, etc. By pretending to be that person, the author can better write the character.

An author can take this strategy and apply it to reading her manuscript. She can pretend to be someone in her target audience while reading the story, then try to figure out how that person would react to certain parts. It’s certainly not all-inclusive, but it’s something. And authors are very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. If they weren’t, all the characters would be exactly alike. : )

Has anyone tried anything like this? If so, please share your experience!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day!

I'm not usually one to celebrate this day. Never have been, really. But hey, for all of you who love, or hate, this day, here's a cupid for ya. Feel free to ooo and ahh, or steal his arrows and then shoot him in his rosy bottom. :)

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't been around the blogosphere much lately. I've been busy with good things, though - I'm nearly finished revising my latest novel, and it's going well. Really well. Like, I-can't-wait-to-send-out-query-letters well. :) I know who I'm going to query and what I'm going to say, and I'm itching to send out those letters. But I'm waiting...because things are going well and I don't want to shoot myself in the foot. :) But I should finish my revisions soon, and then I'll be able to send them out. Yay!! :)

What are you currently working on?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert

Plot Summary: Punk rock is in Emily Black's blood. Her mother, Louisa, hit the road to follow the incendiary music scene when Emily was four months old and never came back. Now Emily's all grown up with a punk band of her own, determined to find the tune that will bring her mother home. Because if Louisa really is following the music, shouldn't it lead her right back to Emily?

I’ve been hearing buzz around this book for quite some time now. I checked it out from the library a few months ago, but things got busy and I didn’t get to read it before the due date. Before I could renew it, someone else had requested it so it went back, sadly unread. But I checked it out again and made sure to finish it well before the due date, and I’m glad I did.

This is a very unique story, told from the perspective of a teenage girl in first person *and* her mom in third person. Such atypical structure must have made it a tough sell, but I’m glad it sold because it’s a wonderfully engaging story.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Mistakes that parents pass on to their kids. They don’t mean for it to happen, but it does, and this book is a fantastic example of that. The parallels between Emily and her mother tell us where the story is going to go. Emily falls into the same kinds of mistakes that her mother made, except for one difference. Emily is able to return home, and her mother isn’t.

I think this captures the essence of parenthood in that we try not to be like our parents, but doing just that because it’s what we know. And yet, we can take a piece of ourselves and make at least a small difference. Maybe even take a step toward breaking the pattern of mistakes that our parents made. This is what Emily does, and it was great to see the whole story laid out like this.

The execution of the story was done well, though there are some ‘first author’ mistakes sprinkled throughout. I didn’t care for the mother’s info-dump about why she left home. And some of the messages toward the end of the book seemed a bit heavy-handed. But, overall, this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book. If you like studying the effects of relationships between parents and their children, you’ll probably enjoy this story. Though keep in mind that it's definitely upper YA, as it has a lot of bad language, sex, and drug use.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Because I Said So!

In the early days of fiction, especially fiction for kids, it was often used to convey a moral or teach a lesson. When I was growing up, I hated Sunday School because it was full of stories with lessons and teachers with messages like “Okay, kids, this is how we all have to behave. If you don’t, you’re a bad person blah blah blah.” It drove me crazy because I didn't like complete strangers bossing me about, so I quickly learned how to tune it out.

What about fiction today? In general, it's frowned upon to write stories with hit-you-over-the-head moral lessons. Sure, there are still stories floating around like this – fables, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, etc. And I think most kids tune them out, just like I did.

When a writer sits down with a new idea for a story, what is the objective? Simply to tell an interesting story? To get a particular point across? To impart wisdom? I'm sure the majority of authors say they just had a story to share. My question is this: why do they want to share it? Obviously it's important to them or they wouldn't feel compelled to tell it. So, what about it makes it so important? What is the story's purpose?

Hmm, that's a doozy of a question...

The purpose of a story depends on who you are. For a reader, the purpose is to either be informed or entertained. For a publisher, it’s business. For a writer? That's another loaded question.And this is what I've heard from authors on multiple occasions:

"I had something to say, and this was the best way for me to say it."
"I learned many things the hard way, and I want to send some wisdom back to the younger crowd. Maybe it'll make things easier for them."
"There was something I wanted to share with others."
"I want to present alternative views of life."
"There are things important to me that I want to be remembered."
"I hope to have an impact on at least one individual."
"I want to make people laugh."
"I want to defend or advocate for others."
...and so on...

All of these reasons are valid and admirable. But the reason behind the story doesn’t make it a good story – it’s all in the execution. And that execution will result in either themes or morals.

Theme – a distinct, recurring, and unifying quality or idea; the subject of a discourse, discussion, piece of writing, or artistic composition

Moral – relating to issues of right and wrong and to how individual people should behave; giving guidance on how to behave decently and honorably; a conclusion about how to act drawn from a story or event; a short precise rule, usually written in a rather literary style as the conclusion to a story, used to help people remember the best or most sensible way to behave

The main difference is that a theme asks a question, while a moral attempts to answer one. Which is kind of bossy, in my opinion. : ) That’s probably why I tuned out the heavy-handed stories in Sunday School, because no one likes a Bossy Boiler (in the words of Thomas the Tank Engine).

That said, isn't a theme also like a message, albeit in a more subtle form? It doesn't tell the reader how to behave or what to do, but it does present a question or concept that he may not have thought much about before reading a particular story. On some level, a message has been presented to him and he isn't ignoring it.

On a similar note, all the 'purpose of a story' reasons listed above, if you really look at them, do sound kind of message-y, don't they? I’ve heard all over the place that it’s a bad thing to sit down with the purpose of writing about atrocities/dangers/horridness of X. But is it really such a bad thing? I think it depends on how the story is executed.

Every book on the shelves has some kind of message woven into it. Some are blatantly obvious, and others have been written so subtly that the reader can take that message in his own context. Which isn’t necessarily the context intended by the author.

I think many people assume authors like this don’t write toward a message because it doesn’t hit them over the head. But I’m not so sure...if the author didn’t have something important to say, she likely wouldn’t have said anything, and we’d have had no story to read. Instead, I think she's just better at weaving in her message so it isn't so obvious.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Bliss by Lauren Myracle

Plot Summary: When Bliss’s hippie parents leave the commune and dump her at the home of her aloof grandmother in a tony Atlanta neighborhood, it’s like being set down on an alien planet. The only guide naive Bliss has to her new environment is what she’s seen on The Andy Griffith Show. But Mayberry is poor preparation for Crestview Academy, an elite school where the tensions of the present and the dark secrets of the past threaten to simmer into violence. Openhearted Bliss desperately wants new friends, making her the perfect prey of a troubled girl whose obsession with a long-ago death puts Bliss, and anyone she’s kind to, in mortal danger.

I’m not really a reader of horror. I’ve enjoyed some Stephen King, except when he gets too gross. Then I have to skip ahead...

But this book, BLISS, is classified as horror and I couldn’t put it down. I loved the characters, the setting was vivid, and the suspense kept me on the edge of my seat. I especially loved the quotes from the period (Andy Griffith Show, the Charles Manson trial, etc) inserted before each chapter. But the ending? Well...

As with all my discussions, there are SPOILERS ahead.

Okay, I’m just going to give away the whole book right now and reveal how the story ends. If you don't want to know, stop reading now. :)

Throughout the story, the main character, Bliss, and her friend, Sandy, have been dealing with the spirit of a very disturbed dead girl (Liliana). Bliss wants to stay away from Liliana, but Sandy can’t get enough of her. In the end, Liliana’s spirit re-enters the world of the living through a human host and a ritual involving blood. Sandy offers herself as host, threatens Bliss and her friends if she doesn’t agree to help with the ritual. The indirect result of this is the death of one of Bliss’s friends.

And then what happens? Well, not much.

Bliss learns to grieve for her lost friend, and watches the deranged Liliana cast a spell over the entire student body, which will inevitably result in the death of another student. What does she do about it? Nothing, except make plans to run away.

Don't get me wrong - I was so glued to these pages that I finished it in a day and a half. But had I known how it would have ended, I'm not sure I would have picked it up in the first place. When I read the last page of the story, I turned to the next and said “huh?” I turned more pages, convinced there had to be more. But there wasn’t, and then I felt cheated. I’d been taken on this amazing ride, the stakes getting higher and higher. And when they were at their highest – the dangerous combination of Sandy and Liliana wreaking havoc upon the world – Bliss let's Sandy/Liliana win.

Let me make one thing clear. I don't hate unhappy endings. I don't fly into a rage if the bad guy "wins." In fact, when done well, stories like that end up as some of the most interesting I've ever read. But in this story, it ends with more than Sandy/Liliana winning. It ends with Bliss giving up.

I realize this happens in real life. Things get too difficult, and people can't handle it so they give up. But fiction is not real life. Characters must grow, and giving up is definitely not growth. Bliss, who wanted friends so badly she could taste it, doesn't fight for their safety. She doesn't even seem concerned for them. Instead, she lets them fade away. She lets her boyfriend think she’s an awful, deserting person. Then, she decides to leave this town and go live with her parents - thus deserting her friends (which, by the way, is what her parents did when they fled to Canada to dodge the draft, deserting Bliss at her grandmother's).

It's true that Bliss has removed herself from the world in her grief. Thoughts of fleeing to Canada make sense in her current state of mind. It could even be a great tool to elicit sympathy from the reader. But, she eventually has to come back, which is never easy – facing your pain is the hardest part. In this story, Bliss doesn’t come back. She faces nothing. She stands for nothing. How is that growth?

I wish the author had kept going. I think she had everything coming together so well: her worst-case-scenario (Sandy and Liliana) happened, the consequences of such were harsh yet realistic (death of the friend), and the tension and suspense was off the charts. I cannot figure out why she stopped where she did.

As a result, I am torn whether or not to recommend this title. Everything up to the end is stellar. Good writing, good structure, strong characters, vivid setting, amazing suspense. But the end left a lot to be desired. So, I guess I will leave it up to you. : )

Monday, February 02, 2009

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

When it comes to our stories, writers ask this question for multiple reasons. We need to stretch our imaginations to see how far we can take them. We need to examine our characters to see how far they are willing to go. And, we need to verify that the setting and situation can support these worst-case-scenarios.

We also need to assess the highest stakes a story can have. High stakes add tension, and prompt the reader to ask questions. Will the main character get what she wants? And how will she get out of this terrible situation? These kinds of questions keep the reader glued to the pages.

But how to you plant that kind of tension in a story, keeping the reader on the edge of his seat? Basically, tension comes from things going wrong, not right.

For example, a writer is on deadline and trying to work, but her five-year-old son keeps interrupting her, breaking her train of thought, making it difficult to concentrate. This isn’t a make-or-break moment in the writer’s life, yet the constant badgering raises the tension in that she has less time to get her work done. Depending on the writer, this could infuriate her to the point where she can’t get any work done, even after she’s dealt with the child. This raises the stakes such that she may not complete her work on time, which leads to stress from being behind and having all her regular responsibilities on top of everything. Sound familiar? :)

Tension can come from anywhere: The main conflict in the story. The complications that arise in the story. Outside influences that are beyond the main character’s control. Neuroses that the character puts upon himself. Other characters. Natural disasters. Global warming. You name it. If it’s going wrong, it’s going to add tension to your story. Just don't overdo it, and make sure that tension stays realistic. : )

But there is one area of things going wrong that does not create tension.

Tension does not come from the main character making contrived or uncharacteristic choices. The reader can (and will!) look back and see how the result of that choice could have been avoided. Readers are good at 'back seat driving,' so to speak. They say things like "I never would have done something so stupid." Or "Duh! Didn't she know long ago that this would happen?" and then all your sympathy for your main character goes out the window. It can take the reader from the edge of the seat to off the seat entirely, setting the book down in the process.

When I examine tension, I start with myself. What’s going on in my life that’s causing tension? Money? Child care? Rejections? My son bothering me while I'm trying to write this post? There is always something, because life is never perfect. And looking at what’s going on in my life can help me get a handle on what might be going on in my characters’ lives.

How do you bring tension into your stories?