Monday, January 30, 2012

Challenge: Describe Some Action, Part Two

Last week, I wrote a post about bringing in action when describing your characters so it doesn’t sound like a laundry list. Today, I want to talk about describing other things.

Object description is even more likely to sound like a laundry list because objects don’t move. If it doesn’t move, how can the description seem active? Well, there are plenty of options.

One way is to use active verbs in the description, giving the object its own personality. The curve of a statue could be sweeping. A pendant could be shaped like a tear drop, heavy and drooping. A rug could be bright and bold, and a table could be crisp and shiny.

Of course, even if you use active verbs like these, your description will still sound like a laundry list unless you add a key element: your characters. After all, who perceives these objects? They do! Show us the object through them—how they perceive it, what feelings they evoke, how they interact with them, et—and it will be much easier to introduce action. Especially since people can actually do things while objects pretty much just sit there.

Really, though, it all depends on what's going on in the story, and how important that object is. If it's just an illustration of something already established, then there's not much needed. For example:
She arranged the stack of magazines on the polished table.

Here, the table is just adding to the character, how she wants everything 'just so.' The table doesn't mean anything to her, except to look nice. In fact, she probably doesn't even think about it being there.

But if an object means something to a character, then she will notice far more details. For example:
The pendant dangled from its gold chain, a tear-drop-shaped piece of carved stone. The swooping scroll design faded into the pocked and worn surface. I turned it over. It was heavier than I expected, and...warm. The way stone feels when it’s been sitting in the sun for a long time. My fingers kind of tingled, too.

Here, the character is interacting with this pendant and, at the same time, forming a connection to it. So, she notices far more details about it. And, the more active your verbs are, the more vivid your description will be, the more you will engage your reader.

Take an inanimate object from your childhood (or some other time in your life) and describe it using active verbs. The object can’t move by itself, and you’re not allowed to interact with it to make it move. Instead, focus on the kinds of verbs you use to describe it, as well as the emotions it evokes in you. 

Feel free to share your work here in the comments, or keep it to yourself. Your choice.

Next week, I want to get into the nitty gritty of describing setting. I think setting should be treated as another character, but we’ll get more into that next week. :)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Winner of the January Book Giveaway!

All right folks, it's time to announce the winner of these two books.

And that person is...


Congratulations!! I'll get your books out to you asap. As for everyone else, stop by next saturday to see what I'm giving away. HINT: at least two ARCs. :)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Every Thing On It by Shel Silverstein

A spider lives inside my head Who weaves a strange and wondrous web Of silken threads and silver strings To catch all sorts of flying things,
 Like crumbs of thought and bits of smiles And specks of dried-up tears,
 And dust of dreams that catch and cling For years and years and years . . .
Have you ever read a book with everything on it? Well, here it is, an amazing collection of never-before-published poems and drawings from the creator of Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. You will say Hi-ho for the toilet troll, get tongue-tied with Stick-a-Tongue-Out-Sid, play a highly unusual horn, and experience the joys of growing down.
What's that? You have a case of the Lovetobutcants? Impossible! Just come on in and let the magic of Shel Silverstein bend your brain and open your heart.

I read Silverstein’s first book, Where The Sidewalk Ends, when it was first published. I was fascinated, and even memorized some of my favorites (like Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out—love it!). When A Light In The Attic and Falling Up came out, I snatched up those books and devoured them, too. But they didn’t have the magic that Where The Sidewalk Ends had. I’m not sure why, or even what was missing, but something was definitely missing.

When Every Thing On It appeared on the shelves, I was skeptical. Still, I got this book for my boys this past Christmas and we’ve been reading it out loud off and on. Let me just say that the magic is back! There are some poems that make me laugh out loud, like I Didn’t, Dumb, and The One Who Invented Trick Or Treat. This book is chock full of fun.

My kids are having the same experience I had as a kid, and have marked their favorite poems. They’ve even memorized a few. It warms my heart. :)

So, if you liked Where The Sidewalk Ends, you’ll love Every Thing On It. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Challenge: Describe Some Action!

Last year, I wrote a post on how to incorporate the senses in description. That goes a long way toward bringing your prose to life, but we can still do more to bring descriptions alive.

Most often, description sounds like a laundry list, especially with characters.
For example:
Jonah had startling green eyes, tousled chestnut hair, and wore a blue t-shirt with fitted, dark-washed jeans.

Eye color? Check. Hair color? Check. Clothing? Check. Yep, it’s a laundry list. I don’t know about you, but I find those to be pretty boring. Not just because it’s a laundry list, though. Mostly, they’re boring because it doesn’t show us the character.

When we first meet a person in real life, we usually get a sense of them, at least on a general level. Cocky, awkward, shy, easy-going, nervous, weird, dorky, confident, etc. This is what needs to be conveyed when we first meet a character in a story. The best way to do this is to use action.

For example:
Jonah strolled across the dance floor, easy and languid, his dark jeans stretching over corded muscles. His green eyes caught and held mine, and a slow smile stretched across his face. He leaned toward me, the heat from his breath on my neck and his tousled chestnut hair brushing my cheek.
“I think you need to dance with me,” he said.

In the first example, we don’t get any sense of who Jonah is. We only see what he looks like, and we don’t even really know if he’s that attractive. In the second example, we have a much better feel for what kind of person he is: confident, charismatic, and not afraid to go after what he wants. Granted, example 2 is a bit cliché, but you get the idea.

Think back to the last person you met. Write that scene and describe the person using action—show not only what the person looked like, but also how they came across. See if you can capture that person’s personality on the page.

Feel free to share your work here in the comments, or keep it to yourself. Your choice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

The wars that followed The Collapse nearly destroyed civilization. Now, twenty years later, the world is faced with a choice—rebuild what was or make something new. Stephen Quinn, a quiet and dutiful fifteen-year-old scavenger, travels Post-Collapse America with his Dad and stern ex-Marine Grandfather. They travel light. They keep to themselves. Nothing ever changes. But when his Grandfather passes suddenly and Stephen and his Dad decide to risk it all to save the lives of two strangers, Stephen's life is turned upside down. With his father terribly injured, Stephen is left alone to make his own choices for the first time.
Stephen’s choices lead him to Settler's Landing, a lost slice of the Pre-Collapse world where he encounters a seemingly benign world of barbecues, baseball games and days spent in a one-room schoolhouse. Distrustful of such tranquility, Stephen quickly falls in with Jenny Tan, the beautiful town outcast. As his relationship with Jenny grows it brings him into violent conflict with the leaders of Settler's Landing who are determined to remake the world they grew up in, no matter what the cost.

I’m still trying to sort out how I feel about this book. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t really get into it, even though the action was constantly moving the story forward and there was lots of tension, plus many obstacles for Stephen to overcome. But I found myself not really caring about the story or the characters. I think that’s because much of what’s in this book has been done before in various venues, and it didn’t really contain any unique twists.

For example, America has been ravaged by a plague and much of the population didn’t survive. As a result, the government has collapsed and society as a whole doesn’t exist. It’s anarchy, weak vs. strong, survival of the fittest, etc. This concept has been the backdrop for many stories, and yet there is often something unique about each story. In Eleventh Plague, Stephen stumbles into a pocket of the world (Settler’s Landing) that’s close to how it was pre-Collapse. So, yeah, I guess it’s unique, except it pretty much takes us back to the present day, and that’s not where I want to be when I’m reading a dystopian novel.

Once we get fully entrenched in Settler’s Landing, there isn’t anything really unique here. The villains, Caleb and his son Will Henry, are basically large bullies with lots of influence, a huge sense of entitlement, and seem to enjoy inflicting pain on others. They’re not the kind of villains I love to hate—I prefer the calculating ones skilled in manipulation. Or, at the very least, they have an unshakable belief that what they’re doing is for the good of those around them. I didn’t get a sense of either in Caleb or Will Henry, so I never really got into them as antagonists.

The love interest is Jenny Tan, an outcast in the community because of her ethnic background. When she’s first introduced, I felt some sympathy for her situation and was looking forward to seeing how her story was going to intersect with Stephen’s. But as we find out more about her, we discover that she has created much of the discord between her and the rest of Settler’s Landing. I ceased to like her at this point. There is a moment where she understands this, and she does grow as a result, but the damage was done and I wasn’t invested in her enough to care.

I know all this sounds like I hated the book, but I didn’t. It was an okay read. I just couldn’t seem to connect on any level.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tell Me First, Then Show Me

You’ve finished a manuscript, and now you’re sitting down to the daunting task of revising it. You page through your text, tearing your hair out because you realize it’s chock full of telling! Where’s all the action? The depth? The showing?

You know what? This is normal. So let your hair stay where it is.

Early drafts often consist of the main character telling the author his/her story. The very nature of this act generates a lot of telling, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Later drafts consist of converting all that telling into showing. But how do we do that? Well, let’s take a look at telling vs. showing.

Telling consists of words that replace action with a description of the scene. In other words, there is a person telling the reader what’s going on (instead of simply letting them see the story for themselves) and saying things like “She feels sad because she’s missing her husband” or “She’s mad because her best friend stood her up” or “She sees the locket that her husband left for her” (these are extreme examples, but you get the idea).

This analogy works for all words that tell us that the characters are doing/thinking/feeling/seeing/etc something, instead of showing us how they are doing/thinking/feeling/seeing/hearing/etc something. That vs. How, this is the main issue.

Here are some examples of classic telling:
  1. Jana heard the wind chimes outside the door.
  2. I saw/noticed/perceived the diamond on her ring finger, and felt angry that she’d agreed to marry that scum. (another form: I realized she had a diamond on her finger...)
  3. Theresa was a teacher’s pet.
All of these sentences describe something that would have much greater impact through action. That is the essence of telling.

Showing consists of action. Plain and simple. It’s in the character’s physical actions, AND it’s in body language, habits, possessions, clothing, hobbies, voice, etc. It’s in how the characters do something, not that they do it.

When you ask someone to show you how to do something, do you expect that person to give you a list of steps and then send you off? No. You’re asking them to get up and Do Something. The same thing applies to writing. Give your characters action, and you will be showing them to the reader.

Let’s convert the above examples of classic telling into showing.
  1. The wind chimes tinkled, high and beautiful. Jana opened the door, and a soft breeze cooled her hot skin. Finally, a break from the unbearable heat.
  2. The diamond glinted on Mary’s ring finger. What? How could she agree to marry that man, after he’d ‘accidentally’ put her in the hospital?
  3. On the first day of school, Theresa was the first one to class. She chose the seat right in front of the teacher’s desk, like always, and arranged her books and pencils on the desk. She pulled a silver pen from her backpack, polishing off the smudges from her fingertips, and attached the “From Theresa” tag to the top. She carefully set it on the teacher’s desk, then slid back into her seat.
When your main character hears, sees, feels, notices, realizes, etc something, we assume it’s the main character because that’s who’s story this is. So, we don’t need to know that she hears something. We need to know what she hears/sees/feels/etc, as well as how it affects her as a person. All at the same time.

For example, don’t tell us that your character is peeling potatoes. Show us how she does it. Is she slow and meticulous? Is she quick and efficient? Does she slam things around? Answers to these kinds of questions show us what kind of person she is, as well as what kind of mood she’s in. We don’t need to be told that she’s angry if she’s slamming things around. We can see it for ourselves. Just like we can see that she’s in a good mood if she’s humming.

All that said, it’s totally fine if your first draft is riddled with telling. The first draft, sometimes called the ‘zero draft,’ is really to get the story sorted out on a high level. Once you have that done, then you can go through and convert your telling to showing. It usually takes me three drafts to get to this point…

After you’ve gone through your manuscript to eliminate the telling, go through it again. A common mistake writers make is to add showing, but not remove all of the telling – i.e. showing anger, then telling the reader that the character is angry (or vice versa). That may take more than one pass, because trusting your reader to understand what you’re saying is really hard.

But, trust me, it’s worth it. :)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten

When her boyfriend breaks up with her on the first day of sophomore year, Lucy has no idea how she’s going to make it through homeroom, let alone the rest of her life. Enter three stunning girls with a magical offer Lucy can’t refuse. All she has to do is get a guy to fall in love with her in the next seven days, and then…break his heart and collect one of his brokenhearted tears. As the girls teach Lucy how to hook a guy (with the help of a little magic), she quickly discovers how far she is willing to go—and who she is willing to cross—to get what she wants.

I loved the way this story started out. It's third person with a clear narrator, which I loved even though I’m not usually a fan of narrators. But this story handles it very well. I was invested in Lucy’s story from the first paragraph.

The book is kind of like a how-to guide for successful relationships. Care enough about yourself to give your partner reason to care about you too, don’t fawn or over-compliment because that gets old after a while, take up your own space (not everyone else’s, just yours) in the relationship, if you don’t respect yourself then your partner won’t respect you, etc. These messages were conveyed a little too clearly at times, but I was okay with it. I didn’t really believe that Olivia, Liza, or Gil knew so much about successful relationships, but was fine with them introducing the info.

The girls were okay. I thought Liza was a little over-the-top mean, and Gil was a little over-the-top nice. But I still liked them. I would have liked to see a whole lot more about what it’s like to be a Heartbreaker, and what would motivate Lucy to intentionally break a boy’s heart. How do they choose their boys? What else do they make with the tears? How many Heartbreakers are there? Some of these questions were introduced at the end, so I’m wondering if there will be another book after this one.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read that teens of all ages will enjoy. It has good messages, good choices, and interesting consequences. Even though the end was resolved well enough to make this book a standalone, I kind of hope we get to see more of these characters in the future.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Connecting to Agents and Editors

All of us writers out there want to be published, right? Yeah. Otherwise what’s the point of all this writing? :)

One good step toward attaining that goal is to connect with agents and editors. An easy way to do that is by going to conferences and workshops where they will be in attendance. Listen to what they say when they speak, take notes on the things that resonate with you, and use that information in your query letter when you submit to them. It shows them that you’re serious and you pay attention, both good things.

You can also try to connect with them after the conference is over (there is often a mix-n-mingle afterward). But, that is NOT the place to pitch your story. The only place acceptable for pitching your story is in a query letter, so keep it there. However, you can talk to the agent or editor about current publishing trends, what they’re working on, what books they have coming out soon, etc. You can also find out how they work. If it’s an agent, you can find out a bit about her communication styles. If it’s an editor, you can find out how the acquisition process works at her publishing house. There are plenty of things to talk about that have nothing to do with your book, and this will leave them with a good and professional impression of you.

If it’s not feasible for you to attend any conferences or workshops, there are still ways of making a connection. Many agents and editors have blogs. Read them. Get a feel for their style and work ethic and see if it matches up with yours. If anything they have to say resonates with you, include it in your query. This shows them that you’ve done your research and might be more fun to work with than a newbie.

What if you want to query an agent or editor that doesn’t have a blog? Not to worry. It’s harder in this case, but certainly not impossible to find ways of connecting with them. Agents and editors often give interviews, so if you search for that on the internet you’ll likely find something. You can also research which books they’ve edited and/or represented. Make a note of why the content or style of those books fit with yours.

Basically, when you’re submitting, the bottom line here is this: Why did you choose this particular person? Why do you think the two of you would make a good team? They need to know this. Cold queries will sometimes result in a contract, but the market is getting tougher every day so why wouldn’t you use every advantage you can? It would be pretty silly not to. :)

How many of you send out targeted queries vs. cold queries? What has been your general response?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

January Book Giveaway

It's a brand new year! But I've still got tons of books to give away, and more coming each month. I'll have between 2 to 4 books each month, depending on what I get, and the contest will start and end on the first and last saturdays of each month. So be sure to stop by to see what's up for grabs!

This month, I've got two books to give away.

ARC of Article 5 by Kristen Simmons
New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., have been abandoned.
The Bill of Rights has been revoked, and replaced with the Moral Statutes.
There are no more police—instead, there are soldiers. There are no more fines for bad behavior—instead, there are arrests, trials, and maybe worse. People who get arrested usually don't come back.
Seventeen-year-old Ember Miller is old enough to remember that things weren’t always this way. Living with her rebellious single mother, it’s hard for her to forget that people weren’t always arrested for reading the wrong books or staying out after dark. It’s hard to forget that life in the United States used to be different.
Ember has perfected the art of keeping a low profile. She knows how to get the things she needs, like food stamps and hand-me-down clothes, and how to pass the random home inspections by the military. Her life is as close to peaceful as circumstances allow.
That is, until her mother is arrested for noncompliance with Article 5 of the Moral Statutes. And one of the arresting officers is none other than Chase Jennings…the only boy Ember has ever loved.
The Pledge by Kimberly Derting
In the violent country of Ludania, the classes are strictly divided by the language they speak. The smallest transgression, like looking a member of a higher class in the eye while they are speaking their native tongue, results in immediate execution. Seventeen-year-old Charlaina has always been able to understand the languages of all classes, and she's spent her life trying to hide her secret. The only place she can really be free is the drug-fueled underground clubs where people go to shake off the oppressive rules of the world they live in. It's there that she meets a beautiful and mysterious boy named Max who speaks a language she's never heard before . . . and her secret is almost exposed.
Charlie is intensely attracted to Max, even though she can't be sure where his real loyalties lie. As the emergency drills give way to real crisis and the violence escalates, it becomes clear that Charlie is the key to something much bigger: her country's only chance for freedom from the terrible power of a deadly regime.
I'll announce the winner on Saturday, January 28th. Good luck!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Every other day, Kali D'Angelo is a normal sixteen-year-old girl. She goes to public high school. She attends pep rallies. She's human. And then every day in between . . .She's something else entirely.
Though she still looks like herself, every twenty-four hours predatory instincts take over and Kali becomes a feared demon-hunter with the undeniable urge to hunt, trap, and kill zombies, hellhounds, and other supernatural creatures. Kali has no idea why she is the way she is, but she gives in to instinct anyway. Even though the government considers it environmental terrorism.
When Kali notices a mark on the lower back of a popular girl at school, she knows instantly that the girl is marked for death by one of these creatures. Kali has twenty-four hours to save her and, unfortunately, she'll have to do it as a human. With the help of a few new friends, Kali takes a risk that her human body might not survive. . .and learns the secrets of her mysterious condition in the process.

I love the premise of this story. A girl who is invincible one day, and a normal human the next? Just plain awesome. I was predisposed to like this story before I started reading it. :) And the cover? Amazing!

The beginning chapters are a bit slow as we learn about Kali and her world, and the characters weren’t as clear as I wanted them to be, but the premise had hooked me so strongly that I didn’t mind. I kept reading simply because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. The plot does some really interesting twists and turns and kept me interested.

I really liked Kali from the start. Her compulsion to save others trumps everything else, even her own well-being. Some people seem to find it a bit cliché, but I liked it—that’s an attribute of a true hero. I thought she dealt with her need to hunt and her time as a weak human quite well. And I loved her internal conflict around the chupacabra.

The end didn’t come together as well as I would have liked. It seemed a bit too easy, and the connection to Zev wasn’t as strong as I wanted it to be. I like the direction the story is going at the end, but it felt a little bit clunky getting there. I’m also a bit torn as to whether I want the story to continue. The main story was resolved well, but with a few open ends that could turn into a sequel. I’m interested in where it might lead, and nervous as to where it’s going to go at the same time. So, if there’s a sequel, I’ll be picking it up and will probably read it the way some people watch a scary movie. :)

Monday, January 02, 2012

New Year's Resolutions

I don't believe in New Year's resolutions. It seems silly to only look at ways to improve your life once a year. Plus, these resolutions tend to be too general to effectively act on them. I.E., 'work out more' can be anything, but 'work out twice a week' is specific enough to take action. And then, it becomes a goal.

I do believe in goals. I have lots of them, and I revisit them throughout the year to make sure I'm on task, or to readjust what I need to. I also look back on the year to see how well I did meeting my goals, or at least taking steps toward meeting them.

I'm making a new list of goals for the year, so I thought I'd share some of them with you.

Read 100 books.
I read 67 books last year, which is considerably less than the last two years. Granted, this year was far busier, but I'm convinced I can manage my time better and read more books. There are so many great ones out there!! And I'm going to start with the enormous stack next to my bed. :)

Comment and visit other blogs at least once a week.
I felt a bit like a hermit this year, sequestered away in my corner of the world. I managed to keep my blog posts going, but I didn't get the chance to reply to comments very well. Some months were busier than others, and I did SO many revisions this year it's insane. Still, I can take one day out of the week to comment on my own blog, and other great ones around the blogosphere. I miss you guys. :)

Finish my new WIPs.
On top of all the revisions I did this year, I also finished a first draft of two new WIPs. I'd like to revise and polish them up this year, then get started on the next book in the queue.

Keep up with my karate training.
I joined a dojo last year, and have been loving every part of my training. I have my yellow belt, which is about a third of the way to black belt. I'd like to get halfway there by the end of the year.

That's pretty much it for me. What are your goals for the year?

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Winner of the December Book Giveaway!

2012 is here already. Not really sure how that happened...last year was a whirlwind of activity!

Anyway, it's time to announce the winner of these books.


Congratulations!! I'll get these out to you asap. The next contest will be announced next saturday, so be sure to stop by! Happy New Year!!

Winner of the December Reading Challenge Giveaway!!

Happy New Year, everyone!! I didn't meet my goal of 100 books, but that's okay. I'll try again this year. :)

Anyway, the winner of these books is...


Congratulations!! I'll get your books out to you asap. This is the final reading challenge contest, but I'll continue with the normal monthly book giveaways. The next contest will be announced next saturday, so be sure to stop by!