Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas!!

I know it's a few days early, but I'm off visiting family and we're
already pretty festive.
In fact, here's a stack of gingerbread cookies I decorated, due to an overabundance of festivity. :)
I'm going to go eat them now, so, to those of you who celebrate,
have a safe and wonderful Christmas!!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

If We Survive by Andrew Klavan

What do you do when a mission trip suddenly leaves you caught in the middle of a revolution?
Will Peterson is part of a mission team that has traveled to Costa Verde to rebuild the wall of a school. It's been a great trip-until a revolution breaks out just before they board their plane to go home.
But then it becomes a desperate race to escape: from a firing squad, from savage animals in the depths of the jungle, from prison cells and revolutionaries with machine guns.
One of the girls is showing Will amazing things about what it means to be truly fearless. And one of the guys has the makings of a real hero. None of them will go home the same. If they only survive.

I read this book because it was nominated for the Cybils YA Fiction award. Will, the main character, has gone to Costa Verde with a group of missionaries to do some volunteer work rebuilding a local school. On his last day there, a revolution breaks out and their lives are put in danger.

As far a christian fiction goes, I get leery about the message-y aspects it can sometimes have. Not so with this book. The fact that Will believes in God is just another aspect of his character, and this is done very well. There is nothing preachy or miracle-y in the story, which is refreshing. Instead, the story takes on a 'the lord helps those who help themselves' philosophy.

There is a lot of action, and the pacing kept me on the edge of my seat. I found Will to be a wonderfully real character, with realistic flaws, temperament, and ideas. The other characters were just as interesting, with their own issues and philosophies. There isn't as much growth as I wanted, and some of the events and incidents were a little predictable, but I didn't mind. This story is fun and full of adventure.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Park Sheridan and Eleanor Douglas are two misfit teenagers living in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986. Dealing with issues of race and child abuse, the book tells the story of a star-crossed first love after the two meet over a school bus and comic books.

I’m not one for gooey romance, and I can’t stand insta-love. Fortunately, Eleanor & Park doesn’t have that. :) I thought the story started out wonderfully—very honest and relatable, and I loved how the relationship between Park and Eleanor develops gradually. In the process, we get a clear view of who these characters are. That was done so incredibly well.

As the story progressed, however, the story wasn’t as compelling. I had some trouble with the plot at times. For example, it wasn’t clear how the scribbles on her book and gym class were connected. We’re told they are, there’s the incident with her clothes, and then all of a sudden it’s something else. I got stuck on the logistics (or lack thereof) of everything.

Also, once Eleanor and Park are ‘together,’ their relationship becomes cliché in the I-can’t-go-without-seeing-him/her way. After the honest and realistic way they got together, this was disappointing.

I didn't like Eleanor, either. I totally get her fear of getting close to others, of becoming visible, of putting herself out there and risking more pain. I truly GET that in a personal, visceral way. I related with her so much in the beginning because of this. But then, she doesn't grow. She doesn't learn. Not really. She slowly lets Park in, but never completely, and, when it truly counts at the end, she reverts back to her old ways. Considering how everything has changed for the better, that made her seem like such a coward.

As a result, she treats Park abominably. If the gender roles were reversed and Eleanor was the boy, the general response would be along the lines of “He’s not worth it. Don’t waste your life waiting around for him to get his **** together.” That’s exactly what I wanted to say to Park. Park should be hurt and mad about what Eleanor does to him in the end, especially after all he'd done for her. The fact that he’s not sends a disturbing message.

By the end, Eleanor should have learned something. She was in a different place with different people, and she should have opened her eyes and done the right, and scary, thing. But she didn't (which makes her a coward). And that post card at the end? Many readers have found this romantic and emotional, but I found it insulting. Instead of three words, there should have been two.

So, for me, this book started out great, but then I was almost hating it by the end. Of course, endings are very important for me, and can make or break a book. This ending broke it.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Donald Maass on How To Make Your Setting A Character

Donald Maass did a guest post on Writer's Digest about setting and how to make it so real that it feels like another character in your story. Go check it out.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!!

To those of you celebrating, have a safe and wonderful Thanksgiving. And stuff yourself full of turkey and pumpkin pie (or some equivalent). :)


Monday, November 25, 2013

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Antigoddess by Kendare Blake

Old Gods never die…
Or so Athena thought. But then the feathers started sprouting beneath her skin, invading her lungs like a strange cancer, and Hermes showed up with a fever eating away his flesh. So much for living a quiet eternity in perpetual health.
Desperately seeking the cause of their slow, miserable deaths, Athena and Hermes travel the world, gathering allies and discovering enemies both new and old. Their search leads them to Cassandra—an ordinary girl who was once an extraordinary prophetess, protected and loved by a god.
These days, Cassandra doesn’t involve herself in the business of gods—in fact, she doesn’t even know they exist. But she could be the key in a war that is only just beginning.
Because Hera, the queen of the gods, has aligned herself with other of the ancient Olympians, who are killing off rivals in an attempt to prolong their own lives. But these anti-gods have become corrupted in their desperation to survive, horrific caricatures of their former glory. Athena will need every advantage she can get, because immortals don’t just flicker out.
Every one of them dies in their own way. Some choke on feathers. Others become monsters. All of them rage against their last breath.
The Goddess War is about to begin.

I loved Blake's first book, Anna Dressed In Blood, so I could not wait to get my hands on this one. Blake's writing is excellent, and she's great at giving just enough information to keep the reader intrigued. If you like Greek myth, this is probably the story for you. If you don't, you might still like it because the Greek gods are forced to taste mortality, and they don't like it. :)

Side note: if you don't know much about the story of the Trojan horse, Odysseus, or Apollo and Cassandra, look them up. I did, and I think I enjoyed this book far more because of it. It added a layer of depth for me that I totally enjoyed. You don't need to know the details, just the big picture will do.

The story is told mostly in two alternating perspectives: Cassandra and Athena. Even though Athena is thousands of years old, her personality works well in a YA story. All the gods in Greek myth behave like spoiled children at some point or other, and being immortal and all powerful isn't exactly a motivator to grow up, so to speak. It's not until they are faced with death that we see who is capable of maturing and who isn't. Athena has a mix of both, and I loved seeing her internal struggle with losing her powers, plus her growing respect for life.

Cassandra isn't nearly as interesting at first, but then we find out her history. There is another power at work inside Cassandra, and we don't find out what it is. But I was okay with that, and was content to see how everything was going to pan out. I wasn't disappointed, until the very end.

The things I found confusing were surrounding Apollo. The truth about him is accepted a little too easily. Which, all things considered, I can understand not wanting to dwell on it. But what happens to him in the end makes no sense. If it had to happen, then fine. But I need to understand it, and, no matter how many ways I look at it, I just don't. So it felt contrived and unnecessary instead of emotional and powerful. But that was the only part of the book that I didn't care for.

Still, I'm hooked and will definitely be reading the next book.

Monday, November 11, 2013

500 Word Critique: MG Fantasy

Here's a recent critique of a story submitted by Daniel Klock. If you want to learn more about him or his story, you can visit him at his website,

Fraud at Snowfields

This time Annabel leaned forwards and operated the screen. She closed the current job and opened the next one.

‘“Job 03, Area B3, Code yellow-2”,’ she read aloud.

‘Good. That’s not far from here. Off we go.’

And they took off again.

Contractus turned partly round to them again and said, ‘As you know a yellow-2 is a bit more challenging, so I’ll handle it, especially since we already have another job waiting and have to hurry. But you can help, of course.’

‘Okay,’ replied Will and Annabel in unison, and Will cer­tainly did not mind. He was happy just to watch and learn how to handle the different jobs. Because, he real­ised, even if they had trained and practised at school, be­ing out there and doing the job for real was quite a bit dif­ferent.

Soon they had reached their destination and Will could see the problem. Just as the code implied, the presents were all scattered around at the far back of the garden of the house. One was even up a tree; another one was stuck in the branches of a bush. Contractus hurriedly performed the cover spell on the sleigh and on himself, then jumped down from the sleigh as soon as it had slid to a stop. He hurried over to the scattered parcels, closely followed by Will and Annabel, covered once more by Annabel’s spell.

When they reached the presents, Contractus took out his wand, swept it around in a wide circle to include all the pack­ages, and performed the rather complicated spell that would re­locate them to the inside of the house, dir­ectly underneath the Christmas tree. Will was impressed by the ease and grace with which Contractus performed the spell. Annabel—and Sabrina of course—could probably have matched it, but Will could still well remember his first tries with the spells in the training area at school. He certainly had not managed to relocate the presents, but had ended up with them scattered even more about the place than when he had started.

Meanwhile the presents had disappeared, and there was no trace of them left in the snow. Contractus looked pleased, and led Will and Annabel over to the house. There he waved his wand again in the pattern of a com­plicated spell that Will did not know, and part of the wall in front of them turned transpar­ent, so they were looking directly at the Christmas tree inside the living room and could see that the presents were arranged neatly under­neath it.

‘Wow,’ Annabel said. ‘That’s a fabulous spell. I’d like to learn that one!’

Contractus smiled. ‘Yes, it can be very helpful indeed. But it’s quite complicated, and unfortunately has much potential for misuse, so I’m afraid it will be some time be­fore you’ll learn it.’

‘Oh.’ Annabel looked rather disappointed.

‘Let’s go back. We’re done here, and we already have the next job waiting.’

Will was the first to climb back onto the sleigh. He quickly closed the current job and opened the next one.

And here's my comments:

Fraud at Snowfields

This time Annabel leaned forwards and operated (a little awkward; perhaps 'to operate'?) the screen. She closed the current job and opened the next one.

‘“Job 03, Area B3, Code yellow-2”,’ she read aloud.

‘Good. That’s not far from here. Off we go.’

And they took off again.

Contractus turned partly round to them again and said, ‘As you know a yellow-2 is a bit more challenging, so I’ll handle it, especially since we already have another job waiting and have to hurry. But you can help, of course.’

‘Okay,’ replied Will and Annabel in unison, and Will cer­tainly did not mind. He was happy just to watch and learn how to handle the different jobs. Because, he realized (these are filter words, which aren't necessary and put a barrier between the reader and the story), even if they had trained and practised at school, be­ing out there and doing the job for real was quite a bit dif­ferent.

Soon they had reached their destination and Will could see the problem (this tells us what you're about to show us, so it's not needed). Just as the code implied, the presents were all scattered around at the far back of the garden of the house. One was even up a tree; (change to comma, then revise the rest of the sentence) another one was stuck in the branches of a bush. Contractus hurriedly performed the cover spell on the sleigh and on himself, then jumped down from the sleigh as soon as it had slid to a stop. He hurried over (how does this look? Does he trip over anything? Does he stumble through the snow? How does Contractus hurry? His actions will show us more of his character.) to the scattered parcels, closely followed by Will and Annabel, covered once more by Annabel’s spell.

When they reached the presents, Contractus took out his wand, swept it around in a wide circle to include all the pack­ages, and performed the rather complicated spell that would re­locate them to the inside of the house, dir­ectly underneath the Christmas tree. Will was impressed (this tells us he's impressed. Instead, give him some internal dialog so you can show us he's impressed, and what, exactly, impressed him) by the ease and grace with which Contractus performed the spell (show us this ease and grace as he's doing it--easy flick of his wand, hardly needed to say the incantation, the presents responded as if eager to please him, etc. Let us see his action instead of telling us that he's doing something). Annabel—and Sabrina of course—could probably have matched it, but Will could still well remember his first tries with the spells in the training area at school (this isn't needed; the next sentence gives us the same information, but far more effectively). He certainly had not managed to relocate the presents, but had ended up with them scattered even more about the place than when he had started.

Meanwhile the presents had disappeared, and there was no trace of them left in the snow. Contractus looked pleased (how does this look? How does Contractus show pleasure? Does he smirk? Shake his hips in a victory dance? Nod his head once? Different people show pleasure in different ways, so show us what Contractus does, and it will show us what kind of person he is), and led Will and Annabel over to the house. There he waved his wand again in the pattern of a com­plicated spell (what kind of pattern? A figure eight? A bunch of criss-crossing lines? Give us some basic idea of how the wand moved, even if Will can't catch all the details. He'll still catch some basics, and then we'll get a clear image in our heads) that Will did not know, and part of the wall in front of them turned transpar­ent, so they were looking directly at the Christmas tree inside the living room and could see (filtering words and not necessary) that the presents were arranged neatly under­neath it.

‘Wow,’ Annabel said. ‘That’s a fabulous spell. I’d like to learn that one!’

Contractus smiled. ‘Yes, it can be very helpful indeed. But it’s quite complicated, and unfortunately has much potential for misuse, so I’m afraid it will be some time be­fore you’ll learn it.’

‘Oh.’ Annabel looked rather disappointed (how does this look? Again, different people show disappointment in different ways, and these details show us what kind of person Annabel is. Give her specific actions, and we'll get her emotions from that).

‘Let’s go back. We’re done here, and we already have the next job waiting.’

Will was the first to climb back onto the sleigh. He quickly closed the current job and opened the next one.

What a cool idea! I'm curious to know more about the world, as well as how Will and Annabel came to be in a sleigh helping to fix Christmas presents. Also, how the presents ended up so messed up in the first place.

I think you mostly need to focus on bringing more action to your characters. Body language, facial expressions, small actions, etc. These details will bring more life to your characters, make them feel more realistic, and engage your reader more.

I hope this was helpful. Happy writing!!

Thursday, November 07, 2013

All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry

Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station. Two years ago, only Judith returned, permanently mutilated, reviled and ignored by those who were once her friends and family. Unable to speak, Judith lives like a ghost in her own home, silently pouring out her thoughts to the boy who’s owned her heart as long as she can remember—even if he doesn’t know it—her childhood friend, Lucas. But when Roswell Station is attacked, long-buried secrets come to light, and Judith is forced to choose: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice, even if it means changing her world, and the lives around her, forever.

When I first picked up this book, I had no idea it was historical. This story takes place during settler-like time: Roswell Station is a farming community, there is no electricity or amenities, and the school is one big room with one teacher teaching all grades levels. The summary didn’t really convey this, so I was a little surprised once I figured it out. It didn’t take long, and I settled into it nicely.

The story is told in second person, to Judith’s childhood friend, Lucas. She has loved him for as long as she can remember, but her disappearance, and her resulting inability to speak, has put some distance between them. I really enjoyed watching Judith grow throughout this story. She starts out practically worshipping Lucas, believing him to be perfect, but then she figures out that he’s human, makes mistakes, and is no better or worse than most other people in Roswell Station. She gets there slowly and realistically, and finds herself along the way.

The details behind her abduction are slowly revealed as well. We get just enough information to answer a few questions, and just enough teasers to keep us reading. I could not put this book down because I had to know the full story. And, once all is revealed, the details are both surprising and expected. There are tiny clues planted throughout that make perfect sense once we get to the end.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and its characters. Definitely recommended.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Revision: Less Is More

So, you’ve written a book and you’re ready to polish your words until they shine. And then you hear the phrase “Less is more.” But what does that mean? This is one of the mantras all writers have heard, but it’s not always explained.

The short answer is that you don’t write three words where one will do. Okay, but doesn’t that risk making your writing flat and lifeless? Possibly. It all depends on which words you choose, and that’s pretty much the key to all good writing. You choose the words that work hard to convey exactly what you have in mind. This means that you don’t use three sufficient words if you can use one perfect word.

For example:
1) He quietly went up the stairs, so afraid that Dad would kill him if he knew what time it was.
2) He slunk up the stairs. Dad would kill him if he knew what time it was.

The words in the first example don’t work very hard. They convey the same meaning, but not as sharply. The second example does the same job in fewer words, and they bring us closer into the story.

The first sentence also has a filler word: ‘so.’ Words like but, and, just, really, very, like, so, etc. aren’t necessary most of the time. Sometimes they fit the voice of the main character, but should still be used sparingly. A little bit goes a long way.

There are also words that do double duty by describing something that’s already descriptive. Such as: tall skyscraper, whispered quietly, frozen ice, descended down, scribbled messily, etc. In each of these cases, only one word is required. The real difficulty is finding the exact words that work for your scene. In most cases, it’s finding the verb that conveys the action you’re looking for, *plus* the emotion associated with the scene.

Some of you may have noticed that, in the examples above, the first sentence is telling and the second is showing. If you did, good for you! :) It’s what exceptional writing comes down to, actually: words that show you the scene and evoke emotion in the reader. The best way to do this is to use fewer words so that the ones you do use work really hard to convey your meaning. It’s rare that you find these words the first time around, so don’t despair! Instead, embrace another mantra: try, try again. And you’ll get there in the end. :)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!!

To all of you who celebrate Halloween...

Have fun, don't scare the kids too badly, and gorge on a bunch of candy. :)


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer.
She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

I’ll admit, I was worried when I picked up this book. I read Sepetys’s first book, Between Shades of Gray, and loved it. I was so afraid that Out of the Easy wouldn’t live up to its predecessor, because sometimes the second book gets rushed out the door and isn’t as enjoyable as the first. I am happy to say that I was worried for no reason.

I loved this book. Sepetys has such a way with words, and her characters are more than interesting. They are real, and just happen to live on a sheet of paper. Josie is spunky and strong, but not over the top. She’s going through her life doing what she can to survive, but she won’t let circumstances drag her down a road where she doesn’t want to go. Even if it would be easier. At the same time, she isn’t superwoman. When her mother’s actions have consequences that land on Josie’s doorstep, she doesn’t snap her fingers and have it taken care of. Instead, she has a normal, human reaction and makes some mistakes. I loved this.

The romance was a little odd, and the thing with Patrick didn’t feel quite authentic. But it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment of the story. Definitely recommended.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mapping Your Main Character To Plot

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine the other day. She was telling me about a friend of hers who she hadn’t seen in about ten years, and how different this person was from who she’d remembered. The reason was the sheer number of things that had happened to her between now and then, and how much she had grown in the process.

Sound familiar? It should. This is the classic formula for a main character in a story. The character begins with one viewpoint, and then ends with something different. The amount of difference depends on the person, of course, and a dramatic difference isn’t needed. What we need is realistic growth, which happens gradually.

That brings up two questions:
1. How do we know, really know, whether our characters grow?
2. How can we make sure that growth happens realistically?

The answer to the first question is relatively straight-forward. We simply look at the character’s viewpoint at the beginning of the story and then compare it to her viewpoint at the end. If they’re different, then we know she has grown on some level. The harder question is to know whether her growth is realistic.

I’ve read many stories where the main character is going along and going along, and then, at the end, *pow*, she ‘gets’ it. I can appreciate that. I’ve had my own *pow* moments, as have others, I’m sure. And, to us, it seems like it has happened all-of-a-sudden-like. But, really, it hasn’t. There were many factors involved, and each one changed us a little bit before that epiphany moment. We’d even begun to act on that epiphany even before it became an epiphany, but we probably weren’t aware of it. These are the kinds of subtleties that need to be woven into the story to ensure realistic growth, even when epiphanies are involved.

So, how do we do this? It’s definitely not easy, and it’s a lot of work, but it is possible. The best way to see it is to map your character's reactions to the main plot points in the story. Is the result some kind of growth? And, if not, is that okay?

In most cases, you’ll want some growth. Even a miniscule amount. My favorite kind of story is where the main character takes baby steps of growth throughout the story, and then takes a single, normal-sized step of growth at the end. Those always seem most realistic to me, and I identify with them better. That said, if the story truly calls for no growth, then there shouldn’t be any.

Laying out the plot and mapping your character’s growth to it will allow you to see the character’s arc clearly, and then you can change it if it doesn’t fit the needs of the story. It’s a lot of work, but you will have a much deeper, more rounded story in the end.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

One morning before school, some girl tells Piddy Sanchez that Yaqui Delgado hates her and wants to kick her ass. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, never mind what she’s done to piss her off. Word is that Yaqui thinks Piddy is stuck-up, shakes her stuff when she walks, and isn’t Latin enough with her white skin, good grades, and no accent. And Yaqui isn’t kidding around, so Piddy better watch her back. At first Piddy is more concerned with trying to find out more about the father she’s never met and how to balance honors courses with her weekend job at the neighborhood hair salon. But as the harassment escalates, avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy’s life. Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off or running away?

I was offered an ARC of this book for review months ago, but I declined because of the subject matter. I wasn’t sure I could read the story objectively, and I was afraid it was going to be unrealistic. Having finally read it, I discovered I was right about one thing and wrong about the other: I *did* have a hard time reading it objectively, but that’s because the story is so very realistic. I was emotionally sucked in, and sympathized with Piddy in a visceral way.

Bullies don’t always have a reason for picking on someone. Piddy had never seen or spoken to Yaqui before another girl announces that Yaqui wants to kick her ass. We do find out that it has to do with Yaqui’s boyfriend in a roundabout way, but, really, Yaqui has simply decided that she doesn’t like Piddy, and therefore will make Piddy’s life miserable. This is done in a realistic way that doesn’t come close to over-the-top. Piddy’s fear and stress are palpable, so the bad choices she makes feel natural and sympathetic. The ending is also realistic, because it is nowhere near perfectly happy. It’s just the best situation that Piddy could find, given the circumstances.

I’ve read other stories that contain bullying, and most of them invoke eye-rolling or disbelief, but that’s not the case with this story. It’s very powerful, and will resonate with those who have experienced it first-hand. It will also give insight to those who haven’t experienced it, and help them understand what someone who is being bullied is going through.

For parents who might be concerned that this isn’t appropriate for teens, I disagree. This is something teens deal with all the time, and a book like this might help them. Instead of eliminating that source, I recommend reading it with them, and then discuss it. Perhaps let them lead the discussion to see what they have gotten from it. I wish I’d had access to a book like this when I was younger.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that what they say? But how close is too close when they may be one in the same?
The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.
Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies--trust no one.
But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.

This story is basically a cross between Hunger Games and Divergent, so, if you’ve read those, you’ll know exactly what to expect. The pacing is quick, the tension keeps you engaged, and the writing is good. But it’s not really any different from what else is already out there.

Cia is an okay character. She’s a good person and likable, and I feel I got to know her well. She did change and grow as the story progressed, and she became more and more likeable toward the end. I like her ingenuity and desire to help others, but I didn’t really feel her rage toward the end. Nor did I ever get a good sense of Tomas. Cia tells us that he’s a good person and that he always looks to help others, but we don’t get to see much of it. Granted, Cia and Tomas have a history before they were chosen for Testing, so this was probably done on purpose. But, to me, it still felt contrived.

Even knowing exactly what kind of book this was, and knowing how it was going to end, it still kept my interest. I was curious how it was going to end, and the action kept me reading. But there was one thing I could not get over: I did not buy into the basic premise, and that interfered with my enjoyment of the entire book. Which is a shame, because the writing is good and the action scenes are intense and thoroughly enjoyable. So, I’m not sure if I’m interested in reading the next book.

Some SPOILERS below:

To me, it seemed like the foundation is the story is that civilization is trying to rebuild and create habitable areas. Yet, the government rounds up their most promising minds and then throws them into situations where three quarters of them will be killed. If the governing body is established and civilization is on its feet, like in Hunger Games, *then* it makes more sense. But to kill your most promising when you’re still researching and rebuilding and trying to feed your own people is way too short-sighted for any halfway decent leader. Even if the leader is corrupt and only looking for a particular mindset, he would not squander a skilled mind. Instead, he would use it, at the very least, for personal gain. I could not get over this, and it colored everything as slightly contrived for me.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Getting Unstuck

I had an interesting conversation with my youngest son the other day. He’s in third grade now, and his reading class is starting to write very basic stories. This is something my son does all the time. He makes up the most elaborate stories as he’s playing with legos or stuffed animals or whatever. But, put a sheet of paper in front of him, and he freezes up. He actually believed that he couldn’t write a story.

I suspect many writers get this problem from time to time. It seems so easy to dream up possibilities, but then when we go to write them down, nothing happens. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, it just means we need to get creative as to how to get the words flowing.

For my son, his teachers told him to draw a mini storyboard. He drew four pictures, each picture leading into the next, and was proud of what he had drawn. But he still didn’t think he could write the story. So, I told him to verbally tell me what was happening in the pictures. Immediately, he rattled off this elaborate scene, including dialog and actions that encompassed far more than what the pictures showed. When he was done, I told him that everything he’d said was his story. Just like that, his eyes widened as he made the connection between picture and story, and he began to write furiously. All he was supposed to write was a paragraph or two, but he ended up with a full page and a half.

If only writing came so easily all the time! It doesn’t, of course. And we can’t expect it to. But when we get stuck like this, there are some things we can do to get ourselves unstuck. The most common advice is to just write something anyway, because you can’t revise nothing. That’s true, but that’s also painful and demoralizing. You know you’re writing crap, and you feel like crap because you’re writing crap. So why put yourself through that if you can avoid it?

The first thing I suggest is to stop doing what you’re doing. Then, try a few different tactics and see if you can find something, anything, that will get those creative juices flowing again. Draw a picture, scribble some random sentences, doodle, make a list, write some dialog, write some backstory, or even walk away entirely. Sometimes you need distance from your work in order to see it clearly. If one thing isn’t working, try something else. Keep trying until you land on something that feels right, that gets the words flowing again, and stick with it.

There is a caveat, though. Of course there is, because this is writing, and writing is never exact. :) The caveat is that this process may not work on your next book, so you might end up going through this problem all over again. Not to worry, though, because, by then you’ll know what to do! When something isn’t working, stop! Keep trying different things until it starts working again.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble

“I found out two things today. One, I think I’m dying. And two, my brother is a perv.”
So begins the diary of 14-year-old Jenna Samuels, who is having a very bad eighth-grade year. Her single mother spends all day in bed. Dad vanished when she was eight. Her 16-year-old brother, Casey, tries to hold together what’s left of the family by working two after-school jobs— difficult, as he’s stoned all the time. To make matters worse, Jenna is sick. When she collapses one day, Casey tries to race her to the hospital in their beat-up Prius and crashes instead.
Jenna wakes up in the ER to find Casey beside her. Beautified. Literally. The flab and zits? Gone. Before long, Jenna figures out that Casey didn’t survive the accident at all. He’s an “A-word.” (She can’t bring herself to utter the truth.) Soon they discover that Jenna isn’t just dying: she’s being poisoned. And Casey has been sent back to help solve the mystery that not only holds the key to her survival, but also to their mother’s mysterious depression and father’s disappearance.

This story started out great. The voice is lively and engaging, the relationship between Jenna and her brother is real and believable, and Jenna’s life feels like it belongs to a typical teen. At the same time, everything is clearly wrong. Jenna’s mom won’t get out of bed, and Casey has to work two jobs in order to pay the household bills. I was completely sucked in based on the summary above and the first chapter.

The pacing wasn’t quite what I was looking for, though. The summary gave away too much of the first half of the story, so I found myself impatient to get to the parts where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. To be fair, that’s not really the fault of the story, but of the person who wrote the summary. Unfortunately, it makes it seem like the story is slow.

I liked the characters a lot. Both Jenna and Casey feel like real kids trying to do the best they can, given their raging hormones and other unusual problems at home. They’re flawed, but that’s what made them so likeable.

There’s no actual romance, but there’s the promise of it in the future. The ending felt like a setup for the next book, though, as well as the role that Jenna’s love interest will play—I’m pretty sure there’s a plot twist hiding in there, and I wish it had been a little less obvious. :) That said, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story, and this book could still be satisfactorily read as a stand-alone.

Overall, I found this fun and entertaining, and Jenna’s dialog is quite funny at times. If there is a next book, I’ll be reading it.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Cybils 2013

Hey all! Tomorrow kicks off the Cybils awards for 2013. So, if you have a book to nominate, get on over there and nominate it! If you have a YA book to nominate, even better! Know why? I'm a judge for the first round of nominations in the YA Fiction category. So I'm going to be reading until my eyes fall out of my head. :)

I can't wait to get started, though. As you all probably know, I love to read, and I love to celebrate good books. So, please go nominate some great ones!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Quotes from Famous Writers

Happy Memorial Day to everyone in the US! Hope the weather is beautiful wherever you are, and that your grill gives plenty of bounty. :)

I've got some more great quotes for you today. Enjoy!

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.
- G K Chesterton

Don't get it right; just get it written.
- James Thurber

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
- Stephen King
Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about...)
- C.S. Lewis

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.
- Margaret Atwood

The free-lance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.
- Robert Charles Benchley

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.
- John Steinbeck

Read, read, read.  Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.  Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.  Read!  You'll absorb it.  Then write.
- William Faulkner

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.
- Walter Smith

I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork.
- Peter De Vries

It requires more than mere genius to be an author.
- Jean De La Bruyere

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Louder Than Words by Laurie Plissner

Since the snowy night when her family's car slammed into a tree, killing her parents and little sister, Sasha has been unable to speak except through a computer with a robotic voice. Nothing is wrong with her body; that's healed. But, after four years, Sasha's memory, and her spirit, are still broken. Then one day, she's silently cussing out the heavy book she dropped at the library when a gorgeous, dark-haired boy, the kind of boy who considers Sasha a freak or at least invisible, "answers" Sasha's hidden thoughts -- out loud. Yes, Ben can read minds; it's no big deal. He's part of a family with a host of unusual, almost-but-not-quite-supernatural talents. Through Ben's love, Sasha makes greater progress than she has with a host of therapists and a prominent psychiatrist. With him to defend her, bullies keep the world from ever understanding Sasha, he pulls away. Determined to win him and prove her courage by facing her past, Sasha confronts her past -- only to learn that her family's death was no accident and that a similar fate may wait for her, in the unlikeliest of disguises.

An okay story. The premise is very intriguing, but the execution wasn’t my favorite. I was pulled out of the story many times due to inconsistencies and things I just didn’t believe.

I wasn’t all that fond of Sasha, and I couldn’t connect to her because I thought her characterization was inconsistent. She starts off telling us what happened to her family and what she remembers when she woke up in the hospital, and then all of a sudden she’s telling one of her classmates ‘f-you’ in the middle of class. Apparently, this is a common occurrence because the detention teacher knows her well, as do the other students who are regulars. This threw me. I get that people can change drastically when they’ve lost their entire family to tragedy and then been teased for four years. But we need to see that change, or else it’s too jolting.

BTW, even though the opening to this story breaks some rules, it totally works in this case. I hear editors say all the time not to start a story with a character waking up or with a flashback, but we get a flashback of Sasha ‘waking up’ in the hospital. And it works. We get her backstory in an interesting way, and I developed something of a relationship with her. But then she turned into someone else entirely when we see her in school, so I was really bummed about that.

I’m glad that Sasha has a good, loyal friend (Jules), and that there aren’t any mean, catty girls in the story. Jules is even head cheerleader, so it was a refreshing change of pace. I wish her character had been more consistent, though. She starts off as an upbeat supporter, but then sort of morphs into something else. And then she shocks Sasha by saying swear words, even though Sasha will say the f-word in class. So I didn’t really get their relationship.

Ben was okay, though too good to be true. He’s a bit over the top with opening doors, coming to Sasha’s rescue all the time, likes old music stuff, plus he’s a sexual genius. He’s also a fourth degree black belt—BTW, I didn’t buy that part at all. It’s not that it’s impossible to become a fourth degree black belt at such a young age, but it’s *highly* unlikely. If one has gotten so far so young, then there’s no way he would be so easily disarmed by an untrained jock. And he certainly wouldn’t be rendered helpless by the loss of his nunchucks. A first degree black belt can see a punch coming long before it gets there and will get out of the way, let alone a fourth degree black belt.

The sex and lust between Sasha and Ben was over the top. I don’t mind love scenes, but Sasha was a walking porn site (another thing Ben comments on). I also didn’t buy all the profanity. It felt gratuitous to me. If I understood the characters better, then this might have felt more natural.

The whole thing with Dr. O was a bit much. Ben called the situation a bad TV movie of the week, and I have to agree. Sometimes it works when a character acknowledges something fishy, but most times it doesn’t. It didn’t in this case. And I was really disappointed with the enormous bow at the end, tying things up too neatly. Not my cup of tea.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Shape of a Story

This year has been the year of revision, so in between drafts I’ve been trying to stay on top of the towering pile of books next to my bed (and mostly failing, but that’s not the point). I’ve just read a few books that sent me pondering on the most effective shape of a story.

The shape of a story is basically a picture of the tension. If you gave tension a numerical rating, 1 being low and 10 being high, and then made a graph of the tension within the story at key plot points, you should get a gradually increasing curve.

Ahem…my inner math geek took over in the previous paragraph. Sorry about that. :) I can’t promise it won’t happen again, so I’m going to just apologize for any future hijacking.

Moving on…

On a very high level, your story should look like Freytag’s Pyramid:

But if we look closer at the rising tension, there should be moments where it’s even. Depending on the story, it could even decrease. As the story progresses, the lulls in tension should get fewer—this generally makes it more difficult for the reader to put the book down, because he/she wants to know how everything will be resolved. Basically, it should look like this:

If you start the story with too little tension, you won’t hook your reader at all. If you start the story out with too much tension, it runs the risk of either confusing the reader, or making him feel exhausted from too much going on. If you start your story with lots of tension, but then don’t increase it as you go, then the reader will either stop reading, or will get to the end and feel the story was anticlimactic.

So, generally, the story needs to start at the moment change takes place in the main character’s life. But the main character doesn’t need to be thrown into a heart-pounding action scene in order to create a sufficient hook. Sometimes that can turn the reader off. Instead, you want to introduce questions that intrigue the reader. Then you can introduce a bit more, then a bit more, and keep going until you reach the resolution.

This will give you satisfied readers who demand more of your books. :)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza

Mila was never meant to learn the truth about her identity. She was a girl living with her mother in a small Minnesota town. She was supposed to forget her past—that she was built in a secret computer science lab and programmed to do things real people would never do.
Now she has no choice but to run—from the dangerous operatives who want her terminated because she knows too much and from a mysterious group that wants to capture her alive and unlock her advanced technology. However, what Mila’s becoming is beyond anyone’s imagination, including her own, and it just might save her life.

I wasn’t sure about this book when I first picked it up. I’m a huge fan of The Adoration of Jenna Fox, and I was afraid I was going to be inadvertently comparing the two stories. Which I did, a little, but Mila 2.0 is different enough that I was able to let that go early on.

For the most part, I enjoyed this story. It starts out slow, with standard characters that don’t add much to the story: Kaylee is the typical selfish mean girl, Hunter is the typical hot guy who is inexplicably attracted to the main character, Mila is the typical angsty teenager, Mom is the typical overprotective type, etc. The relationships between these characters aren’t explored or deepened, so when they fall apart it’s not a big deal. Even though it *should* be a big deal.

But then things take an adventurous turn. Mila discovers who she is and goes on the run with Mom, and from there it’s impossible to put the book down. Mila has so many people after her that she never gets a moment of rest, and the pacing reflects that.

The lack of depth in the character relationships is problematic throughout, though, and got a bit annoying when it came to Hunter. We got such a small glimpse of him in the beginning that it’s not really clear why Mila keeps thinking about him. Well, not clear emotionally…I have a theory as to why—it’s completely plot driven, and therefore a bit contrived. I’m guessing this is going to be the opening of the next book, which will launch another break-neck paced adventure right away. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. :)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Fiction Fun: Procrastination and My Old Man

I was going through some old folders over the weekend and found a bunch of poems I wrote waaay back in college. It was a pleasant surprise. :) So, I thought I'd share one of them with you all. Enjoy!

Procrastination and My Old Man
Thick, wet snowflakes float to the ground
Covering everything with white
My father's footprints the only imperfection
I am an ass for coming
For following him
To his favorite tree by the creek
He is slumped against the sturdy trunk
Nursing a bottle of Old Crow
He lifts heavy lids, blinking his blood-shot eyes
"Time to go home, eh?"
Next time, I won't come

Thursday, May 09, 2013

You Know What You Have To Do by Bonnie Shimko

You do not kill a man in cold blood and then talk your way out of it. Other than her real name — Mary-Magdalene Feigenbaum — fifteen-year-old Maggie’s problems seem ordinary. She has tiffs with her too-critical mother, a crush on her cute psychologist, and worries that her only friend — fellow outcast Abigail — is morphing into a popular girl, leaving her behind. But Maggie has a few not-so-ordinary problems. A voice in her head is telling her to kill. And not just anyone. Each time the target is a person who has done something terrible to someone Maggie cares for. You know what you have to do, the voice commands. Maggie struggles to resist, but the voice is relentless. And as its demands escalate, her world begins to crumble.

A strange story. It's entertaining, to be sure, just different. :) First and foremost, I liked Maggie. It was incredibly refreshing to see a teen girl who isn't constantly questioning herself and never pines to be like the popular girls. I loved that.

I thought this was going to be something like a YA version of Dexter, but it's not. Not really. Maggie does kill people, because the voice in her head compels her to do so. When this voice manifests, it causes her physical pain, so she feels she has to do what he says just to get the pain to stop. I was very interested to see how her story was going to pan out.

I tried to write this review without spoilers, but found it wasn't really possible. So there are spoilers below, some big ones.

Things get inconsistent as the story progresses. She goes along with the voice when the targets are low-life abusers, but she refuses to comply when the voice tells her to throw a baby down the stairs. Or when he tells her to run over a bicyclist. There were no consequences to either incident. So why didn't she start resisting more? Then, at the end when she tells the voice his ideas are stupid, he gets weaker. Why didn't this happen sooner when she'd successfully disobeyed?

The transitions were rough, too. One minute, summer is starting, then school starts three pages later. The worst was when Harry dies. We went from he's-not-feeling-well to his funeral, and gloss over the fact that Maggie tried to kill herself afterward. We learn that bit in a whispered conversation between her therapist and her mother, but we never get to experience Maggie's grief firsthand. I'm not sure why. This book doesn't shy away from darkness (she *kills* people), so I don't know why we didn't get to be in Maggie's head when she decides she doesn't want to be in this world any longer.

There is no building tension, either. The story feels pretty even throughout. Maggie kills people. She still kills people. Her stepfather dies and she's nearly destroyed from the grief. She goes back home with plans to burn down her friend's house, after giving the voice in her head some sass. There's no beginning, middle, or ending. The fact that she's talking back to the voice in her head is a good thing, but it's not enough. I wanted to feel tension building throughout the story, and then be rewarded with an amazing conclusion that knocked my socks off. I think this story could have done it, but, sadly, it didn't.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley

Angie Chapman was thirteen years old when she ventured into the woods alone on a Girl Scouts camping trip. Now she's returned home…only to find that it's three years later and she's sixteen-or at least that's what everyone tells her.
What happened to the past three years of her life?
Angie doesn't know.
But there are people who do — people who could tell Angie every detail of her forgotten time, if only they weren't locked inside her mind. With a tremendous amount of courage, Angie embarks on a journey to discover the fragments of her personality, otherwise known as her "alters." As she unearths more and more about her past, she discovers a terrifying secret and must decide: When you remember things you wish you could forget, do you destroy the parts of yourself that are responsible?

This is a difficult book to review. The subject matter is very serious, and some events in the story are horrifying. So this isn't really a book you can sit down and enjoy. At the same time, though, this book is impossible to put down. The mystery behind Angie's disappearance is compelling and kept me glued to the pages. I read the whole thing in a day.

Angie's struggles with her gap in memory feel authentic, as well as how she attempts to come to terms with her new life, her older body, her freaked out parents, everything. Slowly, we find out where she's been and what happened to her.

Some spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

Angie was kidnapped by a psycho pedophile when she was 13, and he held her captive for 3 years. She suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, which means she has multiple personalities/identities within herself. These personalities dealt with her three years of captivity, so, when she came home, she had no memory of what had happened. Slowly, through various forms of therapy, her story is revealed.

I thought it was done pretty well. Granted, some of the methods used were a little far-fetched, and the timeline of her personality integration is completely unrealistic, but, for some reason, I was okay with this. We can't follow Angie around until she's 30, and yet we also need to know what happened to her. So this was the next best thing.

This is a psychological book that doesn't shy away from the horrors of rape, so if subjects like this don't sit well with you, then you might want to pass. But if you want to read a pretty authentic tale of survival, definitely pick up a copy.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Taken by Erin Bowman

There are no men in Claysoot. There are boys—but every one of them vanishes at midnight on his eighteenth birthday. The ground shakes, the wind howls, a blinding light descends…and he’s gone.
They call it the Heist.
Gray Weathersby’s eighteenth birthday is mere months away, and he’s prepared to meet his fate–until he finds a strange note from his mother and starts to question everything he’s been raised to accept: the Council leaders and their obvious secrets. The Heist itself. And what lies beyond the Wall that surrounds Claysoot–a structure that no one can cross and survive.
Climbing the Wall is suicide, but what comes after the Heist could be worse. Should he sit back and wait to be taken–or risk everything on the hope of the other side?

I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up this book. It's dystopia with a male protagonist, and the summary practically screams of nefarious plots. The beginning started out well, and I was hooked because I just had to find out what had happened to all those Heisted boys. The author struck a good balance between giving us information vs. giving us more questions. I was ready to follow Gray to the end.

I liked his character in the beginning. He's emotional and impulsive, traits that sometimes irritate me, but I liked this about him. He has a well-developed sense of justice, and no compunction about doing what's necessary to make things right. This aspect of his character is both a strength and a flaw at the same time, and I loved it.

After he discovers what's really going on, things aren't as compelling. The insertion of the love triangle felt forced, I didn't much like Bree, and I thought Emma was far too forgiving of how Gray treated her. Actually, none of the character relationships felt real as the story progressed. That really bummed me out because I wanted to see Gray interact with more people. That didn't really happen.

The truth behind Frank was obvious immediately, though the author thankfully didn't dwell long on that. The resolution at the end felt a bit anticlimactic, and convenient considering the big ol' bag on Gray's back that no one seems to notice. And then the setup for the next book was too heavy-handed for my taste. I'm guessing the love triangle is going to be front and center, which isn't my thing. So I'm not sure I'll be reading the next book.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Time Management

A writer's life is a busy one. Even if you're published, most writer's don't make enough to quit their day jobs. Plus, we still want to see our family and friends now and then, and, if we have kids, that takes up even more time. So, how does one squeeze writing time into an already busy day?

Honestly, this is a very personal question, and it's going to have a personal answer. It all depends on what's going on in your life. That said, regardless of what's going on, in order to fit writing into your life, you need to plan ahead. This might not sit well with you pantsers out there, but I don't see any other way of doing it.

To get started, sit down and write out your typical week. When do you work? When is family time? When is regular household maintenance time (cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc)? When are you free? How much time do you spend watching TV?

Once you have a handle on all this, you can begin to carve out your writing time. Do you have a couple days a week when you can write during your lunch hour? What about while you're waiting on laundry? Is there an evening or two that you can set aside for writing? Or what about getting up early a couple days a week? If you're home with kids, definitely make use of nap times as much as possible, or while the kids are away at school.

The best thing I ever did was to create a writing schedule, put it in my calendar, and then not let anything other than emergencies take it over. I sometimes had trouble doing this, so I started meeting up with another writer. We sit together and write, and, since we've made a commitment to each other, we don't let other things get in the way. I've been doing this for the past six or so years, and it has served me well.

Once you get used to this process, you can use it for many things. Like reading. As writers, we need to read anything and everything. I think reading is as important as writing, so I read every night before going to bed--that's where I get the bulk of my reading done. I will also allot some of my writing time to reading, especially if I've just completed a draft. Basically, during my allotted writing time, I am either reading or writing. It's the best way I've found to get so much done.

What do you do to fit writing into your day? When do you usually read?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Writing Prompts

I had planned to post an article on time management today. Ironically, I did not get the time to finish it. :) So, I have a great article for you instead. It's a bunch of great writing prompts when writer's block comes to visit.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Infatuate by Aimee Agresti

Haven Terra is still recovering from an internship that brought her literally to the brink of hell when a trip to New Orleans leads to more trouble. Graduating early from high school leaves the spring semester free, so Haven and her friends Dante and Lance head to the Big Easy to volunteer with community service projects. But their true mission becomes clear when they run across an enclave of devils known as the Krewe. New Orleans is a free-for-all for these shape-shifting devils, who are more reckless and vicious than any Haven, Lance, and Dante have encountered. And they soon discover their French Quarter housemates are also angels-in-training, and together they must face off with the Krewe in their quest for wings. But Haven’s resolve is tested when Lucian, the repentant devil with whom she was infatuated, resurfaces and asks her for help escaping the underworld. Can he be trusted? Or will aiding him cost Haven her angel wings—and her life?

I really enjoyed Agresti’s first book, Illuminate. I found it intriguing with the Chicago history and really liked the characters. I wasn’t as enthralled with Infatuate, though, which really bums me out. When the first book ended, I was so curious as to what was going to happen next, and how they were going to be tested. I had really high hopes for this book, but it didn’t quite deliver.

Lance and Haven came together nicely in the last book, and I was looking forward to seeing their relationship grow. But they don’t. Instead, they grow apart for no clear reason. I get that their relationship was supposed to be tested in this book, but I didn’t quite buy it because the strain could have been avoided by a simple conversation. If they had talked and still couldn’t work things out, that would have been more satisfying.

I also didn’t believe that Haven was attracted to Lucian again because she had so clearly dealt with her feelings for him at the end of the first book, so it felt like a plot rehash. I would have preferred if she saw him in a new light or something. But, considering the relationship issues, it still would have felt like a contrived way to create tension. I wish he'd been cast in a different role this time around.

I couldn’t stand Sabine and felt she deserved everything she got. Her role in the end was predictable, resolved too easily. I thought that the author went too easy on her characters this time around. After the wringer she put them through in the first book, I was hoping for more of the same, taken up a notch. Instead, it went down. I’m hoping that will change in the next book. Considering the cliffhanger ending, it shows promise. :)

All that said, I still liked this story and am looking forward to the final book. I think Agresti has a vivid writing style and I could see much of what was in the story. I also liked the New Orleans history and flavor of the city, which rang true to me. I’m curious where the story will be set in the final book. 

Monday, April 08, 2013

Reading Like A Writer

Honesty. What does it mean to you? I don’t mean the dictionary’s definition. What does it mean to you?

I’ll tell you what it means to me: an open mind, balance, objectivity, and exploration. Basically, it means I need to take a step back and look in places I don’t ordinarily look. It’s very eye-opening, and I apply this concept every time I sit down to read.

When you pick up a book, what are you intending to get out of it? Just enjoyment or entertainment? Or do you want to see how published authors manage their craft? For me, I like to read for entertainment, but it always come second to craft. So, I tend to view reading as a learning experience with the added bonus of good entertainment value. :)

But how do you turn reading into a learning experience?

It’s not easy. But, since nothing about writing is easy, that should come as no surprise. :) In order to get the most out of a reading experience, I have to embrace every aspect of honesty. This manifests in a few ways.

Put yourself in the author’s shoes.
Since writers do this kind of thing all the time, that shouldn’t be too difficult. :) Putting yourself in the author’s shoes helps you to be in the right place so you can better understand the story. In order to get the most out of this exercise, two things must happen. 1) Figure out what the author intended to accomplish with his story. 2) Look at the story itself and figure out what it actually accomplished. Yeah, it’s hard, but there are always little clues that help us along. When you first start out, it might require a re-read or two. Once you’ve done this, though, you can move on to the next point…

Put on your critiquing hat.
I firmly believe that critiquing can teach us as much about writing as actually writing, so I try to critique as much as I can. When I read a book, I basically treat it like I’m reading my critique partner’s work. I start out with the assumption that there’s going to be both good and not so good stuff, and make mental notes accordingly. Reading a published book is different from critiquing because the author can’t take the book back and make changes. BUT, he can improve his writing going forward. So, if you review books, you can write an honest review in the vein of a constructive critique, and learn something in the process. :)

Be objective about what works and what doesn’t.
There are two aspects to this. 1) Strong reactions, either positive or negative. Take a good look at why the story evoked such a strong reaction from you and explore it. If you loved it, or if you hated it, figure out why. There are likely several aspects to this. 2) Don’t let the weaker reaction slip away. Even if you hated the book, what did it do right? If you loved the book, what could have been better? There are always two sides to the coin, and we need to be objective and honest with ourselves by looking at both of them, because that’s the key to maximizing our learning experience.

To be the best writers we can possibly be, I think we need to read widely and analyze everything. What did we love, and why? What would we have done differently? Be honest with yourself, and with the books you read, and you’re on your way toward creating a good learning experience, which will ultimately make you a better writer.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

Sybella arrives at the convent’s doorstep half mad with grief and despair. Those that serve Death are only too happy to offer her refuge—but at a price. The convent views Sybella, naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, as one of their most dangerous weapons. But those assassin's skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to a life that nearly drove her mad. And while Sybella is a weapon of justice wrought by the god of Death himself, He must give her a reason to live. When she discovers an unexpected ally imprisoned in the dungeons, will a daughter of Death find something other than vengeance to live for?

I read Grave Mercy not long ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Dark Triumph is the second book in the trilogy, and picks up right where Grave Mercy lets off. Instead of following Ismae, though, we follow Sybella. The two could not be more different, and I loved seeing the world through Sybella's eyes.

Even though we weren't with Sybella in her life before the convent, we can guess just how horrific it was based on the kind of people she grew up with. I thought LaFevers did an excellent job of  slowly revealing her history to us, and by the end I felt I knew her well and could understand why she came to the convent half-mad.

The romance was well done, slowly building in a believable way. I loved watching the relationship build between Sybella and Beast, but the transition from friendship to love happened a little too suddenly. I can see the signs that they like each other, and are even attracted to each other, but the leap to 'love' was a bit too quick. Still, I like them as a couple, and think they are good for each other.

I also enjoyed seeing the abbess through Sybella's perspective. She's so different with her than she is with Ismae, and it's clear her reasons are personal. I have a pretty good guess as to why, but I won't spoil that for you. :)

My favorite part of the story is watching Sybella come to terms with Mortain, the god of Death. Unlike Ismae, she has doubts as to his existence. With the childhood she had, I think this is quite normal. She comes into her faith in a roundabout way, which I found realistic and believable.

I'm really looking forward to the last book in the trilogy, which will follow Annith. The only bad thing is I have to wait until next year...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Random House and SFWA

A few weeks ago, John Scalzi, author and president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), published this article on his blog:
Basically, he rails against Random House's digital imprint, Hydra, for not providing an advance against royalties and for having other poor terms in their contract.

He wasn't the only one. Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware had this to say on the subject:

It didn't end there. Random House responded in an open letter, attempting to explain the terms of their contract:

To which SFWA replied:

And Victoria Strauss:

And, somehow, John Scalzi got ahold of an Alibi contract, which he goes through here:

Random House ended up offering a contract closer to traditional publishing, but still offers the original 'profit-sharing' option for authors who prefer to go that route. Here's what they have to say:

John Scalzi responded, calling this an open discussion with no winners or losers:

And Victoria Strauss said the changes are a significant improvement:

Truly, it has been a dizzying month. :)

Personally, I find the new kind of contract intriguing. I'm not sure I would go for it as is, but this 'experiment' from a traditional publisher is quite interesting. I'm curious to see what comes of it.