Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cress by Marissa Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Invisible Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Full Contact Writing

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

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

Full Contact Writing.

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

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

What makes writing good?

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

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

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