Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Books, Schmooks.

I keep meaning to blog about the books I've read lately, but can't seem to get to it. So, quickly now, here's the books I read in March that were worthwhile. Some information below might be considered mid-book spoilers, but no endings or magnificent twists are revealed.

My top book pick for this past month: The Wood Wife
My quick search for the cover again led me to Amazon. You can't really click to read more.
I'm not sure why they don't make it easier to get a quality file of the cover.
Don't they want people to know what they're looking for?

Anyway, here's the best of what I read, all checked out from the library, with one exception, noted below.
The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming In the late 1800s, a young man tries to help a young woman who mysteriously appears near the subways in NYC that he is helping to build. He helps her track down her previous tutor, Mr. Tesla, who can't remember her, but is smart enough to understand that the information she has will make time travel possible. Very good read.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfield Very fun YA steampunk. A girl masquerades as a boy so she can join the Royal Air Force on board a dirigible that's a living, hydrogen breathing, genetically modified whale. A young prince, Alex, recently orphaned when his parents, the archduke Ferdinand and his wife are murdered, must flee before he is killed too. They meet when the Leviathan is damaged near Alex's hiding place. Can any agreement be reached between the Darwinists, resposible for the Leviathan, and the Clankers that build fantastic, morally responsible machines. (Think giant walkers like in Star Wars with the Eewoks.) My nine year old son LOVED it, also. Recommended for ages 12+ on Amazon, but what do they know? ;)

The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken This book really explains why librarians are such an odd lot;) (That's for you Teresa, with love) A beautiful love story that really didn't make sense for me to like, because it's weird for an adult to fall in love with a young man 12 years younger than herself, then throw in that the young man is a giant (really, he had an unrelenting pituitary gland). The woman librarian was such a lonely person, so afraid to be unloved. I highly recommend this book.

The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty Ahhh/Groan! This was an academic exercise. I read 'One Writer's Life' and 'The Optimist's Daughter' in late February or early March, and just couldn't find the time to finish this one. This I can say: I read half the short stories and feel that my writing is less confusing by comparison. I was never sure that I was making the right assumptions or understanding what she was implying. Amazing dialogue. Amazing characters. But my brain hurts, and I'm trying to find comparable novels, so I moved on. I will definately be back.

The Secret Year by Jennifer Hubbard Read this this afternoon. A boy deals mourns the girl he'd secretly had a relationship with for a year after she dies. I'd flipped through it pretty heavily in the bookstore, but wasn't impressed. But I'd already requested it at the library and it came in, so I checked it out. I intended to read just the first chapter, as part of my personal study of opening scenes, but got hooked. On the scale of idealistic versus realistic, this was heavily weighted for realism (sex, drinking, a few instances of language) but I liked it. You are warned. I think the most surprising thing for me was that I sympathized with the main character so much. I didn't expect to after flipping through it and reading a few chunks.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame Smith I saw the book trailer and then saw it at Sam's Club and bought it, on IMPULSE. I know. Book trailers aren't supposed to work. And I didn't realize that on the back cover, Abe is holding a severed head behind his back. I'm two thirds through and it's good. Not a character-driven story, but interesting and well-written. 

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling I got this book as part of my search for comp novels and loved it. It reminded me of The Forests of the Heart, by Charles DeLint, but much more intimate. A writer, Maggie, goes to live in the mountains of Arizona when a writer that she'd corresponded with dies and leaves her his house. She discovers that the land is more alive than she could have guessed when the shapeshifters and shaman and mages of the mythic world reveal themselves to her. Loved it, loved it. Great adult fantasy, not much language at all. I think the 'F' word was there, but I'm not sure, so it definately wasn't over-the-top.

Happy reading! Anybody else read any of these? Anything to add? I know I glossed over these, but I wanted to share and didn't think I would get to them if I made myself blog about them separately.
Glutton for Punishment?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Are We There Yet?

My dad in one of my favorite pictures. 
Did you notice the waterspout in the background? 

My dad is funny about traveling. We went out on the gulf most weekends, it seems, when I was young. It didn't matter if the trip was for two hours or a long weekend or a whole week of lobstering in the keys. It didn't matter if we had done our assigned jobs or not, he could be counted on to be snarly.

Pack the cooler, pack the boat, pack the car. Grump at the kids, grump at the weather (invariably HOT growing up in FL), grump at whatever has the ill-fortune to be in the way. As soon as we'd get in the car and shut the doors, he could laugh again. Enter vacation.

As a writer (and as a vacationer, too bad for my kids), I've realized I'm the same way. It's been a year and a half since I started my novel in earnest. It took four and a half months to write the first draft. And thirteen and half months to get it to where it is.

Which is where, exactly?

My plot is interesting, a new twist on a very old story, I think. Microtension, character arc, chapter arc, flow. People say they like my characters. They feel like real people.
I told one of my readers that I had realized that there wasn't enough inner motivation for my MC to risk everything and I was going back to fix that and my reader said, "Good. I told you that a while ago."


I didn't see it before. I do now. I see the flaws, and the sad thing is that I know I don't even see all of them.

Understanding what to fix is an expansive feeling, but one that I've learned to distrust. It is a feeling that says, "If you fix this one more thing, I'll be ready for people to read me," but it lies. It waits for you to fix that thing (only if the muse is particularily generous) then turns back to you and says, "Oh, and one more thing."

I'm ready to get in the car and go. The suitcases are packed, waiting beside the door, and I realize I forgot clean socks. And my toothbrush. And did I remember to get the jewelry for the wedding we're going to?

I just want to be on the road. I want to be there already. I'm at that point where my husband  would say (were writing the book, packing and querying, the trip), "I'll get the suitcase. Get some ice water and wait in the car, okay? Put on some Enya."
 Sigh. I'm taking a few days easy on the writing. Gardening, tidying up, cleaning out some closets. I'm going to find my inner zen-state. And Nathan has his second triathon tomorrow, so we'll be having some fun there, too. Wish him luck! I'll see you on Monday.
Glutton for Punishment?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finally Legit

So, I got a subscription to Publisher's Weekly.

What? You didn't have one of those already?

No. See, if this publishing thing doesn't work out,
then it's just a hobby. It was a big step to join
a crit group, even one that cost a measly $40 a year.
I don't know that I'll keep my subscription to PW forever,
but while I'm actively trying to get published, it's a
great way to find comps and prospective agents.

So you think you're big time now?

Uh, no. In fact, I'm still trying to justify the $20 a month
to myself. It's not that I doubt the value of being able to 
easily access deals and details and repetitive emails, but I 
don't like to spend money.

Not a big shopper then, are you?  

Nope. But I went shopping yesterday and bought a new
book bag for my son (his bag had a one foot long rip in
the seam, so it wasn't holding much
in anymore. And my computer bag has developed a rip
near the handle so I buckled down and bought a new bag,
 too. I'd had the old bag for over ten years. And now that 
I think about it, I didn't even like it that much. 

Is the new bag pretty?

Yes! It's silver with purple lining and faux snake skin handles
 and trim. Way cooler than my old plain black soft briefcase. 
Thanks for asking.

Glutton for Punishment?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Oopsie Poopsie," He Says.

So my friend sent back some comments on the second third of my novel and I was flipping through it to see if there were any big chunks of scribbles and found a tiny, but emphatic comment: "No, no, and NO!"

What the heck had I written to cause such hatred? I began reading...
"Full powers of investigation. I could lie, cheat and steal without asking anybody’s permission. Even physical coercion. I was so nervous I farted a little bit. I wasn’t sure he heard it but then I couldn’t hold back and giggled out loud. I was so embarrassed! He looked at me with fire in his eyes to which I responded, “Oopsie poopsie”. That was my last day at the FBI.
I didn't write that! Apparently my hubby has been doing some free-lance editing work was I was in the shower or something.

My abs are tighter today from laughing so hard. Gah. What if I'd sent it to an agent like that? Do they read a total switch in tone and a jaunt into the ludicrous and think, "This must be a joke. I bet her husband thinks he's really funny." ?

Note to self: reset password on computer.
Glutton for Punishment?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I'm not obsessed. I can prove it.

Okay, I can't prove it, but you can't prove the reverse.

I found this on the blog 'Old Picture of the Day'.
This is a man, I know, but you'd be surprised at how few
beautful pictures there are of women with a bow and arrow.  

If you read Tuesday's post, you know I've been studying the opening chapter of 'The Hunger Games'. 

"Why?" you ask. "Are you obsessed?"

No! But yes! I have a little problem, you see. I had this idea that I could tell my story by letting events unfold and the reader would figure it out, like a beautiful 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, ten different people have read my first chapter and they all say basically the same thing.
That's really interesting and I want to read more, but what the heck is going on?
The first two comments are encouraging, the third I thought would resolve itself by the time they got to chapter three. But they were still confused. What to do? Info dumps are bad. Very bad.

I checked out about ten current YA books and read the openings (and more if I was intrigued enough: Shiver). But I got out a pencil and took some notes in 'The Hunger Games'. (I bought HG. I don't write in library books. Why did you think that?)

I discovered something shocking. Out of the first 109 lines (first four pages), 81 lines are exposition in past tense. Collins spends 81 lines explaining the world. I was trying to spend 0. No wonder my world is murky!

Some of the chunks of exposition are inherently interesting, like when Katniss talks about how she tried to kill the cat or how she and Gale met hunting, but some of it is about how close her house is to the woods, how often the fence is electrified, how the other coal miners are scared of the woods. 

Lesson: It's okay to explain a few things. Find what makes your world different and tell the reader. Turn on some lights and let them look around. Just don't describe the china pattern or the brand of air freshner.

Okay, back to rewriting! Remember to never follow the rules off a cliff. Thanks to the many readers who have suffered some confusion so I could figure this out. 

Any rules you've misapplied? Any tricks to share? Thanks for commenting!  

Glutton for Punishment?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Giving your characters character in the first three pages

Remember Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal?
Another strong character. 

We like 'strong characters', right? Here's a look at how Suzanne Collins got my attention in the first few lines in 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins.
  • Katniss wakes up and looks for her sister, who snuck into bed with their mother.
  • A big, ugly yellow cat is curled up on her sister's feet.
  • Cut to Katniss's memories of when her sister found the cat, flea-bitten and wormy and her sister begged Katniss not to drown it.
  • Back to present- now Katniss feeds it entrails when she cleans an animal she's killed. The cat has stopped hissing at Katniss.  
  • "Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love."
I loved that line. I realized I could trust this writer to tell me a story. I love that relaxed feeling and don't get it too often, since compulsive editing has ruined most books for me (only kind of kidding.)

This is a strong character. Yes, Katniss is physically strong, but that's not the point. She tried to drown her sister's cat out of practicality. She didn't think about it, or consider it, or *almost* put the cat in a bucket. She did it and her sister was begging her to stop. And the cat still remembers.

I had that same 'I can relax' feeling when I reread "The Giver" by Lois Lowry.

It was December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No, wrong word. Frightened meant that deep, sickened feeling of something terrible about to happen.

Jonas is extremely careful about naming his feelings. It made me wonder why. That's all it took to hook me.

Have you ever met a character and thought, "Wow. This is going to be good."? What line got you?
Glutton for Punishment?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Again! With Focus.

Or what I've learned from writing a query

Some authors write the book blurb or their elevator pitch first, before they even start their book, but not a pantser like me. My planning stages involved several false starts, a first draft that that has almost entirely been written over, and some early attempts at an outline. Currently, I've outlined up to Ch.11 (out of 30), but I did finish my 3 pg. synopsis, so I'm congradulating myself, even if noone else is.

As for my query, I started working on it maybe eight months ago and have gone through 10+ revisions, and still haven't got it right. I highly recommend writing your query as you write your book for three reasons.

Reasons to work on your query now instead of waiting until you finish your manuscript:

1. You will have something to say when someone asks what your book is about.
2. Your query needs time to develop through rewriting just as your book does.
3. It helps you to focus on the main points as you revise. 

In trying to pull out the major conflict that causes my MC to leave her perfect world and come to our fallen world, I realized that my opening chapters are diffuse. (Anybody watch that Medium episode? I was writing, but my husband told me about it. Joe gets asked by his boss to read the  boss's epic Sci-fi novel and keeps hounding Joe to give his impressions. So Joe finally says 'It was diffuse.' Which is not a word that I'd like applied to my writing, and this guy didn't like it either. So in Joe's performance review, everything was 'diffuse'. Communication skills? Diffuse. Organization skills? Diffuse. The moral- do not EVER tell your boss what you think of their writing. Just say you can't wait to buy it when it gets published and leave the heavy hitting for agents. Is this how people get delusional? Absolutely. Do it anyway. Save yourself!)

In real life, Allison Dubois is a psychic medium who works with the police and husband Joe is an aerospace engineer, which makes their viewpoints very different. This clip was posted by CBS, so there's a 0.5 second commercial (really, it's that short, so don't give up), but I thought it was worth the wait. And it is interesting that the producer says here that it was the husband/wife relationship that made him want to do the show. Not the cool cases she solves, not the pyschic dreams. But their unique relationship. That's what I'm trying to show in my query!

Anyhow, diffuse. As in, there are too many motivations for my MC to leave her world and come to ours, but none of them stands out. There's no moment of decison, no leading the reader to see that OF COURSE she has to make this terrible decision. It's hard, and scary, but she has to do it. I realized this when I was trying to explain her motivations succintly in the query plus I have some crit partners who have made some comments that led me to start thinking about it.

I've stopped believing that there is only one way to write this story. There will be versions that feel more mysterious, versions that feel more grounded and explain the world more quickly, and it's up to me to judge which serves the story best. Because the story is there. I just have to let it out. So thank you, query. I'm working on it.

Has your query/synopsis/blurb writing helped you?
Glutton for Punishment?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Teaching Moment

I usually think about 'teaching moments' teaching a moral. For instance, when Nathan and Isaac were playing in our backyard and the giant yellow ball got stuck in the tree and they couldn't get it down, and then we said a prayer and the next baseball Nathan threw up there brought it down. Kapow! Teaching moment about prayer, which we were very glad turned out so nicely;)

What we're reading as a family now.

Isaac had a fever and a headache on Sunday, so I stayed home with him and Nathan took the rest of the family to church. Not sure why, but I decided to teach him a little bit about story structure. So I drew a plot arc for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. We filled in the major events and I taught him terms like 'rising  action' and 'denoument'. We talked about levels of conflict: man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. environment and assigned Harry's conflicts to various categories. We talked about the different people that he meets- family, friends, teachers, community members. We talked about reversals and I drew a character arc for Severus Snape, showing the build up of hatred between Harry and Snape, and how it changes so quickly at the end. Same with Dudley.

Isaac's favorite books- Harry Potter, The Mysterious Benedict Society, and Peter and the Starcatchers series. All very very very good!

Some kinds of bonding leave me cold, like Dec/Jan flag football (literally freezing cold!) but Sunday was so pleasant, sitting with my nine year old and talking about books we've enjoyed. It is a peculiar pleasure to share "Island of the Blue Dolphins" and "Charlotte's Web" and "My Side of the Mountain" with my child and to see the love that he has for these stories. I am proud and I hope that as he gets older we will still talk about books, just like my Mom and I talk about books.

I finished reading aloud "The Cay" to them a few weeks ago and when old Timothy died after shielding Phillip, the blind 'young bahs', during the hurricane with his body, I cried. Not a few sniffles, but "get me some tissues. I'll *sob* try to keep*sob* going." I'm uncomfortable blubbering in front of my kids, but it always happens with these serious books. At least they know that the stories are real to me;)

Now we're reading a 'Peter and the Starcatchers' reader- 'Cave of the Dark Wind'. Nice and light. Next up for us is 'Little House on the Prairie'. It makes me happy to think about them pleading with me to read one more chapter before bedtime. That could be a standard procrastination technique, but I don't think that's all. They would like a glass of water before bed, but they love books.

What part do books play in your family?
Glutton for Punishment?