Natural High: Your First Words

March 31, 2011 at 9:27 am (Writing) (, , , )

After all your brainstorming, all your research and planning and plotting and fretting, there is absolutely nothing in this world quite like the feeling of opening a blank page and setting down the first words of a new project.

Nothing like it.

It’s a natural high, one that makes you wonder why anyone would ever do drugs because this is so much cheaper and less debilitating. Not to mention, you know, legal. You open that blank page, and whether it’s a piece of paper or a Word document, there are entire worlds of potential there. You are the creator, you have ultimate power.

Well, as writers we try to tell ourselves that. Usually the story and characters end up taking over.

But still! From those very first words, you have the potential to captivate your audience. From the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, you can lure them in so thoroughly that they can’t leave your story until it’s done. Those first words are everything, they’re the things that will make an agent read on and maybe want more, make an editor interested, make a browser read more and want to take it home.

It’s amazing.

And it’s terrifying.

Because it’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? Staring at that page, knowing your world and your characters as you do, all of that boundless potential before you, and you need to make it grand. You need to make it wow. It’s not just for the chances of publication and selling at that point- honestly, never worry about that until the first draft is done- but for you. Because these first lines set off the tone of the rest of the book. They’re what make YOU excited to keep going, the things that tell you how you’re doing and what the overall voice is. From the very first words.

There are all sorts of things dedicated to famous first lines in literature. I think even people who haven’t read A Tale of Two Cities can probably spout off most of the best/worst of times spiel. The thing is, though, they don’t remember it just because of the book, or because it’s Charles Dickens; not too many people can pop off the first line of Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit without having the book right there in front of them. It’s because that first line so thoroughly sets the stage for everything that follows, because that first line burns itself into our brains and doesn’t fade. It isn’t just significant, it’s compelling.

Which, again, is terrifying.

Because we want to create something that stands out. We want to create something compelling and captivating. Maybe we don’t want to be stuck shoving our books down hapless required reading lists for generations of students to loathe on principle, but we want to be remembered. When someone is browsing through a bookstore glancing at first pages, we want ours to be the one that stands out, and you do that with the first words.

Obviously It was a dark and stormy night isn’t going to work. You want your first words to be original, to have strength, to not make someone roll their eyes and say “Oh my God, what a cliche” and put it down.

That still leaves a lot of room. Do you start with dialogue? Do you hurtle us right into action? Do we set the scene? Do we present a character? So many possibilities, so many things running through your head as you stare at that blank page, and suddenly it can all seem overwhelming. Take a deep breath. Don’t Panic.

This is your world, your story, and you are the only one who knows how to tell it. So tell it. Take the plunge and spill the ink onto the paper or splash the pixels across the screen and just write.

I got to start a new project yesterday and I’m still over the moon about it. Typing in those first words, even though I’ve known what they were since before I even started the planning, was such a high. Because that means I’ve started! I’m on my way! I have the entire world spread out before me and I’m the one that gets to shape it into words. In a way, I get to play God. How often does that get to happen?

And it starts with those first words.

So take a deep breath.

Don’t panic.

Let those first words spill out.

Then let them carry you all the way through to the last.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Sir Gawain the True, by Gerald Morris

March 29, 2011 at 9:28 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Okay, I’m going to admit to a little gushing here: I adore Gerald Morris. I have been reading his books for what seems like forever. I can’t even count how many times I checked them out from various libraries until I was finally able to buy my own set. The ten books of the Squire’s Tale series can be sorted as MG (Middle Grade) or YA (Young Adult) depending on what bookstore you’re in, but the newer Knights’ Tales series is solidly MG.

And wonderful.

Sir Gawain the True is the third of this new series and revisits one of the main characters from the other series. The classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is retold here with a charming lesson on manners and the importance of keeping promises- and making them carefully. King Arthur firmly believes in courtesy and gallantry, but his knights- including his nephew Gawain- are a little slow to take this to heart. When Gawain rescues a damsel but doesn’t bother to ask her name or accept her tokens of thanks, he finds someone more than willing to teach him that all-important lesson, and he may even find a very good friend along the way.

The tone of these books is amazing, light and fun with a dry wit and pointed commentary that will delight adult readers as well as children. I don’t know what this says about me, but I spent years convinced that Morris was British because of the breed of humor. There’s a lovely balance between the humor and the more serious moments, with a keen sense of the ridiculous in its many forms. Proof?- read the challenges at the castle. I nearly hurt myself laughing, but there really are people like that! Or, for a somewhat sharper observation, read between the parentheses on page 37 (review from an uncorrected advance through NetGalley- finished page numbers may not correspond).

There’s something about the idea of knights that’s a little irresistable. Maybe it’s the shiny metal suits, or the way they bash each other off high-speed horses with pointy sticks (anyone else have Wat from A Knight’s Tale stuck in their head now?), or the chivalry, or the damsels in distress. I played at knights all the time when I was little. Never the damsel in distress, though. I was the girl disguised as a boy to earn my knighthood and go off on grand quests. It’s not just a child’s fascination though. There’s a reason jousts are so well attended at Renaissance Festivals, and it’s not just because the knights are hot rock stars. We never really grow out of our fascination with knights.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or librarian, or just think knights are rock stars, this is a fantastic way to introduce young readers to the Arthurian legends. Aaron Renier’s illustrations are beautiful and fun, spaced well throughout the text, and the writing is fast-paced and light. Think The Princess Bride on a younger scale, with a narrator who admits to cutting out the boring parts. If they get hooked on this, then definitely introduce them to the Squire’s Tale series as they get a little older. If this is your first exposure, each of the Knights’ Tales books stand on their own, so you don’t have to read the others first, but you’ll definitely want to read them after.

Sir Gawain the True, the third book of the Knights’ Tales series by Gerald Morris, available on 18 April 2011. If you ever cheered for the knights racing down the lists, you want to read these books.

Until next time~

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Outlines: Friends or Foes?

March 27, 2011 at 12:20 pm (Writing) (, , , , )

One of the most popular debates in writing- or at least one of the most oft-resurrected ones- is whether or not to outline. The sheer amount of advice out there is staggering. Everyone does it (or doesn’t do it) a different way, for different reasons, and if you’re trying to figure things out before making the jump into your first novel, the truest and most frustrating piece of advice is: try it different ways, see what works for you, and go with that.

This is not a “here’s the right way to do it” post. Think of this as more of a tour through the possiblities of planning a novel. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, and in the end, the only way you’re going to figure out which one is for you is by trying different methods. (Sucks, but if you’re setting yourself up for a lot of work anyway to write a novel, don’t shy away from the beginning stages just because they look scary)

Whether it’s on its own or in conjuction with another method, 95% of writers will put time into brainstorming. This is usually when the idea strikes you, and you start by madly scribbling down everything you can remember before the storm passes. Think of it as fringe bands with a hurricane- the storm will cycle back, but you need to get that first good soaking. Other methods of planning are usually formalized (or organized) versions of this brainstorming, and it will happen quite frequently in both planning and writing.

Pros: This is where the ideas percolate, where you discover new things. Never ever ever be afraid of brainstorming, even if your roommates think you’re staring off into space like a drooling idiot. You know the scientific theory that all the elements of life existed in a primordial stew until BAM! LIFE! ? This is your brainstorming; you are bringing life to the muck.

Cons: It’s easy to get lost in brainstorming.The world you’re creating is so big and exciting, you know everything there is to know about its history, but keep in mind, all those extra details that inform you as the writer are probably never going to get seen by the reader. Don’t get bogged down, and don’t use it as a form of procrastination. There comes a point when you know everything you need to know, and anything else is just delaying that terrifying moment of figuring out the first word.

This is one that’s very popular for journaling or for writing exercises, but there are authors who write their entire novels this way. They brainstorm a bit, then they sit down and just go. Once they get to the end of the first draft, they can go back through to tidy up, tighten the story, check for consistency, add or excise, and all the other things second and third and infinites drafts are for. They write down everything, then sift through the pieces that work.

Pros: This is a fantastic way to find voice, especially in first person works, and can also be very useful in picking the right tense for your story. Most likely this also means you’ve successfully avided the urge to procrastinate. Removing the filter or censor button also allows for things to emerge that you otherwise might not have seen, the way one character feels about another, a hidden event, etc.

Cons:Stream-of-Consciousness isn’t particularly stream-lined. If you go this route, you need to go in understanding that you’ll have a LOT of work to do when the first draft is done. Like, more than the usual lots fs work. The other trap SoC tends to have is that it wanders. You may or may not know where you’re going (depending on your brainstorming) but this method has a way of taking the most circuitous route possible.

Story Map
We used to have to do these for book reports, complete with the diagram that looked like a kickboxing mountain. We drew it out, labeled Exposition, Rising Action, Climax (which made all the boys giggle in high school), and Resolution, and then had to determine the start of each within the story. Everyone’s map of the same book usually came out a little differently.

Pros: Gives you four points (fixed points in time, anyone?) to work towards and lets you fill in between them as you go. You know when you need to start amping it up and when to hit the high note while still leaving room for an ending.

Cons: Maybe it’s only this way for classic literature, but any book I had to story map tended to have really long plains of exposition. You know you need to get from the start of Rising Action, but unless you filled in the foothills, you might not know how to climb to the summit, so you’ll start sliding down the mountain.

Character Map
Some stories are far more about the characters than the plot; plot is just what makes things happen to the characters so they’ll do interesting things. For this kind of story, it can be very useful to create a character map. Here’s where your character starts, here’s how they change along the way, here’s where they end up.

Pros: This lets you focus on the character, which is what you want. You know the growth (or change, at any rate) that you want to happen, so you have a pretty good idea of what needs to happen to create those changes.

Cons: Sometimes those pretty good ideas don’t work out the way you thought they would, so either you have a character who’s changing in a completely different direction, or who’s unrealistically shoved in your original plan. This can put you in a pretty good pickle.

Plot Point
This is sort of another book report option, but remember how you had to hit all the important points in your report? That’s pretty much what this is. You write out a list of all the important things that have to happen and maybe a sentence or two about why they’re important or what needs to be done and then it’s an enormous dot-to-dot puzzle.

Pros: This lends itself to a fairly fluid style. You know the big things so you can let the little things come naturally, and the next dot pretty much always seems a managable distance away. Also lends itself to (slightly) shorter chapters than can keep things moving along.

Cons: Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how in hell people can see pictures in the stars? Sometimes those dots are too scattered to easily connect and you end up with something that’s at best episodic. At worst, you can get seriously stuck.

Roman Numeral Outline
This is the thing you had to turn in before you wrote a term paper in high school or college to “prove” you weren’t putting it off til last minute. Each major idea had a Roman numeral and a heading, then the major points were labeled with capital letters a few spaces indented, then important details with a regular number, then minor details with little letters. Everything was very organized and dissected, theoretically to make the writing just about wording rather than content when we reached that point.

Pros: It’s very hard to get lost when you have it all marked out, and if you know certain details in the brainstorming stage that won’t come to light until late in the draft, this is a great way not to lose them. This also lets you see at a glance if things are more or less balanced.

Cons: These can get very stiff and formulaic, and depending on how detailed the outline is, doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. Outlines this specific can be difficult to change if you have one small surprise with far-rippling consequences. This one often shows up in the writing like cue cards.

Wind Sprints, or Chapter by Chapter
This type of planning actually happens during the draft itself. You plan a little bit, write in a spurt, then plan out the next bit. Repeat ad infinitum for rest of first draft.

Pros:This lets you look at big picture and little picture at the same time. Rather than having to go back and insert clues or foreshadowing, you can add it piece by piece, keep characters consistent, and so on and so forth. You can adapt for new directions the story or characters insist on going, but you don’t feel trapped into anything.

Cons: The spurts can show, and sometimes you sit down to figure out that next sprint and realize there’s a brick wall in the way. You get excited about the spurts and only later realize that some very important characters a/o things got left behind because they simply weren’t in the front of your mind at that point.

Of course, it’s the nature of a first draft to kind of suck no matter what method (if any) you use. The whole point of multiple drafts is to go back and fix everything, to smooth out the plot and sharpen the characters, to drop the hints so we can do a facepalm later, and all the other things that gradually add up to a finished novel.

So, for those of you who are writers, do you plan? Did I forget one? Misrepresent one? Do you have a preferred style? Leave a comment and tell me how!

Until next time~

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Book Review: Slice of Cherry, by Dia Reeves

March 25, 2011 at 10:21 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

The small town of Portero, Texas is a world of doorways, of monstrous creatures, of strange bits of magic, a town where everyone wears black (with the exception of the green-clad heroes of the Mortmaines) and any outsiders are regarded with deep suspicion. Kit and Fancy Cordelle were born and raised in Portero but they might as well be transies; as the daughters of Portero’s own Bonesaw Killer, most people think they belong right there on death row with their daddy.
Most people might be right.
The Cordelle sisters have inherited things from both sides of the family, including their father’s sociopathology and extreme violence. As far as they’re concerned, where their daddy went wrong was in getting caught. When they discover a doorway that could help them hide all evidence, the stage is set for a killing spree of epic proportions- if boys and growing up don’t drive them apart first.

Slice of Cherry, by Dia Reeves, is one of those strange books that I really enjoyed reading, but through the entire process and even after the book is done, I can’t figure out if I actually liked it or not. It wasn’t that I actively disliked it, but that I’m unsure if I actively liked it.

There’s a lot to love. The relationship between the Cordelle sisters is beautifully drawn, starting with the sense of oneness that comes of being ostracized and being close with many of the same outlets. As time goes by, though, other things start to intrude and the relationship grows more complicated. The way Fancy clings to that oneness, to her sense of childhood, makes sense, as does older sister Kit’s burgeoning interest in a wider world. Even the violence that characterizes them, and the very different ways they express it, makes a sort of sense.

Portero is a deliciously bizarre world, one that in some ways seems to fit in very neatly with what we might expect of a small Texas town, and in other ways is just completely off the wall. It’s consistent, and after a while, the wacky lulls you into a calm acceptance of the strange town. The dialect is gorgeous and really sets the atmosphere in place. Fancy’s “happy place” and her dream diary are wonderful tools,, both of which add incredibly disturbing layers to the action and the characters.

I didn’t so much love the Turner brothers. I liked- really liked- that they forced Kit and Fancy’s relationship into a state of change. I enjoyed than Ilan is really the only person to see through Fancy’s baby doll dressed and hair ribbons. For the rest, though, from the inevitable sense of double dating to the fact that they’re the sons of the Bonesaw Killers last victim, it felt very contrived. they have the patent sense of the bizarre that everyone in Portero has, as well as a sense of violence that meshes well with the Cordelle sisters, but even that feels a little forced, or perhaps the natural aspects were just pushed too far.

This book is definitely not for the squeamish or faint of heart. I’m not someone who watches horror films or slasher flicks, which could account for a lot of my mixed feelings for this book, but there’s violence and gore enough for anyone’s macabre side. The sisters develop a rather sick inventiveness in their grisly escapades. While many of these episodes display a certain sense of the appropriate (or at least a twisted kind of justice), some moments were enough to make me shudder and close the book for a while, which is very unusual for me. (My mother used to regale us with surgeries over the dinner table- spaghetti nights were the worst; you figure if you can get through that, you can get through anything).

Even after writing this review, I still can’t decide if I like it or not. But you know? That’s okay. Ambivalence lends its own kind of afterthought, and this is definitely a book that will stick around in my head for a while. For fans of Portero, there’s an earlier book called Bleeding Violet; we briefly meet that main character here but if you haven’t read that first, no worries. Slice of Cherry stands well on its own, rendering that brief moment into an Aha! for those in the know, but it’s not an obstacle for those meeting Portero for the first time.

If you have a strong stomach and a somewhat macabre sense of humor, definitely check this one out. If you still cry when the hunters shoot Bambi’s mother, you might want to look elsewhere.

Until next time~

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The Discipline To Get Things Done

March 23, 2011 at 12:06 am (Writing) (, , , , )

The other day I mentioned that- in addition to math- fanfiction claimed a great deal of credit for turning me from a distracted scribbler to a writer who actually gets things done. To some this may sound strange; after all, isn’t fanfiction written by people who can’t come up with their own worlds and characters? Those poor people who can’t write their own stories, and so have to piggyback on someone else’s success?

Not so much.

I was introduced to fanfiction by a friend who wrote it as a stress relief through pre-law and law school. Some of her stories were silly and funny as anything, some heart-wrenching, and some truly epic tales that were full novels in their own right. They were well-paced, well-plotted, and wonderfully written, but they were still fanfiction- which means there was absolutely no pressure to try to publish past posting them online. There were purely for fun, for stress-relief, for the sake of curiosity.

That’s really what most of fanfiction is: the ultimate “what if”. Yes, there’s some degree of people wanting to put themselves into the story, but most is curiosity. People love the books (or whatever the source material is) so much that they keep thinking about them and wonder what would happen if. What if Prim had gone to the Hunger Games? What if Cassia never looked at the microcard? What if Voldemort had won? Or even something more simple: what if Ron had danced with Hermione at the Yule Ball? They start with a question (or an argument), grow into a train of thought, and then mature into a story so entranced with the original author’s creations that we can’t help but play in their worlds.

On its own, fanfiction might not have much of an effect. Within a community, however, oh holy hell. As soon as you post a story, you have readers- you have feedback. Granted, at least three-quarters of this feedback is absolutely useless as far as constructive critiques go. They’re nice to see, because they’re usually gushing about loving it, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything helpful. then there are the other ones, the reviews that speak very specifically to what works for them and what doesn’t, what they love, the way you write, comments on aspects of story and character. If you have someone step too far ooc (out of character, for the less privileged geeky), or break a basic rule of the world, people are up in arms about it in the reviews. If your story isn’t going anywhere? They’ll let you know. Have an annoyingly perfect character who represents everything you could possibly want to be? Reviewers are not at all shy about calling shenanigans on a Mary Sue.

They also want the rest of the story, they want it now, and they’re not shy about demanding asking for it. THIS was what made fanfiction so invaluable to me. As soon as I posted a chapter, I had people hounding me for the next one. I actually had to write every day to keep up with these bizarre new things called goals. I was posting a chapter about every week- every other week on some of the more complicated ones, or when real life intruded- and if I started slacking off, I had people on my ass about it. It was incredible! I was actually finishing stories, for pretty much the first time ever. Not short stories for class assignments, but novel-length projects.

It created a sense of discipline. I set goals and actively worked to meet them. Before, I had notebooks galore full of started stories that I could never manage to finish before I jumped to a different idea, a different obsession and fascination. It was a lot harder to do that when I’d get daily emails asking me why the next chapter wasn’t up yet.

The more unexpected benefit was a matter of style. Before fanfiction, my writerly voice (I don’t care if it’s not a word, I’m using it anyway) jumped all over the place based on what I was reading or watching or even just the kind of mood I was in. Strangely enough, readers expect this thing called consistency. They allow for how a voice has to change across different projects, but within a single story, they want an identifiable voice. If they don’t feel like they’re getting one, they’ll flat out ask if you’re actually a group writing under a single name. Which…can get kind of embarrasing if you see it more than once.

There have been other benefits to writing fanfiction, too- you have to really study the characters and the world to do them justice, you learn to pay attention to the bigger picture, and (in my case) learn about these bizarre contraptions called chapters- but discipline and style were, for me, the most significant. I know time, experience, reading habits, and supposed maturity have all gone into my growth as a writer as well, but looking back on what I did before fanfiction and what I’ve done since shows a staggering difference. I don’t write it anymore because I’ve been focusing on original ideas, but I still get the what if’s and I have to admit, I really kind of miss it. Not just the writing but the reading- there is some amazing stuff out there.

There’s also a painful amount of crap, but hey, with practice comes improvement.


There are, however, boundaries that should be respected. If you read or write fanfiction, PLEASE DO NOT forward them on the source authors. Yes, fanfiction is a form of flattery, and yes, many of them have said they wrote fanfiction where they were younger, but they are not legally allowed to know it exists. Most publishing contracts require authors to protect their copyrights, of which posted fanfiction is technically a violation, even if you don’t seek any renumeration from it. Most of the time this can balance out in a don’t ask don’t tell situation: if you don’t bring it to the attention of the authors or publishers, they’re not going to actively seek you out. No worries. There’s also a basic respect thing in not telling the author how you think someone else did their idea so much better.

The other piece of that is the fear that something an author writes may be ever-so-slightly similar to a story a well-meaning fan sends them, even if the author never read the story, and grievous trouble can ensue. Just…don’t do it, y’all. Be happy with your fan base online, acknowledge the source material, but leave the author of it.

Still, fanfiction is an amazing way to practice your writing, to try out new techniques, or even just experiment. The feedback is helpful (well, some of it), and the simple fact of getting things written on a regular basis, creating that sense of discipline, is invaluable.

It certainly was for me.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Princess series, by Jessica Day George

March 21, 2011 at 9:17 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Fairy tales have been told and retold, adapted to different places and times, even different worlds, but every now and then, we’re lucky enough to stumble upon versions that are truly fantastic, that take the original fairy tale, respect it in every eay, and yet somehow manage to make it their own. Jessica Day George‘s Princess series falls into this category.

In Princess of the Midnight Ball, we’re introduced to a young soldier named Galen Werner, a bit adrift after the war that has defined his life finally ends. In search of work, he ventures to the capital of Westfalin, where his uncle is the head gardener of the extravagant Queen’s Garden. It seems, however, that all is not well within the palace. Every night, despite being locked into their rooms, the twelve princesses emerge in the morning with their dancing slippers worn straight through. The king’s offer to marry one of his daughters to whoever solves the mystery brings princes in from all across the Ionian continent. Then the deaths begin, and Galen finds himself pitted against an ancient magic to protect the princesses he serves and, in one case, loves.

In its sequel, Princess of Glass, ties between the Ionian countries have been strained by the deaths of so many princes, even after the mystery has been solved and Westfalin formally absolved of any guilt in the deaths. To foster accord and peace, a grand exchange of royal children is planned to arrange fresh marriages, friendships, and treaties. Poppy, sarcastic and sharp with less tact and more unladylike habits than her father could wish, is sent to Breton to stay with her mother’s cousins. Though she loathes dancing after the nightly terror of dancing for the King Under Stone, she may have to take to the dance floor to help solve the mystery of a hapless maid with beautiful glass slippers and the dark spells that make every male fall in love with her.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses has always been one of my favorite stories, and Cinderella of course is a classic, but Jessica Day George makes these stories uniquely hers. The details of life in this more or less Renaissance Europe are beautiful and the characters very real. Though we all know basically how the stories end, we’re still holding our breaths to make sure everything will turn out right for the characters we’ve come to love and cheer for.

Different version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses have different reasons for why the princesses dance all night every night. In some, they’re under a spell to make them cold and indifferent. In some, they’re simply selfish. In others, there’s a wager, in others it’s all fun and games, and in yet others it’s a punishment. I love that in this version, they’re paying the debt of someone else’s bad bargain. They feel each new burden most keenly, but their strength in supporting each other, in seeing the debt paid, is inspiring. The bruise-like colors of the world of King Under Stone are haunting, withering, so it’s a joy to be able to see the brighter pockets- like bouquets of flowers with knitted ties.

And the part of me that was in heaven working in a craft store keeps giggling and clapping her hands at how essential knitting is to both stories in these re-imaginings- complete with knitting patterns in the back.

In this version of Cinderella, there’s no wicked stepmother or ugly stepsisters. Instead, there’s a darkly benevolent godmother who dotes on a rich girl turned disaster maid and offers her the chance to win the hand of the visiting prince of Danelaw. Glass is so often used as a symbol of clarity and truth; I love that here we get to see its opposite, that it can distort, that we can see only what we wish to see. The physical similarities of the three girls, the way they can stand as reflections of each other, should create confusion, but instead serves to bring their personalities into greater relief.

A little while ago, Jessica Day George hinted on Twitter that she was working on a chapter of Princess of the Something Something and I just about died. Even without knowing which sister (personally I’m hoping for Daisy in Venenzia) or which fairy tale (so many to wonder about!), I got so excited I could hardly see straight. No word on release date- I’d gues 2012 at the earliest- but just the fact that there will be more makes me a very happy kitty.

If you love fairy tales but haven’t read these books, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. They’re available in ebook and hardcover; Princess of the Midnight Ball is also available in paperback, with Princess of Glass to follow this summer. Do not miss out on these wonderful re-imaginings.

Until next time~

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If, And, Then- How Math Made Me A Better Writer

March 19, 2011 at 9:09 am (Writing) (, , , , )

I loathe math. Pretty much always have. I oblige necessity willingly enough with retail math or I-have-to-build-a-set-that-won’t-collapse geometry, and I have a strange fascination with the Fibonacci number sequence that helps stave off panic attacks, but otherwise my feelings on the subject range from indifference to sheer and utter detestation.

Which really makes it suck, given that I have to credit it for a large part of how a chronic scribbler actually became a writer who finished stories that made sense. The other biggest part was fanfiction, but that’s for another time.

When I was in sixth grade, my reading and writing teacher- an absolutely amazing man- kept telling me that I needed to plan my stories. Every time we turned in an assignment, he’d tell me the same thing: the characters were good, the writing was good (you know, for a ten-year-old), but the imagination of the story couldn’t make up for the fact that it didn’t go anywhere. I sat down with the characters in my head and words poured out. They meandered horrendously. I started out well enough and I’d eventually (usually) find an ending, but getting from one to the other was like following a weaving drunk.

He found a better way to say that to the ten-year-old.

To my brain, though, that just wasn’t what a story was. To me, they were just written down versions of the make-believe I played with my neighbors. We came up with characters (Nick was always either a scientist or velociraptor, occasionally a a magician; Erica was usually a princess; and I was always a warrior a/o magician), as well as some basic world rules, and then we just went with it. Each game would sprawl across days or even weeks until we either found a resolution or got bored and started a different story. For me, that’s what writing was, only without the costumes and bamboo sticks.

It wasn’t until high school that it changed. I’d been working on some math homework right after school, and then my friends and I started rehearsing an ensemble piece for Districts (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, if anyone’s curious). The homework must have still been in my head because as we were working on motivations and actions, the pattern of “if, and, then” came out of my mouth. I know it’s used in debate, logic, and philosophy, as well as the sciences, but I always think of it as a math demon.

Basically, it’s proving a point using two examples with the same result. For example: IF x+4=7, AND 4x=12, THEN x=3; on its own, either equation has multiple possible solutions. In the first, x could equal 3 or -11. In the second it could be either 3 or -3. With both equations together, we know for a fact that x=3. Somehow (and I’m still not sure how), this got translated into both theatre and writing. IF a character has this personality AND this event happens THEN he/she will react in a certain way.

I’d learned the secret of character growth, of giving them believable reasons to do things.

For a character to grow, of course, things have to happen to them, and if you want them to grow in a certain way, things have to happen in a specific order. Suddenly, A PLOT! The next rehearsal-free day, I went back to my middle school and squeezed the stuffing out of Dr. Carroll because I finally understood what he’d been trying to tell me. I still didn’t outline- outlines were, after all, an element of research papers, and therefore to be loathed- but I’d have a page or two where I told the story like I would for an extended book report where we had to tell the ending in order to convince the teacher that we’d read the whole thing.

Flash forward a couple of years to chemistry- specifically stoichiometry. Balancing chemical equations. I hope my chem teacher never reads this, because I had two levels of that class (honors and AP) and I can’t actually remember why stoichiometry is done, or how. Much shame on me (though, in my defense, I haven’t had a science class in almost eight years). What I do remember is, like math, whatever you do to one side of the equation, you have to do to the other. If you multiply by 2 on one side, you have to multiply by 2 on the other.

Now, this might seem like a strange thing to translate into writing, but it got me to thinking about balance. As I did my little story point bulletins, and as I wrote the stories, I realized that nothing was balanced. I had short, intense spurts where a lot of things were happening, bookended by long stretches where not much was happening. It wasn’t as simple as remembering to multiply by 2 on both sides, but paying attention to how things balanced helped me smooth out my overall story arcs.

Also in chemistry (and US history, as a matter of fact), we had to do book notes on every chapter. This was during my two years of Really Horrible Hand Problems, when I literally couldn’t hold a pen or type without severe pain and muscle spasms (those two years sucked, by the way). My amazing mother spent a lot of time working on homework with me, which is when we discovered that my brain works through writing things down, that’s how I figure things out. We also learned that everyone outlines in a different way. Trying to dictate the notes drove us both crazy, so we finally gave up, she wrote her own outlines, and I promised to read each chapter at least twice before the tests. But- that process, the result of that frustration, taught me a lot about outlines, about structure, and how they could combine with plot points and balance.

I made another visit to Dr. Carroll the day that all finally came together in my head.

I’m an outliner now. I plot things out, I look for the balance, I make sure I know more or less where I’m going. Things still surprise me, or things get changed because they don’t balance fleshed out the way they did as skeletons, or after the outlines are done I get fresh ideas, or whatever. They’re flexible, certainly not set in stone. Even when I change things, though, I still have a guide, something to tell me if I’m getting too far off track, that reminds me constantly of the final scene that all the rest of the book is reaching for.

I’d love to say that most of my writing skills came from my English classes, but as much as I loved them, what I took from those classes was a love of some books, a hatred for others, and the profound certainty that authors don’t mean to do even half of what English teachers ascribe to them. (Proof? I have a clockwork story with twelve chapters- complete accident. A friend had to point it out to me.) No, where most of the foundation of my writing took shape was in math and science, the subjects I struggled with and sometimes (usually) hated, but nonetheless taught me a great deal my instructors never intended.

IF you learn something interesting, AND you learn to apply it, THEN your entire life can change.

So what do you do?

Until next time~

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Book Review: Matched, by Ally Condie

March 17, 2011 at 11:08 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Cassia Reyes has never known a world of uncertainty, never known a world of disease or despair. The Society has eradicated all such concerns, leaving a happy, productive populace that lives free of ear, disease, and danger until the age of eighty, and then die with dignity in the arms of their families. At seventeen, they are Matched with their ideal genetic mate, nearly always a stranger from another City of Province, with whom they will raise children and spend the rest of their lives.
Cassia is shocked- and thrilled- when she’s Matched with her best friend Xander, but when she tries to access the information given her by the Society, a different face appears: Ky Markham, another friend, one who excels in appearing exactly average, one who hides in plain sight, someone who can do what no one else in the Society can:
create. Now Cassia will learn to wonder, to question, to understand…to dream…and nothing will ever be the same.

This was actually my second time reading this book. I got an advance through work back in late September and just devoured it. I was captivated by the imagery and the easy lyricism, by the oh-so-delicate and fragile journey Cassia makes within herself. Almost six months later, re-reading it with an eye towards a review, I loved it even more.

Poetry is a driving theme through the book, the notion of taking words and making them your own, but it isn’t found only within the lines of Dylan Thomas or Alfred Lord Tennyson, or even within the spare, taut stanzas that belong to Ky. Cassia may have a sorter’s soul- with a sorter’s attention to detail- but she has a poet’s fascination with language. The images are gorgeously wrought, whether she’s trying to capture the mutable nature of Ky’s eyes or something as simple and lovely as a cottonwood seed.

Though we have such a short time with him as a physical presence, Cassia’s grandfather is a figure of profound influence. His love of poetry sparks Cassia’s; his sorrow over its loss is palpable, a dignified grief that gently demands of Cassia the strength to trust her own words- advice that spills far beyond the arrangement of copied sentiments into a letter. “She whispered, sang them,” he says of his mother and the millions of poems that existed before she had to help choose only one hundred of them to survive, “and I tried to remember them after she had gone.” He knows what it is missing, and in Cassia he sees the strength that can in some measure reclaimed it- if she can recognize it within herself.

The drive, the joy, the need to create is stunning, a summary of everything we try to achieve no matter the medium. Even something so simple as learning to take your hand and create the elegant shape of a letter. It isn’t just Ky’s sketches of the stolen fragments of forgotten poems. It isn’t even confined to something physical. The need to create a life is just as strong, and just as true.

Cassia’s character is so beautifully defined by her family, all of them rebels in their own, quiet way. Hers isn’t the only defiance, just the one being measured, but they all have consequences that ripple through to others. By watching her parents, her grandfather, Cassia learns about the kind of defiance born of love, and the kind born of longing, even the kind that takes the form of obedience. She’s caught in so many ways, her eyes suddenly open to so many new- and often terrifying- things that she had to make a conscious choice “before the chance to glimpse what was lost distracted me from what must be found”.

One of the most powerful things that cycles through the story is the question of love. Does it matter why you noticed someone if the love is real? Does that reason taint it in some way? “Is falling in love with someone’s story the same thing as falling in love with the person himself?” How can people take opposite actions for love of the same thing? And there aren’t answers, can never really be answers, because they’re the same questions we’ve been struggling with for centuries.

Even more than love, even more than the need to create, the matter of choice dominates this book. The desire to choose, the freedom and ability to choose, to be. It doesn’t even matter if our choice would be exactly the same as what was chosen for us; what matters is that we should be the only ones to make those choices. Even when it brings pain and uncertainty, even when the life we choose is so much harder than what we could have been given. The choice is what’s essential.

As with any stunningly wrought conflict, my heart breaks for those accidentally caught up in it, those hurt or even shattered by things so far beyond them they may not even recognize it. It just makes it so much harder when they’re genuinely good people that you want to cheer for. People get caught in the crossfire; that we feel as deeply for them as we do for Cassia is both astonishing and astounding.

This is easily one of my favorite books of all time, one that stays with me long after the book is closed and done. It isn’t just the story or the characters. Cassia’s poetry, the poet’s soul she doesn’t even realize she posseses, it haunting. It lingers like an old love song through an open window, the notes hovering in the stll night as every thought tries to discern if the nostalgia grows from memory or hope.

This book is, in a word, brilliant.

Interested in an autographed copy? Courtesy of the amazing Beth Revis, author of Across the Universe, Matched is one of five autographed books you can win. Contest ends March 21st, so be sure to check it out here.

Matched, by Ally Condie. Check it out.
Until next time~

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The Write Place

March 15, 2011 at 10:24 am (Writing) (, , , )

One of my long-standing goals in life is to eventually own a house with two completely extra rooms, rooms that will never need to be converted to guest space, children’s bedrooms, storage, what have you. Two rooms that will be my domain. One of these will become a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, comfy chairs and a couch, good light, and- ideally, but not a dealbreaker- a deeply cushioned window seat perfect for curling up with a book and a cat.

The other room is going to be an office, with a comfortable chair, a desk arranged in just the right way, the various electronics that I actually need (namely a CD player or iPod), places to tack up all the random notes and images I collect over the course of any given day, the pictures that are awkward to copy over into the composition books, a place to store my formidable array of writing utensils (I admit it, I’m a major pen junkie; I color code my notes and everything)…Most importantly, a place where I can close the door and shut out all the distractions of the rest of the house.

For now, I just go to Chick-fil-A. It’s honestly just a coincidence that it’s the same place as Storytime- I’ve been doing Storytime for a little over a year and I’ve been writing there for three years. For one thing, I have deep and abiding love for the food, and the fact that they have Cherry Coke on tap. Cherry Coke is my drug of choice. All the rest of the week, I am a good girl and drink the zero sodas, just so I can have my free refills at CFA once a week without the heaping side serving of guilt. It’s a popular place and the lunch rush lasts for a few hours, so I always keep an eye on the line and the number of available tables, and if I’ve already finished my meal and they’re packed to the point of needing the booth I’m occupying, I’ll go ahead and leave so they’re not losing business.

I don’t know if this is a business practice of CFA in general or if it’s pretty much this location, but they’re ridiculously welcoming of the crazy girl who sits alone in a booth for hours at a time (and occasionally brings a small stuffed penguin to serve as paperweight, mascot, and stress toy all in one). We know each other’s names, they know my order, they ask how the writing is going or what book I’m reading that day. Once I put the earbuds in, they swing by if my cup is topless at the end of the table, but otherwise leave me alone to concentrate.

It’s brilliant.

When I try to write at home, my ADD goes crazy with the number of distractions all around me. There are so many books to read! Or the TV is visible from the dining room table (my makeshift office, because my brother accuses me of being anti-social and whines if I try to clear off my desk in my bedroom), and all too often I get absorbed in the movie that’s just supposed to be on for background noise. And the kitchen is right in front of me, full of snacky type food that seems so light and harmless until you tally it up at the end of the day and realize- holy hell!- just how much you’ve eaten. Or the craft projects that have been neglected. Or the antics of the cats coked out on ‘nip. Or the equally ADD older brother/roommate running around like a bored five-year-old in a desperate search for entertainment. Or the room that really needs to be cleaned, or the laundry/dishes/bathroom that needs to be done.

And oh, dear God, the internet.

But I leave the house, and all of that goes away. I take exactly one book with me (or my nook, but I still limit myself to just one open title), unless it’s actually a reference for the day’s writing. I order my meal, stake out my preferred booth (the one with the power outlet; also, it’s positioned in such a way that it doesn’t matter if I forget I’m wearing a skirt. Very important. Southern I am, belle I’m not), and read while I’m eating. Finger food+ writing= ewwww. Then, when I’m done, I get out everything I need. Notebooks with outlines, characters, notes, research, and Very Bad Maps? Check. Color-coding pens? Check. iPod? Very necessary check- I am useless without a soundtrack. Filled drink? Check. Computer? Check. I used to write out everything long hand, but between all the extra time it took and the medical-type hand problems that left me whimpering with pain, the laptop turned out to be a much better personal choice for me. I just disable the wireless so I can’t get myself in trouble.

And then?

I write.

Some days the words are flowing; some days they’re not, I have to fight for every word, and I know a number of them are getting rewritten later no matter what. Whether it’s an on day or an off day, there are going to be places where I have to take a step back and figure some things out. It might be the right way to phrase something. It might be the best way to bridge two parts of the outlines. Every now and then, I’ll run across something completely unexpected and have to decide if I want to run with it or yank it back to the outline. I almost aways run with it- about 90% of the time I end up loving it, and for the other 10%, it’s a lot easier to rewrite it to the outline than to try and reclaim that Really Cool Idea you passed on. So, while I’m staring off into space, petting the mascot (he’s a very soft penguin), and letting the words or ideas fall into place, I people watch.

Also brilliant.

I love to people watch. I’m not sure if it flourished first in writing or in theatre (my background is in both), or if it sprang from both simultaneously, but people watching is amazing. It’s great exercise, actually. You pick up on quirks. You learn how to give a snapshot introduction (also good for incident reports when people try to steal). You watch the interactions between people and try to guess their relationships, their history. You make up a background for someone based entirely off what they’re wearing or doing. You snicker over the people who order a huge, deep-fried meal, ice cream, and a Diet Coke. And slowly, those exercises start reflecting in your writing.

Then, about the time I’ve had my fill of other people, the words or the ideas have sorted themselves out and I can get back into the groove. Some days I can get a couple thousand words done and I’m grateful. Other days I can slam out an entire chapter and I’m exhausted brain dead giddy. When I’m done for the day, I get home, and I can play on the intertubes guilt-free.

Well, at least until I look at the dishes.

Or the laundry.

Or the…

Heh. That’s what the other day off each week is for.

For those of you who are writers, where is your best place to write? What’s your routine? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Until next time~

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Book Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

March 13, 2011 at 12:35 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Five factions form the basis of society: Abnegation, dedicated to selflessness; Amity, dedicated to kindness; Candor, dedicated to honesty; Dauntless, dedicated to courage; and Erudite, dedicated to knowledge. Five factions, five ways of life, for outside the faction, there is nothing. Your faction determines everything, the jobs you do, the way you eat, even how you dress and how you think.
Beatrice knows she doesn’t belong in Abnegation, the faction in which she was rasied, but she isn’t really sure where she does belong. She astonishes herself as much as anyone when she chooses to enter the brutal, even lethal initiation into Dauntless, but Abnegation is more a part of her than she thinks, and selflessness can be its own kind of bravery. She’ll need all the courage she can find; there is trouble brewing within the factions, and courage alone won’t be enough to stop what’s coming.

I maybe kind of squealed when I saw this ARC come into the store. I was already crazy looking forward to it just from the description in our computer system, and then to actually get my hands on it two months early? *swoon* And I knew- KNEW- it was a mistake to start reading it right before work. Every time I had to put it away in the locker was infuriating- if I was ever going to call out because I was too caught up in a book to move ┬áthink ┬ábe civil , this would have been it. I wanted to lose myself within the (absolutely gorgeous) cover and devour it in one sitting; that I couldn’t was almost physically painful.

I’m in love with the entire concept. The way people divide themselves, and are divided by others, fascinates me, and is also significant throughout all of history. The idea of a society spitting itself into factions by virtue just raises so many questions and possibilities and- in my mind one of the best things an author can provoke in a reader- what if’s. If the individual factions aren’t all drawn with the same exquisite sense of clarity, with all the fascinating shades of grey between the fault and the virtue, perhaps that’s to be expected given the limited contact Beatrice as the narrator has with them. It would have been nice to see more of a range within the other factions, but I think (hope?) that’s something we’ll get to see in the future.

Beatrice- or Tris, as she renames herself within Dauntless- is truly an exceptional narrator. Once I read her description of Abnegation life- a good life, with good people, a life she can genuinely admire but to which she can never really belong- I was hooked. Tris is very aware of her shortcomings, not in a morbid or self-pitying way, but in a candid appraisal of who and what she is. She learns and grows and develops, but even with the new realizations, there’s a sense of rightness as the pieces fit in place with the parts of her already present. She sees people very clearly, which can be as painful as it is helpful. This clarity, this precision, allows for some stunning, gorgeous moments when people manage to surprise her, whatever the result. It’s a relief to learn with her that who we were doesn’t have to be completely excised from who we want to be.

Every virtue is its own vice, an idea played out beautifully through this book. I love how clearly we get to see this. The darker aspects of each faction are easy to fall into, less easy to notice until the patterns have already been set. It’s plain to see that things began with the best of motives, but over time the latent poisons of humanity have seeped in to repeat the habits of millenia. Dauntless was meant to be bravery, the courage to defend, but has become instead a reckless, cruel abuse that systematically batters out the qualities that could redeem the faction into the true strength it used to have. I look forward to seeing how these realizations play out against the rest of what has to happen.

Some things that I so dearly enjoyed are almost impossible to talk about without giving things away…Let’s see, what’s a safe way to approach these… I love Four; I want one of my very own, endearing vulnerabilities, moody issues, and all. Just…*wants*. I love the tattoos, not just the fact and impulse of them, but all the different meanings they can (and do) have. And I love the pain. That sounds like such an odd thing to say, and I only partially mean it in a physical sense (I wasn’t kidding when I said the training was brutal), but some of the things Tris has to do and survive are shattering. Absolutely heart-breaking. If I’d reached some of these parts while I was still on break at work, there would have been much swearing involved, and quite possibly an extra hour and a half or so tacked onto my break (accidentally, I swear!).

The one thing that nagged at me through the entire book- other than the wish to see more range in the other factions- was a sense of time. I had none. I have absolutely no idea how much time passes in the course of the story. I’m assuming several weeks or months, and at one point it actually sounds like a full year has gone by which in no way feels right. The nebulous sense of time genuinely bothers me, perhaps because some things will have more of an impact if we know the time involved. Some things fester, some things burst unexpectedly, and not being able to place those within the context of growth kept throwing me off.

I know my dreams tonight are going to be full of factions and terrifying tasks and a world on the verge of shattering, because that’s what amazing books do to me. They grab hold of me, don’t let go for anything, and I am a willing captive.

Divergent, by Veronica Roth, available 3 May 2011- put it on your list NOW. You may hate me when you get to the end because now we have to wait forever at least a year for the next one, but this book is too good to put off.

Until next time~

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