Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Insecure writer: despair and donuts

In pursuit of short term, fun writing goals this year, I've tried two different things so far, and I'm trying to come up with something different each month.  These different exercises/motivators are to A) keep me writing, of course and also B) help me fight the insecurity, the despair, the temptation to give up because the stories still need so much work. 


The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for Insecure Writers Support Group,
hosted by Alex Cavanaugh and his
excellent team. 

About my YA science fiction, Star Tripped, a couple agents have said "wonderful premise! But not connecting with the characters." (One of them even pointed out why, which I really appreciated). So I made some changes and presented it to my writer's group. Again, similar feedback along the lines of "hmmmn, this has potential, but we're not connecting." Played some more with the first chapter, sent it to a critique partner. She pointed out some of the characterization that didn't work (note to self:  avoid a lot of negativity in first chapters. Negativity is a turn-off)  (Negativity is a way to produce conflict, but maybe not the best way). 

So I've been sitting at my computer for the past few days, scratching my head, poking my character, annoyed at her. "Give us something we can connect to you with!" I get an idea; I toss it around; it doesn't click. I chew my fingernails until another idea comes. Another dud. Really, does this girl have any personality? Do I have any personality? (Yikes! This is where insecurity will lead you).

So then I pick up a really good book and read the first chapter. How did they do it? How did they get me to connect with this character? How did I get hooked? I marvel at the author's brilliance! And then I crawl into a mental corner and sulk because the brilliance does not conduct itself into my writing fingers via those lovely papery published pages. The ideas I have come up with so far are decidedly non-brilliant. 

After a while, I come out of the corner and stop sulking (because it's cramped, in corners; not much of view) and try some different things. Last month I tried writing in a notebook right by my bed the moment I woke up, when my head was still all foggy from sleep. It's surprisingly easy to do this, even for a very decidedly NOT morning person like myself, because it doesn't require any thinking. Really, no thinking. Just spewing. (Maybe our dreams, our subconscious, does all the work?)

I plan to keep doing the morning writing, but I also wanted to try something new for March, too. March is a long way from November and NaNoWriMo, but I think this month I'm going to start my writing days reading a NaNoWriMo pep talk (there are probably at least 50 pep talks archived now) and maybe try something that day's peptalker suggests.  For instance, Chuck Wendig suggests "write donuts in an empty field" You know, as in when you go out to an empty parking lot and drive donuts? (if you don't know, here's a wikipedia entry on it. Wait, Wikipedia doesn't really do it justice; just read Wendig's pep talk and you'll get the idea: it's basically just - go hog wild). 

So anyway, that's my plan for fighting my insecurities this month, and to keep writing. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Top Ten favorite books in the last three years

Putting together this list, I didn't just look at back at my top ten lists at for the last three years. I looked through my Goodreads lists at EVERY book I've read in the past 3 years. That's because I've noticed that some books are so flashy that I fall in love instantly, but they don't have the staying power of other books. The books that made that his list have all continuously popped back into my head, months or even years after I've read them. Some of them I've completely re-read, from cover to cover, and all of them I plan to re-read.

Top Ten favorite books in the last three years is the theme for this week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the Broke and the Bookish blog, for anyone who wants to share about books.

10. His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novak 
His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, #1)
Temeraire has become one of my most beloved dragons, among a very rich playing field of famous dragons like Smaug, Toothless, Ramoth, Maleficent, Draco, Eustace, Saphira, Yevaud, Orma, etc...  He is innocent and wise, deadly and noble, a lover both of books and battle tactics. To top it off, he exists in a Jane Austen meets Master and Commander fantasy version of Regency England and the Napoleonic Wars.

9. Pegasus, byRobin McKinley (next on the list to re-read)
This is a much deeper book than its title might imply. It's a richly developed culture of pegasi, and their complicated relationships with a human kingdom (similar premise to the dragons/humans in Seraphina, see #3).

8. Among Others, by Jo Walton
I just read this one a couple months ago, so it hasn't stood the test of time yet. But I'm pretty sure it will, because not only is a great book, it's also about other great books, including my all time favorite, Lord of the Rings. My last post was all about this book, not a review so much as a happy gushing of favorite things about it. This one is both a Hugo and Nebula award-winner.

7. The Help, Katheryn Stockett (re-read)
The three black maids and the white girl who tells their stories about being "the help" in the 1960's is a thoughtful story, but also wonderfully fun to read.

6. These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner.  (re-read parts)
Titanic in space. Love story. Survival story. Great voice. Smart science fiction. Love story.  Even better than Titanic love story.













5. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Also absolutely funny, sad, hopeful, heart-lifting. 14 year old Junior, leaving the Rez school (but not the Rez itself) to broaden his horizons, is in my heart forever. My favorite quote:

I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And the tribe of cartoonists.

4. Doomsday Book (1992) by Connie Willis
A powerful contrast of two time periods: a plague in futuristic England and the terrible Black Death in 1300's England. A huge cast of characters that all stood out vibrantly, intriguing science fiction and powerful themes. A long book but absolutely absorbing: I easily could have kept reading. This book is also both a Hugo and Nebula award winner.













3. Seraphina, Rachel Hartman  (re-read parts)
 The sheer brilliance of this book is that the dragons break every stereotype but are still completely every stereotype that you love about dragons. Large, fiery, dangerous, gold-horde-ing, Smaugish, they are all that but also 10 times more complex and fascinating. And they can turn into humans. The implications of that! Well! Go see for yourself.  (I also just finished the sequel, Shadow Scale, where I got to visit homeland of the dragons. Words fail me!)

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)

2. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (re-read)
Either I just say one thing about this book; or I endlessly rave about it. I shall spare you. The one thing I shall is: "Can I pleasssssse be kidnapped by Corlath??? Please?"
The Blue Sword (Damar, #1)


1. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (re-read)
I practically wrote a dissertation instead of a review for this one: it was beautiful, daring, a multi-dimensional love story, a wild plot, it hit nerves, it had incredible settings, and absolutely unforgettable characters: Karou and Brimstone especially.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Among Others and an ode to LOTR



I really didn't plan it this way, but I was delighted when I realized that 5 out of the 6 books I've read so far in 2015 all featured diverse main characters!  (Pointe, Illusions of Fate, Among Others, Rain Reign, When Reason Breaks).

I started off the year 2015 with my nose in a book. Yup, that's what I was doing at 12:01 January 1st, and most of the rest of January 1st, too, gobbling up Among Others, by Jo Walton. It's been a couple months now, and this book is still rattling around in the back of my head, making me smile. 


Among Others

As a writer, this book reminded me that our best and truest writing comes from the place that's closest to our hearts, and perhaps all the harder to share, because of that closeness. It's challenged me to dig deeper and share things that I've been too shy to share in my writing. But I think it will be worth it. 

Among Others is a book about family, fairies, boarding school, and books. I'm not sure what it is about English boarding schools that is an automatic draw: Hogwarts is understandable, because it's so magical and imaginative, but it turns out that realistic (and somewhat horrifying!) boarding schools like the one in this book fascinate me, too.  But it was really the main character and her love of books that drew me.  Mori has a disability (#weNeedDiverseBooks) and can't walk (much) without a cane. Her disability separates her from most others, and  her cane ends up playing a surprising part in the story.

Mori basically spends all her time reading, when she's not in class or doing schoolwork. She can't participate in anything else her school has to offer, which is pretty much just sports. But you don't really feel sorry for her. She loves her books, and she's not a bit ashamed to spend all her time reading. She doesn't worry about become a hopeless introvert. She does long for some like-minded friends, but she's not what you'd call a needy or insecure girl, not by a long shot. Her books make her strong. 

As a result of her great passion for books, the books themselves play a role, and almost become characters themselves, in this story! Perhaps most notably, the Lord of the Rings, which happens to be my most favorite of all my favorite books, and Mori's deep and love and respect for this book made her a kindred spirit to me at once.

I had a split personality in high school (I still do, somewhat). Personality #1: a girl who painted her nails a new color (almost) every day; spent (many) afternoons browsing through clothing stores at the mall, or leafing through L.L. Bean and J. Crew clothing catalogs; highlighted her hair with peroxide; and ran on the track and cross country teams and got really competitive about it.

Personality #2: a girl who, when she skipped classes or lunch, could be found in the school library reading or searching for new books to read. And who when wasn't reading, was often sketching characters in the margins of her history notes, or staring off into space daydreaming about the fantasy and science fiction worlds she'd just read. Ages 13 through 15 was when I devoured books like Dune, the Earthsea books and the Lord of the Rings (and many others, but those were the ones that stuck with me most memorably) and ALL of these books are mentioned in this story, and Lord othe Rings gets a special place and a fascinating role... but I can't say exactly how without giving too much away. 

Mori has grown up always seeing (and sometimes in even playing with) fairies in the valleys and abandoned coal works of her native Wales. This is the first story I've read set, at least in part, in Wales. What a fascinating country! I googled maps and sometimes Welsh history while I was reading.

But back to the fairies: the role they play in the story sets it solidly in the magic realism genre, I'm pretty sure. It certainly wasn't a fantasy, and parnormal doesn't fit, either. When Mori's father sends her to an all girl boarding school in England, she is far removed from the fairies and magic she grew up with, and can't relate to anyone at the school (one of the references to the title... living "among others" - though the others might refer to the fairies, too).

The fairies appear on a spectrum from little ugly gnome-like things to tall, beautiful LOTR elvish creatures. They don't play a large role, but they show up just often enough to add a fascinating dimension to the story, and a climax that ties in gloriously with the very beginning of the story.

And a word on the magic, which was unique and subtle and amusing:
At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself....My mother’s shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us. There was a potato knife in the kitchen that Gramma couldn’t use. It was an ordinary enough brown-handled thing, but she’d cut herself with it once, and ever after it wanted more of her blood. If I rummaged through the kitchen drawer, I could feel it brooding. After she died, that faded. Then there were the coffee spoons, rarely used, tiny, a wedding present. They were made of silver, and they knew themselves superior to everything else and special. None of these things did anything. The coffee spoons didn’t stir the coffee without being held or anything. They didn’t have conversations with the sugar tongs about who was the most cherished. I suppose what they really did was physiological. They confirmed the past, they connected everything, they were threads in a tapestry.
Even more so than the fairies and magic, this book is about family: Mori getting to know her newly discovered father and grandfather (Sam!) and three new "aunties" (who are love-to-hate characters almost picked out of some yet-as-undiscovered Jane Austen book). There's also her beloved Welsh Grampar (her other grandfather) and Auntie Teg and her fairy-seeing cat. 

I sincerely hope that English boarding schools these days put doors in bathroom and shower stalls; in the 1970's (the period this book was set) doors and privacy were not permitted. Also, who knew that boarding schools were so loud?? No wonder why Mori spent most of her time in the library. I had a sudden terrible thought while reading this story: the fact that these kids had to suffer through high school cafeterias not just for lunch but for breakfast and dinner, too. Oh the poor dear souls!

But oh the books in this story, oh the books! Truly this story was written as an ode to books and bookworms. (And libraries: “I'll belong to libraries wherever I go. Maybe eventually I'll belong to libraries on other planets.”)

 I loved how Mori blends reality, fantasy and science fiction based on all the books she's read:

I wonder if there will be fairies in space? It's a more possible thought in Clarke's universe than Heinlein's somehow, even though Clarke's en­gineering seems just as substantial. I wonder if it's because he's British? Never mind space, do they even have fairies in America?

(Note to self: revisit a couple Arthur C. Clarke books) (and try some Delany books. And Zelazny).

Every reference to the Lord of the Rings just made my heart sing, and the ending is where books and magic intersected in a breathtaking and stand-up-and-cheer way. A few of my favorite LOTR references:

I am reading The Lord of the Rings. I suddenly wanted to. I almost know it by heart, but I can still sink right into it. I know no other book that is so much like going on a journey. When I put it down to this, I feel as if I am also waiting with Pippin for the echoes of that stone down the well.

"The thing about Tolkien, about The Lord of the Rings, is that it's perfect. It's this whole world, this whole process of immersion, this journey. It's not, I'm pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up. Reading it changes everything.

"Oaks hang onto their leaves all winter, like mallorns, so it's easy to find them.

"Finished LOTR, with the usual sad pang of reaching the end and there being no more of it.

LOTR changed my world, though it's hard to say exactly how. It made my life deeper, somehow... and also broader.  That's what I loved most about Among Others, getting to see how LOTR played a meaningful role in another young girl's life too. 

Someone, please read this book and fall in love with it, so we can talk about our favorite parts together!!! (If you've got a book you have a similar feeling about, tell me in the comments. I'll read yours if you'll read mine!)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What's up: developing the antagonist



What's Up Wednesday is for anyone interested in keeping in touch with other writers, a meme hosted by writing sisters Erin Funk and Jaime Morrow

What I'm reading
Seraphina's sequel, ShadowScale, by Rachel Hartman. Seraphina is in my all-time favorites list, and it's wonderful to be back in this richly developed world with dragons and half dragons and a whole host of new characters. What I love most about these books: everyone is odd. It's a celebration of oddness, out-of-placeness, quirkiness, downright LOL uniqueness.
Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)

Recently finished When Reason Breaks  by Cindy L. Rodriguez which features Emily Dickinson’s poetry as a guide to two girls struggling with depression and anger. Highly recommend!


What I'm writing
I shared the first six chapters of Refuge, my MG fantasy that I'm re-writing, with my CP of 15 years (she's a champ!) - she read the original version of this story, the one that was so far over 100,000 words that I'm not even going to 'fess up how long it was, and how rambling. But the brave dear soul was not only willing to read my re-write, she was excited to! 

She right away caught a major problem though: I'd totally failed to develop my antagonist. (I have two antogonists: one is a human, one is a unicorn. I concentrated on developing my human antagonist but forgot about the other guy).  The unicorn was a generic mu ha ha ha antagonist without any motivation or depth at all, just basically there to mess up the good guys' lives.  It's been so much evil fun developing him. 

What else I've been up to
We celebrated Valentines with the whole family at the Denver Aquarium, and scored a dinner table right next to the giant tank full of giant fish and stingrays, and a mermaid show.  Writer friends, let it be known, my dream house would be a giant aquarium, with glass tube like rooms. (Even the library would have one wall of watery fish-filled glass. The other three walls would be books). 

What works for me
First thing-in-the morning writing exercise/free write.  I am so NOT a morning person, which is why I think free-writing in the morning actually works for me: my brain is still in  a fog, so my subconcious has more free rein, and it comes up with some unfettered off-the-wall stuff. I used this method to develop my antagonist, using these prompts from this great writing tool (thank you, Emily, for sharing it), the Pyramid Approach to Novel Writing by Jess Loury:


A well-written, believable and sympathetic antagonist spells the difference between a toss-away novel and a cinematic novel. Imagine you are your antagonist’s biographer... ask these questions:
• What’s your name? Nickname? 
• Anyone ever tell you that you look like someone famous? 
• Of all your qualities, which are you most proud of? Where do you think youacquired this quality?
• What do people seem to like the least about you? How does it make you feel? 
• Which habit of yours would you most like to change? 
• If someone looked in your bathroom garbage right now, what would they find? 
• What scent do you enjoy the most, and what does it remind you of? 
• If you could go back in time and change one day of your life, what day would it be, and why? 
• What three goals do you want to accomplish in the next year? What challengesdo you have to overcome to reach them? 
• Whom do you love most in this world and why? 
• What scares you?

Looking forward to seeing what works for everyone else this week...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: poetry and parties

Every few years I get on a poetry kick. I don't write it myself, but I enjoy soaking in poems and seeing how the words fit together to make images and rhythms. How they evoke moods and, often, mystery. I love how they say so much, with leaving so much unsaid.

When I was scanning debut books coming out in 2015, When Reason Breaks by Cindy Rodriguez stood out to me because of its promise of connecting Emily Dickinson's poetry to contemporary high school characters (bonus; the two main characters were Latino).

The book completely delivered on its intriguing promise (and deepened my appreciation for Dickinson). I loved seeing teens relating to a 19th century poet as they dealt with the turmoil in their lives. Also, one of my favorite scenes in the book is where one of the girls, dragged along to a party by her friends, finds an empty room and hides there to read a book until she's found by another girl who's also escaping the party scene.

Since this is a Throwback Thursday post, here's a picture of me (on the right) "partying" with my best friend in high school. We went to a few high school parties together, but usually we had more fun heading off on our own, instead of hanging out drinking and smoking.  One of our favorite "parties for two" was heading off camping together.


Here's a little more about the two girls in When Reason Breaks:

Elizabeth was goth and prickly and smart - and I don't usually like angry characters but I liked her because she was so much more than her anger. In an early scene, Elizabeth goes into her new English class ready to judge the teacher. After Mrs. Diaz's impassioned introduction to the power of words and poetry and Emily Dickinson in particular,  Elizabeth thinks:
You impressed me and you amused me. Let’s see how you handle this.
Then she hands in her assignment which she purposefully made as controversial as possible, to test the teacher. That's Elizabeth: testy and distrustful but somehow appealing, too.

Emily, the other main character, was the girl who strives to please everyone and fit in and meet expectations, until it crushes her into depression. You could see how she longed to stay connected with her friends...
Emily focused on Sarah’s hand wrapped around hers, remembering how they used to clasp hands as they sat side by side on the playground swings. They’d see how high they could go without getting out of sync and disconnected. 
... and yet she couldn't handle the pressure of friends anymore, either, on top of the pressure from her parents and school.

 My favorite parts were the scenes with Elizabeth and Emily together. They aren't friends, they hang with different crowds, and they rub each other wrong - but they also get each other too. Here's my favorite scene, where Emily finds a room to hide in, at a party, and read, and Elizabeth happens upon her in her hiding spot and asks her if she's okay.
Elizabeth: “Lying’s the worst. People freak out – I mean, like screaming, punching, crying kind of freak out – when they’re lied to. Like when someone asks, Are you okay? and she says I’m fine. And the person asks, are you sure? And she says yes, leave me alone. Lies, all lies.” 
“You’re right. I lied to you that day in the bathroom,” said Emily. “But you lied to me in the locker room.” 
“Maybe, but let me finish my story. Now, if this girl told the truth, she’d say, “I’m thinking about dropping out of high school and joining the circus because I’m pretty sure shoveling elephant sh*t would be better than sticking around here.” But instead, she lies to make it easy on people. And you know what? It doesn’t matter because they know she’s lying and she still gets labeled the trouble child who needs fixing and everyone becomes focused on her instead of the lie that set her off in the first place.” 
With wide eyes, Emily asked, “Are you okay?” 
“I’m fine.” Elizabeth smiled and sucked hard on her straw. 
“You’re lying,” Emily said with a grin.

“Maybe, but this isn’t about me.”

Emily's depression kind of tiptoed around the story in a way that caught me off gaurd - but at the same time felt genuine, because that's what depression does. It often doesn't have a good, justifiable reason for its presence. It sneaks up on you;  it's secretive and it disguises its destructiveness. 
Compared to others, her life and her problems were pretty ordinary. So why did it all feel like she as in an epic battle? Why did every snarky remark become a festering wound? Why did she always feel like she was pinned to the mat and crushed under their weight?

Elizabeth struggled with a different kind of brokenness. From one her letters to her English teacher, Mrs Diaz:
I knew then something deep down inside of me was broke. It was the tiniest of cracks, like a pebble hitting a windshield on the highway – plink. No big deal, right? Wait a while. The crack will deepen and spread and permanently damaged the once-strong glass. 
So, WWEDW? What Would Emily Dickinson Write? 
Maybe this: “I felt  a funeral, in my Brain. And then a Plank in Reason broke / And I dropped down, and down” 
Did Emily Dickinson pull away from the world because it was easier and safer to hide than face it all? Or did something inside of her crack?

Despite all this, somehow the story managed to stay strong instead of wallowing in darkness. 
Turns out, Dickinson also wrote a lot about life and beauty and joy and love. These are the poems she reads now. “Unable are the Loved to die / For love is immortality…”
I noticed how the two girls share the same initials as Emily Dickinson, but make sure you check out the author’s note at the end to see how all the characters in the story are close mirrors of Emily Dickinson, her family and friends. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Top Ten love stories from the past year

I'm late with my annual love stories post in honor of Valentine's Day! (But better late than never).

The Top Ten Tuesday meme had a love-story related theme last week I missed too, so I hope visitors don't mind if I focus on last week's topic...

These are my top ten favorite love stories read in the past year (my all-time favorite love stories are listed here)
Tristran and Yvaine from Stardust, since none of the love stories below have been made into movies yet! 

10. All Our Yesterdays, by Cristin Terrill.  Em has to go back in time to change something that would save the world, but it also means losing James...and... (spoiler)

9. The Stolen Songbird,  by Danielle Jensen. Cecile's kidnapped and forced to marry a troll prince, Tristan, who isn't too happy about marrying her either. But then... yah, then this story happens.

8. Among Others, by Jo Walton. Crushes at a book group! A science fiction/fantasy book group! I'm not sure if Mori & Wim really fell in love all the way, but it was close enough for me.

7. The Fire Wish,  by Amber Lough. A forbidden love between a jinni, Najwa and a human prince of Baghdad, Kamal... with wishes and deception complicating everything.

6. Ruin and Rising, by Leigh Bardugo. The end of this Russian fantasy world trilogy has kept me coming back to mull over what happened to Mal and Alina and how the Darkling ties into their love story.

5. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. Cath and Levi. Fanfic girl meets farmboy. Sort of. It's way better than that, trust me.

4. Mortal Heart, by Robin LaFevers. A historical fantasy set in late 1400's Brittany, with assassin nun Annith falling in love with not-human Balthazaar. The twists at the end with these two! Whoa.

3. The Winner's Curse, by Marie Rutkoski. Kestrel and Arin. I've read books before about a slave owner falling in love with his/her slave (see #2) but this one turns the tables in an unexpected way.

2. Voice in the Wind, by Francine Rivers. Marcus, a rich Roman searching for pleasure but never finding happiness falls in love with his sister's shy, plain Jewish slave, Hadassah. This one will tear your heart apart.  I've read this story at least 4 times in the past 12 years since I first discovered it; re-read it a few months ago with my daughters.

1. Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor. In this third book of an amazing trilogy, we finally get to see the fulfillment of Akiva's and Karou's love, after a war has torn them apart and made them enemies. It's not just the love story that I love about these books, it's the worlds, the writing, the other characters, the other love stories. I've already re-read this series and plan to re-read again many times!



Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Insecure writer: straight from dreams to writing

 I don't do New Year's resolutions anymore because by March or April I'm all resolutioned out. And then the insecurity kicks in. I've failed with them way too many times. 

 But I do a little better with monthly goals. The great thing with monthly goals is you can reset them each month. Last month I tried a paperclip chain to motivate myself to write more days in a row, because I lose momentum if I let a few days go by without writing. I got to 9 paperclips (9 days) and then life got messy - a daughter with pneumonia, deadlines at work, etc. etc.

The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for Insecure Writers Support Group,
hosted by Alex Cavanaugh and his
excellent team. 
But now it's a new month and time to reset short term goals. No beating myself up because I didn't get a longer paperclip chain. It wasn't a long chain, but it helped for those days. I might try it again. 

This month I started out with something I've been wanting to do for years... but never remembered to actually do (or wasn't motivated enough to try).

Right before bed I read a chapter from Star Tripped, the story I've been querying and getting feedback from agents about needing more characterization. I left a pen and paper on my bed stand. 
When I woke up  I started writing while still in bed. While still half asleep! Right as I came out of a dream (which I couldn't remember, but no matter). Usually the first thing I do in the morning is get a cup of tea, but I even started writing before that. I read somewhere that the best free writing comes when you've just woken up. 

I wrote out a conversation between Cam and Lander on their greatest fears. It was so clunky to start with but then I filled 3 pages with ideas... I went way beyond fears. Those characters took me all over the place. The things in their heads!! (ha ha). I wrote until my hand hurt so bad (and I had to go to the bathroom so bad) I finally had to quit. Maybe only a few sentences of it will actually get used, but those few bits were completely worth it. 

I tried it again Monday morning and got some more suprising character developments. 

Let me emphasize, I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON.  This is not a comfortable exercise for me. I wasn't sure if it would even work with my usual morning brain fog. But in some mysterious way this writing exercise takes advantage of your brain fog... maybe because you aren't thinking clearly yet, you tap into more of your subconscious? Or left over dreams, even if you don't remember them?

However it works, it's a neat writing experience.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Top ten books I can't believe I haven't read yet!

Every once in a while I look through my To-Be-Read (TBR) list on Goodreads and try to "clean it up" or prioritize. My TBR list is currently 390 books! Every year I do catch up with a lot of  older books on my list, but I have to balance them with all the new great books coming out too.

But these have been waiting to be read for so long that I'm going to make a real point of getting at least ten of them read this year. They are a whole mix of genres, but most of them are pretty famous and so they keep coming to my attention one way or another.  I've never read anything by Barbara Kingsolver or George MacDonald or Patricia McWrede, and I know they are great classic authors.

Click on any cover to go to the Goodreads description. This post is a Top Ten Tuesday theme (hosted by the Broke and Bookish blog)


The Poisonwood Bible
The Yada Yada Prayer Group
The Art of Racing in the Rain
The Princess and the Goblin
Tiger's Curse
I Capture the Castle
Dealing with Dragons
The Phantom Tollbooth
Ruby Red
Uglies
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Life of Pi
Pretense
Unspoken
The Falconer
Graceling
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Rendezvous with Rama
A Single Shard
Finnikin of the Rock





I  can't rate thesefrom 1-10, nor could I limit this list to 10 (there's twenty of them showing), but I'll try to limit my text to just ten!

The Poisonwood Bible - famous author, famous book, very controversial: missionaries out to change lives in Africa but sounds like their own lives, or at least perspectives, need changed first.

The Yada Yada Prayer Group - I keep running into people that love this book!

The Art of Racing in the Rain - how could I not yet have read this book written from a dog's perspective??? I love these kinds of books! And its wildly famous and high rated too.

The Princess and the Goblin - my two most FAVORITE authors, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, were deeply influenced by the author, George McDonald. And it's another wildly famous book I've known about forever and its description is right up my ally. Truly mystified why I haven't read it yet.

The Tiger's Curse - this sounds like a beautiful love story and a twist on Beauty and the Beast and I love tigers and it's highly rated and.. and... yeah, must read this one.

I Capture the Castle. Yup, another famous one, and I know I'll love it because I love Dodie Smith's other books!

Dealing with Dragons. Come on, it's dragons!!!! I have to read at least one dragon book a year, and Patricia McWrede is wildly famous. What's taking me so long??

The Phantom Tollbooth. Classic kidlit. Hanging my head in shame. This is as bad as never having read Roald Dahl's books or something.

Life of Pi. Because I really want to see the movie that was out several years ago now but I promised I wouldn't till I read the book!

To Say Nothing of the Dog. Because the first book, Doomsday Book, is on my all-time favorites list and I've heard this one is even better.

What book have you been meaning to read forever???

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Light writing days


What's Up Wednesday is for anyone interested in keeping in touch with other writers, a meme hosted by writing sisters Erin Funk and Jaime Morrow


What I'm reading
While waiting (impatiently) for Seraphina's sequel, ShadowScale, to be out in early March, I'm currently reading When Reason Breaks  by Cindy L. Rodriguez which features Emily Dickinson’s poetry as a guide to two girls struggling with depression and anger. I love the characters and this is a great way to soak up poetry, which I normally don't read much of.
When Reason Breaks

I just finished reading Landline by Rainbow Rowell and deeply enjoyed it. Also recently finished Rain Reign by Anne M. Martin and was surprisingly swept away by this story in the voice of a 5th grader with high functioning autism. 

What I'm writing
I've been layering in more setting details and characterization touches to my MG fantasy set in Alaska.  Setting inspiration has been coming from a surprising source: PBS' "Nature" series with its breathtaking videography. 

I'm also having to return to the opening chapters of my YA science fiction that I've been querying. I've gotten a couple personalized rejections with similar suggestions. With several agents pointing out the same things, I've got to make some changes. They say I have too much going on and not enough characterization in the first 50 pages, so right now I'm doing a reverse outline of everything going on in the first fifty to see where I can simplify things, and then add back in more characterization. To help with characterization, I'm revisiting these thoughtful questions from Writing 21st century fiction, by Donald Maass. 
  • What terrifies you? 
  • What outrages you? 
  • What grieves you?  
  • What heals you? 
  • What did your father teach you that still holds true? 
  • What did you learn in college that’s dead wrong? 
  • What about your faith is painful to admit?  
What else I've been up to
I went downhill skiing for the first time in 11 years! I worried I'd be falling down left and right, but muscle memory must have kicked in, because I was zooming down the slopes right away. I'd forgotten how beautiful the slopes are. I'm not going to wait another 11 years to do this again. It was my 13 year old daughter's first time skiing and she picked it up really fast, though the next day she couldn't believe how sore she was!

What works for me
What gets me through Nanowrimo every November is the rule, "don't skip more than a day." I've noticed I can skip one day with my writing, even two, but if I skip three days in row, I lose my momentum and stall out. What's been working for me lately is to designate some days as "light writing days" - just a half hour of writing, but it's enough so I don't lose my momentum. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: 15 years old, Among Others

I started off the year 2015 with my nose in a book. Yup, that's what I was doing at 12:01 January 1st, and most of the rest of January 1st, too, gobbling up a wonderful book, Among Others by Jo Walton (2012 winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards). The main character in Among Others was 15 and attended an English boarding school that was decidedly NOT a Hogwarts kind of school: the most unmagical of schools, in fact... but Mori brought her magic with her. This book is a great example of the fascinating magical realism genre. It's also a got a main character with a disability, (#weNeedDiverseBooks) and that disability and the cane it required played a fascinating part in the story.

Despite attending a regular public American high school, not an English boarding school, and not needing a cane to walk, I still really identified with Mori... more than most mc's in young adult books. Here's why....

I had a split personality in high school (I still do, somewhat). Personality #1: a girl who painted her nails a new color (almost) every day; spent (many) afternoons browsing through clothing stores at the mall, or leafing through L.L. Bean and J. Crew clothing catalogs; highlighted her hair with peroxide;  and ran on the track and cross country teams and got really competitive about it.
15 year old me with bleached hair
Personality #2: a girl who, when she skipped classes or lunch, could be found in the school library reading or searching for new books to read. And who when wasn't reading, was often sketching characters in the margins of her history notes, or staring off into space daydreaming about the fantasy and science fiction worlds she'd just read. Ages 13 through 15 was when I devoured books like Dune, the Earthsea books and the Lord of the Rings (and many others, but those were the ones that stuck with me most memorably) and these  books, especially Lord of the Rings, play their own fascinating role in Mori's story.

So freaking cool how the books play a role, almost become characters themselves, in this story!

Among Others
Since Mori's personality wasn't split like mine (and she was partially crippled, having to walk with a cane, so she couldn't get involved in as much as I could)... she devoured books at a stunning pace, especially after discovering interlibrary loans:
“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.”   
“Libraries really are wonderful. They're better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”  
“I'll belong to libraries wherever I go. Maybe eventually I'll belong to libraries on other planets.” 
Among Others is a book about family, friends, fairies, boarding school, and books. The fairies fit in that sequence in a very straight-forward way; Mori has grown up always seeing (and sometimes in even playing with) fairies in the valleys and abandoned coal works of her native Wales. This is the first story I've read set, at least in part, in Wales. What a fascinating country! I googled maps and sometimes Welsh history while I was reading.

Mori refuses to live with her mad witch mother any more. Yes, her mother really is a witch, and a pretty evil one, too, by Mori's account - her mother is at least partly responsible for her daughter's death, Mori's twin. Mori lives in a children's home for a while until her father is located. Then her father sends her to an all girl boarding school in England, where she is far removed from the fairies and magic she grew up with, and can't relate to anyone at the school (one of the references to the title... living "among others" - though the others might refer to the fairies, too).

In her loneliness, Mori finds solace in books, but longs to find a few like minded souls (a "karass" - a reference to a group of like minded souls from Kurt Vonnegut's book, Cat's Cradle). Eventually she even tries working a magic spell to help her find a karass - and succeeds - but her use of magic has the unwanted effect of attracting her mother's attention.

The karass that Mori finds wasn't quite what one might expect - but it was perfect! - here's a hint: one of the kindred spirits in her karass makes this comment:
“Bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop.” 
Another member of her karass is Wim (a British nickname for William - LOVE IT!!!)  Wim is judged by others and is surprised that Mori doesn't judge him... it's clear her open-mindedness is related to all the literature she's drenched in. She also has a plethora of insightful comments and observations about life, often framed as questions, which I really liked.
Does it mean that it doesn't matter if it's magic or not, anything you do has power and consequences and affects other people?”
On waiting for God’s plan to unfold:
If I were omnipotent  and  omniscient  I  think  I  could  have  come up  with a better [plan]. Lightning bolts never go out of fashion.
A word on the fairies: they appear on a spectrum from little ugly gnome-like things to tall, beautiful LOTR elvish creatures. They don't play a large role, but they show up just often enough to add a fascinating dimension to the story, and a climax that ties in gloriously with the very beginning of the story.

And a word on the magic, which was unique and subtle and amusing:
At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself....My mother’s shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us. There was a potato knife in the kitchen that Gramma couldn’t use. It was an ordinary enough brown-handled thing, but she’d cut herself with it once, and ever after it wanted more of her blood. If I rummaged through the kitchen drawer, I could feel it brooding. After she died, that faded. Then there were the coffee spoons, rarely used, tiny, a wedding present. They were made of silver, and they knew themselves superior to everything else and special. None of these things did anything. The coffee spoons didn’t stir the coffee without being held or anything. They didn’t have conversations with the sugar tongs about who was the most cherished. I suppose what they really did was physiological. They confirmed the past, they connected everything, they were threads in a tapestry.
(Also loved the reference to how the Christmas ornaments were full of magic, but Mori wasn't sure if the three aunties realized it, but she was fairly sure they knew about the magic in their earrings, and that getting Mori to pierce her ears and wear their earrings would... oops, that's a spoiler, sort of).

In addition to friends and fairies and a very subtle magic, this book is also about family: Mori getting to know her newly discovered father and grandfather (Sam!) and three new "aunties" (who are love-to-hate characters almost picked out of some yet-as-undiscovered Jane Austen book),

There's also her beloved Welsh Grampar (her other grandfather) and Auntie Teg... and memories of her twin sister and the epic battle they fought against their witch mother to keep her from using her magic to control the fairies.

All the characters in this story felt like real people (they probably were real people) and so vivid that I remember all their names very distinctly, even 3 weeks after finishing the story. Most of the lovable characters are book worms (but not all of them, like Auntie Teg and her fairy-seeing cat). I was especially delighted that the librarians become Mori's friends.

Friends, family, fairies... I still need to mention the boarding school and, I'm not yet done mentioning the books. I sincerely hope that English boarding schools these days put doors in bathroom and shower stalls; in the 1970's  doors and privacy were not permitted. Also, who knew that boarding schools were so loud?? No wonder why Mori spent most of her time in the library. I had a sudden terrible thought while reading this story: the fact that these kids had to suffer through high school cafeterias not just for lunch but for breakfast and dinner, too. Oh the poor dear souls!

However, the real life boarding school did have one similarity to Hogwarts: a magical train. Well, sort of magical:
I love the train. Sitting here I feel connected to the last time I sat here, and the train to London too. It is in-between, suspended; and in rapid motion towards and away from, it is also poised between. There's a magic in that, not a magic you can work, a magic that's just there, giving a little colour and exhilaration to everything.
And while I'm at it, I simply must mention the mountains, and Mori's love of maps:
I love the mountains. I love the kind of horizon they make, even in winter. When we went down again, towards Merthyr first and then over the shoulder of the mountain to Aberdare, where Aun­tie Teg walked, once, when she was still in school, it felt like nestling back down in a big quilt. 
I bought a map of Europe, with Germany huge and no Czechoslovakia. I think it must be from the war, or right before...I couldn't resist it…I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But maps are brill.
But oh the books in this story, oh the books! Truly this story was written as an ode to books and bookworms. I especially loved the blend of reality, fantasy and science fiction:
I wonder if there will be fairies in space? It's a more possible thought in Clarke's universe than Heinlein's somehow, even though Clarke's en­gineering seems just as substantial. I wonder if it's because he's British? Never mind space, do they even have fairies in America?
(Note to self: revisit a couple Arthur C. Clarke books) (and try some Delany books. And Zelazny).

Every reference to the Lord of the Rings just made my heart sing, and the ending is where books and magic intersected in a breathtaking and stand-up-and-cheer way. A few of my favorite LOTR references:
I am reading The Lord of the Rings. I suddenly wanted to. I almost know it by heart, but I can still sink right into it. I know no other book that is so much like going on a journey. When I put it down to this, I feel as if I am also waiting with Pippin for the echoes of that stone down the well.
The thing about Tolkien, about The Lord of the Rings, is that it's perfect. It's this whole world, this whole process of immersion, this journey. It's not, I'm pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up. Reading it changes everything. 
Oaks hang onto their leaves all winter, like mallorns, so it's easy to find them. 
Finished  LOTR, with the usual sad pang of reaching  the end and there being no more of it.
LOTR certainly changed my world, though it's hard to say exactly how. It made my life deeper, somehow... and also broader.

I'd love to hear in the comments if there was a book from your early teen days that changed a little bit of your world too, or the way you saw the world...