Sunday, October 31, 2010

NaNoWriMo - I'll be back in December

Before I sign off for a month, I have few awards I've been hordeing, and I need to say thanks and spread the love. But first, a few words on my November plans - at midnight tonight I will be starting my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project, a YA fantasy called A Handful of Scars. This will be my fourth year participating in NaNoWriMo and hopefully my third "win" - if I can produce 50,000 words in 30 days!

I am so excited! This is seriously my favorite time of year. This month is intense, but AMAZING! If you're curious to see what intense pressure brings out in your writing you've got to try NaNoWriMo (in my case, about half of what I write gets trashed, but the other half - WOW!) And then, for a reward when I finish up on Nov. 30 (hopefully), I get to dive into the Christmas season - my second most favorite time of the year.

My strategies for keeping up with the daily word counts, in previous years, is... staying up an extra hour every night and then writing pretty much all day on the weekends (my kids get away with MURDER during November. The junk food I let them eat! And I let them watch WAY too much TV and movies). I've also found writing motivation tools like Write or Die are very helpful - and this year I have a local friend participating as well, so we plan to get together and have "word wars" (who writes the most words in a given period of time, we like to work in thirty minute intervals).

I won't be blogging at all during November, so I encourge you instead of leaving a comment on this post, to skip over to some of the blogs I've listed below and comment on their posts.

I won't admit how long ago, but Stina at Seeing Creative gave me the Beautiful Blogger award. Stina's blog is has a series called Cool Links every Friday that will keep you busy with all sorts of helpful writing advice, plus she's an amazing photographer and provides lots of tips for seeing creatively for photos (and writing).

Susan Fields gave me the Happiness award
Medeia Sharif gave me the Who's Awesome Award
Laurel at Laurel's Leaves and Quinn at Seeing, Dreaming, Writing gave me the One Lovely Blog award
Joanne at a ZigZag Road gave me the Sweet Friends award

These are all fellow writers and excellent bloggers with all sorts of helpful and fun posts. If you haven't discovered them yet, you are missing out.

I'm passing the awards on to some other great blogs that I enjoy on a regular basis - and all of these bloggers that I mention are just wonderful about returning comments, too.

I didn't post pictures of all the awards, 'cause see, I'm being tricky, I'm making you go visit other blogs to find them - because the blogs are worth visiting. Go forth and choose your favorite award:

Pick up the Beautiful Blogger award at Stina'a blog
Pick up the Happiness award at Susan's blog
Pick up the One Lovely Blog award at Laurel's blog or at Quinn's
Pick up the Who's Awesome award at Medeia's blog
Pick up the Sweet Friends award at Joanne's blog

That's all for now and I will catch-up with you all in Decemeber. Wish me luck with the 50,000 new words!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Men ask for directions (and other signs of the apocalypse)

Which stupendously popular middle grade author uses the funniest chapter titles?

"Man ask for directions (and other signs of the apocalypse)" is a chapter title from The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan. Just one of many amusing concoctions that entice you to read one more chapter late at night. The Red Pyramid is the first book in his new series, switching from the Greek collection of gods in the Percy Jackson series to the ancient Egyptian set of psychos. I mean gods.

While the new cast of gods and mythic creatures is probably less familiar to most readers, there are still a lot of familiar elements: a pair of kids accompanied by a not-quite-human sidekick, trotting around the globe to various fascinating places (Paris, Cairo, Washington DC, Phoenix) and being pursued by various frightful monsters. And also, lots more of the humor we loved in the Percy Jackson series.

For instance:
Carter pulled out several lengths of brown twine, a small ebony cat statue, and thick roll of paper. No, not paper. Papyrus. I remembered Dad explaining how the Egyptians made it from a river plant because they never invented paper. The stuff was thick and rough, it made me wonder if the poor Egyptians had had to use toilet papyrus. If so, no wonder they walked sideways.
Our pair of heroes in the Red Pyramid are Carter and his sister, Sadie. They've been raised separately, but are thrown together in a quest to find their father after his rather explosive disappearance at a museum early on in the story. Carter is 14 and a couple years older than Sadie, but she has more than enough attitude to hold her own with him. The book alternates between their points of view, and they have different enough "voices" to be distinct (and quite quarrelsome). Sadie was raised in London, and has some delightfully British habits and mannerisms, and Carter is basically American, though he's been dragged all over the world by his archaeologist father, and as a result he's an Egyptology nerd. To make the sibling rivalry a little more interesting, Sadie takes after her white mother, and Carter takes after his African-American father. Here's just a sample of how Riordan captures the voice of the two siblings, and the tension between them:
I’d been to the British Museum before. In fact I’ve been in more museums than I like to admit - it makes me sound like a total geek.

[That’s Sadie in the background, yelling that I am a total geek. Thanks, Sis]

Anyway, the museum was closed and completely dark, but the curator and two security guards were waiting for us on the front steps.

“Dr Kane!” The Curator was a greasy little dude in a cheap suit. I’d seen mummies with more hair and better teeth. He shook my dad’s hand like he was meeting a rock star. “Your last paper on Imhotep - brilliant! I don’t know how you translated those spells!”

“Im-ho-who?” Sadie muttered to me.

“Imhotep,” I said. “High priest architect. Some say he was a magician. Designed the first step pyramid. You know.”

“Don’t know,” Sadie said. “Don’t care. But thanks.”

The basic plot is our heros must team up with an Eygtian goddess, Bast, to find their father and along the way also save the world from the destructive plans of another god, Set. In the process, Carter gets googly-eyed over a beautiful Egpytian magician, Zia, and Sadie - well, Sadie has the misfortune of having the hots for the god of the underworld, Anubis (yeah, it's a long shot). The plot also meanders a bit at times as the author tries to tie in various other ancient Egpytian myths, but he did the same thing frequently in the Percy Jackson series and still kept us entertained.

One thing that I think was overdone, though, were all the dream sequences, where either Carter or Sadie's soul, or ba, would travel outside of their body and convienently get to overhear critical conversations between other characters. Okay, Riordan used that technique with Percy quite a bit, too, but maybe he needs to find a new technique: this one is feeling too overdone.

However, here's a couple things that really stood out to me in this book, in a way that I haven't yet seen in the Percy books. There were some lyric-ly beautiful descriptions, such as this description of the sky goddess Nut:

... her skin was dark blue, covered with stars. I don’t mean painted stars. She had the entire cosmos living on her skin: gleaming constellations, galaxies too bright to look at, glowing nebulae of pink and blue dust. Her features seemed to disappear into the stars that shifted across her face.
Another thing I think was really well-done was the interplay of the spiritual elements of ancient Egypt into the plot. The Egyptians viewed the world at various levels: the regular physical dimension, and several spiritual dimensions, one of which is called the Duat. The different levels are beautifully and frightfully described here:

The scene would’ve been frightening enough, but now I saw it as Isis did. Like a crocodile with eyes at water level - seeing both below and above the surface - I saw the Duat intertwined with the regular world. The demons had fiery souls in the Duat that made them look like an army of birthday candles. Where Carter stood in the mortal world, a falcon warrior stood in the Duat, no avatar, but the real thing, with feathered head, sharp bloodstained beak, and gleaming black eyes. His sword rippled with golden light. As for Set - imagine a mountain of sand, doused with petrol, set on fire, spinning in the world’s largest blender.

Another part of ancient Egypt that I really like how Riordan embellished was the use of hieroglyphs. In the Red Pyramid, hieroglyphs are not just written characters; they sort of have life and a magic of their own, that really puts a new spin on "the power of the word

For writing techniques, I admire how Riordan can turn description into humor with his quirky anologies. Here's one of them:
Far far below, red liquid bubbled. Blood? Lava? Evil ketchup? None of the possibilities were good.
Finally, how can I end without mentioning Bast? - the cat goddess that befriends Carter and Sadie. She was my favorite character from a great cast of colorful, quirky, scary, unusual characters such as an albino crocodile, a basketball-playing baboon, an animated clay doll (sort of the Egyptian version of a voodoo doll, with its own attitude) and many others.

But Bast, like a cat, is part fickle and part loyal; part haughty and part foolish; part noble and part coward; and always entertaining. Here's a snippet of Bast that doesn't really do her justice, I'm afraid:
“Oh, you two look delicious,” Bast said, licking her lips. “No, no, er - , I mean wonderful. Now, off you go!”

I spread my majestic wings. I had really done it! I was a noble falcon, lord of the sky. I launched myself off the side walk and flew straight into the fence.

“Ha ha ha” Sadie chirped behind me.

Bast crouched down and began making weird chittering noises. Uh oh. She was imitating birds. I’d seen enough cats do this when they were stalking. Suddenly my own obituary flashed in my head: Carter Kane, 14, died tragically in Paris when he was eaten by his sister’s cat.

Tell me if you've encountered any other characters (including your own) that have an interesting play on animal qualities? I'm sure it's a frequently used technique in the fantasy/paranormal realms (werewolves would be expected to have some rather wolfish qualities, but wouldn't it be fun, for a twist, to have a leopardish werewolf?). Anyway, I'd love to hear of some more specific examples.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A great writer and a controversial subject

The controversial subject: is the Internet dumbing us down? In the respect that it allows us to selectively choose material that pertains to our interests, instead of exposing us to broad range of topics and issues.

The great writer I'm referring to is Mark Jenkins, a travel writer with numerous awards, currently a contributor to National Geographic and author of three books. He's from my adopted hometown, Laramie, Wyoming and I got the wonderful opportunity of hearing him speak last night at a local writer's event.


So we've been hearing for decades now about how T.V. is dumbing us down, and now, the Internet? Mark's argument is that people are turning more and more to the Internet as their source of information, rather than newspapers. To paraphrase him, "If your interests are in horses or snowmobiling, the Internet allows you to selectively choose articles that pertain to your interests, and you are less likely to seek out a broad range of news or issues such as provided by a newspaper or news show."

In other words, while the Internet provides us with access to the broadest range of information we've ever had before, at the same time it allows us to stay focused on our narrow area of interests.

His observation hit me head-on because I don't subscribe to a newspaper and I don't regularly watch TV news shows. I get most of my news from the Internet (usually just a quick scan of headlines) and then I focus in on what's of primary interest to me - writing and publishing-related material.

On the other hand, I'm also a voracious book reader, so while I may lose some of the broad exposure to the world via news articles, I feel I gain it back via a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. For instance, no series of news articles could have apprised me of all the cultural richness and issues related to Afghanistan and Pakistan as Khaled Hosseini's books the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, or Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea.

What do you think? Is the Internet helping us narrow our focus, instead of broadening our minds?

Postscript: "news" is hardly ever objective, of course. Mark has a great article called Seeing the World As It Is, and I had to include this excellent quote:

Americans by and large don’t really understand what’s happening in other countries. And when you go out there on your own two feet and have to buy food from the local market, and have to find of a place to stay and talk to locals, you start to understand how the world is put together. Because if you just stay home and read your local newspaper, you’re not going to have a clue about the rest of the world. The news here is very slanted, and is not representative of the complexities and passions of the rest of the world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

10 essentials for an inspired author's life

My first guest post ever. Isn't the image of the goldfish in the lightbulb delightful? Please welcome K.M. Weiland.

K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.


10 Essentials for an Inspired Author’s Life

The romance of a tortured artist’s life aside, all writers are in search of the secrets that will allow us to keep the inspiration flowing through our lives. In my recently released CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration (http://www.kmweiland.com/books.php#conquering), I discuss the best ways to keep Madame Muse at your beck and call—rather than the other way around. But, today, let’s take a look at ten essentials (some more essential than others) for any author wanting to live a consistently inspired life.

1. Coffee and chocolate: What’s a writer without a little caffeinated energy? There’s just something comfortable about any routine that includes two of God’s greatest gifts to mankind. Plus, they’re always good for self-bribery.

2. Music: As a breathing of the soul—a wordless story—music is an inspiration to all of us, no matter our calling as artists. Writers listen to music to calm themselves before jumping into a tough chapter, to jack up the adrenaline before writing battle scenes, or even just to catch a random bit of inspiration for that next story.

3. Effective and personalized tools: No two writers work in exactly the same way, so it’s no surprise we all prefer different tools. My tools of choice are a handful of notebooks, a scratchy pen, and a laptop. Whatever tools you choose, invest in something you’ll enjoy using. Writing can be tough enough without fighting an old clunker of a computer that freezes up every few weeks and endangers your work.

4. The arts: Artists of every stripe feed off each other. We refill our creative wells from the offerings of others. Don’t let your well go dry! Pile your nightstand with good novels, watch every good movie that comes your way—and don’t neglect other art forms, such as painting, singing, and even cooking. Absorbing this wealth from others is invaluable for any writer, but don’t be afraid to delve into other art forms for cross-pollination in your writing.

5. Strong goals: The occasional drudgery of writing can become overwhelming if we don’t have a strong focus on what we’re trying to achieve. Decide what it is you want to accomplish with your writing—whether it’s publication, becoming a bestseller, or even just finishing a story to share with family and friends—and keep that goal firmly in sight, especially on the tough days.

6. An encouraging atmosphere: We can’t always choose the kind of atmosphere in which we write; sometimes we just have to write whenever and wherever we can. But, whenever it’s in your power to do so, try to surround yourself with an atmosphere that encourages your writing. That might mean isolation, or it might mean a cheerful, busy bistro. It might mean a quiet office filled with your favorite things, or, like Hemingway, it might mean your kitchen table, surrounded by your children.

7. Acceptance of interference: Much as we might like the idea of retreating to our ivory towers to write in solace for twelve hours straight, we all know that real life doesn’t quite work that way. It’s best we learn early to accept the inevitable interferences (our day jobs, our kids, our plumbing emergencies) that thrust themselves into our writing days. Otherwise, we’re sure to go crazy!

8. Habits of consistency: The most important skill any writer can have—even more important than writing superb prose and gripping plots—is the ability to be consistent. Don’t allow yourself to get away with excuses. Don’t let your writing slip to the bottom of your to-do list every day. If this important to you, then prove it to the world by consistently giving it precedence.

9. A cat: What’s a writer without a cat? We all need a warm, furry body twining around our ankles, jumping onto our keyboards, and occasionally giving us supercilious looks to remind us that we are not, after all, Margaret Atwood or Stephen King.

10. Imaginary friend: Is it even possible to be a writer without invisible people running amok in our brains? Keep those special, magical people close by your side, and you’ll never lack for characters to write about!


Come back next week for my review of the CD "Conquering Writer's Block and Summoning Inspiration" as I soak up inspiration via my iPod for the next couple days. That goldfish in the lightbulb has me completely intrigued! 
 
What animal would you pick to symbolize inspiration?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Paranormalcy versus the Iron King

Just finished reading these two very different YA books, both largely about faeries (the fey). Now, I'm not brave enough to pit the ultimate YA bestsellers, the Twilight series against the Hunger Game series. But I'll give it a go with these two: Paranormalcy, by Kiersten White, and The Iron King, by Julie Kagawa.

Okay, I admit I wrote the title and the first line as an attention grabber. I don't actually compare books like I compare clothes while shopping (or while watching the Academy Awards).

Well, maybe just a little bit with my best friends over coffee.
But regardless, on Goodreads, I gave both Paranormalcy and the Iron King five stars and lengthy reviews.

I was struck by the very different tone of the two books, both written in first person.

In Paranormalcy, you have sixteen-year-old Evie, with all her vampire and gremlin ass-kicking attitude, her personality perfectly defined by her blinged-out pink taser that she uses for a weapon.

In the Iron King, you have sixteen-year-old Meghan, who has almost no attitude at all, except maybe a sort of brave stubbornness.

In Paranormalcy, the story is built around the main character and her Buffyish look on life. The paranormal elements and world-building feel more like tacked-on ornaments (though certainly very interesting ornaments, don't get me wrong).

In the Iron King, the story is built around the fey world, and Meghan sometimes just feels like a vehicle to move us through it. The emphasis is totally different, as is the tone. Paranormalcy: despite some tension, insecurity and tragedy, the tone of this book is pure fun. The Iron King's tone is deadly serious, with a occasional sprinkles of humor to keep it from being too dire.

Here's an example of character-centric, voice-centric Paranormalcy:
He [the vampire] hissed. Just as he reached for my neck, I tased him. I was there to tag and bag, not to kill. Besides, if I had to carry separate weapons for every paranormal I took out, I'd be dragging around a full luggage set. Tasers are a one-size-fits-all paranormal butt-kicking option. Mine's pink with rhinestones. Tasey and I have a lot of good times together.


Here's an example of world-centric Iron King:
We walked for hours, through a forest that seemed to be constantly closing in on us. In the corners of my eyes, branches, leaves, even tree trunks moved and shifted, reaching out for me. Sometimes I’d pass a tree or bush, only to see the same one farther down the path. Laughter echoed from the canopy overhead, and strange lights winked and bobbed in the distance. Once, a fox peek at us from beneath a fallen log, a human skull perched on its head. None of this bothered Grimalkin, who trotted down the forest trail with his tail up, never looking back to see if I followed.


I want to emphasize that while Iron King the focus is the strange and fantastic faery world, from the twilight shadows of the Wyldwood, the troll-kitchens of a faery court, a dance-club portal, and the steampunky world of the iron fey, there are also great characters in this book. Puck and Ash are well-developed opposites of impish fun and icy reserve. Grimalkin is a sly reinvention of the Cheshire Cat. A book can't make five stars on world-building alone: it must have a great plot (in this case, a harrowing quest) and great characters. But the world-building is still the core of this book. Even the main villain is defined by world-building, in a sense. Here's an amazing description of the Iron King, Machina:

The figure on the throne stood tall and elegant, with flowing silver hair and the pointed ears of the fey nobility. He faintly resembled Oberon, refined and graceful, yet incredibly powerful. Unlike Oberon and the finery of the Summer Court, the Iron King wore a stark black coat that flapped in the wind. Energy crackled around him, like thunder with no sound, and I caught flashes of lightning in his slanted black eyes. A metal stud glittered in one ear, a Bluetooth phone in the other. His face was beautiful and arrogant, all sharp planes and angles; I felt I could cut myself on his cheek if I got too close.


In Paranormalcy, you get some world-building as Evie describes how she sees various paranormal characters. Her description of the shapeshifter, Lend, is wild and beautiful. But it's all very much filtered through her voice, as opposed to the characters being filtered through the fantastic settings of the Iron King.

I loved them both. Though if you really pressed me, the Iron King feels like it has a slightly wider range, because everything isn't filtered through one super-distinctive voice, like in Paranormalcy.

Which do you like better? Hearing a story entirely filtered through one strong voice? Or do you prefer a slightly less dominating voice that lets you see the world-building and characters more through your own eyes?

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