Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Analyzing The Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas

Switching back to an example of a middle grade novel, after tackling a few young adult novels. (My next sample will be a new genre for me: steampunk. Soulless, by Gail Carriger).

A synopsis of the Magic Thief can be found in its first four sentences:

A thief is a lot like a wizard. I have quick hands. And I can make things disappear. But then I stole a wizard's locus magicalus and nearly disappeared myself forever.

A great beginning and I'm envious because in exactly 31 words we get a plot, two characters, a hint of voice, and we're hooked.

The book is written in first person point-of-view, which is difficult to carry throughout an entire novel because it takes some real engineering to fill the reader in on all the necessary information that the first person narrator isn't privy to. The author circumvents this problem by starting each chapter with notes from the wizard's journal. So we get to see another character's point-of-view and voice and that helps this novel considerably by adding variety.

The ending had a really, REALLY, cool surprise. Here's a just a little bit to tempt you:
"Here _______," I whispered again. Within the tank, the ________ stilled, shifted, and focused itself on my locus magicalus, on me. It was like looking up at a night sky full of stars and having the stars suddenly look back.

Isn't that cool? There are snippets of similar magical writing throughout the book. I admit I've been harsh on this book, but it is still worth the read.

Just for fun, try to fill in the blanks in the quote above. What do you think it is?

P.S. Each entry in the wizard's journal includes some runes and at the end of the book you get the key to interpreting the runes, so this is an extra little bonus/game for kids. The second book in the series is available now, too.

P.P.S. I read several of Sarah Prineas' short stories on the Online Writing Workshop for SF & Fantasy at least ten years ago before she was published. Proof that getting your work out in workshops & on the web really does work. I might not have picked up this book to read it if the author's name hadn't rang a bell.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Setting can be more than just your favorite coffee house

The Online Writing Workshop for SF & Fantasy taught me how to write better by reviewing other writing, and the basics of both writing and reviewing are outlined in the five categories identified by the Workshop:

1) professionalism of writing
2) setting
3) characterization
4) plot credibility
5) dialogue

I've seen lots of blog posts out there on items 1, 3,4, and 5, but very little on setting. Is setting important just for SF & Fantasy, where you have a lot of world-building? I think setting is important no matter the genre. And maybe, just maybe, one of the things that sets apart a good book from a really, really good book is the attention the author gives to setting. To have a good book you need strong characters, excellent dialogue, a great plot, and crisp writing. But just based on the books I've been reading lately, what stands out between a good book versus a best-seller kind of book is (well, there are several things) but one of them is really interesting and well-drawn settings.

For instance, you could write a scene between two characters in conflict at a restaurant or a coffee house. Familiar setting, but a little ho-hum. Or, you could write it in a cemetery, at a fresh graveside. Or, they're at a greyhound racetrack. Or, a hospital emergency room. Picking unusual places can add a whole new layer to a scene. You see unusual or flashy settings all the time in movies (at the moment for some reason I'm thinking of that 80's classic, When Harry Met Sally - anyone remember the scene at the Sharper Image store?) (okay, that setting might have been a promo, but it's still memorable). Author Don Miller wrote a great blog post pointing out that many of our special memories are associated with unusual or out-of-the-way places, and gives advice about things we can do to create more memorable "scenes" in our own lives.

What's your favorite unusual setting from a movie or a book?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Writer's Web: blogging with voice

I don't have Obi-Wan Kenobi to teach me the way of the Force, but way of the blog I am slowly learning.

Here's a few things I learned from wandering the writers' web this past week:

1) We know we have to write our stories/novels with a strong voice. Check out to see a strong voice that makes these daily blog posts fun to read. I betcha her strong voice is probably is the reason why this girl writer who is only 22 years old already has an agent for her book. Gasp.

2) Writers' blogs are *mostly* about writing, but I'm discovering the ones I enjoy the most mix in a lot of other fun stuff too. Like - this team recently posted a list of things you wish you could tell your teenage self.

3) Blogfests. I keep seeing this term pop up and wondered what the heck it is - couldn't even google a definition. But by my superior deductive reasoning powers (ha!) I have determined they are someone's invitation to blog on a particular subject, you sign up with a link to your blog, and then everyone reads everyone else's post and comments. So I signed up for a blogfest at (for sharing snippets of dialogue). I was #47. I am not sure how I will find time to read 46 other blogs (no wait, by the time the blogfest starts in May there may be 100). What have I got myself into???

4) Blogs that have a bit of mixed media are very interesting. Okay we all know that adding photos or images to our blog does more than just add a bit of color. But some people have that extra creative touch, like the writer who also sketches at Suffering from Writer's Blog. It's not the quality of her sketches that garners attention, it's how she uses them to spice up her blog. Here is a fun example of how she combines her sketches with book cover art to do an amazing marketing job for the Fablehaven series.

5) The blogger at The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment has a fixation with alliteration, or possibly practiced Peter Piper too much when he was little. However, he has a good thing going because he gets writers to post their query letters and their agent's responses and that's some darn useful info.

What great web-sites have you discovered that you just can't resist sharing with me?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Analyzing the Luxe, by Anna Godbersen

What techniques of writing craft did this author use in this young adult novel?

A quick summary: the Luxe is a soap opera set in 1899, Manhattan. Elizabeth is in love with the stable boy, but has to marry a rich socialite to save her family. Her best friend has a dangerous crush on Elizabeth's fiance, and the fiance in turn has a crush on Elizabeth's younger sister. And if that wasn't twisted enough, Elizabeth's maid is also in love with the same stable boy.

As you can imagine from these entanglements, there is a lot of drama in this novel. It starts with an obituary - and we find out very quickly that Elizabeth's funeral is being on held on the day she was supposed to get married. By the fourth page, we discover that the coffin is empty, because Elizabeth's body was never found.

Aha! Immediately you suspect that she is still alive. This is so obvious I won't even mention a spoiler warning. However, it is an intriguing hook. That, and the rich writing style that matches the period without being old-fashioned, were the two things that encouraged me to continue reading.

Nothing really stands out on the first page of this book, but because it was preceded by an obituary, I kept reading. On the second page, this paragraph was so vivid I stopped and read it twice to savor it:

They were Liz's peers, the young men she had danced quadrilles with at countless balls. They had disappeared to St Paul's and Exeter at some point and then returned with grown-up ideas and a fierce will to flirt. And here they were now, in black frock coats and mourning bands, looking grave for perhaps the first time ever.
Descriptions like the one above, along with sumptuous settings at balls and attention to both historical and fashionable detail, make this a good read even if my stomach did turn rather sour at the devious plotting. While the author successfully paints the woes of high society and its class distinctions, snobbery, and resulting suffocation, she also subtly hints that good morals are just as suffocating.

But forgive me, this is supposed to be an analysis of writing craft, not moral content.

An interesting technique: each chapter (which heralds a shift in point of view), is preceded by some sort of quote, personal note, or invitation, which leads directly into the chapter. For instance, chapter 1 begins with a formal invitation to a ball, and the scene that follows is at the ball. Chapter 2 begins with a short note "Cloakroom, one o'clock. Bring cigges. - DH" and we soon discover that the note was written by Elizabeth's impetuous younger sister and then surreptitiously passed to a young man at the ball.

Here's another fun chapter intro: "This is to certify that I, William Sackhouse Schoonmaker, do leave all my worldly possessions, as itemized below, including all holdings relating to business, real estate, and personal property, to ______________." Who could resist not diving into the chapter, hoping to find out who will inherit the fortune?

Here are a couple interesting examples of character building, from my two favorite characters. First, the selfish, ambitious Penelope, Liz's supposed best friend:

"Little Bo Peep. That's too perfect for Liz," Penelope Hayes said, as she said nearly everything, with a quarter ounce of venom.

Another example:

Penelope gave a careless shrug. If he wanted to praise Elizabeth Holland, whom she had long ago singled out as her principal rival and thus her only possible best friend, and who was now circling the polo-field-sized dance floor with that toad Percival Coddington, it was fine with her.

Three examples of Liz's younger sister, Diana:

"What makes you think there is any comparison between me and the girls of my class?" Dianna pronounced the last two words in disgust. The girls of her class were slaves to rules, going about life - if you could call it that- like bloodless mannequins. "I told you I was looking for an artist," she went on impatiently. "So if you're going to go on thinking conventionally and just like everybody else, I may as well leave."

Diana took a mental note of the fade on the upholstery so that she could give her nightly diary entry a touch of ambiance.

She did not sit still the way she was supposed to, the way her sister did. She gesticulated and laughed and pouted and generally made the dress she was sewn into and the room she was inhabiting look ridiculous and constraining.

(Note: overuse of -ly adverbs in this novel. Found a couple sentences that even had TWO ly's in them! - where was the editor??? This is stuff they all rant about!)

In summary, notable writing craft in this novel is the use of clever quotes, invitations, notes, and excerpts from newspaper articles and wills to precede each chapter and make you curious to read more.

Here are some other novels that I've analyzed for writing craft. Next I'll be working on the Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas (middle grade fantasy).

If you've read the Luxe, did anything about the writing stand out to you? Can you suggest another book with interesting examples of writing craft?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Writing motivation and progress

Finding time to write often means sacrificing other things you'd like to do. I try to make time by unplugging my internet connection, turning off the TV, resisting the call of that great new book I just got from the library, avoiding cleaning, and bribing my oldest daughter to make dinner.

Nevertheless, I always need motivation. Sometimes chocolate isn't enough. Ever heard of word-wars? They are great motivators. Get together with a writing friend and set a time, see who writes the most words in that time. Or if you can't get together with your laptops you can call each other, set a word count, and see who makes it to the word count first (only thing is, she doesn't like it when I call her up at 2 am to tell her I made it). Another thing you might try is this killer website, Write or Die (pun intended).

How do you make time to write? I'd love to hear more tips

Here's a new thing I'm trying: posting my weekly writing goals here on my website, and then reporting my progress at the end of the week. I promise to be honest. Please heckle me if you see me falling short, I'm hoping that'll increase my motivation.

Week starting April 17: 2000 words, or 20 pages edited, or some combination thereof: met about 80% of goal.

Week starting April 25: editing/polishing up seven chapters, one chapter a day. Tying up loose ends, rooting out passive voice, spicing up settings/characterization/voice: well, ahem, um, so, I got through three chapters. Then a CP made me aware the first two had serious flaws. So then I gave up and swore off writing, forever.

Week starting May 2: so maybe I'm not swearing off writing forever. But my goal this week is very meagre. Going to try to keep cleaning up the next few chapters while I go back and try to re-invent the first two. Managed to get seriously flawed chapter #1 re-written. It's still flawed, but it's improved marginally.

Week starting May 10: get 2nd severly flawed chapter re-written. See how my goals are diminishing? I'm not in a good spot. I HATE re-writing. I wish it was time for NANOWRIMO already. Completely re-wrote 2nd chapter in first person (originally in 3rd person). Not sure if I'll keep it in first, but it was a good exercise.

Week starting May 17: forgot to set a goal and therefore, absolutely nothing accomplished. Arrggg!

Week starting May 24: re-write another chapter/character into first person. Actually, since I accomplished zero last week, I really need to get two chapters re-written this week. Thank goodness for motivation from Elana and from Jackee. Got one chapter re-written at least.

Week starting May 31: provide crits for partners and get third chapter re-written for Valley. Polish up first chapter for Raining for writer's retreat next week!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writers' Web: Fractured Fairy Tales and other fun stuff

I've set myself a goal of checking out at least 5 new writing websites or writing blogs a week, because practically every place I visit, I either learn something or at the very least find something funny or encouraging.

So here's what I've found lately out there on the Writers' web:

The Surly Writer: links to this writer's "fractured fairytales" - her own take on classic fairytales like Cinderalla and Jack the Giant Killer.

Dear Editor: a new site where you can submit your short questions to an editor. I liked this one from a forty-something trying to write in a teen voice for YA (gee, that's my situation too!)

Straight from Hel: (Hel as Helen, fortunately) Something almost everyday on writing and marketing. Also, lots of great writing resources and contest info.

Eternal Moonshine of a Daydreaming Mind: I immediately signed up to the follow this blog after discovering the first line of one of her novels contains the words "angel" and "mermaid" and even better, she had a post about unicorns, too. Well, sort of.

Talli Roland: how could I resist a blog with this label: "Over caffeinated fiction writer making the journey towards publication... one espresso at a time." (except in my case, it would be "Writer suffering from sugar-high making the journey toward publication, one dose of chocolate at time")

Pink Ink: I've stopped here a couple times just for encouragement. A quote: "My book should please first and foremost myself. Else, why write it? The best thing I can do is to polish it to the best of my ability, and shop it around to the world unapologetically and bravely. Vibrant colors and all."

What have you found from other blogs and websites lately?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Analyzing Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver is about a girl who is mysteriously drawn to a wolf she sees from time to time in the woods behind her house. One day the wolf appears at her back door, wounded and human and needing her help. Their love is always shadowed by the fact that during the cold months, Sam has to constantly fight the tendency to turn back into a wolf - and at some point, like the other werewolves he runs with, he will someday not be able to turn back into a human at all.

This book is on the Young Adult best-seller lists and it's not hard to see why. It does have a slow start, but I loved the short, intense scenes, and the POV switches between main characters Grace and Sam.

What I learned about the writing:

I settled into the book like a visit with an old friend with a good story to tell, but the book really "hooked" me when Sam's life is in danger. Good lesson: raise the stakes, hook your reader hard. The beginning had a mystery, longing, and some beautiful writing, but when the stakes rose, it went from a good read to a great read - keep me up reading late into the night.

It starts with a girl being attacked by wolves, a dramatic beginning: "their tongues melted my skin; their careless teeth ripped at my sleeves and snapped through my hair, pushing against my collarbone, the pulse at my neck." Sam-as-a-wolf saves her from the pack... and then the story jumps ahead six years. The tension slows. But once Sam's life is in danger, and then their love is in danger, I couldn't stop reading.

What makes this writing work:

1) the love between Sam and Grace, which is heightened because they don't know how long they will have each other before he turns back into a wolf. So there is constant tension and sadness.

The love seat in the bookstore scene, and the candy store scene are wonderful with rich details.

Conversations like this keep it from getting too sappy:

"It was nice to not be the wishy-washy one for once."
I burst out laughing. "Those aren't the words I'd use to describe you."
"Okay, what words would you use then?"
"Sensitive," I tried.
Sam translated: "Squishy."
"Dangerously emo."
"Feng shui."
I laughed so hard I snorted. "How do you get feng shui out of thoughtful?"

... "You're beautiful and sad," I said finally, not looking at him when I did. "Just like your eyes. You're like a song that I heard when I was a little kid but forgot I knew until I heard it again."

2) the supporting cast of characters are excellent, almost better than the two main characters. I found Grace one-dimensional, almost a copycat of Bella from Twilight. Sam is a little better developed, but it's the relationship between Grace and her flighty parents ("just like that, her parental energies were expended"), and the relationship between Sam and his werewolf mentor, Beck ("school-in-a-box"), that you really see good development.

3) the author uses flashbacks well in this book. For instance, there's a scene where Sam is talking with Grace's mother upstairs, when he hears Grace scream downstairs. There's a flashback where he recalls Shelby, another werewolf that he's never got along with, telling him "it must be hell when we kill something. It must be the worst way to die." Flashback ends, Sam discovers that it's Shelby attacking Grace. The juxtaposition of the scream, the short flashback and the attack on Grace is powerful writing.
4) Isabel, a confused sister of one of the werewolves, is a minor character until the last part of the book, which is a shame. I wish the author had involved her more earlier on. She is a stereotype (the snotty rich popular girl at school) who turns out to be sort of a hero, while at the same time staying realistically snotty. A few examples:

Isabel's face was still wearing a pretty pout, but I saw storms destroying small villages in her eyes.

"Grace, I thought you were at the top of the class. Clearly the sliding scale has done wonders for you. Try to focus."

"I get it!" snapped Isabel [talking on a cellphone]. There were rustling sounds. "I'm getting my coat on. I'm going outside. Can you hear me? Now I'm outside. I'm freezing my ass off for you. I'm walking across the yard. I'm walking across the part of the grass my dog used to pee on before my damned brother ate her.... I'm at the garden shed. Sam! It's Isabel, if you're a wolf in there, don't rip my face off." I could hear her breathing into the phone. "The door's stuck like the other one. I'm kicking it with my expensive shoe and it's pissing me off."

A couple last things about the book: recurring themes. The chapters don't have titles, but they each have a Fahrenheit temperature (because cold temperature affects the wolves). And poetry. Sam loves poetry and composing song lyrics; Rainer Marie Rilke's poetry is laced throughout the book without being too much. Here's one slice of a poem I liked so much, I just had to end with it:
And leaving you (there aren't words to untangle it)
Your life, fearful and immense and blossoming,
So that, sometimes frustrated, and sometimes understanding,
Your life is sometimes a stone in you, and then, a star.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Needed: unique premise and strong voice had a pitch contest a couple weeks ago. I made a few changes to my pitch and first paragraph for Raining Toward Heaven (women's fiction), felt it was the greatest thing going, and submitted. The day after submitted I re-read it, and groaned. Did I actually submit this thing? It was just so ... blah.
So, no surprise that I didn't show up with the winners. But, I always learn a lot from the winners and from the agent's comments about why he picked them. I learned a lot from the winners at another contest over at (I didn't find out about this one in time to enter).

But there is another contest open now at, for middle grade submissions. I will be submitting my pitch and first 194 words of Valley of the Unicorns there shortly, but for the past week everyday I have been eyeing that one sentence pitch and those first couple paragraphs with a critical (sometimes hopeful, sometimes despairing) eye and re-writing, re-wording, and brainstorming.
What I've learned over the past few months from following these blogs and other agents/writer's blogs has made me completely revise my first chapter, twice. Now as I'm working on perfecting my pitch, concentrating on two things that I'm hearing over and over again from agents: they are looking for 1) a unique premise and 2) a strong voice.

Neither of which I have, exactly. But I keep repeating these two facts to myself like a mantra, and brainstorming.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Prologues that aren't really prologues

In my recent analyses of 19 Minutes, by Jodi Picoult, and the Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, I noticed something interesting...

These two books are written for entirely different audiences, are entirely different genres, and even written in different POVs, but they had one thing in common.

Both start with a very short (less than 150 words) sort of prologue, though it isn't set apart as a prologue.

From 19 Minutes:

In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five.

Nineteen minutes is how long it took the Tennessee Titans to sell out of tickets to the play-offs. It's the length of a sitcom, minus the commercials. It's the driving distance from the Vermont border to the town of Sterling, New Hampshire.

In nineteen minutes, you can order a pizza and get it delivered. You can read a story to a child or have your oil changed. You can walk a mile. You can sew a hem.

In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it.

In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge.

The beginning of the Lightning Thief:

Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.

If you're reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

Being a half-blood is dangerous. It's scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.

If you're a normal kid, reading this because you think it's fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.

But if you recognize yourself in these pages - if you feel something stirring inside - stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it's only a matter of time before they sense it too, and they'll come for you.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Both of these intros are not scenes, because they don't involve any characters, action, setting or dialogue - they are just narrative. But they both set the tone of the book, reveal the voice, and create suspense that makes you keep reading.I immediately sat down a re-wrote the first 200 words of Valley of the Unicorns, to try to accomplish the same three goals: tone, voice, suspense. I'll tackle Raining Toward Heaven next, but of course it's a lot harder than it looks.

Here's a sort of related article from PubRants that I found helpful: Why Prologues often don't work.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Analyzing the Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan.

This is an upper middle grade fantasy, a la Harry Potter except the "school" is for half-bloods - children with one parent who is a Greek God, instead of a school for wizards. My book the Valley of the Unicorns is middle grade level, so I am really studying the craft of this best-seller. I am also eager to read the next book in the series.

What I learned from the Lightning Thief:

Each chapter is its own little mini-adventure. Some monster or bully or god must be faced or fought, some kind of race or challenge won, some friend or family member saved from terrible disaster. Each chapter has a funny title, such as "I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher", and "We Visit the Garden Gnome Emporium."

Coincidently, just noticed an article, Tips on Middle Grade fiction: What Kids Love at the excellent blog, Guide to Literary Agents. I'm glad to see that my observations on the Lightning Thief line up well with the article's.

Humor is rampant, and even if it's not even remotely realistic, it's still fun. For instance:

See, bad things happen to me on field trips. Like at my fifth-grade school, when we went to the Saratoga battlefield, I had this accident with a Revolutionary War cannon. I wasn't aiming for the school bus, but of course I got expelled anyway. And before that, at my fourth-grade school, when we took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Marine World shark pool, I sort of hit the wrong lever on the catwalk and our class took and unplanned swim. And the time before that... well, you get the idea.

Not in every chapter, but in many of them, the author takes a strange, fantastical scene - such as a scene of the dead filing into Hades - and puts a familiar, funny twist on it. For instance:

There were three separate entrances under one huge black archway that said YOU ARE NOW ENTERING EREBUS. Each entrance had a pass-through metal detector with security cameras mounted on top... the dead queued up in three lines, two marked ATTENDANT ON DUTY, and one marked EZ DEATH. The EZ DEATH line was moving right along. The other two were crawling.

Summary: you can get away with exaggerating humor for midde-graders. You have to have constant adventure/action. You have to link fantasy with real-world things.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Analyzing 19 Minutes, by Jodi Picoult

My spring break: relaxing on the beach at Hilton Head, S.C. with the sun on my head, my feet in the surf, and Carey and Anne giggling ecstatically over discoveries of shells and sand dollars and starfish.

The rest of my spring break: reading in various contorted positions (timeshares do not come with comfortable sofas, chairs, or beds). Nevertheless, the books were hard to put down.

19 Minutes, by Jodi Picoult.
Chose this book because I recently discovered that "women's fiction" is a high on the list of genres that agents are looking for. I'm pretty sure my book Raining Toward Heaven falls in the Women's fiction genre, but I figured I'd better start reading heavily in this genre to learn more about it (Also recently finished Lisa Samson's the Church Ladies, another excellent women's fiction book). I'm new to Jodi Picoult, but I'll definitely be reading more her books after this one.

Actually I'm not sure if this book was women's fiction, it really fit more in the mainstream "high concept" category. It's a very well-crafted fictional account of a high-school massacre similar to the one in Columbine, exploring the motivation behind the killer, and the impact of his act on the community, his family, his closest friend, and himself.

What I learned from 19 Minutes:

How characterization, depth and suspense is built in a series of relatively short scenes and shifting points of view. Each scene starts with some simple action that also serves as characterization and provides setting, moves into the character's thoughts, and includes some interaction and dialogue. Sometimes the order is different - sometimes the dialogue comes first, sometimes the thoughts come first. Many of scenes (especially in the beginning) are unusual, for instance a teenager forcing herself to take a scalding hot shower, a midwife delivering a baby, a judge forgetting her backdoor key and having to enter the court building by the front entrance along with everyone else, a professor whose occupation is unusual: he studies the economics of happiness.

Put your characters in unusual situations or situations that are familiar to them, but with a twist.
My other spring break book: the Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis. Not fiction, but I took lots of notes anyway. Not that I could ever hope to aspire to this level of writing, because it's just brilliant. I've been reading Lewis for years, but he never fails to amaze me, how he comes up with illustrations of things like faith and reason and writes about them with the same precision and beauty as an artist like Michelangelo paints or sculpts a masterpiece. This collection of essays is the best I've read after his Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia. Makes me glad that I still have several of his books to read, because I know I have more to look forward to.
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