Sunday, May 30, 2010

Voices of Dragons

Dragons on Memorial Day. Kind of a strange thing to write about today, perhaps bordering on irreverent. But the YA book Voice of Dragons, by Carrie Vaughn, caught my imagination as the military takes on a mythical foe.

In this alternative history, detonation of atomic bombs at the end of World War II stirs dragons from their centuries-long hibernation buried under the earth. They wake up mad, and the world is back at war. A truce is made, land is divided, and now there are dragon territories and human territories, and a strict border patrol that prevents anyone from crossing the borders and potentially starting another war. The truce has lasted for sixty years, until one rebellious high school girl, and one rebellious adolescent dragon, decide to break the rules and end up starting an international incident.

Voices of Dragons starts out slow, first developing the friendship between girl and dragon without any significant tension - just the tension of breaking the rules and potentially getting caught. But the author does a good job developing the rules of a modern world with a new version of a cold-war, between man and beast.

It doesn't take long before there is a lot of page-turning action. Imagine Top Gun style dogfights, with dragons instead of MiGs. There are also some casualties. The two rebellious youngsters just about cause thermo-nuclear war with a dragon-fire twist. But by trusting in each other, even when both sides are telling them they should hate each other, they turn a Romeo and Juliet style tragedy into a - well, not exactly a happy ending, but a hopeful one.

I wished the book had let us into more of the dragon side of the world, though (hopefully a sequel?)  Dragon culture is only briefly touched on, shrouded in mystery.

What are the voices of dragons like? With such a title, I expected the author to deliver something uniquely dragony, for voice. Our first introduction to dragon voice, in chapter one:

The growl came again, and with it a word. "Well?" It sounded deep, echoey. Like the word didn't come out of its mouth, but reverberated through it entire sinus cavity. It gave the voice weight, an ancient dignity.
That's exactly how the dragons are developed in this story, with weight and dignity. Like the dragons in the Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin, this book gives them a sense of great majesty, otherworldliness, inspiring fear and awe.  The only problem with this book is that it wasn't long enough - I wanted more of the dragons, and more of how they clash with the humans, and more of our girl/dragon team trying to bridge the gap between the two species. That's one thing I don't like about YA, that it really can't go beyond 75,000-100,000 words (though I realize that YA is primarily written for young adults, not middle-aged adults like me - there is a good reason for the shorter word count).

Fortuanately, many YA books come in trilogies these days! Hoping this one will too.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Quest for Quirk

I got just a tiny taste of what it must be like to be an agent looking at dozens of submissions every day.

I participated in my first blogfest last week, hosted by FictionGroupie, where we all shared and commented on each other's dialogue. When I first signed up, there were forty-some writers; by the date of the blogfest, it had expanded to over 100. While there were a few dedicated souls that read all 100+ dialogue samples, I knew I would only have time to look about about twenty or so. So how did I go about choosing which blogs to look at?

Out of the list of over 100, I recognized about five names, other blogs I'd visited several time before, and those where my first reads. But after that, I was looking at a list of names that meant nothing to me. So I started picking out the more interesting names. The quirky names.

Here's a sample: Drama Queen, Laurel’s Leaves, Book Dreaming, Prophetic Pictures, Southern Princess, Genie of the Shell, At the Bijou, the Writings of Doobla (but my name is Dominique), Shelley Sly (that may be her real name, but what a great name!), Georgia Gypsy Rae, Writer Unleashed, and Write-Brained.

Aren't we more intrigued by the quirky name? I know I sure was. Now to be fair, I did pick a few plain names and found some excellent dialogue. But just like an agent with a limited amount of time, something had to grab my attention right away for me to keep reading.

A powerful lesson, my webends. Me thinks I will not be entering anymore blogfests or contests as merely Margo Berendsen anymore. "Writing at High Altitude" is somewhat better on the quirk-scale, but I still think it reflects my scientific/technical background more than it reflects my middle-grade/YA quirky voice that I know I need to have to grab an agent's attention.

Just curious how many of y'all agree (look! an attempt at voice! so disgusted with my bland technical writing voice that I have to use at work, I just reverted to my Southern roots) with my hypothesis (darn it, there I go again) shot in the dark?

If you had to pick a dozen excerpts to read out of a hundred, would you be tempted to pick the quirkier samples over the plain janes?

Monday, May 24, 2010

My ten favorite things and birthdays isn't one of them

I had such grand plans for my working on my WIP and for posts on this blog this weekend. I have some great ideas, some things I just can't wait to share! But family duty called first this weekend: my daughter's sixth birthday. So I got sucked into birthday party preparations - cake-making, wrapping presents, putting together goody bags, materials for decorating foam tiaras, cleaning my house. Not sure why I bothered with that last one because now I have to clean again! - amazing what a mess ten little girls can make in an hour's time. I am so happy it's OVER!!!

I did all this to make my daughter happy, but here for a moment I will indulge and list ten things that make ME happy - this list goes along with this award I received from Jules at Silver Lining, one of my favorite writer's blogs (if you haven't discovered her yet you absolutely must! Her blogs always make me happy, too!)

1. my family - all four loud, messy, adorable girls and husband (yep he's loud and messy too)

2. sipping hot tea and reading a good book

3. listening to Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. With the volume set on 10.

4. riding with my husband in the mountains (maybe next weekend?) - when our horses are behaving, that is

5. fires crackling in fireplaces

6. Christmas trees. Or even just Christmas lights.

7. Fireflies (the summer equivalent of Christmas lights)

8. jokes that make me belly laugh

9. NaNoWriMo when I'm on a writing roll

10. Anything beautiful or noble

I haven't been reading or commenting on blogs for very long, so I don't have very many blogger buddies yet to pass this "award" on to. But here are the blogs that I visit on a regular basis - they always have interesting posts and they are so great about leaving me comments!

Susan @ Ink Spells

Kay @ Lessons from my reading

Stina @ Seeing Creative

Susan @ Hands off my coffee and no one gets hurt: an insomniac's guide to writing

Jackee @ Winded Words

Connie @ A Merry Heart

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beauty in the Hunger Games

I'd never presume to do a book review of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, as I'm probably one of the last people in the blogging world of writers to read it. This isn't a book review, it's just me figuring out how the author made such a success of her novel - between her ideas and her writing.

First of all, her ideas: before, or while, Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games, I wonder if she in turn spent time studying The Lottery, to see how Shirley Jackson wrote what turned out to be a famous and classic short story. Or maybe she thought to herself, I wonder if I could lengthen the premise of The Lottery into a novel, taking the same horror, but twisting it at the end so there could be some hope, too.

Dystopia is such a popular genre right now, because as Beth Revis wrote so well in her recent blog series about dystopia, its "a dark frame around a beautiful picture," or more specifically, it's "about the strength of humanity beyond the cruelty of the world." While The Lottery's strength was in its shocking idea, the strength of The Hunger Games is love overcoming shocking evil (even if only for a moment).

The other premise that makes The Hunger Games so absorbing is the constant struggle for survival. In fact, that's the first conflict that comes up in the book (since "the reaping" is mentioned, but the purpose isn't explained until page 18). The never-ending struggle to find enough food. Later in the book, the survival theme becomes even more intense: searching for food and water, for hiding places, for weapons. Stories about survival grip us at our very core.

On to analyzing writing craft, starting with the first paragraph, of course:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did.
This is the day of the reaping.
The sensual details are important. Cold bed that should have been warm, rough canvas instead of the type of soft sheets most of us are used to. There's emotional detail too: bad dreams, crawling in bed with mom. An ominous hint: this is the day of the reaping. The context tells you this is no ordinary reaping.

The next couple paragraphs introduce a few important details to know about the characters (Prim's compassion, the mother's beaten-down countenance) but the details are also designed to show the difficulty of survival these people face. How Catniss, the main character, feels about her little sister's cat: "The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed." "Entrails. No hissing. This the closest we will ever come to love."

There's another brief mention of the reaping on page 2, but the plot and the main character's motivation remain the same: just simple survival. The difficulty of survival (along with dropping occasional hints about the reaping), is enough to carry us through lots and lots of telling, world-building, and backstory. Important details that are carefully woven in with little bits of action to keep up the pace.

I could go on and on about the beautiful details of Collins' writing, but others have already covered a lot of this already, including this analysis of loaded characterization on Livia Blackburne's thoughtful blog. I'll end with one last idea from the Hunger Games that I loved - The jabberjays and the trackerjackers. Neat world-building, how these two species were engineered by humans for specific manipulative purposes. But even neater, how nature took back over and turned out the mockingjays, whose songs add (strangely enough) a touch of humanity and loveliness to the bitter cruelty of the Hunger Games.

Do you think the Hunger Games is so popular because of it's dystopian world of kill or be killed, because it's a kind of Romeo and Juliet love story, or some other reason?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Let's Talk" blogfest

Fictiongroupie is having a blogfest today where we all post a bit of dialogue and then compare notes. Blogfest is open until midnight, details are here.

This is an excerpt from my women's fiction nearly-complete novel, Raining Toward Heaven. A single sentence summary, by way of intro: When Rowen wished she could go back in time to before her marriage started falling apart, she never expected she would actually get her wish.

The following dialogue is between Rowen and her husband's ex-wife, Kell, who has just been hired as Rowen's office assistant (not Rowen's choice!) Because of the time-twist, Kell doesn't know that Rowen will be her husband's future wife, but Rowen unfortunately still has all her bad memories.

Rowen checked her watch. Five minutes to noon, but that was close enough. Time for lunch and she couldn't wait to get out of here. She logged off her computer and grabbed her purse. "I’m heading off for lunch."

Kell's cell phone rang for fourth time, the same ring tone. She silenced the ringer without answering it. “Sorry about that, I’ll remember to keep my phone silenced while I’m at work, from now on.”

“No problem,” Rowen said. "So who is it that keeps calling you?”

“Pete,” Kell said, saying his name like it had a bad taste.

“Oh, is he your husband?” Rowen asked, all innocence.

Kell rolled her eyes. “Not for much longer.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not.” Something about Kell’s demeanor made it clear she didn’t want to talk about it.

“Okay, well I’ll be back from lunch at 1 pm.”

Just as Rowen opened the door to step out, Kell made a hissing noise that made her look back. The cell phone, again? But Kell was looking at her computer monitor with shock. “Wait a minute, Rowen!”

Rowen tried to keep from grinning. Skip’s little prank had just taken effect.

“What is it?” she came over to look at the computer.

“Um, no, never mind,” Kell said, waving her off. “It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?” she kept walking forward, fully enjoying Kell’s look of distress as she got closer.

“No really, it’s nothing.” Kell was clicking her mouse furiously. No doubt trying to erase the message that had popped up on her screen. Implicated for hitting the backspace key too many times! Kell's flushed cheeks showed that she was annoyed – no – mortified by the accusation.

Her computer beeped and Kell’s eyes flew open wide. “Why, that bugger – ”

Rowen finally let her laughter loose. “Let me guess. Skip just played a practical joke on you, didn’t he?” After freezing Kell’s computer long enough to make her panic, Skip had probably just popped up another message informing her of the fact that she’d just been hoodwinked.

Kell looked up at her with a frown.

“Sorry, I forgot to warn you,” Rowen lied. “He did the same thing to me on my first day.”

“Oh, did he?” Kell smiled frostily. “Well, two can play this game.”

“I don’t think anyone can booby trap Skip’s computer, he’s got it too well-guarded.” Rowen warned her.

“Who said anything about booby trapping his computer?” Kell asked, with a wicked grin.

For one brief moment, Rowen considered the possibility that it might actually be fun having Kell around the office.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Progress update for the birds

Where I am in the writing process:
I'm re-writing my first novel... for like the zillioneth time.

In the fall, esp. during NaNoWriMo, I work on a new novel.

In the spring, just like birds migrating back to their nesting areas, I always head back to this first novel (I'm ashamed to admit how many years I've been working on it), hoping maybe with just a few more tweaks, I can get it just right.

I've read some other articles about how a lot of authors weren't able to make their first novels work, even with multiple re-writes. But somehow I just can't bring myself to give up. This past week I wrote about 3,500 words. I completely re-wrote my first two chapters from scratch. I switched my main character from third person point of view to first person, with the hope it will help me bring out her "voice" more.

My current problems:
I had a major upset earlier this spring when I discovered the novel was more than twice the acceptable word-count for a Middle Grade novel. Just recently, with the help of a new crit partner, I've discovered that my novel starts in the wrong place, and it's not clear what my main character's motivation is. This is embarrassing for me, because this is kind of a "newbie" mistake, and I like to think I'm past that stage (feeling very humbled). But at the same time, it's also solved my other big problem for me - how to get my word-count down. It's going to hurt to slash all those chapters I spent months on, but the result will be worth it.

My question this week: How do you start a story? (Dialogue, description, action, etc.)

I firmly believe you should NOT start with dialogue or description. Not unless you are a professional writer and so well grounded in the rules that you can start breaking them. I've studied every novel I've read so far this year, trying to figure out "what about the opening of this novel makes it work, that I want to keep reading?" NONE of them have started with dialogue or description, at least not right away or in large quantities. A couple have started with the main character's thoughts, but most have started with an action sentence. Something interesting is going on right away, and you as the reader are invited to watch the scene unfold. Only problem is, applying the same principles to your own book is very, very hard.

Wannabe Writers is a writing group for the un-published and anyone is welcome to join. It's a place where future authors can ask questions, share stories, and get feedback. Click (here) to find more about how it works. I hope these writers do not mind my rather opinionated first visit to their group. I think it's a great idea & looking forward to meeting some new writers. >

What do you think about novels that start with dialogue or description? Does it work for you?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Analyzing My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

Though the main character in My Sister’s Keeper is a 13-year-old girl, this is not a young adult book. Jodi Picoult has a reputation for crossing genres, but if I had to take a guess, I’d put it in mainstream literary. Anna’s older sister has been fighting leukemia since age 2. Anna was conceived as a bone-marrow match for her sister. Her whole life she has been donating blood and marrow to keep her sister alive. Now at 13, she rebels – hiring a lawyer to “sue her parents for the rights to her own body.”

This isn’t a book review; it’s me analyzing the writing to try to figure out what makes this book such a fascinating read.

First of all, what’s the hook? It starts with a prologue, which I’m often tempted to skip over – let me get started with the story, please! Prologues are like teasers – worse than teasers, because they don’t usually have much substance – just hints.

There’s no hints in this prologue, however. The first line:

In my first memory, I’m three years old and I am trying to kill my sister.

In two short paragraphs, the prologue sets both the tone and the basic premise of the story: you know it’s about a girl who is so overshadowed by her sister that she still dreams about killing her.

What I learned from the first chapter: in the first few paragraphs you can get away with the character telling (breaking the rule “show don’t tell”) about a situation, if the writing has strong voice (e.g. the character is a good story teller), and if the story she’s telling is quirky enough, and funny enough. She starts out by telling us:

After Anna goes on to tell us why her parents had her made – as an allogenic donor for her sister – it’s not until the second page that you actually see something happen instead of just hearing Anna’s telling. Now she’s in a pawn shop, selling a precious locket for a measly twenty dollars. After this short scene in the pawn shop, Anna’s back into “telling mode” to fill us in about more of the details of the strange household she lives in, where “we practically set a place for Death at the dinner table.” It’s strong writing and powerful details/images like this that make the “telling” work.

The next two important characters, Anna’s mother and her sister, are introduced. We meet Anna’s mom this way:

I noticed the interesting use of words like “parachuted” and “fine collarbones” in the description of her mother. That, along with the quirky habit of ordering fancy dresses without having an occasions to wear them at, make this a memorable first meeting with this character.

Meeting Anna’s sister, the one with leukemia, is just as memorable.

If it was anybody but a girl slowly dying of leukemia, you’d take her for a shallow girl suckered in by soap-operas. But when you realize that she’s so sick she can’t really do much else besides watch TV, this sobbing drama scene is a great introduction to Anna’s sister.

Next we meet Anna’s older brother. Won’t go into all the details about him, but by this time, you can expect the author to find some dramatic way of introducing this character, and she doesn’t fail to deliver. He’s got a homemade moonshine whiskey still in his room over the garage, made out of a Crockpot and some copper tubing. In one little sentence, we immediately know a lot about this guy.

You don’t get to meet Anna’s Dad for a while, but in the meantime you do get to meet her lawyer. Here’s the fun part about the lawyer. He goes everywhere with a dog and warns everyone not to pet him because he’s a service dog. But he’s not blind. So Anna asks him, “What’s the matter with you?” “I have an iron lung,” Campbell Alexander says curtly, “and the dog keeps me from getting too close to magnets.”

He doesn’t want to admit to anyone what his disability is, so he makes up these smart-ass explanations. This device serves two purposes: we are left waiting, until the climax almost at the end of book, to find exactly what disability the lawyer has that he’s so self-conscious about. And in the meantime we are treated to half dozen humorous episodes where he offers different explanations to people for his needing a service dog:

A waiter at a restaurant: “What’s the dog for?” The lawyer says: “I have SARS, and he’s tallying the people I infect.”

Another one: “I’m nearsighted. He helps me read the road signs.”

One unusual thing about this book. Not sure if I’ve ever read a book with so many first-person point of view switches. Each chapter switches POV, and many times it also switches time – going back to when Kate was first diagnosed, for instance, from her mother’s POV. It switches from Anna, then to Campbell (the lawyer), then to Sara (Anna’s mother), then to her father, back to Anna, back to her lawyer, then her older brother, back to Sara, then a new POV: Julia, Anna’s court-appointed GAL (guardian ad litem).

Because each POV switch begins with a new chapter, the chapter title is the POV’s name (and also the year, if it’s a flashback) – which helps you identify which character you are now seeing through the eyes of. Plus, each POV is written in a different font. It’s still a little jarring to jump from the eyes and mouth of one character to another (I’m more comfortable with POV switches in third person), but mid-way through the first paragraph the writing is so good that you’re sucked in.
She marches upstairs and opens up our bedroom door to find my sister hysterical on her bed, and just like that the world collapses again…. “Kate!” My mother sinks down to the floor, that stupid skirt a cloud around her. “Kate, honey, what hurts?”

Kate hugs a pillow to her stomach, and tears keep streaming down her face. I stand frozen in the doorway of my own room, waiting for instructions: Call Daddy. Call 911. Call Dr. Chance. My mother goes so far as to shake a better explanation out of Kate. “It’s Preston,” she sobs. “He’s leaving Serena for good.”

That’s when we notice the TV. On the screen, a blond hottie gives a longing look to a woman crying almost as hard as my sister, and then he slams the door. “But what hurts?" my mother asks, certain there as to be more to it than this.

“Oh my God,” Kate says, sniffing. “Do you have any idea how much Serena and Preston have been through? Do you?”

As I am coming up the stairs, my mother comes out of her room wearing another ball gown… I zip it up for her and watch her twirl. My mother could be beautiful, if she were parachuted into someone else’s life. She has long dark hair and the fine collarbones of a princess, but the corners of her mouth turn down, like she’s swallowed bitter news. She doesn’t have much free time, since a calendar is something that can change drastically if my sister develops a bruise or a nosebleed, but what she does have she spends at, ordering ridiculously fancy evening dresses for places she is never going to go.

When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why. The mechanics I understood – my older brother Jesse had filled me in…. I paid attention to different details. Like why some mothers only had one child, while other families seemed to multiply before your eyes. Or how the new girl in school, Sedona, told anyone who’d listen that she was named for the place where her parents were vacationing when they made her (“good thing they weren’t staying in Jersey City,” my father used to say.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother or T-Rex?

This is why I should only try to write AFTER the kids have gone to bed.

Kids and writing do not mix. Mild-mannered mom turns into a T-Rex.

I should have thought ahead and asked my husband if my mother's day could have been a writer's retreat in a secluded mountain cabin with a beautiful, peaceful view.... instead of breakfast in bed (which only lasts for about 15 minutes).

Some well-intentioned teacher at my twins' preschool (who does NOT have kids of her own) helped my three year olds to paint ceramic mugs for Mother's Day and plant little petunias in them. Very cute, right?

NOT A GOOD IDEA. I have now officially cleaned up spilled dirt THREE times since they brought them home.

Ah, but I do love my kids. They are the light of my life. I was thinking this morning, what characters they are!

Then it hit me: characters.

Characters = writing.

(Trying to write on Mother's Day = not a good idea)

Friday, May 7, 2010

How writers see the world

If you're a writer, do you feel like you see the world a little differently? I think most writers manage to blend in reasonably well with the "real world", though we largely tend to live two lives, the real one and the one full of characters and plots and settings (and this can be true even if you're a non-fiction writer).

Ever found yourself overhearing a conversation (or even taking part in one) where you have the resist the urge to pull out a notebook and jot down a snippet of dialogue? (I've done this to a friend of mine several times because she's always spouting something catchy, and she rolls her eyes at me. But she's a good friend and she tolerates it.)

Ever purposefully listened to some acquaintance or co-worker (or did a quick rewind on a scene in a movie) because you just caught something about that person - their mannerisms or voice - that might help you with characterization?

Ever been on vacation to a colorful city or a beautiful National Park and find yourself mulling over the possibility of using it for a setting? (This happens to me a lot because I am by trade a geographer. I am trained to look for the shape of the land, and the culture, and unique things that stand out)

Ever sat down and spent several minutes really studying an object - a room in a house, a person's picture, a flower - so you can be sure you avoid cliched description and produce something original?

I wish I did all this more often - that I had more of an observant eye (and ear) that I could catch more of all the rich details that pass before me. Not only does it enrich my writing, but I think it also really enriches life in general. Life is in the details/writing is in the (specific) details.

How do you "see" as a writer? Does your job/hobby/other passion give you a different perspective as a writer?

Here's a few writing blogs I've discovered lately that got me thinking about how writers see/hear the world.

Punk Writer Kid has a humorous take on eyes, not just how writers describe eyes but the eyes of the writers themselves

Annie Jones Joy Writing Through Life posts about the importance of listening. Awesome quote: "If you want to produce something worth putting out into the world, you have to stop and take in that world"

At Rants and Ramblings, Rachelle Gardner interviews author Dave Cullen, who says "to get to know each of your main and secondary characters, spend time writing in the first person of each of them. Write their journals. Listen to their music, watch the movies and TV shows they watch."

A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing. I'm sure I'd see the world & writing differently as brain scientist, rather than as a geographer.

Seeing Creative. A photographer's take on writing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Analyzing Soulless, by Gail Carriger

This is my first foray into the steampunk genre. Middle grade and young adult are my favorite genres, but it's nice to mix in some more sophisticated writing once in a while.

I looked up some definitions of steampunk, and it's sort of a spin off of cyperpunk. Where cyperbunk is science fiction and high-tech and near-future, steampunk sort of goes in the reverse direction - into the past. It is often an alternative history, re-inventing the steam engine era in the 1800's as a high-tech era.

Soulless is more steampunk fantasy than SF. It creates a new version of Victorian England where vampires and werewolves have been accepted into society - even high society. It revolves around two splendid main characters, the supernatural Lord Maccon and the preternatural Miss Tarrabotti (preternatural being a sort of anti-supernatural, or antidote to supernatural powers). The story has a host of outrageous secondary characters, and a mystery involving known vampires disappearing and new vampires appearing who are breaking all of society's rules.

Changeless, the sequel to Soulless, just came out and immediately shot to the best seller lists, which caught my attention. A best seller in an unusual genre like steampunk? I just had to check it out.

What's so special about Soulless that has people racing to buy its sequel as soon as it comes out?

Soulless has three big things going for it: 1) humorous and outrageous characters 2) humorous and witty dialogue and narrative voice 3) a humorous, outrageous and witty twist on Victorian English society.

I am almost positive that fans of Jane Austen will be amused by this book. It's Austen all over again, but in steampunk style, with her witty observations on society and over-the-top characters. For instance, Miss Tarrabotti has is cursed with a mama and two sisters that reminded me very much of Elizabeth Bennett's mother and her two youngest, silliest sisters. She has a best friend with an affinity for horribly unfashionable hats and another friend, a vampire, who is the absolute anti-thesis of Edward Cullen, which should provide millions of jaded Twilight fans with some much needed comic relief (though this is definitely an adult novel; I wish someone had warned me about the s*x scene at the end of the book).

This little snippet give you an idea of Miss Tarrabotti's character:

Many a gentleman had likened his first meeting with her to downing a very strong cognac when one was expecting to imbibe fruit juice - that is to say, startling and apt to leave one with a distinct burning sensation.
The characters alone make this a fun novel, but the combination of great characters and great dialogue/narrative are what puts it up into best-seller status.

Scenes where Miss Tarrabotti and Lord Maccon exchange dialogue reminded me a bit of the excellent repartee between Jane and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.

Alexia Tarrabotti: "I did not do anything. You opened the door. I simply fell out of it. A man was attacking me with a wet handkerchief. What else was I supposed to do?"

Lord Maccon could not say much in response to such an outlandish defense. So he merely repelated, "A wet handkerchief?"

Miss Tarrabotti crossed her arms and nodded mutinously. Then, in typical Alexia fashion, she opted to go on the attack. She had no idea what it was about Lord Maccon that always made her so inclined, but she went with the impulse, perhaps encouraged by her Italian blood. "What just a moment now! How did you find me here? Have you been following me?"

Lord Maccon had the good grace to look sheepish - if a werewolf can be said to look sheepish. "I do not trust vampire hives," he grumbled, as though that were an excuse. "I told you not to come. Didn't I tell you not to come? Well, look what happened."

"I would have you know I was perfectly safe in that hive. It was only when I left that things went all" - she waved a hand airily - "squiffy."

"Exactly!" said the earl. "You should go home and stay instead never go out again."

He sounded so serious Alexia laughed.
Most of the dialogue is interspersed with narrative voice, mostly from Miss Tarrabotti's point of view, but with occasional jumps to Maccon's point of view or even a secondary character. You know you are in the hands of an excellent writer that she can manage to pull off these rapid shifts in point of view, sometimes even verging on an omniscient view, without jarring the reader.

I'm not sure exactly, but I think the author is able to pull it off because the narrative voice is so strong: a tone of English propriety that is slightly sarcastic or self-mocking... and funny. So she can afford to give authorial perspective or dip into someone else's perspective occasionally if it adds a bit to the delightfully twisted vision of a proper Victorian lady, such as Alexia's mama "worrying about London being suddenly overrun with werewolves, ghosts, and vampires, and her husband fraternizing with them all."

Here's the opening paragraph of the story, which immediately sets the tone or voice of the book:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarrabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.
Such a strong voice obviously forgives, as is apparent in this case, the use of passive tense.

Can anybody recommend any other books that take a well-established tone and deliciously twist it, like Gail Carriger has done?
Click here to see other books that I've tried to analyze for their writing craft.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

First sentence: hook or gimmick?

I discovered a first sentence/hook contest at Mysteries and Margaritas. The fun thing about this contest is that it's progressive - The first 50 entries get to have their first sentences posted for review. 20 will get culled, and the remaining 30 get to submit their last sentence of their first chapter and this will also be posted. After another 20 get cut, the remaining ten will get to submit a three-line blurb about their book and that gets posted too for everyone to comment on.

I'm not sure if I'm going to enter but I'll definitely be checking out the submissions and the comments and I expect to learn a lot.

I've been re-reading The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman, and I found this interesting perspective on hooks:

Most writers think hooks need to be intense, eye catching. This is a misconception and often what results is overcompensation. On the contrary, the job of the hook is to set the tone for the book; if your opening line is intense, you set yourself up for a hard act to follow. What's impressive to the professional reader is not initial intensity but maintained intensity.... It shows a manuscript well thought out, instead of unfolding off the top of a writer's head. Ironically, I often find that manuscripts with more subtle openings end up being the best; the opening line may less shocking, but I am also not set up then disappointed by what follows. These writers don't write an opening for the sake of an opening, but for the sake of the story that follows. There is a world of difference between the two.

The author points out that the last line of the first chapter can also be a hook, which lines up with the intention of the contest mentioned above.

With all the emphasis on hook these days, I found this author's perspective very interesting. First lines/last lines are a lot of fun to read and comment on and they make for easy, fun contests. But does it place too much emphasis on stand-alone sentences?

What do you think with all the buzz about first/last sentences? Genuine hooks or gimmicks?
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