Saturday, December 31, 2011

My favorite books read in 2011

Check out my top ten list to see which book features a character similar to this eye-candy shot of Ben Barnes in Victorian gear... that I'd happily travel back in time for!

There's no better way for this book lover to close out 2011 with a list of her favorite books read this year. 62 books is a new record for me and a big pool to choose from. 

Here's my top ten list, and there's another more creative list after that!

10. Wildwood Dancing, Juliet Marillier (YA historical fantasy)

Not just a fairytale retelling, this is fairytale fusion set in historical Transylvania. Rich with tension between two worlds and a double love story.

9. Changeless, Gail Carriger (Steampunk)

A worthy sequel to Soulless, with an indomitable Victorian heroine and more delightfully wicked repartee between Alexia and Lord Maccon. I found the picture of Ben Barnes as Lord Maccon, your not so typical Scottish werewolf gentleman,  on a Pinterest wall devoted to this series. I will definitely be reading the rest of the books. The series is Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless and Timeless (comes out in 2012).

8. Wings / Spells / Illusions, Aprilynne Pike (YA paranormal)

I usually only read one series book a year, even when they are available. This one was a rule-breaker. It's a love triangle, human/human/faery (with a pretty weird/awesome twist on faeries) and I am sooooo Team Tamani. Anxious for next and final book.

7. Iron King, Iron Daughter, Iron Queen, Iron Knight - by Julie Kagawa

Okay, I lied. This is another rule-breaker series, and another one, strangely enough, about faeries. But in this case it's the world-building that won me over with the stark contrast between the steampunkish iron fey and the sinister beauty of the summer/winter fey.

6. Unearthly, Cynthia Hand (YA paranormal)
Very memorable characters that keep you guessing, based on an angel mythology with a realistic feel, and set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (wow). Will definitely read sequels.

5. Beauty, Robin McKinley (YA fantasy)

A retelling of Beauty and the Beast, written in the 70's, but an enduring classic. Disney, you sure stole a lot of Robin's great ideas for your movie! But the romance is even more wonderful in the book, and there are a lot more magical details.

4. A Northern Light, Jennifer CDonnelly (YA historical)

A sophisticated and gripping emotional arc set alongside a murder mystery. Superbly layered subplots. A fantastic array of characters, and it left me with a new appreciation for dictionaries and "word wars."

The last three are a tie, I really can't pick which was my favorite - and all three of them go on my all time favorites list. The really interesting thing is that my top three aren't YA (which is my usual favorite, if you couldn't tell from the list above). Another bizarre fact: I absolutely LOVE love stories but my top three weren't love stories. I surprise myself.

1, 2 or 3: The Help, Kathryn Stockett (Literary)

Two black maids from the 1960s, Aibileen and Minnie, and the white girl, Skeeter who wants to tell their stories. Oh, the stories! 

1, 2 or 3: Holes, Louis Sachar (MG)

The most unusual, scary, and satisfying summer camp-for-kids story ever. The way everything comes together at the end makes you want to stand up and cheer.

1, 2 or 3: Pegasus, Robin McKinley (MG fantasy)

A best friend with wings, amazing world-building, clash between cultures. Slow pace, but I savored every moment because it's loaded with interesting details, insight and lots of heart. Desperate for the sequel! (I gushed out almost 2000 words in my Goodreads review of this book!)

Here's my second list, (the idea shamelessly stolen from Sophia Richardson's list) which gives me the opportunity to list some great runner-ups. 

Most Envy-Inducing Plot: Starcrossed, Josephine Angelini (YA paranormal)
Deliciously unrequited love and beautiful superpowers with a great modern twist on ancient Greek myths and a humorous twist on the kryptonite idea. Will read sequel. And I LOOOVVVVVVEEEEEEE this cover!

Most Wonderful World-Building: Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (YA steampunk)
Two kids on different sides of a alternative history steampunk war have to rely on each other to survive. Plus a bunch of amazingly creative creatures and machines.Will read sequels.

Scariest World: Divergent, Veronica Roth (YA dystopian)
Do you have to be violent to prove your bravery? Tris discovers that ordinary acts of bravery are the greatest of all in this riveting futuristic tale with lots of hair-raising jumping off buildings and trains.

Loveliest Prose: Lady in Waiting, Susan Meissner (Christian)
There are actually two ladies in waiting: present day Jane, waiting for her husband to return, and Lady Jane Grey,  who sat on the throne of England in the 1500's for all of nine days before being de-throned. The parallel stories are beautifully framed with symbols and prose and plenty of page-turning tension.

Best First Line: Daddy said, “Let mom go first.”
Across the Universe, Beth Revis (YA SF)
Exquisitely plotted book with an eerie trapped-in-a-space ship setting.

Most Dynamic Main Character(s): From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (MG)
It's classic, it's funny, it's set in the after hours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Claudia and James are clever but vulnerable, a great brother/sister love/hate pair.

Best new paranormal creature: Shifting, Bethany Wiggins (YA paranormal)
Navajo skinwalkers. Maggie can shift into a cheetah - how cool is that? And other things as well - you gotta see what happens when she tries to shift into a mythical creature!

Most enticing time to travel back to: To Ride the God's Own Stallion, Diane Lee Wilson (MG)
Set in ancient Assyria -  Oh my gosh the lion hunts!  - destined to become a classic horse story for kids.

Most Jaw-Dropping Finale Falling Under, Gwen Hayes (YA paranormal)
End with an unexpected twist that make you go, "No way!!! How is that going to work????" but yet it DOES work. So very well. This book also rates HIGH for great non-cliche characters and heart-pounding romantic tension. 

Most Heartbreaking Scene: I Am Number Four, Pitticus Lore (YA SF/paranormal)
A teenage Superman, his mentor, and alien conspiracies. One of the best scenes I have EVER read. The protagonist is recalling violent memories of his people being destroyed, juxtaposed with his mentor/protector describing his wife and the reasons why he loved her so much. Powerful.

Most anticipated 2012 release: The Archived, Victoria Schwab. Oh wait, I have to wait until 2013???
A teenage girl must return the restless, ghost-like Histories of the dead to their rightful place in a labyrinthine supernatural library known as the Archive. When more Histories begin to wake and escape, she must stop the doors between the worlds of the living and dead from breaking open, all without falling victim to a beguiling History who is more human – and more disarmingly attractive – than the others.

What were your favorite reads of 2011?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A mythical creature Christmas

I love stories about mythical creatures, and I love Christmas. So as I was brainstorming to share something about Christmas that doesn't sound trite or oft-repeated, I tried one of the new tricks in my creative bag - take something ordinary and familiar (Christmas is certainly familiar, though maybe not so ordinary when you consider the source of it) and something not-so-ordinary... mythical creatures. 

So here's some Christmas fun I came up with when I threw some mythical creatures into the mix:

~ A stable full of mythical creatures instead of farm animals. Replace the cattle with gryffins, donkeys with pegasi, sheep with sphinx, and doves with a pair of phoenix. Imagine the surprise of the wise men and shepherds when they arrive! But no dragons, please: a stable is too flammable

~ a werewolf that changes into a flying were-deer on Christmas eve

~ a vampire whose skin turns shimmery when he's caught out in the open on Christmas day. Instead of shimmering like diamonds, he's multi-colored like a Christmas tree

~ a light-up unicorn horn for a tree-topper

~ sirens singing Christmas Carols and enchanting hordes of holiday shoppers

~ mermaids slurping eggnog

~ Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into endless Christmas presents, complete with wrapping and bows

I love all the old fashioned traditions of Christmas too. My kids and I make Christmas cookies ever year, get pictures with Santa, open advent calendars together, re-watch all the great old (and new) Christmas movies, and always go to a candlelight Christmas service. I love how you can point all the old traditions (even Santa/Father Christmas in a round-about way) back to the source of it all: Jesus becoming a man, coming to earth not as a king but as baby born in a humble stable, to grow up among us and live as we do. 

But isn't it fun to add new twists to old beloved traditions, too? What mythical creature would you add to your holiday season for fun?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 debut authors and why I picked them to read

Here's a list of the 2011 debut authors this year that I read, and what made me pick them to read. I'm really curious what draws people to books by authors they aren't familiar with. I know a lot of it is recommendations, but when a first time author's book comes out, personal recommendations take a while to accumulate. None of these books had personal recommendations by anyone I know (other than general blog buzz in some cases). 

12 out of 14 of them are young adult titles (I'm writing YA right now), and a majority are paranormal or SF which are the genres I write in, so that was part of my motivation. But here's some more specific reasons why I picked them:

1. Unearthly, Cynthia Hand (YA Paranormal)
Set in Wyoming, my home state - this always makes me curious. Also it had very high ratings on the Goodreads 2011 Debut Books list. 

2. Falling Under, by Gwen Hays (YA paranormal)
Amazing first chapter with a strong voice, I discovered it while researching an agent.

3. Starcrossed, Josephine Angelini (YA paranormal)
Couldn't resist when it was billed as Percy Jackson for the YA world.

4. Divergent, Veronica Roth. (YA dystopian)
Blog buzz, high ratings. First chapter had similar voice to the Hunger Games.

5. Across the Universe, Beth Revis. (YA dystopian)
Blog buzz, high ratings. First chapter TOTALLY hooked me.

6. Fairer Than Morning, Rosslyn Elliot (Christian historical)
Love her blog and her comments so I wanted to support her. The book's premise did not intrigue me initially, but boy was I pleasantly surprised. 

7. Shifting, Bethany Wiggins (YA paranormal).
Interesting premise (have always loved shapeshifters), plus she was one of the first to comment on my blog. Never underestimate the power of a positive comment!

8. Bestest. Ramadan. Ever., Medeia Sharif (YA contemporary)
Interesting premise in a culture I haven't read about before. A prolific blogger, commenter, and reader - another case where I wanted to support the author. 

9. Possession, Elana Johnson  (YA dystopian)
A prolific blogger and she does does SO MUCH for others, so this was a small thing to do in return, and well worth it for the entertainment. I lucked out getting an ARC but if I hadn't I would have bought it anyway. 

10. Like Mandarin, Kristen Hubbard (YA contemporary)
Tempted me because it is set in Wyoming, my home state, and the premise (good girl/bad girl friendship) resonated with me.

11. The Near Witch, Victoria Schwab (YA paranormal).
Free e-galley. It had a slow start and I wouldn't have finished it, but a blogger buddy said it was worth finishing. I guess this is one case where I did get a personal recommendation, but not initially. Anyway, she was right. It had a riveting ending and I am definitely buying the author's next book even though it's not a sequel. 

12. Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, Nathan Bransford (MG)
Admired his blog very much. He asked his blog readers to buy his book as a return favor if they got a lot of useful stuff from his blog (which I did) (boy did his request raise some controversy though!).

13. Timeless, Alexandra Monir (YA with time twist - not sure if that qualifies it as paranormal or historical or what!)
I pretty much can't resist anything with a time twist!

14. XVI, Julia Karr (YA dystopian)
Blog buzz, controversial premise, and strong first chapter.

Of these 14 books, 10 of them I enjoyed so much I'll definitely read more books by that author.

Though these were actually 2010 debuts, I also wanted to mention Eldala by Michele Gregory  (high fantasy) and Life, Liberty and Pursuit by Susan Kaye Quinn (YA contemporary). I bought these to support two blogging friends, but I will definitely buy more books by these authors - the books were very enjoyable. (Susan just published her second book - Open Minds).
2011 debut authors I'm still planning to read:

Shatter Me - Tahereh Mafi (YA dystopian)
Blog buzz and unusual first chapter. Surprisingly low on the Goodreads 2011 Debut list after all the hype. Admired her funny, honest, heart-felt blog posts, so that helped too. Hope she gets back to posting regularly. 

Legend, Marie Lu. (YA dystopian)
Interesting premise, combined with one of my favorite plots: enemies cross paths and discover reasons not to hate each other after all. Highly recommended by blogging friend Elizabeth Briggs.

Clockwise, Elle Strauss (YA paranormal)
Interesting premise, blog buzz. Can't resist time travel, and it had GREAT logline: A teenage time traveler accidentally takes her secret crush back in time. Awkward.

Die for Me, Amy Plum (YA paranormal)
Interesting premise (sort of a take-off on guardian angels but with a dark twist), high anticipation and high ratings. Doesn't hurt that its set in Paris.

Saving Redwind, Kris Yankee (MG)
Interesting premise (discovering a world within the wallpaper of a kid's room), blog buzz

The Latte Rebelllion, Sarah Jamila Stevenson (YA contemporary)
Won in a contest but I would have picked it up anyway based on its premise: a girl starts a movement in support of mixed race students which gets out of control.

Screwing up Time, C.M. Keller.
Interesting premise (a girl from the Middle Ages kidnaps a present-day high school senior back in time with her). The author is a blogging friend. 

Coming soon: my Top 10 reads from 2011 (a couple of these debut books made the list!)

So, I'm really curious. What reasons tempt you to try out a brand new author without a track record?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deja Vu: How Writers Found their Voice

DL Hammond, Katie Mills (Creepy Query Girl), Lydia Kang, and Nicole Ducleroir team up to bring you the Deja Vu blogfest, where 160 of us (at last count) will re-post their favorite blog offering, or one that never received the exposure it should have.

Mine received fairly good exposure, actually I was surprised that most of my commenters back in  August of 2010 are still around, and we are still faithfully visiting each other! This one is simply one of my most favorite posts. I had so much fun putting it together, and learned a lot in the process. Without further ado, I present:

How writers found their voice: real examples

I've been collecting any articles I find on voice because of all the aspects of writing craft, this one is the most mysterious to me. (12/16/11 update: yes, it's still mysterious to me. My voice shows up occasionally, but I'm not sure where it comes from, or how genuine it is).

Here's an excerpt from agent Rachelle Gardner's What is writer's voice?:

Your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.... It's a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you're-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self.
Rachelle asked "what are some ways you find your unique writer's voice?" From the comments, I found some patterns pop out with the methods that people use. Here's what I learned. I hope it's okay to reprint some of the comments (attributed, of course) and to give them my own labels!

The brute force method:
Finding your voice is a lot...(a LOT) of really, really, really bad free-writing and first drafts. (Kellye Parish)
Write. Everyday, all the time. Write about the weather, the funny man on the corner, your boss. Write about that idea where people's heads turn into eggplants. Write articles, diaries, fiction, poetry. (Mesmerix)

The "go back to your roots" method:
When I reach back to the unique events that defined me, my voice comes roaring back. Because I'm already so familiar with what happened, I can use this writing to push my voice to the forefront. This allows me to go back to work with my voice all warmed up. (Ida M. Olson)

The "love that feeling" method:
As my husband or critique partner read my manuscript, I notice when they love certain chapters or sections of the story and when they don't love certain sections as much. And when I go back through those sections, I realize that those chapters sound like... well, me. This goes for blogging as well. I think the blog posts that are an honest portrayal of me and my passions, I hear my own voice. The trick, now, is to make sure that passion and self comes out in everything I write not just certain sections of it. (Heather Sunseri)

I know that I have found my voice when I re-read what I have written and it makes me laugh, cry, or feel some sort of emotion. (Teenage Bride)

The "experimental" method:
One thing that helped me find the voice I didn't know I had was writing in a different tense. When I switched to present tense, what a difference! For other writers, it might be a change of genre that brings out their voice. I think it might be like using a different filter in photography. Sometimes the one you use the least can make the colors pop. (Debbie Maxwell Allen)

The "find your vision/view" method:
Voice... is about two things: your vision of the world (that is, what's outside of you), and your ability to communicate that vision in language. You can find your vision of the world by doing a lot of writing, even more reading--and by thinking about how you see things. (Barbara Baig)

If we describe our mind's view in words, then we have found our voice. (David Amburgey)

The "non-conformist" method:
We all have a somewhat unique voice, but for it to be unique enough to stand out comes from the attitude of the author. If you want a unique voice you’ve got to blow everyone else off and be a nonconformist. (Timothy Fish)

Here's a bunch of other articles on voice I've collected over the past few months.

the Write Power: Finding your voice Helpful variations of the ones described above.

Livia Blackburne: Voice finding techniques. More suggestions.

Janice Hardy (Storyflip): some simple help for voice. This one helps you strengthen voice while you are editing.

Chip MacGregor: Finding your writing voice. Suggests imitating others to start with (though most will tell you NOT to do this!)

Men with Pens: Finding your writing voice. Includes nine different exercises to try! I'm slowly working my way through them.

Nathan Bransford: How to craft great voice. In response to one of the comments, Nathan also gives good advice on how you know WHEN you've found your voice: "I think voice is there when it's adjustable. Can you dial up or down certain elements? Can you hear it in your head? In other words, is it enough of an entity that you can think of it apart from the elements it's describing?"

So now that I've regurgitated all sorts of information I've discovered, here's my one teeny tiny experience with searching for voice that actually resulted in success.


Go back and read the stuff you never intended for anyone to read. The parts where I'm venting about something are the best, and likewise when my character is venting about something that's when I get the strongest voice.

Ha ha, not sure what that says about me as a person? Never mind. In my next writing session, I'm going to VENT!

And if that doesn't work, I'm going to over-caffeinate myself into hyperactivity and then strap myself to my chair and see what happens if there is a keyboard close enough to reach. I like to think that's how T.H. Mafi developed her voice.

8/11/10 update - TH Mafi just posted on voice! I knew she felt my desperate call at some deep inner level. 

12/16/11 update:  a few more excellent posts on voice I've collected in the past year. 
Got YA: the A HA moment with voice
Ingrid Sundberg: Your voice is your voice: keeping it real
Alexandra Sokoloff: That elusive voice
The Bookself Muse: Voice tips from the pros
Shrinking Violets Promotions: Your wild and precious voice and More about story voice and Speaking your voice in your writing
Zen Habits: finding your voice - from an unusual source
Children's Literature Network: many different sources on voice
Kristen Lamb: Ways to develop your unique writing voice

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Creative Process - Board Game Style


Go ahead and click on this image to see it full size, because reading all the tiny signs is half the fun.

But if straining to read small print isn't your cup of tea, here are the highlights:

You are the red truck in the image, with your idea strapped into the bed of the truck.

From the START position, you have three choices:

1. the Express Route: a short-cut to success if you have natural talent. If not, then hit a brick wall

2. the Self Doubt route: immediate crash and burn

3. the Scenic Route:

On the Scenic Route, first you have to ask yourself, Has this been done before? ("Who cares" is an option, but it goes into an underground tunnel, from which there is no apparent route back to the surface).

Next you pass obstacles like the Internet, and signs like Lazy.

Then you have to get past the turn off for "Comparing Yourself to Others". If you go that route, you end up in an infinite loop.

You have to go through a long, winding journey of Reconsider, Rework, Rewrite, Revise and Rethink, and remember to stop at the Motivation gas station along the way to Refill.

Then you have to go over the Bridge of Critics.

From here it's easy to get off on the Ramp of Overthinking, which will take  you into a dizzying death spiral.

Or you could drop your work off at Self Storage for a while, because Maybe You'll Just Revisit this later.

But if you get past those, now finally you are in the homestretch. You pass the bleachers where Friend and Family cheer you on, and another bleacher for Peer Support, where there is only one person sitting, not terribly enthusiastic.

You arrive at the end, where your creative project is on DISPLAY for the whole world to see.

Did you notice the "what a piece of crap" guy? (one out of seven).

So the blogger who posted this image had some other good thoughts on creativity, and one of the commenters came up with something very quotable:

Thermodynamics of Creativity: creativity is like gas, it’s random thoughts whizzing around. You put some structure around it and it becomes a fluid. It’s useful. You can do something with it. But don’t get bogged down in rules and formulas, then you cool the whole momma down and you’re left with this big solid institution. Stay fluid. Done.
Here's another quote that made me pause and think. This one is from Twelve Things You Were Never Taught in School About Creative Thinking.

Creativity is paradoxical. To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing as information incubates, must create many ideas yet most of them are useless, must look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different, must desire success but embrace failure, must be persistent but not stubborn, and must listen to experts but know how to disregard them.

What would you add to the creative process board game? 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hobbit holes, reveals, and revision quotes

Things that struck me this week (no bruises, fortunately):

1) In response to  my last post about highly desirable writing/reading nooks, Angelica Jackson left a comment with a link to a bunch more great images of dreamy writing spaces collected by Kate Hart. Here's an adorable converted closet I could almost afford to do on my own! Slightly less affordable, but still very enticing to writers, there's a company that builds hobbit holes in Britain, starting at a mere 8000 pounds.

2) Refreshing what you know is a good thing. If you've been working on your writing craft for a while, it's easy to think you've got all the basics covered. Really? Janice Hardy reminds us how much we all need refreshing.

3) Writers are sort of like stri*pers. 
Okay, revealers is probably a better term. I came to this conclusion after reading this great Moody Writing post. Here's a snippet (but read the whole thing for a great example - he makes such an excellent point!).

Your job is NOT to write how that character deals with that situation. Your job is to write how that character deals with that situation in a way that reveals who they are to the reader.

4) How to write more efficiently and enthusiastically. This has been all over the web (I found it at Erica and Christy's first), but it's still worth mentioning. I still highly doubt I could ever achieve writing 10,000 words in one day, but this article makes me at least want to try!

5) How does Laura Marcella do it? She keeps turning up amazingly relevant quotes. This week's batch is  revision. quotes. Here's my favorite.

I love revisions. Where else in life can spilled milk be transformed into ice cream?
{Katherine Paterson}

6) I took my twin girls to Arthur Christmas for their 5th birthday. I might have loved the movie more than them. I think of it sort of as "Santa Claus meets Star Trek". Or maybe Mission Impossible. Either way, you have to see it to find out what Santa does when stranded in the Serengeti. FIVE STARS. It switched my bah humbug mood into Merry Christmas mood.

Are you feeling bah humbug during this over-commercialized season, or are you merrying your way along?

Oh, and Janet Sumner Johnson has a great Christmas controversy going: The Grinch vs. The Christmas Carol. Go vote!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Magical Revolving Writing (or Reading) Chair

 I love when people post pictures of their writing spaces. It makes me feel creative just seeing other places where people write, what they surround themselves with for inspiration, motivation or practical use. I've never posted pictures of my space, because my laptop, Lizzie, and I move around a lot - I don't have a desk or a favorite place. I collect everything that inspires me, motivates me and helps me right here on my blog.

If I did have a favorite writing or reading place, it would be a magical revolving chair (inspired by Laura Pauling's magical traveling beach house). I'd press a button on the armrest and it would spin around (not too fast, because I wouldn't want to lose hold of my laptop or my book) and transport me to anyone of these locations:

A loft full of books and light (source)
A cozy place under the stairs (source)

A window seat with a beautiful garden outside (source)

Or a conservatory (source) like this one or just about any place that turns up when I google "images conservatory"

Or a by a luxurious fireplace like this one (source)

Or a hobbit hole - this is for real! - some one actually built this! (source)

 The inside of the hobbit hole:

And since it's a magical chair, it could even transport me to a fantasy world just like the one I'm writing or reading about - like this one! (source)

Which one is your favorite? Or what setting would you add?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How powerful the written word

Someday I want to be one of those writers that writes pep-talks for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). They are my trail of breadcrumbs that I follow through the month of November. They are a legit reason to open my browser and pause from writing for a while, because they always end with that gentle nudge (or not so gentle push) - okay, you've had your break, now get back to writing.

Okay, I admit, I open my browser lots of other times during writing. Last night, with 2000 words still to write and only four hours before midnight of November 30, a reference to an amoeba appeared in my writing and prompted a 10 minute break on Wikipedia to read up on amoebas (all to make sure the ONE sentence that had the word amoeba in it was a good analogy).

But, I made it! I wrote 50,228 words in November, and a story that started as a dream when I was teenager has now finally become a book. (Well, a first draft, at any rate). Update: here in 2011 my WIP was called "Seeing Through Dreams"). About a year later the title changed to Star Tripped.

But it's real now. It was just a bunch of images in my head and now it's taken on flesh and blood. Actually something even more permanent than flesh and blood, because isn't it FREAKY how powerful written words are? Some of them have lasted for millennium and are STILL being read.

Back to pep-talks (sorry, my brain is a bit fried from the past month and jumping all over the place). I want to share a couple quotes from my favorite pep talk this year, by an author named Chris Cleave. I've discovered several great authors via NaNoWriMo pep-talks. Never heard of this guy before but I'll be heading to the library shortly (it's been forbidden territory during November) and looking for his book, Little Bee (but probably not his other book, Incendiary. I'm not sure, as a mom, if I could handle that one).

Great NaNoWriMo writing quotes from Chris Cleave (you can read his full pep-talk here). 

The good [writing] days are when you perform; the slow days are when you learn to perform better. The only bad days as a writer are the ones when you are too cowardly or too lazy to sit down at the keyboard and give it everything you have.

We live in an age when the war for hearts and minds is considered just as vital as the war for territory on the battlefield. In a world where ideas hold so much power, a writer is on civilization’s front line. To become a writer, therefore, is a serious business. It requires a commitment to move from passively absorbing your cultural tradition to informing it. That’s a significant transformation...

Unless you have more natural talent than I do, then it’s not necessarily enough time [one month] to produce a perfected novel. But if you write out of your skin every day then it is enough time to learn your own mental geography and to make the jump to a new way of writing. 
Oh, the map geek in me just went wild! He speaks of mental geography! Oh, my Romeo! (whoa there, middle-aged momma)

Here's another paragraph I just about swooned over:
It doesn’t matter what genre you write in. All literature is transformative. To make people laugh; to tell a light-hearted romantic story; to let intelligent readers forget their troubles for an hour in the absence of the politicians and the money men who make our lives hell – these are some of the hardest feats to accomplish as a writer, and some of the most serious political acts you can perform. You don’t have to be a Serious Writer to be a serious writer. I once read a beautiful paragraph about teenage vampires – teenage vampires, for goodness’ sake – that moved me more than all of Hemingway. You don’t need to be trying to change the world in order to change someone’s world. What you need is to be seriously committed to your work. 
This one made me laugh:
A novel is a living thing and it resists containment within the structures we erect for it. Even worse, the novel has intelligence and it will inevitably turn against its creator. Think of it like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. The problem is that a good character in a novel will reach a point of maturity where he or she is not necessarily biddable.

In which Chris confirms he's a panster, not a plotter (but I forgive him, and might even partially admit he's right):
...The job of a novelist is to explore human emotion and motivation. You learn more about your protagonists as you write them. If you are not very often forced by your characters to bin your masterplan, then you are a wooden and a formulaic writer indeed.So, better than having a planned structure is to begin with a character or two, and a theme you intend to explore, and an initial direction you plan to start exploring in. 
I've had that perfectly plotted outline get tromped all over by my characters taking off in rebel directions, too. What do you think? Confine your character to the plot, or let them go?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Keeping open minds

“Books open your mind, broaden your mind, and strengthen you as nothing else can.”  ~ William Feather

Susan Kaye Quinn's book Open Minds is available today, November 1 - to celebrate she is hosting a Virtual Launch Party. Leave a comment on any of her Party posts (including this one!) or tweet about #keepingOpenMinds, and you qualify to win one of several prizes.

The title, Open Minds, has a double-meaning. The main character, Kira, has a disability: she's unable to read minds or have her thoughts read by others in her world. It means she is branded as untrustworthy because she can keep her thoughts secret. She doesn't have an "open mind" - and yet she's treated with intolerance by mind-readers, who refuse to have an "open mind" or understanding of her situation.

I loved Susan's description of truly open minds:
Open minds treat you with respect, instead of snubbing you for being too strange or too new or too foreign or too shy.
Open minds are compassionate, giving you a hand up when you are down, instead of pretending they don't see your pain or piling on when the pack attacks.
Open minds accept you, treating you like the flawed, unique, wonderful person that you are, instead of judging you by your looks, skin color, or accent.

In the same post Susan also shared her own #keepingOpenMinds story - a situation where someone she least expected turned out to be open-minded and encouraging about her desire to become an astronaut. Her story inspired me to share my own #keepingOpenMinds story.

My mom comes from a large family - seven siblings who don't have the greatest reputation for getting along. Mom has always been the peace-keeper in the family. Sometimes I wonder why she keeps trying; I feel dizzy trying to keep track of who is angry at who and for what reason. There was one particular time when one of her siblings reacted in a way that upset the rest of the family, including me. But my mom remained a staunch supporter.

"How could you?" I asked her. "After what he/she did?"

"Take a moment and look at the background behind the situation," my mother told me. She explained some of the history of her sibling's marriage and some things the spouse had been through, too. This history had a lot to do with the way my mom's sibling reacted. It really opened my eyes (and my mind). 

For the first time, that old adage "don't a judge a person unless you've taken the time to walk in their shoes" sunk in with me. It stirred compassion in my heart, and helped me to listen more and judge less in many other situations since then - in my family, my husband's family, in work situations and other situations.

I also believe, like the quote at the top of this post, that reading helps develop open minds - because you are exposed to so many situations in reading (many that you encounter in real life and many you may not yet have encountered). You get to hear the characters' take on these situations, sometimes multiple characters seeing the situation from different angles, and you see why they react the way they do.

We live in a big world with so much to learn and discover. So many people and all of them unique and valuable in some way. All the differences may seem overwhelming and intimidating, but we can overcome fearfulness with compassion and with an attitude of delighting to learn more by seeing the world through other peoples' perspectives. 

Yay for #keepingOpenMinds! You can read the first chapter of Open Minds here, it's amazing and mesh. (You gotta read it to know what "mesh" means). I can't wait to read more.

Some other #keepingOpenMinds stories are shared today by:

S.B. Stuart-Laing (from Glasgow Scotland!)

A quick personal note - NaNoWriMo starts today so I'll be taking a break from the blog until December. But, I got one last post in - my very first GUEST POST!!!!! - today, over at T.L. Conway's blog. I posted on why I love NaNoWriMo so much, with lots of gushy gushing and enthusing and maybe one realistic "oh what have I gotten myself into" moment too. Please stop by!

Back to #keepingOpenMinds. Have you ever been in a situation where someone could have judged you, but instead, they listened to you or encouraged you?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blogging is not a waste of time

I do worry sometimes that my time online is not productive.

I think we should be wise how much time we spend online, especially if it has the potential to interrupt real-world relationships.

And for fiction writers, I think we should write first and blog later.

But in the end, blogging gives back more in fun, inspiration, help, camaraderie, and motivation than it takes in terms of time.

Without an online community of writers, I wouldn't have found out about NaNoWriMo a few years ago. I've never seen it mentioned yet off-line, even though it's huge, with hundreds of thousands of people participating.

I've read (and applied) more helpful advice from blogs of writing professionals and amateurs in a year than I got from reading paper publications-that-shall-not-be named for many, many years. Primarily because you can immediately respond and get responses; it's not a one-way street. That makes it more meaningful, more valuable. Not sure exactly about the economics behind that, but I believe its true.

Other bloggers share their creativity and it is so cool how it sparks creativity in me, too. How we all bounce ideas and tips and blogfests and good reads and our bad days and good days around and off each other and it ends up being more than the sum of its parts.

Thank you Sophia Richardson for mentioning your idea of 30 pitches in 30 days and then following through with lots of great tips and experiences and, of course, pitches.

Thank you Katherine Owens for sharing that Edittorrent post (yes, this one here) and its ticking clock that sparked a HUGE flood of crazy-cool ideas for the NaNoWriMo outline I'm working on right now.

Thank you T.L. Conway for inviting me to write my VERY FIRST guest post in honor of NaNoWriMo - it's not 'til next week but check out the other great guests at her blog this week and next for the "Write What You NaNo" Blog Party.

Thank you Susan Kaye Quinn for getting me to think about #keepingOpenMinds (yippee! - come back for my #keepingOpenMinds post next Tuesday, November 1st!)

T.Y. Lisa Gail Green for paranormal analogies that make me bust my gut laughing and keep me taking notes at the same time.

Thx Saumya Dave for sharing thoughts and quotes and lessons learned and Audrey Hepburn pictures.

And Thank you Stina Lindenblatt for cool links and Old Kitty for Charlie pictures and Janet Johnson for all the awesome license plates and I could go on and on and on. And thank you kind readers for coming back to visit me and leave comments. I'm always amazed.

Not quite sure what prompted all the gushing. Really, all I meant to do was share one last pitch I came up with before I end the 30 pitches in 30 days blogfest (a few days early, I'm afraid) so I can focus all brain cells fiercely on last minute prep for NaNoWriMo. (Less than a week away!)

This last pitch was inspired by a Stuart Little first reader my seven-year-old daughter picked out, with a library owl in it. A library owl! Just go and combine two of my favorite things: libraries and talking animals! Put them together and presto: happiness and inspiration. And just when I was feeling a little guilty borrowing someone else's published idea to springboard my own imagination, here's a great post from Sophia Richardson that addresses just this very issue, pretty much guilt-free. 

So here's my last pitch, way too wordy, I know, but hey - it's a work in progress.
The library has its owl, the post office its possum, and the gym its very in-shape panther, but school's about to start and its guardian fox is missing. 12 yr old book worm Branden is sure one of his four-legged friends could fill in, but the pixies in the art room and the bullies on the playground have other ideas.

Back to gushing about blogging. I missed the Pay it Forward blogfest last week, but I guess the spirit of it reached me just the same. Please tell me some of your favorite blogs that keep you coming back for tips, inspiration, fun or friends. I'd love to visit them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The third character changes everything

I'm continuing to write pitches (one sentence loglines) for Sophia Richardson's 30 pitches in 30 days fest and discovering more pithy pitchy things and a cool character-driven plot tip. 

Last week I figured out that my ideas, if they weren't related to something I was excited about, couldn't evolve into a real pitch. They just sorta stayed in half-pitch limbo land (just like that brief and humiliating moment when my gym teacher wanted to see if I could pitch a ball).

So here's an example of a great pitch, from the movie Mrs. Doubtfire:

Crushed by a court order allowing only weekly visitation, irresponsible dad Daniel disguises himself as a nanny to spend more time with his kids. 
(Netflix is a great source of movie pitches like this one, btw. Also, google "Publishers Weekly previews" for some great one-line descriptions). 

Here's what my half-pitches were coming out like:
An impulsive girl takes on a dare to sign up for missionary boot camp and...


Anyhoo.... what I've learned this week in building my pitches was actually from a random comment a very helpful soul named William Greeley left on this StoryFix post:
Here is a plotting method that I got from Bernard Grebanier’s “Playwriting.” It does not work for everyone:

A story is about the relationship between two characters, the central character and a second character. The turning point is an action the central character takes on a third character that changes his relationship with the second character.

For instance... In “Romeo and Juliet”, when Romeo kills Tybalt, his relationship with Juliet is doomed.

Eureka! The third character changes everything.

So here is one pitch attempt I came up with this week when I played around with adding a third character:

When a prodigal daughter returns to her family, her bitter older sister tries to ruin her chances of rebuilding her life and complicates a budding romance with a mutual childhood friend. 

Ye-ah. Still needs some work. Which leads me to Sophia Richardson's pitch check-in post today, and how "only lazy thinkers have bad ideas. Everyone else just has ideas that haven't been played with enough."

She also has more pitchfest-related posts, one with great a genre-flipping idea and another one that points out that a better pitch is one where your character is taking an action instead of just having things happen to him/her.

Katherine Owens also checks into today with a pitch and clues about where she gets her ideas, and why letting ideas cook for a while is important. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One secret of successful Middle Grade fiction

Okay, it's not a secret. But I'm guessing it's not widely known. Because I'm such an expert on MG and all (not really) and I've been reviewing books/ reading reviews /reading MG/YA blogs for just barely a year and a half. But I haven't seen anyone mention this juicy little tidbit yet.

But now I'm going to be evil and insert a side note in here before spilling the juice. Oh sure, go ahead and scroll down, I'd do the same thing, but my evil insert is that I am also finally posting my first #WS4U progress report.

Sheri Larsen started the Writers Support For You group MONTHS ago with Tuesday check-ins, but y'all don't want to hear my complicated story of revision burn-out. I have a new project I'm outlining.  I will start the first draft of "Seeing Through Dreams" (update: title changed to Star Tripped) in November for NaNoWriMo, but in the meantime, I've been steadily accumulating notes, plot points, character inner conflicts, settings, and worms.

Yup, worms. Not earthworms. Another type altogether. Sort of my own very odd mythical creature invention. I promise they are not slimy.

But anyway, now that I've totally weirded you out, back to my awesome MG discovery.

So I just finished reading Holes, by Louis Sachar. Which I believe every person on the PLANET should read. Because it's just that great. (And, oh, I just realized, Holes kind of goes along with my worms idea. Worm holes.) (Sorry, I'll shut up about the worms now).
Now there are many things about Holes that are great. I could write a whole series of posts on the greatness of this book. But what I am focusing on here is what I also noticed in two other great MG books I've read recently, too:

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsberg.

The Mysterious Benedict Society,  by Trenton Lee Stuart.

What do all three great books have in common? The juicy "secret" (sort of) I discovered?

It's a variation of the plant and payoff technique that Laura Pauling clued me into a while back. Through out these stories, the author "plants" various amusing events, items, and odd but unrelated facts.

The sneakers in Holes, the peach sploosh, the onions, the yellow-spotted lizards, and even a notebook fished out of a toilet - none of these have anything to do with each other. Until the end.

And it's so cool how all the "plants" add up to a multi-faceted pay-off, like puzzle pieces suddenly fitting together. (Wow, I just outdid myself with that analogy there. Sooooo original.)

The other two books I mentioned also have delicious plant/pay-off treats. And you can't tell, until the end, what is actually a genuine "plant" versus a red-herring.

I'm sure it's not a technique limited to just MG, it's probably been adapted from the mystery genre, but there is definitely a fun MG twist to the plants and pay-off that these three books excel at (you see it a bit in the Harry Potter books, too, but not as fully realized).

I'm curious why I haven't seen this technique in the 68 YA books in my Goodreads "read" list. Yes, there are individual "plants" in YA (Across the Universe, by Beth Revis, is one I can think of right away) but nothing like this smorgasbord of plants that all tie together for a huge pay-off at the end in Holes.

Please share if you've encountered a book (any age range or genre) that has this great plant/pay-off technique! I'd love to find some more to read - they're addictive!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Ranch Next Door

I'm excited to host Elisabeth Foley here today, a blogging friend I met last year who was brave enough to answer my interview questions! 

She's just published a collection of short stories titled The Ranch Next Door. Westerns - yay! I'm a westerner! (well, transplanted myself to Wyoming from New York 16 years ago, that counts doesn't it?) I have ranches next door to me, too - so much fun! (unless loose cattle and wild antelope block the road when I'm running late to work). 

Elisabeth is giving away an e-version of the Ranch Next Door to a randomly-selected commenter on this post, so please share your thoughts. On to the interview (more details about the collection below).

What is your favorite word?

Indeed. Used as a surprised or thoughtful ejaculation, this word has become a staple of my family’s vocabulary since we became acquainted with one of our favorite BBC miniseries, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. I love hearing it.

(Margo here - Indeed, Chuzzlewit is pretty cool word (name) too!)

What is your least favorite word?

Constructive. As a child, I always hated being dismissed with the sensible order, “Go find something constructive to do.” Now I’m just as likely to say the same thing to my younger siblings.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

You know, I’m afraid when I get on a roll creatively, I’m too busy taking advantage of the fact to stop and think about what started it. Perhaps I should one day, so I can take advantage of that!

I’ve always been stirred emotionally by the beauty of nature. An unexpectedly beautiful view from a hill, the effect of sunlight through the trees, autumn color—well, I’m not too good at capturing in words the feeling it gives me. As L.M. Montgomery put it very simply in Anne of Green Gables, “It gave me a thrill and I just said, “Thank you for it, God.’ ”

If you were given a chance to travel back in time, what year or place would you go?

Actually, I think I’d pick the 1940s. Although I love writing about the later 1800s, I think I’d feel more at home in the 1940sI love the fashions, the music, the small-town America and even some of the glamorous big-city life depicted in classic films from that era.

Describe your book in seven words or less:

Short stories, surprised sheriffs, appearances and disappearances.

Please share with us about your favorite book and fictional crush to date?

Favorite book? One favorite book? Oh, all right. Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley—historical novel of English explorers in the Elizabethan era. I’d say this is a book that transcends my usual tastes, because I’m not particularly interested in that period of history, but the book is just so tremendously entertaining that I always go back to it every once in a while.

Fictional crush? I’m too shy to answer that.

If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?

Hmmm, I don’t know. Why not Anne of Green Gables? I’ve always wanted to live on a farm like that.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

Well, the only Hollywood I know anything about is old Hollywood. Perhaps Deanna Durbin. Lots of music and happy endings guaranteed.
(Margo here - had to include a picture of Deanna Durbin! I was curious)

How would you describe yourself in seven words?

Introvert, optimistic, absent-minded, incorrigibly imaginative, secretly romantic.

Thank you Elisabeth - I loved the incorrigibly imaginative and secretly romantic! Here's a little more about her collection:

The Ranch Next Door (available as an e-book from Amazon and Smashwords)
Suspense, humor and a touch of romance await in seven short stories of the American West. In the title story, "The Ranch Next Door," a cattleman's young son dreads breaking the news to his family that he has fallen in love with the daughter of a neighboring sheep rancher despite an ancient feud between the two families. In "Cross My Heart," a boy is torn between betraying his conscience or a fugitive friend, and in "Delayed Deposit," five people are taken hostage during a bank robbery that turns into a tense standoff. The collection also includes the award-winning "Disturbing the Peace," honorable mention in the 2010 Rope and Wire short story competition. These seven stories total approximately 40,330 words or 161 book pages.

Just so y'all know, cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers are sworn enemies on the range, and Elisabeth gives us a tale of starcrossed lovers within this conflict. Love it! So give us some comments on ranches, starcrossed lovers, Anne of Green Gables, beauties of the big screen in the black and white days, or anything else Elisabeth inspires in you today! I'll announce the winner of the Ranch Next Door early next week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Idea (without passion) = dud

Those people who are idea factories? Who come up with so many cool ideas they have to play eny-meenie-miny-mo to pick which to work on next? Those people frustrate me. One of them is a close friend of mine. (She's also a writer). I love her. I admire her. I admire her ideas, but I also want to strangle her when she starts yet another conversation with that dreaded "Oh, I had a great idea last night! Let me tell you about it." (And really, they are great ideas. She amazes me).

See, I have come up with exactly 4.5 good story ideas in my life (add a few more fractions if you count short story ideas). I get a lot of wonderful ideas to add to my 4.5 stories or to put a nice twist into an existing plot, but not anything original enough to boost that basic number up to 5.5. (Or even just 5.0).

But I also believe that our brains have an "idea muscle" and if we exercise it, amazing things can happen. When I'm brainstorming to flesh out one of my 4.5 story ideas, or to fix a plot hole, I start working this muscle with lots of "what if" questions, and soon cool things start to happen.

But that's with an existing plot idea to start with. What if you have to start from scratch?

What if, say, you are so fed up with your idea-less self that you decide to join a friend (like Sophia Richardson) in something crazy cool like a challenge to come up with 30 loglines/pitches in 30 days?

I spent the first six days of said 30 days scratching my head. Even with some great idea-catching tools that Sophia provided  (here's three of them)....

30 Pitches Pitstop #1 (some great tips here)
This is How I Do It (her process for evolving ideas into a pitch)
What's in a Pitch (the basic pitch components)

...I still came up with... zilch.  Experiences from my life? Booorrring. The only one worth exploring, in my opinion, I had already used in plot idea #3 out of 4.5.

Newspaper/magazine articles? Blech. Lots of ideas, but not enough spark to get them to that next evolutionary stage, the logline. Also known as the pitch. A character in conflict with consequences, in one to two sentences.

It finally occurred to me: ideas without passion were duds. The missing crucial element was passion.

What am I passionate about? (besides my family and horses. Oh, please not another kid/horse story).

Well, my own blog sidebar convienently reminded me: I love history, faith, maps and mythical creatures.

I started thinking about some of my favorite moments in history (ones hopefully not written about already). Ideas started popping like popcorn. Not very original ones, but at least the ol' idea muscle was flexing a little. Great stories of faith, ditto.

With a germ of an idea,
even if it's not very original,
if it's about something that EXCITES you,
it is only a matter of time
before you figure out
how to put a new spin on it.

Maps - well that one stumped me for a while. I'm a geography geek with maps plastered all over the walls of my home and office - but, how to get a story from that?  Then  I read Elana Johnson's most excellent post this Monday - Mixing the Strange with Normal.

Take one normal thing, a map, and mix it with a strange thing (or, not-normal thing) like... take your pick. Time travel (a  map that takes you back in time). Or, dual personalities (a double-sided map with a dark side). Oh yeah, fun ideas really started percolating. Perk, perk - no caffeine required (well, maybe a little. And a little chocolate never hurts, either). 

Then I looked at mythical creatures. There are whole encyclopedias written about mythical creatures, which I have been known to waste countless hours at work on my own time browsing through. Information overload!

So first I made a list of my favorite creatures, then I crossed out all the common ones that everyone loves to write about: dragons, zombies, vampires, faeries, werewolves, changelings and other shapeshifters (not that I wouldn't love to write about these. But I figured I might need to barter my soul to come up with a truly original idea).

Then I added a few bizarre ones to my list, ones I bet most people haven't heard of (unless you grew up in or studied about their country of origin). I started skimming the myths and folklore on these creatures. Put a spin on this myth, change the location on that myth, a modern-retelling of another myth - ideas bubbling all over the place.

Idea high! Idea rush! Idea overdose! Oh my mythical madness, what fun.

What's your favorite idea for coming up with ideas?
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