Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Controversy on Goodreads and Twitter

I recently ran across some controversy on Goodreads (a wonderful site which I like to call Facebook for Readers and book fanatics). I was browsing some young adult debut authors with books coming out soon, and when I looked at The Selection, by Kiera Cass, I found something a little disturbing - not about the book itself, but in the reviews listed for it.

Billed as The Bachelor (TV show) meets The Hunger Games, The Selection has a daring premise and I read some reviews to see if held up to its premise. At the very top of the reviews listed for The Selection on Goodreads, there is a scathing 1 star review.

Now, negative reviews don't phase me and won't stop me from reading a book (unless there is a large number of them in overwhelming agreement). Negative reviews are just part and parcel of the subjectivity of art, just like biased gushing reviews from family/friends, and those don't bother me either. I can usually pick out the reviews that avoid either extreme and these provide the best source of info for me. 

But a scathing 1 star review is a sad thing for a debut author to see at the VERY TOP of the reviews listed. Does it honestly deserve to be placed at the top of the list? This is what Goodreads says about how they sort reviews:
The default sorting algorithm on Goodreads uses a variety of factors to determine the most interesting reviews. The recipe for our special sauce is a closely guarded trade secret, but the ingredients are: length of the review, number of people who liked it, recency of the review, popularity of the reviewer (i.e. number of people who have liked reviews by that person across all books). 
Uh oh. Popularity of the reviewer? We live in a world where people with snark and sarcasm garner attention (even if it's negative attention).  Not always, of course there are exceptions. But more often than not, it's the extreme "over-the-top" reviews that gain popularity (e.g. "likes") simply because they are entertaining to read, not because they provide helpful advice to other readers looking for input.

It's a free world (web), but it's also a messy one. Ranking is always a controversial area, but there's an even messier side to this controversy. The reviewer in question has added a little footnote to the bottom her review:
 Some pretty interesting developments occurred. Please check message #270 on this post if you're interested. 
  Message #270 contains a snapshot of a  supposed Twitter conversation between the author of  The Selection and her agent. There is no way to verify if this is an actual conversation (I suppose Twitter experts might be able to figure it out). Because this Twitter conversation is not verifiable, I'm trying to tread very carefully here. 

But if it WERE verifiable, um... what do you guys think???  I understand how the author and agent feel, and I don't have a problem with what they allegedly did ("liking" positive reviews of the book, trying to get positive reviews to outrank the top-listed negative one), but I wonder if they should have been chatting about it publicly on Twitter. However, the author wasn't protesting the bad review, just the PLACEMENT of it and its popularity due to the controversy it had raised.

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Is Goodread's "recipe" for identifying the most "interesting" reviews fair? And, is "fair" even possible in such a subjective arena?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mythical madness: unusual dragons

IMAGES REMOVED in case of potential copyright violation (7/27/12)

Welcome to another edition of Mythical Madness, or fun with fantastical things on Fridays.

I try not to make a big deal about dragons, for the same reason as vampires. They are so overdone. But the Hobbit movie trailer has got me excited again about one of the most famous dragons of fantasy history: Smaug (to be voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock TV series fame). (Even though he probably won't be in the first movie. Which means almost two more years of waiting, drat).

So in the meantime, I trolled my favorite place to waste time visit, DeviantArt (see note at bottom about wasting time), for artist's renditions of Smaug (here's one of my favorites) - and found a whole bunch of other interesting dragons too.

A dragon serving tea, by a delightful creator of children's fantasy art, Omar Rayyan. (He illustrated Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner and Possum Summer by Jen K. Blom not to mention dozens of other books).

Now, for the show of unusual dragons. We'll start with the common garden variety of dragon: Garden Variety Dragons, by ~mcah on Deviant Art

Next, a steampunk dragon: Steampunk Dragon by ~Catoram-A on Deviant Art

These miniature dragons are popping up all over the internet, maybe thanks to inspiration of the pocket-sized dragons in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Just remember, they're not the safest of pets. They're only cute until they catch the couch on fire.Dragons are Real by ~acidburn08 on Deviant Art

Slightly more realistic for the home is a bonsai dragon, like this one:Bonsai Dragon by ~Polysoup on Deviant Art

What's your favorite kind of dragon: decorative , garden-variety, harmful pet, steampunk, or traditional terrifying monstrosity (e.g. Smaug)?

Note on wasting time: over Christmas break, I started not one but THREE new addictions: wasting good writing time by creating and feverishly adding to my new Pinterest, Tumblr and DeviantArt accounts. After a month of very unproductive writing, I finally got wise and deleted my Pinterest and Tumblr, but the DeviantArt account remains. My progress with writing has improved considerably in February, and the amount of creative juice generated by DeviantArt I hope makes up for the couple hours a week lost to browsing art.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ingredients of a prize-winning middle grade novel

I recently read on a well-known publishing blog that it takes a person hearing about a book at least 5 times before they'll remember it (and that's just remembering, not necessarily buying or reading).

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, got on my To-Read list because it won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2010, and I'd heard of it probably about 5 times.What bumped it up from the To-Read list to Currently Reading was when I saw another recent mention of the book saying it had a time-twist mystery in it (I love time-twists because they can be such mind-benders).

One of the neat things about When You Reach Me was how it worked one of my all-time favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle, into the story. And because it was a Newbery winner, after reading it I went back and analyzed the first 20 pages to see if I could figure out how it won the medal.

Obviously, the ingredients of a prize-winning book span the entire book, not just its first twenty pages. But if I don't have time to analyze the whole thing (who does?), I at least try to analyze it up to the "First Plot Point" - the event that rocks the main character's world (in this book, that event began on page 20).  By the time the First Plot Point happens, a good book will have introduced you to all of the main characters and their goals, motivations, and issues (e.g. "things that need fixing").

My method for analyzing a book is to copy the pages and then get 6 or 7 different colored highlighters. I start looking for the four basics and highlight them whenever I find them:

Goal or motivation (there were 9 separate instances in the first 20 pages) 
Example: Mom has to win this money.

Characterization (13 instances) 
Example: Every time she calls him Mr. Perfect, Richard taps his right knee. He does that because his right leg is shorter than his left one.

Voice (12 instances) 
Example: So Mom got the postcard today...There's the date she's supposed to show up, scrawled in blue pen at the bottom of the card: April 27, 1979. Just like you said. 

Tension: usually conflict but can include other things, like a race against time (18 instances) 
Example: “Are you mad about having to wait at Belle’s? I was super busy – I couldn’t just leave.”
“No, I like it at Belle’s.” I wondered whether she’d done her nails before, after or during her super busy afternoon.

After my first highlighting pass, then I went back and looked at the sentences I hadn't highlighted yet. I suspected there were more important ingredients, but I wasn't sure what they were, exactly.

After my second pass, I had identified three more ingredients: 

Funny or quirky tidbits (not character-related) (12 instances in the first 20 pages)
Example: On the postcard there’s a list of things to bring. She needs some extra clothes in case she wins and makes it to another show, where they pretend it’s the next day even though they really tape five in one afternoon.

Foreshadowing or dropping hints pertaining to a mystery (4 instances)
Example: You asked me to mention the key. If I ever do decide to write your letter, which I probably won’t, this is the story I would tell you.

These two ingredients (and the main character's voice) are what set the tone of the book: a quirky mystery full of amusing asides with the main character, 12 yr old Mira, sort of teasing us, the readers.

Mini-stories to fill in backstory and build emotional ties (3 instances)
Example: Flashback to how close Mira and Sal were in preschool: they always put their sleeping mats next to each other at nap time; once when Sal was home sick, Mira laid out their mats side by side, pretending he was still there, but she couldn't sleep.

Mira's love of the book A Wrinkle in Time is also introduced in the first 20 pages, and the author masterfully threads some key parts of this book-within-a-book to hint at and explain the time-twist that Mira experiences.  I don't think you need to be familiar with A Wrinkle in Time to "get it" (but if you have read it, it just makes it that much more fun seeing how it ties in).

I immediately decided, upon finishing When You Reach Me, that I was going to weave a famous book into my book-in-progress, too. Do you have any favorite books that you've found referenced in other novels?

Note: I won't have a post for Teen Tuesday this week, but I will next week. Promise.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love story plots, or 18 ways to mess with your characters

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While we often don't have much control over our own affairs of the heart (as Valentine's day so poignantly reminds us), at least we can write a love story exactly the way we want. 

In honor of/in derision of Valentine's Day, I looked over some famous love stories and grouped them into 18 ways to mess with your character's hearts:

Note: this a re-post from last year's Valentine's Day post - with a couple suggested additions and a few notes on YA (young adult) love plots - since Valentine's falls on Teen Tuesday.

1. Forbidden love: Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Paris and Helen, Anna Karenina, Casablanca, the Thornbirds. I think perhaps the most archetypal and most-used love story plot.  

2. Love triangle: these proliferate the YA scene today, led by Bella/Edward/Jacob in Twilight and Katniss/Peeta/Gale in the Hunger Games, but they've been around a long time, such as in The Phantom of the Opera.

3. Secret love: where one person loves the other secretly, believing the object of his/her love is unattainable. Examples: Shiver (Sam loves Grace for years but she knows him only as a wolf), the Little Mermaid, Memoirs of a Geisha

4. One-sided love: similar to the secret love plot, except the besmitten one announces his/her love instead of keeping it secret. Beauty and the Beast, the Hunger Games. A special case of this type is also the nerd falling in love with someone out of his/her league.

5. Love forsaken: a pair of lovers where one rejects the other (usually because of unequal status or to honor the family), and then regrets it (Wuthering Heights, Persuasion)

6. You're the last person I'd ever love: two characters start out disliking each other, often quite intensely, and then fall in love as they get to know each other better. Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth and Darcy), Shrek

7. Happily-ever-after love: the classic fairytale love story, where lovers must overcome obstacles to be together. Examples: Westley and Buttercup (Princess Bride), Captain Navarre and Isabeau (LadyHawke)

8. Love torn apart: the opposite of a happily-ever after, where love reigns for a while, but then is torn apart by circumstances (The Time Traveler's Wife, Jane Eyre, Orpheus and Eurydice)

9. In love with the wrong person: the classic is Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett thinks she and Ashley are destined for each other, but she's really meant for Rhett. More recent example is the movie Enchanted.  A younger version of this is the Crush (see below).

10. Reluctant love: where two people are forced by circumstances into a betrothal or marriage. Sometimes both are reluctant partners; sometimes one is willing, the other reluctant. As the reluctant one comes to know her partner better, they genuinely fall in love. The great Bollywood love story Jodhaa Akbar. Outlander by Diana Galbadon. Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

11. Discovering love in a strange place: Tarzan and Jane, Jake and Neytiri in Avatar, the pair in Stargate

12. Re-discovered love: two lovers have a falling-out, and but fate forces them to work together and they rediscover their love. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the Abyss,  Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfieffer in the Story of Us, and the story Married with Zombies.  

13. Platonic love: Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings; Harry, Hermione and Ron in the Harry Potter series. Striking examples are often in a guardian/guarded relationship, master/protege relationship (Obi-Wan and Luke), parent/child or sibling relationship, hero/sidekick, human/animal pair (Calvin and Hobbes, the knight and the dragon in Dragonheart)

14. Never has a chance to turn into love: I can't believe I missed this one last year, but it was suggested by Robyn Bradley with Remains of the Day as an example.  

15. Twisted love/murderous love: another one I missed last year, suggested by Old Kitty. The movie Fatal Attraction is a scary example.

16. Friendship turns into love. This was a suggestion from Laura Marcella and I thought of Ron and Hermione right away. I know there are some more great examples out there, help me out here folks! 

Now when I got to thinking specifically about young adult stories, I thought of two more potential categories:  Young love and it's wishful counterpart, the Crush.  YA love stories are all subject to the same love story messes listed above, too.

17. Young love: sometimes awkward and self-conscious, sometimes all-consuming while it lasts.  The Harry Potter books do a great job with this (Harry and Cho and later Ginny) . Though I haven't read it yet, Anna and the French Kiss also sounds like it fits in this category.

18. The Crush:  where a girl or boy is obsessed with a crush but eventually notices the awesome person (often a friend) that's been right beside them the whole time. Stardust by Neil Gaiman is a great example, where Tristran is obsessed with Victoria but eventually sees Yvaine for the star she truly is! (grin)

What's your favorite type of love story? I'd love to hear some more examples of books and movies!

Late addition: thinking I might have another love plot, just enough different from #6, thanks to Laura Pauling: Love Interests Pitted Against Each Other. The Music Man is an example, and also Legend, by Marie Lu, where June is trying to hunt down her brother's murderer the biggest suspect is the boy she falls in love with. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

How my writing dream began

D.L. Hammons, along with Katie Mills (Creepy Query Girl), Alex J. Cavanaugh and Matthew MacNish  (Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment), are co-hosting the ORIGINS blogfest, where we share the origins of our writing dream.

My writing dream began when I was nine or ten years old, when I read Lassie Come Home. Captivated by a love that knew no challenge too great to give up, I immediately sat down and wrote a similar story about a girl and her horse who finds his way home to her. The next year, after reading My Friend Flicka and bawling my eyes out again, I immediately wrote another knock-off. And the year after that, inspired by the Last Unicorn, I finally came up with something a little more original (but oh, so corny!)

I started several more stories between age 10 and 15 and filled many notebooks with words, and day-dreamed about them the rest of the time I wasn't writing or reading. One story in particular continued to haunt me (a middle grade fantasy, Refuge), and during high school and college kept working on it, on and off (and have continuing working on it since, on and off, it has at least 5 different versions now).

By age 16 or 17, I knew that more than anything else I wanted to be a writer.

But somewhere along the line I was also taught that writing was not a practical way of living. I don't think it was my parents -I think they would have encouraged me with anything I was truly passionate about, but I kept my writing very private (afraid of being scorned). I went to college to become a biologist, and eventually a geographer, instead.

But I kept working on this one story, on and off, always sure that this was my true passion. I'd lose sight of it for a while, at different stages - (like falling in love, and later, starting a family) - but I'd always come back to it, each time more sure than ever that writing stories was my "destiny." (And I'm past the point of caring if that sounds corny or not).

I don't know if publication is part of that destiny. I am certainly striving for publication: analyzing books, attending conferences and exchanging critiques to improve my craft, trying to figure out which genre I want to commit to. But traditional publication is not something I "have to have" - not like writing, itself. It would just be icing on the cake.  I suppose to some that would make writing just a hobby, but it means so much more to me.

The ironic thing is that even though I am word-smith, I am not sure if I could actually express in words how much writing means to me.

Do you have a passion like that? something so deeply meaningful to you that's almost too much to express?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Who was your 80's crush?

In the spirit of fun, easy & frivolous, Nicki Elson has teamed up w/ fellow 80s girls Suze from Analog Breakfast and M. Pax from Wistful Nebulae to ask you one simple question: 

Who was/is your 80s celebrity crush? 

I have a confession to make. At age 13, in 1983, my crush was not David Hasselhoff. No, it was KITT - his car. Hasselhoff wasn't bad to look at, but he was kinda corny. But KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) was cool. The TV show Knight Rider was a great concept - a modern day knight with a super fast, super cool nearly indestructible talking car (with a little bit of attitude).
Okay, I'm totally cheating here because I'm listing ALL my top crushes. KITT won my vote for top celebrity crush, but just barely. I had so much fun revisiting the 80's - seriously, is just me, or do you fall in love with a LOT of things when you are teenager? Here's just a few people (and things) that I dreamed about, night and day, for - oh a few months, until something new came along:

~ The Flashdance Soundtrack. I still get shivers when I hear Irene Cara's "What a Feeling". Yes, I was crushing on a soundtrack. It represented a girl who goes for her dream against all odds - that's a better crush than any cute guy, I think!

~ Prince.  It started with Little Red Corvette (again, I think part of the crush was the car) and turned into a serious crush with Purple Rain.

~Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran. When I googled his image, I fell in love all over again. Then again, I think it was song and video Hungry Like the Wolf that I was really in love with.

~Don Johnson - or rather, Sunny Crockett from Miami Vice. Or maybe I was actually crushing on his style, I'm not sure.  Please, bring back those adorable blazers.

~The volleyball scene in Top Gun. Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer were both pretty crushable, but put them on opposite sides of a beach volleyball net - um, how many times did I replay that scene?  

~ the dance scenes in Dirty Dancing. Patrick Swayze was good crush material too, but it was the combination of him and Baby and the music that made me fall in love. In fact, I have this theory that teenage crushes are actually more about the music. We associate the guys with the music and that's the magic that turns them into crushes. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Growth Chart of a Young Reader

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If I had any sort of graphic talent, I'd photoshop a kid's growth chart where instead of just age and height, there would also be a space to record books that my kids have read and loved. 

My 17 year old stepdaughter announced the other day she didn't have time to read for fun anymore. That made me sad; she's been my biggest reading buddy. We've shared so many books.

(Warning: I'm about to become nostalgic. You can skip to the end for my conclusions!) 

She first took off with reading in 2nd grade (age 7) with the Pony Pals series.  The next two years were a long succession of horse books.

Then came the Harry Potter books, which she discovered at age 9 (and I at age 33, you are never too old to enjoy a great book or series).

After all the Harry Potters, she introduced me to The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton (she wouldn't confess how many times she'd re-read it), and then during a library visit she picked out Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, and I read it right after her. Talk about a severe contrast! - from fairies to stark survival-ism.

At age 12, she called me up and talked to me for TWO HOURS about this amazing new book she'd just read.

Yup, you guessed it.


Of course I found it and read it a couple days later. 

Later that summer, we had a race to finish reading Breaking Dawn the day it came out, her in Washington and me in Wyoming, then called each other to share all our favorite (and not so favorite) parts. She won the race because she went to a midnight release book store party; I waited until the next morning to purchase mine (you wouldn't catch me dead at a release party for this series). (No pun intended, groan...)

Somewhere around this time she also discovered My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult and then several other Picoult books with high-school age characters - though I really question whether these are young adult books? They resulted in lots of good discussion though.

At age 15 she couldn't talk about Twilight without scrunching up her face in disgust. She was "so over" those kind of weird romances and had moved on to a whole new, darker world: The Hunger Games. As soon as she told me about it, I hunted it down to read. Wow. We had another "reading race" when Mockingjay released last summer (She won. Again).

Throughout her 16th year,  I continued to bring home paranormal YA books like Firelight (Sophie Jordan) and The Iron King (Julie Kagawa) and dystopians like Divergent (Veronica Roth). But some of these she'd start and never finish or not finish for weeks. Now she's 17, and I asked her what kind of book she liked these days.

"I really don't have time to read anymore," she told me. "I have too much reading to do at school." (She's currently reading 1984 for English). "But if I do have time, I want something really dark."  (Yeah, 1984 qualifies).

My own reading growth chart started the same way as my stepdaughter's with tons of animals stories from age 7-10 (that's where my 10 yr old daughter is still at). Since Harry Potter wasn't yet around, I advanced to The Hobbit and at age 14, Lord of the Rings, which blew me away. I read Dune shortly after and that blew me away, again. But my reading growth stalled out after my junior year of high school with the ultimate kill-joy, The Stranger, by Albert Camus. Just as dark, if not darker, than 1984.

What is it about high school required reading that kills the joy of reading? Or maybe it's just that there is too much studying to do in college? (or too much partying? ha). I don't remember having time for fiction (for fun) again until after college, and then nothing hugely memorable until a friend convinced me to read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.


Well to wrap this up (sorry it's been a bit of ramble), what I've learned from my teenage girl is that fantasy rules the middle grade years and paranormal romances (still fantasy, but now tied to high school) during the early teens. But they quickly burn out on them by the time they actually reach high school (until you reach your thirties, apparently then they become popular again).

By 15 and 16, they want realism and the darker, the better. By 17 or 18, it's game over. Of course, everybody's reading growth chart is different. What were some of yours or your kids' growth chart books?

Here's more blogs participating in Teen Tuesdays:
Writers' Ally aka sa larsen
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