Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Light writing days

What's Up Wednesday is for anyone interested in keeping in touch with other writers, a meme hosted by writing sisters Erin Funk and Jaime Morrow

What I'm reading
While waiting (impatiently) for Seraphina's sequel, ShadowScale, to be out in early March, I'm currently reading When Reason Breaks  by Cindy L. Rodriguez which features Emily Dickinson’s poetry as a guide to two girls struggling with depression and anger. I love the characters and this is a great way to soak up poetry, which I normally don't read much of.
When Reason Breaks

I just finished reading Landline by Rainbow Rowell and deeply enjoyed it. Also recently finished Rain Reign by Anne M. Martin and was surprisingly swept away by this story in the voice of a 5th grader with high functioning autism. 

What I'm writing
I've been layering in more setting details and characterization touches to my MG fantasy set in Alaska.  Setting inspiration has been coming from a surprising source: PBS' "Nature" series with its breathtaking videography. 

I'm also having to return to the opening chapters of my YA science fiction that I've been querying. I've gotten a couple personalized rejections with similar suggestions. With several agents pointing out the same things, I've got to make some changes. They say I have too much going on and not enough characterization in the first 50 pages, so right now I'm doing a reverse outline of everything going on in the first fifty to see where I can simplify things, and then add back in more characterization. To help with characterization, I'm revisiting these thoughtful questions from Writing 21st century fiction, by Donald Maass. 
  • What terrifies you? 
  • What outrages you? 
  • What grieves you?  
  • What heals you? 
  • What did your father teach you that still holds true? 
  • What did you learn in college that’s dead wrong? 
  • What about your faith is painful to admit?  
What else I've been up to
I went downhill skiing for the first time in 11 years! I worried I'd be falling down left and right, but muscle memory must have kicked in, because I was zooming down the slopes right away. I'd forgotten how beautiful the slopes are. I'm not going to wait another 11 years to do this again. It was my 13 year old daughter's first time skiing and she picked it up really fast, though the next day she couldn't believe how sore she was!

What works for me
What gets me through Nanowrimo every November is the rule, "don't skip more than a day." I've noticed I can skip one day with my writing, even two, but if I skip three days in row, I lose my momentum and stall out. What's been working for me lately is to designate some days as "light writing days" - just a half hour of writing, but it's enough so I don't lose my momentum. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: 15 years old, Among Others

I started off the year 2015 with my nose in a book. Yup, that's what I was doing at 12:01 January 1st, and most of the rest of January 1st, too, gobbling up a wonderful book, Among Others by Jo Walton (2012 winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards). The main character in Among Others was 15 and attended an English boarding school that was decidedly NOT a Hogwarts kind of school: the most unmagical of schools, in fact... but Mori brought her magic with her. This book is a great example of the fascinating magical realism genre. It's also a got a main character with a disability, (#weNeedDiverseBooks) and that disability and the cane it required played a fascinating part in the story.

Despite attending a regular public American high school, not an English boarding school, and not needing a cane to walk, I still really identified with Mori... more than most mc's in young adult books. Here's why....

I had a split personality in high school (I still do, somewhat). Personality #1: a girl who painted her nails a new color (almost) every day; spent (many) afternoons browsing through clothing stores at the mall, or leafing through L.L. Bean and J. Crew clothing catalogs; highlighted her hair with peroxide;  and ran on the track and cross country teams and got really competitive about it.
15 year old me with bleached hair
Personality #2: a girl who, when she skipped classes or lunch, could be found in the school library reading or searching for new books to read. And who when wasn't reading, was often sketching characters in the margins of her history notes, or staring off into space daydreaming about the fantasy and science fiction worlds she'd just read. Ages 13 through 15 was when I devoured books like Dune, the Earthsea books and the Lord of the Rings (and many others, but those were the ones that stuck with me most memorably) and these  books, especially Lord of the Rings, play their own fascinating role in Mori's story.

So freaking cool how the books play a role, almost become characters themselves, in this story!

Among Others
Since Mori's personality wasn't split like mine (and she was partially crippled, having to walk with a cane, so she couldn't get involved in as much as I could)... she devoured books at a stunning pace, especially after discovering interlibrary loans:
“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.”   
“Libraries really are wonderful. They're better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”  
“I'll belong to libraries wherever I go. Maybe eventually I'll belong to libraries on other planets.” 
Among Others is a book about family, friends, fairies, boarding school, and books. The fairies fit in that sequence in a very straight-forward way; Mori has grown up always seeing (and sometimes in even playing with) fairies in the valleys and abandoned coal works of her native Wales. This is the first story I've read set, at least in part, in Wales. What a fascinating country! I googled maps and sometimes Welsh history while I was reading.

Mori refuses to live with her mad witch mother any more. Yes, her mother really is a witch, and a pretty evil one, too, by Mori's account - her mother is at least partly responsible for her daughter's death, Mori's twin. Mori lives in a children's home for a while until her father is located. Then her father sends her to an all girl boarding school in England, where she is far removed from the fairies and magic she grew up with, and can't relate to anyone at the school (one of the references to the title... living "among others" - though the others might refer to the fairies, too).

In her loneliness, Mori finds solace in books, but longs to find a few like minded souls (a "karass" - a reference to a group of like minded souls from Kurt Vonnegut's book, Cat's Cradle). Eventually she even tries working a magic spell to help her find a karass - and succeeds - but her use of magic has the unwanted effect of attracting her mother's attention.

The karass that Mori finds wasn't quite what one might expect - but it was perfect! - here's a hint: one of the kindred spirits in her karass makes this comment:
“Bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop.” 
Another member of her karass is Wim (a British nickname for William - LOVE IT!!!)  Wim is judged by others and is surprised that Mori doesn't judge him... it's clear her open-mindedness is related to all the literature she's drenched in. She also has a plethora of insightful comments and observations about life, often framed as questions, which I really liked.
Does it mean that it doesn't matter if it's magic or not, anything you do has power and consequences and affects other people?”
On waiting for God’s plan to unfold:
If I were omnipotent  and  omniscient  I  think  I  could  have  come up  with a better [plan]. Lightning bolts never go out of fashion.
A word on the fairies: they appear on a spectrum from little ugly gnome-like things to tall, beautiful LOTR elvish creatures. They don't play a large role, but they show up just often enough to add a fascinating dimension to the story, and a climax that ties in gloriously with the very beginning of the story.

And a word on the magic, which was unique and subtle and amusing:
At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself....My mother’s shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us. There was a potato knife in the kitchen that Gramma couldn’t use. It was an ordinary enough brown-handled thing, but she’d cut herself with it once, and ever after it wanted more of her blood. If I rummaged through the kitchen drawer, I could feel it brooding. After she died, that faded. Then there were the coffee spoons, rarely used, tiny, a wedding present. They were made of silver, and they knew themselves superior to everything else and special. None of these things did anything. The coffee spoons didn’t stir the coffee without being held or anything. They didn’t have conversations with the sugar tongs about who was the most cherished. I suppose what they really did was physiological. They confirmed the past, they connected everything, they were threads in a tapestry.
(Also loved the reference to how the Christmas ornaments were full of magic, but Mori wasn't sure if the three aunties realized it, but she was fairly sure they knew about the magic in their earrings, and that getting Mori to pierce her ears and wear their earrings would... oops, that's a spoiler, sort of).

In addition to friends and fairies and a very subtle magic, this book is also about family: Mori getting to know her newly discovered father and grandfather (Sam!) and three new "aunties" (who are love-to-hate characters almost picked out of some yet-as-undiscovered Jane Austen book),

There's also her beloved Welsh Grampar (her other grandfather) and Auntie Teg... and memories of her twin sister and the epic battle they fought against their witch mother to keep her from using her magic to control the fairies.

All the characters in this story felt like real people (they probably were real people) and so vivid that I remember all their names very distinctly, even 3 weeks after finishing the story. Most of the lovable characters are book worms (but not all of them, like Auntie Teg and her fairy-seeing cat). I was especially delighted that the librarians become Mori's friends.

Friends, family, fairies... I still need to mention the boarding school and, I'm not yet done mentioning the books. I sincerely hope that English boarding schools these days put doors in bathroom and shower stalls; in the 1970's  doors and privacy were not permitted. Also, who knew that boarding schools were so loud?? No wonder why Mori spent most of her time in the library. I had a sudden terrible thought while reading this story: the fact that these kids had to suffer through high school cafeterias not just for lunch but for breakfast and dinner, too. Oh the poor dear souls!

However, the real life boarding school did have one similarity to Hogwarts: a magical train. Well, sort of magical:
I love the train. Sitting here I feel connected to the last time I sat here, and the train to London too. It is in-between, suspended; and in rapid motion towards and away from, it is also poised between. There's a magic in that, not a magic you can work, a magic that's just there, giving a little colour and exhilaration to everything.
And while I'm at it, I simply must mention the mountains, and Mori's love of maps:
I love the mountains. I love the kind of horizon they make, even in winter. When we went down again, towards Merthyr first and then over the shoulder of the mountain to Aberdare, where Aun­tie Teg walked, once, when she was still in school, it felt like nestling back down in a big quilt. 
I bought a map of Europe, with Germany huge and no Czechoslovakia. I think it must be from the war, or right before...I couldn't resist it…I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But maps are brill.
But oh the books in this story, oh the books! Truly this story was written as an ode to books and bookworms. I especially loved the blend of reality, fantasy and science fiction:
I wonder if there will be fairies in space? It's a more possible thought in Clarke's universe than Heinlein's somehow, even though Clarke's en­gineering seems just as substantial. I wonder if it's because he's British? Never mind space, do they even have fairies in America?
(Note to self: revisit a couple Arthur C. Clarke books) (and try some Delany books. And Zelazny).

Every reference to the Lord of the Rings just made my heart sing, and the ending is where books and magic intersected in a breathtaking and stand-up-and-cheer way. A few of my favorite LOTR references:
I am reading The Lord of the Rings. I suddenly wanted to. I almost know it by heart, but I can still sink right into it. I know no other book that is so much like going on a journey. When I put it down to this, I feel as if I am also waiting with Pippin for the echoes of that stone down the well.
The thing about Tolkien, about The Lord of the Rings, is that it's perfect. It's this whole world, this whole process of immersion, this journey. It's not, I'm pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up. Reading it changes everything. 
Oaks hang onto their leaves all winter, like mallorns, so it's easy to find them. 
Finished  LOTR, with the usual sad pang of reaching  the end and there being no more of it.
LOTR certainly changed my world, though it's hard to say exactly how. It made my life deeper, somehow... and also broader.

I'd love to hear in the comments if there was a book from your early teen days that changed a little bit of your world too, or the way you saw the world...

Monday, January 12, 2015

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Polynesian! (Illusions of Fate)

Here's why I loved Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White and had to post about it IMMEDIATELY even though I finished it like, less than hour ago. 

1) That cover. THAT COVER!!! a Polynesian main character! The actual cover looks a tad white-washed, but here's the non-cropped version provided by the author on her Tumblr

2) yes, it really is historical fantasy (my favorite genre!) A purist might argue it's set in a mirror of Victorian/Imperialist England, but I'm running with it. 

2) magical shadows and magical books that can turn into birds. Sir Bird!

3) magical doorways (a la Howl's Moving Castle) (in fact it was the "Howl's Moving Castle meets Mr Darcy" blurb that caught my eye with this book... well, that and the cover. And Laini Taylor's whole-hearted endorsement didn't hurt either). 

4) delightfully witty old fashioned ink letters, complete with ink blots

5) oh, and some of the letters are ALSO magical (those written by whom I cannot spoiler-name)

6) Jane Austen-worthy observations on English (I mean Alben) nature: 
An Alben smile is rarely and expression of joy. More often it is a way to deflect true emotion.

7) magical miniature suns (yeah, there's a lot of fun magic in this book)

8) excellent recrafting of real empire/colonial issues: 
His words strike straight through me. I would have said the same thing just weeks ago. I would have dismissed an entire country of people just because of their birth, the same way I have always felt dismissed.

9) magically-colored music

10) magic hair-color-turning wars (reminded me of the fairy wars over the color of Aurora's dress in Sleeping Beauty)

11) Fifteen different words for love, but one of them forgotten until the end

12) Collarbones (you never realized how interesting they were till now)

13) Using math to mess with dreams

14) Eleanor's gossip

15) the gift of an umbrella on a rainy day from a kind stranger in a park

16) Lord Finley Ackerley and his cane, and how he loved Jessamin even though she insisted on doing the opposite of everything he ever suggested

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Insecure writer: trying not to break the chain

Last year for the January post for Insecure Writers I posted about how I don't do writing resolutions... or life resolutions... or any sort of resolutions, because by March or April I'm all resolutioned out. And then the insecurity kicks in. I've failed with them way too many times. (except my reading resolutions... because those are so easy; when life gets hard, I escape to books. When life is good, I escape to books).  
The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for Insecure Writers Support Group,
hosted by Alex Cavanaugh and his
excellent team. 
 But I do love monthly goals. So my writing goals this month are to try some writing motivational techniques. A writer friend told me about this simple technique: for each day you accomplish your writing goal, add a paper clip to your paper clip chain. If you miss a day, you have to start a new chain all over. I forgot to start this on January 1st, but I did start on the 3rd and I have a teeny little paperclip chain going now. Last night I didn't have any time to write till 9:15pm when I got the kids to bed, and I was so tired, I just wanted to stretch out with a good book; writing meant putting my brain back to work again. But that would mean starting the chain again, after only two days! So I got 45 minutes of writing in.

I'm actively looking for other writers to share short term goals with and keep each other motivated, by email or twitter or any method. Even if you're just popping by for the first time, don't be shy! I'd love to connect with you. A good way to battle writing insecurity is to be part of a motivational team. 

Ending this post now so I can go get my writing done early today, Here are a few of my favorite writing pins from last month for inspiration. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Reading resolutions and most anticipated debuts in 2015

I'm combining this week's and last week's Top Ten Tuesday theme (hosted by the Broke and Bookish blog): my 2015 reading resolutions and my most anticipated 2015 debuts. 

Here's what made me prick my ears about these 2015 debuts: moon colonies, death
-trap riddled libraries, time travel, jinns, a mirror reflection with a mind of its own, Golden Age Hollywood, travel to Pakistan, Emily Dickinson's poetry, deadly competition at a ballet school, and a fantasy world similar to ancient Rome!

Dove Arising
The D'Evil Diaries
Becoming Jinn
The Edge of Forever
Dead to Me
Written in the Stars
When Reason Breaks
Tiny Pretty Things
An Ember in the Ashes

Now, my reading resolutions for 2015, along with how I did last year...

1. Read at least 52 books in 2015, one book a week (same as last year).   This is my fifth year setting this goal, and I've always succeeded with this one easily (actually, I usually over-succeed: in 2014 I read 59 books and re-read 6 more). If I let myself read as much as I wanted, I never get anything else done! So this is actually a resolution NOT to go overboard with reading.

2. Read at least 2 classics, same as last year. This is my hardest category! Last year I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and started Uncle Tom's Cabin... and I'm still working on it. It's good, but I keep getting distracted  by shorter, easier reads. But this year I plan to finish it and read two more: I'm thinking of the Grapes of Wrath and... maybe some Plato?

3. Read at least 12 debuts (first books by new previously unpublished authors).  Same as last year; I read exactly 12 though there are still a couple more 2014 debuts I want to get to. My favorite 2014 debut was Alienated by Melissa Landers and I can't WAIT for the sequel, Invaded, and by the way did you know there's a short out there right now you can read, Until Midnight

4. Read at least 5 science fiction classics and 2 more recent Nebula or Hugo winners. Last year my goal was two classics and I was amazed by The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, not so keen on Ringworld. I only got to one recent Hugo winner, Among Others, but oh my goodness that book! It was like an ode to science fiction and fantasy, and I have dozens of classics I want to read now, starting with The Gates of Ivrel, which garnered the distinction of being in the last sentence of Among Others.

5. Read at least three Printz honors or YALSA awards. Slight change from last year, which was 2 Printz books. I read Midwinterblood (did not like it) and a Printz honor, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, AMAZING!!! So far I haven't been crazy about Printz winners - they are jsut a little to odd for me, but I have loved all the Printz honors I've read, and YALSA winners, like How to Save a Life by Sara Zara. 

6. Read at least five Newberry winners or honors (the most prestigious award for middle grade kidlit). My goal was 3 last year, and I actually read 5, because they are so easy to read and so delicious - not disappointed with a single one! My favorite were The One and Only Ivan and The Graveyard Book

7. Read at least 10 books that feature a diverse main character . I read 12 last year, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian was my absolute favorite of all my 2014 reads. I was impressed by the variety of stories about diverse characters, including some with disabilities, like She Is Not Invisible and Dangerous.

8. One thing I plan to do this year is read more historicals, both in the YA and adult categories.

Summary: I read mostly young adult books: 33 total (11 contemporary, 7 science fiction, 6 fantasy, 5 paranormal, 3 historical fantasy, 2 historical). I read 13 middle grade books (6 contemporary, 5 historical, 1 paranormal), 6 adult books (4 science fiction, 1 historical, 1 literary), 5 non-fiction and 2 new adult books. I didn't finish four books after reading half way through (as compared to many books that I only sampled the first one or two chapters). Two of these because my interest really lagged, the other two went a direction I was uncomfortable with. I expect the YA/MG/adult ratio to stay similar since in 2013 it was also very similar: 34 YA, 8 MG, 6 non-fiction, 5 adult.

Got any reading goals this year?

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