Wednesday, December 18, 2013

New Book

Things always get so busy during the holidays!

News news news-- Twitter is still down, which forms the main basis of my 'writing' news as it contains all the threads I visit for various articles and commentaries on the publishing world. I'm wondering what is going on with that...anyone able to use Twitter normally? Anyone else experiencing this difficulty?

I am beginning a new book this Christmas holiday, after just finishing one the past couple of months. I am really excited about it-- I think it's a great idea and will serve well!

I'm also in the process of getting my last book, Shifted, a retelling of beauty and the beast, only gender-swapped, available for purchase on Amazon.com and other retailers! More details to come when that is complete. I'm using a platform called Create Space that was suggested to me by a fellow, self-published author.

You may be recalling, now wait, you always said you were going to hold off on self-publishing! Well, this is true. However I've had a thought. I'm still sending out queries and submissions for this book. But why not distribute it easily to my friend and family (and maybe others!) while I wait? I am not foreseeing moving so much stock that a publisher would not want to take on the project for that reason, and if I do sell that many copies, I don't think I'll be worried anyway!

So I'm going to give this a whirl and start putting my books up on Amazon.com and see what happens.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thursdays, huh?

This is the second week in a row that I have been slammed on my usual blog-Wednesday and ended up writing to you on Thursday. Not to mention that Twitter (a source of many ideas and articles and news updates for this blog) was on the fritz yesterday. The whole website was down.

Correction. The whole website is down. I just checked again.


So you're going to have to put up with late, news-less rantings from me. I know you're thrilled.

Well you'll get an in-progress book report from me. I'm currently reading Destiny's Road by Larry Niven (who I bumped into, sort of...he was in the same concert room as me at Dragon Con but he left before the band I was merchandising for went on stage...we did a little dance around each other when the first crowd was leaving...) who is one of the kings of the science fiction world. His name ranks up there with Isaac Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, and Ursula K. LeGuin.


He's the author of Ringworld, an incredibly popular and ground-breaking science fiction tale that joined the ranks of Hard Science Fiction (different than soft science fiction in that it has to be within the laws of physics and science; aka, not a space opera or Star Wars) in 1970. Not long after, the science fiction world threw the gauntlet at Niven, claiming that the book wasn't realistic. In response, he picked up that gauntlet and threw it back with Ringworld Engineers, a book dedicated to proving that the physics were sound.
"After the publication of Ringworld many fans identified numerous engineering problems in the Ringworld as described in the novel. One major problem was that the Ringworld, being a rigid structure, was not actually in orbit around the star it encircled and would eventually drift, ultimately colliding with its sun and disintegrating. This led MIT students attending the 1971 Worldcon to chant, "The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!" Niven wrote the 1980 sequel in part to address these engineering issues."

In case you're still wondering, Ringworld is what inspired the game series Halo.


This is the first book by Niven that I've ever read, and I was warned beforehand that his books tend to be rather mature in content. Explicitly so. Well, this one has not been bad, in my eyes. It's certainly an adult book but I'm not needing to use bleach on my eyes or soap in my brain after every chapter. So feel free to read.

The story is about settlers who landed on an Earth-like planet 200-300 years ago and eked out an existence from the peninsula. A Road was formed by the shuttles hovering along over the land, burning out the ground. And spartan civilizations, some very rudimentary in technology, sprang up. But mysteries are everywhere. No one follows the road except for the merchants. No one asks where the Road goes. No one asks anything.


Jemmy, forced onto the Road by accident, is off to find out the answers to all his questions.

The writing style jumps around a lot. I'm just now entering part three, before which the biggest gaps in time were a few days or weeks. The leap from part two to part three, however, is 27 years without mention until later. I spent the first few pages wondering who I was reading about and where the last nearly three decades went. There are a lot of name changes too, as Jemmy becomes a fugitive and has to take cover. He changes names three or four times in the first two parts of the book. Also a tad confusing if you're not paying strict attention.

But I like it so far. It's a good, detailed book, paints vivid pictures of a strange life, draws you into the mystery of it. I can't wait to find out what the whole point is, what happened to the initial crews of the ships that led to the scattered lifestyles of the now-inhabitants of the planet who have so diversified a way of life-- some living like tribes, some like futuristic societies.

In other news, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug opens tonight.

I'm stupid excited.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

It's A Love/Hate Relationship

Now if you're like me and you have pale, northern-European, so-white-it-blinds-the-eyes skin, you may not be a huge fan of the sun in general. You can get sunburned in ten minutes. You have higher chances of skin cancer. You may already (like me) have a history of skin cancer and have to get skin exams every year. Your dermatologist would murder you if he knew how negligent you were about putting on sunscreen, which you're supposed to do every time you step outside, not just when you're going to be in the direct sunlight for an extended amount of time. You can get sun damage just going to get your mail.

You could also be like me and absolutely love the sun. You wish you didn't have to put on sunscreen because it's such a pain in the butt, but sunbathing and turning into a lobster is even more a pain in the butt. Or the shoulders, or nose, or forehead, or feet. Yes, I have gotten sunburn on my feet before. Ouch. You feel like a cat sometimes because you've been known to follow a patch of sun around the house and just lie in it. You want to turn your face up to the sun and soak it in like a sunflower. I read Robin McKinley's Sunshine with great jealousy, as the heroine draws her magical power from the sun and can drink it up like a plant.

You also may be wondering what in the world this has to do with writing or books or anything at all.

Unless you read or write outside (Which, by the way, is delightful. Wheelbarrows make exceptionally good cubbies. So do hammocks.), the author-species doesn't get out much. Especially during the winter months.

We need to.

It is a scientifically proven fact that humans need sunlight. It provides vitamin D, which helps against depression and moodiness and general gloom. Fluorescent lights have been known to facilitate depressed emotions. And just being outside, even if you can't see the sun-- like with all the rainy weather we've had these past weeks-- is a balm and a restorative.

In the past month I have recently finished my latest book. This meant a lot of lunch-break writing sessions. I haven't gone outside to eat my lunch because of these as well as the fact that it's winter now, which means cold weather and more rain. So I've stayed indoors. I also, now having exited the collegiate world, haven't been walking between classes and all across campus as I have been used to doing for the past four years. Soaking up even an hour or two of sun just by being a pedestrian.

It also gets dark by the time I leave work, with the time change, so I get up and go to work in the dawn light, and I go home in the twilight, leaving no time for sunlight at all.

I have been feeling gloomy and melancholy and frankly morbid for the last two weeks without knowing why.

I spent my lunch break outside a bit, yesterday, just thinking, praying, musing, and turning my face up to the sun. I felt like I had been plugged in to an electrical circuit.

We need the sunlight. Especially because we're writers. We divulge so much of our creative energy onto the pages, but if we give ourselves no way or rebooting, we're going to be running on empty way faster than we would otherwise.

And even just a few minutes a day, just an hour, can make a huge difference between none at all.

Go outside. Breathe the fresh air. Feel some sunlight. And put on your sunscreen. But get your vitamins for the day and recharge a little.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Now go eat some pie. Here. Here's a picture of pie for you.

 
Oh...Oh dear.

 
Oog, so hungry!

 
That looks delicious!!

 
That's it. I'm going to find some nommings.

 
And a book to read.

 
Happy Thanksgiving. I'm going to go eat until I can't breathe and read for 8+ hours.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Riddle Master by Patricia McKillip

Patricia McKillip is one of my favorite authors.


This is due to the fact that one of her books, Winter Rose, is an annual read for me. Once December hits, I whip out that novel and read it, every single year. It is the embodiment of how I feel about winter and the cold. It takes my desire for spring and green growing things and the forest and wraps it into a real-life, fantastical twist. If I could pick a book character who I feel most akin to, it would be Rois, the heroine of Winter Rose.

It is probably because this book is so integral to my continual growth as a writer, a reader, and a dreamer that I am very critical of any other book that McKillip publishes.

You may recall my review on her book that came out a couple of years ago, The Bards of Bone Plain. It was a more critical review -- the book didn't sit with me very well. It did not capture the true writing genius that I know McKillip can have. Her other book Ombria in Shadow is one that has it. The Bell at Sealey Head is another. But McKillip does have one overarching fault that, when it absorbs into her writing, can almost destroy a book -- that is when she gives in to or falls in to her own personal cliches (a style which I discuss in my earlier book review).


Personal cliches are cliches that authors make for themselves. You can very easily fall into them just by having a distinctive writing style and being lazy. The first is good; the second is bad. By the third or fourth time you use the phrase 'gimlet eye' (which I may or may not have been guilty of in the last week which is why that is the example used *coughcough*) your readers are going to notice and roll their eyes.

You never want your readers to roll their eyes at you. At your characters, yes. At your humor, sure. But never at you. Your readers should forget you exist until they pick the book up or put the book down. Between the pages, you are invisible.

McKillip's cliches generally take the form of being overly flowery. Now if you've ever read any of my writing or know my favorite books, you'll know that I love descriptions! I love words and vocabulary, I love flowery writing. I love magical phrases. But there is a line, and past that line I'm waiting for Puff the magic dragon to come gallivanting out with his eyeballs googling in opposite directions. Don't go that far.

McKillip can have the tendency to do this with the magical descriptions. The cliche that makes me almost groan when she falls in to it is her overuse of mystical, magical, rhetorical questions delivered by her characters.

Now McKillip is, as I have called her before, a true 'chef with words'. I adore her writing. I want to own every book she has ever published, even the ones I'm not a huge fan of. So don't take all of this criticism and negativity as a whole opinion.


But to the matter at hand, finally -- I am almost finished reading the Riddle Master Trilogy by McKillip. And it's a mixed bag of worms, I can tell you.

I almost took a break a third of the way in to the trilogy. The first book is an absolute bear, filled with every personal cliche McKillip has ever employed way too many times. I was, frankly, bored. The whole underlying theme of the book is comprised of riddles. However, you never get any answers to any of the riddles in the first book. It felt to me like McKillip was trying to be overly mysterious. She didn't reveal anything. You didn't know anything after finishing the book. Nothing was ever figured out. And frankly, I wasn't interested. I thought I wasn't going to enjoy the rest of the trilogy at all.

It's a good thing I bought an omnibus three-in-one because if I hadn't owned the other two books already, I likely would never have finished the trilogy.

The second and third books in the trilogy fly by -- this is the McKillip I love!! There are still some flowery rhetorical questions in there, but the plot and pace and what you can actually know about the book grows rapidly. We finally start to get some answers, and the tale begins to unfold. It shouldn't have taken 180 pages to do so, but it does at last.


Is it worth struggling through those 180 pages to get to the second and third book? Yes. I would definitely say so. I have a general principle, anyway, that if I start something I'm going to finish it -- there are very few books or series I have not finished, due to this. I had one book earlier this summer that I put down after a hundred pages because it was just bad and that is very rare for me. But even without that stubborn principle of seeing a book through to the end, this trilogy is worth it. I would recommend it to any fan of fantasy or fiction and definitely any fan of Patricia McKillip.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

It's NaNoWriMo But I'm Already Done...

Granted, to say that is a bit of a cheat. I did not start writing this month alone. I've never taken part in NaNoWriMo, and I don't think I'll start. Nothing against the idea, but my brain and my muse don't quite work that way.

I did finish my new book that I've been working on and thinking about since last fall.

Finally!

I wrote close to 200 pages in a month (that's about 60,000 words for me). So I had my own, skewed, NaNoWriMo. And it was amazing. But it would take too much planning to force my muse to start on the first of a given month and end on the 30th of a given month. I'd rather have a continual NaNoWriMo of get it done now you lazy writer.


The incredible thing I discovered is that when I started actually writing, and stopped messing about, I got way more done in a much shorter amount of time than I thought possible. I haven't written this much this quickly since I first discovered my love to write.

What helped was having my beta readers urging me on to keep chugging out chapters. What helped was having a plan in my mind for when I wanted to finish the book. What helped was having a fire under my butt to actually meet-- and surpass-- my deadline. What helped was having had a massive read-off the few months previous where I poured through a good 6-10 books just for fun and to catch up on feeding my muse. Also having my MP3 player with me at just about all times.


Since I finished my book last week, I have also written my query letter (and edited it), written my synopsis (and edited it), and researched about a dozen potential agents. I shall research more agents before I send off any official packages. The more the merrier, in point of fact.

It feels so good to be writing again. I'm already excited to start the next project. I also want to revamp the submission materials for the first book of my trilogy, but I will wait until my editor is done with my second book of the trilogy before I do that. I'll get that puppy caught up all at once.

And I think I've found my niche. The type of story I just completed has potential for a whole serial of different books, not part of a series, per se, but all part of a similar 'universe' of tales. With maybe one, two connecting characters who flit in and out like unintentional fairy godparents. And I can't wait to see where it goes.


In the next few weeks I'll be sending materials off to agents. We'll see what happens. I really think this could be the book that does it for me. Everything has just felt so right about it-- the chapters just flowed out, the query letter was done in two days, the synopsis was done in one. I wrote it almost entirely from memory, all 15 pages of it. This book is like a well greased machine, and all I can wonder is how I managed to end up driving it.

Of course, I doubt I'll get any traction right off. Unless I'm supremely lucky, or just that good. If I do, you'll be sure to hear about it. It won't wipe out the 60+ rejection letters I've already gotten in my entire career, but it would be amazing to see this book go for it without any rejections on its own slate. But I'll keep trying. I'll keep writing books until someone publishes one.

That's the only way I know to do it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Delightful Dally in a New Genre

I have officially dipped my toe into a new genre: 'Gothic Romance'.

Know that this was a big step for me. I always used to envision creepy old houses and moldering estates whenever the word 'Gothic' was used. Or I'd think of some of my favorite architecture in Europe. Like this:

When put together with the word 'Romance', however, I summoned up a vision of something less edible; something like an emo-Twilight-Anne-Rice novel. Like this:










Now before you protest, I was corrected in my opinions on Anne Rice two years ago by the simple means of, who would have ever thought, actually reading a handful of her books--and loving them. It's about time I came to a correct vision of the Gothic Romance.

Lesson One: Don't make assumptions about genres unless you've already read something (and even better, several somethings) from that genre.

In this corner, weighing in at just under 300 pages and filling in for the genre of the Gothic Romance, stands Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees. Winner of the 2012 RONE award in mystery and a finalist in the 2013 Maggie Awards for Excellence in history, Sea of Secrets fits the bill even down to the very gothic cover, complete with moldering castle and dramatic heroine. Check and check. But what about the content? Well, that's where it all started for me...

I read a glowing review about this book just a couple of weeks ago. The review led to a link where I could read the first chapter, and the reviewer gushed over how DeWees had captured her imagination within the first five paragraphs, thus leading her to read the rest of the book in its entirety.

Ok, I thought. I'll bite. I just had to see what kind of five paragraphs had that sort of effect.


I read the first paragraph. Then the first page. I kept scrolling. By the time I hit the bottom of the excerpt, I blinked, had a moment of mental panic when I realized I wasn't getting any more, and then tapped the scroll-down button on my screen frantically, hoping I'd somehow overlooked the next scene. No such luck.

But...But! I want to know what happens!

Thus ensued a full-on, internal, creative tantrum. My muse shrank and suddenly became three years old. I had to know the rest of the story or my psyche would never let me forget it. Ever. It would become the kind of thing I woke up about thirty years down the road and regretted while I contemplated the turns I'd taken in life.

You think I'm exaggerating. But this really was the nanosecond response that occurred when I came to the end of that excerpt.

I got my hands on a copy of the book a few days later. I read it in a week.

Oriel Pembroke is our heroine: witty, smart, and charming within the first few sentences, she's the perfect guide through the dark mysteries and potential scandals that litter the pages of Sea of Secrets. Disinherited by her father after her brother's sudden and unexpected death, Oriel finds herself landed in the care of a family that has some potentially serious issues, including a brooding, handsome duke and a recently violent death. For all that, they're kind, generous, and loving people, making it seemingly impossible for them to be hiding anything in the cupboards other than the best port in the county.

Of course, I don't need to tell you that this does not to turn out to be the case. They do indeed have the best port in the cupboards. But other mysteries and conspiracies thrive between the pages, as well as a strong but twisting Shakespearean theme, and this Historical-Fiction Gothic-Romance kept me turning pages (and thinking about the story when I wasn't reading it) as nearly non-stop as I could manage.

Amanda DeWees has earned my hats-off as a writer and weaver of tales and has also changed forever my opinion on the Gothic-Romance.

Lesson Two: This is a dang good book.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All Ghouls' Day

It's the day before Halloweeeeeennnnnnnnnnn!!!!!

Ooooooooooooh...

And this is also the 100th post of Maudlin's Shoes! Get out the confetti and the sparklers!!

You know how I'm celebrating? With a mug of pumpkin-spice vanilla coffee and a cozy jacket.

I've never been a huge fan of 'pumpkin-spice-flavored-thingums' for the holidays. I love pumpkin cheesecake and I love pumpkin cranberry bread. But that's about it. I don't usually go in for the ever popular pumpkin-craze that follows around October and November.

But I love the holidays, and I love warm drinks when it's cold outside.

I also just got a new tea flavored Apple Pie. It's heaven.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, you may remember my earlier post on Tea or Coffee and how it actually relates to writing-- did you know that the caffeine in tea is a 'calming' energy boost as opposed to the chemical in coffee? Coffee may give you the jitters, but a nice cup of green tea might just raise those cement-laden eyelids off your face without giving you the shakes or the need to talk at fifty miles an hour.

Now that we get to the holiday that inspires gothics and ghouls, you may find yourself needing one or the other to jot down all your spooky inspiration.

In further update, writing continues on this end. I have two and a half chapters to go with my current book and plan to be done by Thanksgiving.

As a thought for scheduling, it's good to create a firm deadline for yourself. But in the early stages it may be too difficult to do so. Once you can smell the barn, as it were, you should definitely set one. It gives motivation and a sense of pride to accomplish it. Can I write 75 pages before the end of November?

Yes. I certainly can. And after that I will get the book edited, worked, and ready to be sent off to every agent I have ever plagued with my letters before.

Maybe this one will see the shelves sooner than later. I certainly hope so.

And did you really think you were going to get a normal post for the holiday?

Trick or treat!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Importance of Having Beta Readers

What is the one thing that authors cannot live without?

Readers.


In the end, when it really comes down to it, that is the only thing an author must have to create a success. If you don't have a computer, you can write it on paper. If you don't have paper, you use oral tradition (stretching the metaphor here). If you don't have a traditional publishing house or agent, you can self-publish. You can even print via Office Depot and sell/give away your stories, but if no one will read them, it doesn't make a difference what you do.

That is reason Number One 007 for catering to and making use of your readers.

Because of this, many authors preface their final-stage of writing with what they call 'Beta Readers'. These time-sacrificing, loyal friends/family members/significant-others can also be known as 'proofers' or 'rabid fans'. And they are your editors before you get to the editing process.

Now, there are two ways to use Beta Readers. They can read your book once you've finished the first draft. Or they can get a new chapter every time you complete one. We'll call them Final-Readers and Serialized-Readers for clarification.

Final-Readers (FR):

Final-Readers should always be considered before you get to the agent/publishing stage. Even if you edit your book to death, employing all the different tricks and techniques to try and catch every error or erroneous detail, you will never find everything. FR can not only proof your text for errors you didn't find, but they can also give you a wide, fresh-eyed overview of your book. Did this event make sense? Was this character flaky? Do you need to change this sequence of events to a more understandable order? Was it enjoyable? FR are your fans before your book hits the shelves, and you will never find a better form of feedback and advice than in your FR.


Serialized-Readers (SR):

Serialized-Readers are not necessary, but I find them to be extremely helpful and would highly recommend them to any author. Before you finish your book and do your final-edits / get to the FR stage, SR can help you expand a work in progress. Not only can they catch problems as you go, they can also be the fire under your butt to keep working. Nothing quite motivates the completion of a next chapter than hungry eyes staring at you over the computer screen, and when the fan demands, the author provides. SR are also invaluable when it comes to catching and correcting mistakes that, if given free rein until the book is finished, could cause some serious overhauling and editorial setbacks. They can also be your cheerleader as you continue, encouraging you that, yes, your book is worth writing and dangit you'd better give me the next chapter or so help me.


Both FR and SR are recommended during the writing process. Who hasn't picked up a book by their favorite author and wished they could pick their brain after finishing the read? Why didn't they make this decision? If only they'd avoided that cliche. The list goes on. You could be that for one of your writer friends, or you could avoid many author mistakes by letting/asking your friends to read your work. And unless you are the ultimate close-to-the-chest writer, there is nothing more enjoyable than having someone read your work.

The only con? Be selective. Don't give your work-in-progress to everyone you know. Don't even give it to every one of your family members and close friends. Pick a maximum of three people. I use two Serial-Readers and one Final-Reader, and that seems to balance pretty well. You can't (and shouldn't try to) please everyone. There are going to be people out there who won't like a decision you make in your writing, or even your style of writing, and you shouldn't get caught in an editorial war.

It takes time and it takes work on their part, but if you can find some Beta Readers, do so. They are the greatest asset to a work in progress beyond an actual agent who wants to throw money at you.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Back in the Saddle Again

In the last three or so weeks, I have written as many chapters in the book I am working on. I wrote 98% of a new chapter just yesterday, and I plan to finish it today. I could even start on the next chapter this same day, easily. If I keep at this rate, I could be done by Christmas.

I'm reading more-- and writing more-- than I have in months. In fact, I'm reading and writing more this last month than I have in years.

All that free time I never had during college has been storing up. I could probably count the books I read 'for fun' during my college years on two hands. I just didn't have the time. Every spare moment was spent studying or catching up on the quantities of reading assignments and papers that I had to do each day (English major, Creative Writing minor...explains a lot. And when you throw a double minor in Studio Art into the mix, in addition to the 'Core' program in Philosophy/Rhetoric my liberal arts school requires but would count anywhere else as a second major, well...). I kept up my blog, but that was about the only writing I did 'for me'. Everything else got pushed farther and farther back.


Since graduation, however-- even though I work full-time and have my own place to clean and manage-- I've read more and written more than in those four years combined. I've plowed through half a dozen books, at least, and I pick up a new one the moment I put a finished read down. I have a lot of unread books on my shelves that have been collecting momentum, waiting for me to get back to them. It's an epidemic that I must be ruthless with.

Reading takes up time, that's for sure, but it also does a great thing for writers-- reading breeds writing. It's impossible to be a writer and read a book without occasionally thinking "I bet I could do that better" or "I wonder if I could do that as well?" or "Now why did they make the book end that way?". We learn from reading even when we aren't paying attention.


I've been reading more in the past two months, and I've been writing more in the past two months. Reading is, above all other things-- music, movies, art, nature, exercise-- my muse. I need all the other things as well, but if one of those other sources of inspiration fades for a little while, it doesn't leave nearly as massive an impact as not reading. I couldn't write without music, art, and nature, certainly. But if I had to go without any of those for a little while, it wouldn't immediately stifle my ability to write. Stop reading, though? Gone.

And you know what else breeds writing? Writing. The more you write, the more you will write, because it's as habitual as anything else. It takes practice and constant, meticulous honing. Sometimes you'll spit out 20 pages in one go, sometimes it will take you three hours to craft just one. But no matter how fast or how slow, how clean or rough the first draft may be, you won't write more or faster if you don't write.

Gee. That's rather deep.

And if you give yourself time to write every day, every other day, you will find yourself writing more and more. You'll find yourself writing better. It will get easier. You know how the hardest thing in the world is to pick up a project when you've put it down for five months, five weeks, even five days? That's because momentum dies easily. If you keep the momentum going, it will keep building until you can't pass a day without writing. It will feel odd not to write even a little bit in a day. The creative bug won't leave you alone.


I've been telling myself to stick to a writing schedule for years. But creativity is hard to schedule. The easiest way to handle that? Make every day a scheduled writing day.

So if you'll excuse me for a minute, I have a chapter to finish.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ten Great Books Everyone Should Read

So I saw this idea on another blog (shameless copying here, folks) and thought it a great idea. The form was My Top Ten Books for Adults. I’ve taken that and run with it, but I’ve included young-adult genres as well, since even as an adult I love to read young-adult material. Then again, I still love reading children’s picture books too sometimes. Don’t judge me. I have both Brian Jacques and Isaac Asimov on my bookshelves, and I’m proud of it!

Thusly this list came to be: Ten Great Books Everyone Should Read

And, almost more importantly, why.

In the category of Non-Fiction:

§  Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. As a Christian (and I would recommend this book to people who are not Christians, as well) it was very intriguing to read a book that takes Christianity and goes through it using logic to conclusion; it is very Aristotelian / Socratic to me, the way Lewis moved from step to step, going through the ideas, facts, and beliefs that make up the Christian faith. Knowing that Lewis was also coming from a non-Christian background (he was actually quite the critic, once upon a time) it was incredible to see him take a belief system he used to look at in skepticism and work it from the ground up. A great read for all who want to learn more about Christianity.

§  All Creatures Great and Small and companion books by James Herriot. You can smell the sheep. Herriot’s descriptions of being a vet in the back country of farmland England are hilarious, detailed, and compelling, revealing not only a unique picture into vet life in the 20th century but also the rustic environment of English farms and their occupants (both furry and not). It doesn’t feel like non-fiction. It feels like sitting next to your favorite uncle and hearing his anecdotes about all the mischief he got into.
 

In the category of Adult Fiction/Fantasy:

§  The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. The father of modern fantasy as we know it, Tolkien spent decades crafting The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is a have-to-read on any book-lover’s list. Not only does Tolkien weave a tale of high fantasy that is compelling and filled with human decision and relation, sword and sorcery, dark lords and elves and little folk, but he also forces you to use your imagination while reading it. He employs a very complex form of writing that is both detailed and sparse—you’ll have to put your visualizing hat on for this one, folks. Imagine this trilogy like a dark chocolate torte with a shot of espresso, and you’ll be close to the mark.

§ Yukon Writings by Jack London. I was thatkid who carried around my father’s leather-bound copy of the Complete Works of Jack London at the age of 10, and the Yukon Writings were by far my favorite. Spanning from the ice-encrusted wilds of wolfdom to the dangerous and intense world of dog-sledding, London was certainly a huge influence on my craving imagination. He has an evocative way of writing that makes you feel the cold. A great tale to read curled up next to a fire with a hot cup of your favorite toddy.
 
§  Outlander and the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, usually, but this series was obsessing. A romantic comedic fantastical time-travel wild ride, Outlander takes a post WWII nurse and flings her back into 18th century Scotland where she is faced with all the complications and dangers of that war-torn time. This is a book that makes you learn something about culture and history without knowing it. And you’ll love it, too.

In the category of Science Fiction:

§  Young Miles and the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is the science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (and for people who love science fiction, you won’t be able to put them down!). Bujold is the ultimate master at character description and development, weaving seamless heroes and villains who are so real they could jump off the page with their blasters and space ships and land in your living room. The main character, Miles Vorkosigan, is the ultimate in charismatic, loose cannon miscreants who is just genius enough not to get himself killed ten times over. The ultimate space saga.
 

§  I, Robot and the Robot series by Isaac Asimov. We used to read these stories as campfire tales while buried deep in the mountains, far away from all technology and thoughts of futuristic robotics. It’s nothing like the movie, folks, and that’s in favor of the book. Isaac Asimov is one of the king’s of science fiction, and his Robot stories (including his mysteries with the detectives Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw) are a pillar of the science world. Hilarious and adventurous with a hefty ladling of sarcasm and irony.

§  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. LeGuin is the only writer I know to seamlessly (and I do mean seamlessly) combine fantasy and science fiction into once genre. And while The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel, the essences of deep myth and lore round out the edges into a single pearl of storytelling. Genly Ai is an ambassador on the planet Winter, a sphere locked in an ice age and inhabited by a race that is both male and female at the same time. The struggles to interact with such a people (when the King becomes pregnant, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore) and the political intrigue form a social, scientific, mythological race for survival that takes Ai across the tundra and back again.

In the category of Young Adult Fiction/Fantasy:

§  Beauty by Robin McKinley. This book is my favorite version of Beauty and the Beast that I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a few. McKinley is a chef with words and descriptions, and her characters are likable, lovable, hilarious, heart-wrenching, and relatable. You get to know the beast as much as you get to know Beauty, and with each page you’ll find yourself rooting for them as they struggle to understand their curse.

§  Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. You may have seen the movie by Miyazaki that is based off of this book, and as a die-hard fan of Miyazaki’s work I can confidently say that the book is way better. Which means it’s plain fantastic. Full of slightly ironic comedy and enchantment, this is a high-urban fantasy mix full of wizards and witches and talking fireplaces.

§  Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce. What do you get when you put the Trickster god in the same room as the daughter of the realm’s spymaster? You get this book, is what you get. Pierce will make you want to put on your gloves and take up the intelligencing business yourself as she transports you from palaces to slaveships to tropical islands where intrigue and plots will challenge all of Aly’s skills at sneaking, networking, and puzzling to good use. Plus a handsome, endearing crow-man named Nawat who wants to give Aly ants as a courtship present. Enough said.
  
 
In the category of Honorable Mentions (because when I say ten I can’t just pick ten):

§  Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip, for making me read this book every single year at wintertime and for descriptions so delicious you could eat them.

§  Double Exposure by Piers Anthony, for an amusing flip-of-the-coin genre twist between science fiction and fantasy where high fantastical witchcraft and wizardry lies side by side in cross-dimensional travel with robots and stun guns.
 
 
§  Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, for introducing me to a new fairy tale and for weaving characters who sucked me in so deeply I was groaning and cheering almost immediately.

§  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, for an end you’ll never see coming where child-geniuses battle it out in anti-gravity war rooms as the destruction of humanity looms.

§  Dune by Frank Herbert, for another mix of myth and hard science fiction and political intrigue on a desert planet where the spice rules and enormous worms travel beneath the sand.
 

§  The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, for the best interstellar story about a cross-universal empire and the political upheaval that spans lightyears.

 
And if all that isn’t enough for you, here’s a list of 100 MORE books you can add to your pile of Have-To-Read-Sometime-In-My-Life.

Because we’re readers. And readers need lists of books. It’s like a hit list.

Er, sort of. We’ll call it a bucket list instead. A book bucket list. A booket list.

I’m stopping now.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Narrative Writing Style

I'm currently reading "Deerskin" by Robin McKinley, one of my all-time favorite authors.


I was surprised to find a writing style completely out of her norm. Usually her books are rich with descriptive text and sharp dialogue and broken easily into chewable chunks of pacing and flow.

"Deerskin" is nothing like that.

This novel, which is based off of the original fairy tale (or at least one of the original known incarnations of this fairy tale) Donkeyskin, is written almost entirely in narrative voice. Which means that there have maybe been a handful of quoted dialogues in the entire book. Nearly everything else is descriptive or thought-based or third-person omniscient, which for those of you who may not be familiar with the term means that it sounds like the author is telling you things and she knows everything about what's going on in the story and the characters.

It's an interesting style to choose, seeing as how the story of the original Donkeyskin is so disturbing anyway. In summary, a king marries the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms (or the land, or the realm, or the world depending on the tale) and they are happily ever after. They have a beautiful daughter and their land prospers. Then the beautiful queen grows ill, and before dying she forces her king to promise her that he will never marry a woman less beautiful than her.



Time passes, and the daughter grows to look just like her mother, and -- having been driven slightly off his rocker in grief from his wife's passing anyway -- the king decides to marry his daughter. From there varying versions of the story involve the princess running away, the princess making wild demands that she hopes her father can never fulfill as prices of her dowry (a dress as bright as the sun, beautiful as the moon, etc.), the princess being raped by her father and then running away, etc. etc. In the end she comes back to the palace in disguise (wrapped in the donkey skin to hide her beauty) and works as a servant girl. She is discovered by her father (again in a myriad of ways depending on the tale, sometimes by accident making a cake and having a ring fall in it, the strangest of which involves her leaving her father hints as to her identity as if she wants him to find her...very odd) and he marries her anyway and they live happily ever after. Sometimes she marries a prince of the court, who finds her 'hints' or accidental losses of jewelry, and she marries him, and her father marries a beautiful widow. A better ending in general.


I know. It's one of the weirder ones. And I'm not sure that "Deerskin" is going to end that way.

And I'm also not sure that this third-person omniscient narrative voice is working for McKinley in this book. It comes across as overly stiff, formal, like she's trying to mimic some dusty old epic with lots of 'thees' and 'thous' and 'fors' and etc. Now there have been no thees and thous, thankfully (though I have nothing against a good thee or thou in general) but there are a lot of 'fors'. Like in the example sentence:

I love my hound greatly, for she is the fleetest creature upon four legs. I will have her by my side always, for she is my right hand and my best friend. Together we will be inseparable, for she is loyal and will never leave me unguarded.

Ahem. Yes. Nice once. Bad twice. Terrible three times in a row.

That's the general flavor of "Deerskin" if not to the degree in my example. But it's dense and not a 'light' read by any means, not in terms of content and not in terms of style. I generally think that books should mix: if you have a lighthearted story to tell, find a deep-water way of telling it. If you have a really dark, horrible story to tell, find a straightforward or easier way of writing it. That way you don't bog down your reader or annoy them with your frippery. Find a balance.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Does "Likability" Matter?

Often when you're reading a book, whether or not you 'like' the character makes a big difference on whether or not you 'like' a book. In the end, personal preference is always important. But do we get too caught up in this 'likability'-- on either end?

Authors Moshin Hamid and Zoe Heller attack this question from either end, and I think both of their points are, well...poignant.

In their article "Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be 'Likable'?", Hamid and Heller look at what makes a book, based on its characters, likable. Hamid states, on the one hand, that finding 'nonlikability' as an unacceptable flaw is in itself incorrect.
"I confess" he states, "I read fiction to fall in love. And in fiction, as in life, characters don’t have to be likable to be lovable."
This is an indelible truth that I think many readers miss. Yes, we read to escape, or to learn, or to be entertained. I for one don't like graphic or scary movies (or books, for that matter) because I don't find them entertaining. They aren't likable. But there are some instances where I can appreciate a certain style or character that I maybe don't like because I can see the artistry behind it. In my own experience, this happened the most clearly with The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen starts out the book as a 'likable' character. In fact, you love her. You want her to win. You want her to survive and be the hero and save the districts.


By the end of the second and throughout the third book, I really didn't like Katniss. She was, in the end, emotionally and psychologically harmed and twisted by the events that had taken place to her. She wasn't perfect. She didn't have all the answers. She was downright annoying at times. But who wouldn't be, faced with what she had to face? I was flabbergasted, and in fact I was impressed with Suzanne Collins for not only tearing down the 'heroism' of her heroine but also taking the honest, true-to-life approach that so many fiction writers can miss. It's like losing the forest for the trees. If you're writing a fantasy or a fiction, you want it to be believable, real. You want your readers to step into your world and see it as possible.

And if it isn't realistic, then they aren't going to find it easy to believe. Done.

On the other hand, Zoe Heller attacks the idea of making 'likeability' an option rather than something to seriously consider. She states that:
"I grew a little uneasy, though, when in subsequent Internet discussions a consensus seemed to emerge that caring at all about “likability” was an embarrassing solecism, committed only by low-rent writers and hopelessly na├»ve readers. This struck me — and strikes me still — as faux-highbrow nonsense."
Liking a book or a character does not mean that they aren't deep. You don't need sardonic, cynical, moody characters all the time. You don't always need a commentary on the faults of the world or of humanity, life, the universe, and everything. And sometimes you'll lose your readers if you don't cater to their desires-- a desire to learn something, to escape, or to be entertained. If all you do is tick them off or make them feel bad about themselves and life in general, you're not going to get very far. To Heller the idea of whether likability is a successful factor or not is very similar to Hamid's idea about 'realism'. Heller declares that the importance of a character is whether or not they're "alive". When your character breathes and has a beating heart and sweats and bleeds, they can be likable even if they're deplorable. You know those villains we 'love to hate'? They're alive.

Heller sums up this argument by using Shakespeare as an example of likability:

"It’s not necessary to “like” Hamlet, but if we’re so repelled by his treatment of that sweet girl, Ophelia, that we withdraw all sympathetic interest in his dilemmas, then the play is unlikely to mean much to us."
Ok. That's pretty clear.

So the issue of "likability" is more a point of whether your characters, your book, is alive or not. If it's too perfect, it doesn't seem real. If it's too imperfect, no one will like it (or your reader base in either case will be so small as to be pretty meaningless anyway. Then again, John Updike is considered a classic American author. Well, there's no accounting for taste.)

Make your characters real. Make them live. And if that means making them do horrible things sometimes, do it. If it means making a hero who never gives up, do it. But don't tie your flag to either one side or the other.

In everything, a healthy dose of moderation...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fresh Air, Fresh Words

I've begun writing again this last week (thank goodness!), and so when I stumbled across this poignant article this morning, I felt it rather apt for the day.

How many of us write indoors, at our computer, surrounded by walls and ceiling and distractions in the way of Facebook and email and instant messaging?

How many of us suffer from an inability to really concentrate when we're working?

Carol Kaufmann of the New York Times penned "Time to Write? Go Outside", an article all about the research done on how fresh air and natural environments aid the brain when working.


Of course when you really think about it, this makes perfect sense. It's been scientifically proven that sunlight and vitamin D do more than just help our brains think-- it's good for your overall mood as well. Fluorescent lights (and a lack of sunshine and fresh air) have actually been linked with forms of mild depression and even eye strain. There's no substitute for a natural environment and some good old R&R.
"Back in the 1970s, two pioneering environmental psychologists, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, began investigating nature’s healing effect on the mind. Decades later, their studies concluded that connections with nature could help us shirk mental fatigue, restore drifting attention and sharpen thinking. Even in an urban environment, a little green stimulates our senses, they report."
In addition to that, though, Kaufmann points out several compelling arguments in favor of natural scenery as a benefit to creative thought. When indoors we're surrounded by a million and one different distractions and tasks that we can't get our minds off of...not really anyway. The only way to escape, to focus, is to get out somewhere, where it's just you and your thoughts and your senses.

"The author and journalist Richard Louv has thought a lot about technological distractions: 'easier to write outside not only because of nature’s direct impact, but because of the absence of so many distractions, most of them technological.' [Nothing is harder than] writing with only a partial mind, because our mind lies in too many different realms...Bad handwriting can always be transcribed; jumbled thoughts are a devil to untwist."

Kaufmann describes that
"Nothing coaxes jumbled thoughts into coherent sentences like sitting under a shade tree on a pleasant day. With a slight breeze blowing, birds chirping melodies, wee bugs scurrying around me and a fully charged laptop or yellow legal pad at hand, I know I’ll produce my best work."
I for one am inclined to agree. I never feel calmer, more relaxed, and more mentally stimulated than when I'm deep in the mountains or surrounded by trees. It's like I can feel myself taking root in the air and color around me, drawing from a rather sublime understanding that I am incredibly small, leaving plenty of room for my wrangling story or thoughts to grow in.
"Nature immersion also helps us feel alive. Another series of studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2010 concluded that being in nature made people feel energetic and less lethargic, all essential ingredients for writing stories that exude telling details and narrative tension. After all, you just can’t tell a good story when half asleep."

This is because our mind is made up of so much more than grey mushy matter. Why do you think you can write better when listening to music, when lying on an incredibly soft blanket or curiously textured carpet, when smelling a delicious waft from the kitchen or cafe next door, while snacking? It's because the brain is as integrally tied to our senses as our body, and the body will invariably help the mind work better. Sound, visual triggers, scent, touch, taste-- all of these help focus or even inspire the mind.
"'Most people think of the mind as being located in the head,”'writes Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, 'but the latest findings in physiology suggest that the mind doesn’t really dwell in the brain but travels the whole body on caravans of hormone and enzyme, busily making sense of the compound wonders we catalogue as touch, taste, smell, hearing, vision.'"
 
Do you have a hammock? A patio? A wheelbarrow? Get your pad of paper or your portable laptop and go outside. Get fresh air. See the sunlight for the first time all week. Stretch out under a tree or in your favorite porch bench and let your mind focus on something other than technological barriers or indoor distractions. Look out into the sky and image how far it is you're actually seeing. All those miles and light years and vast spaces.

Now fill it up. Write.