Wednesday, September 28, 2011

RTW: Best Book of September, To Say Nothing of the Dog

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic:  What was the best book you read in September?

The best book I read this month was undoubtedly To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.

No, it’s not YA, but that doesn't matter.  

Yes, it is riffing on Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog (which I would also recommend).

It has a little bit of everything: time travel, chaos theory, séances, bombs, fires, frauds, problematic pets, boating misadventures, complicated romances, absent minded professors, and two perfect European butlers.  It crosses four eras – Middle Ages, Victorian, WWII, and the future 2050s – and at least four genres – mystery, science fiction, humor, and historical fiction. It references some of my favorite authors, from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie. And it incorporates everything smoothly and with incredible wit. I got to the end of the 500 pages and still wanted more time with the characters in their various worlds.

What book made your September?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reading for Writing: The Replacement

For this Reading for Writing post, I'm learning from The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, definitely one of the best books I've read this year. It’s deliciously dark and atmospheric, with changelings, creepy children, and blood sacrifices set against the backdrop of a believable high school in an isolated small town. It’s an entertaining read with compelling characters and a lot to teach about effective storytelling...

On Goodreads
Getting to the good stuff

When the protagonist is a contemporary teenager with a supernatural secret, readers get used to encountering certain scenes:
  • Protag realizes, often gradually through a period of denial, that he or she is actually a witch/harpy/elf/ghost/vampire/were-unicorn.
  • Protag has to come to terms with the fact that he or she is not just a normal teen.
  • Protag has to hide the secret from friends and family as the danger escalates.
  • Protag finally tells the secret to someone and encounters skepticism or rejection or both.
  • Etc.
I don't necessarily dislike these scenes, and I definitely understand their purpose, especially in YA books about coming to terms with your unique identity. They can get predictable, however, so encountering a book where the protagonist, his family, and his best friend have known about his secret for years was really refreshing. Yovanoff still incorporated plenty of identity crises and suspense and secrets, but those scenes didn't have to bog down the beginning. She could open with less predictable action.

Obviously not every book should begin in medias res when it comes to the character’s supernatural life, but it’s an option to consider, and Yovanoff makes it work really well.

Breaking up (great) dialogue

It’s always a good idea to break up lengthy dialogue with action, such as having a character shrug or stomp or scratch his head. But if you’re Brenna Yovanoff, you make it WAY more interesting and have the character casually pull out clumps of her own hair while she's talking. Yeah.

But here’s the real kicker – the conversation is so interesting that it took me a moment to even register the hair ripping. That’s compelling dialogue. 

I’ll definitely be looking for ways to step up both what my characters say and what they’re doing as they say it. 

Hitting all the senses

We all know that we should pay attention to all five senses in our writing, but it’s easy to forget some of them. Yovanoff does not. She and her protagonist, Mackie, are especially attuned to the sense of smell. Here's a very small sampling of the olfactory awesomeness:  
His voice was husky and I smelled the sharp, rusty smell of anxiety.
When I left the slag heap, the air was clammy, damp with autumn and the rain that never seemed to stop.
As I stared down, I could smell a wet, mushy odor like garden compost and rot.
I let her hold on to me and she was warm through her sweatshirt. She smelled like autumn and dirt and home, like the burned-out church and the grave. 
On the front porch, I was hit by a barrage of smells: the raw vegetable reek of carved pumpkins, and the scorched smell of burning leaves, and faint but there, the swampy odor of the dry lake bed out on Country Road 12. The night was deep and vibrant and ferociously alive.
 Use those senses, even - or especially - if the surroundings aren't exactly appealing.

Checking Continuity 

The only critique I have of this book is that it felt like some of the clarifying details and continuity were missing. The two examples I remember:

There’s an important object that Tate takes from Mackie and shakes in front of his face, but then it seems to disappear because her hands are doing other things, and then somehow Mackie ends up with the object a few scenes later (and this is not a magic object that is supposed to apparate or anything). 

Also, the synopsis on the cover flap mentions a tattooed princess, but I swear there is no mention of tattoos anywhere in the text. The “princess” is still described in vivid, deliciously creepy detail, so I don’t think she needs any tattoos, but the discrepancy nagged at me. 

Then again, it's quite possible I just missed something. People with searchable e-book versions, feel free to correct me. Either way, having an obnoxiously nitpicky extremely detail-oriented critique partner or editor is always a good idea.

Being Awesome

Here’s the thing though – none of the continuity concerns kept me from giving the book all five stars on Goodreads or wholeheartedly recommending it to others, because it was an amazing read that I enjoyed immensely. Nitpicky details do matter, but not nearly as much as compelling stories and characters. 

An amazing cover never hurts either. Seriously, let's admire it one more time...

 Go read it!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

RTW: Read Me Because I'm Beautiful

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic:  

What are your all-time favorite book covers?

There are so many amazing options that I'm going to focus on fairly new covers. 

If you look around your blog environs here, it should come as no surprise that I really like covers with tree limb silhouettes.

I don't really like to see people on the cover… or so I thought until a few covers this year blew my mind.

 So apparently I don’t mind cover people if their hair is floating? I don't know, but those covers are sweet.

But I have to give top billing to a book that was so stunning and beautiful that I bought it (promising that I would then read it, which I did) even though I was fairly certain I would hate it and had in fact sworn several times that I would never read it: 

Not only are the watercolor cover illustrations fantastic (and framed with tree limbs! and a font that looks like tree limbs!), but the entire book is beautifully bound. I swoon over well done deckle edges and illustrated french flaps and textured covers and perfectly chosen typefaces. 

And that, my friends, is why e-books will never rule the world... at least not mine. 

- all photos my own or from Goodreads  -

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Searching for Jobs, Droids, Cougars, and Waffle Adjectives

I haven’t heard back from the jobs I applied to in July, so I’m back to writing cover letters and filling in application boxes…uggg. Fortunately I’ve managed to keep up the pace on my creative writing at the same time, but that doesn’t make me like cover letters any better. 

Something I find ironic: I’ve always looked forward to the day when I wouldn’t have to write any more cover letters or applications – the day I got tenure at a great teaching job, for example. And now what am I doing? Pursuing a career where the “cover letters” never end! The average author seems to send out way more query letters than the average job applicant sends cover letters, and even once an author lands and keeps an agent, there are still those synopses to write for every book, and I hear they’re even worse. Oh well, at least (I hope!) I’ll be more excited about my book than empty job buzzwords and the details of my past work experience.

The more enjoyable and interesting things that I’ve been up to this month include:

-- Hosting more awesome cyclists through, in this case three girls from the UK. We had a great time, and I also learned that it’s really hard to describe the differences among American bread products to people who aren’t familiar with them. (“No, American biscuits aren’t cookies…they’re usually round like rolls and the consistency of, um, muffins, kind of? Then they’re crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. The gravy that goes on top is thick and white - it's a southern thing. What are waffles? Okay, so imagine a grid…”)

-- Hanging out downtown and being amused by the "advertisements."
The tear-off tabs say, of course, "These aren't the droids you're looking for."
-- Purchasing Kyle’s favorite granola in bulk – 25 pounds of bulk – as an experiment in being bizarre and saving money. 

-- Hiking the local buttes. I’m not a big hiker, but my companion was carrying a baby the whole way so I really wasn’t allowed to complain. I mean, not until we discovered that we’d missed the earlier warnings about there being a COUGAR SIGHTING THE DAY BEFORE. We escaped unscathed though, and the top was lovely.

-- Cycling with friends out to a great swimming hole… to find that even on the hottest day of the summer, the water was still SO COLD that we could barely handle to have our legs in it. Ah, Pacific Northwest. I still love you. 

-- Viscerally getting into the mindset of my bloodthirsty characters:

Just kidding. That carnage is from picking the blackberries that grow in the alley by our house (= free!). If it were up to me I would just eat all of them, probably as I picked them off the (super thorny) bushes, but Kyle convinced me we should bake like other impressive adults do. 

Yum yum blackberry crumble and blackberry pie. 

I hope writing and life are going well for all of you!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

RTW: Deja Vu All Over Again

It's a perfectly timed Road Trip Wednesday!

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This Week's Topic: What themes, settings, motifs, scenes, or other elements do you find recurring in your work?
I actually learned a lot about my favorite recurring elements when I focused on short stories at the end of this summer, because suddenly I had a much larger sample size of my writing. Patterns definitely started to emerge.

Generally my stories fall into three categories, which I already talked a bit about here:

--Stories narrated by an adult for whom life is like a messed up psychological experiment.

-- Tales of typical teens dealing with annoying supernatural intrusions into their lives. The protagonists are never the supernatural beings, but they find themselves caught up in the problems of others.

-- Brief, atmospheric pieces about dark happenings in a fantasy or folklore world.

There are also quirks and motifs that seem to cross over all three:

-- My narrators are often exasperated about something. Apparently I like writing speech/thoughts with a humorous edge of annoyance.

--Back when I was studying Renaissance lit in grad school, my friends joked that I was obsessed with beheadings and cannibalism. Looking at some of my recent stories, apparently they were right. I grew up thinking I hated the horror genre, and I still don't think I'll ever be a writer of straight horror, but oh my do I have some dark tendencies in my writing.

--I still tend to avoid romance in my stories, including the YA ones. I apparently dislike being marketable.

--Judging by this blog post, I repeat the word apparently a lot.

Focusing on short stories has taught me a lot about the rhythm of my writing as well. Even when I change the voice and tone of my writing to match different characters or atmospheres, there are stylistic elements that remain 90% of the time: repetition, alliteration, and one-line paragraphs that work like punchlines to complete or reverse the previous paragraph. 

Like this. 

Often the repetition and punchline paragraphs are purposeful fragments, which I find strange and hilarious since I teach grammar and am rather obsessed with correct sentence structure and punctuation in my non-creative writing. 

I mentioned that this post topic was perfectly timed for me, and that's because I finally started submitting my summer stories to magazines and journals. YAY! Just like crafting the stories helped me hone the writing skills I'll need when I return to novels, the submission process is forcing me to practice some very necessary skills: editing obsessively, writing (a briefer form of) a query letter, and waiting, waiting, waiting...

What repeated themes, motifs, etc. do you find in your own writing?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Author Interviews: Something Old and Something New

For Christmas one year my uncle gave me On Being a Writer, a collection of author interviews done by the Writer's Digest people. I finally read it last month for OTS. Most of the interviews are quite old, but it’s kind of cool to hear from Truman Capote when he had barely started In Cold Blood, or from Vonnegut right after the success of Slaughterhouse Five, or from Lawrence and Lee ever because they seem like the most entertaining and well-matched duo in the history of writing. There are so many memorable quotes as well:

Marsha Norman: “To support myself as a playwright, I write movies, which is what most successful playwrights do to earn a living. When you have gained national success in the theater, it’s like being awarded a gold medal in the Olympics. If you’re a skater, you can look forward to a job with the Ice Capades. It’s the commercial version of the art.”

Hemingway, when asked about the rumor that he takes a pitcher of martinis to his writing room every morning: “Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes, and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he had his first one.”

Kurt Vonnegut: “I have always thought of myself as a novelist, not a science fiction writer, not a black humorist. Science fiction is a story with machines. There’s no reason it should be a separate category, except that people who don’t know anything about machines think it should be. They get embarrassed. They hope it’s not really literature.”

Ray Bradbury: “If you write a hundred short stories and they’re all bad, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You fail only if you stop writing.

I should have that last one embroidered on a pillow or something, with a border full of fires and aliens. 

If you like your interviews a little more recent, C.J. at The Last Word has been interviewing up a storm. Check out her fantastic talks with Christine Johnson (author of Claire de Lune and Nocturne and creator of awesome writing metaphors), Gretchen McNeil (author of Possess, which has the most beautifulcreepy cover and inspired the most awesomecreepy cupcake), and Rae Carson (author of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, otherwise known as I Have Desperately Wanted This Book of Awesome Ever Since I Heard Advance Reviews of it Months Ago). Plus there are giveaways (enter by the end of today!) and sporks and llamas and cupcakes and other awesomeness.

There’s also an Arc giveaway of Under the Never Sky over at Jill Scribbles. Another stunning cover + a wasteland called the Death Shop + a relationship that is not omgloveatfirstsight? Yes, please.

So much to see and win and drool over! Go forth and enjoy!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mourning and Remembering

This made me sad today:
I know Borders has been closing for a while, but today it actually looked like it. (Yes, okay, I went to Borders one last time because we happened to be in the area. STOP JUDGING ME!)
 This helped me be less sad:
90% off everything = the most ridiculous savings I've ever seen. Eight books for less than the price of one hardback.
But obviously there are more serious things to be sad about, like the storms and flooding that tore through the areas of the east coast where the vast majority of my friends and family are, and which especially ravaged Kyle’s hometown where most of his family still lives. 


  And of course, the memories from ten years ago today. 

Flag at the Flight 93 Memorial (this and the rest of the photos are mine)
I was a senior in high school when it happened. We caught the news in snatches as the day progressed; in some classes teachers turned on the television and everyone watched intently, gasps and worried whispers occasionally breaking the silence. Others didn’t have TVs or pretended that we could actually focus on academics, so we’d have to wait until the period was over and we could enter the frothing rumor mill in the halls. I didn’t know anyone living near the Twin Towers or the Pentagon at the time, but I watched the worried faces of students who did, not knowing what to say to them. Then we heard that a plane had gone down in our state too, and it all became more real and more surreal at the same time. Who knew what could happen next, and where?

Years later I visited the memorial for Flight 93, including a wall covered with mementos left by visitors. I held it together until I saw a few action figures among them, and thought of the little kids leaving their superheroes in the memory of human heroes.

I remember gathering with friends the evening of 9/11, trying to make sense of everything and failing. The guys, including my boyfriend at the time, talked energetically about enlisting after graduation to fight the terrorists. I didn’t believe most of them would really do it, but it gave me something else to be worried about. 

9/11 was a defining moment for me, yes – it subtly changed how I viewed America, life, relationships – but it was also a distant one compared to the experiences of people personally connected to the events. Yesterday, thanks to a link from Stephanie Perkins, I read Meg Cabot’s memories of being there, of fearing for her loved ones, of knowing people who died. It was so beyond what I went through at the time -- or what I've ever gone through, really -- and she expresses it so deeply and beautifully. Everyone should read it.

I also discovered today that MeetUp, the online social groups website that helped me meet some of my new friends here in Oregon, was a project born of 9/11 and the desire to continue the sense of community that came out of the disaster. From the email I received this morning:

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors
in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to
neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they'd normally
ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each
other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring
people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was
born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet -- and
grow local communities?

We didn't know if it would work. Most people thought it was a
crazy idea -- especially because terrorism is designed to make
people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months
after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it's

So here's to community, resilience, and valuing what we have, always.