Thursday, December 29, 2011

Off the Shelves Rundown & Reboot

Off The Shelf!
As I mentioned yesterday, I completed the Off the Shelves Challenge, reading 50 books that had been languishing on my shelves. Yay! About 12 of them were or will be sold (which was part of the point of the challenge for me) but overall they really exceeded my expectations: my average rating for the list on Goodreads was 3.9 out of 5 stars. That also made it hard to pick favorites, but here are my 2011 Off the Shelf awards: 
Best General Fiction: 
To Say Nothing of the Dog - Willis
The Secret History - Tartt
Cat’s Eye - Atwood

Best YA:
The Replacement - Yovanoff
Zombies vs Unicorns - Black and Larbelestier
Sapphique - Fisher  
Honorable mention to all three of the John Green books

Best Middle Grade:  
A Tale Dark and Grimm - Gidwitz
(It gets 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place because it was so much better than the others)

Best Dystopian:  
The Year of the Flood - Atwood
The Children of Men - James
Sapphique - Fisher

Best Non-fiction:  
Ordinary Men - Browning
Reading Lolita in Tehran - Nafisi
The Lucifer Effect - Zimbardo

Most Exceeded My Expectations:  
Hula - Shea
The Wishing Box - Slater
Everything is Illuminated - Foer

The full 2011 list is under the Reading tab, near the bottom of that page. And at the top of that page is... a brand new list for 2012. That's right - I own enough unread books to do the challenge all over again. *hangs head*

Except that this time around, I’m moving up a level from On a Roll (50) to Flying Off (75). Yikes! I actually really liked the 50 book level and would recommend it to others; it’s a significant challenge but  a convenient one to schedule: read one book per week and you’ll complete it with a little time to spare. I’m not sure what’s possessing me to move up to the 75 book level, other than the fact that (1) it’s embarrassing how many unread books I still own after reading 50 and (2) according to Goodreads I actually read 84 books this year (that’s a lot of cheating on my OTS list. Oops.) so I have no excuse. 

Hopefully the list I came up with will be challenging but not impossible. I have a few brick size books on it (Bryson thinks he’s all cute calling his 500 page hardback At Home “A Short History,” and Stephen King, well, we know what he’s like) but they’re authors I love, so I trust their books will move quickly...certainly more quickly than some of the grad school leftovers I put on there. If you're trying to figure out how difficult to make your own list, definitely think about book speed alongside book length. 

So, anyone else with overflowing bookshelves want to join Madeline and me? You can sign up over here and choose any level, from Tempted (5) to Buried (126+). Get those dusty books off the shelf!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

RTW: Best Books of 2011...sort of

I haven’t returned home from my holiday travels yet, but I wanted to duck in here to say hello and participate in a Road Trip Wednesday (even though I’m doing so fairly late and kind of cheating with my answer). 

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.

In a nice numerical coincidence, the last Road Trip Wednesday of 2011, which I'm answering literally at the 11th hour (East Coast time, anyway), is RTW #111 and asks:

I assume this means books published in 2011, in which case… I have almost nothing to contribute. I’ve been so focused on completing the Off the Shelves challenge – reading 50+ books that have been languishing on my shelves – that I haven’t let myself buy or read much that is new. 

But I do know the five 2011 books I'm most looking forward to reading:

IknowIknowIknow: HOW HAVE I NOT READ THEM YET? Even with my stupid rules? Gah! But now I own three of them and plan to get my hands on the other two as quickly as possible, along with a half dozen other 2011 releases. And my stubborn sacrifice did pay off, since I successfully completed the Off the Shelves Challenge!!! Woohoo!!! I hope to post an overview of OTS and my plans for next year soon, but you can check out the completed list under the Challenge tab now if you're interested.

Getting back to Road Trip Wednesday, I'll also share the five books I most enjoyed reading this year, even though they weren't published in 2011:

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (time travel meets mystery meets humor meets historical meets comedy of manners meets pure genius)

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (This was not on my OTS list gasp! but too tempting to resist and oh so worth it.)

Zombies vs Unicorns, a collection edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier (Despite the previous title, I was never very attached to zombies or unicorns, but ohmygoodness this has so many brilliant and hilarious stories by YA authors.)

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz (Clever, cheeky, and the perfect level of dark humor for middle grade through adults. It's the kind of book I dream of writing and reading.)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (which I already gushed over here.)

What about you? Any favorite 2011 books or reading accomplishments to share? 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SLAM! The Poetry Olympics

I went to my first true poetry slam this weekend and the words and rhythms of it are still echoing in my mind, along with some questions that it raised. It wasn’t my first time at a spoken poetry event, but those other times were formal MFA final portfolio readings or a solitary poet mixed in with singer-songwriters at open mic night. Not quite the same thing. 

For those of you who are also unfamiliar with poetry slams and are imagining something like this:
Oh Beatnik
I’ll have you know that I saw absolutely no drums or berets… Though to be fair there were several bearded guys in all black clothing with hats that were almost berets. Seriously though, it was an excellent variety of poets and poems: the uplifting and the heartbreaking, the political and the universal, the sexy and the serious. I was completely blown away by the talent and the atmosphere.

The poetry slam itself was many different things:

A variety show
The featured poets not in the competition (more on that in a bit) incorporated musical accompaniment really well, and the host who came on between poems was a crazy show all in herself. Even cooler: an artist spent the slam painting the scene – including the winner reading on stage – and finished it in time to give it to the winner as part of his prize.

A gathering of friends
It was clear that many of the people knew each other from past events, which led to both a strong support system and some entertaining heckling. They also yelled “That’s What She Said” more often than Micheal Scott and collection of high school boys combined.

A spirited congregation
When some people were especially struck by a line, they would let out an “oh” or “mmm” or “yes.” It was never a loud interruption; it was a quiet affirmation, a participation in the moment and the community. When it felt like everyone reacted at once to some well-spoken truth, it gave me chills. 

A true competition
This part surprised and excited me the most, and I would love to hear what people think of it. Each poem in the slam was publicly scored semi-Olympic-style. More specifically for those who are interested: after each poet finished reading, five judges (volunteers from the audience) would hold up flip boards with a decimal score between 0 and 10 (though all the scores that night fell between 6.5 and 9.8). Then the host would read all five scores aloud and use the middle three to calculate the official score. The top five poets then read (in reverse order) another poem in a final round, which was judged in the same way to determine the winner.  

It was absolutely fascinating to watch… and terrifying, if I put myself in the poets’ shoes as they listened to their poem judged out loud, though the host and the audience helped soften any potential blows. (The lowest score given to a poem was always cheerfully booed, for example.) It’s always tricky when something creative and subjective becomes competitive and quantified. It definitely made the experience more exciting as an audience member, but I haven’t decided how I feel about it as a concept. 

Would I want to be up there on the stage, being judged? I love competition, and I even love being assessed (why yes, I am that nerd who loves taking standardized tests). So part of me can imagine myself (or a version of myself that writes poetry instead of prose) going to these slams and working towards breaking 9.0…or finishing in the top three…or even winning… But at the same time I don’t think I would/should ever do it. I’m competitive and often overly concerned with other people’s opinions, so the slams could kill my confidence and creativity or just make me focused on the wrong thing. Just reading a personal poem can feel like standing naked in front of an audience; imagine having them then call out scores for your nude self!

Of course, the writing business itself is competitive and potentially ego-crushing. It could be argued that these slams are a worse version of it, or a more transparent version of it, or great practice for it... You do learn to work with immediate and measurable feedback, after all. In the end I'm still undecided about the set-up as a writer, but I'll admit I'm in favor as an audience member -- you better believe I will be attending future slams to cheer on those braver souls!

So, questions for YOU:

Have you ever been to a scored poetry slam like this one? Maybe I’m just out of the loop and this is how poetry slams work the world over.

Do you think public scoring of poems a horrible idea or a cool innovation? 

Would you ever read at such a slam?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

RTW: How Far?

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic. I currently can't get the icon to show up correctly, so you can go HERE.

This week's Road Trip Wednesday asks How far would you go to get published? and offers the following examples:

1. Jumping on the trend train
2. Switching to a well-selling genre
3. Minor revisions requested to sign with an agent
4. Major revisions requested by an editor

I could never see myself doing #1 or #2. It’s the same reason I don’t wear skinny jeans: I know what works for me, and I know that if I don’t stay true to it I’ll be unhappy, uncomfortable, foolish-looking, and seriously worried about my circulation. Besides, publishing takes an eternity and trends can change in an instant, so chasing what’s hot could easily come to nothing, or even backfire. Why would I gamble on something that I don’t really want to write in the first place?

In most cases, however, I would definitely embrace #3 or #4. I’m a believer in extensive (some would say excessive) revision, and I figure I’ll be even more motivated when it’s based on specific feedback from someone who wants to make me better and who knows what it will take. So if it’s simply a question of hard work and time, I’m all in for minor or major revisions, especially at this point in my writing when I know I have so much to learn. The only reason I would turn them down is if the revisions seemed too focused on selling rather than improving the narrative. Of course, there’s a lot of potential gray area there. (Is my agent suggesting more kissing scenes/love triangle drama because that’s what sells to teen girls, or because that’s what my story needs but I’m too pathologically averse to writing romance to realize it?) Hopefully I’ll be able to find a healthy balance where I trust my agent, my editor, myself, and my story enough to make the right choices. 

But honestly it’s going to be a while before I even need to consider these publication-related conundrums, so right now I’m thinking about a different version of “How far will you go to get published.” As in, how long can I be unpublished and still treat writing as a career (meaning only working a few hours a week at another job and therefore being financially dependent on my husband) before I’m overwhelmed by guilt/debt/the desire for nice things (a house). And if I do get a full-time job, how much sleep/sanity/hobbies/relationships will I be willing to sacrifice to still making writing a priority? 

Obviously I hope I'll go all the way, and right now I feel totally energized and determined enough to do it. But I know that years of revision and rejection can take a toll. Fortunately I also know (errr, read about / stalk on the internet) plenty of authors who faced years of rejection but just kept going and eventually found incredible success.

I'm sure most of you have seen this video, but it's the best way I can think to conclude this post, and it bears repeating a gazillion times anyway. Never give up! 

Friday, December 2, 2011

100 Poems

Now that I got my eager, greedy little hands on a copy for myself, I want to share an amazing little book (technically a pamphlet, but it looks much too nice to be called a pamphlet) that you should buy for yourself, or as a gift, or both. 

Go here!

Back in the beginning of November, Jen Campbell (of the hilarious blog series and now book Strange Things Customers Say in Bookshops) took on a fantastic, frenzied challenge for a great cause. She wrote 100 poems in a weekend to benefit research centers focused on EEC, a condition which she has. She explains EEC here and is amazingly adorable as she starts the challenge with sparkling tights and her tortoise here.

And here’s the thing: the poems are stunningly, astonishingly good. (I sound surprised not because I expected the poems to be bad – she is a talented published poet, after all – but because I know how hard it is to produce quality creativity on such a tight deadline. *waves at horribly messy NaNo draft.* These poems, from the first to the last, aren’t merely impressive "for someone working quickly on very little sleep"; they’re impressive, period. I seriously can’t wait to own this book.) 

Part of the initial fundraising was the opportunity to donate money and receive a postcard with one of the poems handwritten on the back. I went for it and my postcard recently arrived:

It made me incredibly happy, not just because it was a tangible reminder of the project and the human connection, but because the completely randomly selected poem was one that I would have requested if given the chance. (Not only do I love the sense of vastness and exuberance of the poem, I also happen to have an obsession with maps, as evidenced by the giant map-themed collaged tabletop I made that's leaning in the background.)

The maps were larger than our eyes.
Made our knees buckle. We wished
to see the world in wooden boats.
Carve our names into waves, and shout
the wind down from the clouds.
Talk with him, invite him home
and cook him eggs for breakfast.
 (Told you she was good.)

And no I don’t know why I didn’t blog about the project back when it was happening. Gah! I should have, I meant to, but I failed to do it in time. But it’s okay, right? Because now you can still donate to a great cause AND you can get ALL the poems, signed, for about the same price as the card. Get moving though, because I suspect the 200  174  171 copies will be gone quickly. 

Not that she needs me to plug the pamphlets, as the quality and charm should make them sell themselves, and Gods on earth people like Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman discovered the project and tweeted about it when it began. (They have a few more followers than I do, I think, just a few.) But I couldn’t pass up this second opportunity to spread the word about something that excites my poetic brain and warms my heart so much.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

That Sneaky Little Bird

In the previous post I mentioned that after NaNoWriMo I still had to write and submit a story for this month’s Write 1 Sub 1. I managed to complete that in time… but at a price. 
I spent most of today (or technically yesterday now) working on a traditional length short story. I liked the draft, but I knew it wouldn't be ready to submit in time, so I started looking through my older stories and my list of markets to figure out another plan. I randomly ended up on Nanoism’s website of Twitter-length microfiction, which I always love reading but have never tried myself. But why not? I thought. (Because you’re really bad at being concise, part of me answered, but I ignored it.) 

My laptop was running out of power anyway, so I grabbed some scrap paper, and by the time I left the coffee shop I had written more than twenty micro stories… about five of which were actually any good. I obsessively edited as usual (why yes, I can spend an eternity nitpicking even a mere 140 characters), picked one of them, and went to submit it. 

Then I saw that the form asked for a Twitter ID. It didn’t require one, but it strongly recommended it, which made me think they might not appreciate my planned bio (Jillian loves writing 140 character stories, but has not yet joined Twitter. #irony).  And writing 140-character fiction was so fun… why not 140-character nonfiction? 

The thing is, I’ve been resisting Twitter for a while. I just didn’t need another social networking thing taking up time; I was happy with Facebook for old friends and Blogger for new writing friends. Okay, and at some point it probably just became stubbornness. But I’ve been tempted by Twitter many times: when my husband joined, when he got me addicted to hilarious feeds like deargirlsaboveme, when my favorite authors and bloggers referenced Twitter conversations, when I couldn’t enter Twitter-only giveaways. I always wondered what would break me. Apparently it took a new microfiction addiction with a little help from Kyle, who renewed his crusade to get me on Twitter as soon as I brought up my current dilemma.
Yeah, yeah, Twitter bird. You win.

I don’t have any idea when or what I’ll be tweeting yet (especially because I really am bad at being concise, as evidenced by this long and meandering post about writing brief things) and I'm waiting until tomorrow to really figure it out and start following people and such, but here is the evidence that the little bird has defeated me at last.

I actually wanted that to be an image or widget or something rather than just a link, but clearly I have no idea what I'm doing yet. Any advice you have for Twitter n00bs is very welcome in the comments!