Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing male characters if you're female

Firstly, let me direct you to a recent post by agent Mary Kole on reactions. She says that reactions are the MOST important part of interiority--they tell the reader how they are supposed to react to a situation, and pull them into what the character is experiencing. I love this advice, because it's something concrete. You can go through your manuscript and make sure you have the appropriate reactions for each significant exchange or event, and noticeably strengthen your book. I love love love this post, and have notes all over my draft to revise for this specificially.

Secondly, I'm finally starting to look at some of the material from this summer's Writeoncon.com. They always have such good information! I liked this video by author Jessica Martinez, which is supposed to be about writing sexual tension in dialogue, but which is really more about paying attention to the subtext of a conversation and also about writing believable male characters if you're female. She points out that sometimes female writers create male characters who behave like they wish they behaved, when no real guy would actually talk like that. They are not going to sit down and just share all their feeeeeeeelings. Her advice: if you can't honestly see your spouse/brother/significant other saying this, it's a good clue a character guy shouldn't be saying it, either. So my additional thoughts on male characters are these:* guys don't play a lot of mental emotional gymnastics. They aren't going to overanalyze the intricacies of what someone said and what they may have been saying underneath, etc. Yes, guys can read (or send messages) between the lines, but most guys I know are not going to spend hours trying to go over conversations to pick out emotional messages about relationships. Also, face is kind of important to guys, you know? As in, they want to be seen as cool and competent. Girls might bond over sharing mistakes and embarrassing moments, but I think guys would rather keep their private humiliations to themselves. Of course all guys are individual, but when writing them, especially middle grade and adolescent ones, they are going to be a mix of clueless, trying not to look clueless, and occasionally, almost accidentally, dead center on target when it comes to doing the right thing or being there for someone emotionally. I've read some rather fancifully fictional guys, but I've also read some really excellent ones that are funny, vulnerable, endearing, but still "real." Some great examples, IMO, are Bobby from Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen (because of his excitement and work into solving his invisibility problem), Ledger Kale in Ingrid Law's Scumble (he is trying soooo hard not to be a failure, but he holds some of it inside, too, you know? He still wants to keep face.) Jeffrey in the Penderwicks series feels like a real boy--he does have deep thoughts (about music, about his father, even wondering about getting married someday), but he doesn't sit on the couch all day, eating cookie dough over it, either. Percy Jackson (and Harry and Ron, for that matter) is a great example, because he's awkward and sometimes insensitive (but not intentionally!), and good-hearted as he tiptoes over the minefield that is understanding girls.

Any other well-written guy characters you want to mention? Any other elements of capturing the essence of a real male adolescent on the page?

*Source of my observations: my husband, three sons, their friends, the teens and kids I've worked with at school and church, and observing the bus line that forms outside my living room window.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Voice, character growth, and Daddy Long Legs

I just finished reading Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster, published in 1912, to my girls. The story: Jerusha "Judy" Abbott is an orphan. A trustee of the John Grier Hall finds her snarky high school essay on trustee visiting day at the home amusing, and on a whim, decides to send her to college. He's done it a few times before for boys, but never girls. His conditions: she will write a monthly letter, letting him know how things are going and what she's learning. He will pay for college and send her money, but will never reveal his name or anything about him. She is to call him Mr. Smith. All Judy knows is that he's rich, he apparently dislikes girls, and he is tall (she saw his shadow around the corner as he left that day). So she calls him Daddy Long Legs, and writes funny letters about what she's learning, the extent to which she tries to hide her true origins (because in 1912, the girls who are in college are definitely not people who came out of foundling homes!), and her hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Her attempt to conceal her orphanage past among some rather wealthy friends eventually gets her into trouble, though, as you can imagine.The voice in the story is simply lovely--funny, wise and naive at the same time, and sometimes heartbreaking, too.

There's a recent musical based on the book that uses many lines from the book, but also shows the other side of the stamp, ie what "Mr. Smith" Daddy Long Legs is thinking as he reads these letters, and what happens to him. Umm...if you're planning to read the book first, don't listen to the music until you're done, because there are spoilers. But two things really stuck out to me after listening to the music, things that are just very well done, and useful to study for writing.

Firstly, the voice. There's this great song called "Like Other Girls," where Judy says she just wants to be like other girls (ie without these weird gaps of knowledge and social errors, and without the fears she brought with her from the orphanage). So she sings things like, "I just want to be like other girls--bake lemon pies, cure diseases, win the Nobel Prize--like other girls." Um. Maybe her peers want to bake lemon pies and wear pretty shoes, but I'm pretty sure that not all of them want to win the Nobel Prize. There's just this lovely sense in the whole song that even in all her wanting, she still doesn't really understand what it means to be like other girls. It's this funny mix of her individual perceptions of the world against what the viewer knows is the real reality that gives her such a lovely voice and personality. So think about that with your characters. We all see part of the mysterious elephant, and believe that is the total reality. What part does your character see? How does s/he describe it? That's a part of that character's voice.

Secondly, character development. Early in the show, Daddy Long Legs sings about charity. He's rich through no effort of his own, but since he's come into this amazing wealth, he doesn't think he should keep it. He's very happy to share it with the less fortunate. And there's really nothing wrong with that. He's not "bad." He doesn't love wealth more than anything--he has a basic virtue, and it's charity. But he really only has a theoretical understanding of charity. But the letters--they force him out of being a casual observer. He who doesn't like people is forced to get to know them--and realize that he was lonely before, and now he's starting to get filled. Later in the musical, he realizes that his anonymity has created enormous obstacles to his own happiness, and extricating himself from the situation he's created is going to require other people's forgiveness. And now--he realizes that charity isn't just thoughtless passing around of money, but something you give to someone that they cannot do for themselves. And he realizes that he needs the charity that is forgiveness, too. It's a lovely, lovely example of character growth. You don't have to have your character be horrible at the beginning to grow. You can have them basically good, but untested, naive, with basic but rather shallowly understood good intentions. And then they live it, and understand what they once gave lip service to in a very real way.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I'm reading a book right now that is well researched and has an engaging main character and a great voice. It's historical, but has a very immediate feeling to it (which is what makes people like or dislike historical novels, I suspect--ie how immediate it feels). There is one aspect, though, that keeps pulling me out of the story. And that's social anachronism.

Okay, yes, you can make your character any way you want to--as long as they're believable as a person. So if one of your characters is a really well educated peasant in the 15th century, or is a person who doesn't believe in marriage in Austen's time, or any number of other non-social-norm situations, well, you'd better have a pretty good reason for that character to be that way. I see a lot of authors who do try to back up their reasoning here. But where things seem to break down is when they want to insert that quirky character into the greater historical world, and everyone's suddenly okay with the modern attitudes and actions they bring along. I am not saying that people did not do some of these things way back when. What I am saying is that they were not considered okay/normal/unsurprising. So for your world at large to have no reaction, for your characters to have no consequences, for everything to breezily move along as if part of the modern world were dropped right into the past with no jarring whatsoever, is not believable.

What? You say I have to write about repressed people? Well, some people were repressed, but I'm guessing just as many people didn't feel that way at all. They had different goals than some of us do, and they felt fulfilled and powerful when they met those goals. And assuming that everyone was repressed for forced into all acting the same is a bit simplistic of a view, anyway. People were varied "back then." Not all people married the person they were in love with, or followed the rules they were supposed to. True. But there were consequences and reactions back then for things that don't raise any eyebrows today. You can write a strong character in a historical context, but to be accurate, you're going to have to understand more than just names and dates when when the zipper was invented. You're going to have to understand the kinds of choices a strong female character would have made in 1940 as opposed to 2012. You're going to have to understand things like faith in more than an atheistic, check-off-that-character-trait way if your MC is going to be a nun. You're going to have to figure out how to make a character feel strong by 21st century reader standards, while at the same time letting them be strong in their own historical context. Which may mean leaving behind some of your own 21st centuryness when you go into that world yourself.

(No, I don't think this is easy! But it's rather rewarding to read when it's done right, don't you think?)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Finding your voice

I have a writing group that has an illustrator in it, and not long ago we had a discussion about voice in illustration. I like drawing and I'm reasonably good at it (and have even earned money with it), but at the present moment, I'm a professional writer and a person who likes to draw on the side for fun. But I think the idea of voice works in much the same way in both text and art.

Because I'm learning about illustration, I do things like look at online sites where potential illustrators post samples of their work. I like looking at them all together because, well, I enjoy looking at picture books--but I'm also there to learn stuff. And one thing I've noticed is that an awful lot of illustrators fresh out of art school draw in the exact same style as everyone else. It might be different than how illustrators drew ten years ago--but there is still a sameness. They might be well done, but some of the artists haven't found their own style yet. My crit partner and I were trying to figure out what made our styles our own, and we came up with the same thing--at some point we had tried to draw the way everyone else was drawing, but after a while, it felt fake, and so we gave up and just drew what we really wanted to.

What I've always loved drawing is realism, especially people, especially kids. I can appreciate Rothko and I can feed my soul on impressionistic landscapes, but the thing that really gets me excited when it comes to my own drawings is people. Their expressions. The lovely way their bodies move and bend and reveal what they may be thinking. My art teacher in high school was frustrated with this (in her opinion) limited view of things. So I tried to draw in other styles. But it all comes down to this: I will always draw best the things I care about most, and I really can't draw in someone else's style, even if I like to look at it.

So that's one of the keys, I think. You go out and read and learn as much as you can about as many different kinds of voices there are. But in the end, you have this individual thumbprint that isn't quite like anyone else's, and once you've developed your craft, you need to listen to that little voice, you need to do the best that only YOU can do. And then you find your voice. It's that thing that happens when you forget about trying to have a style, and just do the very best thing YOU can do, in the best way you know how, in the way that only you can do. That's voice.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Pippa Bayless has reminded me of an old post by Maggie Stiefvater on listening to yourself and keeping going when the world around you is busy rejecting you. I've read it before, but I love this post. As I've said before, I really do believe that you've got to listen to that little voice inside you that says, go for it! (If that's what it's saying, I mean.) Because there are so many voices that will tell you otherwise, and if you listen to them, you will quit. I can't quite say I've never cried over a rejection, as Maggie claims--there have been some real stingers there, and usually they have been the really nice, almost-there kind. But I do know that people are rejected all the time, yet go on to succeed in that very thing. I was the only second grader specifically banned from chorus, yet as an adult, I've occasionally been asked to sing solos. I frequently got points taken off in elementary school for coloring too hard, for not coloring between the lines, etc. But I've earned money off of my art. And as to listening to that little voice inside, when I started dating my husband, I knew almost instantly that he was "the one." He was graduating from college and getting ready to leave for Germany on a Fulbright, and wouldn't be coming back. Well-meaning people warned me not to get involved, because it wouldn't work out, and I'd only be hurt. But something just told me that it WOULD work out. I listened to that little voice--and yes, he got a clue eventually, and we got married AND went to Germany.

I'm still on my writing journey. I have so many ideas whispering in my head, and I hope that everything I write is better than the thing before it. It's not something I plan to give up on. I do think, though, that "not giving up" can mean being willing to change direction and try something new. To learn new things, try new approaches. So if this is you, and you are listening to that little voice that says, "Go!" then don't be afraid to change, either. Write a book in a different genre. Switch your main character. Study a book that excels in something where you are weak, and try out that author's technique (which is definitely not the same thing as taking their story, just so we're clear). If the door you've been knocking for three years still isn't opening, find a new door.

And now that I'm feeling encouraged again, I'm off to write. :)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Why you should read when you're a writer

Obviously, everyone has their own process, and you do what works for you. But I think reading while you're writing is important. Especially if you're stuck. Not because you're looking for someone else's story to claim as your own--that is of course, plagiarism and bad. But writing is a slow process, and when you're examining it pixel by pixel, you can lose sight of what the whole thing is supposed to look like. Reading a book speeded up to a normal story pace can help you find that perspective again, and remember what it's supposed to look like. Not only that, you can see how other authors handle different issues--even when the story is completely different than your own.

The last thing that reading seems to address, especially when you're not feeling the love, is that it opens your emotions. When you're fully engaged in a book, when you're immersed in a story, you let yourself feel more. And when you do, you think of the things that you most want to write about. You want to open up your character and make them bleed a little, you want to feel their heartache, you want to push their triumphs just a bit more. And even when your book is something completely different, that excitement, that feeling--it makes you want to write your own book, and write it better than before.

That's what reading does for me, anyway.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Brandon Sanderson's writing class lectures

Just saw this link from his blog--archived lectures from his university writing course. Even if you're not aiming to write epic fantasy, he's a great guy to learn about craft from.

Friday, April 20, 2012

On aiming for the top and following your gut

Lately I've seen a number of situations where people have picked a low quality option, just because it was there--and sometimes they've regretted it. This is a writerly blog, so my focus is on the writing aspect, but it applies to anything important in life, too. So I just have to say it:


Aiming high is not the same as having an inflated ego. Accepting something less when you know you're worth more isn't humility. It's throwing away your opportunities to do something great with your talents.

Sometimes, making good choices can be obscured by someone who means well but doesn't have a full knowledge of the situation. Or who thinks you should be grateful for even HAVING an offer. Like...an agent offer. (No, I'm not thinking of any particular situation by this. Just something I've seen happen before.) Your friends have only ever gotten rejections--heck, maybe you have only ever gotten rejections--and now someone wants to sign you! How exciting!!! They're offering, so of COURSE you have to say yes. But. A small voice at the back of your head warns you that something is not quite right.

Yeah. Suck up your courage and listen to that voice.

You wouldn't marry someone because you felt sorry for them, would you? You can be nice to everybody, but being nice isn't the same thing as committing yourself to a lifetime and beyond together. Maybe business isn't quite the same thing as marriage, but--business decisions have a way of having long term consequences. It's the sort of thing to think through before you give a yes.

I've had various helpful suggestions regarding getting published, most of them good suggestions, a few not so good. Just yesterday I heard about someone's (negative) experience with a small publisher someone once urged me to try. I'm sure they're good at what they do, but the thing is--my book was not that thing. To settle for that when I know my book can be so much more would be wrong. Even if my book never gets picked up (and I have several like that)--I would rather write a new and better book than shoot too low.

You can't know the end from the beginning. Sometimes you might make what looks like the very best choice--and then circumstances or people change, and you're still left with a mess. When that happens, it isn't your fault. But for anyone who is currently weighing the flattery of being chosen against that little voice inside warning you against it, I say: listen.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On heroic characters

I've spent the past week revising a couple of scenes, double-checking the research aspects, and rewriting and rereading and rewriting again to make sure they're totally clear. In one of them, there is an explosion that my MC tries to shield his friends from. A writer friend who read the scene suggested that he not just shield them, but get hurt a little in the process. He was already being heroic, but bumping it up a bit so that we saw him take the consequences of his choice made him more heroic in that situation. Which makes me think of something someone from my local writers' group said recently. She'd been to a conference and one talk focused on things to make your MC more approachable. Among them were these suggestions:

How is your MC heroic?
How is s/he vulnerable?
What is s/he willing to sacrifice to get what s/he wants?

I'm starting a new book now and thinking about these things from the start. I really do love heroic, vulnerable characters who sacrifice something valuable for what they want most. But I think you have to be a bit careful with the sacrifices, otherwise, you're creating a character who just lies down and lets people walk all over her. We don't want to create a co-dependent character. We want someone strong, who's willing to risk it all for something they wisely know is worth more. They've got to be heroic so you know they aren't a doormat. And they've got to be vulnerable so they don't seem too perfect for the reader to identify with. These three things really have to balance each other for it to work.

I don't think heroics have to be huge. I think they can be small things the MC does without even thinking--things that show the measure of who they really are. Like Arthur in Kevin Crossley-Holland's books. He tries to be good at his own station, but he still helps Gatty catch the bull. He worries about the people on the estate who are treated unjustly. He bucks the system a little at a time, and the reader loves him for it. Sometimes very small details can give a reader a very positive impression.

Vulnerability is showing a character's flaws and fears and failures. It's what they stand to lose if their gambles fail. It's the part that makes them human. When a reader recognizes a shared fault or fear, the character feels human to them.

And sacrifice. You can't just give up all you are and have, just because it's your duty or because someone else said so. That's weak. You have to do it because you want to. Because you know it will hurt, but you're willing to fully accept those consequences in the hopes (but not perfect knowledge--it's still a faith thing) that it will cause something you want even more to come to pass. If you have given your character a chance to develop some heroic qualities prior to this point, they will be ready when the time comes to give all.

I'm still trying to figure this out. If you have any insights, feel free to share.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Sometimes you reread a book as an adult that you loved as a child, and it doesn't hold up. But sometimes you reread it and you love it just as much, and you realize that not only has it weathered through stylistic changes in publishing, it's also just as enthralling for the adult mind as it was for a child. That's the case with Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard, copyright 1973. It won a Newbery Honor, which, on reflection, is an award common to many books I love (more so than the actual medal).

The story: It's 1558, and Kate Sutton and her sister Alicia are maids in the service of Princess Elizabeth, whose sister Queen Mary (as in Bloody Mary) has put Elizabeth under house arrest. Alicia writes to the queen to complain, and in punishment, she is taken to be a servant to the queen, where she can keep an eye on her, and Kate, who is truly innocent in the matter, is banished to a remote manor called Elvenwood Hall, where she will also be under house arrest. When she arrives, she hears of strange stories about the Wardens (the family the current lord, Geoffrey Heron, inherited it from)--stories of the Fairy Folk. Also, she learns that Sir Geoffrey's daughter disappeared down the holy well on the property, and that Geoffrey's younger brother Christopher believes it's his fault that she drowned, for he was supposed to be watching her that day. But then it is discovered that she didn't fall--she was taken, by none other than the People in the Well, to pay a teind, or in other words, to be a human sacrifice in their druidic rites. Christopher offers himself in Cicely's place, and Kate is taken captive and given to the Fairy Folk as well, to remove her as the sole witness to what is really going on in the caves and abandoned mines below the Elvenwood.

What's so excellent about this book: Firstly, even though it's historical fiction, there is a very modern sense to aboveground 1558. These are the reasonable people, these are the ones we feel we have most in common with. It's very matter of fact and real. Part of this is possibly because of the contrast between the modern people of the book and the people who live underground who still, 1600 years later, are still practicing Druids. It's not anachonistic at all--I admit I find those books that stick a pushy, modern girl into the past rather irritating. This feels right for the time, but it makes the time very accessible and "normal" for the reader.

Secondly, the main character herself. She's very matter-of-fact and practical; not given to hysterics or unsupportable imagination. When she does have strong emotions, they mean something. Having been accused of this in both life and writing, I can personally relate. But even if that is not you, just her being like this is good for the book, because she contrasts nicely with other characters who ARE prone to superstition and mystical ideas. And it becomes important to the plot and ultimate solution.

Third, I had to smile, because when they capture her and send her below, the manor steward cooks up the story that she's fallen in love with and run after Christopher Heron. Her indignant objection (even if you know he is significant to the story) is that she can't possibly be in love with Christopher Heron--she's only spoken to him twice in her life! Such a realistic and refreshing change from all those YAs where the heroine instantly and inexplicably falls in love with a guy because of some irresistable spark or compulsion she can neither explain nor fight off.

Fourth, I felt the story invested significant buildup at the beginning, and as a result, the rest of the book meant something and had sticking power. You've got to put in this investment. Yes, things need to be happening--but you've got to make us care about the character and her world if we're going to feel the stakes. Book to movie adaptations tend to be places where this falls apart the worst. But even in books, this is important. Start with action and have things continually happening, yes--but you've got to develop your characters and make us care, or the action will be meaningless.

So, really excellent book. I just wish she had written more!

Friday, March 30, 2012

On tension and stakes and history

I've been reading Lora Innes's fabulous web comic The Dreamer for a while. It's about a modern girl who starts turning up in the Revolutionary War when she goes to sleep. At first she thinks it's just a dream, but then...well, it just seems way. too. real. Could she have really dreamed up that hot guy, Alan Warren, who seems to know her so well? How could she know about Thomas Knowlton, head of Knowlton's Rangers (forerunner of any and all US spy networks) if she doesn't pay attention in history class? When she sees The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumball at an art exhibit, she freaks. These people she's dreaming about? They're real.

There are a lot of great things about this comic. The art quality is one of the very best out there--just fabulous storytelling with small gestures and expressions. Add great dialogue, funny punchlines in the midst of heart-hitting tragedies, and some excellent pacing. Just really well done. But one of the things that gets me most as a writer is Lora's ability to tell a story we all know the ending to--and do it in a way that suspends our disbelief and makes us hope that somehow, some of these tragedies can be averted. And I think she does this by being specific.

A history textbook gives you the facts, the statistics, and the very broad, sweeping picture, in a very 20-20 hindsight point of view. The difference between that and fiction is that in a story, you have to be in the moment. Inside one person's head, not twenty thousand. It's not enough that her characters can't wait to fight back against the British. No--some of them don't really care about the "sides"--they just want the people they love to be safe. Some of them have already lost family members and are suddenly realizing that this could turn out to be much more than a game. That "sacrificing all" is more than lip service, and that "all" is considerably more than they had imagined. Mothers who support the American side are terrified that their vocal sons will be captured and hung half a world away. We might know how it all turns out--but they don't. And just because the Americans won doesn't mean everyone came home, either. From a textbook viewpoint, the Battle of Harlem Heights was a fabulous victory--the first win under George Washington, a victory to give heart to all. But Col. Knowlton was killed. Lora does a great job of making you love Knowlton as a leader, a dad, a friend--so that even though you know this battle was a good thing for America, it is a devasting scene on the page. Likewise, our fictional male lead is just realizing that he has a LOT to lose in this war. Because we know all the people he loves, and so we're scared along with him. (That guy in the painting, General Warren? That's his cousin...)

So, if you're writing historical fiction or battle scenes or even just a book where the reader knows the end from the beginning--you still have to suspend your reader's disbelief. Make them think/hope/beg that the outcome can be different than they know it is. And you do it by being specific. It doesn't matter what the whole country is doing. What matters is what your main character stands to lose on a personal level. Once you get that focus right, everything else comes in clear.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Recent reads

I've been reading a lot, as usual, and these are two that stood out for me this month. One YA and one MG:

The Explosionist
, Jenny Davidson. YA. Wow, that was a very unusual book! Alternate history (Napoleon won Waterloo), Scotland + northern countries = Hanseatic League vs. England + Europe. Dynamite and terrorism, government conspiracies, and…spiritualism?? Very, very different. When I picked it up, I thought from the cover and title that it would be about Irish terrorist bombings, but it's not. I will say, though, that Davidson appears to know an awful lot about explosives. Or at least, knows how to write so that it seems so. I understand there is a sequel?

Cosmic, Frank Cottrell Boyce. MG. Hysterical and heart-filled book about a boy who looks like an adult, even though he’s 12. He convinces a classmate to play his daughter and wins a trip to space from a secret thrill-ride park in China. Only they lose contact with earth and have to fly themselves. I laughed to tears in several spots, and found it heartwarming in others. A great dad book!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Three recent YA books I really loved

A Long, Long Sleep, by Anna Sheehan
YA futuristic fiction

The first book I've finished this year, and really excellent. And also somewhat undefinable. It's a retelling of Sleeping Beauty--sort of. But it's not a fairytaleish sort of telling. Sixteen-year-old Rose Fitzroy wakes up from her stasis chamber after 62 years. It's not the first time she's been put under--but never for this long! For the first time, her parents aren't there, Xavier, the boy next door, isn't there...everyone she knew is long dead, and the world is a different place. Suddenly she's the heir (or ward, depending on who you ask) of Unicorps, her parents' worldwide--no, make that solar system wide--business. She's got to start a new school (again), try to figure out how to make friends (something she was never very good at), and deal with the permanent loss of Xavier, who was always there for her before. And oh yeah--there's this plastine robot out to assassinate her. Bren, the boy who found her in the dusty apartment building basement, and his family are trying to help her physically, but only gradually, with the help of a strange alien boy named Otto who's a friend of Bren's does she realize she needs help in other ways, too. Ways that make her deal with things in her past...

Other reviewers have said this, but I was just so angry at the parents in this story. And even though Rose starts out sort of distant at the beginning (for understandable reasons!), there was a spot in the middle that made me cry. Really excellent worldbuilding with a very human story at its heart. I really hope there's a sequel, because while this story is finished, there is more to be told, if that makes sense. Definitely recommended!

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The story, for those who just want to read a book: every fall, horses come out of the sea onto Thisby Island. People catch them and train them for a year, and then race them the next. (Or however long it takes to train such a horse.) They are extremely fast, and they are also deadly. They have a tendency to run back into the sea, thus drowning the rider, or more likely, they see people, sheep, even regular horses, as food. It's extremely dangerous. Seventeen-year-old Puck Connelly is racing so she and her orphaned brothers don't lose their house to the richest man on the island (who also owns a racing stable and whose horses participate in this yearly event). Nineteen-year-old Sean Kendrick is racing because he wants to own the killer horse he trained, he's won on, and who he loves. Except that that's the hold his employer (and technical owner of the horse) has over him. (The employer is Puck's landlord.) Both have to win--but only one can.

The writing in this book is all kinds of gorgeous. It feels very natural (ie not too flowery), it's very nice to read aloud, but it's very specific to the characters in question as well. Take this from page 334: "I wasn't prepared for it to be Sean, and so my stomach does a neat little trick that feels like either hunger or escaping." Or this: somewhere (I can't find the page now), I think it's Puck who tells her brother he "looks like homemade sin." I could go on--but between the writing and the fact that you're very much inside the heads of two otherwise very private individuals, and the tension the plot sets up between them, there is no way to go wrong. And the Printz committee recognized that this year. Yay!

Ultraviolet, by RJ Anderson
genre-bending YA mystery SF

I loved this book! I read the first third of a rough draft a number of years ago, and have been waiting rather anxiously for it to sell and then for it to come out. And the rest of the story did not disappoint.

Alison's always been extra-sensitive, something she keeps quiet about, ever since she told her mother about seeing sounds, and her mother thought she was going crazy and freaked out. But when she wakes up in a mental institution and everyone thinks she killed a girl in her class after a fight, she is terrified that she IS crazy--and guilty. But really? Even though she saw it happen--how could Tori have disintegrated? Then a neuroscientist comes to the hospital and Alison learns she's a synthesete. Dr. Faraday says she's not crazy. And, he believes her story.

The book is science fiction (you should pick up on that by the whole I-saw-her-disintegrate thing at the beginning), but that aspect unfolds gradually. It's a warm *people* story, as opposed to hard scifi, and carries wisps of L'Engle and Dr. Who--except that it's really different from anything you've read, too. I highly recommend it!

More books!

Hooked, by Les Edgerton
NF writing education

My critique group is discussing this one. It's all about beginnings, which are the hardest part of writing, IMO. A lot of his points were things I'd already considered, but one point I'd never thought about was his comment that your story starts at the point where your internal plot (he calls it the "story-worthy problem") starts. Yes, it starts the Day Everything Is Different, and yes, it starts with something happening--but once you're there, the exact moment it starts is when that Thing That is Happening starts to have meaning in an internal way for your main character. If you're looking for a good book to just focus on beginnings, this is a good one.

Liar's Moon, by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Upper YA historical fantasy/mystery

The sequel to Starcrossed. Digger's a thief, but she's got quite a bit more to her than just that--dangerous relatives (and friends), and her own secrets to keep that could land her in extreme trouble. The last book featured magic and intrigue at a snowed-in castle; this time, Digger's home in the city, where she finds that an old friend has been accused of murder. This is one of those books that is YA today, but in a past decade might have been shelved in adult--it's on the line and can be enjoyed by both, I think. Combines the best of fantasy and the best of mystery!

Magic Under Stone, by Jaclyn Dolamore
YA fantasy
releases April 2012

The sequel to Magic Under Glass. I think you may need to have read the first book before this one so that the connections between characters makes the best emotional sense, but having done that, I really enjoyed this! And I'm not sure how to talk about it without spoilers for the first one. Let's say...there was once a fairy prince trapped in a clockwork body, and only Nim the circus dancer had the courage to try and help him. But her efforts only partly worked, and now they're on a quest to find the answer that will make him truly alive. I loved the feel of the world in this, like you could go to that place if you could only find it. It's an interesting mix of fantastical and down-to-earth, which is what I really love about Jackie's writing. Also, the characters aren't the same ones you always see in fantasy novels, just with different names. They're different, and I like them! So here's your chance to catch up on the first book before the second one comes out.

Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George
MG fantasy for girls

Jessica George came to my town and spoke at my son's junior high last fall. I was dying to go to her author talk at the public library, but our children were multi-scheduled in things that could not be missed (required concerts for school grades), and I did not get to go. Waa. It sounds like she was fantastic--my 14YO son, who is the LAST person to pick up a girly fairy tale book, loved her school visit. I haven't read this to my girls yet, and I'm thinking of giving a copy to my upcoming 7YO for her birthday. I know they'll love it! It's about three royal children who's parents are ambushed on their way home from the oldest brother's graduation from wizard school. Meanwhile, a bunch of royals and their nasty attendants move into the castle and try to take over. It's up to the three kids--and their magic castle, that changes rooms according to how much it likes the residents--to save both castle and kingdom. Very fun story!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Books read recently

1. Sweetly, Jackson Pearce. Well-done re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel, paranormal creature style. I liked how the “witch” was a person we could see a lot of good in. And I liked setting it in South Carolina! YA

2. The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson. This was a really interesting book. I liked the main character, and how she grew more healthy (feelings about herself, as well as her physical health), and how she ended up stronger than anyone else she worked with. It was interesting how Elisa viewed certain people at the beginning (kind and strong, in one case) and how her perception changed at the end, after she'd grown up a bit (the same character seems weak at the end). I’d like to see a sequel, because Elisa sure gave up a lot in this book, and I want to see her get something in the end. The story: Elisa is the chosen one, with a Godstone in her navel, and that means she is to do a great work for her people. But the Invierno—the evil, sorcerous nation to the north—is trying to take over. And a lot of people would love to have just her stone, who cares about her. She marries the king of a neighboring country as a political move to ally and fight together, but is kidnapped midway through and becomes truly a queen with the desert people. It’s only with her faith and power that she is able to destroy the sorcerers of the Invierno and turn the tide on the war. YA

3. The Swan Kingdom, Zoe Marriott. A retelling of the swan fairy tale, where the brothers turned into swans and the sister has to make the tunics for them to turn them back. Nicely done; I think I'll look up more of her books. YA

4. The Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson. Fun fantasy-western cross. I especially liked the banter between Wax and Wayne—so often, characters are alone in books, and I loved the best friend element. But—it’s not a stand-alone! I went into the book thinking it was, and then there are developments in the very last chapter that make me go--what?! So I'm looking forward to another book with these guys. (BTW--if you've watched any of The Piano Guys videos on YouTube--Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson--the way they interact reminds me huge amounts of Wax and Wayne. Or any Sanderson duo, actually. They all live in Utah--maybe it's something in the water??) Adult

5. Inventing Elliot, Graham Gardener. Chilling story of a boy who is bullied—violently—and changes schools. Turns himself into someone else, and the bullies want to admit him to their group. And he has to decide what he’s going to do. Author handled things well so the boy didn’t seem weak or whiny—we saw what happened to him, how violently he was bullied, and then had an echo in the gang that jumped his dad. And there were frequent recurring visions of the initial bullying thing, so that we felt his fear over standing up to the Guardians. Sometimes when your character is making a wrong choice because they’re too afraid to make the right one, you have to let your reader live through some of their fear so they believe and have sympathy. YA

6. Wisdom’s Kiss, Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It was light and fun, but also unusual with all the different narrators and playbills and letters and stuff. Some kids love this, though. Her two different styles are interesting. I wonder if readers feel attached to either the realistic or the fantasy books more than the other, depending on which they read first (she also wrote Dairy Queen). Upper MG

7. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell. Interesting adult NF book about how people who are extraordinarily successful got there. A lot of it is about opportunities they got that other people didn’t—the reason being, it gave them a chance to get more practice than anyone else. If you need 10,000 hours of practice at something, but you don’t get the chance to do that, you won’t get as far. Cultural issues can be a help (you know how to navigate interpersonal situations and feel you have some degree of power in a situation to mitigate things for your good) or a hindrance (you don’t speak up when you should, you get thwarted because nobody at home cares enough to encourage you and look for opportunities for you).

Recently read to my girls:

1. Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. It's their first book of an Austen flavor. They enjoyed it, despite the fact that I keep having to explain terms and cultural issues to them.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling. My older daughter has already read them, but my younger one wanted me to read them, as she was too small last time we did a read-aloud to remember anything. The books have obviously sucked her into the story more than the films, because even though she's seen bits of the last film, she was still really worried when Hagrid shows up with his motorcycle at the beginning of book 7: "Oh, no. Hagrid's going to die!"

3. Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones. I would hate to be married to Howl, but he is so fun to read about! Especially aloud. Green slime! Enchanted suits! Guitars he can't really play, but which make a good show! Yeah. BTW, if you love Howl, might I recommend Alexandra Bracken's Brightly Woven? Or Deva Fagan's Circus Galacticus? There's no green slime in either one--but some of the feeling you get when you read Howl's Moving Castle is in both of those as well.

Arrow, by RJ Anderson

I've been reading RJ Anderson's faery series (the first book is called Knife in the UK and Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter in the US). The first two books are out in the US but the series continues on past them in the UK. We just finished this one, which sort of closes the first subseries, and my girls are already pestering me to order the next one, Swift, which apparently was just released in Britain.

What liked most about this book: 1) the feeling of being in a different culture, and 2) Timothy. We've seen Timothy's anxious side in the last book (Wayfarer), but now that he's worked through those issues and come out the other side, we're getting a whole new view of him. I love seeing the cheerful, slightly hyper, active side of him--just a very likable character! As to the cultural issue, Rebecca's put her finger on exactly that exhausting feeling of trying to navigate a culture that is similar but different from your own, of misinterpreting people, and of trying to fit into a new set of expectations while all the while holding very much to your integrity. (I guess that's actually two culture clashes, then--the clash between different faery cultures and the clash between the world of integrity and...the World in a religious sense.)

I'd recommend this series to your daughter/niece who likes some seriousness to her faeries.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Books for the precocious child reader

Every so often I get a request from someone for book recommendations. They have a first grader who's done with short chapter books and whose skill is on a 4th-5th grade level. Or their fourth grader has exhausted their classroom library, has the ability to read anything, but is too young to be interested in YA books that are big on romance or Teen Problems. They're still kids--but they are dying for a good story they can spend a long time in. So I've made this list for those kids. No, it doesn't include some of my favorite books, because they have themes more of interest to older readers. But hopefully it's a starting place. (And feel free to add suggestions in the comments--I'll try to remember to add to this as I run across books that fit this in the future.)

Books with magic:

The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Stewart
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and also James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, JK Rowling (this one is clearly middle grade, but be aware that they age up quite a bit, and later books may be too much for young kids)
Tuesdays at the Castle, and others by Jessica Day George
Princess Academy and others by Shannon Hale
Whales on Stilts! and others in the Pals in Peril series by MT Anderson (helpful to have read other kids’ series, as it’s sort of a parody)
Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians (series), Brandon Sanderson
Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones
Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter (series), RJ Anderson
Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (for girls who like Austen and magic)
The Magic Thief, Sarah Prineas
Half Magic and others by Edward Eager
The Enchanted Castle and others by E. Nesbit (old, but the inspiration for the Edward Eager books)
Fortune’s Folly and also Circus Galacticus, Deva Fagan
Princess for Hire (series), Lindsey Leavitt
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
Small Persons with Wings, Ellen Booraem
Entwined, Heather Dixon
The Ghosts, Antonia Barber
Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine
Beauty, Robin McKinley
Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate, Donna St. Cyr
The Diamond in the Window, Jane Langton
Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, Mike Jung
Princess for Hire, Lindsey Leavitt

Books without magic:

The Penderwicks series, Jeanne Birdsall. Four sisters, a dog, and a very interesting boy next door.
Flipped, Wendelin van Draanen
Millicent Min, Girl Genius, Lisa Yee
Journey to the River Sea and also The Star of Kazan, or The Dragonfly Pool, Eva Ibbotson
Rules, Cynthia Lord
Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster
Schooled, Gordon Korman
The London Eye Mystery, Siobhan Dowd
Winnie’s War, Jenny Moss
Palace Beautiful, Sarah DeFord Williams
The Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Suzanna Snow: The Midnight Tunnel, Angie Frazier
Al Capone Does My Shirts and sequel, Gennifer Choldenko
As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth, Lynne Rae Perkins
The Lion’s Paw, Robb White
Saffy’s Angel, Hilary McKay
Hoot, Carl Hiassen
The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

The Star of Kazan and also Journey to the River Sea, Eva Ibbotson

Books with very slight magic (magical realism/mostly real except for one small thing—generally appeal to both the magic and non magic readers):

Savvy and also Scumble, Ingrid Law
Things Not Seen, Andrew Clements
The Magician’s Elephant, Kate DiCamillo
The Secret of Zoom, Lynne Jonell
Mudville or The Tanglewood Terror, Kurtis Scaletta
The Healing Spell, Kimberly Griffiths Little
Babe, the Gallant Pig, Dick King-Smith
Lionboy (series), Zizou Corder
Holes, Louis Sacher

SF (aliens, scientific time travel):

The True Meaning of Smekday, Adam Rex
The Doom Machine, Mark Teague
Dark Life, Kat Falls
Cosmic, Frank Cottrell Boyce
Circus Galacticus, Deva Fagan

Graphic novels:

The Arrival, and other books by Shaun Tan
Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale
Ellie McDoodle, Have Pen, Will Travel, Ruth McNally Barshaw
Coraline, Neil Gaiman
The Storm in the Barn, Matt Phelan
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, Barry Deutsch

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Piltdown Man and the Revision

Even though I keep writing new books, there’s one manuscript that I pull out every so often and stare at again. There’s something I really love about it, and something that’s wrong that I just can’t put my finger on. People used to tell me that my character doesn’t have enough feeeeeeeelings, but now I think I’m making progress, because now people say she has feeeeeeelings, she just doesn’t have a personality. Eep. Anyway. I’ve recently started going to a local in person writers’ group, and was looking around for something good to bring this time. We do all the reading on the spot, which is time consuming, and which means that really, everyone can only bring a snippet. It’s not the sort of setting for feedback on your complete novel, whether all at once or broken up—it would take years to read the whole thing that way. So I thought that maybe I could bring a bit of this problem novel and see if they have any new insights on the character.

What I noticed while reading over my opening was that after so many revisions and critiques, it now resembles Piltdown Man. If you remember anything about anthropology, you’ll know this was a famous hoax in which someone stuck together a bunch of different bones from different species and tried to pass the lot of them off as Man’s Early Ancestor, when in fact, it wasn’t anything but a mess. Alas, my novel (especially the opening) looks like that.

What was she like before the story starts?
A bone the shape of school activities.
What is her Big, Personal Problem? Another bone with guilt over something she neglected to do.
This book is supposed to have magic in it. WHERE IS THE MAGIC? Show it to me on page 1! I’ve crammed a bone of magic in there.
I don’t understand why she’s here. It’s too confusing. So now I’ve got stuff about her mother and her brother and her aunt and her uncle and even her broken-hipped grandmother glomming up the place.


I’m not saying they’re wrong in feeling there’s a problem. But I think that you have to be careful when you listen to critiques. Critiquers are usually right when they put their finger on a problem. But they’re not always right about the solution. And you can make yourself crazy (and make your own little Piltdown Man) if you try to incorporate every single change anyone suggests.

Take a deep breath. What is the story YOU want to tell? Maybe that critique gave you a good idea. But maybe you know that what you need to say is more than that. Listen to that little voice inside you. Don’t let your internal editor—or anyone else’s—crowd out the core of your story.

I still don’t know exactly how to fix the book. But I might just start by weeding.