Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Voice: keeping it straight

Voice is, for me, one of the toughest things to get right.  For one thing, it's everywhere and it's plural.  The narrative voice is the biggie, since it runs through everything and had darn well better be consistent.  But every character has a voice, and each needs to be unique and right for that character.  I don't know about you, but I have a tendency to make everyone, up to and including my narrator, sound like me at my most ironic.  Needless to say, this is not always appropriate (though I gave the first-person narrator of Murder Stalks the PTA  permission to be the snarky cynic I sometimes feel like, and she's just fine, thank you).

Narrative voice is a character, just like any other.  What kind of character is determined in part by whether you choose to write in first person or in one of the various forms of 3rd person (or, I suppose, second person, but there are good reasons why that is uncommon).  But there are still so many variations, and like any other character, it develops as I write.  That means--yup--have to go back later and make it consistent.

You all know about the different kinds of narrators.  When it comes to voice, a first person narrator is an extension of a particular character, and the narrative voice should be consistent with (but not identical to--this part is a bit fuzzy) the conversational voice (and vocabulary) of that character.  It is also limited to what that person can see and know.  Thus, in The Ninja Librarian, the narrator (Big Al) can tell only what the Ninja Librarian does--never what he is thinking or why he does something, unless he explains (something he almost never does).  This allows me to keep the Librarian a bit of a mysterious presence--something I'd lose with an omniscient narrator.  Al must also use vocabulary  appropriate to the setting of the story.  Even with a first person narrator, however, the speech of other characters should be reported in their voices, not the narrator's.  Characters must still be distinct in their speech as they are in their actions.

The author will have to decide if the narrator will report the speech of more educated characters exactly as they say it--or as the narrator understands it.  So a child narrator might report the speech of an adult with mistaken words, to indicate the child's lack of understanding--but this, I suspect, should be used sparingly and deliberately, when the misunderstanding matters to the story.  Otherwise it's just cutesy (ick).

Third person narrators are divided into several types, which are described in just about any book on writing and I refuse to go into it all here.  I already told you that know all about it anyway. I'm interested in what that 3rd person sounds like.

Any form of third person narrator is typically written in a more neutral voice (for me, that means I have to go delete the wisecracks).  I think that the omniscient narrator who speaks aside to the reader about the characters and the action is not much used anymore, though it is not uncommon in older works, especially for children (Louisa May Alcott, for example, frequently breaks the 4th wall and addresses the reader directly with commentary on the behavior of the characters.  This reads today as a charming and anachronistic stylistic quirk, or annoying preachiness, depending on what she says and how you are feeling).  Whatever it sounds like, though, your narrative tone must be consistent.

Consistency is in fact the nub of what I'm talking about.  Big Al must always sound like Big Al.  The third person narrator of Halitor the Hero needs to be the same throughout, without changing level of diction or degree of insight into people's thoughts and motives.  This is harder than it sounds.  The temptation to use some clever turn of phrase can be overwhelming.  Go ahead if you must--but be sure to edit it back out later, when you've gotten over your cleverness.  Right now I am finding that Halitor's narrator is evolving a bit, and I'll have to make some decisions about levels of omniscience and involvement, then go back and edit until it all matches.  I'm pretty sure a 3rd-person narrator shouldn't evolve through a story (unlike a 1st-person narrator, who is expected to grow and change).

If you create a narrator who only observes, who is not allowed inside anyone's head, then proof very, very carefully for any place you wrote the words "he thought" or "she felt," because that violates the narrative voice you selected.  I am finding that it is pretty easy when writing in the first person to stay out of everyone else's head.  But I am writing Halitor the Hero with a third person narrator limited to peeking inside Halitor's head, and it feels slightly frustrating.  I want so often to comment on what another character is thinking or feeling.  I suspect it is very good discipline (and definitely good narration) to beat down the temptation.

As mentioned above, there is another aspect to voice: the voices of each individual character.  This one is really hard.  You have a whole zoo of characters, and while some are minor enough not to have any real personality (but I think that's probably another red flag requiring further editing--unless a character matters enough to have some individuality, what is her or she doing in the story?), in general each is going to need to be distinct from the others.  Manner of speech, tone, the things he or she will talk about.  Listen to the people around you.  No two sound alike, and I'm not talking about soprano vs. bass.  Different vocabulary.  Different tempi.  When you read your dialog aloud, can you tell who is speaking?  No?  Time for more revisions.

It's always time for more revisions.

I was going to write a bunch more about voice and how to get it right, but I think I'll just fall back on my #1 bit of revision advice: whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, or even poetry, read it aloud.  When you say it and hear it, you will truly hear it.  I will also fall back on my assertion that I do not know what the heck I'm doing, except learning a whole boatload of stuff that they never taught me in those useless creative writing classes I took in school back in the Dark Ages.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Cool words

Just a few words I've stumbled across that I really like.  For whatever reason.

Immiserate.  v.  I never knew there was a word specifically for making people or conditions miserable.  Just found this in 1491, p. 350.  "In their home ecosystems these species have, like all living things, a full complement of parasites, microbes, viruses, and insect predators to shorten and immiserate their lives."  Mosquitoes can sure as heck immiserate my life!

Bloviate.  v.  To go on and on, windily and without much meaning.  This one isn't in a lot of dictionaries, which is a shame, because it was invented for politicians.  To describe them, that is.  It may have originally just meant idle chatter (see Wikipedia), but Warren Harding used it to describe political speech and there it stays.  Politicians bloviate from one day's end to the next.

Weskit.  n.  Waistcoat; what we in the States would call a vest, as a man's garment (the vest in a 3-piece suit).  Hobbits wear weskits.

Kvetchable.  I don't think this is a real word, but it was in today's paper and I love it.

Making distinctions: hurt vs.  harm.  I'm not sure that this is completely 100% per the dictionary, but this last six weeks of recovering from foot surgery has taught me the difference between hurt and harm pretty effectively.  Bottom line: lots of things hurt the blasted foot, but very few do any actual harm.  Physical therapy hurts, but far from doing harm, it is necessary if I want the thing to stop hurting.  Go figure.

And to go with my earlier post on not misusing words, this one is for the record: 
Literally.  An adverb meaning something should be taken in the literal sense, i.e. exactly according to it's meaning.  So if you tell me lunch was so late you literally starved to death, I'd better be looking at your lifeless body.  Now, my copy of Webster's admits the use of it as a form of emphasis, but the OED does not, and I'm with Oxford this time.  Using "literally" to emphasize a figure of speech makes no sense.  Just don't do it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lost in Space--Flash Fiction Challenge

I've bitten on another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction challenge.  Playing on the "write what you know" meme, he asked us to take an incident from life and turn it into a bit of fiction, preferably genre fiction.  I'm going to take a pan that once went missing right in my house, and put it with a ghost on a space ship.  It's 1000 words max, but I came in well below.


Arthur had waited a long time for the chance to steal something.  He didn't even know why he had to, but ever since hed died hed felt like he couldnt move on until he stole something from the living.  And there is so little on a space ship that isn't fastened down.  He couldn't believe his luck when he saw the frying pan, just lying on the counter like an abandoned sock.  As soon as he wrapped his ghostly hand around the panhandle, the whole thing vanished into the seventh dimension, where neither ghost nor living human could enjoy it. What was the point?

 *  *  *

Sarah was unpacking the shuttle.  They'd had a good holiday Down Below, but it felt good to be home again.  She and Gil had lived aboard the Lady Luck since they were married four years ago, and this had been their first real trip dirtside.  Haven was a fully Earth-like planet, and very little developed, so they'd been able to land the shuttle where they wanted and had enjoyed a grand week of fishing--you could even eat the local fish--and a lot of lying in the sun.

 She pulled the kitchen supply bin out of the shuttle, and the frying pan that had cooked so much tasty fish tottered on the top.  She didn't want it to fall, so she set it aside on the mechanic's bench and carried the box into the dining bay.  Some spacers let the machines do all the cooking, but Sarah liked to cook. She'd grown up dirtside on Golden, and always stocked up on what she called real food.  Gil laughed at her, and sometimes grumbled about the extra space her kitchen supplies took up, but he liked her cooking and humored her.  Still, he let her haul all the kitchen stuff off and put it away.

 Sarah puttered around the dining bay happily stowing her gear, then a glance at the chronograph told her it was time to fix some dinner, so she got on with it.  Just a simple dish, the last of the campfire bread she'd baked that morning, and a bit of the local cheese.

 It wasn't until the next morning that either she or Gil remembered the frying pan, when she wanted it to cook up some bacon shed picked up in port.  She sent him to fetch it.  Gil came back in a minute.

 "It's not there.  Are you sure you didn't bring it up here?"

 Sarah sighed.  Typical male.  Couldnt find his head if it wasnt attached.  "I'll go.  I know just where I put it."  She did, too.  The trouble was, it wasn't there.  The bench was cleared and secured for zero-G, though they were still running the gravitation motor.  There was no frying pan on it.  She searched the cargo bay, then each part of the ship, even the ones they hadnt entered since returning.

 There was no frying pan anywhere.

 "Gil, it isn't there.  And I KNOW I left it right on the counter.  Could the cleaning bot have picked it up?"

 "I didnt run it last night, since wed just got back. Anyway, its programmed to avoid the mechanics bench.  Were the only people on this vessel, and we didnt either of us touch it. 
Sarah looked at him suspiciously.  Are you sure. . . I know you think my cooking gear is an extravagance.

 Swear by all thats sacred.  Anyway, I would never get rid of that pan when you had bacon to fry!

 I suppose not.  Its gone, but no one and nothing could have picked it up."

 "Only a ghost," he said, and they laughed.

 * * *

Down in the cargo bay, Arthur’s last thought as he slipped into the eighth dimension was that, at last, he knew why he had to steal.  He’d never see that pan again—but it had freed him at last of the blasted ship.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Progressive Book Club #1

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.  Note: this is not a review.  This is a book club discussion.  It may be hard to tell the difference.

I recently joined a group of writers in The Progressive Book Club, founded by M. L. Swift.   Monthly readings of books on writing result in monthly posts about the books we read.  Sort of like a progressive dinner but without the extra calories.  We move from blog to blog and nibble at the literary goodies.  Bird By Bird is the first book for discussion, and I am almost certainly the last one to post on it.  The list is at the link above, if you want to see what others have to say.

Now for the true confessions: this isn't the first time I've read Bird By Bird.  That doesn't matter, because truly good advice and insights are worth reading over.  That goes double for someone who will give a writer a swift kick in the seat of the pants, because heaven knows we need it.

So I love Anne Lamott's take on writing, and I have totally embraced her policy of writing truly rotten first drafts (like I have a choice about that).  But the more I write the more I realize that ANY book about how to write boils down to an idiosyncratic take on the way the writer of the book does it.  That's not necessarily bad.  All we can ever do when asked for advice about anything is ramble a bit about what we do, or what we would do if we weren't too lazy to do it.  And Lamott has proven that she does it and the end result is good.  It's worth considering how she does it.

I think that the number one bit to take away from this funny and inspiring book is the thing everyone says: sit your backside down and write.  Just do it, as Nike used to (annoyingly) say.  Do it every day.  Even if you only manage to squeeze out a few really bad words (in whatever sense of that you want to take it), you will make it a habit. Habits get done without you thinking about it.  That can be bad, but it can be very, very good when it's a habit of brushing your teeth or writing for 20 minutes before bed.

Many of the details of how Lamott gathers ideas and holds them inside and eventually pulls them out and uses them, though not necessarily how and where she thought she would, are just too individual for me to copy.  My process does not look like hers.  Your process will not look like hers.  At least, not precisely.  But she will make you think until you figure out what IS your process (and then she will mock you until you do it).

But you know, even if all I take from Bird By Bird is the affirmation that rotten first drafts are not only okay but desirable (because they mean that you just did it, and you turned off your inner editor/angel of death and didn't get all hung up about the exact right word so that after a month of writing you only have one sentence), and the idea of carrying a pen and index card in your pocket at all times (though I usually have the means to carry a whole notepad, the pen and index card are going into the pocket of my biking jersey), that's a pretty good pair of thoughts to take away.  I ought to apologize for that sentence, but I won't.

If you write, or think you might like to write, or sometimes sit down and stare at a piece of paper and wish you were a writer, read Bird By Bird.  If you don't write, go ahead and read it anyway.  It will make you laugh and help you to understand your friends who do write.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My A-Z of Literature

I saw this idea on Gus Sanchez's blog, where he'd gotten the idea from. . . you get the picture.  Anyway, it was a list of works from, well, A to Z, that had importance for him.  Lots of flexibility, author's name, first or last, title, and so on.  My list has a lot fewer heavy hitters, and more children's books, because so much of what made me the reader and writer I am happened in the early years.  But I'm going to take a shot at it, just because it sounds like fun.  The list is necessarily incomplete and would probably be different if I wrote it another time.

A. Louisa May Alcott.  I cried over Little Women more times than I can remember, and devoured all her books.  Yes, they are dated.  Yes, she wrote from some assumptions that grate on me now.  But in the late 1800s, LMA was writing about women and girls who were figuring out how to be something besides household drudges, and how to make a difference in their world, often by doing things that weren't considered properly "women's work."

Also Mary Hunter Austin (Land of Little Rain, Cactus Thorn).  A woman who wrote of nature and place with as much love and grace as John Muir.

B.   The Bible.  I'm an agnostic now, but I read the Bible more than once as a child and teen, and the language of the RSV and King James versions definitely resonates.  Besides, my Grandma showed me where a lot of the good gory (or racy) stories are (in the Old Testament).  Hard to top this book for the way it fills the subconscious of those of us raised in WASP America.

C.  Geoffrey Chaucer.  Found him in Grad school and because of him I spent ten years studying medieval literature.  I also blame him for my challenges with spelling.

D.  Douglas Adams.  You can be crazy and absurd and still have a great story. Or maybe even have a great story because it is crazy and absurd.

E.  Aaron Elkins and Earl Emerson.  Two writers of high-quality mysteries who never lose their grip on their sense of humor (however black the humor may get at times).  I will admit to liking the straight mysteries over their thrillers, though--because in the latter, the sense of humor slips.  Hard to be tongue-in-cheek while saving the world, I guess.  Though I'm tempted to try.

F.  Colin Fletcher.  The Man Who Walked Through Time.  Geology and backpacking together,  presented to me at a young age as about the most desirable activities out there (I managed to forget the former when picking a college major.  Silly me.  So I ended up an English major and have to go outside on my own time).

G.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I love alliteration.

H.  Hemmingway.  Because I have changed from loving him to hating him and back more than once, and if nothing else he constantly reminds me not to use too many words.

I.   Ivan Doig.  A discovery from some ten or twelve years ago, a writer who crafts his language and conveys and time and place like no one else I know.  It doesn't hurt that his place is Montana's Gros Ventre region.

J.  Jane Austen.  Read most of her books as a teen or early twenties, and couldn't see what the attraction was.  It took me to middle age to really appreciate her humor and insights into character.

K.  Katherine Kurtz.  Her Deryni novels were the first fantasy world that caught me as much as Tolkien did--though for very different reasons.  And eventually she even worked her way around to having some strong female characters.  I never forgot my Dad's criticism, though: that she spent too much time describing the clothes.  He was right, and I pay attention to when description matters to the story and when it's just self-indulgent.

L.   Louis L'Amour.  Yeah, he's an awful writer in so many ways.  But in Jr. High and High School, I devoured his Westerns and appreciated that he occasionally even had a female who knew exactly what she was doing and was good at it.  For better or worse, he and his imaginary West are permanent parts of my imagination.  When not spouting absurd philosophy or shooting his hero full of holes, he also did a good job of conveying the landscapes.

Madeleine L'Engle.  Not only did she write a boat-load of really good books that were fun to read, but she and Dorothy Sayers between them wrote some of the first books I read about writingBoth wrote about being a Christian and a writer, which was relevant at the time but isn't now.  But since what they were really concerned about was being the best possible writer, it still resonates.

M.  L.M. Montgomery.  Apart from the whole miserable orphan thing, I was Anne of Green Gables.  Big words, long red braids, and an imagination that wouldn't stop.  All too often a tongue that didn't stop quite soon enough, either.

Charlotte MacLeod.  Murder with an absurdist twist--proof that you can write mysteries and comedies at the same time, in the same book.

N.  Ogden Nash.  I like nonsense verse.

O.  Oxford English Dictionary.  Unabridged.  Love all the history embedded in the etymologies.  Also loved the look on a long-ago housemate's face when she was joking about the "Compact Edition" label on the two giant volumes.  Then I showed her the 4-pages-to-a-page format.  Yup.  Compact.  Came with a magnifying glass.

P.  Terry Pratchett.  I only discovered him this year, but he is living proof that you can make a career out of writing brilliant nonsense (see also Douglas Adams).

Pride and Prejudice.  One of the books I thought boring when a teen, and discovered later was witty and fun.  (See Jane Austen, above).

Q.   Quests.  All those desperate quests and hopeless last stands.  Loved that stuff.  Still do.  (Okay, it's a stretch.  But I can't think of anything better for "Q".)

R.  Robert Service.  What's not to love about "The Cremation of Sam Magee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew"? (See Ogden Nash).

S.  A Sand County Almanac.  One of the first books that started me thinking about conservation and ecology.

Will Shakespeare.  Yeah, the Big Guy.  He was an early source of a love of words that taste like honey in the mouth.

Dorothy Sayers.  She invented Lord Peter Wimsey.

T.  J.R.R. Tolkien.  I don't care if it's hokey, and he couldn't cope with female characters.  I read the whole LOTR trilogy pretty much annually from 5th grade until sometime in my 20s, just because I loved the drama, the noble last stands, and all that.

U.  Up Periscope.  Robb White sold me on adventure and war stories at and early age.

V.  Voltaire?  Kurt Vonnegut Jr.?  I've read them. . . just not sure they qualify as big influences.

W.  Laura Ingalls Wilder introduced me to historical fiction.
P.G. Wodehouse.
X.  I don't think so!

Y.  Why not?

Z.     Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Funny thing is, I can't remember much of anything about it, just remember thinking it was life-changing at the time.

[Note: it took me about 2 months to come up with this list.  This was hard!]

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Book Review: Four Fiends

by Nikki Bennett.  Middle Grade Fantasy

Nikki Bennett's Four Fiends is a fresh and imaginative story, a fun read with a good message for middle grade children (anywhere from about 8 or 9 up, I would say).  Bits of history and mythology add to the fun.

The book opens with four chapters introducing four children from different parts of the world (Hong Kong, Japan, Italy, and the U.S.).  While dealing with the issues of child lives, large and small, they discover--or are discovered by--four magical creatures.  The "worms" become their friends and constant companions, visible only to themselves.  When the time is right, each worm brings its child to an unnamed tropical beach where they meet and learn of their quest: they must find the four guardians of the world, and rescue them from the four fiends that hold them captive.

As the story progresses, each child in turn must take the lead and conduct one rescue.  And, to their surprise, it is not their strengths that they must use, but their weaknesses.  How each discovers his or her weakness, and what they do with them, is part of the pleasure of the story.

Ms. Bennett's writing is generally strong, with very few lapses in tone, and the four children are given distinct voices and personalities (if anything, they risk being too distinct--at times they narrowly avoid being stereotypical, but the lapses are minor).  They are very human, with realistic flaws as well as natural feelings.

Four Fiends is an enjoyable read, and a positive story about overcoming (or using) your faults and weaknesses as well as your strengths.  It is also a story about friendship and the ways in which it can overcome barriers.  Throw in some mythological creatures from several cultures and a bit of history, and you've got a book well worth reading at 8 or 80.

Four stars.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Outlining: When, How and How Much

Before  begin yet another post on how to go about writing, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I haven't a clue.  Sometimes I know how *I* go about writing, sometimes not even that.  A few things (mostly grammar) I know pretty well.  Everything else is really a thinly disguised plea for you all to tell me what you do and how it works for you.  So, I'm starting a periodic series of blogs dealing with various aspects of writing, mostly in the order that they happen when you are trying to produce a book. Today: outlines.

Okay, if I really wanted to start at the beginning, I'd start with where ideas come from, right?  Wrong.  Because if you have to ask where to get ideas, I'm thinking you want to be a writer, as opposed to wanting to write.  Most of us who do this a lot have ideas popping up all over the place.  Goofing off with a writing prompt for the sake of the exercise: boom, why isn't this a book?  Eavesdropping on the Metro.  Dreaming.  Whatever.  You have ideas.  The hard part is beating the amorphous bits of mental fog into a story someone will pay money to read, or at least will read voluntarily.  Someone besides your mother.

Thus, I'm going to assume that we have picked one idea to run with.  We are ready to start solidifying the fog.  Right away we face the first big decision.  No, not 1st person or 3rd, not genre (well, okay, maybe genre).  But the BIG question: do I outline this first, or fly by the seat of my pants and just start writing?

To digress: when writing papers for school, an outline is invariably a good thing.  Otherwise your essay will wander all over the map and you are apt to get a bad grade (yes, I do have an outline of sorts for this essay, though it is all in my head).  For those of you who have to write non-fiction for school, I'll share an approach that used to work pretty well for me back in the day, when I had no idea what I wanted to say and a paper due at 9 a.m. the next day.  I'd make an outline.  Often it would at first look like this:

I. Introduction
II.  Body
III.  Conclusion

Then I'd stare at my notes some more, stare at the typewriter (I wrote many of my college papers before the PC was common), and maybe add a line under Introduction.  Something like a thesis statement: This paper will demonstrate that Shakespeare was intoxicated when he wrote Timon of Athens  (another note: this is a very poor thesis statement.  One would hope that by the time the paper is turned in the thesis will be a little smarter, even if it says the same thing).  Maybe then I could dream up a couple of points to write under "Body" to suggest how I'd do that.  Then I might make a couple of sub-points.  And so on, hoping that each thing I wrote would give me another idea.  Eventually I would have enough notes that I just needed to turn them into coherent prose and I'd have an essay.

That is not a bad way to write a five-paragraph essay.  Maybe it's not even a bad way to write a novel. I wouldn't know.  I haven't tried.

When it comes to writing a story, I  most likely have a character or situation that wanders into my mind and won't leave, so I start writing about him, her, or it.  The idea takes hold and I keep writing. Somewhere in there I get a vision of more or less where the story/book is going to end.  I suppose that you could say that at that point I have something much like that initial outline--I know where I'm starting (because I already started there, though sometimes I have to go back and find a better place to start--the outline may tell me that), and where I'm ending, and I know that a bunch has to go in between.  But I have never yet, at this point (let alone before writing at all), stopped and written down an outline.

If I get really stuck, and the story is going nowhere--or everywhere, which is just as bad--that's when I start to think about outlining for real.  My current work in progress, a somewhat parodic fantasy, has an outline now, with some detail for the first few chapters (which I'd already written when I did the outline), then a list of chapters, each of which says "Another adventure along the way" (adventures to be decided on when we come to them).  Finally we get to a couple of chapters at the end and there's a little more detail, because I know where I want to end up, assuming a dragon doesn't carry my characters off so far they can't get back.

That's about as detailed as I've ever gotten with an outline at this stage in my work.  I was inspired by reading bloggers who talked about how helpful it was to have created detailed outlines before starting NaNoWriMo.  I'm not sure my level of outlining is what they were talking about.

Here's where I get to something that might be useful:
Even if I write the whole rough draft with no outline and no idea where I'm going (as I did with my first two novels, one of which took 15 years to write and is so scattered I can't even find all the pieces), somewhere in the editing stage I write a detailed outline of the novel I've written.  Chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Not only does creating the outline give me a great tool for revisions (and for summaries/query letters), but by the time I've done it I really know where the story hangs together and what makes no sense.  This has been particularly helpful with Murder Stalks the PTA.  It is extra important with a mystery to make sure all the clues are present at the right time and place.

Once the outline is made, I can use it when revising as a place to dump all the comments like "this scene stinks!" and "????".  Then I can refer again to my annotated outline, rewrite some more, revise the outline to match the new version of the story. . . you get the picture.

Some of you may be thinking by now, "wouldn't it have been easier to write the outline first and not have such a messy draft?"  That's an understandable attitude, and it might work for you.  It doesn't for me.  I like to jump into the story and let it meander a bit, and I'm not very good at following directions.

Even my own.

That's my two cents on outlining, which turns out not to have come first after all.  What's yours?

We have a winner!

I'm a day late and a dollar short with my Wednesday post (School Board meeting last night ran late, so I bagged it and went to bed).  But that makes me just in time to share the winners of the Valentine's Day raffle from Love Middle Grade, Actually.

Just a big shout-out and congratulations to Dorothy, Christine, Dixie, Shawna, Andrea, Melody, Cindy, Steve, Jill, Michelle, Deanne, Malcolm, Annie, Tessa, Pawel, and Renee!  Enjoy your books (Dorothy, enjoy that Kindle!) and we all hope you enjoyed our sample chapters!

In other news. . .
Today is international book giving day.  I just learned this from a couple of bloggers this morning, but it looks like a great idea!  Here's a link back to one of my fellow bloggers and writers to tell you more.  And of course it doesn't just have to be today.  Books are great to give any time, to people you know and people you don't!

I'm working on a new series about writing, starting from the beginning of the process.  I hope it gets some discussion going, because I sure as heck don't have all the answers.  At the most, I am starting to get some idea what works for me.  But because all writers like to talk about writing, I'm jumping on the bandwagon.  Besides, putting my process into writing requires really thinking about what I do. . . and that is always a good thing.  The first post in the series will go up later today.  Tomorrow at the outside.

Do I need to link back to my post about procrastination?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

by Alan Garner, published 1960.  268 pages.

Alan Garner's exciting--and somewhat dark--tale of a magical threat to the world blends magical and real worlds in a manner reminiscent of Narnia.  However, unlike Lewis's books, where the characters travel distinctly between the worlds, in Garner's novel the worlds interact continually and the boundaries are indistinct. 

Set in Cheshire (England), The Weirdstone of Brisingamen tells of Colin and Susan, brother and sister, who stumble into the magical world that exists under and around the everyday world they know.  Susan wears a curious stone on a bracelet inherited from her mother, and the local corps of witches, wizards and evil beings recognize it as a magical artifact essential to a plan to protect the world from the forces evil (them).  They are as determined to get it as the far weaker forces of good are to protect it, and the children, and their powers are twisted and terrifying.  Garner paints them vividly enough to frighten those prone to nightmares.

Through the early chapters, the children stumble in and out of mysteries and dangers with no understanding of what they have (the stone) or what is at stake.  Gradually, they learn the truth, and the action shifts more and more to the magical world, where they are repeatedly attacked and pursued by the evil beings.  Or rather, the magical beings more and more take over what we thought was the everyday, magicless world.  By the second section of the book, the children have gained a pretty good idea what is at stake, and set out to put things right.  They have courage enough, but still lack understanding and the skills they need to survive the adventure.  At the point when all seems lost, they pick up a couple of dwarfish protectors and magic has firmly taken over Cheshire.

In an  unusual move for juvenile fiction of this nature, Gowther, the older farmer who is the children's guardian, not only comes to a quick understanding of the issues and acceptance of the magic world, but accompanies the children and the dwarves on their wildly exciting escape.  Gowther proves invaluable to the escape and a stalwart fighter in the battles they have along the way.  Garner manages to do something I think is very difficult in this kind of story, which is to allow children to be autonomous agents who face situations with courage, and also to allow them to interact somewhat realistically with adults.  It seems like in most such stories, the adults in the lives of the child heroes are an obstruction at best.  Here, while the adults wish to protect Colin and Susan, they also recognize that they have an important role to play, and allow them to take the necessary risks to play it (I only regret that Bess, the mother-figure, is packed off and not part of the party).  You might say that is the lesson of the book for all us parents who read it: trust the kids but be prepared to fight alongside them when necessary.

Garner does not do anywhere near the world-building that, for example, Tolkien does.  He doesn't need to.  His story takes place in our world--and yet not.  As a result we feel very much as Colin and Susan must--disturbed by a growing sense of danger, and frightened by vague or unimaginable threats and a growing sense that things are not what we have always assumed them to be.  We also learn as they do, in bits and pieces, of the world that exists in and around them, and which they might have gone through their lives never knowing existed (as most of their neighbors do, apart from the ones who are in fact evil witches and warlocks).  I kept expecting them to make that one, definitive "through the wardrobe" move that would take them out of our world until the adventure ended.  The fact that, instead, the other world invades ours, is part of what makes the stakes so high and kept me from putting the book down.

Now, I have to admit that despite leaping fairly quickly into adventures and great dangers, the story did not initially grab me.  Looking back at the opening chapters, I frankly can't see what my problem was (perhaps that it faced too much competition from the half dozen other books I was reading?).  Certainly by the time I reached the midpoint, the book had acquired "don't put me down" status, and I read the last hundred and a quarter pages more or less in one sitting (leaving all the other books to sit around whining that it was their turn).

The writing is smooth, editing is professional (as one would expect), and the book does not read particularly as a "children's book," even while it is clearly accessible to at least the more advanced middle grade readers.  A pair of maps at the beginning help set the scene and make a good reference as our heroes were being chased about the countryside.  Looked at in one way, it could be said that Brisingamen is stereotypical (though I would argue that there are elements that I have seldom seen elsewhere), but it is well to remember that in 1960 there was very little yet written in the fantasy genre, and Alan Garner was one of the writers who developed the genre.  More than 50 years and thousands of fantasies later, the story continues to pull us in and carry us ever-faster to the all-too-sudden ending.  That seems worth 5 stars.

It's not too late to get your copy of Love Middle Grade, Actually.  You have until Feb. 14 to enter to win a Kindle, a $10 gift card, or a copy of one of the 14 books showcased in this great sampler.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up

General Editor, Julia Eccleshare.  Over 70 contributors, plus special reviews by more than 30 well-known authors

This amazing volume is a compilation of 1001 half-page (some whole-page) summaries of great children's books, from the earliest picture books through the middle grades and up.  It has been the source of a number of books I've read and reviewed this winter, as I've been perusing the suggestions for the 8 and up age ranges.  Whatever I can among  the books I missed in my own youth, I order from the library.

Because the book was first published in England (and the authors/editors/compilers are English), the selection of books is more international than it might be if produced in the U.S.  Though all books are available (with some hunting) in English, many were first written in other languages, and more come from Australia and New Zealand than I was ever aware existed (why did I never think about people in other countries writing books for kids?  Probably because you didn't find many of them in our libraries and bookstores).  If nothing else, this book showed up my typical American upbringing.  Though I read a great many British children's books (Famous Five, anyone?  not to mention Narnia and Tolkien), and have known for decades what a torch, jumper, and rug are, and where you will find them if they are in the back of a lorry, I have read almost none of the recommended books from anywhere but the U.S and the British Isles.  Not all can be easily found, but I suspect nearly all would be worth the search.

Many of the mini-reviews (just a little more than summaries) are accompanied by the original cover art, and some by illustrations from the book interiors.  Some of the art is stunning, some is fascinating just for being so dated, and some is still in use even after many decades while other covers have been redesigned and updated many times.

The book is divided into five sections, for kids from ages 0-3, 3+, 5+, 8+ and 12+.  I spent less time in the first three sections, as these were primarily picture books, baby books, and easy readers, though of course my well-beloved Dr. Seuss shows up in all three, and some where books I would say would belong more accurately in the 8+ category.  A quick look showed many favorites as well as many that I never saw (and some that I discovered only when my own kids were little and hadn't realized had been around since I wasn't much older than 5!).  Some of the books in the 8+ and 12+ sections I would definitely say are for the older end of those age ranges--the final section goes right on up to Young Adult novels, but some in the 8+ section are difficult to read due to either style or content.  Some parental judgement may be needed when selecting books for children; fortunately, the story summaries and reviews give you most of what you need to know.

Are all the books listed truly must-reads?  Frankly, no.  I don't think I'll suffer in the least if I grow up (or grow old and die) without having read Twilight.   Others are just not that interesting to me.  But most of these books will amply repay the time spent finding--and reading them, and many are books we'd never know about without this great resource.

Don't forget to grab your copy of Love Middle Grade, Actually, while it's free and enter for your chance to win a Kindle, a gift card, or a free e-book!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Middle Grades + A Kindle Giveaway.


Starting 2/7/13, for 5 days only, it's free:

Download the e-book, find the secret phrase, and enter it into the contest link embedded in the e-book.  You'll be entered into the drawing to win a Kindle Fire, a $10 Amazon Gift Card or a great middle grade e-book from one of 14 fantastic authors, representing 5 countries and 3 species (now you have to read it, don't you?).
Competition opens 7 February 2013 and the winner will be announced on 14 February 2013. This e-book will be available to download for free for 5 days from the 7th  to the 11th of February, and at 99c for the remaining days of the promotion. The winners will be drawn on 14 February 2013 and announced shortly thereafter.
Whether you like fantasy, adventure, mystery, horses, or humor, Love Middle Grade, Actually gives you a taste of it all!
Here are the links: Ebook: 

Blog Entry (but you have to read the book to get the secret code!): 

  Be sure to add those of our books you love (all of them, right?!) to your wish lists and to-read lists!

Naturally, mine is one of the books--and I'm very excited to be part of this promotion.  Here is my book cover, just in case you missed it the first time.   Get the original Ninja Librarian before the sequel comes out--it's only a matter of weeks!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

International Please Don't Pirate My Book Day

Today, in the world according to writer Chuck Wendig (of the mind-boggling Terribleminds blog), is International Please Don't Pirate My Book day.  That makes an adequate reason to do as he suggests and write about book piracy, or, as some suggest we should more accurately call it, Unauthorized Copy Sharing (so as not to make is sound all romantic and swashbuckling).  Chuck gives 25 different sides of the debate in his discussion, ranging from the impossibility of getting books in some markets (thus justifying pirating), to the fact that it makes the author feel like you don't think the work is worth paying for--yet another blow to our fragile writerly egos.

But here's the bottom line: whether the author is huge and the publishing company even bigger, or the author is independently published and sells two copies a month, stealing the book is a refusal to pay the people who did the work.  Make all the arguments you want about providing publicity and word of mouth so that after you steal it 24 other people will buy it because you raved so about it, and how you wouldn't even have read it if you'd had to pay (like that's supposed to make me feel better?), the bottom line is, if you don't pay for what you take, you are, well, a thief.  The fact that it's still there for someone else to buy doesn't change that.  It's called intellectual property and until and unless we completely redesign the system of how art is produced, the worker needs to be paid when you consume the work.

Usually people who think that books and music should be free don't produce them, or they'd know that while having lots of fans is nice, artists usually like to eat, too (and need a little extra money for the coffee it takes to fuel the endeavor).  You see, it takes time to write and edit and produce and market a book.  That's time you can't spend in a cubicle or digging ditches or whatever to pay the mortgage and buy groceries (and coffee.  Don't forget the coffee).

Now, I'm willing to acknowledge the grey areas that Chuck Wendig and all the interesting people who commented on his blog bring up.  But in the end, it still comes down to taking something you didn't pay for.  That's bad Karma.  Worse, when you get a book (or anything else) from a piracy site, someone IS making money from it.  It's just not the people who deserve it, the writer and illustrator and publisher who made an investment of time and/or money in the product you just skipped away with.  Instead, that money is going to someone who has made a whole business of defrauding the people who produce what they make their money on.  If you follow me.

So ultimately, the point of this post is just what the title says.  On the off chance that you have the opportunity, please don't steal my book.  If you really, really want it and you really, really can't afford to pay $2.99 for the ebook, leave me a message.  If you are convincing enough, I'll give you a coupon.


Back to our regularly scheduled shameless self-promotion: Love Middle Grade, Actually goes free on Amazon in just a few hours.  From Feb. 7-11, download the sampler for free, read the 14 great opening chapters from 14 great middle-grade books, and find the secret message.  Then you can follow the links and enter the raffle, and maybe walk away with a Kindle Fire!  Like any of us on Facebook, or Tweet about it for additional chances to win!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Words to Watch For

I'm doing this post even though I know my readers are not the sorts to ever mix up words and use the wrong form of to/too/two or your/you're, because these things are pet peeves and I have to do something to make myself feel better about them.

I'm not going to go into the differences between the homonyms listed above, because everyone knows them if they just stop to think.  But there are a bunch of other words that seem to cause a lot of trouble, and drive me nuts.  Here's a partial list, with the correct uses attached.

Roll/role.  The former is something you have with dinner, or a means of locomotion.  The later is a part in a play, or a part to play.  At the moment, my role is that of teacher (properly, role has an accent circumflex--a pointy hat-thing--over the "o" but that's pretty well gone out in English, partly because our keyboards don't have one, at least not without some effort).

Affect/effect.  Affect is a verb, meaning to influence (there is a noun form but ignore that.  You don't need it unless you are writing literary criticism).  Effect is a noun, meaning a result.  That which affects me (like bad grammar) has an effect on me (it turns me into a cranky old lady).

Accept/except.  The only reason I can see for ever confusing these is that no one bothers to enunciate nowadays.  I would love to accept the award, except for the part about being perfect. 

Critic/critique.  I'm sure this was just a typo where I saw it.  The critic (a person) writes the critique (an analysis of the good and bad of something).  Critique can also be a verb: when I write my critique, I am critiquing the work.  Critic, on the other hand, can never be a verb.  The critic remains a force for evil in the writer's universe.  I mean, a source of helpful input.

You don't have any trouble with there/their/they're, right?

I will also refer my readers to this wonderful discussion of the non-word "alot."  It's not new, but it's wonderful.

Oh, yeah: and you don't form plurals with an apostrophe.  Ever.  Possessives, yes.  Contractions, yes.  Plurals, no.  And, just to keep you on your toes: the possessive form of "it" is "its" rather than the more logically consistent "it's", which is a contraction of "it is."  Got it? 

Now, for the more controversial side of what I want to say.  If you are a writer, you want to get these and more right every time you write in public.  That means that when you post in a forum, or on your blog, or even Tweet (I don't follow Twitter, but if grammar and spelling are ignored there, I'm unlikely ever to start), you look it over before you hit "send" and you fix the spelling, put in the capitals and punctuation, and double-check that you're used the words you really meant to.  Because if your posts are poorly written, I'm going to make some assumptions about your book.  Maybe that's not fair, but it's the way I am.  And I'm not alone.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Editing: the next step

So last week I was chugging away at editing Murder in the PTA, and feeling a little sluggish about managing to get through only 20 pages a day.

Turns out that was the fast and easy part.

See, what I was doing last week was working with a print-out of the MS, fussing with words and sentences, but when it came to things that needed big changes or completely rewriting, I would scrawl "fix this!" or "needs rewriting," or my favorite, "UGH!" in the margin and move on.

Now it's payback time.  Sitting in front of the computer, typing in those changes, I'll cruise along pretty well for a page or two (though even when doing simple changes, I read the whole thing as I go to see if anything else wants tweaking, so it's not all that fast).  Then I hit one of those evil marginal notes.  "Fix this?  How?  What the heck am I supposed to do about it?  And how DO I make this plausible?  Can I cut it entirely?" I grind to a halt.  Stare at the screen.  Shuffle through my pages and pages of notes about what needs modifying.  Ask myself again why I even wanted to try to beat this thing into a readable book (the answer, for those who care, is that I love the characters and their home on Pissmawallops Island).

Then I start typing.  And I realize that however hard it is, this is the part of editing that returns me to creativity.

I also realize that sometimes editing 5 pages a day is good progress.

So now I'm going to go all philosophical on you about writing and editing.  We writer-types get a lot of positive feedback from writing rough drafts.  You sit down, take up pen or keyboard (yeah, still undecided about that), and let the words flow. Out come 1000 words, 1500, and you get a cookie for being a good little writer.

Editing is completely different.  Sometimes the greatest progress is represented by the fewest pages completed.  I may hit a chapter that's pretty good as is and I can zip through it, change a word here and a sentence there, and think I'm really cruising.  But I haven't actually done much.  It's when I hit the rough patches, the "fix this!!!" parts, that I have to really write.

Here's the philosophical part.  I used to be a trail-runner (long story about why I don't get to do that any more, never mind).  When running trails, particularly in hilly country, the first thing you have to do is dump your idea of what your pace is.  Yeah, sure, I'm an 8-minute mile runner.  On the flat.  But when grinding up a steep, rough trail, the pace drops.  Twelve-minute, 15-minute miles. . . it's good.  A completely respectable pace, because you're climbing like crazy and gravity is a very powerful force determined to keep you at the bottom of the hill.  So you change your mindset.  You put yourself in a place where a completely different definition of speed holds sway.  Heck, it's a completely different definition of running.  One that says that as long as you are moving forward at all, up that giant, rock-strewn mountain, you're fantastic.

That's what real revision is.  A place where maybe you take all day to make two or three pages work right.  And you are happy, because it took you only one day to turn two or three pages of dreck into sparkling, witty prose (or just readable prose.  Sometimes the goal has to be truly modest.  It can learn to sparkle on another day).  And you stand on your little pile of two or three pages, and you are the winner of the New York Marathon.


For those who are wondering, I'm past that stage with Return to Skunk Corners, and hoping soon to get it back from my editors (you reading this, Lisa & Emily?) and put on the final polish.  Hope to have a cover to reveal soon, too!  Meanwhile. . . having fun with a little murder and mayhem, and starting a new kids' book to keep me out of trouble.

On another note--jump over to author S. W. Lothian's gorgeous web site to get all the details on the 14-book Middle Grade sampler, Love Middle Grade, Actually, free on Amazon from Feb. 7-11.  Read it and enter to win a Kindle, gift cars, and ebooks!