Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Writerly News: Why you wish you were taking Seriated Speculative Fiction

It's been a bit longer than I'd hoped between blog posts, mostly due to technical difficulties.

I own a laptop, (I call it Critter) that is mighty in soul but not in body. Critter's actual computer-y components work fine. It's just exceptionally fragile and prone to crumbling. When I first received Critter, it got so excited it's hinges started bursting apart. With some creativity and a few coats of glue, we've managed to weather a few years without any major incidents, but the end of this summer proved to be the time when Critter threw in the towel. Once again, the inner computer worked fine, but the metal that joins the power cord and the inner computer decided to break and pop out after I did a whole lot of nothing to it.

Luckily, the laptop doctors managed to fix Critter up and Critter has since returned home, slathered in a fresh coat of glue (seriously. There is additional glue on my computer. Along with replacing the part that broke, they generously squirted more glue on Critter) and humming away happy as ever.

This all happened just in time for my Twitter account to malfunction and lock itself up for several weeks. So while I could finally write again, I had limited options for alerting people of blog updates. Mercifully, the account is back to normal again. So I now have a healthy computer and a healthy connection to the my interwebs "presence" (such as it is).

At the same time, the usual September business engulfed me as I moved to a new job and, even more importantly, into the final semester of course work for my Masters degree! It feels very exciting and I've worked towards this for a long time. So hurray. :)

As my writing life is once again being dictated by course work, I thought it might be fun to switch up some of my posts to reflect what I'm working on, especially since my final classes are SO COOL!!!

Due to the fact that I am currently working with my school by distance, my final course is something of a self-directed study. It's half literature/readings course and half writing/workshop seminar and since I'm the only student, its somewhat tailored to my interests.

So what is this mystery class? (Other than fabulous, of course)

I have proudly and pretentiously titled it: Seriated Speculative Fiction

But what does that MEAN?? Well, to those uninitiated in the jargon of University Creative Writing, "seriated" means "something that comes in a series" and "speculative fiction" is basically code for "science-fiction and fantasy, but we're calling it something else because SERIOUS writers keep making fun of us for writing science-fiction and fantasy."

This is a pretty special kind of course to do. Most of the time in English literature courses, there are a lot of confines on what you do and don't have time for. I took a class in my first semester on English novels that prominently feature manor houses and use them as a thematic element. Yes, that sounds really specific, but there was still plenty that was being left out by the course. The novels were dense and we only had time for five. Also, it turns out a LOT of people have written novels about crumbling English manors. When you think about it in those terms, it's easy to see that I could have done a whole course on just Charles Dickens featuring manor houses as a strong thematic element. But of course, in order to do the topic justice, our teacher chose breadth and we read five different authors, just one book by each.

Last year I studied Young Adult literature, which was a fantastic course, but there the subject matter was even broader. We plowed through over a dozen novels for this course, but again, there was only time for one book by each author. This meant, for instance, that when we were covering the topic of science fiction and dystopia, our professor had us read The Hunger Games but neither of the books that followed. Frankly, it's difficult to make time for a series within a class, unless you're studying the work of a single, specific author. (Example: I took a course on August Wilson, one of Pittsburgh's favorite sons, and we read his entire Pittsburgh Century Cycle. But unless you're a two time Pulitzer winning playwrite, like Wilson, it's unlikely you'll get to read every work by a single author.)

But as a science fiction and fantasy writer, the topic of the "series" is a highly relevant topic for someone like me. Certainly there are stand alone novels within these genres, but a large number of the most "important" works within sci-fi and fantasy are series. With authors creating whole new worlds, isn't it natural to use those worlds for as many stories as possible? The pattern is obvious as early as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia and not much has changed since.

On top of that, in my first year in my program, I wrote a sci-fi/fantasy novel, which I then had to put on the back burner so that I could finish my thesis the following year. But I'd confided to my thesis director that I did have ideas for a second book in the same series and she's been looking for an excuse to teach a course like this - one that focuses on how a series builds over time rather than as stand alone novels.

And so here I am! Studying the coolest thing ever and writing some of my own *ahem* seriated speculative fiction on the side. I'll be reading three full series for the course, each published relatively recently and each aimed at a different age group. And as I finish each, I plan on posting a few of my thoughts about the series as a whole and what can be learned from them. So for those reading along, the series are as follows!

As my middle grade series, I will be studying The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry

Because reading it for YA lit clearly wasn't enough, my YA series will be The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

And ending the year, I will tackle the adulty adultness of The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

I just finished up The Giver, so expect a follow up post to this one coming soon! Until then, happy seriated speculative fiction to all!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Reviews - The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener
With the potato famine in full, terrible glory, a pair of Irish siblings are destitute and looking for work. The jobs they finally secure at a crumbling English manor, deep in the ominously named Sourwoods, are their only way of staying out of an orphanage.

But the longer they stay in the house, the clearer it becomes that every bystander who warned them to avoid the road into the Sourwoods might have been right to be superstitious. Illness lurks inside the house and a stranger prowls the grounds at night.

And then there is the tree. The great, terrible, black tree, growing beside the manor house...

What makes it so good:

So I have a bit of a history with this book! This review is probably going to be part review, part self-indulgent reveling in the past. You have been warned!

I had just started attending classes at Chatham University. I was living the dream, studying what I'd wanted to since grade school. Creative writing. Better than that, creative writing, with my primary genre focus being writing for children and young adults.

One of my foundation classes was therefor in Children's Literature, taught by Jonathan Auxier. You might recognize him as the gent whose name is directly below the night gardener's feet on the  book's cover. At the time, this book was a year and a half away from release and Jonathan was knee-deep in revisions. And that, friends, is very deep. He's a tall man.

As a result, The Night Gardener was one of the first books I've ever had any insight into the "journey" of. As one of his students, we certainly weren't the ones giving critique and feedback on it in its infancy. We heard little snippets. What it was like working with an editor on a novel-in-progress, what writing a duel point-of-view novel meant. How important it was to start your second book as soon as possible after the release of your first.

And our reading list, it turns out, consisted of numerous titles that eventually made it into the author's note at the end of The Night Gardener - books like Something Wicked this way Comes and The Secret Garden. *coughI think someone might have had ulterior motives for making us read and discuss those bookscough*

But that's actually one of the reasons I wanted to cover this book now! On the heels of the earlier discussion of books that are "derived" from earlier sources rather than "derivative" of them, I thought it would be fun to discuss books that are very upfront about their literary influences and which can only be described as reveling in those connections.  The Night Gardener is among them.

I recently discussed with someone whether or not Gardener could be considered historical fiction. Certainly the history and the setting play into the richness of the story. And even the more fantastical, horror elements harken back to the Victoria era. As Auxier says in his own author's note, the era was one of rapid scientific discovery, but also fascination with the spiritual and occult, something The Night Gardener plays with.

But overall, I couldn't conclude that it was historical fiction. Usually the genre is interested in teaching something about the past as one of it's primary goals, and I never got the sense The Night Gardener held this as its motive. This book isn't trying to teach the reader something about the "facts" of the Victorian era - it's aiming to teach you about it's stories.

Among the characters are two story-tellers. First, the old Hester Kettle, a vagabond story teller who always seems to know more than she should, and second, one of novel's heroes, Molly. Only fourteen, Molly is still learning the difference between a story and a lie. 

That a story this steeped in literature and the history of children's books also comes with a satisfying element of horror meant that I loved the book. And this isn't bias speaking, either! This isn't Jonathan's first book, but in my humble opinion, it is his best. All the elements just came together beautifully - the horror, the old fashioned prose, the characters. It's all there. It's funny, touching and terrifying. I highly recommend it.

What might make it better:

This is a very, very long and very, very verbose children's book.

For me, it works. The reading level isn't easy, and while it's a quick read, it isn't as quick as some comparable books. To give an idea, Neil Gaiman is well known for his children's scary stories. Coraline, definitely a Middle Grade book, is only 30,000 words. The Graveyard Book sort of straddles the line between Middle Grade and Young Adult, and is around 67,000. Definitely on the longer end of Middle Grade, but okay for the anticipated audience. The Night Gardener clocks in at over 79,000 words. It also straddles the line between YA and MG, but I think it's pretty clear that for some kids, that's a lot of reading.

Tonally, it still reads like a Middle Grade book rather than YA, but with it's dark subject matter and hefty sentences, it's not going to be a breeze for all children. Still, I think it does fill a niche that a lot of people worry about in children's literature. I hear plenty of people who love books bemoan that we no longer get books for children like The Hobbit. They usually say something like this:

"When I was eleven, I read all of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books! I wanted to be challenged. These kids books today, they just aren't challenging. Have you read Twilight? Way too easy! Such bad writing."

First, I'm not saying that The Night Gardener necessarily bares a lot in common with The Hobbit or Twilight. It's just that most of my friends are sci-fi/fantasy nerds and they all somehow think it makes sense to compare epic fantasy to paranormal romance (it doesn't). I thought it had more in common with older books - ones like those by Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens which, again, people wished children read. Or were prepared to read. This is exactly the type of book that introduces the wonder and creepiness of the Victorian era to young readers.

Second, I don't personally believe that a book being an "easy" read or not is the same as whether or not it's good or bad. Charlotte's Web is a very easy book and its completely brilliant. But there is something to be said for a book that gets its beauty from its use of complex language. To give you an idea of what The Night Gardener challenges its reader with, I spent a lot of the book trying to remember what a dumbwaiter is.

Behold the dumbwaiter!
If you know what a dumbwaiter is, or if you know a child who would like to learn that sort of thing, then don't worry about the length or the words. I do feel the need to add  that the book IS creepy, scary and at times, down right violent. Nothing Auxier included felt gratuitous to me. Any horror story has to include some actual horror, but take that into account. It is shelved among the children's books and while it belongs there, and I'm glad of its presence, its scares are not to be taken lightly. Again, think Coraline and The Graveyard Book and Something Wicked this way Comes.

And in general, do read it. And think of the wonderful tradition of stories that it places itself a part of. Think of the history of books we draw from, and how we all derive something from that history.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Derived VS Derivative: In Defense of Divergent

Try saying that title ten times fast.

I went for the movie poster rather than book cover because THEO JAMES!!!

Today, I'm talking about Divergent by Veronica Roth. I'm also talking about story and influence and what makes an idea "new" vs "tired and done." This won't be the last time either, so stay tuned! Today, I'm focusing on a book that catches a lot of flack for bearing similarities to others on the market and making an argument for why it deserves the love it gets anyway.

For those who don't know Divergent, here's the quick rundown:

Beatrice Prior is a sixteen-year-old girl living in a futuristic, dystopian Chicago. She's been raised in a society where people are segregated based on what virtue they most strongly identify with, whether that virtue is courage, truthfulness, kindness etc. These segregated groups are called factions and Beatrice belongs to Abnegation, the faction that bases its identity around service. While she admires those she lives among, she also feels stifled by the high level of self-denial the Abnegation insist on.

She hopes her faction test will help her make some sense of these feelings, as her choosing ceremony is coming up and she'll have to decide whether she remains in her own faction or transfers to another one. But when her test results come up inconclusive and she is forced to confront the possibility that she doesn't belong to any one faction, her understanding of her world begins to unravel...

Okay, so there's my version of the dust-jacket blurb. It gives a decent idea of what the book is about, but there is a much shorter version of the Divergent blurb that could also be given:

Divergent is Harry Potter's Hogwarts houses recast in a gritty, Hunger Games-esque environment.

And honestly, it's not a bad description of the book either.

This is where Divergent has hit some snags and criticism. Hot on the heels of Hunger Games and featuring a story mechanic reminiscent of another recent kidlit sensation, many critics are dismissing Roth's series as derivative and phoned in. The premise isn't unique enough and the books are just copycats.

Roth clearly did derive a number of her novel's elements from Hunger Games and Harry Potter. She's been very public about the fact that Harry Potter is one of her favorite books and dystopia is greatly overshadowed by Suzanne Collins's trilogy right now. But books are more than the sum of their parts, and this is especially the case with Divergent. Just because some of her novel's landscape can be traced back to other books doesn't mean that there isn't something unique on offer in Dystopian Chicago. So here are those two most common criticisms and some arguments for why they aren't quite fair.

#1: The factions are just Hogwarts houses but darker.
This, I would argue, is one of the strengths of the books. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, but even as a child, something about the Hogwarts houses bothered me. For instance, pretty much every villain the story saw came from one house - Slytherin. During the final battle for Hogwarts, Rowling states very clearly how many of each particular house stick around to defend the school. Courageous Gryffindors make up the largest amount, followed by hardworking Hufflepuffs. A smaller fraction of intelligent Ravenclaws stay and then, of course, ambitious Slytherin is absent because they're all evil.

If Roth did base her factions on the Hogwarts houses, she recognized that there were some problems with this clear-cut way of looking at virtue. The Dauntless Faction, for instance, value courage just like Gryffindor, but Roth's version points out that courage is only useful if it is placed in correct principles. And being gumptious and willing to jump into action when it is demanded is not a guarantee that someone is going to always know WHAT the right thing is. Dauntless is largely divided between those who value the power that comes from bravery and those that value the heroism.

Similarly, the ambition of Slytherin is in many ways at it's most dangerous when it's combined with the intelligence of Ravenclaw. Erudite Faction represents a more complicated fear - one of logic overwhelming principle. I'm not sure I entirely agree with her version of these virtues, but she does devote a lot of time to arguing her views, something I do value.

Roth's books engage the notion of a society organized by cardinal virtues more deeply than the Harry Potter books, sometimes with directly opposing points. In other words, she adds to the discussion. Whether you agree with her or Rowling, she does at least force some questions about just what drives someone to evil and what weaknesses are inherent in what we call our strengths.

#2: The plot is just another Hunger Games knock-off.
This criticism has a bit more bearing, and I can definitely see some similarities. There's something familiar about the pacing of the books and the dark, grittiness. It is a dystopia and there is a "stop the evil empire" plot and there are children put through recklessly dangerous tasks that our heroine, Tris, must "win" in a matter of speaking.

But there are some important differences, most of them coming down to a character level. Tris and Katniss are very different from each other and they confront their problems in very different ways. Katniss is constantly worried about the damage she might cause in someone's life, and so holds people at a distance, more comfortable using them for survival than receiving affection. Tris, on the other hand, actively pursues acceptance and new friendships. She wants a normal life, and incidentally, lives in a world where she's got a better chance at one.

Yes, the worlds are different too. Chicago's system might be broken, but it's no punitive dictatorship like Panem. As the novels go on, she's not even sure the answer is to end the faction system, since she can see the good and the structure that have come from it. Really, there IS no hope for Katniss within the status quo, so resisting the Capitol is an easy decision... or would be if Katniss was good at making moral decisions. Another key Katniss/Tris difference. Tris is much more idealistic and much more in control of her own destiny.

In fact, if you're looking for the king of Hunger Games knock-offs, I would say you don't need to look any further than Catching Fire, the second book in Collins' trilogy, which is almost identical in plot to the first one. One of Divergent's greatest strengths is its second book, Insurgent, which steps away from the plot line of the first by developing the encroaching war in an interesting, detailed way. The same issues are not rehashed and Tris's relationships with other characters grow and change in ways not seen in the first book. As the story goes on, the more Divergent and the Hunger Games - ahem - diverge. And that is very satisfying. Once again, it might have started in a similar place, but Divergent adds something to the conversation of YA fiction.

Divergent isn't the only YA book that gets accused of being derivative. As paranormal romance and dystopian sci-fi have ran their course, numerous books have come and gone that bare resemblance to one another. Now, we're even starting to see editors and lit agents mention not wanting another "sick child" or "cancer" novel because John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is too ubiquitous.

But all of these books owe their lineage to earlier stories. It's one of the outcomes of living in the world we do. There are thousands of years of stories preceding the ones currently bought and sold in your local Barnes and Noble. Hunger Games has been accused of being derivative of an earlier Japanese film, Battle Royale, but its origins can be traced to an even earlier time. Collins has stated explicitly that she was inspired by the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which youths where abandoned inside a maze with a monster and only one made it out alive. With her use of Greek and Roman names and imagery, its clear that Collins did derive much from these books, just as Divergent derives much from earlier stories. But they aren't derivative.

For me, the bench mark is the one I've stated a couple of times already - does the work of art bring something new to the conversation? Is it using the literary tropes already common in fiction in a new way? Is it reminding us of another way of thinking about a topic, one relevant to the way the world is today? If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, then I would argue the book is derived, not derivative.

So what then if you can't? What if a book adds nothing to the discussion? Or what if an element of the story adds nothing to where it is borrowed from? Well, stay tuned, folks. As mentioned, there's more to come.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Topical Topic = On Not Finishing Books

For a long time, I did a lot of guilt over books that I didn't finish. I think this reaction came from the way books are presented at school, where it is a mortal sin to leave books unfinished, no matter how much you dislike them. You get bad marks for that kind of thing.

As a result, leaving books unfinished left a stale taste in my mouth, one that drove me to such guilt that, yes, I often balked at reading for fear I would be stuck with a book I didn't like, but HAD to finish. It was a little like never loving for fear of heartbreak.

After starting my MFA, I think my feelings have shifted quite a lot. First, let me say that I have read more books that I've disliked or even hated, in the last two years than at any other point in my life. But I've also been exposed to some new favorites I never would have known to try otherwise. When you're studying literature, for every Howard's End there will also be a The Chocolate War assigned to you. (Yes, I hated one of those books) That's just the subjective nature of reading.

Obviously, I had to finish the books I loathed, but all the same, I've found my perspective shifting around the topic of leaving other books unfinished. During the summers, I am much more likely to get a few chapters into a novel and then ditch it. Permanently. I do this for a few reasons, upon which I shall expound.

1) I will read enough books I don't like during the school year to more than likely make my quota.
This might sound snarky, but I mean it truthfully. There IS a lot of use to occasionally reading books I don't like. From those books, I learn what I don't want to do in my own writing. They force me to work the part of my brain that wants to "fix" plot problems, pacing or word choice. That's a useful muscle for me to use. Also, these books will usually still have some strong elements, and those can be worth learning from. All the same, I think I learn more from reading books that I DO connect with - the ones I want to emulate. The bulk of my time should go into reading those. Even in the summer, time is limited, so I don't waste it on filling the "bad book quota."

2) If I'm not occasionally tossing aside a book I don't like, it means I'm not reading widely enough.
As a child, I went through phases where all I ever read was Brian Jacques's Redwall series or Rowling's Harry Potter. I knew I would like these books and I wasn't wrong. In general, I can usually bet that if a book is a Young Adult or Middle Grade Fantasy or stars animals, I will probably like it. Sure there are exceptions, but these are safe choices.

But reading shouldn't always be safe. It should challenge us emotionally and intellectually and often that is best done with books outside our comfort zones. Last summer I made an effort to read more YA contemporary, not really my area or my "thing." One book I hurled across the room at chapter 5, but another was John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back and that made me sob happy tears. It stretched me as a reader and as a writer. Reading deeply and widely is an important part of developing a voice. But outside my usual genres, I know I'll also find more things I don't click with. There's a reason that I love animal and fantasy books and a reason why I write them. Some books will be good enough to transcend those barriers of personal preference. Others will be returned to the library early amid rants of disappointment.

3) Just as you can learn a lot from a bad book, you can learn a lot from an unfinished book.
Last year, I read one book that wasn't bad or outside my genre and it... lost me. The pacing dragged and I just couldn't be bothered with finishing it. That was when the importance of editing for length in an adventure story REALLY hit me. At over 120,000 words, this book had too much bogging down the story. I had a hard time imagining it ever picking up to a satisfactory clip and so eventually I returned it to the library. As a long winded author, it was a hard lesson to learn. Other books I've put down because their openings were confusing or contrived or uninteresting. Others lost me with an uneven middle or bothersome content choices. All valuable lessons.

But the number one reason I don't finish books is...

4) The library thought they owned the thing or something.
Seriously, guys. My library does this ALL THE TIME. They let me take away a book but then they seem to think they still own it or something and start sending emails asking for it back. But in all seriousness, this is an interesting category. Sometimes these books are the ones that show the difference between a 4 or a 5 star book in my rankings. No matter how little time I have, I will always finish a 5 star, even if that means facing late fees. A 4? Well, I may check it out again. I may not. Generally, it's yet another reminder of how subjective this whole reading business is.

So those are MY reasons for leaving books unfinished. What about the rest of you? Any others?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Reviews: Ship Breaker

Whew! So time for another book review. Despite the quiet on the blog, I've been reading a lot and doing a ton of writing lately. Actually, the silence on the blog is probably RELATED. More on that some other time.

For now, let's take a look at Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Nailer works in the cesspool that is Bright Sands Beach, a ship breaking yard where old oil rigs are broken down for spare parts and whatever scavenge is left on them. The polar ice caps have melted and most major cities lie drowned, leaving the world in a panicked, resource deficient state. 

Nailer himself is little more than a statistic - a skinny kid who can still just fit inside the ducts of old ships where he cuts off lengths of copper wiring in order to make quota. But when a luxury clipper washes up on Bright Sands Beach during a storm, opportunity arrives, both in the wealth on board and in the swank girl who owns the boat. Opportunity that could prove to be just as deadly as it is lucrative.

What Makes it So Good: 
Ship Breaker has been on my radar for a long time, as it's one of the few Science Fiction Novels to win the Printz Award. For those who haven't heard of the Printz, it's kind of like the Carnegie or Newbery Awards, only for Young Adult literature as opposed to the Middle Grade books that the other awards tend to focus on. 

Like a lot of award committees, those in charge of the Printz tends to favor fiction placed in a contemporary setting, but luckily, that favoritism is't as rigid in children's literature, of which YA is still considered a part, as it is in Adult Lit where book genres are kept separated and in different sections of your local bookstore. So sci-fi and fantasy get a slightly better shot at being recognized for their contribution to the wider scope of literature. Naturally, I was curious about this post-apocalyptic tale (a genre often portrayed as tired and over done in YA today) that got the Printz voters all a titter. It seemed like a book that would have to fight one heck of an uphill battle in order to get recognition.

Really, I think what it boils down to is that that the text is beautiful and lyrical. The world Nailer inhabits is grim and potentially overwhelming with its violence and despair, but Bacigalupi has a tremendous command of language, which he uses to shape the mood of the book. Executed poorly, this book could have been a slogging, muddy wallow, but even at its darkest moments, something about the way the landscape and Nailer's emotions are described keeps a rim of hope surrounding the story.

The pacing is also quick and satisfying. There's a good balance between Nailer's reflections and the high stakes adventure the book sells itself on. The world is also interesting and well executed. Many of the post-apocalypse tropes one might expect from knowing the genre are in play, but they're well done and have twists that make them interesting. For example, Ship Breaker's take on humans mixed with dog DNA made me wish The Hunger Games could have been so successful when they used the same idea at the end of the first book in the trilogy. I was much more afraid of Tool the Half-Man than I ever was of the dogs chasing Katniss and Tool isn't even a villain. The characters were enjoyable too, Nailer in particular. He's the right blend of sweet and tough, something a story like this needed in order to stay balanced.

What Might Make it Better: 
"Sounds like your basic D.I.D. Damsel in Distress." - Phil, from Disney's Hercules

This is a rescue the damsel book, 100% plain and simple. While the book has great characters, atmosphere and world building, it could have used a more interesting plot. 

Nothing really complicates this rescue story either. From the moment Nita arrives, you know she can't be responsible for her own salvation, because THAT would impact Nailer's ability to prove himself. All you're left guessing at is whether or not Nailer will be successful in saving Nita, because Rule-of-Fiction dictates that she can't do it on her own. Nita herself isn't a bad character, she just isn't able to be interesting because that would interfere with Nailer's growth. Her use to the story as a plot-trinket is too great to let her be a character that controls her own fate.

Now let me be clear that I am not opposed to all "rescue the damsel" scenarios, but I think many of the ones that do that story well complicate it some way. Take Princess Leia, for example. At the beginning of the first Star Wars film, Leia transfers the plans to the Death Star into R2-D2 and effectively turns R2 into the plot-trinket necessary for advancing the rebel cause. R2 becomes the target of numerous "save the droid" moments in the movie and the object of pursuit by the empire. Leia's rescue is a reckless after thought, and for Han, the decision to save her is entirely driven by greed. She also plays a more formative role in their escape, blasting open a path into the trash compactor and alerting them that the empire must be following them when their escape is easy because, once again, it is R2 and the plans on him that are the empire's target, not her. Once at the rebel base, she takes a leadership role independent of Han and Luke and for the rest of the series, she's never rendered totally helpless again.

Star Wars  is not often a good example of how to tell stories with compelling female characters. Ship Breaker is certainly miles ahead as far as its diversity of well-rounded female characters, so I'm not criticizing the book on it's ability to portray an interesting female character. The issue is that standard issue "rescue the princess" scenarios don't make for interesting plots. They're too well known and force other characters to perform predictable, specific actions within the narrative. 

Comparing to The Hunger Games again, here would be the place where Hunger Games edges out Ship Breaker. Peeta certainly gets his chances to be a man-sel in distress, but the plot is about other things too. It's about winning the games. It's about sticking it to the Capital. It's about putting on a good show so that they can get sponsors. And those other goals, coincidentally, often conflict with each other. Ship Breaker's side plots are never at such compelling odds with each other. True, Nailer's choices aren't easy, but they're not as suicidally hard as Katniss's either. 

Despite these critiques, however, Ship Breaker is a fantastic, lovely book, and a reminder that plot isn't often about originality, but about execution. The book is beautifully executed and well worth a read. I wouldn't review it if I didn't like it. Just... ya know... don't expect too many surprises in the plotting department.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Writing News: First Pages and Blind Speed Dating!

When I started this blog, I wondered how long it would be before I had “news worthy news” and (spoiler alert) I am pleased to say that I do today! Today’s entry comes courtesy of the age old practice of querying, the bane of every would-be author’s existence. First, a quick background story, for context:
Last year in August, I started the first semester of my Masters of Fine Arts at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Moving all the way to the Eastern US was a pretty big deal for me and I was anxious to make the most of my time there. I left with big plans to finish writing a children’s book I’d started, one about goblins and faeries and other delightful staples of high fantasy.
Only I got there and at the first class, my new thesis advisor informed me that the five pages due the next week had to be, no ifs ands or buts about it, from a new project. Mildly frustrated, I spat out a piece that was a jumbled mess of characters. I’d had these people in my head for some time, but no firm structure to build them into. So, since I was homesick, I had them find something strange on a Pacific North-west inspired beach and then called it a day.
But when I took it to class, something strange happened. Our class was on beginnings and as my advisor explained what made a good beginning, I got really excited. Because I knew my sample pages began horribly. They started exactly in the wrong place, had too many characters and didn’t get to the meat of the scene fast enough. I’d never been so thrilled to be mediocre.
So I revised the pages and brought them in and they were... better. Good enough that I felt inspired and I just kept plugging away. In the end, I never returned to that first children’s story, though I hope to some day. By the end of the following summer, I’d finished a draft of RIFT RUNNERS and started querying my spankin’ new YA novel in the fall.
Which brings me back to the beginning pages. Querying really is the art of making a good first impression. There’s the letter itself, of course, but there’s also those key first five pages.  Many literary agents request that they be included with the query, while others who later request pages may stop reading early if the first few aren’t up to snuff.
Needless to say, I’ve had “first page” anxiety for a long time. I have a higher request rate from agents on queries that DON'T offer any pages to look at and both the partials I've sent out I got rejections on. It might be too soon to say if the opening pages suck, but it has got me wondering. I’ve rewritten the first chapter of my novel more than any other part of the book. Much to my surprise, it isn’t endings that turned out to be hard for me, but getting the opening to click with the rest of the story.
Which brings me to the Blind Speed Dating contest, hosted at Cupid's Literary Connection. This is effectively a query letter contest, the first of its kind I’d ever stumbled across and the idea got me excited. It turns out there are lots of contests like this hosted by bloggers, most of whom communicate through Twitter. They seem to be a pretty tight knit, supportive community.
In this case, a pack of 40-45 entries would be chosen from the submissions and those would go into a round where agents would bid on the chance to see pages. But not only would your query be judged, so would your first 250 words. In other words, if I applied to this competition, I might get some idea of how my query and first page stack up next to the other YA entries, publically. So entered I did.
I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t make it past the bouncer round and into the pot the agents look at, I would be tearing up the first five pages AGAIN and truth be told, I may still do that. But it’s happily in the category of *may* still because I DID get in!
This isn’t to say my first page is perfect, but if I do rewrite it, it will structurally be a very different opener. And I frankly don’t know if it will be any better. In editing, we all hit points where it gets hard to see the forest for the trees. Changing the beginning may be better for the story. It may not. So here’s to one more exciting week of testing out Rift Runners! Hopefully, an agent or two might pierce it with their cupid’s arrow. J

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp - Book Reviews

A Texan Bayou, a pair of young raccoons, a world famous gator wrestler, the legendary Sugar Man himself and a whole mess of wild hogs running your way. If that doesn't get you excited, well then, brothers and sisters, I don't know what will.
Available on Amazon

What makes it so good:

Kathi Appelt's novels came across my line of vision as I started prepping for my thesis. My own project is a Middle Grade novel about domestic cats, which also happens to feature a raccoon as a supporting character. Well, this novel is sort of an inversion of that. Its primary heroes are a pair of raccoon brothers - brave Bingo and fastidious J'miah - and among the supporting cast is a domesticated cat, the often ignored Sweetums. But here the similarities start to fall away, which I am very glad of, since I would hate to have to live up to this novel by tredding the same path!

Yes, it is that good. Scouts is delightful start to finish and Kathi Appelt's novels are a masterclass in "what literary middle grade fiction looks like." Her work is oozing with voice and personality. In the case of Scouts, this comes in the form of an omnicient narrator that bounces back and forth between the many disperate story threads. At one moment the narrator might be following the efforts of Bingo and J'miah to wake the Sugar Man and the next, it will be detailing the dastardly exploits of the greedy land developer who wants to turn the swamp into a gator wrestling park.

But the whole story is tied together by that one narrator, whoever it is. The  story is told like an old American Tall Tale, the kind you might hear on an old fashioned radio show. This isn't a book that addresses it's "readers." It's got "sports fans" and "mothers and fathers." To say the least, I was sold on the book the moment I got to the end of the first chapter and read this:

"Every denizen of the swamp knew that the wrath of the Sugar Man was something to avoid.
He also had a rattlesnake pet, Gertrude.
Crotalus horridus GIGANTICUS (also known as CHG).
Brothers and sisters, the stakes were high."

To say the least, the book demands to be read aloud and I've heard the audiobook is fantastic. If you do read it aloud, don't be surprised if you find yourself accidently speaking in your best approximation of a Southern Accent. You can just feel your old grandpappy telling you this story on his back porch.

On top of that, the action is fun and exciting, the characters are charming and memorable and the ending is oh so satisfying. This book is very worthy of the pile of awards being heaped on its head.

What might make it better:

If those looping, twisting plot threads sound confusing, then rest assured, Appelt takes the time to catch her readers up. In the end, it's actually pretty straight forward. Indeed, most criticisms I've seen of the book were that it can get repetitive. Take the story of the wild hogs, for instance. Numerous times the narration bounces back to the hog family, all running towards Sugar Man Swamp, hoping to get a mouthful of the famous, delicious cane brake sugar. And honestly, the action never changes much in the scenes involving them. Every time you see the pigs they are still running towards that same swamp chapter after chapter. Each one of those chapters really do read about the same.

Now, this personally didn't bother me. I thought the hogs were hilarious and they added another layer of personality and comedy to the book. But I can see where repetitive scenes and descriptions like these might not work for some readers. I think whether or not this becomes a problem for you depends on how much you connect with the voice. I was there 100%, but for someone less keen, there are quite a few moments that don't exactly move the plot along.

Really, these asides reminded me of watching a stand-up comedian whose gone off on a thread away from his main joke. If you think he's great, you will watch him ramble and be perfectly happy. It might even be where some of your favourite parts of his sketch are. But those who are less sold, I think, find themselves wondering when he's going to make his flippin' point.

Books often have those moments too. How long we're willing to let the plot be derailed is often a function of how much we like the way the story is being told. If we love the world the author has created - through voice, setting, character, you name it - we'll have more patience waiting for the plot to take over again.

For a good example of this in action in another book (or series, as the case may be) I submit the Harry Potter series. There's a noticable switch around book 4 where the books about doubled in length. Previously, Harry's adventures had to be tight and generally focused on the over all plot. The first three books don't have very many wasted moments and remain pretty tightly focused on the over all action of the story. But by book 4 that changed. Rowling was famous and her fans wanted to remain in Harry's world as long as humanly possible. They wanted every detail of the lives of Harry and his friends. Here, again, Rowling had a fantastic voice (hers came more through world building and character, rather than a quirky narrator) that readers just wanted more and more of. So the trips to Hogsmead got longer, the Yule Ball got grander and the supporting cast grew and grew. If the later books aren't as tight as the first ones (they aren't), it's because we asked for it.

So returning to The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, maybe read the sample chapters on Amazon, and if you find yourself smiling at that folksy voice, get your hands on a copy. You will love it. If you think it's only okay, get your hands on a copy anyway. You'll probably still like it, just not think it's the best thing since sliced bread. No one seems to really dislike this books. It's more a matter of whether you adore it or not.

Post the First

For a long time I've been very passionate about books, stories and everything affiliated with them and frankly, I love to talk about all of them! Writing, reading, you name it.

Maybe I'm slow on the uptake, but it kind of finally came to me that a blog might be a good place to have a conversation about books. I know, SUPER novel idea there. But anyone who wants to participate in this "book related conversation" can feel free to do so. I've got a few ideas for how I want to get this ball rolling.

So what types of posts can you expect to see here? Well! You may see...

1) Book Reviews!
Right now I am finishing up my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and I'm specializing in writing for children and young adults. To say the least, that means I'm reading a lot while I finish up my thesis. I'm going to say right away that I don't so much plan on reviewing books that I don't like. I'd rather endorse the ones I do. That being said, no book is perfect. I hope to dissect both what makes a great story work and also what can be done to improve one. Once in a while, I may also review movies and apply the same academic rigour that goes into anything I just want to nerd out over.

2) Topical Editorials!
As mentioned, I'm finishing my Masters right now, plus I am in the process of querying my first novel. As such, I have a LOT of thoughts on a LOT of things when it comes to the craft of writing, university writing programs, querying agents and relying on cats for emotional support. Expect occasional discussions of literary tropes and tools of the trade. And rambling discourses on plot mechanics. Oh mercy, plot mechanics.

3) Writerly News!
So - let's be honest - just about EVERYTHING a writer does in life can often be spin doctored so it seems to be about writing. For instance: I own three cats and am currently writing a novel about cats. So in theory, I could just post about how my Siamese overgrooms herself. But I'll try not to do that. Look for news regarding my thesis, conferences I attend (I'm hoping to get to AWP in February!) and, of course, the ongoing slog of getting a first novel published. Hopefully this last goal won't end in depression and dejection, but hey! Even that makes a decent story. :)

Finally, expect to hear about my garden. And my cats.