Archive | October, 2013

NaNoWriMo Pre-Writing Workshop Summary

17 Oct

I can’t believe NaNo is a short seventeen days away (I’m writing this early, 14 when you read it).  In the spirit of being a planner, I went to a pre-writing seminar put on by my local chapter, NaNoWriMowtown.  (How punny is that.)  A lot of the advice was really great and I wanted to share it with you all.  This may be a bit long, but here it goes!

Storyboarding v. Outlining

As a die-hard outliner, it was good for me to see what Storyboarding can do.  The presenter recommended using note cards to write down events, plot points, quotes, and even add pictures.  With these note cards, you can put them in order of how you want your plot to go, rearranging as needed for new cards or to make the flow more logical.  Once your note cards are in the order you want, number them to save the order and then you can put them into a formal typed outline.

I personally start with an outline in Word and slowly add to it as I think more about the story, but this might not work for everyone.

Exercises in Inventing Character, Setting, and Plot Mapping

One of the chapter members is a high school English teacher who every year has his class collectively write the 50K novel.  He went through his lesson plan for the first week of November when the students plan the novel they will write.

(1) Character Invention: with a large group of people, sit around a table with two cups; one for first names and one for last names. Give everyone a note card and have them write a last name on one and a first name on the other.  When everyone’s names are in the cups, draw first-name last-name combinations.  This exercises depends on some people coming up with weird names and some people getting the cups mixed up.  You want to end up with about 30 names.  Choose your 10 favorite.  Write 1-2 paragraphs of back-story for each one giving their job, age, dreams, etc.  After you’ve defined the characters, create relationships between them.  Pick a protagonist and antagonist.  Decide who will stand with each.

(2) Define your scenes: Think of  your story like a play with 3-4 Acts.  In the story, the character wants something, has to overcome an obsticle to get it, and takes actions to get around that obsticle.  Act 1 is exposition where your main character is taken out of the normal and thrown into the action of your story.  Here is where you define the wants and maybe the obsticles as well.  Act II is rising action where the wants are solidified and the obstacles become more obvious. Characters may try some actions that fail or succeed partially.  Act III is the climax where the character completes the action that will give the character what (s)he wants, or close enough to it to satisfy the reader.

(3) Mapping the Plot: Every scene should move your characters forward.  If it’s not, then you don’t need it.  The presenter recommended using a Star Novel Writing Mandala Schema, which I’m unable to find on-line and can hopefully link to in our NaNo forum soon (Link found!).  In essence, it gives you a basic 12 chapter novel and what will happen in each chapter.  You are taking the six star-points of Character, Theme, Action, Craft, Imagination, and Context and using them to create your story through problem, direction, organization, image, connection, and motive.  This will make much more sense if I can link to the visual.

Research for the Fiction Writer

I’m a big researcher so I very much enjoyed this session.  The speaker focused on four settings that will necessitate research.  The first being one I’ve done before, Actual Eras.  This is for all of the historical fiction writers who want to give that historically accurate portrayal of going to the bathroom in 14th century Germany: it’s a lot of details.  She recommended (in addition to libraries and Google) field trips to the place your writing about or going to museums with artifacts from that era.  The second research-worth setting is current places and cultures that the writer has not experienced.  The best way to do this (recommended by the speaker and myself) is to try to talk to people who live in that place or culture.  I’ve done this for my NaNo and it’s worked wonderfully.  People love to talk about themselves, you just have to ask.

The other two settings are not ones I’ve written for before.  One of is somewhat relevant to my WIP2, which is places that never existed.  This is more commonly known as worldbuilding.  When you create a fantasy world, you need to know as much about that world as the characters living in it do.  In essence, you have to write the history book on it.  It’s best not to do a complete carbon copy of Earth.  Add in some flavor which can play a big part of your story.  For example, the ‘What If’ game can lead you to some plot points like, “What if the birds hunted people and even a sparrow could kill?”  The Hunger Games is a good example of this.

The last one kind of ties in to the HG example as well: mythical or imaginary beings.  Like a setting you’ve created, you need to have all of the background story on how these creates have evolved and come to exist.  Collins created the mockingjay with a great back-story.  Your characters should have it, too.  Basing them off of defined mythical beings/real animals can help with this.

Planning for the Seat-of-your-Pants

In summary, you have to plan to fly by the seat of your pants.  Even if you’re winging the whole thing and don’t know where it’s going to end, there are still some steps one can take to mitigate the risks along the way.

The writer should still know a few things about how the plot is going to go. For example, are you going to travel to the moon? You might want to give your character a background or a world that would make this a little more plausible.

A good place to go for some support and to be able to bounce ideas of of people is Write-Ins. I’ve never done one myself, but from what I can figure, it’s a safe place for NaNo writers to come together and play fun word-count related games and bounce ideas off of each other. Not a bad place to be. The speaker recommended trying three write-ins before you pick your favorite. This doesn’t mean three of the same write-in group, but three different groups. Not all write-ins are created equal.

There are a few tips for pantsers.  The first is to know your characters because if you get stuck, your characters are what will push the plot forward.  Try basing one off of yourself.  Then you always know what the character would do next.  While you’re at it, base the other characters off of your friends.  Then, if you need to know what a character would do, you can call your friend and ask him or her.  As mentioned with write-ins, ask other writers what they would consider doing.  Who knows plot development better than other writers?  And lastly, if you don’t know how to move forward, do some back story.  Maybe something there will give you an idea for how to move forward.

Funny Writing

A good way to make people like you book is by making them laugh!  The speaker offered a few tips for quick one-liner jokes.  (1) stick to three characters or the listener will forget the first character.  (2) Keep it short.  (3) Surprise the listener so they’re not anticipating your punch line when you start.

Her other tips serve well for comedy of any type. (1) Be specific.  Don’t allude to your punch line, nail it on the head!  (2) Be relatable.  You don’t want to make a reference so obscure that no one or only a handful of readers think you’re funny.  You also don’t want the reader to feel alienated because they didn’t understand.  (3) Comedy serves a purpose.  Don’t throw comedy in for comedy’s sake; make it move your plot forward.  (4) Opposites attract.  If you can use comedy to set up drama it can be very impactful.

Tips and Tricks

The end of the seminar was past participants giving advice and this was extremely helpful!  The first tip was to find locations and times when you could be most successful.  The ML passed out a spreadsheet to fill in Date, time of day, words/hr, location, background noise, people present, music, food/drink, and WiFi?  If you do this repeatedly, you can find out where and when you are most productive.  Genius!  Some short tips:

  • Don’t write in order, jump around to where you want to write
  • Don’t delete anything (it all counts, just use strike-out)
  • Only edit spellings, nothing else!
  • Back -up often and to multiple places
  • It’s okay to fall behind, weekends are a great time to catch up.
  • Try writing for 20 minutes, watching a movie for 20 minutes repeatedly
  • Tell everyone so they will ask you about it and keep you accountable
  • Stop with something left to say so you have momentum when you next start up again
  • Do not use contractions (more words)
  • Use a font with straight quotes, not smart (curved) quotes.  Smart quotes count funny in the validator.
  • Validate on the 25th when it becomes available to see how far off the NaNo word count is from what you think you have
  • Open Office is good for word count consistence, Word is usually a couple hundred higher than the validator.
  • Pad the 50K by a few thousand for comfort
  • Remember that Thanksgiving is the last weekend of November!  Prepare in advance.
  • Turn your spell-checker off so you aren’t tempted to edit by squiggly lines.

Helpful Links:

Write or Die: $10 download.  Punishes you for not writing to a certain timed goal by deleting what you had written, playing bad music or annoying sounds.

Writing Prompts on Tumblr: Or WordPress or wherever you can find them.  Great things to keep you thinking if your brain is shutting down.

Written? Kitten!: In opposition of Write or Die, Written? Kitten will show you pictures of cats for every set number of words you write.  It didn’t work for me, but several people said it’s a good reward-based approach.

I hope these are helpful to you!  Let me know of your own tips and tricks.

Book Review: Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

16 Oct

It’s been a while since I did a book review so I’m excited to be able to do this one.  I added Burning Bright to my To-Read Shelf because I was thinking about Chevalier’s other title, The Girl With the Pearl Earring. I loved that book and the subsequent movie was enjoyable as well.  Chevalier’s ability to tell the story of an artist through another person’s eyes was captivating to me.  Another of her books, The Lady and the Unicorn, had a similar structure and I enjoyed it equally as much.  While searching Chevalier’s book offerings, I looked for those that told the story of an artist and was delighted to see Burning Bright on that list.  I hadn’t heard of it before and instantly added it to the queue.

Book cover from

Book cover from

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

The Kellaway family packed up their things and moved from a small town in Dorsetshire to London at the eve of the French Revolution.  Father Thomas Kellaway has been promised work by Philip Astley, a circus owner in the suburb of Lambath.  The family sets up shop and are soon overwhelmed by the quick-paced city life of Lambath.  Their neighbors are varied, from the up-tight landlady Miss Pellham, to womanizing circus-heir John Astley, and the French-sympathizing William Blake.  It’s around Mr. Blake that this story turns.  The Kellaway children, Maisie and Jem meet another neighbor, Maggie Butterfield, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble of London life and is intrigued by the ignorance of the Kellaway children.  Maggie makes fast friends with Jem and the two explore London together and delve into their interest in neighboring Mr. Blake.

At the time of the action, Blake has already published his book Songs of Innocence and is at work on Songs of Experience. Chevalier’s novel is set up so that the first half reflects the innocence of the children (Maisie, Jem, and Maggie) who are often shocked by Blake’s work-in-progress.  In the second half of the novel, Blake continues to run into the children in more ‘adult’ situations as the novel shifts to a second half focused on the experiences of growing up.

To me this book was not as enjoyable as Chevalier’s other works.  In the others, I liked how the reader got to know the artist as far as their work and their motivations.  In this novel, Blake’s character stays to the background, only coming forward at pivotal moments when the children are having realizations that are making them grow up (aka become more experienced).  Blake seemed like an almost unnecessary side character that could have been written out of the book.  Without him, the story of the Kellaways and Maggie would have gone on; he was not a critical piece of the puzzle.  In fact, I had to work to add him into my plot summary.

The first half was a little slow and seemed very childish to the point at which is was boring.  The second half of the book was much more enjoyable and interesting.  Based on some of the themes in the second half, I would say I’m part of the target age range for this book and it surprises me that such a large part was mainly juvenile.

A focus of the text is what lies between two extremes.  Blake has the children think about what lies between.  If innocence is the left bank of a river and experience is the right, what lies in between? The answer, we come to find, is life. Life is not black and white, good or bad, innocence or experience, but a combination and a fluid journey between the two. Maisie starts very ‘innocent’ and along her way gains experience, but never really loses her childlike joy.  Maggie starts the story very hardened by London ways and in the end finds herself seeking a simpler life.  The children cannot be categorized as one or the other and continually drift from one side of the metaphorical river to the other.  Maisie and Maggie’s shared common name, Margaret, shows again how the journey of two girls who start so differently and share something as crucial as a name can cross and cross again in the areas of grey.

This opinion can be related back to Blake’s books directly and is a theme in many other texts as well. It’s the crux of a coming of age journey in which a character finds that the world isn’t as simple as right and wrong.  Coincidentally, this is something I explore in my first WIP.  I think areas of grey are a big part of growing up. Maisie, Jem, and Maggie come to find this quickly.

Chevalier brings this to a head in the last scene of her novel, when Maggie and Jem have a copy of each of Blake’s books.  One was a gift for Maggie, the other for Jem and the two cannot figure out which is for whom.  They both reflect the contents and ideas of the two books together.

Writers Takeaway: Chevalier’s ability to weave historical everyday life into a story is commendable.  She is truly a master of the craft.  I enjoyed the rich characters she created and who all served a strong purpose in the book.  The one thing I hoped to learn to avoid is a slow start to the book.  I felt like the exposition went on forever without there being a real turning point to the plot. The story was a little too character-driven for me and I learned that there needs to be some more action to it to keep things interesting.

Overall, I do not recommend this book.  I give it three out of five stars.

Novel Girls: Emotion, Implication, and New Adults

15 Oct

The Novel Girls are at it again! This time around, Nicole came over and we each went through a new chapter. My husband is a little sick and he stayed on the couch, contributing his two cents whenever he could (annoying English majors).

The first thing I want to address is emotion-driven conversations. I have a very critical and emotional conversations between two of my characters in the scene Nicole reviewed today. I concentrated so much on what was said that the first part of the conversation is mainly dialogue. In the second part, I add in some action and reaction. Nicole’s suggestion was to add in some action because the emotion of the dialogue was lost without descriptive reaction. She thought the scene was rushed and needed to be slowed down with some action because it’s very crucial to the plot.

The second thing we talked about is when something is implied in the text.  Some authors will allude to a fact as a part of foreshadowing and some authors will allude to something so that they don’t have to say it outright. This is a very tricky area between being obvious enough and being too obvious. I think the best way to get through this is to have people read your manuscript.  If several people (in your target age range) pick up on what you’re implying, then you’re good to go.  If more than one are left hanging, then you may need to come on stronger.

The last thing we discussed is something dear to our hearts: books. To be specific, books that we as 20-somethings can relate to. Nicole’s WIP is about college-age woman and my NaNo WIP is going to focus on a woman in her mid-twenties. With books like Fangirl getting so much attention, we wondered where books about 20-somethings were before? Part of this is the emerging New Adult genre. When I did my two-hit Google research, I saw a lot of mixed feelings on the genre. Before I read about it, I defined New Adult as books written for (mostly) women in their 20s and 30s who like the simplicity of YA writing but want content more geared toward themselves. This genre sits precariously between YA, contemporary literature, erotica, and romance novels. That’s a lot to balance!

One of my hits was an article from the Huffington Post that went out to defend the New Adult novel. I happen to agree that this is a wonderful genre and that it is very different from the aforementioned genres. I’ll take a second to explain my reasons:

  • YA: While the writing style might be similar, characters will be older in age, probably 19-29 or so, and will be experiencing things teenagers don’t.  The content can be more sexually explicit and contain a lot about coming of age alone in the real world (not finding yourself in high school with your parents around).
  • Contemporary Literature: The themes in a lot of main-stream literature is much more complex than the theme of a New Adult novel would be.  The simplified theme is what makes New Adult stand out and appealing to people who previously read YA.
  • Erotica: The purpose of erotica is purely for what its name implies; erotic.  New Adult does tend to have more sexually explicit scenes, but unlike erotica, they serve to move the plot forward and are not the end-all of the piece.
  • Romance Novels: This genre focuses on the romantic relationships between (normally) a man and woman.  While this is a common theme in New Adult, many New Adult novels are more ‘coming of age’ or ‘finding myself’ novels that may or may not have romantic relationships involved.

I hope this explains what I believe are the biggest differences in the New Adult genre.  It’s a genre I think is going to stay relatively small due to the low number of readers in that age group (many of them being college age or with young children).

Reader, what are your thoughts on the New Adult genre?  Do you like it? Write it? Read it? Was my writing advice helpful this week?  Leave a comment and let me know!

10,000 Words into Pantsing

14 Oct

As of writing, I am 10,505 words into my second WIP. I’m really excited about this because I’m ‘pantsing’ my way through this novel, something I’m very nervous about. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a way of saying I’m ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ through this book, I didn’t outline it. I’m a big proponent for outlining. I feel it’s the only way I got through my first WIP. For this reason, I have an outline for NaNo and I feel confident about getting the 50,000 words in because I know if I get stuck, I can move on to my next plot point and pick up, avoiding the ‘dead end’ feeling. I was scared that with this pantsing exercise I would trap myself in corners and end up crying at my desk over my lost path to a coherent ending.

However, I feel confident saying ‘so far, so good’ about WIP2. I’ve introduced my main characters, given them a voice, and am following a coherent timeline.  I’ve even started introducing major plot points and developing the mindset of my world (it’s slightly Sci-Fi).  I see the end of my exposition in sight and my inciting incident is planned for soon in the future.

Readers, I’m curious about your technique.  Are you a pantser or a planner?  Have you tried both?  If so, which works best for you?

Have a great day!

Goodreads First Reads

11 Oct

If you’re not already aware of Goodreads’ First Reads program, I’m here to inform you.  If you are, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

To summarize, First Reads is a platform for authors to give away copies of their books to a user who requests it.  They author (or publisher) can put as many copies as they like available for giveaway and set an end date at which time winners are selected.  Sometimes it’s to raise awareness and other times to try to get reviews at a launch.

I’ve been lucky enough to win four books off of first reads in only two weeks.  As my To-Read shelf is increasing exponentially, I’ve decided to stop and give other readers a chance to win.  I talked about two of the books I won, the first being The Almond Tree.  I received this book in the mail only a few days later and it’s nestled safely on my bookshelf.  The next I hope to get is The Tilted World which I blogged about on Wednesday.  I was really excited to see this book in a bookstore I went to Tuesday night.  I felt like I was cheating because I had it being sent to my house!

I want to take this opportunity to tell you about the other two books I’m anxiously awaiting.  The first is called The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s by Jeanne Murray Walker.  I entered to win this because my NaNo WIP has a character who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  The novel follows Walker as she takes care of her mother during her journey with Alzheimer’s.  I think this book will be a good place to draw from for some of the details of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient.

The second book I want to tell you about is called The Absent Lord by Jason Beacon.  There are only a limited number of copies of this book available and it will be released November 1.  It’s the story of a man forced into couples counseling.  To keep his relationship alive, he agrees to hear the story of the Absent Lord and is forever changed.  I entered to win this book because it sounded like The Princess Bride which I’ll admit I haven’t read, but loved the movie.  I was surprised to see I’d won and even had a personal message from the author in my Goodreads inbox!  I’m very anxious to get this book read and add my review to its page before the book even comes out.

So there you have it: my First Reads experience.  What has been your First Reads experience?  Have you read all your books from it?  Have you used it to promote your own book?  Please let me know in a comment, I’d love to hear from you.


Prompt Group: Vessel of Place, Using Other Senses, and a few Tips

10 Oct

Time for my prompt group yet again!  We did some exercises this time that were not exactly prompts, but were designed to teach us to write better.  The first was one my friend MB did at a writer’s conference.  It was: Imagine a situation with a strong emotion attached to it and pick an object to describe it.  This is called Vessel of Place, a way of saying that an object can have more emotional memory attached to it than the memory of an event.  (I hope that makes sense.)

The second one was a two part exercise.  We first were instructed to describe a place we had recently visited.    The second part was to use other senses.  Specifically, we had to take out all references to sight.  Mine didn’t have that much, so I worked instead to add more senses into the prose.  I’m including only the second here.  Please criticize me if I used too many visual references.

The final prompt was to take an object from the second prompt and do another vessel of place exercise with it.

Please post your exercises as well!  I’d love to see them.  I’m posting my responses below and then will end this post with some brief writing tips we went over.

Prompt 1

The wine glass was half filled so by default it was half emptied.  I stared at it and saw the reflections of the lights from around the dining room glaring back at me and hurting my eyes.  Looking through it, I could see him sitting on the other side of the table, his own glass of wine in his hand.  He swirled it around and around, mixing the sweet wine with a bitter bite to it.  I took a drink myself and what had previously seemed sweet and aromatic now seemed bitter and ashen.  It was funny how a few words could change the taste of a vintage wine.

I’m not certain but I’m pretty sure I lost more than my taste for wine that night.  The glass slowly drained in the same way the life slowly drained out of him.  What was before savory had turned ashen.  Link the life blood draining out of him as he left this world, the red wine into my mouth and disappeared forever.  The reflections in the glass faded as the night ended and the light in his eyes slowly went out over months of illness.

The pattern on the tablecloth that night reflected strangely in the base of my wine glass and looked like a cross.  I now believe it was a plus sign.  It was telling me, “It’s a plus that you’re with him now.  It’s a plus that you get to see this happen to him before it happens to you.”  But it was a plus for HIV positive, which is always a negative.

Prompt 2, Part 2

The ground was soft and muddy.  Most of the sites had ground the consistency of a baby’s diaper and the ones that weren’t were none too common.  When we finally found a place, the rain let up just enough to make us brave enough to venture out of the car.  Only one site had both a grille and a fireplace, both critical things in our opinion that the site director didn’t seem to find important.  A square of flat land had a few sticks that we threw into the woods so that they wouldn’t poke us in the back all night.  We should have considered that we’d want them later for firewood.  My husband opened the trunk and we got out the small tent, only then realizing that I’d forgotten the big tent at home.  This isn’t exactly what you want to realize 3.5 hours from home when you’re on a budget camping trip.

$106 later we were back with the roomiest tent in the site and were happily setting up for our other friends to arrive.  The sun was finally coming through the clouds and the humidity started to dip below 100%.

Prompt 3

The car smelled like a wet dog.  The carpets had mud rubbed into them from the college friends who didn’t bother to wipe their boots after hiking.  I found an entire McDonalds meal under the passenger’s seat.  It seems someone didn’t listen when I asked them to take their trash out when we left the car.

The squished bug on the inside of the back windshield will still be there six months later and the smell of spilt beer will never really leave the trunk.  The back seat still smells like river and the driver’s seat will always feel like shiver exasperation at the follies of men and boys.  I saw the ‘emergency tent’ we bought when I went to put my summer beach bag away for the winter.  It reminded me that even if you forget the shelter, you can remember to bring over 5 gallons of beer, as long as you have your priorities straight.  That’s enough return money to buy another 12 pack, in case you’re interested.


A Few Tips

I won’t be too long winded here, but we discussed a few tips and techniques for writers to utilize.  The first tip was to start with a list of names so that it’s easy to grab a name for a throw-away character while writing and you don’t have to stop and look around for one.  One member of our group suggested to look for names based on origin and meaning.  I’ve used this site for a piece I’m working on and it’s very helpful, I highly recommend it as well.

The second is something most writers know already; that every detail about your character and the words they say should give meaning to the character.  For example, I can say that Joe ate breakfast.  All that says is that Joe’s hungry.  If I say Joe ate a cold Poptart, you might think “Joe’s in a hurry and a bachelor.”  If I say that Joe had bacon and eggs you will probably think “Joe’s a family man with a wife who wakes up really early.”  Either way, the detail of what he ate tells you who Joe is.  All details should tell us about the character.

The third trick might sound like my earlier post about strong language, but it’s not to use ‘lazy’ words.  For example, everyone wears shoes.  ‘Shoe’ is a lazy word.  A woman wears stilettos or boots.  A child wears tennis shoes, a grandpa wears Oxfords.  ‘Shoe’ is a lazy word that doesn’t give us much description.  Someone can be ‘nice,’ but it’s better if they’re friendly or pleasant.  Try to stay away from very general words when a stronger noun would do better.

The last is one that I think is critical for good characterization and it’s to use a ‘language bank’ for each character.  We each have a vocabulary that’s uniquely our own and when we speak we say something differently than someone else would say it.  Also, individuals have phrases that they use a lot that another person might never use.  My example of this is Jay Gatsby who always says ‘old sport.’  Once it’s established that Gatsby is the one saying this, Fitzgerald could even leave off dialogue tags because the reader knew that was part of Gatsby’s vernacular.  I plan to do this with my WIP characters.  I want to take any scene in which a character talks and put the dialogue into one document.  It should read almost like a stream of consciousness from that character and individual quirks about how the person talks should be evident in each one.

I hope these tips are useful to you.  Please leave a comment and let me know or leave a comment with your own tip.  Thanks for reading. 🙂

Recently Added to my To-Read Shelf

9 Oct

My list has gotten out of control this past week!  Nine books added to it.  That brings me to a total of 95 and I don’t know how I’m ever going to make a dent in it.  Oh Reader, I’m begging you; let me know if any of these are terrible or not worth my time.  I can only read so much before I die.

  1. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: After reading Fangirl, Nicole started on this one and assures me that it’s amazing.  Two teens who know falling in love won’t last, but can’t help doing it anyway.
  2. The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly: Here’s another book I won on First Reads!  And to make it even better, it’s set in the 20s and talks about bootleggers.  I couldn’t be more excited.  It’s the story of two detectives who go to investigate the disappearance of fellow agents and get mixed up with Miss Dixie Clay, the most notorious bootlegger in the south.
  3. Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson: On my previous post talking about the credentials a writer needs, Nicole send me a list of links and one was to Ingermanson’s blog.  I liked is writing style and advice so I think a read of his book might be in order.
  4. Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson: The logical following of a book on writing fiction is the more niche book on YA fiction.
  5. Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys: I have a theory that if you see a book twice, you should just scoop it up and read it.  I saw Sepetys book once on Bermuda Onion’s Weblog so when I saw it again (Lord knows where), it had to go on the list!  The daughter of a prostitute, Josie longs to get escape New Orleans but the thread tying her to a mysterious murder is strong.  It sounds like some solid YA fiction that I’m glad I found.
  6. Waiting to be Heard by Amanda Knox: After how much I disliked Jaycee Dugard’s memoir, I was hesitant to add Knox’s to my list.  When a friend from my Spanish group recommended it, I couldn’t resist and here it is!  If you’re unfamiliar with Amanda’s story, I’ll summarize.  She was 20 and studying abroad in Italy when her roommate was killed.  Amanda was tried and convicted of the murder, spending four years in Italian prison before new evidence brought the case back to trial and she was acquitted and allowed to move home to the US.  This is her story.
  7. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed: This is another book I’ve seen repeatedly and couldn’t keep off of the list.  This memoir traces a woman’s decision to escape from a crumbling life and hike alone on the West Coast trail with minimal experience.  I do love a good memoir and this one seems to have won many awards (hopefully for the right reasons).
  8. Wild Ink: Success Secrets to Writing and Publishing in the Young Adult Market by Victoria Hanley: I asked at my writer’s workshop if anyone had read any good books about YA publishing specifically and this one was recommended.  I hope to give it a go soon!
  9. Writing and Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going: This was another workshop recommendation and I’m not as sold on this one.  Any suggestions, reader?
  10. The Round House by Louise Erdich: Recommended by my supervisor who reads almost as much as I do!  When his mother is violently attacked, Joe is desperate to bring her back from the edge as she draws into herself.  His quest takes him and his friends to the Round House, a sacred place of worship of the Ojibwe.

Reader, I implore you for your help!  Which of these are keepers and which can I pitch?  Please help me prune down the ever-growing list to a manageable size!

Writers’ Workshop Advice: Tighter Prose

8 Oct

Hello, blogosphere!

Once a month I go to a writers’ workshop.  The participants vary though there are a few regulars.  I thought with my Wednesday night job that I wouldn’t be able to attend anymore, but I had no appointments this week and was able to go!  One of our regulars is a professional editor who is always handing out great writing advice.  A few of his sticking points have to do with writing on the ‘word-level.’  By this I mean that it’s not focused on voice, flow, or technique as much as on engaging a reader through word choice.  I took notes on his advice and I want to do an experiment!

I found an old prompt that I wrote a while back.  The prompt was: Write a death flashback scene of a villain’s life.  I want to go through it and work on the four things this editor recommended for tightening up one’s writing.  The four things (I’ll go into reasons later) are:

  • Adverbs
  • Adjectives
  • Forms of the verb ‘to be’
  • Prepositional Phrases

I’ll mark up the writing using the key above (ex. adverbs in dark purple, adjectives in green, etc.).  Then, I’ll go through each of the editor’s suggestions and explain why it helps to tighten up writing.  Then, I’ll re-write the passage with those suggestions in mind and you can tell me which you prefer, what parts you like best, and why.  Here we go!

David felt his heart clench inside his chestFrantically, he stumbled toward the phone in the living room but collapsed on the rug ten feet short.  He started to crawl, but the pain was too intense.

There was no one else in the house and he knew he was having a heart attack.  No one ever visited the big farm house.  No one would even know he was gone until he didn’t go around to pay the wages, and pay day was four days away.  David’s heart clenched again, this time in fear.  He was going to die alone.

There was no wife to rush to his side and cry over his body.  Jeanine had left twenty years ago and there were no children.  David had regretted how he acted, but he didn’t know another way.  He spent all day talking to his workers, treating them like the scum of the earth that they were; it was hard for him to come to Jeanine at the end of the day and be polite and loving.  His personality wasn’t a switch to turn on and off.

No friends would be his pallbearers at the funeral.  Come to think of it, there was no reason for a funeral at all.  The closest thing he had to friends were the men he bought fertilizer and farm equipment from in town twice a year.  They knew his name, did that mean they would mourn his passing?  UnlikelyMaybe the banker would mourn him.  David visited the bank frequently to inquire into his stock values and interest rates.  The banker would notice he was missing.  But he never came to visit so David couldn’t be saved.

His mother might arrange a funeral, if she was still alive.  When he’d left home, David had never looked back.  He was so determined to build a life for himself as far from the one-room house on another man’s ranch that he’d severed all ties.  He hoped his father was dead so that he didn’t have to bare this embarrassment in his father’s mind.  David remembered hearing that you shit yourself after you die.  His father would only laugh at that.

The room grew darker around him, but David could still make out the dear possessions in his living room.  The television set he never watched, purchased only to see the looks of jealousy on the faces of everyone else in the general store.  There was a bookcase filled with classics and first editions of which he’d never cracked the spinesPriceless art hung on his walls and David couldn’t help but wonder who would inherit it after he was gone.

A single tear rolled down his face.  It wasn’t from fear of death because David knew that Death would be a welcome ending.  It wasn’t from pain, as David considered himself above pain and suffering.  It was a tear of loneliness, one solitary tear.

So there’s the starting point.  Now, I’ll go into the four suggestions and talk about how they can lead to stronger writing.

Eliminate adverbs: This same topic came up on The Daily Post last week.  The basis of this argument (shared by many writers, including the great Stephen King) is that an adverb can be removed and replaced by a stronger verb.  Writers who find themselves using adverbs to excess are likely using the same basic verbs over and over, making for repetitive, boring, and weak writing.  The advice: use them sparingly if at all.

Minimize adjectives: This is a similar argument to the adverb argument.  Adjectives describe a noun.  Someone overusing adjectives is using weak nouns.  By minimizing adjectives, the writer forces himself to find more varied, unique, and impactful adjectives (now there’s a list of adjectives I should eliminate in a revision).

Avoid passive voice to the extreme: I say ‘to the extreme’ because that was what impacted me the most.  More than not using the passive voice (the SUBJECT was PAST PARTICIPL(ED) by the DIRECT OBJECT), this editor recommended getting rid of anything that could be construed as the passive voice and eliminate as many uses of the verb ‘to be’ as possible.  What a challenge!  This again related to the adverb advice: you can use a stronger verb.  ‘To be’ is one of the backbones of English and any language, but it’s such a common verb that it’s vastly over-utilized.  A stronger substitute works better.

Avoid prepositional phrases: There are two caviots to this advice: (1) keep it in dialogue and (2) unless it reads awkwardly without the phrase.  Wow, I would have never thought of this!  We can relate this one to the adjectives advice in that prepositional phrases can many times clutter a sentence with unnecessary description that detract from the message the writer wants to get across

Armed with this advice, I’m going to attempt to follow as much of it as possible and clean up my earlier prompt into much tighter, stronger, and impactful prose.  Here goes nothing!

David felt his heart clench.  He stumbled toward the phone but collapsed ten feet short.  He started to crawl, but pain coursed through him.

The empty house provided little relief from his sufferings.  Few visitors came visiting and no one would notice his absence.  The workers only spied him on pay days and one had just past.  David’s body tensed, realizing he would die alone.

The silence surrounding David struck him.  His wife had left him and their caustic nature never brought on a tendency toward children.  David regretted how he acted, but he’d never learned how to behave.  He spent all day working and treating the employees like scum; he couldn’t come home and fake polite and loving.  His personality didn’t turn on and off like a switch.

No friends would serve as pallbearers.  Come to think of it, a funeral would be a waste.  The men he bought farm equipment from might come but additional seats would remain vacant.  The men knew his name; did that mean they would mourn his passing?  Unlikely.  Maybe the banker would mourn him.  The bank allowed him to watch his money grow.  He and the banker used Christian names together but didn’t visit each other’s homes.  David had no savior coming.

His mother might arrange a funeral, if she still lived.  Once he’d left home, David hadn’t looked back.  He’d challenged himself to succeed and built life far from the one-room house on another man’s ranch his parents called home.  He hoped his father had passed so he wouldn’t have to hear this embarrassing end.  David remembered hearing that the recently deceased shit themselves.  His father would laugh to find David’s pants full of shit.

The room grew darker, but David could still make out the hoarded possessions surrounding him:  the television set he never watched, purchased only to see the clerk’s jealous look;  the bookcase filled with classics and first editions he hadn’t read;  the priceless art smiling sadly back at him. David couldn’t help but wonder who would inherit it all.

A single tear rolled down his face.  It didn’t reflect a fear of death because David knew that death would bring a welcome ending.  He was in no pain, as David considered himself above pain and suffering.  David shed a tear of loneliness; a solitary tear.

So there we are!  An original and a tidied up version.  Which do you prefer?  What (if anything) do you like about the cleaned up version?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

Book Club Reflection: The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

7 Oct

It’s time for the second installment of Book Club Reflections!  This will be the last one where I have not previously reviewed the book with my own thoughts so bear with me while I summarize the book (and, unfortunately, give away the ending).  This was quite an interesting discussion as this book was a last minute substitute for the book the group had previously chosen and no one in our group had recommended it.  Usually we have at least one strong advocate for the novel but this month there wasn’t a soul.

Book Cover Image taken from

Book Cover Image taken from

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress is a fictional account of events leading up to the very real assassination of Robert Kennedy in July of 1968.  The story follows two people, Harold and Rose, who are driving across the US looking for the mysterious Dr. Wheeler.  Rose knew Dr. Wheeler in childhood and remembers him as one of the few people who was nice to her growing up.  Harold has a very different view and despises Wheeler for breaking up his marriage with his ex-wife; Harold is out for revenge.

Their travels take them from Baltimore to California and they stop along the way to visit a colorful cast of friends and random strangers who add to their journey.  Wheeler seems to always be one step ahead of them on his campaign trail with Robert Kennedy and they meet him finally in Los Angeles.  While Rose is looking around for Dr. Wheeler, Harold heads off with some friends and (the reader assumes) assassinates Robert Kennedy.

It’s good to have some background on this story before getting into a discussion.  Most noteworthy is that Bainbridge died in the midst of writing this manuscript.  This article explains that her editor took the manuscript and prepared it for publication, taking Bainbridge’s wishes for the book and past styles into account.  According to many eye witnesses, there was a woman in a polka-dot dress talking to assassin Sirhan Sirhan before he assassinated the Senator (see source article).

Now for a discussion.  I had read reviews on Goodreads that I wasn’t going to like the ending of this book.  Many readers said they enjoyed Bainbridge’s quick pace and writing style but were grossly disappointed by the ending.  I will echo these thoughts; I liked it until two pages from the end.  There wasn’t a single person in our book club who liked the book or would recommend it.

I just spent twenty minutes combing Google for some discussion questions that I could link to and go over, but there is absolutely nothing out there, so I’m going to go this alone.  Wish me luck.

The first thing our group discussed is “Who is Dr. Wheeler?” which seems a very good question to start with as he is the reason our two characters are brought together.  Who is this man that could bring a girl from England who met him years ago and hasn’t seen him in a while together with a man of seemingly good social standing to drive across the country on a wild goose chase?  I’ve stated Rose’s intentions already and will add that she claims to have remained in contact with Wheeler’s wife who lives in England and Harold did not believe existed for a long time.

Our group had a few theories, my favorite being that Wheeler was a code name for Kennedy.  Another was that Wheeler didn’t really exist!  One member was able to point out on page 161 that Fury, a friend of Harold’s, had confirmed that Wheeler was part of the Kennedy entourage and that was the reason he was following the Senator around.  This still doesn’t answer what Wheeler did or why (we assume) Harold killed Kennedy instead of Wheeler.  Was he aiming for Wheeler and shot Kennedy?  Bainbridge leaves a lot up to the imagination in her writing style and the question is never really answered.  The reader’s guide we had during our discussion said that Harold blames Wheeler for JFK’s assassination, but doesn’t give a reason.  We thought through some ways a person could be responsible for JFK’s assassination, but came up blank.  Any thoughts from you, Reader?

There was a lot of foreshadowing throughout the book that we were able to gather in our group.  One woman said that in the scene where Rose finds Harold’s gun, she believed Rose knew that they were searching for Wheeler for different purposes.  Rose might have thought then that Harold was going to try to kill Wheeler but didn’t seem to act on it.  On page 116, a fortune teller says that she will see a man in a yellow sweater on a horse, which occurs only pages later on 125.  Rose doesn’t seem to remember the premonition but the man continues to show up a few more times (131, 148, 161).  I see going back now that his name was none other than Sirhan and that he was present in the hotel when Harold went off away from Rose.  (For my fellow book-clubers, I wish we’d seen this last Monday!)  The other foreshadowing we noticed was on page 71 where a room Rose is staying in has a picture of a woman named Ethyl and her nine children.  Ethyl was Robert and John’s mothers name and there were a total of nine children in that family.  The last one we noticed was on page 70 where an un-named character says of RFK “He may win, but he won’t live long enough to take it any further.”

The problem with this foreshadowing became that the reader was on high alert for it and it seemed that everything was significant when in fact a lot of what Bainbridge said led to a dead end for the reader.  There was a part that described a pen Rose had brought over from England that was her father’s.  Early in the book, she takes a scrap of newspaper off the wall in Harold’s house, wraps it around the pen and buries them both.  It is never explained what this means.  Reader, if you have a guess, please share it here.

The relationship between the two characters is very vague.  On page 18 it explains that Harold met Rose in England when he was there through some mutual friends.  He saw a picture of Dr. Wheeler in her room when they went home together.  An unknown amount of time later, he’s paying for a one-way ticket for her to come to the US and offering to help her find Dr. Wheeler.  We guessed that Harold was using Rose as a way to get to Dr. Wheeler.  Toward the end, he says that he has a return ticket for her as well, something she was hoping to not need because she wanted to stay in the US with Dr. Wheeler.

Neither character is very likable.  Rose lies so often that the reader cannot trust her as a narrator nor as a person in general.  Everything she says must be taken with caution.  Harold seems more sane because he has moments of clarity in which he acts rationally, taking care of his financial affairs for example.  When I read, I like to find a character I like, latch on to them, and root for them until the end.  That was impossible to do in this book and took away from my enjoyment of it.

One thing I commented on was the violence in the book.  In the opening scenes, they are fighting their way out of Washington DC after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing riots.  The assassination of JFK is brought up frequently and many of the side characters met along the way are injured or dying.  Many of the people in my book club remember living through the late 1960s and described it as a very volatile and violent era.  They mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Detroit Race Riots (which took me back to the book Grand River and Joy) and protests all culminating in the shootings at Kent State University (OH).  The book seems like an accurate reflection of the time with all of it’s violent and crude characters.

Writer’s Takeaways: This is one of the times I”m dreading doing a Writer’s Takeaway.  There were a lot of things I didn’t like about the novel, such as weird side actions (the pen) that didn’t lead anywhere and such an ambiguous ending that you have to read deep into RFK conspiracy theories to figure them out (and even then you’re a bit off).

What I will say Bainbridge did very well was foreshadowing.  If I were to read the novel a second time after having done all of this research, I think I might have caught them all.  I think it would have been better had they been more obvious or had Bainbridge worked a little more of the history into the novel.

The book was also a very quick read.  I finished it in only a few days, which is incredibly fast for me.  Her short sentences and quick prose really helped do this.  We all in the group agreed it was well written, but it still made us angry.  If her goal was to evoke a reaction, she did that very well.

This was much harder to write than my last Book Club Reflection and I think it had to do with the confusion caused to the readers and the lack of guiding questions.  I hope that this discussion can give you some ideas to go off of, Reader, if you decide to join in reading it.  Please leave some thoughts you had on the book, if you’ve read it, and if you haven’t let me know if you’re at all interested after hearing this.  I believe this was semi-coherent and to my fellow book-club-goer who said this would be challenging to write, touche, it was.

Book Review: Loba by Diane di Prima

4 Oct

I got through the last of the books my friends have lent me… for now.  I have a feeling that I’ll be getting a handful more very shortly.  So as of the moment, my bedside table pile has diminished.  For now.

Loba book cover, taken from

Loba book cover, taken from

Loba by Diane di Prima

di Prima’s representation of herself as the Loba (Spanish for she-wolf) is solidified in her book of poetry, Loba.  The book concentrates on what it means to be a strong female and how women are perceived.

I’m glad I read the author bio in the back of the book before I began reading the poetry.  It tells that di Prima took part in a psychedelic commune in New England for several years before moving to California where she raised her four children.  It’s worthy of note that di Prima was a large part of the beatnik movement and that this book was originally published in 1978.  Now you’re in the same frame of mind I was when I started reading.

Organized into multiple parts and books, di Prima starts out in her youth and discusses the youth and beauty of a young powerful woman.  From there, she moves into childbirth and motherhood, commenting on how it feels to have become a mother.  From there, she talks about relationships with men and how men will hurt a woman.  After that, I’m not exactly sure what happens.  I got lost after the first third of di Prima’s book and only picked up at the end that she was discussing being and independent woman who, like a wolf, can hunt alone.

This book didn’t really do a lot for me.  I’m not a big fan of poetry and I found this harder to follow than most.  There are poems that i can appreciate for their beautiful words and images, but I didn’t see a lot of that in Loba.

As far as a message that di Prima is trying to get across, I would say it’s about independent and strong women and how she herself is a good example of this.  I don’t know di Prima personally and cannot really comment on her independence and worthiness as a role model  but from her poetry, I’m not sure if I would agree.  She seems to think she’s better off alone, which I feel is a dangerous thing, especially for someone with small children.  While being able to be independent when needed is amenable, I think having friends and family close by at any point in life is a necessity.  I see a very distinct line between independent and loner.

From reviews I’ve read, it seems this book is the feminist response to Alan Ginsburg’s Howel and I haven’t read that book to confirm or deny.  Seeing as I haven’t read it, you can probably guess I’m not a Beatnik poetry type of person.  I’m attributing this to the main reason I was not a fan of this book.  I didn’t understand a lot of the poems nor see a theme or connection between them.  Based on this, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more beatnik literature.

Writer’s Takeaway: Oh boy, I’m not really sure for this one.  I guess it’s the same as what I wrote for Post Office, which is that even though it’s not for me, it’s for someone.  Not everyone will like everything that you write, but you have to find the ones that do because if they love it, you’ll be famous.  I guess my other one would be to use an end parenthesis.  (It really bothered me when di Prima didn’t.

Overall, not recommended by me.  It wasn’t my style at all.

One out of five stars.