Saturday, August 28, 2010

Writing Tip: Keep A Journal

Although I have a BA in English, in college I took a grand total of ONE creative writing class.  I never thought I'd be writing fiction.  In fact, the one smallish attempt I made (out of duty-- in my class we had to submit something to be published as part of our grade) was very pathetic.  I tried to write a short story about a girl who didn't make the cheerleading squad and her friend that brought her cookies to make her feel better.  I knew it wasn't very original, especially when my roommate reminded me that somebody had just told us that story a few weeks before.

But the one thing I did have going for me was that I was an extensive journal writer.  I was surprised to find out that this is actually a great skill to have as a fiction writer.  In fact, it's so important that we even had a whole section on it in my creative writing class.

Journals help us remember the crucial things in our lives and teach us to put words to our feelings.  Just like books, they often leave out the smaller day to day details and force us to focus on the larger events.  Reading multiple passages can sometimes help us recognize recurring themes.

In addition to all these things, if you're a fiction writer it can help you keep track of the stories that are always running around in your head.  If you have a notebook by your bed, you can record those midnight revelations that come when you're half asleep.  Orson Scott Card even said that every night he journals what he's written that day so that he can skim it the next morning and pick up where he left off.  He uses a journal to write the personal descriptions of his characters too.

So that's my tip today.  Keep a journal.  If you're a writer, do it for the craft.  If you're not, do it for yourself.  You (and your posterity) will be glad you did.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

My Review:
Though this sounds like fiction, this story is amazingly true. For someone like me who is virtually illiterate when it comes to anything scientific, I found Skloot's book surprisingly easy to follow. She brings up real questions about the right we have to our bodies. I was shocked to learn that there is still no law forbidding doctors from taking discarded tissue and using it without the donor's consent. Meaning, if you've ever had a blood sample taken, gotten a mole removed, etc. the doctor can save those samples, experiment with them, or sell them without ever telling you. Very interesting.
In addition to the scientific and legal aspects discussed in the book, Rebecca Skloot also shows the effects that this research has had on Henrietta Lack's family. It's both touching and tragic. Makes you wonder what would have been different if Henrietta had lived past her early thirties...
I would definitely recommend this book.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games twice. But now that she’s made it out of the bloody arena alive, she’s still not safe. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge. Who do they think should pay for the unrest? Katniss. And what’s worse, President Snow has made it clear that no one else is safe either. Not Katniss’s family, not her friends, not the people of District 12.

My Review:
I am not going to go into specifics, because it's impossible to discuss the elements in this book without revealing too much of the plot. So I will try to talk in generalities.
I think the final book in a series is much more likely to be criticized than any other, because the audience already has an emotional connection with the characters and story. For some reason we feel we have a say in how it should end. And no matter how masterfully it is written, everyone can't possibly be satisfied. So I'm pretty sure this book is going to get mixed reviews.
But no one can question Suzanne Collin's ability to tell a story. The way she can create a world that the reader easily imagines and feels part of is amazing. Particularly since none of us know what post apocalyptic America would look like (hopefully we never will). I do feel that Mockingjay is quite different from the other two, however. First, it's definitely more violent. This book secures the trilogy's place squarely in the YA field (meaning, in my opinion, that 10-12 is too young and possibly even 13). Also, it's much more blatantly anti-war.
I'd still recommend it to lovers of the other two though. The story has closure, and the all-important question of "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale" is answered.
I ordered an extra copy of the book and I'm seriously considering doing a book giveaway. But I've never done one, so I don't know the legalities (like, for example, if you have the author's permission to do a book giveaway, etc.). Anyone know? I'd also love to hear other people's opinions about the book.
Happy Reading!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Voice: The Great Mystery

Whenever I ask any of my left-brained friends (you know, accountants, engineers, doctors. I like to refer to them as LBF's...)why they hated English in school they almost always say the same thing. It's too subjective-- not formulaic enough. In math, there's one right answer and all the other answers are wrong. It's like being organized. Like, say, with your car keys. If your keys are always in one spot, then you always know where to find them, right?

But what if the key isn't there one day? What if the one answer is actually wrong?Then what do you do?

That's why I like to write. I want choices. It's also why I keep my keys in lots of places (sometimes on a hook by the door, sometimes in my purse. Occasionally on the table...). So if I go to the hook and they're not there, I don't have to despair. I still have lots of other possible places to look. There are lots of right answers.

Some people call this disorganized (and when I say some people, I mean my husband and my mother). But I call it options.

However, I think I finally comprehend what the LFB's are talking about. I've found an aspect of writing that is very hard for me to grasp. A stumbling block. A mystery.

It's "voice."

And why is this so hard for me? Well, to be honest, I'm not always sure what it is. It seems so subjective, so difficult to define (I know, I know, spoken just like an LBF).

In one of the last conferences I went to, every agent and editor said the number one thing they look for is "voice." (Yes, that means over writing ability, over plot, over pacing-- although I'm sure these all contribute to the voice of a book). When someone asked what "voice" meant, though, not a single agent could give a concrete answer. "It's instinctive," they'd say, or my personal favorite, "that indefinable quality that a good writer has. It can't be taught, it just has to be learned."

Uh... what?

One of my friends at the conference said, "voice is just the word they use when they don't know what else to say." (That was especially helpful.)

So, I guess I'll just keep writing until I uncover the mystery. I've already completed one manuscript, and I'm halfway through another, and I've already learned some things. First, I'm not a good fit for YA. I'm simply not edgy enough. I don't feel that angst that teenagers feel (and when I do, I run away from it... fast). I also know I love fantasy, but I'm not big on flowery language. And I like dry humor.

I'm not sure that I've mastered all this in my writing yet, but that's got to be some kind of progress. Right? I'm definitely making headway.


I still wouldn't complain if any of you know a good book on voice, though...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Queen In Exile by Donna Hatch

Queen In Exile

Synopsis: Rumors of war hang over Princess Jeniah's peaceful country of Arden, a land that shuns both magic and warfare. Following a lifelong dream, Jeniah forms a telpathic bond with a revered creature called a chayim, who is prophesied to save her kingdom. But when a Darborian knight comes upon Jeniah with her chayim, he sees only a vicious monster about to devour a maiden, and he slays the beast.

Devastated by the loss of her chayim, and fearing that her own magic is evil, Jeniah doubts her destiny. When an enemy invades Arden City, they slaughter the people, storm the castle, and execute the entire royal family except the princess. Rescued by the knight who slew her chayim, Jeniah is now heir to the throne of Arden and the only hope for freeing her people from tyranny.

On the run and hunted by enemy soldiers, Jeniah must place her life and the fate of her kingdom in the hands of this trained killer. Torn between embracing her destiny as queen of Arden, and her love for a mere knight, she must ultimately rely on her magic to save herself and her people from death and tyranny.

My Review: Okay, I have no idea how to shrink this enormous picture. I really need to get more computer savvy. Well, at least it's a great cover...

I just recently met Donna at a retreat and I was excited to read her book. And with a beautiful princess, a knight in shining armor, and an evil villain with a personal vendetta, what's not to love? Donna does a good job of blending the fantasy world with the medieval world in which this story takes place. I feel like it's more adult than YA (meaning the characters are a little older-- at least the knight) but I also think teens will like it. I look forward to reading more of her books.
Just as a note, this book can be purchased on Amazon (if I have reviewed a book that seems unavailable, check the author's websites).

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Major Escapist

When I was in college I dated a guy who absolutely loved a certain English professor. So I naturally signed up for TWO classes by said professor the next semester. Then somewhere between registration and the first day of class my boyfriend and I broke up. And that English professor? Well, let's just say that I should've known better than to take English advice from an Accounting major...

The reason I bring up this story is that ever since taking this professor's class I've felt guilty about reading strictly for enjoyment. He once gave a lecture on the value and purposes of literature. The most simplistic and least fulfilling purpose, according to him, was to read as an escape. Literature written and read only to entertain was just one step above completely useless.

And so I've spent the last 10 (okay, maybe 15) years secretly escaping into "useless" books and feeling guilty about it. I try to have an intellectual sounding backup so that when people ask me what I'm reading I can cover my tracks. For example, right now I have two books on my nightstand. One is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and the other is "Yearning for the Living God." You better believe if you ask me what I'm reading, I'm going to say one of these (and I'm not lying-- I really am reading them. Just... slowly). But pay no attention to the Twilight in the corner. I'm certainly NOT reading anything so frivolous as that. *nervous laugh* I'm an intellectual, after all. I don't read books just to be *gasp* entertained. Perish the thought!

Then I got into writing and learned that the primary purpose of a book, are you ready for this, is to entertain! Oh sure, it can have other purposes too, but if the primary motive isn't simply to tell an entertaining story, then the book usually goes flat. The reader can tell when they are being preached at, lectured to, or any number of other things ending in a preposition.

Believe it or not, it actually took me a long time to get reconciled to this fact. I literally struggled for years with the idea of expending so much time and energy just to write a story that might make a few people laugh. But I could never think of an idea that I felt had any merit. All my stories were too... fluffy. I never thought myself capable of writing the next great American novel, or the book that would change the world (and I'm not even going to address the fact that a book that is often denigrated and criticized for being "fluff" actually did change the world. Maybe you've heard of it? The little book I already mentioned called "Twilight." I challenge anyone to argue that it hasn't had an impact on American culture. But I digress...).

The idea that it was bad to write books strictly for entertainment and escape was so ingrained in me that even when I heard otherwise from editors and agents I still wouldn't have believed it. Except that a few years ago an interesting thing happened to me. I was sitting in the hospital while my husband was asleep in the bed, suffering from a fairly severe injury. It had been a bleak day with a lot of bad news. I was depressed, concerned, and unsure of what was going to happen next. I found myself wandering down to the gift shop, looking for some sort of emotional reprieve. As soon as I got there, I was immediately drawn to their small selection of books. I didn't want anything too heavy. I certainly didn't want anything heart-wrenching or earth-shattering. I just wanted to escape into another world for a moment.

The book I bought and read during that time literally carried me through some pretty dark moments over the next couple weeks. Since then, I've pondered all the times that a good book has helped me through a difficult situation. I've been surprised to realize just how many there are. These books have been like good friends to me, lending me a hand and lifting my burden right when I needed it.

So what's the moral of this story? No moral, just some of my thoughts. Hope you found them entertaining...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My First Author Interview Coming Soon

Just to clarify, I'm going to be the interviewer, not the interviewee. My very nice friend and prolific YA author Janette Rallison has graciously agreed to let me interview her. I've never done one before, so I told her to give me a little time to figure out what I'm doing. But I will also be giving away one of her books to anyone who comments on the interview or becomes a follower on my blog. Yes, that's right, I said BOOK GIVEAWAY!

So keep an eye out in the next week or two. For now, it you want to learn a little more about Janette before the interview, feel free to check out her link on the side of my page.

Thanks again, Janette!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Online Writers Conference This Week

There's a great online writer's conference called WriteOnCon going on right now for any of you writers who are interested in learning more about the business. Yesterday I followed a live chat with an agent from New York and found it very helpful. Definitely plan on going back today.

Here's the link. Enjoy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Is 10 too young for Hunger Games?

My friend just told me that her son's 5th grade teacher is reading Hunger Games to the class. She called me to ask if I thought it was appropriate. Hmmm, that's a tough one. I love the book, but I'm not sure that 10 is old enough.
What do you think?
Anyone have an opinion they want to share?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Really Just Need To Go To Bed

It's almost 11 pm and I'm sitting on my recliner, trying to work out a scene in my story that just isn't going the way I want it to. So far I've written two different versions, and neither one of them is perfect (or even sort of perfect. I think I'd even take average at this point).

My husband is on the bed next to me, snoring peacefully although the lamp is on and I'm typing loudly (people always tell me I type fast-- I usually tell them I have a bad habit of banging on the keys, which makes me sound like I'm doing more than I am). I should go to bed. I've got to get up early and clean the house so the bug guy can come spray and because I have family coming into town. I, of course, didn't get the cleaning done today because I was working on this scene (among a few other things. When you're a mother of four, occasionally you have to get up out of your chair and help a child). But what I really want to do is get this scene finished. I want it to be true to my characters. I want it to be done and I want to move on.

So why am I writing on this blog instead of doing that? I really don't know. I think my brain is dry.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Courting Miss Lancaster

From the back cover: Harry Windover adores blonde, green-eyed Athena Lancaster, but alas, a penniless man like himself has no hope of winning a young noblewoman's hand. To add insult to injury, Athena's brother-in-law and guardian, the Duke of Kielder, has asked Harry to assist Athena in finding the gentleman of her dreams. But the lovesick Harry is cunning as well: as the weeks pass, he introduces Athena to suitors who are horrifically boring, alarmingly attached to their mothers, downright rude, astoundingly self-absorbed, and utterly ridiculous.
Athena can't comprehend why she is having so little success meeting eligible and acceptable gentlemen. Indeed, her circle of admirers couldn't be less admirable--nothing like the loyal, gentle friend she's found in Harry. But how long can Harry's scheme be hidden before it is discovered? And what will Athena do when she uncovers Harry's deception?

My review:
There are some books that I am predisposed to like because I know the author (which is why I always put that caveat in my review-- so far I feel that way about all the authors I've reviewed that I know personally). However, I've also been lucky enough that these writers all happen to also be legitimately good writers with good books.
That's the case with this one. I only just met Sarah Eden this last weekend, but she was such an entertaining and funny person that I had to get her book. And I loved it. I didn't even know I liked Regency romance (aside from reading Jane Austen multiple times), but I think I've found a new genre to add to my favorites.
I would absolutely suggest Sarah's book to any lover of Jane Austen novels. It's very well-written and an entertaining story (I started it Saturday night, and finished it 1 am Monday morning).
Courting Miss Landcasterr is actually the second book in a series, but the books can be read independent of each other (which is what I'm doing, since I unknowingly bought the second book first). I am definitely going back to get the first one, Seeking Persephone.