Monday, March 30, 2015

Not in the Script

Not in the Script (If Only . . . #3) Amy Finnegan's debut, Not in the Script, is adorable--exactly the kind of YA contemporary romance that I like reading.

Emma Taylor is an actress who unexpectedly shot to success at age 12. Now, at eighteen, a seasoned veteran of Hollywood, she's just signed on to do a TV series--with none other than her long-time Hollywood crush, Brett. But she has a history of falling for guys who turn out to be jerks, so she's determined to avoid any romantic entanglements on set.

Jake Elliot is a reluctant model who took on high-paying gigs to pay for his mom's treatment after her stroke. He's new to acting, but willing to put in his time for the paycheck--and intrigued by Emma Taylor, who proves to be much deeper than he'd expect from your average Hollywood starlet. He also happens to be Emma's best friend's celebrity crush, a little detail that puts a definite cramp in his plans to get to know Emma better.

I thought the book was a fun insider look at a Hollywood set (Finnegan's brother has worked on several such sets, and Finnegan visited several while writing the book). But really, what Finnegan excels at is the slow-burning romance between Emma and Jake. The two are both so likeable--and human--that it's hard not to root for them, despite all the obstacles to their relationship. More than that, the book is clean--I wouldn't hesitate to hand it to any teen (or even pre-teen) that I know.

As a side-note: I met Amy at a recent writer's conference, and she is just as adorable in person as her characters. But as she shared the story about how Not in the Script came to be, I liked the story even more: this wasn't an overnight success. Amy worked on the story for several years before snagging an agent and interested editor.

I love it when authors *and* their characters get the happy endings they deserve!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr's novel has already had so much praise heaped upon it that my own praise really doesn't matter, but I wanted to review it anyway because I loved it.

All the Light We cannot See follows two young people during the ravages of World War II: a blind girl, Marie-Laure, living with her great uncle in a coastal French city; and Werner, a brilliant young German who takes a post with the army as the marginally better alternative to slaving away in coal mines.

One of the things I loved about the book was the way it didn't stoop to painting its heroes and villains in broad strokes: all of the characters were human, full of flaws and strengths. And even some of the worst characters had minor virtues to round them out.

Beyond that, I was impressed with Doerr's lovely use of description and unconventional narrative. While admittedly some of the flash backs and forwards were a little hard to follow, I liked the way he used them to build urgency in the story. And the prose was simply breathtaking at times:

[E] vening is settling over the hundred thousand rooftops and chimneys of Paris, and all the walls around her are dissolving, the ceilings too, the whole city is disintegrating into smoke, and at last sleep falls over her like a shadow.
 [writing of the beach]: Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. 
 Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.
And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That [list redacted for spoilers!] might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating with it. 
And through it all, this recurrent metaphor of light: that our brains, trapped in the darkness of our skulls, are nonetheless capable of registering the light of the outside world. That people themselves have this light trapped in them as well, if we can but see it. 




Monday, March 23, 2015

Writing for Charity

Several years ago, the inimitable Shannon Hale organized a conference run entirely by volunteers, where all the proceeds go to charity. The conference, aptly enough, is called Writing for Charity.

This year, the proceeds went to First Book and We Need Diverse Books, both great projects for people who care about books.

This was my first year attending, and while I did have a lot of fun, I also felt a little bit out of my element. Part of this, of course, is being an introvert in a large crowd (yes, I realize it's a large crowd of mostly fellow introverts, but that still doesn't help much!). But part of it was the neither fish nor fowl sense I got from being a not-quite-published writer. I've sold a book, but I haven't gone through any of the editing process, so I don't have the authority of the panelists. But at the same time, I'm not really a beginner either. Luckily, one of my good friends and CPs was in the same boat, so we hung out together quite a bit.

Photo by Erin Summerill


That said, I still had a great experience. My very favorite thing was meeting so many authors that I've admired--some of them friends from social media, some just people whose books I like. One of my favorite moments was meeting Jessica Day George, an author I've followed for a long time. We have some mutual friends (one of my best friends was her old college roommate), so I've known who she was since before she was published. But I don't think she knew who I was. This year, though, I went to introduce myself and she said, "I know who you are." And we got to chat a little. That was fun and a little surreal. I know authors are real people, but I love the reaffirmation that so many of them are also gracious, funny, and helpful.

I also learned a few things (or, was reminded of things I already knew but need to work on).

1. Writing isn't easy. You have to do it because you love it. You need to believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you or it can steamroll you. One of the first panels I went to was quite eye-opening, with authors talking about books that had underperformed (and so the sequels were either cancelled or delayed), or, in one extreme case, an entire trilogy was cancelled prior to publication. Since I just sold a trilogy, I immediately added this to my list of things to worry about. But I also really appreciated the frankness. So often, you only see the success stories--and we love those, because we want to write ourselves into those narratives, but I think we also need to see the failures so that when they come to us (and they will), we can find comfort in knowing that we're not alone. And in some cases, failure can be fertile ground: one of the authors on the panel, Mette Harrison, took her disappointment as permission to write what she wanted, and her latest novel, The Bishop's Wife, has come out to lots of national attention and fanfare.

2. Diversity isn't just nice to have, it's critical. Valynne Maetani (who has an awesome-sounding book, Ink and Ashes, coming out this spring) organized a terrific panel on increasing diversity in books. Both she and several other panel members (including Ilima Todd and Erin Summerill) talked about not being able to find books growing up that featured characters like them--or identifying more with white characters than people of color simply because that's all they'd ever read about. They acknowledged the fear a lot of people have about including diversity that's other than their own, but they said you need to do it anyway. But do your due diligence: including stereotypes doesn't help anyone. Do your research, find readers from the culture you're trying to present, and do your work as well and respectfully as possible. Valynne also included an important reminder: diverse characters need to be well-rounded too. Just as no two Caucasians have the exact same interest and background, so too no diverse characters will either. Mostly, the characters should all be human.

3. There is no YA mafia. One of the funniest panels I attended was helmed by Shannon Hale and several other authors who essentially busted the myth that you have to be well connected (part of the "YA Mafia") to break into publishing. Probably 90% of the authors at the conference were picked up from the slush. (Although I kind of wish there was a YA mafia. Non-violent, of course. But it sounds cool).

4. Give yourself permission to write. The conference presenters and attendees were overwhelmingly women, and many of them have families. I nearly didn't go to the panel on work/life balance because I've found a (tenuous) truce, but I'm so glad I did. Not only did I get to hear Matt Kirby declare (only a little ironically) that he avoids mom-guilt by playing his male privilege card (which had us in stitches), but I realized how many other women *do* feel guilty. To be fair, Matt said that his privilege doesn't excuse him from contributing, but because society tends to (wrongly) expect less of fathers, he doesn't face the same social expectation that he feel guilt for the time his writing takes away from his family. Shannon emphasized that we all need to push the guilt aside, and give ourselves permission to nurture our creative side. If for no other reason that when we are happy and fulfilled as writers, our family tends to be happier too. While family is important (and may on occasion need to preempt writing time), we can't give everything of ourselves away and expect to have anything left.

5. Writers are generally awesome. I love being part of a writing community and associating with so many smart, compassionate, interesting people.

And I got to meet up with several of my agency sisters, which made me all kinds of happy.

Photo by Erin Summerill, on the right

I think conferences are wonderful for writers for so many reasons: you learn more about your craft, you connect with other writers, you realize you're not the only crazy person out there. But mostly, conferences are awesome because they can get you energized about what you really love: writing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

It's in the details

I haven't posted my usual book reviews recently (well, in the last week) for a couple of reasons.

One, I'm beta reading for a friend so I'm not currently reading published material (I'm re-reading Patricia Briggs on the side, but not sure a re-read counts).

I'm also reconsidering my general habit of posting reviews of most books I read. But since I'm slowly shifting from reader to author, I may only post reviews of books I genuinely loved. Still mulling that one over.

Instead, I've been thinking about the role of details in writing.

Confession: I am not a particularly detail-oriented person. I remember big strokes issues in movies and books: character motivations, overriding plot arcs, etc., but I often forget character name minutes after finishing a book.

For me, the details come during the revision process, and they're something I have to layer in. Something I have to think about.

Still, as I've been doing this beta read, one thing I'm noticing is how powerful my friend's details are. They elevate scenes that might otherwise be fairly generic to something sharp and memorable.

File:FJM88NL Grass close up.JPG
 
But where do the details come from? Sometimes, I can simply brainstorm details. But most of the time, the details come from research.
 
 
In THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, I found some delightful details by reading an old guidebook to one of the grand palaces I described, which included the tidbit that during the early 19th century, the palace had been largely abandoned and sheep had been pastured inside the house itself!
 
I also read a lot of travel narratives from nineteenth-century visitors to Hungary, trying to see the country as it would have appeared to outsiders at the time. Among other things, I discovered a folklore about a feral boy who lived in a neighboring swamp, rumored to have frog-feet and everything. Though this detail might not make it into the final book, I loved what the story evoked about the time and place.
 
For me, adding the details isn't easy--but they help me add gloss and mood and resonance to otherwise solid (but unremarkable) scenes. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Firefight

Brandon Sanderson knows how to write riveting plots--and Firefight, the sequel to Steelheart, is no exception.

Firefight (Reckoners, #2)In a world where cities are controlled by powerful Epics (humans with superhuman abilities), David has joined the Reckoners fighting to limit the Epics power. But after defeating Steelheart in Newcago (the steel-encased former Chicago), Prof, the head of the Reckoners, thinks they need to focus their efforts on Regalia, who rules former New York City (Babylon Restored, aka Babilar). David's eager for the new task, not just to take out another epic, but to reconnect with the Epic Firefight (aka Megan) whom he fell for when she infiltrated their force in Newcago.

But David's experiences in Babilar make him start to question his fundamental understanding of Epics: that their power inevitably corrupts them, to a degree proportionate to their strength. In Babilar, he finds people who are relatively content with their life, feeding off the strange fruit growing in the building and grown by a mysterious Epic named Dawnslight. Regalia, too, has some deeper motive in drawing them to Babilar--and some connection with Prof. And then there's Megan--Firefight--whose ability to stave off the Epic madness has David wondering if destroying the Epics is really the answer they should be looking at.

This one started a little slower than Steelheart for me (after the break-neck first chapter). But it definitely picked up, and there were some fascinating twists at the end of the book. I'm looking forward to see what Sanderson does with the next book--but I do wish he were a little better at writing the romance scenes! (I guess I like my romantic moments tender, rather than funny). All things considered, that's a pretty minor complaint.

Also--I have to say I read this one mostly for my husband. I enjoyed Steelheart and was planning on reading this, but it would have gone farther down on my TBR list had he not insisted that I read this so he had someone to talk to about the book. How could I resist that?

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor recently made the short list for this year's Nebula award, and with good reason. The story is fascinating, the world complex, and the hero utterly likeable. (It's also a little dense, but that's a separate issue).

Maia is fourth in line for the throne of the Elven emperor, a largely overlooked son of the emperor by his goblin wife. After his mother's death, he's relegated to the outer reaches of the empire with a singularly unappealing guarding, and taught little outside of rigid court courtesies. Then word comes that the emperor and his three closest heirs have all died in an airship explosion, and his world changes radically.

It becomes clear early on that Maia is wildly out of his depth: he races to the capitol to outmaneuver those who are scheming to take his position, but once there, he finds himself hemmed in by rigid protocol, and unsure who of the many people who seem to hate him he can actually trust. The real marvel of this story is that it keeps readers (at least, it did me), glued to the page despite the sometimes deliberate pacing. This isn't a war story, like so many epic fantasies seem to be, and I loved seeing Maia gradually find his place in the intricate political world Addison sets up.

While the worldbuilding was fascinating (the world has some magic, but runs mostly on steam power), I was drawn primarily to Maia himself, who strives to differentiate himself from his father by establishing a reign notable for kindness and bridge-building, in more ways than one. As the story unfolded, I found myself grieving for the unexpected betrayals Maia faces, and cheering when he discovered new allies (the loneliness he faces in the book is terrifyingly believable: early on, his chamber men tell him, "We cannot be your friends.") And parts of the ending made me actually tear up--an unusual reaction for me!

My only complaint about the book is that I struggled with the complex nomenclature Addison set up, and there are lots of characters, so it took me a  while to figure out who was who. I read this as a kindle book; I think it might be easier to have a hard copy where it's easier to flip to the back of the book to consult the extensive list of names.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reaching for a Dream

I was eleven years old when I decided I wanted to write.

I was in Mrs. Klein's fifth grade class, in a small rural school just outside Bozeman, MT. We were assigned to write daily journals before we could go to recess and, surprisingly, instead of resenting the work, I began looking forward to it. I wrote poetry (mostly very bad) and observations (mostly mundane) about my life--and Mrs. Klein told me I was good at it.

I'd been telling stories since I was little, mostly accompanied by pictures of women in dresses so long that their trains flowed off the page. But this was the first time it occurred to me that I might actually *do* something with those stories.

I wrote my first short story in sixth grade; I wrote longer ones in seventh and eighth grade--including a truly awful novella that only my sister remembers (all I remember is that the main character had the winning name of Killadee and the villains were the Dethka). This led to a derivative fantasy trilogy in high school that I revised in college and sent to approximately one place: Tor books. Shockingly, I never heard back.

And then life got in the way: I went to graduate school, I married, I wrote a 300 page dissertation on women's rhetoric, I had kids, I started teaching college writing classes.

About four years ago, I realized that if I wanted to realize that dream I'd had of writing a novel, I had to start. Otherwise, it would only stay this vague hope. So I started writing creatively again. I went to conferences and workshops. I read craft books. I started a writer's group (something that had saved me with my dissertation).

Zig Ziglar's photo.

I wrote a middle grade novel and queried it. I had a few requests, but the novel itself was flawed and I couldn't figure out how to fix it so I put it away. I wrote another book and started querying.

This time, the story was very different. In December, I got an offer from a terrific agent (Josh Adams). Over the winter break, I revised my book and wrote up synopses for two possible sequels. In January, we started submitting the book to various editors.

Editors, in general, seem like very lovely people. Most of the rejections I got were kind: either it wasn't right for them or their list, it was too similar to something they'd sold, they weren't looking for a trilogy, etc. A couple pointed out things they didn't love about the manuscript: my agent said that was a subjective opinion, and we kept trying.

My agent was wonderful--positive and encouraging when I wasn't feeling so positive after a string of rejections (because let's face it, no matter how kind the rejection, it still means one more person who doesn't want to publish your book).

About three weeks in, he said he was getting positive vibes from a particular editor. I wasn't sure what exactly those vibes consisted of, and I was raised by my mother, who was raised by her mother--and so my default belief is pessimism: if I expect the worst, I can be pleasantly surprised, but I won't be disappointed. So I wasn't particularly hopeful.

I knew the odds, too: lots of authors don't sell their first book on submission. A good friend is debuting next year with her fourth book on submission.

And then we hit the last day of our submission window. (My agent had asked the editors to get back to us with a decision by this day, and to his credit, they all did). A few more rejections trickled in, and my confidence, already waning, began to seriously deflate.

Then my agent called, late in the morning, to say  he'd been speaking with another editor at this particular publishing house about a different project--and they'd essentially given away that an offer was coming. Which it did--at the very end of the day.

About two weeks later, this showed up in Publisher's Weekly:



Needless to say, I'm thrilled! While some parts of it went down really quickly--I wasn't on submission for all that long (though it felt like an eternity while it lasted)--it also feels like it's been a long time coming. It's been more than twenty-five years since I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I'm also very humbled--and grateful. I know that there's a fair amount of luck that goes into getting a publishing deal (not all good writers or good books get picked up). I also know that I owe my current project to a long list of wonderful friends and readers--people who helped me revise the book, who encouraged me when I needed it, and so much more.

Now I just have to survive the revisions--and write two more books! (And hopefully many more after that).