Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing in the Spaces

In the last two weeks, I've twice seen the Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of Sense and Sensibility.

And while I'm definitely an Austen fan, I still loved this production above and beyond expectation.

Part of this had to do with the incredible casting. And the terrific romantic tension between the leads. (Quinn Mattfield, who plays Edward Ferrars and shone last year as Black Stash in Peter and the Starcatchers, may be my new favorite actor).
Photo from Meridian Magazine:

But it also had to do with selective use of silence. When Edward Ferrars shows up in Elinor's living room only to find Lucy Steele there, the silences between Edward and Elinor are both hysterical and wrenching.

The literary equivalent of such silence is spacing.

In school, most of us are taught to treat a paragraph as a unit of discrete text. In fact, I teach my students as much: a topic sentence indicating what the paragraph is about, three to four sentences of explanation and support, and then a concluding sentence. This box unit is something that many of us have a hard time shaking even when we write fiction rather than academic prose.

But sometimes the way we break up text can make all the difference to the way something is read.

Recently, I read and reviewed Jo Baker's lovely Longborne. Baker, I noticed, was quite adept at the use of spaces--prose silences, if you will--to highlight important realizations.

Take, for instance, this passage in which the hero has just realized he is in love.

All run together, the text would look like this:

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes [of her leaving] . . . and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the corner--to arrive at the shock of a full stop. He loved her. Oh. It could have no effect on anything at all. What he felt did not matter: it changed nothing. But it interested him. He held the phrase in his mind as a priest might hold a chalice, dazed by what it conveyed beyond its practical reality.

But as Baker has written them, they read like this:

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes [of her leaving] . . . and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the corner--to arrive at the shock of a full stop. He loved her. 
It could have no effect on anything at all. 
What he felt did not matter: it changed nothing. 

But it interested him. 

He held the phrase in his mind as a priest might hold a chalice, dazed by what it conveyed beyond its practical reality.

I LOVE the way the pacing works in this excerpt. That tiny "oh" given its own line speaks volumes about how the realization has shocked the reader. Then a series of short fragments--again, testifying of the disjointed thought process of the hero--as he attempts to process this life-changing information.

Spaces give readers a chance to catch their breath.

To regroup.

But spacing also allows critical information to shine forth.

Good writers know to use both their words--and their spaces--to the best effect.

Obviously, this is a strategy I'm still learning to master. I'd love to know your experience with spacing--when have you used it to your advantage? What are your favorite examples of short paragraphs in prose?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Red Rising

Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1) Lots of books have been compared to The Hunger Games--by publicists, by wanna-be-writers, publishers, and more.

Most of them don't live up to the hype.

This one, with a cover blurb bravely comparing the hero to Ender Wiggins and Katniss, actually does.

It's a frenetic, wild, violent read. I thought about it when I wasn't reading, and when I was reading, I stopped only reluctantly.

In a futuristic society, where one's future is determined by one's caste, Darrow is a red, the lowest of the low. His people mine underneath the surface of Mars, searching for a mineral that will help terraform the planet and make it habitable--they are told--for the other color castes seeking refuge from earth.

At sixteen, Darrow is already married and a man--a helldiver for his Lykos clan. He dreams of revolution, as his father did, but mostly he just works and lives as hard as he can. Reds don't tend to live long.

But when the unthinkable happens and Darrow loses nearly everything he cares for, his dreams change. He's given a mission by a secret society: infiltrate the Golds, the highest of the castes. With some surgical assistance, Darrow is transformed: his face, his body, his eyes, even his brain.

Darrow manages to make it into the Institute, where the ruling Golds are made Peerless (scarred warriors who are strong, ruthless, and committed to maintaining their power). And there, everything starts changing.

For starters, there's the passage--a bizarre, horrible Darwinian rite of passage. (This book is not for the faint-hearted. Or the very young. While it's rated YA for the protagonist's age, it's definitely violent).

Then there's the Institute's war games, where Darrow and forty-nine others are drafted into house Mars and have to compete against 11 other houses (all based on Roman gods). The resulting rivalries are no-holds barred fighting, meant to teach the students how to fight, how to cheat, how to survive--and how to become leaders.

Darrow fails. A lot. He makes stupid mistakes. A lot. But, impressively, he grows.

So often novels like this are focused on the plot and world-building--but Darrow, despite his impressive intelligence and physical skills, is not perfect. His character arc in the novel was painful, heart-wrenching, but felt believable.

Of course, not everything in the novel was believable. (For one, why is it that none of the Gold children knew what the Passage was? Presumably, the leaders have made it through. Also presumably, they would have told their children what to expect--or at least made sure they could survive it.)

But the plot and characters kept surprising me, and I raced through the book.

By the end, I'll admit, I was a little tired of the violence. But I think that's part of the point: the cost of maintaining a hugely unequal class society. And the cost of absolute power.

Definitely worth-reading--particularly for fans of The Hunger Games, Ender's Game, John Scalzi's Old Man's War and other sci-fi/dystopian rebellions.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Longbourn I have said before that I'm a sucker for Jane Austen adaptations. Almost inevitably, I'm disappointed by them, but that doesn't stop me from trying. Jo Baker's Longborne--the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants--succeeds where so many others fail. I saw this novel first pitched as a kind of Downton Abbey meets Austen, and had to read it. I'm so glad I did. The historical research was impressive, the characters sympathetic, and I loved the feeling of having my brain a little twisted by seeing a story I very much adore from a different perspective.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Sarah, the young woman who serves as one of the two maids in the Bennet household. Sometimes the POV switches to Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper-cook, or James, the newly hired footman with a hidden past. But Baker's writing is so lovely that even when POV shifts occurred mid-scene, I rarely noticed them.

It's true that the Bennets don't come across smelling like roses in this version--but that's entirely the point. What looks lovely and neat and airy in Austen films required a small army of servants to upkeep--and when small households like the Bennets are involved, this inevitably means drudgery for someone.

For instance, early on Baker writes (from Sarah's POV):

The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statutes underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were.

Nothing like washing someone's underwear to take away the magic in a relationship!

And again, referring to preparations for a ball:

It meant a flurry of excited giggly activity above stairs; it meant outings, entertainments, and a barrowload of extra work for everyone below.

Elizabeth's charming resolve to walk to Netherfield after a rainstorm to see Jane becomes:

Such self-sufficiency was to be valued in a person, but seeing her set off down the track, and then climb the stile, Sarah could not help but think that those stockings would e perfectly ruined, and that petticoat would never be the same again.

In the same way, it's impossible to read this without looking at the characters from Pride and Prejudice in the same way, but this did not diminish my enjoyment of this book (or of Pride and Prejudice).

Aside from the plot, which was by turns serious and romantic, there's pleasure just in Baker's lovely writing.

For Elizabeth the days had scudded by, but for Sarah they had expanded and swelled and grown beyond all possibility, so that every crease and dimple in them, the scent and silk and warmth of her hours, now absorbed her senses so completely that she was dazed by the world, soaked in it, more alive than she had ever been before.

Or this:

This doggedness, this bloody-mindedness: it charmed him in a way that he could not quite fathom. . . .
She was tougher than she knew. She wanted nothing from him. She brushed him aside like a fly. He found this quite delightful.

For readers looking for a familiar variation on Pride and Prejudice, this is not their book. But for fans of the novel and the time period looking for a new perspective, this was altogether lovely.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The One

The One (The Selection, #3) When I first picked up the Selection a couple of years ago, I was intrigued. I'm tired of grim dystopians--The Selection, with its premise of the Bachelor meets the Hunger Games (minus the violence) in a futuristic America, sounded like fun. And in a lot of ways, the series has been. There have been pretty dresses, swoony kisses, girl fights (and friendships) set against a vaguely revolutionary backdrop.

But it's also been like riding an emotional rollercoaster. In The Selection, America is one of thirty-five finalists. She's there only reluctantly, because her heart was given to Aspen, but her family convinces her to take a chance at becoming queen. Then, of course, she starts to fall for Maxon, the prince charming. And Aspen shows up as a guard at the palace, further complicating matters. The on-again-off-again that resulted from American trying to decide between Aspen and Maxon in book two (The Elite) drove me nuts.

Here, America has made it to the final four. The pressure of northern and southern rebels on the monarchy is heating up, and America and Maxon are struggling as much as ever to understand each other, despite their evident attraction.

I don't know. I'm clearly not the target audience for this book, and maybe I'm too old and too cynical. But I got tired of Maxon and America's misunderstandings (why couldn't she just tell him how she felt? Why did she lie to him about Aspen for so long?). And the revolutionary threats didn't feel very real to me--I would have loved to see more development of the political side of things.

I will give Cass credit, though, for moving past the typical girl rivalry in this novel and trying to show how friendships develop in the most unusual of places. But I ultimately wasn't convinced by how easily things were resolved for the characters.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Vodnik--a very different take on vampires

My sister recommended Bryce Moore's Vodnik to me, and I'm very glad she did. This young adult urban fantasy was a refreshing and fun blend of mythology and contemporary culture, set in Slovakia (Trencin, to be exact).

 VodnikTomas isn't sure what to think when his family moves back to Slovakia. He still harbors terrible scars from a fire when he was five (and remembers almost nothing about how he got them), but he's open to a new adventure, particularly when he meets his pretty new cousin, Katka. But he does not expect to find a mythological world come to life: the dapper-yet-creepy Vodnik who lives in the castle well (a Slovak take on a vampire, who drowns victims instead of--usually--biting them), Morena, the female version of Death, a fire vila who claims to have saved his life, an old crone, and a mysteriously disappeared Grandmother whom his mother refuses to discuss.

All of this would be more than enough for the average teen boy to absorb, but Tomas is part Gypsy. And what was only a mildly interesting ethnic background in America makes him the target of bullies and a span of racist prejudice that shocks Tomas. Add to this the fact that his cousin Katka is dying, and the only way to save her might be a bizarre agreement with Morena  (the agent of Death), and you have the basic ingredients for this delightful story.

The story started a little slow and it took a little while for me to get into it, but once I did, I tore through the rest of the book quickly. I loved the funny quirks belonging to the mythological creatures--I also loved that they were nothing like the usual span of paranormal creatures in urban fantasy.  I also liked the many different unexpected twists: that the pretty girl he meets turns out to be his cousin, not his love interest and that we never quite know which of the supernatural creatures to trust, as they all tell different stories. Refreshingly, Tomas has a mostly functional family, and I loved the vivid Eastern European setting. I lived for a year and a half in Hungary, which neighbors Slovakia, and this book transported me back there.

Really, though, all I need to say about this book is that Brandon Sanderson wrote an awesome blurb for it. Given how much I've loved all Sanderson's books (that I've read), his endorsement is all I really need to say.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Summer I Found You

The Summer I Found You I've spent the last several days since I finished Jolene Perry's The Summer I Found You thinking about the book. Aside from the fact that the lovely cover and title don't have a lot to do with the book (which takes place during the school year and not on a beach), there was a lot to like about the book.

Jolene Perry is a master at writing emotional scenes--at cutting to the emotional core of each character and I think that shows here. Kate is 17 and struggling with her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis (and her tendency to ignore her symptoms and blood sugar frequently lands her in trouble). She just wants to be normal--forever is such a long word for an illness--and get through the school year and move to California with her best friend for college.

Then she meets her best friend's cousin, Aidan, home from Afghanistan with wounds on his heart and body (he's missing most of an arm from the blast that killed one of his best friends). Although Aidan is pretty sure that dating anyone is a bad idea, he finds himself drawn to Kate. And Kate finds him an equally compelling distraction, though neither of them intended their involvement to go as deep as it does.

Plotwise, there's not a lot that happens in this novel. But I thought it was a compelling character study of two people who are struggling to find themselves and their place--and the way they brought their strengths (and weaknesses) to each other. They're not perfect: Aidan is in denial about a lot of the things he needs to do (his List) to get his life back in order; Kate is in denial about the seriousness of her condition. She struggles to be open and forthcoming, and those weaknesses nearly cost her her relationship with Aidan.

Genre-wise, this book felt like it straddled NA and YA. It's billed as NA, and I would definitely say it's not for young teens (language, some sex and discussions about sex), but parts of it--particularly Kate's point of view--still felt very YA to me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Shadows

The ShadowsI love historical fiction mixed with mythology, so when I read the description on Chance's first YA novel (she's published more extensively for adults--her Bone River was lovely), I was sold.

Grace Knox is a sixteen-year-old Irish girl living in 19th C. New York City on the fringes of high society. Following the failure of the family business and her father's death, Grace needs to marry well. Particularly as her older brother, Aidan, buries himself in alcohol and her grandmother descends into madness. Luckily for Grace, her friend Lucy's older brother has long been interested in her, and now that Patrick is home from Ireland, he's ready to move forward with the relationship. Grace is pretty sure this is a good thing--she likes Patrick, she likes the way he looks at her, and she could certainly do much worse.

But Grace doesn't know about the extent of Patrick's patriotism to Ireland, or how his involvement with the Fenian brotherhood has entangled him with two competing groups out of Irish legend--calling first the Fianna (Finn's Warriors) and then, when the Fianna don't appear as expected, calling their ancient enemies, the Fomori. And she also didn't count on her inexplicable attraction to Patrick's obnoxious stableboy, Derry (aka Diarmid).

Diarmid is one of the Fianna, tasked with killing the veleda (druid priestess) who needs to bless their mission to ensure it's success. But when he and his fellow warriors wake up in nineteenth century New York, they have no idea who has called them--or why. Diarmid takes a job as a stable boy in order to learn more about Patrick and the Fenian brotherhood--and meets Grace. As he becomes more and more interested in Grace, he also becomes increasingly afraid of the role Grace may have to play in the upcoming conflict.

This book is the first in a trilogy, and while it started slowly, I think it does an excellent job laying the foundation for the rest of the series ( I was dismayed to find the next book won't come out until February 2015!). I love the setting and the mix of old Irish mythology with a new world setting. I didn't love Patrick's POV as much as Grace or Diarmid, but the growing attraction between Grace and Diarmid moves the story forward in a powerful way.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Style Tip: Repetition

As a writing instructor, I often find myself telling students that the rules they learned for writing in high school aren't always right.

At least, they're not right all of the time.

For instance, one thing students often get told is that their writing is "repetitive," and they come away with the conviction that all repetition is bad.

It isn't. As a rhetorician (someone who studies the ways that language influences us), I know that repetition can be a powerful way of emphasizing a point.

Emphasizing key words throughout an essay or story can serve to underline an important theme.

And repetition can enhance the mood of a given work.

The key is that the repetition has to be purposeful--accidental repetition is the sign of sloppy writing (hence the warnings against "repetitive" work). But repeating key words and phrases to drive home a point or meaning can be tremendously effective.

Take, for example, this passage from Ann Dee Ellis' lovely The End or Something Like It. In it, the main character, Emmy, has woken up early on the morning of the one-year anniversary of her best friend's death, and has gone outside to watch the sunrise.

There was a bird.
Another bird.
The sky was gray and no one was out except for an old lady with a dog that barked at me and the lady said shut up, and three more birds.

Today is the day my best friend died.

Today is the day my best friend died.

Today is the day my best friend died.

The sky slowly turned to pink with purples and blues and oranges.
It seemed like it shouldn't be so beautiful.

Ellis uses repetition to powerful effect here. First, the repeated image of the bird, which is something a fourteen-year-old might notice and track to keep her mind off of things. But then, the powerful, cumulative effect of that sentence: Today is the day my best friend died. By the time she got to the third repetition, my heart ached for Emmy. The simple, mostly single-syllable words helped punctuate the sentence--each work a sharp, shocking reminder of loss.

When have you used repetition in your own writing? When has repetition moved you in the writing of others? What value do you see (or not see) in repetition?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The End or Something Like It

The End or Something Like That Ann Dee Ellis' latest novel, The End or Something Like It, is deceptively simple. The opening chapters are just a single sentence apiece. And the voice (an authentic, quirky, 14-year-old named Emmy who's mourning the death of her best friend Kim the year before) is sometimes repetitive, sometimes simple, sometimes abrupt.

But for all that there's a strangely lyrical quality about the voice. I found Emmy wholly believable as a character in mourning. At the same time, despite the potentially depressing topic, the book itself isn't depressing: it's much more a believable portrait of friendship between two young women, and Emmy's recollections of Kim are bitter-sweet, funny (often), off-beat, and charming. The story switches between the present and the past (when Kim is still alive), as Emmy struggles with Kim's acceptance of her death and Kim's insistence that Emmy try to contact her after she dies.

As Emmy puts it, "Turns out I suck at talking to dead people."

Only she doesn't. She just sucks at talking to Kim. Other dead people--including her ex-earth sciences teacher, Mrs. Homeyer--she has no trouble seeing.

As the novel weaves back and forth between past and present, readers get a glimpse into Emmy's relationship with Kim (and understanding as to why Emmy feels so much guilt about her death) and Emmy's gradual re-emergence from a sort of mourning cocoon.

I thought it was lovely.

It's possible that I'm biased because I knew Ann Dee in high school--but I don't think so. I've read other books by people I know and like that I didn't like so well. I read this in an afternoon and I keep thinking about it.

Also, I'm fairly certain Mrs. Homeyer was modeled after a real teacher at the junior high we both attended (of the same name). I'm 90% sure I had to do those same word searches. (But then, my memories of some aspects of junior high are pretty fuzzy).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Timebound (The Chronos Files, #1) I got a copy of Timebound, by Risa Walker, as part of the Amazon First promotion a few months ago, but it's taken a while to work through my TBR list . . . The premise was intriguing: sixteen-year-old Kate Pierce-Keller discovers that she belongs to a family whose genetic makeup allows them to travel through time (as a point of fact, her grandmother was born over a century *after* she was). Kate's understandably skeptical--until someone begins manipulating her timeline and making changes in the past that threaten her own existence.

The plot for this novel is fairly complex, as it involves not only the changing timeline, but a religious group, the Cyrists, who are linked to the chronological changes and gain increasing power in each new iteration of the timeline. Figuring out how the two are linked is part of the mystery driving the novel.

And of course, there's the romantic angle, starting with a handsome young man (Kiernan) who kisses her on the subway and disappears--and who lived nearly a century before Kate. And then there's the very present Trey, who becomes Kate's only friend as her timeline shifts. However, Trey presents Kate with a problem: if she fixes the changes in her timeline, Trey will no longer know who she is, he'll have no memory of their relationship. I thought the triangle actually worked here--I liked both men (though the fact that she met Kiernan as a young boy and found herself attracted to him only a short time later when she met him again as a teen skeeved me out a little), and I'd probably read the next installment just to see who she winds up with.

I found the plot pretty fascinating--if at times hard to keep straight (although I think that was more on my end than the writer's, who seemed to work hard to keep things clear). I also loved the historical element of the Chicago World Fair in 1893: the historical details added a lot to the book. (However, I do have to note that it's not entirely historically accurate: the Seneca Falls Women's convention was in 1848, not 1838).

The characters were a little harder for me: at the end, I'm still not sure I have a good grasp on Kate herself, other than that she's a typical teenager who likes onion rings and knows martial arts. This might be an inevitable consequence of a plot-heavy book.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Marissa Meyer's Cress, as almost everyone who reads YA is aware, is the third book of her Lunar Chronicles, futuristic retelling of well-known fairy tales. I loved Cinder (who doesn't like a cyborg version of Cinderella?), enjoyed Scarlet, but I have mixed-feelings about Cress (which apparently puts me in a minority).

Cress (The Lunar Chronicles, #3)Don't get me wrong. I'm still attached enough to characters that I will undoubtedly read the rest of the series. But Cress felt uneven to me--sometimes fast-paced, but sometimes dragging. And while I like all the characters, here Meyer tries to cover so many perspectives that a few of the characters (Wolf and Scarlet, for instance), feel a little flat and/or don't have enough to do. It also seems a little *too* convenient that each of the title characters has a ready-to-hand love interest. I guess that's part of the fairy tale retelling, but I would have liked to feel a little more surprise.

I did like that Cress wasn't quite as kick-ass as Cinder and Scarlett--this felt realistic given that, as a Lunar Shell (lacking the characteristic Lunar glamor), she's grown up trapped on a space ship orbiting earth and lacked the opportunities to develop the kind of toughness the other characters have. That said, she has her own strengths, and I liked that she was able to use her hacking skills to help the others. I also like the way the stakes continue to build in the series, as Cinder and the others try to force the Lunar queen Levana out of office and save the world. I like it--I just didn't love it this time around.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Chaos of the Stars

The Chaos of StarsThe Chaos of the Stars, by Kiersten White, was a cute book, but don't go into it looking for a lot of depth. Isadora is the youngest child of Isis and Osiris (non-divine, however), but her ordered world goes into a tailspin when she finds out her mother is pregnant--yet again--and she starts having dreams about darkness threatening her family. Determined to keep her safe, Isis sends her to San Diego to live with her brother. Isadora is eager to escape, but not so eager to live in California, work at a museum curating her mother's stuff, or get entangled with resident hot guy, Ry. Despite the mythological overtones, the book reads more like a YA contemporary romance: Isadora is determined to resist Ry because she's decided that loving someone can only lead to pain. Much of the book is about Ry's equally determined pursuit of Isadora. The danger facing her family felt a little more like an after thought here--long stretches of the book go by without anything dangerous (or even mythological) happening and a lot of the plot twists were pretty easy to see coming.

I still enjoyed reading it. Despite Isadora's self-centeredness, I liked her and her honesty. And the short blurbs at the beginning of each chapter detailing Egyptian mythology from Isadora's perspective were often laugh-out-loud funny. I blame the cover here for setting up too high of expectations--it's so gorgeous, it seems to promise something intricate and deep. A fun, light read, this definitely is. But not a complex exploration of mythology. And to be honest, having loved White's In the Shadows just a week or so ago, I was a little disappointed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

ISWG Wednesday

So, last month was my first time with the Insecure Writer's Support Group, and I have to say they were great! It was lovely to have friendly strangers stop by my blog and say hi.

Also lovely to be reminded that I'm not the only one crazy enough to fall in love with writing.

Right now, I'm actually in a pretty good place regarding my writing. (Excuse me while I go knock on wood.) Summer with the kids around is crazy, but I don't have as many responsibilities as I do during the school year when I'm teaching and editing a magazine for the university where I teach. I've finally nailed down a plotline I'm happy with (my deleted scenes document is now almost a book in itself), and I'm at the stage of revisions where I cut and tweak and make everything pretty. It reminds me why I love writing.


In a couple of weeks I'll send my ms out to beta readers and with the inevitable feedback, the story won't look quite so shiny any more. Hopefully, it will be better. But even though the betas I have are all fantastic people who are rooting for me, I can't help worrying about their reaction. Will they love it? Will they--like me--see the potential through the flaws? Will they think less of me if I write a book that they don't love?

K. M. Weiland had a fabulous post recently about how writers are guaranteed to think their work fails--at least some of the time. And that's okay. It's part of our growth as writers. It's part of what motivates us to work harder, to improve our craft. 

My hope this week is for all writers to find those moments of brilliance that offset the inevitable retiring to the "cave of suckitude," as my sister aptly calls it.