NOTE: I don't post to this blog super-duper often anymore, because I'm busy writing, well, books. (Read more about that here.) For more up-to-date, day-to-day ramblings, visit my Facebook page.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Congratulations, Megan!

Today I just had to pass on some congratulations squeals for my Lucky 13 colleague, Megan Shepherd. Megan's YA debut, Madman's Daughter (Balzer + Bray, 2013), has been optioned by Paramount Pictures. This juicy gothic novel, the first in a trilogy, promises to be a page turner, and if all goes well, it will be on the big screen too! Read more about Madman's Daughter on Megan's site. Variety has the story about the option at this link. Again, kudos and confetti to Megan!

Monday, March 26, 2012

What Writers Can Learn from Lauren Oliver

Here's something I almost never do: Check out a book from the library, read it, and fall so in love with it that I must own it. So yes--I go out and buy a book I've already read.

That's what I did with Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver. Here was my gut reaction: I read this book, closed the cover, and heaved that delicious but grief-stricken sigh that I do when I know a great book is done but I wish it would live on.

Now I could just write a review of this book, but I thought it might be more helpful to think about why it's so good--and what can we as writers learn from it? I'll break this post into three parts: Writing/Prose, Characters, and Plotting.

First, let's talk about the writing--just the prose. Great writing doesn't have to be flowery--in fact, it really shouldn't be--but it has to be precise. It has to hit you in all the right ways. Consider this sentence, from a scene in which Liesl is trying hard to remember something important:

And so she squeezed her eyes tight and climbed down the tower of months she had been in the attic, reaching back and back into the rooms of her memory that were so dusty and dim she could catch only little, flickering glances of things.
That sentence, like so many gems in this book, resonated with me. It's that aha! moment when you say, Yes, that's exactly how it feels when I'm trying to remember something!

How does Oliver create this image? She goes straight to the heart of the matter. Liesl squeezes her eyes tight. So much is conveyed in that simple phrase--anxiety, the physical sensation, that otherworldly feeling of entering your own mind and closing off the outside world. Then she climbed down the tower of months--what a lovely phrase. Again, Oliver just describes what the rest of us feel. Searching for a memory is like climbing back through time. In this case, it makes even more sense because Liesl has been trapped in an attic, so she must climb down to the real world again in her mind as well as climb through her memory. And then, the memories themselves: little, flickering glances. Isn't that what you see when you try to access long-forgotten scenes from your life? Flashes, bits and pieces, like stills from an old movie?

I don't know what Oliver's writing method is, but if you find yourself writing a bland sentence like, Liesl closed her eyes and tried to remember, it might help to think about what it really feels like to remember. If you had to remember something crucial, what motions would you go through? Would your character go through those motions, or do something different because of who he/she is? Describe the sensations--all of them.

And speaking of sensations, here's another, from the scene where Will visits Mr. Gray:
No matter how many times he came for a pickup, Will could never get used to it: a bitter, scorching smell mixed with the smell of bodies, like a fire lit in the very center of a dirty stable.
I've never lit a fire in a stable, but that sentence resonated too: I could smell it, the warm musk of animals and the sharp sting of smoke as the hay catches on fire. It all makes sense, of course, because Mr. Gray runs a crematorium.

Note how Oliver focuses on one sense, smell, to create this image. Why a stable? Besides having animal scents to mix with the fire, the stable also conveys a sense of being closed in and trapped. A fire in a stable is a dangerous thing--the smoke would choke you (there's no chimney), the straw would ignite like newspaper, the whole flimsy structure would soon collapse. That's how Will feels, and we feel it along with him.

As writers, we too need to look for unusual ways to draw our readers in with scents and sounds and touch. Remember that smell, especially, is the most evocative of the senses, able to waken memories in an instant. I'm not sure why--maybe because it's so primal and instinctual? But we can use that to our advantage. What do scents conjure for you? Think about damp, freshly mown grass; a basket of strawberries; raw garlic; sizzling steaks on the grill; a dog drenched with rainwater. These are strong smells. What memories do they evoke? Use that. Use it all.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Whole Lotta Bologna

Oh, how I wish I could have joined the crowd in Bologna last week! For those of you who don't know, the Children's Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, is one of the biggest events of the year for kidlit. While it sounds like a great big kids' bookstore, it's really a place for industry pros to mingle and see what everyone else has cooking for the coming season. It's not primarily an authors' event--more of an agents' and publishers' event. One of the big reasons agents like to go is to see if they can sell foreign rights for their properties to publishers from around the world.

So no, I didn't get to go. But The Key and the Flame did! Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow took my baby in his briefcase to see what interest he could drum up. No word yet on whether his drumming proved fruitful, but we did get a little mention in Publishers Weekly, which gives me a shiver of goosebumps. After all, it's the first time my book has been mentioned in a publication! Click on the link to read about TKTF and some of the other new books coming out in 2013.

For more photos of the fair, check out this montage from PW.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Review: THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY by Susan Patron

Middle-grade fiction
Atheneum, 2006
134 pages  $16.95
Newbery Medal Winner

One thing I love about certain writers is that they say so much with so little. Susan Patron is one of those writers. In this spare, lovely story, we meet ten-year-old Lucky, who lives in a desert town of few people (Pop. 43) with her guardian, Brigitte, and her dog, HMS Beagle. (How could you help but love a dog with such a name?) Lucky is a unique and lovable character who strives to find a Higher Power to help her make sense of her fractured family and sometimes bleak circumstances. But like all good writers, Patron doesn’t bludgeon us with despair but lifts us up with humor. In many ways, this little girl is lucky—and so are we for meeting her.

Writers will learn what a pitch-perfect voice should sound like and how characters can be so exquisitely drawn in a very few pages. Readers will cheer for Lucky and her friends, who we bond with on first meeting. Parents will love that a serious story can be told lovingly and humorously. Kids will love that Lucky carries a survival backpack and that her friend Lincoln can tie any knot known to man.

Censorship Alert!  Widely challenged for its use of the word scrotum, this wonderful novel contains nothing any sane person would object to. As a point of information, the scrotum in question belongs to a dog, and Lucky herself isn’t even sure what a scrotum is. This is hardly a controversial story.

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's a Problem

It's true. I can't walk into a library and come out with one book. My late fees have paid for at least two or three shelves at my local branch.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Review: Pride and Prejudice

The Annotated Pride and PrejudiceThe Annotated Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this 1813 novel, Austen creates one of literature’s most enduring heroines in Elizabeth Bennett, one of five sisters whose mother is frantic to marry off. But in true Austen style, Elizabeth refuses to hasten her choice of a mate. She will not marry for any reason but love, despite the fact that her family’s fortune is modest and that even the family estate will be entailed to a distant relation on her father’s death. She receives proposals from two eligible bachelors—the ridiculous Mr. Collins and the prideful Mr. Darcy—and disdains them both.

Mr. Darcy is, of course, Jane Austen’s most beloved hero. It is no coincidence that he was voted the Austen canon’s most eligible bachelor on the website, where viewers were encouraged to pick their favorites. His aloof manner, his struggle against his love for Elizabeth, and his eventual redemption make him a far more attractive catch than even Mr. Bingley, whose easy manner and jovial nature win over Elizabeth’s sister Jane.

It is said that some women—most women?—love a project, and Mr. Darcy certainly qualifies. His first proposal to Elizabeth outlines all the reasons he should contain himself, despite his feelings, prompting his beloved to ask why “you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?” (My husband summed up this proposal as “I love you, but you suck.”) But, as Elizabeth concedes later, Mr. Darcy “improves upon closer acquaintance.” He is in fact somewhat prideful, but also a socially uncomfortable person; some of what Lizzy mistakes for pride can be attributed to the fact that, as he admits, he has “not the talent which some people possess … of conversing easily” with strangers.

Eventually, Elizabeth will realize that her own pride and prejudices have been at least equal to Mr. Darcy’s, and that she is not as infallible a judge of character as she thought. And Mr. Darcy will, of course, get the girl.

The modern reader will need to slow down the constant chatter of the world that has shortened our attention spans. This is a book to be savored in its complex plot (only lightly traced here), its beautiful language, and its subtlety. No character screams, throws fits, or snatches up a pistol. Insults are veiled in civility; in some cases one must read between the lines. Read slowly by the fire and you will be satisfied.

One edition I recommend is The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, edited by David M. Shepard (Random House, 2004). Presented with the text in a side-by-side style, the annotations are helpful in understanding certain mores of the times as well as obscure vocabulary. Sometimes the notes are superfluous (don’t most of us know what effusion and stately mean?), but not intrusive. This edition also includes maps, a chronology of the story, and an interesting bibliography.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 9, 2012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Writer's Bookshelf: A WRITER'S PARIS by Eric Maisel

living the dream in the Place des Vosges

Reference / Writing
Writer's Digest, 2005
 224 pages  $18.99
A popular movement in the last few years touts the idea of visualizing your desires. That idea may be the subject of some other post; it isn’t the topic of this one. But I will say that sometime in the fall of 2005 I devoured Eric Maisel’s A Writer's Paris like a crème brûlée. His promise that anyone, anywhere, could achieve the dream of taking at least a little time to write in Paris had me salivating. I dreamed of it; I lived and breathed it. By summer 2006, I was sitting on a bench in the Place des Vosges with a notebook in hand.

Eric Maisel is a renowned creativity coach, author of books like Creativity for Life: Practical Advice on the Artist's Personality, and Career from America's Foremost Creativity Coach (New World Library, 2007) and Fearless Creating: A Step-by-Step Guide To Starting and Completing Your Work of Art (Tarcher, 1995). I’ve often thought how nice it would be to have such a coach to cheer me through the lonely days of writing (and there are plenty). A Writer’s Paris comes pretty darned close. Subtitled A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul, Maisel’s book is both a love letter to the most beautiful city on earth as well as a reminder of how privileged we are to be able to write. Each of his 34 essays explores a different theme of how staying in Paris, a city that has always revered artists of all stripes, can affect your craft. Some advice is practical—where to go, what to do—and some addresses your creativity (don’t forget to write while you’re there). His prose transports you, whether he’s describing a stroll to the Île St-Louis or comparing writer’s block to the perfectionism of picking only the best apricots from a market stall. Somehow a modest footbridge, a seat in the Luxembourg garden, and the steps of Sainte-Chappelle all become metaphors for the writing life.

Beautifully illustrated, bound in cloth and sized to fit easily in your tote, this book is an inspiration, whether or not you ever set foot on French soil. Yes, Maisel urges you to go to Paris. But more than that, he opens up the possibility of it. No dream seems unreachable, no goal elusive in his confident hands. Part travel memoir, part writing tool, A Writer’s Paris fills the heart and drives me to my keyboard. I find myself asking not “How?” but “Why not?” I can’t ask for a better coach than that.

If you’re experiencing déjà vu, don’t adjust your TV. A version of this post appeared in an earlier blog in 2008.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: WHAT ALICE FORGOT by Liane Moriarty

What Alice Forgot
Contemporary Fiction
Amy Einhorn Books, 2011
423 pages
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a firm believer in judging a book in context with its peers, which is one problem I have with a "star" system. I might have gone to 4.5 stars on What Alice Forgot if it were an option; does that mean I place it in the same category as Dickens? Well, no. But it's an excellent, compelling story, one that kept me up turning pages past my bedtime, and one that didn't have me groaning to myself, Why can't good storytellers learn to write?--because Liane Moriarty can write.

The story follows Alice Love, a successful, well-groomed mother of three who takes a fall and loses her memory--but not all of it. Brittle, driven Alice was once sweet, loving Alice ten years ago, and when she wakes from her accident, that's who she is: She's the Alice of 1998, not 2008--the Alice who still loves her husband, who's expecting her first baby, and who hasn't yet alienated the most important people in her life.

This isn't exactly a brand-new idea for a plotline, but that's okay. The story reminds me of the film Regarding Henry, starring Harrison Ford as a jackass whose memory is completely destroyed, and with it, his awful personality. Alice isn't an awful person, but before her accident, she seemed to have forgotten herself; now, post-accident, she's forgotten her "mature" self, and all to the good, it would seem. But somehow she has to cope with three children, a messy divorce, and the strange life she has adopted. The drama of it pulls you through from the first page to the last. I'm not a fast reader, but I was done with this book in about 3 days.

As to the writing, it's intelligent and not overwrought. The characters are genuine, three-dimensional people. You want to call them on the phone and set them straight. Parts of the book are quite funny, and other parts heart-wrenching. All in all, Moriarty's tale makes for a hugely satisfying read.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Review: THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC by Richard Russo

That Old Cape MagicThat Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I fell in love with Richard Russo when I read EMPIRE FALLS. This is a much smaller book, both in scope and in heft. While it didn't overwhelm me the way EMPIRE FALLS did, it did leave me a lot to think about. In the story, Jack Griffin attends two weddings, and in between them considers his marriage, his parents, and his past.

The first 30 pages or so didn't really grab me, and I might have put it down but for the fact that I was going to see Russo speak at an authors' event here in Kansas City, and I wanted to have the book read by then. I'm glad I stuck with it, because the story really picked up and became a page-turner. It also happens to contain the strangest and funniest story of a wedding rehearsal dinner I've ever read (or seen in a film).

Speaking of films, this book did echo a bit the films of Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, Something's Gotta Give). Maybe I think that because I just saw It's Complicated, but when reading this book, I did rather feel I was watching another Meyers film!