Friday, February 25, 2011

Short Story Review: Princess for Hire

So today, in a slight deviation from the normal routine, I'll be reviewing a short story—Princess for Hire by Jamie Grey. I “met” Jamie recently through Lydia Sharp's contest and enjoyed reading her blog and chatting with her on twitter. When she asked for people to review her upcoming story I was happy to offer.

Here's the blurb for the story:

After winning his kingdom in a legendary poker game twenty years ago, Princess Mina’s father loses the kingdom just as easily. Now alone and penniless, Mina must rely on her sword to support them both. When the princess-turned-mercenary is offered a contract to save a prince that will pay enough to keep her father in luxury for yet another year, she and her business partner snap up the deal. Dragons and all.

Jamie sent Princess for Hire to me a few days ago. I had a good time reading it (and realized how long it's been since I read something that truly qualifies as a “short” story). Here are my thoughts.


The thing that struck me first about the story was its voice. A lot of people talk about the importance of voice, but until you see it, it's not always easy to know what you're looking for. Jamie did an excellent job with the voice from the first sentence and immediately drew me in. This was one of the strongest aspects of the story, and I think that bodes well for Jamie's writing career in general.

The opening scene is a lot of fun. We immediately get a sense of the main character Mina and her father, the deposed king who bleeds money. The tone of the story is lighthearted, and I think that's what really kept me wanting to read. The dynamic between Mina and her father is familiar and well-developed even in a few paragraphs, and their plight is a humorous twist on a typical fantasy set-up.

I love that this story knows what it is and doesn't try to be something it isn't. The tone remains consistent throughout. While the ending is unexpected, it's also exactly what the story promises us in the beginning. But more on the ending in a bit.

Jamie's writing was smooth throughout the course of the story. Aside from a few overly-used words in places, the writing didn't get in the way. And the pacing was really well done. Pacing can often be a big issue for some writers, and in a short story pacing problems tend to become even more evident. But Princess for Hire had a great arc and never felt too rushed or too drawn out.

The story kept my focus from beginning to end. It built tension in increments and then delivered at all the right moments. By the end I wasn't left wishing for any further resolution.

As I said above, the climax of the story has a surprise twist. But my favorite part of the story was the very end when Mina and one of the other characters come up with an amusing solution to their mutual problems. I thought Jamie handled that scene very well, and it left me with a smile on my face.

The one thing I did wish was for more recognizable characterization of the secondary characters. A story this short leaves little room to delve into personality traits, but Jamie did such a good job in such a short time in the opening scene that I was expecting the later characters to be equally vibrant. The difficulty is that characters in short stories often have to be pretty one-dimensional in order to have a personality that a reader can latch onto and connect with. I suspect that in trying to make the secondary characters more complex, that immediate recognition was lost.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story. It was a quick, entertaining read. Great work, Jamie, and congratulations! I look forward to seeing what else you write. Best of luck!


Princess for Hire comes out March 1st through Muse It Up Publishing. For more information about Jamie or her story, visit her at

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dream Jobs

Last week over at Genreality, Rosemary Clement-Moore had a fun post about Dream Jobs that got me thinking about my various dreams growing up.

One of them was to work on natural language processing, the goal of which is to build an artificial intelligence that can communicate like a human. So far talking robots are still science fiction, but researchers keep coming closer all the time.

I've been thinking about this dream job recently after watching Watson on Jeopardy. For those who missed it, Watson was a computer designed by IBM that went up against the two best-performing people ever to compete on Jeopardy. Going into the first night of the show nobody knew what to expect. But over the course of the three days of competition, Watson dominated the board.

Watching the performance was pretty amazing. I was in awe that anyone could have made such an advanced artificial intelligence. Granted, when Watson was wrong, he was wrong in some pretty wacky ways. And Watson's “intelligence” was based on probability, not actual knowledge. But wow did I ever wish I could have been part of the team that designed Watson.

At one time that really was my goal in life. One of my high school science fair projects explored AI. In college I took math, linguistics, computer science, and even psychology. Thinking about language and the way our brains work is so thrilling. We're a pretty amazing species, you know?

I never did end up on the Natural Language Processing path, and I'm glad now that life turned out a little differently than planned. Still, remembering that dream got me thinking about the things that used to captivate my attention.

Anyway, so far my interest in linguistics hasn't quite made its way into a book, but I know it could one day. In fact... uh oh, here I go about to get all wrapped up in a new story idea! And I've already got plenty of those for the next few years. But more on those another day.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Book Recommendation: How Not to Be Popular

How Not to Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler has been on my to-read list for at least a year. I never could find it at the library, though, until I finally broke down and reserved it. Though the book is a few years old now, it was absolutely worth going back to read, as it isn't dependent on any trend to make it good.

Maggie Dempsy has lived all over the country. Her family only stays in one place for a year or two, then sets off for the next big thrill. Maggie never minded her unsettled life... until the most recent move, when she had to say goodbye not just to friends but to a boyfriend she really loved.

She hates how much she misses everyone she left behind, and she's determined not to feel this much pain ever again. So she makes a pact with herself: no friends in her new school. No parties, no popularity, and definitely no boyfriend.

But being unpopular isn't as easy as she thought it would be. Everything she does to make people think she's a loser only backfires. The school misfits genuinely like her, and despite her initial prejudices, she kind of likes them too. Worst of all, Maggie thinks she might just have a crush on a guy who's totally not her type. If she doesn't find a way to sabotage her relationships soon, she might just make a place for herself in her new school.

This book has a fantastic voice. Maggie is fun and quirky without being over-the-top. Humor runs throughout the book, both in the things she says and the things she does, and it never feels like it's trying too hard. Maggie's voice is authentic, which is important since authenticity is a major theme of the story.

I loved the idea for the plot too. Ziegler takes a well-known idea (trying to be cool) and turns it on its head. The book was hard to put down because some of Maggie's stunts were so outrageous I just had to know what her classmates' reactions would be. And the chapters never disappointed me.

So I'm happy to give How Not to Be Popular a glowing recommendation. When I got to the end I was sorry it was over, and that's high praise for any book. I hope one day I'll get to read it again.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Reading

Do you ever feel that you can't call a particular activity “working” if it's something you love doing? I certainly think that way most of the time. I have to tell myself not to feel guilty about spending time reading regularly, because it's too much fun for me to believe that it's good for my writing.

But it's not just good for writing, it's necessary. Several things are vital to writing growth. Honest critiques help point writers in a positive direction. Learning the disciplines of dedication and self-motivation keep writers from stagnating. But critiques and discipline on their own don't quite stabilize a writer's progression. Reading is the essential third leg.

When I first started writing I didn't appreciate how much I needed to read, particularly in my genre. Then two years ago at The Virginia Festival of the Book, a panelist made a comment about the necessity of reading that finally clicked. A couple months later at a book signing Melissa Marr reiterated the point, telling those of us listening to read books from every section of the library—books on pottery and poetry, love and lore, architecture and arthropods.

Since then the library has been my best friend. Until two years ago I had purchased nearly all of the books I read, meaning if I didn't want to break the bank, I couldn't read nearly enough. Now library books are the majority of what I read (though not all—the new kindle has quite a few books already). Just today I picked up How to Be Popular by Meg Cabot and How Not to Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler. (When I saw them both I couldn't resist.)

The best part about reading—aside from getting to do something that is awesome fun—is seeing how much it improves my writing. I can see how much more progress I've made in the past two years than in the years before that. Couldn't ask for more.

And now, a book is calling. Time to go snuggle up and enjoy it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Author Spotlight

And here's the link to the interview!  Thanks Lydia!  It's been a great experience.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Almost There

Goooooooood evening, everyone! I hope you're having a good week. Mine has been crammed full of editing. I'm working on the final pre-querying draft of the book, and while I've already made a lot of progress, there's still much to do.

Right now I'm working on stylistic edits throughout the full manuscript. My eyes are starting to turn glossy. Haven't I already worked through the cadence of these passages once? twice? a half dozen times? Yet I keep finding new changes to make, new issues to consider. Gotta get all the perfectionism out now or I'll be editing ad aeternum.

Sometimes after multiple edits I start feeling like Sisyphus. (Yeah, that guy doomed to roll the boulder up the hill forever.) The drafts all start to look the same—one long string of words that refuse to become the story I want them to be.

But in those moments (like right now), I try to remember the feedback I've already gotten. The most recent draft was good—not great, but good. I've made progress. The edits I'm working on now will result in a better story.

And I'm almost done. You know that note in a song that tells you the song is just about to go into the next section of the music? I think I'm on that note with the editing. This moment in my story's life is almost complete, and soon I'll be ready for the transition to querying.


In other fabulous news, my interview with Lydia will be up on The Sharp Angle tomorrow! I'm excited. I'll make sure to link it as soon as it's up.

Have a good one, everybody!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Finding Clusium

A couple weeks ago I talked about the dream that led to my idea for Olympus Gate. After the dream I started planning out some of the details of the book, including the when and where of it. I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to set it in Ancient Rome, but that still spans a lot of area and time. So bit by bit I put together the requirements for the setting.

-It had to be a large enough town that the society would be varied and interesting, but small enough to have significant farmland.

-It had to have been an Etruscan town originally, but be fully Romanized by the time of the story.

-It had to have at least one river nearby.

These requirements narrowed down my options a bit. Eventually I chose Clusium as the primary contender and set about finding a way to visit. Fortunately my husband and a group of our friends were all very interested in going to Italy, so in the middle of October of 2009 we took our trip.

We spent the majority of our time there visiting Rome (oh wow, was it ever amazing to see the Forum and Colosseum!) and Florence (the art! the views! the gelato!), but we also took a day to explore Chiusi, the modern version of Clusium.

Chiusi is halfway between Rome and Florence and is easily accessible by train. The train stop is at the bottom of the hill, and at first glance the town doesn't seem very promising. I remember getting off at the stop and wondering what exactly I had gotten myself (and my group) into. But soon enough we found a bus that took us up to the top of the hill and the main part of the town.

Before we did anything else we had lunch in a nice little restaurant called Zaira and took a tour of its wine cellar.

Afterward some of us explored the Etruscan museum. It had some really great pieces. I loved everything I saw, and I was even allowed to take pictures!

But the best part was when we all took a walk around the outside of the hill and exclaimed over the perfect vista. It was in that moment I knew I had picked the right place.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pay It Forward

S.R. Johannes is holding a great contest this week called Pay it Forward. A big part of the contest is acknowledging someone who has made a difference in your writing life, which I wholeheartedly approve of. Thanking the people who change our lives for the better is always worthwhile.

There are a lot of people who have helped me along over the past five years. My husband is a constant encouragement, and without him I don't think I'd be writing at all. My critique partners constantly challenge me and make me grow. Numerous authors and bloggers have given me great advice. But there's one person in particular who has kept me sane through all the ups and downs of writing.

Her name is Ico. She's been part of my critique group from the beginning, though I think we'd critiqued a few things for each other even before the group started. She has always had great comments for me on my writing, and even when she's had to tell me that something I've written is complete trash, she's done it in such a way that I'm happy about the critique and eager to get back to work. I'm constantly amazed at her ability to inspire me.

Ico does far more than critiques, though. We live in different parts of the country, but we chat online whenever we can. She's the first person I go to whenever I'm having a bad writing day. She's the one who always understands where I am and how I feel about my books and what I need to get me back on track. She even came to visit me a year and a half ago and then joined me at ArmadilloCon this past summer.

So thank you, Ico. Thanks for your great advice, and your willingness to listen, and for sharing the joys and challenges of writing with me. Thanks for being one of my best friends.