Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Recommendation: Howl's Moving Castle

I have a very short list of books that I reread on a semi-regular basis.  Watership Down is one of them, and it gets better every time I read it.  A more recent addition to the list is Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.  I discovered it only in the past year, and I loved it so much I've already moved it to the short list of favorites.  I reread it this week—just now finished it—and I still find it absolutely delightful.

The story is about a girl named Sophie Hatter who believes her life will always be dull because she is the oldest of three sisters (it's always the youngest that lives an exciting life, after all).  But one day she is turned into an old woman by an evil witch, and she decides if she's old she might as well go out and seek her fortune after all.  She heads to the one place where the curse on her might be broken: the ever-moving castle of Wizard Howl, whom she believes to be a heartless, girl-eating monster.

To me the best part of this story is its characters.  Each of them is terribly flawed, and yet quite lovable.  Sophie is grumpy but entertaining, and she has the one kind of magic that I always wished most I could have.  Howl is self-absorbed, fickle and an absolute mess, but he's terribly sweet underneath it all.  Michael, Howl's apprentice, is easily disgruntled, but he can be very thoughtful too.  And Calcifer, the fire demon whose magic keeps the castle moving, is sulky and overly dramatic, but he really does care for those who befriend him.

Their adventure together is witty and whimsical.  The story puts me in a very good mood after I've read it.  The world feels just as it should be.  In fact, I think all of Diana Wynne Jones's book have this quality.  I will happily read anything she has written.  I think everyone should read at least one of her books, and Howl's Moving Castle may well be her best.  If you haven't read it yet, go out and find a copy right away!

Now if I could just get my hands on the movie adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle.  I've heard so many good things...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I've had several friends over the years who have done reenacting of one sort or another, whether of the Civil War variety or as members of the SCA (or even other sorts that I don't really know as much about).  Maybe it's a girl/guy thing, but honestly I don't always understand the appeal of the fighting, particularly in the Civil War reenacting.  I don't think I would enjoy dressing up in layers of costume and marching out in the sweltering heat to pretend to shoot people.  Not really my thing.  But I do understand the other side of it, where all the women get to make fun crafts and then go buy them from each other.

Crafts are fun, plain and simple.  There are a lot of creative crafting techniques I wish I knew, but I just don't have the time to learn them all.  Can't be good at everything, I guess.

The one that I do know well is crocheting.  When I was in middle school my grandmother taught me to crochet.  The challenge was that she's left-handed and I'm not, so I had a little difficulty following her steps in reverse.  Even now I'm not sure my stitches are all correct.

I find it dreadfully difficult to follow a pattern too.  Not really sure why—they are generally straightforward enough.  I prefer to make up my own though.  That's the fun part for me.  Instead of hunching over the instructions, trying to make sure I'm doing exactly the right stitches, I get to sit back and design my own.

Over the past few years I've gotten into the habit of making baby blankets for all my friends and family who have had babies.  (I didn't really know what I was getting myself into at the time—I didn't realize just how many of my friends at church would be bringing little ones into the world this winter/spring.  I've been in the middle of a crocheting frenzy.)  But now that there's a bit of a lull in the baby production I'm still wanting reasons to work on blankets.

Lucky for me a friend of mine came up with a very nice idea.  See I've been feeling a bit bothered lately by the fact that I don't make the time to do as much volunteer work as I feel I should.  I would like to go help serve meals at the homeless shelter, but it's too far away to be practical right now.  I mentioned this to my friend who does go serve, and he said that the shelter would probably appreciate having blankets to give out to the people staying there.

Yay!  Solution!  I can keep crocheting and do something useful at the same time!

Anyway, as you can probably tell by now, this post has nothing to do with writing.  But I did mention crocheting in my last post, so I felt like elaborating on the subject.  I'll leave you with a few pictures of the blankets I've done lately.

Monday, May 24, 2010


In Blue Like Jazz Donald Miller talks about television.  He starts off saying, “When you are a writer and a speaker, you aren't supposed to watch television.”  I think that's the common perspective.  TV rots your brain and all that.  In On Writing Stephen King says, “TV... really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”  But then Donald Miller recounts how he was listening to someone bashing television.  “He said that when we are watching television our minds are working no harder than when we are sleeping.  I thought that sounded heavenly.  I bought one that afternoon.”

That I can completely understand.  There are just times in life when I'm too exhausted to do anything but sit in front of the TV and let my mind do nothing.

Last night was one of those times.  The hubby and I spent this weekend between two graduation parties for various family members (including little sleep and a good bit of cooking).  By the time yesterday evening rolled around we did not want to do anything whatsoever; we were a bit partied out.  We plopped on the couch and turned on the prelude to the Lost finale.

I finished watching the Lost finale earlier today (during lunch—I justify much of my tv watching by doing other things at the same time that require my hands and would thus make reading impossible).  Don't worry, no spoilers.  Just wanted to talk about it a little bit since it's on my mind now.

For the most part I enjoyed the finale.  The last half hour did a few things that disappointed me, but I can pretend that those things happened differently.  There were a lot of really beautiful moments too.  Made me realize how much I came to care about some of the characters.

I think that television shows that have a good story and good characters can be enlightening.  That doesn't mean I should go out and watch everything—I grew up without much in the way of TV and I don't think that harmed me in the least (just the opposite)—but I think I've learned some good things from Lost.  I'm glad that I've experienced that show.

So here's to Lost.  Great show all around.  It will be missed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Recommendation: Poison Study

Sticking with Wednesday's theme on plants, I thought this week would be an appropriate time to recommend Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder.  The whole book is laced with great details about poisons (and other fun topics like fugitives and lockpicking).  I had a great time reading it just on account of these little tidbits, but the book has so much more to offer as well.

Yelena is a prisoner awaiting execution for murder.  On the day she is to die she is given a choice: die immediately as planned or become the Commander's food taster and live in constant fear that her next bite might kill her.  And death isn't waiting only in the form of food and drink; there are other risks to contend with: a magician who thinks Yelena is a danger to her kind, secret plots against the Commander, the surly assassin and right-hand man to the Commander who trains Yelena as food taster and warns that he will test her frequently, and the General whose son Yelena killed and who now wants her dead.

The characters in Poison Study are all very well portrayed and recognizably human.  Yelena is an interesting companion who never grows tiresome (the four hundred pages of the paperback go by quickly).  Valek (the assassin) is delightfully unpredictable; he does not stick to the typical tough man persona but surprises the reader with humor and sometimes even good will.  The Commander defies the “evil dictator” role and is instead a complex character with both good and bad traits.

Poison Study has just the right mix of adventure, magic, intrigue and romance.  I don't recommend it for younger readers as there are elements of Yelena's back story that are more appropriate for a maturer audience, but I would not hesitate to give it to an older teen.  It's a fun story, and one I hope to reread in the future.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I tend to like green growing things.  I think most people do (unless it's allergy season, and then quite a lot of people stare darkly out of their puffy eyes at the happily growing trees and grass).  Green has been my favorite color for a long time, mostly because I associate it with plants and Nature, and for me Nature is at times almost synonymous with Fantasy.

So, simply because I thought the subject might be interesting, I spent some time last year reading books on edible and medicinal plants.  I wasn't disappointed!  The books were fascinating indeed.

Have you ever thought about how much of a battlefield Nature is?  Imagine you are a plant.  (Yeah, ok, you're nothing even remotely resembling a plant, but bear with me a moment.)  There are a lot of things out in the wild that want to eat you.  But you don't want to be eaten.  So what do you do?

Well maybe your strategy is a strong defense.  You start producing poisonous chemicals to “discourage” your would-be munchers.  Bingo!  No more getting eaten.

Or maybe you think the best defense is a good offense.  So you start producing pheromones to attract the natural predators of whatever is trying to eat you.  So when the muncher shows up for snack time, it becomes the snack instead.

Or maybe you like subterfuge.  The chemicals you produce aren't detectable while you're being eaten, but they get into the system of the muncher and block its ability to reproduce.  Might not be effective now, but when there are no little baby munchers showing up in the next generation you get to have the last laugh.  (Ever wonder where modern birth control originated?  Look no further than these types of plants.)

Ok, you can stop being a plant now.  So what does all this mean for humans?  Well, some of these chemicals are poisonous to people as well as insects and tiny critters.  But some of them have other effects, like thinning the blood or getting rid of bacteria or calming the nerves.  So these are the precursors of a lot of our modern medicines.  (And what I find really fascinating: sometimes the difference between poison and medicine is merely a matter of dosage.)

Here's the brief history of medicine: plant does something clever to prevent being eaten; human stumbles upon the plant and consumes it—trial (hey! it cured my headache!) and error (ack! I'm dead!); modern chemists look at plants that have been used for centuries all over the world to find what chemicals are causing the various reactions; chemists then make synthetic compounds based on the plants to sell in the drug stores.

Now there's this whole list of steps the army has come up with for testing whether a plant you don't recognize is safe to consume (and the whole process takes over 24 hours).  I don't recommend going out into the woods and attempting this just for the sake of doing it, but it's great information to have if, for example, you're writing a story about characters who are lost in the woods without anything to eat.

And if you're looking for more information, go find your local library and check out a few books!  There are plenty more interesting facts about plants that I haven't even come close to addressing.

Have fun!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Well, turns out I was still feeling too under the weather to do a blog post yesterday, but I'm starting to feel a little back to normal today.  So today I'm going to ramble on a bit about a topic that has been rather present in my life lately and thus been on my mind: conflict.

Stories can't really exist without conflict.  Writing can, even very good writing, but in order to be a story a piece of writing has to involve conflict and resolution.  One of the biggest pieces of what makes a story interesting is how the characters deal with conflict.  In order to write a character convincingly you have to understand how that character sees and resolves conflict.

To start you have to know what your character perceives as conflict.  What one sees as a minor, easily-overcome setback could be to another a nearly insurmountable obstacle.  I think a lot of this perception is based on fear.  What does the character fear?  What would happen if that person was forced to confront the fear?  How would somebody who lacked that fear face the same situation?  What makes this character different?

Lately a friend of mine and I have made something of a game of “what would our characters do if...”  We come up with various scenarios (stranded on a desert island, stranded in each other's stories, stranded in high school) and then figure out how the characters would react, both to the environment and to each other.  It's been fun but also has helped to develop pieces of the characters that might not have come up otherwise.

Once you know what the conflicts are you have to figure out how the character will react to them.  One of my pastors was just talking about this on Sunday.  Some people (like me—I definitely fall into this category) prefer to avoid conflict whenever possible.  Others fight it—and some even thrive on it.  Some people acquiesce... anything at all to make the conflict go away.  Those who are wise will do what is in their power to defuse conflict.  (Sounds like the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”)  But our characters aren't always wise.

This reminds me of the analogy of the toothpaste tube.  Squeeze the tube and toothpaste will come out.  Sometimes people are like that too.  Put them under enough pressure and their true character will come out.  The job of a writer is to figure out what's in the character's tube.

So here's to all the conflicts that show our characters for who they are!

Have an awesome day, folks.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Week of Silence

Well, some Life happened to me this past week (can't be avoided sometimes), so I haven't been able to put together any posts until today.  Here's a brief update on what I'm doing:

1) The WIP is getting ever closer to a presentable draft.  It's with a couple of readers right now, so in the meantime I've been catching up on reading (got to Scott Westerfeld's So Yesterday and Melissa Marr's Fragile Eternity), doing some critiques, refocusing on another novel, and...

2) I've been working on some art and music composition lately.  While my primary creative interest is writing, I play around with other things sometimes too.  Recently I've been working on concept art and a soundtrack for a game for GeeQ Studios.  It's been challenging, but a whole lot of fun.

3) Unfortunately, due to the amount of Life happening this week, I think I might be coming down with a cold.  (Might also be blamed on the erratic weather patterns we've had lately.)  Oh well.

So unless the cold gets really bad over the weekend, I'm expecting to be back to a normal posting schedule next week.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Book Recommendation: General Winston's Daughter

I'm very excited about today's recommendation because it is a book by one of my favorite authors, Sharon Shinn. I love all of her books, whether adult or young adult, but her YA novels in particular are exactly the sorts of books I want to write.

I picked General Winston's Daughter to recommend, not because it is necessarily my favorite of her books (though I do love it), but because it is the one that has stayed with me the longest. The theme of respect for culture in the book resonated with me when I first read it and still grips me every time I think about it. Yet despite the clear message it is not a heavy-handed story. The characters and situations are very realistic and compelling.

Averie Winston is a young heiress, who leaves her familiar home in order to stay several months in the foreign city of Chesza, where her father and fiance are stationed. The city is exotic, resistant to rule by Averie's native Aeberelle, and exceedingly hot... and Averie loves it from the moment she first arrives.

She comes to Chesza expecting six romantic months in an exciting city. What she finds is increased awareness of the world, heartache, and unexpected love as she comes to understand her own heart. Averie learns to care for the people of Chesza and for their culture. She discovers where her passions truly lie.

I think we all need to read thought-provoking books like this one. If the qualification for a good book is that it changes us in some way for the better, then this is an excellent book. Pick it up and savor the experience of reading it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Little Picture

I had a dentist appointment this morning.  I went in to get an imprint of my top row of teeth in order to fit me for a night guard.  So I sat down in the loungey chair, watched the girl fill a mold with this pink, minty-smelling paste, and then braced myself for impact... which in this case meant shoving the whole thing up under the roof of my mouth.  Gag!  It was a struggle to stay calm and not spit the thing right out.  It felt like it was pressing up against the back of my throat, but I guess at least it didn't taste as bad as, say, Yak Butter Tea (and believe me, I know).  I had to lean forward and breathe deeply through my nose.  The good news was that it worked the first time and I didn't have to go through the ordeal again.  Still... heebie-jeebies.

The whole reason I had to do this is that apparently I clinch my teeth at night.  Fortunately I don't actually grind them, but clinching is bad enough; ever so slowly I'm wearing them down.

According to the dentist this is all due to stress.  He sees a lot of similar problems: this is a high-stress region.  (And why wouldn't it be when it can take an hour to drive twenty miles on the highway?)  I don't typically think of myself as super-stressed, but... yeah, ok, maybe he's right.  My stress is causing dental bills.  Joy.

But all that got me to thinking: how many other little things are there in life that have tiny ripple effects?  Sometimes it's really easy to look at the big things and their consequences, but it's much harder to sift through all the little causes and effects.

Which (of course) brings me to writing (as most things do).  It's not so hard to put together a plot and sift through all the major pieces that make the story go one way or another.  Same thing with characters: it isn't too difficult to come up with the major backstory elements that explain why they have certain traits.

It's much harder to pull together lots of tiny details and see how they might make little ripples that cause smaller things to happen down the line.  I think it's those sorts of details, though, that really bring depth to a story.  And I'm sure there's lots of room for improvement in my own writing.

Take magic for example.  (It does seem to be my quintessential example.)  There are so many instances in books of magical people getting angry and causing huge eruptions of power.  Magic and emotion are often tied together.  What might happen, though, with the subtler emotions?  Take my teeth clinching from stress as a model.  What happens when a magical person gets stressed?  Might little tendrils of magic seep out at night, perhaps to affect the local weather or make all the food in a place rot overnight?  Magic can very easily affect lots of little things, not just big picture, overall plot things.  The books I tend to like the most are the ones that keep in mind the little details.  That's what I want to see more of.

Well, that's enough from me today.  Have a great Wednesday!

Monday, May 3, 2010


It's raining again.

There are so many things to like about rain.  It keeps the plants green.  It has a soothing sound.  It cools the air.  It's refreshing.  It tends to keep people from making lots of noise.  There's something peaceful and almost magical about rain.

But I just can't bring myself to like rainy days.

I discovered last year that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Essentially that means that when I don't get enough sunlight I wilt and start feeling the symptoms of depression.  The long winter months can get miserable, particularly when there's a string of cloudy days.  Usually spring is better, but on days like today when there is no hint of sunshine I start to feel the weight of all those clouds.

It's hard to explain to people who have never dealt with depression just how miserable it is.  There's no “snapping out of it.”  It's a long cycle of incapacitation due to total lack of energy fueling (and being fueled by) intense guilt for not being productive.  All in all not fun.

But fortunately for me there are ways to deal with my particular underlying issue.  What I'm missing when I don't get sunlight is Vitamin D, so taking supplements really helps to reduce the symptoms I feel.  On sunny days I take every chance I can get to be in the sunlight.

However, there are still days like today when I just can't find much motivation.  The sky is the dull white-gray color of emptiness.  All I want to do is sit in front of Hulu and crochet (because then I can be entertained and still feel like I'm doing something remotely productive).

But that's not what I'm going to do.  I'm going to get a load of laundry started, head to the store for some groceries, and then get down to work on my revisions.  I just have to push myself out of this chair and take the first step.

Well, wish me luck.