Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Writing the Book You Want to Read

What is the one story idea you want to read more than any other? If only one plot could exist in all the world, what would you want it to look like? What book would truly be the very best book you could think of?

Is that the book you're writing?

I used to think about those questions years ago. I tried to come up with all the very best ideas and mash them together into a single plot. Generally the results were either derivative or nonsensical.

But then for a long time I forgot those big questions and followed the lure of Shiny New Ideas—a unique setting with unexplored consequences or a dream that captivated me and needed to be told. And these were good ideas, fun ideas. They were books I would have enjoyed reading had someone else written them.

There's nothing wrong with writing a good book, especially a book you love.

When I began to write The Never Silent, though, I went back to those questions I had ignored for so long. I added new questions, too, that would further define what I wanted to create. And then I constructed my new plot with intention, structuring each piece around my answers.

This is one way of writing a book. It's not the only way, and maybe not even the best way. But I really like how it's turning out.

At first, writing The Never Silent was like writing any other book. It was just as much of a challenge and still is.

Now I'm editing. I'm in the process of going through each scene to add in a bit more description. I'm having more fun than I probably have any right to, but for some reason I've always loved the early stages of editing.

There's more to it than that, though. As I was going through one of my scenes the other day I had an experience I have never had before while writing. For the very first time I felt that the book I was working on was THE book I wanted to read.

I don't know if that means other people will feel the same way. I don't know if this book is any better than my others or if it's the one that will finally be published.

What I do know is that I'm accomplishing something that's meaningful to me, and that is making all the difference.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Recommendation: The Scorpio Races

If you'd asked me a month ago to list off as many fantastical creatures as I could think of, water horses would not have been high on the list, if I remembered them at all. I'd seen them pop up a few times in minor plot lines from some of the books I'd read, but until The Scorpio Races, I'd never read a book specifically about them. Now, though, I have a feeling they'd be pretty high on my list.

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater, is about a girl named Puck and a boy named Sean, living on an island called Thisby where the capaill uisce—horses from out of the sea that devour human flesh—are caught and raced. Both have desperate need to compete in the races and win, but in the annual November races, not everyone survives.

Sean is the son of a racer who was killed by the water horses. He enters the races to be with Corr, the red capaill uisce he rides but that does not belong to him.

Puck is recently orphaned, and without the prize money she doesn't know how to care for herself or her family. She's the first girl to enter, and the only rider racing on an ordinary horse.

I picked up The Scorpio Races on a whim, not knowing what to expect. I recognized Maggie Stiefvater as “the author of that werewolf series,” but wasn't familiar with any of her other work. To my pleasant surprise, The Scorpio Races was the most beautifully-written book I'd read in a long time. I frequently found myself noticing a perfect analogy or a beautiful line of description. None of the writing felt tired or mundane. The book impressed me enough that I expect I'll seek out more of her work in the future.

As for the story, it was compelling and developed at a good pace. I never felt that the relationships between characters were rushed. Their actions made sense, and Maggie Stiefvater made good use of the tension she'd created through the conflicting desires of her cast of characters.

Most of all I enjoyed the atmosphere of the book. There's a wild magic in the ocean, and this book captured the untamability of the sea. The island was as fully developed as any of the characters, and the water horses demonstrated perfectly how one can fall in love with danger, but must respect it or be consumed by it.

Bottom line: Good books always leave me inspired, and this one has inspired me to work all the harder on crafting the language in my books. It's a beautiful story too, and not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What's with the Bunnies?

I like soft, cuddly animals. I feel like I should say that right off. I have a cat, and she is the princess of the house. And I like real bunnies too. Every time I see one I want to smoosh it's little face. (In a totally non-lethal way of course.)

But lately, everything's coming up killer bunnies.

It started with a video game. My husband and I are casual gamers. (That is, I'm casual. He loves games like I love books.) Sometimes we'll pick up an mmo to play together for a while, and the mmo of the season happens to be Guild Wars 2.

I'm not going to go into much about the game, apart from saying that so far it's one of the best I've played. The point is that whoever designed one of the starting areas must have had a bunny obsession. Within the first ten levels of playing in that area, I captured bunnies to sell to giants, was turned into a snow leopard and hunted bunnies, and—my favorite, by which I mean NOT my favorite—was attacked by bunnies.

Yes. Knocked over by hungry bunnies who would steal the bunny food I was trying to gather for their farmer.

Now typically I'm very pro-animal. I hate seeing animals suffer, even fake animals. In video games I go out of my way to avoid killing little helpless critters, even though they're nothing but pixels on the screen. But I'm telling you, as those hungry little rabbits knocked me down over and over, all I could think was “Die, bunny, die!”

And suddenly I remembered all the bunny terror in the media. Jimmy Carter's bunny attack. Anya's bunny phobia on Buffy. The Rabbit of Caerbannog.

Suddenly, marauding bunnies didn't sound like such an insane idea after all.

So here's my question for all of you: What's YOUR contingency plan for the bunny apocalypse?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Review: Locked Within

I'm here today with something a little different from the usual. Paul Anthony Shortt, a writer friend of mine from Ireland, is launching his debut novel, Locked Within! I've read the book, and today I'll be posting a review.*

But first I have a few questions I've asked Paul in order to introduce him to you folks:

Tell us a little about where you're from.

I grew up in a town called Bray, not far from Dublin. It's a seaside town, and used to be a pirate hideout centuries ago. I've lived in the Dublin area all my life, except for when I briefly lived in Manchester. My wife and I live in Bray, in a house with two energetic dogs.

So why did you choose to set your book in New York City?

As a kid I was enamored with New York. All the best movies seemed to be set there and it personified what I thought of as America. As I grew up and learned more, I understood the city's historical significance, not least of which in terms of Irish immigrants. A great many Americans have their roots in Ireland and a lot of those arrived through the port at Ellis Island. When it came time to choose a setting for Locked Within, I knew I wanted New York, and nowhere else. It's a melting pot of so many different cultures, yet the city itself is its own culture. People who live there aren't just Irish, or German, or Jewish or African. They're New Yorkers. There's an identity there, a power all of its own, and I wanted to explore how that could play a part in a setting where even places can have an energy of their own.

Do you travel often?

I lived for 5 months in Manchester, as I mentioned above, but beyond that I've been to Canada, London, France, Italy and, of course, my beloved New York. My wife and I honeymooned there and we returned for a week earlier this year. We also travel around Ireland a bit when we feel like a weekend break.

What was your inspiration for Locked Within?

A lot of it came from researching mythology and occultism. I've always been fascinated by reincarnation. It occurred to me that if someone were reborn many times over and could remember past lives, they would find themselves able to pick up old skills more easily. I decided I wanted to see humans back in the forefront in fantasy fiction. There are a lot of stories out there about strong vampires or wizards, so I wanted to try and create a hero who really didn't have much power. Just knowledge and a desire to help people. Nathan Shepherd started out as that.

What do you most enjoy about writing?

Telling stories has always given me a high unlike anything else. I get hooked on the response from someone who's enjoying a story I've come up with. It gets that not writing makes me antsy and even irritable. I can be downright miserable if I don't get to write. Discovering the story for myself is the first kicker, the hit that drives me. But I know I'm really doing it for the end goal, knowing that someone out there is that little bit happier because they've enjoyed my stories.

Tell us about your path to publication.

I've actually been incredibly lucky. Granted, it took me 20 years from my first thoughts of "I want to be a writer" to get here, but it was only about 3 years ago I started writing Locked Within in earnest. I spent a little over a year writing and editing it, though I broke one of the golden rules and started querying before I'd finished my edits! I only had about 3 chapters edited when I started. Anyone at home, don't do that! Finish your book before querying! Believe me, it makes the few days after "we'd like to read more" a lot less stressful.

It was a contest that got me the contract in the end. Karen Jones Gowan, author of Lighting Candles in the Snow and managing editor at WiDo Publishing, hosted a contest for people to send in their queries. Three winners were to be chosen, who would each have the option of receiving a free critique of their manuscript or have their book considered for a contract. I was one of those chosen, and I knew which prize I wanted. I signed my contract in April 2011, almost exactly a year after I finished the first draft of the book. Since then I've been working with an amazing team to get the book ready for publication. It's been a challenge. As scary as it was to send my first query letter, that was nothing compared to the amount of work that went into editing Locked Within.

It's been great working with WiDo. They're very hands-on with their writers, but still give an immense amount of freedom. I was happy to dive into self-promotion and building my author platform, and every step has felt like a partnership. I know they want the best for my book, and my editor and I work incredibly well together.

What are some of your favorite things to read?

At the moment I'm really getting into a lot of Young Adult. For years I was hooked on the Dresden Files and I'm a very slow reader, so that took up a lot of my reading time. Now that I'm caught up on the series I've been taking time to try other authors. I'm particularly fond of Janice Hardy's Healing Wars series.** In general I prefer a good series over a standalone story, because I love spending a lot of time with characters and getting to know them and watch their lives change. That said, if you're looking for a good YA standalone author, check out Hannah Moskowitz. Her Invincible Summer made me cry. I'm looking forward to checking out Linda Poitevin's Grigori Legacy when I get a chance.

What are you working on now?

For now, Nathan Shepherd is firmly entrenched. I'm working on a re-write of the sequel to Locked Within. Originally I was planning a 6-book series (I think that's a hexalogy...) but after discussing things with my editor I decided to shorten it into a trilogy. I'm hoping to have the sequel, Forgotten Cause, sent back to my publisher by the end of October, with an aim to getting started on edits as soon as possible after that. I'm one of those authors who just can't sit still. I need to be working on something, so you can bet that once I've got Forgotten Cause sent, I'll be starting work on the third book.

Thanks for having me, and for reviewing the book. I hope everyone enjoys reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

Now on to the review!

Locked Within is the story of Nathan Shepherd, an ordinary New York resident with a not-so-ordinary interest in unsolved crimes. When his insatiable curiosity leads him to investigate a string of murders recurring every decade, he stumbles into the “other” side of reality—the place where vampires, ghouls and creatures yet more nasty dwell.

But Nathan isn't quite as unprepared for this world as the average mortal. For years, memories of previous lives have come to him in dreams. He's fought the monsters before... in memory. Now he must choose—return to an ordinary life or accept the memories and become a warrior once more.

I really love the world Paul has created. It's fascinating. He has pulled pieces from several mythologies but worked them together in a way that feels completely organic, not patched together with the assembly showing through the cracks. Everything ties in seamlessly, centered on this idea of what can happen to a soul both naturally and unnaturally in a reincarnation-based world.

One of the things I especially enjoyed about the world was that, while there was a vaguely good side and a vaguely evil side, the fight between the two wasn't entirely black and white. I liked that the hero was able to act independently of both and choose his own identity.

The villains of the book were a particular highlight for me. They presented a compelling challenge, had sympathetic motives but also acted in a way that made me cheer for the hero, and kept popping up to add interesting conflict to the story. I found the “monster” of the story to be imaginative and deliciously gruesome.

The hero, Nathan Shepherd, was likable and easy to root for, but I found his motives less clear. I had to keep reminding myself of who he was when he wasn't out fighting bad guys and wished that I had more of a picture of his life before the opening incident. His job was a throwaway detail, except when it benefited the plot, and I never felt invested in his relationships. Nevertheless, I enjoyed following him through his discovery of his past lives and full potential. He's smart, he's proactive, and his heart's in the right place.

As for the plot, it was creative and had a lot of fun action scenes. It kept me engaged and was exciting through to the end. The story had a good balance of conflicts, though I thought it could have used some tension between Nathan and his father. I did feel that the plot could have been tighter in places (the story line with Nathan's father's bar didn't go anywhere, for example), but I didn't notice any glaring holes.

My main criticism is with the pacing. In general the writing is good. It sounds American. Aside from vague language in some of the early dialog, the writing didn't get in the way of the story. However, I did find the transitions to be abrupt with very little down time or opportunities for reflection. There were few, if any, “deep breath” moments between scenes. So overall the pacing felt choppy and rushed. I think Nathan's motives would have come across more clearly if the reader had more chance to see into his thoughts. Additionally, though the description that was included was all very well done, I felt that the book needed more description.

All the same, I really enjoyed Locked Within, and Paul is to be congratulated on a strong debut. It kept my interest, and stands solidly on its own merits. I'm looking forward to the next book, and I wish Paul continued success. All the best to him for an auspicious launch!

*Keep in mind that, while I generally focus on young adult novels in the context of this blog, Locked Within is adult fiction and does include some strong language and graphic material.

**As am I!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fall Traditions

Running outside regularly in the mornings for the first time in my life has given me a new perspective on seasons. Over the past few weeks I've watched the trees evolve from lush green to foggy, muted mystery to thin sticks surrounded by brown and orange detritus. Running has given me much more time to dwell on the changes than hurried driving, and I feel more in touch with fall this year.

It's a good season for me, and aside from the winter holiday season is the time of year with the most ritual and celebration.

This past weekend held two of my favorite fall traditions: the Maryland Renaissance Festival and my church's tailgating night. I wrote about both of them last year, and I don't have anything new to say about either of them, but I do have some new pictures.

First, from one of the best demonstrations at the festival, the glassblower. New this year—seasonal glass pumpkins.

Second, part of my contribution to tailgating. In addition to ice cream I made bonbons this year, and here are a few I photographed beforehand.

I hope all of you are well and enjoying your own fall traditions.