Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How can Life's Challenges Shape us?

The other day in my English class, I was given the writing prompt:  How can Life's Challenges Shape us?  I could have easily gone with my own experiences.  This year has been difficult for me.  I've been constantly sick.  First, I  had Strep Throat, then Flu A, a broken foot, and finally, Mono.  As a result, my grades aren't where I'd like them to be.  They are good enough, but could have better if I hadn't missed so much school. 

I could have easily chosen to write about my illnesses, but since this was a practice writing prompt for a standardized test, I decided that I'd better follow the format we'd learned which was to include an example from a book and from a movie. I did exactly that and I made a 100 on my paper.  This got me thinking.

A 100 on my paper

Is the writing industry so formulated as well?  Based on my limited research. . . um, yes . . . there is some expectations to follow.  Some tips include:  Follow the story arc; include universal themes and emotions; avoid clich├ęs, adverbs, and adjectives; fifty percent of the writing should be dialogue; write what you know, but with your own unique twist; and make sure you have your own voice. 

So, this year I will be working on trying to reign in and shape my wild ideas into a more universal story and hope for the best.  I can't promise that I'll master the art or that I'll even get published, but all I can do is work on my craft and grow as a writer. Happy writing!

My book among the greats.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Triona's Top Ten Book Picks of 2014

I'm stealing Stacy's idea this week and sharing my favorite reads of 2014. My favorites are pretty evenly split between YA, adult, and MG. I tend to favor sci-fi and fantasy, but a few contemporary books snuck onto the list too.

Without further ado and in no particular order, here are my ten favorite books I read this year:

1. THE THOUSAND-DOLLAR TAN LINE by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
I'm a big fan of the sadly short-lived TV show Veronica Mars, so I was really excited when I spotted this book in an airport bookstore. This is the first book in a new series featuring Veronica and the other characters from the show. It read just like an episode of the show. I couldn't put it down for the whole flight, finishing just as we touched down on the tarmac. The second one in this series comes out in just a few days. I can't wait!

2. SEARCHING FOR DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede
An oldie, but a goodie! I received a box set of all four of Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles for my birthday and read them all in about a week. I'm listing this one, the second in the series, because it narrowly edges out the first as my favorite. I first read these books when I was a preteen and so identified with spunky Princess Cimorene, who melted wizards with soapy water and bossed dragons around. These books were just as good almost two decades later.

3. RUIN AND RISING by Leigh Bardugo
The final book in the Grisha trilogy didn't disappoint. This book was just as compulsively readable as the first two. Although some people didn't like the ending, I thought it was perfect. Everyone got what they deserved in a very satisfying way. (Side note: I will forever remember this book as the one I was attempting to read while in labor! I didn't get more than a page or two done, but I figure I should get some props for trying.)

4. THE EIGHTH DAY by Dianne K. Salerni
I went on a big middle-grade sci-fi/fantasy reading spree near the end of the year, since that's the genre of my current WIP. This was my favorite of them all--an action-packed novel with an intriguing premise and fascinating characters. The second book in this series is coming out any day now, and it's definitely on my to-read list.

5. CINDER by Marissa Meyer
Several teenage friends were swooning over this book, so I had to check it out. I thought the Cinderella-as-cyborg premise was very well thought out, and the pacing of the story was great. I also read the second one in the series, which was also very good.

6. BEHIND THE SCENES by Dahlia Adler
When I was eight months pregnant, my husband had to go out of town. I was feeling sorry for myself, so I wanted a fun, light book. This one definitely delivered. I liked the characters and premise a lot, and the feel-good ending cheered me right up.

7. CHAMPION by Marie Lu
Like Ruin and Rising, this was the third book in a trilogy I really enjoyed. It was my YA Book Pick for May, so you can read all about it here.

8. ATTACHMENTS by Rainbow Rowell
I read this author's FANGIRL and ELEANOR & PARK and absolutely loved them, so when I spotted this adult romance, I snapped it up. It was full of Rainbow's great dialogue and achingly relatable characters. I couldn't put it down.

9. SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY by Mary Robinette Kowal
I usually gravitate toward sci-fi and fantasy, but I have to admit to a soft spot for Jane Austen. This book, the first in the Glamourist Histories series, blends Austen-style prose and settings with a fantasy twist. I loved having both elements in one book and thought it was really well done. The next two books in the series were great too, and I can't wait to see where the author goes with it.

10. HOOK'S REVENGE by Heidi Schulz
I heard a lot about this book when Heidi sold it, and it totally lives up to the hype. Captain Hook's daughter is fearless and likable, and the narrator's witticisms alone were worth the read. This was another one I had trouble putting down.

Here's to more great reading in 2015!

Monday, January 19, 2015

YA Book Pick: Girl Online

Once a month, we choose an outstanding YA book to review. We want to spotlight books of interest to aspiring writers, as well as highlight some of our favorite books and authors!

This month's book pick is Girl Online by Zoe Sugg and Siobhan Durham  

Girl Online Cover
Synopsis (from Goodreads):

I had no idea GirlOnline would take off the way it has - I can't believe I now have 5432 followers, thanks so much! - and the thought of opening up to you all about this is terrifying, but here goes...

Penny has a secret.

Under the alias GirlOnline, she blogs about school dramas, boys, her mad, whirlwind family - and the panic attacks she's suffered from lately. When things go from bad to worse, her family whisks her away to New York, where she meets the gorgeous, guitar-strumming Noah. Suddenly Penny is falling in love - and capturing every moment of it on her blog.

But Noah has a secret too. One that threatens to ruin Penny's cover - and her closest friendship - forever.


Zoe Sugg is in reality a self made success.  She is only twenty-four but already an online blogger sensation with over six million subscribers (and counting) on her YouTube channel.  The stuff she blogs about is what tickles any teenage girl - fashion, hair, make-up to name a few.  But she also chronicles her own experience with panic attacks which makes her real and honest to her fans. 

Co-written by Siobhan Durham (a scandal in itself since it was just recently announced that Sugg had a ghost writer), the novel nevertheless stays true to who Zoe (or Zoella for those who follow her online) is and what her brand is about.  

The story may not be entirely original, but it speaks to its audience in a way only someone who's close to their age can.  It's cheery and sweet in that Zoella kind of a way and feels at times like the story is an extension of her persona. 
Zoe Sugg

Notes for Writers

As mentioned above this debut novel has created many polar opinions - especially when Durham was not originally mentioned in the press as the ghostwriter.  It wasn't until recently that her name was added to Goodreads.  

This is a great case study in examining the severity of the backlash that can happen when an author is not upfront with its audience - especially one so comfortable navigating the web. The online attack was fast and vicious and elicited quick responses from Sugg and Curham (who had nothing but positive things to say about Sugg).  While it hasn't hurt sales, it has nevertheless tarnished Sugg's reputation and more importantly, her brand.

A Good Read For:  

Fans of Zoella (of course) and anyone who just wants to enjoy a light read about today's teen perhaps under a beach umbrella or snuggled warm beside a fire. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Year In Books: Top Reading Recommendations From 2014

Thanks to Goodreads, I have a complete list of the 40+ books I read last year, and I have to say it was a pretty phenomenal year of reading.  Since January seems to be all about making lists, I thought I would share a list of my 15 favorite reads from 2014 (in no particular order).
Love Letters to the Dead

1.  LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD by Ava Dellaira 

I loved, loved, loved this book.  The story, the writing -- it made my heart happy. I loved this one so much that I might go so far as to say it was my favorite read of the year, which is saying a lot when you consider my list.  

Not a Drop to Drink (Not a Drop to Drink, #1)2. NOT A DROP TO DRINK by Mindy McGinnis

Blue Lily, Lily Blue (The Raven Cycle, #3)Mindy is a moderator and posts regularly over at AgentQuery Connect, so I feel a bit like I got to watch her debut happen in real time -- from getting an agent to landing a book deal.  So of course when Not a Drop to Drink finally came out I had to give it a read, and I am so happy to say that it did not disappoint. I suppose it's considered a dystopian story, but it has such a fresh take and the setting feels so realistic and plausible that I hesitate to lump it into that category.  Whether you like dystopians or you're suffering from end-of-the-world burnout, give this book a read. You won't be disappointed.
We Were Liars

3. BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE by Maggie Stiefvater

FangirlThis was my November YA Book pick, so I'll let you read my gushing post here.  Needless to say, I <3 Maggie Stiefvater and all of the books from THE RAVEN CYCLE series.

4.  WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart

This was a Goodreads Choice 2014 winner, which pretty much says it all. 

5. FAN GIRL by Rainbow Rowell

2014 was the year I fell in love with Rainbow Rowell. I picked this one up as soon as I had finished Eleanor & Park, and I loved every word of it.  Rowell has a true gift for writing unique characters that jump off the page.
Eleanor & Park

6. ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell

I was worried this one wouldn't live up to the hype, but holy hell did it. And if that's not proof enough, than perhaps the fact that it was a 2014 Printz Honor award winner will be.

7.  BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys

This is a beautiful and heart wrenching YA historical fiction centered around a fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl named Lina who is forced into a work camp under Stalin's orders.  You can read Lauren's review of it here for more details.

The 5th Wave (The Fifth Wave, #1)8. THE 5TH WAVE by Rick Yancey

I picked this one up after Triona featured it as her February YA Book Pick.  Admittedly I'm not a huge fan of Sci-Fi, but this story felt fresh, the characters real, and the pacing was so spot-on that I finished it in a matter of days.  I can't wait to read the next one.

9. POINTE Brandy Colbert

I haven't read any stories from the perspective of an aspiring ballerina, and I have to say I really enjoyed it (perhaps that's the ex-dancer in me). Theo is a complicated and well developed character, and her story is heart breaking and at times hard to read in all the right ways.

Between Shades of GrayNight of Cake & Puppets (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #2.5)

Laini Taylor is another one of my all time favorite authors. Whether you've read Daughter of Smoke and Bone or not, this is a great read.  It's more of a companion novel than a continuation of the series, and it delves into my favorite character from DOSAB -- Zuzana. As with everything Taylor does, it's beautifully written and hard to put down.

11. SINNER by Maggie Stiefvater

This is a companion novel to the SHIVER series, but like Night of Cake and Puppets you don't have to have read the series to enjoy this story.  As with all things Stiefvater, the writing is beautiful and the characters are blisteringly real.  I love that both Cole and Isabel should be unlikable characters, but in Stiefvater's hands you can't help but root for them.

A Monster Calls
12.  A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness

So unique, I don't really have words to describe it. I read it months ago, but I still find myself thinking about it -- I think the symbolism, emotion and truth of the story will sit with me for a long time. Highly recommend.

13. CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein

Sinner (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #4)
This historical fiction is told from the perspective of a young spy who's been captured and imprisoned in 1946 Nazi occupied France.  Filled with twists and turns and an unexpected narrator, this is possibly one of the most unique WWII stories I have ever read. And talk about strong female characters...eesh! 

14. THE DARKEST MINDS by Alexandra Bracken

If you enjoy The 5th Wave, you'll enjoy this story and vice-versa. It has a similar feel and similarly great pacing, though the stories are nothing alike.  If I had to pick between the two I'd pick The 5th Wave, but only by a hair.

15. THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt

I had to have at least one Pulitzer winner on the list, and you can't lose with The Goldfinch. I actually listened to this one as an audio book, which I'm not sure I'd recommend given the length.  But the story was so good I almost missed my stop several times during my work commute, and I found myself staying on the elliptical at the gym much longer than usual because I wanted to find out what happened next.  My only beef with this book is the length, but otherwise it is brilliant, beautiful, unique and worthy of all the praise. 

What were your favorite books of 2014, and most importantly, what should I read next? ;-)

The Darkest Minds (The Darkest Minds, #1)The Goldfinch Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity, #1)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why keep it real?

You may have heard the old adage to write what you know.  There may be some controversy on this on this subject, but I still think it is good advice.  Drawing upon universal experiences of emotions, senses, and losses can help create a rapport with your reader. For example, whatever scares the pants off you, just might do the same to your readers.  And your readers can probably also relate to sensory details like walking in the rain.  In addition, you can even take ordinary situations or regular people from your life and then tweak them into something entirely new.  The point is that writing what you know is a good starting point for your story, the rest comes from your imagination.

Another reason to "keep it real" is that I find it important to keep up with life while writing.  I don't want to focus too much on my writing that I miss out on too many activities.  Thus, I'd advice not to block out life unless maybe your are on a roll or a deadline.  Life will help keep you grounded and you might get some new ideas for your writing or figure out a way to fix a problem.  And in my case, I have three little ones that need me and I don't want to miss out on that.  Life happens when you are writing.  Don't miss it.

So, this year for my New Year's Resolution, I'm keeping it real.  I'm going to write what I know and I am going to go out and live my life.  At least that is the plan.  Here's to a happy and healthy new year full of great stories!!! Go out and find them, life them, and write them.  I look forward seeing where your words take you!!!

Where do your words take you?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Using Setting to Create Tension

Like most women my age with hipster tendencies, when the TV show New Girl launched, I was hooked. Not only was Zooey D. adorable, Schmitt the epitome of "that guy" who seemed to be at every party (side note: the opening episode characterization of him via "douchebag jar": brilliant), but when episode 12 came ("The Landlord"), it gave me one of my favorite writing lessons to date.

If you wish to re-live my epiphany for $1.99 & 22 minutes of your life, I encourage you to watch it here before continuing to read on so you get the full shock-value of the build-up (Warning: it is centered around prime-time-level morally-offensive dating/sexual discussion)

Synopsis: The show opens with Jess and Nick debating whether or not people are good or bad. Jess spends the rest of the show attempting to prove to Nick that men are good by befriending their onerous landlord. Nick is certain that the landlord is only kinder because he wants to sleep with Jess, and pushes the situation deeper and deeper, ultimately ending up heading to a threesome with the landlord (landlord's idea) because Jess refuses to admit that she was wrong, and Nick won't end the landlord's advances until she does. Ultimately Jess concedes just as the landlord bails out when another roommate cluelessly walks on set, and the landlord refuses "a foursome."

Writing Lesson:  The funniest part of the entire episode to me: lunges. When Nick and Jess were avoiding heading into the room, in the background the reader can see the landlord doing lunges. I died laughing. Close second funniest moments: the landlord dancing around pretending to play the flute to Rusted Root in the background, and Jess's awkward hands shooting out dancing in the background while the landlord puts the moves on Nick. 

When I was trying to describe what was so funny about this episode to a friend, I kept coming back to these scenes, and I noticed that they were all in the BACKGROUND. I realized that by providing understated slapstick comedy juxtaposed against awkwardness, it heightened both the emotions. Tension was pulled between the foreground and the background. 

Since then, I've been playing with what's happening in the foreground and what's happening in the background of my setting in order to add depth, complexity, and/or humor in my writing. Or, at least that's the goal, but I like that I have this goal now. Sometimes I want to add both terror and hope so I can use foreground and background to hit both notes mirroring my character's mood, or I want to foreshadow desire, but create complacency in the now so I can use one for each. And sometimes I want to just create a richness of humor so there we go... Lunges. Lunges, people. Lunges!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Writer's New Year's Resolutions

We're back after our short holiday hiatus! The beginning of the year is traditionally when people take stock of their lives and figure out what they'd like to change. Although I've made resolutions in the past to improve my health, career, and love life, I've never done a list specifically for writing. So without further ado, here's a list of some writer's resolutions you might want to consider.

1. Write what you love.

This one might sound trite, but it's something I hope to be better about in the coming year. How many of us are guilty of writing what we think might get us an agent or sell rather than the books that we love? If you're passionate about what you're writing, that's going to come across to the reader.

2. Write even when you don't feel like writing.
"There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.” ― Terry Pratchett

I'm not saying there aren't days when you don't feel inspired or excited about writing. Everyone has those. But I've read an innumerable number of blog posts, craft books, and articles saying that the key to being a successful writer is as simple as BICHOK: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. If you can't figure out a good direction for the next scene, put down anything. It doesn't matter if it's good.

And that segues nicely into the next one:

3. Don't rush things.
It can be really, really tough to keep editing and rewriting a manuscript when you're sick of it and just want to move on to the next shiny idea. But disciplining yourself to revise until it's as good as you can get it and then waiting to hear from trusted critique partners is the smartest move.

4. Read what you're writing.
That is, other books in the genre you're writing. If the last YA book you read was Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret or books in the Babysitter's Club series, don't even think about sending your manuscript out until you've brushed up on your modern YA reading. Pacing, content, conventions, and a host of other things have changed completely over the past thirty years. Try to choose popular books published no earlier than the past year or two.

Do you have any writerly New Year's re