Saturday, November 30, 2013

NaNoWriMo Recap: Week Four Victory Lap

Throughout the month of November, I will be blogging on my progress, both as a motivation to stick with it and as a way for those unfamiliar with the event to get an idea of what the experience can be like.  Also: writing craziness, random daydreams, tips, cheats, and caffeine abuse.

Alright, folks.  Today is the last day of the month, which means that it's the last day of National Novel Writing Month.  If you're anything like me (and have been writing this month), you'll know that November 30th is a bittersweet day.  On the one hand, it's a relief to be done with the manic insanity of trying to write a novel in 30 days, succeed or fail.

On the other, at some point during NaNo a writer starts to hit a groove and can see real, decided progress coming along in the manuscript before them.  Sometimes a character evolves in front of you without you consciously deciding to make them do so.  Your novel has become a growing, almost organic thing, and there's nothing quite like having something both creative and constructive in your life. 

For those of you who have "won" and validated your novel already:  Congratulations!  Enjoy your fancy PDF with your name on it (or your certificate if you printed it out).  For those not in-the-know, when you "win" NaNoWriMo, you get a few icons that you can use for Facebook, Twitter, etc, and a PDF that you can customize with your name and novel title.  That's really all you get for winning this event.  It's totally worth it.

For those who have not yet won:  Keep at it!  It's that last day - finish strong!  You can get those final words if you try.  <Insert your own motivational encouragement here.>  You know what you need to do if you want those fancy icons and that PDF.  You can do it.

For those who are nowhere close to winning:  There's always next year.  Think about what you learned from this month.  Try to remember the best parts for your emotional motivation next year and use the hurdles you might not have cleared in order to plan how you will do next year differently.  Perhaps you've realized that you are a writer, but you need to do a smaller amount daily.  There's nothing wrong with the NaNo structure not working for you.  Writing isn't easy, but it is worth it.  Find what works for you and then do it.  There are hundreds of blogs and articles out there about how to make your own system that facilitates writing for you.

Now for some obnoxious bragging and "this is how I did it."
1. Last year I wrote entirely in the evenings and the weekends.  This years I tried something different.  Every week day I've been getting up at 5:30 in the morning to write before I go to work.  The best I ever did was about 1000 words, but the usual number is in the 250 to 400 range.  It's not a lot (usually less than a page), but it's more than I had before.  Having a few words written in the morning also makes the evening sessions shorter and more enjoyable.
2.  On weekends when I had nothing else planned, I wrote as much as I could stand.  It didn't make for the best days, but having 7500+ words written every Saturday and/or Sunday felt great.  In a way, writing is like tough exercise:  it's not always pleasant to write, but it's usually pleasant to have written.
3.  I carry a notebook around with me everywhere.  Whenever a snippet of dialogue jumps into my head, I pull out my handy notebook and pen and write it down, later typing it into the manuscript in a chapter entitled "Random Stuff" which is just a mess of these things.  It's not terribly long, but occasionally I could Cut-Paste into the actual story and save myself some headache.  And even if they're never used, at least these snippets reveal character or setting or plot.  At the very least, they help my word count.
4. The "strikeout" font treatment is your friend.  Does a chapter suck?  Like, really suck?  Just cross it out.  You'll skim over it when re-reading and know it's not officially part of the story.  BUT it's still in your word count.  I rewrote one chapter three times.  That's a lot of words.  If I decide to go back with some of the crossed-out text, it's still there, but I can always just erase it later.  Add "Strikeout" to your [MS Word] ribbon in the upper left corner, and it will be a quick keystroke away.  If strikeout isn't dramatic enough, change the font to white.  It accomplishes the same thing.   

Today I have over 70,000 words and I don't think I spent any more hours writing this month than I did last year, when I finished with just over 50K.

Future goals:  Even after hitting my goal, I continued to write and I plan to keep doing so.  I haven't been writing 1667 words a day because that requires addition/subtraction.  I've been trying to write two pages a day.  This is a much more modest goal, and more importantly, it's not all-consuming.  I still have time to watch seasons of Doctor Who, hang out with my friends, and cook actual meals.  In fact, I can get most of this done during my morning session.  By keeping up with this, one year's worth of writing will be well over 700 pages.  That's a sizable manuscript.  Never underestimate the power of small amounts of consistent progress. 

For those of you who NaNo'd your heart out, I hope to see you next year.  For those who have never done it, maybe give it a shot?  And for those who never want to write a book and just want me to get back to writing reviews...I'm getting to it.  I promise.

Happy November!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: Mortal Coils

Mortal Coils by Eric Nylund
Series:  Mortal Coils (Book One)

Nothing interesting ever happened to fifteen-year-old orphans Eliot and Fiona while they’ve lived in the strict, oppressive household of their grandmother. A chance visit, however, reveals that there is much more to the twins. They are the offspring of a goddess and Lucifer, Prince of Darkness.

Now, to settle the epic custody battle between these two families, the fallen angels create three diabolical temptations, and the gods fashion three heroic trials to test Eliot and Fiona. More than ever they need to stick together to survive and to learn how to use their budding supernatural abilities . . . for family allegiances are ever-shifting in the ancient, secret world they have entered.

Because it's November, this book gets the unfortunate disadvantage of having been read during NaNoWriMo, meaning it was read in little chunks during my limited free time instead of being read over the course of a couple days.  This doesn't help any book, no matter how well written (or not), so take this review with a grain of salt.

As the blurb says, the book starts out with twins Eliot and Fiona, trapped in a highly regimented and rule-bound household, wanting something exciting to happen to them.  Of course all is not well, and even when they think they're just boring teenagers, the reader can tell that there's something special about them, even as they go through their daily grind of homework and thankless job.

Both twins get their chance to be the point of view character, and each handles the challenges around them slightly differently.  They are similar in many ways and eager to prove themselves but have their own dreams and insecurities.  While their voices can get muddled, having both perspectives strengthens the story. 

The overall concept was what turned me on to the book.  So much urban fantasy has become "tough PI (or the like) involved with vampires/werewolves/etc in a modern city," and while there's nothing particularly wrong about that, it gets tiring.  The author chose to try something else and pit mythological gods and goddesses against the demons of Christian mythology.  It's a clever idea.  

The overarching "challenges to prove yourself" idea is one that appears in classic stories, and though it won't set the world on fire, is a great story structure to use.  It wasn't hard to guess how it was going to turn out, but the "how are we getting there" is the fun part of this journey.

The first major problem the book has is its length.  My mass market is 672 pages long.  For a book that is sort of advertised for (and written about) teenagers, that seems like an awfully long story.  I wouldn't be complaining about the length if the story grabbed you from the first few pages and didn't let go, but it felt like a long time until the hook and an even longer time until the really plot line gets moving.  More than once I considered just speed-reading to the end and putting it aside.  Not a good sign.

The second complaint is the Immortal/Infernal characters and their names.  Clearly the author has drawn on Greek mythology rather heavily, borrowed some from Norse and Mesopotamian, and done the rest from the Judeo-Christian tradition.  I have absolutely no problem with this, but I had a hard time trying to figure out who was who.  

Most of the gods/demons are given modern human-sounding names.  Again, this isn't a problem if you can identify them and figure out who they are supposed to be.  But when you have a room full of Louis, Aaron, Dallas, Audrey, Henry and Uri, I have absolutely no idea why I should be concerned about these people.  It's really hard to be concerned when you don't have the background on these figure.  Toward the end it becomes clearer, but by that point I was beyond caring about who these characters, who have been conniving and plotting for 500 pages, are meant to represent.  

All in all, I can't say I was disappointed in this book, but I'm not sure that it was worth the time investment.  

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars.
Will I read the sequel?  Probably not.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

NaNoWriMo Recap: Resurgence of Week Three

Throughout the month of November, I will be blogging on my progress, both as a motivation to stick with it and as a way for those unfamiliar with the event to get an idea of what the experience can be like.  Also: writing craziness, random daydreams, tips, cheats, and caffeine abuse.

Ah, Week Three.  This is traditionally the point in the NaNo month where I believe your Inner Editor is either dead or severely disabled.  By barreling through the blasted wasteland of Week Two with the jerk dragging along behind you, the Inner Editor has been reduced to a weeping, bleeding puddle.  Despite his screaming "That sentence doens't make sense!  Your characters are stupid!  Why are you still doing this?!" you have not lost hope, intrepid NaNo writer, and have made it to the sweet bounty of Week Three. Your tenacity has given your Inner Editor pause, if not silenced him outright.

Which means you, dear writer, are free to write whatever you'd like.  Does it have to make sense?  No!  Does it have to be music to the ears?  No!  Does it have to take a logical path or even follow the narrative from start to end?  No!

Don't get it right; get it written. That's all you have to do. 

This is the week where it will be good enough to write something along the lines of:
Things were good when they weren't being bad.  People could be really clever but then would be dumb the next second.  We were afraid of doing things and afraid of not doing things.  It was complicated and unless you were there you won't understand so I don't know why I'm even trying to explain it to you.
After editing, you'll look at it and say "yeah, that's not right..." and will polish it, step by step, into something more like this:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Keep writing and eventually you'll get to the sweet land known as Writing Nirvana.  Your fingers type on the keyboard like a maestro playing his masterpiece.  Hundreds of words pile on top of one another and except for fixing the obvious typos, you will no longer worry about if they are exactly right.  It's much easier to correct a sentence than it is to write it the first time. 

This might also be the part of the month where you are desperate to something, anything, other than write.  You might notice a dearth of reviews on this website.  Fear not, a couple are on the way, but in order to write reviews, one needs to read books.  Tricky how that works.  I've been going through reading withdrawal.  I'll be back on the wagon soon.  

NaNo Memories:  A few years ago my story was set in a pseudo-imperial setting.  At first it was more like a generic fantasy kingdom instead of empire, but as I wrote, I pulled in random details from both the Roman Empire as well as the British Empire, picking whatever details suited me at the moment.  While writing, this freedom to use whatever details jumped into my brain allowed me to focus on the characters and their desires.  Despite being somewhat inconsistent to critical eyes, some of the best (read: easiest) passages I wrote were when I focused only on the things that mattered, not the things that could be fixed later - if they even needed to be fixed.  This is the only NaNo I've written which has the vaunted "the end" as the final two words.  

Vague Description of My Plot Progress:  After surviving a shipwreck, the protagonist is settling into her new life, including meeting someone who appears to care for her as a person instead of a political prize.  However, with the arrival of a sketchy character, she is starting to realize that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.  I'm hoping for more progress in the next week.

Last Week's Goals:  I wrote ~15k last weekend and reached 50,000 on the 17th, a new personal record.  I'm still writing every day and trying to keep it up for the rest of the month. 

This Week's Goals:  I have a couple characters that are waiting in the wings.  Some have already been introduced and then were shunted off to the wings, while a couple others have been waiting for their grand entrance.  I'm not 100% certain which one needs to come back first but I would like to see at least two of them make an appearance soon.

Current Word Count: 62,000+  (This will probably be at least 120k by the time I can put "the end" on the manuscript.)

Tips for Writers and/or Wrimos:  Try to not look at your screen for a while. You will make a disgusting amount of typos, but by allowing yourself to focus not on what you ARE writing but what you WANT to write, you might be able to break through self-doubt and self-editing. 

Have a cup of not-really-needed coffee and get back to it!

Friday, November 15, 2013

NaNoWriMo Recap: The Desolation of Week Two

Throughout the month of November, I will be blogging on my progress, both as a motivation to stick with it and as a way for those unfamiliar with the event to get an idea of what the experience can be like.  Also: writing craziness, random daydreams, tips, cheats, and caffeine abuse.
Best advice you will ever get from a shapeshifting cartoon dog

For the two of you who are going to read this:  Welcome to the end of Week Two!  It only gets better - or worse - from here!  How's that for unhelpful?

Traditionally, Week Two is when many WriMos run out of enthusiasm and have to start pushing through their novels on willpower alone.  The idea that was started last week and seemed so promising is now starting to rust and fall apart before your eyes as you write it.  The characters who walked into your head almost fully formed, with profound emotional depth and complex motivations, have become walking stick figures, mere puppets who are all starting to sound alike.  The plot?  Two things are happening:  either A) it's going absolutely nowhere and your cardboard stock characters are just having "as you know, Bob" conversations like NPCs in a video game, or B) it has completely derailed and makes about as much sense as a frying pan made of out of Jello.

Achieving your threshold word count is like pulling teeth - your own teeth.  Using chopsticks. Made of string cheese.

Needless to say, it can be a rough week.  A lot of people seem to give up somewhere around Day 9 or 10, and who can blame them? 

Here's the part where I make everyone who reads this (all two of you) hate me:
I have never had a problem with Week Two.  In four years of doing this, I have never fallen behind in Week Two because of writer's block.  In fact, I had a bang-up weekend last weekend and not only caught up, but banked a huge surplus of words which has only grown day by day as the week went on.  I could stop writing for five days and still have extra words.

I would say "I'm sorry" for those who are struggling, but that would be disingenuous.  I'm not sorry at all!  HA HA!  I'm thrilled! 

But enough bragging.

For those of you who are struggling, think of this like the marathon runner's "wall."  Keep pushing through and eventually your grasp on your story will come back.  You'll reconnect with a character, a plot line, or a really great twist - maybe all three.  It might not be the prettiest thing, but you'll get to 50,000 words if you stick with it.  And getting to that finish line feels AWESOME.  Allow yourself to write complete crap (which you can improve later when time isn't a constraint) and you will find yourself writing better anyway. 

I think my favorite writing quote is (attributed to various people in various versions), "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."  This needs to become your mantra for the month.  You don't have to write, but you can't go on Facebook or Tumblr or Tickld.  You can stare at Word (or whatever word processing software you've chosen) or you can type.  For your Luddites, you can sit staring at a blank piece of paper and twiddle your pen.  Eventually your brain will un-constipate itself in a often-time messy rush of word-diarrhea and you'll get back on track.

Hang in there!

For those who are rolling right through, don't get cocky yet.  Bank as many words as you possibly can.  Stockpile those jerks like words are canned goods and you're saving them up for the nuclear apocalypse.
Worst case scenario: you have a cushion to fall back on when your brain (or your muse, if you believe in that sort of thing) decides to go south for the winter.
Best case scenario:  you look like a NaNo rock star and can validate your novel early.  There is still plenty of time for your novel's linearity and internal logic to disintegrate and for your characters to become drooling imbeciles.  It happens to the best of us.

Vague Description of My Plot Progress:  After failing to cut through political gridlock, my protagonist and her friends return to their home to watch everything they value crumble to dust.  Awakening alone - horribly alone - in the custody of her enemy, the heroine is offered a respectable position by a potential ally, though neither the offer nor the ally are really what they seem...

NaNo Memories:  Last year, around Week Three, my story completely derailed.  I lost my touch with the characters and my tough-yet-tender female character became a caricature of the "Strong Female Character" in which authors mistake bitchiness for strength.  The male character became a fawning idiot and the second female lead became as bland as uncooked oatmeal.  I started jumping around in the story chronology, adding scenes or adding rewrites of scenes (while using "strikeout" on the banal crap to maintain my word count) trying to figure out at what point my characters fell into the Swamp of Stupidity.  I mean, this was a story in which there was a demon-possessed, carnivorous castle - so finding the moment of stupidity took some digging.  By the time November 25th rolled around (when you can validate your word count and officially "win" ), I was 200% Done with that novel.  The manuscript currently has far more than 50,000 words but the narrative is still unfinished.  Still irritates me, too.

Last Week's Goal:  I did not use "bloviate" correctly in a sentence yet.  But I have a snip of dialogue written in my constant-companion notebook and I know exactly where I'm going to use it, probably in the next thousand words or so.

Next Week's Goal:  I"m going to go out on a crazy limb and try to get to 50,000 by Sunday night.  It's only about 17,000 words away and as I have no life and no other plans this weekend, it should be doable.  If not Sunday, then by Monday.

Current word count:  ~33,500 out of the recommended 25,000.

Tip for WriMos and Readers:
I read - and took to heart - the advice on this website regarding story structure.  His advice is solid and even has some print-ready worksheets for you to use.  This has made a HUGE difference in how I approached NaNo this year.
Also a good concept to keep in mind when READING or reviewing books.  Want to know why a book is boring you even though you don't know why?  This might help.  It might not, but it certainly can't hurt.

Friday, November 8, 2013

NaNoWriMo: What's up with Week One

Throughout the month of November, I will be blogging on my progress, both as a motivation to stick with it and as a way for those unfamiliar with the event to get an idea of what the experience can be like.  Also: writing craziness, random daydreams, tips, cheats, and caffeine abuse.

Today is November 8th, which means the first week of NaNoWriMo is complete.

I started today finding myself in the unpalatable position of being several thousand words behind the threshold wordcount and with several characters without actual names.

My manuscript has a lot of wildcards in it.  If I have a character who is a doctor and needs a name, her name is written as "*Doctor" whenever she shows up or talks:  *Doctor slipped into her office and quietly shut the door before breaking down into tears.  It's not the most elegant of solutions.

I also use wildcards to act as placeholders when my vocabulary decides to go on vacation.  "*Doctor looked down her nose at the salesman with as much *disdain *hauteur *something like that as she could muster."  It's not a pretty sight, but it sure is good for shamelessly bloating your word count.   

I was trying to write by hand and then type up my progress in one chunk, but it turns out I can type so much faster than I can hand-write that the pen-and-paper might only be an option for days when I have tons of time.  This sort of sucks because I love physically writing on paper, but only sort of like typing.  However, I REALLY love watching my word count climb.  Advantage:  Typing.

For those who are curious, in order to write the recommended 1667 words per day, I have to sit at a desk or with my laptop for anywhere from 60 minutes to 3 hours, depending on how self-disciplined I am and how awful at typing my hands become.  Some days I'm a typing ninja,  some days (like today), I have to correct almost every single word I type.

This is glorious Week One, in which I still rather like my plot and my characters and nothing has really derailed yet.  That's coming in Weeks Two and Three. And probably Four.

Vague Description of Plot Progress:  After escaping a near-death situation, my characters were sent to get help but find themselves stymied by petty people and their politics.  They haven't admitted defeat though, and they're about to meet another feisty character whose friendship will affect their lives (whose name is currently going to be "*Duelist" until I can come up with a better one).  My protagonist hasn't really shown herself as anything incredibly special yet, but her moment will come when the sh*t hits the fan in about one chapter.

NaNo Memories:  Three years ago, I was typing up my story on my laptop when my husband offered me Irish coffee to help with my "flow."  It might have worked but for the part where I immediately poured the boozy coffee onto my keyboard and fried it.  Fortunately I was able to use USB drive to retrieve my novel-in-progress and through the miracle of Amazon Prime was able to get a replacement computer within three business days.  I never drink anything more complex than plain water near my computer now.

Current word count: 11835 out of the recommended 13333.

Pointless Goal for the Week:  Use the word "bloviate" correctly in a sentence. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Here They Are: a pair of novels by Gayle Forman

I listened to both of these stories back-to-back for the last two weeks and was mesmerized. Realistic fiction is one of those genres I tend to read as a way to connect with my students. I am a high school librarian (seriously, one of the best jobs in the world) and part of my job is to read books and then share. My students want realistic fiction.  They want stories with a ring of truth behind them, something they can connect with.

I read recently that If I Stay will be made into a movie and that made me move the books up high on my list of 400 books that I want to read. This book had buzz when it first came out and the buzz will only get louder. I also noticed some of my students were checking it out more frequently so I dove in. 

If I Stay is taken from the perspective of Mia. She is a survivor in a car wreck that includes her whole family. She is outside of her body, seeing everything that is happening around her and deciding throughout the whole book if she should stay. You get glimpses of her life before the car crash and the characters feel so real. Her family life seems practically perfect which at first I was turned off by but in real life, don't we remember the good times? Isn't that what nostalgia all about? Not to brag but life with my husband and kids most of the time rings true to what Mia and her family experience day-to-day. 

I loved the premise, I loved the characters and the story was written well. 

4.5 stars

Where She Went takes place three years after If I Stay. It is from Adam, Mia's boyfriend's perspective. He is a rock star now (both characters are musical proteges which is a little unrealistic) and still dealing with loss. Adam's journey does not seem as powerful as Mia's and yet it is still moving and interesting. You see Adam grow, even though the whole story takes place during one day. 

With both stories you get an amazing inner dialogue of the characters and interesting stories of their life.
I recommend listening to it too. 

A great sequel!

4 stars

Friday, November 1, 2013

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate. 

I read this relatively short book (146 pages) during a business trip, read in small chunks over the course of several days and one flight, and that higglety-pigglety reading messes with my recollection and impressions, but I'll give it a try.

First of all, Shirley Jackson (author of The Haunting of Hill House, "The Birds," and "The Lottery" among others) is great at setting mood.  Mary Katherine Blackwood is the narrator and through her eyes the reader is exposed to the prejudices and petty cruelties of small-town life.

Years before, everyone in the family died of brutal poisoning at the dinner table, leading to Mary Katherine's older sister Constance being accused of murder.  Though she was eventually acquitted, the scars run deep in the family.  Uncle Julian is obsessed with keeping massive records of that last day, trying to capture everything his dead family members said and did.  Constance can barely leave the house except to go to the garden.  Only Mary Katherine ("Merricat") is brave or jaded enough to go into town and buy the necessary groceries and other supplies.

At first, the reader is given to feeling pity for this family, and especially for the youngest who has to face the not-so-subtle insults and thinly veiled threats that the (understandably) anxious villagers inflict.  Though she is eighteen, Merricat feels like a much younger narrator, obsessed with keeping a set pattern and often playing odd sorts of games in her head.  She believes in sympathetic magic, as if nailing a book to a tree will protect the family from further upheavals.  Without a strong family or social standing to protect them from indignities and social cuts, Merricat resorts to the only things she can think of:  habit and superstition.

With the arrival of their cousin Charles, Merricat's world is spun out of control.  While our narrator sees him as the ultimate evil - someone who might take Constance away or change their style of life - the reader musto feel sympathy for the man who has come into what can only be described as a lunatic asylum and tries to straighten things out.  Normal, well-adjusted human behavior is juxtaposed alongside Merricat's surreal and maddening habits and the pity once felt for the family is eroded until the narrator can no longer be trusted.

With a narrator who is reliable (she certainly doesn't lie about how neurotic she is) but coming unhinged all the same, the story starts to take on new dimensions.  Why would an otherwise intelligent adult believe in magic?  Why must every week be the same?  Why can she not allow Constance to change her routines?  How far will our narrator and her family go to preserve their shambles of a life?  When the reader can see the narrator as an adult trapped in a child's mind - and a dangerously damaged child at that - nothing seems secure.  Nothing is secure.

The new "deluxe edition" (pictured above) has some delightfully creepy yet not overtly horror-inspired art.  No one should pick up this book thinking it's a "scary" book a la Stephen King.  It is very disturbing, though, and the closer the book gets to the final pages, the more the reader can see the depth of Merricat's frothing madness.

While this book is well-written and the character/narrator transformation is genuinely intriguing, I have to say that this is still not exactly my cup of tea, but I think almost anyone should get some enjoyment out of it.  And at less than 150 pages, it's a short read that packs a delightfully creepy punch.

3.5 stars.