sunshine

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The Facts

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
Basia rates it: 5/5
Connor rates it: 5/5

The Review

basia

Everything about this book was beautiful. I don’t even have words to describe how this book made me feel. Just…wow.

connor

You know that part at the beginning of The Princess Bride when Buttercup says she will never love again?

That’s how I feel about vampire books after reading this one. Forget any of the others. THIS IS IT. IT CAN’T GET BETTER THAN THIS.

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murder by numbers; or, my struggle with outlining

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Outlining and I don’t get along.

Teachers in high school are so pro-outlining that you expect they all belong to some secret outlining cult where they sacrifice stressed high school students and their stressfully written papers to the Higher God of Outlining. I had friends who outlined in high school, but I’ve never been an outliner. I also think that because all of my high school teachers told us time and again (some of them pounding the desk like evangelical preachers for the Greater Outlining Cult of the United States) that we had to write an outline in order to write a good paper, I was determined to prove I could succeed without one. Which, not to brag, but I did, and I did well. I had my idea, I knew where I wanted to go, but I never felt the need to write it down twice. What was the point?

I continued thinking this way all through undergrad, when my roommate would slave over her paper outlines and I would crack my neck, sit down at my desk, and churn something out in a couple of hours. It was never a finished paper, of course; it was just a very workable first draft, which I’d edit over the course of a few days or, deadline permitting, a few hours. It was an artform that I had perfected, and so, when I finally had my this is it, the big one idea for a novel, I approached it in the same way.

It was the worst writing mistake I’ve ever made.

My novel, Tough Luck, is about superheroes. Specifically, it’s about one superhero (who is in a bit of a moral gray area) and her struggle with the citizens of the city she protects while also battling a new villain that’s rolled into town. (You can see a more detailed explanation over here, on my Tumblr, where I answered an ask about the actual plot.) I approached this novel in a way I don’t usually approach stories–which is to say, I knew the ending first. I don’t like knowing the ending first, because I like going on a journey with the characters throughout the narrative. I learn things as they learn things; I think it makes it more authentic. Knowing the ending of a story was something I’d never encountered before. Knowing the ending made everything harder, because I had to figure out how to get to where I ended up. But I thought, I can totally do this the same way as I always do, I’m a champ.

Boy, was I wrong. (About doing it the way I always do, that is. I am a champ.)

I started about five or six drafts of this novel before I finally admitted that I needed to outline. I’m not very good at outlining. I had sort-of outlined a handful of the short stories I included in my senior thesis, and while the process had been helpful, it hadn’t always been the best solution to figuring out what made the story work. The only outlining I’d ever really done had been outlining chapters from my high school history textbook so I had working notes to study from. I knew how to outline that sort of material, but how did I outline my own brain?

It took me a while to psych myself up for it, but eventually it just boiled down to me plopping myself down with my handy-dandy legal tablet and starting to write. I don’t know if outlining would have helped me had I done it originally, but outlining after having so many false starts helped me see where I had gone wrong–why what wasn’t working, well, wasn’t working. There were times when I would write down an idea on the page that I had been working with through all six drafts and would think, Wow, that looks really stupid. It was a little demoralizing, realizing my idea was terrible and unworkable, but it helped me get perspective, which I had desperately needed.

My outline isn’t finished; I’ve decided to tackle it in stages. But when I went on vacation, I took my partial outline along for the ride. I was visiting my boyfriend, who is in medical school, and while he had class, I would hunker down in the living room with my laptop and my outline and just work. There were a few times where I had trouble getting something onto the page–the writer’s eternal struggle–but I was surprised by how easy it was overall to write when I had the outline sitting beside me. I didn’t need to look at it constantly, because writing it out had already planted the progression in my brain, but it was useful to have. I would look back to it when I’d reread a scene or a chapter and realize there was something missing.

Aha, I’d think, scanning down my rather scribbly outline. That’s what I forgot.

I’m certainly not advocating for the method that I used–starting and getting frustrated with about six first drafts is probably not the best way to write a novel. And I’m not even sure if I’ll outline the next project I work on after I’m finally finished writing Tough Luck. But if you find yourself stuck in the middle of your writing project–be it poetry, a screenplay, an academic paper, a novel, or whatever–maybe try outlining it. Sometimes jotting down the bare bones of your ideas makes it easier for you to visualize what works and what doesn’t.

What works for you when you’re generating a new creative idea? Tell us in the comments!!

we should all be feminists

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To be honest, the title says it all.

There’s not much we can say about this that hasn’t been said already by those wiser and more articulate than we (e.g. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie herself), but to put it briefly: we should all be feminists. This isn’t about wanting money (although equal pay is important–and let’s not gloss over the fact that the disparity is greater for women of color than it is for white women. That’s important). It’s not about wanting more women in politics, or in science, or nominated for Oscars, or running corporations.

At least, it’s not entirely about that.

This is about opportunity. This is about attitude. It’s about working together to re-shape society into a place that welcomes and encourages and supports those of us who aren’t white men. It’s about creating an environment in which a woman who wants to stay at home with their kids and a woman who wants to work full time are both given dignity and respect for their choices: a space where expectations are not defined by gender.

It is, as Adichie says, a reminder that culture does not make people. People make culture. And we must–we can, we should, we must–do better.

the guernsey literary and potato peel pie society

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There are many answers I give to the question what’s your favorite book, but for the last five years The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows has been the first title on my tongue. It has also been my most-given gift. I’m pretty sure I gave away at least ten copies in the last year alone. Friend’s birthday? You should probably buy them a copy of Guernsey. Mother’s day gift for your grandmother? Guernsey will be perfect. Christmas present for your boss? Guernsey.

I first read Guernsey as a freshman in college. There’s one section in particular that I remember reading for the first time: within the span of two pages, it had me sobbing into my pillow and then laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. In the truest sense, it’s a story about friendship: about the solidity of old friendships, the delight of new ones, the way our friends shape us, the way we shape our friends, how they make any place feel like home… and the impact a single friend can have on her community.

Every time I pick it up, I think I can’t possibly love it any more than I already do. And every time I start reading, I am overwhelmed by how absolutely untrue that is. This book grows more and more dear to me with every read, whether a full read-through or a few letters here and there when I need a quick pick-me-up (admittedly, those quick pick-me-ups do tend towards me finishing the rest of the novel instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour). These characters are old friends I can’t wait to see again. I want to be Juliet, talk about books with Dawsey, cook with Miss Amelia, and (of course) smack Markham V. Reynolds, Jr., with whatever is closest at hand the second he comes onto the page.

This book makes me feel much as Juliet must among her new friends: comforted and welcomed, excited but curiously at ease–surrounded by people who already adore you and are only determined to love you more and make you feel at home in a new place that will soon be familiar. In the world of metaphors, Guernsey is a quiet afternoon on a rainy day, a glass of lemonade after sitting in the sun, an unexpected letter from a friend you haven’t seen in ages. It’s comforting and encouraging and engaging and delightful, and I hope you love it as much as I do.

wink poppy midnight

As fans of the unusual and unexpected, we picked up Wink Poppy Midnight on a friend’s recommendation with very, very little idea of what to expect.

The Facts

Wink Poppy Midnight, by April Genevieve Tucholke
Basia rates it: 3.5/5
Connor rates it: 3.5/5

The Reviews

basia

This book used the phrase “sweet girl parts” on page two, so I didn’t quite know what to expect going in, but I was already wary.

The three main characters have voices that are remarkably distinct, especially in a book where perspective shifts so often, which was refreshing and made it easy for me to focus on the story instead of becoming mired in the question of whose narrative voice I was reading. But it’s also the sort of book where I didn’t really like any of the protagonists, and while that itself is not a problem, I’m unsure if that was intended by the author, which is a disconnect that always leaves a funny taste in my mouth.

I didn’t at all dislike the book, I enjoyed its strangeness, but the ending was a bit too vanilla for my tastes. I felt as if it was trying too hard to be a “happy ending,” in its own way, at least, which counteracted a lot of the almost threatening strangeness of the rest of the narrative.

connor

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this book. It’s a quick read, and I would recommend it for anyone who enjoys a quirky, curious sort of read.

The writing style is remarkable, mostly because I’m in awe of how Tucholke manages to vary her style and tone for each of the three narrators (who are named, you guessed it, Wink, Poppy, and Midnight). The plot is curiously ethereal; while I didn’t predict anywhere near all of the twists it would take, the novel was too dreamy for me to be thoroughly surprised at them.

While I didn’t become particularly invested in any of the characters, I did enjoy this book and all the weirdness it provoked. The ending doesn’t tie everything up in a nice little bow, but this is a dreamy sort of novel which makes what might usually be unsatisfactory a bit more vague than that.

(like I said, I’m still not entirely sure what I think about this novel.)

the storied life of a. j. fikry

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The Facts

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Connor rates it: 4.5/5
W(REC)’D: yes!

Fikry is an easy read with a peculiar pacing, but doesn’t feel staggered or rushed for all that it took little time for me to make my way through its pages. The characters are charming, despite their faults, and the alacrity with which I grew fond of them–perhaps especially the titular character, A. J. Fikry–should probably alarm me. The intricacies of Zevin’s prose are delightful to read, and I will definitely be looking up her other books.

My favorite college professor once told me a book doesn’t have to end happily, but it should end hopeful. Zevin manages to do just that without coming across as forceful or heavy-handed in her approach.

the watchmaker of filigree street

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I found The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley totally by accident, lurking in the mystery section of my local library. I was browsing the stacks, mostly checking what Agatha Christie they had (the selection was pitiful), when I spotted a book tucked into a strange corner between bookshelves. There was a bright green octopus on the spine. Never one to ignore a cephalopod, I squeezed my arm into the space and pulled it out. I’m not sure if this book was meant to be in the mystery section or if it was placed there by another patron. I don’t even know how long it had been sitting there; if I was the only one who had happened to peer into the space between the shelves, it could have been there, undetected, for ages. So I read the back cover, decided it looked interesting, tucked it under my arm, and went to check out.

I let it sit around for a bit but finally got to starting it just recently, and I’m fascinated. Unexpectedly, the book has magic, although I suppose that the use of the adjective “magical” on the back synopsis should have clued me in, but I assumed it was just one of those buzzwords back-jacket writers like to throw around to make the work sound sweeping and grand. But no! There is, in fact, actual magic, which sells me on almost anything. There is also a male protagonist who is charming in his social awkwardness, a female protagonist whom I realized I loved immediately because she reminded me of Lila from V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, a Japanese watchmaker who is perplexing and intriguing and very lovely, and, because it must be said, a clockwork octopus.

I’m only about halfway through, and I’m unwilling to give away too much about a book, particularly one I haven’t yet finished, but I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s a skinny book, by my usual standards, but it’s not a book that I’ve found myself speeding through. Usually this might spell disaster, as a book I find I am unable to read quickly is usually a book that is boring or obtuse, but that’s not the case here. I simply get caught up in all of it–Grace’s scientific experiments, even though I am not very scientifically inclined; Thaniel’s poor attempts at espionage; Keita Mori’s quiet but powerful presence; and Katsu, the clockwork octopus with a personality all his own. I want to know what happens, but in a quiet way. This is a mystery novel, in a sense, but it is not the pulse-pounding, what happens next what happens next I have to know sort of mystery that I’ve grown used to reading. This is a quieter mystery, where the plot takes a backseat to the characters. So if you love character-driven narratives with a little magic, a little mystery, and a little absurdity, this would be a book worth picking up.

on writing, memes, and character description

Back in the early days of what we now call our codependent internet relationship, Basia and I spent a… slightly ridiculous amount of time on Tumblr. (Actually, it was probably a very ridiculous amount of time, but… anyway.)

Tumblr is many things to many people, but one thing it’s always good for is ask memes. What do these memes have to do with writing, you ask?  Easy: they make excellent writing exercises.

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The meme pictured above, for example, is one of my favorite writing exercises. It’s the perfect opportunity to practice character description. If your friends were your story’s characters, how would you describe them?
Take the following one about Basia. I’ve known her for about five years now, and we’ve been good friends for at least three of those. In that time, she’s reblogged this meme at least twice, which means I’ve sent her these summaries/”author descriptions” at least twice as well. Because we know each other well, writing these is always quite fun and, compared to writing for people I don’t know quite as well, fairly straightforward:
Something about her spoke of wolfishness–her grin, perhaps, or the set of her shoulders. Whatever it was, I was not surprised to see her turn an almost predatory glare on any stranger who deigned to ask whether she, an English major, wanted to teach. What did surprise me was the subtlety of her kindness: a self-deprecating joke, a sincere encouragement, a friendly word of advice when pressed. She built with this, using her creativity to string together words that made the world a bit brighter.
In my own writing, I’ve always found that the story flows more easily if I understand my characters implicitly. If I want them to be believable and relatable, I need to be as sure in my descriptions of them as I am in describing Basia.
At first glance she might look like any other underemployed artist. Paintbrushes with colorfully splattered handles stuck out of her bun, her dungarees always had colored pencils and tubes of paint falling out of the pockets. Her smile was quiet but infectious, and her wit as dry as the desert sand. She looked like she belonged on the cliffs by the sea, with an easel at hand and laugh on her lips–or maybe in a window-laden penthouse in the middle of a bustling city, sunshine streaking her brown hair gold as she drafts letters to friends scattered with stars.
Most narratives don’t require this concentration of description–too much all at once, and your writing can get unbearably flowery or ostentatious. It works well for the meme, but not for a story. I try to be more succinct and efficient when I’m describing characters. Take the introduction I gave to the protagonist of a short story I wrote:
Hugo was a worrier.

Being a ghost hadn’t helped matters.

In two lines, I’ve given you my main character and his two defining characteristics: one, that he worries; two, that he’s a ghost.

Ah, you say. If this is just an exercise in excessiveness, then why bother at all?

Simple: this meme shapes your observational skills.

Creativity is a weird monster that often requires the absurd or over the top to be acknowledged before you can sink into what you actually want to write. Practicing showy descriptions gives your brain room to do this. It gives you a space to practice writing out your observations. You’re not going to use the first draft of whatever you come up with. This is a starting point, a sketch of what’s to come. Besides, not every character can be introduced in two lines:

One of the trees gave a giant lurch as something small and dark dropped from its branches to the grass below. The dark blob slowly unfurled and Hugo’s eyebrows shot up as he realized that the small and dark something was a girl.

The girl moved calmly down the brick path. Her long dark hair hung loose and tangled down her back, and the rest of her appearance was equally tousled: grass stains on her knees, a bright red scab on her left elbow, a smudge of dirt on her forehead and under her fingernails. As she walked down the path, she dropped wildflowers on graves and curtseyed grandly to the older tombstones. Her feet were bare and calloused, and she wore overalls, not a skirt, but her smile was bright and her air gracious as she continued through the graveyard.

Gwen’s introduction takes much more time and allows for more of the flowery language I always reach with the meme exercise, but balances observation with action. From the two paragraphs above, you learn that Gwen is small, active, and unconcerned with tidiness–but also that she is kind and cheerful and curiously at home among ghosts and graveyards.

So next time you’re stuck trying to describe a character, try going overboard. Start with the showy phrases and heartfelt-but-somewhat-too-cheesy sentences and see what happens. You might end up with something ridiculous, but you might end up with an idea of just what your character needs.

sinner

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I am a werewolf in L.A.

Telling you that you should read Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater means I am also telling you that you need to read the first three Wolves of Mercy Falls books–Shiver, Linger, andForever—but it’s an endeavor worth undertaking. Sinner is the fourth book in the quartet, and while an argument could be made that it stands alone, there’s more of an emotional payoff to be had from getting to know the characters first as they appear in the other three books. But Sinner is the book I’ve read three times. Sinner is the book on which my hand lingers when I pass by the library shelf where it sits. I cannot definitively say thatSinner is my favorite of the four books, but it is the one that has stuck with me the most, and I think, in the end, that’s the more important thing.

All of the Wolves of Mercy Falls books are written with a lyrical sort of prose. It’s like music, which when you actually read the books, makes a lot of sense. Music plays a large part in the characters’ lives and also in Stiefvater’s. But there is something slightlydifferent about the musical quality of Sinner. It’s more eclectic, it’s louder, but it’s no less poetic and no less beautiful for it. If I were to describe the books in a color scheme, I would say that their covers are pretty apt–the first three books are muted: white and ivory and pale blues and grays and greens. Sinner is another beast entirely–it is orange and yellow and loud, loud, loud. Shiver, Linger, and Forever are the books you curl up with in a cabin on a crisp winter morning when you hold a steaming cup of cocoa; Sinner is the book you take to the beach, the book you stay up with into the wee hours of the morning, feverishly turning pages because you can’t stop, you don’t want to stop.

Stiefvater has said before that Sinner is a book about addiction. The book itself is an addiction; it is addicting. It is hot and fast and exhilarating and it is a book I cannot seem to stay away from. I’ve just downloaded it from the library to read on a short flight, even though I have numerous books in my To Read pile that I’ve not even read once. I haven’t bought my own copy yet, because I’m almost afraid that I’ll just keep reading it over and over and never get to anything else. It’s not an exaggeration when I say I could read this book cover-to-cover, then open it right back up again and start from the beginning. I could wax poetic about this book for ages (I’ve done a post over on my Tumblr about it before, which can be found here), but I’m going to control myself and sum it up by saying: read the Wolves of Mercy Falls books. Experience the music. And if you, like me, get addicted to Sinner, maybe we can start an Anonymous group for ourselves–although I’m not sure this is an addiction I’m willing to quit.