Category Archives: Reviews

Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

51IjORMFLkLAfter catching a video review of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport I thought I’d give it a try as a possible follow up to “Talent is Overrated.” I’m glad I did. The book expanded on some of the similar research and since I’m very focused on how can I improve my skill, I’m going to skip over the first half of the book sum that up with one quote: Working right trumps finding the right work. That you need the craftsman mindset to succeed at your work. That is, to focus relentlessly on what value you are offering to the world. To use deliberate practice (thus tying into “Talent is Overrated”) to stretch beyond where you are comfortable in your abilities and to receive often and ruthlessly honest feedback on your performance. This is particularly important with writing, a “winner take all” market, because good writing is the ONLY career capital that matters.

The Role of Deliberate Practice 

In general when you do something over and over, you improve. However, if all you do is show up and work hard, eventually you’ll hit a performance plateau, beyond which you won’t continue to gain skills. Deliberate practice is when you stretch your abilities and then pull apart the results with constructive criticism. In order to be deliberate practice, you have to stay in a zone where you are uncomfortable, it’s not a mental state the brain enjoys. While I’ve wanted to introduce more deliberate practice into my writing, I’ve been unsure how. I found the author’s personal experience trying to apply this very helpful.

Cal Newport is a mathematician. So, to introduce deliberate practice, he picked mathematical papers on some of the basic and most difficult concepts of his field and studied and broke them down until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up. Initially trying this he experienced massive internal resistance each time he sat down to attempt this. On average, it would take a full 10 minutes before these waves of resistance would die down and he could work.old-books-stacked

Afterwards he tried to capture the results of his study in several ways. He created a proof map that captured the dependence between different pieces of the proof. He gave himself quizzes to memorize key definitions and parts of the proofs. He also wrote detailed summaries of the material in his own words in his “research bible.” Each summery contained a description of the result, how it compared to the previous work, and the main strategies used to attain it. he also kept a tally of all his deliberate practice on his office wall and designated a special notebook in which he brainstormed new ideas that were inspired by his research and set aside time each week for brainstorming.

The Importance of Control

To be good at something is only the first step in enjoying it. Control over what you are producing is another important factor in loving your work. However, in the search for control there are two traps. The first control trap is that control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable. In the case of writing, this generally means if your writing is not there, that is NOT the time to seek publication, self-publish or quit your day job. Also, it seems to me part of this is that you need to follow the rules before you can break them! Keep point of view, avoid be verbs and adverbs, show don’t tell, don’t start with your character waking up and so on. Only once you later are a master writer, can you go back and break these rules and keep you writing powerful and engaging.

The second trap happens later. Once you have the capital you are valuable and people fight to keep you on a more traditional path and deny you that control. This is the point at which you need to ignore conventional wisdom and make the bold and brave moves that will propel your career forward. How do you know now is the time? Consider, are people willing to pay money for what you’ve written? If they are, this might be the moment to buck off conventional wisdom and take a risk.

Exploring the Adjacent Possiblestockvault-notebook-and-pen136687

One of the most fascinating new concepts the book introduced me to was the “adjacent possible.” It seems most advances are found historically just past the cutting edge of whatever field is in question. Only when the cutting edge becomes adjacent to the next big advance can you see the innovation waiting to be discovered. Thus the adjacent possible is the place to investigate and explore to uncover ways forward that might not have been noticed before.

Newport’s strategy here suggests first that you create a tentative mission related to the edge of your field. Then, dive into background research. Explore something new and interesting, understand how it works, and then ruminate on it. Walks are a great way to ruminate on material (although carry a small pocket notebook if you might forget your ideas). Then, make “little bets” to further explore the most promising ideas your research discovered. These are projects small enough to be completed in less the an a month. They force you to create new value and master new skills and produce a concrete result that can generate feedback. He recommends only keeping 2-3 bets active at a time. Use the feedback to guide your research and decide if the project should be aborted or not, and which direction it should go in.

The Right Approach to Marketing

Finally, I found the book’s approach to marketing interesting. It focuses on the “law of remarkability” that is, something that compels people to remark about it to others. Word of mouth is really the best marketing. Once you have a product that’s remarkable though, you need to launch it into a venue that supports such remarking.

Overall I found the book a fast but thought provoking read. I recommend picking it up either as an ebook or from your public library.

The Black Cauldron Revisited – A Reflection on a Childhood Critique

the-black-cauldron-still-3This weekend, marooned at home for my car being in the shop, I decided to watch The Black Cauldron, a Disney film mostly swept under the rug for being a huge flop in the theaters. I hadn’t seen it since it came out in the theaters, at a double feature with ET actually. I’m going to guess in that case it’d been out a bit, so I was probably about eight years old at the time. One reason I wanted to see it again was because mostly all I remember was my outrage at a couple of deviations from the book and wondered what I’d think as an adult, now that I no longer find it a sin to deviate a movie from a book.

It was Gurgi, the furry creature that befriends Taran, that originally had captured my imagination when my mother read me The Book of Three. My child self was deeply incensed to see that instead of a furry man-sized creature, a sort of neatherthal-like creature or perhaps a bit like bigfoot, movie Gurgi was basically an ewok. Now, as a child, naturally I loved ewoks, but that didn’t change the fact that Gurgi wasn’t supposed to be an ewok. He was supposed to be big!

Even worse, (spoilers ahead) it wasn’t Gurgi who sacrificed himself into the cauldron in the book version of The Black Caudron and the boy who did certainly didn’t come back to life. Never mind ET also dies and comes back to life (as common in movies as villains falling to their deaths is), but added onto the size outraged, my child self decided The Black Cauldron movie was terrible and sumerily wrote it off. Any contradictions with this and completely loving E.T. were not noticed.the-black-cauldron-13

Now and then over the years thinking about that double feature, I’d crack up. While still nostalgic about E. T. I also don’t think it’s nearly as good as I thought then, so it wasn’t that big a leap of logic to wonder if The Black Cauldron was better than I remembered. I read a few reviews that explained the reason it bombed in the theater was that it was a bit too graphic for the times, which naturally made it quite tame by modern standards. So, I thought I’d see what the movie was really like from an adult objective point of view.

Apparently my child self was right for the wrong reasons. The Black Cauldron is rather appalling as a Disney movie. If it was the He-man movie or Care Bears (which beat it out in earning in the theater at the time) I wouldn’t have been shocked. The movie is very much an 80s movie with lots of 80s movie flaws. Such as everyone standing around watching when action happens to one character, but lots of movies in the 80s were that way… it wasn’t any stodgier than say The Dark Crystal where the action is just as dorky and the mood just as creepy.

twidh_0720_blackcauldronBut Disney had set such a high prior standard that it took me by surprise this one was so typical of the 80s. It had none of the charm, characterization, or great storytelling of older Disney movies like The Jungle Book or The Sword in the Stone two notable examples with a character in them about Taran’s age (rather than the adults of the classic fairytales).

The scene where Taran meets Gurgi for example has him demand his apple back about five times… which is at least three times too many. The story crawled at some points, and yet the dialog was such those “character scenes” didn’t any character… and then suddenly, inexplicitly, random events would quickly happen without much explanation. This meant the story made about as much logical sense as a Miyazaki movie but without the beautiful art, the whimsy, the lovable characters, or the excuse of being constructed for Japanese audiences. Whoever Disney put for screen writing and storytelling on this one deserved to get fired (and probably did).

There were plenty of charming moments, in fact most of them centered around Gurgi. More of him would have helped the movie. Plus a couple of musical numbers (there were no songs at all in the movie and that was not to its benefit). While the reviews weren’t wrong it was animated violence before it’s time (the villain’s skin is peeled off him at the end as he screeches in death… it’s worth watching here) I found the scene in which one of the characters gets stuck between the witch’s boobs a bit more in startling. Seriously? Who thought that was a good idea in a kid’s movie in the 80s?

horned kingApparently I blanked that one out as a kid.

And why wasn’t I outraged that the Horned King was basically a rip-off of Skelitor? You’d think that’d be as sacrilegious as stealing ewoks, right? But at least I had a far more fun both watching and slashing it to pieces at thirty five than at eight. I just wish someone would make a real movie out of those books because it could have been so good. Disney ought to do a live action movie with the characters, but I’m guessing that’ll never happen since it was such a flop. It’s obvious now that was never the character’s fault, or even ewok Gurgi, ironically my favorite character in the film now after seeing it fresh. More of him might have saved the movie.

All in all a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

professorI’ve always been a big supporter of literary criticism and using literary devises in my writing. I wrote this article back in 2007 on my first blog project about how to use literary criticism to add theme, symbolism, and deeper meaning to stories. I’ve always enjoyed literature classes and so while wandering through Value Village looking at second hand whatnot, I stumbled across How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I flipped through it, thinking, this looks pretty interesting, but I already probably know all of this from being in college before.

Then, curse it all, I put it back on the shelf!

Naturally when I came to my senses a week later checking the sales, it was gone. By then I’d thought it over enough to be super curious if there’s more things I could learn about literary criticism, and it looked like a good book. Woe! I was too late. Fortunately the library had a copy, but I am still a bit sulky, because it turns out this book is excellent from a writing perspective. Which means I’m going to have to shell out more than the second hand store would have charged me.

The book’s main purpose is to teach readers, mostly high school or college students, how to notice symbolism, theme, and other literary devises in classic literature. It’s conversational tone makes it an easy and pleasant read, and inadvertently, Foster sounds almost like he’s suggesting to us how to add literary depth to one’s writing. Read as a book not for readers but for authors, this is an amazing tool and I definitely want a copy I can keep and use to go over my novels in revision, checking for ways I can flesh them out symbolically.

Some of the great topics he covers in depth are

  • How to use earlier stories to invoke and depth to a story
  • The biggest sources for symbolism, Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales, and Greek Mythology and why authors use them, why you should use them too
  • The weather and setting and how to use it
  • Religious/spiritual themes, politics, violence, sex, illness and their symbolic connotations
  • Irony and how it works

Yes, this is very basic stuff, things I’ve learned before, but Foster’s straightforwardness has been highly useful. Explanations of, if you want this effect in a book, these are the symbols or parallels that give discerning readers this sort of message. Laying out why it’s critical to draw on previous work when building up a novel and how that enriches the story. Reading the Greek myth chapter, I realized I have Icarus hiding in one of my novels, and reading the chapter on why all stories are part of one great story, I realized why another of my novels desperately needs some Kung Fu in it.

Once I finish this, I plan to check out the sequel, How to Read Novels Like a Professor, to see if I learn anything new there. I might also make myself some checklists for going over every mention of season, weather, meals, and so on to look for symbolic or thematic usefulness.

The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths

Dark Crystal Creation Myth 2I don’t usually read graphic novels.  This is not for any prejudice against them in particular, it’s simply that I didn’t grow up with many comic books around the house. The only ones my parents had were a couple of “Far Side” collections.  I think my mother simply found a lot of the graphics annoying.  When visiting family friends, I really got into their “Rupert” graphic novels (or was it Reuben?), which she always complained were hideous, and how she couldn’t stand a bear with human hands.  They had a few “Tin Tin” graphic novels as well which she thought equally repulsive.

Thus, since I simply didn’t have access to them when I was young, and they never occur to me as an adult. I’m used to imagining things in my head when reading a book and zipping through the text.  While now and then I’ve thought things like, “It might be amusing to read the ‘Ender’s Game’ comic book,” I’ve never been serious enough about it to go purchase one.Raunip

So, when I decided to check out the Dark Crystal’s Author Quest, and discovered the only material besides the movie out there were graphic novels I was initially disappointed.  Fortunately, my public library had two volumes of the “Dark Crystal Creation Myths” in their collection and I checked them out.  I’ve ended up really enjoying them.

For one thing, the art is lovely, if a bit creepy, which is appropriate considering that’s the same vibe the classic movie has.  While they’re slower reading than a regular novel for, the art was splendid.  What surprised me most was that it allowed me to actually like reading creation myths, which tend to bore me.  Usually I want to get on with the real story instead. Or, if I’m going to read folktales I prefer actual ethnographic ones to made-up fantasy ones.  As a genre, creation myths tend to be abysmally boring.

GyrHowever, when lovely illustrated, I’ve discovered I don’t mind them. The actual “creation” part is also only the first section of the first book. I was able to connect with the mischievous Raunip who reminded me of my trolls, and the sad gelfling Gyr, a bard marred by a tragic song.  The world of the movie always seemed a bit confusing (who were these strange creatures that go split into two) and the books do a good job of showing the reasons for the split. I found the whole thing enjoyable and well-done.

I am seeing if any of the other nearby libraries have the rest of the graphic novels and will perhaps try this format more often.  I can certainly recommend them for anyone who likes either graphic novels, the Dark Crystal, or mythic storytelling.  They might be a bit dark for the younger crowd, but if the kid has seen the movie without being terrified, the books are entirely appropriate.

The Seven Habits for Writers Part 2: Public Victories

A much spiffier cover than my ancient copy.Alright, I’m back finally for my promised second part to how I’ve been thinking over Steve Covey’s seven habits in regard to writing.  The first three habits are things a person does inside themselves, private victories as Covey calls them.  In writing, that’s our inner confidence, the story we’re picturing, the draft we pour out on paper, the long hours we wrestle with characters in that creative dark space within our minds.  For some writers, that private process is all they crave.  But a lot more writers, like me, want to share our writing with the world, and that’s where I found Covey’s habits 4, 5, and 6 were crucial.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

This is a simple idea, but a really powerful one.  The idea that in a situation or agreement, both people involved win–that is get a deal that’s beneficial for them out of it.  No one gets ripped off. If money is being made, both people make it. If success and recognition are being attained, both people attain it.  In a society full of win/lose situations, it’s important to remember that tons of situations don’t have to have a loser.  That making someone lose is completely unnecessary.

I do not think there is a more important thing a writer can do than think win/win in all their interactions with other people.  There’s a sort of toxic energy I feel when I encounter a win/lose writer.  Writing is one field where all of us are potential winners.  What is it that almost all writer’s have in common besides writing? Reading! Most people who love to write loved first to read.  There’s no good reason we can’t all have our work out there and lots of success.  Your book selling well ought to help my book sell well, or at least I really can’t see why not.  There’s room for each of us and our unique style and talent, our stories we care about.

When authors are jealous of each other, bitter about other people’s success, it creates an icky feeling I just can’t stand.  What is just as bad is when authors get negative about illustrators, agents, publishers, or even readers.  This is one field where everyone involved can and ought to have success!  This is really a field where there ought not to be any losers!  It’s a tragedy that so many people think there has to be.

Reaching out and helping new writers, encouraging people to read and supporting literacy, interacting with industry professionals, promoting each other’s work, everything we do really ought to follow a model of both sides can come out a winner, or we ought to refuse to have a deal together.  If you really can’t for some reason work in a positive way with a positive outcome for everyone involved “no deal” is the best solution.  Go your separate ways wishing the person the best.

Habit 5: Seek First to be Understood, Then to Understand

In Covey’s book, he uses this principle to talk about all communication efforts.  Another simple but powerful idea–to listen emphatically to what people are saying, to help them feel truly understood before you go about trying to make them see what you’re saying.  Obviously this is great for communication in general, but there’s several key places it can be used in writing.

In interacting with other writers, like in critique groups, it means taking the time to understand their view, their stories, their problems with it, what they really need, before trying to help them with their writing.  Doing that will make your advice better as well as helping the person be more interested in accepting it.  When receiving critiques or even professional editing, the same thing applies.  Even if you disagree with the person’s reaction, set that aside and really listen.  What are they saying? And is it actually about your writing, or is this more about something they’re feeling/struggling with?  Once you understand where the other person is coming from you, you can better decide what advice is worth using in your novel.

Even if you don’t end up using suggestions an editor or beta reader wants you to use, the power of actually listening to the other person will still make them feel validated. You’ll preserve the relationship and the other benefits it provides to both of you. By actively understanding an editor, they’ll be more open to hearing your vision and dream for your book and seeing where you are coming from in return.  That can only improve a project.

Listening is also important in marketing.  So many agents and publisher get queried by authors who don’t really understand their requirements, mission statement, or what sort of projects they’re looking for. As an author, I can reduce rejection and heartbreak by first seeking to understand each agent or publisher’s personal mission, tastes, guidelines, by looking at what other work they’ve published and then see if I really think it’s a good fit, if my project is one that really belongs here.  Then, these people will be more interested in learning about what I have to say.

Habit 6: Synergize

I think this chapter, habit 6, was the hardest one for me to follow when reading the book.  My best sense of what Covey means here, is that when a group is built using using win/win and seeking first to understand, that a creative and dynamic atmosphere forms that takes regular cooperation to the next level, a level where people can really appreciate and value their differences in view and opinion, because they are necessary to lifting the joint project above itself.

My husband and I debated a while on this chapter while reading it, because rather than being an actual habit, it felt more like being open to something that just happens.  But I suppose working to have all the right ingredients there at the right time and place for synergy to happen could be considered a habit.

I think the first thing that comes to mind in regards to writing is synergy in a brainstorming session with friends, when I’ve been stuck on a novel.  With the right atmosphere, suddenly the support of my peers sparks new and exciting ideas, their suggestions helping me build momentum, until I can see my current project in a whole new and exciting light.  The other place I’d like to find it, is someday between editor, illustrator, and marketers in a publisher, all coming together to push the project to the next level.  I still feel this is more something to foster than practice, this sort of environment, but I can see its value.

Next week, I’ll have a third and final post on habit 7 and writing, since I feel like it’s important enough to get its own.

The Seven Habits for Writers Part 1: Private Victories

A much spiffier cover than my ancient copy.Wouldn’t you know it, but just a month or so after getting laid off in Hood River and after we’d moved back in with my parents in the Portland area, they called my husband back part time.  So now, three days a week we drive out to Hood River and I live in the library and coffee shops while he’s at work.  While drinking all those Americanos and eating chocolate croissants while writing is hardly torture, the drive is an hour an a half each way.

So, my husband and I started having him read to me in the car.  We picked the iconic “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” which I had never bothered to read back in the 80s when it was all the rage.  While Covey is a bit bumpy out loud in his sentence structure, I really enjoy listening to the book and debating it’s points with my husband.  Naturally though, as an author I tend to try to apply any and all informational books to the process of writing and how I can use it to further myself.

I think despite some of the dated stories and ideas, that the 7 Habits is still very relevant and useful, and applies quite nicely to writing. Yanking it off teh shelf and dusting it off was a good decision.  There’s a lot of life left in this classic. Let’s start with the first three “private victories.”

Fun list of all seven habits by Jake HuhnHabit 1: Be Proactive

Basically, this habit is about owning our choice to act/react to things.  No matter how small or narrow, we have a choice between when something happens and what we do about it.  We chose whether we’ll act or be acted upon and which emotions we let consume us, which attitudes we immerse ourselves in.  And this is true of a writer as much as anyone.

I’ve met a lot of “writers” who all say something along the lines of “I’d really like to write but…” filled in with a bunch of reasons why life doesn’t allow them to.  Jobs, kids, parents who don’t approve or consider creative work “real,” a world out to get them in some respect that just doesn’t allow them to have the “time” to get anything written.

The second biggest trap I meet people falling into is enmeshed in woe over the state of the industry.  In query rejection depression I’ve slipped into this one myself.  It’s so easy to take a victim mentality when dealing with putting your heart out there on the line and getting rejected.  Suddenly you’re “helpless” and all of society is holding you back from your dream, leaving bitterness and resentment.

Proactivity means setting aside the idea I’m stuck, that life is acting on me, and see myself as the person who acts.  To focus my concern on what is in my control–that I sit down every day, laptop in front of me and write.  That I do my research, edit my work, exchange my crits, write my queries, and put myself out there.  If other things in my life steal priority, that ought to be because they’re important to me, not because I’m a victim of life. And my writing happens for the same reason, because I chose it.

That’s a message we could all use hearing again and again.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

I don’t think I could come up with a better bit of writing advice when tackling a novel than Habit 2.  Before a book can exist on paper, it needs to exist in the author’s mind.  Now, before all the pansters start an uproar here, I don’t mean that we have to know the literal end of the novel.  This is “end” in a general sense.

What is this novel as a whole? What sort of dream is it?  Can you picture the book in your hands? The feeling it gives you when you read it?  What is it about at its heart, this idea, how does it move you? If I don’t have that for a book, regardless of how much of the plot I plan ahead of time, the book doesn’t live.

I need to know what I want to achieve through a novel when I start it, or it won’t have the clarity to keep through the heat and toil of actually getting the project done.  When writer’s block hits, when doubts overwhelm me both about the idea and my worth as a writer, I need that vision, that “end” to help carry me through to reaching it.

This also I think goes for career in general.  What is my mission as an author? What do I want to ultimately do and say with my writing? What does success look like for me?  These are important ends, that can guide my inner focus and determination.  And looking at how that evolves as I mature as a writer is also important.  Some of my goals remain unchanged, while others have changed into new  perspectives–such as ebooks and my belief in their importance and reaching young readers through them as well as print.  Having that mission, both for my career as a whole and each book, is crucial.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Nifty scheduling chart thingy.

This section of the book has a little chart that I pretty much need to post in front of myself as a constant reminder.  Covey offers a lot of great thoughts about organizing time and trying to not live always bouncing between important urgent crises and time wasting non-urgent non-important tasks on the rebound.  I think that it’s significant that most actual writing tends to be a non-urgent but important (quadrant 2) activity.  It’s often pushed out into the sidelines of life by the back and forth emergency and recovery sort of life style.

Within my writing tasks themselves, it’s also important for me to look at the goals involved.  What are my goals for new books, books currently in editing, my marketing, and what activities are needed for each.  All very practical and solid advice for planning it out and getting what I need to get done, done.  And no, I’m not quite managing it (thus doing nano left me neglecting the blog and so on), but it’s quite inspiriting.  As I come up on May, I want to dive into really embracing these three inner changes and adapting them to fit what I need to increase the effectiveness of my writing.

These three “private victories” I took listening to the book to be what relates for me most to the actual process of writing.  After I go actually do some writing, next blog article I’ll muse on what Covey calls “public victories” and how I consider these habits to be related to the world of publishing.

How Can Reading About Housework be so Fun?

Between my vacation and the sad news I’m soon to be moving, I have piles and piles of housework and packing to do in the next month.  Naturally the first thing I did was grab a book to sit on the couch with and read.  In the stack of books from my aunt, were two very pleasant books I’d seen before at the library in junior high, but never gotten around to read, “Wise Child” and its prequel “Juniper” both by Monica furlong.

One fascinating thing about both books, is how much house and yardwork the characters do.  Living in medieval times in the English and French countryside I’m sure did involve hours and hours of labor collecting and preparing food and medicines.  And yet, reading about it, the most incredible thing is it’s not boring.  Instead I feel almost live I’ve been productive myself, hearing about the toiling and exhausted characters surveying their now clean houses and stocked larders.  I feel energized and gratified… the only downside, is my kitchen is still a horrible mess.

It’s something I’ve noticed before, much to my surprise.  Daily work in a novel can be quite enjoyable and draw a person into the world and story.  In several novels, I’ve noticed some of my favorite parts are where the character is toiling day after day at some kind of hard or boring labor.  It would see a contradiction… I really hate housework, so why is it so fun to read about?

I’m not really sure I even have the answer to that.  I think it must lie in the skill and craft of the authors and their narration.  First, it seems detail and specifics are key here.  I have no idea if Furlong was at any point an housewife, but she certainly knows her material when it comes to cleaning houses and collecting and processing plants.  As a reader, it’s fascinating to hear how people did tasks in older times.  The flowing narration is able to both teach and spark the imagination so that I’m not bored.

Second, in both books the main character complains, while a more experienced mother/teacher figure offers a perspective on how daily work is part of our existence and important to the rhythm of life.  This resignates both with my inner complaining child (No! Don’t make me do the dishes!) and my older practical adult (I need these washed now so I won’t have to do it right before dinner when I’m busy cooking.)  It also keeps up a strong character dynamic through the scenes, and gives a sense of satisfaction when the main character grows and realizes she’s equal to the work, that it her mentor is right about it being part of the flow of life, and that she’s stronger than she thought she was.

Still, even picking out the elements, it takes a good deal of skill to have quite so much description of work as in “Wise Child” and never bore the reader. I’ve only read one other book with quite that much housework: Cynthia Voigt’s “On Fortune’s Wheel.” I liked that book just as much, the housework scenes being the best part.  Similar to “Wise Child” we have a character who doesn’t like work, realizing it’s place in her life and growing and changing as she discovers how to do the housework, and every page is fascinating.

And the longer I think about, the more intriguing the whole thing is, the more books I can think of that use this devise, and the more interested I am in trying it out in my own writing.  Here’s some other books that use this tactic to great effect:

“Jackaroo” (also by Cynthia Voigt) which has nearly as much work, but with a different character dynamic, the MC is industrious, while other characters around her are lazy.  She also uses it to handle her emotions when dealing with things, both which keeps interesting tensions and character growth during the scenes.  To a lesser extent the other books in the series will show work too.

“The Wise Woman” (George McDonald) which follows a very similar story of an older woman trying to apprentice (in this case two) young girls to teach them about the world and make them face their inner life.  One girl is lazy, the other industrious but narcissist, making for a fascinating comparison as we watch both girls struggle.

“Alanna the First Adventure” (Tamora Pierce) and to a larger extent “Protector of the Small” Pierce’s series about Kelardy, since there’s more physical work and far less magic in those books.  A lot of daily life in training for knighthood features in these books, exercises, tests, trials, making you feel sore, exhausted, but also exhilarated with the main character as her skills improve.

“A Conspiracy of Kings” (Megan Whalen Turner) has a section in the first third of the book, and incidentally my favorite part, where the MC is working hard and long days as a field laborer. Character development and his slowly developing relationship with the community keep the tension humming.

“Holes” (Louis Sachar) which makes having to dig a hole ever day actually interesting.  More humorous than the others, it still cleverly uses lots of hard work to define character development.

I’m sure there’s more that I haven’t thought of that I’ve enjoyed… reading about all this works makes me want to try writing about some.  Too bad what I’m actually supposed to be doing is vacuuming, my floor is disgusting. Sigh.


A Busy Christmas, Goals for the New Year, and Nayu’s review

I’ve naturally fallen behind on the blogging again with all the holiday fanfare, but I had a lovely Christmas yesterday.  It’s been great to see both families.  This year Ben’s family had their Christmas celebration on Sunday, which meant we got to spend longer with both families.  While that means it took more days out of my schedule and regular things like writing and blogging, I found I preferred it for getting to spend more time with each family.  We didn’t have to rush anywhere on Christmas itself and could pace ourselves better.

It’s not even quite over, since I still have one sister who couldn’t make it until today, so I get one more day of festivities.  There’s talk of going to the Hobbit, which I haven’t seen and hope to soon, and I wouldn’t mind some shopping while we’re in Portland either.  So I may just take off the whole week, really.

Then I’ll be able to gear up for this next year. At least I have clear goals.  My first and main one is marketing.  I’m going to get serious about learning how. I have several pages of advice and a list of review sites from my editor, and one of my friends has promised to give me lessons for the rest of it.  What I hope to achieve is a whole attitude make-over.  By the end of next year, I want to from being one of those “I hate marketing” people to a “I just love telling people about my book and marketing is easy and fun” people.

Is that possible? I don’t really know… but it’s worth a try, right?  There’s much debate on how much our likes and dislikes are chosen vs just happening.  I have a pretty steep challenge here, since I tend to get anxious in social situations, but in the end, if I can change it, I’ll enjoy myself a whole lot more.  It’s the one part of being an author I don’t enjoy right now.  Even line edits or formatting I can get into once I get going, so it’d definitely be a step in the right direction of my larger goal of being the happiest person I know. (Honestly, life is too short to waste it being miserable, right? And since I can’t make anyone else happy, I might as well work on myself.)

I have several writing focused goals.  The first is to rewrite “Dragon Boy.”  This book is close to my heart and I feel I’m finally ready to do it justice and write the definitive version.  I’ve received for Christmas “The Breakout Novel Workbook” which I plan to use to go over the novel and look for ways to improve it.  I’ve made that a two year goal though, because I want to take my time and because I still want to finish and release “Much Ado About Villains” as well.  That’s my second writing goal.  I’ll also need to earn the money for the art for that… I’d like to get it fully illustrated like book one.  But I think that’ll be doable in the coming year.

Then, I’d like to submit “Revenge of the Voiceless” first to Amazon’s contest, and then to a few other publishers until I find a publisher.  As it’s a full-length adult novel, I feel I need the support of a publisher for that one, and I’m willing to take the time it needs to find the right one.

And, best of all, Nayu’s Reading Corner has my first review of “A Recipe for Disaster” up!  Check it out.

Mini-book Reviews 2

In a post-nano flurry of holiday decorating and catching up on dishes, I’ve somehow found myself reading through stacks of books.  I tend to avoid reading too much because when I get going I tend to do little else.  The thing is, formatting an e-book is rather tedious, and nanowrimo was grueling, so I’ve allowed myself a few library books.  So here’s what I’ve read in the last couple of weeks with a mini-review:

Rodzina by Karen Cushman — an orphan train era book. I  actually liked it better than the classic “Orphan Train Quartet.” Rodzina is appealing and her journey of self-discovery solid.  This felt like a great classic middle grade book.

Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson — a rather typical historical fiction middle grade novel.  It wasn’t my favorite work by this author, but it did paint quite well what living in the middle of union riots would be like.  The characters were interesting enough to carry me through it, but it definitely felt educational.  I could see it as a typical sort of book teachers might have a class read.

Shield of Stars by Hilari Bell — recommended to me by a friend as an author, I thought I’d see what the library had of Bell’s.  It wasn’t the book recommended to me originally, but “Shield of Stars” was great fun. It felt like a cross between “The Queen of Attolia” and a Lloyd Alexander book, a great combination.

The Sword of Waters by Hilari Bell — I dived right into book 2 of the series.  I didn’t like the girl warrior as much as the thief boy as a MC, but it was still a strong book and a solid follow up to book 1.  My only annoyance is it ended on a cliffhanger this time, and the library doesn’t own book 3!  Ugh.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan — My sister got into these recently and hooked on them, so at her prodding I finally cracked open the first one.  I read it in line on Black Friday actually, and enjoyed myself.  It was amusing but also felt a bit plastic, like it was designed to be a best seller rather than to have any real substance.  Despite that, the main character was likable  so I resolved to read more of them.

The Son of Neptune by Rick Roirdan — When I went looking for book 2 at the library, I accidentally grabbed book 2 of the second series.  It was the only book 2 currently checked in at the library, and in a hurry I didn’t notice.  I thought of waiting, but after burning through the rest of my library books I ended up reading it.  Since Percy has lost his memory of the first series, it actually worked out just fine.  Neither did I feel I missed much by missing book one.  It wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first book and even more plastic, but enjoyable, putting it in the fun trash category I have for things like Jedi Apprentice or Dragonriders of Pern.  I’ll read the rest eventually, they’re fun, but I’m not in a hurry to get to it like the Bell series.

The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce — I recently received several boxes of books from one of my aunts as she is moving and paring down.  Alanna’s four books were among them and as I’ve written my own girl dressed as a boy story I was eager to reread them.  I found book 1 faster paced than I remembered, but book 2 slower.  Must we really spend so much time agonizing over which boy Alanna likes or doesn’t?  But overall enjoyed the books more now than the first time I read them.  I do feel they aren’t actually appropriate to be called middle grade novels due to the sexual content though, despite the narrative tone not feeling quite as mature as YA tends to be now days.  Perhaps that’s for them being older books.

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix — I saw this one in the library when I was helping a friend find a Nix book she hadn’t gotten around to finishing.  The cover looked a bit like a Jedi rip-off so I thought I might like it.  I wasn’t disappointed   Nix’s galactic empire full of war-like “princes” who run it is different enough from Star Wars to not feel like it’s blatantly stolen, but enough similar you get the same feel.  The princes are a fun combination of being jedi-like and sith-like.  It combines loads of typical ideas from popular SF, but originality is not what makes it enjoyable, but rather a great lead character and narrative voice.

Princess Nevermore by Dian Curtis Regan— This book I grabbed because the title and blurb sounded interesting.  Sadly, the writing is not that great.  The story is alright, a rather classic story of a princess from a magic kingdom traveling to our world, and it does pull itself out of its slump halfway through, but the main problem (besides bad writing) is that the magical kingdom she comes from isn’t real believable or compelling.

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander — A huge fan of the Prydain books as a kid, I was severely disappointed with his Vesper Holly stories, and so didn’t read the Westmark trilogy.  Having come back to Alexander’s later work with enthusiasm, I decided to take a deep breath, get over the ugly cover, and try it.  While darker than Prydain, it’s far more like it than Vesper Holly, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s probably actually one of his better books.  I’m glad I’m no longer missing out.

The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander — I grabbed book 2 at the same time as book 1 and was glad I did.  This is probably Alexander’s darkest book I’ve read yet, painting a grim and realistic picture of war, but very well done.  It’s a shame book 3 was not in the library, I have no idea if its checked out or if they don’t have it, sigh.  What is it with this library and 2 out of 3 books in a series?

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: the Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood — This was a quick amusing read.  Cute and funny, it was highly enjoyable.  My only annoyance was that a climax is supposed to conclude a book. Instead, it introduced a bunch of mysteries near the end to leave them all unresolved.  I wasn’t shocked, but disappointed  to notice the reviews on book 2 and 3 of the series complain none of these mysteries are solved two books later either.  Sigh.  This book could have been solid children’s literature with depth, but looks to be shaping up to only slightly a class above Goosebumps, using cheap hooks to keep young kids reading.  But I guess there’s a place for that.  If I were 7 or 8 I’d be in love with these for their fun tone.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey — I found this in the free book bin at the library and since I never actually read it, I thought I’d give it a try.  While Covey is long-winded and often vague, I can see why this book was a pivotal force in the early nineties.  Some of the social comments are now out-dated, but things like doing first things first and seeing  all situations with others as win/win is timeless.

I’ve got three library books left.  I’m rereading “Writing the Breakout Novel” and then have “The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents” and “Doomwyte” both on recommendation, and Marva sent me a copy of her book, “Bad Spelling,” that I’ll reread.  After all that, I’ll get back to writing “Much Ado About Villains”… eventually.

Also, I’ve added an actual email subscription that works (thanks to my site master, Wulfie).  RSS has been moved to the bottom on the right hand side.

Yamataro Comes Back, Bambi, and Other Mysteries of Children’s Lit

Okay, so I had quite the experience this weekend.  I was feeling too tired to write one evening, so I ended up watching my husband browse through lists of anime shows, since he enjoys watching anime.  I saw a brief shot of what looked like the cutest little cartoon characters ever, and asked him to bring that one up.  It was an anime for “younger children” called “Yamataro Comes Back.”  The short description said it was about a young bear who makes friends with a steam engine who helps him escape captivity.  

Sounds like typical four year old fare, right? So, we tried it.  Yamataro is by far the cutest creature ever.  He oozes cuteness.  The story starts out though with a tragic Bambi-like beginning where Yamataro and his mother are floating on an iceberg  It gets hit by a ship and kills his mother.  Yamataro is then sold to a shop owner in town who chains him in front of the store to draw in customers and feeds him leftover fish, mistakenly thinking he is a “sea bear” and only likes fish.

A bit depressing, but still in typical kid territory.  We go merrily along with a bully of a cat who teases Yamataro and then C64, a kindly steam engine (yes, steam engine) who stops along the tracks every night to chat with Yamataro.  Well, there is Thomas the Tank engine, right? So this isn’t too far out.  The train teaches him to roar like a train-whistle and cuddles with him, as much as a train can cuddle anyway. It’s cute and weird that Yamataro in the subtitles calls the train Mr. C64, but still, we were sailing along until Yamataro escapes.

Then the whole thing takes a terrible turn for the depressing.  After a tearful goodbye, Yamataro and C64 don’t see each other again.  We fast forward to when Yamataro is all grown up. The townspeople have been relentlessly trying to shoot and kill him ever since he escaped, but keep getting confused by his train-whistle roar.  Meanwhile, C64 has been replaced by high speed rail, and sits languishing in the train barn, watching people dismantle all his fellow engines for scrap metal.  Then, the towns folk get the brilliant idea of driving C64 on one last ride up to the mountains to use his whistle to lure out Yamataro and shoot him.  Cheery.

Even more so when C64 realizes what’s happening, and crashes himself in a heroic suicide just in time for Yamataro to realize its a trap and run away farther into the mountains for good.

I don’t think I’ve seen or read something for little kids that depressing since I tried Bambi the book. Now, this is not Bambi the movie, the Disney movie has nothing on Yamataro with its happy ending.  Bambi’s father survives, his friends survive, and he gets twitterpated with a happily ever after.

Not so the book.  Friend after friend gets shot, and when a weepy (and probably pregnant) Feline asks Bambi, “Do you love me?” he answers, “I don’t know,” and ditches her for the other end of the forest.  People thought this was a kid’s book? Really?

Although, now I’m wondering if some of my more depressing ideas as a writer might actually end up working after all! I think the lesson here for everyone is, so long as your main character is rip-your-heart-out cute, you can kill as many people in your children’s show/book as you like.