Thursday, January 31, 2013

Outpost by Ann Aguirre

Deuce’s whole world has changed.
Down below, she was considered an adult. Now, topside in a town called Salvation, she’s a brat in need of training in the eyes of the townsfolk. She doesn't fit in with the other girls: Deuce only knows how to fight.
To make matters worse, her Hunter partner, Fade, keeps Deuce at a distance. Her feelings for Fade haven’t changed, but he seems not to want her around anymore. Confused and lonely, she starts looking for a way out.
Deuce signs up to serve in the summer patrols—those who make sure the planters can work the fields without danger. It should be routine, but things have been changing on the surface, just as they did below ground. The Freaks have grown smarter. They’re watching. Waiting. Planning. The monsters don’t intend to let Salvation survive, and it may take a girl like Deuce to turn back the tide.

I enjoyed Enclave. It wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it was an entertaining read and intrigued me enough to want to read the next book. So I started Outpost with relatively low expectations. And I ended up liking it better.

This book is slower in that there’s not action on every page—like Enclave. But I liked learning more about Deuce and seeing her adjust to a different environment. She learns more about life, real life, which is more than just being a Hunter. She grows to understand relationships better, and she learns to question what isn’t right. I liked her progress. Her interactions with the culture of Salvation felt spot on.

I thought the drama with Fade was totally unnecessary, though, and I actually rolled my eyes at the Fade/Stalker thing. So, I thought the inter-relationships between the quartet didn’t always make sense. Well, Tegan’s actions did, but Fade’s didn’t. So the drama that ensued felt contrived and took way too long to resolve itself. I also didn’t buy Fade’s actions in the end. What happened to him was horrible, but I didn’t see how it would affect his relationship with Deuce in that way.

I really like where the author is going with the Freaks. They are much more dynamic than in the first book, and they promise to deliver some great tension and action in the next book. Which I will be reading…though my expectations haven’t really changed. :)

Monday, January 28, 2013

To Rate, Or Not To Rate

I have been sitting on this topic for almost two years. Mostly because people tend to have strong opinions on the subject, and strong opinions can sometimes lead to vicious arguments. Especially in the comfortable anonymity of the internet. The reason I’m posting this, though, is because I want to know what you all think. Just, please, keep it civil.

Okay, so, book ratings. Many people think this is a horrible idea, and many people think it’s a good thing. I’m on the fence, so I really want to hear your thoughts on the matter. To make it fair, I will share mine. :)

On the one hand, I can see how slapping a rating on a book could misrepresent it by only focusing on the negative. It could also make kids rush out to buy it simply because of its label, which kind of defeats the purpose of said label—not unlike how music CDs with the ‘Explicit Lyrics’ label was snapped up by kids simply because it had that label.

On the other hand, we have a successful example of a rating system that is widely accepted by all: movies. It’s not perfect, but it does provide a loose guideline of what to expect when we sit down to watch it. Or when our kids sit down to watch it. We know that R-rated movies could have nudity, the f-word, explicit sex scenes, graphic violence (psychological or physical), etc. We know that PG-13 movies don’t have nudity or explicit sex scenes (but there could implied intimacy), there is profanity but no use of the f-word, and any violence won’t be as vividly graphic. PG movies take things one step further down, with no implied sexuality (what exists is romantic in nature, not sexual), limited profanity, limited graphic violence, etc. And, of course, G-rated movies have romance with no sex, no profanity, no graphic violence, etc. Each movie is different, though, and I still screen most movies before letting my kids watch them. But I like having that rough guideline to follow.

I also appreciate the ‘Explicit Lyrics’ label on music. My kids listen to the radio a lot, and when they hear a song they like, they will sometimes ask me to download it. There’s no way I’m downloading the version with profanity for them, so I appreciate the two versions, and the label that comes with it. Even though this label was initially met with resistance, it hasn’t gone away and it serves a good purpose to this day.

So, I don’t know. Generally, I’m opposed to labels because it reduces something or someone to less than what they are. But, at the same time, I can appreciate how helpful a loose, movie-like rating system would be. Especially for families that have kids reading at a much higher level (like my nine-year-old) and finding age-appropriate material can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. I do read the books that my nine-year-old reads, but there are so many out there that I can’t always keep up. Especially since he can check out whatever he wants at his school library, which has books for kids K-12. It’s a conundrum...

What are your thoughts? Have you had an experience where you’re glad there isn’t a rating system? What about an experience where you wish there was one in place?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle

Katie is on the verge of her Rumspringa, the time in Amish life when teenagers can get a taste of the real world. But the real world comes to her in this dystopian tale with a philosophical bent. Rumors of massive unrest on the “Outside” abound. Something murderous is out there. Amish elders make a rule: No one goes outside, and no outsiders come in. But when Katie finds a gravely injured young man, she can’t leave him to die. She smuggles him into her family’s barn—at what cost to her community?

When I read the summary above, I was intrigued. Very intrigued. This story is unique. On the one hand, we have the Amish and their peaceful lifestyle. On the other, we have grisly horror. Both exist in this story. It was odd at first, because the book starts out with the extreme goodness of the Amish, and then we get the grisly, horrific details of the murderous things outside the Amish community. At first, it was difficult to reconcile the two, but, once I did, the story flowed quite well.

I really liked Katie. She felt real, and her personality, morals, and ideals shone through in her actions very well—like paying for her stolen medicine. Her internal conflict between the life she’d been born into and the life outside the gates felt very real. Many people go through this, and it’s not easy. I thought the author handled this well (except for some of her decisions at the end—that felt like too much too fast).

I do think that there were many missed opportunities for tension, and, as a result, the pacing suffered a bit. This story is kind of a mix between character-driven and plot-driven, and the character-driven part was done well. I so wish there had been a bit more oomph to the plot, and a few more interactions with the ‘bad guys.’ Especially considering who some of those bad guys turned out to be. The Elders also didn’t make much sense sometimes. They love power, and information is power, so I didn’t believe they would do some of the things they did.

I also didn’t completely buy the romance. Alex supposedly lost the love of his life, but he doesn’t seem very upset by this. I liked the friendship that they formed, but it seemed to evolve too quickly and too easily. I liked Katie’s confusion and rebellion surrounding it, but I didn’t quite believe where she ended up regarding Alex.

I loved how the story ended, though. It felt real and natural. If there is a sequel, I’ll be reading it. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Fiction Fun: WIP

I have another major revision to do on my WIP, but here is a section I thought I'd share with you today. My main character's name is Todd, and he finds an old book of riddles in his uncle's library.

Chapter 2: The Labyrinth

I grabbed the book and flipped to the table of contents.

Part 1: Riddles of the Labyrinth
Part 2: Riddles of the Forest
Part 3: Riddles of the Mountain
Part 4: Riddles of the Road

The Riddles of the Road were probably the most difficult, so I glanced to the right hand side for a page number. There wasn’t one.

Weird, but no big deal. I opened to the middle, intending to flip through the book to find it, but the pages were empty. I turned a few more, but those were blank too. I flipped to the end. Nothing.
Was this some kind of joke?

I turned back to the title page. It was still there, and so were the table of contents. But there was nothing else. Why would a book contain a table of contents for content that wasn’t there? It didn’t make sense.

I almost tossed it aside, but…couldn’t. That same electrical spark surged through me. I needed to read this book, but how? Maybe I should go through it page by page, just to see what would happen. I opened to the title page. Still there. I turned the page to the table of contents. Check. The next page should be the Prologue, unless it was blank, too.

I turned the page, and a few squiggly lines had been scrawled along the top. Great. Some two-year-old had gotten hold of this book and scribbled all over it. Maybe that was why Uncle Hugh had it hidden behind his textbooks.

Enough of this. I had homework to do.

I tried to close the book, by my hands were frozen. Then, the squiggles moved.

No, that was impossible. My eyes were just tired. I tried to close them, but couldn’t. I tried to look away, but my eyes wouldn’t move. I couldn’t move!

The squiggles blurred together, spinning around the page, and my body was pulled toward the book. It loomed closer and closer until it was inches from my face. I tried to push it away, but the pull was too strong. Then I was falling through complete darkness and my stomach lurched. Ugh. The peanut butter and jelly I’d had for lunch was churning. I swallowed, trying to keep it down.

Something hard smashed into my chest and face, and all the air whooshed from my lungs. I gasped, trying to gulp down air as I rolled over. Oxygen flooded back into my chest and I flopped into my back, panting.

“That wasn’t very graceful,” said an amused, static-filled voice. “Looked like it hurt, too.”

I was lying on a cold, stone floor with a dark ceiling above me. A fire crackled in a fireplace big enough to stand in, casting flickering shadows on the walls. A short, stocky man leaned against the marble mantle, his mustache twitching with a grin. But there was no color on him anywhere, and he was fuzzy around the edges.

“Are you going to lie around all day?” he asked. “I might have all the time in the world, but I doubt you do.” He straightened his long jacket and bow tie, then tugged at the crease in his pants. He was kind of flickering, too, like he’d been lifted from an old, black and white movie. A really old movie, like, from a century ago.

I must have hit my head or something, because none of this was possible. I was either dreaming or seeing things. Dreaming, probably. Yeah, that was it. I must have fallen asleep in the library. I don’t think I’ve ever been aware during a dream before, so it might be interesting to see what my brain conjures up.
Maybe I can study dreams when I grow up. Maybe I can invent a device that records dreams! That would be cool. And it’s considered impossible, which makes it the best kind of challenge. After all, Orville Wright said ‘If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.’

Feel free to share snippets of your own fiction!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love and dared to imagine a world free of bloodshed and war.
This is not that world.
Art student and monster's apprentice Karou finally has the answers she has always sought. She knows who she is—and what she is. But with this knowledge comes another truth she would give anything to undo: She loved the enemy and he betrayed her, and a world suffered for it. Karou must decide how far she'll go to avenge her people. Filled with heartbreak and beauty, secrets and impossible choices, Days of Blood & Starlight finds Karou and Akiva on opposing sides as an age-old war stirs back to life.
While Karou and her allies build a monstrous army in a land of dust and starlight, Akiva wages a different sort of battle: a battle for redemption. For hope.

I loved the first book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone. *Loved* it. Karou and Akiva were amazing to follow, and I couldn’t put the book down because I needed to know what was going to happen to them. And I thought I was going to die of suspense when it ended.

Even with my enthusiasm left over from the first book, I had a hard time getting into this one. Mostly because a lot of time has passed and we don’t exactly know what has happened. That info is revealed, slowly, and I found it a bit confusing. Once I had a handle on everything, then I settled happily into the story.

Blood and Starlight was almost as compelling as the first book. Close, so close, but not quite. I didn’t like Karou as much this time. She seemed too conveniently dense, especially when it came to Ten and Thiago. His motives were so obvious from the start that I got frustrated waiting for Karou to figure it out. Nothing terribly convenient or pivoting comes out of it, though, which means the rest of the plot didn’t come across as contrived, so I was able to shrug it off. It was just annoying and slowed down the pacing.

The relationship between Karou and Akiva was as expected. I wished that they could recover enough to have a conversation, but it also felt real that they couldn’t. So their resulting actions were both sympathtic and heartbreaking. I really liked seeing Akiva with his brother and sister, and getting to know them more, too. Considering how it all ends, it was necessary for us to understand the relationship among the three. With that understanding came a very powerful scene where I felt Liraz’s loss keenly, and it also made me fully understand the hostile alliance at the end—which I loved. :)

The only thing I wasn’t happy with was that Karou didn’t tell Akiva her secret, and I can’t see any reason for him not to know. In fact, he *needs* to know in order for their plan to work effectively. So I had mixed feelings about the ending. I’m still hooked on the story and am dying to know what’s going to happen next, but I’m hoping there isn’t going to be the withholding of information just to create tension. I think the author has more talent than to resort to this, so I’m hoping she won’t go there. But, I guess we’ll see in the next book—which I will *definitely* be reading. :)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

With Great Writing Comes Great Responsibility

Last year, I talked about a study that shows how great writing can make the reader turn fiction into reality—transporting them into the main character’s story and feeling as though it was his own. I’ve certainly experienced this, and I love it. It inspires me to want to write my stories that well.

It also sparked some thoughts that I chose not to share last year, when I wrote that first post. I'm not exactly sure why, perhaps because last year was insanely busy and I had limited time to respond to what could potentially be a controversial post. I haven't been able to shake these thoughts, though, and I'm also looking to start my year off right. So, I'm sharing. :)

Over the years, many writers and readers have mused on how much accountability should be placed on the writer. Responses to this stretch widely across the spectrum. Some say that since fiction isn't real, the reader shouldn't take any of it seriously. Some say that all accountability is on the reader, because the writer is only one person and can't possibly see his/her story how everyone else sees it. Others say that writers should hold themselves accountable for what messages they intentionally (or unintentionally) send.

To those who think fiction shouldn't be taken seriously, I say *PSHAW*. If we don't take fiction seriously, then it has no meaning. Just because a fictional story never happened doesn't make it meaningless. In fact, I find lots of meaning in fiction because the author created everything for a purpose, and it's my job as a reader to discover those purposes. That always gets my brain thinking, and that's pretty much always a good thing...

For those who think the onus is on the reader, well, I think that's partially true. The reader is ultimately responsible for his or her actions. And, the writer *is* only one person and therefore limited. However, there are ways around that. That's where critique partners and beta readers come into play. They provide additional perspectives, which can give the author a wealth of information. It's easy to dismiss one person's feedback as 'oh, well, he just didn't quite get it.' While that may be true, chances are that he won't be the only person to think this, and it could earn you unfavorable reviews. It's in your best interest to listen to him, figure out where and how he got off track, and then fix it so that future readers don't have the same issue.

As for those who say writers should hold themselves accountable for what messages they send, well, this study on a reader's 'experience-taking' makes a good argument for it. It's kind of saying that great writing requires great responsibility.

According to this study, experience-taking works when the reader solidly identifies with the main character. Which is what should happen! It’s why we write fiction, right? Well, it’s why I write fiction. And I want to write the most believable, relatable characters I can because then my readers will identify with them and enjoy the story. Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology, says "Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways." Which is great! But...what if the change isn't meaningful or beneficial? What if it's hurtful?

I could rant for hours on the hot-jerk-boyfriend that’s prevalent in YA stories today, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’m going to make one observation about one scenario that scares me:

An author writes an amazing story, in which a good person is partnered with a rotten significant other. Then, that rotten person suddenly changes and becomes a good person. I can't count how many times I've seen this formula in YA stories... And teen girls are devouring them. Is it enough to just be happy that they're reading? I'm not so sure.

For readers in the throes of experience-taking, I think this is a recipe for disaster. These readers are taking on a character's experiences as their own, and, according to Ms. Libby, are making conscious or unconscious decisions based on them. Which means they will be stuck in an unhealthy relationship, believing on some level that the rotten significant other will suddenly change. I won't say that's impossible, because it could happen. But it's *highly* unlikely. And this will begin the pattern of lousy relationships because they will be looking for a person that doesn't exist. That scares the crap out of me, and I don't think our teens (boys or girls) deserve that.

So, there's my thoughts. Feel free to share your own.

To be clear, I don't think that tough subjects should be bypassed in YA fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact. Books are a safe arena for broaching these subjects, and not addressing them does a disservice to teens. They are quite capable of taking these things on and dealing with them in effective ways, and don't deserve 'dumbed down' books that pretend all is hunky dory with the world. What I take issue with is putting rose-colored glasses on the story, and then giving it a fairy-tale ending. I think our teens deserve much more than that.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

Elisa is the hero of her country. She led her people to victory against a terrifying enemy, and now she is their queen. But she is only seventeen years old. Her rivals may have simply retreated, choosing stealth over battle. And no one within her court trusts her-except Hector, the commander of the royal guard, and her companions. As the country begins to crumble beneath her and her enemies emerge from the shadows, Elisa will take another journey. With a one-eyed warrior, a loyal friend, an enemy defector, and the man she is falling in love with, Elisa crosses the ocean in search of the perilous, uncharted, and mythical source of the Godstone's power. That is not all she finds. 

I loved the first book, Girl of Fire and Thorns. I loved watching Elisa grow from a coddled, sheltered weakling into a warrior. So awesome.

The Crown of Embers is about Elisa learning yet something else: how to be an effective ruler. I've seen some criticism about this story, that Elisa goes back to being too much like her old self in book 1, but I disagree with that. Leading a band of guerrilla fighters is nothing like leading a country, plus all the backstabbing politics that come with it. Elisa is in new territory again, and she has to learn how to rule. She makes lots of mistakes in the process, but she learns from them and grows as a character.

I think Elisa's flaws are my favorite part of these books. She makes real mistakes, repeatedly, and there is no magic cure for them. There is no sudden epiphany that gives her the answers to all her troubles. Instead, she has to muddle through just like a real person would. As a result, she is a bit unlikable in Crown of Embers because she makes some terrible choices. But I was okay with this, especially when we see her growth--she is given the crown in the beginning, but she earns it in the end. That made it all worth it.

I am really looking forward to the next book, and what kind of trouble Elisa will get herself into. :)

Monday, January 07, 2013

What’s Revision Good For?

I know lots of writers who hate revision, and I know lots who love it. Including me. :) But, even if you love it, there will eventually come a time where you will want to scream if you have to revise one more word. :) It's inevitable.

I spent the better part of last year revising one draft of my WIP. Granted, it was a *huge* revision, which is why it took me so long to get through it. But I finished it, and then sent it off to my agent. After she read it, she called me up and proceeded to give me *another* long list of things that need fixing. So, I'll be doing yet another huge revision...oooooooh joy of joys.

But, you know what? I kinda knew it was coming. And it's not because I gave my agent shoddy work. Not at all. I worked my tail off and addressed her concerns to the best of my ability. She just came up with another list...something she's really good at doing. :) Which is exactly why I was expecting another revision. I mean, one can hope to be finished, and sometimes one is pleasantly surprised, but, for the most part, we end up going through our work over and over and over and over and...well, you get the idea.

Toward the end of our conversation, she said she knew how much work I'd put into this draft and was sorry that she still saw so much more that needed to be done. But I told her that I'd had no illusions that this was done, and kinda figured I'd be doing at least one more big revision. She paused, then said she was so glad to hear that because it meant I was willing to do what was right for my story, no matter how hard it might be. She said she's seen other writers take the easy way out, and it really shows in their work. Then everyone suffers.

With each passing day, the publishing world gets more and more competitive. We writers need every possible advantage, which means we need to work ten times harder than we think we do. It will show in our work, and it will be noticed by the professionals in the industry. So, when we hit that wall and run screaming from our stories, we still can't give up and let it be 'good enough.' Because it won't be.

I don't know about you, but I intend to start 2013 off on the right foot, and then I'm going to keep that momentum going--starting with this next revision. Anyone with me?