If You Liked The Hunger Games and Divergent

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…then the next dystopian YA series on your list should be Marie Lu’s Legend. I’ve only read the first book in the trilogy, but as soon as I finished, I requested the other two from the library.

After a series of floods and other natural disasters took out large segments of the West Coast, Los Angeles and the surrounding areas have been taken over by the totalitarian Republic. While the Republic’s soldiers battle the outlying Colonies, citizens stuck in between struggle to survive.

Day, a 15-year-old Robin Hood, is a continual thorn in the Republic’s side as he steals from banks, hospitals, and other government buildings and gives their money, food, and medicine to those who need it. When one of his break-ins ends with a soldier being killed, Day is more hunted than ever. Military prodigy June takes the lead in hunting down Day, believing that he killed the soldier, her brother.

Chapters alternate points of view between Day and June—their chapters are even printed in different fonts and colors—giving the reader both leads’ perspectives and making both sympathetic and likeable. A rich cast of background characters, including soldiers, rebels, and those not taking sides, gives a great deal of depth and reality to the world in which this is set.

This series was a moderate hit, but may have gotten swallowed up in the Hunger Games/Divergent juggernauts. But if you enjoy this genre, Legend is definitely a book you should check out. (And if I know you in person, you can borrow my copy.)

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Books You Probably Haven’t Read But Should: Sunflowers

When Vincent Van Gogh infamously sliced off his ear, the local newspaper reported that he brought it to a brothel and gave it to a prostitute named Rachel. ImageLittle else is known about Rachel, although some art historians believe that she appears in a painting or two. In Sheramy Bundrick’s Sunflowers, Van Gogh’s story is told from Rachel’s point of view, with the author imaging that the couple’s relationship was not just personal, but romantic.

Most things I’ve read about Van Gogh focus on his mental illness (which some experts now believe may have been bipolar disorder) to the point of making him a raving lunatic. However, this novel focuses more on the man himself—a sentimental soul who worried about disappointing his beloved brother and who felt insecure about the fact that his ahead-of-its-time art sold less than those of his famed contemporaries. Many of the characters are based on real figures from Van Gogh’s life, including the Roulin, Ginoux, and Gachet families, who were the subjects of some of his works.

I felt like the story started a bit slow, but I eventually got so engrossed that I hoped it would turn out differently in the end, even though I knew it wouldn’t. Van Gogh’s eventual decline is handled sensitively and realistically given the time, and the scenes in the asylum had me wondering how his life and art would have been affected if he’d had access to modern medicine. I also spent a lot of time looking up some of his lesser-known works that are described in the book.

All in all, a very satisfying read. But I maintain that the best historical fiction about Van Gogh is “Vincent and the Doctor” from Doctor Who.

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Books You Probably Haven’t Read But Should: City of Ember

… or perhaps I should say, “…Your Kids Haven’t Read But Should.” Because I love dystopian stories (and the novel I’m writing fits into that category) City of Ember was recommended to me by Holly McDowell, the author of the book series I wrote about in my first “Books You Probably Haven’t Read” post. It’s what the publishing field calls a middle-grade novel, meaning that it’s meant for readers between children’s books and Young Adult books–around fifth through eighth grade or so. So if you don’t generally like reading kids’ books, as I sometimes do, you might want to give this one to your kids.

Ember is a city in darkness. The only available light is artificial, from light bulbs, and those are starting to run out. The power grid is showing its age too, with power outages occurring more and more frequently. Meanwhile, the supplies of food and medicine, which the citizens of Ember were told would last forever, are running low.

Lina and Doon are both 12 years old, and have just begun their new jobs as all 12-year-olds must. But like most 12-year-olds, they also dream of achieving great things, of doing more with their lives than the adults around them have. When Lina stumbles across a mysterious note, they think this may be their chance at heroism. However, there are others in Ember who have reason to want things to stay the way they are.

I felt like the book was a little slow to get going, but once it picked up speed, it never stopped–and the end is terrific. The author, Jeanne DuPrau, could have easily left it at that and the ending would have been satisfying, but I just discovered that it’s a four-book series. Curse, you, Holly! *shakes fist* I need to catch up on some other reading before my library request for the other Ember books comes through.

My 9-year-old also likes fantasy, but most dystopians are a little rough for her age. I think I’m going to pass this one along to her though. Come on, dystopian fans–what are your favorites?

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How to Make Your Favorite Authors Write More Stuff

Woman_using_computerAuthors today have to do a great deal more self-promotion than ever before. Between tweeting and pinning and Facebooking, it’s a wonder that they have time to write books anymore–but they won’t get that chance unless their current books sell, sell, sell.

However, social media also gives you the opportunity to help your favorite authors get that next contract. If you really liked that last book, don’t just tell your real-life friends, tell your Goodreads friends. Leave a glowing review, and follow the author there. Give ’em 5 stars on Amazon and B&N. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Comment on their blog. Publishers look at all of these when deciding whether the next book is worth the investment.

Not only will you be helping your favorite authors write more stuff, you’ll stay up to date on their live appearances and upcoming projects. You’ll get to read their writing for free–authors’ blogs tend to be outstanding. You’ll be one of the first to buy the new book, instead of the one who says “Oh, I didn’t know _______ had a new book out!” Also, authors tend to be way more entertaining on Twitter than celebrities (which is understandable).

bookshelfSome of my favorite authors to follow include: Neil Gaiman (Sandman), John Scalzi (Redshirts), Veronica Roth (Divergent), Alexandra Robbins (The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth), and Jody Hedlund (whose books are Christian romance–not my usual cup of tea–but whose blog is collection of brilliant advice on publishing), among others.

OK, folks, time to support your favorite authors: Which author blogs/Twitter feeds/etc. do you read? Rec them here!

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Books You Probably Haven’t Read—But Should: King Solomon’s Wives

The more I learn about writing and publishing, the more I’m discovering off-the-beaten-path books that I might not have otherwise found. Many of them deserve a wider audience, so this is the first in what will be an ongoing, irregular series of posts: Books You Probably Haven’t Read—But Should.

Chapter 1: Hunted

The book that inspired me to start this series is King Solomon’s Wives by Holly McDowell. Full disclosure: I know Holly in real life (we’re in the same critique group), but I wouldn’t recommend this publicly if I hadn’t loved reading it.

King Solomon’s Wives is a serial fantasy novel that McDowell is releasing in e-book format, one chapter at a time, although each “chapter” is really more like a novella—100 pages or so. (The first two chapters, Hunted and Addicted, are both available now in Amazon.)

The Wives are modern-day women who are descendants of King Solomon’s many wives. Their touch is literally addictive—people they come in contact with pursue them relentlessly to avoid withdrawal. Meanwhile, they are pursued by the descendants of an ancient clan of Hunters whose sole purpose is to kill off the Wives.

Chapter 2: Addicted

Because of this, the Wives live in isolation, with strict rules and hierarchies supposedly designed to keep them safe. The story follows some of the individual Wives: Sumarra, who rebels against the system yet seeks to protect the younger Wives; Sonya, who escaped from her clan when she fell in love with a handsome musician; clan leader Dilara, who struggles to maintain order and safety within her group; sweet, naïve Mina; and others. Flashbacks to the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba serve to explain how the Wives came to be.

The stories are skillfully interwoven, so seemingly minor characters in one Wife’s story become major characters in other plotlines. (I just love it when authors do that well.) At the end of each chapter, you have the option to give the author feedback about who and what you’d like to see in future chapters.

Also, be warned: Because it’s a serial, each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, and the second is even more suspenseful than the first.

I read the first part of Addicted in our critique group, and I immediately ordered Hunted so I’d be ready when the completed version of Addicted was published. It was released in late February, and I whipped through it in just a few days. I know Holly is working on the next chapter and I can’t wait to read it.

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Summer reading list!

Sooo… my plan to write three pages a day hasn’t gone very well. Yet. By making that pledge right at the start of the school year, when the kids have a million things happening and I have a bunch of extra volunteer responsibilities, I may have set myself up for failure. But I’m not giving up, just restarting. (Although today, I went to a writer friend’s house for a “writing day” with grand plans of getting pages and pages written, then realized that I’d forgotten my laptop power cord–meaning that the battery on my elderly laptop died within the hour. Sigh.)

“Sweet Solitude” by Edmund Blair Leighton

In the meantime, I have managed to write about the books I read over the summer! Here’s what I’ve been reading. If you have any recs from your summer reading list, post them in the comments!

Room, by Emma Donoghue: I got this book more than a year ago, but I put off reading it because of the subject matter: Room is told from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack, who is being raised in a prison-like room where his mother has been held captive for seven years. Jack’s biological father is their captor. Depressing, right? Not as much as I’d thought. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that Jack’s mother has worked hard to protect him from the reality of their situation and make his childhood as fun as is possible in a small, concrete room. It’s not the story of a young woman’s imprisonment—it’s the story of the lengths this mother will go to in order to protect Jack.

One minor quibble—the story is set in the U.S., but the writer is Irish and a few little Irish-isms slipped past the editors (the word “grand,” used to mean “great” or “terrific,” for example). It’s not a huge deal, but the few times it happened, I was briefly taken out of the story as I thought, “Wait a sec—where is this taking place again?” But that’s a tiny flaw in an otherwise well-executed book.

Pledged, by Alexandra Robbins: I picked this up after reading Robbins’ The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, which is a brilliant analysis of teenage cliques. But Pledged, an undercover look at college sororities written a few years earlier than Geeks, doesn’t have the same level of insight. I wasn’t surprised by most of Robbins’ findings, except for a short segment that addresses the differences between traditionally African-American and Latina sororities (which still focus heavily on community service and career mentoring) and traditionally Caucasian sororities (many of which have become far more focused on partying and husband-finding). If you haven’t read Geeks though, you should.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi: Star Trek meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The disposable background characters in a Trek-like world begin to develop an awareness of the fact that their primary purpose seems to be to get killed in order to kick off the crew’s latest adventure. The story starts to get a little convoluted and over-explainy near the end, but otherwise, it’s a unique premise and a fun read, full of in-jokes for sci-fi fans.

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People All Over the World… Join In!

Around this time last year, my friend at Are You the Babysitter? posted a list of things she loves. Our pal Virtual Farmgirl got in the act, and then I followed suit and I called it the Love Train.

With the change of the season and the kids all going back to school, this seems like a good time to remind ourselves of the simple things that make us happy, so AYtB has started up the Love Train once again. She’s also gotten don’t touch my poodleWindy City Virgins, and Outrunning the Storm to join the Love Train. So check out those lists, check out my list below, and if you have a blog of your own, hop on! (If you don’t blog, give me your list in the comments!)

  • A bright, sunny day with a cool breeze
  • Doctor Who—one of the few shows that my husband and I both love in equal amounts
  • Watching my kids’ soccer games and seeing how they and their teammates work together, better and better each year
  • My Ragnar Relay jacket—it’s a great jacket, lightweight and warm, but it also broadcasts to the world my greatest (and possibly only) athletic achievement
  • Nutella. ’Nuff said.
  • Listening to my girls play Legos together, as they create wildly inventive scenarios for their characters
  • Fall shoes, especially my Chuck Taylors and Danskos, which I miss during the summer (seriously, I wore my black Chucks yesterday for the first time since May and they made me so happy!)
  • Hummus with lots of lemon juice
  • Guacamole with lots of lime juice
  • My childhood best friend’s mom’s oyster cracker mix—my friend recently sent me the recipe and the taste of those crackers took me back in time
  • Finishing up a knitting project and going through my yarn stash and pattern stash to decide what to make next
  • Lending books I loved to friends (it justifies my book-buying addiction!)

What’s on your list?

Photo: Courtesy of Oxyman, Wikimedia Commons

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My First Week of Just F*#king Writing Stuff

Last weekend, I vowed to “Just F*#king Write Stuff.” Inspired by an off-the-cuff comment about writing from The Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick, I decided that I would try to write three pages every day, even if it was three crappy pages, just to keep the machine working. This week, I met with mixed success, but I suppose that’s to be expected. Judging by my notes below, I’m going to have to try harder to not only set aside non-work writing time, but also to protect that time so other obligations don’t intrude too much upon it–and so that sleep doesn’t have to be sacrificed for writing.

I’m hoping that within a few weeks, the three daily pages will become a habit and I won’t need to track them like this to keep myself honest. But in the meantime, here’s how Week One went.

Monday: Three pages done! I had to fight hard for those pages though. I had a couple of hours to myself in the morning, but there were a lot of distractions, so I only got two pages written. That third page was done at 11:30 pm, just under the wire. But I did it!

Tuesday: Not so successful today. Wrote about three pages of material for a client, but only a paragraph of fiction. I guess some writing is better than none…?

Wednesday: FAIL. I’ll cop to hanging out in Starbucks with some good friends for a couple of hours in the morning while our kids were at camp (and it was worth it!), but after that I didn’t have a minute to myself until 10 pm. Our power had gone out at 9 though, and didn’t come back until 1:30 am. I suppose I could have written longhand by candlelight, but… no. I made big plans to make up for lost writing on Thursday though.

Thursday: I didn’t completely make up for the Lost Wednesday, but I did make up a little–four pages written. I did three pages of my novel draft and one page of other nonsense (which Hardwick says counts for something).

Friday: I’m attempting to write now, but EVERYONE is home and it’s just too damn loud. One kid is reading, but the other is dancing and singing out loud in the living room, and the husband is hammering something or other (and occasionally cursing). I’ve holed up in our bedroom to try and make some progress on the manuscript. I need to get a few more pages done to send my latest chapter to my critique group, which meets this week, so I’m off to try again.

Saturday: I got a page and a half done last night, and another three today. I still have to fill in two to three pages of material before I can submit it to my critique group so that page and a half makes sense.

Sunday: Three more pages done! Again just under the wire, before midnight.

So, overall, it was not bad but not great. Part of the problem is that I’m not writing very fast. An hour or two should usually be more than enough to write three pages, but it was taking a lot longer than that. I’m hoping that once I’m a well-oiled writing machine, my pace will pick up.

Onward!

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“Just F*#king Write Stuff”

So I’m writing a novel. At least, I’m trying to. Off the top of my head, I’d say that the biggest obstacle has been finding the time, but that’s not 100% true.

Indeed, I’m always strapped for time. Between my corporate freelance writing and editing “day job,” taking care of the kids, and my volunteer responsibilities, I’m pretty damn busy. I usually have at least one outstanding client project, so whenever I have a few minutes to write, I feel like I should be working on that.

But lately, the other equally big obstacle has been deciding what to write about. I have the general idea of my story, but I’m blocked on a few things so that’s making it hard to work on the manuscript. It’s making it hard to work on this blog too, and any other non-paid writing projects, for that matter.

Many published authors, when asked how to conquer this issue, have said some version of “Well, you just have to keep writing.” Usually, my reaction is some version of “Easy for you to say, Published Author.”

During the last few weeks, I’ve been working on some home improvement projects (more distractions!), and while doing that, I’ve been listening to The Nerdist podcasts. The Nerdist is a project by Chris Hardwick, a former MTV host who wanted to write and talk about sci-fi/fantasy TV, movies, comics, cartoons, and pretty much all other nerdy entertainment. He’s got a blog, the podcasts, a Youtube channel, TV specials, and oh yeah–he wrote a Nerdist book. Basically, rather than waiting for the entertainment job to come to him, he invented an entertainment job that he’d love and uses technology brilliantly to get it to the masses. And he’s really funny.

So I was listening to a podcast of one of his live shows and an audience member asked Hardwick how he gets past writer’s block. What he said was, more or less, “Well, you just have to keep writing,” but he said it like this:

“You have to sit down and just force yourself to write and it doesn’t matter what comes out of you, you just have to get the wheels turning. Even if you spend an hour writing shit, it’ll get the wheels turning so that later you will be struck by the good idea that you’re looking for.

“So never let the excuse of, like, ‘I don’t have anything to write about’—just fucking sit down, even if it’s just gibberish— ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’—doesn’t matter. Just fucking write stuff to get it out so you can keep the machine greased. Because what’ll happen is that you’ll start to get afraid to write if you don’t do it, ’cause you’ll be like, ‘I don’t ever have anything to say.’ So you just have to force yourself to sit down let your fingers start moving and it’ll unstick the wheels and you’ll write.”

For some reason, that hit me. Maybe it’s all the cuss words? Maybe it’s because I love The Nerdist and worship Hardwick and his crew as pioneers in new media? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, it hit me. I need to keep the machine greased. I need to not worry about “wasting time” writing material that I won’t keep (which is something I really try to avoid when I’m getting paid by the hour).

I need to just fucking write stuff.

Beginning Monday, I’m going to commit to writing at least three pages a day, even if it turns out to be gibberish, just to unstick the wheels. And I’m writing it down to make sure I really do it.

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The Art of the Cardigan: Lessons Learned at AWP

Last week, I attended my first writers’ conference, AWP 2012. This is a big-deal conference in the writing world, and I just lucked out that it happened to be held in Chicago this year. It was overwhelming and inspiring, so I thought I’d share a few things that I learned:

  • Once I am published, I will need to obtain a wardrobe of chic, artfully draped, long cardigans in dark colors. (Corollary for men: If you’re under 30, the cardigan must be Mr. Rogers-style and be paired with black-framed hipster glasses; if you’re over 30, you can just go with a sport coat—no cardigan required.)

  • It’s really cool to hear famous authors read from their books. The national award-winning authors I saw at AWP include Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage), Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres), Darin Strauss (Half a Life), Isabel Wilkerson, (The Warmth of Other Suns), Jaimy Gordon (The Lords of Misrule), and Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). I know a lot of you loved Henrietta Lacks, so you’ll be pleased to know that Skloot seems like the kind of person who’d be fun to meet for margaritas.

  • It’s also really cool to “discover” authors who I hadn’t heard of. If you’re looking for books that are not on the best-sellers lists (yet), check out Alexi Zentner and Alexander Yates for literary fiction; Kristen-Paige Madonia, Kat Falls, and Bridget Birdsall for young adult novels; Amina Gautier for short stories; and René Colato Laínez for young children’s books. Colato Laínez’s The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez looks especially fun (El Ratón Pérez is the Latin American/Spanish equivalent of the Tooth Fairy—in the book, the two characters accidentally meet at the home of an American boy with immigrant parents), and the author is an entertaining speaker.

  • Translations aren’t just for Greek epic poems that you had to read in high school. A lot of publishers specialize in English translations of books from other countries. I picked up a copy of Children in Reindeer Woods by Icelandic author Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Amazon and B&N don’t even have it ready to sell yet, but I’ve got it! Muahahaha!

  • Not all literary journals are full of relentlessly depressing stories and abstract poetry. There are some fun, unique journals that you might not always find on the bookstore shelves. Fairy Tale Review (variations on familiar fairy tales), Kugelmass (humor), and The Normal School (a blend of humor and other offbeat pieces) particularly caught my eye. I bought copies of those and will probably look into submitting too.

  • My obsession with funky-colored pens is not uncommon to writers, even in this technological age. A lot of exhibitors were giving away cool pens. Score!

  • A lot of them were also giving away pins—my favorites are the ones in the photos here.

  • Wait until the last day of the conference before buying anything—the exhibitors don’t want to carry all those books and journals back home, so they’re selling them at a discount or giving them away!

Have you ever been to a book-oriented conference? Have you ever met a favorite author? Tell me about it in the comments!

 

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