Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Book Review Club - This Book is not Good for You

This Book is not Good for You
by Pseudonymous Bosch
middle grade

I wanted to like this book. Who wouldn't? It's about chocolate. Delicious, tempting chocolate. Any writer whose been stuck in writer's block h*** has likely turned to the sweet temptress for relief now and again, right?

Which made it so hard to find that the bitter aftertaste of the main protagonist, Cass, made it hard to swallow all of this book.

So why review it?

Because it was a hit with my 9 year old. Granted, the age range for this middle grade may be pretty slim because my 11 year old was not so thrilled. She too thought the main protagonist, Cass, was, in her words "sassy" and "thought she was better than everyone." And here's my favorite part. She thought the writer - who had periodic monologues - talked way too much.

I thought the basic plot idea - kid has to save her mom from an evil society that is trying to make a chocolate that lets you live forever - was very clever. But the Cass' sarcasm and the interruptive monologues really made it hard to finish this piece.

So what is a writer to do with criticism like that? Does it matter?

My theory is that we sometimes learn more from what people don't like than what they do. For me, when it's my work, it tells me that something isn't working. It might not be precisely what the reader doesn't like that needs fixing, but I realize that there are holes big enough that they need to be filled.

So, if you're looking to learn something from holes, check out This Book is not Good for You, and see if you can find what you don't like. AND...what you might fix.

For other stimulating reads, hop over to our fearless leader, Barrie Summy's, blog!

Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

You might be a writer if...

Fall is upon us and Winter is just around the corner, which means I am back to layering. It's cold in the mornings, almost freezing now, which means gloves and jacket while running. I even donned my fingerless writing gloves yesterday because it was kind of chilly in my office, as well as a heavy fleece jacket. Granted, I don't usually wear as many layers as the woman in the picture to the right when I'm toiling away in my office. Usually. But even on those exceptionally cold mornings, as the day starts to warm, off come the layers. Sort of like the trees shedding their leaves. First the gloves. Then the jacket. Then the thick socks over my regular socks. Layers. Layers. Layers. They're everywhere.

Even in writing.

You might be a writer if...you're into layering.

This semester at Vermont college coincides well with my "layering" epiphany. Each packet (we're up to 4 now and the last, the fifth, is due December 6) my advisor has given me the same advice, "This is great. Now go back and dig deeper. Make it better." While I've spent a good deal of time these last three months hashing out the linear storyline, I've spent far more going back and layering. First, it was my characters. I needed to deepen their emotional resonance. Then, it was my emotional vs. external storylines. I needed to deepen and merge them.

My normal method of writing thus far has been to hash out that down draft and then go back and layer, but that's hard to do with only 4 weeks per packet. The result has been linear and horizontal development happening simultaneously. Not an easy feat to pull off but well worth the effort.

As I've gone back and sculpted away, tearing out, rewriting, molding, shaping, I've become aware of the layers in my story and how they interact in a super slow mo sort of way. It's much more acute and measured, this seeing and perceiving, almost like applying then watching each layer of paint dry and the slow but inevitable enrichment that layer imbues upon the one below it. How the sum become greater than the individual parts.

Yesterday was the first time I got a glimpse of a very small corner of what this piece will look like when it's done. A snippet of the finished product in all its full, rich, complete and layered color. It was pretty cool. I've never taken my work this slowly before and watched its deliberate and steady development. I am beginning to understand how David Almond could have created Kit's Wilderness, a piece so layered and emotionally resonate on so many levels, it's become my benchmark and goal. Get to that kind of writing. It seldom happens that so many pieces of a work play together like a symphony, like Ravel's Bolero, repeating the same theme but in nuanced variation such that the air pulses with the harmony of melodies. And it's all due to subtle, controlled, labored over layering.

Layers. If you don't got 'em. Get 'em. Cause they can turn great writing into unforgettable stories. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sacramento...or Bust!

Tomorrow I take Steinbeck's sage advice and "Head West, young man!" (okay, in this case, woman). Yes sir, I am leaving Oklahoma for the land of milk and honey...and librarians. I'll be speaking Saturday at the California School Librarians Conference with four other amazing writers - Susan Goldman Rubin, Linda Joy Singleton, Caryn Yacowitz, and Belle Yang.

Up-to-date and embracing all technology has to offer, we'll be talking about how to bring authors into schools on a shoestring budget. Skype visits, author interviews, podcasts, plays, graphic novels, hands on class demonstrations that bring books to life. We've gotten creative. Very creative. And we came up with some neat alternatives.

Which is pretty cool. For children's authors, there isn't much that can top kids reading our books. I mean, that's why we write. To share our stories. For me, visiting schools and talking to kids about my books, that's the Bees Knees. I hope, as the economy recovers, that schools will increasingly be able to afford once again to bring in real live authors to their students, but I'm glad we can offer some alternatives that get kids talking about writing.

Our panel is at 11 a.m. in the Sacrmento Convention Center, Rm 302/303, for anyone who happens to be attending. Afterwards, we'll be signing in the exhibitor hall, then it's kicking back and lunch!

I plan to head up to Apple Hill for the afternoon and try out some California apples.

Then it's back to the convention center in the evening for the Beatty dinner. I will be hosting a table, which means I get to talk books with librarians! Oh joy. Oh rapture. Oh endless bliss.

I love library conferences.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Book Review Club - Going Bovine

Going Bovine
Libba Bray
young adult

Bray knows her characters. The medley of sixteen year old underachiever/loser guy to talking garden gnome cast she creates is a fun romp to read through. Which is good because this is a looooooooooooong book. Very long. 480 pages long.

I know. I know. I sound like a griping teenager. The target audience. I wonder if the story has enough to keep them reading. I had a hard time remaining engaged.

While I enjoyed the imagination, the characters, the dialogue, the constantly changing setting, it was, ultimately, the leap of faith I was unable to take. At about the end of the first third of the book, when Cameron has already been hospitalized and is degenerating quickly - he's suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jacob (mad cow) disease, which is incurable and deadly. He sees an angel. Not just any angel. A punker angel. Okay, I'm still with you. The weird angel has appeared before in the distance. This might work. A punker angel named Dulcie.

Lost me.

We, as readers, are ultimately asked to "sign" a contract to take the leap of faith in fiction. To believe in the parameters of the story. Cameron's reality. It seems to incredible to be real. Sure enough, we come to discover in a 100 Years of Solitude sort of way toward the very end (and there are hints throughout that this might indeed be the case) that Cameron's been hallucinating/dreaming the last two weeks of his life. In other words, everything, including Dulcie, is a figment of his imagination. Yet his imagined life is far more alive and real than the 16 years of his life he more or less drifted through.

It's a great ending. Gabriel Garcia Marquez genius type of ending. But will the reader get there? We aren't in Latin American mysticism but modern day Texas. Realistic setting makes the leap hard. Dulcie makes the leap even harder. Granted, we're not supposed to take the leap in the end, we realize. It was a fantastical leap to begin with. One Cameron dreamed up. But because we do not know that right away, and because the fantastical keeps getting further and further out there, it's really hard to stay engaged, leaving the reader wondering, huh? What's the point? And, um, is it coming soon?

I hate not liking a book. I hate finding stuff wrong with the writing. There is no pleasure in it for me, especially with a book so close to greatness. Ultimately, it feels as though this piece lacked a stronger editorial pen. The right external input could have turned unbelievable into fantastical genius marvelous. We authors need editors. We really really do. No matter what stage of writing we are at. And we should never forget that. Because when we do, we are doomed to repeat our own mistakes without correction over and over and over again.

Read Going Bovine for its characters. For its Garcia Marquez crafty twist on reality. But also to notice where the editorial pen would have helped. Could have tightened, condensed and lifted such promise to the next level of greatness.  

For other great reads, hop over to our fearless leader's blog - Barrie Summy Blog.

Happy reading!