Friday, November 30, 2012

Sharing Good Books: Dust City

Dust City - by Robert Paul Weston

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? His son, that's who.
Ever since his father's arrest for the murder of Little Red Riding Hood, teen wolf Henry Whelp has kept a low profile in a Home for Wayward Wolves...until a murder at the Home leads Henry to believe his father may have been framed.
Now, with the help of his kleptomaniac roommate, Jack, and a daring she-wolf named Fiona, Henry will have to venture deep into the heart of Dust City: a rundown, gritty metropolis where fairydust is craved by everyone-and controlled by a dangerous mob of Water Nixies and their crime boss leader, Skinner.
Can Henry solve the mystery of his family's sinister past? Or, like his father before him, is he destined for life as a big bad wolf?


If you have a soft spot for edgy kidlit and fairytale retellings, this is the book for you.
I was wandering the YA section of the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh (where I used to live), when DUST CITY caught my eye. It sounded cute, I liked the idea of turning LRR on its head and exploring the story from the wolf's (son's) perspective in a more modern setting. One of 20 or so books I checked out, I kind of put off reading it because there were some I was a little more eager for. I totally did not expect this book to be what it was.

DUST CITY surprised me. A lot edgier than I expected, it dealt with some pretty powerful themes... drugs, gangs, elitism, racism, a child's relationship with an incarcerated parent, as well as the more standard outsider, awkward crush, and general conspiracy goodness. There was even a scene that's right up there with the most disturbing and graphic I've ever read. Yeah. Good stuff. 

I'm a sucker for world building. If it fails, you lose me. If you do it brilliantly, I'm pretty much blind to the negatives and sins, whatever they may be. I honestly can't tell you if I disliked anything about Dust City, because I was so fully immersed in the world. I love that in a book. Please take me somewhere I've never been and make me believe it. Weston made me believe. 

What I liked about this book--and what you might not like, if your idea of a great wolf is a sexy man who only chooses to turn furry to save the woman he loves--is that it really is like a fairytale all grown up. It feels like a fairytale. It's definitely fantasy...wolves, fairies, goblins, etc...but beautifully creepy fantasy. 

I loved the setting, and there's an interesting plot that's fun in it's own right, even as it explores some pretty heavy themes. Kids and teens deal with drugs everyday. If you don't think so, you're blind, naive, or both. This is a great book that deals with the issue of drugs without being like... drugs are bad, mmmk? Not to mention it's just fun. 

I don't know what I expected when I picked this up, but I never imagined it would be a book with so much depth. I'd recommend it to anyone with a strong stomach and a big imagination, especially if they enjoy fairytale retellings.

Also--this book only has 484 ratings on Goodreads. That kind of surprises me. If you want to read something a little different, with great characters that don't include a pretty yet klutzy heroine, please give this a try. These are just my thoughts and views, but I really do think the author is fantastically talented. 


Friday, November 23, 2012

"Revision" might be my favorite word.


It's not a dirty word. It's not obscene. I promise.

When I'm self-editing, there's a lot going on in my head. Some revision passes are for specifics like pacing, plot, and characters, but once those are banged into shape I look at other things. Smaller things.

Is this chapter/scene/paragraph/sentence necessary? (If it doesn't advance plot or character, then the answer is no. If it's not necessary for clarity, the answer is no. If your only reason for keeping it is that real people do it, for the love of Jeebus get rid of it. If you're only keeping it because you like how it sounds even though you know it's unnecessary, GET RID OF IT. People WILL notice.)

Is this chapter/scene/paragraph/sentence in the right place? (Trust me. I rearrange sentences like an OCD women rearranges her furniture. Rearrange for flow, rearrange for clarity...things are seldom exactly where they belong when you first write them.)

Is there a better/wittier/more emotional/more concise/punchier/whatever-ier way to rewrite this boring/long/cliched sentence? (Yes. Always yes.)

Is there a better way to re-structure this sentence? (A.k.a Is there a simpler way to rephrase this? Simple is king. People hate your overly complex sentences. Trust me on this one.)

Do I repeat a word or sentence structure in close proximity? (Don't.)

Do I repeat an unusual word or phrasing several times on one page? One chapter? One manuscript? (Please don't. I actually keep track of stuff like this unintentionally. I will literally scream if you use the word scrunched 43 times in your book. Find your pet words/phrases and kill them with fire.)

Is there a better word to use here? (Probably.)

Am I only keeping this sentences/paragraph/scene because I love the writing/I'm so witty? Bite the bullet (<---Cliche!) and kill your darlings. You want your reader to be focused on your story, not your beautiful, impossibly clever prose. (If you're a Literary writer, ignore me.) 

Is this sentence grammatically correct? Is everything spelled correctly? Did I use the correct homophone? (I've stopped reading books I've paid for because of  extreme homophone abuse. I don't care if it's the final installment of a trilogy.  I go through a series of emotions: annoyance, anger, rage, disbelief, more rage, amusement, maniacal laughter. I hate throwing my Kindle in a fit of abused homophone induced rage. Don't make me do this.)

There are always going to be things we don't catch. 
That's understandable.

By picking apart your manuscript on the word and sentence level, you'll catch most obvious typos and spelling/grammar issues. If the subject or verb is missing from a sentence, odds are you'll notice if you're trying to think of punchier verbs and subjects.

When I'm reading for sentence structure, I still keep an eye on grammar/spelling/typos. I have a subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style Online so I can check pesky grammar questions as they come up. No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect you to look like you care about your craft. If you don't know, look it up. Behold the miracle of Google. Go ahead. I'll wait.


Agents, Editors, assistants, interns--they're all looking for reasons to reject your manuscript. If you send in one that's been polished, they'll notice. Trust me. I might only be a lowly intern, but it drives me crazy when I find multiple typos and misspellings on every page. I even tend to overlook occasional minor grammar oopsies, but there is no excuse for typos. That's just laziness.

Please. For the love of all that is caffeinated, do yourself a favor. Do your agent/editor a favor. Do their assistants and interns a favor. Proofread. Revise. HONE YOUR CRAFT.  Editors aren't there to fix things that you can easily fix yourself.

Final word of advice? Follow publishing industry blogs (agents, editors, writers), and follow those same people on Twitter. If you're serious about being published, don't be lazy. Do your homework and it will pay off.

<3 you all.

Now go write. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

When Vision Exceeds Execution

It wasn't until a third of the way through school that one of my instructors put a name to a problem that plagued almost every beginning photographer: Vision Exceeds Execution. It stuck with me. Years later I still use it to keep myself in check. (Do I have the skills to do this project justice? Yes? Do it. No? Set it aside, keep learning. Come back when I'm better.)  I pick my battles, because sometimes it seems like waiting on an idea too big to do now will keep me from getting discouraged.

I've had the same problem with writing. 

The summer I turned sixteen, I outlined my first novel. It will forever remain trunked.  I never wrote more than a few chapters.  I'd done all the plotting and world-building, but it was too big for my First Attempt. I couldn't even wrap my head around where or how to begin. 

Attempt Two is actually worth writing. It’s my my white whale. It was--is--so huge, so perfect in my head, that I still feel like I'll mess it up if I try...and I've been sitting on it for eight years.  

Attempt Three--I had The Idea, the one that would finally exist on paper. I started and almost finished a novel for the first time ever. What changed was NaNoWriMo. I gave myself permission to fail. This is important, peoples. You're allowed, and even encouraged, to suck. And suck I did. That story is trunked for now while I figure out how to unravel the beautiful mess I created for myself. (A wonderful learning experience I would never trade for anything.)
So for Attempt Four, I wanted to try something different. I took an idea out of my idea folder with two pages of notes and no clear plot and just dove in. The words just spilled out. Every page was a surprise. And I finished my first novel ever. Why? Probably because I tried pantsing instead of over-outlining. Because I didn't have a monumental  vision of what this book had to be, it evolved naturally without any pressure. I'm figuring out my process.

See, the problem isn't my ability or lack thereof, but my expectations. When I build up an idea in my head until it's this perfect, shining thing, I set myself up for failure. There's no way I can reach such unrealistic heights with novice abilities. My ideas will almost always be greater than my ability to execute them. And that's okay. As an artist, giving yourself permission to fail is the most freeing thing you can do. 

Permission To Fail doesn't mean disregard for the craft itself. It just means that no matter how much you research, or how much effort you put in, you will never attain perfection. And that's okay, too. I've let fear of imperfection hold me back from too many projects. Even if you utterly and spectacularly fail at your attempts, you can always try again later. That's the beauty of art. Trunk it and come back when you can figure out where you went wrong. It's okay to suck. In complete suckitude, there are countless learning opportunities.


Ideas are easy. Writing (creation in general) isn't. So you have no idea of how to tell a story? Learn by doing. Educate yourself in the process.

My advice to myself, to other writers, to artists starting out in any medium, is this: hone your craft. Set aside your pressure-filled "perfect" idea if you have to and work on something you can allow yourself to suck at while figuring things out. 

I keep learning and writing and am finally (mentally) ready to tackle my white whale. It's been almost ten years in the making and will probably be one or two more as I finish this current novel, untangle my trunked project, and perhaps write one or two more that are nagging more insistently than my ever-patient dream project.

The moral? Don't let fear hold you back. The only way you will become a better writer/photographer/painter/installation artist is by doing. You'll fail. You'll recognize your failure. You'll do better next time. 

(That said, don't fall so in love with your ideas that you get ahead of yourself. Don't neglect craft thinking that your idea will carry your art. It won't. Poor technical skills might kill your awesome idea. Please don't do that. Treat your art with the care and respect it deserves. Learn the ins and outs of your field so that when you finally tackle your Mona Lisa or whatever, your readers/viewers/listeners will  be just as enamored of it as you are.)

And don't be afraid to try. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sharing Good Books: Nation

Nation - by Terry Pratchett
Alone on a desert island — everything and everyone he knows and loves has been washed away in a storm — Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s completely alone — or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird, and gives him a stick that can make fire.
Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy. Thank goodness the powder was wet and the gun only produced a spark. She’s certain her father, distant cousin of the Royal family, will come and rescue her but it seems, for now, that all she has for company is the boy and the foul-mouthed ship’s parrot, until other survivors arrive to take refuge on the island. Together, Mau and Daphne discover some remarkable things (including how to milk a pig, and why spitting in beer is a good thing), and start to forge a new nation.

Encompassing themes of death and nationhood, Terry Pratchett’s new novel is, as can be expected, extremely funny, witty and wise. Mau’s ancestors have something to teach us all. Mau just wishes they would shut up about it and let him get on with saving everyone’s lives!


I bought this book while on vacation to read on the beach, and it was seriously the best purchase I made the whole week. Okay, except for butterbeer at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. NOM.

It breaks my heart a little bit that books I've literally hated have higher ratings on Goodreads than NATION. Terry Pratchett is a master. This book? So, so good.   

Pratchett explores one of the biggest issues we grapple with as human beings, regardless of age. Faith. With his trademark humor and wit, Pratchett delves deep into themes of death, questioning faith, and what it means to truly belong. 

NATION went surprisingly deep. The viewpoint shifts between Mau and Daphne, and both voices are refreshing and really, really well handled. 

The world-building was fantastic. I really believed in Mau's Nation. The characterization, especially of secondary and minor characters, really underscores Pratchett's mastery of the craft. I felt like I knew and understood characters who had no more than a line or two. 

I get the feeling when people say 'beach book' that this isn't what they mean. But NATION was the definitive beach book for me. It was humorous, deep, and really made me stop and think throughout. I'm pretty sure I cried at the end, too. I was fully immersed, and reading this book on the beach only heightened the 'island' experience. 

If you like smart, funny books, I can promise you that you will love this book. It's so good. I wanted a different ending, but that's just because I've read too many romance novels and always want the perfect happy ending tied up in a bow, even if it's not the right ending for the book. Even if it's not the ending I wanted, the ending I got was the perfect one for the book. Pratchett didn't pull any punches and didn't cheapen the writing by giving readers what they think they want instead of what they need.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The 'Write What You Know' Myth

"Write what you know."

This phrase gets misinterpreted almost more than certain religious tomes. It's one of those vague bits of writerly advice that might have a kernel of helpfulness buried in the muck, but the words themselves have become meaningless. Even so, people keep throwing it around, perpetuating bad writing and confusion. This post is just my interpretation. Don't stalk me with sporks and ninja throwing stars if you see it differently. Again with the many interpretations bit.

Write What You Know (WWYK) doesn't mean transcribing your life events. If your  characters break up, you shouldn't make it exactly like your break up. In my Puke or Death post, I talked about how writing is reality, but better. WWYK is, too. Reality, but better.

Everyday dialogue is filled with boring crap that people don't want to read. When real life events are going down, we say the first thing that comes to mind. We act in predictable ways. Both are things to avoid in writing. People don't want to read about boring, predictable characters. They want to be entertained, transported, and that holy grail of reading, enlightened.

WWYK isn't an excuse to regurgitate your life events instead of creating living, breathing characters--it's a reminder to use your life experiences to connect with other human beings. It's using what you know to write what you don't.

Maybe you've never been in a relationship but you need to write a break-up scene. Have you ever had a fight with your best friend? Have you ever been betrayed by someone close to you? (Or done the betraying?) The same feelings of bitterness, anger, confusion, frustration, etc will be similar. You don't have to have been through the things your protagonist goes through in order to write them convincingly. You just have to connect with your character as a human (Alien? Vampiric?) being.

J.K. Rowling has never been a magical little boy in an abusive household locked in a cupboard BUT she wrote it convincingly. Neil Gaimen is certainly not a little girl with a creepy, button-eyed other mother. As far as I know, Phillip Pullman never had a daemon or a polar bear friend. These authors created amazing, convincing characters and worlds because they are good at studying human nature. They create characters that resonate with us, characters that are so powerful we are fully convinced they are real--and they do it all without cheating the reader and themselves by taking the easy way out. That is, regurgitating every emotionally charged conversation they've ever had.

In the movie Inception, there's one line that always reminds me of writing. When Leo DeCaprio's character is showing Ellen Page how to be a dream architect, he tells her never to recreate anything from memory. Take a lamppost or a window pane here, a sign there, and use them to create something new. It's the same with story crafting. Bits and pieces of reality--a snippet of conversation overheard on the daily commute, the fluttery feelings of a first crush, a particularly striking visual committed forever to memory--those things build people and worlds. 

WWYK isn't an excuse to cop out. It's a gentle reminder that we're all human and so have human experiences we can use to connect with our readers. Readers are people, too.

So next time you're tempted to model your characters' split after your own break up, leave the words and take the emotions. Your character will say what's right for her without you putting your words in her mouth. And because you trusted her, there will be wittier lines, irony, deeper truths, and symbolism you never managed in your real life split--because you've taken the time to craft it and milk the scene for everything you can get from it, in a way that's true to your character.

Reality but better.