Wednesday, November 30, 2011

RTW: Best Book of November

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic: What's the best book you read in November?

I'm a cheating cheater. I'm cheating because I'm still actually reading the best book I've read this month, but, hey, it's still November, and though I'm only halfway through Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I bet I will finish it tonight, before the month ends, and I can assure you that it is the best book I've read this month.

(And I read some great books this month.)

My friend Jessica Love sent me a signed copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone as a surpriseb (because she is awesome). She'd been talking the book up for awhile, and though Jess and I have very similar reading tastes, I hadn't made the move and picked it up yet. My TBR pile is threatening to topple my bookshelves, so I figured I'd get to it when I got to it.

When the book arrived in the mail, I read the first page. And I knew then it was something special.

The writing is fantastic: ethereal, full of voice and punch, and so funny at times. In a genre overrun with first-person voice (not that I'm complaining; I like first-person), Taylor is a master of third-person, dipping in and out of characters' thoughts and actions seamlessly.

This is the kind of book that makes me stop and wonder, "How can I do that?" It's the kind of book that makes me want to be a better writer, a more involved and careful reader, and challenges me to read outside my favorite genres.

In short, it's fantastic. I'm both anxious to find out how it ends and dreading the final page.

What was the best book you read this month?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

RTW: Required Reading

It's my first Road Trip Wednesday! I've been a long-time reader of this tradition on the YA Highway, and on other blogs (particularly my friend Jessica Love's), but I've never participated...but I'm going to start today! I even moved my book-crush posts to make it happen. THAT's how dedicated I am.

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing--or reading--related question and answer it on their own blogs. Readers get to play along.

This week's question: In high school, teens are made to read the classics - Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens - but there are a lot of books out there never taught in schools. So if you had the power to change school curriculums, which books would you be sure high school students were required to read?

Ugh. What a great, impossible question! I would love to say something fun, like Harry Potter or Hunger Games or John Green or something fantastic like that. And while I do think all of those things are wonderful and have literary merit, I also think they are books that many teens will come across on their own.

So I have two thoughts. (And, keep in mind, I've changed books about 12 times while writing this post. But I think this is where I'm settling.)

The first is actually a wordless graphic novel. I KNOW, RIGHT. Kids would be all, Woah. Are you serious?

I've gushed about The Arrival before, but it's simply stunning, and I think it would provoke some interesting discussion about tolerance, immigration, and fitting in. Also, because it's wordless, I think it would provide students an opportunity to exercise a part of their brains that maybe they don't use as much in higher levels of school, and could also lead to some very cool class assignments. 

My other book was harder to choose. I know I'd want to do something from another culture...perhaps a classic, like the Story of Leyla and Majnun, or a more recent book that takes place in another country (like Trent Reedy's Words in the Dust). Honestly, I'd probably want to do a whole unit on foreign literature or books that take place outside the U.S. 

Pretty much, if I were a high school English teacher, kids would be in school until they were 30 because there are so many books I'd need to share with them.

What books would you teach, if you could?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book-Crush Tuesday: Before I Die by Jenny Downham

(Yes, I know this should be Book-Crush Wednesday. But I want to start doing Road-Trip Wednesday as part of my blog makeover, so I had to push some things around. Don't judge me.)

Every so often, there's a book that punches you in the gut with its emotional writing. It's so true, so raw, so real, that you can't help but love.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham is undoubtedly one of those books.

Before I Die is the story of 17-year-old Tessa, a terminally ill cancer patient who creates a bucket list, knowing she has months, if that, left to live. Topping her list? Sex. Also on her list? Drugs, shoplifting, typical teenaged rebellion. But as Tessa branches out into her world and experiences life, truly experiences it for the first time, her list evolves and becomes deeper: fall in love. Get married. And as time runs out, she adds small things to her list, things that tear your heart apart.

This book killed me. It was beautiful and difficult to read and powerful. There are sex scenes, but they are so well-written and justified, and the various scenes in the book are very different from each other (when you pick up the book, hopefully you'll understand why).

But the ending is the most amazing part. Downham is able to capture the sheer emotion of what happens to Tessa in this truthful, incredible way. You not only feel that you are there, you feel as if you are experiencing it, too. You feel as if this must be what it feels like to go through what Tessa is going through. It's one of the best examples of strong emotional writing I've ever read.

This book has stuck with me, over a month after I read it. It's one of the best books I've read all year. British author Jenny Downham seems to capture the emotions of this moment perfectly. Though I know she's never been through exactly what Tessa went through, I can't imagine how she could have possibly written with such truth and beauty. (Her second novel, You Against Me, is also fantastic.)

Have your tissues handy. But don't skip this one.

Of course, they've made this into a movie with a semi-lame title, Now Is Good. It stars Dakota Fanning (Obvs.) and comes out next year.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Outlining: In color!

Over the past few months, I've written a bunch of different scenes from all over the timeline of my novel in an attempt to get to know my characters better. I've written from all different POVs, different emotional states, and really let go of the linear way of thinking about drafting a novel.

I grew a ton as a writer, and I know my characters so, so well.

But, at the end of the day, I still have to piece these things together into something that looks like a novel, right?

The thing is, I have a TON of fully formed scenes, ready to go ready to revise. I just need to figure out where they fit together, how they work together in that puzzle we writers call plot.

That's when I pulled out my secret weapon:

Sticky notes.
Yes, sticky notes, my new best friend.

I was explaining my plotting troubles to my VCFA advisor (as I do), and she sent me a few links to some blog posts about plotting novels with sticky notes. I was totally fascinated. The plot of this novel started on multi-colored index cards, all because I was too afraid I was going to forget the key points. I've never really been an outliner, and that really kicked me in the butt during my last WIP. This time around, I wanted a strategy. 

The index card thing worked out, then I started writing and sort of abandoned it. But now that I have actual scenes written with no idea where to put them, the sticky notes work wonders. They allow me to move ideas around, shaping the novel as I try out different configurations of plot and character arcs. And by grouping subplots by color (romantic subplot in pink, friendship subplot in yellow, etc.), I can make sure I'm paying adequate attention to each subplot.
It's working out great, so far. I feel organized. I feel inspired. I feel prepared to move on.

Here's what my whiteboard, covered in sticky notes, currently looks like:

I can haz crappy quality photo? (When it's further along, I'll post something, uhm..not from my camera phone.)

As you can see, I'm making some connections. The beginning is more formed than the end (some of the ones hanging off the bottom really go in that big, scary, open space in the middle...I just don't know in what order yet.) You might also notice that sometimes there's a green sticky note that has a pink sticker on it, or something like that. That's because that's one subplot that's partially tied to another. Sticky notes that are stacked on top of one another in a long train go together in a chapter. Eventually, I hope to have about 30 trains of sticky notes in different colors, denoting my well-rounded chapters.

If manual labor isn't your thing, there is a sticky note computer program that lets you do essentially the same thing, but without the hassle of writing or sticking (though isn't the sticking the most fun part?)

You tell me: How do you outline or plot out your novels?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book-crush Wednesday: Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze

(Just a warning, as I was writing this post got kind of REAL. Also long. Also I wanted to post it sooner, but I thought it was appropriate to wait until this week. So. Yeah.)

Readers, there are some things I do that I am not proud of.

One of those things is my first encounter with the author of Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze.

In  retrospect, it's a DAMN good thing I didn't know when I first met him that the author of this brilliant middle grade novel is also responsible for THIS, otherwise I think I would have fan-girled even more embarrassingly than I did. 

I mean, seriously. He wrote the lyrics!! And who doesn't LOVE Killer Tofu??? (Unless you weren't a 90s child. Then you probably think this is weird.)

Earlier in the day, I had seen him speak in a panel with his editor, so I knew all about the book and the difficult topic it tackled — one that I related to so much I was crying in the panel. So when I saw him at the party, I knew I had to say something, and ended up kind of rambling a lot about how I couldn't wait to read it and then pretty much spilling my life story in a crowd of 1,300 people.
Our next encounter went better, I think.

Anyway, the good news is that Alan Silberberg, author of the brilliant Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, was gracious in both our encounters, and his book is fan-freaking-tastic. He probably survived our meetings because he has a great sense of humor, which served him well in writing Milo, which won SCBWI's Sid Fleischman Award for humor.

And funny it sure is. Milo the character is real and hilariously flawed, and those flaws and that real-ness open him up to the kind of observations that produce fantastic belly laughs. The humor is so real because Milo is so real. It doesn't feel forced. It's the kind of humor writing I wish I could manage, but instead I stick to depressing topics because, well...I'm not so good at humor. Plus there are comics in the book, which are mostly funny (though some of them are so painfully sad and poignant), and Alan's artistic talent at drawing attention to just the right moment was clear. The balance of graphic text to novel text was just right.

Don't let the award or the cartoons fool you. Milo also tackles an incredibly serious subject: mother loss. Liesa Abrams, Milo's editor, said in a panel at SCBWI-LA that a frequent question while the Milo MS was making the rounds at Simon and Schuster was, "Where were you when Milo made you cry?" 

For me, that place was the hotel lobby at SCBWI.

And again in LAX. (Twice.)

As someone who lost my mom as a teenager, I can tell you that this book describes perfectly what losing a mother feels like. The book takes place years after Milo's mother's death, but he is still very much coping with what her death means. He's struggling to move on while at the same time struggling not to forgot. 

God, do I know what that feels like.

There were so many moments in this book that resonated so strongly for me. Things that I had to put the book aside and have a moment because they were so reminiscent of my own experience of my mother's death. In one scene, for example, Milo goes garage sale hopping with his friends and finds items that he is so certain belong to his mother (but realizes they probably just look like things she once owned.) I experience that every time I go to a thrift store in my area. I know we donated a bunch of her belongings, so I always look at an outfit or a dish or a knick-knack and think, "This must have been hers." And now that I'm a semi-fashionable adult and wear scarves, I get angry every day that we donated her scarf collection — I could have had a daily reminder of her.

But that's what Milo does so well. For me, it was therapy. It showed me it was OK to move on, and that it wasn't forgetting. 

My mom died eight years and two days ago. I am an adult, and Milo helped me cope. I can't imagine how wonderful this book must be for children, middle-graders, who are going through something like this.

And even for those who aren't, it's a fantastic, heart-warming, funny book full of belly-laughs and tearful moments.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fabulous Picture Books!

My friends Jennie and Jacki and I were discussing picture books at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, and I mentioned to them that I really love a specific type of humor in my picture books; the kind of post-modern, quirky, bizarre humor that Jon Scieszka and Mo Willems so perfectly write. In my quest to find more books like theirs, I have read a LOT of picture books – some which actually have this kind of humor, and some which are just awesome on their own.

As I was talking, Jennie said, "You should blog about that."

So I am.

Here are four fantastic picture books that I've read since January. It's safe to say that, even though I'm not including any Jon Scieszka or Mo Willems on this list, since they are my inspiration for it, I think pretty much everything they write is awesome. (Especially that Scieszka dude. He's pretty much flawless. Also, his last name rhymes with FRESCA. You're welcome.) These books are more in the metafiction/weird humor categories; I've read some traditional ones I've loved, as well. Feel free to ask if you want to know about those.

Book 1: Nothing by Jon Agee

I love this book! This was the first Agee book I read, and it caused me to go on an Agee streak. Though I loved a few others, as well (particularly the alphabet book Z Goes Home, which almost made it onto this list instead), no other book has captured my heart as much as Nothing. 

The concept of this book is so fun and simple. Shop owner Otis has sold the last antique in his shop, and therefore has nothing for sale. But then the richest woman in town comes in, insisting she must have this "nothing." Otis, not wanting to let her down, sells it to her and loads it into her car. Soon, shops all around the town are selling nothing, and the townsfolk throw away all their stuff to make room for more nothing. It's a fantastic satire on mob mentality and consumer culture, but not something that would go over a kid's head. In fact, it's the perfect book to use to bring up that type of discussion, if it's something you're interested in talking to your children about. Otherwise, it's just plain funny.

Book 2: The Book that Eats People by John Perry, Illustrated by Mark Fearing

This picture book is metafiction at its best! It's The Monster at the End of this Book for the 21st century! So, naturally, I love it.

The book is literally about a book that eats people — and that book is the book that readers are holding in their hands. It's a little bit scary, yes, but the concept is so ridiculous and the illustrations so outlandish that I don't think a child could actually be frightened by this book. Especially if they read it with their parent, and the parent got interactive, making the book chomp on their little toes while reading! (I don't know if that makes me a horrible person or an awesome person. Probably both.)

Also, can we talk about that author's last name? Mark FEARING? Yeah. Loves it.

Book 3: Let's Do Nothing! by Tony Fucile

This is a great example of a book where the author/illustrator combo definitely comes in handy. I don't think one person could have written this and then passed it off to another to illustrate, because the text and the illustrations lose themselves in one another.

Let's Do Nothing! is about two kids who try to, well, do nothing for an afternoon. They sort of make it into a contest, but that little dude there on the right (the one with the glasses. Of course.) keeps messing everything up with his big imagination. It's a simple concept, but it stuck with me months after I read it.

Maybe that's because I'm lazy and like to do nothing.

 Book 4: The Pencil by Alan Ahlberg, Illustrated by Bruce Ingman
Oh, how I love this tale of "a pencil, a lonely little pencil" and all the things he draws to keep himself company: a boy, a dog, a kitty, a paintbrush, an entire village, and eventually a sadistic eraser who destroys everything! There is something so simple and beautiful about it, and just a little bit sad, too, but also sweet and fun. The illustrations are just gorgeous, but the story is fantastic, too.

I mean, really, I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about all the fantastic picture books in the world. When one really strikes me, I'll post it for a Book-Crush Wednesday. But this is a good starting place if you're new to picture books.

OK, so you might be asking yourself (or me): "Self/Heather, Why would I want to read picture books? I don't have kids. I don't write picture books. This seems like a giant waste of my time!"

On the contrary, dear reader. Picture books can teach you about rhythm and word choice and language and comedic timing and using the space on a page and a whole host of things that books for older readers are harder to study. Writing a picture book, just one picture book, will give you immense appreciation for how hard the craft is, and will show you the power of choosing your words carefully, which is definitely something that can be carried into novel writing. Plus, if you've never written and revised a piece from start to finish...well, there is definitely something gratifying in doing that exercise and starting small.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Decatur Book Festival Highlights!

Hello readers!

I'm back from the Decatur Book Festival!

OK, I got back yesterday, but we're going to ignore that fact. It was late and I was sleepy. Atlanta is many, many hours from here.

Let's talk highlights!


Do I even need to say more?

That's right. There were copies of LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR. ON. SALE. Weeks before release! There were only a limited number, though, and I managed to snag one. It was one of the highlights of the festival.

Here's how it went down:

Sunday morning was a late-start day, but I got to the festival grounds around noon. I figured I would goof off and shop, eat a corn dog and a popsicle, and participate in general merriment until 1, when I'd sit in in the panel before the panel with Rachel Hawkins, Jackson Pearce, and Victoria Schwab, which was set for 2. It was a pretty great plan, and it worked out great.

Except the 1pm panel cancelled.

It didn't make sense to go spend more time at the main part of the festival, plus it was raining, plus I'm lazy, so I just tweeted for awhile and then looked bored. Eventually I thought I'd take a look at the books on sale, even though I knew I already owned everything I wanted and basically I didn't need more.

I swear, sometimes the books just call to me, readers.

While I was standing over there, someone asked this little girl (who must have been around 12, and I don't think she knew what she was in for) if they had copies of LOLA. The girl said "Oh, yeah, totally!" and opened a box. It was like freaking Pandora's box. Chaos! I managed to snag two copies, one for myself and one for my friend Jess, and was just about to text the friends I was at the festival with to tell them to head over and grab their own copies when they ran out. I had no idea copies were so limited, but I am overjoyed to have gotten one.

I've already finished it, naturally. It was fantastic. But more on that in another post.

2. The authors! Here's a little list for you:

Rachel Hawkins
Jackson Pearce
Victoria Schwab
Beth Revis
Myra McEntire
Elizabeth Eulberg
Terra Elan McVoy
Stephanie Perkins
Lauren Myracle
Libba Bray

And that's just a few! There were a TON of fantastic authors there, I couldn't even list them all! I got face time with some of my favorites (even though the crowds were seriously intense), and the panels were FANTASTIC. Lauren Myracle talked about SHINE (which you know I loved...have you read it yet???) Libba Bray did a BEAUTY QUEENS MadLibs, which was awesome. She also told the story about how she became a writer, which makes me cry. Rachel Hawkins, Jackson Pearce, and Victoria Schwab were HILarious together. And over all the whole thing was just fantastic.

3. These women:

These women are amazing. They made the festival for me, and I loved seeing some of them again and meeting some of them for the first time. You should get to know all of them.

Top: Tameka, from Imperfection is the New Pink; Jacki from Lovely Little Shelf; Crystal from Life, Love, and Literature; and Ashley from That's Life

Bottom: Julie from Book Hooked; Jennie from Life is Short, Read Fast; and Me!

I can say with confidence that I will make the trip to Atlanta as long as I am in close proximity, because the Decatur Book Festival is a seriously amazing time!! If you're within distance, I definitely suggest adding it to your calendar (and even if you're not...these ladies came from all over)!

I'll be posting more specifics about the panels and more pictures in the coming week!
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