Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book-crush Wednesday: Shine by Lauren Myracle

I don't even know how to begin talking about this book, you guys.

But I need to tell you about it. I need to tell you about it so much that, when I read it (months in May), I immediately thought, "OMG. I need to start blogging again immediately so that people can know how awesome this book is." (Instead I tweeted about it. Twice. And because she is awesome, Lauren Myracle tweeted me back and made my day.)

And I still don't think my 140-character gush-a-thon did this book justice. It is easily my favorite book I read this year (and I've read some fantastic books this year), and it's working it's way into my all-time top 10 (a hard list to crack).

But I have to tell you about it. Because you need to know.

OK, here we go:

Shine is the story of 16-year-old Cat, who is searching for the truth behind her former best friend Patrick's brutal attack. Myracle throws us right into the midst of a horrific hate crime. It opens with a newspaper clipping describing the crime and giving a strong sense of the characters we will meet in the book. The setting is a small Southern town — tons of tension (much more on that in a bit). The pace is slow in the beginning, but in a good way. Cat is working the mystery out, putting the clues together in a very Veronica Mars way. As the mystery comes together, Cat grows as a character, becoming more sure of herself. The book is emotionally intense and so, so powerful — it's sure to stick with you long after you've put it down.

The last 50 pages of the book are FILLED with suspense — Myracle does such an excellent job developing all the characters that you know what they're each capable of, and by the time the stakes are the highest, you are terrified of what could happen if even the slightest thing goes wrong.

The ending of this book is perfect. It is sad and terrible, but hopeful and beautiful, too. I cried and hugged the book when I was done. I didn't want it to end, but it ended exactly the way it should have. Myracle made bold choices, she wasn't afraid to take risks, and it shows. (She also isn't afraid to talk about sex and drugs, but it's not done to excess. It fits in with the plot, and the way it's layered in, it would be strange if these elements were absent. It's flawless, really.)

But what I admire most about Shine is how fully the characters embody the setting. This book was actually suggested to me by my VCFA advisor last semester (Mary Quattlebaum, who actually reviewed the book for the Washinton Post), who said that it took place in the South and was a great example of a book with a strong sense of setting.

I almost didn't read it. I hate books that take place in the South.

No offense to Southerners (I sort of am one, depending on your definition of Southern), but often what I call "Southern books" are just tiring to read. It's all about people who move slow as molasses and drink sweet tea on their porches and speak in dialect. They just have this quality to them that exhausts me and doesn't interest me in the slightest.

That wasn't the case at all with Shine. The language was absolutely beautiful, but more than that, the setting became so much a part of the characters that it felt natural, not forced. I noticed it and didn't notice it at the same time. My favorite example of this is when Cat brings dinner to her father, who lives in a trailer behind her aunt's house. Dinner is fried chicken, greens, mashed potatoes, a biscuit, and green beans. Her dad is reclining in a La-Z-Boy, and he reaches under the chair to pull out a bottle of Aunt Jemima maple syrup. He doses his entire plate in syrup before resting the plate on his huge belly and digging in.

Obviously, Myracle's description of the scene is written much more beautifully than mine. But I didn't want to grab my copy and look it up for two reasons. First, I wanted to show you that, months later, I still remember the very specific details Myracle uses to set the scene — naming Southern brands, for example. Doesn't that whole act just ooze The South to you?

But mostly I just want you to go out and get the book so you can read the scene (and the rest of the book) for yourself :)

In related news, I'm heading to the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, and Lauren Myracle will be there talking all about Shine! I'm going to try to keep my fan-girl squealing to a minimum, but it will be tough. I'll report back on her panel (and the others!) next week when I get back.

Monday, August 29, 2011

It's all about word choice

So you know when you're writing a scene and it's just not working? And you can't really figure out why? I'm here to tell you:

It's all about word choice.

This is a lesson I'm learning the hard (but fun!) way through my advisors at VCFA, and it's true about so many things it's not even funny. Word choice is why adverbs are evil. Word choice takes a ho-hum scene and turns it into an OMGSCENEOFAWESOME. The difference between "hug" and "caress," between "walk" and "stagger," between "loud" and "explosive" is quite huge. 

But it's not always easy to figure out what the right word or group of words is to set the scene you want to create. Just the other night, for example, I was trying to write a kissing scene. (My favorite!) But not just any kind of kissing scene — a very specific kind. I wanted to write a more romantic kissing scene, the kind where it's clear the two characters are falling in love, where it's not about lust or passion, but about romance and tenderness. 

And I was really struggling. 

So I took a step back. I watched some videos of kissing scenes. (Totally for research. I swear.) Then I did my favorite kind of brainstorming: I created a wordlist for the scene. 

A wordlist can be a great way to set the mood for a scene you're struggling with. Basically, the goal is to create a list of words that remind you of that scene — but they don't all have to be related to that scene or the action taking place in it. For example, on my kissing list, I included words like "hold" "pull" and "lips," but I also included words that simply felt that they belonged in that scene, such as "sheer," "light," "slip," and "warmth." As I was watching the kissing videos, any words that came to mind that reminded me of the scene I was trying to create went on the list, even if they had nothing to do with kissing.

You can do this for any scene. A fight scene might have words like cut, beat, black, hard, and so on. Cut and beat obviously would be involved in fighting, but black? Hard? Those simply feel like they belong in a fight scene, even though the actual words have nothing to do with fighting. (And of course, you can disagree. Your word list will look nothing like mine.)

When you're done with your list, you have a foundation for your scene. You can take your list of words and try to build your scene around it. You don't want to over do it — just a few choice words sprinkled throughout the scene will help set the right tone and mood.

So the next time you're stuck trying to create the right mood for a scene, try a word list, or swap out some of the more dull, drab words in your scene for something with a little more punch. It will make a huge world of difference.

Do you have any tactics for helping you set the mood for a scene? How do you make sure the words you're choosing are right?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On rejection (Or: I'm a real writer now)

There is something about rejection that makes you feel like a real writer.

I'm not sure what it is, but it's like there's something in that "Thanks, but no thanks" letter that bonds you to all the other thousands of writers out there, struggling to make it, trying to figure out how to get that story published or that article accepted.

(Ok, I can't really talk about articles, because I've had about a bazillion articles published by now. But I don't really care about the articles I've written because they all have boring titles like "HHS announces new ACA initiative" or "Brokers weigh individual mandate." BOR-ING.)

So back in March, when I was being lazy busy and couldn't blog, I submitted a short story to a magazine. I was pretty excited, even though I knew the competition was extremely stiff. I thought my story was pretty freakin' cute, and well-written, and it seemed in line with the other stories in the magazine.

A few days ago, my SASE came back in the mail.

(OK, let me stop here and say the SASE system is torture. First, I spent the six month period they tell you it will take to hear back wondering if my story even GOT there (yes, I realize now I could have bought shipping confirmation/tracking. But who has that kind of money to throw around?) Then, when you do get your SASE back, your rejection letter is addressed in your own handwriting.

It's just kind of depressing, is all.)

Anyway, so the letter came back, and it was fat. And I got really excited, because fat letters are usually good, right? 

Well, in this case, they were kind enough to return my story along with my form rejection.

Let me make this clear: I am totally NOT lamenting this rejection or blaming the magazine. I kind of loved the whole experience, actually: sending it out, waiting (OK, maybe that part I didn't like), hearing back. It was my first real professional writing experience (since I started taking this whole writing thing seriously, anyway), and it was amazing.

Now I just have to think of something creative to do with the letter. Stephen King hung his on a tack. A friend of mine suggested keeping a chart with a gold star for every rejection.

Do you have a creative/fun way to keep track of your rejections? 

(P.S. Thank you all so much for welcoming me back with such lovely open arms! I was kind of paranoid that everyone would be all "Who?" when I posted or not really care. But you didn't and that's awesome and I think you're pretty swell, too.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Well, hello there.

I took an accidental 8-month hiatus.

I really didn't mean to.

I honestly had no idea how much time school and freelancing would take, and then some stuff happened personally and basically I just needed a little break. But then tonight I was doing some character research, and I Googled Rachel Vail's character questions, trying to find the list of questions Rachel Vail asks her characters to answer for herself (based on an awesome workshop I attended during SCBWI-LA 2010) and I found a link to MY blog. Which was weird. So I clicked on it and got sucked into the void of reading it and realized something:

My blog was pretty great, and I loved writing it. Further more, I miss writing it.

So, I'm back. I have no idea if any of you have stuck around, but if you have, you'll get a gold star and an Internet hug from me. Actually, you'll get this, which I think is so funny it makes me gigglesnort Orange-flavored San Pellegrino out of my nose when I see it.

(I suppose that's not really considered a present in the Internet world. But I still think it's awesome.)

Here are some bullet points about what I've been up to in the last 8 months. Because I like bullet points:
  • I started a new novel!
  • I stopped working on a project and decided to shelve it for awhile. That was a tough decision, because I love the project, but I don't think the time is right just now.
  • I survived my first semester at VCFA! I'm now a second semester student and loving it even more. 
  • I read a crapload of books, many of which you'll be hearing about in my Book-Crush Wednesday feature!
  • I went to SCBWI-LA 2011! It was amazing! 
I think that pretty much sums it up.'s good to be back :)

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