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?
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