Thursday, January 17, 2013

Favorite writing places

When I first moved to the UK, I worked an administrative job that involved a lot of travel. Over time, I became increasingly frustrated with the job's limitations, but I never stopped loving the train trips all over the country. Even better, I was always paid for my time, and instead of a day in the office, I could sit in the quiet coach for hours, watching the green fields dotted with sheep and stone walls fly past, and work on my writing. Even after I (finally!) left that job, I looked forward to train travel. Indeed, part of the excitement of a trip down to London was simply the three hours in the train.

To me, train time feels like free time, time unencumbered by expectation. I can't clean the house or tackle my to do list. Really, I can only read, write, and stare into space. That freedom has led to some of my best thinking and writing. I'm grateful to be on the East Coast now, and to still have train travel (though less frequently!) in my life.

I've been thinking about good places to write because I'm going to be away from the blog for the next few weeks, and I'm anticipating a new and lovely writing situation. Let's hope so, because Project Fun needs a lot of revision work! And of course, I promise when I return I'll share all the details of my mysterious absence.

In the meantime, is there a place or situation in which your writing thrives?

*Of course I had to include this picture (taken by me), of the train arriving in Goathland, North Yorkshire, which was used in the Harry Potter films as the setting for Hogsmeade.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ensemble stories

Inspired by John Truby's The Anatomy of Story (such a good craft book), last year I created a "wish list" of everything I'm passionately interested in: characters, plots, settings, genres, tropes, etc. For instance, ever since I discovered the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney Land, I've been hooked on pirates. For some reason almost all of my novels involve class distinctions. And I love rebellion. The idea behind the wish list was to use it to develop story ideas, but to also test the staying-power of the ideas I come up with. For example, a pirate who rebels from his ship to court a wealthy landowner's daughter? SOLD!

Lately, I've added another item to my wish list: ensemble casts. I grew up watching MASH, and struggle to imagine any TV show topping it in my heart. Over time I learned to love each character, discovered what moved them, what hurt them, and how it affected their relationship with the rest of the characters, their patients, the army, and the war itself. It's that complex web of relationships and plot that I adore. My current obsession is Downton Abbey, which has that same ensemble cast (and incidentally, is ripe with class issues).

Ensemble casts suit TV, as the viewer can return each week for another episode, and a series can last for years. But is it possible to create that ensemble cast feeling in a book? Harry Potter comes close, as does one of my favorites from 2012, Michelle Cooper's Montmaray series. Of course, Charles Dickens was the master of the ensemble cast. Though many Victorian classics have an omniscient narrator with numerous characters.

But I'm struggling to come up with more modern examples, especially within children's literature (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? The Babysitters Club?). It's harder to do ensemble casts in the finite realms of a  book, especially with the prevailing reliance on first person narrators. Maybe, as my wish list suggests, I need to write my own.

Do you find yourself sucked into ensemble stories too? What are some of your favorites? Can you think of any modern examples?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Five best books (& three surprises!) of 2012

Sometimes I agonize about my favorite reads of the year. Sometimes I pick ten books, sometimes three, sometimes five... Often I scribble titles down, scribble them out, find myself weighing the merits of a middle grade sports book vs. a tear-jerker historical fiction, and wondering how in the world I can decide. But for once, this year was fairly easy. Five books stood head and shoulders above the rest. Strangely, four out of the five I've either already re-read, or I've bought myself a copy recently, and am eagerly looking forward to re-reading. The fifth is a little dark... but I've already read another book in that author's repertoire. Anyway, enough talk, onto the list!

Here they are, in the order I read them, the best books of 2012:

1. How to Save A Life by Sara Zarr (audiobook) (my review here).

2. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

3. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (audiobook)

4. The FitzOsbornes in Exile & The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper (a very brief mention here). (Books 2 and 3 of a trilogy--the first is also good, but 2 and 3 I consumed like a woman starved for words).

5. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King (my thoughts here).

Unfortunately I managed not to write many reviews this year, but partly because these books have all been raved over on Goodreads. Do check them out.

And because I love book stats, here's a few for my top five:

4 Young Adult books
1 Middle Grade book (Gianna Z.)
1 Historical Fiction (while, technically two, but they're both in the same series, so I'm counting them as one!)
2 /12 Contemporary  (How to Save A Life & Gianna Z. Vera Dietz is also clearly contemporary, but has elements of magical realism)
1 1/2 Fantasy (Seraphina & Vera Dietz)
2 audiobooks
6 female, first-person narrators (How to Save A Life has a dual narrative)
1 Australian author (Michelle Cooper)
4 American authors

For more of my 2012 reading stats, see Tuesday's post.

In past years, my favorites have shown more diversity. This year they read like a how-to manual to create a book Anne loves: a rich, detailed setting, totally believable and sympathetic characters, and exquisite writing. The only slight deviation from the mass of young adult novels is Gianna Z, but I'm so pleased to include it. I read a ton of middle grade this year, and while some were easily forgettable, Gianna struck me as both a book I would've loved to read as a child, and the type of book I would like to write as an adult.

I said compiling this list was easy. However, there were three books that, while they didn't quite make the top five, were unexpectedly pleasant surprises, and I wanted to make sure to mention them:

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Read by my Bristol book group, I was amazed that even as an English major in college, I had never read anything by Gaskell, and with her focus on religion and social justice, plus a swooningly romantic story, I was totally hooked. Here's my thoughts about the book & gushings about the movie version.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (audiobook): Recommended by one of my blog readers (thanks, Monica!). I had heard of Guy Gavriel Kay before, but never known much about him, never tried him. Thankfully my future will involve much more reading of Kay. My review here.

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak: A Hugo-winning sci-fi novel from the 60s. A writing friend recommended it because she saw similar elements in one of my wips, and I was blown away. My review here.

Okay, enough gushing for now! Have you read any of these? Any other recommendations? What are your favorites of 2012?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reading Stats for 2012

For several years now, I've been keeping track of every book I read. I note the date I finished it, the title, the author, and a few other little details, like the type of book (audiobook, graphic novel, etc), whether I know the author, if the book was a DNF (did not finish) and why, and if the author or main character is a person of color, if and when I've read the book before. It's a lot of information, and I love being able to look back over a year and see what I read. But it really does only take me a minute to do, and gives me a chance to reflect on a reading experience, which I usually do anyway. Though this year I might need to resolve to keep my notes more tidy. 2012 got a little messy (and these stats might be slightly inaccurate--shhh, don't tell!).

Reading Stats for 2012:

Books completed: 84
DNFs (Did Not Finish): 44 (34% of books started)
Some of my reasons for DNFs: "Put me to sleep. Beautiful, but no story," "Hard work, gave up, too much else to read," "Too offensive," "Characters aren't realistic, tension not believable," "Terrible writing," "So much telling!" "No characterization, depth," "Too dark and artsy," "Too angsty, no action."
Books I bought after reading a free Nook sample: 10
Books I still read after unimpressive sample: 3
Graphic Novels: 4
Audiobooks: 8
Middle Grade (attempted): 51
Adult Fiction (attempted): 16
YA (attempted): 61
Person of Color (attempted): 23
Self-published: 1 (not completed)
Re-reads: 4

Some thoughts: I got a Nook for Christmas last year, and I think my stats are very reflective of that. Last year I read a handful more books, and my DNFs were only 18%. This year I discovered the free Nook Sample. I blogged about my Nook experiences here, but in short, and the stats hold this out, I attempted and put down a lot more books. Some of those free samples culminated in a purchase, but many more ended in disinterest, even in some books everyone was talking about. And those books everyone was talking about? I did still read three of them (from the library!) after mediocre samples. And I was definitely wrong about 1 of them, but not so much the other 2.

It was also a year of reading middle grade--perhaps the most I've ever read in that genre. This also led to putting down a number of books, but I discovered some wonders, one of which is a favorite of the year. Likewise, I've continued my trend of reading audiobooks (which are especially great for travel, which I did a lot of this year!), and graphic novels. I have yet to read a self-published novel cover to cover. That perhaps isn't so much a comment on the quality of self-published books, but the small number I've read. However, I don't find myself inclined to try many more.

I'm really pleased at the number of books I read this year either about a person of color or by a person of color (or both). For years now, my goal has been 13 a year, to match the percentage of children's books published annually which feature a PoC, and to do my small part to encourage the industry to publish more diversely. I spent the month of February reading PoC books, but also returned to them throughout the year. I hope this is finally becoming a habitual way of reading for me--though, even more positively, maybe it also reflects a number of wonderful titles being published.

You can check out my previous stats here: 2010, 2011. And Thursday I'll be sharing my five favorite reads of 2012, and three other surprising discoveries!