Monday, December 20, 2010

Walking in a winter wonderland

I have an unabashed love of Christmas carols. I start singing them in November (with occasional digressions in July), continue to sing them through Christmas, and carry on a week or two into January. I listen to them while baking, while wrapping gifts, while walking to the grocery store.

Lately I've had Walking in a Winter Wonderland going through my head. It might be because Bristol had a proper snowstorm this past weekend. We got over two inches (massive accumulation for England). At one point the snow looked so beautiful, chunky flakes streaming from a gray sky, that I had to run outside and dance in it.

And look who else seems to like the snow. Yes, I finally got a picture of Robert!
But there's another reason Winter Wonderland is playing on repeat in my head. It's this stanza:

Later on, we'll conspire,
As we dream by the fire,
To face unafraid,
The plans that we've made,
Walking in a winter wonderland

Phil and I have made lots of plans, and dreamed lots of dreams, this past year. Our British visas run out next October. He's searching for a new job, I'm in the process of submitting Project Sparkle to agents. It's terrifying. We don't know where we'll be next year. We don't know if all of our hopes and hard work will come to fruition. Yet it's also exhilarating, all these amazing dreams the future could hold. For now, in the midst of Christmas, snow, friends, and family, that's the vision I'm going to hold onto.

Happy holidays to all of you. Thanks for reading Critically Yours this past year, and for your comments and encouragement. Best wishes for all of your hopes and dreams for 2011.

I'm taking a short holiday from the blog. I'll see you in the new year!

But in case you still need a bit more holiday cheer, here's the whole of Walking in a Winter Wonderland:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ten best books of 2010

Last year I could only come up with my top five books of the year. This year I had a number of beloved books, but only three really stood out for me as being THE BEST. So I've narrowed my list down to Seven Goodies and the Top Three.

So now I bring you, in the order I read them, the Critically Yours Seven Goodies of 2010:

1. The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick (my thoughts here)
2. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
3. Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls (my Goodreads review)
4. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (my Goodreads review)
5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray (my Goodreads review)
6. White Cat by Holly Black (my thoughts here)
7. Young Samurai series by Chris Bradford (my thoughts here)

And here are the Critically Yours Best Books for 2010:

1. When I Was Joe by Keren David
I first read this book in January. I read it again, along with its sequel, Almost True, in July.

Excerpt from my blog review:

"WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David... is a thriller of a teen novel: a child's dream and nightmare rolled into one. Ty goes into the witness protection program to become Joe. He gets a new look, money for stylish clothes, even colored contacts. He's pushed back a grade at his new cushy school, so he's head of the class, tall, muscular, and the boy every girl wants. Except he still carries a knife, sees the blood over and over again in his mind, and quickly discovers "the gangsters will stop at nothing to silence him"... Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, so I tore my way through the book, stopping only to check how many pages I had left (thankfully JOE's over 300! Thankfully there's a sequel coming out this year!)."

Can you hear my excitement?

Click here for my full blog review.

2. Stolen by Lucy Christopher

My Goodreads review:

Wow. One of the most powerful, complex YA books I have ever read. A chilling and gripping account of a teen girl's kidnapping and the progression of her feelings towards her captor. I will be thinking about this book for years to come. Also a beautiful rendering of the Australian outback, setting as character, making me dream of sand, sun and sky.

For more of my thoughts on Stolen, others thoughts on Stolen, and the trailer, click here.

3. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Blurb from Goodreads: "Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life—and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding."

I didn't write a review of The Sky is Everywhere when I first read it. Partly I was immersed in classwork at the time, but partly there was just so little to say that hasn't been said before. One of my friends on Goodreads summed it up best: "Quite simply the most breathtakingly beautiful book I have read in forever. Inspiring stuff."

I'm re-reading it at the moment and falling in love all over again. It's one of the only books I've ever read where I find myself laughing, then tearing up, all on the same page.

Last year, I had a revelation when I listed my top books. Though I profess to love fantasy, none of my favorites were fantasy. In fact, the novels had numerous things in common, and I wondered if I was getting close to a definition not only of my perfect read, but the type of book I'd most like to write.

So what do my favorites tell me this year?

Again, no fantasy. All three of the books are contemporary, realistic novels. All three are dark, sad stories. They're all young adult novels, they all have an element of romance. Two of the three are filled with danger and violence. Thankfully
The Sky is Everywhere bucks that trend and has a completely soppy, over-the-moon happy love story. All three have memorable, evocative settings. Again, the commonalities (and their similarities to Project Sparkle!) are surprising.

And, because I do love my book stats, here's a few for my top ten list overall:

1 adult book (Fingersmith)
3 middle grades (Joey Pigza, Ways to Live Forever, Young Samurai--technically probably ya, but it has a very middle grade vibe)
6 young adult
60% British authors (Sedgwick, Nicholls, Waters, David, and Christopher (Australian, but living in Wales).
3 historical fiction--that surprises me, I wouldn't say I read much historical fiction! (Foreshadowing, Fingersmith, Young Samurai).
3 with fantasy elements (Foreshadowing, Going Bovine, and White Cat, though all of them are based in the real world with only small fantasy twists).
6 with children dying--what a depressing genre! (Foreshadowing, Ways to Live Forever, Going Bovine, Young Samurai, Joe, Sky is Everywhere)
2 with children with incurable diseases--??!!! (Ways to Live Forever, Going Bovine).
4 male narrators (Joey Pigza, Ways to Live Forever, Young Samurai, Joe)

I keep saying I want to write a funny, adventurous middle grade book. Except everything I start writing turns dark. It's funny, looking at my list, there isn't a single purely fun middle grade book on it. Hmmm... Perhaps it says something about me, but perhaps I need to start reading more in that area, too. Any recommendations for next year?

And speaking of recommendations (I think I need to stop blathering now!), what are some of your favorites for the year?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reading stats for 2010

Several years ago, I was at a B&B in Inverness, Scotland. I don't remember how the conversation started, but the owner (a woman in her sixties) explained she had kept a journal listing every book she'd read since she was in high school. She had a whole shelf of the journals, years of book titles and dates. I was crazy jealous.

I started my own reading log three years ago, the summer before I moved to the UK. It's simple record keeping. I jot down the date I finish a book, the title, and the author. If I don't finish a book, or if I'm re-reading the book, I mark it with an asterisk and a short note. Last year, I learned that only 13% of children's books published every year are written by and/or about people of color. So this year I challenged myself to read at least 13 poc books; I recorded them by writing "poc" in the margins. It's not rocket science by a long shot. I probably forget a few books here and there, but I tend to keep the journal on my dining room table so it's hard to forget for long.

And the best part? All those books!

If someone asks for a fantasy recommendation, I can scroll through the titles, see if I read anything good. If someone asks if I've read the most recent PD James, or if I want to check the last time I read a book, all the information is there. Unlike Goodreads (which I also use and love), it's entirely private. I wish I'd started it earlier!

It tells a lot about me as a reader, but also as a writer. What kinds of stories am I fascinated with at the moment? What kinds of stories am I giving up on? When I first came to the US, I craved American books that were unavailable to me. Now I look at my list and see numbers of British books that most of my American friends have never heard of.

Clearly, I'm 100% reading dork! Here are some of my stats for the year as of today:

Completed: 105
Reread: 7
Adult fiction: 10
Non-fiction: 6
POC: 19
Didn't finish: 27 (21% of books I started)
Some of my reasons for not finishing: "Didn't care," "Flat characters," "Goodie-goodie character," "Poor writing," "Stupid premise," "Sticky library book!"

Some thoughts:
Yes, any book that wasn't non-fiction or adult fiction is a children's book. How do you think I read so many? No shame! I want to write children's books for a living! And I love them!

I blogged some reviews on the POC books I read throughout the year.
I'm shocked I didn't finish only 21% of the books I started. I would've guessed that number was a lot higher. Who knew I was that patient?! Actually, that percentage is probably more attributable to how careful I am about what I choose to read.

Any thing else you want me to count up while I'm thinking about it?

Friday I'll share my top ten books of the year. If you can't wait, here's last year's list!

Monday, December 13, 2010

What better gift than a book?

This week is all about BOOKS!

Wednesday I'll detail my reading stats for the year (how many books started, how many finished, why I didn't finish some, how many books by and about people of color, how many books which are British vs. American, etc).

Friday I'll reveal my top ten books for the year. I can't wait to share them!

But first, what better gift this time of year than a book?

Unlike electronics, books' production involves no conflict minerals or armed militias.

If you buy your books at a locally owned store, out of every $100, $45 remains in the local economy.

And of course, buying books supports writers and publishers, not high-paid celebrities, sports stars, or rich corporations.

For the past few years I've bought all my Christmas book gifts at Schuler's. I practically grew up in Schuler's fantasy section. I used to walk there from home just so I could sit some place quiet, suck in the smell of so much knowledge and so many beautiful stories, and never be harassed by sales people. When my local shop moved into the mall, I worried a piece of my childhood was dying. Luckily, the store has thrived, as have its other locations in mid-Michigan. But I figure, if it's that important to me, I can support it (and my local community and state) with my money. Plus, they're doing free shipping for the holidays.

Don't have some place local and beautiful to shop? If you live in the US, you can order books online and search for local bookstores with Indie Bound.

Need some ideas?

Author Heidi Ayarbe is recommending a different book for every day of December until Christmas Eve. It's only the 13th, and I've already learned about several lovely books I had never heard of, and re-discovered several books I've been meaning to read.

Need a little something for yourself?

To celebrate books, and her reads for the year, author Medeia Sharif is giving books to three of her lucky blog followers.

Any comic readers? Parents of comic readers? Phil is trying to get rid of several floppy series (including The Unwritten!) from the past three years. If you're interested, please leave a comment with your email address and I'll let you know what he has and send them to you FOR FREE (as long as the post office cooperates and it doesn't get too expensive!).

Have a few extra books you need to get rid of?

Author Anna Staniszewski has an opportunity on her website for people to donate books to a very needy Massachusetts school library. Plus, in exchange for your generosity, you could win a gift card for MORE BOOKS!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Weathering the submission process

When I started Project Sparkle, I agonized, sweated, and swore writing rough drafts was the hardest thing ever.

When I revised Project Sparkle the whining started. Revision is so hard, so time consuming, so endless!

Then one miraculous day it was done. After weeks of tearing out my hair, I learned I had done well. I got to move on to the next step. I couldn't wait.

Except... the submission process stinks!

Of course, I play this game at every stage. Whenever the writing isn't going well, I'm convinced the next part will be easier.

But perhaps the submission process really is the worst. Or at least, it has the highest and lowest points. A request for a full from one agent, followed by a form rejection from another.

Since I know my manuscript is ready to send out, I had hoped that would make the process a bit easier. It probably has, but the submission process is still grueling.

On the Blueboard, people were sharing blog posts on the odds of getting published.

Pub Rants: Agent Kristin Nelson's stats for 2009 (yes, she did say she received 38,000 queries!)

Editorial Anonymous talks about finding 3 good manuscripts out of 15,000.

The Temp, The Actress, and the Writer: author Adrienne Kress writes about Kristin's stats, and why they don't matter.

Harold Underdown at The Purple Crayon has a comprehensive post on all of this called: The Odds of Getting Published Stink--and Why You Shouldn't Care.

At least I'm not the only one receiving a form rejection!

Strangely, all these stats make me feel a little better. And they make my work drafting Project Demo much more refreshing!

What stage are you weathering at the moment? Is it the worst?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Searching out spoilers

Like most people, I usually avoid spoilers like the plague. What's the point in watching a football game if I know who's going to win? A book loses its dramatic tension if I know the main character lives.

But lately I've begun to change my mind on spoilers. I may start seeking them out.

This past summer, everyone seemed to be raving about the movie Inception. But, they warned, it was mind-bogglingly complicated. It was a movie one needed to pay attention to, not just a popcorn flick.

In my typical anti-spoiler fashion, I didn't read any reviews. I skimmed headlines, saw people were enjoying it, but ignored the content of these conversations. I didn't want any surprises.

I regretted that. Because I'm way too serious about these things, I spent the entire movie trying to catch every detail, absorb every fact fully. Those of you who have seen the movie know there's a fair amount of complicated facts and backstory. And for the most part, the details aren't really important. At the end, I had understood every twist. But I was exhausted. Unlike many, I didn't think it was a great movie. But perhaps that's partly because I spent the entire movie fearful I'd miss something.

I was reminded of this when I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows I. I've read the book, I wasn't nervous about spoilers. But I was worried about negative critics spoiling it for me. Before I went, Phil had told me of one negative review, my parents shared another, written by someone who had never read the books nor seen the other films. I was annoyed by the bad press and elitist, adult critics complaining about a phenomenon they'd never even bothered to engage with. So I didn't read any reviews.

I wish I had.

I wish I had known that it would feel like only the first half of a movie, that there would be hardly any character development, or plot arcs. I would've gone anyway. I would have sat back and enjoyed seeing Ron, Harry, and Hermione again, enjoyed the action, the spectacle. Instead, I spent most of the movie thinking, "Wait, why did Ron just do that?" and "That made a lot more sense in the book," and "That was it?"

Of course, reading reviews and spoilers could easily backfire. What if I would've really enjoyed a movie, but reviews made me overly critical? And there's not much reason, in my mind, to watch a football game if I know how it ends, especially if my team loses. The problem is, only hindsight is 20/20.

But in the future, I may be more open to reading reviews and even spoilers ahead of time. After all, it's not usually the dramatic tension that I most enjoy about a movie.

Do you ever seek out spoilers? Do you ever wish you had?

Monday, December 6, 2010

If I skipped the boring bits, I'd skip 3/4s of the novel!

Writers are often admonished to "skip the boring bits." Readers might skim over long descriptive passages, or chunks of seemingly irrelevant backstory, so writers are encouraged to avoid writing anything they wouldn't want to read themselves.

I get this. If I'm spending three pages describing a character's bedroom, I'll stop myself.

However, I've come to realize over the past year that this piece of advice doesn't always work. For me, writing is a grueling, slow process. I'm chronicling thoughts, emotions. Even in an action sequence, I need to think through and write down each movement, much like an animator designing every single cell. At times, it can get boring.

But just because I'm bored, I don't think that means the scene is boring. Some of the most memorable scenes in literature aren't the action sequences, or the moment when everything changes. They're the quiet revelations, the laugh out loud character quirks, the satisfying conclusions.

Stories aren't a collection of exciting scenes with a few connector pieces thrown in. They're stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have a character yearning for something, becoming upset, confronting obstacles, journeying... They're about growth and development. If a writer skips a part because it's boring, the story is in danger of losing its logic and heart.

As a writer, I find I'm on much firmer ground when I let a story unfold naturally, take me where it will, and write through all the bits I discover along the way. I can edit anything I need to later.

But perhaps this advice works for other writers. I might just be easily bored! Do you skip the boring bits?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving and Writing updates

Yes, those are T-Rex, Stegosaurus, and shark brownies. What can I say? I'm married to paleontologist. We had a lot of fellow scientists over for Thanksgiving. I thought the brownies were particularly impressive.

Thanks to everyone for your Thanksgiving well wishes. The celebration was fantastic. We had around 25 people squeezed into our apartment, and so much food... well, it really did feel like Thanksgiving. I just wish I had taken more pictures.

As always, our friends rose to the occasion food-wise. Most of them have never celebrated Thanksgiving before, but they bring food that is traditional to their own cultures and families. Along with my jambalaya, we had pumpkin soup, Japanese spicy pork, several plates full of french cheese (brought from Paris that morning!), and frumenty (a traditional Anglo Saxon dish!). We had rolls, cheese muffins, lentil spread, and a shredded carrot dish with walnuts and vinegar that tasted just like something I could imagine my grandmother making. Along with Phil's pumpkin pie, there was an Oreo cheesecake, tiramisu, the brownies, and so many other delicious, lovely things that I didn't even have room to sample!

Aside from eating all that (plus many leftovers!), and dealing with the joys and frustrations of the submission process (more on that next week), I actually have been getting some writing done.

My OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o pursuits are over, and officially didn't go so well. But unofficially I'm pretty pleased.

I worked on Project Demo for a few weeks, then gave up and switched to something else. However, for all my gusto and determination, I'm clearly a fickle writer. I got just as frustrated with the something else, and because I couldn't get Project Demo out of my head (and because all my writing friends love it), I switched back a week later.

But I now believe I'm into Project Demo for the long haul. At least, until I finish my rough draft. It could quite possibly be the shortest and roughest rough draft I've ever written. But as of this morning I'm over 16K and surprisingly pleased with it.

How did NaNo (or your other writing commitments) go for you this past month? Any crazy plans for the Christmas holidays (writing, food, or otherwise related)?

As for me, I'm in the holiday mood. I think I'll make some Christmas cookies this afternoon. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Titles in first and second person

I've been thinking a lot about first and second person titles recently:

As I Lay Daying by William Faulkner
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

At their best, from the first words, before you even open a book's cover, these titles can throw you into the main character's world. They can evoke a feeling, a mystery, and place the reader right into the "I" position.

Take Judy Blume's classic, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

The title has been parodied, turned into academic book titles, and jokes. But what I find interesting is for a title that's two sentences and seven words long, it's so memorable. Perhaps because it describes such a human feeling, searching for God, wondering if God will answer. From the beginning, the reader is right with Margaret.

I also like When I Was Joe by Keren David. It automatically sets up a mystery for the reader: Why was the character someone else? Who is he really? Who is he now? That mystery, and the story of what it means to be someone else, is integral to Keren's story of knife violence and the witness protection program.

However, I frequently worry that first and second person titles sound a bit mushy and forgettable. They're often lacking in concrete nouns and all their pronouns, prepositions, and adverbs can get jumbled together.

For example, what about How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff? I love the book (it's well on its way to being a British classic). But when I studied it at Bath Spa, no one could ever remember its name. It doesn't help that another of Rosoff's books is called What I Was.

But one thing Rosoff does beautifully with both these books is to insert the title phrase into the novel. I believe it's at the end of her book first book that she writes something like, "And this is how I live now." First person titles are easier to work into the text, and there can often be an Aha! moment where a reader thinks, "So that's how the title relates!" Jacqueline Woodson's title, If You Come Softly, is in a poem one of the main characters shares with the other.

Why am I so fixated on first and second person titles at the moment? Well, because I have one.

I've made a few tweaks to the blog recently to prepare for the possibility that agents or editors could end up here. If you look in the right corner, just below my description of the blog, you'll see my pitch for Project Sparkle. The novel is really called A Truth I Don't Know.

Wow, it's a little scary revealing all that... *Anne finds a dark corner to hide in*

While I'm off in my dark corner, what do you think of first and second person titles? Like them? Remember them? Any favorites?