Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ten best books of 2011 (& two fav writing reads!)

It's a funny business choosing my favorite reads for a year. Much like the Oscars, I find myself skewing towards books I read in the second half of the year. January of 2011 seems like a distant memory. But perhaps that's just as well. The books I read earlier in the year have had longer to percolate, to establish themselves in my head. And the ones that keep returning to mind, which I keep mulling over, questioning, and recommending to friends? They've stood the test of time (at least, the test of months).

Anyway, without further waffling, here they are, in the order I read them, the Critically Yours Best Books of 2011:

1. Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (my thoughts here)
2. Regeneration by Pat Barker (my brief thoughts here)
3. The Story of A Girl by Sara Zarr (my brief thoughts here, again here)
4. Samurai Shortstop by Alan M. Gratz (no previous blog posts, because this book totally crept up on me and now I can't get it out of my head!)
5. The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen (my thoughts here)
6. Red Glove by Holly Black (my brief thoughts here)
7. The Tenth Power by Kate Constable (book 3 of the trilogy The Singer of All Songs--no thoughts because this trilogy was kind of a cumulative reading experience of awesomeness as I got deeper and deeper into it).
8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (audiobook) (my Goodreads review)
9. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (my thoughts and apology to Hemingway here)
10. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen (I'm a little embarrassed I haven't blogged about discovering Sarah Addison Allen yet, but will need to get on that...)

While compiling this list, two books kept jumping out at me. I kept scratching them off because they weren't fiction, they weren't even narratives, and their inclusion felt incongruous. However, in their own way, each of these books were an inspiration to me and my writing this year. So, in a new category for Critically Yours, here are my Two Favorite Writing Books of 2011:

The Forest for the Trees: An editor's advice to writers by Betsy Lerner (my thoughts here)
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (reviewed here)

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

5 Adult books
5 Young Adult (though I could argue Samurai Shortstop is Middle Grade)
20% British authors (Lodge & Barker)
3 Historical fiction (Regeneration, Samurai Shortstop, The Help)
3 with fantasy elements (Red Glove, Tenth Power, and Sugar Queen, though Tenth Power is the only traditional otherworld fantasy among them)
5 Male narrators (Deaf Sentence, Regeneration, Samurai Shortstop, Red Glove, Bell Tolls)
1 1/2 Light, funny women-centric stories--who knew I liked that sort of thing?! (Sugar Queen, sort of The Help)
1 classic (For Whom the Bell Tolls)
1 bestseller (The Help)
2 movies that I know of (The Help, Bell Tolls, though Hollywood, if you're listening, I would watch a movie of Holly Black's Curse Worker's series in a SECOND!)

In February I posted about reading widely, trying to branch out in my reading habits and find new things. It turns out it's been very much a year for doing that, and I think my top ten list reflects that (50% adult books, 1 classic, 1 bestseller, 1 sports book in Shortstop Samurai). For more of 2011's reading stats, seeing Tuesday's post.

Okay, enough talk from me! What are some of your favorite reads of 2011?

Oh, and happy holidays and happy New Year to all of you. I've so appreciated your reading, commenting, support and friendship over this past year. This is the last post on Critically Yours for 2011, but I'll be back mid-January 2012!, eager to continue the conversation.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reading stats for 2011

For almost four years now, I've been keeping a list of every book I read. It's basic record keeping: the date I finish a book, the title, 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. Lately, I've also started keeping track of how many books I read with main characters or authors of color. And whether or not I know the author (how cool is that?!).

Last December, for the first time ever on Critically Yours, I shared my reading stats for 2010, along with random speculation about what the numbers meant. It inspired a number of my readers to keep track of their own reading (how's that going?) and was such a popular post, I've decided to make it an annual thing.

So, without further ado, I give you Critically Yours' Reading Stats for 2011!

*the crowd goes wild*

As of Sunday, December 18th:

Books completed: 92

DNF (Did Not Finish): 20 (18% of books I started)
Some of my reasons for DNFs: "Didn't believe story," "Long-winded," "Cliche & poor writing", "Not my book, confusing, arduous," "Just didn't care," "Annoying characters."
Re-read: 9
Graphic Novels / Comics: 3
Audiobooks: 4
Manuscripts (unpublished novels I was asked to critique): 3*
Adult: 30
Non-Fiction: 4
Person of Color (PoC): 11

*I suspect this number for manuscripts is wildly inaccurate. I think I've read a lot more full books, I just forgot to write them down, perhaps because reading them usually feels more like writing work than pleasure reading, no matter how good they are!

And yes, any book not specified as "Adult" or "Non-Fiction" is a children's book.

Some thoughts:

Throughout the year I felt I was reading fewer books, and the numbers do confirm that (last year I completed 105 books). However, the numbers also show I read THREE TIMES as many adult books this year as last year. And those do tend to take longer to read (it took me all of March to read Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, though it was a very worthwhile read!). Part of this was due to a bit of impatience with angst-y teenage lovers, my monthly participation in an adult reading group, and my attempt to broaden my reading horizons a bit.

Speaking of broadening my reading horizons, I've been spending more time than in the past with different formats, specifically graphic novels and audiobooks; I've never read so many of each. I'm hoping to read a lot more. I'm disappointed, however, with the number of PoC books read. Last year I learned that only 13% of children's books published annually feature PoC, so I challenged myself to read at least 13, and ended up reading 19. So 11 is a disappointment, especially since a few of those 11 were re-reads. As the 13% stat reflects, PoC books really need to be sought out, as they often sadly fall out of the mainstream.

Last year I was surprised at how low my DNF percentage was (21%), but this year it's comparable at 18% ("See," Anne says to her husband, "I don't give up on HALF of the books I read! Only 18%!").

Thursday I'll be sharing my top ten reads AND top two writing books of 2011! Can't wait? Here's 2009's and 2010's lists.

Did you keep any reading stats this year? Any surprises? Trends?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What does revision look like? (part II)

This week I'm sharing a snapshot of my revision process on Project Demo (see part I here). I'm talking about what precisely my revision looks like, my process, the emotional highs and lows... In short, why it's really hard to sum up revision!

So, last I blogged, I was hovering on the edge of despair. I had made a long list of everything wrong with my ending, and was convinced I would be revising Project Demo for another gazillion years.


I remembered Anne Lamott's lovely Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. For those of you unfamiliar with her book, here's the quote to which the title refers:

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was  ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he'd had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds,  immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'"

I told myself to stop hyperventilating, and just work on my ending, step by step, bird by bird, until I worked through my list of everything wrong with it. Maybe it would take a gazillion years. But maybe not. And I wanted to try.

So for the past week and a half I've been working through my list. And slowly but surely I'm beginning to cross things off.

For an in depth look at revision, here's what I did last Sunday:

  • Re-read chapter 32 to make sure Saturday's changes worked.
  • Added one sentence to chapter 34 to remind readers of a sub-plot character.
  • Added another sentence to clarify the main character's emotional motivation.
  • Reworded several paragraphs in chapter 34 so my additions flowed within the text.
  • Asked myself a hard question, paced while I thought about my answer.
  • Needed a break. Went back to the beginning of chapter 34 and added a sentence to clarify the day's date.
  • Other fiddly stuff: I found the appropriate accent mark for the name Jacqueline du Pré (a real life cellist mentioned in Project Demo). I did a project replace to switch all my Pre to Pré.
  • Discovered pressed had become Préssed. Did another project replace.
  • Found a place in the text where I could insert the answer to that hard question I had been pondering.
  • Worked a piece of information into some dialogue. 
  • Highlighted a piece of dialogue I wasn't sure a character would actually say so I could find it and think it through later.
  • Journaled a few more lines of dialogue, to clarify character motivation, then typed them in.
  • Asked myself a few more hard questions about what my character was feeling. I wrote the questions down, also to think about later.

That was 85 minutes. I stopped, closed my computer, and made breakfast.

It was only later that I realized my friend Keren on Twitter had been right to mention the fixing stage. The changes I'm making aren't massive. I'm not rethinking whole plots and characters. I'm just adding text, clarifying motivations... I'm doing the little stuff that makes a novel polished.

Remember that list? As of today I've crossed off about 75% of it. Does it work? I'm not sure, but I imagine it's closer to working. And I've still got to write in the changes to my magic system.

But maybe I will finish revising Project Demo sometime before a gazillion years have passed. Bird by bird. Until the next crisis of confidence.

Where are you at in your writing? Does my revision process look anything like yours?

Next week I'll be closing out the year on Critically Yours by sharing my end of the year reading statistics and announcing 2011's favorite reads. Can't wait until then? Here are 2009 and 2010's posts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What does revision look like? (part I)

There's a lot online about the revision process: lists of common first draft errors, frequently over-used words, suggestions on techniques, tools, methods...

Just last week, writer Christina Farley blogged "My Four Stages of Revision." It was so orderly, so efficient, so smart. At the end, she asked readers to share about their own revision processes. And as I started to comment, I realized my process was all over the map.

But just like Christina, people do ask me about revision. How many drafts, how long does it take, etc.

So, since I'm in the midst of slogging through revising Project Demo, I'll devote this week to sharing a snapshot of my revision process. I'll talk about what precisely revision looks like for me, my process, the emotional highs and lows... In short, why it's really hard to sum up revision!

I'd like to start with last week (imagine going-back-in-time music here)...

Last week there was some serious big picture thinking going on. I had been inspired to return to Project Demo because of an idea I had to make the magic system work. So I'd been creating a list of all the magic in the book, pasting the text into my list, and working on making each passage believable and consistent. It was definitely a labor of love, as my list spawned other questions, other concerns. I had a really helpful Skype chat with Elisabeth at Fiction Forge (thank you!), and sent a chunk of text to a crit partner to read through.

By the end of the week, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. I was beginning to believe in the magic. And I wasn't the only one. I got a  gorgeous email from my crit partner:

"In every way it seems to work for me. Magic isn't usually my thing and I didn't know how you'd do it, but I really do think it's great and feels like it absolutely belongs in the story. Well done!"

Yay! But after weeks of changing one aspect of the magic, and then another, and then a third, I didn't want to move ahead until I was absolutely sure.

So I took some time off from worrying about the magic, and read the last third of the book. I hadn't touched it since this past summer, so I hardly remembered it. I hoped my last revision had left it fairly solid and that everything tied together nicely in the end.

Unfortunately, it wasn't, and it didn't.

After all my progress on the magic system, you'd think I'd have felt confident and ready to tackle anything. But instead it was like another massive problem, a blow.

I took to Twitter to whine:

"Feeling overwhelmed with all I need to do with Project Demo. I think I know what's wrong, but can I fix it? In less than a gazillion years?"

Thank God for Twitter friends and authors Keren David and Jane McLoughlin, who instantly replied.

Kerensd: yes you can!

JBMcLoughlin: You can and you will...the solution is hovering around you somewhere, waiting to be unleashed! Good luck.

We talked back and forth a bit, I whined more. Then Keren responded with this:

Kerensd: I find that fixing stage is my favourite. The relief as everything falls into place!

You're crazy, I thought. I'm not at that "fixing stage" yet. I might end up totally scrapping this ending! Nothing works! It's a mess!

Then, feeling thoroughly embarrassed by all my Twitter whining (and conscious how much time I had just spent procrastinating on Twitter), I signed off. I drafted a blog post on big picture thinking, and then realized, for all my big picture talk, I wasn't practicing what I preached. So I made a list of everything that didn't work in that last third of the book, scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

What happened next? Did I have to ditch the entire ending? Or was Keren right?  Or did I get so distracted by Twitter again that I didn't do any writing at all? You'll have to tune in Thursday to find out!

In the meantime, why do you think writing is such an emotional roller coaster?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Big picture thinking

The second half of this year has been an experiment in big picture thinking.

It started with my discovery of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. Then I attempted to plan out Project Fun, going so far as a scene-by-scene outline. Now I'm back to work on Project Demo, and once again employing some big picture thinking.

I've worked this way before, but never systematically. You see, I'm a total writer nerd. When faced with an overwhelming life problem, I tend to journal solutions. And I approach my novels the same way. When something isn't working, I find myself thinking, "What if I just wrote it better?" So I rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite some more. I try to revise a novel by making each line poetic and concise, streamlining description, conveying characters' motivations and personalities more strongly. But some things can't be fixed by better writing. What if a character is acting out of character? What if some plot point just can't happen the way I've described it? Better writing, though it does make my text pretty, won't save my novel. No matter how hard I try.

So lately I've made a scene by scene outline of Project Demo. I've summarized my main character's changing emotions from scene to scene. I've made a list of all the magical elements, from beginning to end. It's time consuming setting up these outlines, but I can do it while watching football. The time-saving part is then working from the outline to figure out what problems lie in the text. Much easier with a line or two than a whole chapter. Plus, I can use the outlines to check overall story arcs, transitions, plot. Only once I have clarified my text's problem, and developed a solution, do I allow myself to rewrite.

Am I saving time? I'm not sure. But the writing feels more systematic and efficient, and less like fumbling around in the dark. Returning to Project Demo, I've discovered the most complex and lengthy novel I've ever written. I do believe in it again, but I think I need to try some new tricks to pull it all together.

What revision techniques do you employ? Or do you somehow manage to hold everything in your head and just write?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Taking my show on the road

I had a Christmas anxiety dream the other night. I know. I start with the anxiety dreams early.

My parents were taking me some place fun and wonderful for the holidays, and I had finished packing, but realized I had forgotten to save my novel to bring it with me. Of course, this being a dream, saving was taking forever, then my jump drive wouldn't work, and my computer crashed. And my mom was screaming at me that we were going to miss our flight to some place fun and wonderful.

But anyway, all this anxiety got me thinking: how does your writing travel?

I spent a day in Exeter last week (Hi lovely SW SCBWI people! Hi Candy!). It meant missing my morning writing time, but in exchange I got several hours in a train (for some reason, I always do some of my best writing in trains). But how to bring my revisions on Project Demo? The easiest would've been to haul my laptop along, except then I would've had to haul my laptop along, find places to plug it in when the battery got low, and hope to get a train seat with a table. I thought about printing out a handful of pages I needed to edit, but seeing as it's a macro-edit kind of thing, that would mean a lot of pages. Plus, what if I really got going, and accomplished a lot, but ran out of pages to work on? And I refused to print out my whole book. Again, hauling. In the end, I saved my novel as a pdf, and uploaded it to my ereader on my iPod. I couldn't type my changes directly into the document, but I could reference it and rewrite my changes by hand in my notebook. The following day it was fairly simple to go back through my notes and type everything up.

It's not like I travel every day, so I don't feel the need to run out and get a netbook or an iPad or whatever to make my on-the-go writing easier. But it got me thinking. With the holidays coming up (including a long flight back to the US, and hopefully some spare quiet moments amidst all the holiday and family stuff), I could use some ideas. So, how does your writing travel?

*The picture is mine, a steam engine from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Unfortunately I was NOT traveling in one of these lovelies last week!*

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Listening for what they mean, not what they say

I'm about halfway through implementing my new idea into Project Demo. There's plenty more revision to do (it's the writing project that never ends!), and I'm not yet satisfied that my new idea is working, but I'm feeling more confident about it than I have in a while. I feel like I'm finally beginning to realize my original vision for the story.

In fact, I've spent much of the past few weeks pulling text from my first draft to insert in this latest draft. These were elements in my first draft that I loved, but I took them out on the advice of others because they weren't working. My readers were 100% right, but the mistake was mine. Instead of taking out those elements, I should've figured out how to make them work.

That's the trick with critiques. Sometimes a reader has profound, surprising insights that can make a story. Other times it's a balancing act, acknowledging a reader's feelings, without directly taking their advice.

An example: One of my beta readers LOVES my villain. She thinks he's sexy and charming and vulnerable, and she doesn't understand why the main character doesn't date him. Part of me is flattered that my villain is a real three-dimensional character. But the other part of me is screaming: "No, no, no! He's the VILLAIN! She can't date him! He's BAD!" So the solution wasn't to contort my plot to make the main character and the villain date, but rather to address my reader's feelings. She thinks the villain is charming. What if I do more to show that while he's charming, he's not a good person? What if I make him stand too close, push too hard, and violently lose his temper? That way I'm using my reader's input to strengthen my story, but also keeping true to my vision.

It's a difficult balance. Sometimes, as a critiquer, I try not to make any suggestions, only give reactions and questions. But reactions and questions easily bleed into suggestions. How do you make sure you stick to the story you want to tell in the face of criticism?