Thursday, January 26, 2012

Some good reads

My dad and I had a running joke over the holidays. A few years back, I inspired him to start his own reading journal. So, after I blogged my book stats for 2011, my dad emailed me to share his stats. However, of course, neither list was complete because there were still 11 days of December left. And numerous books to be read! So each time we finished a book over the holidays (and there is much reading in the Leone household), my dad or I would joke about adding another to our list.

I don't have the energy to update my 2011 stats, but in that spirit, I would like to share a few really good books that I devoured recently.

Anna Staniszewski's My Very Un-Fairy Tale Life is about Jenny, a magical kingdom hero, who's rather sick of the hero business. It also involves talking frogs, bloodthirsty unicorns, psychotic clowns, and a sweet-addicted gnome sidekick. And yes, it really is that fun! I also loved how quirky it was, and not just plot-wise. While relatable, Jenny is also a completely unique, memorable character. When she needs to think, she practices miniature golf. As a hero, she finds herself saying the most cheesy lines imaginable. I was rolling my eyes along with Jenny, and giggling to myself the whole time. My only regret was that I didn't get to read this book when I was nine. A spunky heroine, numerous magical kingdoms, humor, action, and Prince Lamb? Not to mention the real world issues of friendship, parents, and loneliness. I would've loved it. But I feel very lucky I got to read it eventually, and I'm looking forward to the sequel, My Way Too Fairy Tale Life, next spring!*

I won a signed copy of My Beating Teenage Heart by CK Kelly Martin from author Audrey Vernick's blog (thank you so much, both of you!). I was especially thrilled to receive it (there may have been some squealing involved!) as I had just read CK Kelly Martin's The Lighter Side of Life and Death, and I knew what a masterful writer she was (see here for my review). My Beating Teenage Heart is about the lives of two teenagers who mysteriously intersect. Ashlyn has recently died, but she doesn't know what comes next, or what she's supposed to do, or even how to be. Meanwhile, Breckon's baby sister has just died, and he's struggling with some of the same issues. How is he supposed to live when his life has been torn apart? What is he supposed to do? Martin's characters are so real that I flew through the pages, anxious to see what would happen. Martin uses a brilliant device of having Ashlyn observe, alongside the reader, Breckon's pain, and both of us are watching, helpless and frightened. I initially wasn't sure about the paranormal aspects of the book, but there are a few beautiful moments where the connection between Ashlyn and Breckon comes into play. And I know it sounds like a downer, but the story as a whole is beautiful and life-affirming.

However, a nice antidote to all that serious reading was Medeia Sharif's Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. Her teenage heroine, Almira, is such a teenager, obsessed with pop culture, driving, and especially boys. The voice in this novel was flat out perfect: funny, clueless, yet totally heartfelt and true. As the title suggests, the book takes place over Ramadan, the first time Almira has ever observed the month-long fast. So even though it's a novel about a typical teenager, it's interspersed with reflections on discipline, religion, family, and what it means to be a 21st century American Muslim. I really loved this aspect of the book, as I got a whole new perspective that I don't believe I've ever seen tackled in YA fiction before. Plus, have I mentioned yet that it's laugh-out-loud funny? No one has angst like a 15 year-old who can't snack!*

Finally, we've moved well beyond my holiday break now, but I have to mention Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life, which I just finished this past weekend--and promptly started again! That's how good it is! Zarr's Story of a Girl was one of my favorite reads of 2011, so I wanted to read more from Zarr, but I have to admit I was a little anxious given the description of How to Save a Life. Like CK Kelly Martin's My Beating Teenage Heart, Zarr's book is about the intersection of two teenagers' lives. Mandy is pregnant, escaping a difficult home, determined to give her baby a better chance at life. Jill has everything Mandy dreams of: money, a loving family, and a living room with real leather couches. But Jill lost her father 10 months ago, and can't figure out how to be herself without him. Then Jill's mother decides to adopt Mandy's baby, plus invite Mandy into their home to live with them until the birth. There's nothing wrong with this set-up, but I felt like I had seen it hundreds of times before. It's The Odd Couple, except with two teenage girls. Given it was Sara Zarr, I expected it to be good, but I was completely unprepared for the total, immersive experience of this book. Everything about the story was so rich, so raw. The characters were completely real, so far from stereotypes. And while they were such different people, I was amazed at how similar their struggles became, and how they were both so desperate to find a new, better life, yet couldn't escape the mess of their pasts. There are a few snort-out-loud funny bits, a few tear-jerking bits, a handful of swoon-worthy guys, and the whole thing is so heartfelt and moving... well, of course I had to read it all over again!

Have you read anything good lately?

Note: I'm not certain if I'll be posting on the blog next week. Life has become a little hectic as I'm scrambling to finish (and perfect!) Project Demo. But I promise, if not next week, I will return shortly!

*Of course, as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, Anna and Medeia are both long-time Critically Yours readers and friends! I can't say that didn't influence my book choices and reviews, but I CAN say I still loved both books just the same! And I'm both so happy for and proud of my friends!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Name Fail

In August 2010, as I was nearing a finished draft of Project Sparkle, I wrote a post lamenting all of the manuscript's problematic names. See, I spend days, if not months, generating my main characters' names. But in the midst of writing, I often feel I can't afford that same time to name my more minor characters. So I just pull a name out of thin air. Frequently, if I need a neighbor, I take my neighbor's name. A principal? I take my high school principal's name. You can see how this might become problematic quite quickly.

Anyway, after I wrote that post, and in the middle of scrambling to finish Project Sparkle, complete my MA on time, and rename half my characters, I promised myself never again. At least... until the next project.

Yes. Project Demo is full of high school teacher names, friends' names, my own middle name. I've even got a character with the last name Nadal. Guess what sport I was watching when I was writing this past summer?

Total name fail.

So I spent this past week trying to generate a whole new cast of names.

I think the problem is that I want to be a Dickens, when clearly I'm not. I love his characters' names. So evocative, yet not comical (unless the comedy is intentional!). Miss Flite. Mr. Guppy. Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Artful Dodger. Oliver Twist.

So I had this "genius" idea (notice the quotes!) to name all the characters in Project Demo something to do with water. See, my main character is afraid of water, and feels most of the world is out to get her. So a whole bunch of evocative, frightening, watery names... wouldn't that be too cool?

Unfortunately, as I've said a few times in this post, names really aren't my forte. Though, honestly, let's see you come up with 10-20 evocative watery character names! It's not as easy as I thought at first, even with my determination to use Mr. Guppy for a minor character! What else? Mr. Jaws? Dr. Teeth? Miss Flounder? Greg Weiss? Bob Kahuna?

And, I hate to shame him, but it must be said, I'm married to someone who studies fossil fish and their ecosystems for a living! You think he'd be helpful! Yet he only laughed when I suggested Mr. Benthic (Google it, I'll wait).

The names I came up with were either laughably obvious and not very frightening or evocative. Or they were so specialized that the average reader wouldn't have any idea it was a watery name. Then I realized I'd have to change my main characters' surnames, too, if this whole water scheme was going to work. Finally, after getting to Ms. Bathysphere, I gave up entirely.

Could it be done? Probably. But I am not the artist to do it.

Ultimately, I relied on my old standby, US Census data. This website is incredibly useful, though it relies on data from the 1990s. You can search last names alphabetically by most common, ethnicity, by US zip codes, etc.

By Friday night, I had done a search/replace on all of my problematic names. And I did keep two watery ones, just for fun, that I couldn't quite convince myself to get rid of (I'll save that trivia tidbit for when the book has made me a bestseller, okay?).

But next time, this will not happen. Next time I will systematically figure out every name before I write. Next time I will not name anyone in my novel after anyone I know or anyone famous.

Either that, or I'll use the 2012 White Sox roster. No one would notice, right?

Please, make me feel better, and share your own character name fails. Or maybe you could suggest some watery names? Good or bad, I'm open to either!

*The picture is mine, the deep, foreboding waters of Loch Ness*

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A shockingly good update on Project Demo

Since I've returned to my blog from my holiday break, I've complained about TV and waxed poetic about angels. It's probably time to get concrete and writerly, and to give an update on my current work-in-progress, Project Demo.

You're never going to believe this, but... it's going well! I know!

I've been working on Project Demo off and on for over a year. I've completely given up on it twice. And I don't believe I've ever reported that it was going WELL.

When writing on a novel, I keep a running list of questions and notes on everything that isn't working: characters, setting, background details, plot... The list helps me from becoming overwhelmed, as I can always promise myself that eventually I will return to all those nit-picky details.

Well, since I returned from the US, I've been tackling the list in earnest. It's frighteningly long (16 pages. Yes, that's 16 pages of JUST THE LIST!), but I've crossed off over half of the items on it.

Even better, few of the items left are exceptionally daunting. I'm at that stage where I suddenly find the novel holds together in my head. The plot is consistent, the characters are fully formed. I might be missing some description here and there, but I have a sense that everything belongs and has its place. I'm rarely creating, but more often (to mix several metaphors) merely filling in blanks and stitching together loose threads.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting to get notes from my most recent beta reader, but have gotten a few (gushy) hints to assuage my fear.

When did this happen? No, seriously, does anyone know?

I would suspect novel-writing fairies broke into my computer over the holidays, but this happened with Project Sparkle, too. Suddenly my words have formed a complete, coherent story. Hard work has turned into magic.

Give me another month or so, and I might finish Project Demo.

I really need to throw a party when I do. Hold me to that.

Have you ever found yourself unable to pinpoint when your writing goes from mere words to well-crafted story? Or do you always remember every excruciating step?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wrestling with an angel

And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob's thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." 

But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 

And he said to him, "What is your name?" 

And he said, "Jacob." 

Then he said, "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." 

Then Jacob asked him, "Tell me, I pray, your name." 

But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. 

So Jacob called the name of the place Peni'el, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penu'el, limping because of his thigh (Genesis 32:24-31, RSV).

This story, of Jacob wrestling with the angel, has come up in a few different contexts in my life lately. You know how these things happen. You encounter a historical tidbit you never knew before, or a new vocabulary word, and suddenly everywhere you turn that "new" bit of knowledge is again revealed.

It's fascinating to read this strange biblical text. I guess I've never really thought about it much before. To be honest, it's always struck me as a rather stereotypically male story. A guy meets an angel, and instead of worshipping it, or pleading with it, or fearing it, any of the things you might expect, instead he feels the need to beat it up.

But lately I've been thinking, maybe that's the way some things work.

In December, author Jane McLoughlin was teasing me on Twitter for constantly publicly bad-mouthing Project Demo. She joked, "It's the only language these ungrateful toe-rags understand..."

But her joking got me thinking. Sure, I complain all the time on Twitter, here on my blog. But have I ever complained so much about anything I've written as I've complained about Project Demo? I don't think so. I've certainly never worked so many hours on a novel, or doubted something of mine so much. What if abusing Project Demo on Twitter is the only way I find the strength to face it another day?

It took another friend mentioning Jacob, and a sermon over the holidays, and soon I found myself mulling over this wrestling an angel story. What if it isn't so much a stereotypical guy thing, as a case of desperation? Sometimes we feel all alone, and injured, but we want something so bad (in Jacob's case a blessing), that we're willing to stay up all night fighting for it.

Not that I'm directly comparing Project Demo to an angel!, but I wonder if sometimes the creative process (or life itself), is like Jacob's fight. Sometimes things come easily to us, sometimes life almost makes sense. But other times every step can feel like a challenge. I have no sense if Project Demo will ever appeal to large numbers of readers, if it will ever be published, find fans, etc. But something inside it has a hold on me, and I can't let it go until the story is complete.

So the revision continues!

How are your works in progress coming? Do you ever feel in writing (or in life!) that you're wrestling a metaphorical angel? Perhaps the image is a good one for the beginning of a new year.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Confronting disappointment

Welcome back! Apologies for my absence. I just returned from a long trip to the US to visit family for the holidays. Since then I've been coping with my jet-lag by eating Christmas candy and catching up on all the great British TV I missed while I was gone.

Seriously. The Brits have a tradition of showing their best programming around Christmas. Kind of like how the US has the best commercials during the Super Bowl. Or something.

So when I got home Monday evening, a bit sick, hungry, and exhausted, I got myself some lentil soup and lamb meatballs from the Middle Eastern deli down the street, and curled up on the couch to eat dinner and watch the two hour Downton Abbey Christmas special. Yay! It was everything I hoped it would be. I've been a bit disappointed in season 2, but this was nearly perfect in every way. If you haven't seen Downton Abbey (season 2 premiered in the US Sunday night, and currently the episodes from Season 1 can be seen online) you're really missing out.

Still jet-lagged and irritable Tuesday, I sat down and watched the Christmas special again.

Then that evening, feeling a bit more myself after grocery shopping and cooking dinner, I settled down to catch up with Sherlock, a modernized series about Sherlock Holmes. I quite enjoyed season 1 (I'm a huge Martin Freeman fan and can't WAIT to see him in The Hobbit), and within minutes was equally absorbed in the first episode of season 2. Until I wasn't.

Sherlock meets this mastermind female villain and it's a game of wits. Or that's what it was supposed to be. Except she's a professional dominatrix, so her only real power is sexual. Because she's not really that clever. And too emotional. And in the end (SPOILER ALERT) she needs Sherlock to rush in on his white horse and save her because apparently she's not clever enough to save herself.

It was a good episode. I watched the whole thing. I laughed a few times. I was surprised. But at the end, I had a sick feeling in my mouth. So I searched for #sherlock on Twitter. And I was so grateful to discover I wasn't alone. The Guardian published an article pointing out the episode's sexism. And there were several blog posts on the topic as well (here's one).

Except this was just the first episode of the series. Another one has already come out, and the last one will premiere Sunday. Are the other episodes as bad? Probably not. They probably don't have any females to speak of. The first season didn't. Would I enjoy them? Probably. Will I watch them?

What do you do when you find something you hate in something you love?

I thought about it all Tuesday evening. Finally I decided I didn't really love Sherlock. The acting was great, the characters and set-up are totally fun. But the plots sometimes don't hold together. I'm not emotionally entangled in the show (as I clearly am with Downton Abbey). So if I have to give it up, I could. And I think I will. Because even though I know I'm a very small voice among thousands, I don't want to support Sherlock anymore.

Of course, art is never perfect. I believe in criticism, in discussion, in subjectivity. And we all have our biases. Downton Abbey has had a few sexist, cringe-worthy moments, too (a great review from The Book Smugglers, see number 3). But it hasn't weighed down a whole episode for me. Yet.

I find myself frequently drawing these imaginary lines in the sand. When is something bad enough that I can't support it any longer? It's easy when it's something I don't care for. But what about when it's something I love? What about Apple and their poor factory conditions (This American Life recently provided a moving and thought-provoking report on this)? I want to believe Apple's PR that they're doing something about it. What about all the power and money tied up in college sports? I just hope a scandal never comes out about my team.

How do we deal with finding ugly things in what we most enjoy?

For me, at least when it comes to stories, the answer is to create better art. Sure, I have plenty of my own biases. But at least, every day, I can absorb myself in a world I believe in and think is worth sharing.

Have you ever discovered something you hate in something you love? Did you give it up?

Sorry for the downer of an opener to 2012. I promise to come back next week with more pep and excitement. But the TV, it must be talked about! In the meantime, happy New Year!