Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reading experiences: audiobooks

In the past few years, my reading experiences have broadened to regularly include graphic novels, ebooks, and audiobooks. As someone who can't even remember not knowing how to read, and who gets twitchy when I don't have a book in hand, this feels like a substantial shift. How did it come about? Can stories in different formats have the same effect on me? And how might these new formats change my reading habits?

So I'd like to start a brief series exploring some of these (mostly unanswered!) questions. I'll start with audiobooks, since I've been experimenting with them longer, and feel more certain of my opinions. Plus, I'm still turning over in my mind the suspenseful, romantic, and twisty-turny audiobook of Vicky Alvear Schecter's Cleopatra's Moon, which I just finished (you can read my initial review here). Next week I'll try and gather my thoughts to talk about my latest toy: my Nook.

Thanks to my library's free downloadable audiobook service, and Marie Louise Jensen's lovely, self-narrated audiobook of Between Two Seas, followed by the brilliantly produced (and also free, I'm such a cheapskate!) The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I've become quite an audiobook lover, and a paying member of Audible.com (see, freebies DO work!).

It feels rather ironic, as I spend an afternoon a week tutoring children with reading difficulties. I often wonder if they'd call this sort of reading cheating (though of course, I've already proved beyond a shadow of a doubt my ability to read fluently!). It sometimes feels a bit like cheating. I can lie back in bed and let a masterful narrator read to me as I fall asleep. Or I can go for long walks and bring my reading along to entertain me. Reading AND exercise--love it! Audiobooks are also perfect travel companions; my iPod is pocket-sized, and enables me to tune out the noise around me, the never-ending airport announcements or giggling girls, and listen to a story. Actually, I enjoy audiobooks so much, I've begun to suspect that I'm more likely to fall in love with a book if I listen to it.

Of course there are downsides. Like the mad-scramble when I realize I just missed an important airport announcement. Or when my husband tries to say something to me, and I fiddle with waking my iPod from sleep mode, typing in my password, then hitting pause. And I discovered early in my working career that I can't listen to an audiobook and drive. Thankfully my current lifestyle mostly involves public transportation and my own two feet!

And audiobooks aren't made for flipping. I can't re-read my favorite scene, unless I want to spend forever jumping from chapter to chapter, fast forwarding and pausing, to search for it. Likewise, if I forgot a character, there's no easy way to go back and figure out when he first showed up. I also can't go forward; I can't read the acknowledgments first (a guilty pleasure for this book nerd), and if there's useful supplementary material (like a glossary of character names or foreign words), there's no easy to way to jump to it--if it's even narrated at all. However, Cleopatra's Moon had a pdf glossary available to download, to which I frequently referred.

Also, authors don't often write with audiobooks in mind. Sometimes what is obvious in the text is less obvious aurally. In first person narrations, it's often difficult to distinguish between thoughts in quotation marks and thoughts that are left unsaid. Also, while all audiobook narrators pause between section and chapter breaks, sometimes the pause is too short to be obvious. Cleopatra's Moon had atmospheric music between chapter breaks, which provided a perfect opportunity to pause the narration for snacks or hubby's conversation, but the repetition of the melody became tiring towards the end of the novel. I've also struggled with audiobooks with numerous characters and one poor narrator trying to voice everyone, or characters with complicated or too similar names that are difficult to keep straight without any visual reference (like Ana vs Anya). Both Sara Zarr's How to Save A Life (see my review here) and Kathryn Stockett's The Help utilized multiple narrators, which made the stories easier to follow (and more enjoyable--like a movie unfolding in front of me).

Finally, I don't know whether to class this as a plus or a minus, but audiobooks take longer to consume than regular books. On one hand, that means a longer, more immersive experience. And to be honest, especially since purchased audiobooks are more expensive than paperbacks, length is often a plus in my mind. However, the time spent listening cuts into time I could spend reading other books, and means re-reading an audiobook is less likely (though I DID re-read the entirety to How to Save A Life!).

Audiobooks have wormed their way into my reading experience. Audible isn't especially cheap, but I haven't been able to pull myself away from my subscription either. As I traveled home from London on the train this past weekend, hands clenched in my lap as I eagerly awaited Cleopatra Selene's destiny, I couldn't have been more content.

Speaking of London, Thursday I'll post my thoughts on the AMAZING Matilda: The Musical, which I was lucky enough to catch Saturday night. In the meantime: are you an audiobook lover? What have been your experiences (good and bad) with audiobooks?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Anne continues to read (and watch!) stories about people different from her

For the next month, in an effort to support diversity in children's literature, as well as to enjoy some amazing stories, I'll be reading books by and about people different from me (link to my previous post).

I'm currently listening to the audiobook of Vicky Alvear Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon:

"Selene has grown up in a palace on the Nile with her parents, Cleopatra and Mark Antony -- the most brilliant, powerful rulers on earth. But the jealous Roman Emperor Octavianus wants Egypt for himself, and when war finally comes, Selene faces the loss of all she's ever loved. Forced to build a new life in Octavianus's household in Rome, she finds herself torn between two young men and two possible destinies -- until she reaches out to claim her own."

It's a fabulous read, and even though getting a grasp on all the political intrigues can feel a bit overwhelming at times, I've become absolutely enraptured by the rich historical and setting details, and the opportunity to have a front row seat while history is played out in front of me. Plus I love Shecter's imagining of Selene's position, trapped between her Egyptian and Roman heritage, gods, languages, and customs.

This past weekend, completely unplanned, a friend had me sit down and watch a movie about a person different from me. Anita & Me is one of my friend's favorite movies, and quickly became one of mine, too. It's the perfect young adult coming of age story, extremely funny, but also quite dark, and I may have even gasped out loud a few times. For anyone (like me!) who had previously been ignorant of this wonderful story, here's the trailer (unfortunately I can't figure out how to embed it, but please take a look!). It's based on a semi-autobiographical novel by British comedian Meera Syal, which has just been added to my reading list.

Finally, a little bragging... this weekend, as a late birthday gift, my hubby is taking me to London to see one of my favorite stories of all time, Roald Dahl's Matilda, which has been transformed into a musical. Okay, so Matilda is a lot like me, a compulsive bookworm, who may be tempted to use telekinetic powers to get rid of some pesky adults... but nonetheless, I'm very much looking forward to it, and so excited I had to let you know!

Hope you all have a good weekend, too. Reading / watching anything good yourself? Please let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


It happens at the end of every manuscript I write. Someone mentions I could use a few more chapter-ending cliffhangers, and it's the mental equivalent of throwing myself off a cliff. How I hate writing cliffhangers.

Maybe it's because I do most of my reading before bed. Yes, cliffhangers do keep me reading, but I can get a bit resentful of them, too. Sometimes I just crave a nice stopping point.

Also, writing cliffhangers doesn't come naturally to me. As my latest beta reader said, I tend to end my chapters "like they are movements… that long final note… very Bach!" Isn't that beautifully poetic of her?! However, she suggested I tweak some of my scenes so they end in the midst of action rather than reflection.

Anyway, while I'm in this quiet time between projects, I thought I'd do a bit of research into cliffhangers. You know, so I can be better about including them with my next project (I say that a lot, don't I?).

My go-to resource on most plot-related things is the wonderfully organized and helpful Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Bell has created a list of nine different types of cliffhanger endings (or as he calls them, Read On Prompts):

Impending disaster
Dangerous emotions
Mysterious dialogue
Secret revealed
Major decision / vow
Announcement of a shattering event
Reversal / surprise
Question left in the air

Obviously, some of these are quite similar. You could probably reduce them into fewer categories, but I like to have more categories, as I think it gives me more space to come up with ideas for my own cliffhangers.

Next I sorted through some of my favorite books (Holly Black's White Cat, Keren David's When I Was Joe, Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere, and C. K. Kelly Martin's The Lighter Side of Life and Death) to see what kind of cliffhangers they used (SPOILER NOTE: I'll mostly avoid character names, but if you're in the middle of one of these books and really don't want to know, avert your eyes!).

Here's a classic cliffhanger from Holly Black's White Cat, definitely of the "Impending disaster" type:

"A knife blade springs up out of the ebonized hilt in his hands. "What have we here?" [he] says, poking my calf where the stones are sewn up in my skin. The whole area throbs when he presses on it. Infected.

"When he cuts me, I can't help it. I scream."

Here's another classic "Impending disaster" from one of my favorite thrillers, Keren David's When I Was Joe:

"And then a car comes screeching around the corner and there's a loud cracking noise -- bang! -- and [he] shoves me back through the door before he stumbles and falls, blood seeping bright through his shirt."

Here's another "Impending disaster" with no blood, but rather a terrible emotional threat from Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere. It could probably also be qualified as "Dangerous emotions," as Lennie is about to kiss her dead sister Bailey's boyfriend:

"When I wake again, I'm facing him, our bodies pressed together, breath intermingling. He's looking at me. 'You're beautiful, Len.' 'No,' I say. Then choke out one word. 'Bailey.' 'I know,' he says. But he kisses me anyway. 'I can't help it.' He whispers it right into my mouth. I can't help it either."

When I think of cliffhangers, these are the types I think of. You HAVE to turn the page to find out what happens next. But I was surprised to discover that the majority of cliffhangers (even in thrillers like Black and David's books) are not impending disaster.

Take this example from White Cat:

"I wish I could say that I don't think about the con when I deal with people, but the difference between me and my mother is that I don't con myself."

I think it's a great way to end a chapter, but as my beta reader would say, it's more of a final note than a cliffhanger. However, I think it is ominous, and does work as a cliffhanger, perhaps a "Portent" of danger to come, also a "Secret revealed" about Cassel's character.

I wanted to check some non-thriller books (like Jandy Nelson's) to see how those authors kept up the tension. Here's a fabulous "Secret revealed," "Announcement," and "Reversal" from C.K. Kelly Martin's The Lighter Side of Life and Death (but not a spoiler! It's the end of the first chapter!). The main character has just had sex with his best friend. He's pretended to be all knowledgable and experienced, but then he reveals: "Because, yeah, it was my first time, too. Kat Medina is my first time."

Here's another great (and funny) "Announcement" and "Surprise" from When I Was Joe:

"But when I open the door to her room, there's someone in there. Two people, sitting on [my friend's] bed. One's a bloke... I think it's [my friend's] trainer, the one who looks like he should be in Boyzone. And he's kissing my mum."

Here's a different sort of "Announcement," as well as "Dangerous emotions" from Jandy Nelson. It makes my heart stop in my chest:

"This is us since my sister Bailey collapsed one month ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It's as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way."

I started this exercise expecting big action twists and impending disaster with every page turn. But all the books I looked at used a much wider variety of cliffhangers, or Read On Prompts, which really is a beter name. There doesn't have to be blood and guts on every page to keep a reader engaged. In fact, the idea sounds rather exhausting. Maybe the lesson here is that I don't need to kill myself over artificially placing cliffhangers. All of the books I looked at have an engaging, driving through-line, but not even the thrillers have a twist at the end of every chapter.

However, I've also discovered that cliffhangers, of whatever form, really do work. It's been a struggle not to ditch this blog post and just curl up on the couch and read--even though I've read all of these books before (many multiple times!). It's worth my time as a writer to think about how to include more twists and reveals at the end of chapters.

Are you good at cliffhangers? Do you enjoy them as you read? When in your writing process do you think about including them?

*Note: The picture is mine, the rocky cliff face at Whitby, England.*

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Still reading books by & about people different from me

Longtime readers may remember that in February of 2010, and periodically for the rest of that year, I celebrated diversity, reading books by and about people different from me. Since then, I've made a point to actively track how many books I read by and or about people of color. While these books are a small fraction of books the children's industry publishes each year, I think a huge part of the joy of reading is discovering other worlds and people. But my realization last February was that if I want to read such books, I need to support such books.

Last year I didn't set aside any specific time to read books with diverse characters and authors, and at the end of the year, I was disappointed in my stats.

So this year, even though it's February 16th (I know, but it's been a crazy busy beginning to the month, okay?), and I know that using February as African American History Month to celebrate diversity as a whole is problematic, I'd like to officially recommence a month of Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her

What's on tap?

 I'm currently reading Malinda Lo's Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. So far I've been mesmerized by Lo's language and the way she's blended all sorts of fairy lore and tales into her book.

My TBR (To Be Read) pile for the next month includes:

"Seventeen-year-old Marisa Moreno has smarts and plenty of promise, but she’s marooned in a broken-down Houston neighborhood—and in a Mexican immigrant family where making ends meet matters more than making it to college.  At school, it's another story. Marisa's calc teacher expects her to ace the AP test and to get into an engineering program in Austin—a city that seems unimaginably far away. When her home life becomes unbearable, Marisa seeks comfort elsewhere—and suddenly neither her best friend nor boyfriend can get through to her. Caught between the expectations of two different worlds and carrying a dark secret, Marisa will finally have to decide what can't wait."

"At her boarding school in New Zealand, Ellie Spencer is like any ordinary teen: she hangs out with her best friend, Kevin; obsesses over her crush on a mysterious boy; and her biggest worry is her paper deadline. Then everything changes: In the foggy woods near the school, something ancient and deadly is waiting... Full of deliciously creepy details, this unique, incredible adventure is a deftly crafted story of Māori mythology, romance, betrayal, and war."

"Magic, Djinn, Ogres, and Sorcerers. Thirteen-year-old Zardi loves to hear stories about fantastical beings, long banned from the kingdom of Arribitha. But anyone caught whispering of their powers will feel the rage of the sultan—a terrifying usurper who, even with his eyes closed, can see all.

When her own beloved sister is captured by the evil ruler, Zardi knows that she must go to any lengths to rescue her. Along with her best friend, Ridhan—a silver-haired, violet-eyed boy of mysterious origins—and an unlikely crew of sailors led by the infamous Captain Sinbad, Zardi ventures forth into strange and wondrous territory with a seemingly impossible mission: to bring magic back to Arribitha and defeat the sultan once and for all."

And I can't help but brag that I know Jasmine, who is one of the kindest people in the UK publishing industry, and I'm really excited to read her debut novel!

No more specific books in mind, but for a few years I've been hearing really good things about Christopher Paul Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy; and his latest book, The Mighty Miss Malone). Two years ago I read Scorpion by Walter Dean Myers, and really enjoyed it, so I've been anxious to read another one of his books as well (Monster? Sunrise Over Fallujah?).

A few others I've been hearing nothing but good things about:

What have you been reading lately? Any diverse books you love which haven't made my list? Any ones I've interested you in? You can follow the "diversity" tag in my blog to see other books I've highlighted in the past. And if you're really obsessed with my reading, I put all books I read on Goodreads, and review my favorites. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Drawing in the reader

I'm in a quiet, in-between place in my writing: wrapping up (at least for the moment) Project Demo, trying to to do some background research to prepare myself for diving into Project Fun again. Also trying to get done all the things I've neglected in the past month (housework, practicing viola, reading). It's nice. For a bit. Give me two days, tops, and I'm sure I'll be bored out of my mind.

Anyway, being in-between projects like this, I was really struck when a beta reader of Project Demo and a Bristol friend, who has been reading Project Fun, both pointed out the same thing. Apparently I'm too subtle.

I know, who would have thought that?!

But even though my readers phrased it in different ways, they were basically telling me the same thing: my beginnings are slow. I think I've buried these little clues in the writing, but even carefully reading, they barely noticed. I need to grab my reader, pull them along, let them know that something big and scary is coming. As my Bristol reader said, "You need to go totally over the top. I mean, not really over the top, but for you it will feel like over the top."

I love that I have writing friends who know me well enough that they can give me feedback like that. Also, as I've been mulling their advice over in my mind, I've remembered I used to give my 7th graders similar advice about writing essays: "Pretend your reader is stupid."

Then they'd always remind me that *I* was their reader. Touché. But the advice stands. Sometimes what is obvious to a writer (a clue, a transition, how a quote proves an essay's point) isn't obvious to a reader.

Of course a writer can go overboard with this advice. And children's writers, especially, are always being reminded not to condescend to their readers. But some writers (like me!) need to be reminded that their readers don't have instant access to everything in the writer's head.

Do you consciously think about drawing readers in with your beginnings? How do you do it? Do you ever have to force yourself to go totally over the top?

*The image is from a Showcase Cinemas ad that I see every time I go to the movies. But when I think about drawing people in, I see this guy, waving us forward, gesturing us closer. The whole ad is here (and totally dorky, but maybe the visual will help you, too?).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Undiscovered Voices 2012

Just over two years ago, I learned an extract of my ghost story, Adèle, had won a place in SCBWI British Isles' Undiscovered Voices 2010 anthology. I joined an illustrious company of previous Undiscovered Voices winners (Candy Gourlay, Sarwat Chadda, Steve Hartley, Harriet Goodwin). Since then many of my fellow 2010 winners have gone on to secure agents and publishing deals of their own (Paula Rawsthorne, Dave Cousins, Jane McLoughlin, Claire O'Brien).

Seriously, check out these covers:

My time hasn't come yet. I tell myself I'm still searching for my story. But nevertheless, winning a place in Undiscovered Voices was life changing for me. It was an affirmation, an accolade, an instant support group, and a networking boon all rolled into one.

But enough about me! The real point of this post is to extend a huge congratulations to 2012's Undiscovered Voices winners.

I've been avidly reading this year's anthology over the past week, and absolutely engrossed with the incredible storytelling included. Plus, for the first time ever, UV included illustrations. This might be my favorite part, as the illustrations are whimsical, beautiful, and hopeful. I keep coming back to each picture, losing myself in them again and again.

I also love the anthology's variety. Everything from straight up fantasy, to contemporary realism, to dystopian, urban fantasy, and an African adventure, an upside-down fairy tale to a story about a boy stealing the antichrist (aka Lucy). And such incredibly unique ideas! I was especially riveted by Sharon Jones' Dead Jealous (a murder mystery / thriller set in a teenager's worst nightmare: a New Age Festival), Jane Hardstaff's The Executioner's Child (historical fiction at the Tower of London with an ancient curse and river creatures--I couldn't stop turning pages!), Rosie Best's Skulk (a bad-ass female graffiti artist who discovers a shapeshifting fox--can't wait to see where this is going!), and Rachel J. Latham's To Dance with the Wind (totally unique, other-worldly fantasy with slaves and evil bird creatures. Wow!).

This week the blog Tall Tales & Short Stories is running interviews with all of this year's winning authors and illustrators, PLUS a competition to win a copy of UV 2012. Otherwise the anthology is not yet available publicly, but if you would like a copy (and aren't lucky enough to win one!), they should be on sale via the website by next week.

As this Thursday is the anthology's official launch party, I probably won't be posting again this week. Instead I'll be going to London that evening, hoping to get my copy filled with signatures from many of these soon to be famous authors, plus hobnobbing with some of my old friends from the 2008 and 2010 anthologies, the judges, and several dozen agents and editors (and yes, if I'm feeling brave, I may mention Project Demo to a few of them).

Again, congratulations to the UV 2012ers! I guarantee you won't be undiscovered for long.