Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How NOT To Write a Novel

I just finished reading this really great book called How Not to Write a Novel. It's written by two authors (Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark) who have the experience to tell you exactly what you're doing wrong. This book is a must for anyone who dabbles in writing, no matter the genre. As I went through the book, I was happy to note that most of the stuff didn't apply to me (at least I hope not...maybe I'm just too blind to realize it and that is my fault) but there were a lot of things I took away from it. The only thing I wished there was more of was the section on writing query letters. I feel that is my downfall. They should write a follow-up book on How Not to Write a Query Letter. I'm sure there's something like that out there though.

Here are some things I found useful.
  • Lose the background stories showing your character at 5, 10, 15 and then at the age they'll be for the rest of the novel. Start off in the present in the midst of the action. - This is one of my biggest problems in writing and probably the thing that struck me as the most important/relevant to me in the book. I always start off with the main character being born or showing events in their childhood but I can never get everything to flow together right so I end up working and reworking those scenes and I am never happy. I think I'll take this advice to heart and give it a shot.
  • Don't let a character observe themselves in a mirror or photograph to describe what they look like. Also avoid terms like 'pretty' and 'averaged size' and 'nice body'. It's all too vague and everyone has a different idea of what that means.
  • Avoid fight scenes at any point in the book in which the bad guy falls in a heap at the first blow from the protagonist. - I don't think I do this in any of my books but I'll double check just to be safe!
  • Very rarely use exclamation marks and if you do, only use it in dialogue that shows someone is shouting. - I tend to not put exclamation in my narrative voice but I might use them a little bit too much in speech. I'll make sure they're reserved for shouting. 
  • When describing a room or place, don't just give a bland inventory. Make sure you point out a few things that make that particular room belong to a specific person.
  • Don't be afraid of using "said." - I do use said a lot but I do have a phobia of the same word being used too many times in a row. I don't use ridiculous phrasings to replace it, just an occasional "cried", "shouted", etc.
  • Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like something someone would say.

Check out How Not to Write a Novel for lots of great other tips and some fantastic (aka horrible) examples to go along with it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review - Prospero's Children

Prospero's Children
by Jan Siegel
Why I picked it up: I don't remember why...I read it ages ago back when I was in high school. This year I realized there were two sequels out so I brought all the books back with me to Scotland and have begun rereading them!
My rating: 7.5/10

This book is about a sixteen year old girl named Fern Capel. When a distant relative of the family dies, he leaves his old country house to Fern and her family (Dad and younger brother Will). The family goes to the house to see what they need to do to sell it when the dad decides they should stay there over the summer and fix it up and eventually sell it. As soon as they move in for the summer, things start getting weird. Fern and Will meet old, powerful beings (both good (?) and evil) who urge them to find an old magical key that is thought to open a door somewhere. While Fern discovers her Gift, she and her brother struggle through their search racing to find it before their father's new girlfriend, Alison, does. Little do Fern and the others know that opening the door will bring them an ocean full of trouble.

When I look at this book for the second time when I was home for winter break, I couldn't remember whether I liked it or not. I was pretty sure I did but I did remember that it freaked me out a bit. I certainly remembered that correctly! There are a couple scenes in the beginning of the book that left me being like ooohhh I'm glad I'm not home alone tonight! As I read, I remembered quite a few things from the first part of the book but I forgot a lot of the major details which allowed me to enjoy it again. This book is thrilling and suspenseful. It is minutely darker than what I usually read but not that much. I should also mention that this book has to do with Atlantis. I didn't know where to fit that into the description. :) I definitely recommend it and can't wait to see what happens next...

Next book - The Dragon Charmer (sequel to Prospero's Children)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Book Review - The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
by Katherine Howe
Why I picked it up: It was on one of those recommended books tables at Borders. I was attracted to the cover so I picked it up (I completely judge books by their covers!).
My rating: 8/10

This book is about a Harvard graduate student named Connie who has just been nominated for PhD candidancy in Colonial American History and is advised by her professor to find an original source. But right after, her mother, Grace, contacts her and asks her to straighten out her grandmother's house over in Marblehead, Massachusetts to ready it for sale. The house has been sitting untouched for over twenty years since her grandmother died and to Connie's dismay, it's falling apart. While juggling the nagging of her mother to finish the house and the nagging of her professor to find a topic/source, Connie finds a mysterious key inside an old Bible in the house and inside that key is a slip of paper with the words 'Deliverance Dane' written on it. Connie begins research to find out who Deliverance Dane was and eventually to find the mysterious book attached to her name.

I really enjoyed this book. I read it quite quickly (about a week or so which is quick considering the reading I'm also doing for my classes) and I only picked it up at night. It caused me to stay up until 2-3 in the morning because I didn't want to put it down! At first I wasn't sure I was going to like it but once Connie headed to Marblehead I found myself liking it more and more. The book also had flashbacks to the 1690s and 1700s following Deliverance Dane and a few generations of her family. It was extremely well written - Howe had obviously done her research on colonial America and all the traditions associated with it. There was one thing that bothered me. Whenever I read historical novels (they're becoming an increasing favorite of mine and I hope to write one myself one day - including one associated with the Salem Witch Trials just like this) I always am tempted to look up the person in Wikipedia just to see whether they are being accurately portrayed. I looked up Deliverance Dane and as I read the book, I already knew her fate. But Howe completely changed the ending of Deliverance's life (I won't say how if you want to be surprised). She could have chosen any of the Salem Witch Trials women but she chose Dane and changed her. When I write historical novels, I try to keep the big parts as accurate as possible (you know - birth, death, marriage, children, well known facts, etc). But it only miffed me a little bit and I would read another of her books for sure!

Next book to read - Prospero's Children (already read once years ago - rereading for the sequels).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Book Reviews

Normally I would post a book review one at a time but I wanted to play catch up. You can see my usual updates over at Dianna the Explorer but I like to keep anything bookish over here.

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
Why I picked it up: My mom read it for her book club and highly recommended it to me.
My rating: 9/10

In summary, the book is about a young white woman named Skeeter who wants to write a book about black help in the south. It shows how much effort she goes through to get interviews and to get women to open up and trust her. The novel is written in her point of view as well as two black women named Aibileen and Minny.

I apologize that my summary is so short. It's been a very long time since I read it and I can't remember all of the details but I know I thought it was amazing. It was beautifully written and perfectly displayed the balances between black and white perspectives.

The Heretic's Daughter
by Kathleen Kent
Why I picked it up: Recommended by a friend.
My rating: 7/10

In summary, the book is about the prosecution of Martha Carrier in the Salem Witch trials, as told by her young daughter Sarah. It starts out with Sarah and Martha, both strong willed females, clashing constantly but it then follows their relationship as Martha is accused of being a witch, tried, and hung although completely innocent. While this story has the Salem Witch trials as a background, it's really about the bond between mother and daughter.

Again, this is a book I read quite a while ago. My old colleague, Amy, had recommended it to me. I read it and recommended it to my mom, who then used it for her turn during her book club she enjoyed it so much. This is a great, fast read about a horrible time in our nation's history were dozens were wrongly accused during a time where people were really just scared of the world they lived in and blamed anything bad on the people around them.

Book 1/8 of the Outlander series
by Diana Gabaldon
Why I picked it up: Recommended to me by a family friend since I was about to move to Scotland.
My rating: 6.5/10

In summary, the book is about Claire Randall, a nurse in the 1940's who is transported back in time to the 1740's in the Highlands of Scotland. It follows her as she becomes tangled up in adventure and love, all the while trying to return back to her time where her husband, Frank, is waiting. Claire is tormented constantly by her growing feelings for Jaime Fraser, a young Highland warrior.

I thorougly enjoyed 99.6% of this book. I won't say the reason why I didn't like it but something happens at the end of the book that just soured my taste buds. I just felt like it really didn't fit in the book and almost made me not continue on with the series had the last few pages not restored itself and the first 600 pages been amazing. Yes, that's right. First 600 pages. Each book in the Outlander series is about 600-700 pages and there are 8 of them (the last one has yet to be published) so make sure you're up for the long haul if you're interested in reading them!

Dragonfly in Amber
Book 2/8 of the Outlander series
by Diana Gabaldon
Why I picked it up: I wanted to see what happens next after reading Outlander.
My rating: 7/10

This book starts off about 21 years after Outlander. You find Claire back in her own time (now the 1960's) and she has become a doctor with no Jamie in sight and you don't know why. Claire's husband Frank has died and she can finally tell her daughter, Brianna, the truth about her father. The story then flashes back to where we left Claire and Jamie back in the mid-1700s to find out what happened.

When I first read Outlander, I had just landed in Scotland so I didn't know where anything was. I started this book after I'd taken a trip to the Highlands and as I read this book, I realized I'd been to a lot of the places they talked about which made me enjoy it even more as I was able to envision everything. While I didn't enjoy the storyline of Claire and Jamie together in the second book as much as I did in the first book, overall I enjoyed it and liked the introduction of Brianna who will continue, I believe, to have a role in the upcoming novels. I liked it enough to get the third book, Voyager, which I'm holding off for a while as I read some other books I've had sitting around longer. I think that book will make me ultimately decide whether I continue with the series.

Book 3/3 of the Hunger Games series
by Suzanne Collins
Why I picked it up: I've read the first two and enjoyed them and they were originally introduced to me by my friend, Megan.
My rating: 8/10

I haven't posted reviews of the first two books, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Both are wonderful spins on the idea of a post-apocalyptic world in the future that has been divided up into 13 districts. Each has its own role to play in society. When the 13th district rebelled against the Capitol, war broke out and was crushed. As a reminder to society, every year each district has to send one boy and one girl to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games where they all must fight to the death with one victor. This book follows Katniss Everdeen as she volunteers to go to the Games when her little sister, Prim, is drawn from the lottery. I don't want to spoil anything or go into too much detail but in the second book, Katniss is again selected to go to the Hunger Games and in the third book, the districts break out in war against the Capitol. Amazing, original series. A bit dark for younger children but a must read.

A Matter of Magic
Two books in one - Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward
by Patricia C. Wrede
Why I picked it up: Liked the cover in the book store so I picked it up.
My rating: 5/10

These two books take place in the late 1800s, early 1900s (can't remember exactly) in London. Kim is a 'waif' or a street-urchin and makes a living picking pockets. She becomes entangled with a street magician named Mairelon who she finds out is an actual wizard (apparently people know about wizards in this London which wasn't very clear at first). He asks Kim to become his apprentice and they go on a journey to clear Mairelon's name of a crime he has been framed for. In the second book, Kim is made Mairelon's ward and it follows her as she joins high society and trains to become a wizard.

I enjoyed the second book much more than the first. I wasn't too crazy about the first book - I found it rushed. The books are only about 200 pages each and the first book is really covering only a few days where all these events unfold in a matter of hours (and really it's not a bunch of events, it's a whole bunch of people getting together saying 'you did this and then I did this' 'and then I did this' 'oh I can't believe that happened, so this means that'. Not a lot of action - just talking. I wasn't crazy about it and to be honest, I wouldn't have continued with The Magician's Ward if it hadn't already been part of the book. I enjoyed it much more because the pace was structured better and everything didn't happen all at once. There was the nice 'roller-coaster' climax with the rises and falls in the plot and the big bang at the end where a lot of questions come about. However, if there were to be sequels, I'm not sure if I'd go get them.

The Constant Princess
by Philippa Gregory
Why I picked it up: Have read and enjoyed Gregory's books in the past
My rating: 6.5/10

I've read a few of Philippa Gregory's novels including The Other Boleyn Girl, Wideacre (the only one I didn't like), and The Queen's Fool. I plan on eventually continuing with The Boleyn Inheritance. She's a great author, giving an interesting spin on Tudor history. In this novel she follows Katherine of Aragon from a young age as she married Prince Arthur of England. In her history, Katherine (or Catalina as she is first known as) is in love with Arthur and when he dies early in their marriage, he makes her promise on his death bed that she will marry his brother Henry and carry out their plans for England as queen. Therefore, Katherine tells the greatest lie in history - that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated and she is still a virgin.

The book is primarily in third person with intervals in italics in first person from Katherine's point of view. I, at first, found these sections annoying because a scene would happen in third person and then it would happen again in first person but later on the scenes are usually not overlapping so I didn't mind it much. It's certainly not as...uh, raunchy as Gregory's (when compared to The Other Boleyn Girl and Wideacre) other books but I enjoyed it. It even coincided for a moment with a topic we were discussing in my European Studies core class about post-colonial Spain and how Spain had become an empirical power. The book only goes, pretty much, to when Katherine becomes pregnant with Mary.

I hope you find these book reviews helpful. Let me know if you read any of them! I'm going to try to post as I read them now. My next book will be The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane which I'm halfway through.