Everyone has favorites: double chocolate fudge, purple, David Bowie, Peru, that scene in Contact when Jodie Foster's character meets her dad on the beach in the moonlight (only it's not a beach).
Sometimes we know why we love a certain ice cream flavor--it reminds me of my dad. Sometimes we don't. My favorite color has varied since I was a little girl (pink) to high school (black) to now (cinnamon orange one day, deep purple another). One thing we know, what we love will change and grow throughout our lives.
For me, my list of favorite books changes from year to year...because I've read new books that must be on that list. (If you want to see more of my reviews, look here.)
I know that if I want to improve my writing, I need to read good books. There's a pile TBR on my nightstand, a collection in my Kindle, and a list on my phone. One day, I might even read them all, and my favorites list will be miles long!
Today, these are my top five favorites, plus a little reason why.
ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume - read it in elementary school. Margaret asked all the questions I had about life, and she taught me how to be tough and caring.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen - read in high school. While my classmates groaned, I engaged in one-on-one conversations about the Bennett girls and their interests in marriage. Yes, I was that girl.
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers - read it freshman year of college. Drove around to every used bookstore in Los Angeles, buying all of McCullers' books and devoured each one. This one introduced me to a different kind of love: that between the two men and that between Mick and her world.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - read it senior year of college. Marquez' sprinkling of magic in all of his stories transports me to another time and place. The colors in this story still live in my mind.
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt - read it as an adult. Tartt's writing is equisite. I've loved all of her books (all three?), but this is my favorite because of how lovingly she wrote Theo's story. My heart ached for him, but I also shook my head at his unrequited love, his dangerous friendship, his wayward path. Then I got to cheer a little in the end. Beautiful.
I haven't finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, but I'm halfway through it, and I'm sure it will be on my favorites list next. Why? Voice. I haven't seen the movie because I wanted to read the book first. I'm glad I waited. Wow. Again... Voice. This is a book I'm reading, laughing out loud, loving, but I'm also studying the writing (when I'm not lost in the story). Because he's nailed the voice of his MC so well, the technicalities in the story (I still don't have a clue what a Hab or MAV are entirely or how he can grow potatoes ) that are lost on me don't matter. This book is a classic. Mark Watney is a character to live as long as Sherlock Holmes or Holden Caufield. He's iconic.
What's your favorite book? What are you reading right now? Please share!
That's my story, what's yours?
How often have you stopped to look at your story only to realize it jumped genres somewhere between the inciting incident and the midpoint?
Fiction genres are transforming as fast as technology. In fact, computers in a story once indicated the tale was science fiction. Today, it's realistic fiction. Unless, of course, that computer talks or exhibits human features. However, we all know, soon that will be commonplace as well.
Most of my stories have elements of magic. They aren't fantasy. They aren't fully magical realism, but they do contain allusions to magic, sparkly moments of serendipity, unbelievable coincidences.
Isn't that what fiction is? Isn't our job as writers to infuse a story with a little bit of that "wow, what?" or "wait, huh?"
Some books are poster children for genres:
Harry Potter-dragons, magic, and trolls, oh my! (Fantasy)
Carrie-blood, creepy events, fear of turning the page (Horror)
The Lunar Chronicles-androids, outerspace beings (Science Fiction)
Some books leave us wondering where they'd be shelved:
Breakfast of Champions-referred to as metafiction since the author's alter-ego dances across the pages. Plain weird. Plain awesome.
The Bone Clocks-funny, dramatic, grounding, dark.
This is where new genres emerge. Most recently, writers are buzzing about magical realism. The best examples of this genre can be found in the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Magical realism is very much like folklore or mythology. The story might begin in this present world but all of a sudden you find yourself with strange characters and stranger events. Magical realism is lyrical and lovely--exactly what writing should be.
Take a look at your story. Determine its main genre and delve deeper. Are there elements of mystery, romance, dark fantasy, or other genres? When you're ready to query, be sure you've asked beta readers or critique partners what they think. You might be surprised.
Just remember, your book is more than a label. However, you need to market it to agents and readers, so they know which audience might be the best fit. From there, hopefully, you can draw in a wider readership through reviews.
You are a storyteller. Tell your story in its truest and best form.
That's my story, what's yours?
When I think about my boring day, I wonder why I can't bump into John Cusack at the glove counter or come across an injured famous writer in a snowbank (not that I'd take him home and torture him). My life is neither a romantic comedy nor a suspense novel. My life is.
Yet that is where great story nuggets begin--in the mundane moments of our lives.
In my current agent-seeking YA manuscript, IN BLOOM, the story begins with an obssessive-compulsive teenager straightening her rug while her brother tries to share some strange news. That news plays out later in the story, but it's a fun way to introduce the two siblings and show their idiosyncrasies.
Consider three recent great tales and their openings:
- A boy suspended from school spends the day at the museum with his mom. (THE GOLDFINCH)
-A woman takes an interest in events outside her window on her daily train ride. (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN).
-A boy and a girl spend mundane mornings riding the bus to school. (ELEANOR AND PARK)
-A boy's attempt to kill himself is stalled when he spots a girl toying with the same fate. (ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)
Each of these moments present a great way to open your story. Let's explore.
1. Transportation exploration. Putting your main character on a bus, train, plane, car trip, bike, or whatever is a great one to have her accidentally witness something, unexpectedly run into someone, or serendipitously find something.
2. Field trip. Whether your character is school-age or adult, a school field trip provides numerous opportunities such as those mentioned above. On a field trip, your MC can get lost, meet a stranger, find a strange item (in a bathroom, on the ground, in a gift shop), or learn something useful that might save her life later (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians stopped poisoning).
3. Beginning with an Ending. Start your story with your MC either trying to end his life or getting into an accident. Here, you have opportunity for another important character to enter. This character could be someone he later saves or who has another meaning to him (long lost... sister... brother... etc.).
Clearly, that last one is no ordinary life moment, but tragedy happens all the time. As a writer, you have the opportunity to turn those ordinary moments into something extraordinary.
Spend the day chronicling your life moments--the grocery store, bank line, work, lunch, phone calls--and find that catalyst that could turn dramatic.
That's my story, what's yours?
Every story has a theme even if the author never sets it there on purpose. The theme is an underlying or overarching message that might not be discerned until the story ends. A theme connects to the story's topic. It's what you want readers to understand about life after they've finished your book.
Often, the theme is the same as what the hero or protagonist discovers. In the Pulitzer novel, THE GOLDFINCH, Theo learns that you cannot hold onto what you love or you might destroy it. In other words, love means letting go.
Sometimes, it's too big, In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the theme centers around the fragility of innocence. Perhaps Harper Lee was saying that to be innocent meant risking your life.
On occasion, the narrator tells us the theme (or hints strongly), so we can participate in its development during the story. In Edgar Alan Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART, the main character serves as the narrator and lets the reader know immediately that he's going crazy. We learn with him that even the mad can feel guilt. Guilt has no boundaries.
If you are in the middle of writing a story, or you are planning one, consider the message you want readers to take away.
Here are some common themes:
Beauty is only skin deep.
Believe in yourself.
Believing strongly in something is vital to its fruition.
Change is inevitable.
Good and evil can coexist.
Blood is thicker than water.
Love always wins.
Rules protect us.
Face your fears, and you will be stronger.
Truth can set us free.
Other themes can be found in old proverbs, the Bible, Torah, Koran, Baghavad Gita, or other religious works, Shakespeare, poetry, your mother's words, a prisoner's regrets. In short, a theme is a message, and we all have at least one we live by.
What is close to your heart? What messages will you leave with your readers?
Share your thoughts here.
Think of your favorite childhood stories. How many include a pet or other animal who is integral to the plot? You might be surprised at the answer.
First of all, I use the term "pet" in broad terms. There are magical creatures, domestic pets, animals that are hunted, farmed, and tamed. There are animals that transform into people, animals that turn on people, and animals who will die for people.
Although there are numerous stories that feature animals as central characters, I want to focus on those who work alongside a main character. In some cases, I will highlight a story with "talking" animals. You will have your favorites, and I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments section your beloved animal adventures.
Here are a few great books to study:
Magical Creatures: Think Hedgwig in the Harry Potter stories and all the other messenger animals. Of course, there is Hagrid's slobbering dog Fang and Norbert the Dragon. Visit this wiki page for some fun exploring all of the HP creatures.
Domestic pets: I date myself with this story, but IT'S LIKE THIS CAT is a great example of how to use a simple house cat as a plot device. When teenager Dave brings home a cat to his dysfunctional family, life changes for the better.
The hunted: Herman Melville created the most famous man v. beast battle ever in his classic, MOBY DICK. Humble fisherman Ishmael finds himself in the middle of a vengeful battle between the egotistical Captain Ahab and the great whale.
Farm animals: Many of us will think of George Orwell's political satire, ANIMAL FARM. However, this story features animals as humans--an entirely different blog topic! A more useful study would be EB White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB. Each critter carries his own human foibles and conflicts. I think it's one of the best animal-human relationships in literature.
Heroic animals: One of my favorites is Buck in Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD. This is a great story to study if you want to create a pet or farm animal who exemplifies the greatest good within human and animal nature.
The Loyal: LASSIE is perhaps the most beloved classic pet who would warn his family and neighbors when danger was a foot.
The Tragic: I still feel a pang when I hear someone mention WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, OLD YELLER, or SOUNDER. These stories feature a dog who meets a tragic end. The stories serve to connect readers to deep emotions as characters make difficult decisions.
Comic relief: There is Toto from THE WIZARD OF OZ who serves as Dorothy's companion and who warns her of danger.
Animals can move your plot forward, relieve tension, highlight character traits, and help readers connect to your story. How do you use pets or other animals in your stories? Please share!
“There is freedom in being a writer and writing. It is fulfilling your function. I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it.”
― Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
As I wind down my energy from the amped up NaNoWriMo writing sprints of November, I return to my usual routines. One of which includes my own writing exercises courtesy Natalie Goldberg's book, "Writing Down the Bones."
One of my favorite exercises in that book is one that has you focus on who you are not. I will be using this prompt with my new batch of creative writing students this week, so I thought I'd share the exercise with you as well.
Grab your writing notebook and favorite pen. Goldberg says the heart speaks best through a flowing pen rather than a computer. I often write on the computer because it's easier. Plus, I'm a messy writer. However, when it comes to writing exercises, I write freehand in my journal.
You have your notebook and pen. Now find a quiet space and set a timer for at least ten to twenty minutes. Get ready, set, write.
Who are you not?
Here's my unedited flow of words:
I'm not the kind of person to own a snake, ride a unicycle, be an astronaut when she grows up, order a burrito with extra hot sauce, dance naked in the street after midnight like my neighbor in college, wear orange tights, get a full sleeve tattoo (or any tattoo?), spank my child, not care what people think of me.
I'm not the the person who complains all the time, laughs when someone is hurt, or orders a different ice cream flavor every time she visits the ice cream shop. I am not loud or very quiet. I am not the smartest or dumbest person in the room. I am not sophisticated nor pedestrian.
I am not obscene or rude. I am not perfect or happy not being perfect. I am not the person you sit next to on the plane who talks nonstops or doesn't give you elbow room.
I am not likely to hurt myself, drive recklessly, or dive off a cliff. I am not likely to scale a building or walk a tightrope higher than one-foot off the ground, sky-dive, or learn to fly a plane.
Who I am not says as much about me as who I am.
Who are you not? Share with us.
In light of Friday's tragedy in Paris, I decided to locate authors and characters who promote peace.
Our words speak as loudly as our actions. While you work to write the next great novel, consider the messages your characters share through their words and actions.
Consider these wise and thoughtful words from some of our most creative writers.
Why can't people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?”
― David Baldacci, The Camel Club
“A quiet conscience makes one strong!”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
“If you love me as you say you do,' she whispered, 'make it so that I am at peace.”
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“Peace is always beautiful.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
“I do my best thinking at night when everyone else is sleeping. No interruptions. No noise. I like the feeling of being awake when no one else is.”
― Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places
“In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.”
― Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
“I have never been carried around by a large boy, or laughed until my stomach hurt at the dinner table, or listened to the clamor of a hundred people all talking at once. Peace is restrained; this is free.”
― Veronica Roth, Divergent
“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula
“It is better to be small, colorful, sexy, careless, and peaceful, like the flowers, than large, conservative, repressed, fearful, and aggressive, like the thunder lizards; a lesson, by the way, that the Earth has yet to learn.”
― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
“Thus Gotama [Buddha] walked toward the town to gather alms, and the two samanas recognized him solely by the perfection of his repose, by the calmness of his figure, in which there was no trace of seeking, desiring, imitating, or striving, only light and peace”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
“Let the peace of this day be here tomorrow when I wake up.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
Find your words of peace and infuse them in the stories you tell. Let your characters rise above the horrible acts of human nature and be the trumpets of a new world, a peaceful world.
Today, write only words of peace.
Every so often, I write this post. Why? I am constantly discovering great new books and sites that support, motivate, and improve my writing.
I want to share them with you.
Here are four of my current favorites:
1. The best punctuation book, period by June Casagrande. Every writer needs a great little book at their side where they can double check where to place a comma, capitalize a noun, understand how to use hyphens and en dashes. My copy editor recommended this book to me, and I am in love with it. It's easy to use, is written simply, and is less than 250 pages.
2. Writers Helping Writers with Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. These ladies are fabulous, and their website is filled with amazing resources for your writing. Soon, they will merge into a new site with incredible support for using Scrivener along with their books on Negative and Positive Traits. I've written previously about how I use these books.
3. The Enneagram Test. If you are building characters, this is a great place to help understand and craft their personalities. You might first take the online test to explore your own personality. Then try it as your protagonist and antagonist. The test takes less than three minutes. The results point you toward any of nine specific personality types (similar to Jung). It's a quick, fun, and scientific way to hone in on your characters' true selves. (Couple the results with Writers Helping Writers, and you have a fully developed character.)
4. Goodreads. A great writer is constantly reading other great writing. We learn from each other. If you want to write authentic and appealing middle grade fantasy, you need to read some. Read those getting good reviews and those getting panned. It's important to see what works and what doesn't. Goodreads publishes numerous lists where you can sift through books of all genres and authors. This is my go-to for locating the best (and worst) books because reviews are written by real readers.
What are your current favorite writing resources?
Share them in the comments below.